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Russell’s story

My destructive relationship with food had taken a noticeable grip by the time I was fourteen. My family focused heavily on a perfectionist driver, including wanting to keep us as ‘perfect’ children, like Peter Pan. When I and my sibling entered puberty this was hard on my parents as they wanted us to remain young, to not grow up and begin changing. I was in my mid-twenties before I finally sought professional help when I realised that all my attempts to ‘cure’ myself were making me more and more ill – not better.

In my early life I had experienced embargoes on certain foods, not because they were bad for us but because they belonged to my parents and we were not allowed to have them. In a typically northern way, ‘healthy’ food comprised of meat and vegetable dinners with the vegetables cooked until they had no flavour and were little more than mush. Whilst we were not given fast-food a great deal, although comforting carbohydrates were often the principle food source, suet puddings, bread served with meals and Friday treats of large cakes were frequently featured.

My family script consisted of being perfect, pleasing people, not displaying difficult emotions and taking care of others. This was juxtaposed against the promotion by my mother that it was OK to talk about anything at all with my parents; in reality, when this was tried, they were reluctant to talk about difficult subjects, would accuse me of being far too emotional or put my fears, concerns and tears down to my hormones. My hormones were used to explain a plethora of things between the ages of twelve and twenty. I’m sure that at one point my parents would have put my sexuality down to my hormones.

I had noticed my unpleasant body-shape in a pre-pubescent photo of my brother and I sitting, shirtless whilst on a picnic, with my great aunt, on a hot summer’s day. That picture is still synonymous with the first time I knew I didn’t look ‘right’. From a very young age, around seven or eight, I hated having my photo taken and refused to smile as I thought I looked awful when a fully smiled, instead I adopted a thin, tight-lipped grin whenever I did have to be in a photo.

I was also around this age when I first began experiencing crushes on other boys. I had male and female friends at primary school, my best friend was female, and my special friend was a boy. At secondary school it felt overwhelming as everything hit at once. I discovered many things all at the same time. The first was that I wasn’t like other children. I apparently (according to what I have been told) had an old head on young shoulders so people wanted to talk to me about things they found difficult from early on in my time at school. I became adept at keeping secrets at once. Nor in other ways was I like other children of my age. I was given labels such as ‘individual’ or ‘quirky’. Despite people’s perception of me I was lucky enough to avoid serious bullying, in fact I had one of my early sexual experiences with the ‘hardest’ boy at school who then became my ‘protector’ and shielded me from much of this, I was terrified of not being called these labels and being called gay, instead.

In retrospect, I lived in a permanent state of fear and must have spent much of my puberty in a state of what Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book would call emotional hijack. Some of my principle fears revolved around the paper-round which I was forced to take on by my parents due to their strong work ethic. This became a weekly dose of terror. I used to take a pound of my previous week’s money, begin my round at the shop where I would buy four chocolate bars and eat them all on my way around the scary area I delivered too, frightened of other children I did not know and the houses that had dogs in them. My greatest fear, however, was not that weekly torture but concealing my diaries, detailing my crushes on other boys and my increasing collection of ‘pornographic’ material. I shared a room with my younger sibling until I left home and was constantly fraught that either he or my mother would discover my secret file of men under the stand-alone cupboard in our room. Although the material was not ‘hard’ (mostly consisting of Page Seven Fellas!), it was so completely incriminating, yet it was something I could not bear to give up as it was all I had.

I was mortified when my body became masculine, practically overnight, I did not feel as masculine as I was beginning to look. I was aware that I did not have a desire to be feminine, just not that manly. I was being teased by the time I was twelve for having a moustache and beard so I made the decision to shave it off, which I also hated as it meant I was a ‘man’. To make this experience worse my father found out and was furious, shouting at me and storming around the house, telling me that it was ridiculous that I should be shaving at my age and what was I trying to prove. It was awful because he made it sound as if I wanted to do it, to prove how grown up I was, when in reality it was the opposite. I was not listened to; to this day I do not think he realises that I was mortified that I even had to start doing that. He insisted he did not ever want to catch me shaving so I began getting up at 6.30 every morning so that I was ready for school before he even got out of bed to get ready for work.  It was confusing and tiring and I hoarded treats I bought with my paper round money to help me get through.  I was convinced that the boys I liked would not ever feel attracted to me as I began to put on weight because I was avoiding sport like the plague and being fed like my dad because I was, apparently, ‘built like my dad’ (which I was told so many times I lost track). I dreaded PE, as many teenagers do, where we were made to play skins-on-shirts often, just the fact that everyone would see how hairy I was, was frightening enough.

This was exacerbated as I suffered from a medical ailment which further increased my acute disgust with my own body. I developed hyperhidrosis. I did not even need to move for my underarms, and often my face, to excessively sweat causing enormous wet patches. If I engaged in physical activity it was even worse. Sweat would run from my armpits in rivulets down my sides just from walking to school. Added to the fact I was gaining more weight, I was positive no boy would show any interest in me. Whenever they did I was surprised and grateful. My parents were convinced that the hyperhidrosis was simply to do with puberty (hormones, again) and as they hated acknowledging the other features of adolescence I was displaying the issue was barely acknowledged and it was not until a few years later when it was clear that I was not about to grow out of it that they finally helped me to get medical advice.

The ‘relationships’ I had with boys were desperately wanted but seemed to lead to bouts of further confusion and pain. My experiences with them filled my head permanently, or so it felt. It was as if I could not escape from thinking about them. The only time I felt numb was when I ate. That was of particular note from very early on. What was so difficult was that I did ‘attract’ boys: some of them felt quite protective of me and would hug and put their arms around me; some of them felt fascinated by me and sought physical contact with me but this always seemed to be followed by a period of guilt and coldness on their behalf making me feel rejected and as if I had imagined that they had ever said that they liked me. A particular ‘relationship’ like this was agony for years. After we originally had physical contact over the course of a school year, exchanged little ‘love’ notes, gone for long bicycle rides together to ‘get away from everyone else’, this boy, crimson-faced, one day told me that he loved me and asked if I loved him. When I told him that I did I remember feeling, not embarrassed like him, but utterly thrilled, glowing, like I had just been in a romantic moment from a television programme, we went on to spend a wonderful afternoon together and I thought I was going to burst I was so happy. Even all the hang ups about my weight and my body appeared to not be a problem as there was not an indication that any of this bothered him. In essence, when I next saw him he merely said ‘hello’ and from then on blanked me around school and did not want to see me when I called around for him until I had ‘gotten the message’.

In spite of these encounters, I had a degree of popularity at school, was able to get on with my teachers and with my peers and navigate my way through it. I increasingly projected a ‘non-sexualness’ and only allowed ‘safe’ inner expressions of my sexuality. I did not show interest in girls, nor did I show interest in boys, this felt like a constant battle as, as stated previously, they were on my mind much of the time. I did not talk about my relationships with my family or my friends but I would talk to others for hours about their relationships and affairs of the heart. By the time I left for University I had honed my skills for listening to other people and suppressed any display of my inner thoughts and feelings, publicly dissociating myself from all sexual behaviour, heterosexual or homosexual. Having always had a natural effeminacy and sense of humour I was able to develop a persona as a ‘non-threatening gay man’ when I did come out at University. People found it easy to develop friendships with me and I was convinced that this was due to my being honest about my sexuality but reliant on my not expressing it.

My first year at University brought about two main changes in the development of my eating disorder and my sexuality simultaneously. I was let loose on my own life, meaning I was able to eat exactly what I wanted when I wanted, I could legitimately drink gallons of pure orange and eat prawns. Not a big deal it might seem but I had not been allowed these before. This still remains firmly imprinted on my memory as being a core feature of leaving home. All those things I had been denied at home because they were for my parents I could have them, and have them in abundance. I took full advantage of this. I also met another man who lived in my halls of residence and fell in love. He told me, on several occasions, that he loved me too. Unfortunately, inexperienced as my heart was, it broke quickly and easily when he made it clear that he did not want to pursue a serious relationship with me. For the first time in my entire life I experienced what it was like to not have an appetite. I forgot to eat, so engulfed was I by pain. My weight came off rapidly and suddenly I discovered that I could look different, that I could have a different body shape. As I recovered from my heartache my appetite gradually returned and, in fact, felt as if it increased. I began comfort eating but had discovered a new dimension to food – not eating. I would give up eating properly for days to counteract the effects of a binge and so my weight varied drastically for the next few years.

By the end of that first year, having been sure for years that I was attracted to other males, I came out and again there felt as if there was some hope for the sexual side of my personality. I could now legitimately ‘like’ men and talk to other people about that fact, I began working part-time in a workplace that had a good proportion of the workforce who were homosexual. Instead I quickly arrived at a destructive realisation. In the past, I could console myself that I had not found a loving relationship because my experiences were clandestine in nature; things happened but were not acknowledged or talked about. Now I was open about myself and was beginning to meet other men who were also ‘out’. However, I was repeatedly told that I was fat and that I would not meet anyone being so fat by my gay ‘friends’. This confirmed my long-standing deeply-internalised dialogues that I was unattractive and was not meant to be a sexual being. I simply was not fanciable, men wanted to know me but this was because I was funny and a good friend. They did not feel sexually attracted to me.

I entered a period of ‘insanity’, my moods became increasingly erratic showing compassion, kindness, empathy and good-humour punctuated with, albeit infrequent, explosive towering rages directed at someone for a minor ‘infraction’. At the same time I began to use laxatives in an attempt to purge my body of the absolute junk I forced into it during a binge. This insanity gathered pace when I began to exercise, at first it felt unnatural then I noticed the effect on my body-shape and began to feel anxious if I couldn’t get to a class. So I doubled up, then I trebled up – taking three classes back to back each day just in case my plans were interrupted for the remainder of the week.

By this time I weighed just under ten stones and actually had the confidence to take the initiative to tell somebody that I loved them. A friend that I had spent a great deal of time with, who was gay but in the closet, with only me knowing his secret, had sparked an attraction in me a long time before. I had created a ‘false awareness’ in my head. Believing that he would only be attracted to me if I was ‘thin’, (which did not say a great deal about him if that was the case) so I felt that now was the time, now I was finally slimmer. I was rejected. Not harshly, not cruelly. He dealt with my feelings very sensitively but it was enough to tip me over the edge into a chasm that I had been staving off inside me.

There was a noticeable nadir. I felt it when I was in it, it felt like madness and I was out of control. I took a nutrition and dietetics diploma course, qualified as a fitness instructor and began teaching classes as well as attending them and doing gym workouts. I would calculate calories not out of health consciousness but so I could make accurate calculations of binges and do sufficient exercise to burn this off, whilst taking laxatives to make sure that I was getting rid of the bloated feeling as soon as possible so that I could still study and work. Very quickly I knew it was not sustainable and my fear of putting the weight back on filled my mind more than my crushes on other men had. I thought of nothing else.

When my sex-drive was too strong for the bingeing and purging to eclipse I was further battering my self-esteem through my sexual behaviour. I noticed a change in how men perceived me and found that they were attracted to me but now I feared intimacy with anyone, let alone men, as I was terrified they’d discover how disgusting I was, I was even scared that if I found a significant relationship now it would ruin me because I would not have the time to exercise as much as I needed to. Instead, having been sure for years that what I wanted was a close, lasting, mutual relationship with another man, I began having meaningless promiscuous encounters which felt hollow and were, at times, dangerous because of the risks I took. On several occasions I had sexual intercourse with men I was not attracted to and was acutely aware I did not want to do anything more than respond to the flirting, yet I went through with it anyway as I felt that having led someone on I should not let them down. The one time I did do this, have the strength to tell someone who had bought drinks for me and spent all night chatting to me, that I was not going to go home with him, I felt dreadful. Utterly wicked, selfish – a complete bitch for not giving him what he said he wanted. I was convinced I should be thankful to have anyone showing me sexual attention.

My therapist, years later, helped me to realise and remember that the end result of these weekend pursuits were binges during my working week. As I entered therapy and managed to give up purging (which is one of the hardest things I have ever done in my entire life) I became increasingly withdrawn, the more weight I gained the more I could only bear to leave the house for work. Many friendships deteriorated during this time as I deliberately stayed alone licking my wounds now that I had a clear idea of what wounds I bore. I even had time off work on the days when I particularly could not bear the thought of anyone actually having to look at me, I felt so totally disgusted with myself.

My recovery was marked by this phase of giving up purging and tackling giving up bingeing. Although I felt an enormous relief, having known for so long that I did not have the relationship with myself and with food that others had, as my purging diminished my obsession with food, not consuming it (or starving myself of it) gave way to an abyss of self-loathing. Whilst I had the skills to manage my relationships with other people or to help them manage themselves, I did not have the skills to deal with the depth of hatred and disgust I felt towards myself.  I had to come out a second time and in truth coming out about my eating disorder was far harder than coming out about my sexuality to both family and friends. I had worked so assiduously to hide my eating disorder from the world, whereas my sexuality had always been evident to others. Many people did not believe me or did not know what to say to me. Some of my friendships have ended due to this ‘new’ coming out. My social isolation has ended, and as I work to integrate my bulimic self into the rest of me this has seen the beginning of my wanting to know more about others’ experiences and seek to understand how a human being from a loving family (I should say at this point that I do believe that – that my parents meant well) can adopt such dangerous coping mechanisms. I feel the last ‘self’ to integrate will be my sexual self which continues to be a separated, deeply controlled part of me. As my weight gain is stabilising and even, in minute stages, beginning to go down, the grip of bingeing leaves me and I increase my confidence in my chosen field of research as it helps my understanding of myself. However, I feel strongly that it is neither the time to be sexually active, my impulse to take risks with my personal safety and sexual health has vanished, nor search for that loving, genuine relationship that I felt should be a natural part of my life for so long.

In a sense I still cling to my non-sexuality, although I identify as gay it would be more accurate to say I was a celibate gay man. This is precisely why I believe my sexual self to be the last of my selves to integrate. Therapeutically I am working for a complete remission from my bingeing and purging and egocentric compulsions and as I do I understand just how difficult it now is for me to allow myself to fully express my sexuality in all its forms. One day I hope to accept the physical attraction aspect of sexuality as part of my life and myself. As I build a better toolkit which equips me for all four components of emotional intelligence, perhaps I will learn to value my attractiveness to others whilst accepting that not every rejection received is all about me but can be equally about the other person. Then I may be able to value sex as an important part of expressing my sexuality without it being the part of myself where I must eat to get over it.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder then I’m changing my eyes so that I can see the beauty in myself as well as the beauty I have always seen in others.  But that takes time when the eyes I use to look upon myself have looked through broken, distorted lenses for such a long time.”

'Men Get Eating Disorders Too' is a registered charity in England and Wales no. 1139351.

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