Sam - Interview 23

Age at interview: 23
Brief Outline: Severe bullying at school led Sam to frequently hide in the boys' toilets at school and comfort ate to cope with the depression and anxiety he felt at the time. He developed bulimia. Sam is the founder of the website 'Men Get Eating Disorders Too' aim to raise awareness of the plight of young men facing an eating disorder. Ethnic background: White British.
Background: See 'brief outline'.

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Severe bullying at school led Sam to develop an eating disorder that was to last for about eight years. Sam is the founder of the website ‘Men Get Eating Disorders Too’. Sam experiences of bullying started when he was eleven years old and moved to high school. Other students thought that he may possible be gay and started teasing him about it. To start with the teasing wasn’t extreme but when he was about thirteen, it intensified and verged on the aggressive.
Sam wasn’t aware of being gay during this early teens and sexual identity wasn’t an issue for him at that age. But he said that others became fearful of the idea of him being gay and was verbally abused at every single opportunity' in the classroom and in the school playground. As a result school for Sam became an awkward place, more associated with stress and abuse rather than a place of learning. Until then Sam had being an A’s and A* student.
As a way of coping with the bullying Sam started to run away from the classroom and would go and hide in the boys toilets. He found that his teachers seldom looked for him in there. So, in there he would comfort eat to cope with his feeling of depression and anxiety. So hiding in the toilet and comfort eating became his way of dealing with the abuse. Another place he also felt safe was the school library and he would usually spend lunch time in there. Sam had almost no friends and explains this by saying that other kids tend to keep their distance from those who are bullied for fear of they themselves becoming a target.
He found that the school wasn’t particularly good at dealing with the situation for a number of reasons. First, the homophobic bullying happened at the time Section 28 was still in place which banned schools from talking about issues to do with sexuality. But Sam says that for a strange reason the school was unwilling to do much to help apart from suspending one or more bullies at one given time.
Sam’s comfort eating eventually evolved into making himself sick. He would make himself uncomfortable full in order to make himself sick and he said that in a ‘twisted’ sort of way it relieved him of all his sadness, anger and depression. At that time he didn’t necessarily thought of what he was doing was an eating disorder. He found out about it when reading one of his Mum’s magazines.
Sam didn’t talk to his mother about the bullying and his eating disorder. Family life was difficult and the only person he confided in was a tutor from a training skills course he did after leaving school at the age of sixteen. Supported by this tutor, he managed to leave the family home and moved into a supportive lodging scheme aimed at young people but in another city. This was an altogether positive change that enabled Sam to acknowledge his sexual identity and he ‘came out’ as a gay person. He started to meet other gay and lesbian young people for the first time. But his bulimia continued well after he left school because as he put it ‘it was a way of coping with life’. He reckons that he stop making himself sick when he reached twenty-one.
Sam’s recovery from an eating disorder has been a gradual one and for which he has had almost no medical support or treatment. The last GP he saw age eighteen gave him medication for his depression but did not deal with the underlying cause which was his bulimia. It has taken Sam almost ten years to come out the other end and one of the things that have most helped is his participation in youth groups alongside other gay, lesbians, transsexual and bi-sexual young people. Finding that he was not alone and having the support of a community helped him a lot in his recovery journey. In addition, Sam has become more aware of the need to be healthy. He tries to eat healthily and does some form of exercise, mostly running everyday.
Sam is involved in a number of community projects such as the young people’s mental health project and he runs his website ‘Men Get Eating Disorders Too’ aim at raising awareness about the issue that men can also suffer from eating disorders. He also goes around school talking about his experience of bullying and homophobia.

Sam was badly bullied at school and believes this caused him to develop bulimia.

So it became quite frequent for me, for kind of leave a lesson quite suddenly, just to escape all that verbal abuse. And where I’d go it be the boys toilets because it was the only place where I would not be found, because, you know, it’s the last places teachers tend to think for some strange reason, and it was quite an isolated place where there was very few people.
So what I did there really, was comfort eat initially on what I had in my lunch box with that being, you know, sandwiches, or crisps or biscuits or whatever and that was just a way to make yourself look better, because I think I felt probably quite depressed, and quite down and really unbelievably anxious about being in the school environment. So that became my way of just kind of dealing with that in a way.
So and that’s what I did. And I think the first time I did it, I didn’t necessarily think, eating disorder, or bulimia or any of those things, because, you know, I’d never thought about that before. It wasn’t really the sort of thing I’d come across. So I didn’t think that it was anything like that.
And I actually thought at the time quite naively that, you know, it would do me better because the fact that I was going to be sick, making myself sick was a good thing. You know what I mean. So, and what I found was that, that, it was quite therapeutic in a weird kind of… well in a twisted kind of way. You know, because the kind of, the making, you know, the comfort eating was kind of representing the build up of emotions that I was experiencing in some ways. And feeling quite full, felt like I was feeling, you know, quite bursting at the seams with all these things I had to, anger and sadness I suppose as well, for the situation. So making myself sick kind of relieved all those kind of build up of emotions which in effect made myself feel better.
And I think that is what I realised quite quickly that, that, you know, it was a good thing for me at that time. So, and that’s how it kind of developed. You know, I would keep on running out of lessons or running from the school yard or whatever, and going to the toilet, and carrying on these behaviours as a coping mechanism to deal with what I was going through.

Sam’s voluntary work has helped him put his bad experiences behind him. He promotes awareness about men and eating disorders and works in a mental health project for young people.

I actually got involved with lots of different activities, for example, I went to schools and talked about my experiences of bullying to other, you know, students, regardless of their sexuality, to talk about the issues of homophobia. So that was quite a good way of kind of putting all those issues to bed in some ways, because it meant that I could talk about it and say, “This is what I went through.” You know, by saying that pen is gay, or that person’s gay because you don’t like them, obviously has big implications so I could talk about these issues that I’d come through to students and that was quite good for me. Because, you know, it was almost turning all those negative experiences into something positive, which almost became like therapy in itself in a way [laughs]. Because do you know what I mean, you really can put closure on things.
It’s like self-therapy isn’t it?
Yes, exactly. And in fact that is what I do now, with my web site and the mental health project, you know, its all kind of, all of the projects that I’ve been involved with and still am involved with, are from direct amount of experiences and issues that I’ve been through.
So it means that, you know, it can help other people and raise awareness of those issues as well to pass on to other people that aren’t so aware, so…
And what about your plans for the future?
I very much will continue with my ‘men get eating disorders too’ campaign, you know, I’ve set up the web site and do lots of media and press stuff to try and raise the awareness of the issue of male eating disorders because there is very little out there. If not hardly anything really, for men with eating disorders, so that’s something I’m very much trying to continue and sustain in the future. 

The experience of bullying, although devastating at the time, made Sam a stronger and better person.

I think the second thing may be, is that, you know, even if you do experience bullying, I think in some ways, I think looking back on my own personal experience, it will probably make you more stronger I think in the longer run.  Because you know, you experience something that is quite intense, and probably quite devastating at that time, but can actually make you so much a better person, I think.

There are services in your community to help you. Connexions is a good place to start as they can give you advice and information as to where to go.

What about if they are experiencing an eating disorder or if they are comfort eating?
I think its important to remember I think if you’re experiencing some kind eating disorder or comfort eating or bulimia, anorexia or any of those things. I think, you know, there are support services out there. I mean there is, you know, BEAT, who are the National, it used to be the National Eating Diseases Association and they run help lines for younger people on the web site. You know, there are lots of other localised support services for people with eating disorders and you know, it can be very much anonymous, you know, you don’t have to disclose yourself, you don’t have to take your names or anything like that. You can just go on there and find out information. And I think when you become ready to think about recovery or just you know, talk to someone it might be all you need. You know, they are there. And, you know, and also don’t be afraid to speak to speak to people like Connexions workers for example. You know, that is what I spoke to quite a lot. And you know, Connexions workers can always point you in the right direction, or there might be other types of workers, at a youth group for example, a youth worker, or you know, some kind of drop for young people, like information centre or whatever. It depends who you are really. You know, there are people around that can kind of put you in the right direction. Often, you know, its very difficult to find these places, that might help, but they are there.  

Be sympathetic and supportive towards the child who is being bullied and deal effectively with...

I think it’s very, very important that teachers try to, you know, I suppose, the very first thing is to acknowledge the fact that a young person is being bullied. Whether they see that or whether that young person goes to them. I think its very important that they actually listen to what they’re saying and also it would be quite empathetic or sympathetic towards what they’re going through so they can help them to kind of come to some kind of possible resolutions for that particular problem. I mean obviously its very hard to kind of fix bullying, but I think there are ways that that could be reduced and there are ways that the young person could help deal with that bullying. You know, and I think, you know, looking back on my own personal experience I kind of think that you know, it was very, very obvious I think that I was being bullied and I think you know, it does anger me to some extent that I am not aware of any teachers that didn’t think to kind of deal with it really. So, so I think, you know, there are very simple things that teachers could do just to kind of ease the situation. 
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Doctors need to remember that men can also be diagnosed with an eating disorder.

I think in terms of doctors, I think, you know, it’s important to remember. I think the first I’m going to say, is that, you know, eating disorders I think are very much stereotyped in the sense that I think, you know, we always associate them with young women generally. However, you know there are lots of men out there that have eating disorders of all different ages, backgrounds, sexuality. There is no kind of, kind of typical kind of patient I suppose in a way. So its keeping that in mind. And also just being careful about the fact that, you know, even though, people might see lots of different issues, like depression, anxiety and whatever at the same time, its important to recognize an eating disorder as a problem in some senses, because you know, I think an eating disorder becomes quite life dominating and often can fuel all the other problems they might be experiencing, you know, its very much dependent on the individual obviously, but I think, from speaking to other men through my web site I often find that their eating disorder becomes absorbed into everything else while in fact, you know, its very much what they want to deal with the most is the eating disorder. So I think, yes, I think it was really what I would try to put across to them. 
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