Accepting Anxiety After Nepal

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For those close to me, they are well aware of my constant struggle over the years with anxiety. Yes you did just read that word. For those of you probably reading this, it’s a new fact. Upon reflection of my recent trip to Nepal I have chosen this very moment to share with you my travel story but to also open a dialogue about a topic that is slowly getting better but still has a long way to go. Anxiety. It’s a mental health condition that so many day to day men and women are dealing with and it’s also one of mine. In reading my adventure, I’d like you to keep a quote about Johnny Cash in mind, “You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don't try to forget the mistakes, but you don't dwell on it. You don't let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.”

For me personally, anxiety decided to pop up later in my life, to be specific my 20’s. I get anxiety about many things day to day but most of all flying. At the end of February, I departed Sydney making the long haul flight to Kathmandu, Nepal on a solo trip for a university assignment. I’m currently in the last year of my International Studies and Journalism degree and was on my way to document, Sex trafficking in Nepal and the work of a grassroots anti-sex trafficking organisation through photojournalism. I shared the intentions of my trip prior to leaving through Instagram and Facebook, so if some of you have been wondering what happened, you’re about to find out now. What I want to share firstly, is always, always trust your gut feeling, it’s there for a reason and most of the time it will keep you safe. Secondly, sometimes it’s not easy to admit defeat or share our failures, but I’m not perfect and neither is the rest of the world. I hope you take something away that helps you with your future travels but even more so, I hope that as a community we can all begin to openly communicate and normalise mental health conditions in a way that no one ever feels truly alone. 

Flying is one of those activities that goes hand in hand with travelling the world. I love travelling but despise flying greatly, ironic I know! 22 hours later and two Valiums, I was landing in Kathmandu, Nepal. If you ever have the opportunity to view The Himalayas from the air, do so, the view is breathtaking and like nothing I’ve ever seen. They truly are majestic mountains and for me, I felt minuscule. The view of Kathmandu Valley from the window seat of the plane was one of a rainbow painted, overpopulated city. I could see congested roads and people meandering from one place to another. I could see poverty straight away but there were more colours covering everywhere then you would see in a candy store. 

After finally making it through customs, security and what was nearly an hours wait for my baggage, I stepped out into the Himalayan air into what was nighttime airport chaos. I was quite excited to meet everyone from my organisation and meet fellow volunteers at the volunteer house so I was relieved when I finally located my name amongst the throng of people waiting for fellow passengers. I was greeted by Indira, President of the organisation and one of her fellow colleagues. What I didn’t expect, was to be bundled into the next taxi with the girl who I hadn’t been introduced to yet and informed that Saturday is their holiday so I wouldn’t be seeing anybody till Monday. I had so many general questions of importance which went unanswered as taxi’s started honking along the line, forced to depart for my stay. 

Nepal taxis are all like your first car not that flash with a slight concern about their road worthy ratings! Whilst driving in peak hour traffic, I tried to talk to the young girl accompanying me who was about my age, curious to find out if there were any other volunteers like myself staying in the volunteer house. She looked at me like I was speaking another language (which I was), only for me to soon discover that she didn’t speak any English and couldn’t understand me at all. In that moment, my stomach flipped and my anxiety started kicking a bit louder on my door. I realised that I was truly alone in a developing country, with someone who didn’t speak English and no way to communicate with the outside world. If there was a perfect time to start questioning my own motifs for being half way around the world that was it. 

As we drove for half an hour to the volunteer house, my sense of direction was lost as we wound our way around the city.  I spent the time observing the people, the buildings, the rubbish, all the dogs rummaging in the rubbish, my sense of anxiety increasing. I was met by another young girl, who also didn’t speak English. They both ushered me inside, whilst I started searching for any sign of a volunteer staying there like me. I noticed the building was cold and concrete and they showed me to my room. Red curtains, red bedding and red heart shaped pillows. For people with anxiety red triggers as fear and thats exactly what I was feeling. My door didn’t have a lock and there was no one in the entire building except myself and these two girls. I started to get panicky, where and what was I going to eat, who was I going to communicate with and was I going to be safe because I certainly didn’t feel it. These were a few of the questions that started plaguing me. Later I discovered that the two girls I was with, were recently brought in by the organisation as survivors and were staying in the volunteer house as temporary accommodation whilst they got back on their feet. Whilst trying to utilise a translator app and talk to them about how I could contact someone senior in the organisation the power went off completely. In that moment I felt so isolated and scared and went into what I would say was basic survival mode. Before the power went off I managed to briefly use the WIFI to locate an address and number for the top tourist hotel I could find. Using the landline, I got in contact with the hotel, explained my distressing situation, that I felt scared and unsafe and needed a taxi and some relief accommodation that night ASAP.

As a solo woman travelling, western countries pose difficulties at times. Developing countries are another ball game all together. A lot of these places are slowly making progress when it comes to womens rights, but they are still a long way off. To brush off my own safety would have been naive, being a western women travelling on my own, you know you’re the minority and not on an equal playing field and those thoughts don’t go away. Walking alone, had its limitations, you have to be casually alert at all times, taxi trips can pose unwanted situations, I was unable to access a sim card even with the right documentation, meaning my communication options were only available on WIFI even if it was an emergency. You learn a lot about yourself when you travel alone, for me a lot of personal ‘shit’ popped up and I had no choice but to face it. If you were to ask me how I felt once I arrived in my emergency hotel I’d be giving you a description of the entire emotion spectrum. My anxiety had peaked, I felt nauseas, my chest was tight, my breathing rapid. I felt completely isolated and alone, I felt scared, worried and stressed about what the rest of my trip would hold. Not every trip goes to plan and many people don’t open up and talk about the things that don’t go right for fear of failure.  

Trying to get the best nights sleep I could, I awoke the next morning, put my big girl panties on and requested a tour guide for the weekend so I could get out, shake off the night before and start seeing the country I was visiting. A meeting with my organisation had been scheduled for the Monday so sightseeing it was. As soon as you hit the streets, you see poverty straight away, but you also see colour, its a contrast but such a constant normality for people. Religion is so sacred, their offerings are so bright and beautiful filled with money, rice, fruit, marigolds, candles and incense. Out of the two days travelling around, my most meaningful memory was the cremation process that takes place at The Holy Bagmati River. I personally don’t deal with death or gruesome situations so I was quite hesitant to watch the whole process. What I can share with you is this, it’s beautiful and open, the practice allows the family to grieve together and each step of the cremation is particularly delicate and significant. The entire process takes 3-4 hours. The body is wrapped naked in a cotton sheet and placed on a bed of wood by the river. The body is draped in marigolds and rice grass with butter added to assist the burning process. It is the responsibility of the eldest son to initiate the burning of the body and they must shave their hair and beard. A cotton wick and honey is placed in the mouth of the deceased to begin the burning of the body. Our process back home felt so bitter and bleak compared to this colourful and spiritual practice. We are placed in a wooden coffin box, buried in the cold hard ground. I find it to be formal and confronting by comparison.

By being out and about, I slowly started to gain a bit of confidence back but as soon as I was alone in my hotel, I was alone with myself and my thoughts and for those with anxiety it’s not a good mix. I found those to be the most difficult times, phone calls from home weren’t enough and I just wanted company. The most repetitive advice I’ve ever heard from people about travelling in India or Nepal is to avoid the street food and stick to vegetarian where possible. On my second day of sightseeing I purchased ‘vegetarian’ momo’s which is what their version of dumplings are. Within half an hour of finishing them in my hotel, I was the victim of severe food poisoning. I wasn’t able to meet with my organisation and was bedridden for 3 full days. I felt paranoid all the time, desolate and weak. The what if game in my head decided to go crazy, I felt like I had failed, I wasn’t achieving what I had set out to do, I felt far away from any support or anything that felt remotely relatable and didn’t feel like leaving my hotel. My diet consisted of boiled water salt and pepper soup with noodles just to be safe and dry salted crackers. By day 5 I just wanted all my normal home foods and comforts. 

After 5 days of being cooped up in my hotel I arranged to sit down with Shyam and Indira, President and Managing Director of the anti-trafficking organisation. In our conversation I mentioned that I wanted to document the school program that they run and their community outreach program. Shyam informed me that I would have to travel with their best female guide and stay out in a rural community for 5 days. Sex trafficking is more prevalent in rural villages and women are mainly targeted in these areas due to minimal education and lack of financial resources. For me I instantly knew that this wasn’t going to be smart nor a safe option after being sick. With no protection in risky areas, an extremely weak immune system that wouldn’t have stomached local village food and no options of communication in case of an emergency I had to inform them that this wasn’t an option. Slowly my assignment options were being limited due to the number of people available I could engage with.

After meeting with the NGO I realised in that moment that I wasn’t going to be able to document an issue I felt strongly about sharing. The hardest decision I made about my entire trip was making the decision to come home. I’m not a quitter and it goes against my stubbornness and personality, especially when my support network back home was telling me to persevere and not give up. Most of all I was worried about what people would think of me, instead of listening to myself and what I needed. We live in a society where there’s these expectations to achieve, to be perfect, to be able to do everything. I fall prey to those myself, I push for perfectionism and success in most things I do. When I don’t achieve those expectations, self doubt creeps in and anxiety likes to tap me on the shoulder and I feel like I’ve failed. We forget that it’s ok to be human, that anxiety and mental conditions are normal, emotions are healthy. We succumb to these societal pressures where it’s not ok to fail or to admit that things didn’t work out.

Coming home was hard, I faced a 14 hour straight turbulent flight where the entire time I thought I was going to die…Irrational I know, anxiety likes to do that. Icing on the cake when I look back. I came back to a home where I could drive myself around. I could eat whatever I wanted without worry of being sick because we have clean and hygienic agricultural practices. I could drink tap water, I could go out at night, I lived in a safe apartment with water and electricity. I have never had a greater appreciation for the little things in life. I can’t fathom for one minute what sort of anxiety or emotions trafficked women must go through and how special the smallest things feels when you have safety and what it feels like when its taken away. I only had a glimpse. 

After giving myself a couple of months to reflect and settle back in I will admit I still feel disappointed but my trip has also made me accepting of anxiety. I’ve had to acknowledge its presence and admit that sadly its not going anywhere and I have to make friends with her. Anxiety feels different for different individuals. Anxiety makes me overwhelmed, I worry, I need resolutions and answers, I overwork in my drive for success and achievement. I play the what-if game, anxiety can be very creative. I like to overcompensate to ease my anxiety which involves control and I trigger the cycle even more. My anxiety likes to manifest in physical forms such as breathlessness, a tight chest, nausea and feeling on the go all the time. What is most important is that all of this will never simply disappear, go speak with a professional, learn about yourself, your anxious behaviours can actually become liberating and an advantage if you learn how to accept them. I didn’t fail in my trip because I chose to go in the first place and that took courage in the face of my anxiety. I had a go. I learnt about myself. I learnt that you need a plan B and a plan C. My trip was a slap in the face to come home and take care of myself holistically, your body cant look after you if you don’t look after it. 

Most of all I hope that by sharing my story it breaks down some of the negative stigma and around mental conditions and unrelenting expectations around success. They aren’t all straight jackets and white walls so look around you closely because someone you might know or love may be trying to juggle variations of all of those things. I don’t view my story as a failure any more because I have taken away many things. Invest in  helping and learning about yourself, there’s everything right about that positive process, I’m speaking from present experience. As two successful people share,

 “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” - Henry Ford

“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I've met people who don't want to try for fear of failing.” - J.K. Rowling

If you you have any questions or anything you’d like to share, please, your more than welcome to reach out to me through my email or social media. Remember your not alone.




Grace Smith