The first time I went to Lot 10, Kuala Lumpur’s bustling indoor street food market, I had an anxiety attack.
I wandered around the hundreds of stalls attempting to read the menus, which were all written in languages I couldn’t read (let alone understand), looking at different food items that straight up terrified me. There were fried ducks hanging in the windows and “balls” made out of mystery fish. Everywhere I looked, all I could think about was how the food would feel (… sorry for this) coming out the other end, when it inevitably made me sick. I was completely freaked out, wandering around mindlessly staring at things and trying not to cry. I was so, so hungry, but felt so paralyzed by my discomfort that I couldn’t breathe. I had to GTFO of there… FAST.
So, I did what I used to do when I was 17 and feeling similarly overwhelmed by food: I skipped dinner and went home.
The pattern continued for the next few weeks. I found myself in one situation after another where I couldn’t figure out WTF to eat, and instead of trying to decipher the menu I opted to starve. I only allowed myself to eat things that I was certain wouldn’t make me sick — a rogue piece of avocado toast at a Western-style cafe; a few bites of pasta that I made for myself in my apartment —and in places where I felt comfortable.
The (very, very unhealthy) cycle became more and more a part of my everyday life, and a familiar feeling started to come back. As someone who spent the better part of the early 2000’s in and out of treatment for anorexia, bulimia and exercise addiction (#itscomplicated), I knew that what I was doing was hugely problematic. I could feel myself losing weight, and knew that my mental state was slowly starting to spiral out of control. This was the first time in almost five healthy years that things had gotten this bad, and I felt lost, scared and frustrated in myself.
Kuala Lumpur was the first stop on a year-long work and travel journey with Remote Year, and about as far outside of my comfort zone as I could get. I was so, so far away from home, and from everything that felt comfortable, that my food intake started to feel like the one thing I could control. On top of everything else, I wasn’t exercising at all because of my insane “digital nomad” work schedule, and developed an intense fear of gaining weight (thanks, eating disorder brain). So, I continued to skip meals. It all felt so familiar, and it was the first time in almost five healthy years that things had gotten so extreme.
After four weeks of restricting, I went on a side trip to India. If I thought things were “uncomfortable” in KL, I had no idea what was in store for me when I got to Chennai. The trip, during which I stayed on a commune for four days, pushed me to try and understand my discomfort in a way I had never tried to (and never wanted to) in my life. The experience was a challenge in every way, from finding food to eat to figuring out how to communicate with the people around me, but somehow I survived it.
And the process, and its challenges, taught me to become comfortable with discomfort.
From there, instead of shying away from things that made me uneasy, I decided that I was going to face them head on, and accept the fact that for the next year, a lot of the aspects of my life were going to be out of my control. Traveling and working full-time, a million miles from home, presents an entirely unique set of “holy shit” moments — both good and bad. Instead of freaking out about them, I owed it to myself (and to my shrinking body) to try to embrace them.
When I got back to KL, I took another trip to Lot 10 (or, the Food Dungeon, as I’d started calling it). I walked around the stalls, and told myself that I wasn’t allowed to leave until I ate something. I settled on the roasted ducks that had so thoroughly terrified me four weeks prior, because the idea downing one of those previously-freaky things seemed like the ultimate test of how committed I was to this new outlook.
I settled in with a breast, a thigh and a side of noodles with Bok Choy. It was delicious (I mean, it was the first real food I’d eaten in a month), and I ate the whole thing, and felt completely fine after the fact.
I wish I could say that all of my travel-related eating issues were solved in that one moment, but obviously, they weren’t. Dealing with an eating disorder is a lifelong battle that comes and goes (as I’ve learned the hard way) and it’s not as easy as digging into an order of fatty foods and saying “I’m better now!” Still, though, Duckpocalypse 2017 represented a major turning point toward making my way back toward healthy, the same way downing Wendy’s Chicken #6 in the passenger seat of my high school boyfriend’s Jeep did in 2008 (thank the poultry, I guess). Shortly after the fact, I got in touch with a therapist through Talkspace, and started dealing with the eating stuff along with some of the other issues that I was struggling with. And slowly but surely, it helped.
Five months* of full-time travel later, I’m writing this as the happy, healthy version of myself who eats three well-balanced meals a day (… 1-2 of them with wine, because I’m in Portugal at the moment) and exercises regularly. I still have moments where I feel completely overwhelmed and uncomfortable, and want to freak out and shut down, but I’ve learned to see these as forced growing experiences. I am still challenged every single day, but am more equipped to deal with these challenges mentally, physically and emotionally… probably because I have the energy to tackle my life in the best way that I know how.
*It took me a while to get the balls to publish this, TBH