I think we can all agree that “vacation blues” are a real thing. Who hasn´t returned from some far flung destination with a camera full of photos, some delightful handicrafts and a handful of stories we tell to family and coworkers until they roll their eyes with boredom? (Thanks Becky, we´ve heard the baby Llama story a thousand times. Get over it.)
After the initial exictement of your return and the obligatory sharing of a social media highlight reel, the inevitable ho-hum of life´s regular routine takes the wheel again. The days and weeks that follow fall back into place like the predictable metronome of a clock.
Let me just say, this ain´t that. I´m not actually talking about the regular ol´ “vacation blues”.
I want to touch on a subject that afflicts long term travelers (a.k.a. Someone who travels for more than 3 months continously). It´s powerful, palpable and can potentially ruin your ability to live a normal life.
I´m talking about Long Term Travel PTSD (Post TRAVEL stress disorder).
This is my self appointed title for a condition that
doesn´t have an actual name, but its powerful effect on the lives of many absolutely warrants a discussion.
I´ll start by explaining my own experience with LTT PTSD. It all started when I sold my portion of a business, most of my personal belongings and left my island home of St. Thomas (US Virgin Islands) in January of 2017.
I was starting out on a 7 country trek after years of wanting more than just the standard 2 week get away from work and regular life. I´d been envious of those who´d embarked on extended travels and I was determined to join their ranks.
In the beginning it just felt like a longer, but fairly typical, vacation. However, my mindset began to evolve as my surroundings continued to change and the weeks and months rolled by.
Slowly, I began spending more time in places that gave me a sense of peace and belonging. I became less thrilled by run-of-the-mill adrenaline fueled activities which most short term travelers gorge themselves upon like so many Alfajores (a.k.a. A delicious type of Argentinian cookie). My life had changed and was now dictated by a totally different set of daily routines (Myth buster #1: Believe it or not, vagabonds also have routines they live by).
I was now focusing on spending more time with locals, learning about their culture and engaging in non-typical tourist activities. I devoted more effort to understanding the traditions of a region, its people and their politics.
Eventually, and not intentionally, I completely alienated myself from any traces of my old life.
The list of people I talked to from “back home” dwindled quickly. Many of my friends and family had lost the ability to relate to the things I was dealing with, therefore, a communication gap began to grow. I mean hey…who CAN´T relate to running out into a desert oasis at 4 a.m. to escape an earthquake that´s shaking your hostel down it´s foundation? Or the joy of arguing about visa paperwork with a foreign official in a language you barely speak? (The answer: Most people)
A nomadic existence is a very different kind of life. It requires a totally different mind set than a 9-5 grind. Not without its challenges, I found myself telling stories or describing problems that often left me with an audience of crickets on the other end of the phone.
I´d officially entered that akward “traveler limbo” that so many long term nomads do when they abandon their old life, but aren´t really sure where the next horizon may be.
Or more importantly, when it´ll come to an end.
This kind of travel can make you feel isolated, like a ship without an anchor, since the people in your former life will struggle to grasp your choices, challenges or what the hell to even talk to you about anymore.
When you travel for longer than a month, you´ll constantly be asked by short term wanderers: “So, when are you going back?”
Back? Back where? There´s nothing left but the road ahead now. Everything has changed.
Or at least that´s how your mind will start to work once you´ve crossed over to being a full-on nomad.
Your ways of making money will be completely different (Myth buster #2: Most long term travlers work while they wander. Very few of us are trust fund babies).
The things that are important in your friendships and intimate relationships will also change to accomodate your new lifestyle. You see regional political issues from an entirely new perspective, including the difficulties faced by whatever host country you´re putting your feet up in.
You´ll come to cherish sunsets, epic jaunts into the wilderness and spontaneous side trips with new friends.
The bonds you create with people will be incomparable and lifelong. The changes, challenges, triumphs, isolation and loneliness you´ll face will be beyond compare and they will slowly chisel an entirely new you from the remains of your former life.
You´ll look in the mirror one day and barely recognize who you´ve become.
This is the lifestyle I disappeared into for over a year before emmerging on the other side in central Bolivia.
I´d finally found a place that I loved enough to settle down again. My boyfriend and I got a place together and we got engaged.
Everyone congratulated me and told me I was blessed.
And though I was happy and in love…a strange feeling began to creep over me after a couple months of keeping my feet in one place, working a regular job and getting on with what is commonly referred to as a “normal life”.
I started having panic attacks. Real, honest to god, wake you in the dead of night panic attacks.
I was getting restless and angry over tiny, trival things. Any minor slight that I was dealt triggered an immediate and drastic re-evaluation of my life choice to “settle” and left me wanting to pack my bag and head back out into the horizon.
I´d lost the ability to relate to people living a stationary life and felt like I was drowning. I felt like I was missing out by staying put and trying to reassimilate. I even tried talking myself out of the happy, stable and loving relationship I was in (Um…self sabotage much?)
I had developed a serious case of destination addiction, for which there is no magical pill to cure.
And the worst part: There was no one I could talk to who could relate to what I was going through.
Most people you know will get huffy and adopt a “Shut up and be grateful for your amazing experiences” kind of attitude when you try to explain how you´re feeling.
The problem wasn´t that I couln´t handle NOT “being on vacation”. I hadn´t BEEN on vacation. The problem was that I´d been living a completely different life on what might as well have been a parallel version of earth.
Being a long term nomad demands a different set of skills to survive. It requires an amount of work most people will never understand. There are very few (if any) conveniences or comforts. Everything we love and cherish fits in a 60 liter (or smaller) backpack. Losing a scrap of paper someone drew an original sketch on or a funky little travel charm given to you by a friend is cause for mental anguish and tears. You even celebrate holidays and birthdays differently.
Material goods lose their former luster and you become a creature that thrives completely on having meaningful experiences.
So when this parallel life you´ve been living grinds to a brutal and sudden halt, the people from your former life (i.e. family and friends from “back home”) can´t really understand what the big deal is.
And really, why should they?
You´ve literally been living on another planet that, despite existing side by side with their own, is as different as the atmospheres on Earth and Mars.
And if you haven´t lived on Mars…would you expect an Earthling to sympathize with your problems?
So in my case: I choose to work hard on establishing new routines, creative projects I could pour all my energy into and taking little side jaunts out of the city as often as possible. This has offered a source of relief from my own personal experience with LTT PTSD.
I´ve also been blessed to have a couple people in my inner circle that despite finding my problems strange and unrelatable, let me vent my frustrations without judgement.
I won´t lie, it´s not easy changing gears and jumping from one type of life back to the other. You´ll be anxious, depressed, angry for no good reason and bored beyond belief.
It´s been 1 year now that I´ve kept my feet rooted in a beautiful city in central Bolivia (Sucre). I´m working a regular job and living a stationary life with a compassionate, wonderful man who wants to travel the world with me (Spoiler alert: He´s my husband now).
He´s also tolerant of my weird and sometimes irrational mood swings.
Some of my fellow LTT friends cope by staying goal focused and saving money for their next big trip (I don´t know a single LTT´er that stays put for more than a year). Others get involved with charities, artistic projects or new careers to absorb the restless energy.
Bottom line: There´s no concete method for overcoming the effects of LTT PTSD, but acknowledging it, and its ability to hinder or even sabotage you, is definitely a start.
So for those who suffer with this unspoken, yet emotionally cripling condition, know this: I see you, I feel you, I understand.
Until the next time, keep wandering and reaching for whatever inspires you.