Escaping anxiety

Christmas in New York may be clichéd but it remains glorious. Holly wilting in the Australian summer can’t hold its own against Saks’ elaborate shop front displays that move and glimmer. Or twirling around the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza.

A few days before Christmas, I found myself wedged between hundreds of people, unable to move on the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue. The crowd was barricaded in by police. My shin was lodged into the legs of a pink stroller in front of me while a man behind me pressed up against my entire body. He was unable to move, the crowd behind him pushing him against me. Although he apologised as he pressed, I glared unforgivingly back at him. I didn’t care that he didn’t have control over his body’s movements, it was easier to direct my anger at him than to admit I too had lost control.

The crowd pushed and squirmed, there were yells of “Get us out” but it was no good. Nobody was able to leave, or breathe properly. It was approaching zero degrees that day, but a balmy heat arose from the crowd making the air hot and thick.

I couldn’t run, as I often do from crowds and forced social interaction. I couldn’t go to Plan B, find a quiet spot and be calm. I could only feel the tension rise with the body heat, clamp my jaw and try to ignore a stranger’s thick head of hair that was close enough to graze my cheek.

A light display across the street shone against the backdrop of a department store building, telling the story of Christmas with a retail musical twist over and over again. I’m not sure if it helped to distract my mind or if it just made the experience all the more terrible.

To this day, I still don’t know why the barricades were in place. Maybe to control the unrelenting Christmas crowds or to clear the way for traffic. Eventually it passed, after ten minutes or so. The gates of hell were opened and everyone kept moving, most forgetting what had just happened the moment they were a block away.

*

As I walked up the runway, I’d never felt worse. A nervous energy filled my legs, telling me to run in the other direction. A 15-seat plane bound for central California stood there, looking frail against the vast expanse of tarmac. My feet clicked up the metal grated steps. People gathered behind me and forced me forward. I entered the plane, ducking my head to fit in the small doorway, and shuffled a couple of steps down to my seat. I clicked my seatbelt shut and tried to not look ahead at the beige leather seats or out the window.

After the hand tremors passed, I felt light. It was as if everything inside had gone and all that was left was skin and air. I felt floaty in a beautiful way, the way I imagine ethereal-looking people feel all the time. As if the wind could take me away at any moment. There was no gravity left and even though a part of me knew this was scary and I needed to be grounded, I was okay.

But then, as it always does, it got worse. That ethereal feeling turned into panic, then straight fear, and all I could hope for was that I wouldn’t have a panic attack in front of a plane full of people.

The walls got thinner and smaller and tighter and everyone on the plane was looking at me. I had no proof of this, they seemed reasonably content flipping through their magazines and chewing candies, but I knew. I could feel their stares burning away at my skin. I wanted to walk out of the plane door but that would only make things worse. I’d be more visible. It’s best to pretend. To grip the seat handles and imagine the moment your head hits your pillow, when you’re at home and safe.

Plane trips can be difficult for people with social anxiety. Being surrounded by groups of people, you feel as though you’re being looked at, that those stares that aren’t really there make you less than yourself. You have no personal space, can’t avoid a chatty passenger or flight attendant. People can see you eat or see what you’re watching on the screen. You feel invaded and the anxiety prevents you from sleeping.

You don’t want to go to the toilet, something stops you from interrupting the person in the aisle seat and moving down the hallway. If it’s occupied, you will have to wait in a small space, with people moving past, within the rest of the cabin’s sight.

The worst thing is when you land. While you can afford to take a breath, you aren’t relieved. All you can think about is stepping back onto that plane again. That’s what anxiety is like, the inability to be happy in the moment, being consumed with thoughts about the next ordeal.

*

Anxiety makes all those hard details of travelling, the ones you tell friends with an emphasised moan, so much harder. But even though anxiety or social anxiety makes seeing the world harder, seeing the world makes all of the worry and tension easier.

It can be incredibly healing, taking away the routine and removing yourself from your triggers. You find peace in the moments when you’re wandering around a new city and find yourself absorbed in Andy Warhol at the Met. It’s a peaceful surprise when you’re not thinking about the crowds, or that niggling task you have to complete when you return home.

When travelling, I’ve found that I no longer second-guess myself when I’m interacting with a waiter or an airhostess. I can be at ease, knowing I’m just moving through a place and that my visit is temporary.

When I think back to New York, I don’t remember being filled with fear at the thought of the Subways, suspicious of being underground or wary of the crowds. Instead I remember walking 30 blocks during the day, as flurries of snow began to fall from the sky and melted against my jeans. I remember the calm of walking the streets and seeing everything. I miss thinking that way – thinking how little time mattered or that my legs could easily go another 10 blocks.

In a few weeks I’ll be travelling again. This time I’ll be in Tokyo, the most populous metropolitan area in the world. But I’ll also be escaping to Mount Koya to spend some time living with Buddhist monks in a 1000-year old temple. It’s important to balance the busy with the calm.

I’ve always felt that I can’t let the anxiety limit me from doing the things I want. I want to book plane tickets on the spur of the moment or even pack it all in and move to Paris. And while I can do these things, I can’t pretend that anxiety is not a part of me and live without any concessions. Sometimes you need to dish out more cash for the aisle seats so you can go the toilets whenever you want. Sometimes you’ll need to get a taxi, not the train. But doing more for yourself to be able to explore the world and stay healthy is okay, even if it costs more time and money. Entering the uncertain world of travel, despite the ups and downs, is the best thing you can do for yourself.

I often think of New York and my time spent wandering around the Guggenheim. That day I was particularly stressed, but when I paced up the circular ramps everything slowed down. I saw Van Gogh’s Mountains at Saint-Rémy, and while clutching onto my art-gallery tour headphones, learnt that he was suffering from a depressive episode when he painted it. He believed that being outdoors and painting would heal him. Seeing someone trying to get well, in such vivid paint strokes in front of me made me feel like I was understood. Seeing the Mountains at Saint- Rémy also showed me that there is immeasurable beauty in the healing process. Van Gogh later said of the painting, “There is something sad in it which is healthy, and that is why it does not bore me.” And perhaps that is the best way to describe living and travelling with anxiety.

Image: Williamson

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