Editors' Note: Robert Danforth is a Brooklyn writer for Boniface Now. His blog explores topics like homophobic bullying and male eating disorders and inspires people with a positive message.
"Walking up and down the aisle of the supermarket, Richard selected his groceries carefully. His list consisted of a few bags of cookies, a pumpkin pie, a gallon of chocolate ice cream, a jar of peanut butter, chocolate syrup, and a bag of potato chips. When Richard returned home, he sat down in front of the television, made sure no one else was around and began eating. He didn't stop until the cookies, the ice cream, the potato chips and the pie were gone. He then walked to the bathroom, knelt in front of the toilet and purged." -Caring Online
Google "gay male eating disorders" and you may be disappointed in the results. Mostly, I find literature that is far too academic; articles packed full of data and statistics from 5-10 years ago or more. And while a fair amount has been written on the subject, much of the information is outdated and very thin. At the heart, the subject of gay male eating disorders is simply about guys in a deep personal struggle. And oftentimes, for many help is hard to find.
Launched in 2009 by Sam Thomas of Brighton, UK, Men Get Eating Disorders Too (MGEDT) is the preeminent online resource raising awareness and offering crisis support for men who seek help. Recently, I reached out to Thomas to learn more about MGEDT and to better understand the struggle countless thousands of gay men experience. The interview is after the jump.
During our interview, Thomas discussed his personal struggle with bulimia and the bullying he endured in high school, MGEDT and his unique process of recovery as a gay man with an eating disorder.
RLD: Why do you believe that it is important to bring awareness to the subject of gay eating disorders?
ST: I know first hand the difficulties faced getting help being a gay man with an eating disorder. Gay men are highly susceptible to eating disorders, possibly because of the pressures that we face. Numerous research studies have shown that gay men are significantly more likely to have an eating disorder than straight men.
RLD: I know that you struggled with bulimia. How old were you when it started and what triggered it?
ST: Since the beginning of high school I was bullied. I was quite effeminate and different to most boys so the bullying quickly became homophobic. I was called names like 'queer' and 'puffter' on a daily basis.
I must have been about 13 when the bullying became more intense and the only place I could escape was the boy's toilets. I would skip lessons to seek sanctuary in a cubicle as I knew I wouldn't be found. I would binge eat on the contents of my lunch box - usually being sandwiches, crisps, biscuits, etc - to make myself feel better. This became a regular occurrence and over time eventually evolved into bulimia.
Making myself sick was a huge relief from the build up of tension and anxiety inside of me. I would also binge and purge when I got home from school to help me deal the emotional turmoil that I was experiencing. The bullying...bulimia affected me in many ways. Bullying shattered my self esteem and confidence for many years afterwards.
RLD: How long did you have bulimia before you told anyone?
ST: When I started making myself sick, I thought it was only something that I did. I had never heard of the term 'bulimia' before. I found out what I had when I was 15 reading one of my Mum's problem page columns.
I eventually told someone when I went to an after hours doctor when I was 16. By then the bulimia and depression were out of control and taking over every aspect of my life. When I was about 20-21, I was on the road to recovery. It was around this time I began to tell close friends and family about it for the first time.
RLD: Oftentimes men are secretive about eating disorders because of the self contained and concealed nature of the sickness. Can you explain why so many men struggle in silence from eating disorders?
ST: I think eating disorders in men have a secretive nature partly because of the stigma attached. There are stereotypical assumptions around eating disorders, in particular around gender. Eating disorders are typically perceived to be a 'women's issue' making it harder for guys to recognize their symptoms and go onto seek professional help. I have spoken to numerous guys who have found it a challenge to get a diagnosis due to these ideas, hence silencing guys further by denying them essential help.
From my point of view, if services were set up to be more 'gender-inclusive' more guys would be likely to come forward to get help.
RLD: Was there a defining moment that propelled you to get help?
ST: I knew that I couldn't really begin my life until it was under control or eradicated completely. I once described my eating disorder being like a full time job with over time. It completely consumed every aspect of my life from my thoughts through to my actions every day. It got to the point my life felt as though I only lived to be bulimic.
As for help, I found it incredibly difficult to get any form of help from a medical specialist. I went to a doctor on two occasions. Unfortunately, they weren't too sympathetic and I was misdiagnosed.
RLD: How long have you been recovered? What was the first step?
ST: My last episode was around the age of 21. The first step was finding a new life. I did that when I moved to Brighton. The move allowed me to put the past behind and start afresh. I got a lot of support from a LGBT youth group. I also got involved in a project that raises awareness of young people's mental health issues. It was this network of support that eventually allowed me to begin to recover.
For many years, I felt alone and isolated and didn't really discuss the issues that I was going through with anyone. So to finally be able to talk to people about it was such a relief and enabled me to begin to think about recovery. Getting a structure in my life helped me to get on track. Retaking my exams and doing work experience helped. I got involved in numerous community projects and got a new job. All of this gave me the self worth that I never had.
RLD: What prompted you to startup "Men Get Eating Disorders Too" online?
ST: Reflecting on my experiences of having an eating disorder, I realized that their wasn't much help out there for men and the lack of awareness played a significant role in this. This prompted me to do some research to see if there was anything out there for men in terms of websites, support groups, etc. I found incredibly little and nothing that supported the specific needs of men who have any of the eating disorders.
My motivation for establishing the site was to get the essential information and advice that was specific to men's needs out there in one place. I also wanted it to be a platform for which men can get their voices heard through the personal stories and forum sections of the site. Ultimately, the website became the vehicle in which I could raise awareness of this issue in the media.
RLD: Do you think you are fully recovered from bulimia? Do you fear relapse?
ST: I have been recovered for four years or so. I consider myself to be recovered because I have completely removed myself from the situations that were fuelling my disorder like bullying. And I have dealt with the impact by doing things that have given me a sense of self worth. I have been able to find and develop my identity as well as recognize my strengths and work towards my goals and aspirations.
I don't fear relapse, but I am aware of it. Being a busy person helps immensely and what I've achieved in my life helps me to keep motivated. I've always said that recovery is different for everyone and for me it was really about becoming myself and feeling confident about who I am; so I can live my life.
Check out Men Get Eating Disorders Too for more information.