I've been in eating disorder recovery for 10 years. I didn't expect to confront it again on a solo trip to Ireland.

  • To treat myself for my 33rd birthday, I planned a 10-day, four-city tour of Ireland.

  • Having been in recovery for a decade, the last baggage I expected to bring was my eating disorder.

  • I resolved to take up space in the present rather than live in the disordered thoughts of my past.

I put myself on my first diet when I was 8 years old. My childhood and teen years are littered with memories of restriction and self-judgment. It's not hard to imagine how I developed an eating disorder, or ED. I struggled with restriction, bulimia, binging, and other disordered-eating behaviors for years. Thanks to my privileged access to therapists, psychiatrists, and help from loved ones, I've been in eating disorder recovery for the last 10 years.

This past summer, I spent months caring for a sick parent far from home. I left my life, which I'd curated with routines and methods that kept me in recovery, miles away. The stress was enormous, so I gifted myself a solo trip to Ireland for my birthday. I looked forward to an experience that would grant me the relaxation I so desperately craved.

I planned every detail of my trip, from the cities I'd hit and the tours I'd take, to the landmarks and museums I'd visit, and the friends and coworkers I'd meet up with along the way. I even booked a spa visit to make sure I truly took the time to relax despite all my trekking and city-hopping. What I didn't plan on was having to combat that ED voice in my head.

It started with overthinking about the time difference and what I ate on the plane

Once I checked into my hotel, the voice in my head got louder. I wondered if I should take a taxi or if I should walk because I'd be having food later, likely with a side of potatoes. And, of course, it trickled down to how I judged myself in photos and if I decided they were Instagram-worthy. It didn't help that I was comparing them to photos of myself 12 years ago — when I lived in Spain as an au pair — at the height of my eating disorder.

I was furious with myself. I was allowing my past to dictate my present and forgetting the lessons I'd learned and the hard work I'd done during the past decade in recovery. I was in a stunning place, enjoying adventures with people happy to discover new things, and was still stuck among old thoughts. It was haunting.

I decided to do exactly what I wanted — without judgment

I resolved to take up space. I first decided to pick out the menu item I desired when eating, to enjoy many pints of Guinness with coworkers and newly made friends, and to order the dessert night after night because I could and because I wanted to — because what I was eating and my size was not indicative of my self-worth.

I took a taxi when I was tired and walked when I was energized — but not to burn calories. I walked so I could explore, so I could marvel at the hundreds-of-years-old cobblestones beneath my feet, and so I could people-watch all the travelers and locals alike. Instead of counting my steps, I reminded myself how lucky I was to be healthy and strong enough to walk miles each day.

On the morning of my 33rd birthday, I slathered Kerry Gold butter onto the best scone I've ever eaten and spent the day on the Aran Islands and the Cliffs of Moher.

I met another solo traveler that day

When I met a stranger, we had snacks at a pub on the Aran Island of Inisheer and later laughed over fish and chips. We recognized recovery in one another — the way people who've had a shared experience often inexplicably can. We agreed it was tough to stay present while traveling and eat the food while resisting the urge to purge it. We chatted about how difficult it is to deal with the annoyances of bloating, the digestive changes that come with plane travel, and the changes in time zones.

We talked about how difficult it is to take a photo and to take up space in the photo. But that's exactly what we did, and they're probably some of my favorite photos from the trip.

In Belfast, I spent days viewing murals and landmarks and nights seeing comedy and live music. One night, I overheard a group of young college women in the pub bathroom discussing their favorite methods of intermittent fasting. I wanted so badly to tell them they didn't need to starve themselves to be comfortable in their skin — I hoped they'd reach that realization faster than I had.

On my last day, I ate one of the best lunches of my life at OX, a restaurant along the Lagan River. Afterward, I walked along the water and reflected on that delicious meal, which heightened my taste buds. I'd come far: from the little girl I was at 8, from the woman I was in my teens and early 20s, and even from the person I was at the start of my vacation 10 days prior.

I took the trip to Ireland for my birthday, and in the end, it reminded me that the best gift I could give myself was to stay present.

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