We broke up in the summer and planned a year-long trip to Southeast Asia in the fall. We shared a house full of plants and a Siamese fighting fish called Haiku. We already had maps drawn and tickets on our bedside tables, but thisendwas unforeseen – and permanent. Fearing traveling alone, we boarded the plane to Bangkok together. With vaccines pumping through our veins and passports in our pockets, we could only hope for the best.
We parted ways within a week - the strain of sharing such an intimate space was too much. Like a dark blanket covering my eyes, I was suddenly blinded by the gripping fear of facing this journey alone. So I did the only thing that seemed easy to me: I got drunk completely stunned. I set up camp in a small bungalow on the beach in the coastal town of Krabi in southern Thailand. I wandered the streets during the day and spent my evenings alone, gazing hopelessly at the sea.
I quickly found myself slipping into anxiety, delusions, and an addiction to alcohol. Weeks passed and I realized I couldn't muster enough courage to put the bottle down for a night, let alone pack my bags and see the rest of the continent. With every day that passed, I felt a growing fear of something new. Even the thought of eating at a new restaurant left me paralyzed. TheAngstWhat had plagued my childhood rose again, and the only way to appease it was to drown it in beer and Thai whiskey.
I wasn't always an anxious person. As a very young child, I was the king of my mind, with an innate sense of adventure and a willingness to connect with others. But in elementary school, I quickly felt alone and excluded. I was teased every day for my feminine demeanor and the social awkwardness I developed when trying to hide who I was. I would pace the grounds at lunch, uncertainty keeping my feet moving. I figured if I was single-minded enough in my mistakes, no one would see how afraid I was of being seen alone. Being still meant being vulnerable and revealing who I really was: not a king with a jeweled crown, but a terrified boy who felt like the world was disappointed in him because he didn't fit the mold.
I realized that my late-night drinking was my way of escaping my anxious thoughts, but at least that loneliness was familiar to me. I was alone, but I knew that if others saw my feet move with enough intent, I would at least be safe from their shame as well.
This false sense of security could only last so long. One morning, after weeks of repeating the same cycle, I woke up from a horrible dream. As I looked down, ants were crawling all over my body, moving rhythmically to the waves of my breathing. I bolted out of bed and frantically shook myself clean. I threw my sheets in the corner of the room and retreated to the bathroom in disgust.
Desperately, I looked at my sunken and hungover face in the mirror. I wasn't disgusted with the insect invasion. I was disgusted with myself. I knew two things at the time: I needed help and I wasn't able to provide it myself. I started yelling and hit the floor, my knees scraping against the cold tile floor. In those minutes that felt like an eternity, I asked to feel whole again, I begged for help, and I gave myself completely.
The breaking point
Freedom and tenderness come when we hit rock bottom. Even if it's just a moment, we become willing to see things differently and allow ourselves to change. At that moment, as I knelt on the cold floor, Grace took over. A sense of calm spread through my body and I was no longer ashamed of the man staring at me. I finally had the courage to move. I showered, packed and left the damp darkness of the bungalow. I started cautiously, still passive and withdrawn. The fear still weighed heavily on my shoulders. But I was - at least - detached. That night I fell asleep on an overnight bus bound for Surat Thani, sober for the first time in weeks.
When I woke up, the air was damp and stuffy. Christmas was a week away and I had decided to spend the holidays on an island in the Gulf of Thailand before flying to Cambodia. As I arrived at the ferry terminal, I heard laughter from a large group of travelers. I listened to their colorful accents and wondered how such a diverse group could have come about. I wanted that contagious dynamic from them. I wanted to know how it feels to laugh again.
As I was about to pull myself back down to the book in my hands, my gaze fell on a bulging red backpack lying on the floor in front of one of them. It was the exact backpack I was carrying, a rare model sold at a certain Canadian store.
Immediately, my fear of speaking dissolved. That bright red bag called me to the front, urging me to talk. I greeted the owner of the backpack, and when we got off the ferry a few hours later, we realized that not only were we both Canadian, we were from the same small West Coast town. In fact, we had worked a block away from each other for years, completely unknown to each other. For the next week I laughed with them and played in the sea. I danced on the beach and brought in the new year under the full moon. I had started healing again.
Months later, I was sitting in a guest house in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, staring at a Buddha statue looking at me through a cracked window. Its peace was evident even through the erosion of a thousand tropical rainstorms. The next morning I made my way to Mount Kinabalu, one of the highest mountains in Asia. If all went according to plan, in 48 hours I would be standing atop the Malay Archipelago, looking out over the clouds and lush jungle — far removed from the severe anxiety that left me bogged down, drunk, hopeless and depressed in Thailand months earlier.
The climb was incredible and challenging. Bubbles formed, collapsed, and formed again. Even in my sturdy shoes, I could feel the smallest pebbles stinging the soles of my feet. Instead of resting, I kept pushing myself - the beautiful, changing landscape kept me motivated and curious about what was around the next bend. With each step of altitude, the oppressive heat at the equator shifted and cooled.
I started in the rich jungle lowlands and climbed 4,000 meters in two days. At first I was surrounded by small shrubs - everything from rhododendrons to orchids - before I got to the evergreen trees and alpine meadow where thick clouds hid the growing rock face. Suddenly the world calmed down completely and I was faced with a desolate landscape where even the most resilient creatures dared not put down their roots. I was taking the last few steps to the summit over silent rocks and silent stones when the first traces of light broke over the horizon. The mountain could no longer protect me from the cold as a wind swept across its summit. Exposed to the top of the world, overwhelmed and frozen, I sat down, took a deep breath and took it all in.
As I sat there looking out at what felt like an entire universe of my own pain and struggle, I felt nothing but peace. I saw the fear that controlled me and its inevitable defeat. For the first time in my life I could see the clouds below me and feel the warm sun rising on my back. I knew that fear would probably always be a part of my story, but I also knew that if I made the decision to ask for help, I could overcome it. I managed to no longer allow alcohol as an escape route and I healed from the breakup that was shaking my heart and psyche.
It's been years now, and that mountaintop almost seems like it's from another life. I can't remember leaving my seat at the summit, and I can't remember many of the steps I took to get back to the bottom. But I know I brought back another man. Sure, there are times when I still let the fear take over and sometimes hit rock bottom. I'm not immune to the ticking of my mind or the cacophony of anxious thoughts that can fill my head at times — and I don't think I ever will be. Though I may always be a highly sensitive person, I will always know that I was among the clouds and the sun and heard the sound of still stone.
I was on top of the world and even if it was just for a moment, I was king of everything.