Recovery on the Road: Two Months Into #VanLife
I am sweltering. And I mean sweltering. Sweat dripping down the corners of my face. The sun’s beams reflect vibrantly off the solar panels of my van in the parking lot. It’s a cloudless Sanibel day: the kind of humidity that has my phone turning black with a flashing thermometer icon in less than 10 minutes.
Why did I choose Florida in July? I ask myself at least once a day.
For the past two months, I have been living out of a converted Dodge Ram Promaster 2500 van. Built with rustic interior in mind, the van is truly a cabin on wheels. It’s challenging. It’s tetherless. It’s an adventure. And I love it (even if the fan has already gone out in month two and the part I need takes two months to receive).
But in the heat of the Florida summer, I am forced to spend the peak temperatures of the day in coffee shops.
I stop typing briefly to stand and toss out the remainder of a once-cold iced coffee in the recycle bin nearby. In a stroke of irony, the special today at this Florida coffee joint is a Colorado-inspired “Rockies Rocky Road” muffin.
It makes me think briefly of home in Boulder. Or is it even really home now? It’s hard to know anymore; life is one big question mark aboard the rolling home on wheels. Momentarily, I feel the familiar knot of anxiety in the pit of my stomach, seemingly burrowing there lately in the innate loneliness of single life on the road.
I have been single for four months, I think to myself daily. It is the longest I have ever been single. To others, it’s a blimp of time. To me, it has felt like a lifetime. I wonder how Elizabeth Gilbert in her epic memoir about traveling abroad as a single, recent divorcee in the aptly titled Eat, Pray, Love didn’t cry herself to sleep every night because, my God, I do a lot of crying in that van.
It’s like I knew I’d do some crying, but no one warns you how many tear ducts you have stored in there when you’re on your own, with your thoughts, for months at a time. I cry over many things. I even cry out of joy, when I watched a buffalo and a flock of birds share food together. I cried yesterday, parting still with the life I had before today.
When my partner and I split back in March, when I looked at him across the bed and said “It’s over for me,” I knew in that moment that once the relief subsided (and the adrenaline of the decision faded) that I’d miss him. That it’d all hurt for a long time.
But that I also knew long ago, late at night as he slept soundly next to my anxious rustling, that we didn’t want the same life. Me longing for more travel, more untethering as my recovery from the eating disorder grew stronger and I wanted to experience more. Get a do-over for all the time I traveled bogged down the weight of the eating disorder and self-loathing.
And he, my partner, wanting to settle down, buy a house. “Start our life,” he’d say, as he flipped on Criminal Minds before bed.
I’d stare at him, words at the tip of my tongue that I know I should’ve spoken sooner. “Sometimes,” I often thought, turning away from him, “I think my life is still just beginning.”
When you’ve spent nearly a decade of your young life in an eating disorder, I wish more people had warned me that eventually you will have this awakening of wanting to redo or retry everything you did before that was misinterpreted or slandered because of the eating disorder brain. For me, that intensity has manifested in a profound desire to see more and witness more and write more about it.
In what is probably the most overused, overwrought sentence in most millennials' diatribe: “I love to travel.” Of course I do. A wanderluster my entire life.
In my eating disorder, and really well into the first years of recovery, I daydreamed of travels so I could run away from myself to some degree.
I’d board plane after bus after subway because I ultimately – eating disorder or new in recovery – held onto the rigid, desperate belief that if I kept experiencing life outside my walls, I’d end up placing less emphasis on the so-called “vanity” that came with my eating disorder and subsequent recovery.
“I’ll stop looking at myself in every shop window,” I’d say as the plane landed.
“I’ll eat a croissant when I feel like it,” I’d write.
I thought if I traveled, studied abroad, lived in Spain, bunked up with a lover – that those experiences would wear down the stringent pull of my excessive counting, compulsive exercising, and abusive body dysmorphia.
It can for some people; I'm not saying it can’t. Travel is healing. But at the time, so deep in a cycle and repetitive thought process, it didn’t for me.
Climbing Lake LLandundo in Wales didn’t keep me from puking Chinese dinner that night in 2011. Living in Spain didn’t mesmerize me enough to stop from finding the nearest gym and spending my afternoons on the dusty treadmills running to the latest Katy Perry song. Studying poems in Ireland didn’t leave me with that Yates realism of the world. In fact, it enhanced my drunkorexia ’cause I had zero interest in eating potato muffin lamb pies, and Yates was depressing, so we drank wine to discuss him.
It took me a long time to understand that changing your external surroundings doesn’t necessarily release the grip on your internal ones if you’re unwilling to look at the internal surroundings you got going on.
Sorry, Cheryl Strayed, you don’t get to hike a trail and expect permanent mental results – memories, sure. Confidence that you can do things alone as well. But, ultimately, as enlightening as travel is for the soul, it doesn’t rewire you; all it can do is expose you.
In the past, I traveled waiting for that “Eat, Pray, Love” moment to happen to me in effortless motion. I waited for places to change me. Like I've said, I’ve never really enjoyed sitting with the messiness of feelings. And I never wanted to take the time to untangle the insides of me that were crossed.
So for years, I wanted a quick fix. A new scene. A different chapter. How terribly disappointing when all travels did in the eating disorder were leave me with a sunburnt back and anxiety over how many calories were in a Spanish tapa I couldn’t pronounce.
But as the years went by, and my recovery became less a fashion accessory and more a staple armor, to some degree I’ve felt a renewed sense of wanderlust in my 30s. One that isn’t necessarily motivated by the metaphoric “running away from oneself,” and more about living out the rest of my life in the most fulfilling ways possible. One that is challenging, uncomfortable, and meaningful.
I’ve wanted to do van life since early 2016. For five years, I thought about what this moment in time would be like but was too scared to move forward because I wasn’t sure how strong my recovery would be with the ever-present (and obvious) struggles of life on the road.
Changing scenery has always been hard for my eating disorder because it means I can’t rely on my certain staple meals for lunch, or my routine smoothie for breakfast. Or even really what I’ll have for dinner every night.
I worried that lack of access to a gym would throw me off, and that before I chose to dive headfirst into this lifestyle that I’d have to get clear on that. And allow my body to shift and shape how it pleases in alignment with the long days on the road sometimes or the days spent off the grid at a campsite. I worried, “How will I do with no mirrors?"
My recent break up, in all its heartache, pushed me to finally try.
And thus far, van life has been a fascinating test and testament to my recovery. It gives “going with the flow” a whole new meaning. In the first few days of the van, my sink cabinet fell off after I hit a ditch too hard in Canyonland, I already cracked a small piece of windshield with a rock, and I’ve spent money on multiple campground reservations that I never even end up getting to.
Basically, and in the beautiful simplicity of living with less, you find that you can survive almost anything. And come up with a solution no matter how difficult. Life on the road begs you to let it be as it will be which is the opposite of what an eating disorder abides by. And, I find that most of the time I do a pretty good job of shrugging and saying, “Okay, this is life as it is now.” And that’s a testament to my recovery.
When you’re doing something you’ve wanted to do for so terribly long, it is fascinating to watch how little space the ED brain has to give. I’m living. I feel alive, even with the tears. And I don’t care about the eating disorder thoughts that still find their way to weave in and out.
I’m doing what I wanted to do, what I dreamed about. And my ED brain is a bore.
And today, that’s enough for me to know that even on that hard days, what I have chosen is right.