I was always an anxious child. The kind of kid who you thought would be a fine adult, but who didn’t fit in as a child. I sat up at night worrying and tried to prepare for anything bad that could happen to me during a day. I was clumsy and not athletic and didn’t understand the sense of humor of other children. I idolized my older siblings and couldn’t wait for the next phases off life – to be a teenager; to drive; to be in college. Despite my anxiety and general lack of athletic ability I somehow came up with the idea to go on summer outward bound type trips (not the real outward bound program, but more of an “outward bound light”). Before these trips, I would have stomachaches, sleepless nights, and a sense of dread. I could not remember what motivated me to sign-up for them in the first place. I would be miserable for months leading up to the trip and hated saying the process of leaving, but as soon as I was on my way a new bravery came over me. On these trips, I wasn’t defined by my anxiety, yet was comfortable enough to admit when I was afraid (which were more reasonable fears about rock-climbing instead of nuclear war). I also made immediate friends and the type of friendships I always hoped I would find. Every experience was that much more meaningful because I had fear in anticipation of the experience and then had a fantastic experience anyway. These are still some of my happiest moments from growing up.
The joy and reward I got from overcoming my fear and having beautiful and interesting adventures is the only explanation I have for where I am at in my life today. I will have traveled to Kenya alone five times in 2017 and my friend there says it is my, “second home.” The first time I traveled to Kenya (and Africa in general) was in 2013 and it was for two months. I came back with latent tuberculosis that landed me the nickname TB Phoebe. I thought it was unlikely I would ever return, but four years later I have developed a familiarity with Nairobi. I never thought that “anxious Phoebe” would be the one some people now see as adventurous.
There are times I still feel like that young anxious version of myself. Before I leave, I have that awful uncomfortable feeling and ask myself, “why am I doing this?” Although the amount of time I deal with that discomfort has shortened, so instead of feeling anxious about a trip for weeks, I will only have to deal with it for a few days or even a few hours before I leave. I still have that loneliness I had on nights camping in the national parks in California and call my mom just to feel less alone. I read with a flashlight in bed in Kenya, like I did in tents in Costa Rica, appreciating the companionship and distraction of novels. I formed a network of friends and professional relationships in Kenya feeling comfort through connecting with others. But, most importantly, I have been trying to appreciate the experiences I am having and the memories I am creating, knowing that this will be an extremely unique year of my life.
Recently, I finally dropped the anxious label in front of my name. I have accepted that despite my image of myself as an anxious person and despite the intense anxiety I feel before trips, I am a person that searches and lives for these experiences (the good and the bad parts). I have never let my anxiety take over and stop me from an experience and I choose the momentary discomfort for the inevitable payoff. The more trips I take the more confident I am knowing that I have a roster of “times I felt miserably anxious and doubted everything and yet it all worked out better than expected.” The anxiety might not ever go away, but I am learning not to take it too seriously. This is uniquely me – not anxious Phoebe, nor necessarily adventurous Phoebe (because plenty of people in my field of study travel to more exotic places with far less fear), but just Phoebe (as I am right now). It is time for me to drop the labels and enjoy the experiences.