Eating disorders in men are often hidden. One man reveals how bulimia has shaped his life
It was a Thursday night in Chinatown and the restaurant was packed. It was one of those places you go when you and your friends cant agree on what you want: menu as thick as a Bible, dishes from every country east of Norwich. Cheap, plentiful, tasty. The air was jammed with food smells and the heat that burst through the kitchen door every time it opened, but thats not why I was sweating. Wed over-ordered again and, one by one, my friends passed their leftovers towards me.
Give it to Tom, hell eat it.
We always do this, order way too much.
Give it to Tom, hell eat anything.
Give it to Tom.
Give it to Tom.
With growing panic, I watched as the scraps of meat and rice and glistening fat piled up on my plate like a miniature landfill. I grinned, and my friends grinned back, as if I were a golden retriever wagging for scraps.
A small cheer went up as I lifted the first forkful. My jaw, already aching with the work of the grin, started to chew. I felt the individual grains of rice, sliding against my palate, greasy tendrils of meat stringing across my throat like catarrh. If I spit it out now, I thought, I could still head this off.
But that would look weird, and besides, I didnt want to let my friends down. I dont drink, so this is the only way they get to engage in one of British friendships finest traditions: goading to excess. Instead of, Down it, down it! I get, Eat it, eat it!
To be clear, theres not one ounce of malice in any of my friends. They thought I was having fun. We dont see what we dont expect to see. Besides, dont we all love it when our friends go full glutton? In open rebellion against normative body standards, magazine cover models with abs like architecture? It makes us feel better about the times we do it.
So I swallowed. What came next was inevitable.
One forkful led to another, led to chewing the cartilage off the bones, led to eating the paper sloughed off the char siu buns. By now I was soaked in sweat, swallowing down an ever-tightening throat. I could feel the food backing up inside. I kept my smile fixed, but my forehead and cheeks burned. I was ashamed.
Of course, that was just the appetiser. The main course came later, at home. I crouched in the light of the fridge, indiscriminately jamming my mouth with anything I could get my hands on: leftover curry, cake, pickles, spoonfuls of mustard, handfuls of dry pasta quills that impaled my gums. Every mouthful hurt, but then that was the point, or at least part of it. I was careful to be quiet; my wife was asleep in the room next door. I managed to pause for long enough to neck a pint of water in a vain attempt to cool down. I paced up and down the kitchen, shaking my hands out like a sprinter before a big race.
Its not hunger that drives the binges. Its fear; fear that no matter how hard I slam the fridge door, no matter on whose life I swear to myself that I wont take another bite, the very next second I could change my mind. Im terrified that I cant bind my future self to anything, because to do so would require an infinite series of commitments, drawing on an infinite reservoir of will.
Under the sheer impossible weight of that demand, I crouched back in front of the fridge.
At some point around my third shift at the fridge-face, I got exhausted and zoned out. One of the reasons its hard to develop a strategy for breaking a binge is that in the final stages, at least Im not really with it, so Im usually not aware of how they end. I didnt vomit; I usually dont right away. Instead, I woke up at five the next morning, feeling like I had a massive, pissed-off badger in my stomach. I left the house early telling my wife I had a meeting and put in an eight-mile run before hitting the gym and doing pull-ups and burpees, the memory of last nights food coming back in flashes. Come on, faster! You remember what you ate last night, you pig? Work!
Ive been around this carousel more times than I can count over the past 19 years. Sometimes, if I exercise hard enough, I do actually vomit, and I think, in a sticky, relieved daze, Got there in the end. Ive always purged more through exercise than through puking; it appeals to the obsessive streak in me.
Just as I have friends who push me with the eating, I have friends who push me with the sweating. Friends who pile plates on the bar as well as food on my plate. Friends who echo the voice inside me, albeit kinder; because its good to go hard, its good to blow chunks, its good not to be able to sleep, unless you have rendered your muscles down to jelly earlier in the day.
Thats one reason I took so long to get diagnosed with bulimia, and why most studies indicate that eating disorders (especially bulimia, where sufferers tend to maintain a normal weight) are drastically under-diagnosed in men. Because its normal, even endearing, to pig out as a man, and its normal, even admirable, to flog yourself in the gym and even occasionally puke after a monster session. Its hardcore, its healthy.
My condition kicked in when I was a teenager. I was 15, my mum was sick and there were bullies at school, and the uncomplicated pleasure of eating seemed to be the only thing that eased the tension. But then came my GCSEs, Mums condition worsened, and eating metamorphosed from a sink for the pressure to a source of it. I ate and ate. I ate until it hurt, then I kept eating. I told myself that I deserved the pain for eating so much. I told myself that Id learn from the pain and never let myself go like that again (but of course I did). It wasnt hard to hide the binges from my family: I was barely sleeping, so I haunted the kitchen at night.
When I learned to purge, it felt like an accident. I locked myself in the loo and stuck my toothbrush handle down my throat, vomiting as ostentatiously as possible to convince Mum that I was ill enough to stay home. I was trying to avoid the bullies. It was only afterwards, gasping into the bowl, that I realised how clean it made me feel.
Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us