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Unpacking Travel Anxiety: Why did I bring so much underwear?

I’m currently writing this from a plane. Middle seat. Left elbow dancing with the person next to me who whistles a vacant snore. Relaxation is left on my bedside table. I knew I forgot something.

My relationship with travel has been strained since I was young. I never understood why I dreaded it. Even an overnight stay at my Grandma’s house or a sleepover at a friend's house sent me into a spiral. Being in a new environment without my usual comforts and consistencies made me feel like I was covered in grime. Unfamiliar sheets seemed to rub against my skin like sandpaper, sunscreen smelled sour, and the experience was laced with an air of existential dread. My personal boundaries were shoved up in a suitcase and most days were spent feeling vaguely nauseated, tense, and emotionally shrill.

But, travel is fun. Change is exciting. How dare I dread something that is such a grand privilege to experience in the first place. I must have had it all backwards, I thought. So, I buried my feelings and tattooed my face with a smile. I had a christmas card photo I needed to be preparing for, after all. The problem is that, in the process, I didn’t learn how to properly identify or express my feelings. I believed there was something wrong with me for not enjoying travel.

I remember going on a trip to Oregon with two other families around age 11. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to spend time in a new state. It is a blessing that so many people are not allotted. Yet, I cried for weeks leading up to the trip. Dreams of returning home kept me going. As the other children relaxed along the river, napped midday, and played games at night, I was wrecked with anxiety, draining up all my energy pretending to feel the same. Objectively, I knew it was the grandest privilege to be able to travel, but I was so scared. Clearly vacation wasn’t the problem, so it had to be me.

My fear limited my experiences, disrupted familial dynamics, and ripped away at my self esteem. It has been years since I have traveled anywhere and I am harboring the same fears as I did when I was a child. Looking back, I wish I had known how to identify my anxiety. Not having the words to express my emotions led me to internalize them and believe that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. Adulthood, and the independence that it brought, mobilized my inaction and confirmed my boundaries. But, at 21 years old, I am putting words to fear. I understand that my “issue” with vacations has little to do with vacation at all, but my fear of being out of control. Unfortunately, fears don’t always just go away with time like the left side of my bed and the upstairs attic (that one still gets me from time to time). But, putting a name to them lessens the grip that they have over me.

It’s okay that travel isn’t a simple pleasure. I’m not quite sure any experience is so simple. So, I am choosing to sit in discomfort. The seatbelt sign is on so I don’t really have a choice. But, still.

I wonder if anyone else on my flight feels the same. Maybe the person next to me is sleeping away their flight anxiety. And, perhaps the person two rows back majorly overpacked because they can’t bear to leave their comfort items behind. But, we don’t get to see that on the holiday card. Okay, the drink cart is coming by so I’m buckling up my feelings for the day. See you on the other side (of the country).



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