In late 2018, I was diagnosed with bulimia. Although I was suffering for a long time before this, I was living in denial that something was genuinely wrong and I needed help. Like many young men, I was never told to talk about my problems – never mind anything about mental illness. Instead, we are told to simply get over it. Rather than talk about what is bothering us, we are told to keep it down and carry on pushing forward.
Although this message of resilience is good to some extent, it is usually pushed beyond this extent to a much more harmful place. Due to the fact that I was never educated on mental illness, I never understood the problems that were plaguing me day in day out.
I knew that something wasn’t right, however I never thought that it was something that I could change.
I believed the painful thoughts I was feeling was simply part of my life and it was something myself nor anybody else can change. For so long I had bottled in these feelings. To some extent, I used them as an attempt to show how tough I could be by ignoring it and trying to overcome it myself.
This idea of trying to push through the pain alone with no help was further reinforced in my day-to-day life. During my worse points in regards to my mental health, I was also the captain of my university boxing team. This was a position usually associated with health, strength, athleticism.
However, although this position showcased to others and myself that I am physically healthy, it helped to bury the fact that I was mentally deteriorating. “I can’t be unhealthy? Look at all of these other healthy things I’m doing!”. This was all attempts to further run from my problems, rather than share them and seek help.
Before finally ringing my doctor to seek help, I did start to become worried about my mental state.
I started to look online to find other men who had this experience. Sadly, I could not find any who openly discussed experiences with eating disorders.
This further reinforced the idea that men obviously do not suffer with eating disorders, as there are clearly no men out there who do. However, it is not the fact that men do not suffer with these problems, it is the fact that speaking about these issues is seen as a weakness.
I wanted to slowly make a change to this narrative. When I started to open up to others about diagnosis, I was overwhelmed. For the most part, my friends and family were utterly supportive and I can’t thank them enough for their reactions. I was scared at first. However I knew deep down that those who cared about me would always be there for me, even with something completely alien to me and most of those I shared with.
Not only was it liberating for me to share, it also answered a lot of questions for those close to me. Many believed that something was going on, but never knew how to describe it or talk to me about it. Hearing from myself about what was going on was the last piece of the puzzle.
I don’t blame anybody for not knowing how to talk to me about these issues, I couldn’t even reconcile it myself. However, that being said, the lack of understanding also led to some negative reactions.
I got the classic “You don’t look like you have an eating disorder!” and other similar responses. I can’t lie, this was difficult at first. I was in a constant battle of telling myself that my problems wasn’t real, even after diagnosis and during my treatment. Having others doubt or misunderstand my issue only helped to reaffirm this. However, I began to understand that this is just the product of a society that aren’t educated on these issues.
As mentioned earlier, men are taught to be resilient, stoic and unshakable.
By admitting we have a problem, whether this be with eating disorders or any other mental illness, we believe that we are going against what we have been taught.
In other words, we believe we are going against what it is to be a man. Like myself, many men chose to avoid the problem they are experiencing through harmful means. For me, this was punishing myself with food, exercise and my attitudes towards them. For others this may be drinking, drugs, sometimes even work.
I believe we need to stop these harmful behaviours and instead open up about our issues. This is a difficult thing to do, particularly as so little men are speaking out it perpetuates the message that suffering from mental illness as a man is not only weak, it is also quite strange. That’s why I wanted to share my story. Now speaking from a place of good health and responsibility in my current position as a boxing coach, I want to emphasise that it is ok to speak about these issues.
There is incredible strength in admitting to vulnerability as it takes a strong person to know who they are, what they are experiencing and reaching out for help with it. By slowly adding our own voices one by one, we start to change the old attitude that it is not ok to speak about our mental health. Start to use your own voice. Use it to ask for help and spread awareness that it is ok to go through these problems and it is not ok to suffer silently.