When the panic attacks began, I didn’t know what they were.
The sudden feeling of looking at the world through a pinhole, of somehow moving at an incredible, uncontrollable speed while standing completely still.
This feeling of broiling in an oven and sitting in an ice tub all at once – my thoughts spiraling out of my control, down deserted corridors and into sinking gulfs – was completely foreign.
At first I thought I was dying.
Then going insane.
In the end, a friend drove me to the hospital.
After this first attack my fear of panicking drastically altered my life. It dictated what I ate, when I slept, who I saw, how much I exercised, what I did for fun. I was in constant dread that an attack would suddenly take hold of me, terrified of the fear I now knew lay dormant somewhere in my head. It was cyclical, the thought of terror breeding actual terror, terrifying me.
In the time that’s passed since my first attack – just over two years – I’ve somewhat come to terms with this new facet of my well-being, tacking it on top of the episodic depression present since my childhood. I’ve adjusted accordingly. Morning coffee and selective drinking have found their way back on the menu. Drugs have stayed off. The rumors, it appears, are true: sleep is important. I’m still prone to attacks, but I know that’s all they are, and that they will pass, unpleasant but ultimately harmless and contained.
Stubborn as I am, I’ve also spent these past years testing the limits of my newly tenuous comfort zone. I don’t like being told I can’t do something, especially when I’m the one saying it. The idea of letting panic attacks restrict what I’m capable of frightens me almost as much as an actual episode.
So I’m constantly testing myself, placing myself at the base of mountains and forcing myself to climb.
And I recently summited my own personal Everest.
Road trips were a family staple. As kids, my sisters and I had no choice but to endure the eight-hour drive from San Jose to San Diego several times a year. We were conditioned to enjoy the hum of tires, the blurring of landscapes, the world through a window. As such, taking a massive road trip of my own seemed oddly mandatory. While my friends applied for jobs and graduate programs, I applied for a visa to move to Australia. I didn’t have any concrete plans (I flirted with the idea of entering grad school, finding a work sponsor, and beginning the hellish trek towards PR), but I knew eventually I wanted to buy a van and spend as much time as I could driving across the continent. Viral social media accounts were depicting van life as the ultimate form of travel, the most valuable commodity in our experience economy. I wanted in.
I saved and saved, and after seven months of living comfortably in Sydney I embarked on the journey I had been gravitating towards for over a year.
But I never thought about what it would mean. My imagination was clouded by imagery of custom motorhomes on the shores of mountain pools, of drinking steaming coffee in the brisk, wild morning. But in the weeks before my departure the reality of my trip dawned on me. I would be alone for six weeks. For four of them I would be camping in remote areas with only myself to rely on in a country known for its deadly fauna and unforgiving landscapes. And although trained for long drives, I’m a hopeless mechanic. I had never even been on a solo camping trip before. If anything went wrong, it would go very wrong.
Those weeks my anxiety grew until the panic I had learned to manage became a beast I couldn’t control. The task ahead seemed unimaginable, something I was incapable of, and just thinking about it triggered attacks. I panicked often, and it got so bad that the cyclical thinking returned. Soon my biggest fear wasn’t getting a flat in the desert, running out of water, or stumbling across a Brown Snake, but having an attack in the solitude of the outback, trapped with myself as my mind raced towards dread. No distractions from the unstoppable fear, only me and an invisible companion I couldn’t control.
Backing out wasn’t an option; I knew the defeat I would feel if I gave up before even trying would hurt me more than anything else. I had cornered myself. So I flew to Perth, short breathed, and after a week I rented a van and began the drive to Melbourne.
My route would first take me south, down through the Margaret River region and then east to Esperance and Lucky Bay, hugging Australia’s southwest coast. Then I would cut north to Norseman and begin driving across the Eyre Highway, a stretch of bitumen with no towns, no cell service, and no water that spans the arid Nullarbor Plain for 1,200 kilometers. I would detour down the coast of the Eyre Peninsula on my way to Adelaide, then make my way to Melbourne via the Great Ocean Road.
The first week passed smoothly. I resolved to go at my own pace and stay well in the bounds of my comfort zone. No crazy hikes or detours, nothing that would take me too far from civilization. I found company at most campsites and took comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone. That help was available if I needed it. But as I set off from Esperance towards Norseman I could feel the panic growing.
The Nullarbor was the pinnacle of my concerns, the source of all my fears. It was the most remote stretch of the journey, and at its center I would be 600 kilometers away from the nearest town. Six hours from help. I tried not to think about this as I set out east from Norseman, but I already felt nauseous and lightheaded and was paying active attention to my breathing patterns.
I crossed the plain over three days. It was possible in a single 12-hour marathon, but I told myself I had to extend the solitude. That if I didn’t test my limits here then my entire journey was a waste. The first night I found myself sheltered under a sparse grove of roadside gum, completely alone. When I turned off my lamp the air was pitch, the branches overhead blocking out the stars. The quiet, too, seemed impenetrable. In the external silence my thoughts grew louder until I could feel panic taking its grip on me. I prepared for the worst but somehow assuaged the blow.
A full attack never came.
I went to bed early, relieved but suspicious.
The next day I drove until I crossed the border into South Australia. The road began hugging the coastline and as evening fell I pulled onto a dirt track that traced the edge of the world. The Great Australian Bight stretched on and on, its cliffs impossibly straight. Looking south the sea went on forever, and in every other direction the tops of the limestone cliffs blended with the horizon.
It was the most alone I had ever been.
But for some reason, I felt no fear. Instead I felt giddy, relieved, high. I was finally there, in the middle of nowhere, the place I had been so scared to get to for the past weeks. It felt like I had beaten something, won some great victory, and like the rest of the trip could carry on without worry. I camped that night on top of a cliff and in the morning drove out of the desert.
I arrived in Melbourne two weeks later. Past more forests, desert, plains, beaches, cliffs, and mountain ranges until arriving in Australia’s second most populated city. In those weeks I was sometimes alone, sometimes surrounded by fellow travellers. But the panic didn’t bother me, and I felt I had finally beaten it after years of struggle.
This feeling proved premature. Once I returned the van in Melbourne, staying in a hostel packed with backpackers far more adventurous and extroverted than me, I felt like my journey was foolish. Like it was only a small accomplishment that could have no serious repercussions. I secluded myself, my funds dwindling, and the familiar feelings of depression and anxiety returned in the heart of civilization. I panicked in my room, feeling more alone than I ever had on the Nullarbor. I had not, it seemed, abandoned anything on the cliffs of South Australia.
But eventually the feelings passed as they always have, as they always will. I made plans to return to Sydney and find work. I was a little discouraged, realizing I would carry these burdens along with my backpack. But I was also optimistic, remembering that two years ago this fear had driven me to the hospital, shivering in the passenger seat of my friend’s car.
This time it had driven me across a continent, my hands on the wheel, staring down the road ahead.