Holidays

Our lovely client, Frances, shares how for the first time in years she was able to freely enjoy her holiday…

I have just returned from holiday in the French Alps and I can’t remember the last time I felt this relaxed. The sun shone, the pines were fragrant, and the croissants were crisp and flaky. There wasn’t much snow, malheureusement, but I spent my days snuggled under blankets on a sun-lounger reading, strolling along the frosty valley floor beside the river, and stargazing outside our favourite bar in the village square, mulled wine in hand.

But this is not just me gloating about my glorious skiing break. For me, being this laid back is the result of months of near constant effort. So I am going to gloat some more.

But for best results, I need to explain a bit more about how I holidayed in 2016. First of all, ‘holiday’ was a relative term. It certainly didn’t mean a let up of the stringent demands and rules of my eating disorder. I packed as much ‘safe’ food as I could – because how can you trust local Moscow cuisine to be free of red meat, dairy, sugar, carbs and fat? I meticulously planned my tourist activities to allow enough time for exercise – running around Central Park every morning is an essential part of the New York experience, right? And God forbid I should sit down on the bus after spending all day power walking up and down the hills of San Francisco, or take a breather after slaloming down a black run on a skiing trip. Family holidays were the worst, with limited control of what and where we ate, no ability to schedule the day around fitness classes, and all the while trying to keep up the pretence of being ‘fine’. By midway through the week I would be tense, exhausted and distant, completely lost in a vicious dialogue with the eating disorder voice as I frantically calculated how much I needed to ‘compensate for’ once I was home again. For the old, unhappy, unwell me a holiday really meant a stretch of time that I would look forward to for months, distracting me from how unbearable normal life felt, but which I would actually spend desperately counting down the days until it was over so I could disappear back into my rigid routine.

When I arrived at the Recover Clinic at the beginning of July 2016, I was nearing the end of my post-uni gap year. I’d lived abroad, travelled the world, and tried painfully hard to show my family and friends what a good job I was doing of my fun year out. In the meantime, the eating disorder, which I’d spent years convinced I was managing, spiralled totally out of control. Travelling through Russia and then America did have many breath-taking moments, but both trips were also consumed with crippling anxiety, self-consciousness, and self-loathing. Picnicking in the gardens of Peter the Great’s palace outside St Petersburg, I worried about whether I should have eaten sweetcorn with my lunch. An afternoon in Yosemite National Park turned into an opportunity to go for a run. Partying at a club in Las Vegas was excruciating because all I could think about was whether the bartender had really used a diet mixer like I’d asked. Rather than losing myself in the excitement and newness of travel, my thoughts revolved around my food intake, criticisms of my body, and planning strategies to avoid anything that took me out of my comfort zone.

It was only once I stopped pretending – to myself most of all – that I was having a great time, and accepted that I was a bundle of anxiety and fears, that I had forgotten how it felt to have actually fun, that I got closer to being able to have a real holiday again.

My first holiday, a five day family trip to the Alps, came three weeks after I’d started at the clinic. And it was awful. I spent a good proportion of my time crying – over how much I’d eaten, over how isolated I felt in the family, over how I couldn’t bring myself to try a steak, over how much weight I was convinced I’d gained, over how I had messed up my perfect gap year, over how I was ruining the holiday with my illness, even over how much I was crying… The only thing I didn’t feel guilty over was how many boxes of tissues I got through. When I returned to the clinic the following Monday, I felt more exhausted and in need of break than I had before I left.

And I can’t sugar-coat it, chipping away at the eating disorder in the intervening five months has been challenging, upsetting, anxiety-inducing, sometimes tedious, and generally not much fun. Overcoming my fear of sugar, in fact, has been one of those not terribly fun things (initially anyway). And I know 2017 will have its tough times too. It will take more work before I can be truly free of this monster that’s lived in my head for far too long.

But last week every bite of pain au chocolat, every sip of wine, every mouthful of steak (and let me assure you, there were many of all those things) – and more importantly, every moment of silence in my mind, where no criticisms, diet plans, anxieties intruded on the tranquillity of the rushing water and the crunch of frost beneath my feet, when I could just be myself beneath the shadow of a mountain – they all proved that the hard work was worth it.

After almost a decade of slogging away at the never-ending job of keeping an eating disorder satisfied, I am finally able to give myself a holiday. And wow, does it taste sweet.

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