I was 16 when I first noticed that my penis wasn’t staying hard during masturbation.
Then I stopped getting morning hard-ons. That was the first real sign that something was wrong. Over the next 12 months, things got progressively worse. Masturbation and sex became increasingly difficult - the moment I stopped stimulating it, my penis would go soft. I’m sure my girlfriend at the time noticed something wasn’t right but it was just too awkward to talk about it.
There was nobody I felt I could turn to - I grew up without a dad and was too embarrassed to tell my school friends. They would have roasted me. Instead, I bantered about my sex life like everyone else.
Keeping up a front like that was stressful. I thought impotence was something that only happened to older men. But it’s an increasingly common problem in young guys. According to a recent study, one in every four new erectile dysfunction patients is under 40. My current doctor told me that one in 10 men will suffer from it at some point in their lives - but it’s still such a taboo subject.
Porn may be playing a part in this. I watched so much hardcore stuff when I was younger – sometimes several times a day - that it made it difficult for me to get turned on by real-life situations. Lots of men have similar experiences.
I’m 25 now. I saw a doctor at one point, but it made me feel worse. He just brushed me off and said I was probably wanking too much. I came away feeling even more upset and anxious.
I started secretly ordering Viagra online from India. I would sneak off to the bathroom to take a pill before sex. Then I would go down on my girlfriend for about 20 minutes until I was hard enough for penetration.
The pills cost £1.50 each and came in packs of 20. I must have spent hundreds of pounds over the years. Most young guys have condoms in their wallets - I had Viagra in mine. I couldn’t understand why this was happening to me when I was so young - it was so frustrating.
If my supply of pills ran out, I would panic and make excuses to get out of having sex. Even when the drugs worked, I still didn’t enjoy sex. The fear of losing my hard-on nagged at me constantly.
Once, a girlfriend found my pills and asked what they were. It was so awkward, I just pretended not to hear her. The secret put a strain on our relationship and we eventually broke up. I wish I had talked to her about it but I just felt so ashamed.
After a few years, I was almost suicidal. I found it hard to take romantic relationships seriously - how could it ever last when my penis didn’t work properly? I felt like I’d never be able to find love and start a family if I couldn’t keep it up, so what was the point of even trying?
I would cry myself to sleep worrying about my penis. I started doing drugs. I just thought, my body is messed up anyway – why should I care about damaging it further?
One day, I totally broke down and ended up telling my mum everything. I was sitting in her kitchen telling her that if I got to 30 and this problem still wasn’t sorted, I’d kill myself. She was shocked but so supportive. She booked me an appointment with a new doctor straight away.
I got referred to a urologist who recommended a load of new treatments. I tried everything: pills, jellies, even an injection. The injection was the worst. Apparently, porn stars use them to help stay hard on shoots. My hand shook every time it got close to the shaft. It worked but I stopped after six weeks; it was too horrible. I can’t understand why anyone would willingly stick a needle into their penis.
I saw a counsellor too and started exploring the role anxiety plays in causing erectile dysfunction. I realised that not talking about it for so long had just increased my worry and made things worse. It was such a relief not to be sneaking around with this terrible secret anymore – finally doing something about it made me feel like a weight had been lifted off me.
I had various tests and eventually I was diagnosed with a venous leak. It basically means the blood doesn’t circulate properly around the penis, but there’s disagreement about what causes it and how prevalent it is. It can be triggered by vascular disease, sexual injury and excessive masturbation that damages the penis tissue. It can then cause depression and anxiety.
It seemed like there was no long-term fix for my erection issues. I’d try a new drug and it would work for a few months. But then the worry would kick back in and my erections would disappear again.
Finally, my doctor suggested a penis implant. It consists of two plastic rods that go inside the penis and an attached bag of saline solution that sits inside my stomach. It works with a pump hidden in my ball sack. Before sex I squeeze it about 10 times and it inflates the arteries in my penis to make it hard. It only goes down when I press the release button. I can still ejaculate as normal.
My current girlfriend, who I met three months after my implant operation, knows all about it. I explained it by joking that I’d gone from an automatic to a manual. She’s been so understanding, it makes me think that if I’d met her earlier I might not have had the issues I did as I wouldn’t have suffered so much anxiety about it.
My friends know too. I broke it to them by calling myself a ‘robot man’. I was working on a building site at the time and everyone kept asking me to show them how it worked. It was like showing off a new gadget.
My close friends were so supportive. I was so surprised - for years I’d imagined they just take the piss out of me - but actually they were mostly just sad that I hadn’t told them sooner.
Being able to enjoy sex without worrying about losing my erection has been mindblowing. But sometimes I question whether getting an implant was the right decision. It’s not reversible, so if a cure for ED comes out in 20 years’ time, I’m stuck with it.
My advice to anyone with this problem would be to find someone you can talk to honestly about it before taking any treatment. And, if you can, find a supportive partner you feel comfortable with. Definitely don’t sneak around secretly popping Viagra like I did.
As told to Serena Kutchinsky
If you have been affected by issues raised in this article help and support is available.
This article was originally published on 4 April 2018.