Anxiety: Part Two

I cried my heart out in Laos. I don’t think I ever really grasped the full meaning of this expression until I was perched on the edge of the bed in my tiny room, clutching my heart and quite literally feeling the aching hurt drain away with each sob that wracked my body.

It sounds a lot worse than it actually was; in a way, I had known this day was coming. I had felt it build up, this clenching in my chest that got tighter every day and stole away my breath, leaving me feeling sickened and exhausted. Ah yes, anxiety, my newfound enemy…this dark creature that had inexplicably wormed its way into my body without my permission. At least that’s what I kept telling myself was the culprit, while I secretly feared I was dying. This whole thing again; the fatalistic thoughts I couldn’t quite quash. 

Don’t get me wrong, I had shed a few tears throughout this journey: tears of awe and wonder at beautiful sites, tears of frustration when travel plans fell through, tears of loneliness when I had no one to talk to and I just wanted a hug…but none would I consider a full-on breakdown, the one I felt looming somewhere in front of me, just out of reach. 

And I had known to expect it as well. “I cried every single night in my hotel room,” my stepmom told me after she completed the Camino de Santiago last spring. The way I was feeling when I left, I was pretty sure I’d do the same…but staying in hostels and then Airbnb rooms never afforded me the privacy to have my much-needed meltdown. 

And even now, a few days later, I couldn’t tell you what triggered it…only that isn’t exactly true. I have an inkling of what it could be. A few events occurring both simultaneously and in quick succession that led to me to this cathartic release. 

A few days before, I had emailed my principal and made plans for next school year. This was an odd decision, as just two days prior I had been certain I wasn’t returning. But sudden signs from the universe were telling me to go back, just for one more year, and I felt I had to honor them (*sidenote: when you ask for a sign, don’t be surprised when it appears to be telling you the exact opposite of what you expected to hear). And with that decision, the anxiety I had decidedly released on a hiking path in New Zealand a few months earlier came back with a vengeance. 

At the same time, I had begun a slow journey back to yoga. A devoted yogini for the past seven years, my practice had been on hiatus since last summer, but recently I had felt a calling back to the mat. With 40 days left before I return home, I started my own personal challenge to practice an hour every evening. It didn’t matter to me how active or restorative this practice was, as long as I committed myself to mindfully moving and breathing. I wanted to mend that connection that had been broken months before.

It’s almost comical the way the cry-fest began. I had just finished another dramatic journal entry (“please help me feel better”, etc.) and had turned on the tv to find a dubbed Laotian version of the movie Crazy Stupid Love. I sat there watching, because I love the movie and know it nearly by heart. It is by no means a tearjerker, but as the credits began rolling, the tears began to fall. And from there, the sobs. 

Honestly, it felt so good. Like my body was saying, Finally. And while the tears stemmed from a place of nearly unbearable anguish, I could somehow feel the bittersweet side as well. 

I’m not sure how long I cried; I don’t think it was more than fifteen or twenty minutes. But I relished each and every tear, knowing they were stepping stones on my path to heal. And when I felt tapped out for the night, I climbed down onto the floor and began my newfound nightly yoga session, finally forgiving myself (for what? I don’t know. For everything, I suppose. I don’t think it matters what for). And when I was finished, I felt nearly whole again. I felt like me again. I don’t mean to say that I’m completely “cured”…but it’s a start. I’m on the road to loving myself once more.

Anxiety: Part One

I don’t know why I was surprised to discover that the panic attack in Cuba was not an isolated incident. The symptoms that had come on so suddenly that night, only to disappear by morning, returned with a vengeance only days later and worsened with each passing mile that brought me closer to home. There was a constant clenching around my heart, I was out of breath, and my pulse felt thready and irregular. I didn’t feel anxious or sweaty or panicky…I just felt sick, like something was really, really wrong. I felt certain I was about to die, and even started leaving messages in my travel journal for whoever might find me in the morning.

Anyone who has felt the relentless grip of anxiety would probably not be surprised by these symptoms. But I was completely blindsided when it seemed I had gone from never experiencing a single episode, to suddenly having a full-on anxiety disorder. 

I had initially planned to go home for a few weeks in the middle of my travels to see friends and family, celebrate my birthday, get some much-needed rest, and repack for the second half of my journey around the globe. It was meant to be a fun, relaxing break. Instead, my first night home was spent nearly collapsing by my mom’s front door, calling for her to feel my pulse because I was positive my heart was giving out, then slumping on the floor before I could pass out, while she held pressure points on my hand and rubbed my back. Not exactly how I had pictured my return. “I didn’t know you had these,” she said softly. Yeah, me neither.

Symptoms only got worse as the days passed. I wasn’t sleeping, and was exhausted to a level I had never experienced before. Friends wanted to get together, and I made excuses for why I couldn’t meet up. I had no energy to socialize, and was afraid I’d have another anxiety attack out in public. It was obvious I didn’t know how to deal with briefly being “home” while still living this backpacker life. 

One night, while putting together a puzzle with my niece and nephew, I nearly passed out with my little nephew on my lap. Finally, big sis talked some sense into me and we were on our way to the ER. No huge surprise, my heart was fine. I was fine. Only I didn’t feel fine. 

“Do you need to talk to someone?” my dad asked, concerned for my mental health. But no, I didn’t need to talk to anyone. Once I had time to reflect, it was obvious to me what had happened. 

I’d been on an extended break from yoga, and my body no longer knew how to communicate with my mind. I had severed that vital tie. Yoga, my one and only salvation from the pressures of my job (and my life) for the past seven years…I thought this break was a healthy one; during the months leading up to my travels, I had begun to feel disconnected from my practice. I was going through the motions, but I felt numb inside, and I didn’t know how to unthaw. 

And now, without that space on my mat to breathe and clear my mind, communication pathways had closed and my brain had rewired itself to deal with my stress in an entirely different, and unhealthy, way. My body was a stranger. 

A quick fix would obviously be to begin my practice again…but I couldn’t. I felt like there was something hiding in my heart that I wasn’t quite ready to expose. And until I was willing to actually feel something again, this anxiety would have me in its web. 

So it followed me as I crossed the ocean to New Zealand, and stayed with me for weeks, leaving me weak and defeated. Until one day, while hiking the most lush, verdant trail I’ve ever seen, on the spectacular west coast of the South Island, I was able to release it…for the time being.

That time Martin (possibly, maybe) saved my life.

I’ve only been truly scared once during my travels. Thankfully Martin from Germany was there to save the day.

I was nearing the end of my amazing three weeks in Cuba. I’d booked a couple nights in Santa Marta just outside of Varadero, the popular seaside resort town. I thought I’d treat myself to a full day of lazing on the beach before heading back to Havana to say my goodbyes. Unfortunately, the weather did not quite cooperate.

It began storming the night I arrived, and I awoke the next morning to cloudy skies and drizzle. The hostess at my homestay assured me the rain would let up soon, so I suited up in warm layers and headed across the bridge toward the seemingly endless expanse of walkable beach.

As promised, the rain had eased by the time I arrived, replaced by wind so strong I could hardly walk. A nightmare, you might think…but I love the wind. The rain had scared the sun-worshippers away, and I had the entire beach nearly all to myself. It was actually pretty perfect.

I walked for hours, occasionally stopping to look for seashells, or pausing to close my eyes and spread my wings when the wind would gust.

I noticed him pretty early on. Very tall blonde dude, definite backpacker, possibly near my age range. Hmm…cute. He passed me first, then stopped to take pictures. Inevitably my slow meandering caught up with him and I took the lead. And soon after, his long legs won out and he passed me yet again. This happened several times before he finally disappeared into the distance.

Eventually I ducked into town for lunch — and instantly spotted him coming out of a shop across the street. Ha! Of course he would be there. It was starting to get weird. I wondered if I should introduce myself, since we so obviously seemed to be on the same path that day. But I am shy and couldn’t work up the courage. 

After lunch, I headed back to the beach for the slow wander home. I was kicking myself a little, thinking I should’ve at least said hi, when who should walk past me but Tall Blonde Dude. Same path, indeed! It was comical by this point, and I laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of it all. A firm believer in fate, I decided I had to say something to him. And I had a chance at sunset, when he stopped to take pictures of the brilliant orange sun furiously fighting its way through the clouds. But all I could manage was a shy smile as I walked by. Within minutes he was ahead of me on the beach, and my opportunity was gone.

The light was fading quickly, and I still had some distance to cover. But I could just barely make out the tiny figure of Tall Blonde Dude up ahead in the distance, and I felt oddly comforted.

By the time I got to the bridge leading to Santa Marta, it was pitch black and had begun to rain; I was still twenty minutes from home. I looked around quickly, as the pedestrian walkway on the bridge is very narrow and a bit precarious. No one in sight. Cinching up the hood on my rain jacket, I unfurled my umbrella, useless against the wind, and hurried my pace. About halfway across the bridge, I heard footsteps behind me. I kept my head down and walked as fast as I could, huddled into myself to keep warm. It was seriously pouring at this point.

“Buenas noches,” a male voice called from behind me in a rather forceful tone. I wasn’t sure if it was intended for me, and I didn’t turn around to check. Had it been daylight, or dry for that matter, I might’ve answered. But walking alone at night and being approached from behind, I didn’t feel comfortable. Especially when a second ago the street had been empty. This felt wrong. I kept my head down and tried to move over to allow him to pass. He didn’t.

“Buenas noches!” An angrier tone, even closer this time. I’m sure the stranger thought I was being rude, but I was beginning to feel scared. I stayed silent and increased my pace. 

Once I arrived at the other side of the bridge, I rushed toward a streetlight, then quickly turned around to confront whoever was behind me. I collapsed my umbrella and clutched it in my hand, ready to use as a weapon. No way was I going to be blindly attacked from behind! The man walked up to me, got right in my face and shouted in fury, “Buenas noches!” before passing me. But instead of moving on, he stopped ahead on the sidewalk and turned to face me, waiting. 

I finally answered him in a similar tone. “Buenas noches!” He just stood there, staring at me and seething. Everyone I had met in Cuba up until this point had been so friendly; I had no idea why he was so angry, but I knew I still had several blocks before I was home, and I was terrified to walk past this man. 

“Qué? Qué quieres? Véte!” What? What do you want? Go away! I told him angrily in Spanish. No way was I going to let him see my fear. But he started walking toward me. I quickly glanced at the cars rushing past in the street, gauging the traffic and wondering wildly if I could get someone to stop and help if it came to that.

“Hello,” I suddenly heard behind me. I turned and nearly collapsed with relief. Tall Blonde Dude was walking up behind me, a miracle vision in the night rain. “I think I saw you before on the beach, yes?” he asked in accented English. 

“Yes!” I cried. I had never been happier to see someone in my entire life. I quickly glanced to the spot the angry stranger had been standing a moment before, and saw his shadow retreating in the distance.

“Oh my gosh, thank you so much!” I effused. I explained what had just happened. 

“Yes, I noticed him talking to you and wasn’t quite sure what was going on.” 

“I’m pretty sure you just saved my life,” I declared, relieved beyond measure. 

We introduced ourselves and chatted on the rainy walk into town. It turns out Martin from Germany was staying quite near me, and so he walked me home. When we reached my road, I started to shake his hand and say goodbye, expressing my thanks yet again.

He had the oddest look on his face, as if just struck by some great realization. He clutched at my hand, unwilling to let go, and stared at me in a mixture of wonder and astonishment. We were both completely drenched, grinning at each other like fools in the rain. 

“What are you doing tomorrow?” he asked hurriedly. 

“I leave for Havana in the morning.”

“Oh.” He was disappointed. “Well, how can I see you again?”

 I turned my face up toward the sky and laughed into the rain. Oh fate, you are hilarious. This poor guy was captivated because he mistook our constantly crossed paths as a sign of an inevitable love connection. I admit I’d made the same mistake, and only moments before had realized the true meaning for our meeting. Yes, the universe had definitely intervened…but not for some grand romantic scene. I was suddenly certain Martin had appeared in my life that day so he could be there for me when I desperately needed someone. He quite possibly, maybe, saved my life. 

And so, while it wasn’t exactly the Hollywood movie ending we deserved, it was perfect all the same. It was enough. 

“Maybe I’ll run into you in Havana.” I gave Martin’s hand one final squeeze before letting go, then turned and walked away, leaving him to stare after me in the rain.