Growing up I was shy, I lacked the confidence Janelle projected, and I let anxiety control my day-to-day life… to the point where a psychologist even told my mom, “good luck with her, she will always have anxiety.” I used to cry every morning before school and would cling to my mom’s leg as if it was the last time, I was going to see her. Taking deep breaths didn’t work. The unknown made me nervous and as a result, I would cry to the point where I made myself throw up. I wasn’t able to label my emotions as anxiety and as a consequence, they often took control of me. However, not one of my exaggerated anxiety attacks deterred Janelle from reaching out and taking me under her wing. She was always there for me without hesitation.
After Janelle passed away, my world stopped as one would imagine. I lost my best friend, older sister, mentor, and the one who always had my back. I had never felt so lost… It’s almost as if I took a wrong turn in an unknown place and was forced to find my way home without a map or GPS. It’s possible, but almost seems impossible without the necessary guidance. So instead of heading in the right direction, I naturally headed in the opposite direction. (This is typical for those of you who know about my bad sense of direction.)
Without her guidance, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. She was no longer there to outline a path for me to follow in. No map. No GPS. And no manual on how to cope with grief. There is no simple solution to grief and some argue that it never ends but to me, running 11,614 miles in the opposite direction seemed like the easiest solution. This idea led me to study abroad in Australia and little did I know that running this far from home would become the greatest blessing. In the midst of grief, I reminded myself of the bucket list Janelle created for us to carry on her legacy. I realized that if I stayed stagnant and continued through the daily motions of life, then I would only be consumed by grief. This is when I decided that traveling would become my escape in this world and an opportunity for me to simultaneously carry-on the life Janelle wanted, but could no longer live herself.
While abroad, I met individuals from all around the world; some from places I had never even heard of before. Each person I met was an opportunity for me to share Janelle’s energy and every place I traveled to was an opportunity for me to leave her mark. I would often take pictures of my #TeamJanelle bracelet and many people would ask me what the yellow wristband stood for. Although the response was often challenging for me and difficult to explain to outsiders, it was also an opportunity for me to share stories about Janelle’s character and the motive behind my travels. Their curiosity sparked questions about Janelle and naturally her legacy unraveled itself as I told them stories about my older sister.
I left behind a world of grief and exchanged it for the unknown. I applied to study abroad not knowing anyone but embarking on a 24-hour journey (with mono at the time) to an unfamiliar place was an outlet that brought me tranquility rather than anxiety. Before I left, a good friend left me with the following advice:
“my first word of advice is this, say yes. In fact, say yes as often as you can. Saying yes begins things. Saying yes is how things grow. Saying yes leads to new experiences, and new experiences will lead to knowledge and wisdom. Yes, is for young people, and an attitude of yes is how you will be able to go forward in these uncertain times.”
The day I crossed over the international dateline, is the day I said yes to every opportunity that came my way. Both the clocks and my sheltered views on this world were reversed. Saying yes enabled me to journey beyond my comfort zone and find comfort in the unknown. My older and wiser self could no longer understand how I had let anxiety control my life for so many years prior.
Studying abroad became my outlet, traveling became my medicine and Australia became my safe haven in this world. Australia brought people into my life who I didn’t know were missing and took me on adventures that I never could have imagined. I challenged my fear of heights by jumping out of a plane, drove 1,348 miles on the opposite side of the road in New Zealand, and even got to climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge – all while on a mission to carry on Janelle’s legacy in this world. I also brought my #TeamJanelle bracelet with me on all my excursions to remind myself that Janelle would be with me anywhere I went. During my adventures, I was able to experience the same freedom and wanderlust that Janelle had experienced during her time abroad in Amsterdam – a once in a lifetime experience that I wish we had the opportunity to bond over.
These adventures introduced me to strangers from all different walks of life; each one with their own wisdom to share that allowed for friendships to transpire. Collectively, these experiences taught me that there are so many people in this world and so many different places to see. The world is simply too big for me to be content spending my whole life in one place.
Australia was initially an outlet for me in this world and simply an escape. However, saying yes to every opportunity during my time abroad evoked a constant desire within me for something new and a love for the unexplored. Suddenly, the weight of the world was no longer on my shoulders. In a humble way, I now felt like I was standing on top of the world. I realized that adversity would no longer set me back but could only propel me forward into new opportunities, outlooks, and passions. The unknown was no longer anxiety provoking but rather a form of comfort.
I’ve come to realize that the unknown simply correlates with how unpredictable our lives can be. Four years ago, I could not have predicted I would be where I am today. Despite my inability to change certain outcomes, I am still grateful for the journey I’ve been on. I value the lessons I’ve learned that no educator could teach and appreciate all the people in my life who have come and gone along the way. Although life’s unpredictability can present challenges, life’s unpredictability in turn presents opportunities to learn, grow, and strengthen our wisdom. The outcome simply depends on how you view adversity and its presentment. Without my sister to outline a path or a GPS to navigate my way, I’ve still been able to continue my journey that began on a basis of self-doubt. I originally viewed my feelings of grief as defeat. I felt defeated and doubted that I would ever be able to project the level of happiness I do today. However, I am now thankful for my experiences with adversity and believe they have only enhanced my desire to live life to the fullest. So, my message to you is that if someone ever doubts you, prove them wrong… even if and when that someone is you.
I’m on a journey to an unknown destination and although the path may not be as linear as I had once anticipated, I’m okay with that. There is no need to have everything mapped out. I’ve realized the anticipation of what happens next or always knowing your next move creates for a mundane lifestyle and is only a set up for disappointment. I crave adventure, seek discomfort, and spontaneity excites me. We all have the potential to discover these ambitions within ourselves if we allow their presence. I used to reject feelings of discomfort and defaulted to my comfort zone. However, if we push ourselves to see what lies beyond our comfort zone, our opportunities in life become endless.
So, to the psychologist who once said, “good luck with her, she will always have anxiety,” I would like to say… look at me now.