“Though stigma is shared and learned, it is internalized individually.”
Last Spring a free trip to Europe landed in my inbox. The subject line read “Italy,” and the email offered an all-expenses-paid spot in a photography workshop on the Riviera. I’d be the resident social media expert, supporting other attendees as they navigated the choppy waters of Instagram and Pinterest. As I read the details, I heard the voice of Bob Barker echo in my mind: “Anne Sage, come on down! Get paid to share your expertise, connect with like-minded creatives, and polish your camera skills—all on the sunny shores of the Mediterranean!” My verbatim reply? “OH MY GOD YESSSSS!”
As soon as I sent my response, apprehension replaced my all-caps enthusiasm. I hadn’t been abroad in ten years. My most recent adventure, a 2013 visit to Germany with my parents, imploded in a cyclone of panic and lost passports mere hours before I was due to board the plane. And the Dusseldorf debacle was just one scene in an epic saga of travel anxiety. In high school, the first night of a summer course in France found me hyperventilating in the teacher’s dorm room. In college, a meltdown at the Toronto airport resulted in sympathetic customs officials ushering me into a cab back home. Only during road trips, as I’ve turtled down the highway in the protective shell of my car, has my travel stress abated enough that I could appreciate the thrill of parts unknown.
As frustrating as the anxiety is itself, worse has been my inability to explain it to friends who don’t think twice about buying a one-way-ticket. Where they anticipate a rush of new experiences, I dread a barrage of sensory overload. Their loopy time zone changes are my incurable jetlag. Their exotic meals, my indigestion. More abstractly—and more unsettlingly—the feeling of freedom that travel elicits in others has always escaped me. Faced with the unfamiliar, I’ve known only a breathless void, a hollow beneath my heart. It’s a homesickness that goes beyond a passing sadness to a gasping for air, a floating in space, a hovering cloud of doom. Whereas most people wander, get lost, and find themselves, I just wander lost. So I’ve avoided wandering at all.
Until that free trip came knocking. And through the haze of past disaster and present panic, I could see that the Italy offer was too generous—the opportunity too grand!—to let fear block my path. Moreover, once the initial apprehension cleared, I felt vaguely assured of my ability to weather whatever discomfort the journey might throw my way. For I was now in possession of a clarifying lens that I lacked when I cancelled my Germany plans three years before: my mindfulness practice. Begun last year as a response to my mounting daily stressors, I now sensed its potential to address my travel anxiety. After all, the invitation to remain in the current moment has particular benefit if the moment in question includes throngs of sweaty tourists.
So when my departure date arrived, I packed mindfulness along with my camera and my kicky sundress. On the plane I breathed in calm over the screams of the baby behind me, and I sighed out compassion to her frustrated mother. The next night, wide awake at 2 am, I tossed and turned then lulled myself to sleep with a body scan. On the final evening, seated at a midnight dinner party as plate after plate of snotty shellfish was set before me, I allowed my initial exhaustion and distaste to arise before grabbing more bread and focusing on the company, the conversation, and the rolling Ligurian hills around me. I returned home with the realization that not only had I successfully handled travel’s ills, I’d become more aware of its pleasures as well. Apparently espresso tastes sweeter with biscotti than with a side of worry.
More profoundly, however, mindfulness relieved not only my minor irritations but also the overwhelming rootlessness that has always accompanied my travels. Which isn’t to say that the sensation didn’t occur; indeed it followed me up and down the Riviera. Yet whenever the pit of homesickness formed in my gut, mindfulness greeted it gently with the knowledge that it would pass. Whenever I felt adrift in foreign surroundings, mindfulness reminded me that I stood exactly where I was meant to at that moment. Whenever my internal monologue tumbled ahead into the unknown, I brought myself back to a place of quiet observation behind the avalanche of thoughts. And when it comes to travel anxiety, it is in this practice of returning again and again—to the here, to the now, to ourselves—that the truest power of mindfulness lies. For when we can learn to return to ourselves, we can wander anywhere in the world and feel at home.