I just got home from Vegas. My husband and I trekked through the chilly Pittsburgh airport, triumphantly remembered where we parked our car, hit the road for home, and now I’m nestled comfortably on the couch in between two snoring dogs sans bra. I’ve only just posted “I’m happy to be in you, Pgh” on Facebook and people have messaged me about where we’re going next. Everybody loves to travel, right?
Except me. Well, that is until recently. For most of my life I’ve harbored the very unpopular opinion that traveling is The Worst. A fact that always felt embarrassing to admit, like it was some kind of character flaw. Here’s the thing, talking about traveling is like talking about the weather, most people agree that sun is better than rain and traveling is better than staying at home.
“I would love to travel more.”
“I’ve been to XYZ and I want to go to Q.”
“We’re saving money for a month long trip to Who Knows Where.”
These are commonly uttered phrases. Most people love to travel almost as much as they love to talk about traveling. But honestly, I always felt that “loving traveling” was a super canned response. Just like saying you’re “fine” even when you just ran over your cat. It’s easier to say you enjoy gallivanting all over the globe than defend why you’re a homebody. That said, I think it’s fair to say that not liking travel is definitely the minority mindset. Most people love to submit to their wanderlust and snap Instagram photos of trips taken, friends met, and meals eaten all over the world.
I’ve always hated flying (still do) and for many years I would say that I love the destination, just hate the transportation, even though that was a bit of a lie. Yes, destinations are wonderful and most people do not like running around an airport, pinning their hopes and dreams on a shitty airline running its planes on time. Yes, most people agree that the to and fro is rarely the fun part, I’m not alone on that one. But up until somewhat recently I didn’t like traveling OR the destination and I have my reasons. Both 1) cause anxiety, 2) disrupt my routine, 3) mess with my sleep, and 4) most importantly, fuck with my meal planning. I guess I forgot to mention a critical detail — it’s not a character flaw but it’s something that heavily impacts how I experience life — I have a history of disordered eating. And living with an eating disorder not only makes everyday life a challenge, but can make traveling a nightmare. I’ve been all over the spectrum of disordered eating and while I don’t have many stamps in my passport, I do have a long rap sheet chronicling doctor’s visits, capturing the sights, smells, and sounds of hospitals, and documenting the copious amount of exotic medication I’ve consumed throughout my lifetime.
I was partly raised by my eating disorders. Anorexia slinked inside me during my early teen years. She started out harmless enough, encouraging me to eat healthy and exercise, but my knack for abiding by my unrelenting discipline combined with anorexia’s ruthlessness had grave consequences. For starters, it resulted in losing too much weight too quickly and everyone staring at my hip bones. And my clavicle. And my pinched shoulders. And my ribs. While at first I felt attractive and anorexia gave me this false sense of control, my eating disorder quickly gained momentum and set its sights on destroying me. It was the opposite of a feeding frenzy, it was a starving frenzy. I couldn’t eat anymore. I felt embarrassed of my bones, of fainting in German class, of scaring my friends and family. But eating seemed impossible.
You might not believe me, but my hand wouldn’t obey the command to lift a strawberry from my plate into my mouth. My mouth wouldn’t close. My teeth wouldn’t chew. And I definitely wouldn’t swallow. It pains me to remember the Great Strawberry Fight of 2002. My parents sitting with me at the dinner table begging me to eat a bowl of strawberries — my favorite — and their surprise that I could say I wanted them, cry because I wanted them, and yet not eat them. They didn’t understand. And neither did I, really. I just didn’t know how to eat. My junior year of high school I was supposed to go to Germany but my teachers didn’t want me to because I was a skeleton who couldn’t conjugate verbs. Even if they had agreed to take me my parents would’ve refused to send me since they were pretty sure that I’d restrict even more in a foreign country with foreign foods — I was already about to die on American soil as it was. I stayed stateside, waiting to die, but luckily my family and friends wouldn’t hand me over to my eating disorder without a fight. They gave me hope and after a lot of hard work and therapy I started eating strawberries again.
Recovery is a bitch and for most people struggling with eating disorders it takes between three and seven years to drag yourself towards the light at the end of the tunnel (I blame it partially on low bone density #anorexiahumor) and then comes a lifetime of management (you have to pardon my gallows humor because eating disorders are incredibly serious, in fact they have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness). In my case after seven years (right on schedule!) of fighting this disease I started to get better, to eat and heal and go to therapy and take medication for my bipolar disorder (comorbidity is also a bitch). I managed to escape anorexia and evade her plan of starving me to death but I couldn’t completely get rid of her. To this day she’s still in ear shot, but I try my best not to listen, not to lose myself, and not give in to her demands. It’s not easy but over the years her voice has gotten quieter.
Unfortunately, I didn’t lose the looming presence of an eating disorder; it just took a different form. Introducing Binge eating disorder. Binge eating disorder was like this terrible friend that tagged along everywhere, pestering me about my food choices and making judgmental comments about my weight, but I just couldn’t shake her because I worried that no one else would put up with me since I was getting fat. Even though I wasn’t anorexic I still didn’t know how to eat — if I wasn’t restricting, what was I supposed to do? — so I let my binge eating disorder take over. I went from extreme starving to extreme eating. Over the course of ten years I went from 98 pounds to 260 pounds and everywhere in between. Lots of ups and downs, lots of strain on my body, lots of agony and anxiety, and lots of disruption in my life. Eventually my brain and body caved to binge eating disorder’s peer pressure and my sense of self worth was completely non existent. My family took a trip to Spain but I told them I couldn’t go because I was afraid of eating abroad. Of not fitting in the airplane seat, of being a fat tourist. I was consumed by the fear that people who hailed from all over the world would watch me eat, shaking their heads with disgust, mumbling in different languages. I chose to stay home.
For years, traveling meant having to figure out a whole new system to eat without gaining weight, without fainting, and still feel in control. And it wasn’t exactly portable because different places had different types of food. When you travel there is no guarantee that you’ll have access to your “safe foods” — foods that you have categorized as being “ok to eat” based on your own, individualized criteria. Examples: foods that you feel comfortable eating since you know the exact number of calories; foods that are easy to puke up if you need to pull the trigger; foods that provide some form of comfort. You get the idea.
Personally, my eating disorders make me very brand loyal. I’ve had some terrifying experiences where I can’t find MY brand of peanut butter (Jif reduced fat, creamy) and it honestly feels like the end of the world (that’s mental illness for ya). The only bread I like is Arnold’s 12 Grain Wheat Bread and that isn’t available in every state. Actually, in Virginia it’s sold under the name Brownberry — same bread, different name. We crazies do our homework because most of us can’t eat food we don’t understand, that isn’t familiar, because that food may contain the secret ingredient to make us blow up like a balloon, to make us lose control. We pack a carry-on suitcase with safe foods because ultimately, food is dangerous, and you want to keep your enemy as close as possible, like a jar of Jif you keep in the center console of your car.
Traveling is a challenge because there are a lot of unexpected, exciting twists and turns — the things most people like about a vacation — but for people living with eating disorders it can feel more like a stint on a battlefield. For so long even the idea of a vacation just put me on high alert. Vacations were exhausting, anxiety provoking, only semi rewarding, and in many ways not really worth it. My mindset for years was — I’ll stay home with my dogs, my peanut butter, and my bread, thanks. It’s a societal expectation to say you love to travel and even more so to follow through, but for a long while I was just like, “fuck it.” Sanity meant a staycation.
But I just got home from Vegas. This past October I went to Seattle. Last summer I went to the Outer Banks. Two years ago I went to Zurich and Paris. I’ve learned how to manage my eating disorder (and my bipolar disorder — they’re all related in this incestuous fuck fest called being mentally ill) and subsequently I’ve become braver and more willing to try new things — like travel. To go to different locations where I might have to eat at a restaurant for two meals on the same day (scary!) and I might have to try new foods. I have to go in blind of any caloric intel. I have to practice eating and enjoying it, which for me was a relatively successful “fake it til you make it” style approach. And I’m happy to say I’ve gotten so much better. I eat and work hard to make sure I don’t under eat. Or over eat. I make mistakes and remind myself to be kind afterwards. I’m buying airplane tickets and finding that I do fit in the seat (and even if I didn’t who cares!). I’ve made peace with my body and I know how to feed it. These days I care more about being brave and having enough energy to take on new adventures.
So here I am. My dogs are farting blissfully and doing that cute dog dreamy thing where they wiggle their paws as they run in their sleep and I’m writing this as I simultaneously post Vegas photos on my Instagram. Me vaping in front of Hermes at midnight, me trying In-N-Out Burger for the first time, me wearing a tight sequin dress and potentially catastrophic heels out to a club, me eating a chocolate cupcake from the Bellagio’s patisserie, the usual. And I feel accomplished. And content. I traveled and I enjoyed it — like everyone else seems to — and while I’m happy to be home I’m not resigned to stay still forever. “We should go to Vancouver,” my husband says as he closes his book and rests next to me on the couch. And I can’t help but smile because I know I will. Because I know I can do it. Because I want to.
Dr. Rachel Kallem Whitman is an educator, advocate, and writer who has been shacking up with bipolar disorder since 2000. Her debut book, “Instability in Six Colors,” paints a vivid picture of what it is like living with chronic mental illness, trauma, and a complicated relationship with sanity, safety, and suicide. Rachel’s mission and passion is to create a safe community to empower individuals to look beyond their illness to find themselves. For more of her work please be sure to check out Rachel’s website seebrightness.com and visit her Medium page.