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When an Eating Disorder Is Your Traveling Companion

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For the past two months, I’ve been traveling Europe with my best friend. Our itinerary was blank and the only thing booked upon arrival was the first four nights of accommodation. For most young Australians, their first big trip around the world is more or less a right of passage. However, what happens when traveling is not quite so simple?

A year ago, I resided in a psychiatric hospital because when my depression and anxiety worsened, it became less “if” I took my own life, and more “when.” Since then, my depression has mostly lifted, my anxiety is still prominent, but I have the skills to manage. Yet, my eating disorder decided to come back with a vengeance at the start of 2016. I first started struggling with my eating back in 2010 and for the past six years it has cycled in and out of my life. I decided to take this opportunity to travel overseas and see Europe with my best friend. With an active eating disorder and other mental illnesses at play, it was not as simple as booking a plane ticket. It meant therapy and dietician appointments were suddenly going in fast forward. Recovery had a time limit.

I remember the hour in which I realized I really needed to change if this trip was going to be possible. In an appointment with my psychologist, I had barely enough energy to keep my head up, my eyes were shifting in an out of focus and my brain was clear as fog. I could barely stand up in the waiting room without feeling dizzy. It was in that appointment that my psychologist revealed how concerned she was for me and was adamant I meet with my psychiatrist that week. The appointment with my psychiatrist went rather similarly to that with my psychologist, only I left with a plan. A plan to see a dietician. It seemed strange to see a dietician. I, like many people with eating disorders, thought I knew everything there was to know about nutrition. Yet for some reason I couldn’t follow it. Turns out, there is a lot more to being a dietician than just the science of diet. I needed help to guide me towards healthy eating. Even though I knew what healthy eating was in theory, I didn’t know how to get there. What I did know was that I could not travel abroad in the state I was in. That is, unless I wanted to deteriorate rapidly and end up in a clinic for eating disorders; and so the preparation began. 

I met with my psychologist twice a week, and my dietician once a week. I kept food diaries and fought every instinct I possessed. I needed this trip to happen, not just for the sake of enjoyment, but to allow me to develop an identity separate from my parents. My recovery was now moving fact. My weekly food challenges were fast paced and strongly focused towards European cuisine. As my flight loomed closer, my team organized medications, a safety plan and a Skype appointment in case I needed it.

During this stage of trying to learn to eat, I engaged in binging and purging and perhaps what would be considered “more obvious” behaviors. While this is a common occurrence during recovery from a restrictive eating disorder, a lot of people saw this as a deterioration in my mental state, even though the fact I was eating was considered a victory. Even though it was never stated, it was clear my family was concerned. What would become of me during this trip? Would I deteriorate and end up returning home early? Or would I thrive with the freedom? Nonetheless, the day came and I found my way through the airport, preparing myself for a 22-hour flight.

Suddenly, I was accountable. There was no dietician telling me what I was eating was insufficient, there was no psychologist to guide me through periods of distress or help me decode the maze that is my mind. My first week abroad with my best friend was incredible, I was fairly compliant with my meal plan, I ate what would be considered “normally” and the eating disorder voice was weak. I canceled the Skype appointment, telling my psychiatrist everything was going swimmingly, and it was. However, my eating disorder saw its hold was loosening and all of a sudden I was yanked under. I’m still not entirely sure as to why, but we did have a few stressful days trying to work out transport and accommodation which might have contributed to increased anxiety and thus eating disorder behaviors. Under the watchful eye of my best friend, we knew things had to change. We had to plan. We had to go back to the rigid routine that was my meal plan; no skipping meals or snacks because it’s hard to find something to eat. I clawed my way back and hoped it would be my only slip up. Yet it wasn’t.

In hindsight, hoping I’d only have one slip up was rather optimistic. Over the course of the trip things began to worsen. It was a steady decline, but a decline nonetheless. Until we reached Italy. Italy was complicated. The food largely consisted of carbs, namely pizza and pasta, most of which I am terrified. I struggled to keep food down, I skipped snacks, I started showing signs of binge eating and last but not least I was becoming a lying and manipulative friend. All of a sudden I found myself down shit creek. Self-harm made an appearance, something I had abstained from for several months. I wasn’t keeping any meals down and restriction was trying to take hold again.

I had been in this place before and I knew it wasn’t good. My head was spinning out of control and I could do nothing but hate myself. I could feel that voice taking hold. The voice that convinces me I take up too much space, that I’m a failure, that I’m not welcome on this earth and that my presence is unwanted. I could feel it dragging me under, and I was powerless to stop. I stopped paddling, stopped trying to keep my head above water. I all but completely gave up. I was with my best friend, and she was terrified. I used to think seeing my eating disorder at work was what hurt her. Little did I know it wasn’t the eating disorder that upset her, it was watching as the Holly she knew shrank to make room for my eating disorder.

So she gave me the ultimatum: she would call my parents to insist I go home, or I organize a phone session with my psychologist. I chose the second option. As I am writing this, I feel like this signifies a failure on my part. After all, I was unable to take a simple trip abroad without the aid of a psychologist. I know it was the right thing to do, and would have encouraged others in my situation to do the same thing, though it doesn’t change my feelings. I have to acknowledge that even though other 21 year olds travel abroad without such provisions, I am sick with an unpredictable illness. Sharing this sense of failure with my psychologist, she told me that having a session with her was not about me being unable to look after myself and needing to return home, it was about keeping me over here so I could complete my trip abroad.

A big part of my trip was dealing with triggers and disruptions to meal plans. This was something I didn’t expect to be as much of an issue as it was. When traveling your meals are at odd times and sometimes there just isn’t time to eat at all, not to mention there is no way of knowing whether or not there will be “safe” foods on the menu. I did not handle this well, and in hindsight sticking to three meals and three snacks was an extremely important part of traveling and should have been prioritized. Had I done this from the beginning, maybe I wouldn’t have ended up further entangled in my eating disorder and maybe I wouldn’t have hurt myself or the people I was traveling with. 

I was always of the opinion that my eating disorder and I existed in a bubble, and my eating disorder was unable to harm anyone else. It wasn’t until my best friend broke down, told me that watching me slowly kill myself was impossible and that if I cared about anyone I would start caring for myself, that I realized this illness does not just affect me. It was then I had to take a stand and give recovery my best shot. Ironically, just when I was ready to get back to my meal plan I got gastro. Following the BRAT (banana, rice, applesauce and toast) diet was almost impossible. I have never liked bananas or applesauce, and toast and rice have been deemed “unsafe.” This threw me off track a little because my appetite was almost non-existent. It also served as a reminder that I could, if I needed to, go without food — a dangerous reminder for someone with an eating disorder. However, I crawled my way back and gave my meal plan my best shot. 

Up until now, I was always traveling with a friend, but when I left for Portugal, she stayed in Spain. Now I was truly on my own. Turns out, I wasn’t ready for this and it was a huge shock to the system, maybe a shock I needed. I was restricting to the point of feeling dizzy and weak, and obsessively tracking how far I walked each day. It was over these days that I realized I didn’t want to feel like this anymore. I wanted to want to live and flourish. I didn’t want to leave my friends and family wondering what they did wrong or how they could have helped. So I emailed my dietician. I asked her about inpatient treatment and whether we could discuss this as soon as I return. I didn’t want to wait any longer. Having the freedom traveling made me realize the world is my oyster, and it can only be my oyster if I am alive to see it.

This trip has been the trip of a lifetime. It has tested me in more ways than one. Yet I have grown. I have seen places I didn’t know existed. I have met people who opened me up to new experiences and others who simply make for a good story. While this trip has sent me backwards a bit, or perhaps just gave me a true indication of my recovery status I would do it all over again. My message to all you warriors considering solo travel is that preparation is paramount, a meal plan is a must and a safety plan is necessary in case things go completely awry. It’s also worth considering traveling with a friend, and researching cuisine in the countries you intend on visiting. Go explore, and don’t let this eating disorder (or any other illness for that matter) hold you back.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Image via Thinkstock

Originally published: December 10, 2016
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