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Studying Abroad is Supposed to Be Scary: In which an amateur agoraphobe leaves her house

Jamie D'Amato
July 15, 2021

The Burren, a rocky landscape

Photo of the Burren in County Clare Ireland, by Neil Harrington from Pexels.

 

The other day, I went to Target to buy hiking boots to tackle the rocky limestone landscape of the Burren, and I’ll be honest: it took a lot out of me. 

It was hot, and loud, and crowded, and when I got back home, I immediately put on my pajamas and knew I wouldn’t be venturing out into the world for another week if I could help it.

Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve approached public outings with the care and caution of a rural farmer in the age before cars: a trip to town is a rare, long, journey, a special occasion for buying supplies and selling goods before returning to a safe bubble. I’d look at a grocery trip like a dangerous expedition, packing my bag carefully–phone, hand sanitizer, wallet, mask, keys, pepper spray–and wouldn’t be able to fully relax until I was back home. My social battery drained faster than ever, with even brief hangouts or activities leaving me exhausted and wanting to crawl back in my cave. Nowadays, when I’m not in my home, I’m counting down the minutes until I will be. It’s like I’m on edge, hunted prey ready to flee at the first sign of danger.

I’ve struggled with anxiety all my life, but only recently have I dabbled with agoraphobia. 

To clarify, “Someone with agoraphobia is afraid to leave environments they know or consider to be safe. What’s considered ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ varies depending on the person.”

Although the last year and a half have been incredibly challenging in a lot of ways, my mental health has never been better. I’ve come to better terms with the existential dread I developed too young, and most importantly, I’ve gotten very comfortable being alone. I’m content to hang out with myself, in my home.

That aloneness, and my house, the shell that embodied it, have become my safe space. I have a literal comfort zone, and it has a one-hundred-foot-radius from my wi-fi router.

It didn’t used to be like this. I’ve studied abroad before, and each time I’ve grown more free and independent. My first time abroad was in a group, the summer after my freshman year, and I clung to other groups like a lifeline and let them make the choices. If I didn’t have someone to do something with, I would mope around the hotel alone feeling like I was wasting time. 

So in my second study abroad I allowed myself to do solo trips, eat out at fancy restaurants on my own, go for long walks down whichever streets looked most interesting. This was in spring 2020; I had a glorious month in Florence, Italy where I was beginning to feel comfortable taking on the world alone, before Covid hit and I had to go home early. But in that month, I was learning to be brave and do what I wanted to do, with just myself and a phone for navigation. 

It was still out of my comfort zone, and it was definitely scary. But the apprehension I have now is different from that fear. It’s not just the newness, the culture shock, the homesickness, the loss of my typical routine. It’s the fact that I won’t be in this house I’ve gotten used to. I won’t have my dog and two cats as emotional support animals. My guilty pleasures of Doordash and Amazon Prime will be out of reach. And, dramatic pause, I will have to go outside every single day of the program. 

For one month, I will be in a new environment, surrounded by new people, a new culture, a new language. Of course I’m excited to go, and grateful for the opportunity, but I’m also nervous. And those nerves tend to be the loudest.

But I’ve come to remind myself that, even to those without budding agoraphobia and a chronic anxiety disorder, these feelings are completely normal. 

Because studying abroad isn’t just stepping outside of your comfort zone, it’s launching you out of it with a catapult. It’s supposed to be scary. That’s how you grow. 

Studying abroad is about doing things differently from what you’re used to, experiencing different lifestyles, and seeing things from new perspectives: all of which are what I desperately need to pull myself from my pandemic slump. I’ve grown comfortable with being alone, and I’m proud of myself for that, but I don’t want to also grow comfortable with being stationary. I miss traveling, meeting new people, going to bars, seeing places filled with beauty and history. 

The small village of Ballyvaughan, Ireland is the perfect backdrop to push myself. Compared to my primarily metropolitan experiences abroad, this small rural village surrounded by the natural beauty of the coast and the countryside will be a brand new experience. While this unfamiliarity can be scary, the more quiet experience is something I think I need right now.

My program is an art program, so it fulfills a certain romantic notion of running away to be with nature and make art. In that way, I’m approaching it as an educational and creative retreat, where I can unplug, connect with nature, experience a new lifestyle, and focus on my creative work as well as myself. 

As much trepidation as I have about leaving the familiarity of my bubble, I know that it will be enriching in ways I can’t even predict yet. The bubble pops just seven days from the time of my writing. I can only tell myself that I will be creative, independent, and open in the face of all these challenges and opportunities. With endless nature, fields of cattle and sheep, and so much art, I know I can overcome this fear, make the most of my time in Ireland, and be braver and bolder because of it.