For quite some time, I have considered myself to be “recovered” from Anorexia. After years of extensive treatment and my fair share of setbacks, these last 3 years have primarily been a time of stability and balance. I’ve learned to listen to my body, provide myself with proper nutrition and rest, and avoid restrictive eating disorder behaviors. That said, a recent trip to Alaska was the first time that I truly experienced what I call food freedom.
I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities to travel to many incredible countries. However, not so, fortunately, the bulk of the time I spent traveling coincided with the onset of my eating disorder. It pains me to reflect on the trips I’ve taken that are shadowed by all-consuming thoughts of how to avoid the traditional and “unhealthy” foods of a given country, how to fit in a workout or a decision not to participate in some activity because the lack of fat on my body left me feeling too cold.
A few months ago, when I was first presented with the opportunity to travel to Alaska, I was over-the-moon with excitement. However, it didn’t take long for the anxiety related to being out of my routine and comfort zone to creep-up. Would I be able to exercise during the trip? Would the hotel have a gym? What kind of food would we be eating? Would I be able to find healthy options? I spent my therapy sessions during the weeks prior to my trip discussing these concerns, and I set the goal to be present throughout my trip and not allow eating or exercise to be my focus. To be honest, I didn’t expect to achieve this.
While I’ve had several travel experiences throughout my recovery journey that were not dictated by what I was eating or how much (or little) I was exercising, food and exercise have always occupied a large space in my mind. This is how I expected my Alaska trip to go — I would not go out of my way to avoid “unhealthy” foods, I would enjoy some dessert, and I wouldn’t plan my day around a workout. However, I also expected that rumination about eating dessert, feelings of guilt for skipping a workout, and frequent thoughts about what I would be eating next would be inevitable. To me, being “recovered,” meant that I would be able to resist disordered behavior, but I would still experience my fair share of intrusive thoughts. I was okay with this sort of pseudo-recovery because I didn’t think full freedom was a realistic outcome. I was wrong.
I wish I could identify what changed — a subconscious decision, the accumulated work of years of therapy, or simply the passage of time — but I don’t think it was one factor that enabled me to fully embrace my time in Alaska. I experienced genuine pleasure eating foods that I thought would always be attached to guilt and anxiety. I enjoyed eating dessert — often multiple times a day (ED voice: *gasp*). I didn’t formally exercise by going to the hotel gym and changed my perspective by appreciating that the walking and skiing I did is exercise too. I gave myself permission to let go. I let go of the weight placed upon me by my ED and allowed myself to simply be. I ate what I wanted when I wanted and I moved my body how I wanted to when I wanted to. I was free.
Several weeks have passed since I’ve returned home from Alaska and I would be lying if I said that my experience of food freedom has unwaveringly sustained. There have been days that I’ve experienced those feelings of rumination and guilt that I expected to cloud my experience in Alaska, but those days have been far outnumbered by the good ones. More often than not, I’ve felt confident in my body, confident in my food choices, and confident in my decision to move or rest my body. My trip to Alaska enabled me to believe in the outcome of food freedom. While I will not always experience this liberation from disordered thoughts around diet and exercise (and that’s okay!), I will continue to work at it each day. I learned in Alaska that that letting go of my rules and routine will not result in some catastrophe. More importantly, I learned that I am capable of doing so, and discovered a new source of joy in my recovery journey.
Written by Eliza Lanzillo, Program Director of Advocacy Initiatives at Hyne’s Recovery Services