Vacationing with an Eating Disorder..

Vacationing then vs Now

We have just returned from a few days holiday, which I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do for numerous reasons, 1. We live in a place we can travel at present and secondly my eating disorder was not allowed to dictate my behaviour for the first time in many years.

Why are holiday’s so hard for people with an eating disorder? Often in the midst of an eating disorder we use behaviours to cope with uncertainty, change or triggering situations. Firstly, you are away from home, your regular environment. This can be full of uncertainty and planning can go out of the window. Tonnes of food challenges can arise. Challenges you may not have foreseen, such as not being able to follow a regular schedule, a meal plan. Eating out and experiencing new dishes. All of these things can be extremely triggering. It’s hard to imagine if you’ve never experienced an eating disorder.

Here’s how a holiday for me used to look like:

Weeks leading up to vacation:

Enormous anxiety and dread. Escalation in behaviours in response to increased thoughts and fears regarding the uncertainty of said trip. I would buy into the “ prepare for the summer body diet culture crap” and it would set my eating disorder into a frenzy.

Then the event would arrive, no matter how much “ event restriction/ compensation” I had undertaken I would still feel ridiculously out of control and fearful that my constant was about to change. I would not be able to predict every meal and therefore calculate my intake. Holidays can be inactivity. This used to terrify me, how was I going to hide my “craziness’, fit in my ridiculous workouts in new territory? All the while Hitchhiker ‘HH’ would be telling me I was disgusting. How can anyone be present and relax on holiday when this is going on?

Changing experience of holidays’ with time and at various points in recovery;

Once I commenced recovery the anxiety around the trips shifted to a different kind of anxiety. When you start recovery, especially early on, you need to eat very regularly. Holidays can make important established routines very tricky to follow. I would worry if I would be able to eat the food available. Eating in front of people can be immensely anxiety provoking and largely, trips involve eating out. It’s a point where you are challenging ‘fear’ foods and there’s all kinds of food challenges that can happen on trips which for the person experiencing an eating disorder is overwhelming.

Some restaurants very unhelpfully have nutritional values on their menus which can be a minefield for those of us trying to recover from an eating disorder. Trying to do the “ right thing for recovery” when in an already stressful situation and then presented with your demons on a plate, in every sense is really freaking hard. I used to use one hand to block out the numbers. Or ask someone I trusted to look at the menu, find something I’d like and pick until I could deal with this. Until I got to this point, my eating disorder was too strong and it would not allow me to choose what ‘I desired’. This adds to the stress, feeds the eating disorder and makes the time really challenging. It gets better, I promise.

You can’t switch your calculator of a brain off overnight. It takes time and practice and many situations and repeated actions until your brain doesn’t equate the numbers with relevance. But it can be helpful to go to places you don’t know the nutritional value, because your well trained brain sometimes doesn’t switch off for familiar items. Now I can go to a restaurant with the nutritional values and choose what I desire without coercion. It irritates me that the diet industry even seeps into the catering industry and influences our choices. (I spent ages in recovery with a black marker pen scrubbing out nutritional values on boxes etc) Now I don’t automatically read or know the content of EVERYTHING. IT is possible to train your brain to stop paying attention with effort. Black marker pens are brilliant for this.

ALSO, FOR THOSE WHO NEED TO HEAR THIS, I’M GOING TO SAY THIS ONCE: CALORIES IN DOES NOT EQUAL CALORIES OUT. OUR BODIES ARE WAY MORE INTELLIGENT THAN THE PEOPLE WHO CAME UP WITH THIS LIE.

What my life would look like after I returned from a holiday:

A completely false sense of guilt for the “loss of control”. I say false because, I was not in control on any of the trips. I had abided by my eating disorder rules and stipulations. I might have eaten something slightly outside of ‘HH” rule book and paid an enormous price of guilt, shame and most importantly regret for all the things ‘HH’ made me miss out on because I listened.

I would return from holiday, unhappy, compensate for my warped view of the trip and over value I placed on it and nothing would change because an eating disorder is a constant event planning, life of restriction.

A Vacation now:

Leading up to the holiday, the old neural pathways are fragile and the ‘HH’ thoughts do get louder. The thoughts around compensating return. But the big difference now, I know these thoughts are lies. The do not lead to me feeling happier, more confident on my holiday, more relaxed and present. No the complete opposite. Therefore, I have to be vigilant I have to make an effort to do the opposite.

Vacations are a trigger. Knowing triggers, helps you plan and prevent slips or relapses or in the event of either recover from them quicker.

My husband and I talked about the trip prior. He knows my triggers pretty well now.

For me, this meant, making sure we always have ample snacks around incase we get caught somewhere ( we spent 6 hours driving and quite remotely at times).

We knew some of the foods would be challenging- so I set myself some food challenges. Like eating spontaneously on the road, eating foods that are deemed as “unhealthy”. When realistically no food is unhealthy it’s all fuel.

It was going to be the first time on a beach in my togs since I weight restored. This was a huge one. Putting on swimwear for the first time, since weight restoring is a whole new chapter in recovery. I’ve gotten used to wearing larger clothes to my previous weight restored body. That was a challenge in itself. But putting on swim wear is next level discomfort and vulnerability. Society tells us, to go to the beach we need to be “bikini/ beach/summer body ready”. Just putting it out there now, “bikini/summer body’s” do not exist. It’s a societal fat phobic term, the body you inhabit in, is beach ready whenever. If it can get you to the beach, it’s ready!

Learning to adapt. This has been a massive one for me. Whether it’s adjusting to body image, which is something that naturally creeps in on vacation. Being surrounded by different body sizes, it is important to feel as comfortable in your skin as you can. Wearing clothes that make you feel comfortable helps. My body is very different now in recovery, feeling confident and comfortable is hard. It is possible my friend, you shift your focus to the activities you are participating in, rather than the body you are in. I am grateful to this body because it’s this body that allows me to enjoy rather than fixate and agonise. No matter what body you are in in the midst of an eating disorder you won’t be happy.

But for the body image stuff: I tried to think about it this way..

Why is it, the least interesting thing about someone, their appearance is what we judge them on so heavily?

Personally, I think I have nice eyes, but that is one of the least interesting things about me.

There is nothing interesting about your, shape, weight or appearance. I don’t care how much you weigh or size jeans you wear.

This has helped me this week when I found my thoughts drifting to judging my recovering body. Instead I know I was mean on a paddle board, I am funny and a kind person, that’s way more interesting than worrying about the other crap.

I’m at a place in my recovery where I can eat out, and this can be regularly. I found this really difficult previously. Even so, my old thoughts were there on occasion but each meal I challenged them and moved on. That doesn’t mean I found the holiday as easy as someone who has never experienced an eating disorder. I still had to choose recovery at least 3-6 times a day and not let those decisions impact upon my plans or activity. But I did not engage in the ‘HH’ thoughts.

The holiday was more free and flexible. I felt present. I wasn’t bone cold in 25 degree heat. I wasn’t calculating. Goofy yes, calculating no.

This level of flexibility and freedom is something that has come with persistence and time.

Holiday’s are a time for rest and recuperation from the craziness of our day t day lives, for people with eating disorders they can instil extreme anxiety which diminishes any prospect of relaxation and enjoyment. But there are ways of managing them. As outlined above I think some of this will depend on the stage one recovery to the extent of planning and support required around them. But they should not be as stressful, so I hope if you are someone with or supporting someone with an ED, you can find someways of reducing the anxiety.

Things that I have found to be helpful when planning trips:

1. Talking with your treatment team before (and after)

2. Planning for potential triggers

3. Identifying potential triggers and a plan in the event of trigger-what’s in your toolkit

4. Planning food challenges for the stage of recovery, with appropriate support.

5. If following a meal plan, how the trip might be helpful or detrimental and planning around this

6. Wearing clothes that make you feel good.

7. Making sure you always have appropriate fuel available

8. Do you need to know where you are eating? (again I think very individual) I did at some stages.

9. What activities will you be participating in

10. Who are you going to be travelling with, are you supported/ triggered by them.

All of these are or have been part of my own trigger prevention and plan. This is growing/ changing as I encounter potential triggers or progress through recovery. You might have some similarities but you WILL have your own.

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