I want to talk about something that I have been really struggling with lately in my time abroad, it’s something that people typically don’t talk about, or at least get uncomfortable when it does get brought up. It’s something that countless of my young adult friends battle. It’s something that manifests itself differently for every person that suffers from it. It’s something we call Anxiety.
I had pretty amazing control of my anxiety over this past year, coming so far as to even stop taking psychoactive medication cold turkey against the advice of my doctor and turning out just fine, but in the spring, I found myself in a verbally/mentally abusive relationship that destroyed all the progress I had made in regards to my anxiety the few years prior. I began to have anxiety attacks again, invasive thoughts, repetitious behavior, nightmares, etc. All the symptoms were there. When I finally found the self-love to kick my abusive partner to the curb at the beginning of summer, I realized I didn’t really have the time or energy to go through all the motions I had gone through to ‘conquer’ my anxiety before I left for Ecuador. So I slept, I read, I watched Grey’s Anatomy, I went to church, I wrote a TON of music, and I figured that if my soul was strong enough to heal itself before I left for South America, it would.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t.
Studying abroad with anxiety is nothing like you’ve ever felt before. The thing about anxiety back home is that you know your safe spaces, you know where to go, who to call, what medication to take, when it’s a bad day, when it’s a good day; you know how to read everything. But when you are studying abroad, everything is new and changing and unfamiliar and you have no idea where you are or who you are or who you are supposed to be. It takes your anxiety, a fragile creature already, and drops it into a meat grinder that is plugged into the Energizer Bunny.
This is what studying abroad with anxiety looks like: it looks like knowing exactly where to buy headphones in case yours break or get lost and you need to minimize the time you are without access to the only music that can break through to you during an attack as much as possible, it looks like walking around campus and picking out safe zones where no one will see you relearning how to breathe, it looks like having a list of people that you associate with safety and the sunshine that you contact when you feel an attack coming/during recovery even though most of them don’t even know they are on the list, they just know that you ask them what they are doing or where they are at random points during any given day, it looks like enjoying taking the bus home because it’s the only guaranteed time you have where nobody asks personal questions, it looks like overthinking asking anybody to hang out and vowing to never ask them again even if they have a legitimate excuse not to, it looks like smiling and crying at the same time, it looks like needing to be hugged but being afraid to ask someone, it looks like people thinking you are quiet or stuck up or apathetic or distanced, it looks like wanting to scream that you are just as alive as everyone else but knowing that no one would believe you so you just dance it out whenever possible instead, it looks like appreciating every single person that makes an effort to talk to you, it looks like Guns N’ Roses and Twenty Øne Piløts and The Wombats, it looks like dizziness and tunnel vision and hyperventilation and tears and numbness and the words “I’m just tired”, and it looks like growth.
It looks like growth because it is growth.
It’s terrifying, to not be able to control how I respond to stress here, and it’s even more terrifying to try and speak to someone in Spanish while having an anxiety attack. But there is growth and goodness and holiness being found in the struggle and that’s why I can write to you all about this, that’s why I can breathe knowing you are all reading my secrets. On the days when I wake up and there is fog outside and I put on a favorite sweater and I sing Hamilton while getting ready for school and the bus is on time and I don’t have to go early to print my homework and I already have dependable lunch plans and I have time to take a nap near la laguna, that is where the goodness is. The goodness is in the friends that don’t understand why you eat so many popsicles, but believe you anyways when you say it keeps away the bad spirits. The goodness is in the friend from back home who understands you when you say you’re dark and stormy today. The goodness is in waking up to an actual Mariachi Band inside your house and being mad because it’s early but not able to think of a better alarm clock. The goodness is in encouraging messages from home and late night conversations about blue fireflies and honest writing and similar tastes in music, it’s in climbing a route without stalling and it’s in the rainbows that fall out of your mouth and into the sky when you reach the top and it’s in the people who are waiting to hug you when you get there.
So yes, anxiety is ugly and messy, but the things that scare me most are so frequently the things that teach me how to love and how to grow and how to breathe the tears into the past that letting anxiety win is not an option for me. It can’t be. Anxiety is a battle I have to fight sometimes, but I have all the weapons and all the fellow comrades that I could possibly need, so I am not afraid to fight.
If you are battling anxiety, no matter what stage in your life, I hope you know that it’s OK. It’s absolutely OK. It’s OK to be afraid and it’s OK to be angry and it’s OK to need an hour of time. Please know that you are not alone and that you will never be alone and you are not meant to be alone. We have you, I have you, God has you, the world has you. Your anxiety will not win, not in the end. You are strong and beautiful and the bad dreams will stop eventually, I promise. Do not give up. Do not give up. Do not give up.