Traveling with an eating disorder pushed me to finally open up about my recovery
With new films like To The Bone and Feed contributing to important conversations about eating disorders, and after nearly ten years advocating around my bipolar disorder, I finally feel ready to open up about my own eating disorder recovery.
It was my second day in Geneva, Switzerland — my new home for the next three months — and my second day at my new internship with the World Health Organization (WHO) when I realized my eating disorder was going to pose some problems.
“We all just buy the two-franc soup for lunch. We’re all hungry, but at least you’re saving money,” proclaimed Ellery, the seasoned intern giving me a tour. Geneva is famously one of the most expensive cities in the world, and my job was an unpaid internship. I worried about money — a lot.
But I worried more about my recovery process when it came to food — especially considering the fact that I was almost hospitalized six months before.
I didn’t want to tell Ellery that I couldn’t just eat a small bowl of soup and some free bread. I was just meeting her — I couldn’t tell her this may lead to a dangerous cycle of restricting and relapsing, ending the recovery I’d worked so hard for.
So I smiled and said, “I’d like to try the pasta today!”
It took several weeks to figure out my boundaries with this other interns. Everything was so glamorous. We would work our butts off at our dream jobs at the epicenter of global health, then party just as hard to celebrate our new international friendships in this beautiful new city.
Many interns ate less to save money for nights out. Many simply ate less to survive the extreme financial burdens.
But I couldn’t do that.
Grocery stores were my cheapest option, but I learned quickly that their business hours were much shorter than American supermarkets. I got to work extra early just so I could leave to go grocery shopping before 6 p.m.
I didn’t tell people why I got to the office so early — I just said I was an early riser. I let people know I worked for more than eight hours a day, and simply needed to rest after a long day of work.
I had continued to be a bipolar advocate, and was even in the midst of final edits for my memoir.
But as open as I had become about my mental health, I could not open up about my eating disorder.
In my head, it seemed vain, narcissistic. I thought people would judge me harshly, and think I was shallow. That they wouldn’t understand it had little to do with my body image, and more to do with the all-consuming anxiety that made putting food in my body impossible.
Two months in, I had hit my stride at work, and developed deep, profound relationships with friends from all over the world. After months of stressful secrets and trying to fit in, I realized that I was, in fact, slipping. Those glamorous nights of drinking in fancy bars on the lake were getting to me. My money was swiftly disappearing. My depression was coming back in full force. And it was getting harder and harder to swallow the food in my mouth without my gag reflexes kicking in.
And I realized: this was it.
This was the moment when I would either fall further, or pick myself up. This was the moment when I would relapse, risk losing the good reputation I had built at work, risk losing the friends I had made. Or this was the moment where I would step up and grow.
I decided to tell my friends what was happening.
Of course, they were accepting. They opened their arms wide and shared that they had been there, too. They lived with struggles, fears, and habits that often held them back — and they were there for me. One friend offered to eat meals with me. One friend helped me discover the WHO had a free psychologist on staff for employees.
I started seeing the counselor, stopped drinking as much, and focused on ways to make cheap, easy, and filling meals at home. My friends huddled around me and lifted me up. They supported my choice to drink less, and organized lots of city trips that didn’t center around partying. We went to farmer’s markets, ate fondue on the lake (which soon became my favorite food), and took weekend trips to Germany and France. I found my health returning, and my love for the city growing.
Today, back in the States, I have friends all over the world. I learned my boundaries and limits. I learned I could find my strength in honesty. Traveling with a mental health condition is never easy, and neither is living in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. But I will never forget my journey from two-franc soup to fondue on the pier.