broken walls and narratives

A not so revolutionary blog about feminism, socialism, activism, travel, nature, life, etc.

Archive for the tag “anxiety”

Travel and My Fears

 

Travel and My Fears

H. Bradford

5/21/17

I am getting ready for another trip and I feel a little afraid.  This time, I am traveling to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan for three weeks.  Like always, I will go alone, though I will meet up with a group of strangers after a few days in Ashgabat.  From there, we will embark on an overland camping trip through the stans.  When I first fantasized about the trip, I imagined the wonder of seeing the dehydrated remains of the Aral Sea.  I imagined myself following the Silk Road through ancient, exotic cities.  I would traverse the rugged formerly Soviet states, admiring mosques, monuments, and a few remaining statues of Lenin.  It seemed very intrepid.  All winter, the trip was abstract.  I read books about the history of the region.  But, now that the trip is less than two weeks away, a new reality is setting in.  I am going to have to bush camp in the desert with scorpions, cobras, and several days without a shower.  I am going to have to navigate Ashgabat alone as a solo female American traveler.  Turkmenistan gets a fraction of the tourists that North Korea gets each year (about 9,000 compared to 35,000).  I am also moderately terrified of contracting dysentery, typhus, or any number of food or waterborne diseases.  (I do have some antibiotics from last year’s trip and was vaccinated last year against a variety of illnesses).   Also, ATM use in those countries is unreliable, so, I will have to carry a lot of cash and hope it is enough for the duration of my trip…and that I don’t lose it or have it stolen.  Internet is somewhat patchy in those countries and my cellphone does not work out of the country.  I have faced that same dilemmas before and fared alright, but, it does make me a little worried.

Gas crater

The Darvaza gas crater in the Karakum desert- one of the places where I will be “bush camping” in just over two weeks from now.


Fear is not new.  I’ve always been afraid of travel.  Usually, there is this brave person inside of me, who is full of fantasy and confidence.  That person decides on some adventure, which looks great as a portrait in my imagination, but is not as fun as a lived reality.  Let’s call that person “Brave H.” For instance, when I was 19 years old, I decided that I would go to London and Paris alone.  I came from a town of 250 people and had never been on an airplane or road in a taxi.  Go big or go home, Brave H. says…until I am actually trying to figure out how airports work, on my first plane ride, and going across the ocean.  In retrospect, it is really no big deal.  That sort of travel seems easy.  But, to 19 year old me, that was a pretty big deal.  Over fifty countries later, I am still afraid, but the fear changes with new challenges.


Last year, I went to Southern Africa for an overland camping trip in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.  As the plane took off, I was pretty terrified.  I was terrified before then.  I had never actually gone camping, but somehow Brave H. signed me up for three weeks of it…in Africa.  I was afraid of being alone.  I was afraid of being the victim of crime- sexual assault in particular.  I was afraid of becoming very ill.  I was afraid that I was not up to the challenge of camping or the long days on bumpy roads.  I was a little afraid of insects, snakes, and animals.  Somehow, it wasn’t as bad as I feared. In fact, it was wonderful, fun, and even much easier than I imagined.  It took a few days of camping to come to the conclusion that I was going to make it.  Any small hardship was more than compensated for in the form of astonishing landscapes and animals.

dscn1225

(A view of Victoria Falls from a helicopter.  I had a lot of anxiety as I had never been in a helicopter before.  But, overcoming fear and anxiety does have its rewards).

I was afraid the year before when Brave H. decided it was a good idea to visit Belarus and Ukraine, entirely alone.  After all, Brave H. wanted to see Chernobyl.  Brave H. wanted to visit a nature reserve outside of Minsk and partake in the weird splendor of the Cold War remnant.  So, that is where I went.  I don’t regret it.  Kiev was really beautiful and there was so much to see.  Minsk was not really pretty at all, but unique.  Neither place was teeming with tourists, adding a sense of bravery to my adventure.  I only spent a few days in each place.  I think that traveling often has waves of fear.  For instance, there is the anxiety of getting from the airport to the hotel without being ripped off or taken advantage of by a taxi driver.  Upon arriving at the hotel, there is elation after overcoming the first challenge.  After that, there are anxieties around finding a currency exchange, navigating the metro system, walking alone in the park, the other individuals staying in the hostel, the mysterious military parade, getting turned around, trying to find the monument to Baba Yar, etc.  It is like this on every adventure.  The ups and downs of figuring things out and staying safe in unfamiliar places.

DSCF1178

I have felt at least a little afraid during each of my trips.  I don’t particularly like being afraid, but I do like the feeling of accomplishment from figuring something out or successfully completing a task or adventure.  I suppose it makes me feel stronger and braver.  Of course, this only serves to inspire Brave H.to dream up bigger adventures and greater challenges.  I am not a robust, energetic, extroverted adventurer.  I am cowardly.  I like books and birds.  I enjoy museums and botanical gardens. I don’t really care for being dirty, lonely, terrified, tired, or sick.  Brave H. won’t stand for that.  Nope.  Life is too short.  I want to see interesting things and test myself.  Granted, there are people who test themselves far more.  For instance, there was a woman in her 60s on my last trip who went scuba diving with alligators in the Zambezi river.  Brave H. wants to be her.   Normal, nerdy, cowardly H. does not like water or all the pressure from being under water.  The same woman climbed mountains and scuba dived all over the world.  She also traveled to the “Stans” for an overland trip.  I will never be one of those amazing adventurers that I meet when I am out traveling.  The ones who inspire Brave H. to concoct an adventure or dream of new challenges.  I will always be afraid.  As I test myself, the boundaries of the fear extends to the next horizon.  I hope that horizon takes me to interesting places.  Maybe I will trek up mountains (at least smaller ones that don’t require actual climbing gear).  Maybe I will learn to scuba dive.  Maybe I will never do those things.  Maybe there is a limit to how far the boundary can be pushed.  It may be limited by experiencing disease or a discomfort so great that it pushes me back into my comfort zone.  Whatever happens, it is my hope that I can one day be that old lady who inspires others with her fearlessness and zeal for life.

dscf4256Brave H. thinks she is a bad ass.   Well, maybe someday it will be true.

Emetophobia: Redrawing the Border

It is embarrassing to admit, but I have emetophobia (fear of vomiting).  It is embarrassing because I think it makes me seem neurotic.  I don’t want to be neurotic.   Who wants to be some worry wart who frets over their food?  I sure don’t.

It began in the second grade.  I had a stomach bug and puked all over my pillow and bed.  My mother was upset over the mess and told me that if I puked again, I would have to clean it up.  I don’t know why, but this planted a dark seed of anxiety in my mind.  Any frustrated mother would say the same thing.  Until then, I hadn’t feared puking…but for some reason, after that incident, I began to fear vomiting.

I started sleeping with water by my bed in case I had to puke in the night.  The water, in my imagination, would help me not vomit.  I also started having panic attacks.  I felt my chest and throat tighten.  In my young brain, I mistook this for nausea or that I would soon throw up.  So, bus trips and car trips were a nightmare.   I feared that I would throw up, uncontrollably, in a confined space…making a huge mess.  I am a messy person?  Why does this matter?  I don’t know.  There is no logic to phobias.  This is also a source of shame, as I try to be a logical person.  The phobia is like a demon that possesses me, drawing out the worst traits of paranoia and irrationality.  I don’t believe in gods or ghosts, but I believe that vomiting is worse than death!

Anyway, for many years I suffered with this phobia.  I had panic attacks, feared road trips, feared carnival rides, feared unfamiliar food, feared restaurants, etc.  For many years, it was nameless.  I never knew that people could actually fear vomiting.  I thought I was a solidary weirdo with a bizarre fear.  But, I found that there are entire websites dedicated to it and that it is one of the more common 500 or so phobias that have been identified.

It is hard to explain what it is like having it.  It has shaded my life.  Whenever a new situation arises, I immediately think…”will this make me throw up?”  As such, in years past, I had anxiety flying… or going on boat rides or trying new foods.  In recent years, I have made some headway fighting this phobia.  The biggest breakthrough was realizing a.) I have a phobia.  b.) the phobia has a name.  c.) other people have this phobia.  To use the demon metaphor, perhaps having a name for it gave me some control over it…as I could research it and learn more about it.  Another boon for overcoming the phobia has been life experience.  The more I experience life, the more evidence I have against the irrationality of the phobia and the more exposure to the things that make me afraid.

Exposure.  Yikes.  When I was young, I feared seeing vomit on television and became afraid someone else vomited.  I feared new things, such as dissecting in biology class or unfamiliar smells.   However, I have learned that not all things cause vomiting.  I stopped fearing flying after not becoming ill during my first international flights.  The flying itself did not make me sick.  I have never become sick from being on a boat or sick from a new smell.   Vomit on television or on a sidewalk will not make me vomit.  So, slowly the phobia has shrunk down from its original form in my childhood.

I have also faced stomach bugs in recent years.  This has been a mixed experience.  Between the years of 1989-2010, I never vomited.  Not once. This is quite a record.  It seems almost impossible.   I even forgot what nausea was like- so I often mistook anxiety for nausea.  Then, in 2010, I caught a stomach bug.  I very quickly learned what nausea was (after missing out all those years).   I had a very unpleasant day.  I didn’t throw up, by a dry heaved for the first time since….second grade.   I cried.  I begged for anti-emetics.  I took Nausene and survived.   After surviving, I felt a little less afraid.

Then, things were calm again until I worked at the Boys and Girls Club.  Working with 80 kids that don’t often wash their hands is a recipe for all kinds of illnesses.  The year that I worked there, I got sick with stomach bugs three times.  Again, I never puked…but there were miserable bouts of dry heaving (which I suppose is close enough?).

I think that the worst nightmare was my trip to Eastern Europe.  Throughout the trip, I had a few bouts of diarrhea, nausea, and upset stomach.  It was unpleasant, but survivable.  However, on the morning of my flight back home…I was hit by something awful.  I used the bathroom six times in an hour…with a lot of watery diarrhea.  This was coupled with severe nausea.  To prevent myself from puking on the flight from Prague to Amsterdam, I could not move my body.  The slightest jostling upset the delicate balance in my stomach.  When I arrived in Amsterdam, I bought a Gatorade and had to wait in a long security line…feeling like I would explode from either end at any moment.  I had to throw out the Gatorade of course, passed through security, went to my gate, and dry heaved in the gate’s bathroom until my flight to the U.S. was announced.  Then, I spent 8 miserable hours in my seat with a blanket over my head…counting the minutes and hours.  I could not watch the movie or move one bit, as again, any movement triggered the extreme nausea that I was facing.  Never in my life have I been that nauseated and for THAT long.  I couldn’t drink water as even this upset my stomach.  Being trapped in a confined space with limited ability to vomit was hellish.

The past year, working at a shelter for women, has also exposed me to many germs.  Again, I have had stomach bugs a few times.  I even think I had food poisoning this summer when I went out for Thai food.  Each time I survive.  It isn’t pleasant.  But, I survive.  I suppose, in a small way, the phobia shrinks a little each time I survive a stomach bug.

Now, I am actually far less afraid.  I think the phobia is a skeleton of what it once was.  In the end, I am only truly afraid of puking in limited situations.  My main nightmare is becoming sick at work, with no one to cover my shift.  So, this is the fear of vomiting at work with an inability to escape my duties to be sick.  Another nightmare is becoming sick on a bus or vehicle with no place to vomit.   In the end, with my phobia far smaller, I see it’s naked ugliness.

The phobia is about control.  I fear vomiting because I can’t control it.  I can’t control how long it will last and where it will happen.  I can accept, to some degree, that I will get sick- and provided that I am near a bathroom or comfortable place- I can live with that.  But, what I really fear is lack of control over vomiting.

For example, I work at a shelter for domestic abuse.  There are sometimes fifty five people in the shelter.  The individuals live in closed quarters and many are children.  Add stress to the situation (which compromises the immune system), some lack of hygiene and lack of medical care…and there is really a hot bed for disease.  As such, we have many bouts of stomach bugs through the shelter over the year.  In fact, I really don’t think Norovirus ever actually leaves the shelter as we have stomach bug outbreaks every month or two.

As a rational person who doesn’t want to get sick, it is reasonable that I would want to CONTROL norovirus.  I can’t.  We use hand sanitizer in the office, but alcohol based sanitizers don’t really work against norovirus.  Hand washing is effective, but once I touch a door knob, keyboard, counter, or one of the hundreds of other things, my hands are infected again.  Worse, norovirus can travel through the air.  So, if you enter a room where someone has been ill, you can become sick from vomit or fecal particles in the air.   Worse still, it only takes 10-100 viral particles to make you sick.   A pin head sized piece of feces has millions of viral particles.   As such, a sick resident can carry just the tiniest droplet on their clothes or hands and make everyone sick.  And, even if a person becomes ill with norovirus, the immunity tends to be rather short.  I can’t think of any way to win against norovirus.  For all practical purposes, it cannot be controlled.  I bleach counters and surfaces…many things…at night with bleach and water.  Bleach kills it.  But, only until the shelter becomes dirty again when residents touch things.   I can see how this phobia might lend itself to OCD behavior as the habits to control it would require such behaviors (a lot of hand washing and cleaning).

When I go to work and know that people have been ill, it causes me anxiety.  It causes me anxiety because I fear that I will get sick and be at work, trying to take care of the shelter…with no reprieve to vomit.  I can’t control becoming sick.  As I have mentioned, norovirus is quite difficult to control.   The best I can do is control myself, by washing my hands and avoiding eating or touching my face.  However, even if I do my best to avoid putting anything near my mouth, this only prevents the oral-fecal route of contamination.  Airborne viral particles from vomit or feces cannot be controlled, lest I put on a mask.  So I worry.  This is where my phobia is the worst.

I could seek professional help.  I might benefit from counseling or an anti-anxiety drug.  However, perhaps because of the stigma of mental illness, I prefer to plod along on my own.  Already, I have brought my phobia down to a skeleton of its original form.  In the end, there are certainly times that I skip meals, avoid going places, or have panic attacks.  It makes life harder.  At the same time, I take pride in facing my fear.  Imagine if you once afraid of spiders.  You panicked when they were on television or at the zoo.  Then, through enduring spiders and facing life, the fear becomes smaller.  Maybe you travelled to the desert and saw a tarantula.  Maybe a spider fell on your shoulder when you went through the Amazon.  It was horrific.  But, you didn’t die.   At this point, the only spiders you fear might be in just a few places or situations (maybe you fear going into the basement or the garden shed).   That is how it has been with my phobia.  I have had the shits  and hellish nausea from Prague to Minneapolis!  But, I still saw Prague and all of Eastern Europe.

I once heard a quote that life begins where fear ends.  I didn’t learn until later that the quote is rather New Age-y and from Osho Rajneesh.  Although spirituality isn’t my thing, I found that the quote was a good sentiment.  Fear fences out many wonderful experiences.  If I had let the phobia truly rule my life, I would have never gone on a flight or travelled.  I would avoid working with children or domestic violence victims at the shelter.   My life would be very fenced in.  I don’t want that.  So, I hope that one day the phobia shrinks down to nothing, so I can live without being fenced in by this fear.   I am optimistic that it will.  I think it will as long as I push back against the fence and face the things that I fear.

 

 

 

 

 

Post Navigation