I was in Prague. The sun was shining, the hostel was cool and colourful. Even better, affordable, the buildings were beautiful, the people were friendly, and my head was in the toilet. This wasn’t the first time I’d been in this situation; the nausea of nervousness was something I’d felt before, in school, in the mornings, in train stations, in the shower. I wasn’t a stranger to anxiety sickness, the physical weirdness that it brings. But this time it was infinitely worse; I was on holiday, for fuck’s sake! Surely I should be having a great time?
What am I doing here, my body trying to force the fear out of my gullet and into the hostel WC? The anonymous, greyish cereal in the hostel’s kitchen may have been disgusting, but it wasn’t that. I was in the thralls of anxiety. This isn’t what a holiday should be like. What was my body’s problem?
An hour later. Perched outside the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, weeping slightly into a punnet of Czech grapes, my friend reassuring me, but also keen to get on with some sightseeing. I felt a miserable bastard: this is it, my body and brain were telling me. You’ve ruined your holiday. How are you supposed to enjoy yourself now, if this is how you’re going to spend every morning?
Anxiety is multifaceted. I can’t speak for all anxiety sufferers; I certainly don’t have it at its worst, and I certainly don’t have it in all its various glories. I can say that anxiety is, in many ways, seeing things that aren’t there – having a broken filter with which you view the world. For me, a large element of my broken filter is to see the world as a frightening place, and to see a ginormous, terrifying permanence in things. ‘If I feel anxious now, I always will.’
Going on a big and scary traveling trip, taking in brand new streets, sights, and smells, jumping on and off of trains at god-knows-o’clock in the morning. Your clothes, money, phone, life held tightly in your rucksack, rationalised these fears for me. They say immersion is a brilliant help for anxiety; and for me, it was. In a lot of ways the world is a scary place. We had some insane episodes on our trip – everything from running away from a fake Isis attack in Prague (yes, that did happen), to my friend getting robbed of 30 euros (oh, the pain!) in that age old shell game in Berlin – but really, I realised that it didn’t matter. Sure, the world can be frightening. You hear so many stories of awful things happening to naïve travellers as they try to explore, and we were vulnerable. Two young, small female travellers, disorganised, bad with directions, and in my case inexperienced. My fears weren’t totally unfounded! But for every mildly alarming, anxiety-inducing thing that did or could have happened to us, something brilliant happened too. That’s the thing about travelling – you meet so many people, see so many different things, it’s only natural that you’ll encounter multiple facets of experience. The exciting outweighed the alarming; the fears and insecurities were made manageable by the fact that, ‘hey, she got robbed of thirty euros, but the view’s pretty damn good, right?!’ It was life on micro-scale. Bad things happen, but so do good. Why worry, if you’re here with a glass of wine in this fascinating, scary place, having a brilliant, terrifying time?
My anxious sense of permanence was questioned: I went from trying not to cry outside the Van Gogh Museum, of all damn places, cigarette in my shaky hand as I tried desperately to breathe in smoke so I could breathe out trembling, to half an hour later feeling fantastically happy as I sat in the moonlight looking at the Rijksmeseum, lit up and fabulous.Crying in museum toilets didn’t mean that I’d ruined my holiday. Who’d have thought it? So surely, the anxiety that I’ll inevitably feel again won’t mean anything at all. It’ll go away, and it’ll come back again, but those blips in between will still be wonderful, hilarious, surreal, exciting; as turbulent as my feelings had been. As I looked out of the train window, unknown trees and houses blurring past, a brand new place to explore unfurling before me, it was a brilliant realisation to have.