Last week, I had the opportunity to share about my RTW trip with my former students. The majority of the conversation was a Q&A, and several of the questions were quite profound. I felt that they deserved more comprehensive answers, so I’m taking them to the blog, starting with the hardest one of all.
Here’s what you might already know:
That question you asked last Wednesday was quite profound.
As soon as we wrapped up our conversation and locked the basement door, I immediately texted Sam to let him know that his status as “best-post-trip-question-asker” was being threatened. To which he responded that he taught you everything you know.
So there’s that.
What you might not know is that you are one of very few people who could have asked that question. As one of my students, you’ve heard me share my whole story from beginning to end. Because of the nature of our relationship, you’ve been forced to listen to my “testimony” at least once, and probably multiple times.
Most people haven’t.
Even those closest to me only get snippets, or they live it alongside me – which is quite different than having the whole thing explained. My dearest heart-people might actually be too close to see the whole picture, and for better or worse, we aren’t often in the habit of narrating our lives to those around us.
So before I answer your question – and I do want it to answer it fully and thoughtfully – I think I first need to give some background. To everyone around me who might not know the story. Who might not know how significant it was for you to ask:
What was it like to travel with anxiety?
I’ve hesitated to answer fully up until now, not because knowing the response is at all hard, but because accurately answering this particular question requires serious vulnerability. And vulnerability is inherently, unquestionably risky.
But if I’ve learned anything from reading about how to be a better writer, it’s that vulnerability is what really matters. My life is often incredible – I get to go to amazing places, take wild adventures, and meet awe-inspiring people. All of that is true. And if I’m honest, that is what I most want you to see.
But it would be easy to hide behind my Instagram-worthy photos and ignore the parts of myself that are messy. In so doing, I would by lying to you, but I would also be lying to myself.
And I’ve recently realized that maybe I’ve done just that.
A month or so ago, Mrs. E and I were watching This is Us, as we did each week all season. And as we watched the episode where Randall has a panic attack and nervous breakdown, I off-handedly commented how amazingly true-to-life that acting was, how familiar that scene was to me.
And then I realized that Mrs. E – one of my closest people and my second mother, someone who has literally been with me as I’ve grown up – had no idea.
Of course she didn’t know, because I had never told her. I had spent a lifetime mastering the art of looking like I had it all together – and I was very, very good at hiding.
She didn’t know about the nights in high school spent collapsed in a ball on the floor, unable to catch my breath or regain composure. She didn’t know that I had lost myself to full fledged panic attacks more than once, or that I had spent years learning to navigate a life where anxiety comes and goes as it pleases.
Like her, you probably don’t know that I had and still have somatic symptoms ranging from stomachaches to fevers to blisters on the insides of my eyelids. More often than not, my body knows that I’m stressed before my brain does – I’ve regularly watched my face breakout and then had to figure out what might be freaking me out and causing me to react. When I left for college, I was in such a crazy state of panic that I gave myself a 104 degree fever. These symptoms are real, but their causes are all mental.
I have anxiety-induced behaviors that manifest most often as dermatillomania – skin picking – which is just as disgusting as it sounds. But because I want to look presentable, my anxious tick is not to tear at my cuticles or face like many people who suffer from the same behavior, but instead at the bottom of my feet. Find me at a particularly stressful time (or honestly any time) and I will have large pieces of skin missing from my heels.
I regularly over-inflate even the simplest ailment, convincing myself that I am dying and then preventing myself from thinking about anything other than that for days or weeks at a time. If it’s not an ailment, it’s a situation. Or a conversation. Or a moment. I have a memory like a trap, which is both great and terrible.
All of this has been a part of my life for decades.
It doesn’t come from anywhere in particular; it’s not social anxiety or triggered by any particular fear. It just is. Like a fog or a monster. I can see it coming. And thankfully, I have learned and developed strategies to fight it off.
But it’s never totally fixed or gone.
I create structure because I operate best with guardrails. I can be free within lists and schedules, whereas completely open days make me squirm. It’s why I’m slightly neurotic when it comes to plans – because not having them makes me actually crazy.
In high school, when the panic was the worst, I quickly learned that getting myself around people was a surefire way to prevent a full-on attack. It’s why I cling to my inner social circle – they have literally held me together and upright without knowing it.
I learned to listen to myself – to know what it feels like to be heading toward panic so that it doesn’t arrive unexpectedly, even if it comes without an identifiable cause. It’s why my friends compliment me on how well I know myself – because I have to know myself in order to function.
And of course, I’ve leaned hard hard hard into Jesus. Because I had to. Because for me, there was no other way.
For so many people with symptoms similar to or more severe than mine, the right course of action might be medicine or tailored therapy or any combination of treatments and interventions. I’m on board for all of them, and I am in no position to prescribe or comment on the right thing to do for anyone else.
I just know what I need to do for me.
Which brings me back to the original question:
What was it like to travel with anxiety?
Because it is pretty wild, actually, that someone who handles her anxiety by being around close friends would leave everyone she knows for a year.
That someone who relies on structure would ditch every possible guardrail she has ever built.
When I think about it now, in retrospect, I feel a little bit crazy and a little bit like a badass.
But really, it just happened. I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought before I left or as it was happening.
The short answer is that traveling with anxiety is an awful lot like traveling without anxiety: hard and wonderful and boundary-pushing and absolutely, one million percent worth it.
Like any traveler, I was constantly learning – about other cultures, about the world around me, about myself. I tried new foods and met new people and attempted to speak new languages. I lived a wild, amazing adventure – one that had ups and downs the way that anyone’s world trip might.
But unlike everyone, I spent a particularly long afternoon sobbing in an airport bathroom, unable to regain composure.
And found myself in a Greek hospital being treated for a somatic ailment after weeks CERTAIN that I had a tumor growing in my throat. (I didn’t).
And I used valuable international phone minutes to call my dad four times in as many minutes, each unanswered call upping my panic, because I was SURE that something bad had happened. (It hadn’t).
And most recently, I spent a flight horizontal, headphones in ears, worship music blasting, utterly, completely convinced I was having a stroke. (I wasn’t).
Most of all, though, traveling with anxiety meant a year of learning how to rely so much more fully on God. By removing my guardrails and my people, I was left with only one course of action when I would get panicky – to pray. To turn to Jesus and HANG ON as tightly as I could.
This has always been a real and tangible thing for me, but it became so much more visceral and necessary on the road.
And God, being gracious and loving, gave me people and structure when I needed them most. He gave me unlikely heroes and comfort in my freedom. And he gave me new tools and gifts that have become a part of my routine.
While traveling, I learned to rest. I learned that my identity is not tied to what I produce, and therefore, I don’t need to be stressed about performing.
I discovered depths of joy that stem from gratitude – happiness that filled me to overflowing. And it’s hard to be anxious when you are bursting at the seams with gratitude and joy (hard. not impossible though. just fyi.).
And most of all, I was living into the person God created me to be. I was living MY life, as opposed to a life prescribed to me by someone else or the powers that be. This congruence of my actions and my identity led to both purpose and peace. I felt so confident that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.
Anxiety isn’t an every day thing for me. It wasn’t before, it wasn’t during the trip, and it isn’t now. But it does rear its head every now and then. I’m grateful that I didn’t let the fear of panic stop me from embarking on the greatest adventure of my life. I’m grateful that I’ve spent a lifetime learning to be brave and faithful, even when my insides work against me.
And I’m trying to have that same bravery now, as I bare my soul on the internet.
Because I spent a long time trying to look like I had it all together. I think we all do that, to some extent.
But when I heard your question, I knew I had some explaining to do. Because that question depended on you knowing my whole story. And that question cut me right to the core. It made me feel known and understood – something I think we’re all after, but something that can only happen if we are willing to unearth the things we initially try to hide.
One of the things I’ve learned most from both travel and from hanging out with all of you amazing students is that we are not one thing. We are all a mixture of circumstances and personalities, and we can’t let any one piece of ourselves overshadow the whole. That’s true for a woman living in extreme poverty and it’s true for a high schooler in River Forest.
And it’s true for me.
Yes, I get anxious sometimes. But I also get loopy and excited and heartbroken and playful and snarky and a million other things. It’s one more stroke on the page, along with my bull-headed optimism and loud leadership and nerdy school-loving and countless other characteristics that make me me.
So Ben, thank you for the question.
But more than that, thank you for being part of a tribe that has held my story with such care, not letting my one little quirk change the way you see me. You guys have given me the confidence to share more broadly, and all I can say is thank you.
With love and gratitude,
(PS – Actually I have one more thing to say: Travel. It’s the best.)