As I was dropped off at the airport, I couldn’t decipher if the buzzing in my body was a forewarning for a panic attack, or thrill for what my eyes would see, my lips would taste, and my nose would smell, when landing in a foreign country. But the thoughts that seemed like magnets to my mind were laced in threats of potential danger and reasons why I shouldn’t go. I bought a plane ticket one week before departure, acting as if spontaneity was second nature. I set out on this venture alone, maybe with something to prove to myself, maybe a rebellious fuck you to my anxiety, or maybe my soul wanting to revel in the freedom of my recent job resignation. I had no concept of where I would call home and no understanding of the various transportation systems, but I had a direct flight set to depart in a few hours. Some would find this an exhilarating adventure of discovery, whereas I was ruminating over the feelings that my safety would be sacrificed. The compulsive WHAT IFS magnified in their compulsory questioning. My heart yearned to travel as much as my mind pleaded for a retreat into familiar comfort zones. How curious it is to experience within myself, a free spirit stuck in human rigidity and anxiousness.
As the paradoxical inner pulls continued to battle for the domination of my attention, I, by way of autopilot maneuvering, handed my passport over to be stamped at customs, checked my bags, and walked into the terminal. Forward movement was dwarfed by mounting anxiety, and the judgements I was forming of the threatening panic I was being consumed by over recreational travel. Reaching my threshold for discomfort, I wanted to turn back to the safety of my car, my apartment, my routine, and the arms of my significant other. Forcing a split between my overactive emotions and my physical movement, I kept walking, right onto the plane, right into my seat, and buckled up, despite my inability to internally regulate. I pleaded with the customer service agent to give me an aisle seat, as claustrophobia only increases panic. She sent me to the very back of the plane, assigned me to a window seat with no middle passenger as a neighbor. I thought with this seating arrangement and extra space, the sleeping ailment that I took, and the departure being as late or as early as 1:45am, I was taking measures to combat my anxiety. Unfortunately, once my anxiety evolves to panic, I cannot deny it; I can only hope to stifle it long enough until it passes, requiring me to be pulled from the present moment and depleting my energy reserves. And so I sat there, with silent screams and eyes jumping from their sockets, fighting to appear stoically calm. In this posture I had one final thought, that this was my last opportunity to bail. Just as the thought illuminated into my awareness, the plane peeled from the terminal, and I was committed to my final destination.
I found rest and freedom within my breath within the first hour of flight by grace, or maybe by way of mental exhaustion after containing prolonged panicking, or perhaps my sleeping pill finally out lasted my adrenaline. I drifted into a medically induced power nap for the first leg of the flight. As I awoke to turbulence, the subsided fear reemerged with a vengeance when I remembered arrival came with no guarantees of safety, transportation, housing, or familiar faces. I sat bracing myself for landing and another round of labored breathing and dooming thoughts, masked by outer collectiveness.
As the plane touched down I had to collect my bags and navigate my way to shelter. Shelter felt like the appropriate questing for, as I walked out of the airport and into chaos, feeling exposed and vulnerable, I immediately shifted into survival mode. My instincts heightened, as did my hypervigilance. I was bombarded by the native language, which ignorantly sounded like gibberish as I was held hostage to sales pitches for numerous transportation and accommodation services. I quickly ruled out the bus because I had too many bags and looked the part of a tourist, as well as an easy target. Only then to rule out renting a car as GPS wasn’t functional on my phone, nor was a thousand dollar deposit within my backpackers budget possible. As I used the process of elimination to determine my movement from point A to the unknown point B, a shuttle appeared with a gentle English speaking man, asking if I needed assistance. He not only contacted, booked, and delivered me to a hostel, he took me to a local spot for lunch.
The fearful thoughts continued to recycle after each small victory. As I had survived my plane ride and shuttle, and landed on the doorstep of my hostel, I now had new things to contemplate over with varying degrees of anxiety. My host welcomed me, escorted me to my clean enough room, and inquired about my itinerary for my trip, in which I had no answer to. But the city I was currently in was dark, the sidewalks broken, no street signs or pedestrian crossings, the noise of crowded buses and speeding taxis and herds of people, told me I didn’t want to remain in this location long. I was petrified to go outside and in my fear of exiting the hostel, I felt trapped by the four walls of my dorm room as I sat atop my bunk bed shaking. I needed to get to the coast, to the pictures I had seen on social media and google images, to regain the freedom in my chest and for affirmation of this impromptu travel. Calling back home for support, I heard the voice of my mother, and quickly the tears fell. I was not sure if I made the right decision in impulsively purchasing a plane ticket to an unknown country. My trip thus far had been a resurrection of my relationship with my anxiety and management of it. The opposite of the adrenal fatigue recovery vacation I had envisioned.
I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, with no electricity or hot water, barely able to see my reflection behind my dirt smeared face and fleeting sunlight, tears streamed from my eyes. I felt like a failure, but with the release of tears, a sense of acceptance washed over me and made way to my surrendering. From within I heard the soothing words…You are not alone…I had to surrender to my anxiety, to see it as a messenger, not as a debilitating phenomenon, to transition out of survival mode. I had to free myself from the opinions I had of myself because of it. I had to continue moving, despite the paralyzing experience my anxiety can generate. And so I called my shuttle driver from the airport, who happily came to escort me to the coast, and to my delight, brought with him a fellow solo traveler from the states. I chatted with this American man for the entirety of our shared ride, in nervous runon sentences and renewed optimism. I expressed to him I had been struggling with fear. He responded by telling me, “The fear is natural and healthy, it is part of it, but don’t entertain the thoughts that follow”. Maybe it was his Jamaican accent, or the reggae that was playing, or the comfort of the familiar face of my shuttle driver, but I felt a knot within my gut beginning to untangle.
And there she was, the tranquil yet raging ocean waves of Costa Rica. I was surrounded by sandy beaches, palm trees, fresh coconut stands, smiling people from all over the world, and beauty that pictures couldn’t even begin to capture. I felt validated in my intuitive decision to travel here alone, even if prior to this moment the connection to my intuition had been lying dormant beneath my anxiety. I needed to be with my fear, my anxiety, my panic, and my aloneness, so that I could wholeheartedly celebrate my freedom.
I’ve felt moments of pure bliss, followed by crashing descents into panic, but with each emotional experience, they washed away with the tides, to resurface again in different and unique waves. I have felt the threshold of freedom when galloping a caballo across the beach as the waves splashed at me, and I have felt the fear of destruction when learning to surf. I have spent much time alone, writing and reflecting as much on my inner journey as my outer, but I have also felt the immediate connection when meeting some of the most beautiful humans whose souls speak the same language as mine. As I sit here with excitement to go home to my familiar and with a refreshed perspective of the blessings and luxurious I live with, I am gripped with sadness at what I leave behind and now only hold as memories.
I will always have my anxiety, but I will also always have the experience of what is on the other side that presents before the panic, as well as a firm belief in the plasticity of my thresholds. I will always crave wandering as strongly as I require safety. Traveling alone, will never be as lonely as it seems for it will be a beautifully orchestrated vacillation between freedom and fear, connection and introspection. Without fear there is no gratitude for freedom. Without freedom there is no appreciation for fear. A wise surfer in Costa Rica told me, “Fear will aid you, but panic will kill you”. As I often limit myself because of my perplexing fear and desire for freedom simultaneously, I take comfort in knowing there is vitality and aliveness in traveling with anxiety, and going at it alone. I can hold that paradox. When the calling for travel confronts me again, I may experience hesitation at the discomfort of meeting my thresholds yet again, but I will not deny my inner nomad her wandering because of her anxious counterpart.