What it’s like to travel the world with anxiety

I received an email this week from a reader of my blog I’ve never met. (Yes, apparently I have readers other than my immediate family…who knew) He mentioned something about initially thinking I couldn’t have anxiety because of all the adventurous things I’ve done. I moved across the globe by myself; clearly, I must be a self-confident, fearless maniac who loves meeting new people and seeing new places.

Here’s the thing:

I’m not.

Like, not at all. I’m scared of literally everything (don’t believe me, see my post On Fear). But the simple thing I’ve done that gives the illusion of confidence is that I’ve just decided to do the scary things anyway. It hasn’t made them less scary, and it hasn’t made me less fearful. But what it has done is made me one hell of a persistent woman. And sometimes that’s all it takes.

But for those of you who might still think, “She doesn’t have anxiety like I have anxiety. I could never do those things” (or for those of you who are just curious to take a peek inside my mind), let me give you a glimpse into what it’s like to be me: A world traveler with an anxiety disorder.

||Note-it’s always a little terrifying to be this open in an entirely public forum, so be nice ❤ ||

I don’t sleep before I travel

I have insomnia and have had for the past…ten-ish years. While at times its cause has been a mystery, 80% of the time it’s a symptom of anxiety. If I’m anxious or nervous or stressed, I won’t sleep. And it doesn’t have to be huge anxiety, like “I’m taking a big test tomorrow and if I fail I will get kicked out of college and become homeless and live on the streets and die a beggar.” (see: College Caitlin’s anxiety). Sometimes it can be as simple as: “I have to wake up at 6.00. If I don’t fall asleep right now I won’t get enough sleep and then I’ll be tired tomorrow and OH MY GOD I’M NEVER GOING TO FALL ASLEEP MY LIFE IS ENDING.”

As you can imagine, the night before travel is full of anxiety. Will I wake up in time? Will I forget my toothbrush? My passport? My underwear? What if I can’t get a taxi? Do I have a backup plan? What if it’s rainy? Do I have an umbrella? Oh god I don’t have an umbrella! Now everything will get wet and ruined Oh look it’s 3 AM kill me now.

I make a plan. And a backup plan. And a backup backup plan. For every social situation.

Coffee shops are my least favorite places. At least, coffee shops I haven’t been in before. This was true in the States, too. I hate going to a new place, whether a cafe, a restaurant, or a bar. Normal people might walk into an establishment and think “I’d like a coffee. I’m going to go order one. Hooray!” (clearly I don’t know much about what goes on inside normal heads). This might sound incredibly superfluous, but I assure you it isn’t. Here’s an example of what goes on inside my head before walking into a cafe.

What if they’re closed? Is there another coffee shop nearby? Ok, yes. I can go to that one, just in case. What will I order? I’ll have an Americano. What if they don’t have that? Ok I’ll get a drip coffee. What is the ordering like? Do I sit down and get waited on or do I go up to the counter? Do I pay before or after? What if it’s too busy and there’s nowhere to sit? I’ll get it to go, just in case. But then what if people see me sitting at the table with a to-go cup? They’ll think I’m silly or wasteful. Ok, I’ll look when I go in and scope out a place to sit, and then decide. If there’s a place to sit maybe I’ll put my jacket down first so no one will take the seat. 

I order my coffee.

Do I sit down and they’ll bring it to me, or do I wait here? Am I standing in someone’s way? Are they looking at me funny? Ok I’ll sit down. Shit. I have to pee. Where’s the bathroom? Is there a key, or is it unlocked? Is there someone in there already? I can’t get up and check…everyone would see me and know I don’t know what I’m doing. What if I open the door on someone?  Ok I’ll wait a minute and see if someone else goes. Or I can casually check when I get up to get my coffee. Yeah. I’ll do that. 

And on it goes. It’s like this for every new encounter. Every new cafe, every new bus ride to a new city. Which, as you might imagine, gets a little exhausting. This anxious run-through of every public outing becomes even more amplified when I’m in a foreign country with a language I don’t understand. My first few weeks in Thailand I only went out when absolutely necessary.

Making friends can be absurdly difficult

People assume that because I’ve moved a gajillion times and traveled to 20+ countries, I must be so great at making friends. Uh, news flash, guys. I HAVE SOCIAL ANXIETY. I hate making friends. When I dropped out of college at 21 I lived with my parents for a few months and my social circle was literally my mom’s senior citizens scrabble club at the community center. They made an exception to their age requirement and let me join.

Nothing makes me more nervous than interacting with new people. My hands get weirdly sweaty, my heart gets borderline tachycardic, and I occasionally forget how to stick words together to form any sort of coherent sentence. And this isn’t just when meeting celebrities or potential dates. This is just like “hey these are my buddies Stan and Tippy, say hi.” And suddenly I’m like I DONT REMEMBER HOW TO USE WORDS.

With years of practice, though, I’ve been able to keep the chaos of my mind inside my mind. My paranoid narratives happen quickly and quietly out of the reach of public perception. People often say that can’t tell at all that I have anxiety. Which is great for me. But just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. That’s critically important to remember…about everyone.

And when the choice is to make friends or be alone forever in a foreign country, I definitely opt to make friends. Just because it makes me nervous doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Like most things, it just requires a bit of effort and a little gumption.

I have to become familiar with local health care

For a long time, I refused to take any medications for my illnesses. But while it’s true that meds are often seriously over-prescribed, they are sometimes vital. And so I try not to travel without them. I only take anxiety or sleep meds once in a long while. Only when I’m really in a panicked pickle. But there’s nothing worse than having a panic attack and having no resources available to help you. So when I move somewhere new, I always look up my options. I have a therapist in Chiang Mai who’s been an amazing help, and a doctor at the local hospital. Traveling with anxiety necessitates having a little humility and enough love for yourself to know what you need. And so, I try.

I have learned to trust myself

I’m 27. Which means I’ve had 27 years to learn how to trust myself. And more than ten years to learn how to deal with mental illness. I’m not great at it…I don’t know that I ever really will be. But I am at least more confident now in who I am. Being an anxious person means that sometimes I have to spend a lot more time planning. Maybe it means that I have to buy three umbrellas so I’m always prepared, or keep a list of coffee shops I like on hand in case one of them is closed and I suddenly get overwhelmed by not knowing what to do next. But all of those things are perfectly fine. They’re weird as hell, sure, but nobody really cares. Everybody’s a little weird. We just don’t like admitting it to each other.

So that’s it. A tiny glimpse into my obsessive little brain. Why would I go to the trouble of releasing my paranoid thought patterns into the public eye? Because of this: We’re all a little messed up, in some way or another. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t whole. It just means we’re human. And our struggles are often what give us the depth to relate to each other on more than a superficial level. I think that’s an incredible thing.

People might assume I’m a carefree adventurer, happy to wander around the world because I’m bold and unflappable. But the truth is, I’m just as much of a disastrous mess as the next person (probably more). But there’s no reason for that to stop me from living an adventurous life.

As my dear friend Kate said to me before I left Seattle last year:

Go, be brave. Whether you feel it or not so does not matter. No one owns fear and bravery like you.

Words to live by.

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4 thoughts on “What it’s like to travel the world with anxiety

  1. Congrats on acknowledging the anxiety without letting it stop you cold. Your post also serves as a good reminder of the importance of treating everyone we encounter with compassion. We all have our inner struggles. And we’re all trying desperately to appear “with it” and “together” in some area or another, no matter how cool or calm we may appear. Thank you for sharing about your journey!

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  2. Thanks for sharing such a personal “story”, which I think (combined with your adventures) should be a book. I can’t tell you how many people suffer from insomnia/anxiety and other wonderful combos. These people would benefit tremendously from hearing about your experiences and how you try to deal. Hey, if it puts a few of us therapists out of business, it would be worth it! lol…

    I have a very mild version of what you suffer from, but it’s enough to be able to sympathize with you and admire what you have accomplished. For example, I have this nervous habit of repeating my order over and over in my head when I’m in line at a coffee shop. I have this fear that I’ll hold up the line when I get to the counter if I can’t rattle off my order! And, you don’t even want to see me when I’m about to knock on a woman’s door at the beginning of a first date! WIll I call her by the wrong name? Are my shoes on the right feet (kidding)? blah-blah-blah-…

    Anyway, I’m always impressed by your ability to face down your demons; not to mention you’re a very good writer and your descriptions of your adventures are page turners! Oh, and – the pink hair looks great!

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  3. Thank you for the peak into you “obsessive brain”. Thank you also for letting us in. Even without social anxiety, that is difficult. I wish I could offer some fantastic words, but they would also sound like platitudes, or probably be just as cliché sounding–I haven’t had my coffee yet.
    Keep Coping.

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