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 shut my laptop, to 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. Secondly, there always remains an ingrained fear of being open and honest about an illness that tries so hard to keep you for itself, not allowing you to share your problems and thoughts with anyone, not even your family and friends, let alone the whole world. Do I 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 more than it needs to. So here goes, wish me luck.
So, can you travel with an eating disorder?
Due to my personal 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 greater extent. And whilst I know a couple of them who travel as frequently as I do, that is a rarity among this part of the population. I know several people affected by disordered eating 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 been your only motivation to get through the day. It can be a very dangerous game to play. I know this first hand.
Although by that point my struggle had been going on for more than 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 would be there noticing my weight loss, no one would be watching me eat my meals, and no one would be there to suggest maybe I take a break when I’d been hitting the gym for two hours every day for a week straight. Of course, I lost control, because the only person I was answering to was myself, the same self plotting my own downfall.
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 or limited to the occasional skype chat. 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 a challenge, but it doesn’t have to be one that 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 I got out of this sudden change is the opportunity to answer to my other self, the self who still loved me and wanted me 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 self-sabotaging brain 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 climb 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. On my floor, I’d have to wait until my vision came back and I regained some feeling in my limbs. Sometimes I’d vomit. In Rome, I couldn’t walk up three flights of 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.
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 my 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 brain and doing what it ordered. I worked out through varied experiences and encounters with people very different to myself, that although my mind will always be conspiring against me to some extent, and usually trying to sabotage my happiness at every step, it can be possible to maintain that balance and allow yourself to live a full and happy life, even when you never saw that in your future. 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 refuelling 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 from my eating disorder, which will always be a part of my life and my story, 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 patterns that breaking them 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 one of the scariest evenings 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. It was a bad plan, and I immediately agreed to it. 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 the 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 simply 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.
Another thing about travel is that it can provide the exact distraction you needed to be able to get 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 with kind 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 developing world can also change your perspective on these issues. Whilst eating disorders still occur in a third world setting, even increasing as Western ideas and media are becoming more prevalent, it’s still a very different ball game to being back home. I believe that Western society and media have played a big part in the rise in eating disorders, especially amongst easily influenced young teenagers. I don’t think it would be fair to blame it completely, but Western culture and media must accept some part of the blame. To go from that to being able to travel to a country where emaciated models are not the norm and where the sharing of food is such a huge part of the culture gives you a new view of your own relationship with food.
If you go to these incredible places 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. Also, it can be hard to justify your purposeful self-destruction when you are walking past children on the street begging for just a bite to eat, but that’s a story for another time.
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.
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 a potential 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 nobody can stop you except yourself.
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.
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.