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How I Managed Travel Anxiety on My First International Trip

As a chubby Black girl with severe anxiety, I didn’t think I could manage international travel. But I still desired to see more of the world.

My husband and I were in the middle of Mexico City International Airport, attempting to decipher the words “Puerta 7” through squinted eyes and smudged glasses in order to check in for our flight back to the US. Like clockwork, I began sweating, heat rose to my face, and I could feel the panic that was about to take over. In this frenzy, I couldn’t find my passport at that exact moment, and suddenly my brain was convinced that l had lost it, although I knew I had packed everything perfectly where it could be located. Travel anxiety convinced me that I had somehow misplaced it.

I shot a look of desperation at my husband, who was now trailing behind me, and his only response was an indifferent shrug. I crouched over my suitcase and frantically rummaged through everything, finally bursting into tears. Most people get super excited about temporarily leaving the doldrums of their daily life to embark on adventure, but I dreaded it. When I was at home I could at least find refuge in my apartment when I felt like the world around me was getting too chaotic, but as soon as I knew I would be setting foot inside an airport, that safety net suddenly dissolved.

As a chubby Black girl with severe anxiety, I often felt like I could barely manage my own life, let alone figure out how to trot around the world.

I was diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression after both of my parents suddenly passed away within a short period of one another. Up until that moment, I never had a reason to worry about feeling unsafe or uncertain of anything. Every day I carry the feeling that my entire world around me will crumble and something terrible will happen. When I travel, that feeling intensifies by about one billion times.

I am far from having #wanderlust, something that feels like a cliché of beautiful white women trekking on endless global adventures via the Instagram hashtag. As a chubby Black girl with severe anxiety, I often felt like I could barely manage my own life, let alone figure out how to trot around the world. But I still desired to see more of the world, and after months of preparation, I was ready to emulate the effortlessness these women exuded while gallivanting from country to country—with anxiety or not.

On a whim, I snagged tickets to see my fave, Adele, in Mexico City, and so my husband and I decided that our honeymoon would be our first international trip together. We planned half our trip to be spent in sunny Cancun and the other half to explore the vast city.

When we revealed our honeymoon destination, there were endless expressions of concern coming not just from family and friends but from complete strangers about the safety of Mexico City and its supposed high crime rate. As an anxious person, this was not what I wanted to hear, but one of the coping mechanisms I’ve devised over the years is using concrete information to combat habitual catastrophic thinking.

In January 2016, The New York Times selected Mexico City as the number one travel destination. There were no advisories regarding the city in effect on the US State Department’s travel alerts and warnings site.

Centro Histórico, Mexico City
photo by Jagger Blaec

My airport meltdown was one of several anxiety-ridden moments that I endured during our honeymoon. Statistically there was no reason to worry, but when we arrived I was panicked by the language barrier and darkness during the drive from the airport to our hotel. In the dark of night, I imagined detours down alleyways or the carjackings my relatives had warned me about. But this was obviously another instance of overthinking—we saw stoplights and churches that threw light on the dark paths we drove on.

Then there was the time I ripped off my shirt in the middle of the street because I had become so flustered with not knowing where we were going for what felt like forever under the Mexican sun. I had not dressed accordingly and began to overheat. Eventually, I found a vendor selling the tackiest Bob Marley tank top—it was breathable and I was able to calm down as my body cooled. We were on our way to Centro Histórico, which is exactly what it sounds like: the historical center of the entire city. Once my anxiety subsided I was finally able to breathe deeply and admire the towering architecture and richness of the city. Everyone was brown and beautiful and I felt more at home in a foreign country than I had felt in a long time living in the whitest place on the planet: Portland, Oregon.

I had never really cared about art stuff beyond doodling, but seeing structures that were still standing that had been built by Mayans gave me new insight on what it means to create meaningful art that lasts. We watched the sun set as we stood within a preserved Mayan ruin, and in that moment I began to grasp why people chose to escape their lives and fly to unknown places. And of course, there was the food.

My taste buds experienced flavors I had no idea existed; the farm-fresh beef and local vegetables were all seasoned to perfection. My favorite foodie find was the 24-hour Churrería El Moro, and it was as if the gates of heaven had parted within walking distance of our hotel in Centro Histórico. I watched as a woman in a white apron and blue dress hand-rolled yards of fried dough in freshly granulated sugar and sprinkled on cinnamon. I got an ice cream sandwich with churros for buns, and all was right in the universe.

Everyone was brown and beautiful and I felt more at home in a foreign country than I had felt in a long time living in the whitest place on the planet: Portland, Oregon.

Besides taking comfort in all of the great food, my anxiety lessened because I found salvation in my smartphone. We used it to communicate with people using a translation app. I made sure to check the weather before getting dressed. It was Google that led me to Churrería El Moro, and I would not have been able to order food anywhere without it. I discovered that there is Uber in Mexico, and with the help of the hotel staff we overcame the language barrier to get to Palacio de los Deportes to see my girl Adele before the end of our trip.

At the airport, we begrudgingly left our vacation behind. As I was hit by a final wave of stress—worrying about getting lost while looking for our terminal, thinking (again) that I had lost my passport, and needing to re-pack my overweight bags—I realized it was time for a Xanax. We boarded the plane and as soon as the flight attendant came by our row of seats to take drink orders, I asked for an alcoholic beverage to wash down that little pill.

As anxious as I was, we went to Mexico without a real itinerary, and I ultimately overcame my fear of being lost and allowed myself to wander. We explored the downtown areas of Centro Histórico and the Zócalo, I got to see Adele sparkle in another floor-length gown while belting out my fave songs in Mexico City, and we soaked in the ocean air as we lounged in Cancun with buckets of Coronas. It was mesmerizing to watch the sun set over the ruins of a Mayan temple, and I finally began to realize why people enjoyed venturing into the unknown. Our trip had its fair share of anxiety-inducing moments, and it was nowhere near as effortless as it looks in the travel Instagram feeds that I love, but I coped as best as I could on my honeymoon—and I didn’t lose my passport once.

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