Comment: Bullying, bulimia and going back to school
Writing for Pinknews.co.uk, Sam Thomas, the founder and director of a national eating disorders charity, says today’s start of the new school term for LGBT students across the UK, conjures up his own difficult memories of classroom life and of homophobic bullying.
This week sees the start of ‘back to school’ for many children and teenagers, which I dreaded the most…My story begins at high school, at the age of 11. I did very well at tests – swot, boffin, those sorts of names came my way – but it became apparent that I wasn’t like the other boys, interested in cars and football. I had quite an effeminate appearance and my voice broke and sounded quite squeaky, which made the problem worse. At this point the bullying and teasing became predominantly homophobic.
By the time I was 13, the bullying had intensified. I couldn’t deal with being stuck in a classroom and being taunted constantly. I used to run out of lessons and hide in the boys’ toilets, because I knew it was the only place that I wouldn’t be found. I used to comfort eat; it was the most obvious thing to do, and there were always sweets or crisps etc. in my lunchbox. I used to be so uncomfortably full that I felt sick. I thought making myself sick made sense. I knew nothing about eating disorders – I had never even heard of bulimia – so I didn’t know what I was doing was potentially damaging.
The first time I made myself sick, there was such a release of tension and anxiety that it was quite cathartic. It became a regular habit, as I had no other way of relieving that tension. It spiralled, happening at home as well as at school. For a long time I thought it was something that only I did. I was about fifteen, when I was reading an agony aunt column in a magazine and suddenly discovered what bulimia was. If anything, it made the situation worse, because I felt as though I deserved it. Bullying gives you a very low sense of self-esteem. If you’re made to feel that way through bullying, you’re going to want to carry out self-destructive behaviour. So it was a coping mechanism for dealing with all my issues. Ultimately, it’s a form of self-harm.
The word ‘gay’ is just thrown around as a negative, derogatory term, and I didn’t necessarily make the connection between fancying men and being ‘gay’. When I did make that association, I was about fifteen, and I came out shortly afterwards. Of course, there’s no education about these issues in school. Particularly when I was growing up, it was still the time of Section 28. There were no older gay role models at school. There were no teachers that were gay, and if there were any older kids, I didn’t know about it.
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I had no one to talk to. I didn’t want my parents to know, and I didn’t have any friends. I became reliant on bingeing and purging. The nature of bulimia is that it’s very secretive, so nobody knew about it. Without really understanding, it was damaging me physically, as well as mentally: I was completely drained and exhausted. It became so absorbing that my world revolved around bulimia. It’s like a full time job with overtime, absorbing everything.
At sixteen, I was so distressed and fed up that I went to the doctor. They made an emergency referral to child and adolescent mental health services the next day. They wanted me to have some kind of treatment, but it wasn’t explained to me what it was, because they needed my parents’ consent. I didn’t want my parents to find out about my bulimia, but it was so severe that they had to phone them and tell them anyway. I didn’t understand at that age about parental consent and I distrusted the professional services after that, as I felt I couldn’t trust them. My mother had a lot of her own issues, and I didn’t want to complicate my parents’ lives by them finding out about it.
I told my first boyfriend, because I couldn’t hide it. He was very supportive but he didn’t really understand the condition – I don’t think a lot of people do. There was one occasion, when I was going to make myself sick and he caught me. He insisted I went to a doctor. I don’t think I did in the end. I think the tension this brought about resulted in the end of that relationship. Similar things have happened twice since, because when bulimia is at its worst, it is more important than relationships. It is so life absorbing, it can ruin any relationship.
When I was seventeen, I contacted my real dad, as I didn’t know him at all. At eighteen I moved down to Brighton in an attempt to make a fresh start. I had to build a relationship with my dad from scratch. I felt so unsettled in my life at this point, that the bulimia was even worse. I went to the doctor again when I was eighteen, because then I knew I was old enough to make decisions by myself. I expected the doctor to be as sympathetic as the first, but I didn’t feel he was as understanding. He didn’t confront the bulimia and put me on Prozac for depression, instead. I was put down for counselling, but the waiting list was two years long. Fortunately, my life had moved on so much that it became easier to deal with my bulimia. I had been able to move away from so many of the triggers: the bullying, my home life etc, so moving in itself was helpful.
I got involved in volunteering, which gave me a greater sense of self-esteem, and I focused on eating properly and exercising. A combination of coping mechanisms helped me to ease back the bulimia. I had a better sense of my own identity, and made friends, which affirmed who I was. Things were falling into place that made it easier to recover, a process that was largely unconscious.
Once I’d been volunteering for mental health charities for a little while, I was inspired to set up my own charity. Eating disorders are stereotypically thought only to affect young women, and I was shocked to find there were no resources online that were targeted at men with eating disorders. I set up the website, which has gradually evolved into a charity, when I realised the full extent of the need there was for this sort of service. Raising awareness is our priority, but we also train professionals to understand issues, and allow people to access care.
We’re a national charity that is dedicated to supporting males from all walks of life, who are affected by eating disorders. For more information go to: www.mengetedstoo.co.uk
Sam Thomas is the founder and director of Men Get Eating Disorders Too.