Everyone has different reasons for taking a gap year – whether it be simply a need for adventure and travel or a break from school. Preparing to begin my Gap Year has caused me to reflect on the reasons I decided to initially embark upon this crazy adventure.
Like many things, my decision to take a Gap Year started with high school. I’ll be honest – high school was not at all an easy or enjoyable time in my life. While I did make some amazing memories and had many friends as well as very good grades, I found it extremely hard to match my inner feelings with the happy persona I showed to everyone. I may have appeared to be a happy, go lucky girl, but in reality there were many mornings I simply didn’t think I would be able to get out of bed and head to the school that caused me so much anxiety and stress.
To put it lightly, I suffered from an extreme case of cognitive dissonance – my inner dark feelings colliding with my happy, go lucky appearance.
I have a particular photo on my phone of myself and some friends at a conference I helped organize. We’re all smiling with our arms around each other. We look like a very happy, tight knit group of friends. And to be fair, we really were. Unbeknownst to the eye however, in the moment this picture was taken I was in the midst of a panic attack and tears were pouring from my eyes. It was at this point I knew something needed to change. Fast – before it was too late. A couple weeks later I found myself in the emergency room of the local hospital. My eyes and cheeks were burning from the tears that had been pouring from my eyes for the last five hours. It was there that I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and the symptoms of depression that come with it. That was the definitive breaking point.
I went on antidepressants to control my mood swings (and to give my poor eyes a break from crying). Those few weeks in between that visit to the hospital and the medication taking effect were the scariest weeks of my life. I couldn’t trust myself, I felt like I wasn’t in control of who I was anymore. I was honestly scared for my life.
Thankfully, a year and a half later I can barely recognize that person. I am still on medication for my anxiety and depression, but I have come miles and grown leaps and bounds since that cold spring evening last year. One thing I knew then, and still know now, is that I needed time to explore who I was away from an institution like school or a full time job. I needed to figure out how I could become the best version of myself possible before I headed off to any kind of university or college.
A Gap Year to Explore the World & Myself
This is when the idea of a Gap Year first came to mind. In August of last year I made a spur of the moment decision to visit my family in Germany for a month before completing my final year of high school. This trip marked a decision that has impacted my life ever since. The decision to once more begin taking risks, to once more begin living. It was there in Germany that I realized life (and travel) is all about taking risks, taking a chance, daring to leap without looking back.
I felt myself again for the first time in many months in Germany. I felt alive in a way I hadn’t for a long while (as cliché as that may sound). I began writing again, something I hadn’t done for a long time. It was during this time that I began blogging about my experiences with mental health and travel. I not only fell back in love with travel, but I also fell back in love writing, with putting words to page in a way that was honest and made me vulnerable.
That month in Germany stitched me back together again. I begged my mother to let me stay in Germany, to let me finish high school there. (You can read about that experience here.) Ultimately, due to the wrath of my mother and pleading from my father, I came back to finish that final year of high school. But things had changed. No longer was I having panic attacks on a daily basis (I actually made it an ENTIRE YEAR of not having a single panic attack on the bus). No longer did I care so much about the difference between a 90% and a 94%.
I had changed. That change brought on my love of travel. I experienced first handedly how travel can change a person. Make no mistake – I’m not advocating for anyone to quit their job and travel in hopes of fixing all their problems and becoming a better person. Adventurous Kate wrote a fantastic article about why we can’t expect travel to fix all our problems. But for me, that month away from home and in a completely different environment completely changed me.
Doing the Hard Work
So, for the past year I have been working hard to make my dream of travelling and returning to Germany a reality. I have spent countless hours on my knees weeding gardens, have babysat many a screaming toddler (on top of maintaining a decent grade point average in order to eventually go to university) and in the past two months have worked a full time job. It is only now I am ready to embark on my journey. And make no mistake – I have fought, hard, in order to make this experience possible. Many assume that if you are travelling often or taking a Gap Year, or in my case writing about the best parts of travel, that you must not be working for it. There is a common myth that in order to travel you must have rich parents.
While it is true that I have been blessed with wonderful, loving parents, it is my work ethic and love for travel that has enabled me to embark on this year long trip.
I’m going with little more than nothing in my bank account. I am relying on the hospitality of loved ones (and their couches) and the kindness of strangers. I realize I’m naive and young and stupid and all the things an eighteen year old girl preparing for her first solo trip can be, but I am prepared for whatever hurdles life throws at me. I can take it. I’ve proved that over and over again. I have survived storms and tsunamis (though internal they may be), I have climbed mountains and have had my fair share of battles. I can do this (I repeat in my head as I prepare to step on the plane, as I say goodbye to my perfect family).
I am broke but happy. Anxious but hopeful. I have a backpack on my back and a camera by my side. There’s nothing more I could ask for in the world.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with their mental health please see a professional as soon as possible. You can find a list of mental health resources HERE. Know that while friends are also great to talk to, there is nothing more helpful than talking to a certified professional about what you are feeling.