Travelling with eating disorders
Juliette Burton blogs about the challenges of travelling with an eating disorder.
Juliette is an award-winning actress, performer, writer, presenter and ex-BBC broadcast journalist.
Earlier this year, I was invited to my cousin's wedding in Morocco. I was delighted to go. I'm amazed I felt like I could go. It wasn't always the case. When you've got an eating disorder, travelling becomes a challenge.
"The idea of being wrenched from my daily food pattern was incomprehensible."
Ten years ago, my family went to another cousin’s wedding in Spain. I’d chosen to stay at home. It hadn’t felt like much of a choice back then. The idea of being wrenched from my daily food pattern was incomprehensible. I hadn’t left the remote farm I grew up on for nearly three months. The wave of anxiety I felt even at the shops was overwhelming. There was no way I could visit a different country, with strange food and people I didn’t know. And don’t get me started on the idea of not weighing myself every day.
So, while they flew to the wedding, I stayed at home. I exercised each morning, I fed the dog, I fed myself the same rigid meal plan I’d come to rely upon. I’d learnt I needed to eat something, which was a huge step for me. But I couldn’t venture outside exact meal times and exact weighed amounts. Precision and detail were what held me together.
When my friends were all on gap years travelling the world, I was isolating myself, retreating more and more into eating disorders of various guises. As the world opened up to my friends, I was locking myself in my bedroom, scared that I would lose control if I wandered too far from home.
But since 2011, when I found something I desperately wanted to live for, a purpose and a meaning far greater than myself, I’ve been relishing every opportunity to travel.
It's still hard. When I go abroad, I don’t leave behind my eating disorders. They are my constant, annoying, dangerous companions. But I don’t let them stop me from living life to the full. Yes, they are there, but so are the coping tools I have learnt on this long, ongoing journey of recovery.
More than that I’m not alone in my illnesses anymore. I have friends who have travelled with me who support me through the rather unique challenges that traveling with eating disorders provokes.
I've travelled a lot over the last few years and formed precious memories: practising broken French in Morocco, driving along the Great Ocean Road from Adelaide to Melbourne and feeling grateful for every moment of the most sublime beauty in Bali.
"My eating disorder wants to keep me from living and I won’t let it anymore."
All of these things were forbidden to me when eating disorders ruled my life. Now I will let nothing stop me from embracing and even seeking every opportunity to see more of this beautiful, outstanding world and its people. Because every experience reminds me that I am alive. My eating disorder wants to keep me from living and I won’t let it anymore.
Sadly I can’t check in my eating disorder with my bags at the airport. But the more I’ve travelled the more I’ve learnt – not just about the world but about myself and how to cope. I’ve learnt that I will always encounter the worst BDD (body dysmorphic disorder) when travelling.
The stress of being somewhere new and unknown aggravates my illness. It can threaten to get between me and the true joy of the experience. I’ve learned that food will be a challenge. Being abroad opens up a whole world of new flavours and experiences. Due to the way I’ve treated my digestive system in the past with disordered eating, often my body will struggle to process these new and exciting flavours.
But I also know that I’d rather embrace these challenges and experience something new, because it takes me out of myself. It takes me out of my own arse. It removes me from my routine, and stimulates the well side of me, the real me, the one longing for adventure.
I’ve also learned that defiance can be expressed through my holiday wardrobe. When travelling I wear clothes I wouldn’t normally, like shorts! I have a lot of loose skin from all my weight loss from being a size 20. Usually I keep the most significant loose skin covered up; like on my upper thighs.
"This world is full of images telling us we’re not worthy of a beach unless we look a certain way."
But in my bikini in the Moroccan sunlight, I saw that loose skin as silver trails glistening in the pinkish glow of sunset, a mark of beauty, of strength, of resilience. This world is full of images telling us we’re not worthy of a beach unless we look a certain way. The biggest act of rebellion is to like yourself, in spite of those voices telling you you’re not good enough.
Well, I can now kick back against ALL those voices. My body’s been through so much. The least it deserves is a restful holiday and a cocktail in the sun whilst adorned in a frilly turquoise bikini. I can free my mind and I can free my legs. Often the liberation of one helps the liberation of the other. One act of bravery leads to further risk taking and rewards.
With all the challenges of travel – as with all the challenges of my mental health conditions – I have learned to just breath through it. It will pass. Maybe not immediately, maybe not today, but it will. I just have to have faith.
I cried on the boat from Bali to Nusa Lembongan. I cried my first proper tears of joy. The sun was setting behind a heavenly cloud as we sped away from the main island – a place I had wanted to visit for years and had feared I never would. I feared I’d never be free enough, confident enough to see this paradise I’d been told would be a spiritual home to me – full of art, bright colours, huge flowers and laid back, carefree attitudes.
Keep going. The horizon will widen.
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