Luke Chivers is taking the brave step of discussing his near-death experience with bulimia in the hope it encourages other men to seek help.
The former Bethlehem College head boy first shared his story on TVNZ's ‘Sunday' programme, describing how training for a marathon sent him down a path of overeating, followed by ‘purging' – making himself sick up to 20 times a day.
“In 2013, I was training for the Colville Connection off-road marathon in the Coromandel. I'd always been a perfectionist, and never settled for anything other than best. So training for the marathon meant I only wanted to win it, nothing else would do. And in the course of training I became fixated on what foods to eat.”
He changed his diet, ensuring he only ate what he thought were healthier, cleaner foods. It helped him win the marathon, but brought some underlying issues to the surface.
“I won the race, but I wasn't happy with the result. I came first – literally couldn't have done any better – but I still felt like I could have run up hills faster, or achieved a better time.
“Up until then I hadn't truly known my self-worth. Growing up, my identity was based around my successes at school. But when I left college, and didn't have the title of ‘head boy' anymore, I felt a little lost. I made up for it by putting all my effort into university, trying to get straight-A grades, and aiming to become a great athlete.”
For Luke, it was a way of gaining acceptance. Because for many years, the 24-year-old had also been struggling with his sexuality – something beyond his control.
“Undoubtedly, I wanted to be able to control the uncontrollable. I was disgusted at myself for being gay, and I thought if I could control my weight and what others thought of me, then I could suppress those feelings. It's been a huge journey of self-acceptance for me.”
He says there's a lack of understanding around what eating disorders look like, or who they can affect – which is anyone.
“It's so easy to feel as though you're the only one.”
For Luke, the binge-eating and throwing up, coupled with the decreasing number on the scales, produced a sense of euphoria, however brief.
“Those ‘highs' I felt were a short-term freedom from my internal struggles. But I genuinely felt like I was losing my mind. There was at least a year when I didn't know who Luke was, or if I'd ever find him again.
“Journaling was a powerful thing for me – just being able to express my feelings and thoughts on paper I couldn't speak out loud.”
He got through some of darkest days by reading messages he received from his classmates the final day of high school.
“I held onto the notes we wrote to encourage other students in our year group. I have about 40 of these notes, which speak to the qualities that others see in me. And they really helped.”
Always, it comes back to self-image and self-worth. How do people perceive us, and what happens if we're not ‘perfect' – whatever that might mean. For Luke, part of being ‘perfect' was not being gay. Suppressing that part of himself – lying to both himself and the world – was at the core of the problem.
“It's the power of a lie. It's a deep emotion manifesting itself through the abuse of food and one's body. But for others it could just as easily be alcohol addiction, or gambling.”
Nowadays Luke lives in Auckland, working as a public relations consultant for MYOB. Life is good, he's got a supportive workplace, great friends, and he's returning to a normal, healthy relationship with food.
“It's something I still have to focus on. I still have occasional urges to overeat, and breakfast is certainly the hardest meal for me. I force myself to have it, even if I question the idea.
“I also don't really allow myself to eat alone, and I check in with myself emotionally every day. If I'm feeling anxious, for instance, I take time to address that and why I'm feeling that way.”
Luke says this is just the beginning of his ongoing conversation to try to increase awareness, empathy and available treatment for eating disorders in New Zealand.
“We have to encourage our young men to develop true self-worth. That doesn't come from a body size – whether buff or lean. It comes from connection, belonging and acceptance.”