I repeat: It’s actually happening.
A week from tomorrow, I land in London after close to four years of dreaming of the day I return.
In June of 2013, I participated in a two-week long study abroad experience for the ASU School of Sustainability’s program during which I studied sustainability policy in governance. One week was spent in Washington, D.C. and the other in London. I blogged about each and every day.
Before my trip four years ago, I’d never been to London. Hell, before that trip, I’d never been out of the country.
And London completely changed me.
Sometimes, in my half-awake daze between sleep and getting out of bed to start my day, I remember the bustle of the city: the backdrop of old and regal buildings, the sweep of the buses and cars weaving through the streets, the people pulsating through the crosswalks with authority and purpose.
Sometimes, if I close my eyes in a dingy, quiet room, I can see the glistening of the crown jewels in the Tower of London, sparkling against the darkness.
Sometimes, if my car jolts under a bump in the road, I remember the Tube chugging along underground, passengers swaying slightly back and forth as they wait patiently for their stops.
Other memories are as sharp to me as though I lived them yesterday: my otherworldly moment of walking into Westminster Abbey for the first time; the day I got lost on purpose and wandered the streets of London in a happy daze for two hours before finding my way back to my dorm; my train ride up to Cambridge where I watched the English countryside go by for an hour and never wanted the train to stop.
But one moment stands out above all.
All throughout 2012 and the first half of 2013, my anxiety was so bad I quit my job, took online classes beginning in the fall, and avoided even leaving my room if I could help it. I signed up for this study abroad trip in the blind, wild hope that throwing myself out of my element would ‘fix’ me. And, naturally, on my first day in London, I was completely terrified, had major sensory overload with everything, and threw up whenever I tried to eat.
On the Sunday we arrived, we took a van from the airport to the dorms at which we were to stay, and I was in such a daze of exhaustion (red-eye flights are the worst!) and suffering from such severe anxiety that I didn’t notice anything about the city. The nasty thing about anxiety is that the most incredible things can be dancing right in front of you, but you cannot see them if you’re trapped inside your own head.
When we got to the dorms, I curled up into a ball on my bed and stayed there most of the day until I plucked up the courage to walk around the corner with some classmates to get food. Still, the sweep of the city was a haze of confusion and noise and color and threats – I navigated it all the best I could and got something to eat, walked backed to the dorms, tried to remember to breathe, locked myself back up in my room, and slept.
On Monday morning, I got up and dressed in our required business casual attire, force-fed myself oatmeal, and met my class and professors downstairs to catch the Tube to the Houses of Parliament, where our first speaker awaited us.
Again, as we began the short walk to the nearest Tube station – Warren Street by Euston Square – I took in nothing. Breathing in and out and focusing on talking to my classmates and putting one foot in front of the other took all my strength.
We walked down the steps at the station, boarded the Tube, rode to the Westminster stop (changing lines along the way), and got out with about a billion other commuters to walk through the station towards our destination.
We climbed the stairs to the entrance of the station, the Underground ceiling slowly falling back to make way for a cloudy gray sky. My eyes were on my feet the whole time, concentrating on not tripping, still talking, still willing myself through the fear clouding my head.
And suddenly, we were outside, the air fresh and cold and unexpected on my face, and everyone in front of my stopped in their tracks, so I did too.
I looked up.
out of nowhere
out of nothing
was Big Ben.
And a thought struck me with the force of the train like the one we had just ridden to that iconic structure; it pushed through every barrier in my head; struck down every fear; threw every shred of doubt to the winds:
I was in London.
I was in LONDON.
That moment changed my life.
And by the day before I departed for home, I was taking the Tube all over the city by myself, walking fearlessly in and out of crowds in the steps of hundreds before me, visiting more iconic structures and sites, wondrously taking my life into my own hands with my anxiety trailing in the dust.
And I’ve never forgotten that feeling of complete and utter independence. Of possibility. Of adventure.
Some time last year, when I was talking to my therapist about my abrupt return of anxiety, she asked at one point, “How did you cope with it the last time?”
And I said, “I went to London.”
I know such feelings can be recreated without going to the places in which they were felt, but going back to the city that gave me the confidence to combat my anxiety honestly feels like making a pilgrimage.
It’s my time to decompress a bit after dealing with the stress of getting my master’s degree while working full time, the grief of losing my beautiful mare to laminitis nearly two weeks ago, the craziness of my job, the struggle of wedding planning, and the continuous efforts to breathe through anxiety.
It’s my time to just be.
And I’m ready to just be.
So far, I’ve got a list of places to go.
I have two full-day excursions planned: one for tours of Oxford, Stratford, the Cotswolds, and Warwick Castle; the other, for tours of Bath, Windsor Castle, and what I am excited for the most: Stonehenge.
As for the other days? I have a two-hour Tube riding/walking tour planned and then after that, the sky is my limit.
Westminster Abbey. The Tower of London. The British Museum. Elizabeth Tower/Big Ben. The Houses of Parliament. Piccadilly Circus. Buckingham Palace. Maybe even a train ride back up to Cambridge. Those places I’ve seen before and have dreamed of seeing again for what feels like ages. But other places await: The Royal Observatory. The Royal Mews. The London Eye. London Bridge.
That all said… I know I’m going to get there and be tired on my first day. I probably will have to cope a little with culture shock and nerves. I know I’ll probably wear myself out at some point out of eagerness to pack as much as I can into each day and need to just relax.
But that’s the amazing thing: my trip can be what it will be and it will still be absolutely amazing.
You know how people who travel sometimes say something like, “Watch out, world, here I come!”
To me, it’s the opposite. Because what the city has brought to me and will bring to me again is more than I am and can ever be.
So… watch out, me.
Here comes London.