When I was 13, I wasn’t thinking about traveling the world or being a writer.
At this age, I was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa. Mid-8th grade through mid-freshman year of high school, my life turned upside down and became something that I felt so far removed from.
In honour of last month (May) being Mental Health Month, I wanted to shed more insight on the stigma behind mental health in relation to travel, success, and life in general.
I’ve found that being open about my struggles has allowed me to connect so much more with my audience, as well as help others who may be in the same situation that I once was.
Disclaimer: I am not an expert on mental health, nor am I a professional. Please consult my resources listed at the bottom of this article if you or a loved one is struggling.
The Facts about Eating Disorders
Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. As of 2017, approximately 70 million people worldwide of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder.
The statistics are appalling, but the more saddening fact is how eating disorders have been on the rise in the last 15 years, up to 10 times higher than in previous decades. Given the societal pressures of social media and the influence of pop culture, this isn’t surprising.
An eating disorder is not, by any means, just focused around food, or a “diet.” They are serious mental health conditions that often require the intervention of medical and psychological experts in order to stay on the path to recovery.
Sadly, one may never be “cured” of an eating disorder, either. There is no amount of medication, therapy, treatment centers, and nutrition plans that can ever confirm that anyone will not relapse into old habits.
There is always hope for a successful life after an eating disorder, but it relies primarily on the person’s mindset.
My Mental Health Journey
When I was 13, I was convinced that I wanted to work in the entertainment industry. I dreamed of being a talent agent and/or personal assistant to celebrities that I “admired.”
As an only child, I put unrealistic pressure on myself throughout my life and constantly, constantly compared myself to everyone around me, whether they were my friends or random classmates.
I had incredibly low self-esteem despite being raised by two loving parents (who, surprisingly to many, did not fit the mold of “Asian strict parents” at all) who would do anything in the world for me.
And if I wanted to work in the entertainment industry, didn’t that mean I had to look pretty? I was already a minority, so I figured that losing weight and being “thinner” were the only choices I had to try and get into the entertainment industry.
However, my focus on my weight and food ended up spiralling rapidly into obsessive behaviours, almost uncontrollable to the point where all I’d think and dream about were caloric intake and nutrition labels.
Like many with early symptoms of an eating disorder, I went out of my way to cover up any unusual eating habits (if I even ate at all). I’d scrape my family dinners to my dog when my mom turned her back, wad up bunches of food in paper towels and throw them out in the dumpster outside, and threw away all the lunches my mom used to pack for me to take to school.
Our eighth grade DC trip ended up being my first trip ever without my parents, and I sadly don’t remember anything about it. Not because I was partying and acting like a normal 13-year old, but because I was starving myself in freezing temperatures on the east coast.
I sometimes only ate one thing a day, substituting iced lemonade and orange juice for meals. My best friends never forced me to eat and never pressed me when I continuously made up excuses about not being hungry.
On the outside, I was still the same person, just faking my happiness and smiles. On the inside, I was deteriorating- emotionally, physically, and primarily mentally.
Fast forward to my eighth grade graduation from intermediate school, and I had become a walking skeleton within months. Of course, I didn’t see that. Like anyone else immersed in an eating disorder, I still thought I was fat and ugly.
All 70-something pounds of me.
My parents didn’t realize* what was going on until I went for a routine medical checkup, and my doctor declared that I had Anorexia Nervosa.
*It’s extremely difficult to notice that someone is suffering from an eating disorder, since most of us suffer in silence and go out of our way to hide it from everyone, being extremely secretive. Rapid weight loss may seem like a huge giveaway, but when you’re used to seeing the same person on a daily basis, it’s actually hard for many to notice a serious issue. That’s why it’s scary.
The months that followed were ones I wish I could block out of my memory: Months of outpatient therapy, therapy sessions, family therapy sessions, nutritionist appointments, weekly doctor checkups, strict nutrition plans, a lot of crying/screaming/fighting, and continuous lies. Lies about my weight, lies about eating, lies about “recovering” in therapy… all of which I’d learn later were all typical of vicious cycles of eating disorders.
My family lost trust in me, and I lost faith in humanity. At one point, I wasn’t even sure if I’d live anymore, since I felt so beyond help and like my mind was absolutely messed up forever, programmed to just obsess over not eating.
I ended up being admitted to an inpatient treatment facility (read: not a rehab center) right after Christmas in 2004, and I’ll never forget hollering and screaming at my parents even though they were the ones who got me the help I so needed.
Reaching Out for Help
My parents saved my life when they admitted me to an inpatient treatment facility. Unfortunately, so many who suffer with an eating disorder don’t get the resources or help they need, or they’re too afraid or reluctant to reach out for help.
Today, there are so many more resources available, nearly all of which are 24/7, 365 days a year, worldwide, and free. There are trusted resources you can text, hotlines, YouTube videos from professionals and therapists, and mental health apps all available at your fingertips (and usually confidential- just check beforehand).
The 4–5 months I experienced as a resident in the treatment center were the most trying times of my life, but my therapist was adamant: “If you can get through this, you can get through anything in life.”
I went from being a broken, depressed, extremely angry, 0% self-esteem teen to a more hopeful, regular, quirky girl who finally could laugh genuinely again for the first time in a year.
It took a solid year after being discharged to learn to appreciate food again rather than being afraid of it, and I went back into a normal routine of life — one that didn’t involve scrutinizing Nutrition Facts during every supermarket run.
With the loving support of my teachers, faculty, family, and closest friends, I went on to graduate high school and university and successfully landed a dream job with Disney.
There is nothing wrong with getting help, but you need to be the one to make the move and admit that you need help recovering.
Travel & Mental Health
Research also proves that travel improves your mental health, especially with its effects on boosting happiness, gratitude, and mindfulness.
However, travel should not be used as instant therapy for mental health conditions. It will not cure any type of diagnosis or mental health issue. In fact, it may exacerbate them.
You need to know yourself inside and out before you book a ticket anywhere, especially if you’re choosing to travel by yourself.
I’ve always said that moving abroad was the best decision of my life back in 2013. However, I’ve also relapsed several times when traveling just because I was trying to run away from heartbreak, depression, and related unhappiness.
In these times of my life, travel didn’t help my mental health. However, it forced me to be independent, resilient, and to just keep going. Whereas I crumpled into a ball and cried a lot during my 2005 treatment, I didn’t have time to do this very often while abroad.
Even during my 2015 stint in Japan, one of the lowest points my mental health has ever been, I sucked it up and kept teaching English (for as long as I could). I found it healing to escape to faraway suburbs and immerse myself in long walks through Japanese gardens.
Listen to yourself, above all. You know yourself best, inside and out. If a job, trip, or relationship is causing you emotional and mental pain, ask yourself: “Is this really worth all my energy and emotions?”
Yes, travel has been proven to be therapeutic for those who suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. But overall, be honest with yourself and know when you’re healthy enough, physically and mentally, to travel.
Summary & Helpful Resources
I hope my perspective on mental health awareness has educated you further about the struggles and hardships that one faces when dealing with something as overbearing as an eating disorder.
None of us are perfect. My story has shaped me into the empowered woman that I am today, and I hope I continue to inspire others through my openness.
If you or a loved one dear to you is struggling with anything mental health related, please ensure that you (or they) seek help.
Remember that whatever you’re going through, you’re never alone, and it’s just a temporary hiccup in life. It does not define who you are.
And there is always something and someone worth living for.
Helpful International Resources:
Global Mental Health Resources (CheckPoint; list of all numbers around the world to call)
Text “HOME” to 741741, the Crisis Textline in the U.S.
Suicide Hotlines (listed by country, all 24/7)
This article was originally published on My Debstinations. Debbi is a travel blogger focused on empowering women to travel solo and a strong advocate for mental health awareness.