My world widened. Opened. Expanded. The tiny cosmos in which I grew and changed suddenly became a different one and so I, too, transformed in those conditions. Before that point arrived, though, I was struggling, struggling to find new ways to fix old patterns that over time revealed themselves as well-hidden rather than permanently gone. Solved. Healed. 

Self-prescribed diets were my norm. That was my starting point. The story of the relationship between me and my body is an old and intimate one. And the story of my body in relation to food, that’s one I’ve been dissecting for years, from the moment the mirror no longer served its purpose as the place where I could lip sync alone in my room, but rather became a site of stress and judgement, where my reflection mutated, a distorted reality, like the contorted images in carnival fun houses. That’s how I saw myself.

I was telling myself a repetitive story—losing weight would make me happier. This story dominated my road to wellness long before bulimia hit the stage. It was a solution-centered picture I’d been given from all of the sculptors of my teenage years— the media, an easy culprit, my family, who bribed me with shopping sprees in exchange for losing a few pounds, and the school environment, which was basically a lesson in “skinny girls have more fun.” The diets never really worked, though, because I failed to account for the fact that food wasn’t the problem–my inability to cope with my emotions was. That realization wasn’t arriving for a sixteen year old, though, not without therapeutic guidance. I was alone in this, and when diets weren’t working, I had to blame something, so I blamed food. As a result, eating became a stressful practice rather than one in which I could experience joy.

In high school, a friend showed me a new method. She found that maybe binging and purging would help. At least then we could continue eating, we’d just empty ourselves of everything afterwards. That’s how bulimia snuck its way into my life, as an alternative route to forming a healthy relationship to food. 

My First Garden. Photo: Anja Jerkovic

It wasn’t always consistently present. There were periods of grace between my beginning at sixteen and now at thirty-one. I’d reach moments of pause that lasted years during which I thought I was healed, fixed. Sometimes it just went away, or at least that’s what I assumed. My weight would reach a desirable number and then I thought, no need for that anymore. But in my late 20s, my bulimia, the bulimia, this pattern and reaction to stress I’d acquired, returned like an old and toxic friend that I’d cut ties with but never really separated from. That time in my life was a prime opportunity for its comeback. I was making big decisions about the type of life I wanted to live; in what country, with what partner, and why. All of the choices sent my stress receptors on full alert. My inability to make a decision and the anxiety that it would be the wrong one made me desperate for comfort and solace somewhere, anywhere. Food was my fastest means to soothe those worries. Without any alternative approaches to handling my stress, I would end up in the kitchen, reaching for all the food I’d normally restricted myself from eating—fats, sugars, things you find in the snack section of a convenience store. Momentary relief. But then, of course, the stress that I’d broken the food laws I set for myself would also arrive, and I’d run to binging and purging as a means of penance.

I didn’t want to. I really wanted to heal, but how? I tried so many paths to recovery—podcasts, workbooks, homeopathic remedies, counselling, a heaping majority of diets in disguise. In 2020, a therapist helped me to notice myself in those moments of relapse. Finally, a breakthrough. What was I feeling when triggers happened? What foods brought me to that moment of searching the nearest toilet and hoping I wasn’t too late to rid myself of that feeling? She asked if I could slow down my binges, place the food I was reaching for on a nice plate. Breathe. Be there. Focus on what makes me feel good.

But even with the awareness, it was hard. I viewed food differently—with angst, not pleasure; as something to fear, which robbed me of the experience in which I could just enjoy it without thinking of a “before and after the meal” me. I resented it for how it initially brought me joy that then amounted to sadness for the way it affected my weight. I felt it was the reason I lost love—from society, from myself—because the more weight I put on, the harder it was to look at myself and think, I love you, let alone I like you.

While I was really focused on healing, COVID-19 arrived. A perfect time for relapse considering the brew of uncertainty it brought, but I was committed. It was February 2020 and I had just met my current partner at a local pub in Bosnia, where I’ve been living for the past 3 years. We met ourselves fast, and with the same speed, life changed rapidly. Around us were growing stories about locking up borders and police curfews that might extend to barriers between towns. He was visiting from Hungary, and while we sat out the days of unpredictability and quarantine, he would tell me about the home he built there, in a small village, and how his heart was aching for the garden—his garden—he had been tending to over the last 12 years. 

I grew up in a desert. No gardens. I never saw how food grew, not even herbs. I was your classic pre-teen who enjoyed a gas station hotdog on Saturday mornings when my parents left my brother and me alone at home while they went to work weekend shifts. I grew up in California, but I was born elsewhere, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where agricultural life was alive and present, but not for my family. We were city folk, and when we moved to the US as a result of the war in our hometown, we became more separate from that connection between soil and food than our ancestors might have thought we would be. With that move, everything changed. We adopted more Western ways of living, faster, easier. Our culture of home-cooked meals with seasonal ingredients faded away and was replaced by microwavable spanakopitas and sporadic meal times. I had no idea what grew naturally, and when. I thought we could access anything, whenever, so long as we had a Costco card. Without that apparent connection between nature and food, I only saw it as something good or something bad, never just as nutrition, never as a gift. 

I tell him—my partner—about my history with food, with bulimia. How could I not? Either I make peace with the idea that this guy might judge me for my over-chewing, my small-cut pieces of pizza, my perfectly calculated serving sizes, or I choose vulnerability and share with him where it is that I struggle. I choose the latter. He understands me, and then he asks me if I’ve lived with a garden before. I tell him no, that I can’t even differentiate between a paprika leaf and a tomato leaf. He says it might help me, garden living. He can’t imagine why I would fear food. He sees it as a means of sustenance, our fuel for living. I’d always dreamed of seeing it that way, not as calorie counts and restrictions, but I never learned how to. For him, the garden was the place where we learned what to eat, and when. Why get lost in our heads when we can expect cherries in the spring and apples in the fall? Seasonal eating. Everything we need, right when we need it. He trusts in the cycles, I was trusting weight loss gurus and five-day clean-eating cleanses.

The second garden. Photo Anja Jerkovic

While he’d already been a gardener for many years, I was still Googling how deep seeds should go in the ground after trying to decode pictures on the packaging without him noticing I didn’t understand Roman numerals. He suggested that we go and spend the summer in Hungary, where he was living, once the borders were open again. Then I could experience it for myself, living with a garden. A flurry of questions occupied my mind. What if I’m walking around and thinking it’s only a hassle to tie up a tomato or spend 2 hours watering each corner of every bed? What if I spend my days escaping to the city and secretly downing bags of chips in some park because I don’t want to go home and face the reality that this type of lifestyle just isn’t for me? What if, what if, what if?

At the time, I just happened to have a Louise Hay book sitting on my coffee table, ”How to Heal Your Life,” a slightly offensive 30th birthday present from my father but nonetheless, well intentioned. In it, she writes about how gardening was an important part of her own learning process. In reference to the lessons she received, she writes, “There is a time to do certain things, and then there’s a time to move on.” I felt I was hanging on to old habits, that perhaps this was my chance at moving on. If it happened for Louise, I figured, maybe there was something there for me to learn, too.

So despite the fear, I said yes. I would give it a try. Beginners pace. I had some months to prepare myself. In between the quarantine waiting time and us journeying to Hungary, we practiced by planting 2 gardens where we were because, as I have learned, planting something is always worth it. Winter was closing, Spring was slowly knocking and we thought, someone will eat it. It was my first time putting salads into the ground and I liked it. We covered the free space surrounding a local eco-center we were camping at— a decision we agreed on so as not to be quarantined inside an apartment— with what seeds we had access to—green beans, spring onions, parsley, an assortment of greens. Once we’d left there, we found another space in the center of the city. It belonged to a 98-year-old man who mainly came to his plot to sit in an old chair and look at the land he once spent his days cultivating. He let us plant a full garden until, or rather if Hungary opened its borders. The eco-center garden was meant to be shared, but this garden was supposed to be just ours in the case that restrictions never relaxed. We invested our time, energy, and love into it regardless of what awaited us. I was connecting to it, to that little plot. I liked my afternoon routine of watering, of measuring the centimeters of progress. The paprikas and chilis and eggplants were just growing like adolescents when we had to say goodbye. It was my first two attempts at gardening and I had to leave both gardens behind. It hurt, not knowing if they would receive the water they needed to reach their full potential, the first hints at my changing relationship to food. Empathy for vegetables? Letting go without stress? Okay impermanence, I thought, I’m already learning about you.

Tree planting in Hungary. Photo Anja Jerkovic

We arrived in Hungary in June and began to work the ground slowly. A bit experienced now, I carried more confidence than before. Things needed to be done; cherries needed to be picked, beds needed to be weeded, nettles had to be cut and fermented and carried across the yard so that they could be used as fertilizer. I looked at the ground differently. My body was effortlessly working—I wasn’t counting calories burned or gained. There isn’t so much space for distraction when seeding or weeding. I felt my senses were slowly coming back. For the first time in years, I could actually feel my body internally, real hunger—not the stress-induced kind, but the type one can recognize after a long day of physical labor. I was looking forward to dinner as fuel, as time to rest. It was a huge shift from all of my previous calculations of what I had eaten and when, what I was allowed to eat and what was forbidden. 

The changes took place slowly, without my immediate knowing. They weren’t the do this and get this result shifts I’d expected from diet regimes; they developed overtime and gradually. I woke up and my first thought wasn’t about food. A patience developed in me. In California, I used to make trips to the supermarket to pick up whatever I wanted. Here, I learned that I could wait for things. I can wait 2 weeks for the radishes, some more for the salads, a whole year for the summer round of figs to come around. In turn, I noticed how that lowered my stress around food. And without that stress, I didn’t feel triggered to binge and thus, purge. I wasn’t spending my time running through aisles of everything I wanted to consume but felt mind-manipulated not to; instead, meal preparation meant evening walks in between the rows of vegetables we planted. I was picking herbs for sauces and beans for boiling. I felt nudged by nature, showing me what it was my body might be needing. Seasonal eating. Abundance. 

With the passing of the weeks, I found that my shame around eating slowly dissipated. When my partner found me crouching down at the gooseberry bush when I meant to be working, I felt less guilt, and more joy. Full humanity. I shifted from thinking I was doing something wrong when I ate to feeling like I was actually addressing my needs. It was different picking cherries and spitting out the seeds until I’d felt like I could wait another 365 days for the next one as opposed to when I’d order dessert and spend the night punishing myself for how sick it made me feel. Potatoes became funny little gifts I dug out from the ground treasure-hunt style rather than a member of some forbidden food list I had built up over the years. For the first time, it was about health, not weight. It wasn’t about money or wrappers or having a stare down between organic or GMO peppers and wondering if my pick would box me in a certain type of someone. It felt natural, like peace was arriving, a less turbulent relationship between me and my body. It was a tempo change, a slow down. Less rush; rushing to meet friends, deadlines, opportunities. My mind, I realized, needed time and space to catch up with my fast moving body. 

Garden Gifts. Photo: Anja Jerkovic

And in that moment, I had time and space—garden space—outdoors during a moment when social isolation and staying inside four walls was the daily norm for so much of the world. Stress was imminent, and, for me, unsolvable stress was a one-way ticket towards relapse. It was, and is, a privilege I recognized and often found difficult to accept. Why me? But I also thought, why not more? More space, more gardens, more time.

It wasn’t so much that I intentionally focused on ending the cycle of binging and purging, but rather that the garden opened up for me a different way, a way in which I could look more forward to a freshly picked tomato than a quick fix, something that would numb my senses. Rather, my senses strengthened. They became my guides, leading me to what I need rather than leaving me alone with the bombardment of advertisements and social standards guiding me towards the holy kingdom of weight loss. I stopped thinking about pounds and really began to ask how things made me feel. And then I made an agreement with my body: we both deserved to feel good. I initiated that process with myself, yes, but I learned it in the garden. 

For the sake of a true story, it wasn’t all homesteading blog goodness. I had breakdowns. I broke tomato stems. Snails ate my coriander. Tears flowed like watering cans. Things happened, life continued. I had moments where I thought I just sucked at this. It didn’t come to me as naturally as it did to my partner, but it didn’t matter. What gardening was and is

for me might be something entirely different than what it is for him, and that’s okay. We can share a good meal of ingredients we both partook in growing, but our gratitude can stem from contrasting reasons. How we approach the garden and what lessons we receive from it are as varied and abundant as the fruits and veggies that it can give. We all need diversity in our journeys in trying something new, so we know there is no cookie cutter form, so that we don’t give up when it’s not looking how we thought it should. Less expectations, more surprises.

Who would have expected the tidal wave of COVID-19? At a time we needed nature more than before, we had so few ways of accessing it. It changed nearly everything except for the garden, our place of retreat. Entering Hungary, agreeing to a 10-day quarantine, we found solace in the fact that we were outdoors, all the time. And I’m grateful, because it evolved into something I needed without ever knowing it. Still, I can’t write this article and not imagine a younger self that would be scouring it for the secret to recovery. I can’t offer that secret to anyone. There is no one way, there is only sharing our stories and seeing what they might bring alive in others, what conversations they might spark, where they might bring us. 

And my story brought me to the garden.