Studying Abroad in Eating Disorder Recovery – API Blog

November 30, 2018
Ashley Montagnese who studied abroad while in eating disorder recovery

Today’s post comes from API alumni Ashley Montagnese, a Chemistry & Spanish double major at the University of Dayton. Ashley studied abroad with us in June 2018 in Salamanca, Spain. She has a very personal story and we are proud of her strength in sharing this story with you. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, be aware there are resources available 24/7… both home and abroad!

Ashley Montagnese who studied abroad while in eating disorder recovery

If you asked me 3-4 years ago if I would be studying abroad in college, I would have said NO WAY.

That is because 4 years ago, I was diagnosed and began treatment for EDNOS (Eating disorder not otherwise specified). At the worst of my eating disorder, I struggled to eat regularly. I would have never thought that just 4 years later, I would be independent enough in my recovery to study in Spain. My experience at “La Universidad de Salamanca,” while continuing eating disorder recovery, was both challenging and rewarding, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to share my journey with you.

Salamanca Spain

The Challenges

First, I want to talk about the struggles I had in this experience. One of the biggest struggles for me was that I was not always in charge of my meals like I was used to. I relied on my host mom to cook, and I did not know what or when I was going to be eating (I want to make it clear that I do not regret staying with a host family at all, but there were challenges). While not being in control of my meals was difficult for me, it was good for me to go out of my comfort zone in that way because it taught me how to be more spontaneous and flexible.

At first, I struggled with this. Eventually, I learned that I had plenty of time between meals to eat substantial snacks, and once I started doing this, I found that I had more energy to use my time and explore Salamanca!

Another challenge came with opening myself up to enjoying food for the experience instead of just for the nourishment.

One specific example of this comes to my mind. Our group had just eaten breakfast at a hotel, and we were walking the streets of Santiago de Compostela, when we saw a bakery. Our AMAZING program director told us there was a specific dessert this city was known for called “La Tarta de Santiago,” and he got us one from the bakery to try. I wasn’t really hungry since we had just eaten breakfast, but I knew I wanted to try the cake since it was specific to that area, so I had a piece. After that, I don’t really remember where we went or what we did because I was really distracted by loud eating disorder thoughts. Honestly, I couldn’t really focus on anything else. I was eventually able to challenge my disordered thinking and move on, but it was definitely hard.

I am so glad that I chose to challenge myself in that moment.

The rewards

There were many beneficial aspects to studying abroad in recovery since Spaniards have such good relationships with food. Overall, even though I had challenges, these rewards outweighed them and helped me advance further in recovery.

First, it is harder to find calorie values at restaurants in Spain. One eating disorder struggle I have is battling the negative voice when I see that something has a large number of calories. In Spain, it was difficult to find caloric values for most of the foods, so I didn’t have to worry about that. The importance of calories was diminished, and I focused more on the taste of the food, and the experiences with my friends.

Secondly, I witnessed joyful movement first hand. There were gyms in Spain, (I even went to one) but most people I met did not go to gyms or workout on a consistent basis. They still had active lifestyles because they walked everywhere and enjoyed going out with friends. In Spain, I saw that it is possible to be healthy without consciously “working out” at a gym. Just allowing your body to enjoy a walk might be enough movement. Since this was part of the culture, I did not feel guilty when I did not go to the gym, and a lot of pressure I put on myself was relieved.

Additionally, tapas are a big part of the Spanish culture.

Tapas are filling, midday snacks. Since the Spaniards eat lunch around 2:00 pm and dinner around 9:30 pm, they normally eat tapas between the two meals. Tapas could be many different things but are typically like something that could be eaten as a meal. For example, ham sandwiches could be tapas. In the United States, snacking is demonized. It was extremely helpful for me to see this volume of people who embrace snacks as a part of their culture.

Ice cream in Salamanca Spain

Finally, the Spaniards do not demonize types of foods. Ice cream is my favorite food, and I loved that people could be seen buying gelato at almost any time after the heladerías were open. There were also less advertisements for low fat and sugar free products. Because of that, all types of foods were embraced, and there was no such thing as being “bad” because of the food you ate. The main focus in Spain was the taste of the food, and the people a person was enjoying the food with. It was so refreshing that conversations about food were about how delicious and flavorful it was instead of about counting calories and cheat days.

My take-away from studying abroad in eating disorder recovery

Before I flew out of the United States, I was extremely nervous to be in a different country without my parents or therapist there to make sure I was staying on track in recovery. Now, I could not be happier that I did it. I grew stronger in my recovery over the time I was in Spain. I learned to handle challenges more independently and was immersed in a culture where the people enjoyed all types of food judgement free.

If you are in eating disorder recovery and don’t know if you can handle being that independent, I recommend talking to your treatment team. Don’t completely shut down the idea because you are scared or don’t think you are ready. I did not think I was ready either. If your treatment team believes you are ready for this journey, try to put an emergency plan in place in case of relapse. Before I left the country, I made sure there was a therapist who could see me in Spain if I needed it (at one point, I was struggling and did make an appointment with her). I also knew I could call my mom for help at any time.

On top of that, the API staff is amazing. Once I was in Spain, they made me feel comfortable to where if I would have had a relapse, I could have talked to them, and I know they would have listened and helped me through any situation.

My eating disorder couldn’t keep me from traveling the world because I didn’t give it that power.


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