Travel seems to be the path of the moment. Get out of your cubicle and see the world is the motto of many millennials looking to change the way we view success and adventure. But travel isn’t always as accessible as people think. And I’m not talking about money.
I’ve suffered from General Anxiety Disorder since I was a pre-teen. After going on medication and then off medication in my adolescence, I thought I was in the clear.
Fast forward to the summer after my freshman year of college, and I was going through it again. It was the first time the idea of travel scared me. Going to a party too many towns away that I might have to stay at for the night made me worried. Being in a car for too long brought on panic. I could barely work my summer job without feeling like the walls of the restaurant were constantly closing in. I felt as though I was constantly talking myself off the ledge. And so I went back on medication.
I stayed on the medication for years, graduating from college, moving across the country, making a name for myself in my career, and never did anxiety or depression feel like they were knocking on my door. The medication felt like my past. It had helped me for so long, but I was different. I didn’t need it anymore. I could travel without thought, be it stuffed in a car with a bunch of friends or holed up in a tent at a music festival. There was no bubble to pop, no threshold to reach. I could go anywhere, with anyone, and try anything and everything and I never felt panicked. And so I weaned myself off of the medication, and stayed off of it, feeling as good as I had on it.
But the funny thing about anxiety is that it doesn’t really care if you’re happy, or if you have a grip on life. It has its own schedule. I used to use the term “they’re off their meds” to refer to someone who I deemed ‘crazy’ for whatever reason. But now it hits too close to home. When you feel really good, you feel like you’re cured. But there is no “cure” to anxiety. In clinical terms, it is a lifelong condition for which there is only treatment.
In 2016, three years after coming off medication, I woke up at midnight in a state of panic, shaking uncontrollably. If you’ve never before experienced a panic attack, I’ll paint a picture: I was hot, then cold. My heart felt as though it would break through my chest at any moment. My throat felt like someone had their hands wrapped tightly around it, squeezing the life out of me. This one lasted hours.
When I woke in the morning, I knew it was back. It—the panic attacks, the lurking anxiety, the feeling of constant doom. I was utterly debilitated. I spent days incapable of eating, holding a conversation, or sitting still. How was I going to go to a music festival in the desert, camping in 100-degree heat for four days in just a couple months?
I went back on the medication, and a few weeks later I followed through with my plans to go to the music festival. But it was too soon. The drive, the campground, the people. I made it two nights before going home. This is where my story really begins, because it took years for me to realize the importance of listening to my body and mind. I relied on the medication to work, rather than putting in the work.
I realized after that festival that I needed to take things slow. Managing my mental health wasn’t going to work by back-diving off a 100-foot cliff. I needed to start from scratch. And that’s exactly what I did. If I wanted experiences like festivals and travel like jetting off to Paris to report on the best croissant in the city to work for me, I needed to be the tortoise in the race, not the hare. So I set goals while also setting boundaries.
I pinpointed my anxiety triggers, like too much alcohol, weed, putting myself in the thick of dramatic events between friends, and anything that made me feel guilty of bad karma. Day by day I found myself wanting to venture out into the world a bit more. I was questioning less and doing more. And yet, I was practicing awareness. If a moment arose that made me feel triggered, I backed off.
The idea of traveling started to consume me. And that was a good sign. I was getting a serious case of wanderlust, which only meant I was spending more time dreaming and less time worrying. After a year of working on my health, I felt like I needed to put myself back out there, so I made small trips. At first it was a two-hour road trip, then a two-hour flight. Eventually, it was spending time in foreign places: five days in Montreal, six days in Tulum, then two weeks up, down, and all around Italy.
Managing my mental health during each of these steps was all about finding comfort in the discomfort. I did, and still do, a lot of positive self talk. I replace the spiraling thoughts of “What will happen if I have a panic attack in a foreign country and I need help but no one can understand me?” with “If you’re feeling triggered, go lay down. Spend time by yourself. Back off. Enjoy the cozy, peaceful space that is a clean bed in a clean hotel, in a clean and loving land. Take a walk by yourself on the beach and breathe. Have a warm piece of baguette and watch the sun set.”
My wanderlust has turned into a part of my career, with travel writing a major part of how I make my money and spend my time. There are still times when unexpected panic arises, even with medication, even with all the work I’ve put in. Anxiety is not black and white. It’s different for every single person.
I’ve also learned that predictions can hurt me, even if I am predicting good things. Sometimes I just have to shut my thoughts off completely and focus on breathing or the beauty around me, and sometimes just find stillness no matter where I am, who I’m with, or what my plans were.