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What Happened When I Traveled Abroad in Eating Disorder Recovery

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I am on my way back to my California home after a two-week trip to Europe. I had been excited about this trip for a while, and it was actually a big motivator for my eating disorder recovery. The last time I travelled abroad was when I studied in Spain for four months, and during that time I was in the depths of my eating disorder. This trip, unlike Spain, would be different. I am now actively in recovery and haven’t experienced eating disorder symptoms for several months. I worked hard in treatment so when I was abroad I would feel comfortable with things I hadn’t been comfortable with before. Even with my preparation, my trip took me by surprise in several ways.

This is what I learned:

1. Jet lag is challenging.

Before my trip, I took time to prepare for my travel days, the time change and eating on long flights with my dietician. This preparation was crucial for me, but food still became a challenge when I experienced jet lag. I felt sick and my hunger cues went out the window for a few days. It ending up being helpful for me to eat by the clock.

2. Snacks are the MVP.

When traveling in a new place with a busy schedule, it was easy for my friend and I to lose track of time. Having snacks in my bag was key for both of us when we were stuck on lengthy tours or had to eat on the go. I brought snacks from home I was comfortable with and even bought some fun local snacks at each destination. Having both options allowed me to choose depending on my taste preference and my level of anxiety at any given snack-time.

3. Perfectionism around food will try to creep in.

Before my trip, I was already worried about what I would eat when I arrived — I was going to three new countries after all! My dietician gave me a key piece of advice in our session prior to my trip. She said, “You will never be able to try everything, and that’s OK.” Letting go of that initial expectation helped, but I still struggled with perfectionism when making food choices. My stress lowered tremendously when I accepted that not every meal had to be incredibly adventurous. Sure, it’s awesome that I can try new foods in recovery, but food would not be what singlehandedly defined my travels. When I let go of that pressure, I was able to relax more and actually enjoy my meals.

4. Connecting to support is key.

When I was abroad, emotional challenges came up that I hadn’t experienced at that intensity in a while. I was feeling very distressed and anxious at times — more than what was typical for me. What helped me get through those moments was reaching out for support. I checked in with my therapist and dietician a few times by text, and when I really needed to, I had an emergency phone session with my therapist. Accepting my feelings and accepting I needed support did not ruin my trip like I thought it might. It allowed me to remain recovery focused and eventually get back to enjoying my trip with a clear mind. *Pro tip: many cell phone companies offer call, text, and data plans for people who are traveling. It was absolutely worth it for me to pay a little extra that month to have the safety net of support. Just like packing snacks and sandals, setting up my phone was a necessity on my pre-travel to-do list.

5. There were challenges, and that’s OK.

During my trip I had some American snacks, slept nine hours each night and took breaks from sightseeing for self-care. I also spent time with family I haven’t seen in years, smiled and laughed with friends, tried new cuisines and embraced beautiful sites. Initially when I struggled with anxious, depressed or eating disorder thoughts, I would experience a big setback in my recovery. In reality, this trip was a huge marker of how far I have come. I don’t have many clear memories of the last time I was in Europe because of my eating disorder, but this time I was in charge of the journey; full of joys and challenges, successes and struggles. I am grateful I took this trip, imperfections and all. Prioritizing my well-being in each moment, rather than doing whatever I thought the trip was “supposed to” look like, was the best thing I have done for myself in the past few weeks. I’m leaving Europe feeling connected to recovery and excited for the next adventure.

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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Thinkstock image via ipopba

Originally published: July 31, 2017
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