This article was written by a Spoon University contributor who has chosen to remain anonymous and features details that may be triggering for some. 

Many college students will tell you that the best thing about their study abroad experience was the food. You get to totally immerse yourself in a foreign culture and embrace all their food customs, as well as travel to countless different countries to experience more new and exciting food adventures.

But, for me, the food was the worst part.

wine, tea, alcohol, champagne
Photo by the author

I chose a country whose people happened to build their lives around food: Spain. Food brings families together and Spaniards can never get enough of it, as they stop their workdays to create giant feasts at 3:30 pm every day.

I traveled to Spain already knowing I was on thin ice in regards to my relationship with food. I feared the carb-heavy, rich cuisine as much as I feared the time of day they ate it, which were extremely unconventional for an American who always hears to not eat late at night.

tea, beer, coffee
Photo by the author

My host mom, one of the most amazing women I’ve ever met, made all our meals for us. I knew this going into the trip, but I did not realize how difficult it would be to not choose what I was eating or say "no thanks" every time she tried to shove more on my plate.

The Spanish culture is framed around hospitality, and that’s exactly what I experienced. She was overwhelmingly excited to prepare food for us all the time, but I was not excited to eat it. The more this continued, the less I ate while I was not in her presence.

My life in Spain was crazy, to say the least. I walked over three miles a day just to get to class and back, and I was exercising on top of that because of my fear of the fattening foods that would show up on my plate every day.

chocolate, cream, ice, caramel, waffle
Photo by the author

I also was traveling all over Europe. Most might see this as an exciting and thrilling chance to see the world and taste its flavors. But for me, it was just more worrying and fretting about how I was going to keep the calories as low as possible and be able to keep up with the group as my energy levels were dropping drastically.

sauce, spaghetti, pasta, tomato, basil, tomato sauce
Photo by the author

I cut my food intake down to the lowest point of my life, and after a few weeks, I noticed how bony I was becoming. My clothes didn’t fit anymore and sitting in chairs was miserably uncomfortable.

I also didn’t have the stamina or confidence to go out at night and experience the European nightlife, so I stayed in by myself most nights, becoming even more sad and lonely.

All the while, I posted photos of all the food I was around (but not eating), trying to mask the terrifying truth that I was stuck in a dangerous eating disorder and each day was a painful struggle. Three months in to this journey, as my friends pre-gamed to go out during our weekend trip to Paris, I finally realized I’d had enough, and I called my parents to tell them everything.

coffee, cappuccino, espresso, milk, cream, mocha, tea
Photo by the author

I had to stay to finish out the semester, which was perhaps the biggest challenge I had faced in my life, but I finally made it home in December, where I intended to start conquering this illness. It took many long, painful months to get my eating disorder out of my daily life, and it still lingers in my thoughts even now. It pains me so deeply that such a cruel and difficult mental illness hit me at the time of my life that was supposed to be the best.

Looking back, I knew I was scared to go abroad for this exact reason. I never shared that thought, but I wish I had because it could have saved me many months of pain and struggle in one of the most beautiful and happy nations in the world.

I chose to study abroad to enhance my communication skills. But ultimately, it wasn’t my ability to speak the language that helped me accomplish this. It was the strength and vulnerability I found within myself to speak up and ask for help when I needed it. I now know how to communicate my needs in a way I was never able to before this experience.

risotto, cheese, sauce
Photo by the author

If you feel you may be on the edge of a bad relationship with food, seek help as early as you can, especially if you’re about to embark on a trip away from everyone who knows you well enough to notice when you’re not behaving or looking healthy.

I love food. I love traveling. I love experiencing different foods of different cultures and letting it bring me close to the people I am with. But my eating disorder hated these things. Ultimately, my eating disorder was in control of my experience, and it didn’t let me have a good one.

You can’t do it by yourself. But you can find the strength to share your struggle and make sure your traveling experiences never come with negative associations because of the food.