Most of us have at least one fear that holds us back. There’s often a few that show up in our lives, but usually there’s that one, in particular, that prevents us from doing the very thing we know would bring us so much joy and growth. For the last decade, mine has been travel.
It’s a little hard to explain and you’d probably have to talk to my therapist to get all the nuances of it, but (super-)long-story-short(-ish), I had a very bad experience with travel when I was 22. Two summers after I graduated from college, I decided to plan a trip to Europe. I had never been, and was beginning to feel like I was the only one who hadn’t, as many of my friends had done studies abroad or gone backpacking across the pond. I had really wanted to travel with a friend, but it never seemed to work out so I decided to just plan a solo expedition. 3 weeks, 6 cities, and 5 countries. London. Amsterdam. Paris. Barcelona. Milan. And Rome. In that order. It was a dream trip, really. Except that it wasn’t my dream.
I have always loved to explore new places and had planned to travel all over the world since I was a little kid. But never did any of those dreams include a vision of me doing it alone. I had always imagined being with family, friends, or a significant other. To be honest, at that point in my life, I was not very good at being alone. All throughout college, I was always the last one to leave the party and often crashed on friends’ couches at the end of the night just to avoid the loneliness that seemed to follow me around.
I would say that I am not sure what possessed me to book a three week-long solo adventure, but that’s absolutely not true. I know exactly why I did it. I wanted to see these places. I was afraid of missing out, of not being part of the club. And mostly, I had this idea that if I went, if I did it alone, I would magically become one of those people that I admired so much. Those lone wolf types who seem to be able to wander the earth needing nothing and no one. The ones who trekked through South America with only a backpack and no set plans. Yes, they were the coolest of the cool ones, and I wanted to be like them.
So, I planned my reverse S across western Europe. I booked flights, trains, and hostel reservations, and then I began to panic. It was quiet at first, just a tight feeling in my stomach. But as it got closer and closer to my departure date, the panic heightened to a fever pitch. I had to take a sedative before I even left for my flight. That should have been a sign, and it was, but it was too late. It was all planned, all booked, and even worse, I had told everyone all about it.
I got on the plane and slept a deep, sedative-induced sleep from SFO to London. I guess I thought that once I got there I would realize I was fine. Not so. I woke up in terror at what I had done and I actually threw up the minute I got off the plane. Oh, it was not pretty.
I somehow made my way to my hostel where I called my mom in total distress. She asked if I just wanted to come home, and then I bullied myself some more. How could I go home now? What would I tell people? I’m not saying that I shouldn’t have stayed, but I’m not saying that I should have either. Actually, should-ing is what got me into the mess in the first place. The whole trip came out of a series of shoulds.
I should go to Europe while I’m in my early 20s.
I should feel comfortable trekking around alone in other countries.
I should be able to do what everyone else is doing.
Well, I’ll end the suspense here. I decided to stay, probably for all of the wrong reasons, and a couple of good ones, too. The trip was both rough and wonderful. It took several days before I stopped constantly feeling like I was going to pass out from the panic, but eventually the anxiety settled into a more manageable place. I met some wonderful people, saw incredible sights, and learned a great deal about myself, but when I got home, I was still shaken up by the experience.
As dramatic as it sounds, I had traumatized myself in a way, by not listening to what my body and soul were telling me and putting myself in a situation that I was truly not ready for. People often ask if I was worried about my safety and if that’s why I had panicked, but that wasn’t it at all. My anxiety stemmed from a much deeper place. Without getting into all the nitty-gritty, I had a childhood that left me without any stable sense of home, both physically, but even more so, emotionally. That was what had created the overwhelming sense of loneliness that had been with me all my life, compelling me to constantly seek some sense of connection, a feeling of being at home. When I landed on the other side of the world, where I knew no one and had nothing to ground me, that powerful sense of disconnectedness came crashing down on me like a massive wave. I felt like a tiny ant in a giant world. Invisible.
For those of you that are reading this and cannot relate at all, I am so happy for you. It is an awful feeling that generally stems from some fairly sizable deficits in attachment during early development. For those of you who are reading this and nodding, you’re not alone and it gets better. I promise. But it takes time and effort. It’s taken me years of therapy to get to the bottom of it, and it is only recently that I have been able to truly begin to work through the fear. And that’s the kicker, you have to go through it. For years I wanted to just ignore my anxiety. I wished it would just evaporate, so I could go on with my life like a normal person, but that’s another should. I should have been able to go through everything that I did in childhood and emerge with no scratches. But then I wouldn’t be so perfectly, vulnerably human, would I?
So, I lived it. I had the anxiety. I listened to it. Sometimes I made choices around it and sometimes I pushed past it, only to have it pop back up and knock me down. And then, eventually, I learned to accept it. Not in a this-is-going-to-be-my-life-forever kind of way, but in the way that we accept our less-than-favorite qualities about our loved ones along with their awesome qualities. I stopped trying to stomp out my anxiety and began to look at it, ask it questions, have conversations with it. I didn’t travel much for many years, and then, I began to feel that there might be an opening, a crack with a little light seeping through, an opportunity to expand.
I began to test the waters, but this time, I honored my own truth and worked at the edge of my comfort zone. I took a trip to Costa Rica with a friend. We met there and stayed in a sleepy, little beach town for a week. It was heaven on earth. I did have anxiety leading up to and during the trip, but it was reasonable and I chose to be present with it and loving towards myself instead of bullying and shoulding all over myself.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve traveled to Colorado to visit my sister and took a trip to the East Coast to visit friends in New York and Massachusetts, and I’ve felt another big shift beginning to take place inside me. I had a little anxiety before the trips, but it was so much less than it would have been a few years ago, and for the first time in my adult life, I had the experience of being away from the place where I live and still feeling a strong sense of being at home. That internal sense of home, a safe place that I can take with me anywhere, is the very thing that had been lacking when I took that trip to Europe almost exactly 10 years ago. I have been slowly building that sense of home within by being truly loving and nurturing to myself. As I’ve learned that I can listen to my own heart and help it feel seen, accepted, and safe, I’ve realized that wherever I am, as long as I am being present with myself, I am home.