This second essay focuses on Generalised Anxiety Disorder.
At the height of my anxiety, it wasn’t just the thought of distant cities or bustling airports that caused my skin to prickle or my heart to skip a beat. Almost anywhere that wasn’t my own home seemed often impossible to navigate – the corner shop included. It was during those years of daily, low-level anxiety that one particular fear seemed to take hold. No, not the typical twenty-something fears concerning career advancement, getting on the housing ladder or a slowing metabolism. No, the fear that dictated my daily life was – driving.
A bit of an anti-climax, I know.
Shuttling myself a short 15-minutes to work in ‘Michael’, my Fiat 500, was often an emotional ordeal. It was something that would keep me awake at night, as I lay in bed meticulously devising new routes to work that would avoid the dreaded traffic jams. The notion of driving for any longer than necessary was unthinkable. This fear was particularly prominent when it came to motorways, where three entire lanes of busy traffic loomed. Stranded in the middle lane with wobbling lorries on one side and speeding cars the other, I’d concluded that if I were to ever find myself on such a highway to hell, I’d most likely die from some sort of adrenaline induced heart attack.
As a result, for many years I avoided any road trips that deviated from my 15-minute pilgrimage to work. Finding increasingly elaborate excuses not to step on to that hot, busy train to London (another fear), or to join that menacing motorway slip road to see a friend, I let that feeling of irrational doom dictate my plans. Why I harboured this fear is hard to explain. In fact, there is no rational explanation for it at all – no previous traumas, no motorway-based incidents. It was simply a feeling that lay at the bottom of my stomach: a feeling of doom that sent frantic reminders to my brain that I must never stray too far. Never get too ambitious. Never be too brave.
I now know that this daily sense of dread has an official name: Generalised Anxiety Disorder, or to use its more friendly acronym: ‘GAD.’ Although there was no imminent threat to my life by boarding a train to London, or by getting into a car bound for another part of the country, ‘GAD’ ensured that I felt otherwise. As one definition of the disorder describes: ‘People who have generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, worry uncontrollably about common occurrences and situations.’ I liken the feeling of unease to the symptoms experienced before an exam or job interview: a nervous fluttering that makes it hard to concentrate or to sit still. Yet interviews or exams aside, I had those feelings all of the time, making seemingly innocent tasks, such as driving, feel like life-threatening activities.
Gloomy GAD and I continued like this for many years – my gut dwelling friend convincing me that even adventures closer to home were dangerous. And despite having no evidence that neurotic GAD was telling the truth, I still believed all that it told me. GAD can be a very persuasive companion.
Ironically, during the time when my generalised anxiety was at its worst, I was also beginning to take tentative steps to exploring new countries. Despite conquering new cities such as St Petersburg in Russia, my fear of cities closer to home frustratingly remained. Meetings in London continued to push my CBT skills to the limit as I reluctantly boarded the tube in an anxious haze, whilst driving remained something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Forget Britney Spears in Crossroads – blonde hair flowing in the wind as she took on the US highways with a dazzling smile – I was a hunched, sweating mess just navigating a local roundabout to Tesco.
The problem with the elation created from conquering a big trip, I discovered, was that I couldn’t actually replicate it all that often. Whilst stepping off the plane at Heathrow did indeed metaphorically punch anxiety in the face, on a day-to-day basis, it wasn’t an experience I could repeat too easily. What I needed was to find a way to tackle GAD at home. I needed to do something that would allow me to punch anxiety more often – perhaps via a quick succession of jabs rather than the odd dazzling right hook – and this something had to be more attainable that long-haul travel.
Thankfully, that ‘something’ arrived unexpectedly just last year in the form of an email from the team at Visit England. The email invited us to embark on a year long schedule of ‘microadventures’ around the country. ‘Microadventure,’ a term coined by adventurer Alaistair Humphreys, is defined as an adventure that is ‘small and achievable, for normal people with real lives.’ In short, it is a form of travel that is relevant for the majority of the population who are a) no longer 18, or b) bathing in disposable income. Our yearlong ambassadorship with Visit England would see us explore all corners of England, for no more than two nights at a time. Forget long haul flights, jet lag or visa applications, these travels were achievable, low budget and never more than a few hours’ drive from home.
We accepted the offer in a heartbeat.
On the morning of our first microadventure to the northerly most county in England – Northumberland – I nervously fumbled for my seatbelt. The familiar feeling of anxiety and doom swirled in my belly. Despite only travelling four hours from home, I felt the same sense of fear I’d had when boarding my flight to Florida, just the month before. GAD, it seemed, didn’t discriminate when it came to geography.
Although it may be hard to imagine, the task of navigating the M1 motorway was, for me, the equivalent of navigating the Atlantic Ocean. It was an unpredictable, cruel mistress who threatened to hold its passengers forever captive on its slender hard shoulder; a thought that made my hands clammy as we left home for the tarmacked hell of the motorway. Reciting the phrase, ‘this too shall pass,’ we crept down the slip road of junction 14 in a cold, icy silence. GAD was out of his mind with worry.
Tumbling out of my little Fiat some five hours later, discarded sweet wrappers and empty water bottles fell out with us. The last few hours had been a confusing blur of sweaty palms and palpitations, mixed with increasing confidence and, dare I say it – enjoyment. Although our road trip had distinctly lacked the Crossroads style of wild singing and nonchalant hair flicking, the journey in the slow lane of the motorway had at least been bearable. Heck, we’d even stopped at a motorway service station to splurge on a Marks and Spencer’s hot chocolate each. This was living. This was roadtrippin’.
The familiar elation of having beaten my GAD gremlin was now flowing in abundance as I surveyed my surroundings. We had arrived in the tiny village of Blanchland, nestled in the rolling hills of the North Pennines. The stone cottages – once belonging to a 12th century Abbey – glowed like warm honey against the lazy, autumnal sun. In stark contrast to the matted, grey concrete roundabouts of our hometown of Milton Keynes, we stood in awe of this small, unfathomably old, paradise. The gentle sounds of the cooling car engine filling the air, it seemed that Michael the Fiat 500 was also in shock following his successful pilgrimage north.
Desperate to explore the village before the sun dipped below the surrounding hills, we grabbed our cameras and made our way up the small, winding road towards the church. There was a gentle swagger to my walk as I continued to turn over the idea that I’d actually succeeded in driving us to this tiny utopia.
“I’ll never get bored of this view”, a local said, cheerily popping her head over the stonewall of the allotment. “Where are you from?” She asked this as she slowly dusted down her muddy trousers and gathered up a few stray apples that had tumbled from the hanging branches above. Explaining that we were from a relatively unknown concrete town near London, she smiled: “a lifetime away from this place then!” she laughed. We nodded, mesmerised by the trail of smoke that plumed from the many cottages below us, the smell of burning fire wood hanging in the air. The friendly local was right; I did feel a lifetime away from home.
That night, having recovered from our road trip with dinner by an open, roaring fire, we embarked on another microadventure under the stars. Europe’s largest area of protected night sky, Northumberland boasts unparalleled, pristine views, including on occasion, of the famed Northern Lights. A phenomenon usually assigned to Scandinavia, we felt mildly smug at having discovered this hidden pocket of England. Bundled in itchy woolly scarves and oversized hats, we gazed through microscopes as the stars twinkled like icy flakes against the velvety night sky. It was a sky that I’d only seen once before in the Swedish Arctic, and one I hadn’t expected to find in sleepy Northumberland.
“Claire”, Laura hissed, my limbs jerking awake as she prodded me urgently in the back just a few hours later. “Did you know we’re staying in one of the most haunted hotels in the North East of England?” Now wide-awake, I instinctively pulled the quilt over my head. “I was trying to get to sleep but I just felt weird”, Laura continued, “so I Googled”. Now starting to sweat profusely from the intense heat produced from my winter quilt, and with a growing sense of terror, I asked Laura what we should do. The thought of sleeping in Michael in -3 degrees seemed a tempting option. “I guess we just keep our eyes closed”, she said before dramatically burying her head under a small mound of pillows. Quietly cursing her for waking me and then subsequently leaving me abandoned in my duvet den, I squeezed my eyes shut and hoped for the best.
Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately for my inner 8-year old self who held an unsettling obsession with ghosts, the night passed with little incident, despite Laura’s vague assertions of paranormal activity. Waking in the morning, the menacing shadows of the night before were now replaced by a soft morning light. As I lay there, I realised that the usual feeling of dread that I usually woke with was nowhere to be seen. With my mind too busy mulling over last night’s ghostly dramas, it seemed GAD hadn’t had time make an appearance. Kicking off the duvet, I dressed quickly, cramming my feet into my worn walking boots, ready to saviour every last minute of our little microadventure.
Arriving deep in the Northumberland National Park, a thick mist had descended. It shrouded the peaks and dips of the landscape in a sense of mystery and magic. It felt as though we’d arrived on the film set of The Hobbit. Undeterred by the poor visibility and map in hand, we set off on a hike that would take us along Hadrian’s Wall. We were embarking on England’s version of the Great Wall of China, just without the ten-hour flight and language barrier. Why hadn’t we done this sooner?
Eyes and nose streaming, I tried to focus ahead on the little dot that was Laura. We were half an hour into our hike, with not one another soul around. Running my hands over the weathered stone of Hadrian’s Wall, I squinted at the route that would take us to our final destination: the famous Sycamore Gap. A huge oak tree positioned in a staggering dip, this grand old tree and surrounding area has transformed itself into a dazzling film set on more than one occasion. Despite this, I still couldn’t help but feel that this, well tree, wouldn’t be particularly impressive. This wasn’t New Zealand, or Yosemite National Park after all. How impressive could it really be?
Little old England, however, was about to prove me very wrong.
Gazing down into the dip below, I watched Laura run across the undulating grassland, before disappearing behind a blanket of fog. Moments later she reappeared again, scampering over a hill, before stopping abruptly at the foot of a looming, mesmerising oak tree: The Sycamore Gap. Staring down at the scene – mist simultaneously cloaking and unveiling the scene below – I gawped in silence. We had just stepped foot into Tolkein’s middle earth.
Now sat against the several hundred-year-old oak tree, Laura animatedly reflected on the night before. Increasingly exaggerating her supposed encounters with ghostly monks, I listened contently. As nature swirled around us and Laura talked herself into more strange happenings, I realised that our microadventure to Northumberland had been crammed with as much sightseeing, stories, laughter and happiness as any other international trip. It didn’t matter that we weren’t halfway around the world in New Zealand, or passing through Yosemite’s National Park. What mattered – for my mental health in particular – was the opportunity to regularly push against GAD’s (falsely) imposed boundaries.
Full of stories of (mostly imagined) ghostly encounters, mysterious mist covered peaks and centuries old villages, we began our journey homewards. We may have only been away for two nights and were just a few hours ‘up the road’, but my sense of satisfaction felt no different to a week away in another country. I felt revived, braver and most importantly, like I had delivered the long-awaited punch to my inner GAD that had prevented me from enjoying such microadventures for so long.
Of course, it would be too simplistic to say that it was microadventures alone that helped me to address and ultimately resolve my Generalised Anxiety Disorder. As with any symptom of anxiety, my toolkit for addressing GAD was comprehensive and varied. What microadventures allowed for, however, was for me to challenge those daily feelings of impending doom more frequently. Be it on motorways, trains or buses, two nights away or just a day trip to a new city, I was able to compile a rational argument against the once-persuasive feelings that lay in the pit of my stomach.
Ultimately, my microadventures around England helped me to realise that travel isn’t only found in big, flamboyant acts such as booking a one-way ticket to the other side of the world. Travel can be found on your doorstep, or at the end of a road. Furthermore, for those suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder, relief can be found in the smaller, more mundane parts of life, where the disorder can often dominate: driving down a motorway included. From manoeuvring yourself onto a motorway slip road, to taking a five-minute tube journey to a new part of London, finding relief from GAD needn’t always require heroic acts or long-haul flights, it can even begin in the seat.