I’ve never been able to cope particularly well with being in a big city. I was born in a medium-sized town in South Wales with a central population of just under 40,000, and now I live in a small seaside town with a population of around 20,000. When I was a student, I lived in Aberystwyth for three years – a town which interestingly undergoes a dramatic population change when the students leave for summer. I can’t find the exact details at the moment but the town’s population drops by up to 7,000 to 10,000 between the end of one academic year to the next, leaving the central population of the town at around 12,000 between June and September. Note that these numbers are not completely accurate – I just want to give a general picture. At just 90 miles from my home town, Aberystwyth is the furthest away I’ve ever lived from my birthplace.
I’m not particularly well-travelled, but when I was a teenager, trips to some large European cities – London, Amsterdam and Berlin in particular – were always coupled with heavy drinking and other misbehaviours, and as a result I was able to distance myself from any anxieties I may have been dealing with at the time. Even sleeping rough in train stations when I was too young, stupid and poor to afford any accommodation, or wandering the streets of a city throughout the night until I could catch a bus home didn’t cause me that much of a problem back then, as I was usually more focused with drinking than sightseeing.
But in the last ten years or so, I’ve noticed that any visits to larger cities has come with an almost unavoidable sense of anxiety and dread. I can’t really put my finger on any one reason for this, but I think it’s generally a mix between a) being in large crowds of strangers or tourists, b) sprawling, unfamiliar city avenues and streets, and c) being too far away to retreat to a safe, familiar area, should the need arise. A few years ago, my band played a gig in a venue just off Camden High Street in London, and I experienced a panic attack walking around the area. Ever since that moment, visiting London or any other large city has generally been a source of great worry to me.
Usually, when I’m visiting a large city with my fiancée, Lucy, or with family or friends, I can “keep it together”, but I still struggle with the physical symptoms (headaches, stomach-aches, tiredness, irritability and anger) and emotional symptoms (sadness, depression and isolation) of anxiety. I think a large part of this anxiety comes from the fact that I don’t want to let Lucy, or any friends, or anyone else know that I am struggling with these feelings. I feel like asking for time to collect my thoughts or remove myself from a busy area will impact on the plans of whoever I’m travelling with. Thankfully, I have the best fiancée in the world and I know that it really isn’t a problem, but the illogical thoughts that come with anxiety don’t allow you the luxury of dealing with things in a sensible way. This, in turn, exacerbates any symptoms I’m having, and I frequently find myself in a spiral of negative emotions and sensations. Very occasionally, this transforms into a total panic, meaning we have to leave the area quite quickly. A visit to Palermo in Sicily in 2014 was so unpleasant for me, I found that I couldn’t calm down until we were on our way out of the city.
However, I feel quite different about a city if I am travelling alone. I still suffer the same issues outlined above, but being somewhere alone sometimes makes it easier to deal with them. Having to physically remove myself from a busy street or crowd is easier to do alone than it is when with others, so that takes one major element of the anxiety and makes it more manageable.
When I’m planning to visit a city on my own, I almost always create a map and a plan of what I want to do and where I want to go. This helps me organise my day so that I will hopefully not find myself somewhere too unfamiliar, and it also allows me to focus on the next area to visit so I’m not consumed with confusion and worry. In 2008, I visited Berlin with my then-girlfriend, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend. One morning, I took a solo trip to Oranienburg, about 35km north of Berlin. I remember getting off the train in Oranienburg and experiencing a sense of deep calm and tranquility, even though I was further away from home than I’d ever been at that point in my life, in an unfamiliar town, on my own. I had the space (both physical and mental) to be able to cope with the situation, and a plan of what I wanted to do there. As a result, I spent the day without having to worry about encroaching feelings of worry or anxiety. If the feelings were to arise, then I felt equipped to deal with them.
At the moment, I’m planning a two-day trip to London to visit some bookshops and record shops and I’m already putting together a map of places to see. Travelling around the city on my own means that I don’t feel like I’m letting anyone down if I need to stop to gather my thoughts for a while. Travelling on my own usually means I won’t find myself at somewhere new and unfamiliar at a moment’s notice. As much as I love travelling to different places with Lucy, sometimes a trip to a city on your own is just what’s needed. When you’re amongst the fervour of commuters, tourists and street peddlers that line the long streets of a large city, you can sometimes find the calm isolation you need.