Growing up, I lived in a suburb. This suburb was surrounded by several other suburbs, all under the domain of one big city. For me, this meant I spent most of my time in relatively small communities, only venturing into the big city for sporting events, theatre productions and fancy dinners. As a result, I grew slightly terrified of big cities, content to explore them with my family but always looking over my shoulder because I never knew what to expect.
As I grew older, I became a little better at exploring, experiencing more excitement at the sights around me, but still wary. This means that when I signed up for a 3-week J-Term study abroad option to Italy as a sophomore in college, I was both really excited and slightly terrified — elated at the opportunity to travel and explore again, a trait I’ve inherited from my adventurous dad and his family, and cautious of navigating big cities in a more independent environment.
To be fair, I would be with professors and other students from my school; I found comfort in this, but I didn’t want to be afraid to explore. I didn’t want to let anxiety of the unknown get in my head because I wanted to seize this opportunity in every way I could.
I remembered how I’d traveled to Spain as a junior in high school with a teacher and a few other students. I experienced very little anxiety on this trip — mostly excitement, peace and joy. The only time I felt apprehensive was during the few hours when my teacher encouraged us to explore on our own as she ate ice cream with the other teachers from the program. Even then, I’d been scared when the safety net of an authority figure was gone.
Still, the independence and self-assuredness I gained during those few hours was tremendous, allowing me to see that good things could come out of scary situations. So, I pushed myself in Italy. I pushed myself to find a group of people I felt comfortable with, embrace all the anxiety I was feeling and explore in the ways I’d done in Spain.
I traveled through new cities every couple days, constantly needing to adapt to new vibes and surroundings, which threw me for a bit of a loop every time we moved locations. I wandered through unfamiliar streets, day and night, pushing myself to take in every bit of uncertainty I could, even when certain streets looked sketchier than others. I tried new foods, became as immersed in local culture as I could and interacted with locals.
I had some of the most defining moments I’d ever experienced up until that point. While this was life-changing, it also took a toll on me. I was exhausted from the endless traveling, never feeling like I had enough time to acclimate to any one place, and experiencing a sort of mental whiplash from it all. The social dynamic became harder because we were spending every day with the same 24 people for three weeks straight. I felt like I was being stretched impossibly thin, ready to break, and thinking more times than I’d care to admit that I wanted to go home.
This isn’t to say that I wasn’t grateful for the opportunity, because I was. I was grateful to travel and learn in such a unique way. I just had no idea how this particular trip was going to affect me, leaving me feeling lost when the emotions I felt were completely different than what I expected.
It wasn’t all bad though. About three quarters of the way through our trip, I had the opportunity to reunite with a family member who lives in Italy. This one encounter turned my entire trip around. I realized in that moment that because I’d been pushing myself so much and the social dynamic was so strange for me, I hadn’t really felt safe and that’s why I’d been struggling so much. I realized this because once my family member wrapped her arms around me, I instantly felt myself exhale.
She gave me tips for the next location we were visiting, and we caught up over dinner and spent the entire night talking and connecting. I said goodbye the next morning and I felt invigorated. I found a new sense of giddiness about this trip, ready to take on the world because I finally felt comfortable.
The entire journey taught me one big thing about myself: Uncertainty is something to embrace but mental comfort is not something to ignore. I can push myself to embrace new surroundings and immerse myself in a new culture but if I’m not able to slow down and connect with myself and the people around me, I’m doing something wrong. It has nothing to do with having an authority figure nearby like when I was a child; it’s about feeling accepted and cared for by the people around me and making sure I stay true to myself.
When I was in Italy, I found a group I felt comfortable with but I also didn’t know them very well. I hadn’t been friends with them before the trip and found it difficult to connect with them when we were constantly moving around. So, if I’m going to push myself to step way outside my comfort zone, I need to find a way to connect with myself and the people around me.
I need to be able to find a balance between doing things I want to do and things other people want to do, instead of always succumbing to the whims of those around me. Italy showed me that I need to take care of my mental wellbeing as much as I push myself because if I don’t, I’m not going to be able to embrace the uncertainty and excitement of everything around me, which is all life is.