November 18, 2015

What Volunteering Abroad Taught Me About My Eating Disorder.

stomach ache

Last summer I traveled on my own for the first time to a third world country. I expected to learn a lot but never did I expect to confront, in the way that I did, my ongoing battle with an eating disorder.

Anna (that’s what I like to call my eating disorder) has been kept in check for some time now. But as anyone who has ever experienced an eating disorder knows, she never truly goes away—she just loosens her grip a bit.

During the first week in Guatemala, I experienced a slightly odd and diverse population that didn’t really seem to mesh well with the gaps in appearances. There were, of course, the small children walking around asking people to buy bracelets off of them or offering to thread hair for money. There were old women selling scarves and small families selling sticks of gum or pieces of candy. Some people wore traditional clothing while others sported slacks or suits.

Then there were the countless types of travellers: the twenty-something volunteers, the blonde boys with dreadlocks who reeked of pot and stale beer, the enlightened future yoga instructor waiting to start a retreat.

I was of the twenty-something-volunteer type. Monday through Friday I would rush off to my assigned orphanage and spend time with the kiddos. My off hours were spent wandering the outdoor markets and eating some weird little red fruits that vaguely resembled mini land mines that belonged in Mario Cart.

Most of the time I ate what was prepared for us at the volunteer house. I went from eating an abundance of fruit, beans and protein shakes back home to eating white bread, white mush, white pasta, white everything. I was horrified and convinced I would become the fat girl with a mohawk I used to be back in high school. I was sure any muscle tone I had acquired had gone to shit and by day two I figured my stomach had turned into a bowl of pudding.

But what was most shocking to me was how quickly I suddenly stopped caring.

In America, I would look around and constantly be bombarded with billboards of women I would never be. Where I was at in Guatemala, I saw less of these types of advertisements. On occasion, while riding the chicken bus (as the tourists call it), I would catch glimpses of white women with big chests selling American products.

But they looked so out of place and out of the ordinary that I never really took them seriously.

My worries about turning into a jumbo marshmallow seemed less and less relevant.

I started to eat out at restaurants that served savory crepes. I ate tacos and walked to the ice cream bar instead of the drunkard bar every night. I looked forward to my nightly dessert and I didn’t beat myself up over eating the gluttonous bowl of “La Gringa” ice cream at my favorite restaurant.

At home, I had this habit of staring at my stomach every time I got out of the shower. I would take turns standing from the front, to the side, to the other side and back to the front questioning whether my body is alright. Now though, I no longer had a full length mirror. I would still look and see if I had grown any pudge, but my cares became less as the days passed.

At the end of two weeks (yes, only two weeks) I felt normal. I felt I could eat and celebrate with others normally. I did not obsess if I could go home and cook my “safe” foods anymore.

I could just be.

It was wonderful—and I was terrified, yet confident.

I thought to myself: if only I could be this way forever.

I was confident that I could come back to America and continue to live “normally.”

So I did.

I made food dates with friends. I ate typical portions and I raved to my old yoga instructor about how I was no longer gorging myself with steamed vegetables at night. I was excited to feel satisfied by some apples and peanut butter and not feel guilty for eating foods I did not prepare.

This is the part where I share my experience on how to live life—the secret, the cure-all.

I would like for my summarizing message to be:

The answer is for everyone to experience a new and exciting, poverty-stricken country. To reach beyond our comfort zones and strive to learn more from others. See the hardships of the world to bring forth the pettiness of our own.

That is the cure-all. That is what will set you free.

But that would be a lie.

Because Anna doesn’t care about logic or epiphanies.

She loosens her grip but she doesn’t let go.

I eat. I am physically healthy. But my mind goes back to what it knows.

Three months later and I find myself back to battling with my frenemy. I remind myself that I am more than my body. I think of that article I read once, Your Body Ain’t Wrong, Girlfriend.

Yet when I wake up the tallying starts and when I go to bed I repeatedly obsess if the tally marks are over the daily limit.

On a bad day, I think of solutions that have nothing to do with my actual problems. I think of irrational ways to control a life that cannot be completely controlled.

But I do not give up either, because I have seen Anna be put away.

I am not convinced she will ever fully leave me, but I know that she can be made less important.

I look at how five years ago I would have never have even left the country, merely due to the fear of being forced to eat. I think of how Thanksgiving used to bring me tears. I think of how, today, I can go out to eat and (when things are going really well) I no longer need a tallying system of the food for the day.

I know it is possible and I know sharing our experiences, strength and hope is what carries many of us through.

I wish I could provide a list of “10 Epiphanies I Learned While Traveling That Shot Rainbows Out of a Unicorn’s Ass,” but that would be a lie.

I cannot positively think or “yoga” my way out. I cannot “essential oil” myself into being better from my twisted disorder.

Sure, these things can help bring mindfulness and self-love, but I do not believe Anna is of the easy type. She has grit, persistence and is the most manipulative b*tch I know.

I still am unsure how I got here, but I know how I have started to get out. I share, I confront and I do not let Anna have the power she once had on me.

I think one of the biggest contributors to my slow recovery is acknowledging that we are all worth more than this image.

I may not always believe it, but I believe it a lot more now than I did five years ago.




Eating Disorders: 3 Lies They Tell.

Drops of Jupiter: Life After an Eating Disorder.


Author: Ashton Keck

Assistant Editor: Hilda Carroll / Editor: Renee Picard 

Photo: Christy Mckenna at Flickr 

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