The Anxiety Chronicles: Travel Edition

I’d rather walk all the way home right now than to spend one more second in this place
I’m exactly like you Valentine, just come outside and leave with me

“The Day I Die,” The National

In November 2007, I flew to Iowa from South Carolina for some work I did with ACT and then a couple weeks later to New York City for the annual NCTE convention.

I had flown only once before that, the first time at 42 for the NCTE convention in San Francisco.

My particular fear of flying is a subset of my life-long battle with anxiety—mine a pervasive anxiety that is very difficult to explain to other people, even those also suffering from situational anxiety because anxiety is not a simple or singular monster.

My trip to Iowa in 2007 and San Francisco in 2003 were alone, but the flights to NYC were with my then-colleague and dear friend Nita.

Because our university allows an unrealistically low allowance for housing on trips, Nita and I booked our flight and hotel together to save money, and since Nita knew I was a less-than eager traveller (and flyer), she was convinced she could make the trip better for me.

However, when we returned to SC, Nita admitted she had not fully understood my problems with traveling and flying, that she had a much greater appreciation for the hell that those are for me—even when I have compassionate traveling companions.

Having just returned from a summer trip for cycling to Fayetteville, Arkansas, prompted by two good friends who are professors at the University of Arkansas, I have had once again to confront the burden that my anxiety is for me and others when I travel (even by car on this particular trip).

As I have written about before, my “I don’t fly” plea is always rebutted with some very brief explanation that I just need some meds or a few drinks on the flight; in other words, the vast majority of people (even those who do not like to fly) just brush aside my very real obstacles with many activities grounded in my pervasive anxiety.

My panic attacks in October of 1999 were the first manifestations of my anxiety that were immediately debilitating. I have lived with anxiety and suffered under the weight of anxiety my entire life, but mostly, I was never really aware that I had a condition since it just seemed normal, what it means to be a human.

Flying, or not flying actually, is a really good example of what virtually everything I do in my life means in terms of navigating anxiety.

To admit I do not fly, or do not want to fly for a trip, is not about the flight itself. If I were just afraid of the flight, then, yes, meds or a few drinks would do the job and I probably would have already flown dozens of places.

My anxiety is about hyperawareness and the inability to manage the burden of the unknown, a series of new experiences.

If I booked a flight today for a trip to France in November, my entire life would then be consumed (off and on) by the uncertainty of that trip. The result is that I could not enjoy my life leading up to the initial flight, I would not enjoy the flight, and then I would not enjoy the trip itself because I would be fretting over the return trip.

That’s why—and friends are well aware of this—my weekly life is one of predictable patterns that include scheduled bicycle rides and nearly an unbroken routine of restaurants each week.

I cringe at “Let’s do this new thing!” in a way that I really am not sure most people can grasp.

Just as another example, when I returned to mountain biking about two years ago, I had a few really bad experiences with group rides that required me to walk across rocks in streams.

These always went badly because the moving water and precariousness of the crossing (carrying a heavy MTB and being a somewhat less stable 50+-year-old), I discovered, triggered my anxiety (I knew the crossings were coming up, so once again, I could never enjoy any of the cycling because of the need to cross the streams, usually twice).

Similar to the lack of understanding about my not flying, many of my friends find this funny, and joke about me being afraid of water—although this has almost nothing to do with water. (A parallel joke surfaced on my Arkansas trip because I balked as canoeing and sat on the bank while friends enjoyed a nearby lake day instead.)

It is about precariousness, a tad bit of vertigo and disorientation, and the overwhelming relationship between the unknown and anxiety.

So on my most recent trip to Arkansas, nearly everything was new—the town itself, the paved cycling trail, the mountain biking trails.

And then on trips, the exhaustion of traveling, the disrupted sleep patterns, and the stress of cycling every day (bad decision) all snowball into a sort of all-consuming exhaustion that renders me incapable of enjoying anything.

Confronted with this reality about midway through the trip, I just confessed in a bit of exasperation that the gauntlet of new experiences had depleted me the same way that being social depletes introverts (which I am).

In other words, the consequence of anxiety for me cast into new experiences is that I am just entirely drained—no psychic or even physical energy available.

None of this, of course, is fair to my friends and companions; none of this is fair to me.

For about 38 years, I lived in silence, actually ignorance, that I suffer from clinical anxiety, something that can be diagnosed and treated in the same way we all experience colds or the flu.

Then I took medication from about 1999 until 2003, eventually gaining some ability to manage the condition but then no longer seeing the side effects as worth the medication itself.

Over about the last 15 years, I have self-medicated (alcohol) and returned to a cycling routine that includes riding about 4-5 times a week. This self-management makes my anxiety nearly invisible to others except those closest to me (the closer, of course, the more severe the consequences for those people), but to be honest, it isn’t really effective for the quality of life I deserve.

As well, the companion to my anxiety is also chronic pelvic pain that also significantly diminished the quality of my life.

Currently, I don’t have a real persuasive way to distinguish for others (or myself) between those things I genuinely do not want to do (canoeing down a river) and those things I simply cannot do because of the weight of my anxiety, the burden of the unknown (flying and traveling).

If left to me, I would simply not do, or in a moment of weakness when I agree to do something new, I would just flee.

Because that is what I almost always want to do—leave the new space if I cannot avoid entering that new space.

I think as a grind toward 60, I am tired of being tired, exhausted by the burden of anxiety, so I am looking into professional help again.

And the paradox of this isn’t lost on me—a new therapist, yet another trip to try to explain to someone else for the umpteenth time my particular journey with a companion I would prefer to be without.