Bulimia: a different mountain to climb
As a man in my early twenties, it wasn’t the stereotype that bothered me; it was never about the masculine ‘macho’ image, achieving the ripped physique, or alpha male steadfastness. When it came to numbers, I was more interested in getting a lower resting heart rate and a faster marathon time than lifting more kilograms and hitting reps in the gym.
I liked my identity as an endurance athlete. It was in the mountains that I found my strength. The stamina to run up hills for hours and mental resilience to endure 31-hour bike rides more than compensated for the lean, athletic build that defied this notion of so-called toughness. When everything appeared so mentally and physically robust, nobody would have guessed that I was hiding one chink in the armour – I had suffered with bulimia nervosa for six years.
My eating disorder wasn’t even about appearance; it was about control. Aged 16, a running injury had stolen the freedom of the outdoors and sent me looking for control in food instead. Like most parts of my life, I was an all-or-nothing person, always expecting better of myself, to achieve above and beyond. This same trait had sent me to fulfil a regime of perfect athlete eating, and having ‘failed’ to sustain this unrealistic expectation, had fostered bulimia instead.
Regardless, the bulimia never stopped me achieving outdoor challenges and feats of physical endurance. I had been on expeditions to the Himalayas, attempted to climb Mount Everest twice, cycled solo to Edinburgh, ran ultra-marathons in the mountains, won 10km races, and took on a challenge to climb all 100 UK counties. Pushing to the extreme continued proving to myself that it was clearly not weakness, motivation, or lacking willpower, so it left me scratching my head. Bulimia took no notice and sent me to the cupboards like its dogsbody whenever life tipped out of balance. The high expectations demanded that I should be able to overcome this challenge on my own, like everything else, yet six years later it continued to torment the highly-motivated athlete in the mirror. Ironically, this just became another excuse to use food for releasing the frustration. Climbing mountains was often a metaphor for challenge and achievement – especially Everest – but not every challenge was proportional. Bulimia was a completely different mountain. The first step to climb it was letting go of these expectations and finding a different route.
Like climbing a mountain, we need a support team. Keeping the eating disorder secret only helped it to thrive, but I was terrified of accepting that my one-man army was not enough. My job as a professional speaker and author put me in the public eye, and I felt a responsibility to maintain this figure of inspiration to serve a value to others. Revealing this perceived vulnerability would surely let them down: I felt a fraud. Suffering to uphold this sense of pride was achieving nothing, because we can’t help others without helping ourselves first.
Fear knocked me sick, welling up in tears, when I finally summoned the courage to visit my GP. The doomsday prophecies of anxiety were quickly put to rest. She was wonderfully understanding and referred me to our local Adult Eating Disorder Service. The burden of this struggle was suddenly hoisted from my shoulders. I found more hope in twenty minutes than I had in four years.
There was no shame in asking for help, in the same way athletes wouldn’t think twice about visiting the GP about chest pain, or the physiotherapist for tendonitis, and eating well was vital to keep the engine going. The all-or-nothing athlete mindset wanted to banish it completely and immediately, when recovery from an eating disorder would take time, patience, and occasional blips along the way. Learning to slow down would be the crux. Instead of aiming for one-hundred percent and giving up at the first disappointment, my goal was to reduce the episodes of binge eating one week at a time. Breaking the mountain into small steps created milestones and kept momentum building. One step at a time, I continued widening my own support team. Friends and family didn’t always understand or know what to say – I often didn’t understand it myself – but simply being listened to was enough. After battling them alone for so long, I now had a forum to vent when binge urges started to kick in, and a distraction to bide the time until they could pass. Ultimately, the number of episodes began to decrease, I got to know my triggers, and started to take back control.
The bulimia stayed close to my chest. Everything changed after reading an article by a sub-elite marathon runner who had suffered with bulimia. His story assured me there were other men who suffered whilst performing at a high level, and gave hope that recovery was possible for me, too. It suddenly changed my view of bulimia from an obstacle, or a weakness, into an opportunity to inspire others, just like the article had inspired me. This drove me to share everything in a blog post and I waited with bated breath. To my relief, the support was positively overwhelming. Several people, strangers and close friends alike, got in touch to share their own struggles now they felt the door was open. Sharing one story had started a multiplier effect that started to bring these conversations into the open, and gradually challenged the stigma around them. It was remarkable how by empowering ourselves, we could empower others so that nobody suffered alone.
Six years later, I was still climbing the mountain. The ‘all or nothing’ high expectations were not such a bad thing once I learnt to use them to my advantage, take a step back and accept a leg up when needed. Being a role model was no reason to hide my struggles: it was an amazing opportunity to take people on the journey, and together, we could enjoy the view from the top.