I circled the world amid a planetary pandemic panic — and I wasn’t overly anxious. Actually, I felt confident that what lay ahead would be no sweat. What was the big deal about staying home? I’m a writer, so I’m already about 75 percent recluse.
I saw on the news and on social media that just about everyone seemed to be freaking out in varying degrees, but that wouldn’t happen to me.
On New Year’s Eve 2019, I arrived in Bangkok to do location research for a novel I’m writing. The plot involves a pandemic that emerges from eastern Asia. Talk about timing. At that point, no one knew what was going on in Wuhan, myself included.
Less than 3 months later, the world was in full-blown panic mode due to the actual pandemic. By then I was in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, where I frequented a bar called Nameless. There, expats gathered nightly to stress-drink and argue over whether it was best to stay or go. Vietnam was laying the lockdown on thick, and there was word out of Ho Chi Minh City that foreigners were being rounded up and sent to quarantine camps en masse.
Even so, when the call rang out from North America and Europe to head home or risk being stuck wherever you happened to be, I waited another 2 weeks — perhaps out of denial — before catching one of the last planes out of the country.
Leaving Vietnam, however, proved to be a surreal if not harrowing experience.
Instead of heading back to the United States, I decided to wait everything out in a little town on the Mexican Pacific. As my plane out of Hanoi departed for Moscow, I was informed that Russia was suspending all flights in and out of the country. That meant my connection the next morning would likely be canceled, which would effectively trap me in the airport because they’d stopped issuing entrance visas.
When we landed, we were asked to remain in our seats while people in hazmat suits zapped us with thermal scanners. When I asked a flight attendant why she looked so nervous, she whispered, “If just one person has a fever, the entire plane could be quarantined.”
In any case, I was allowed to disembark and was told that my flight the next morning would (probably) be one of the last allowed to leave. *Cue relieved beers among fretful travelers.*
Once I caught my connection to Mexico City, I knew I was home free. Mexico wasn’t taking the virus as seriously as they eventually would, and I guessed correctly that things at the airport would be more or less routine. Some 50 hours after leaving Vietnam, I arrived in the pint-size paradise that is Puerto Escondido and settled in for the global quarantine.
The anxiety crept in gradually. My partner was the first to notice, as she bore the brunt of my growing irritability. She was patient with me, understanding all too well what was going on since she was deep in her own version of the same thing.
As my anxiety grew, I blamed it on everything but the obvious. I was working too hard, wasn’t meditating, wasn’t getting enough exercise, was eating the wrong food, needed to do more yoga, needed to relax.
But I couldn’t relax. Increasingly on edge, again and again, I found new and uninteresting ways to argue over nothing.
Then, sometime in June, I hit the emotional wall. I’d been making vague plans for where to travel next — back to Vietnam, perhaps, or to Italy or Spain — and it dawned on me that my work and life as a traveler had been suspended indefinitely. My friends were scattered around the globe, and who knew when I’d see any of them again? My family was back home in Washington State, and even if I did make the stressful journey north, the mere act of visiting my mom could kill her if I caught the bug along the way.
And to cap it all off, things in the United States were looking grim, as the response to the virus was decidedly lacking — especially compared to places like Vietnam, where the government had taken matters seriously from the get-go. Let’s put it this way: In Vietnam, life has essentially gone back to normal. How normal are things in the States?
After a particularly pointless argument with my partner, I broke down in tears. Everything — and I do mean everything — was so utterly goddamn frustrating. It was at that moment that I realized COVID-19 had finally gotten to me. Despite my logical approach to all this, I was just as susceptible to fear and anxiety as anybody else.
One of the most difficult concepts to accept is surrender. American culture teaches us to fight to the bitter end, that to give up control is a sign of weakness. But here’s the thing: Maintaining control all the time is a struggle, and the struggle is exhausting.
Some 1,500 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu explained, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality.”
In the face of my late-onset COVID anxiety, I’ve had to accept that the situation is beyond my control. I’ve surrendered. Whatever travel plans I think about making are far more distant and theoretical. For all practical purposes, I’ve come to face the fact that I am where I am.
When I talk with my mom about flying up to visit, we still discuss the need for safety protocols, but we also admit that such a trip is likely happening later rather than sooner. And my partner and I have learned (or perhaps are still learning) to recognize when irritations and arguments are projections of our own anxieties. With this acceptance, this surrender, has come a growing sense of peace.
That doesn’t mean the anxiety has gone away. But what was becoming a tempest has turned into a drizzle.
To borrow one final quotation, this time from American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.”
Nick Hilden is a travel, fitness, arts, and fiction writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Health, Thrillist, Vice, and more. You can follow his travels and connect with him via Instagram or Twitter.