6 June 2016

One Week of Joy at a Time...

“Just be prepared Jess, this week may set you back. It is going to be a real challenge you know.” For days, weeks and even months before my departure to Majorca, this mental pep talk echoed the warnings I had listened to during my various appointments with medical professionals. I was trying so desperately hard to look forward to my first holiday away with my closest friend, yet with every positive thought followed a negative realisation. Was there any wonder that as I made my way to the airport, consuming my usual evening bowl of three chocolate Weetabix, it somehow felt like my last supper. I am not going to lie, it was at this point when it did sink in just how much I was going to be challenging in just seven days- staying at an all inclusive resort, eating food that I have no control over the preparation, the ingredients or options available. There was the added difficulty of adjusting to set meal times that didn’t correspond with my usual routine, most likely veering off my meal plan and also listening to what my body was telling me in terms of hunger recognition. On top of all of that was the comprehension that I would be exposing my body in a bikini, shorts and sleeveless tops. Most people would welcome these deviations to their usual lifestyle, as isn’t that what a holiday is all about- a change from normality? Four years ago I would have shared that same enthusiasm, but a lot has happened since then.

Arriving at the airport, I was greeted by everything that I could have needed to make me realise that actually, everything was going to be ok. My beautiful friend- Abbey- opened the door to our preflight hotel room, and as I hugged her for the first time in a month, I suddenly felt at ease with the adventure we were about to embark on. As we set our alarm in preparation for our 6:30am flight and got tucked up in bed, I tried to focus on the aspects of the holiday that were going to bring me joy- the warmth of the sun, the sound of the sea and the break from the reality of my situation. As I relaxed into a deep sleep, it wasn’t long before the ringing of the alarm stirred my slumber. It was 4:30am, and as we filtered through the check in and security operations, I realised that I was about to encounter challenge number one.

Breakfast. Now usually, I would eat this at around 7am, but obviously today was different. It was around 5:30am and I could sense that my body was pining for fuel- a feeling that I wasn’t used to at this time. As we made our way to the departure gate I knew that I had to inform Abbey about my need for food. We walked into Boots and selected a yoghurt and chocolate granola pot, which I paired with a tub of fresh fruit. I had never come across this yoghurt pot before, and with limited choices available to me, I refrained from the force that was pulling me in to peruse the label- for fear that it would make me put it back on the shelf. As quickly as we purchased the items we were directed to our plane, and adjusting to the motion of the activity, I put the food in my bag, ready to consume it during the course of the flight.

As mentioned in all of my writing, I am completely honest about my thoughts and feelings as I recount my experiences- and this is no exception. While Abbey drifted off into a snooze once the plane took off, I sifted through the bag to find my magazine. Still feeling notable hungry, I spotted the yoghurts and fruit, yet I couldn’t help but feel a sense of greed about the fact that I was going to eat, but Abbey wasn’t. In fact, it actually crossed my mind that I should force myself to go to sleep, hoping that the sense of appetite would simply drift away. As these thoughts circulated my mind, I looked down at my hand, witnessing the speed of my hunger-induced shaking increasing. I had flashbacks of the relentless blood sugar level checking pricks that I experienced daily in hospital, and quickly scooped the food items out the bag, placing them on the table in front of me. Before I knew it, the plane was making its descent and we were reminded of one-hour-ahead time change. This again threw me into a slight feeling of discomfort, as I recognised that I had just eaten my breakfast, and if I were to adhere to my usual routine then I would be eating a snack in the next hour. I understood from this that I now needed to break out of the set routine I usually live my life complying to, and I needed to adapt.

As we stepped off the plane the heat impressed onto my skin, immediately relaxing my previously tense disposition. We swiftly collected our luggage and seated ourselves on the transfer coach. Looking out of the window, I don’t think that it had quite sunk in where I was. Arriving at our hotel, we checked in, headed to the room and was greeted with the most incredible sea view from our balcony. Abbey and I froze, both staring at the picturesque vista. This was the first moment in a long time where I felt that my mind was completely clear. No negativity, no questioning, no debating- just warmth, disbelief and satisfaction. I had made it to Majorca, and I was going to enjoy every moment that the week had to offer.

Challenge number two made an appearance in the form of my first visit to the buffet style restaurant- the setting for all three meals, every day, during my seven-day holiday.  My anxiety levels where running high, as I worried that if this visit didn’t quite go to plan then the rest of my holiday would be somewhat disastrous. I hate to assume that I fitted the stereotypical eating disorder sufferer criteria, but yes, I was thankful when I saw a beautiful array of fresh salad gracing the first countertop. Teamed with baskets of fresh bread, and a selection of cold protein sources, I felt like even if I couldn’t face any of the hot food, then I could survive eating a balanced diet based on the offerings of the first buffet counter. With Abbey by my side, we progressed onto the next stage of the buffet selection. The heat from the lamps released a multitude of aromas from the food displayed underneath. The assortment of unlabeled produce made me feel slightly uneasy, particularly as the majority was smothered in ‘unknown’ sauces. As we paced the length of the counter I can remember feeling lost, unsure and frustrated. There were elements of the hot food that I was very tempted to try, but with each contemplation followed an exhausting battle of question and doubt.

With every mealtime, I approached the task in exactly the same way. Well, I call it a task, but as the week progressed, so did my confidence in my ability to choose a balanced plate of food- pushing myself on the days I felt more comfortable. I always did a full walk of the buffet, particularly the hot food, and made a note of the things I wanted to try. Carbohydrate sources are a struggle for me, so I established this aspect of the plate first. This pushed me to try paella, white pasta and fried potatoes- food that I would have ordinarily avoided, but in this scenario I was pushed out of my comfort zone on a lot of occasions. I then selected the protein source. To my initial horror, most of the meat and fish were cooked in oil, as a sort of display cooking presentation. Seeing the griddle laced with fat immediately heightened my anxiety, and I could sense myself becoming fidgety and tense. Most of the time, my reaction was to flee the situation and desperately seek out another protein source that looked like a safer option. However, I realised that this was not a viable alternative, and to be honest, if there was ever a time that I needed to confront my irrational fear of oil, it might as well have been now. Most days I had at least one plate of food containing a grilled item, whether that was fish or chicken, and even though I knew I wouldn’t prepare it like that at home, I cannot disagree that it was enjoyable. As my confidence grew I decided to challenge other items such as onion rings, fried rice and ratatouille.

I decided that I was going to have three large meals, and only have snacks if I genuinely felt hungry. This meant that I had a two-course breakfast and three courses for both lunch and dinner. Of course this was difficult, but it tackled my beliefs around greed, and after the long breaks between meals, I was actually very ready for such a large meal. Puddings were a bit of a challenge as none of them were labeled with any descriptions whatsoever. Consequently, I found myself having ice cream twice a day everyday, but I was surprisingly ok with this. I would add a wafer or a few of the toppings to mix things up a bit, but there is no denying that my love for chocolate was going to fund my desire for ice cream after every meal.

With every meal came challenge number three- body image. Whether it was feelings of guilt, shame or lack of control, the thoughts of how my body looked in a bikini were continuously circulating my mind, more predominantly after each meal. I did engage in lots of body checking, assisted by the full-length mirror adorning the entirety of one of the four bathroom walls. I repeatedly picked out sections of my body that I was not happy with, but I am proud of myself for not letting it influence my eating habits. Every time I felt unhappy, I would remind myself of how much better I look now than this time last year. Not only that but also how much healthier I am, and physically capable of actually being abroad and enjoying a relaxing week away with a very special friend! Repeating positive self-affirmations was a challenge to uphold, but I knew how important they were in terms of realising my accomplishments over the past year. I also decided to message a few of the nurses from hospital to thank them for helping me rebuild my life, obviously still not managing to express my enormous amount of gratitude. Their responses spurred me on even more, and allowed me to understand just how much I have managed to achieve in such a short space of time.

Venturing from the comfort of our hotel, Abbey and I decided to go on a boat trip around the south coast to some of the more undiscovered bays. It was a beautiful cloudless day, and I was more than content with the warmth of the sun beating against my skin, and the warmth of my beautiful friend sat beside me. I do not know what possessed me to do it- I hate the sea- but when the opportunity arose for us to jump off the boat, I did it! I think it was the belief that I could do something that was out of my comfort zone, I could remove the element of control, and I could take a plunge into the unknown. To most people it would have just been viewed as an opportunity to cool down, but I guess that reflecting on it now, it was probably viewed by me as a test of my psychological boundaries. Exposing my recovery tattoo as I prepared myself on the edge of the boat, I felt a sense of confidence and pride.

Throughout the entire holiday I did suffer with some distress regarding confusion and frustration about how my body actually looks. In the mirror, I felt uneasy about the size, shape and distribution of weight around my body. Yet when I looked at the pictures that we had taken, I could see a completely different body. I continuously commented to Abbey about how I felt too thin- to which she responded in an incredibly supportive manner. My head was torn about how I actually looked and this threw me into turmoil when it came to mealtimes. Should I try that extra dish, or do I look like what I view in the mirror? Have I actually got enough on my plate considering how I look in the photographs? The conflict was tiring, and as much as I tried to block it out, it was a prominent feature in my everyday battles.

With the exceptional views, glorious sunshine and relaxed atmosphere, the negative thoughts became insignificant. There was no way that I was going to let me mental challenges overrule the fantastic experiences that I was having. I was enjoying the time I was spending in this beautiful country, and it was that positivity that I focused on. I had one week of freedom- a chance to escape the usual routine of work, the constant appointments and the reminders of my recent episodes. I embraced it. I had the most pleasurable time, made some fantastic memories and did nothing but smile and laugh for an entire week.

This holiday was also an opportunity for me to spend some much needed quality time with my best friend, and when I say much needed, I absolutely mean it. The friendship that I have with Abbey is something that I treasure very close to my heart. She may live four hours away, but the bond that I share with her is incredible. Throughout all of my difficult times she has been there for me, maybe not in person, but most definitely in spirit and heart. I have never felt alone in all of this, and her confidence in my recovery is what motivates me to keep trying every single day. The fact that she wanted to go on holiday with me, considering how difficult it could have potentially been, is so valuable to me. It proved to me that she was willing to support me through what could have been an incredible distressing experience, and I could not have asked for a more special person to hold my hand throughout it all. It saddens me that this week that we have spent together is a very rare occasion, but it encouraged me to cherish every single moment we spent together. I do not think Abbey will ever know how much she means to me, not only in terms of her perseverance in standing by me regardless of the distance between us, but also for her incredible attentiveness in listening to whatever I have to say without making judgments.

It may have only been seven days, but it has been seven days that have been invaluable in making me realise my potential and self-belief in my ability to recover. The change that I have felt within myself has been irreplaceable- I feel motivated to maintain my health, excited to embark on my European adventure, and eagerly anticipating my next step at University.

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