I am having a panic attack. My mind feels like it’s closing in on itself, and there is pressure fighting to escape from every inch of my body. I begin to hyperventilate, and seek to find a release from the crushing force no matter what pain it causes me. I am not in my right mind. I scratch my chest, arms, and legs because there is a twisted, desperate voice saying that it will make me feel better. I pull on my hair and curl up in a ball, surveying the bloody damage running the length of my arms. If I don’t get my breathing under control soon, I will become numb and eventually pass out. Already I have lost feeling in my hands and feet. My mouth is clamped shut, so I can’t call for help. Life has me temporarily paralyzed.
I started taking Lexapro during my junior year of high school, mostly to treat my anxiety but also the depression that loves to piggy- back on it. There are good days and bad days, even with medication. Sometimes my curiosity and fun-loving personality cuts through the tangled web of worries in my head and allows me to be gleeful and carefree. Other times I have panic attacks. I always find something to be anxious over, which I say with the utmost shame. I have enough common sense to understand that my problems are miniscule compared to those of many people, but my body just does not get it. My first semester of college was rough, and my grades reflected my mental health as they normally do. Still, my desire to travel got the best of me and I applied for a study abroad program in Germany. Second semester was great. I was doing yoga everyday, eating healthier, and getting excited to study abroad. I stopped taking my anxiety medication and felt great. I finished the school year with straight A’s and a thirst for adventure.
After dreaming of checklists and language barriers, I woke up at an ungodly hour the morning of my flight to Berlin. The day had finally come. That realization prompted me to get sick a few times and have a minor (no scratching) panic attack before driving to the airport. Even though my body was rejecting the idea of traveling alone to a different country, I was mentally prepared and extremely excited. After my 8-hour flight from Chicago to Berlin, I found myself lonely and confused in the Tegel Aiport. My two semesters of German seemed to have vanished somewhere over the Atlantic. I can clearly remember sprinting to catch a shuttle to the train station and then looking out the window wondering if the whole trip would someday be known as that terrible mistake I made in the blinding haze of wanderlust. As I wandered through the train station looking to buy a ticket, my giant pink suitcase stuck out like cargo pants and crocs. I bought my ticket and got to my platform a minute before the train was scheduled to leave. All the rushing frazzled me, so I immediately found the nearest seat and began to practice my breathing exercises. After I calmed down, I felt a glowing sense of pride. I could totally do it.
For me, life in Leipzig was conducive to stress-reduction. Sure, I would get homesick sometimes, but for the most part my anxiety stayed at the all-time low I had maintained during the spring. Distraction played a huge part in this. I was so busy with the Interdaf program that I did not really have time to dwell on anything else. I woke up at the same time every morning, grabbed a croissant at Rewe, and hopped the tram to class. My classes were long but engaging, and after they ended my classmates and I would explore downtown and grab a bite to eat. The social antics of Europeans are widely known to be different than those of Americans, and I found that the differences suited me. There was no pressure to party all the time, but every night held the possibility of adventure. I could chill out with a glass of wine and reflect with Sarah, or get dressed up and head to clubs with Maureen.
Holocaust history and the realization of horrible human capability caused some deep fissures in my mental health to leak. It was a gloomy day even before we took a tour of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Weimar, but the clouds gave way to rain while we were inside the crematorium. The line of human-shaped ovens stood cruelly facing tiny windows in the cement wall. One of the most striking aspects of Buchenwald was the astonishing beauty of the surrounding forest. The towering birch trees blanketed the landscape and provided privacy until they tapered off and illuminated a rusty gate and looming clock tower. I had a persistent thought that day: if trees could tell stories, what would those firs say? I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to know, but the thought made me sick to my stomach. For the rest of our day trip, I felt disjointed. I had no appetite, and just wanted to curl up in bed and somehow separate myself from the human race capable of murdering each other over insignificant differences.
Back in Leipzig, dark thoughts would come out to play when the sun went down, but during the day I was distracted and happy. This fluctuation was exhausting, and I was missing home more than ever. The last week of the trip was in Berlin. I knew it was only a matter of time before the cracks broke open, but I just hoped that I could hold it off until I was back in the States. Berlin was rough. We visited Holocaust museums and memorials almost everyday. At some point during the week, I realized that I did not want to live or someday raise kids in a world that is home to such cold creatures. Obviously I know that there are plenty of truly good people here, but that week I felt hopeless. I wanted to sleep and escape, but instead I continued to wake up and go on tours. When we went to the Jewish museum, I took off by myself because I had a feeling that I would get emotional. The museum was brilliantly designed with many poignant features, including a seventy-nine foot empty concrete silo. I stood in corner of the silo and listened to my heartbeat while I imagined the room being filled with the echoes of the millions of heartbeats silenced by Nazis. The noise in my head was deafening and I began to cry. The roar of those lost continued even after I left the museum with my group. I kept my sunglasses on to hide the tears, and kept my mouth shut to hide the fear. I started hyperventilating on the tram, and took a taxi back to the hostel. I slept for the rest of the day, and felt a little more optimistic when I woke up. That night I wrote in my journal about some of the things that make me happy: strangers exchanging genuine smiles on the street, long walks in sun-filtered woods, and of course my friends and family.
Traveling with anxiety and depression is a constant battle, just like living with anxiety and depression is a constant battle. I still have hard days, and I honestly don’t think that will change anytime soon. I made the mistake of thinking that living in a different country would take me away from my mental health issues, and for a little while it actually seemed to work. I still experienced some of the most affecting moments of my life while studying abroad in Germany. I would not change my good or bad memories for anything, because they helped me to grow into a stronger person. I refuse to let my anxiety stop me from exploring other cultures, and I only have anticipation for my next adventure abroad.