Last year I asked how long you mamas have been away from your critters (critters being kids) in hopes to find the inspiration I needed to do a 6-8 week global health rotation. 6-8 weeks turned into four. Four turned into two. (I chickened out of taking my two toddlers to Ecuador alone) Two turned into one when the organization I was going to work with was at capacity. One turned back into two, because goddamn it I am a fearless travel warrior and I'm going to spend a week alone in another country! Well here I am at the end of my two week stent in Panama. I'm laying in a hammock, looking into the lush mangroves, listening to the tropical birds, scratching the sh*t out of my Chitra bitten body. There are two versions of myself. The world traveler who wants to boldly experience life and other cultures. And the anxiety riddled girl whose heart rate is never below 120 on airplanes.
Lately anxiety girl has come out in full force. It started slowly last November when I had a panic attack. I had issues with this before, and thought that chapter of my life was over. Lack of sleep, the new stress of medical school, and stress at home are easy targets to blame. I filed it away in the "pretend it didn't happen" drawer, along with that time I farted in 8th grade in front of the class. Well, the file kept growing. I didn't have anymore panic attacks, but I became quite anxious. Most of the day I was ok but had these bolts of anxiety that would shoot up and like a Wac-a-mole game I kept hammering them down. I did a good job at not letting any of it show, but I was tired of constantly having to talk myself out of an anxiety attack. So I ignored popular rumors that seeing a therapist would ruin my career and went to talk to a school counselor for free. The first lady was a bit of a nut job. She told me I needed to pop a Xanax, not to date outside my race (while insisting she's not racists), gave me a list of 5 books to read (I don't have time for books I need legit CBT!), and rambled on and on about Brigg-Myers personalities. She also told my friend she may have a tumor on her adrenal gland, and that she wasn't cut out for medical school. Ya, I didn't go back. Months later I decided to try to school psychologist, for free again. First visit was okay. Just chit chat. Talked about stress. Ya, I'm stressed, but I think I handle it relatively well. Second visit I laid it all out. For the first time I spoke out loud about everything I have been experiencing in the past few months, and I realized how bad it all had gotten. I told her how I can only study in three places, because those are the only places I feel safe. If I try to study at a new coffee shop, I get anxious. I told her about how I had been having to call my dad for reassurance that I was indeed breathing when I felt like I couldn't catch my breath because of anxiety, sometimes at 3am. About how I was constantly making up these worst case scenarios, like school shootings at my kids daycare, and car accidents when someone else was driving them. About how exams make me feel trapped. About how I was anxious about going to Panama, because I would be away from my safety net.
Just saying these things out loud made me realize that everything I was experiencing was indeed anxiety. This gave me hope. It meant that with therapy, meditation, and self awareness I could perhaps get better. And if that didn't work, a good 'ol SSRI could. She told me every time I am anxious about something bad happening, nothing bad happens. Yes, I'm going to get anxious, but I could use techniques to ensure the anxiety doesn't escalate. So do I want to be anxious at home, or anxious at a beautiful beach in Panama?
So off to Panama I went. The 15 minutes flying through a thunderstorm with lightning outside my window sucked, but I didn't panic. Getting motion sickness on the ten hour bus ride that felt more like riding through the Arctic sucked, but I didn't panic. Spending a day febrile in a room with no A/C or airflow sucked, but I didn't panic. (I went to the nice hotel across the street with ocean view and glass floors) I repeated the phrase "ebb and flow." Just like the tide, anxiety, fear, sickness, storms all come and all go. I would tell myself "this is something that could cause anxiety" so that when I started to feel nervous I knew the trigger, and the anxiety wouldn't escalate.
It's been two weeks, and I've walked hours on beaches, practiced meditative, freeing yoga, saw dolphins and bioluminescence, met some of the most inspirational, well traveled people, helped bring medical care to remote indigenous communities, got laughed at for the way I pronounced my patients names. (all in good fun). All this was completely out of my safety net. This is also what I love about traveling. It forces you to become uncomfortable. In this discomfort is where growth happens.
So now I go home feeling mentally stronger. More a fearless warrior, and less anxiety girl. Another 10 hour bus ride and 4 hour flight until I get to kiss my sweet babies. I hope one day to show them the world as it is. It is complex. It is beautiful. It is unique. It is painful and hard. I hope they learn to be uncomfortable, to move past fear. And I hope to bring back only memories from this trip, and not worms or Leishmaniasis.