Recently Thomas and I travelled for over two weeks. We celebrated his Masters program graduation in Philadelphia, we visited some friends in Scotland, and then we finished off with a few nights in London. It was a whirlwind, and I loved it. Feeling the pride of Thomas’s accomplishments, seeing my friends’ new baby in Scotland, meeting up in London with a friend for a show--it was all so wonderful.
However, as I posted pictures of our escapades on my social media pages, and received exclamations from friends over what grand adventures we seemed to be having, I thought about the stuff that didn’t make it on Instagram. I posted about castles, hikes, food, landmarks and monuments. I had a fantastic time commentating on the wonderful sights we were seeing.
But there was other stuff that I dealt with while travelling. Stuff I didn’t think people wanted to see.
I have sincere, uncomfortable, frustrating fears around travelling. And I travelled anyways. And I was proud of myself for it. I call it ‘bravery’. But that felt weird to post on Instagram, so I didn’t. However, why not? I'll do it now!
People who know me well, will know I have lot of fears, as I try to be vocal about what gets me anxious. Speaking about these fears can help me name them and find humour in them. The list of things that make me afraid is large, and has varying degrees of intensity from day to day. I think the only person in the world who might know all of them is Thomas, and even he forgets about some.
One of these things is heights. Another is the related sensation of falling from a great height. You’ll never find me bungee jumping or doing any free-fall amusement park rides. It makes my stomach churn.
Unfortunately, both of these fears tie in closely to flying.
Sitting 37,000 feet in the air, relying on the skills of flawed humans to put together a powerful engine and a sturdy metal structure to ensure that I don’t die by falling is terrifying to me.
In 2010, my fear of flying began to show up when I made the long trek to Zambia and South Africa.
In 2016, when I went to Calgary for Christmas with my brother’s family, leading up to the trip and during the trip I had a constant, nagging anxiety at the knowledge that I’d have to fly again soon. It was very unpleasant.
By 2017 I knew I’d struggled through too many flights with gripping anxiety, so I decided I would finally accept the help of drugs. Flying to Philadelphia, and then home from New York, I gave my body the kindness of Ativan.
So a month ago, knowing that I’d be boarding six different planes for varying flight lengths, I had the Ativan ready. But as I kept checking in with my body, I was surprised to notice that the tell-tale anxieties weren’t starting. As we drove to the airport, sat in security checks, and found our boarding gate, nothing escalated. I wasn’t sure why this was happening, I found it quite interesting.
It would have been absolutely fine and kind to my body to pop the Ativan and fly, in anticipation that I might get anxious later on.
But I wanted to see what my body would do. I thought I’d try out it’s limits. So I breathed through the parts of flying I hate the most (take off and landing *shiver*), and lo! I made it through five of the six flights on our trip without the assistance of Ativan.
Each flight I waited to see what my body would do. I breathed through anxious moments and waited to see if they’d go away. Thomas complimented me each time I didn't pop my Ativan. It was wonderful to feel like I was overcoming the thing that makes me afraid.
That sixth trip, however, was a 9.5 hour flight home from London, in which the stresses prior to boarding were more than usual, and I was not feeling at ease.
I got through the takeoff, and the anxiety didn’t calm down. The sweaty palms, the racing thoughts, and the desire to cry was not going away. I decided that the line was too far. The anxiety was too much. I took my Ativan.
And that, by the way, is fine. I’m not going to hold on to any stigma that taking Ativan was weak. I personally found my bravery in seeing if I could try to do the thing that scares me without the help of a drug, but at some point, I think it becomes unkind to my body to push through unnecessary pain. So I was brave five times, and one time I was kind to myself. At no point do I consider my experience ‘weakness’.
There were many other times that anxiety accompanied my experience throughout the trip, and I had to decide what was a limit to push through and what was not worth it.
Would I do the hike that hugged cliffs, wind pushing at my body, the sea and rocks below? I did. I needed Thomas to hold my hand at parts, but I did it. I had my reasons for trying.
Should I climb the tower to overlook Edinburgh, protected only by a small railing? My knees shook terribly, but I did it for the view, and after some photos promptly scurried down the spiral steps and drank water at the bottom while my heart rate cooled off.
I also had to face the question of whether or not I could even travel in my current condition. I’ve had chronic fatigue and brain fog since November last year from a concussion, and I had no way of knowing what my limits would be on this trip. I had a LOT of anxiety about worst case scenarios. And in part, they were slightly merited. My short time in Edinburgh was spent wondering how I’d get through each next hour, because my brain felt like it wanted to quit. And I did have to quit once we arrived in London, I missed out on the British Museum because of it. The majority of a day in London was spent doing very little, feeling very poorly, despite having only 2 full days to explore the city. But again, despite all of these fears and possible outcomes, I wanted to travel, it was worth it to me, so I tried being brave. And I'm so glad I travelled.
Each of us, I feel, have our own things to be brave about. These fears of mine seem like little battles in the very great troubles of the world. But they are my battles. And unfortunately they haunt my life in a way that only I will ever really understand. There are a lot more of them, which I won’t get into now, and I’m sure we all have our own sampling of them. Maybe for you it’s eating alone in the cafeteria, writing exams, talking to that intimidating coworker, attending an event you only know one person at, etc.
I know how silly my fears can sound--oh ‘bravery’ in such privileged circumstances. ‘Bravery’ in such glamour as being able to travel. I understand. To a degree.
It is still my reality, and the biological responses of what scares me are real. Therefore my bravery to face these issues is also very real.
So when someone comes to me and describes that they’ve done this seemingly mundane life activity that actually terrifies them completely, I am so excited for them! Although we have different fears, I know that feeling. I acknowledge that, for them, this was a horribly terrifying experience, and I’m very proud of their bravery to do what they did.
At the same time, if they were paralyzed by that fear and did not feel they could face it that day, I also get that! I understand. And I’ll let them know that just because one day they didn’t face that fear, doesn’t mean that they never will.
It’s up to each of us to face our fears. We know ourselves better than anyone else, and if we push ourselves, it’s because whatever we’re thinking of pushing through is worth it to us. And if our ‘pushing through’ looks different than others’, that’s okay too.
My bravery feels like bravery because I call it that. Maybe that's just me. I try not to call it ‘just getting through life’, or say ‘it’s pathetic that I deal with this fear’, because naming it ‘bravery’ is kinder to myself. Some loved ones call it bravery too. Thomas holds my hand and looks me in the eye and says he’s proud of me when I fly. When I hiked next to that terrifying cliff, he told me he was proud of me. My mom always said she was proud of me for doing things that she knew were scary for me. My closest friends never shame me for my fears, but smile and say they’re glad I did the thing that I wanted to do despite the fears.
I’m trying to take heart in my own bravery, unique to the things that are hard for me. I would love to see you do the same, and I will try to be a good support to you, if I meet you when you’re facing a fear.
In the theme of this being Mental Health Awareness Month, please consider your own mental health and the mental health of others around you.