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Can you travel with an Eating Disorder?

This is an article that I’ve been working up the courage to write for years. There are so many reasons not to write this, to instead just to shut my laptop, turn around and walk away, forgetting any motivation I had here to try and help someone step out of their comfort zone. First, there’s the issue of the online eating disorder community where you can constantly feel invalidated by people worse off than you. I was never hospitalised, my BMI was never dangerously low, and I ended up regaining my strength without too much outside help. To a lot of online anonymous accounts, this means I was never ill. Second, there always remains an ingrained fear of being open and honest about an illness which tries so hard to keep you for itself, not allowing you to share your problems and thoughts with anyone, let alone the whole world. Do I really want my family to read this? What about my friends? Co-workers?

 

However, several months back when the Making Her Escape team first decided to head into a mental health awareness direction, this was the first article I wanted to write. Now, sipping my condensed milk infused coffee in sunny Mexico, I finally feel like I’m on solid enough ground to be able to write this post, and not let it affect me for more than what it is worth. So here goes, wish me luck.

A storm in Rome, the place my mind changed.
A storm in Rome, the place my mind changed.

 

So, can you travel with an eating disorder?

 

Due to my own history, I find that the majority of friends I see frequently have dealt with the same issues, some to a lesser extent, many more to a much bigger extent. And whilst I know a couple of them who travel as frequently as I do, that is definitely a rarity amongst this part of the population. I know several people affected who dream of travelling. They want nothing more than to abandon their post and throw havoc to the wind, but the constant nagging of their Eating Disorder pulls them back, filling their heads with fears and doubts, silencing their desires and halting their pursuit of the unknown.

For a very, very, very good reason. When you travel under the grips of an eating disorder, what you are essentially doing is abandoning your support network, setting fire to your routine, and leaving behind all your creature comforts which before might have helped you get through the day. It can be a very dangerous game to play. I know this first hand. Although by this point my struggle had been going on for around five years it wasn’t until I moved to Rome aged nineteen that things got really bad for me. When I got there I realised that I knew no-one in the city, and that meant no-one knew my history. In turn, that meant I had no-one to answer to. No-one was going to be there noticing my weight loss, no-one was there to watch me eat my meals, and no-one was there to suggest maybe I take a break when I’d been hitting the gym for two hours every day for a week straight. I lost control, because the only person I was answering to was myself, and that same self was the one plotting my own downfall.

In Florence, six months after I left Rome due to my illness, and 3 months after I went back due to my first steps in recovery
In Florence, six months after I left Rome due to my illness, and 3 months after I went back due to my first steps in recovery

So this is the first issue. When you travel in a position like that, how are you going to keep it under control? If you were in therapy before you left, that therapist is gone. If you were living at home, that family support is gone. If you had close friends who watched your back, they can no longer be that rock. This is definitely a challenge, but it doesn’t have to be one you lose. The next time I went travelling, part of the way into a long process of recovery, I made sure I was more open about my difficulties to those I was with, and I committed to maintaining lines of contact with home, and with the people who loved me. I also turned to online services such as 7cupsoftea, b-eat, and mind.com for support. However, the most important thing that you can get out of this sudden change is the ability to answer to your other self, the self who still loves you and wants you to be healthy and happy. After a long couple of years full of ups and downs, I can now say with sincerity that I never want to be back in that place again, no matter what my worse half tries to tell me late at night, when it knows my defences are down.

 

A few weeks ago I was visiting my boyfriend in the Netherlands. He lives on the sixth floor of a building with no lift. On the second or third day of doing that several times a day, I stopped  and realised something. ‘This would have been impossible for me when I was ill.’  In Rome I lived on the third floor, and although there was a lift, I usually chose to take the stairs instead.  I would often have to stop several times on the way up, waiting to catch my breath and for my head to stop spinning. At the end, I’d have to wait until my vision came back and I regained some feeling in my limbs. I couldn’t walk up three flights on stairs without my body giving up on me, but it wasn’t until I was almost at the top of those six flights of stairs in the Netherlands that I realised how far I had come in the last 3 years.

My favourite recent photo of myself, taken the day I left for Mexico. You can see in my face how changed I am.
My favourite recent photo of myself, taken the day I left for Mexico. You can see in my face how changed I am.

Although it would be a fair argument to say that if I hadn’t left England and put myself in a completely isolated position, I would probably never have got so ill, I put down my successful recovery down to travel in so many ways. Through a long series of trial and error, I managed to get to a point where I could listen to my body and give it what it needed, rather than listening to my mind and doing as it said. I worked out through varied experiences and encounters with people very different to me, that although my mind will always be conspiring against me to some extent, and usually trying to sabotage my happiness at every step, it is definitely possible to maintain that fine line of balance, and allow yourself to live a full and happy life. These days, when I am desperate to go to the gym and work out my feelings on the treadmill or weights machines, I make a deal with myself that I can only go if I eat a healthy breakfast and commit to refueling after the gym. Similarly, if I’m really not in the mood to eat dinner that day, I compromise and eat a salad.

 

I don’t think that I ever would have become this independent with regard to my eating disorder if I hadn’t spent so long away from home. Breaking routine can be so scary for someone with an eating disorder, but sometimes we get so stuck into our routines that breaking it can be the only way to progress. Also, recovery becomes so much more essential when you’re committed to seeing the world. The moment I realised I needed to change was the scariest evening of my life. After an incredibly poor diet for the previous few days, and two hours at the gym that afternoon, I ended up bumping into my two closest friends in Rome. They persuaded me to come out drinking. Later that night I collapsed on a bus and a stranger had to pick me up and wait for me to regain consciousness. Although I had fainted a few times before, it had always been at home and surrounded by people who would do anything for me. The feeling the next day of  ‘Damn. Anything could have happened last night’ was the worst and scariest feeling I had felt so far, and it was then that I realised if I wanted to devote my life to travel, I would need to be well. It’s just too dangerous not to be. This was the push that  I needed to break the cycle, and I don’t think I would have reacted the same way if it had happened anywhere else.

Taken in Lisbon this past November, I never could have imagined moving back abroad by myself until I began to take my own mental health seriously
Taken in Lisbon this past November, I never could have imagined moving back abroad by myself until I began to take my own mental health seriously

 

Another thing about travel is that it can provide the exact distraction you needed to be able to get yourself out of your own head. You’ll find that once you’re racing around trying to get to the next viewpoint and spending your evenings socialising with people who come from backgrounds so different to your own, the time that remains to dwell upon your eating disorder is greatly diminished.  You will discover that the daily battle against food is minimised in view of the other things you need to do that day. You’ll worry less about eating that extra banana when you know that if you don’t, you will not be able to reach the top of the mountain that afternoon. If you can manage to surround yourself by strangers, even if they don’t know your history, the social life will still be able to provide that little bit of support you need to get through the day. 

Travelling to the third world can also change your perspective on these issues. Whilst eating disorders still occur in a third world setting, they are statistically a lot rarer, although again increasing as Western ideas and media are becoming more prevalent. Western society and media play a big part in the commonness of eating disorders, especially amongst easily influenced young teenagers. I don’t think it would be fair to blame them completely, but Western culture definitely has to accept some of the blame for the recent rise in eating disorders. To be able to travel to a country where stick thin models are not the norm, and where food and the enjoyment of it is a huge part of the culture, gives you a new view of your own relationship with food. If you go these countries and maintain your disordered stance against food, you will find yourself locked out of a culture with so much to offer. As a vegetarian, it’s already hard enough for me to enjoy the food culture of the countries I visit. Why should I add more restrictions than I need to? When you put yourself so far out of your comfort zone and into a place where meals are almost treated as a sacred rite, little by little, you will feel yourself open up to new tastes, new philosophies and new experiences. It is also hard to justify your purposeful self-destruction when you are walking past children on the street begging for just a bite to eat.

Although I still have my ups and downs, I can say with some confidence that this is the healthiest I’ve been in my life, and I have no desire for that to change. Travelling made me the person I am today, and that is true for every good and bad quality I have.

A sight in Karnataka, India, that I never would have been able to see without letting go of my negative thoughts
A sight in Karnataka, India, that I never would have been able to see without letting go of my negative thoughts

So yes. You CAN travel with an eating disorder. However if you do, you must be willing to make that agreement with yourself like I did. And you can do that. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But one day soon you will look in the mirror and realise that enough is enough. Recovery is a long and hard process with the first step often being the hardest, but can also be the most exciting. If you truly want to be well, then breaking that routine and letting the chips fall where they may could be an answer. That said, if you are not committed to the idea of eventual recovery, travelling alone can put you in a very dangerous position that you might not want to be in. At some point in your journey, it just becomes a choice you have to make.

Do you want to do this?

 

You can, because you are strong.

You can, because you are beautiful no matter what.

You can, because you want to.

And nothing else matters.

 

 

Written by Bethany Naylor

If you’re interested in reading other articles about how mental health can affect the way you travel, check out my previous post Dealing with Anxiety, and a wonderful post by Sarah Hirsch, Navigating Depression on the Road.

Here are some useful websites for those of you struggling away from your support networks.

B-eat

ABC

Mind

Headspace

And some recovery instagram accounts for the social network fans

Redefining Normal – whose beautiful star has her first book coming out this year, a mental health journey titled ‘On a scale of one to ten’

Immi.Paige – a wonderful account showing the best progress I’ve seen from anyone in such a short period.

Box.Of.Frogs – I like to picture this account as a literal box frogs with access to a mobile phone.

 

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No- Name Hostel

India opened its arms to me as if I were a lost child. I arrived an interesting mix of wide-eyed and broken, yearning for answers to questions I didn’t even know how to ask. The months leading up to my trip rocked my world, changing what I thought I knew about art and community and perception. I sought courage in my decision to flee to the complete opposite side of the planet as an emotional refugee, a blank canvas, and an eager explorer without a plan.

The weeks went on and I slowly recovered my sense of self with just enough missing pieces to be filled in with the love of others. I longed for the tribal support that fuels the first chakra and roots the soul, and that longing was what opened up my heart. By living with an open heart you attract the right people into your life and that couldn’t have been demonstrated more beautifully than it was by the people of No Name Free Hostel in Goa.

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It began the night of the cancelled jam session. I was walking the Arambol beach with my tap shoes in hand, searching for a place to feed my belly with food and my soul with music. Each spot was blasting trance, but I persisted, determined to find the right destination. It wasn’t until I reached the end of the beach at the last little bar that I could rest.

The music coming out of Seahorse was quirky, to say the least, but it was live. That was all that mattered to me. I sat there eating my chana masala and watched the crowd dance like whizzing electrons as the guitar/drummer duo sang about nonsensical things. They made me laugh, and they energised something deep in me, shouting, “DANCE, dance!”

I inhaled my food and stormed the dance floor equipped with my instrument of choice — my feet. It was love at first jam! The crew had never played with a tap dancer and I was beyond thrilled to fill another pocket of my soul with this tribal oneness.

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At the end of the gig, the guitarist, a tall Danish guy with circular glasses, made the announcement about No Name Free Hostel. I learned that the whole crew that night were from this same tribe. They built this place together in Keri, a quiet piece of paradise on the sea, located just north of Arambol. I knew right then and there that I would be joining the circle in some capacity when the timing was right.

The following week brought the end of my stay in Mandrem. Heartfelt goodbyes and soft tears accompanied me as I packed my belongings and fueled my scooty. With the sun waking up in the Goan sky, I dropped my shades, turned the key, and drove north. I knew my destination but the dull scratching of nerves and anxiety persisted in my guts. Would this group remember me, embrace me, welcome me, love me? Would I feel the same oneness I felt at Seahorse? Am I fun, cool, worthy, happy? All of the things that had bothered me in my past had still been there. All of the questions and fears and shortcomings that had always tortured me have never gone away. But this time, for the first time, I didn’t let my fears influence my decision to live and to be loved. I kept my shaking hand on the gas.

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My arrival was a flood of warmth and instant comfort. I was greeted by a tall, skinny Indian man who I’d met at the bar. He had wild, young dreadlocks and all the qualities of an old friend. The next two faces were that of a beautifully ethereal French woman who co-founded the hostel, and a spritely girl from Italy with a buzzing smile.

The little pixie gave me a tour of the grounds with heart-warming pride and enthusiasm. She walked me through what would soon be the cafe, a means of potential income for the hostel  which would allow it to remain free for drifters like myself. We talked about the vision of the hostel, about how they want to create a space for people from every corner of the world to come together and express, share, create, learn, and build. The small, eclectic group of founders are pioneers of this new type of hostel and they are currently relying on crowd-funding and generous donations to stay afloat. As we walked through the rest of the land (and they have a large chunk of it) I was greeted by volunteers fixing bunk beds for the shared bedroom, an adorable gang of kittens who sleep in their garden, and artists decorating the walls with colourful depictions of their imagination. The whole place seemed to be alive and everyone could feel it. From that moment on, I knew I belonged.

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The rest of my time at No Name is a blur of music, food, and art, complemented by its diverse crew. Some I would see again at the end of my trip only to be greeted as if I had never left, a privilege reserved for the best of friends. Faces come and go and love may blossom in this community by default, but the remarkable thing about them is their ability to embrace each person who walks through the door. When you step on this land you do not feel like a guest in someone else’s home, you feel like family. The knot in your stomach loosens its grip and you feel safe. You feel love.

 

Written by Allie Pizzo, and edited by Sarah Hirsch.

If you are interested in No-name Hostel, please watch this video to find out more about what they do. They also run a crowdfunding page, if you would like to donate.  If Allie’s story about Arambol has inspired you, you can also check out one of Sarah Hirsch’s articles on the town, or about her Christmas spent there.

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A Word of Gratitude

Sitting down in a small independent coffee shop in Fayetteville North Carolina, the sun has been steadily growing stronger since my coach from Atlanta, Georgia, arrived at 6:30am, till at 8:30am it is already burning the back of my neck. This is the first chance I’ve really had to write for a few weeks, and there’s something I have to    get off my chest.

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Early morning in Fayetteville, North Carolina

Since being invited to America last summer and booking my flights in November for the best deal, I had patiently been awaiting my adventure with no small amount of trepidation. In all honesty, I had never really thought about going to the States at all, or at least it wasn’t on the top of my list. However, when a couple of very good friends I made whilst working as an au pair in Rome invited me out, I suddenly couldn’t get it out of my head. Originally the idea was to spend the summer up in Maine with one of the girls, where we could relax and pretend to be in Rome before travelling down to North Carolina to celebrate with the second friend at her wedding reception.

Within months those plans had changed, the wedding reception had been postponed and the first girl had accepted a position with Cityyear with Americorps and was due to be in San Antonio, Texas half-way through my journey. ‘Road trip?’ I said. ‘Road trip.’ She agreed. So the plan changed. A month in Maine, a week long road trip down to Texas with my friend and her wonderful mother, a week in Texas helping her to explore and settle into the new flat, then a three week journey by myself back up to New York City for my flight home.

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The harbour in Portsmouth, New Hampshire at sunset

So I’d like to say some thank yous. Firstly, and probably most importantly to the Flanagan family. In the time I spent with them they treated me like a family member, making me feel absolutely at home and welcome in the time I spent with them. They taught me about American history and current politics and culture, drove me hours to show me amazing sites such as Salem, which had been a dream of mine since I was a child, and Boston, where I was surprisingly not hated automatically for being from the wrong side of the pond. They introduced me to their friends and family, who it seemed were just as happy to meet me as I was to meet them finally, after having heard so much about them, although looking back that may just have been typical American hospitality. This family provided so much for me and treated me so well that I will be grateful forever, and never forget my time there.

Secondly, a word of thanks to the strangers. Thank you to the bartender in Boston who poured me a large glass of free whiskey after I looked upset when he asked me what I thought about Brexit. Thank you to the Flanagan’s family members who hosted us on our trip down, I learnt so much from you and you showed me such kindness. Thank you to the Turkish man in San Antonio, who teared up and thanked me heavily when I returned to his store to ask him if his family was okay the day after the coup in Turkey started. Thank you to the bus driver in New Orleans who refused to let me leave the bus station until he had confirmed that I knew exactly how to get to my hostel and that it wasn’t too far. Thank you to the Jack Black lookalike from New York City who took me out that next night, got me drunk for free and regaled me with stories about his travels in south and Central America. Thank you to the couple from Kansas who invited me out with them and took me to see one of the coolest blues bands I’ve ever heard. Thank you to the Brit/ Aussie who got drank hurricanes with me on my last day and talked to me about such deep things? Thank you to my couchsurfing host in Atlanta who provided me with a double bed and silk sheets and explored the city with me, I had an amazing time with you.

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The Civil Rights walk of fame, Martin Luther King Centre, Atlanta Georgia

Thirdly, a word of forward thanks, to the friend hosting me here in North Carolina, despite having a busy household with a beautiful Siberian Husky and a new puppy. Thank you to the family friends in Virginia who have been looking after my backpack for a month to save my poor shoulders, and who will be putting me up for a few days next week. Thank you to the couchsurfing host in New York City who is just as excited as I am to show me the city and see it from a strangers eye

Finally, thank you to the family and friends I have back home, who have provided me with the life skills and character to be able to get through the difficulties of travelling. It really is rough sometimes. Sometimes you are there, sitting in a hostel, craving a conversation with someone who really knows you, a hug from someone who feels safe, a coffee with an old friend. You guys have given me the foundations, now I’m learning to build for myself.

 

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A dark storm approaching on the beach at Camp Lejeune, Marine Corps Base Camp

Written by Bethany Naylor

Read about my final arrival in New York City here!

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