It’s been just under six years since I traded in my apartment and my life in the United Kingdom for  a one-way ticket to the unknown and a neatly organized backpack, filled to the brim with enough for an indefinite adventure. I had packed everything from screwdrivers and paracord to LifeStraws, electrical tape, notebooks, and my DSLR. 

Although all I’d ever wanted to do was to follow my heart and embark on a life of adventure in unfamiliar places, the prospect of traveling on a whim has been overwhelming at times. Showing up with no plan, no accommodations, and no expectations has always been equal parts invigorating and anxiety-inducing, to crippling extents.

traveling with anxiety
Photo by Hugo Ramos.

I first booked my ticket while suffering from depression and stress so debilitating that I’d ended up in the hospital with kidney stones. I knew this was the final straw—it was time to go. I only gave myself about a month to pack up my entire life, quit my job as an adventure travel agent, sell my stuff, say my goodbyes, and prepare for the trip of a lifetime. I must have packed and repacked my bag nearly every day, barely sleeping at night out of worry over all the things that might never happen.

Although I know everyone experiences some degree of packing and planning stress, for me, these are symptoms of something far more overarching and ubiquitous—my anxious mind feels the constant need to be prepared and “ready for anything,” or constantly busy in order to distract myself from my own anxiety. The need to feel in as much control as possible trickles down to the very way I pack my bag. I’ve learned to live with and adapt to my anxiety in many ways, but mitigating it doesn’t mean that it goes away. It’s still very much there. 

Once the ticket was booked and all my notices handed in, there was no backing out. I had to shrug off my fears and ignore the nagging voice in my head that said it was a terrible idea. I put on a brave face and hoped for the best, all while making preparations for the very worst. I even wrote my last wishes down in a Google Doc to share with my parents in case anything were to happen to me, which definitely didn’t help their trepidation about me going off to the other side of the world with no return date and only a roughly outlined plan. 

And now, six years later, I have nearly 50 countries under my belt, after stints living in Cambodia, Guatemala, Australia, and Amsterdam. I’ve made a six-month road trip across the States, worked as a travel writer, made  friends across the globe and spent time volunteering in disaster relief after earthquakes and volcanoes. My life seems pretty perfect, at least on the outside.

traveling with anxiety
Photo by Nicole Geri.

The backpack (which is now much grubbier now than six years ago) is still packed with everything except the kitchen sink, and, even though I lament the weight of these burdens  every time I have to hoist it on my back, I know that it would be much worse living without them. They’re a reminder of my ability to survive on my own in this world, almost becoming my comfort blanket—I kind of love the idea of carrying all my worldly possessions on my back like a snail. 

Even now, everything has to go back in its exact place. If I lose or misplace something, or if it ends up in the wrong place, then I have to take everything out and start all over again. And honestly, there are so many things that I’ve never used—not even when I was in rural Nepal working in earthquake relief, or when my car broke down and I was stranded in the Australian outback; not when I was on solo motorbike trips through the jungle, and not when I was living on a deserted island in Cambodia. Yet, I still cannot even begin  to think about throwing them out, on account of all the “what if’s” that plague my mind.

While some people say that there’s safety in numbers, I prefer to travel alone. I can pack and repack my bag ten times to make sure I haven’t lost or forgotten anything, or spend hours  agonizing over making a single booking decision. Most importantly, I can travel slowly, taking days to myself when everything becomes overwhelming. I can choose when to be spontaneous, rather than having someone else upset my carefully designed schedule. Traveling full-time is different to going on a holiday or even on an extended vacation. This is my everyday existence, so I need to make sure I factor in days for self-care when the world becomes overwhelming—even if it’s just sitting in bed and watching Netflix, eating peanut butter out of the jar. 

plane window
Photo by Luke Insoll.

Even after six years, the panic of doing something new never goes away: my brain floods with fear of all the scenarios where things go wrong. I work myself up by imagining missed flights, lost bags, muggings and disasters. Yet the second I arrive at the airport, my mind quiets down. I’ve got everything I need, I can do this. It’s now me, myself and my backpack against the world, and this is what we do best. Whatever happens, I can handle it. I have dealt with death and disaster, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, disasters, muggings, thefts, fires, breakdowns, illness, and traffic accidents, and taken it all in my stride. No more thinking, now it’s just living. 

It turns out that my anxiety functions best in a state of chaos, where the real world that exists around it is more hectic than the thoughts in my head. Then  I can finally feel like I’ve been able to tame my inner demons—or at least appease them, for now. It’s still a daily struggle, but, when you get to live a life like mine, it’s a pretty good one.

Have you ever traveled with a disability? What were the unique challenges that you faced? For more information on traveling with anxiety, check out this article.

Header photo by Kamila Maciejewska.