By Hayley Wragg
Anxiety has been significantly impacting my life for about two years now. I have had so many different stages of it. It’s a bit like becoming resistant to antibiotics.
I learnt how to deal with the problem but then it mutated into a new one. Then I have to learn how to deal with it all over again.
This article is about a particular travelling experience I went through. Now, before I begin, I want to say that I LOVE travelling. I’ve had some amazing adventures and, in some cases, it felt like the adventure was ‘curing’ my mental health issues.
However, on this trip it didn’t. In fact, it had the opposite effect. The trip had all the expectations of a wonderful amazing adventure but when that failed to materialise, the anxiety monster feasted on the disappointment.
I was travelling to Germany for work (I’m a mathematics PHD student). I’d tagged an extra couple of days onto the trip to visit a friend in Frankfurt. The trip started with my flight being delayed, so that was great start.
I stayed with my friend and we had a nice weekend but then I had to get the train from Frankfurt. I’d booked it in advance, I’d written everything down and printed everything off. However, I speak no German.
I got to the station early. I should have had time to get lunch but I couldn’t find my train on any of the departure boards (I began to hear the anxiety biting). I queued at the information desk, not even sure I was at the right information point. When I got to the front, I showed the official my ticket and apologised for not speaking German. They spoke a little English and told me I was at the wrong Frankfurt station (this was definitely the station on my ticket).
The official told me I’d need to get a metro but that I had plenty of time. However, I hadn’t allowed for the irregularity of the metro on a Sunday. When I arrived at the station two minutes before my departure time, I couldn’t see my train on any of the boards. It turns out they had changed the destination of the train. I had to ask for information again, which would have made me miss the train. Fortunately, a delay meant that I just about made it
I missed my connection because of the delay and arrived in Braunschweig two hours later than expected. All of these problems took away the excitement I normally felt from travelling by train. This was exacerbated by my poor understanding of the language.
My heart, head and lungs were racing and I really needed to get myself somewhere I felt comfortable. Instead, I was on an unfamiliar train in an unfamiliar place unable to understand the majority of the information I was given. Concerned that I hadn’t received details about the event I was attending, I checked my university emails and my anxiety and stress levels heightened even more.
I’d had an email regarding a report I’d written with some more corrections attached (this is a very long chapter of my anxiety story but the short of it is that it wasn’t a good thing). The weather was also pretty bad and I was getting storm warnings on my phone.
I don’t mind rain and grumpy weather but I have a fear of lightening. My panic reflexes went into overdrive and my first experience of Braunschweig was whilst having a panic attack in the rain.
Below is an extract from my journal I wrote at the time of the incident happening:
“I’m writing this for my counsellor but I truly don’t want to remember this feeling. After awful train delays I arrived in Braunschweig. I had an email with more corrections. I cried on the train and had what resembles a panic attack. My breathing was struggled and my head was racing. I couldn’t find anywhere to hide, so I walked, crying and panting to the hotel.”
I arrived at my hotel extremely fragile. I discovered that the price I’d been charged for the room by booking through the university event was in fact more than if I’d booked the room myself. I queried this with the staff but they just said it was the price they had quoted due to an event in the city (that doesn’t make much sense since the event was on that day and they were charging less).
I managed to get myself moved to a slightly better room, although this still would have cost me less than if I’d booked it myself.
By the time I’d got to my new room I wasn’t in a great state. I felt uncomfortable in the hotel due to the poor customer service, the unwelcoming arrival I’d had and I’d been cheated by the pricing. I felt like a failure for my report issues and I was not prepared for 5 days of intense academic discussion.
The event I was attending was for electrical engineers. This made the event terrifying for me to anticipate because I knew I’d be out of place as a mathematician.
My plans had been to explore Braunschweig a little on the Sunday, look at the buildings, eat some food and do some climbing. Instead I curled up in a ball in the hotel for almost three hours before my stomach forced me to venture into the rain to find food.
Now at this point the story gets a little happier because I found an extremely friendly restaurant. I ate some yummy food, drank a local beer and drew a picture of the glass (what else do you do when eating out on your own?). When I got back for the night, I was terrified for the coming week but I was just about able to cope.
The first night in Braunschweig featured zero hours of sleep since the hotel shook routinely every thirty minutes because of the tram-line.
I arrived at the event to discover that I was the only female at the entire event and less surprisingly, the only mathematician. Here’s another extract from my journal that I wrote at the time:
“I’m a girl in a boys club and I feel incredibly out of place.”
By the middle of the week I was exhausted. I’d been unable to sleep and the intensity of the work was high. I’d been defending myself as a mathematician at the event and had to deal with being referred to as “the girl” (surely “the mathematician” would have been a more appropriate and unique identifier, or even “Hayley” since that’s my name!). I broke down in the hotel room and had one of the lowest nights I’d ever had. I was lonely, tired and felt very useless.
The combination of so many negative events combined with a lack of home comforts and sleep made it so difficult for me to cope with the levels of anxiety I was experiencing. My breathing techniques and grounding wasn’t enough for the height it was at. Then of course, I had to factor in the failure to calm my anxiety that drives that negativity.
With a lot of endurance, I made it through the week. I suffered more train delays, then flight delays and then arrived home.
Everyone wanted to know if I’d had a good time. I told them I’d learnt a lot. They said “but was it fun?”. I said it was difficult. They replied “but was it fun?”. I felt like a failure because I hadn’t had the fun I was “supposed” to have. I’d done something which should have been exciting but didn’t enjoy it. It felt as if travel and fun were such a certain combination that it must be me that’s wrong if I hadn’t enjoyed it.
It’s really difficult to admit you had the worst week of your life whilst you were meant to be having an awesome adventure. It’s ok to feel down. There’s so much pressure on having fun and enjoying yourself that if you aren’t it makes you feel even worse.
I’ve written this piece to help the readers of Vent know that it is okay to not be okay. Adventures are great but sometimes they aren’t and that’s okay.
On reflection the event gave me ideas which have really inspired my research. I’m now doing more mathematics in my projects and I’ve found something exciting to look at. I gained that new-found enthusiasm from the event so it wasn’t entirely a failure. However, it wasn’t the exciting adventure travelling is “supposed” to be.
You can follow Hayley on Twitter.
You can read Hayley’s poem ‘Untying The Knots in My Brain’ here.