I’m two years overdue writing this final post. Though I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on this trip it’s taken me this long to get myself to sit down and share it. Here’s why: the experience led to great revelation but not necessarily to great change, and I find that embarrassing. Bear with me for a minute and I’ll explain.
Before this trip I didn’t know anything about Nepal and never desired to visit. But a friend of ours who’d done the trek before extended an invitation and my husband was enthralled by the idea. I was scared, as I usually am by international travel. I always imagine that a coup will break out or traffickers will slip drugs into my bag at the airport and I’ll end up in jail. (I never should have watched Brokedown Palace.) But I agreed to the trip and figured I’d turn it into an opportunity for motivation and growth. I’d been needing to get to the doctor for a checkup, which this trip required, and I wanted to address a longtime issue that’s worsened year by year: anxiety.
I’ve had outsized anxiety my whole life but wasn’t forced to address it until well into adulthood. Until then I’d coped, using some pretty self-destructive methods as well as a few healthy ones like prayer and exercise.
Anxiety and fear were created to be useful things for a human. The flight or flight instinct and our gut reactions motivate us to get to safety. But our bodies aren’t mean to live in a state of high-anxiety and eventually, they seek balance. In my case that topples me the other direction, into bouts of nervous depression where nothing feels worthwhile except sleep. Counseling, self-care, and medication help me manage this flip-flopping but I’m rarely fully free. And both anxiety and depression can keep me from doing things I want to do, like travel
Way back on page four of this trip blog I mentioned my specific, concrete worries about the trip: I have a back injury and was afraid I’d be in too much pain. I’m not a big hiker and was afraid I’d slow the team down, causing disdain and embarrassing myself. And I have chronic cardiac PVCs (extra beats) that are sometimes uncomfortable. I’ve been told they’re benign but I still didn’t want to jump into something strenuous without getting my doctor’s signoff.
But what I was most nervous about – and what I never told anyone – was having panic attacks in the middle of nowhere. I’m sure you’ve heard by now about how a panic attack feels a bit like a heart attack with a feeling of chest constriction and shortness of breath. The attacks happen a little differently for everyone (I tend to feel something like vertigo and experience tunnel vision in addition to the sweating, hyperventilating, and everything else) and for me they’re also closely tied to claustrophobia. My claustrophobia isn’t so much the fear of a small space, but the fear that I can’t leave a situation if I want to. I can’t escape, get out, flee to where I really want to be. I’ve had attacks of claustrophobic panic in the backseat of cars, sitting inside of a booth, in elevators, on airplanes, anywhere that I realize I can’t get out without making a scene. It’s not that I NEED to get out it’s just a problem with giving up control of my body to someone else. Thinking of any of those situations still makes my stomach hurt, I start to feel the tingle of panic creeping over my face like a hood. Needless to say, I avoid these kinds of situations, which I’ve heard just exacerbates the problem.
So, of course I visualized myself hating the trip, regretting going along, thinking “I don’t want to be here. I want to go home” and panicking in our campsite in rural Nepal or on a path through the Himalaya. I visualized our leaders having to charter a helicopter to take me back to the airport so I could go home. I visualized myself completely losing my grip and ending up on the floor of a Nepali hospital with that wild hair and haunted look of the insane. Even if that didn’t happen, at the very least if I did panic I might make a scene. And even if I didn’t make a scene, screaming and freaking out, I might have to quietly tell our guide that I was panicking, and then I’d be the team basket case. I so desperately didn’t want any of these things to happen that I was willing to avoid going altogether.
A professional would tell me to visualize something positive instead, like having a great time and enjoying the company. But because I’d never been there, never trekked, never experienced Nepal, I couldn’t do that. I have experienced panic so that’s all too easy to visualize and before the trip, I lay awake night after night quietly freaking out in my bed. Trying to tell myself that everything would be fine. That I’d be fine. And of course, I didn’t believe myself, because I never do.
But, on the trip, as the days went by nothing bad happened. I helped with the work we’d come to do in Kumari. I played with the kids. I made friends with the team members. I fell asleep at night. I loved every day. I trekked better than I expected. I reached the goal. I breathed the thin mountain air. I saw Everest. I felt the sun closer to my skin than ever before. I got sick and still made it. I did something I’d never even dreamed of doing and I’d go back in a heartbeat and do it again.
What all that taught me, in my ripe old middle-age, is that I’m more capable than I think. That’s a lesson I learned professionally when I was thirty and handed a job – and the reins of an organization – that on paper I was unqualified for. But someone thought I could do it, and I did. Here, in Nepal, the team leader thought enough that I could do it that they let me sign up. And I did it. My body was challenged and it rose to the occasion. My mind was enlarged and it didn’t freak out. My comforts were taken away and I never felt unsafe. Every day I realized how wrong my projections were about Nepal, the Nepali people, my teammates, and myself.
So that message of physical capability I take with me. I still hold onto it when I feel the weight of years gone by in my arthritic shoulder or messed up back. I realize that I will hurt, that I may not be the fastest or the strongest, but that I’m more capable than I give credit for.
But the message of mental capability is harder to carry. I do still panic, and usually when I least expect it. Like Nepal, I often visualize situations when I think I’ll panic like on an upcoming plane ride or if we’re going to dinner with friends. I don’t want to be the weirdo that tells my friends I need to sit on the end of the booth or I can’t ride in the backseat of their car. But sometimes I have to say those things, because my mind isn’t as capable as I want it to be. Sometimes I test myself, putting myself in situations I know are hard. Half the time I’m fine and the other half I panic and have to leave (on flights I carry a knockout medication). There’s no specific pattern, though I suspect it may be linked to and fluctuate with my overall level of stress.
So I didn’t come back from Nepal cured of my anxiety and I desperately wish I had. That’s hard to admit, and harder to say out loud. It’s embarrassing that I can’t conquer my mental mountain. When I talk about it I know people judge it as weakness and failure. But after living this long with anxiety I also know, in my heart, that it’s ok to be imperfect. My mind isn’t my body and I can’t challenge it in the same way. I continue to look for solutions, trying to unravel the need for control, learning tactics to calm myself when panic rises.
And despite all that I’d still go back and do this trip again. Now I know I’m capable enough and that knowledge strengthens my heart. I’m even considering a trip to Africa next spring.
If you get the chance, go to Nepal. If you can do this trek, or any of the many other treks offered there, grab the opportunity. It may not change your life but it will embolden and enlarge it in ways only wonder can.