Let's learn some stuff.
I've been so fortunate in my life. I've met some really fantastic people, and been lucky enough to grow and learn on each job I take. I've also had the chance to travel to some truly breathtaking places, destinations I'd never even dream about visiting unless my job required it of me. One of the most recent places I visited was a small Caribbean island in the British West Indies, called Anguilla.
So let's talk about Anguilla.
It's a very small island, about a 30 minute boat ride from St. Maarten. It's 35 square miles in total and 16 miles long. It takes about 30 minutes, by car to get from end to end, and the island's main source of income comes from the tourism industry. Anguilla is absolutely stunning. White sand, turquoise water and orange sunsets. The people I met on the island were friendly, always taking the time to say good morning or good afternoon. They'd go out of their way to make sure we had what we needed, and stop what they were doing to wish us well. The majority of the island is connected by one big road, with two lanes and a couple more stop lights. There are no building numbers, and the street names are very general. We found ourselves referring to locations around the island the way the locals referred to them. The grocery store on the west end of the island, or the cluster of buildings owned by Chris. Everyone knows everyone, and word travels fast.
My time in Anguilla was complicated. I was there for work, so I didn't get to do as many of the touristy things that most visitors get to experience. But the trade off was that I got to live abroad for two months, truly immersing myself in another culture. You know how people always joke about "island time"? Well, my coworkers and I found out very quickly that it was a real thing. Things move slower on the island, which was infuriating at the beginning. I eventually grew to love the fact that the banks closed at 2pm each day, or that people truly stopped working at 5pm. Anguilla is a place where people truly value their own happiness and wellbeing. It was refreshing, coming from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles, where most people (including me) are so worried about making a name for themselves and getting ahead. I felt comfortable asking strangers where the best beach was to sit and read a book, or where I could enjoy a nice meal that didn't contain any animal products (hard, but do-able) on the island. The people I met and interacted with were friendly and hospitable the majority of the time.
But something happened to me in Anguilla that I wasn't quite used to. I started to struggle with really high levels of anxiety, that eventually culminated in nightly panic attacks. Something I'd never experienced before. I wish I knew what triggered it, I can guess that I wasn't getting enough sleep, or that I wasn't eating enough. I know I was stressed out about my job, worried that I wasn't doing well enough and always wanting to make sure I impressed my superiors. But this anxiety was something I was so unfamiliar with that it was actually crippling. I lost all my confidence and I didn't feel safe anywhere. I kept trying to fight it. Telling myself to get over it, and to appreciate where I was and the experience I was having. But that gave me even more anxiety. I found myself on more than one occasion hiding in a closet at work, waiting for the waves of panic to pass, dreaming about a time when this wasn't a daily occurrence. I was doubting myself and my choices, questioning every decision I made. I was self-conscious about the way I looked, and uncomfortable about my own abilities and thoughts. I felt so vulnerable, so weak and so unlike myself. I tried to will myself back into my usual happy self, but it felt impossible. I had this cloud of anxiety and self doubt, surrounding me and pushing me lower and deeper inside of my own body.
I lost myself in Anguilla.
It was so scary to be feeling these waves of anxiety, especially against the backdrop of this caribbean paradise. It felt wrong to be so unhappy and uncomfortable in a place so breathtakingly beautiful, especially while I was fortunate enough to be living in a place that most people will never have the gift of visiting. I stopped calling my parents every week, and continued to post beautiful photos on social media, pretending that everything was normal. When tears came, I was quick to cover them up with the eyeliner and mascara I kept in my purse. I tried to power through, but it eventually got so bad that people around me started to notice. They weren't judgemental at all (thank god) but they did realize things weren't okay. I finally had people on my side who, while not fully aware of my circumstances, encouraged me to get out and do things. Who let me talk to them when I was at my lowest and weakest. Who just listened, and distracted me when I needed it. These people were so important to me, and I don't even think they realize it. I started craving the little moments I had with the people who understood me, the moments I had with myself, doing the things I really loved. I spent a lot of time staring at the ocean, trying to put things in perspective. I also spent a lot of time at the office, interacting with my favorite coworkers (friends) who will really never understand how important they were to me during the times where I was the most vulnerable.
My main goal, after acknowledging that what I was experiencing wasn't going away with a little more sleep and a few more glasses of water in the morning, was to get my anxiety to a manageable level. I didn't have the resources or time to get myself into therapy until I got back to Los Angeles. But I did have the ability to listen to my body and my heart and give them the moments they craved. I learned a new mantra that really resonated with me, "It is not selfish to express your yearnings and desires."
Here are some of my favorite memories and photos from my 8 long weeks in paradise. These were moments of self care, and moments of reflection for me, and I'll hold them very dearly for a long time:
Before leaving for Anguilla, I jumped cold tofurkey into a plant based diet. It was really difficult finding food I felt good about eating on the island, but one of my favorite places was the fruit stand I visited 2-3 times a week. They served food that fit my dietary restrictions, veggie burgers, tofu, egg-less banana bread and fresh smoothies. One day while I was there, I saw a mango. It was massive, 7 lbs to be exact. My eyes jumped out of my head and I promptly purchased it (for $12, which in hindsight was a total rip off but whatever) and brought it with me to work for 3 days before I finally caved and cut it up. I was so proud of it, and I carried it around like a baby one morning, showing it off to my coworkers. When we cut it up, everyone made fun of me because I couldn't figure out how to do it properly. It was so much larger than any mango I'd ever had that I couldn't quite judge where the seed was. Eventually we got it figured out and it was the sweetest mango I've ever eaten.
I had this bad ass window in my apartment, and if you follow me on snapchat (@josievorenkamp) you're definitely familiar with it. I took a picture of that window every damn day. It inspired me from the beginning, but one day I opened it up and the wind caused the curtains to burst through and fly freely. When I first got to Anguilla, I left all the windows closed and cranked up the a/c as high as I could get it. But eventually I grew more comfortable with the heat and my body adjusted to the humidity, which is good, because I found out that the island runs on diesel. I can't even imagine how much energy that a/c was using day and night the first 3 weeks. I really enjoyed my days off, when I'd get back from the beach and come back to my apartment, filled with the warm breeze. I'd lay on my bed, reading a book or listening to music and let myself be filled with the inspiration that my window was giving out. These were the moments that my anxiety seemed manageable, and I'm so grateful I had them to look back on when I was in my darkest moments. I know I sound like such a hippy, but man that window was giving out insane amounts of positive energy.
Viceroy After Dark
During my last week on the island, I was invited out to dinner with some of my favorite coworkers. I met them at one of the nicest resorts on the Island, the Viceroy. We ate a delicious meal, had a couple of drinks and then sat out on some lounge chairs watching the moon into the early hours of the morning. We laughed so hard and I felt so safe and so content. I had been so consumed with my own thoughts and my own anxiety, that it was a true gift to be able to step out of that for a moment. There are some nights that you think about long after they pass, and this is one of those nights for me.
The apartment I lived in was about a 3 minute walk from Shoal Bay, rated one of the best beaches in the world. I made an effort to get up and watch the sunrise almost every morning. Sometimes I "lucked out" and had to be at work before it was even light out, so I could watch the sun rise from the office. Other times I had the mornings to myself, so I would wake up at 5:30, brew a pot of coffee and sit on my balcony to watch the sunrise. I even ventured outside a lot of the time, grabbing my camera and some bug spray and walking down to the beach to watch the sky fill up with light and the ocean transform from a deep navy to the bright, relentless blue I'd grown to be familiar with.
I think that sometimes watching the sunrise was the only thing that kept me going. I have never felt happier than those moments where I got to see the sun crawl it's way into the sky. One morning, I got into my car and drove east until I ran out of roads. I walked along a dirt path and saw the sunrise in the photo above. That was one morning where I audibly said "oh my god" as I was watching the sunrise, but it wasn't the last time that happened. I think it's just so magical that the sun rises and sets like that every day. I don't ever appreciate it enough, but in Anguilla I did. It provided some stability for me, and gave me moments of peace and quiet where I could truly listen to everything going on in my head. It gave me strength, and peace in a time when I was feeling unusually weak.
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When I started writing this essay, it was supposed to be a cute and trendy travel post. But no matter how many times I rewrote it I kept landing on the same core message about how my anxiety shaped my time in Anguilla. I hope that's okay, I don't want it to come across as sad, or whiny. Things are a lot better for me now that I'm back in Los Angeles. I've found a way to manage my anxiety, and I connected with people who also struggle with it ( a surprising amount of close friends). I don't feel so alone anymore, and I can look back on my time in Anguilla with happiness and fondness. I'm counting my blessings that I've found a way to consider my anxiety manageable, and embracing the fact that I finally have a name for something that's always been on my mind, molding the way I interact with people.
I learned a lot about myself in Anguilla. I learned that sunsets make me cry sometimes, that I really love falafel, and that it's okay to need other people. I place a lot of value and take a lot of pride in my independence, I think that's why this onset of anxiety was so hard for me. I couldn't just rely on myself, and I had to swallow my pride and rely on the strength of others. I learned that while I'm kind of good at hiding my emotions, I'm not that great at it. I learned that mangoes make me happier than most things, that windows can be so much more than just windows, and that it's okay that I felt more at home in a group of 4 strangers than I'd ever felt in any of my closest friendships.
I learned that it's okay to ask for help. And as cliche as it sounds, I learned that I wasn't alone. I think sometimes that's all we really need.