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 can’t 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 that’s not why I was sweating. We’d over-ordered again and, one by one, my friends passed their leftovers towards me.
“Give it to Tom, he’ll eat it.”
“We always do this, order way too much.”
“Give it to Tom, he’ll 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 didn’t want to let my friends down. I don’t drink, so this is the only way they get to engage in one of British friendship’s finest traditions: goading to excess. Instead of, “Down it, down it!” I get, “Eat it, eat it!”
I crouched in the light of the fridge, jamming my mouth with anything I could get my hands on
To be clear, there’s not one ounce of malice in any of my friends. They thought I was having fun. We don’t see what we don’t expect to see. Besides, don’t 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.
It’s not hunger that drives the binges. It’s fear; fear that no matter how hard I slam the fridge door, no matter on whose life I swear to myself that I won’t take another bite, the very next second I could change my mind. I’m terrified that I can’t 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 it’s hard to develop a strategy for breaking a binge is that – in the final stages, at least – I’m not really with it, so I’m usually not aware of how they end. I didn’t vomit; I usually don’t 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 night’s food coming back in flashes. Come on, faster! You remember what you ate last night, you pig? Work!
I’ve 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.” I’ve always purged more through exercise than through puking; it appeals to the obsessive streak in me.
I ate until it hurt. I told myself I’d learn from the pain and never let myself go like that again. But of course I did
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 it’s good to go hard, it’s good to blow chunks, it’s good not to be able to sleep, unless you have rendered your muscles down to jelly earlier in the day.
That’s 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 it’s normal, even endearing, to pig out as a man, and it’s normal, even admirable, to flog yourself in the gym and even occasionally puke after a monster session. It’s hardcore, it’s 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, Mum’s 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 I’d learn from the pain and never let myself go like that again (but of course I did). It wasn’t 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.
The binges were a coping strategy for the pressure, the purges a coping strategy for the binges. Soon, I developed coping strategies for the coping strategies: rigidly counting my calories and refusing to let myself go to bed until I’d done 300 push-ups, then 400, then 500, until I hit that blissful place of exhaustion beyond thought. When I got to university, I discovered I could binge just as mindlessly if I surrounded myself with granny smith apples and Müller Light yoghurts as with chips and pizza, but of course the calories in them couldn’t sustain the exercise, so I lost weight. When Mum relapsed and eventually died when I was 21, it went into overdrive. I look at photos of myself from back then and the hollows in my cheeks are like caves.
I’d already been struggling with my eating disorder for a decade before I got lucky enough to wind up in front of a psychiatrist who named it for me. I was referred by my GP because I was getting panic attacks at work: uncontrollable shaking, crying, inhuman howls coming unbidden out of my throat. The psychiatrist nodded as I described the attacks, then said, “OK, let’s talk about your bulimia.” I’m pretty sure I carried on talking for several minutes before tailing off, “My… what?”
For a while I thought, so what? I wasn’t puking my guts up so often that it would damage my digestive tract, so who cared? I wasn’t sick; I was just me. Everyone had pressure in their life. I didn’t want to be the one making a fuss.
A few days later, though, walking home past a park, I jerked my head towards the spike on one of the iron railings. I pulled back in time. I’d done similar things before – leaning out a little too far over the open atrium in a shopping centre; on impulse putting the point of a kitchen knife to my throat when no one was watching – but I’d never noticed how similar these head-fakes in the direction of self-destruction felt to my binges. Both had that same glassy sensation that someone else was steering.
Later, I learned that bulimics have the highest rate of suicide out of those with any eating disorder. I thought, “If I can’t control my impulse to eat, what other kinds of self-destructive impulses might I give in to?” It was that thought that scared me enough to get help. And good help was available. I see a therapist once a week, I take 100mg of sertraline, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, once a day to help with the attendant anxiety. On and off, I keep a diary.
I told my wife about my diagnosis about nine years ago, my legs shaking as I stammered through it. I needn’t have worried. She understood – of course she did; she understands me better than anyone. Even so, to this day, part of me still urges me to keep binges a secret when they happen, whispering: you don’t want to worry her, she’s got a lot on, she’s been thinking you’ve been doing so well recently. Being open with her is a battle I have to refight every time I have an episode.
I’m back at a healthy weight. I mostly manage to keep my exercise to five or six scheduled hours a week, and while I do still sometimes binge, especially around high-pressure times, I’m (slowly) learning to be kind enough to myself that the guilt doesn’t trigger a spiral.
What helps most, though, is talking about it. Repressing a thing only gives it more power. So when a youth mental health website, Talklife, was looking for people to write about their experiences in order to help encourage others talk about theirs, I volunteered. When I posted my first piece, I got a string of messages from men, telling me that the experience I described – the physical pain, the shame, the loss of control – was eerily familiar. For the first time, they wondered if they, too, might have an eating disorder. Most were strangers, but a couple were friends, learning about my condition for the first time. The next time I saw one of them, we talked about it. The conversation was frank and dark and funny and, in a weird way, more relaxed than any he and I had had before. The deeper we got into the details, the more it amazed me how similar our experiences were. I felt as if I was a trapeze artist swinging out into a pitch-black space, finding my wrists gripped by a counterpart I couldn’t see, swinging out into the same darkness. It was a profound relief.
This was a friend I’d smiled at as he’d overindulged, whom I’d urged on because it made me feel better. A friend I’d worked out with and shouted to: “Come on, one more rep.” I never made the connection. Never asked why he didn’t put on weight. Never wondered if there was anything more behind his smiles. I thought he was just fit, with a fast metabolism.
We don’t see what we don’t expect to see.
• White Rabbit, Red Wolf, a novel by Tom Pollock, is published on 3 May by Walker Books at £7.99. To order a copy for £6.79, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. For support and information, visit beateatingdisorders.co.uk.
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