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Backpacking with anxiety

Monday, 06 July 2015 Joanna

Joanna blogs from Peru about her decision to backpack around South America despite struggling with anxiety

I’ve always worried about things in great detail, even as a small child.

When I was diagnosed last September with anxiety and prescribed a course of treatments, it was a huge relief. The panic attacks which frightened and disorientated me, the intense fear and stress, the days when I felt so incredibly restless that I couldn't sleep or sit still - these were part of a condition external to who I am, which I would always endure but could tolerate and potentially control.

"About a month before my departure, I entered panic mode."

Deciding then to backpack around South America the following year was daunting. I was motivated by a desperation to travel and see the world, but hindered by my anxiety. About a month before my departure, I entered panic mode. I spent a great deal of time doing things which only made my anxiety worse. I spent hours reading horror stories online about South American public transportation. I stayed up at night writing lists and lists of things I needed to pack, do, buy, research. And probably most ridiculously of all, I constructed a scenario in my head where I fell pregnant in South America and had to fly home for an emergency abortion - I even planned the speech I would have to deliver to my mother. On reflection, these behaviours seem totally irrational, but, at the time, the fear and anxiety was real and made me cry. It caused me restless nights and made me and people around me worry that this trip was a really, really bad idea. 

On top of all my bizarre and far-fetched worries, I was extremely worried about my mental health condition. If I had a panic attack, I couldn't go up to my bedroom and sit alone and breathe until I calmed down – I would be in shared dorms with strangers who might not be as sympathetic about my condition as my friends and family. If I freaked out on a night out, maybe after too much alcohol or loud music or crammed spaces, I couldn't just catch a cab back to my bed in England and sober up in a familiar space. What if I had a really bad time with my anxiety and my dad had to fly to Colombia to collect me? Planning the next five months of my life abroad was always going to be stressful, but my anxiety totally eradicated any excitement or enjoyment I might get out of the planning process and gave me a hard few months of preparation for my trip. 

But, by some miracle, I did it. I got all my injections. I bought all the gear. I packed all the right things and I boarded a plane alone from London Gatwick airport on the 22nd of January and flew solo to meet my best friend and travelling companion in North America.

"I am so, so glad that I did go against all my anxious instincts."

I'm currently sitting on a bunk bed in Cusco, Peru, adjusting to the high altitude so that in a couple of days I can hike Machu Picchu. And I can now say that I am so, so glad that I did go against all my anxious instincts.

That’s not to say that the whole trip has been plain sailing - I've had some pretty substantial freak-outs. I had a particularly bad episode in a cafe in Mancora, Peru, where I sat with two friends eating and smiling but feeling fear, dread and nausea build inside me, until I felt so overwhelmed I had to escape. For me, one of the issues with anxiety is you can't escape your own body, so when I strode out the cafe and down the beach I was still scared and still upset, even when I was 20 minutes down the beach from my hostel and no tourists were in sight.

My best friend, who is endlessly patient and sympathetic and kind to me, eventually caught up (in my rush to get far, far away I had not even realised she was following me) and we walked together in silence for a while longer. We stopped at a rocky part of the shore and I stood in the shallows, breathing slowly and focussing on the waves. A minute later, we noticed a movement in the water – about five metres from me, a wild sea lion ducked its head above the waves. It was a beautiful and exciting moment.

"This is just one facet of my identity."

While the magical sea lion didn't cure my mental health condition, for me that moment kind of encapsulated my relationship with my mental health. I will always worry irrationally, I will always have terrible thoughts and feelings at bad times, I will always resent my brain and have moments in which I hate being me and want nothing more than to escape my body. But this is just one facet of my identity. I also have ambitions and beliefs. I also have hobbies and talents. I have amazing friends and family and a huge bank of incredible experiences and memories. I might be the kind of person who runs away from cafés and her friends but I am also the kind of person who loves animals and beaches and travelling!

All the elements of my personality can co-exist with my anxiety - it doesn't define me, just as a mental illness shouldn't define any person. I will return to England as a sufferer of anxiety, just as I left, but I will also return a person who has been lucky enough to see and experience the beauty of South America.

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