Eating disorders steal many things from us. But one thing that we don’t tend to hear much about is how they can suck the joy right out from travel.
Traveling, in my opinion, is the most direct path to the soul. Every time I visit a new place, I am reminded the importance of marveling- just standing and allowing yourself to feel awe. I am reminded of how large the world really is, and how small most of my problems really are. I am reminded that fun is a necessary part of living a meaningful life. Yes-fun! Play. Adventure. Laughter- it is all SO important. Just as important as the goal chasing. Just as important as work. Just as important as anything else in life.
Another thing that I am reminded about when traveling? Food is life. Food is not just fuel. Food helps us bond. It helps us celebrate. Food can be an adventure. In fact, when on vacation, I would argue that food is one of the most important elements. I have chosen vacation spots because I have heard that the food is life-changing-that’s how important food is to my happiness.
Of course it wasn’t always like this. Back in the day, when I was drowning in my eating disorder, food was not a pleasant part of traveling. Quite the opposite actually- food made vacations a nightmare. I actually used to avoid going on vacation because the food situation felt so unmanageable. Spontaneous ice cream trips? Absolutely not. Random extra meals? I’d sooner purchase myself an early plane ticket home, thank you very much.
The constant barrage of fear foods coupled with the expectation that I eat freely, live life, hang ten mannnn, was overwhelming to think about. Truth be told, my eating disorder actually rendered travel a non-option for a number of years.
Those were the lost years. The years when I was merely a shell. Now, traveling makes my world go round. Eating desserts every day is a thrill, and trying the food of a different culture lights a fire in my soul. But between the lost years and now, there is a gap. That gap was when I was trying to recover-working towards recovery every day, but not there yet.
I did travel during this gap. And little by little, food inched it’s way from a dreaded vacation-ruiner, to it’s rightful place of a joyful cultural experience. Throughout this time, I learned some lessons about traveling in recovery from an eating disorder. As many of you have reached out to me after my post about my recent vacation, I have decided to put together a list of tips and tricks for traveling in recovery. So without further ado, let’s get to it:
1). Before you leave for vacation, write down the eating disordered thoughts that you expect to have. Then, (and this is the really important part) write down the challenging statements that you can think of towards these thoughts. It is next to impossible to use thought stopping when it comes to eating disorders. You MUST use thought replacement. By writing this list down, you are doing some pre-emptive thought replacement (umm go you).
2) Hope you’re not sick of writing, because this next tip is allll about the journaling. Before you leave, write a letter to your 85-year old self about this upcoming vacation. Tell her how you are going to make her proud. Tell her all of the ways you will tune ED the eff out, so that she will have awesome memories to reflect on. Pack this letter, and read it each morning of the trip.
3) Get yourself an accountability partner. If you are traveling with a group of people, you certainly don’t need to tell all of them about your eating disorder. But do try to pick one person whom you trust. Explain your anxieties about the upcoming trip. Detail how your eating disorder may try to sabotage your efforts. Be honest about what this might look like. (i.e. “My eating disorder might come out in the form of me saying I am full while you are all going to get ice cream. This is most likely false.”) Then, provide your partner with a list of ways that they can be helpful in these moments. Is there a gentle code word or phrase that they can use (i.e. “I didn’t know we invited another person on this vacation with us…”)? Can they prompt you in some way? (i.e. “I want you to fully engage in this moment with me.”) Only you know what will be most helpful when ED gets loud, so the important part is explaining what will help to this accountability partner. Trust me, they’ll thank you for the ideas when you respond with “Ok. I’ll challenge myself and try the ice cream” versus “I’m fine ok? God, I didn’t know it was a crime to be full.”
3). If you are on a meal plan, make sure this accountability partner (or someone) knows about said meal plan. Brainstorm about how you can be sure to meet your energy needs throughout each day. If possible, pack a few energy-dense snack items to take with you, in case of emergency.
4) Work to resist the urge to restrict if your meals get messed up. You know what I’m talking about- “I already missed lunch and nobody here seems to care, so eff it. If they don’t care I don’t. I’ll wait until dinner.” Remind yourself of what waits for you if you restrict-likely low energy and irritability. Plus, it’s a step towards your eating disorder, and the vacation in general is a step away from it. Meeting your energy needs is important and imperative, no matter if others seem to be hungry or not.
5). Prepare yourself for the possibility that the comparison mentality may kick into high gear while traveling. You will be in a new place and out of your routine, so you will likely be vulnerable to those old urges to plate compare. Be proactive and write down a little anti-comparison affirmation to look at before meals. I recall I had an old stone (gifted to me by a friend) which said “unfair to compare.” I brought the stone with me everywhere (vacation or not) and rubbed it in my pocket before meals with others.
6) Prepare yourself ahead of the time for the spontaneous eating. Write down some affirmations. Read the letter to your 85-year old self each morning. Work to doggedly remind yourself that flexibility is key to a happy life. If ED gets loud when some new and exotic cuisine is presented, make sure you have a pre-determined comeback.
7) Try to internalize this idea- It is ok to eat past fullness. It is ok to eat for pleasure. Make every effort to argue with your ED about this. Vacation is a time for joy. Sometimes joy comes in the form of food. Food is more than fuel- your vacation may be a time to put this mantra into action.
8) If you begin to feel guilt about not exercising- challenge it challenge it challenge it. What would you tell your five year old self if she said, “I want to sleep in during this time. My body and mind are tired from months and months of pre-school. But I feel guilty. I should wake up before the others and hit the treadmill.” What would you tell her? You would likely tell her that she deserves that extra sleep! “Shh” You might say. “Your body is allowed to rest. Forget the treadmill. Go sleep! Go play! Go enjoy the sand and the sun. Be kind to yourself.” This vacation is a time to nurture your inner five year old self. Use this tool whenever the exercise dragon gets loud.
9) Above all else, work to stay present. Vacation is a time to nurture your soul. If you’re in recovery, this means you’ll have to use any mindfulness techniques you have in the ol’ coping skills toolbox. Remind yourself ahead of time that ED may start to spout off throughout the trip. Tell yourself that the goal is to forgive yourself when this happens and move on. Use the affirmations, use your support system, use opposite action, use distraction- whatever ya got-use it to shut ED out and engage in the moment again. ED may still be in one of your suitcases, but you don’t have to take him out, stick him in your fanny pack, and invite him to hang for the duration of the trip. Recovery is a series of choices every single day. Your goal for this trip, just this trip, is to make choices that keep ED in the suitcase as much as possible.
Vacations in recovery are hard, but manageable. More than manageable, they can be an important step forward in your journey. Like I said before, travel is a path straight into the soul. Anything that speaks louder than ED, that taps into your soul and spirit- well that is something worth doing. Now, onward to your vacation. See, smell, taste, feel, dance, sing, swim, sleep (and laugh in ED’s face for me while your at it, will ya?)
-Dr. Colleen Reichmann