Man to Man: why opening up about my anxiety only felt possible while traveling

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I’ll never forget the moment it hit me: a tidal wave of dread while on a city break in Dublin several years ago. I couldn’t move, later describing the feeling like watching a pint of Guinness being poured – the head slowly rising from the bottom, taking what feels like an age to reach the top and settle.

Sheepishly, I turned to one of my best friends and asked him to tell me a joke, hoping it might snap me out of the dark blanket that was threatening to drown me. I don’t remember his reply, but it did little to quell my queasiness. Eventually, I managed to get a lid on things and kept it hidden from the friends I’d flown out to Ireland with.

I’d go on to have plenty more anxiety attacks that year, until they eventually subsided. I never broached the issue with friends back home. Twelve months later, while on a break in Budapest, that same friend told me that he had been suffering from anxiety, the dread gnawing away at him as well. In turn, I opened up about my own experience and instantly regretted not doing so earlier.

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I had plenty more anxiety attacks – and never told friends at home

It’s no secret that men aren’t the best at talking about how they feel. Continuing to account for around three quarters of suicides, the strong, silent type isn’t just a tragic cliché – it’s true. I’ve always believed that at surface level male friendship is easy. When it comes to the deeper stuff and exploring feelings, it gets a bit trickier. 

Want to know a secret though? Travel. I’ve found out more about my male friends in regards to love, careers, fears, hopes, dreams and, yes, mental health, while in the liminal space away from home than I ever have inside my local pub.

Perhaps it’s the sheer amount of time we spend together abroad. That freedom to say something when you’re opening your mind up to new sights and possibilities, embracing the unknown, and being out of your comfort zone. 

Being enveloped by a different backdrop, away from the pressures of daily life and expectation, stirs the soul in ways nothing else really can. Being away from it all makes you more receptive to talking about how you really feel and keen to ask the bigger questions, too.

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Some of my closest friends are those I met traveling

As it happens, some of my closest male friends are those I met while traveling. Most notably an American called Steve, who I first crossed paths with in the summer of 2005 on a work program in a humdrum beach town on the Maryland coast. By day, we sold candy to hyperactive children on a boardwalk. At night, we partied in a shared house we’d been put in by the employer, bonding over beer pong and a similarly wry sense of humor.

We hit it off so much that we planned a transatlantic trip for the following summer. In 2006, Steve became the first in his family to ever visit Europe, taking in London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Rome, when – surrounded by culture and nightlife – we too got to feel like kids in a candy shop.

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Steve and I have traveled together for 17 years

We’ve been traveling together ever since. For over 17 years, in fact. During this time we’ve explored the old world and the new one, ticking off everything from dusty amphitheatres in Greece to hidden bars in Philadelphia.

These transatlantic trips have been something of a constant through our adulthoods, punctuating the usual milestones – our 20s, first jobs, breakups, our 30s, marriage, kids – minus the associated fanfare from living in the same country as someone. 

We aren’t the biggest texters and we don’t tend to stay in touch much outside of our adventures, save for the odd 3am message I’ll receive about a hotel “we absolutely have to hit” on our next trip. Odd as it is, this puts us in a pretty unique position: we’ll meet at an airport and everything is different yet nothing has changed at all. A time capsule of friendship buried for 18 months at a time.

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A cracked windscreen on a US road trip saw Steve driving like Ace Ventura

We’ve had ups and downs, of course. If you thought it was bad luck to open an umbrella indoors, try the passenger seat of a sedan five days into a month-long coast-to-coast US road trip. It cracked the windscreen to such an extent Steve’s driving took on a distinctly Ace Ventura vibe. 

Not to mention the odd itinerary drama like the time I left my passport in a Phoenix cab the day before we were due to fly to Los Angeles. Phoenix Airport bills itself as “America’s friendliest” – and they’re not wrong. I’ve still no idea how we were able to board the plane to LAX but we did despite some seriously tense hours before the flight. I’m pretty sure the stress aided my jet lag.

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Travel has expanded our horizons more than we ever grasped

Still, it’s been a small price to pay for being able to enjoy the sorts of travel experiences that could only be shared: imaginary sword fights at a castle in Cork; belting out songs in a limo ride down the Las Vegas strip; singing Wonderwall on a late walk down the embankments of Amsterdam; clinking negronis while watching the sun fizzle into the Venetian lagoon.

Looking back, our earlier days of travel expanded our horizons in ways we never fully grasped at the time. When we first met, Steve was a carpenter, and now – I like to think having been part-inspired by our museum excursions in Rome and Berlin – he teaches history at middle school in the States. Meanwhile, I became a journalist who has been lucky enough to jet around the world for work, crossing five different continents and counting.

Solo travel has its positives, of course. Yet, traveling with your buddies is as much about the chat as it is about the destination. The chance to let a conversation breathe and connect on a deeper level than perhaps you would back home. There even comes a time on a trip when the world-class sights partially fade, but the laughs carve into your memory like the numerals on an ancient Roman ruin.

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This year, Steve is bringing his son along for the ride

This August, Steve and his wonderful wife will fly across the Atlantic for a distinctly grown-up European trip, accompanied by me and my own better half. We’ve booked boat tours on the Amalfi coast and already set our sights on must-visit restaurants in Paris. 

This time, Steve is also bringing his five-year-old son along for the ride. Who knows, perhaps one day this tiny guy will have his own best friend to travel the world with. Hopefully, with his brilliant dad and me to encourage him, he won’t have to look far to discover what friendship really means.

Man to Man is a new SOLO series exploring male friendship and modern masculinity, delivered by different voices, including former Red Bull adventure editor, Joe Ellison.

Flash Pack is on a mission to make 1 million friendships through shared group travel. Few groups need those connections more than men in their 30s and 40s. Find your pack today.

Images: courtesy of Joe Ellison

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