Today I’m sharing something a little bit different. I don’t talk about this very often on Rhiannon Travels, in fact, I’m not even sure I’ve mentioned it at all. But a few years ago, I suffered with an eating disorder. Anorexia, to be more specific. To put it bluntly, it was the most awful five years of my life. It not only changed my life, it also changed the lives of the people around me.
I’ve decided to share my eating disorder survival story with anybody who chooses to listen. I’m sharing this, because I know for a fact there are people out there who are too scared to ask for help. Too scared to reach out and admit that they are struggling. Trust me, I understand the feeling. I understand the feeling of denial, when you’re trying to convince yourself and your family there’s nothing wrong. I understand the confusion of not knowing what your mind is doing. But there IS a way out. For me, that was travel.
Please Note: This post does contain details about an eating disorder. If you are easily triggered or feel uncomfortable reading about this topic, please stop here. It is definitely not my intention to upset anybody, so if you think you may feel that way whilst reading my personal story, feel free to exit out. There are photos in this post, that may make somebody who is currently struggling with an eating disorder, feel triggered. Please continue reading, only if you are comfortable doing so.
Table of Contents
How Travel Saved My Life: An Eating Disorder Survival Story
How My Eating Disorder Started
I’ll be honest: my heart is pounding while writing this. There are people in my life, that I’m fairly certain don’t know that I’ve struggled with an eating disorder. There are also people who may not understand why I’m even writing about it and shining a light on the topic. But that’s okay. I don’t need everybody to understand, I just need the right people to understand.
I can’t remember exactly when all of this started, I do remember why and how though. Roughly the year after I graduated high school (2009), I started taking the contraceptive pill. One of the initial side effects of going on the pill, is weight gain. This side effect, combined with the fact that I enjoyed scoffing my face with entire bags of chips and a LOT of ice cream, resulted in me gaining quite a bit of weight. I didn’t really notice at first, until somebody in my life made a comment about my weight – then it was all I could think about.
At first, I decided to start exercising a little. Nothing too intense. I simply used the stationery bike in our house a few times a week. Eventually, this turned into a few times a day. Along with the excessive exercise, I also cut back a lot on what I was eating. It started with eating healthier. Next, I’d cut out a lunch or dinner here and there. Just like exercise, eventually this turned into a flat out fear of food.
I would have anxiety and panic attacks when it came to meal time. I’d study nutritional labels like they were going out of style. If something wasn’t X calories or less, I wouldn’t eat it. If I didn’t have a choice, such as having to attend a family gathering, I would immediately come home and use our exercise bike until I couldn’t breathe. This happened daily, and although I was both mentally and physically exhausted, I was so far gone, I couldn’t see a way out. So I kept going. I kept falling deeper and deeper into my eating disorder.
After a large amount of doctor’s appointments, psychologist sessions, blood tests, nights crying myself to sleep, intense mood swings, arguments with family, health issues, panic attacks, depression and living in genuine fear of food – I eventually knew it was time to get my life back on track. The only problem was: I didn’t know how to do that.
How Things Got Better
In 2012, my family and I took a trip to America. My mum, her husband and my sister hopped on a plane, and 14 hours later we landed at Los Angeles International Airport. I was scared. I knew I’d be in for a world of anxiety. I mean, let’s be honest. American’s love their large serving sizes and delicious baked goods. But in a strange way, I was ready. At least I thought I was.
We spent the first couple of weeks in Anaheim. I can’t even remember how many times I had a wave of anger, fear or depression over food. I was irritable. I wished I was back in the safety of Australia, where I could skip meals as I pleased and knew exactly what I was eating. But I was on holiday. I was mad at myself for acting the way I was, but I couldn’t stop.
The most ironic part of this whole situation, was that I knew I had a LOT of weight to gain. I don’t want to use numbers in this post, because for somebody who is currently struggling, that could make things worse. But let’s just say I didn’t recognise myself. Neither did anyone else in my life. I had dissolved into almost nothing. I had no energy, and to this day, I’m not quite sure how I survived as long as I did.
As for how things got better, well that’s a pretty funny story. My aunty and uncle (my mum’s sister) live in California. So when our time in Anaheim was up, we spent some time with them. A road-trip to Las Vegas had been planned, and I was both excited and nervous. Excited, because hello, Las Vegas. But nervous because I was in for five hours of sitting in a car, not being able to do any form of exercise.
We made a few stops along the way for snacks. Of course I studied the packaging carefully, being sure to only choose something that was X amount of calories, and wouldn’t cause too much mind-numbing guilt. Well, it turns out the snack I opted for, would be the snack that snapped me back to reality.
I genuinely can’t tell you what happened, or why it happened, but I made a decision then and there, that I wanted my life back. I don’t remember if I shared this decision with anybody in the car (I think I may have), but from that moment on, I knew things had to change. If I wanted to continue exploring the world, see new places and have incredible memories, I had to get better.
I’ve always loved the concept of travel. Before I finally got my shit together and started to see the world for myself, I had severe wanderlust. I wanted to see as much as possible. I wanted to see the Northern Lights and live my dream of visiting New York City (which I finally ended up doing in 2015!). But until that could happen, I needed to get better.
The Road to Recovery
I’ll be honest: it wasn’t easy. Even the remainder of this USA trip, I had my moments. An eating disorder (like other mental illnesses) isn’t something that can be turned off with the flick of a switch. But the most important part of the process had begun: accepting that things needed to change. I needed to change. Not only for myself, but for the people in my life who were dying a little inside, watching me put myself through hell.
There were days when I honestly didn’t believe I could do it. I was constantly asking myself whether it was even worth getting better. At times, it all seemed too difficult. Too painful, upsetting and difficult. But I did it. With a lot of help from a few close family members, I got my shit together.
Where I Am Now: Did I Reach My Travel Goal?
I still have my off days. I still think I’m ‘fat’ sometimes (this generally happens when I start PMSing. Go figure!). I still worry a little about what I’m eating, and if I’m eating too much. I still focus a little too much on the way I look, when in reality, it doesn’t matter. Due to my eating disorder, I have developed anxiety. This is something that I actively struggle with, and will probably have to live with for the rest of my life. But it’s a lot easier to manage than a crippling fear of food.
I’m now living my dream of being able to travel and see the world. Not only am I doing that, but I’m travelling with the person I love, making memories that will last a life time. If you had asked me back when I was in the depth of my struggles, if I would ever spend a month exploring Japan, I would have laughed. Travel was always a dream of mine. But during my eating disorder days, it was a pipe dream. Something so out of reach, I didn’t think I’d ever step foot on a plane again.
The photos above: The left hand side was myself on the border between Nevada and Arizona, at Hoover Dam back in 2013. That was probably close to the smallest I got, at least that I have photos of. The right hand side is this past March (2017) in Hiroshima, Japan. I was happy, healthy, and had just eaten McDonalds and smashed out a few glasses of wine! (I’m not really a great advocate for being healthy, while on holiday….)
But here I am. Publishing posts on a travel blog that I created all on my own, over a year ago. Visiting different places and having experiences that I never thought was possible. No, I’m not a full-time backpacker, carrying everything I own with me across the world. But I do work a normal job in order for me (and my partner Russell) to live our dreams of adventuring and seeing this incredible world we all live in.
Throughout all of the ups and downs over the past 10 years, I’m finally at a point where I can be proud of where I am in life. Travel has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. It may have taken a lot longer to achieve than most people, and I have had to overcome a great deal in order to get here. But the point is: I made it. And you know what? It’s a great feeling. A fucking incredible feeling, to be honest. Please excuse the French.
Why did I decide to share my eating disorder story? To put it simply: I want to help people. I’m sure there is at least one person reading this, who is nodding slightly to themselves. Somebody who may be struggling with an eating disorder, and is having trouble finding their way out. Well, if you’ve found something that you love, use that as your way out.
I know it’s not that simple, and as tough as this is for parents and family members to hear, you have to be ready. You have to be ready and prepared for things to change. It’s a hard road ahead, and once that horrible mindset has formed, it’s extremely hard to break. I still struggle sometimes, and I’ve been ‘recovered’ for years now. But it is possible.
It’s possible to not only live a normal life – it’s also possible to live your dream. I’m a good example of that. Having grown up as a shy, quiet and quite loser-ish person, I’ve turned into the confident, happy and outgoing person that I am today. A lot of that is because I managed to do the impossible: pulling myself from the depths of an eating disorder. It took an army to get here, but hey – I made it! I’m living my dream of seeing the world. I’m crossing cities and countries off my bucket list. I know the excitement of planning that next big adventure, knowing I can eat all of the pizza and ALL of the baked goods and fries that my heart desires.
So, if you are reading this and feel like you may need some advice or support: please talk to somebody you trust. Be honest, as scary as that will be. If you’re ready for things to change (or even if you’re not quite there yet) seek help. I’m sure there is somebody in your life who you are comfortable talking to, and if not, talk to me.
I don’t focus on this part of my life anymore, because it’s not who I am. At least not anymore. There will be people who don’t understand, even people who you thought loved you. Not everyone understands what it’s like to be held captive by an eating disorder. But that’s okay. For every person who doesn’t understand, there will be somebody who does.
In a world that is obsessed with uploading the perfect Instagram photo and having the newest and best outfit, it can be hard to remember that these things don’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you gained a bit of weight while travelling, that’s proof that you had a great time. Don’t focus too much on the little things. If like me, travel is your dream, enjoy every minute of it. Don’t hold back from eating that scoop of Ben & Jerry’s. Ice cream deserves to be eaten. Unless of course you’re lactose intolerant. In that case, don’t listen to me.
Remember, there is always someone out there who can help. When you’ve decided that you’re ready, reach out and seek the help you deserve. Whether that’s from a doctor, psychologist, family member, friend or somebody who has been there before like I have. Don’t try and get better on your own. You’ll need an army of supportive people around you. But once you’ve achieved that goal of recovery, the world is your oyster!
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Note: Please remember that this is my own personal story. Everybody is different, has different experiences and coping mechanisms. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, what worked for me, may not work for you. Travel is what changed my life and made me realise that I needed and wanted to get better. Find something that works for you, and remember that everybody’s stories and journeys are different.