I had the pleasure of interviewing Stace, a world traveler and blogger over at Full-Time Wanderers. We talked about mental health, accessing healthcare, and her experience living life on her own terms.
Q. How did you grow up, and how did you first experience anxiety?
A. I was raised by a single Mother; my parents split up before I was a year old and I only saw my Dad every other weekend. I grew up very poor, but my Mother has 5 siblings that I have always been very close to and they helped raise me. I was a very introverted child (at least that’s what everyone around me called it), but I now know that my fear of social situations was anxiety. Of course, no one knew that, so I was always told to "just get over your shyness" and do the things that made me feel crippled inside. In a way I am grateful for that; I only have a very mild case of social anxiety now.
There are so many unexpected signs of an anxiety attack. For example, I've always been prone to fits of rage that feel uncontrollable. I've been told it was my hormones, but now I know better. Two of the strangest signs of an anxiety attack for me are pressure on my left rib cage and sinus pain.
Q. You said you were formally diagnosed with anxiety 3 years ago. Talk a bit about your journey finding medicine and how your anxiety has evolved.
A. When I was formally diagnosed, I was living with my husband’s family in the USA. I didn’t feel stressed, but that’s common for me; I often don’t realize that I’m stressed until it’s too late. I knew I wasn’t happy about stopping our travels to sit still for a while and earn money, but I really didn’t think I was taking it as badly as I was. It started off like normal – fits of rage followed by sadness. My stomach was feeling off, so I decided to start living a "cleaner" lifestyle, which included cutting out coffee. A few days after that, I started getting very ill and felt jolts in my chest, which was terrifying. I spent many nights pacing the room for hours and hours. One minute I’d be freezing, the next drenched with sweat.
My Mother-in-law is a nurse, so she started to monitor my blood pressure, which was sky high, and my resting heart rate was consistently around 120 beats per minute. After about a month of this I finally went to a walk-in clinic. I told the GP my symptoms, he asked me a few basic questions, and told me I was suffering from anxiety. At that point, I had no idea what anxiety even was, nor that I had been a life-long sufferer.
When the Doctor asked about a family history, I assumed there was none, but now that I fully understand it, I know that most of my family suffers from anxiety – they just don’t realize it. The doctor started me off on .25mg of alprazolam, 3X/day. It definitely helped. At the end of the one-month prescription, I tried to just go on without it. At times I felt okay – if I was keeping my mind super busy, for example, but the nights were always really bad. My husband worked nights at that time and ended up quitting his job because I would be in such distress whenever he was about to leave for work. I have tried everything ‘natural’ I can to try and cope with anxiety, but nothing helps enough. I eventually went back to the doctor, and he gave me .50mg, 3X/day and that did it for me. I still felt anxious, but there were no more terrifying attacks. I could finally start to live again. I know there is no way I could cope with my daily life without medication. I would love to not be dependent on anything habit forming, of course, but as of right now, my medication is keeping me sane.
Q. How have you used food to manage or cope with your anxiety? Can you provide any insight into how eating helps and/or hurts your mental state?
A. I’m sure you’ve heard the word ‘Hangry’ (anger due to hunger) I get that, big time! My doctor ended up testing me for diabetes and a thyroid condition, but everything was normal. Sodium makes me feel horrible, and I've found that consuming probiotics helps immensely. I try to avoid any meat with added hormones, as I find that can make things fluctuate. I am and have always been a stress eater, though I really wish I wasn’t. I find such comfort in food. As a result of that, I’ve gained roughly 100lbs since my diagnosis. I get plenty of exercise, which helps my mood, but when you eat junk, exercise doesn’t help all that much as far as weight control. So, while eating helps my mental state in moments of distress, it also damages it in the long run when I step on the scale or catch a full body glimpse of myself in the mirror.
Q. How does anxiety affect your sleep?
A. When I’m on medication, my anxiety doesn’t affect my sleep much. I've found that I need 7 hours of sleep a night or I can’t function. Any more or any less and my mind is a mess. I have some intense, vivid dreams, but I enjoy that. Some nights I’ll wake up because my head feels like it’s going to explode – like my circulation has been cut off. Then I realize it’s an anxiety attack, but that’s rare.
Q. You mentioned you spent 7 months traveling on your own before you met your husband, and you’ve been traveling consistently for the past 5 years. What have you learned from this, and what do you love about it?
A. I’ve learned so much about who I am as a person. You always hear of people going off on long journeys to find themselves and it sounds so silly, but it’s not. I realized that I was living my life for others and not for me. After my 7 months of solo travel, of truly living in the moment, my perspective on everything has changed. Travel is addictive in the best possible way. There might come a time when I am satisfied living in one place, but I doubt it. Travel is my life, for life. I love being rootless. I love that everything I own can be carried on my back. I love that if I don’t like where I am, I can simply leave. I love seeing how things are so drastically different in every single country, but that deep down, human kindness is universal. Most of all, I love that my husband feels the same way I do. When we met, he was on a whole other type of journey of self-discovery and then when we met, it all fell into place, for both of us (giving up my new-found independence was hard, but worth it). He could be more content living in a shack in the woods somewhere for the rest of his life than I could, but perhaps one day we’ll both have that state of mind. For now, we’re both happy being rootless.
Q. You also grew up in Canada—how is Canada’s healthcare system different from the healthcare offered here in the U.S.? Was it hard to access or afford care?
A. Canada has a wonderful health care system. If I had been in Canada when I was diagnosed with anxiety, I would have only had to pay for my medication. That being said, unless I went to the emergency room, I wouldn’t have been able to see a doctor as quickly as I did in the USA. Each doctor’s visit in the USA cost me $100 and I went every 3-6 months over a 2-year period. I can’t remember the exact cost, but I had to have some blood tests done and then a chest X-Ray when I had pneumonia (that one cost about $800). Neither of those would have cost anything if I had been in Canada.
My husband broke his ankle while we were in the USA and had to have surgery. It cost over $30,000! That wouldn’t have cost anything had we been in Canada. Of course, it’s not exactly “free” (we pay for our awesome health care in taxes), but our taxes are about the same as any State in the USA, so I don’t see why it shouldn’t be possible to implement universal health care there. So many people are dying or are in massive debt and it’s heartbreaking.
Q. Finally, what advice or wisdom do you have for anyone else who may be dealing with anxiety, eating problems, depression, or another mental health concern?
A. You are not alone. There are so many other people in this world who are also suffering with similar issues to yours. There is so much help out there. All you have to do is ask for it. I know that can be a scary thought. I also have a hard time asking for help, but there is no shame in it. I assure you, the people who love you, heck even strangers, would much rather you ask them for help than to see you be consumed by mental health issues. There are ways to remain anonymous if you need too; I am a member of many Facebook support groups for anxiety. They are all private, so no one you know will see anything you post. Even doing a simple google search, you’ll find toll free numbers you can call or other online support groups. Don’t give up, as hard as it can be to keep fighting every day. Life is a beautiful gift. It might feel like hell at times, but there is help out there for you! We only get one shot at this, don’t spend it suffering needlessly.
About Me: I'm 39 years old and was born and raised in Ontario, Canada. I left when I was 33 years old to travel the world and never returned, choosing to live a life of full-time travel. I have been to over 40 Countries and lived in 3 (I just moved from Cambodia to Mexico). I taught English in an international school in Phnom Penh for a year, but I want to be more location independent, so I now teach English online and run a travel blog (full-timewanderers.com). I am married to a wonderful man, who I met while we were both wandering through Mexico back in 2014.