On coming home, anxiety, & acceptance
I almost didn't publish this post. I went through with it because:
1) I've promised myself and a friend I'd eventually grow the balls to publicly discuss my anxiety. It's Bell Let's Talk day in Canada, so I couldn't wish for a better occasion.
2) I'm tired of only seeing the shiny, reflecting tips of our personal icebergs on social media. Shit happens, we all suffer now and then, yet everybody seems to be happy and have it all figured out. Let's cut the crap.
3) I'm betting this testimonial will be an exercise in self-acceptance that will benefit myself, but also many others.
I wrote half of this post on the train to Ha Long Bay, while my friend Max slept like a bearded baby beside me.
The hazy scenery of Northeast Vietnam's countryside was calm, eerily inspiring.
As for the other half? I wish I could tell you I wrote it in Malaysia, Indonesia, or any other exotic location filled with promises of multiplied Instagram likes.
The truth is I wrapped up most of this piece on a plane back home to Québec City.
My ego would love to provide an unquestionable excuse for this early return. Something like "I needed to come home to take care of my sick mother."
But my mother's doing just fine. I was the one I needed to take care of.
A sly beast called anxiety
I take pride in trying to write as honestly as possible, so I'll go ahead and tell it like it is:
I've been dealing with serious anxiety issues for years now.
I tried not to show it much, because some archaic macho part of me is still ashamed. That spiteful baritone voice inside whispering how you shouldn't take pills or see a therapist. How that stuff is only for the weak. Have whiskey and get laid mate, that'll do the trick!
Months before leaving for my remote working trip in Southeast Asia, I had decided to progressively stop my medication. I was tired of depending on what I had always seen as a temporary crutch. So I weaned myself off of it. I was determined to try to tame anxiety on my own, which I still believe is a legitimate personal challenge to take on. The only problem was disregarding the amplitude of coupling that challenge with another equally big one.
Abroad, my anxiety quickly soared to new heights. It got fuelled by a lack of routine & familiar anchors, incertitude, and a steady stream of minor to bigger hurdles. This eventually led to recurring breakdowns, decision paralysis, self-esteem drops, and obsession with irrational things. My work focus took a direct hit. To top it off, I developed digestion problems forcing me to hop on a monkish diet. Coffee, alcohol and heavy food all started messing up with my throat and stomach, badly.
I tried my best to get it under control with physical exercise, sleep, breathing, and meditation. But the breakdowns kept coming.
After two months, I got freaking tired of dealing with that stuff.
I started blaming myself for not being able to enjoy my experience. I started fearing I wouldn't be able to excel at my job, or even keep it. I started thinking people would judge me if I came back too soon.
At one point, I just said: "fuck it." I decided to take a step back and come get my shit together at home. Because my
happy:miserable ratio sucked big time. And I had not left to live that way.
A word on the condition
Anxiety's a sly beast. It’ll fool you into thinking temporary troubles will last forever. It’ll re-allocate 100% of your mental energy on unproductive, irrational stuff. It’ll bring a sense of impending doom on your sorry ass while you’re in a perfectly safe situation. It’ll steal your own voice and scream so loud you won’t have a choice but listen. It’ll pin an icicle stick in your chest, messing with your very breathing, disconnecting you from what’s happening around. No mindful “right here right now” for the wicked anxious.
If that sounds a bit over the top, it’s because it is. Anxiety isn’t your typical, regular stress. It’s a goddamn struggle.
If you’re lucky enough to have never felt it, then you won’t be quite able to understand, no matter how many metaphors I pull out of my hat. But that’s not the point.
Why do I feel compelled to offer a personal account of this issue? To provide honest context for my latest trip, but also to put a spotlight on the condition itself. Too many guys & girls won’t seek out the help they need or acknowledge there is a problem in there—*points to head. Too many will blame themselves and feel the shame, anger, and depression I now know too well, thinking they're not "normal." And maybe more importantly, too many will shy away from challenging themselves, afraid that awful voice inside will raise its tone.
And that's just not okay. Silence and avoidance aren't good for anyone involved. So let me shatter my confident, tattooed guy image and say it loud and clear: I suffer from an anxiety disorder, and medication, therapy, and open discussions with close ones all helped a lot. And if I can manage to keep challenging myself today and score a few personal & professional wins, so can anyone else.
Why I'm glad I left: lessons learned
Despite the obstacles, lots of positives came out of these 9 weeks abroad. Here's the no-bullshit answer I wish I could give anyone who asks about my trip:
No, I didn't enjoy all of my time in Thailand and Vietnam. No, I didn't go through with my initial 6 months plan. No, I didn't stumble upon love or happiness. But I learned more about my job, my life and myself than I could've wished for. And I'm grateful for that.
Thinking about the unequivocal value I extracted from this experience helps me wash down the sour taste of failure left by my bruised ego.
So I'm writing these personal lessons to better understand them myself, but also in the hope that they may benefit others.
1. Don't kid yourself: manage expectations & stop running away
I had grand expectations for my time abroad. Of course, it's easier now to see how unrealistic all the hopes I had put into it were. But before I left, I went through the same idealization loop for months on end. The near-uniform, cheerful feedback I received from peers ("You're so lucky, this is going to be just amazing") didn't help. I became convinced most of the answers to my problems resided in that very trip.
In doing so, I failed to anticipate the challenges that were sure to come with what was to be my biggest trip. And I allowed too many bad reasons to fuel my desire to leave.
Unsurprisingly, the reality check that followed was harder to stomach than it should've been.
A few days before I left, I remember my Mom asking me: Are you really moving forward, towards new experiences, or just running away from something?
I must admit the latter was partly true. And it saddens me to see how foolish that was. Because it just doesn't work this way, you know:
I missed my ex-girlfriend walking alone in a quiet, beautiful part of Chiang Mai's Old City.
I resented my departed dad for choosing to leave this world behind in peaceful temple ruins at the Golden Triangle.
I had an emotional breakdown about still not being able to deal effectively with my anxiety on a flight to Vietnam.
I felt guilty for not nurturing a closer relationship with my sister in a downtown Hanoi condo.
I regretted past mistakes and poorly handled relationships on a boat cruise through magical Ha Long Bay.
So by all means: move, quit, leave, travel... but don't run. Your issues will always catch up to you, no matter how far and how fast you go.
I thought velocity, distance, and fresh experiences would relieve some of my troubles. I'm glad I got reminded most of that work has to be done standing still, from the inside.
2. Knowing and accepting yourself is hard but paramount
This has been the toughest part for me. It still is.
See, the traits I tend to admire most in others are always the ones I don't naturally have. Independence, rationality, emotional stability, composure, high tolerance to change, stress, and risk. Likewise, the stories that make the biggest impressions on me are the ones I know I couldn't pull off easily. Volunteering for two years in an Indian village. Building a house and living on a tiny island in the Philippines. Traveling alone for four years around the world building a thriving, location-independent business.
And I believe that, in choosing to leave for 6 months in Southeast Asia, a part of me was trying to emulate these people and experiences I admire. The problem is that part of me didn't take into account all the other ones.
I was out of sync. Truth be told, I had been for a while. Still, it's all right. This desynchronization forced me to acknowledge things I had always suspected about myself, but now know for a fact:
→ Anxiety wasn't just a period in my life—it's a part of myself I must respect and learn to live with.
→ I need other people more than I care to admit. The indirect support of a close network of people I love or respect helps me balance my emotions and structure my thoughts. Sincere, meaningful relationships give me a much-needed sense of belonging and balance.
→ I need a freaking plan. I'd love to be carefree and extra spontaneous. But I'm not. Structure, routine, and habits help me calm down, focus, and excel. If I don't have some kind of short or mid-term plan, I suck at living in the present moment.
→ Transparency isn't optional for me; it's my modus operandi. I can't keep my emotions and thoughts inside. I need to put them out there to share them, challenge them, accept them, validate them, and so on. It makes me feel connected to the world.
And it isn't easy, you know, hearing yourself think things like:
Yeah... maybe I'm not that independent, easygoing, fearless, anti-conformist guy after all.
But it's essential.
We're surrounded and bombarded by so many models of happiness and success that it's easy to forget how nuanced and unique ours really is. There's no one size fits all to human happiness and meaning, whatever that damn [insert influencer here] blog post tells you. Cue the clever quote:
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
I guess that's part of growing older. Understanding and respecting that different stuff works for different folks. Learning to filter the external influences, experiment, and design a life tailored to our distinct combination of needs. Leveraging our strengths, and taking the time to smoothen our flaws.
There's profound existential insight in that Diddy Kong Racing time trial mode where you race against the ghost of your previous runs. I think it's the only mode that matters, actually.
I'm convinced all this will help me make more thoughtful choices that move my life in better, happier places.
3. Lean isn’t just for software & startups
Moving alone to a foreign country for 6 months to work remotely with a 12h timezone gap just after stopping my anxiety medication is the antithesis of keeping it agile or lean. It's like blind-coding a whole new app in a shaky framework without testing it, and shipping to production thinking it's all going to work out. Bugs start piling one on top of the other. You try to fix a few. Shit gets worse. You consider a complete refactor, but end up scrapping the whole thing before punching through your monitor.
In other words, I should've divided my challenges in smaller bites, taken on less of them at the same time, and reduced their scope at first.
Six weeks in Hungary could've been a smarter start to this remote lifestyle experiment, you know.
Something to keep in mind for future impulsive me.
In the spirit of ending this on a lighter tone, I want to highlight a few cool traveling moments here. I've already shared the ones from Thailand in my previous post, so I'll focus on my short time in Vietnam:
→ Went full-on tourist visiting Ha Long Bay. Felt like pirates among the thousands of limestone islands, caves, and birds of prey.
→ Max and I got a buzzcut from the fanciest, most fashionable hairdresser, deep in the heart of Ha Long City. Peep the hand tattoo & prolonged pinky fingernail.
→ Partied for New Years in busy Hanoi with good friends.
→ Had deeply moving conversations smoking shisha in an M16 Hookah pipe right across our condo.
→ Got no picture for this one, but we got squeezed last minute in the front of a minivan on our way back to Hanoi. The driver handled his non-racing vehicle like a straight-up madman and flashed us a crooked, toothless smile every time we straightened our bodies during his in-extremis maneuvers. Still makes me laugh when I think of it.
To L., who told me something I'll remember all my life: "Some problems aren't your fault, but they're still your responsibility." I hope you see this as me taking responsibility for my own problems.
To J., who told me pushing through would bring in many benefits, and stepping back is often just Freudian displacement. I'll let Freud have this round, and make sure I'm better prepared for the next challenge.
To people dealing with anxiety or other mental illnesses: everybody struggles, one way or another, at one point or another. So let's spend less time judging and concealing our struggles, and more time accepting and discussing them. Both the spoken and written word possess a salutary propriety: use them.
I hope I've managed to capture my personal experience with honesty and clarity. I was shooting for unfiltered, because we desperately need some of that. It's way too easy to look fulfilled and happy on a fucking profile picture.
When I got back, a wise woman told me to not live this as a failure, but as a learning experiment. I'll try and do just that.
I left for Southeast Asia looking for direction. I didn't find the one I was hoping for, but I did find some anyway.
I can roll with that.
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