This week’s blog post is courtesy of Dr. Daveena Tauber, from the excellent site ScholarStudio.com. Dr. Tauber shares her experiences traveling as an academic with anxiety, and what she learned about herself.
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For simplicity’s sake, I usually say, “When I was 20, I went to England and had a nervous breakdown.” That’s how I thought about it at the time.
In college, I arranged a junior year study abroad program in Northern Ireland. While Ulster in the early 90s wasn’t a place I was exactly excited about, I had never traveled before and “the Troubles” scared me less than navigating a language barrier. I decided to spend the summer bumming around Europe before my program. Starting in London, I reasoned, would be like traveling with training wheels.
I was completely unprepared for how unprepared I was, even for that relatively small cultural leap. The number of things I needed to learn there was staggering and I was pathologically ashamed of asking for help. I had never exchanged money. I could not figure out the phones. Crossing the street seemed insanely risky. I was intimidated by the groups of Israelis, Australians, and Germans at my hostel who shouted and laughed, cooked, and drank together. It was hard enough to imagine saying hello under normal circumstances, but my circumstances were not normal. I could hardly say, “Hi, I’m from America and I’m afraid I’m going crazy”. When I stumbled out to buy a can of soup, the sidewalk heaved like an upset stomach. My hands seemed numb and somehow detached from my body. Even a can of Campbell’s — the most American thing I could find — tasted strange and foreign.
I spent days crying expensively to my mom on the phone. Eventually, I flew home, telling myself that I would go to Ireland in the fall. All summer I pushed down the panic that rose every time I thought about it. But when that morning came, my body rebelled. I threw up. I had diarrhea. I could not move. Despite my father’s admonitions that if I didn’t control my fear it would control me, I could not get myself on the plane.
The call I made that day to my college advisor was the greatest moment of shame in my life. I did not know how to tell her that I was having a mental health crisis. I just cried that I couldn’t go and hung up. I chose relief from anxiety at the price of accepting that I was a failure. I truly believed this.
I am not sure why anxiety has always been flanked by shame for me, but it has, even when I am not flunking out of major life events. Maybe it is because we associate anxiety with ordinary fear and thus see giving in to anxiety as cowardice. The most important tool in talking back to this shame—and ultimately to the anxiety itself—was learning that anxiety was “a thing” and that I was not simply a spineless coward. Understanding this allowed me to get treatment and to begin to do self-care around my anxiety the way I would for any other health issue.
While I initially felt stigmatized by taking medication, I am also convinced that my ability to move across the U.S. to go to graduate school was brought to me (as Sesame Street would say) by the letters P and X and by the number 25 (mg). I like to say that medication is a super power you have to learn how to use: it gives you the ability to do new things, but you still have to actually do them.
I am happy to say that I have come to love travel, but my enjoyment is predicated on meeting certain non-negotiable needs. While I am not afraid of flying, it makes me claustrophobic and I go to great lengths to get aisle seats. Occasionally I become extremely overheated and nauseous during landings. My secret weapon consists of stashing wet paper towels in a sandwich bag before the flight, which I slip into the seat pocket. When drinks are served, I drop ice cubes into the bag. If I get sick during landing, I swab myself with the cold towels, which helps immensely. I also wear as little as possible on flights. I recently flew into Buffalo, NY in January in a sundress and then changed at the airport. The moment when everyone on the plane stands up and crowds each other impatiently also makes me anxious, but I can offset this by listening to music or a podcast and not looking at the line of people waiting.
The most important ingredient in my successful travel—and one that I never had as a younger person—is a room of my own. Having a room of my own eliminates my fear that I will have nowhere to retreat to if I need to panic or cry or call someone for support. It lets me know that I will have a quiet, dark place to sleep since I have a very low threshold for sleep loss. And, as an introvert, it lets me replenish my reserves so that I can be the outgoing and engaged person I am when my needs are met.
I have taken many trips for personal and professional reasons since those first painful travel experience in my twenties. These days I greatly look forward to travel, and although I still get anxious ahead of time, I know that the rewards are worth it if I take care of myself.
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Dr. Daveena Tauber is an academic writing consultant who specializes in working with graduate students and programs to support student completion and success. She is committed to decreasing stigma and increasing support for academics living with mental health needs. You can learn more about her work at her website ScholarStudio, and be sure to check out her helpful list of resources on mental health in academia.