As a young girl growing up in Poland, I was the epitome of the “ideal” child. I had good grades in school, participated in several after-school activities, and was always well-behaved. Of course, that doesn’t mean I was a happy 12-year-old girl. As I headed toward my teen years, I started wanting to be someone else … a “perfect” girl with a “perfect figure.” Someone who was in total control of her life. That’s around the time I developed anorexia nervosa.
I fell into a vicious cycle of weight loss, recovery, and relapse, month after month. By the end of age 14 and two hospital stays, I was proclaimed a “lost case,” meaning the doctors didn’t know what to do with me anymore. To them, I was too stubborn and pretty much incurable.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, click here to chat with a National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) Helpline volunteer »
Once the internet became more available, I fell under the spell of the infamous “pro-ana” websites. The pages and chat rooms were full of posts promoting eating disorders and glamorizing photos of unnaturally skinny bodies. The various pro-ana sites were scarily invested in eating disorders, and I was sadly hooked. But while trying to find myself in these sites, I noticed that others didn’t discuss doing anything outside of these chat groups. No one traveled anywhere, and travel was something that I was always interested in.
During my worst years, I would see beautiful destinations on TV and marvel at the exotic pictures in National Geographic. But I never thought I’d ever visit those places. Never could I travel to a foreign country, or hop from continent to continent. They all seemed too expensive and out of reach, especially for someone from Poland, where the currency was low. Plus, every time I mentioned my desire to travel, I got the same response from my family: “There’s no way you can travel if you have anorexia.”
I was told I wouldn’t have the energy to walk and sightsee all day. Or sit on planes for hours and eat what and when I needed to. And even though I didn’t want to believe anyone, they all had a pretty good point.
That’s when something clicked. As odd as it sounds, having people tell me I couldn’t do something actually pushed me in the right direction. I slowly started to eat regular meals. I pushed myself to get better in order to travel on my own.
But there was a catch.
Once I passed the stage of not eating to be skinny, food took control of my life. Sometimes, people living with anorexia eventually develop unhealthy, strictly limited eating routines where they only eat certain portions or specific items at particular times.
It was as if in addition to anorexia, I became a person living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I maintained a strict diet and exercise regimen and became a creature of routine, but also a prisoner of these routines and specific meals. The simple task of consuming food became a ritual and any disruptions had the potential to cause me enormous stress and depression. So how was I ever going to travel if even the thought of changing time zones threw my eating schedule and mood into a tailspin?
At this point in my life, my condition had turned me into a total outsider. I was this strange person with weird habits. At home, everyone knew me as “the girl with anorexia.” Word travels fast in a small town. It was an unavoidable label and I couldn’t escape it.
That’s when it hit me: What if I were abroad?
If I were abroad, I could be whomever I wanted to be. By traveling, I was escaping my reality and finding my real self. Away from anorexia, and away from the labels others threw upon me.
As committed as I was to living with anorexia, I was also focused on making my travel dreams happen. But in order to do this, I couldn’t be dependent on an unhealthy relationship with food. I had the motivation to explore the world and I wanted to leave my fears of eating behind. I wanted to be normal again. So I packed my bags, booked a flight to Egypt, and embarked on the adventure of a lifetime.
When we finally landed, I realized how quickly my eating routines had to change. I couldn’t just say no to the food locals were offering me, that would have been so rude. I was also really tempted to see if the local tea I was served had sugar in it, but who would want to be the traveler asking about sugar in the tea in front of everyone? Well, not me. Rather than upset others around me, I embraced different cultures and local customs, ultimately silencing my inner dialogue.
One of the most important moments came later in my travels when I was volunteering in Zimbabwe. I spent time with locals who lived in cramped, clay houses with basic food rations. They were so excited to host me and quickly offered some bread, cabbage, and pap, a local corn porridge. They put their hearts into making it for me and that generosity outweighed my own concerns about food. All I could do was eat and really appreciate and enjoy the time we got to spend together.
I initially faced similar fears on a daily basis, from one destination to the next. Every hostel and dormitory helped me improve my social skills and discover a newfound confidence. Being around so many world travelers inspired me to be more spontaneous, open up to others easily, live life more freely, and more importantly, eat anything random on a whim with others.
I found my identity with the help of a positive, supportive community. I was through with the pro-ana chat rooms I had followed in Poland who shared images of food and skinny bodies. Now, I was sharing images of myself in places all over the world, embracing my new life. I was celebrating my recovery and making positive memories from around the world.
By the time I turned 20, I was completely free of anything that could resemble anorexia nervosa, and traveling has become my full-time career. Instead of running away from my fears, like I did in the beginning of my journey, I began to run toward them as a confident, healthy, and happy woman.
Anna Lysakowska is a professional travel blogger at AnnaEverywhere.com. She’s been leading a nomadic lifestyle for the last 10 years and has no plans to stop anytime soon. Having visited over 77 countries on six continents and lived in some of the world’s biggest cities, Anna is up for it. When she’s not on safari in Africa or skydiving to dinner at a luxury restaurant, Anna also writes as a psoriasis and anorexia activist, having lived with both diseases for years.