Quiet Riot: When Your Existential Crisis Moves Abroad With You

“Are you okay?” My friend asked.

I knew this crude type of emotional vertigo well. The tightness in my chest, as if my heart was about to be sucked out of my body through a straw, coupled with the  sudden sensation that gravity was inadequate and no matter how hard I clawed with my fingernails and dug in with my heels I was about to slip off the face of the earth easily as a fried egg off of a greased pan.

This again. I thought I’d left this on the other side of the Atlantic. Yet here, with the hills of Lugano bursting into an early spring riot of color as my backdrop, I was about to have my first and only panic and  attack since moving to Switzerland. It was the day before Easter, 2015.

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Were scenic lakeside strolls my new anxiety trigger? Talk about first world problems…

It was embarrassing, really. I thought about how it must have looked from the outside. My usually relaxed and animated face tight and drawn– straining for oxygen. How blindsiding it must have been for somebody who had never seen me this way. Me, Little Miss Adventure, reacting to the cafes and cobblestones of Southern Switzerland like a petrified kitten being shoehorned from a pet carrier on a visit to the vet. I wondered for a moment if my friend felt cheated, “You thought you were day-tripping with a kick-ass go getter, turns out you’re just babysitting a neurotic sideshow.”

That’s panic and anxiety for you, the ultimate unwanted party guest– like Steve Urkel ringing the doorbell and inviting himself inside when you’re about to get busy with a hot date. “Did I do thaaaat?” anxiety asks from behind thick coke bottle glasses as it carelessly pratfalls through your life– shattering everything you thought was solid in it’s wake.

“Just stay near me until it’s over.” Was all I could manage to say flatly. Fortunately, I knew just the type of emotional first aid I needed to perform on myself at that moment, slow and steady ujai breaths, pausing at the top of each one to steady myself before embarking on the next exhale. The pause was essential. Without it the jagged fear that my breath, and everything else, may never be steady again threatened to creep in and collapse it all into hyperventilation.

Breathing. How was it that I could manage moving to another continent but I couldn’t manage breathing?

What was the trigger that day? Was it knowing that I was about to spend the following day, Easter Sunday, by myself while my loved ones coalesced without me on the other side of the planet? But I’d chosen that, hadn’t I? Was it the fact that I could see my first year in Switzerland drawing to a close and while I’d grown leaps and bounds from the quivery-kneed girl who crash landed here nine months earlier with two suitcases and half a clue, I was still so far from where I’d pictured myself being by now?

The irony was that I was living my dream and forging my own path– to a destination that was constantly changing. A place I wasn’t sure even existed but felt certain I’d recognize when I arrived. I’d discovered so much, created a place for myself in a foreign country, developed true friendships…but there was still so much of me that felt epically lost, the human equivalent of pocket change discarded in the universes’ cosmic couch cushions. And here was anxiety, holding up a mirror to all of this when what I wanted most desperately was a signpost. Something to tell me that my true home was just around the bend.

Fast forward a year ahead. I’m with yet another friend, this time one imported from home, exploring yet another gobsmackingly gorgeous Swiss location on the first warm day of spring. Luzern.  We’d decided to head uphill from old town, to a destination I’d never been to before, the medieval fortifications above the city. As on so many walks one can take in Switzerland, every pause we took on our way to the top of the hill unfolded into a gorgeous panorama, each one more exquisite than the last.

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Just another breathtaking pause on our way to the top. Quit showing off, Luzern!

We walked, savoring the views, commiserating on the apartment we’d shared half a lifetime ago. The off-key Duran Duran dance parties on the tilted floorboards of a living room populated with mismatched hand-me-down furniture, the big dreams, bad jobs and hopeless crushes that make up your twenties. Since then she’d published two books and I’d become an expat.

Thirty-six felt so much different than we’d expected it to feel. Scary sometimes, yeah, but much bigger, more expansive and full of freedom. Neither of us had taken a turn down a road we couldn’t come back from. We weren’t living cookie-cutter lives filled with somebody elses’ hand-me-downs anymore. The notion that either of us could be lost between the couch cushions was absurd. We weren’t lost. We were Courageous Women Leading Extraordinary Lives!

No matter how many times I’d repeated that sentence to myself, it hadn’t felt true until somebody else held a mirror up to me, to show me the life that I was living. A life that was messy and uncertain at times, but that I was completely in charge of. A life that had moments of intense solitude but that was even fuller of fierce love stretching across multiple continents. A life that was meant to be wandered through with wonder and curiosity, each step on the path more than just a meaningless bypass on the slog to the top. Each was was it’s own panorama, a destination in and of itself.

Finally we reached the stone walls of the fortress. The narrow vertigo-inducing steps that would take me to the ramparts promised more impressive views of Luzern and the Alps beyond, but this was where my fear of heights usually kicked in. Today though, I wanted to see what was beyond that fear. I took my first step and my heart remained steady in my bosom, gravity did it’s thing, my breathing was soft and unfettered. So took another step, trusting my feet to carry me forward.

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Don’t fear the ramparts. Nowhere to go but up in this life of mine!

80 thoughts on “Quiet Riot: When Your Existential Crisis Moves Abroad With You

  1. “You thought you were day-tripping with a kick-ass go getter, turns out you’re just babysitting a neurotic sideshow.”….such a cool sentence…the writing is so good here.

  2. Wow! As someone who struggles with anxiety on a daily basis this really spoke to me. I also wanted to say I’ve been in a similar situation when I spent a summer in London working. Anxiety is such a funny thing. You’d think being in a brand new beautiful country there wouldn’t be time to be anxious! Many don’t know how to understand anxiety if they don’t have it so it’s always hard if you’re surrounded by people who don’t know that side of you. Your writing style is awesome by the way🙂

    1. So true. Although following your dream to another country can set your soul free on so many levels, the big rewards are not without the big risks, and that’s where I think the anxiety comes in. It’s also rough when nobody else can relate. I find when you live and work abroad sometimes people think your life if one big vacation and they can’t understand why you’d ever have a moment’s doubt. What they don’t realize is that moving away from everything you’ve ever been sure of puts your life on a highwire without the safety net. enormously liberating, but also scary as hell. I wrote a lot about that here:

      https://missappleabroad.com/2016/01/17/when-lonely-is-beautiful-the-case-for-solitude/

      Anyways, glad you enjoyed.

  3. Great post! It really spoke to me. You beautifuly wrote what I have been thinking about anxiety and traveling. Plus I love Switzerland.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Anxiety can be a scary dark side to the traveling experience, but I would hate to see it hold anybody back. My motto is, “feel the fear and do it anyways.”

      And I love Switzerland too!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Anxiety has a way of hitting us when we least expect it. All we can do is work on those feelings, realize there is something deeper, and keep going forward.

    – pathswewalk.com

  5. ” A life that was messy and uncertain at times, but that I was completely in charge of. A life that had moments of intense solitude but that was even fuller of fierce love stretching across multiple continents. A life that was meant to be wandered through with wonder and curiosity, each step on the path more than just a meaningless bypass on the slog to the top. Each was was it’s own panorama, a destination in and of itself. ”

    These lines are going to stay with me for long now.
    PS.
    Yours is my maiden -blog reading here and it got me looking forward to more . Beautiful !

  6. Sorry to hear about that panic attack, but thanks for writing and sharing this. Beautifully written, with great photos.

  7. Your words are beautifully picked and placed like my Stock portfolio. It’s addictive. Can’t get enough of both. I am your Happily Anxious 145th Follower!🙂 Keep up the beauty in you & your words! Love from India.

  8. When I can’t breathe and anxiety is gripping me and tear ducts are not listening to me… I usually just call my best friend and let her speak louder than Mr. Urkel.
    People think it’s the quiet ones who have problems- it’s usually the sarcastic, fast talking, confident ones who have stories. Lovely post, it’s good to see someone describe anxiety attack so accurately without the flowery words of ‘flowing and gushing pain from the depths of trauma’.

    Beautiful post. Loved it.

  9. As I read your story I felt those tense sensations in my body like it was happening to me personally. That’s why we are all so connected because we can empath into other people’s emotions. I completely understand that notion of feeling lost, panicky and confused because I’ve been there done that. Even though I lead a pretty sedentary way of life I do have a desire to travel and explore new places but just the thought of it makes me feel unready somehow to go out there and see the world. So thank you for your inspiring story and good luck with everything in life.
    Love your style of writing, by the way, it’s quite refreshing. May you be blessed.

  10. Your writing is beautiful and descriptive and captivating. I look forward to digging into your blog and reading more!! I found you from the discover page and I’m glad I looked! I hope that things get better. I would love to just pick up and move away but my husband is not that couragous or adventurous so I stay here.

    1. Ha! Another thing I truly believe is that you don’t have to pick up your entire life to have an adventure… it can be right in your backyard if you change your perspective. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog. There will definitely be more.

  11. Wow this is an amazing story. What’s funny about it is that this past Easter weekend I had a panic attack myself. 6 months ago I moved across the country, and it really set in on Easter weekend that I was without my loved ones. I’m writing about this experience in my blog as well🙂 I can’t wait to read more!

    1. Wow. Isn’t it interesting that we feel so alone when things like this happen—but the truth is that there’s people all over the world experiencing the same angst. There always have been and always will be. I look forward to hearing about your experiences too.

  12. Hi there,

    I completely relate, as I’ve been bouncing around the globe with this accompanying thorn on the side, your existential crisis if you will. My current location is NYC, and this mad chaotic city that never sleeps only adds to my occasional bouts of anxiety. My recently found spiritual life has helped ground me however, and I wonder if exploring your spiritual self would help with the inner angst that eats away at us. Anyhow, best of luck on your journey…your inner journey most of all.🙂

    1. Having a spiritual practice definitely helps to ground me and to ride the waves when the ocean gets choppy. I think the key is not to never expect rough times– but to be kind to yourself above all and have a way of dealing with them that is genuine to who you are.

  13. Wow, that was a really interesting read! I’m 17 and I have minor anxiety attacks, and one day I want to travel all sorts of places. It felt relatable, and yet quite unique, your writing is great!

  14. This post was so relatable to me. I’ve been struggling with anxiety for quite a long time now but only recently got diagnosed. I also moved to London, England from Wisconsin about three years ago and I’ve definitely had my fair of struggles. Anyways, thank you so much for writing something so real and relatable! xx

  15. Thank you for sharing this experience with us. I can relate very much to what you are living, having lived abroad for a long time. The mirror you talk about is so important to keep moving forward, even if sometimes we refuse to see them along the way.
    I love the way you write. I look forward to the next post.

  16. I love this. I suffered with depression and anxiety. I would always get panic attacks… I remember the first time it happened in front of my friends. You can’t choose when you get them. Anyways…. This really helped me! I hope you have a wonderful day.

  17. Fantastic article! Having just experienced anxiety with certain decisions lately, can relate with the keep going and what pathsewewalk quoted above. Feel there is a deeper message, for yourself to trust! The humour you use is a wonderful strategy, you are an inspiration!

  18. Regarding your entry there, about your traveling experiences and your fear: Many times we don’t know where fear comes from, but the good part is that as quickly as it comes, it can be sent away with just the right thought or the right quote.

    Fear goes, sometimes just as quickly as it comes, so that’s the good part. And the other good part is that fear is actually a gift. (The book, ‘THE GIFT OF FEAR by Gavin DeBecker)..

    You have a great post there, and you took a most wonderful trip! Kudos to you!

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