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How Travel Has Shaped My Eating Disorder Recovery

As we approach the first summer in five years that my feet may not stray from the pathways that have become my mundane, I question what it is to travel with an eating disorder.

For this writing, I approach travel as the voluntary act of temporarily being within, outside of and between any given space or place. I travel from a degree of privilege, of freewill and of leisure.

Wherever I travel, my eating disorder is there with me.

This is a realization full of irony, as for years I looked to travel as an escape from bulimia, the troubles that led me to it and the troubles it led me to. It is no mystery that an eating disorder is one ecosystem you can’t run away from by hopping on a plane, but that was a sobering reality I had to learn.

Yet, travel has still always been a break from life, an escape to Neverland and an open invitation to all you didn’t know you needed and for which your soul has always yearned.

For years, the promise of adventure is what got me through a lot of the times I wasn’t traveling, when I was in the pits on an undiagnosed eating disorder, in the torment of accepting a diagnosis and in the relentlessness that is illness and recovery. The promise of the bubble of travel has been, at times, the flavor or life I needed to continue to hold on to my will to live. The life I can see in the eyes of others and feel in myself on holiday, exchange and seasonal work, is what I fight for whenever the mental health struggles take me to the states of mind where there seems to only be defeat and darkness.

It is for this reason, that I have appeared to from the outside perspective put vacations as a priority before my health. I have taken months away from the much-stressed structured life and routine that some health care professions swear by as one of the fundamental to eating disorder recovery for living out of a bag, long days and sharing bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens with strangers. I have left behind my primary health care providers for months of self-management and the odd page of a self-help book.

In the lands of the gap-years, this is not a particularly hard time for the backpacker, but for the person with an eating disorder, being around other people, other foods and other schedules can be difficult.

I have been on 17-hour trains needing to be sick, on seven-hour flights and 11-hour bus rides. I have eaten four different meals at three different food joints in an airport in less than hour while waiting for a flight. I have gone days eating only oatmeal as it was the only food I felt safe eating. Watched my weight drop, seen my weight build, changed outfits four times a day and avoided being seen in as little as a bikini for nearly an entire summer.

Getting dressed up for a special event has brought me to floods of tears. I have stood, twisted and pinched at my body before breakfast and the rest of the day thereafter.

But these are all things that I would engage with whether I was traveling or not.

Then there are times I ate a whole meal on a plane including cake without any complications. I have achieved some of my greatest accomplishments so far in recovery during times of travel. Most recently, I learned the importance of the role my surroundings have during meal and snack times in whether I am able to cope in this situation. Sometimes, I nearly almost enjoy eating if I choose carefully where I eat!

Traveling, despite my eating disorder, has been paramount in changing my belief that I was the illness to being someone who happened to have an illness.

Traveling introduced me to new people, cultures and support systems. From travel, those who I have met and become friends with during this process of freedom, I am learning the art of acceptance, the joy of change and the values that really create a home.

With travel I am learning to negotiate my recovery, my life, through a life I want for myself.

Without travel, for myself, I do not see recovery from my mental illness, as I do not see the development of skills such as being proactive with my own health, monitoring my own health and learning to uphold my health through many situations life will throw at me. I have become more resilient, more capable and more determined as an individual and especially as someone dealing with ill health and recovery.

Travel has allowed me to explore myself as much as the world as something distinctive from bulimia and has encouraged me to both be who I am, but to also keep on fighting for who I can be.

Photo by Nick Scheerbart on Unsplash