How Sleeping On Strangers’ Couches Helped Me Overcome My Anxiety

I had crippling anxiety in high school. It probably started long before that, but I vividly remember coming home from school, unable to breathe and asking my parents to rush me to the hospital. I didn’t know what anxiety was back then. Sure, I had heard of it, but “feeling anxious” had always been more synonymous with stress rather than the debilitating panic I felt inside my body. But there was one place I always felt safe, one place that always calmed me down: the couch.

It was a gray patterned sectional with a high back, ripped straight out of the late ‘80s. On the nights I couldn’t sleep because my mind was fixated on how I might be dying, or on the days I was so anxious I felt like throwing up (another thing I was terrified of), I would lay down on the couch and watch Bruce Almighty on repeat until my eyes closed and I could escape for a while. It was a safe space I could go to when everything else in my life felt out of control.

I had a good childhood. My parents are two of the most kind and loving people you will ever meet. Even with all the cards stacked in my favor, I still developed a deep sense that I had no control over my body or what was happening inside of it. It turned into an obsession with not getting sick and later developed into an eating disorder to try to cope with the feelings that felt too big to handle. That was part of the problem with therapy in the late 2000s; when therapists heard “eating disorder” they stopped looking at anything else in my life and doubled down on convincing me that my body should be accepted. If they did realize anxiety was playing a part, no one told me. In fact, I didn’t really know what anxiety was until I happened to Google it at 20.

Despite being afraid of everything, I kept moving through life. I graduated from high school early, did a year of community college, and moved to Los Angeles at 18. Having heard that you didn’t need a degree to be in entertainment, I skipped college and got straight to work. Or at least, I tried to get straight to work. But being alone in Los Angeles at 18 while the group of people you knew in high school are killing it at college is incredibly isolating. I ended up reconnecting with a girl I disliked in high school (a mutual feeling left over from the judgmental days of our childhood), and we bonded over the fact we both lived in a city where we knew almost no one. We quickly became best friends, and I spent as many nights as I could at her apartment, sleeping on her couch. The tan fabric of her La-Z-Boy became my home away from home—the first time in months I had found a place where I belonged.

A few months later, I took up rock climbing and fell hard for a guy I met at the climbing gym. He was a few years older than me and lived a transient lifestyle, spending a couple months out of the year working while the other ten were spent climbing and traveling. He introduced me to climbing outdoors and places in my own city I had never heard of, like Malibu, a beach city 30 minutes outside of LA (on a good day) that literally everyone knows about. That’s how sheltered I was. That’s how much I didn’t know a world existed outside of the small box I had created for myself.

Our time together was short, but he awoke a sense of adventure inside me that I didn’t know existed. He kept in contact while he traveled, and when he came back to visit, he finally admitted what I had always known—it was never going to work out with a man who didn’t have a permanent address.

Heartbreak can create a beautiful space in your life where you’re willing to do things you wouldn’t normally do to escape your pain. When channeled in a constructive way, it can be an opportunity to grow and take risks. I’m not suggesting you do something reckless, but rather let it push you to do something you have always wanted to try but been too scared to.

For me, that was booking a one-way trip to Europe on a travel pass, which was generously offered to me by a family friend that worked for the airlines. I went with no plan, no agenda, and a rumor that I could stay at places for free using a site called CouchSurfing. It was Eat, Pray, Love on a budget of a couple hundred dollars.

After staying with my cousin for a week in Munich, I reached out to a couple I had met at a film festival. They lived close by and set up a blow-up air mattress for me in their home movie theater, a perfectly organized space in the basement of their flat. The woman was only a few years older than me and introduced me to her group of friends. I quickly learned that this sort of hospitality was the norm. Those friends then suggested I stay with one of their other friends in Berlin. Traveling alone by train to stay with a stranger seemed like the quickest way to get myself into an Amanda Knox situation, but despite my fears, I went anyway.

Their friend lived on the second story of a modest building in the heart of Berlin. Heart pounding, I climbed the stairs and knocked, wondering if maybe I should have sent the address to my parents. The door opened to reveal a young German man. His mouth curled into a generous smile and I realized I had nothing to be afraid of.

Slowly, my anxiety faded into the background. I was taking each day at a time, actively stepping towards things that pushed me out of my comfort zone and realizing I was just fine. After a quick trip to Dessau for a hip-hop festival, I returned to Berlin and stayed on a couch in a small, well-decorated room with a girl from CouchSurfing who knew every cool thing to do in the city. In Nice, I met one of my now dearest friends and ended up staying a week longer than planned—splitting the sectional that he was crashing on. And in Italy, after leaving Rome early to explore the countryside, I stayed with the only host available in the small town of Vicenza; if I remember correctly, the couch even had its own room.

I didn’t have control over what was going to happen or who I was going to meet, but I had a sense of agency that I could figure it out no matter what. My hiding place—the couch—suddenly became a gateway to new people and experiences. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I could breathe.

I returned home two months later. Although my anxiety has never completely disappeared, I was equipped with a new perspective and new ways to face it. Rather than going back to my routine of shutting off from the world, I began inviting others to stay on my couch, whether that was friends I had met from Germany, friends of friends I had never met, or acquaintances at film festivals. By offering others a space in my home, they returned the favor with friendship and connection—something that is often missing from our lives when we struggle with anxiety. At least, it was certainly missing from mine.

Now, once again, the meaning of the couch has changed. For so many of us during this time, the couch can feel like a prison. Unable to leave our homes, it serves as a reminder that we have plenty of reasons to be anxious. On days when my anxiety gets particularly bad, I try to remember that if the meaning of the couch has changed before, it will change again. That one day, we will once more share our couches with friends and loved ones. Travel restrictions will be lifted and a sense of normalcy will return. Humans are incredibly adaptable creatures, and even though nothing about this situation is easy, your home is there to keep you safe and protect you. If you feel alone right now, reach out to someone and create a new experience. Connection, creativity, and friendship can still be accessed from anywhere—even virtually, while sitting on your couch.

About the author
I eat cookies for every meal. Follow Teresa on Instagram or read more articles from Teresa on Thought Catalog.

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