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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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Constellations

 

The more that I explore this vast and mighty planet, the deeper I find myself rooted in the common ground of humanity. Each journey down a new path fuels my fourth chakra by time spent with those along the way.

 

I believe in acceptance. I believe that the things that divide us are issues based in fear and ignorance. As a child I was exposed to diversity with a side of apple pie. Romanticizing the unknown was what freed me from the gravity of suburbia. Compared to most parts of the U.S., New Jersey and New York have always offered a metropolitan mix of cultures, but many people never seized the opportunity to learn about their neighbors. We were all the parts of a well-oiled machine, disassembled and placed side-by-side on the table. Normalcy and comfort glazed over our blissful lack of awareness. Still, this fascination called to me, thirsting for exploration, knowledge, and connection.

constellations 11

 

Currently, I’m working onboard a cruise ship, sailing the seas for a second six month period of time. I first embarked early March 2016 as an American and left that fall a Global Citizen. Through those first six and a half months my family grew in size and diversity and offered me deeper connections to a world outside my own. There are roughly 1500 employees on this vessel and with only 58 of us being American, it was the first time I had ever truly been a minority. Suddenly I was living with people from almost every continent, social, economic, and religious background making our bubble like a floating UN. I have never seen a place where everything just worked.

 

Down time onboard is often spent communally in designated crew areas. Crew members shoot the breeze with others, rapidly evolving relationships from strangers to friends/lovers/family. These seemingly small experiences blessed me with a refreshed love for humanity all over again.

constellations 12

 

During my time here I have strengthened my ability to listen, which I believe is one of the most important qualities to possess. Fundamentally, we all want to be heard. When you give your undivided attention to another person you are not only fulfilling their social and emotional needs,  you’re also gaining a broader perspective without even trying. By being a silent listener. I have strengthened my inner empath, stepping outside of myself and into the experience of the sharing soul. This ability is a completely golden opportunity in itself. Carrying that out into the world continues to help me meet people where they are, in the timeline of their own life experience. These magical abilities don’t even stop with the human race. Strong listeners and empaths are able to extend their influence out to all other aspects of the conscious world.

constellations 5

When you are not exposed to the world outside your front door, it isn’t always easy to figure out who you are. Through this experience and my travels since, I have become more deeply connected to my core identity. There is a certain confidence and fearlessness acquired by diversifying your circle. By challenging the limits of my comfort zone I have been able to really cultivate these qualities, trusting in my own ability to understand what I need to thrive, based on who I am. I was stifled by my safety net for so long that I seemingly changed completely to those who knew me before. In reality, all I had done was uncover layers of disguise and years of expectation from my true self. Shedding the extra skin was just as liberating as it was to travel across the world and back.

constellations 9

 

So here I am on my fourth month of contract number two, an evolving human who can confidently say that I am constantly falling in love with the human race. I continue to bond with as many people as possible, both onboard and on land, to expand my heart’s pallet. We bond over passions and art forms and we push past the small talk early on. We embrace similarities, respect differences, and let the armor fall to the ground. When I return home again I try to bring these moments with me allowing them to free me time and again from the gravity that once felt crushing. We all keep searching for our little piece of freedom but what we can easily forget is that freedom grows from an accepting heart. Open your arms to the world and the world opens its arms to you. We are points in the universe connected by invisible thread, a mighty collection of stellar lines creating the most beautiful constellations.

Written by Allie Pizzo

constellations 7

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Dealing with Anxiety

Anxiety is really hard to write about, as everyone has a different experience. It’s one of those things which can be so subtle that nobody notices until you’re completely overwhelmed, and is also something that almost everyone experiences at some point in their life. I’ve always been an anxious person. Some of my earliest memories I have are of a 3-5 year old me, worrying about something she said or did to upset someone, even if that person never noticed. When I look back at my life, my strongest memories are the fears, the worries, and existential crises which still keep me up at night if I let them. It’s strange then that now, I am capable of catching 9 hour flights and 16 hour bus journeys alone, with only my own mind for company,  even if it’s still hard.

Me, not being anxious, by a different lake in France
Me, not being anxious, by a lake in France

Sometimes my anxiety disappears. It will hide itself under the surface for weeks or months at a time, and slowly I begin to feel like a real person again. Other times, my anxiety is so bad it makes me throw up, scream at someone I love, or quite literally hide myself so no one can find me. A single word will reduce me to tears, or a bad attitude will leave me aggressive and looking for a fight. I remember in an old house I used to share with a friend and my boyfriend, there was a huge cupboard, quite capable of hiding a fully grown woman inside covered in coats. It became my refuge when things were too hard. Nobody knew. Sometimes you need to hide from the world, and that’s okay.

 

Often my friends ask me why I’m shaking. I do it a lot, so much that I usually don’t even notice. During a bad phase I will spend hours of the day quivering like a leaf, whilst on a good day it will only last maybe half an hour and then I’ll be fine. When it first started, maybe at age 14, I had no idea that it could be a symptom of anxiety and instead assumed I was chronically ill. Added to this, certain foods would make me feel so sick to my stomach that I could not keep them down. Many blood tests later, there is nothing wrong with me, at least physically.

Me, probably being anxious, by a lake in France
Me, probably being anxious, by a different lake in France

When I started to travel, the anxiety was extreme. Although I would always be having a good time on the surface, underneath guilt, fear, and trepidation were bubbling away quietly, threatening to boil over and destroy the facade I had made for myself. Over time, it got easier. On my first real travelling experience, six months of backpacking and volunteering around Europe, I had my boyfriend with me, and he made everything okay. Although there would still be days where I found it impossible to get out of bed and face a constantly changing life, and I would still be a shaking mess whilst waiting at the airport or train station to move on somewhere new, having that support with me, constantly at my side, holding my hand and telling me -“Fuck it, you’re strong enough, you can do this” – made every day that much easier. We’re no longer together, but his voice of wisdom still lives on every day in my head.

Us, not being anxious, on a beach in France
Us, not being anxious, on a beach in France

Next, I worked in Rome, alone. Although that time realistically can only be described as the best and most rewarding time of my life, within 2 months of being there I had lost more than 30 lbs. 22lbs in a single month, the first month. I was scared every day. Alone every evening. Lost. Guilty about rewarding a body which my anxiety told me did not deserve the love and care it needed to survive. I worried everyone hated me, I worried that my relationship would fail, and I worried about what the hell I was doing there anyway.

I gave up. I came home. Abandoning what was suppose to be a year of work after only four months, terrified that if I stayed, I might actually die.

So trust me when I tell you this. Anxiety is the evil monster under the bed. Anxiety is the bad man walking towards you on a darkened street. Anxiety is with me, every single day, every single minute of my life, even now, and even tomorrow.  And still I continue.

Whatever happened there, Rome will always be in my heart
Whatever happened there, Rome will always be in my heart

So how can you cope, when you feel like everything is falling to pieces before your eyes, and you’re a world away from everyone you love? I want to try help, I’ve been there, I’m still there, and I’m still travelling.

Build a support network

One of my problems originally, was that when I left the country alone, I felt like that meant I had to be truly alone. I would put off calling my family for weeks, thinking that if I called, that meant admitting weakness. How silly does that sound? Now when I travel, I have my list of helpers who I know will always be there for me if I’m in trouble. Even if it’s just skyping your grandma to find out what’s going on in her life, having regular contact with the people back home helps you to stay grounded. Calling your best friend just to have a chat about some silly thing you did reminds you that people do love you, people do care. I’ve even found that staying in hostels or couchsurfing rather than hotels or Airbnb makes it easy, as you have automatic friends there who just want you to have a good time with them.

Take a moment

When we travel, we rush around the place, trying to cram in as many perfect memories as we can into one day. This is great, but it can leave you exhausted and craving peace and quiet. Just taking five minutes alone every morning can make that much difference. Some people call it meditation, but I just see it as grounding myself in my place in the world, acknowledging my own fears and desires, and slowly letting them go. Another way to look at this could be the opposite, essentially. One of the best tips I got from a therapist was to set out a certain time every day where I was allowed to worry and fret as much as I desire. The hard bit, if anxiety were to surface at another time, you have to write it down, remember it for your later worry session, then cast it from your mind. Harder than it sounds.

Make a list

First I have to admit something. I’m a huge fan of lists. On any given day I have several lists I work from, things I want to do, things I need to think about, things I want to stop and appreciate, or even things I just love so damn much. On a bad day my lists can be pretty negative, but on a good day they give me hope and inspire me to be the person I want to be. Having a list will let you get that little bit of routine back into your life, which although I claim to hate, I secretly crave.

The best place to write a list and take a moment, Nerja, Spain
The best place to write a list and take a moment, Nerja, Spain

Plan ahead

Although travelling without a plan is great for some, I personally couldn’t do it. Finding accommodation for my trips is usually the first thing I do, because as well as giving you the best price at the cheapest hostels, it gives you a little sense of security that if all else fails, you’ll have a bed that night. I’ve met people before whilst travelling who never book a bed until they arrive in the town. I could never do that. I would be worrying constantly that I’d be spending yet another night sleeping in an airport. Before I travel I know where I’m staying, what the place is like, how I need to get there, what time the desk is open, and how much every step of the journey will cost me. If I don’t, I probably wouldn’t catch the flight.

Look after yourself

This is an easy one in theory, although a lot harder in practise. Healthy body, healthy mind, so the saying goes. I’ve found it to be true. Even if you can’t, eat well everyday. Even if you can’t, sleep well every night. Even if you can’t, wash everyday, even if it’s only with a wet wipe. If it makes you feel better, put on some make-up, dress up nice, or wear your impractical high heels for a historic town tour. Do what makes you feel most comfortable, nobody is judging you, and if they are, who needs them?

On the flip side, if you need a day in bed, take a day in bed. Don’t feel bad about it, you owe nothing to anyone. On my first day in New Orleans I didn’t get up until 5pm, and then parked myself on the sofa with an aspiring actor for five hours watching NCIS and drinking cheap champagne.

Suffering from anxiety makes everything in life harder. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t explore the world at your own pace, seeking refuge when you need and excitement when you please.

If you’re struggling, there are a lot of resources you can  make use of.

Mind

Headspace

B-eat

Written by Bethany Naylor, who is currently experiencing severe anxiety from the thought of expressing this to the world

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