How Traveling Saved Me

When I was seventeen, I felt completely invincible. Like most teenagers, I felt I had it all and nothing was going to get in the way of my dreams. I was full of life, optimism, joy, and drive. I was preparing to graduate from high school with honors, I won trophies for my piano playing abilities, I had an active, healthy social life, I had a trainer at the gym and was in excellent shape, and I was studying accounting with hopes of a future career. Everything was going my way and I was untouchable.

Until one morning, I found out that I was, in fact, just as vulnerable as any other person.

My mom drove me to school like any other morning and we were just talking, getting ready to start the day. Then another car smashed into us and my life changed forever. It wasn’t so severe that anyone almost died or anything, and I know how lucky we are for that, but it was devastating none the less. From that moment, I was practically on bed rest for months, stuck in a restraining neck brace, hardly able to lift a finger without excruciating pain. I was on a lot of pain medication that made me foggy and exhausted. I missed the last few months of my senior year, they rearranged everything so I was still able to graduate with my class, but it certainly wasn’t how it was supposed to be. I was left out of events and activities that are important at that time in a person’s life. I didn’t get to do the typical Senior year moments. Everything normal just disappeared and faded away. There I was, completely defenseless to what was happening.

Months after, I was “on track” to healing and was supposed to be feeling “better,” yet I was still struggling with every aspect of daily life. Looking back, I still remember how much I suffered that year. There were days I was in so much physical pain that I couldn’t brush my hair or get dressed by myself. My skin was raw from the brace. I had crippling headaches that made it difficult to get out of bed. I couldn’t sleep because the pain would keep me up, and then the lack of sleep would cause more pain. I learned I would never have the same function in my left arm and hand. They kept telling me that I was young and healthy so I would be fine overtime, but I wasn’t. Time passed and doctors became more honest about the realities I would be facing after I wasn’t so young anymore.

And emotionally, I was a wreck. I’ve struggled with anxiety my entire life, I’m not going to pretend I didn’t, but the car accident exasperated my anxiety to such an extent that it sometimes made it hard to function properly. I had horrible panic attacks, sometimes to the point where I fainted. I struggled with an overwhelming need to be in control, something I still work on. I felt that in a moment when I didn’t have any control, my life was ruined. So I put everything I had in me into school and the rest of my time was devoted to doctor appointments, physical therapy, and painful treatments. Some weeks I had four days a week full of appointments. I was prescribed Xanax to help cope. I tried seeing a therapist to talk about how anxious and depressed I was, but it only made me feel worse – like a failure when I wasn’t improving. Talking about what happened wasn’t healing me or causing my injuries to recover. My medical problems became my extracurricular life. I couldn’t get a job or join clubs in those first few years of college. Of course my social life suffered. Many of my friendships dissolved and my relationship with my boyfriend was strained and just didn’t take its natural progression because he often had to take care of me. We couldn’t go places or be out late because I was in too much pain. It’s not easy to be young and have to explain to your peers that you can’t go out because you’re body is failing you. It’s not easy to be young and to be forced to face real vulnerability and loss.

I was drowning both physically and mentally. I had the best support system around me with a loving family who did everything they could to help me, but no one really knew what I was feeling. I couldn’t talk about it. I couldn’t explain the way my body felt – the hurt, weakness, or physical and emotional exhaustion. I felt frustrated because I was so depressed and hated how much I lost, but I also knew I was lucky to be alive and in as good of condition as I was. So then I felt guilty for feeling bad for myself. I suffocated myself in overthinking everything about my life – my past, present, and future. I was afraid to do anything because what if it made things worse. The what if’s of life started to pile up and consume me and I knew people around me were tired of hearing it. I developed such strong social anxiety that I struggled to have even the most basic of conversations. So I kept focusing on school and what I could control, but it’s not healthy to completely absorb yourself in studies. I never even skipped a class throughout college because I would think “what if I have to miss because of my medical problems.” But all the A’s in my classes weren’t changing my realities.

But then I realized I had enough. I was drained of the self-pity and other people feeling sorry for me. I was tired of letting this one terrible moment control so much of my life. I had had enough of nothing improving. I was twenty years old and didn’t want any more regrets. I couldn’t stand the thought of being trapped in this body or this anxiety any longer. It had stolen enough of my life. So one day, I planned a summer abroad traveling around Australia and Fiji. Although I still had medical issues and was in regular treatment, I got the clear to go on this trip with some limitations. To pick up and leave was very unlike me, or maybe very much like pre-accident me that had faded away. I  decided I wanted to actually have a chance to live, like really live. So that was it. I packed up and took off across the world.

Being away that summer, I felt completely liberated. I had left behind all the baggage of this accident that had taken over my life for years. No one I met knew what had happened to me, I didn’t have the burden of appointments every week, I was able to do whatever I was capable of without people watching my every move, and my anxiety just melted away. Traveling gave me back the ability to focus on the small moments of every day and appreciate their value in a new way. It was like someone reached down through me and pulled out my soul from some depths where it been lost.

People who know me question how I can be so anxious at home over the smallest things, yet, when I’m in a country across the world I am able to just go with the flow. I really believe traveling saved me. I wanted to travel. That was always the plan and some part of my life, but my accident made that seem less possible. At home, I was obsessed with perfection and control, and my anxiety got the best of me most days. Yet, in a weird way my accident made me less afraid to go out and explore the world. I guess I felt that if something so tragic and life changing could happen around the corner from home, then I may as well go across the world and take my chances. There was suddenly less to be afraid of when breaking out of my everyday routine and trying something completely different than there was staying stuck in the same place each day.

That summer abroad changed me. It gave me strength, inspiration, and hope for a better future. I became more self-sufficient, independent, and motivated. I felt like my whole world had opened up again. These refreshing moments throughout my trip stayed with me. Experiencing being one tiny person surrounded by the immense Great Barrier Reef, humbled me. The joy of something like spotting a group of kangaroos on the side of the road made me feel like a happy child again. Staying in a Fijian village with people who have so little gave me perspective about my own situation. But mostly having real time alone gave me the chance I desperately needed to process the challenges of the last few years. The trip changed my attitude and outlook on life. As my experience came to an end, I dreaded going home and feared I would go right back to who I was before I left. But I didn’t.

And that’s when I really understood the impact of traveling. It changed my life, just like that terrible accident had, but this time it changed me for the better. I was excited about life again in ways I hadn’t felt for years and I couldn’t wait to go again and again. The experience of traveling became my addiction and greatest passion.

So I made it home and I pushed through school and work. I struggled with another troubling medical bump before finishing school when my dentist found a tumor growing in my jaw. I was faced again with my vulnerability, but I was able to get through it. After the surgery, they discovered the tumor was not cancerous and I would be okay despite some minor nerve damage in my face. But I continued pushing on and eventually I finished school with the highest honors in two degrees.

My biggest plan for the future wasn’t to get right into a career or go to graduate school. My plan was to live my life the way I wanted to and to see as much of the world that I could, as soon as I had the chance. I had been faced with two traumatic medical experiences that forced me to acknowledge how short life can be and how quickly it can change. I knew making plans for “someday” was not worth the wait. After graduating from university, I spent a year traveling. When I was home, I was completely inspired. I began to paint, to learn cake decorating, to work on photography, to write, and I even learned how to exercise with my changed body. I found new passions in my life. I found ways to manage my anxiety through these passions. And yeah, I still really struggled too. As much as I wish traveling could have healed me physically, it didn’t. There were times I suffered horribly and couldn’t move for days. There were plenty of tears over the years as I realized how much I would never be capable of again. But sometimes, after surviving the long plane rides, when I would be on the other side of the world, in warm weather with fresh air – I would feel better too. Home or not, there are always good days and bad days.

Now, nearly nine years since my car accident, I still have lingering pain, physical weakness, and limitations, but since leaving for that first big solo trip to Australia, I’ve been to 18 countries – about 2/3 of the countries I’ve seen in my life. I’ve travelled more around the States. I’ve been much more open to life and actually living in ways I hadn’t realized my accident had stolen from me. Traveling continues to help me work through some of the toughest moments of my life. I always look forward to a bright future with more trips. Traveling has saved me.

 

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