Maybe we have better education about mental health in England, maybe our mental health service isn’t as dire as we believe. Maybe we are unfortunate and have more people suffering or, maybe we are just more vocal about the struggle. Whatever the reason, I have never experienced so many people not understanding before now. Generally travellers, generally westerners. If the topic comes up and I say that I have anxiety, I inevitably have come to expect the question, what’s that? What do you mean? Or, about what?
After a particularly anxious couple of days, this got me thinking; perhaps the majority of people out there don’t understand. After all, how can anyone truly understand anything they have not experienced on a first hand basis?
In its simplest, purest form, anxiety is worry. But it is so much more than that.
Anxiety is waking up in a cold sweat with your stomach in knots and not knowing why. It is not sleeping for weeks on end, picking your nails or pulling your hair; self mutilation in its kindest form. It is panicking about what you should have said or done and catastrophising what is to come. It is feeling unease in a room full of best friends, feeling alone when surrounded by people, being unable to say “hello”, “please” or “excuse me” because you don’t want to be noticed.
Anxiety is convincing yourself that a friend or partner is betraying you in some way when they are not, or taking two years to get over it when they do. It is nearly crying when you cannot find your hostel on a Burmese side street. It is fear of the unknown, fear of the known and sometimes fear of everything in between.
Anxiety is panic attacks about something you’ve wanted your whole life approaching whilst locked in a cubicle at work. It is worrying you’ll need to pee on a bus ride and not being able to go when you get a chance because of time pressure and the fear that the bus will leave without you, coupled with the fact that you dehydrated yourself to prevent needing to go.
It is feeling that you are never good enough.
Some people suffer with health anxiety too. Mine comes in the form that I live in fear of cancer. Every microscopic symptom of anything and I’m convinced, that’s it, it’s cancer.
The worst time during travel, for me, is just after someone you’ve been with for a while leaves. You’ve found yourselves a rhythm together. Someone you can laugh with instead of cry about that missing hostel, someone who might understand the accent better than you when you’re told that yes it is vegetarian, someone to keep you company when your motorbike breaks down, someone to share in the stress of where to go next, what to cut out and when to leave or else risk running out of time and missing something great. They go and there’s a hole where they used to be. A sudden unknowing of how it is you get from A to B. An all encompassing feeling of bewildered suffocation that can translate to dislike of a country. I lost one such friend to his home a few days ago and then moved on myself to Myanmar. So far, I really don’t like it… but is it just my fear of the unknown? My travel companion shaped hole waiting to be filled by the next one?
I am scared, I am anxious and most of the time, I can’t tell you why.
I am difficult to be in a relationship with and at times, difficult to be friends with. This is nothing to do with any of you beautiful people in my life but simply, me and my struggle. My anxiety is my burden to bear and for the most part, I do that well enough on my own but, to the people who have been there through the inevitable times when I’ve struggled, I owe you a lot. I am difficult to deal with and neurotic. It is a part of my life and I embrace that. I like the person I have grown to become, I am brave. I tackle my fear head on. And that’s not what anxiety is about. To escape the definition, at least partly, is something I am proud of every day.
I live my life encompassed in a fear that I rarely talk about in such detail to anyone. I hope one day the statement “I have anxiety” is universally recognised. Alongside every other mental illness. Mental health is not something to be ashamed of. We should talk about it more, break the stigma, educate people and heal ourselves. My friends are my biggest lifeline and talking to them about it has honestly changed my outlook on life.
I hope anyone out there who may be reading this and feeling the same can take some kind of solace in the knowledge that you are not alone. We are not alone and together, we will survive.