I love to travel. I love every part of it – from researching places to visit to writing up my packing list to actually packing … I love getting to the airport early and the anticipation of boarding the flight. I usually don’t have any problems sleeping on a plane and I always view that time in the air as a chance to relax. The to-do lists have been left behind and all that is ahead of me is some time for fun and adventure.

This summer, however, was different. I was apprehensive. Not so much about the travel but about the significance of why I was going.

I was heading to Bangladesh to see my parents. As eager as I was to see them, my heart was heavy because I was traveling on that specific date was for a whole other reason … Normally I wouldn’t visit Bangladesh in the summer. It’s too hot and humid, which makes the already crowded streets and chaotic traffic even more unbearable. This time, however, I had to go as I knew I needed to be with my parents for the one year anniversary of my brother’s death.

This realization kept popping into my head as I prepared for my trip. At least I had something else to look forward to – a visit to Bhutan, just my parents and I … and then with that thought in mind, the fact that Ahmed would not be with us strikes again and I feel my throat start to constrict and my head start to spin. It was a constant battle. Positive anticipation of my trip followed by punctuated grief leading to panic and anxiety followed by an exhausting concentrated effort to just breathe. Just breathe. Just breathe.

Finally all packed and ready to go, D drove me to the airport. Everything was fine until I walked into the terminal from where I would be departing. The nausea started to rise and I could feel the panic building. The last time I was in this specific spot was when I was with my brother. He was paralyzed at the time and I needed to accompany him to Bangladesh for treatment. I thought I was going to throw up right then and there, but I just clenched my jaw and told D, ‘Let’s just hurry up and get out of here.’

Luckily I was the only one to check in at that time so it only took a few minutes. What a relief because I don’t think I breathed the entire time. As soon as I got my boarding pass, I rushed out to proceed to the immigration area. I started to unclench my jaw and tried to relax. I just wanted this to be over. I hadn’t even started my trip and already I wanted it to be over and done with.

Waiting to board really tested my anxiety. I couldn’t bring myself to relax or even distract myself with something to read or watch, so I just focused on meditating – which may have just translated to staring vacantly into space. It was just what I needed to numb myself from the stress I was feeling.

Technically, there was nothing to worry about. However, anxiety doesn’t rely on logic.

All I could do was focus on the moment. Literally second to second. I kept thinking, ‘Right now, I am ok. Right now, I am ok. I can move. I can breathe. I am safe.’ A quote of Eckhart Tolle’s: “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life” is what I kept focusing on.

Let go of the past. Do not create hypothetical situations. The future is not my concern. You are here. Now is all that counts. Right now I am ok. I am ok. I am ok. 

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Anxiety can be overwhelming and paralyzing. The main thing I tried to focus on this time was not getting ahead of myself. Easier said than done for sure.

As my flight landed in Bangladesh, I knew I’d be seeing my parents and then heading to our house … which meant seeing my brother’s empty room. I was landing on June 4th which meant the following day would be June 5th, the 1 year mark of his passing away. How would I feel? What would the energy be like in the house? What did it all mean?

All these thoughts, questions, and emotions (and more) kept ebbing and flowing through my mind. However, I tried to keep them at bay. My main focus was to really try to hold on to that moment — to the fact that in that moment, I was ok. Things may suck, but I am actually ok.

It was a constant effort.

There would be times when I would be with family or friends and suddenly a thought would enter my mind that would send me spiralling downwards; however, the etiquette of the moment would keep me standing upright. Clenched jaw. Racing heartbeat. Glazed over eyes. A tense smile on my face. Their voices drowned out by my own internal dialogue urging me to keep it together.

I do believe in being authentic and that it is ok to express your feelings, but sometimes the situation just isn’t right. The pressure of the moment can get to you. You hold it all in … and sometimes that goes on for days and days, but eventually it has to come out.

Finding this balance of being your authentic self and allowing yourself to express whatever it is you need to and challenging yourself to push through the moment by not allowing yourself to completely lose your $*it is really difficult. I’m still figuring out how to get it right – if there really is such a thing.

I know that there are people around me who say that they are there for me, but it’s not easy to reach out. It’s not easy to call up a friend and say, “I’m feeling terrible,” particularly because I don’t know (and a lot of times they don’t know) what can be said to make me feel better. Sometimes the anxiety is so bad that I can barely speak. I do know, though, that it can feel good to just let the statement out – I’m struggling right now and I just wanted to let you know. It can be cathartic and a release of that pent up anxiety so that you don’t completely explode.

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I found my time in Bangladesh to be stressful because there were reminders of my brother every single moment. From his bedroom, to seeing his things, to the empty chair at the dining table. It felt awful all the time. Seeing my heartbroken parents and knowing that even though we were building our own memories, they were forever tainted by a missing soul. That space is not a space for healing. The house was full of hurt. The streets were full of chaos. It was hard to find any space, silence, or stillness … but there were minute pockets of relief. I focused on those.

despite the pain, there were moments of serenity in Dhaka – I tried to hold on to those

The trip to Bhutan was a relief. However even that was difficult as it was so obvious that Ahmed was missing. The hardest thing for me to do was take a picture of the three of us together. I knew it had to be done – it had to be done for myself and for my parents … but the void was noticeable. After I took the first selfie of the 3 of us, I cried. It hurts so much. Our fun and laughter during our trip was always tinged by sadness and heartbreak. At least in Bhutan I had my own room to sit in silence and be surrounded by the incredible beauty to fuel my gratitude.

the beauty of Bhutan and the incredible serene scenery made it easy to focus on gratitude

After being away for three weeks, I was relieved to fly back home. I had just a few days in Kuwait before getting back on a plane and heading to the States. There wasn’t much time to process my thoughts and experiences (or even get over the jet lag).

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I’m not a fan of Las Vegas, but when there’s a UFC fight on, it’s a great place to go to be entertained and to get over jet lag. Battling the 10 hour time difference isn’t fun — plus I wasn’t even over my jet lag from Bangladesh at that point either! In any case, it was good to have finally arrived and get started with this part of the vacation. We had a lot of great things lined up for our time in Vegas so there was a lot to look forward to. For the most part I was ok … until I would approach the casino floor.

The crowds, the smell of smoke, the sounds of the slot machines, and just the overarching buzz would make me feel sick. Every time I would approach the casino (you pretty much had to walk through it to get anywhere), my heart would start to race. I would clench on to D’s hand and just will myself to get through the crowds and come out on the other side.

In the beginning, the anxiety was really overwhelming. I don’t know what it was about the chaos of the casino floor that affected me so badly. Maybe I was just overstimulated. It was just too, too crowded for me.

It truly is awful when the threat of an anxiety attack starts to rise when there is no real reason. I was not under threat. I was not going to be lingering in the place of chaos. Still, it affected me.

Right after my brother died I experienced agoraphobia for the first time. It was really bad for quite a while and then slowly, very slowly, I started to venture out of the house. Although I am much better now, I still feel quite apprehensive when out in crowds – whether I know the people I’ll be around or not. It’s the unpredictability of triggers that worries me the most. Still, I just have to remind myself not to get lost in supposing what might happen. It’s such a waste of energy. I know that if something happens, I’ll handle it. As simple and logical as that may sound, the energy needed to hold on to that vs. give in to my anxiety is incredible.

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Next stop: Los Angeles – more specifically, Torrance to go to Gracie University. I’m always overwhelmed with gratitude that I even get a chance to visit and train at the headquarters of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. There are so many people around the world who don’t get this opportunity. That along with the fact that I’ll be seeing so many of my friends definitely had me excited about the visit — at the same time, however, I was quite apprehensive about being around so many people … it was a strange mix of emotions to deal with. I tried my best to focus on the excitement. In fact, within an hour after arriving in LA after our 5 hour drive from Vegas, we were already heading to Gracie University to check out the new training space.

jiu-jitsu heaven 2.0

There’s no doubt that once you enter the doors of Gracie University, you are enveloped in warmth. Familiar faces and big smiles everywhere … and then the electric energy on the big green mat. It was amazing. You would think that all the excitement and happiness of being there would eliminate all chances of anxiety … but it doesn’t work that way. The apprehension lingers. The triggers come up unexpectedly – something someone says, a song that’s being played, flashbacks … you just can’t tell what will happen.

Everything was going just fine — we had only one week left of our holiday and then, unexpectedly, in the middle of Barnes & Noble, I had my first complete meltdown. I was browsing and then I got to the graphic novels section … My brother was an avid reader and though he’d read just about anything, graphic novels were his passion. We both loved bookstores and I knew, had he been alive, I would have come on this trip with a long list of books he’d want me to buy for him. Yet here were all these new volumes – beautiful books that he absolutely would have loved – that he would never get to see.

At first I got emotional, then the tears started to fall, and then it got uncontrollable. If I had been in private I knew I would have collapsed, but I just stood there, hand on the latest DC Omnibus, sobbing uncontrollably.

Now every trip to a bookstore is an emotionally charged one.

I didn’t really fully recover after that.

To be honest, I wanted to leave. Not leave the bookstore – leave the country. I knew we only had a few days left and I had good friends flying in from all around the world to gather at Gracie University — but I wanted to leave.

I knew that I could have. If I really, really wanted to, then I could have packed up my bags, gotten on a plane, and flown home … but I didn’t want my anxiety to push me that far. As much as it hurt, I didn’t want to give in. Each day after that was an effort. I had to really concentrate on being present. I had to continuously remind myself of how fortunate I was and how much I would regret not connecting with my friends. It seems silly, doesn’t it? Shying away from something that you love to do with people you love to be around? Well, that’s anxiety for you. It’s unpredictable. It’s irrational. It can be really overwhelming … and take it’s a lot of effort to work through it.

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Given that my last week of holiday was quite tough for me emotionally, I am glad I stayed. Several years ago, when I suffered from major anxiety, I didn’t handle it well. I went into the darkest of places that took me days/weeks/months to emerge from. Since then, I learned to handle it much better and hadn’t suffered from an anxiety attack in years. My brother’s death changed all of that. [I wrote a post about it called When the Anxiety Strikes Back.] Although this last bout of anxiety was tough for me to manage (in fact the lingering effects lasted for well over a month – I’ve only just started to feel better), I did manage to get through it.

I’ve been working really hard to acknowledge and accept my emotions and thoughts. Whereas before I would berate myself and go down a self-destructive path, this time I was a lot more gentle with myself.

I am still grieving. I am still trying to make sense of what has happened. I am still trying to accept that my brother is no longer alive. There’s so much I still need to process it, so I’m working on it … and this time in a way that is nurturing and healing.

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How I dealt with my anxiety while traveling:

  1. I journaled. I’ve found journaling to be incredibly cathartic. I usually just free write – no structure, no plan, and definitely not a list of things to do. I just write and write until I don’t feel like writing anymore.
  2. I reached out. It’s great to have friends around, but sometimes it can be difficult to communicate with others about what you’re feeling. I’m lucky to have a few specific friends who have been incredibly nurturing and supportive through my grief and anxiety. Just knowing that they were there made a huge difference.
  3. I tried to stay busy. While I don’t always advocate this, I felt that because I was away from my own place/space, I needed to distract myself. If I found myself unable to practice mindfulness or gratitude in the moment, then a distraction (crossword puzzles are good) really helped.
  4. I allowed myself to disconnect. I gave myself permission not to be involved in anything if I didn’t want to be there — even if we had spent money for tickets or it was a focus point of our travel. This was a tough one to accept. After all, we had just spent a lot of money on flights, hotels, fight tickets, and other vacation-related expenses. How awful would it be if I didn’t feel up to participating because of my anxiety? Nevertheless, D’s support and assurances that my comfort and wellbeing was the ultimate priority made all the difference. He always assured me that if we needed to leave, we would leave – even if that meant standing up in the middle of a gathering and walking out through crowds of people. It didn’t matter. Luckily it never came to that (though it was close a couple of times) – however knowing that I had an out, and allowing myself to use that out if I needed without any lingering guilty feelings, was really important.
  5. I focused on staying present. While I did spend some time trying to strategize what I would do if I had an anxiety attack, I promised myself I would not dwell on hypotheticals. Ultimately, I was in control over my thoughts and more importantly, my reactions.
  6. I had a plan for my travel time: I’m a very emotional person; the main thing for me was to make sure that whatever I chose to do to pass the 24 hours of travel (flights + transit time) would not trigger any emotions. So, I didn’t watch any movies that would make me sad (catching up on episodes of Grey’s Anatomy would have to wait), read anything that would make me feel upset (reading Daughter’s of Shame – though really good – was a big mistake that I made earlier in the summer; lesson learned), or do anything that would rile me up (including things like staying away from excess sugar and caffeine). I found that listening to some good Podcasts helped. I listened to Ear Hustle throughout my travels to Dhaka and Bhutan. Joe Rogan’s podcasts kept me entertained throughout my trip to the States.
  7. I tried to minimize stressors. Although more recently it has been emotional triggers that have brought about my anxiety attacks; they haven’t been the only thing. I definitely realized that the more frantic I feel, the more likely it is that I will panic. Minimizing stressors really helped. This included things like planning ahead (knowing what my schedule for the next day would be like), leaving early (so as not to worry about getting stuck in traffic or being late), and confirming reservations/plans/events (so I don’t find myself with dead time). Even simple things like making sure all my devices were charged and addresses were lined up on the GPS to make navigation easier helped. I didn’t obsessively do these things, but whenever I could, I took a bit of time to prepare so that I could take care of ahead of time.
  8. I meditated. I didn’t meditate as much as I would have liked while on holiday, but once I returned to Kuwait one of the first things I did was get back to regular yoga practice and long sessions of meditation. It’s done wonders.

I traveled for almost 2 months this summer. I knew that it would be difficult for me but I was determined to make this a learning experience instead of one that would defeat me or really get me down. I am living life with a void now. I do not want that void to cause me to fall into some endless black hole. I want to work through it. I want to learn how to live with it. Instead of fearing my anxiety, I am owning it and I working on healing – no matter how long it takes …

my last message to my brother was about Calvin and Hobbes …