It was the middle of the night and I was in a private room in a hostel in Colombia. I woke up with my stomach churning, rolled onto my side and breathed deep, hoping dearly that the nausea would pass.
But it didn’t pass.
Maybe 10 minutes later, maybe 20, maybe five, I was on my knees with my head over the toilet, vomiting.
And there are no reason for it. No more vomiting the next day. No other signs of food poisoning. Nothing that could have caused food poisoning.
The next day, the only conclusion I could reach was that it had been my anxiety that woke me that night, forced me over the toilet bowl, and then left me awake, staring at the ceiling, focusing on my breathing for perhaps another hour.
That anxiety had, after all, been running high since I arrived in Colombia. I felt constantly nervous. I checked the door lock five times every time I left the room. I had to stand in the hallway sometimes and just breathe. It took me hours to respond to simple emails because the idea of saying no, even when no was appropriate, made my chest tighten. Sometimes I was so exhausted that I’d stay in bed all day.
And now it had come to some sort of horrible peak, forcing me into the bathroom in the middle of the night, retching over the toilet bowl.
* * * * *
It wasn’t the first time I’ve had anxiety. It wasn’t even the worst. Something like seven years ago, I was having true panic attacks. And when you have one of those, you actually think you’re dying.
Your chest tightens up and breathing is hard. Your heart races. Sometimes you can’t move at all. There’s sometimes nausea and dizziness.
When they started, my panic attacks were always in the morning, triggered by my alarm clock. It would go off—buzzing at low volume—and I’d wake up gasping for air, feeling my heart race, unable to move for a few terrifying moments.
I actually went to the doctor because I thought I had a heart condition. My heart was always racing for no reason, and I thought, dear god, I’m going to die in my twenties.
When I went to the doctor, though, she told me I was having panic attacks. We talked about depression. She asked if I’d been suicidal. I told her I wasn’t going to hurt myself. She wisely asked, then, if–even if I wasn’t going to do anything about it–perhaps I was thinking about dying. Was I, for example, secretly wishing I would be hit by a bus?
I started bawling there in her office and she prescribed anti-depressants.
* * * * *
I’ve done a lot of things to manage my anxiety and depression over the years. I’ve taken trips. I’ve gone to therapy. I’ve been on and then off anti-depressants. I adopted my dog, Luna. I sing and dance, read good books, take deep breaths, nap when I need to, eat plenty of fruits and veggies, and hike and walk everywhere. I have tried yoga. I have journaled. And I have asked my heart what it wants and followed its requests.
Sometimes these things work wonders. Sometimes I’m under control. In fact, I haven’t had a full-on panic attack since I got Luna. And there have been a few stretches of time, particularly for that first year on the road, where depression and anxiety seemed far away, conquered even.
But that’s not always.
When I was cycling across France this September, I wondered if my phantom jaw pain (which an exam and x-rays turned up no reason for) was a result of anxiety. Perhaps I was grinding my teeth in my sleep.
I also started having headaches this year, something I’d never really had before and that seems to crop up during the most anxious periods.
And these first two weeks in Colombia have been the worst in years, my body and mind in a constant state of alert.
Worse, my normal standbys—the one-person dance parties and morning hikes—have yet to banish anxiety back to a manageable place in my life. And so I go on each day battling through it. My work takes longer. A single email can leave me exhausted. But I slog onward because there are no other choices. There’s no opt out button for life and work, especially when you’re single. We all slog forward, no matter what.
* * * * *
Part of the problem is that I’ve been reading all the wrong books.
Stories about what it means to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Stories about our toxic consumerism and where it’s leading. Stories about places without freedom. Stories about our broken legal system and extreme wastefulness.
I mean, they’re the right books because I care about those issues. I’m glad I read them. But they also dig me into a hole that’s hard to climb out of. My anger and outrage over the state of the world is sometimes trumped by my sense of overwhelmed helplessness. And I’m sure overwhelmed helplessness isn’t a great thing for my anxiety.
* * * * *
Recently, several people asked me how I manage to travel with anxiety.
I think the answer starts with this: anxiety manifests differently for different people.
Some are paralyzed by specific things, like flying or crowds or social situations. Some feel mounting panic over things they can’t quite pin down, reasons that don’t seem to make sense. Some have more constant anxiety. Some go for long periods feeling okay until–WHAM–one day it rears its ugly head again.
My own anxiety comes in waves. It can go on for weeks, but then disappear for awhile. Usually, it’s like a song playing in the background: there, but not too loud. Then, sometimes it’s all I can hear.
It’s also unpredictable.
Sometimes I can understand where it comes from. Like when I pass through immigration lines. I feel tense and anxious and have to focus on my breathing. But that makes sense because of that time I was detained and mistreated by British Immigration on my way to a conference.
I can also understand the anxiety I have around my singleness. After all, I did end up utterly alone and hospitalized this year. So having some intense fears about dying alone, while an overreaction, also comes from an understandable place.
But there are also lots of anxieties that don’t make sense. Like how sometimes writing emails takes me three times as long as it should because I have this horrible, overpowering feeling that I’m saying the wrong thing and that there will be terrible consequences—losses of jobs and friendships and goodwill. Or how my chest feels tight every time I walk over a bridge because I can’t stop imagining falling over the side. Or how sometimes it takes me five minutes just to get up the courage to leave the apartment because I’m paralyzed by thoughts of the place burning down while I’m gone, even though I’ve checked the stove 10 times already and unplugged everything in the house.
* * * * *
Even so, I do travel full-time despite my anxiety.
I do it in part with simple strategies: hiking, fresh air, fruit juice, dance parties, and self-forgiveness when I’m finding it too hard to accomplish much.
Even bigger, though, is the fact that I’ve built my travel around my neuroses.
It’s one of the reasons I usually travel slowly, staying at least a month in one place. In part, I do it because I get to see more of the place, meet more new people, and get more work done and in part I do it because that’s how I need to travel. It’s infinitely less stressful than planning a move every few days.
Traveling slow also means I feel less pressure if I have a bad day or bad week. I can take long naps, stay in and binge-watch episodes of Master Chef Junior, or read a book cover to cover. I don’t have to go out and see everything on a day that I’m feeling intensely anxious. I have all the time in the world to get around to climbing the 649-step staircase to the top of El Peñon. I have weeks upon weeks to get to the top of Schilthorn. There’s no pressure to see the Louvre on the first day of a six-week stay in Paris.
The other big and ongoing thing I do is practice self-forgiveness. Those words can sound a little self-helpy, but what I really mean is that I actively try not to beat myself up if I have a bad day or a bad week. If I need to close the curtains and retreat to bed. If I take twice as long to get things done. If I just can’t seem to pull my shit together.
I try to treat myself the same way I’d treat a close friend who was going through this. I remind myself that we’ve been through this before and that it always passes. I give myself permission to take the afternoon off and get some fresh air or take a nap or do a little less that day. And sometimes I literally lay in bed and whisper, “I love you.” Because “you’re going to be okay,” doesn’t always mean much when you’re in the middle of an anxious period. But “I love you” always means something, even if it feels really ridiculous to say it out loud to yourself (and, frankly, even more ridiculous to admit to you right now).
* * * * *
Most of the time, I’m fine.
I do my work, explore my current city, make new friends, play with Luna, and live my day-to-day life, be it in the Swiss Alps, rural Colombia, or Slovenia’s capital city.
My anxiety stays in the background, manageable.
Recently, it’s been bad, though. I turn down a writing gig and it screams at me all night that I’ll never find another one. I wake up and vomit. I decide to go for a walk, but return much sooner than I expected because I just can’t shake the feeling that something terrible is about to happen. I’m having jaw pain again and dreams about tense, life-threatening situations.
And so as my anxiety changes shape, I ask myself the question: will this too pass or will my strategies need to change shape too?
I don’t know the answer.
But I do know that if my strategies must change, that’s okay. If I need medication again, that’s okay. If I need to travel even slower, staying 2+ months in each place, that’s okay. If I need to move to my best friend’s town for a few months, that’s okay. If I need to avoid certain places and situations for awhile, also okay.
* * * * *
Just today someone suggested that perhaps my travel lifestyle was making my anxiety worse.
It’s not an uncommon opinion. But in my case it’s a wrong one.
My depression and anxiety have been at their absolute worst during times when I was standing still, signed onto long-term leases, living firmly in one spot.
That doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with them on the road, obviously. But travel is not the cause of my midnight vomit, my morning panic, my thrice-checked stove. It’s just the backdrop against which I manage these things.
And that’s kinda the point.
When I was still living in Denver, thinking about living out of a backpack, I thought, why the hell not? If I have to live with depression and anxiety, why not do it somewhere new, somewhere beautiful, somewhere interesting? If I have to feel lonely, depressed, and anxious, I’d rather do it in the Swiss Alps and in Rome and in Paris than locked up in my little house in Denver.
So, now to you: Do you travel with anxiety or depression? How has it been? What are your strategies for managing?