Q: So Erin, what’s your experience like abroad, as someone with anxiety?
A: Everyone is different, but this is my experience:
Have you ever stumbled around your room in the dark? Maybe trying to fumble for your sneakers for an early morning workout, or a phone charger before falling into bed? Well, imagine the walls are covered in spikes. And the walls move. So, moving around to grab your sneakers seems pretty dangerous and stupid, right? Survival mode kicks in, and grabbing your shoes is not only an impossibility, but it completely drops from your mind as you cover your head and curl into a ball. That’s basically me having conversation in groups larger than three. I try to adjust, see what’s going on, but there’s so much I don’t see and literally anything could come flying at me at any second! It just seems better to keep quiet and absorb so maybe someday I can see a little better and try moving around.
Q: Well that’s… interesting.
A: Obviously, I’m being a little dramatic about it. I’m trying to exaggerate a little so people who have never experienced anything like this before can understand a tad better, and so people who have felt this don’t feel so alone.
Anyways, that’s what I experience, but not just for conversation. Going abroad anxious is like a whole maze of these rooms, each with different dimensions and different obstacles. But I still went anyway. Looking back, it seems crazy that I am halfway done. A whole month spent in a foreign country- I can’t believe that I did it. Am doing it. I am forcing myself to confront all of these obstacles and see that they’re actually not spiky. The walls may bump and shift me around, but they won’t make me bleed to death. So, yeah, I still freak out a lot.
Q: But why would you punish yourself that way, when moving can hurt you so badly?
A: I wouldn’t quite call it punishment. It’s quite a strange mix of self-destruction and self-building. I decided to go abroad, even though it seems crazy, because at least it’s me that took that step forward. The walls might hit, but I won’t have curled up in a little ball of fear forever. I have to move, even though sometimes there are consequences. Because I got to see some amazing things. Because now, the walls aren’t as scary and I can see my way a little brighter. Because I am learning how to push myself outside of my comfort zone once in a while, without betraying my sense of self. Plus, assuming that things will just come out of nowhere and hit me in the dark makes it seem like I have no agency in life at all. I’m trying to make me myself, instead of letting everything else shape who I am.
Q: How does this ridiculous metaphor relate to reality at all?
A: How about I give you an example. This weekend, a group of us traveled to the Whitsundays-
Q: What is that?
A: I hadn’t heard of it either, but there’s a beautiful string of islands off the coast, a little north of Brisbane. It’s amazing there with turquoise water and the whitest sand beaches in the world. I was truly able to enjoy myself, by sitting quietly and taking in the views. I could tell the social burden of keeping up conversation was in the back of my mind, and it was more quiet than I think everyone was normally comfortable with on our boat ride tour. But fully enjoying the experience for me meant not having to devote myself to the social energies of jumping through the hoops of conversation. So I probably seemed strangely quiet, but it was how I could get the most out of my experience. At the same time, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone by going with five other girls to a strange place. Organizing the details and discussing involved a whole lot of wall-bumping! But in the end, I got one step closer to knowing when to bump the walls back, and how to navigate them.
Q: So what? What’s the big picture, here?
A: The big picture is: I don’t have a clear answer for anything, although I pretend to. I find more and more questions about myself and the world when I spend time pushing my boundaries. I pretend that “balance” is the answer to every moral dilemma, because simplifying difficult questions is human nature. I try to make everything a metaphor for the same reason. The big picture is, I don’t know what I am doing, but neither does anyone else. I am trying, and that’s all you can do. Upon reflection, I’ve come kinda far by doing so.
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