Disordered eating can’t be checked in when you board a plane, and going away from routine can cause serious, seemingly unsurmountable, problems for those with food issues. Think about doing it anyway, says Juliette Burton.
Earlier this year, I was invited to my cousin’s wedding in Morocco. I was delighted to go. I’m amazed I felt like I could go. It wasn’t always the case. When you’ve got an eating disorder, travelling becomes a challenge.
Ten years ago, my family went to another cousin’s wedding in Spain. I’d chosen to stay at home. It hadn’t felt like much of a choice. The idea of being wrenched from my daily food pattern was incomprehensible. I hadn’t left the remote farm I grew up on for nearly three months. The wave of anxiety I felt even at the shops was overwhelming. There was no way I could visit a different country, with strange food and people I didn’t know. And don’t get me started on the idea of not weighing myself every day.
They flew to the wedding, I stayed at home. I exercised each morning, I fed the dog, I fed myself the same rigid meal plan I’d come to rely upon. I’d learned I needed to eat something, which was a huge step for me. But I couldn’t venture outside exact meal times and exact weighed amounts. Precision and detail were what held me together.
When my friends were all on gap years travelling the world I was isolating myself, retreating more and more into eating disorders of various guises. As the world opened up to my friends I was locking myself in my bedroom, scared that I would lose control if I wandered too far from home.
“My body’s been through so much. The least it deserves is a restful holiday and a cocktail in the sun while adorned in a teeny-weeny frilly turquoise bikini. I can free my mind and I can free my legs.”
But since 2011, the year when I first started writing and performing, when I first woke up to the possibilities life held and the potential I held within myself; when I realised that writing and performing honest stories could reach out and touch others and have a profoundly positive effect on them and on me; when I found something I desperately wanted to live for, a purpose and a meaning far greater than myself, I’ve been relishing every opportunity to travel.
It’s still hard. When I go abroad, I don’t leave behind my eating disorders. They are my constant, annoying, dangerous companions. But I don’t let them stop me from living life to the full. Yes, they are there, but so are the coping tools I have learned on this long, ongoing journey of recovery.
More than that, I’m not alone in my illnesses anymore. I have friends who have travelled with me and who support me through the challenges that come hand-in-hand when travelling with eating disorders.
I’ve travelled a lot over the last few years and formed precious memories: wine tasting in Provence, practising broken French in Morocco, dancing my way towards the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish steps, driving along the Great Ocean Road from Adelaide to Melbourne, marvelling at waterfalls near the Israeli-Syrian border, feeling grateful for every moment of the most sublime beauty in Bali: sunrises silhouetting palm trees, monkeys chattering in Ubud, the beauty and delicacy of Balinese dance, snorkelling alone in the crystal clear waters of a reef on Nusa Lembongan.
All of these things were forbidden to me when eating disorders ruled my life. Now I will let nothing stop me from embracing and even seeking every opportunity to see more of this beautiful, outstanding world and its people. Because every experience reminds me that I am alive. My eating disorder wants to keep me from living and I won’t let it anymore.
Sadly I can’t check in my eating disorder with my bags at the airport. But the more I’ve travelled the more I’ve learned – not just about the world, but about myself and how to cope. I’ve learned that I will always encounter the worst BDD (body dysmorphic disorder) when travelling. The stress of being somewhere new and unknown aggravates my illness. It can threaten to get between me and the true joy of the experience.
I’ve learned that food will be a challenge. Being abroad opens up a whole world of new flavours and experiences. Due to the way I’ve treated my digestive system in the past with disordered eating, often my body will struggle to process these new and exciting flavours. I guess in many ways, new experiences are hard for me to digest.
“I cried my first proper tears of joy on the boat from Bali to Nusa Lembongan. The sun was setting behind a heavenly cloud as we sped away from the main island – a place I had wanted to visit for years and had feared I never would.”
But I also know that I’d rather embrace these challenges and experience something new, because it takes me out of myself. It takes me out of my own arse. It removes me from my routine, and stimulates the well side of me, the real me, the one longing for adventure.
I’ve also learned that defiance can be expressed through my holiday wardrobe. When travelling I wear clothes I wouldn’t normally, like shorts! I have a lot of loose skin from all my weight loss after being a size 20. Usually I keep the most significant loose skin covered up; like on my upper thighs.
But in my bikini in the Moroccan sunlight, I saw that loose skin as silver trails glistening in the pinkish glow of sunset, a mark of beauty, of strength, of resilience. This world is full of images telling us we’re not worthy of a beach unless we look a certain way. The biggest act of rebellion is to like yourself, in spite of those voices telling you you’re not good enough.
I can now kick back against ALL those voices. My body’s been through so much. The least it deserves is a restful holiday and a cocktail in the sun while adorned in a frilly turquoise bikini. I can free my mind and I can free my legs. Often the liberation of one helps the liberation of the other. One act of bravery leads to further risk taking and rewards.
With all the challenges of travel – as with all the challenges of my mental health conditions – I have learned to just breathe through it. It will pass. Maybe not immediately, maybe not today, but it will. I just have to have faith.
I cried on the boat from Bali to Nusa Lembongan. I cried my first proper tears of joy. The sun was setting behind a heavenly cloud as we sped away from the main island – a place I had wanted to visit for years and had feared I never would. I feared I’d never be free enough, confident enough to see this paradise I’d been told would be a spiritual home to me – full of art, bright colours, huge flowers and laid back, carefree attitudes.
Keep going. The horizon will widen.
• See things, get out there and explore. The world is far bigger and more exciting than that annoying ED minx will lead you to believe.
• Travel with understanding friends or family who help you relax and kick that nasty voice’s arse to the curb.
• Take your time at mealtimes. These will always be stressful, but holiday is the perfect time to take all the time you need. Relax, enjoy, savour all that life has to offer.
• BDD may rear its awful head; don’t let it rob you of the chance to enjoy your experience.
• You are not alone. Reach out. Go online and find support groups, like ABA, OA and more who have online meetings. They even have them worldwide so you never know: do your research and find a meeting near you.
• Find places with reliable internet for Skype calls to a trusted therapist or psychologist or other professional. Schedule these in and remember how vital that structure is in your recovery life.
• Wear clothes you might not normally wear. Celebrate your body. Be brave. No one knows you here, you look great – free your body and your mind!
• Take the opportunity to try new foods. New might be scary, but you are strong and deserve the opportunity to try everything the world has to offer.
• Do your research; find places with menus you feel comfortable with before you go.
• If you have trigger foods, let those you’re travelling with know and do your research for any excursions or day trips. You deserve to feel comfortable and supported; you deserve to have everything you need to enjoy this holiday to the full.
• Breathe. This will pass.
“The person you love is just struggling beneath the surface. They will find their way to the top again.”
Top tips for travelling with someone with eating disorders
• Remember, you didn’t cause it. You can’t cure it.
• It’s not your fault if they struggle. Just be there for them.
• Help them with their research. Remember that a relaxed holiday for them is a relaxed holiday for you.
• Help them notice all the other awesome things on holiday – talk about everything around you. Maybe don’t focus too much on the food.
• Don’t pass judgement on what they wear. If they ask for advice, advise on comfort and remind them they are beautiful, no matter what clothing they put on.
• Don’t talk about your own body hang-ups. Hang them up at the airport and leave them behind. Free yourself as well as those you’re travelling with.
• Enjoy yourself! No matter what turmoil the person you are with is going through. The more you enjoy yourself while being there for them, the more likely you are to help bring them away from their dark thoughts and into the light with you.
• Honour their time talking to therapist or support groups.
• In the interests of research I asked the person I travelled to Morocco with for any advice and they said this: when ordering food in restaurants, take your time. Maybe order a few little things in case something arrives that your companion doesn’t feel comfortable with: tapas are a holiday gem! And it can be fun trying out lots of new tastes.
• Be prepared to swap meals! (This may have happened with us a couple of times on our holiday…)
• Be patient. Have faith. They may have a bleak moment but know they are still in there. The person you love is just struggling beneath the surface. They will find their way to the top again. Believe in them.
Juliette is at the Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh, from 16 to 21 August. Click here for tickets.7934 Views
Juliette Burton is a docu-comedian, actor, writer, thinker, dreamer, doer and person. She has a history of mental health problems and loves The Muppets. These two things are in no way linked.