Travelling Overseas with an Eating Disorder
I’ve been thinking for a while about writing a post about my experiences travelling and living overseas with a history of disordered eating and a complex relationship with food and exercise. I find writing a great therapy and I wanted to share some of my experiences to hopefully encourage others to follow their dreams and not let their eating disorder get in the way of travelling, moving out of home, going to university or any other dreams that currently feel unachievable. I want to stress that if you’re not ready for this kind of step in your recovery, you are doing great and I hope this serves as an encouragement to you too.
I’ve been living in Australia since October 2018 on a one year working holiday visa and am about to start my regional farm work to extend to a second year visa. When I left England I was looking forward to a change but I knew that my eating disorder would be boarding the plane with me and I think this is really important to note: you can’t run away from it. I was confident I could do this and I was in a really good place with my relationship with food, but there were still challenges and I have struggled at times, particularly when there’s been a lack of routine, stress and unfamiliar foods. I’d recently become a pescetarian for a number of reasons, one of which was to have more control over food whilst I was travelling. I went on a week surf camp and a number of other trips where meals were provided, and being on the ‘dietary requirements’ list really helped me to regulate exactly what I was eating and gave me that added comfort that I would be happy with what was provided. I’ve eaten some of the best veggie burgers in the history of the universe and it’s given me the confidence to try new foods too. I’ve learnt to exercise when I can, but it doesn’t dictate my life anymore. In the UK, I can see now that I was over-exercising and arranging work and socials around when I could go for a run or fit in the gym. Now I’ve learnt to be more flexible and do what I want when I can, but there’s no stress if it doesn’t work out. I’ve also discovered new ways to work out, like surfing and indoor rock climbing, because they’re fun and not because I feel the need to be exercising.
Familiarise yourself with the local supermarkets and find your safe foods. It took me a while to find comforting (and affordable) meals and snacks that I could cook and eat, particularly when I was living in hostels and constantly on the move. Culinary norms in Australia are almost identical to that of the UK, which helped a lot and was a factor in deciding on Australia. They have different brands and an even more diverse range of foods on offer than in the UK. I generally find choice overwhelming so it helped to just focus on the foods I knew I would eat at first before branching out to new things, which I have done and have found some delicious foods that I now love and they have even become new safe foods. Also, stock up if you’ll be away from the shops for a while, I always had a designated food bag when I went travelling.
Tell people. I didn’t want to make it a big deal by telling anyone, but that soon meant I was struggling on my own. I remember the first new friend I told in Sydney about my eating disorder and it felt like a huge weight had been lifted. It wasn’t a secret anymore! She was so kind and asked me how she could help. Don’t hide – like I said, you aren’t running away from your problems, so don’t pretend that you’re all good when really telling someone will most likely help rather than hinder. It takes a while to build up that trust with new friends, I know, but it’s worth it when you can share, be understood and helped. You can still share your struggles with friends back home too – you may feel a million miles away but true friends will be there for you wherever you are. I had good friends back in the UK leaving me voice note suggestions of easy meals I could cook when I was struggling and that really helped.
Breathe. I find being spontaneous a challenge sometimes, which I try to spin as a positive thing, a test to overcome, but it’s also okay not to be okay. I’ve encountered a few spontaneous suggestions for ‘grabbing food out’ that have freaked me out. It didn’t fit in with my plan, I had safe food at home I wanted, I’d ‘allowed’ myself to eat out once this week already, or my personal favourite, I haven’t looked up the menu online! Breathe. Take a breath and stop. It’ll be okay. It’s easier said than done but try to think rationally. You can say no and that’s fine. It’s a lot harder to go for it and challenge yourself, but it’s a great opportunity to overcome a problem and the chance to celebrate a victory. In some cases, this situation could have been a lot easier if I’d listened to tip #2 and just told these friends in the first place. Something to work on.
Remember the truths. Food is fuel. You need fuel for energy. You need energy to walk, to explore, to run, to sit, to read, to talk, to think, to write, to climb, to work and to sleep. No matter what you’re doing with your day you need to eat and you can eat whatever you want. Remember why you’ve come here, what you’ve achieved so far and what’s to come on this adventure.
So I met this guy. Travelling aside, telling a potential partner about your eating disorder is a big deal and I was extremely embarrassed, anxious and just sick to the stomach about telling him. Where do you start? Bleurgh! Eventually I got it all out in the open and he was really great and totally understanding. However, it was humbling to realise that even when someone accepts you as you are, flaws and all, that doesn’t automatically make everything better. I’d always thought I would suddenly feel great about myself, completely body confident, no need to stress about food anymore, and all the negative voices in my head would be defeated and just pack up and leave. Let’s be realistic, eating disorders are a bit more complicated than that.
I will probably always have a complex relationship with food, something that flares up in certain situations and times of stress, but I’m in control and not the eating disorder. In fact, as a Christian I would say God is in control, and He gives me the strength to be in control and knowledge that I am loved unconditionally regardless of anything that I deem a flaw. With that, I can confidently continue to work, live, travel and eat in Australia or anywhere in the world.