Travelling With the Ghost of ED

Trigger warning: Eating disorders

Five and a half years ago I finished my first year of college and began an internship with the promise of two weeks in Israel at the end of the summer. I am five feet tall exactly.  May, I weighed 110 pounds.  August, I weighed 85 pounds.  I didn't see anything wrong of course.  

The scale and I had started a dangerous game where I was determined to be the winner.  I didn't just stop eating, no, thats not how you do it.  The weight loss started by accident, a completely different way of life in college and endless vegetables in the dining hall showed me the way to destruction.  I began by cutting out snacks.  Three meals a day period.  I drank a lot of water, coffee, and tea.   Then I slowly cut out anything that was bad for you in any way.  My brain was an ever active radar, picking up ideas from everywhere.  I had overheard someone at camp years before say that bread made you fat.  Boom. No more bread or any related substance. I began eating raw vegetables and hummus for lunch.  That is, until I heard a radio commercial jingle about a certain brand of hummus whose name I don't remember, "Twice the protein, half the fat, to keep your tummy nice and flat".  Boom. No more hummus.  Raw vegetables it was.  I heard that eating late at night was bad for you.  Dinner became an apple and peanut butter.  Until the guilt of eating peanut butter became too much.  Dinner was an apple.  If I didn't go to bed hungry I was doing it wrong.  If I was too hungry after the apple I would go to bed earlier knowing that my hunger pains would be gone in the morning.  Morning, I ate 1/4 cup of unflavored greek yogurt and drank a cup of coffee, emphasis on the coffee.  I drank three liters of water while at my internship, peeing pure water every twenty minutes.  I got back home, ran past the kitchen to avoid temptation, threw on my running shorts and went for an 8 mile run.  I ran 3 days on, 1 day off. Then 4 days on, 1 day off, 5,6....was there still time before dinner? Meditate in the sun to keep myself from thinking about how hungry I was. I had developed the ability to make myself think that I wasn't really hungry.  Then I left later and later for my run, telling my parents not to wait for me to eat dinner...I'd eat later.

One weekend we went to visit my Grandfather, he mentioned I looked different, my cousins were shocked.  I told them I just looked different because I was sweaty from my run and I brushed it off.  But it was that comment that made my parents suddenly really look at me.  They forced me to the doctor.  She wasn't around so I saw the Nurse Practitioner.  She didn't think anything was wrong, for some reason.  She said come back in a week an we'll weigh you again.  A week passed, that morning I didn't run, I drank a lot of water, held the pee, and put on my heaviest clothes.  The scale at the doctor showed the same, she diagnosed me as fine.  

On my return from Israel I saw the doctor again, this time the real one.  She was extremely worried and set up a plan with my dad to help me gain weight.  I refused any psychological help.  

Year two of college starts and I allow my dad to make an appointment for me with an on campus nutritionist.  It took a nearly the entire semester but I finally made it back to 90 pounds.  That's it I said, no more, I'm fine now, don't make me eat more.  Look, no more anorexia, it's ok.  I was planning on studying abroad the next semester anyway so I wouldn't be going to anymore appointments.  The nutritionist was very kindly strongly against my studying abroad, said it was a bad idea in my condition. What condition? I said, I didn't want a stupid eating disorder to keep me from a semester in Spain. No way.
 
And maybe she was right.  Actually, for my own physical and mental health she was definitely right.  I was a mental wreck in Spain.  I stayed with a host mother of about 60 whose own children were grown and had families of their own.  We ate all meals together.  Food I couldn't choose at times I couldn't choose.  Plus the strong willed Spanish mother urging you to eat more and more.  I couldn't stand it.  I ran a lot, started skipping dinners, causing a strain in our relationship.  I developed a pain in my hip. No, not now, I thought.  I continued running, it got worse to the point where I couldn't walk without limping.  I had stress-fractured my hip.  I hadn't had my period in months, my bones had weakened incredibly, I was diagnosed as osteopenic, at 19, at 20 I was lucky enough not to need a hip replacement.  Back in the U.S., the doctor told me I had to gain more weight and that I wasn't allowed to exercise.  I cried in front of her.

Flash forward to now.  I'm totally fine mentally, still self conscious about my own body but there are few who aren't.  I no longer have the mental ability to keep myself from eating something for senseless reasons and I revel in that freedom.  I'm now nearly nine months into a journey around South America and, if anything, it's working to further push me along in the direction away from ED.  I go through short periods of time where the lack of any constant schedule and no kitchen can summon ED, tattle to him that I'm not running and that I'm not eating pure vegetables.  At the same time, all of the mental energy that goes into an eating disorder is already consumed by the constantly moving life and endless discovery.  It's only when I have too much time to think that the wind carries a tiny voice of self-contempt.

So I carry him in my backpack, 45 liters already stuffed to the brim, but he hangs to the straps on the outside.  That wisp of ED, that nearly trodden voice still with the strength to surface from the depths of its own special hell from time to time just to let me know that I am worthless and that the chub on my face is one hundred percent noticeable.  The only difference is that now I too am strong and can push it back down, refocus my vision in a way that will completely alter the image ED has presented me.  And that's the secret for those of you suffering now, or for those of you who know someone who is suffering.  It's all mental, you know it is, it's the ability to gain a change of perspective.  Don't look in the mirror, at your stomach or your legs, look directly into your own eyes instead.  Focus on your world and not on your body. The idea of letting him go is terrifying to those who are held tightly in his grasp.  And I'm here to say that it's worth it.  

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Alex Mason

I may be wandering but I know exactly where I am.