Talking and Living

To be honest, posting this scares me.

I want to tell you about this one specific Wednesday a few months back. There have been other days like it since, but I made notes about this one, so I remember the details better.

The day started out innocuously enough with a couple of slices of toast and a bowl of bran flakes, but then I had a row with a friend and before I knew it, I’d bought, chewed and swallowed two brownies, a bacon sandwich, a packet of crisps, some carrot sticks and a flapjack the size of the USS Nimitz.  Over the next forty five minutes I added a bag of chocolate buttons, a tuna baguette and a tub of some kind of red and white pudding that looked like someone had pureed a brain and forgotten to pick the skull out. When buying all this, I alternated between a café, a shop and an oh-so-sweetly non-judgmental vending machine, so as not to attract attention (the guy at the shop was like “Buying for friends?” and I was like “Ha ha yes.”).

I honestly couldn’t tell you what any of this tasted like, by the way. Only my hands, my jaw and the prehistoric Lizard bit of my brain were involved, my tastebuds were asleep at their post.

By now I was sweating, my hands were shaking and I had a pounding headache. I drank about a litre and a half of water, and then I went and had lunch.

A kind of mental dam burst during the afternoon, and I carried on in much the same way, systematically eating my way through everything in the house, then curling up in bed, then getting out of it in a panic to go to the shops to replace everything so my wife didn’t find out.

When I’m like this, what’s driving me isn’t hunger, or even the need for comfort, it’s the fear that I lack the power over myself to make a binding decision to stop eating. On bad days I feel I can’t trust myself, any more than I could a stranger.

The following day I wake up early, feeling like an evil toddler is squatting on my chest. The first thing I do is go for an eight mile run.  At lunch time I hit the gym and do push-ups and burpees until want to vomit (but I don’t).

I remember the first time a doctor told me I was bulimic. Ironically, I thoughthe was nuts, because I haven’t successfully made myself throw up for more than ten years (apparently I have no gag reflex, and yes, I’ve heard all the jokes.). I told him this and he said the purge half of my cycle is handled through exercise.  However you characterise it, my relationship with food, my body and the level of control I feel the need to exercise over it, is dysfunctional, I also get bouts of depression, am in weekly therapy, and have been on anti-depressants at various points since I was fourteen.

So why am I telling you this?  Partly it’s because I count most of the people who read this blog as friends, and it’s both good, and much harder than it ought to be to talk to your friends about this stuff, but every time you do, it makes it a little easier, so that’s one reason.

The second reason is, I’m about to start doing some work as an ambassador for these guys. Talklife  – essentially a safe online space to talk about mental health issues – is a really good idea, being put into practice by really good people. I’m glad they’re around.

There’s still a culture of silence around mental health, a taboo on talking about your illness that only applies when the part of you that’s ill is above rather than below the neck. This taboo is stupid, dangerous, and it pisses me off. Suicide kills more men my age and younger than anything else in the UK, in large part because most of them never feel like they can tell anyone. The only way to change a culture, is to act like it’s already been changed, to talk about it openly, like it’s normal, (because it is, it’ll hit a quarter of us this year, chances are it’s happening to a friend of yours at the same time it’s happening to you.)

So this is me, talking.

A lot of the time though, when people do talk about it, especially celebrities, they cast it as a long past event, a dark episode in their lives (“My year of bulimia hell” etc). It’s the dip in their story arc, a single crisis struggled through in pursuit of their inspirational journey.

Maybe that is what it’s like for them, but it’s not what it’s like for me. For me it’s more like a chronic thing, diabetes say. Severity varies from day to day, it comes and it goes, it needs thinking about, and consciously managing, but I can live with it, and live well. I’ve written and published three books in the last four years and I got married in 2013 to a woman I’m crazy about.

So here’s the plan: once a month on the Talklife blog, I’m going to write about how that’s going, stuff I’ve written, read, seen, places I’ve been, and how the glitches in my head have affected it. Sometimes the answer will be ‘a lot’, sometimes (hopefully usually) the answer will be ‘not much’, but either way I’ll try to be honest, and if there’s anything I find that’s helpful to me, I’ll say. Over time, a picture should emerge, a picture of someone living with and around this bug. Meanwhile, this blog, and my twitter feed will remain pretty much what they have always been: bad puns, monsters and economics – i.e. me.

Like I said, I’m scared of posting this. I’m scared people will take the piss, I’m scared they’ll think I’m attention-seeking, I’m horrified that they might think I was making this up. Most of all, I’m worried that people will treat me differently to the way they did yesterday.

But if on bad days I don’t feel like I can trust myself any more than a stranger, then on very rare, very good days, I feel like I can trust strangers as much as I can myself.

So here goes.

29 thoughts on “Talking and Living

  1. Sometimes when I’m really sad or depressed I’ll order so much take out that I pretend someone is in my apartment when the delivery boy comes because judgement. Then I feel even more depressed BECAUSE I pigged out and usually end up puking my brains out. I’m pretty sure I started hating my body when I was 9. I actually remember it.

    So I don’t know. It’s “nice” (though nice isn’t really the right word I think) to know you can be a functioning adult and still go through this.

    You’re not alone. *smoosh*

  2. good on you for post about having bulimia. well done on managing it a lot of the time. good luck with managing it even more in future. and go easy on yourself when it takes over.
    I had orthorexia nervosa for years, and still freak out about food sometimes, and am mildly anxious about it a lot of the time.
    I think of eating disorders generally as being anxiety disorders, and I know that they can be life-threatening. thanks for speaking out about yours. breaking through the stigma can save and transform people’s lives

  3. Thank you. THANK YOU. It’s so easy to think you’re the only one going through mental illness but over the last year I’ve found it’s nowhere near the case. As it happens I have a doctor’s appointment today because I just had to increase my meds again and I’m hoping this isn’t going to be an ever-expanding proposition – don’t really want to get to the point where I’m popping twenty-three pills a day to keep the old brain juices in check. I must check out Talklife. Sounds like a brilliant idea. Hugs and love.

  4. Thank you for having the courage to post this. Having been anorexic for the best part of ten years, I think it’s important that we talk about these issues openly and without shame. Much love and strength to you.
    xxx

  5. Every voice that stands up and speaks adds to the noise I carry in my head that says no, you’re not alone, no you’re not weak, no this is not your fault and yes, life is full of small battles and always will be but look! A future.

    Thank you for standing up. It matters so much and so hard I’ve not the words.

  6. I read your blog on a day I realised I’ve been steadily overdosing on the chocolates for quite a long time. There are other things I do to sabotage myself which amount to a list of minor but collectively crushing stuff. I’ve read the books, been to the talky therapy, pondered what it is that bugs me but it’s only very recently I was able to put a finger on it – don’t ask me why, it’s not like it’s unusual or new but somehow what it is got buried under a symptom list, a behavioural analysis, a cognitive map. For reasons I don’t understand listening to this guy talk about it suddenly put a light on for me – I link it only in case anyone reading wants to check and see if it helps. There is some Christian chat in there which you can (and I do) disregard without changing the value of what he says. For me it actually made it make more sense since my trouble started in the way-back and emerged through a foggy, Christianised lens. You may need to ignore that aspect. It is – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5q2tZa1gp8Q Healing the Shame that Binds You, by John Bradshaw. It is in sections so you need to follow all of the talk.

  7. Good on you for posting this, Tom. I have personal experience with mental health issues (although mine manifest themselves in other ways to yours) and I understand just how hard it is to open up, for all of the reasons you state above. It feels shameful somehow… and it damn well shouldn’t.

    A cast on a broken leg can be a badge of honour. It can be signed, touched. It will undoubtedly generate stories and maybe even laughs. The treatments and help required by those who suffer with mental illness might be different but it’s vitally important we’re not perceived as odd or weak.

    I’ve been so very fortunate is getting the professional help I needed (eventually) and having loving family and friends in my life. I’m only too aware that others are not so lucky. TalkLife looks to be a wonderful use of social networking… I think it’s great you’re passing on your experiences. All the very best, mate. And thanks for letting us in.

  8. Thank you for this. I’ve quietly dealt with depression since my mid teens. I still feel too embarassed/ashamed to talk to many loved ones about the things that sometimes happen in my head. As you say, it’s stupid that so much stigma exists in relation to mental health issues. You’re not alone. *WE’RE* not alone.

  9. Incredible blogpost, Tom – really brave and terrifying. You are doing an amazing thing, reaching out and being brave and so incredibly human – all the hugs, matey – I am proud to call you friend.

  10. my brother is a doctor in the States and in his former small practice in upstate New York (he now practices palliative care), he’d get depressed farmers and mechanics in who couldn’t talk about their depression. It was always some other physical problem that brought them in. Only after treating that and asking some follow up, “is there anything else you want to talk about,” could they begin to feel like they could open up.

    thanks for being open about this. it’s incredibly brave and incredibly generous.

  11. I’ve spent a lot of time with friends who’ve struggled with various mental issues and I’ve also spent a lot of time studying psychology, but the most useful and practical explanation I’ve come across for this behaviour was devised by Dr Steve Peters, who talks about it here (only instead of lizard brain, he calls it the chimp).

  12. Anyone who reacts with anything but understanding and admiration towards you probably needs to do some talking about living themselves. Thank you for sharing. I am sure I’m not the only one who had no idea. Big love x

  13. Bravo Tom. Thank you for sharing and speaking about this. It was brave. The world needs more people like you to talk about this subject. I want to talk about this subject as a fellow sufferer of depression. It terrifies me, but your words bolster me. Thank you again.

  14. Thank you for talking about this – you are totally brave and awesome for doing this.

    I don’t think I have an eating disorder as such, but over-eating is definitely a part of my depression. There were times when I would get home from work and open the giant ‘share’ pack of crisps I had bought on the way and eat it all by myself without, as you say, really tasting it at all. Like it was the one thing I had to do before anything else.

    Other times eating feels like a form of punishment or revenge. I’m *going* to eat all this crappy food because that’s how crap I am – hah!

    It doesn’t make sense, but I do it. I don’t purge. I occassionally cut. My weight gain over the past four years has been slow, but sure.

    Eating and its relationship to depression is different for everyone – I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m saying your experience is just like mine, because there are clearly differences. I just mean that I get some of it and you’re not alone.

    I believe very firmly in talking about this stuff. I think sometimes I talk abotu it too much, but it’s better than the alternative. As a teenager I didn’t talk to anyone about anything, and that was very nearly the end of me.

    So, thanks again for doign this, and for your involvement in Talklife – it sounds like a really great idea.

  15. Tom

    I don’t know you well — we are often like ships that pass in the night at cons — and in many ways are probably opposites. But I’ve always liked your honesty and passion for things. I love now your courage in posting this (and honestly? Showing your humanity. You always seemed so God-like, incalculable like Aragorn…:D ).

    And yes, there is still a culture of silence around mental health, which is why I talk about it at every given opportunity. The more we talk about it, the less taboo it it. so *stands up* *round of applause*. Being open about it is the first in a long line of, sometimes hard, steps. These steps will probably never end, though hopefully they get smaller and easier. But talking, being open, taking those steps *works*. I was astounded at how few people are bothered by my mental illness.

    I hope like hell it works for you (and your smashing missus). Really.

  16. I am the Spouse of an Eating Disorder Survivor. ED is real. It is an Evil Parasite that lives within us. It is Cunning, Baffling and Powerful. Its one purpose is to hurt us as badly as it can, and make it look like nothing is wrong. It is skilled in this, and it has Many Enablers.

    Our Bodies Do Not Define Us!

    Take strength in the knowing you are not alone.

    Take strength in knowing that some of us, who have never in a day imagined what you just went through, Understand that it was real. Understand that it could happen again tomorrow, or not appear for a month. It matters not if you are on top of the World. Or at its lowest point, ED has an agenda for us all. It can make you so scared at the top you are physically ill and only those who ‘get it’ will know what is makig you sick.

    There are the Haters, who hate because you have the strength to admit what they most solemnly fear. They speak out against you, not realising it is fueling that which is making you ill in the first place. They are feeding ED with their hate.

    I know it is hard. i have watched as they “took the piss” of my wife and hurt her so badly through the disorder she couldn’t leave the house. Hurt her so badly she was slowly commiting suicide with alcohol to numb the pain the disorder was causing. I was there and helpless.

    Today, I give you permission to feel and hurt. To know that tomorrow, there is one my hand outstretched to lift you up, and who will help you fight this disorder, and know that there is one more person out there Who Believes you are sick, even though you wear a smile on your face.

    So if I may, I give you this day, Permission to Hope.

  17. Thank you for writing this, Tom. One day perhaps it will universally acceptable to discuss mental health without fear of being stigmatised.

    Someone I really care about has been coping with an eating disorder for a long time, and I know many people – including myself – who struggle with anxiety and depression. To have a safe space to discuss that is so important.

  18. You are so awesome for posting this, Tom. I HATE that there’s a stigma around so many mental health issues, but I love that it’s (slowly) dissipating – thanks in part to posts like this. Thanks for posting the link on Facebook because that’s what led me here.
    Take care.

  19. Anxiety does weird things to our behaviour and brain patterns.

    Best of luck with your monthly blogging! The more we talk about mental health, like you said, the more it will get accepted as something we can talk about. Eating disorders (especially atypical presentations of them) seem to have a particularly weird place in society. People get both concerned and judgmental about them.

  20. Tom – You are a brave man, and we remain fiercely proud of you. When talented people give voice to an issue, it is the beginning of a solve.

  21. Brilliant and important post. Having woken up today full of self doubt with my own mental health demons tugging at my sleeves this is a timely reminder that I am not alone. Thank you 🙂

  22. Dear Tom,
    You are so brave, courageous and articulate about the demons that many have to face, daily. By writing this you will enable many others to know themselves better and give them words to explain to others the struggles they have to face.
    By writing this I would like to think you are moving towards making life easier for yourself but maybe, however tough, this is you and I can only love and admire you for it.

  23. Tom, you’re completely right to pen this blog. The attitudes surrounding mental health issues are changing so slowly, ignorance and fear remain so prevalent and it’s only by all of us who have experienced issues talking about it that will change things…eventually. I’ve been on Radio Five Live talking about my (mercifully) occasional anxiety attacks because people have to be confident and speak up or they’ll get no help and suffer in isolation. My last attack took three months of my life and I barely noticed them passing. I don’t want other people going through that.

    I’m sorry you struggle as you do and I know how lonely it can be sometimes. Thank you for standing up and speaking, I hope you feel as liberated as you are courageous.

    And you still hand out hugs that bears can only envy. See how bruised my ribs are since FantasyCon?

    Love
    James

  24. This is such a brave thing to do… Because I’ve seen you talk at Cons – and you come across as articulate, talented, vibrant and in control… In other words – you are the package. I’ve friends and relations who struggle to cope with depression and issues around food – and hardest issue is their shame and sense that they have to keep quiet about it.
    It’s only when people such as yourself have the heart to come forward – when you didn’t HAVE to – that others will understand they are ill, not weak, or attention-seeking.
    Take care and I hope you continue to find the strength to battle through.

  25. Thanks so much Tom for your refreshing honesty! Believe me you are not alone. Fingers crossed for a breakthrough in the treatment of mental illness over the next few years. I have lost much to the brain illness of bulimia, anxiety and depression since it started 7 years ago; physical health, self respect and reliance, confidence, teeth, money, friends, boyfriend, and my career, keep up the good work, Much love xxxx

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