My story begins in secondary school where I was severely bullied from day one. I was a bit geeky and teased for it, but the bullying soon took a homophobic turn. I was effeminate in my appearance and when my voice broke, it went 'squeaky', so my classmates assumed that I was gay. I didn't know what this word meant as it was always used in a derogatory way to describe something rubbish or not cool, as in that pen is so 'gay'. All I knew was that it was an insult, a swear word even.
Hardly a day wouldn't go by where I would get called names like 'batty boy' and 'queer' whether it be in class, in the corridors or in the school yard. There was no escape from it.
As the bullying grew worse and more bullies joined in, I would run out of lessons to escape the abuse. I hid in the boys toilets and shut myself into a cubicle as I knew it would be unlikely I'd be found. There I would comfort eat on sweets and crisps (anything I had in my lunch box) to ease the build up of tension and anxiety that had build up inside me.
One day, I felt so uncomfortably full and nauseous I made myself sick. The relief this brought was immense. From then on, it became a habit. I wouldn't just binge and purge at school but also at home when my mother wasn't around.
I only found out I had bulimia when I was 15. By then I had been carrying out these behaviours for a couple of years as was my main way of coping with the bullying. Bored at home one day, I was reading one of my mum's magazines and, in the agony aunt column, there was a story from a single mother who had split from her partner and was finding it difficult being a single parent. In the evenings she would binge eat and make herself sick, like I did. Although I couldn't relate with her situation, I realised I shared the same problem.
The response from the agony aunt was to seek help immediately and listed all the dangers bulimia could have including stomach problems and even cardiac arrest. I had no idea this was an illness, let alone an eating disorder. I didn't think men could get eating disorders - it was a girls thing right?
For a while, I was in denial about it and refused to acknowledge I was putting my health at risk. Instead, the bulimia intensified and become a way of punishing myself as I thought I deserved the bullying.
People often assume that eating disorders are about weight or body image; this wasn't the case for me. It was a way of being able to externalise and deal with the emotional stress. Teachers weren't so helpful with tacking the bullying and I couldn't speak to my mother about it. I didn't want to alarm her. Typically, bulimia sufferers remain a 'normal' weight as I was slightly underweight for my age, but no-one suspected anything.
The only time the teachers did attempt to do anything about the bullying was when the Head of Year caught me out of lessons once. She asked me why I wasn't in class. I explained. She asked me to write down a list of names of the bullies to speak to. The list had 40 or so names, more than she had expected.
I struggled to make friends at school. People were afraid of being friends with me in case they were bullied too. Isolation reinforced the feelings that further fuelled the bulimia.
The bullying and bulimia also badly impacted on my grades. I was expected to get As and Bs in my GCSEs. As I was out of lessons a lot of the time and truanting, I missed a lot of essential education that would have prepared me for exams and achieve this grades.
The first time I attempted to seek help was the day after my last GSCE exam. I had now begun to accept I needed help. I couldn't take it anymore. I needed to talk to someone. So I made an appointment to see a doctor. It was a Saturday, so I had speak to a doctor at the out of hours clinic.
With the tears streaming down my face, I explained what had happened at school and how bad the bulimia had got. I was feeling exhausted and physically ill. The doctor made an emergency referral to see a specialist at the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) for the next day. I went to see the specialist and they wanted me to seek treatment. However, as I was under the age of eighteen, they needed parental consent. I decided not to follow this up as I didn't want my mother knowing. They phoned anyway. I stopped trusting the professionals and my mother barely spoke about it.
Two years later, I moved down south (from Liverpool) to build a relationship with my estranged dad who I hadn't been in contact with throughout my childhood / teens. This was a chance for a new start. The bulimia had continued post-high school and just as bad. I decided to see the doctor and explain my situation. She described me anti-depressants and put me on a waiting list for counselling. When I went back a few weeks later the doctor told me I was 'depressed' and asked very little about the bulimia as if it was irrelevant. It was as if as I was a man, I couldn't have bulimia.
Fortunately my circumstances began to improve, which led me to begin to recover from the bulimia. Through a youth worker I was referred to a young people's mental health supported housing project, where I could be supported and help me to become independent. I also began volunteering at an LGBT youth project in Brighton and a charity which campaigned for young people's mental health awareness. This gave me a sense of worth I never had.
The last time I made myself sick was when I was 21 (I’m now 28). There are many times where it wasn't crossed my mind, but I'd never go back.
In 2008, I was browsing on the internet to find information on eating disorders in men. I'd never looked on the internet before about eating disorders and thought something must exist. It seemed not to be the case - there were many websites seemingly targeted at young women, but hardly anything for men. I was quite surprised. It made me reflect on the time I went to the doctor’s appointment I had at 18 when she seemed to dismiss the bulimia. I knew eating disorders were usually only considered to associated with females and this was what I originally thought. Where do you go for man if you want information?
This led to the idea of setting up a website specifically for men. I called it 'Men Get Eating Disorders Too.' After a couple of unsuccessful funding bids I managed to get the project off the ground with ITV Fixers, who support young people to set up media projects about issues they feel passionate about. I was featured in a short report for local TV about my experience and the project and the responses I got from other men (and women) was overwhelming. I realised I wasn't the only man with an eating disorders and many other males were affected and often not able to seek help. It also prompted me set up a petition to the Department of Health to review service provision in eating disorders services so they could be inclusive of men's needs. Even though the petition didn't generate the response I had hoped for, it drove me to continue raising awareness ever since.
Eating disorders in men is a topic that is so all too often forgotten but it's every real. Does Sam's story resonate with you? Did your upbringing affect your relationship with food? How did you overcome that? Let us know in the comments below.
Sam now runs Men Get Eating Disorders Too, an award-winning national charity run by and for men with eating disorders including their carers and families. You can follow them on Twitter, where they're @MGEDT or via their Facebook page.
You can also watch the 30 minute documentary ‘Millstone’ with experiences of men with eating disorders below.
Sam is also running a workshop entitled 'Understanding Eating Disorders in Men’ for professionals taking place in Newcastle on 22nd September, in Cardiff on 27th September and in Brighton on 14th October 2016. For more information please email: firstname.lastname@example.org