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.


  1. It’s great that despite the unfortunate situation you’re in, you still try to work around your disorder and not let it take you down. I do think that the worst part about it is the people. People tend to judge, and that’s what brings people with the disorder down most of the time. But I think that having people around you who understand can help make things that much easier. Anyway, I hope things get better for you sooner or later. Thanks for sharing this with us. More power!

    Lyle Larson @ Superior Psychiatric Services

  2. Dealing with judgmental people is really hard and frustrating, but I'm proud that you are still fighting against your eating disorder. Your strength seems to be overflowing, since you are showing a very brave side of you, of which I totally admire you for. Keep it going, Nafiza! Thanks for sharing that! Kudos and all the best to you!

    Margaretta Cloutier @ Aspire Wellness Center

  3. I hope you could overcome your eating disorder and be able to enjoy your life especially on your trips. It's really difficult to hide our eating disorder especially we are starving ourselves to death. I would like to inspire you that there is hope. Recovery is possible.


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