by Stephanie Villavicencio, FIU Honors College
I lived thousands of miles from home for a month and though my anxiety assumed otherwise, I survived!
I’m in the middle of lunch, sitting across from my mother and I’m trying to hide the tears. I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m afraid. I leave to Europe for a month in the morning and I can’t do it. I paid an exorbitant amount to participate in a study abroad program and I’m convinced that I just can’t. What if I forget my passport? Or lose my luggage? What if something terrible happens and I never get to see my family again and — Panic attack. This is what I’m most afraid of. My anxiety holding me back, keeping me from living the life I want to live but am too afraid to.
So I packed up my fears, got on a plane, and flew to France.
Museum days were some of the hardest because crowded places are the bane of my existence. A crowded room may as well be a giant panic button to my brain, but I made myself focus on the lectures and the history behind each work of art, instead, each brushstroke, every color.
The hardest day had to be the one when I hiked in the French Alps. After a long uphill drive and a huge, beautiful lunch we started our trek. Not being in top physical shape, I was nervous I’d get lost, left behind, or just fall off the side of the mountain. So on the way up, when I start to lose my breath, I’m reminded of the fun fact that air is thinner and breathing is harder while one is on a mountain. Overthinking. The beginnings of anxiety. In my frenzied state, I try to calm myself down with a sip from my water bottle and end up spilling half. Cue panic attack. Now I’m going to die of lack of oxygen and dehydration. As certain as I am that this is my final resting place, that here, among the cows, is where I will die, somehow, I make it to the top. By some divine miracle I reach the top red in the face, short of breath, exhausted, sweaty. The top. Later in the month we took a day trip to the site of the World War II landings in Normandy, a region whose history was rife with violence and tragedy. We visited various battle sites and after a day filled with tellings of sacrifice, death and destruction, I was physically and emotionally spent, trapped with my thoughts in my own head, contemplating life, death, and who deserved which. We ended that day at Normandy Cemetery on Omaha beach, also referred to as Bloody Omaha for the sheer number of lives lost on its shores. Climbing down to the actual beach as a class was surreal, knowing that lovers and families were potentially sunbathing in the very spot a soldier breathed his last. It was surreal and simultaneously beautiful; knowing that people were free to do so thanks to the selfless sacrifice of another. So though I, personally, am not entirely confident in my appearance and never would have thought I’d be one to do so; though we had no swimsuits or towels or any previous intention of doing so, we all stripped down to our underwear and celebrated that freedom. And while that day saw me constantly tormented by my own thoughts, that moment my skin met the freezing ocean, all the weight was swept off and away with the current and I was joyful and alive and free.
Now, a month since I’ve been stateside, I look back on the girl crying in Nordstrom Cafe, and while she’s the same person with the same fears and anxieties, she knows now that she has the strength to overcome them. Living with anxiety is never as simple as “getting over it” and deciding not to let it bother you, and this trip helped me realize that coping with anxiety is about acknowledging your fears and limitations, while refusing to let them define you.