We are trained from the time we emerge from our mothers’ wombs to look forward to vacations as a chance to relax, have fun, escape from the rigors of life. But for a small percentage of us, vacation is harder than work—it requires far more stamina than sitting in an office chair for eight hours a day.
I compare the human body to a tower of 54 wooden blocks in the game Jenga. To set the game up, you stack the initial tower with three blocks placed adjacent to each other along their long side and perpendicular to the previous level up to 18 levels. The object of the game is to keep eliminating blocks from the existing structure while placing the new blocks on the top. Eventually the tower tumbles.
The normal person starts vacation week with three wooden blocks across each level, so a few unhealthy meals or some sleepless nights aren’t going to make the tower budge. She is able to take in a view of the Golden Gate Bridge without counting down the days until she can sleep in her own bed, go to yoga, and make a green smoothie. However, the person with an invisible illness—chronic pain, retractable depression, recurrent anxiety, highly sensitive tendencies—only has one or two wooden blocks per level. She is fundamentally more fragile before she even steps on an airplane or merges unto the highway. So when she doesn’t eat right for five days in a row, and doesn’t sleep for three consecutive nights—and especially when she doesn’t get the alone time she needs to regenerate—her tower collapses.
Before I became really ill 10 years ago, I was excited whenever my husband told me he wanted to take a family vacation. My tower could tolerate any adjustments I had to make there: different foods, sleeping arrangements, a week without exercise. Now I get nervous. A few times I have asked him to take the kids without me. My tower is simply too wobbly. When I do go, I put a number of precautions into place to safeguard my health. Here are some of my suggestions to keep you sane during your vacation if you’re like me.
1. Take emergency food
Traveling with a group of people means that you usually don’t control what you eat or when you eat. And the higher number of people in your group, the less control you have. This is a real problem for me because even five bites of bread is enough to induce death thoughts, and then I’m spending the rest of vacation trying to reverse those. So I always bring a bag of nuts and apples with me on vacation. This gives me an ounce of control over what I put in my body, as well as when I want to refuel. If the group wants to eat burgers and fries, I will at least have a snack to carry me over until I can find something that I can eat.
2. Pack a feel-good kit
In my mood journal, I keep a list of inspirational quotes and a few copies of kind letters that readers have sent me to me in case I need something to pick me up. I read them on vacation because I usually feel pathetic—feeling bad about wanting to be home and not being able to enjoy whatever it is that all the other people in my group are enjoying. Because the schedule or lack of privacy doesn’t always allow me to make a phone call to a friend or a sister, it’s helpful to have warm fuzzy that I can read whenever I need a lift.
3. Embrace your inner linen
I used to be polyester—you could crumble me into a ball and I’d emerge from the suitcase without a wrinkle. Now I’m like linen. Five minutes into a suitcase and I’m ruined. Linen is fragile. It’s high maintenance. It can provoke many temper tantrums. However, linen is also beautiful. I forgot that last part. When I’m on vacation, I spend too much time feeling badly for being the way I am–wishing I were ugly, durable polyester. Only when I embrace my inner linen do I begin to love my wobbly tower for what it is and make the most out of the experience.
4. Be involved in organizing
One of the mistakes I made this last vacation was not being involved in the organization. I would have never scheduled a flight on either end of the trip that required an all-nighter, as sleep is absolutely critical to my mood. I also wouldn’t have stretched it out for 10 days. I know from experience that five days is about my threshold–that I usually start to get death thoughts if I go much longer than that. If the family insisted on 10 days, I could have always flown out to meet them. When you are involved in the organization of a trip, you can negotiate for your needs.
5. Allow for crashing when you get back
I can almost always guarantee that I will feel sick—physically and mentally–for at least a week when I get back from vacation. To try to give myself the best chance of recovery, I try to prepare blogs not only for the time I will be away, but also for the week after I get back. This last time, I didn’t have time to do that before I left. When I returned, I couldn’t stop crying, had a fever, and was worthless for a few days. Thankfully, I have a very understanding editor who appreciates that I am highly sensitive. Preparing in advance for your crash should help you heal more rapidly than if you are thrust into your responsibilities without any decompression time.
6. Use the buddy system
I was not a good buddy in the fourth grade, when my fellow Brownie rolled off of her cot, out of our tent, down the hill, and almost into the creek during our camping trip. But the buddy system absolutely works. I used it once in college when I was newly sober and couldn’t take all the drinking in our family. We were on a ski vacation in Colorado with my new stepfamily. I called a hotline. A nice young woman picked me up, and I spent the night with her. The next day we had a lovely day snow-shoeing in the Rocky mountains. Today ProjectBeyondBlue.com is my support system, full of potential buddies for me. Next time I go on a trip, I am going to contact one or more of the members before the trip and ask if I can be in touch during those difficult days—or start a thread in the member forum on how to survive vacation as someone else just did, that is full of good advice. It may keep me from rolling into the river.
7. Daydream about something
Mindfulness experts say to stay focused on the here and now. But my experience has been when you are really uncomfortable it is better to escape to another place entirely, even if that place exists only in your mind. When I was learning how to do a pirouette in ballet class as a young girl, my instructor said to focus on one thing on the wall or in the mirror in front of me. That way I wouldn’t get dizzy or lose my balance. It could be one thing you are looking forward to doing when you get home. For me this last trip it was a three-hour block of time on a Thursday evening once I returned that I knew I would have to myself, when BOTH of my kids would be occupied. Concentrating on that three-hour block gave me my happy place.
8. Relieve yourself of the pressure
Imagine if you weren’t visiting an exciting new place. Let’s say that you were going to work as normal, but your sleep was compromised, and so was your diet and other critical pieces of your mood puzzle—like exercise and alone time. Now yell at yourself for being tired and grumpy. You should be happy, darn it! What is wrong with you!?!?
Would you do that? I hope you would cut yourself some slack. For highly-sensitive folks, and for people with invisible illnesses (including mood disorders), the stressors of a vacation typically outweigh the pretty scenery or the fun experience you’re supposed to be having, so you can drop the added pressure you’re putting on yourself to be having the time of your life. In fact, I have another word for “family vacations.” I find that using the term “vacation” provokes too much pressure for me to relax and have fun. So I call them “memory makers.” I know these get-a-ways are important. They bond us as a family. Kids will remember them. But they aren’t vacations. Not for me. That would consist of taking bubble baths with nice oils (no screaming in the background), maybe a massage, sleeping in, and going on long nature walks. I will do that one day. In my hometown.
And I will call it a vacation.
Continue the conversation on ProjectBeyondBlue.com, the new depression community.
Originally published on Sanity Break.