On traveling abroad with anxiety

When I landed in London I spent fifteen minutes thinking I’d been kicked out of the country. That was when a 12 hour flight and an inability to access wifi came crashing down on me, and I wandered the first floor of London Heathrow Airport, openly sobbing.

I realized I was frightening people, which only made me sob harder, which soon meant I had the entire area behind customs to myself. I couldn’t understand what had happened and after the stress of a day and a half of travel, homesickness, and hunger, I couldn’t understand why anyone would bar me from their country? I had a cute haircut, a nice yellow blouse on, and a pink passport-book sleeve.

I hadn’t showered, my neck was sore, so I was indulging a bad habit of standing with my head cocked to one side, and I was, of course, red-eyed and entirely puffy. Unused to being yelled at, my interaction with the woman at customs only a few moments earlier rung in my ears and sat heavy on my chest. She seemed to need more information from me than I had been counseled to bring and had ended our brief meeting with, “I can’t deal with this.”

Was someone coming to get me? Was I just supposed to wait? What if I missed the shuttle to the hostel that was coming at 1:00? Where was I supposed to meet the shuttle? What even was a hostel and what if I didn’t like it? What if I didn’t like anyone I was traveling with and had to be on my own for a month?

It was then, as I sat against a wall and addressed every possible natural disaster, embarrassing conversation, and failure that could happen over the course of a month-long study abroad trip, that it occurred to me to look at what the customs woman had actually marked in my book. Maybe there was information there as to what I should do next, though it did seem to me that whatever it said, staying right where I was and plaguing her with my presence was also a good option.

As it turns out, she had stamped my passport and noted that I should be let through to the UK, which I had missed on account of beginning to hyperventilate. I looked up and turned to the woman’s station, which I had hung unfortunately close to. She was looking over her shoulder at me in a quizzical way. I ran my fingers through my hair and bangs, wiped at both my eyes, and threw her a full-toothed smile. I had been able to brush my teeth on the plane, so I felt pretty good about that.

Walking out of the customs area and through to the arrivals floor of the airport, I considered what exactly someone like me was doing in a place like this. International travel to London was for people who knew how to pose in photos and who had their drivers license and, most importantly, who didn’t care about getting yelled at. Maybe it wasn’t enough to have a list of things I wanted to see, maybe I needed some deeper conviction to carry me through a place with any confidence—an all encompassing need to be there.

Traveling with anxiety meant that a simple hiccup at the beginning of a trip came crashing down on me and threatened to define the rest of my time in London. It meant that I questioned myself, my ability, and my inclination to do anything new or different. I faced anxiety again and again in my travels, as I expected I would. It was often times that expectation that precipitated heightened anxiety. I felt guilt at having a negative view of some of the most beautiful, historic places on Earth and felt frustration at knowing that this was all due to my own interiority. None of it had to do with the reality of travel or place.

This frustration changed the way I viewed my anxiety and the way I viewed myself. Anxiety often came in the form of fear for my own safety, as wrapped up as that interpretation was in blindingly strong, uninterpretable feelings. When I realized that I was, time and time again, entirely safe, I was able to stand with my anxiety, let it run its course, and all the while understand it as a fleeting state of mind. New things are always frightening. If you don’t know a place, you are in danger of not liking it. If you don’t know people, you’re in danger of not fittingin. But apart from all of this, you can know yourself enough to be safe wherever you are. Youcan enjoy yourself in the face of anxiety enough to accept a new experience. The great dilemma of life arises between doing what is comfortable and doing what stretches you. Anxiety can get in the way of new experiences, or it can come along for the ride. For me? I packed it up and took it with me.

You can find more of Mia Burcham’s writing at her Medium account. 

[Image courtesy Searchlight Pictures]

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