How Travel Helped Me Heal from a 22-year Eating Disorder

How’s that for a click-bait title, yes? Usually I stay away from titles like that, but sometimes you need the shock factor. I mean, can someone even have an eating disorder for 22 years? As it turns out, eating disorders don’t discriminate by race, social status, income, popularity, age, or even gender. But neither does recovery.

Here’s a little about my story (don’t worry, I won’t drag you through the 22 years I’d rather not re-live myself), and a lot about how I became the solo-traveling, business-owning, book-writing, experience-living, spontaneous-food-adventure-eating recovered person I am today. My goal is not to show you how much better I am for having recovered, it’s to show every reader that eating disorders don’t have to be taboo, and they don’t have to be forever. Here you go.

Dubrovnik, Croatia
More here: What I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Traveling

How It Started

I realized in one of my first dietitian-therapy sessions that my earliest memory of feeling uncomfortable with how my body looked happened when I was five. I was in ballet class, and I thought I was bigger than the other girls. I think I was probably on “a diet” from that point on. In my pre-teen and teenage years, I used to watch Lifetime movies about women with eating disorders for tips on how I could do it better.

That’s the thing about people with eating disorders. We’re always looking to improve. We’re driven, determined, loyal to a fault, strong-willed, we’re even really sensitive amidst all that tough stuff. And we’re never tougher on anyone than we are on ourselves.

Something finally clicked with me as a senior in high school, and I started losing significant weight. I convinced myself (and several other concerned onlookers) that I was eating nutritious foods, when in reality I was malnourished. Doctors tried to figure out what was wrong with me, but ironically, no one in the medical field ever considered that I might have an eating disorder. I wasn’t “underweight for my height.”

Belem, Portugal
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Solo, but Not Alone

In college, I continued to lose. And I had my first boyfriend. He was my high school crush who always thought of me as a little sister-type, until I lost about 60 pounds. We didn’t date very long, but we still saw each other as more than friends for years after we broke up. So, when I got an unexpected opportunity to live and work in Japan for three months, I took it. Okay, so I was running away a little bit. As it turned out, I was also running toward something good for me.

That was 2006, and it was my first solo trip ever. It was also my first time across an ocean. For the first time in my life, I had confidence that came from something other than losing weight or fitting into a piece of clothing in a single-digit size. I also started to notice that people are the same everywhere. There are heavy people everywhere. There are thin people everywhere. There are healthy people everywhere.

I was going to the grocery to pick up lunch every day and made friends with the sushi chef. I traveled all over the country on my days off by myself. I was a writer in a place where I couldn’t even read the road signs. And yet, it all worked out. I learned that I was capable of so much more than I–or anyone else–ever imagined.

Ise City, Japan, 2006
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I Needed to Live Outside My Comfort Zone

When I got home, I was super homesick for Japan. I threw myself back into my routines of exercise and “healthy” eating, but it all seemed hollow somehow. I stepped on the scale one day in February 2007, and the number was less than it had ever been, but instead of feeling accomplished, I felt trapped. I knew it was time to give it up and get help. So, I did.

It happened to be National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and the school therapist’s office was offering free screenings for eating disorders. I had one–no shock to myself, of course. I saw the therapist for a while, but soon after I started seeing an eating disorder specialist in Nashville, Reba Sloan. She set me on the right track, and she encouraged by travels that year to Alaska, the Bahamas, and my move to D.C. in early 2008. We still stay in touch.

Madrid, Spain
Keep reading: How to Savor All Your Travels

How It’s Going

I also saw a therapist for several years in D.C. Until I was 27, in fact. Her name was Mary Lynn Duvall, and she saw me through a lot: A broken engagement, living on my own for the first time, lots of travels, quitting my job at NASA, pursuing my dreams, and then some. With her help, Reba’s support, and my travels around the world, I finally considered myself healed. Here’s how travel helped me make it happen.

“Other” Became “Normal”

People who develop eating disorders have many tendencies in common. One of those tendencies is rigid, black-and-white, rule following. Where there is no rule, we make one up. It makes us feel comfortable, like we’re in control of a situation that seems out of control. We find the one right way and we adhere to it.

But suddenly, while I was traveling around the world, it became so obvious that there are tons of ways to do everything. Instead of making me uncomfortable, I felt empowered by that. I found out I loved thinking and living outside the box (and that’s how I came up with my tagline, “Travel outside the suitcase!”). It fascinated me how every culture goes to the grocery a little differently. They live without dryers. Or 75% of their diet is made up of straight-up carbs while Americans were vilifying those same carbs.

What was different to me was totally normal to the people I met in my travels. It changed my whole way of thinking. And when you’re dealing with a mental illness like an eating disorder, changing your thinking changes every aspect of your life.

Mo’orea, French Polynesia
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I Found Real Confidence

Losing over 1/3 of my bodyweight gave me superficial confidence. It gave me a distinct sense of accomplishment about something that was totally on the surface. It was confidence that would inevitably disappear when even a small portion of the weight came back.

The confidence that came with travel, though, especially solo travel, was something that would stay with me forever. Experiencing just how capable you are is longer-lasting and so much more valuable than any confidence that comes with your appearance. Once I realized that, I was addicted to that travel-induced confidence. I always wanted more, but that first taste of my own capability was all that I needed.

Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Related: How to Solo Travel with Confidence

I Had to Relinquish Food Control (in a good way)

Eating disorders are often largely about control, and food is generally something each person can control for themselves. People with eating disorders make up food allergies, aversions, specific preferences, etc. I was certainly guilty of all that. But when I traveled, I had no choice but to give that up. And I’m grateful!

Did you know you can’t find oatmeal everywhere? They don’t have a zillion different gluten-free, fat-free, sugar-free, high-protein, or low-carb options in countries that aren’t the United States of America. When I lived in Japan, I had to eat white rice, not brown. When I visited friends in Switzerland, they only had real, full-fat butter, milk, and cheese. In Qatar, I mostly had no idea what I was eating, but it was all delicious!

It took a while, even well into my recovery years. But once I chose to embrace the local food wherever I went, I realized that eating real butter won’t, in fact, kill me. I had no idea the nutrition facts of what my Swiss friends were serving me, but I realized it didn’t really matter. It didn’t matter. How revolutionary can it get?

St. Martin, the Caribbean
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The Challenge

I needed to be challenged. That’s part of what I was doing with the eating disorder all along: Challenging myself. I think there’s an excitement about being challenged, and even more so when you succeed. I found out about myself that I thrive on certain kinds of challenges.

I love figuring out how to communicate, how to get from one place to another, even if I can’t read the road signs. I get excited when I get back to my hotel after a day of touring and I’m exhausted because I’ve done so much in a single day. And then I get the challenge of writing about it all for the blog! I love it.

Easter Island, Chile
More here: How to Think Outside the Box for Travel Solutions

Recovered, Cured, or Healed?

Some people say you’ll never recover. That having an eating disorder is like being an alcoholic. One drink can send an alcoholic back to square one, and one triggering comment or difficult experience can send a person “recovering” from an eating disorder back into a tailspin. I reject that analogy entirely and think that’s disrespectful to the struggles of those who deal with addiction. It’s also defeatist, and I don’t think I’m defeated.

Some people say “I’ll never be cured of my eating disorder, I’ll live with it the rest of my life.” I sort of agree with this. Being “cured” means you’re completely free from whatever it is you’re cured from. So, no, I don’t think I’m “cured” of my eating disorder. It actually helped shape me into who I am. I’d like to think it’s made me a more empathetic person with a more discerning way of thinking.

I prefer to say that I’m “healed.” I’m the person I’ve become because of my eating disorder, and my dating history, and my positive and negative experiences, and my travels. All of it has left some scars, which I’ll always have. Every experience has taught me lessons I’ll never forget. But the scars are healed because I’m moving forward and continuing to travel.

Abu Simbel, Egypt
Read next: The Most Important Lessons Travel has Taught Me

If you are ready to conquer your eating disorder, visit NEDA.org. If someone you know needs a gentle nudge, please forward them this blog post.

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