(A few months into my China trip - a beach outing with my older students)
So recently I read “A quiet kind of Thunder” by Sara Barnard, a book whose main character suffers from extreme anxiety. It’s beautifully written, and really made think about how everyone approaches life differently. For example, the main character in the story panicked over buying bus tickets, asking for help or directions, or even just buying some milk. I myself have never suffered from anxiety to such an extent, but in many ways I still related to the main character.
First let me introduce myself. I’m Sarah, a 27 year-old English teacher from the North-East of England. When I was 23, I moved out for the first time… by boarding a plane and flying to China. It was the best (and scariest) decision I ever made.
However, meet 19 year old me. I was the girl who had my mum order a takeaway (Me, call and speak to other people? Yeah right!). I hated shopping by myself (Clearly I look shifty) and if I forgot to reply to a text or email, obviously I needed some great and elaborate excuse as to why. Surely just “I forgot” could not suffice.
So how did this quivering mass of a girl go from a mousey, keep-my-head-down baby, to a Dance-Gangnam-Style in front of a theatre full of parents type alien. Simple. I WANTED to change.
When I was in England, I really didn't like the person I was. And I certainly didn't like the person I was becoming - which frankly, was a weight-gaining, stay-at-home shut in. Looking back, I can pinpoint a few reasons for how I ended up on this path, so allow me to give you some backstory - at the least the highlights.
(Cue violin music)
- I had problems with my back throughout high-school. This led to two spinal fusions, one at sixteen, then another at eighteen.
- No teenager wants to be known as “The back girl” so I avoided school until they expelled me, and after I wanted to stay in a safe bubble. Somewhere I wouldn’t accidentally fall or be hurt. Thankfully my mum pushed me back into school.
- After my first operation at 16, I enrolled in a new college where no one knew me and I could have a fresh start. I even got a boyfriend.
- Then I discovered I needed a second operation - and it was rinse and repeat all over again. Although this time, I fought the expulsion, and managed to scrape through my exams. Wahoo - I got some A-levels!
- However I was still known as the back girl - only with a boyfriend. However myself esteem was really low, and admittedly, my boyfriend was not so great. He didn't want to travel, he didn't want me going out or talking to other guys, or any people for that matter. And since I was clearly unloveable because of my back…. well, who else would want me? And so I let him treat me terribly.
- But then my back healed. I began to dream of travelling once more. I needed to show myself - and apparently everyone else, that I could do it. And although my parents put me off for a few years, and my boyfriend whined for me to stay, in January 2013 I did it. I moved to China, and I haven't once looked back.
(End tragic music)
When I left England, it felt like freedom. For the first time in a long time, I was responsible for myself, and there was literally no-one to fall back on. It pushed me to become the girl I am now.
I remember the fear of literally not being able to read anything - even now my Chinese sucks, but I still remember miming a chicken in a restaurant, just trying to get something for dinner. Admitted my first week in China I actually lived off plain fairy cakes and cheese slices, which I brought from a shop next door to my hotel. Only when they ran out (they don't restock often) was I forced to venture out and find food else where.
Then there’s the feeling of standing at the front of a classroom for the first time, children looking up at you expectantly - I literally wanted to cry! Instead I think I started singing five little ducks…
(My last day at Shane English School - 2 years in China)
These all seem like such trivial things now. Of course there were certainly hard times in the beginning, bouts of homesickness, days where I just wanted my mum… but I got through them. Mostly through pride and a sheer stubborn will not to go home. Plus the gift of Skype meant my fiends and family were just a video call away.
It wasn't until I was in China for about three months that I knew I was going to make it. I remember me and some friends were on vacation (apologies - I live with a Canadian. My British vocabulary is slowly being leeched from me) and I chose to go back to the hotel alone before meeting up with them later. I remember hailing a taxi, speaking in terrible Chinese the name of the bar I wanted to go too - then arriving early, getting a table and ordering a drink. That was when it hit me. WHO WAS THIS GIRL? Had I really just done all that by myself!? … And I hadn't even thought twice about it.
I don’t believe I have ever felt so proud OF MYSELF. But luckily, I get these surprise moments a few times a year now. Once when I went by myself to Shanghai, when I ventured into a fancy restaurant with my book, and ordered a table for one. Then again when I traveled to Tokyo alone and made a German friend in a cat cafe. Also when I survived climbing across waterfalls in a torrential downpour (not recommended!) after getting lost on a mountain. Then there’s that time I was nearly kidnapped… but that’s another story lol.
However when it came to overcoming my anxiety, it helped that I made some great friends, plus had my mind boggled by China and its people. I also met an awesome man during my second year out here (previous boyfriend was dumped - sadly via Skype one month into my China journey. Hey - I was still a coward back then!). But most importantly, I felt like I had grown up.
Believe it or not - the thought of returning to England now is more scary than staying in China. In the four years I have been out here, I discovered that when I went home for visits - It was/is terrifying how little has changed for everyone back home.
My old friends still ask about my back (because I’m still the bad back-girl-to-them) and they still try to carry the heavy bags when we buy our Friday-Night-Binge-Snacks at the supermarket. And heaven forbid if I drop anything - because I’m totally not allowed to pick it up! And if I take a long hike, everyone is constantly asking if I’m ok. My parents are much the same way. As soon as I get off the plane its all, “I’m so glad you’re home, how’s your back after that long journey?”
It’s frustrating, because it makes me feel just like I did when I was nineteen. Of course, while I know my friends and family mean well, I actually came to realise their protectiveness and concern hinder my growth as a person. It’s just SO EASY to let other people do things for me. What’s HARD is MAKING THEM UNDERSTAND, I’m not that person anymore.
Now I am the girl who climbs mountains. I’m the woman who quite happily walks around naked at the Japanese hot springs (men and women are separate!). I’m the person who doesn't blink twice at going off to a new country by myself, and public speaking…. it’s not the worst thing ever.
And the best part - apart from the odd twinge now and then, my back is fine. Sure when I climb mountains or ride elephants it can be a slight worry, but if I let my worries hold me back, what kind of life would I be living?
So my point is, I do understand anxiety, but I think growth happens when the person themselves WANT to change. I was terrified at the thought of moving to China (although to tell the truth, I hadn't actually thought passed the plane journey - when I actually realised I had arrived and now needed to survive - wow - that was a hole new bundle of nerves lol), but I was more scared of was who I would become if I stayed. Probably a shut in hermit with a terrible boyfriend who was, one by one, cutting away what few friends I had… And the worse part, I was the person who was letting him.
It makes me wonder though - how many people are being held back by the very people who care about us most? It’s a horrible thought, but I do believe the people we love can unconsciously make our anxieties worse. Whether they mean to or not, they remind us of our problems and difficulties. Whether its a parent asking, “Do you really think that’s a good idea?” To friends constantly wanting to know, “How are you faring?” My advice is don't get angry, but do let them know your frustrations.
Thankfully, I grew a spine and talked to both my friends and family about treating me like I’m helpless. Bit by bit, with each visit home, things have gotten better. But even knowing how I live now, their caring habits can’t be erased entirely. Their intent comes from a good place, but I want people to be aware of how loved ones can feed your own insecurities.
Obviously I don't think you need to move to another country to gain some confidence (although I would recommend it lol) but if you are anything like that character in “A quiet kind of Thunder” I want to encourage you to try slipping a toe or too out of your comfort zone.
Try something by yourself. Make a phone call (you can always hang-up) or push yourself to go into just one shop. Say hello, or just nod your head to a person on the street (I recommend dog walkers - they are always friendly), or hey, write me an email (and send me into a panic about what to write back lol) but do something just for you. And of course - there is no shame is bringing a friend along if needs be.
Anxiety is IRRATIONAL! And everybody gets it. Just the other day I was in a shop, and the clerk picked up the items in my basket, writing 100 on the bottom of each thing. My Chinese isn't that good, so I had no idea why. In the minutes the followed, I had the following thoughts:
Maybe I should put everything back and walk away. What if everything in my basket is really 100RMB (£10) which is so expensive. OMG - I don't want to pay that much. But once they ring them up, I cant just not pay… maybe I really should walk away….
However after much deliberation I stood in the queue, and guess what - nothing happened. Everything was normal price, and so I decided the clerk just wanted to freak me out. But I wanted to show you, even after moving to another country, I still panic and worry about silly things.
Admittedly, if everything had been 100RMB I would have paid - too nervous not to - and walked away very unhappy. And while I’m being honest, even though I’ve done it a thousand times… I get scared to ask for carrier bags. Crazy right? But it seems to depend on how friendly the person at the till looks - or how many people are waiting behind me.
So now its your turn. What are your methods for beating anxiety? Any achievements this year? Or failures, because they’re nothing to be ashamed of. They show you’re trying - and as long as you keep trying, your life will be a happier place :)
Until next time….
P.S I'm actually quite anxious about this post - I don't normally write about my personal self... please be gentle in your comments lol