Many of us have daydreamed about packing our bags, waving goodbye to our carefully mapped out lives and setting off on a journey of self-discovery. Some naysayers might think such an adventure is the preserve of the young, but gap years are becoming increasingly common for adults, often giving travellers a whole new lease on life.
Working with traumatised Thai teenagers rescued from the sex trade helped Bess Kilpatrick Mason, 29, overcome an eating disorder. She’s now a nutritionist.
“I was 12 and moving into higher levels of dance training when I noticed my physique was quite different to the other dancers around me. Looking back, I wasn’t overweight and I didn’t feel any pressure from my family or dance teachers, but I was muscular and felt big compared to everyone else, and after a while, that started to play on my mind.
Like many, I began with food avoidance, opting out of social events so I wouldn’t have to face eating in public, but by my late teens, thoughts of food consumed me. Not only was I restricting my diet – which consisted mostly of fruit and Diet Coke – but I was also putting myself through rigorous daily exercise sessions and using laxatives to lose more weight.
I lost 12kg from an already slender body, after which my periods stopped and I became anxious and physically unwell most of the time.
Even so, I probably would have continued along that path had my father not noticed my weight loss while watching me on stage one night. He only had to ask me what was happening for me to realise that my problem was real and that the time had come to start thinking seriously about my actions.
I’m fortunate that I come from a supportive Christian family and network, and within our church, it’s common to take small trips overseas on volunteer missions. I’d already visited Cambodia to assist with a hip-hop outreach operation where members dance and also teach English and health education, and I’d been to Thailand to teach dance. But as I moved into doing a post-graduate degree in human nutrition, I felt a pull to go back and be a part of something that mattered.
By then, I was becoming more mindful of how my issues with food might have affected younger girls within our church who were showing signs of similar disordered eating patterns, and I felt guilty that I’d set off a wave of something. With that fear in my heart, I began working on myself, but I could see that it would be a long and painful journey.
When the opportunity came in 2012 to go to Thailand to work with Destiny Rescue and help start a café with 22 local girls who had been rescued from sex trafficking, I went thinking that I would be so helpful in their healing. In fact, it was the other way around.
I had no idea what to expect, but I walked into complete chaos. There were language barriers, cultural difficulties, logistical nightmares and a room full of traumatised teens who had been through hell and back.
Although the job kept me busy, in moments when I had time to think, I remember having incredibly strong realisations of the vast differences between my life and those of these wonderful young women. How could I continue to be obsessed with something as trivial as having a particular body type?
I’d arrived knowing that pursuing my strict regime – which I kept up for my first few months in Thailand – was wrong, but after working with the girls, I knew I had to find the strength to overcome it. My faith was key, as was reminding myself that these girls had gone through so much trauma yet were showing more strength and perseverance than I had in much less serious situations.
I stayed for 18 months. Our deal was that they’d teach me about their culture and I’d teach them about mine, and although I tried to be their friend, I also needed to be a role model; I had to be healthy, mentally, physically and spiritually. I can’t say it wasn’t a struggle occasionally or that I succeeded in drowning out the voices 100 per cent of the time, but I got better at eating socially and experiencing new flavours and foods. My increasingly happy experiences with my new friends meant I was well on my way.
A standout memory is when I helped stop one of our 16-year-old staffers being married off to a 60-year-old man in a bid to help her family pay off debt. After many talks, we came to an agreement where Destiny Rescue would help the girl work off the debt through her job in the cafe. From that day on, this girl was the bubbliest thing I’d ever seen and her joy was infectious – and healing.
It was while working at the cafe that I met Olly, the man who would become my husband. He was in Thailand on a volunteer trip and we hit it off immediately, getting engaged in December 2013 and married in May 2014. When he was offered an amazing work opportunity in Auckland, I followed him and it was at this point Olly’s mother, who’s also a nutritionist, encouraged me to pursue my work in New Zealand.
Going from disordered eating to nutrition might seem strange to some, but for me it was the perfect fit. I observed my mother-in-law before I began practising – and now, here I am.
Today I feel like I’m in a great place because I can share my experiences with others to serve as a wake-up call, and I can tell other young women that I know first-hand that being healthy feels so much better than being skinny. Now, my approach is to eat healthy, whole and homemade 80 per cent of the time and relax the other 20 – it’s a way of thinking that works for me.
That said, despite my love of good food and cooking, I’m aware that I could easily slip back into my old habits if I don’t remain active in my faith and mindful of what I saw and experienced during my trip.
Along with my parents’ love and support, my time in Thailand shaped who I am today. It taught me not to be pretentious or obsessed with food and diet trends, and made me aware that the world is much bigger than our comfortable Western nine-to-five lives.
I now know we have a responsibility to be our best selves for other people’s sake, and it’s a responsibility I take seriously. So seriously, in fact, that Olly and I will soon return to Thailand for another volunteer mission called the Little Farm Thailand.”
As told to: Dilvin Yasa
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