Bali Saved My Life
Content warning: this article discusses eating disorders
Sitting in a hospital bed, my protruding bones ache against the stiff mattress. The heart monitor beeps mind-numbingly slow in synchronisation with my pitiful heartbeat. My head aches, my body aches, my heart aches as I listen to Mum holding in sobs in the corner. The back of my throat is raw from the tube stuck up my nose, which feeds a strange sticky liquid into my shrunken stomach.
To be honest, I don’t want to live. I’d rather it all stopped and I could take all the pain away.
I am a perfectionist. A Virgo. An only child. An anxious ball of nervous energy at the best of times. While these traits are innocent enough, for me they were very nearly lethal. I’ve never done anything by halves. Got an A? Should’ve been an A+. Ran 10km? Could’ve pushed myself to 12. Came second? Next time I’ll be first. At face value, being ambitious seems healthy – having goals is good. But, for me, constantly striving to be perfect meant I became my own worst enemy.
I was sitting on that hospital bed, weak from months of near starvation, excessive exercising and addictive anxiety. My failing organs should have been the alarm shouting, “Stop killing yourself!” that I needed, yet strangely, they weren’t.
In today’s world, where weakness means vulnerability, it can be easy to succumb to the dangers of perfectionism. For some, this means staying overtime at work, pulling an all-nighter before an exam or spending hours styling their hair before class. But for me, the desire to be perfect led to an obsession that would, like a leech, suck the life out of me for the better part of my teenage years.
When someone mentions eating disorders, it’s guaranteed to generate the assumption it’s a first world problem, a “white-girl” issue or simply a desire to be thinner. The reality – for me, others and maybe some of you reading this – is quite the opposite. When life becomes uncontrollable, eating becomes the only source of control.
When 2016 began, I’d been stuck in quasi-recovery for years, an imperceptible state of limbo – comfortably set in my destructive ways yet experiencing an underlying frustration that I couldn’t remedy.
Deciding to go to Bali changed that. It meant giving – no, throwing – away control, abandoning my home to live with strangers in a foreign place, wrapping a blindfold over my eyes and trusting my gut (ironically) to guide me in the right direction. I went to Bali to throw myself in the deep end, to save myself, to finally tell the niggling voice at the back of my brain that I could break free and live. I’d never travelled before, never left small-town New Zealand. But I knew I needed this.
When preparing for the trip, almost every part of me wanted to back out and stay in my little control cocoon, to resist change and avoid anxiety. And that’s why Bali was the medicine I needed. Everyone’s journey is different, but for me, after years of doctors, therapists, and tears, I didn’t need pills, I didn’t need therapy, and I definitely didn’t need more people telling me I “needed to eat”. Because the worst part about mental disorders, anorexia included, isn’t the manifested physical aspects – it’s the part of your brain that cannot comprehend change, that wants above all else to convince you it’s better this way – a compulsion that will continue until it kills you.
Travelling is the ultimate sacrifice of control. You never come back the same person who left that airport at god-knows-what hour in the morning. The delays, the uncertainties, the insecurity literally forces you out of your bubble and into a world where experiencing everything possible is the perfect reason to abandon who you thought you were to become someone you never knew existed.
Writing this now, I’ve changed. My body looks different. My thigh gap has been shut, replaced with a butt, my collarbones have been replaced with boobs, and my abs covered with a wonderful layer of protection that enables me to have kids someday – a reality I thought was gone. I can wear a bikini without being self-conscious of my pointy bones, I can lie on top of boats basking in the sun without wincing in pain, I don’t bruise upon touch, I don’t shiver in 30-degree weather, I can ride a bike to the beach with friends without my heart struggling . The list goes on, and I smile.
But most of all, my mind is free. It had been so long since I’d truly laughed, and now I have met people who make me nearly pee myself in hysteria. I don’t have a panic attack if the menu doesn’t have a “safe” option, or if I have dessert every night of the week, or maybe don’t eat a single vegetable in a day – and for me, that makes the anxiety worthwhile.
Travelling has changed my perspective in more ways than I can count. While it may be considered desirable to have the self-discipline to turn down that slice of cake, opt for the salad over the burger or hit the gym seven days a week, in the real world, you are worth so much more than your myfitnesspal total or waist circumference. At the end of the day, people won’t remember you for your abs or your control at the dinner table; they will remember the times you laughed yourselves silly over pizza, discovered secret waterfalls and ate hot chips watching the sunset on the beach.
I’ve realised the way I was living – avoiding carbs, exercising to compensate for eating, and isolating myself from everyone I loved – wasn’t living, nor allowing me to progress. There is a lot of truth in the saying that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results”. I have learned more about myself away from home than throughout my entire teenage years, and all because of making one small decision to go. To jump, and instead of fearing the descent, embracing the air rushing past knowing that I did this – I saved my life. And if I – what the medical industry would call a “chronic case” (someone unlikely to ever recover) – can be free, then everyone else can too.
I’ve found the most beautiful moments happen in the spaces you’re not prepared for – the totally unplanned, uncontrolled and unexpected times you let your guard down, let go of control, and just live. Going to Bali saved my life. The memories I’ve made will always remind me of the possibilities of letting go, and most importantly, I can remember them. My teenage years were wasted stressing, avoiding, and starving. I lost years of my life – I literally cannot remember them. But now, I don’t want it all to end. I’ve had a taste of a life worth living and I never want it to stop.
Cover by Christopher Campbell