We broke up in the summer and had a yearlong trip to Southeast Asia planned in the fall. We shared a home filled with plants and a Siamese fighting fish named Haiku. We already had maps drawn and tickets on our bedside tables, but this breakup was unforeseen—and permanent. Faced with the fear of traveling on our own, we boarded the plane to Bangkok together. With vaccines pumping through our veins and passports in our pockets, we could only hope for the best.
Within a week, we parted ways—the strain of inhabiting such intimate space together was too much. Like a dark blanket covering my eyes, I was suddenly blinded by the gripping fear of navigating this journey on my own. So I did the only thing that seemed easy: I drank myself completely numb. I set up camp in a small bungalow on the beach in the coastal town of Krabi in southern Thailand. I wandered the roads during the day and spent my evenings alone, looking hopelessly across the sea.
Quickly, I noticed myself slipping into anxiety, delusion, and a reliance on alcohol. Weeks passed and I realized that I couldn’t summon enough courage to stave off the bottle for a night, let alone pack my things and see the rest of the continent. With every passing day I felt a growing fear of anything new. Even the thought of eating at a new restaurant left me paralyzed. The anxiety that plagued my childhood reared its head again, and the only way I seemed to be able to placate it was to drown it in beer and Thai whiskey.
I wasn’t always an anxious person. As a very young child, I was the king of my mind, with an innate sense of adventure and a willingness to connect with others. But grade school quickly left me feeling alone and ostracized. I was teased everyday for my feminine demeanor and the social awkwardness that I developed while trying to hide who I was. I would pace the grounds at lunch, insecurity keeping my feet moving. I figured that if I was purposeful enough in my meanderings, no one would see how terrified I was of being seen alone. To be still was to be vulnerable and reveal who I really was: Not a king with a crown of jewels, but a frightened boy who felt the world was disappointed in him for not fitting the mold.
I recognized that my nightly drinking was my way of escaping my anxious thoughts, but at least I was familiar with this solitude. I was alone, but I knew that if others saw my feet moving with enough purpose, I would at least be safe from their shame too.
This false sense of security could only last so long. One morning, after weeks of repeating the same vicious cycle, I woke from a terrible dream. Looking down, ants were crawling all over my body, pacing themselves rhythmically to the undulations of my breathing. I shot out of bed, frantically shaking myself clean. Throwing my sheets into the corner of the room, I retreated to the bathroom in disgust.
I looked at my sunken and hungover face in the mirror with desperation. I wasn’t disgusted with the insect invasion. I was digusted with myself. I knew two things then: I needed help and I was incapable of providing it myself. I began to bawl, and I hit the floor, my knees scraping the cold tile floor. In those minutes that felt like an eternity, I begged to feel whole again, I pleaded for help, and I surrendered completely.
The Breaking Point
Freedom and tenderness come when we hit rock bottom. Even if it’s just a moment, we become willing to see things differently and we allow ourselves to change. In that moment, kneeling on the cold floor, grace took over. A sense of calm entered my body, and I was no longer ashamed of the man staring back at me. I finally had the courage to move. I showered, packed, and left the damp darkness of the bungalow. I started cautiously, still passive and closed off. Fear still felt heavy on my shoulders. But I had—at the very least—become unstuck. That night I fell asleep on an overnight train to Chiang Mai, sober for the first time in weeks.
When I woke, the air was humid and sticky. The train carrying me south had nearly reached its destination. Christmas was a week away and I had decided that I would spend the holiday on an island in the Gulf of Thailand before taking off to Cambodia. When I arrived at the ferry terminal, I heard laughter from a big group of travelers. I listened to their colorful accents and wondered how such a diverse group could have formed. I wanted this infectious dynamic of theirs. I wanted to know what it felt like to laugh again.
About to retreat back to the book in my hands, my eyes settled on a bulging red backpack on the ground in front of one of them. It was the exact backpack that I was carrying, a rare model sold at a specific Canadian store.
Instantly, my fear to speak dissolved. This glaring red bag called me forward, urging me to talk. I said hello to the backpack’s owner, and by the time we got off the ferry a couple hours later, we realized we were not only both from Canada, but from the same small city on the West Coast. In fact, we had been working a block apart for years, completely unknown to each other. That next week with them, I laughed and played in the ocean. I danced on the beach and brought in the New Year under a full moon. I had started to heal again.
Months later I found myself sitting in a guesthouse in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, staring at a statue of Buddha looking back at me through a cracked window. His peace was evident even through the erosion of a thousand tropical rainstorms. The next morning I was setting off to climb Mount Kinabalu, one of the tallest mountains in Asia. If everything went as planned, in 48 hours I would be standing on top of the Malay Archipelago, looking out across the clouds and the lush jungle—far from the severe anxiety that left me stuck, drunk, hopeless, and depressed months earlier in Thailand.
The climb was incredible and challenging. Blisters formed, broke down, and formed again. Even in my sturdy footwear, I began to feel the smallest of pebbles poking into the soles of my feet. Rather than rest, I kept pushing myself forward—the beautiful changing landscape kept me motivated and curious to see what was behind the next corner. With each step of increased elevation, the sweltering equatorial heat shifted and cooled.
I began in rich jungle lowlands and ascended 4,000 vertical meters over two days. At first I was surrounded by small shrubbery—everything from rhododendrons to orchids—before getting to the evergreen trees and alpine meadow where thick clouds hid the growing rock face. Suddenly, the world quieted completely and I confronted a barren landscape where even the hardiest of living things dared not plant their roots. Over quiet rock and silent stone, I took the final steps to the peak as the first traces of light were breaking over the horizon. The mountain could no longer protect me from the cold as a curling wind brushed over its peak. Exposed, overwhelmed, and chilled at the top of the world, I sat down, took a deep breath, and took it all in.
As I sat there looking out onto what felt like an entire universe of my own pain and struggle, I felt nothing but peace. I saw the anxiety that controlled me, and its inevitable defeat. For the first time in my life, I could see the clouds below me and feel the warm rising sun on my back. I knew that fear would likely always be a part of my story, but I also knew that I was capable of conquering it when I had the resolve to ask for help. I managed not to let alcohol be an escape any longer, and I healed from the breakup that shattered my heart and my psyche.
It’s now years later, and that mountain peak seems almost like another lifetime. I can’t remember leaving my perch at the summit, and I can’t remember the many of the steps I took to return to the bottom. But I know that I returned a different man. Sure, there are times when I still let fear take over, and I sometimes hit rock bottom. I’m not immune to the ticking of my mind or the cacophony of anxious thoughts that can sometimes fill my head—and I don’t think I ever will be. While I may always be a highly sensitive person, I’ll forever know that I have been between the clouds and the sun and I have heard the sound of silent stone.
I have been to the top of the world and even if it was just for a moment, I was king of it all.