I’m sitting in a train station in Milan having a stare down with a pigeon. His cold eyes filled with judgment as I silently try to explain to him, and myself, what exactly I’m doing there. “You don’t understand,” I plead. “I tried, I really did, but it’s not working out, and I just needed something,” My Big Mac and fries get delivered to my table and a mixture of shame and relief wash over me.
I had been in Italy for two weeks, on what was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime. A number of bumps plagued the start, and by the end I was unwilling and unable to leave the apartment I rented. These feelings were new to me, and I had no idea how to deal with them. What had begun as run of the mill jet lag and culture shock had slowly blossomed into full blown anxiety.
Travel, particularly solo travel, is on the rise. And there's lots of opinions out there on the “right” way to travel. Stay in hostels to meet people, stay away from touristy areas, only eat where the locals eat. And if you get homesick or aren’t having a good time? Tough it out, and definitely don’t go home early.
These narratives around what it means to be a "proper traveler" can be detrimental to someone with mental illness. An estimated quarter of the population are currently living with some form of mental illness, and symptoms that are manageable at home can become intensely magnified on the road. The idea of what a traveler looks like is often not inclusive of those with mental disorders.
In an effort to live up to this idea of the type of traveler I envisioned myself to be, I committed to going outside my comfort zone in order to have an authentic experience. Contrary to what I believed, the more I did, the more I stepped out of what was comfortable, the less confident I became. The more I pushed against my tendencies, the more anxious I became. After a few days I felt like I was drowning in my own thoughts.
My train station McDonalds was the antithesis of the traveler I yearned to be. In the throws of debilitating anxiety, I grasped for anything familiar and comforting. I found that comfort in a pigeon filled train station. That pile of junk food was my only solace in a foreign land.
Today, I'm thankful for that experience, because it pushed me to get the help I didn't even realize I needed. I've replaced thoughts of comparisons and shoulds with strategies to help me cope in seemingly dire times. As I write this, I'm sitting in an airport on my way to Tokyo, a place even more foreign to me than Italy ever was.
My experience wasn't unique, but it felt that way at the time. Traveling with anxiety can be isolating, especially when those types of stories aren't commonly seen. Giving myself permission to travel in a way that worked for me was the greatest gift I've given myself. This time, it will be different; no judgments, just french fries.