Above Water

Above Water

My breathing is choked and frantic as I struggle to get a handle on the anxiety attack that has suddenly latched itself to my core. I stumble into the aeroplane bathroom and slam the door behind me, falling against the wall for support. My head is aching and hot; sticky sweat begins to layer my face. I press tissues to my fiery cheeks and small pieces break off, clinging to my skin as I flush the rest. The overwhelming smell of blue chemicals wafts through my stinging nostrils, an injection straight into my throbbing head.

For most, planning a trip is thrilling: booking flights, scanning Hostelworld for party accommodation, scavenging the Instagram ‘explore’ page for the supposedly hidden gems of wherever you might be going. But what if planning a trip also meant you were pencilling in anxiety attacks, crashing lows, and gut-wrenching stomach aches you knew all too well there was no escape from?

My anxiety truly took its darkest form when I saw that it wasn’t just me it was preventing from living, but it was the people I loved. When I was in third grade, I went to my first overnight ski camp. Three days in and I had barely eaten; the anxiety-induced nausea seemed to be my only companion. My dad had to drive four hours to come pick me up, which of course only made me feel worse. When I was in middle school, my family planned a trip to Europe. I spent the weeks leading up to it hassling them to cancel, and spent the trip locked in our hotel room.

I didn’t want to be the daughter that kept her family from travelling, the sister who sat with her brother at a pizza place in Italy not eating in silence, but it has never been something I could control. For me, arriving in an unfamiliar place felt like I had been pushed into a pool with a weight tied around my torso. Muffled sounds of voices and laughter echoed around me as I thrashed my arms wildly, desperate to join them, but it was no use: I was drowning.

I grew tired of constantly regretting the things I could have done, but chose not to. I sat from the comfort of my room, scrolling through my friends’ Facebook pages as I looked wistfully at their photos abroad. Australia, Spain, South America… the jealousy was overwhelming.

So I decided to push myself.

It wasn’t until my third year in university that I actually gathered the courage to study abroad. The first week went as I expected it to: loss of appetite, surprise anxiety attacks that left me yearning for the quiet of my room and a general lingering discomfort in my own skin.

One day while the professor was lecturing, I suddenly felt my cheeks swell with heat and tears spring to my eyes. My breathing grew heavy and I cursed myself, wondering what had even triggered the attack, but I continued to sit through class for the next three hours.

I turned 21 in London, and the whirl of alcohol and sweaty bodies suddenly made me desperate to be home, but I endured and ended the night with friends instead of alone.

A weekend trip to Barcelona tempted me to run into the aeroplane bathroom, but I sat in my seat and wrote instead.

Each struggle, no matter how difficult, brought me closer to the surface. I realised that it doesn’t always feel good when your life is changing, but it doesn’t have to.

I gradually began to feel empowered by the fact that I was there at all, that I could actually move to a foreign country and make it out alive. Something that every experience in my life had told me I absolutely could not do. And for me, just knowing I could survive was the beginning of the release I had been so desperately seeking all of these years. I could see the world above me glimmering through a blur of soft blue currents, and for the first time, I felt the warmth of the sun breaking through.

By the end of my program, I even decided I was going to travel through Europe alone. I made it to Sweden, Greece, Italy, France and Croatia. Each place confronted me with new challenges and new anxieties, but they also blessed me with the discovery of a strength and independence I never knew I had.

At the last stop of my trip, I found myself at the summit of Marjan-Park in Split. I stood looking down at the vast immensity of the ocean below me, and I knew I had made it: I was finally above water.

Cover by Naomi August