Bye Bye, American Pie: Travelling with an Eating Disorder

There, I’ve said it, but it was not easy to create this article. To me writing equals therapy, but sharing such a personal story with the rest of the world is a massive step. Not being the kind of person who vents every detail of her life to the next passer-by, it makes me feel vulnerable and nervous.

However, this is something that has been destructing my life and body for a while now, and slowly built up to the erupting volcano I experienced not that long ago. This article could be part of the recovery process.

If anybody asks me about my dream job, I always refer to Anthony Bourdain. He travels, he eats, he writes: three of my favourite things fused into one. It has always been clear that writing and travelling are important elements of my life, my relationship with eating however is a little more complex. Undeniably I love food. I can vividly talk about it for hours. When people tell me about their next travel destination, nine out of ten times my first comment will be about the local cuisine. I sincerely get excited by it and always look forward to my next meal. Still, I impose heavy restrictions on myself and my diet.

My relationship with my body also has a long, complicated history. Having felt insecure about my weight for most of my life, I cannot really remember one time where I did not feel guilty about eating anything besides fruit or vegetables.

I hate clichés and predictability. When I faced the fact that I have an eating disorder a couple of weeks ago, my first thought was: Jesus, how original. I used to work in an industry which disproportionately focuses on appearance and beauty, and now I realize that this might as well have been the final push. Already having a sensitive, perhaps distorted, body image, and constantly being exposed to the completely unrealistic standards of beauty: it’s not exactly a healthy combination.

It started out innocently with trying to eat a little healthier, even though there wasn’t really anything wrong with what I ate. Whereas I used to say I could never do a low-carb diet, these days I get anxious when I eat bread more than once or twice a month. The results of this shifting mindset were quite dramatic. Part of having such a disorder is about being in control, which in my case turned into an obsession. I would for example decline dinner invitations, afraid of losing the power over the ingredients in my meals, rather meeting friends for drinks afterwards instead.

Not only did it take its toll on my social life, my health went down significantly as well. Probably losing too much weight too fast, my body went into Bear Grills survival mode and started shutting down the vital functions a normally operating body should have. Just a few of the complaints included weakness, always feeling cold, dizziness, a useless immune system, lack of physical and social energy, depression, brain fog, messed-up hormones, and… right, memory loss. Add a complete inability of my body to absorb alcohol and your party’s complete. Ironically, my body was eating me away from the inside. It felt like I wasn’t really alive for most of the past year, but trying to survive instead.

Friends and family had noticed my weight loss and started saying I looked too skinny. I could not believe it. Most of my life I perceived myself as fat, and Fatlana still lives in my head, so how could I be ‘too’ skinny? Then, after posting some photos of a trip to the Dead Sea where I was hanging out in swimwear, I got several comments. My mum, for example, told me she simply could not look at those pictures because they shocked her, and asked if I really was okay. I disqualified her worries, saying everything was under control.

Later I realized, it wasn’t under control. The disorder controlled me. Already admitting this made things a lot clearer to me. I started changing my diet a bit, took the medication as prescribed by my doctor, and immediately felt a lot better. It was actually astonishing how it influenced my mood and energy levels in such short time. It made me see how badly I had been treating myself, and that I should take better care.

And then she lived happily ever after, you would think. But remember how I hate clichés? Even though the physical proof is here, in my face, and cannot be denied, it is still hard for me to balance my body’s needs with my (sick?) mental demands. Whenever I eat something that is off-limits in my self-prescribed diet, I feel guilty and the need to compensate arises. The necessity to control is still there, yet thankfully my lust for life is reappearing on the stage of my existence.

And this existence is enriched by travel, but travelling can be hard when you are picky about what you eat. There often is a language barrier, and unless you rent an apartment and prepare your own food (which to me undermines the whole point of travelling, unless you are in expensive countries), it is hard to control your meals. Dishes drenched in oil, greasy undefinable pieces of meat, piles of bread served with every meal: this is the stuff my nightmares would be made of.

Being uptight and anxious about food has influenced my way of travelling. I noticed I started to turn into one of those annoying people that are very specific and picky about what they eat, and are asking stupid questions about the ingredients. That was painfully confronting. Apart from that, denying my body access to some foods it needs and the medical consequences of that have really affected my lust for travel, my stamina, and my social energy. Not to mention all those wonderful dishes I missed out on!

Having said that, there is still an adventurous Indiana Jones present in me, and when abroad, I usually cut myself some slack. I want to try everything, that for me is one of the best motivations to travel. When I was in Morocco earlier this year, I was so happy about the delicious fruit juices and olives that were available everywhere, but regardless of how healthy I ate, upon return I ‘punished’ myself by just having soups or salads. I am not sure I actually realize how insane this must sound to somebody with a healthy approach to nutrition and body image, but I’ve decided this needs to stop.

My skinniest pair of pants, which I got in the heyday of my disorder, still fit me. Which is puzzling, because after adapting my diet, I feel like my body has grown. Still, I am positive things will turn out to be okay. This was just one of those less pleasant chapters you need to struggle through to get to the better parts of the book. Hence, my plan de campagne is as follows:

1. Hunt Fatlana down.

2. Kick her ass.

3. Understand that the body is not just some piece of decoration, but a functioning machine in need of a complex cocktail of nutrients.

4. Finally, to celebrate, sit down and enjoy a massive guilt-free feast without feeling the need to survive on carrots the next week. Preferably together with Anthony Bourdain.