Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Eating Disorders Abroad

One of my friends suggested that my university exchange was an opportunity to temporarily re-write my identity. I could go to Barcelona for six months as whoever I wanted to be. Nobody was going to do background checks; exchange was an absolutely fresh start. Maybe I could give myself a mysterious background such as a Russian spy or put on a classy accent, just to experiment in a land where nobody knows me. Although it was pretty tempting to tell people I was actually a Moldovan or an astronaut-in-training, in the end I decided to go into my exchange pretending I was a normal eater. I thought I could leave my eating disorder in Canada and pretend I wasn’t an obsessive food-fixator with a hearty record of therapy and occasional relapses. Honestly, faking normal eating is a bit more challenging than a Moldovan accent.

In theory, I thought it would be easy to blend in as a normal eater for six months, but anorexic thoughts followed me to Europe. Instead of actually appreciating whatever national monument I was visiting, I would always plot my next meal in detail. When I travel, the one thing I can’t truly leave behind is myself. Denying that I have any confusion with eating is futile because I am still me, regardless if I’m living in Spain or in Uganda. 

Being in a fresh setting did not magically reset my system. I still have good days and bad days, where the obsessive thoughts are louder and I feel less like myself because I have food on the mind. More effective than hiding from my eating troubles was getting in touch with my support system. Thanks to the powers of Skype and e-mail, my supports in Canada were never out of reach no matter where I was in the world. Just because I am on an independent journey, does not mean that I have to be independently facing the bad days by myself. Sometimes, when my parents and friends at home couldn’t help because of the time zones and long-distance complications, I went in search of professional help. This way I could talk to a real life person and not just a Skype voice. Therapy in a foreign land is an experience. Although it may have been good practice for my Spanish vocabulary to see a counsellor in Spanish, I opted to go in English so that we would both know what I was talking about (“desorden alimentario” is quite the mouthful when you’re trying to have a heart-to-heart chat). If you are ever having one of the bad days while travelling, there are resources (that speak English!) so that you don’t have to face them alone.

When I went to Italy with my brother, the highlight wasn’t the ravioli or the gelato. Although sometimes my eating disorder seems to have me think that that food is all that matters. The highlights actually were being fascinated by Italian hand gestures, or dodging cobble-stone potholes in ancient Rome, or inventing card games with my brother on the train to Tivoli. There is a lot to see in the world when I can look past food, and travelling with my brother helped remind me that I should go see the Vatican or Colosseum not just go on pilgrimages for pasta.

Even if I did truly want to pretend that I don’t have anorexia, it’s hard to do that on an empty stomach. I wanted to leave behind my eating disorder because sometimes I worry that it will hold me back, but having an eating disorder does not mean that you have to sacrifice doing something you love. Travelling with an eating disorder isn’t simple; it’s a lot of baggage to handle (but at least it won’t push you over Ryanair’s baggage allowance). The thoughts can follow me to every country I visit, and though nobody can out-run an eating disorder, I can at least try to look past the eating anxiety to find an adventure in everything. Even in foreign-language therapy.

Claire is a third-year student in International Studies who is currently on exchange in Barcelona. She was diagnosed with an eating disorder four years ago, and keeps working on recovery step-by-step with the outstanding and never-ending support of her family and friends—no matter what country she happens to be in.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Recovery is not a Highway

In my last year of high school, “Life is a Highway”, by Tom Cochran, was a very popular song. When I heard the song on the radio, or (gasp) on a cassette tape, I would turn up the volume and sing my heart out. Recently, I heard Rascal Flatts’ cover of this song, and thought that life was definitely NOT a highway. Perhaps, this is because I’m older and more cynical, or maybe it’s because I lived with an eating disorder for much of my life. Anorexia and bulimia were like black ice for me and I nearly careened right over a massive cliff. While there is little that I can imagine worse than being engulfed by an eating disorder, my recovery has not been a highway. I wouldn’t give up recovery for a moment but it hasn’t been easy.
I lived with my eating disorder for almost twenty years before I sought help. Ok, I admit, I didn’t willingly seek treatment, but I got there and that’s what is important. It then took me a few years before I believed that recovery was even possible. I thought this would involve a short in-patient hospital stay, followed by some outpatient help for a few months, and then I would be driving down a double lane highway with my hair blowing elegantly behind me. Some of my misperceptions came from professionals, on-line resources, recovered individuals and my own unrealistic hopes. Recovery was more like a muddy, boulder infested, mountain trail that was barely clinging to a granite ledge. There were switch backs, dead ends, wash outs and tumultuous weather all along the way. And my hair was an absolute mess.

Full recovery has taken me five years. There are no guarantees on how long recovery will or won’t take. It takes as long as it takes. Recovery is possible, but many people do not have access to the resources and treatment they need. I was blessed that my family and community provided me with what I needed to recover. I found great support in a community program that gave me the day to day, and week to week, inspiration to keep going. I had an amazing counselor who refused to give up on me, even when I gave up on myself. I attended three different in-patient programs. One was for almost six months. I felt like a failure at the end of two of those programs because I relapsed after doing well in them. Trying to find my feet away from the hospital and treatment environment was very difficult. It felt like leaving a safe bubble and then not knowing how to manage eating, grocery shopping, anxiety and everyday stress. Third time was the charm, or so I thought.
When I came home the third time, I was in a constant and exhausting struggle to avoid slipping back into my destructive eating disorder patterns. I was fighting twenty years of behaviours and ways of thinking that didn’t easily disappear. People would ask me when I was returning to work because I “looked healthy”. I was embarrassed that it was still going to be a long time before I was in a healthy headspace to return to any kind of job. It was going to be an even longer time before I didn’t hate my body. Although, I didn’t know it at the time, I was working harder that I had ever worked in my life. On that “mountain trail”, I was learning how to drive all over again. I was stalling, re-starting, reversing, swerving, colliding into rock walls and getting very, very stuck. I had road rage, at times, over the toll my eating disorder had taken on my life and how (insert expletives) difficult getting well was turning out to be. This was not a highway.

Slowly, painfully slowly, my recovery crept forward and it becomes easier. Not weeks or months, but YEARS. I was creating a new life. I was rewiring my brain that had been hijacked by anorexia and bulimia. I could not recover alone. I depended on my outpatient team. My friendships with other people who were recovering were also vital. I found a support group, and with great difficulty, reached out for help. I even attended 12 step meetings. I cried, yelled and felt sorry for myself. I was scared that I would never recover and scared that I didn’t deserve to recover. I thought that I was “doing recovery wrong” most of the time. I was really tough on myself because, how could recovery be this difficult??! I wish I had shown myself more compassion. I want other people who are on their own recovery road to be kind to themselves, breathe a lot, keep a sense of humour and know that they deserve to recover. For those who know someone trying to recover from these vicious illnesses, empathize with them. Your support is more important than you can know. My life is still not a highway, but I am now on a paved road, and I’m looking forward to what might be behind the next curve.

Janine is from the Lower Mainland and has been in recovery for several years. She has recently returned to teaching young children and encourages the development of positive self-image and confidence among her students. Janine has been part of an advocate group for adults with eating disorders as well as volunteering with PEDAW. Janine loves to horseback ride and considers this an important part of her recovery.