Friday, 10 June 2011

The Agoraphobic Backpacker

I hadn’t officially been alone outside  for years. I thought being confined in a bubble-wrapped existence within my haven of a bedroom for the rest of my life was a perfectly plausible way of living. Thinking that having a chaperone to and from college, as well as general contact with the outside world would be one I would be able to continue even into my twenties. Clearly, that did not happen.

This needed to be attacked with drastic measures, and not just baby steps in and out of the front door. This required an entirely different backdrop, language and culture in order to tackle this magnitude of isolation. I needed to tread quickly out of my comfort box before it swallowed me whole, and be in a place where open spaces and people would not be the only issue I had. So my first attempt to escape was in 2007, eight thousand miles away from drizzling London to the growing metropolis of Shanghai.

It was everything I had never imagined. Developed, boisterous businesses flourishing within neon lit skyscrapers were a distant thought. More so, were the people who I spent the majority of my time communicating through hand gestures and pigeon Mandarin. And though the results consisted of me being confined to my frozen apartment, feasting on Snicker bars; it was the first move towards breathing the polluted air of the real world. I was officially infected with the travel bug.

Although at every try of living abroad, I have continued the same pattern of being locked up within four walls, it is the experience of living a parallel life (as an agoraphobic) each time. Exactly what had changed then?

Well, for those of you out there surviving inside on a computer, similarly imprisoned within a container, the best and only way is to bite the bullet first time and make that leap across several oceans. Obviously, it’s not as simple as ‘just go outside’ especially when you are agoraphobic. It never is. However, wide open spaces tend to feel more daunting, when you are in the unfamiliar, no matter where you are.

Hence the most important way of not suffering that intense vulnerability or feeling nauseous and panicked is to PLAN. If you are bit like me, and unable to enjoy spontaneous walks to “view the vista” or “clear your head,” then the handiest tip is to map out every part of your trip, including charting any ‘impulsive walks.’ By using specific targets during your sightseeing and be able to plot your journey back to your safe haven, you focus away from the feeling of falling. It is one of those ‘pinch your nose and eat it moments,’ travelling thousands of miles away, but you realise that you don’t need to rely on a crutch for the rest of your life. Therefore, I have devised the Agoraphobic Travel Cheat Sheet:

 It can be filled out something like this:

And yes it may be a bit laborious, but you can thank it later when you feel a little lost. Bringing a sense of direction into your travel is always essential for those who require a safety net as large as your home. Or the option could be to try something closer to home, a site in your own city perhaps that you desperately want to see. Still, the main prerequisite for an agoraphobic traveller is that you feel comfortable and safe enough to want to make that change in your life. A support, aka a friend on the other line, or even a travelling companion can always be useful. 

There are always those occasions where you sense the world is clearly engulfing you, striking pure fear down through your spine, especially at the most inappropriate of times. At this point, sitting down in one spot, looking down and most significantly breathing is key to stopping a panic attack. Inhale everything that surrounds you, including the wonderful views that you get to experience in a lifetime. And just hold on to that thought.

Evidently, this is not a long-term solution, but it is one that can give a slight amount of confidence to be able to move past this gruelling phobia in the future. Agoraphobia usually stems from deep-rooted issues that trigger panic when facing open spaces and the outside world. And though it is not a ‘cure,’ it has been my treatment in enjoying the most beautiful moments in life. 

(I apologise to all those who I have cancelled seeing over the years!)

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