I recently had a cancer scare. Though I was eventually told I did not have cancer, it truly rattled me, and a lot of demons I’d hidden away have managed to escape.
I am a mid-40s man and have suffered with bulimia on and off for 25 years, to the point that it is now as much a part of my week as walking the dog or doing chores. I don’t think, outside of three or four people I am now talking to, I have ever admitted that in public, so to speak. I know why it started, and although part of me has dealt with the initial issues, they resurfaced last summer due to my health scare. This condition is almost like a warm blanket; I find comfort in it. A lot of people will read that and wonder exactly what I’m talking about and am I even sane. The answer to both questions is yes. But it has been with me so long that it’s a part of me and I know it is there in the background. A constant I know I have in my life. This seems like such a stupid thing to think, let alone say, but it is how my mind deals with the issue.
As a child, although my parents were very loving, we did not have much money. With four children I can only imagine it was at times a struggle for my parents. However, the one thing my mum always insisted upon was that there was enough food on the table, even if we did not have some of the “luxuries” that other kids had. As a result, I was 14, 14 stone, and one of the shortest children in my class. The rest I am sure you can piece together without too much difficulty. Large parts of my childhood have been lost to me due to the bullying I experienced throughout secondary school. I imagine that rather than blocking out certain experiences (and the bullying was almost a daily occurrence during term time), my mind has simply blocked large chunks. Honestly, it hurts when people refer to events, places, people or incidents that happened when I was a child and I simply have no idea as to what they are referring.
The bullying was usually only by a few individuals but, as with most types of bullying, in front of an audience and aimed at the child who is unlikely to fight back. That, however, was soon to change. Following a wet-break where we were unable to go out into the playground one day, numerous jokes, stories and drawings were passed around about me and my family, which as normal I laughed off, whilst crying inside. When we eventually went outside to play, one of the leaders decided to pursue me further. I snapped. The only time in school I ever fought, but enough to put him in hospital and for me to change my life. I am not proud, but I simply could take it no more. During my dark days of being bullied, I experimented with self-harming and, when questioned on it, was able to explain the cuts away as falling off my bike after trying some trick or other. Cycling was one of the only things I loved, and to this day is something I am still passionate about.
Numerous other events added to the pot that has placed me in the position I’m in now, but that was the main one from my childhood. During my late teens and early twenties, my sisters binged and then brought up their food and weirdly, I was instrumental in helping them stop and get their lives back on track. After a long illness, my father passed away at 53 from lung cancer after a two-year struggle, I was truly devastated as a young 20-something. Add to the mix that it was the week before the finals of my degree and I sunk to a dark place.
Although the exact timeframe around when I first binged is not known to me, I discovered I could eat what I wanted and then get sick, regulating my weight. It was great, and the headaches, stomach upsets and suspicious looks were side effects I could live with happily. I thought I looked brilliant, but everyone else thought there was something quite seriously wrong with me. I found my first true love at this time and after five years together and with thoughts of “Is this the one?”, my girlfriend decided to fall in love with someone else. I was destroyed inside again. This was the beginning of my trust issues. I rely on no one and it takes me a long time to trust someone. If that trust is broken, I am truly crushed. I do not try to roll over anyone in my life and treat others as I would like to be treated, so to have it done to me is soul-destroying.
At some point shortly afterwards, I got into martial arts. It was superb. I had a hobby I loved, a way of keeping fit, and a newfound confidence that I could defend myself for the first time if I needed to. For 10 years I managed to get rid of my demons and became very good at my style of martial arts, and even went into competition on a global scale. One evening at a nightclub, I came face-to-face with five of my tormentors from school. At that stage, I had friends, and there were a large contingent in the club. It was amazing. My former bullies were amazed at how much weight I’d lost and my confidence. I was truly buzzing. It was my moment, the one I’d dreamt about for years. For a long time, things were great.
After I stopped my martial arts due to the nature of the mechanics behind the discipline, I found it hard to find another martial art that I liked and reverted to bingeing again. I currently play football twice a week and mountain-bike on the weekends, but it’s not enough and for various reasons it has been sporadic. If I am stressed, down, or feeling vulnerable, I binge. What makes it worse is that I work for myself and have ample time to do whatever I want without fear of being found out.
Has it affected me? Does it affect me? The answer is yes, and in part is probably why some of the symptoms I had in summer mimicked signs of cancer. I’ve been told I have localised areas of damage to my bowel, and I firmly believe this is a result of my habit.
I am ashamed, disgusted, embarrassed and furious with myself. I know all the ways to hide what I do. I have had some close calls when I have almost had my secret revealed. I would love to tell my wife, but I believe I would never be able to look her in the face again. I also worry that every time I visited the toilet there would be someone listening at the door to hear if I was bingeing. I am trapped in a “damned if I do, and damned if I don’t” scenario.
Why do I still do it? Because I still see that fat kid that looks like the happy-go-lucky character in “UP” the movie, only I am not happy-go-lucky. To the person looking in the mirror at me, I am a fat, plain-looking man. I am not, I would imagine, but it has been a part of my life for so long it seems odd for it not to be there and I worry I will be fat again. It looms over me at any given point of the day. I have always hated my photo being taken and as a result love photography, so I can take the photo(s) and not be in them. It is amazing to what lengths we go to accommodate our secret.
So where am I at the moment? After a stressful six months, with the health scare and being an ear to two friends who were either suicidal or depressed, as well as one of their mothers, the way I describe the situation is that I was a glass of water full to the rim. And then someone added one more drop and it all went wrong. I suddenly realised I needed to do something and opened up to my wife on some subjects – the trust, being an ear to friends when no one wanted to know if I was okay, and how properly scared I was of dying, if the consultants had found I actually had cancer, just like my dad. I told my wife a lot of things, but nothing about my bulimia. It is something I am totally ashamed of. I’ve started CBT through the NHS and I’m also trying to sort out speaking with a counsellor. I have no doubt this is going to be a long road, but I am sick (no pun intended) and tired of having this secret and hating myself. I have little time for me, but most people who know me, I would imagine, would tell you I’m friendly, the life of a party, gobby (some would say) and outwardly a positive, fun person, but I have little or no self-esteem. I would love more than anything to be able to love me.
What has writing this story done for me? If I’m honest, I’m not sure. I have never written about my bulimia, much less laid bare some of the reasons for being where I am today. I can say, however, that writing this has been incredibly emotional. I want to be better, so I suppose the first step is to ask someone for help and find someone who is willing to listen and not judge. I have had enough of that in my life.
Watch this space.