Why Travel Isn't the Answer to Trauma
Musings, Travel

You Can’t Outrun Your Pain: Why Travel Isn’t the Answer to Trauma

In loving memory of Michael Allen Davis.

Writing has always been a cathartic process for me. My explorations on this blog have carried me through some of the most trying, confusing, and heartbreaking of times over the years. But there were always places I wasn’t willing to go–at least, not in a public forum like this.

The death of my father was one of those places.

But aside from the fact that I wasn’t yet willing or able to go there emotionally, I wouldn’t have considered it appropriate material for my travel blog.

Of course, that hardly matters now. I don’t much care whether this blog fits snugly into one niche or another.

But I find it fascinating that my mind never came to grips with the fact that I was actually using travel as a coping mechanism–that by traveling constantly throughout my twenties, I never allowed those unresolved emotions to creep into my life where they would demand to be dealt with.

It’s incredible how blind we can be to our own situation at times. It’s as if we are asleep, or simply living in a waking dream. What appears so obvious to others isn’t even a consideration to us.

And so was the case for me. While people close to me probably put two and two together early on, I wandered the globe, blissfully unaware of my own aversion technique. Because to me, it was simply my passion; my personal lifestyle choice.

Travel meant everything to me, and it reached a point where I could hardly separate my own identity from it. My ego loved the idea that I was a traveler; it truly believed this to be an intrinsic property of my being and that there was no other motivation behind it.

Had a suggestion been made otherwise, I surely would have denied it, or perhaps even reacted defensively. Which makes it all the more astounding to me that I see things so differently–and so very clearly–now.

Losing Control

I was just sixteen years old when my father died. It happened exactly two weeks after my birthday. May 20th is now burned into my memory; a day that passes quietly, but is felt deeply.

He’d struggled with alcohol abuse for several years, and it was liver cirrhosis that eventually took his life.

As a teenager, I was ill-equipped to process the trauma of losing a parent. I can’t say the rest of my family fared much better, but I think at the time, we thought we were doing our best. We thought we were doing enough.

We sat around telling stories and sharing our favorite memories. We dug our most cherished photos out of dusty old baskets to keep close to our hearts. Between our tears, we made space for laughter.

Our community also showed up for us in a big way. Though my memories of that period are quite vague, I seem to recall staying home from school for at least a week after my dad’s death. Friends, neighbors, and classmates visited frequently, offering food, letters of condolence, hugs, and a shoulder to cry on.

We wound up with such a surplus of food that I’m pretty sure we didn’t cook for weeks after that.

We held a beautiful service for family and close friends in the mountains of the Entiat Valley in central Washington, a place my dad had truly felt at home through his years of work for the United States Forest Service.

I cried more tears than I ever thought possible. And though my brothers and I had had our differences, we felt closer than ever during that time.

And then, just like that, our mourning was over.

Life was marching onward, and we didn’t want to be left behind.

For me, that meant diving back into my schoolwork, starting with everything I’d missed while at home. Essays, assignments, reading, quizzes. It meant asking for extensions wherever possible. I could tell my teachers pitied me, and so they let me take my time; but, I also knew the leniency wouldn’t last and they’d expect things to be back to normal before too long.

And I had always been a good student. I wasn’t about to let this destroy my future, and I could not, would not allow myself to become a statistic. The kid whose life spirals out of control after their parent dies. I was determined to graduate with a high GPA, get into a good college, and secure a meaningful career.

You know, all those things I was convinced I was supposed to do in life.

But worse than that, going back to school meant putting on a happy face and locking my pain away in a box for the time being. No one wants to be friends with a girl who’s sad all the time, after all, and the last thing I wanted at that point was to feel alone.

My friends surely couldn’t relate to me anyhow, and I didn’t want to be a burden.

And among my family, well, my brothers weren’t living at home at the time, so it was just me and my mom. If we did still talk about my dad, I don’t really remember it, and it’s highly likely that she doesn’t either. Our minds have repressed a lot of memories as a way to protect us from reliving the grief.

If we ever discussed therapy, I’m sure it was only a passing thought. We’re both quite stubborn, my mom and I, and we both take pride in our independence. It probably seemed like the weak thing to do, when in reality, it could have changed everything.

So, while things may have seemed fine and dandy from an outsider’s perspective, quite a different story was unfolding. Inside, my heart was crying for help. Begging for healing. But its pleas went unacknowledged.

And so, this pain that I insisted on ignoring began to manifest outwardly in a number of destructive ways.

This was around the time I developed trichotillomania and dermatillomania–repetitive behaviors classified as impulse control disorders (the former relating to pulling out one’s hair, and the latter relating to picking at one’s skin).

Though these problems had been brewing for awhile (since around the time my parents first separated, which had been about three years earlier), they came on in full force the year my dad died. And while most people around me were able to easily dismiss these behaviors as “nervous habits,” they caused me a great deal of shame.

Sixteen years later, and I’m still fighting both of these battles, day in and day out. I have to remain grateful that my trich never caused me to go bald and that my skin picking hasn’t caused much permanent scarring, but they’ve done so much psychological damage that I sometimes worry it can’t be undone.

As for the disordered eating that developed at the same time, this led to very real, permanent damage–and not just psychologically. This destructive behavior, exacerbated by my teenage insecurities, ping-ponged back and forth between anorexia and binging and purging, but it was the binge-purge episodes that it took me the longest to shake.

It wasn’t until I was in college and began noticing irregular heartbeats that I was struck by the reality of my actions. I was causing real, irreversible damage to my body. And it was just terrifying enough to make me want to defeat it once and for all.

It didn’t happen right away, of course. It wasn’t until the year 2010 when I had my final encounter with binging and purging, which means I fought this battle for seven whole years when all was said and done.

I’m tempted to try and draw the conclusion that each of these things–the trichotillomania, dermatillomania, and eating disorder–were all really about control. I hadn’t been able to control whether I lost my father or not, and so I overcorrected, attempting to control any part of my reality that I could.

But what this fails to explain is why I felt so out of control while engaging in them. Almost as if my body was possessed by a dark, vindictive energy. Perhaps my pain, in my failure to acknowledge it, had multiplied and mutated and expressed itself through any means necessary, hoping that I would take notice and attend to it.

Needless to say, these damaging habits never led to any positive outcomes, only a piling on of more pain, more shame, and more insecurity.

I needed to try something new, and so I hit the road.

Travel as a Coping Mechanism

The decision to begin a life of travel was not made lightly. I spent many hours–arguably too many hours–daydreaming of a new life in a new country. A life where I could start fresh and be anything or anyone I wanted. A life where I could leave the old, damaged me behind.

Because I guess I really thought it worked that way. That starting anew in a place where nobody knew my story would allow me to truly move on, evolve, and even heal from my past. It almost seems logical–that being in a new place can help you dissociate from the trauma experienced in the old place.

Unfortunately, the heart never forgets. The heart doesn’t heal on its own. And whatever pain you carry in your heart travels with you everywhere.

But to make matters more confusing for little 24-year-old me, I truly did want to experience the world. I’d been a huge language geek in high school and had always dreamt of studying abroad in college. When I didn’t have that opportunity, my resolve to travel only strengthened.

So, of course I never made the connection that travel was just a new way of avoiding my pain. And of course I never sought treatment or therapy, because I genuinely believed that I’d grieved as much as I needed to grieve eight years earlier.

And then one night, while hanging travel posters on the wall of my first New York City apartment, I made up my mind: The following year, I would move to Thailand to teach English. Just maybe, I would never come back.

One year later, right on schedule, I hopped on a plane with my one-way ticket to Thailand. I soon made myself a home in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. I quickly made friends, and then I secured a full-time teaching position at a private school that would cover my living expenses and even allow me to save.

Things were going splendidly, and I’d be lying if I said the eighteen months I lived in Thailand weren’t some of the most thrilling times in my life.

I learned how to ride a motorbike. I learned how to speak Thai. I became a connoisseur of northern Thai dishes and increased my tolerance to spicy foods tenfold. I traveled to surrounding countries like Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore.

I learned more about myself with each passing day and each new experience. I really started to feel like I was coming into my own–like I finally knew who I was beyond the girl who lost her father, the girl with the eating disorder, and the girl who pulled out her own hair.

Slowly but surely, I could feel some of my deepest insecurities beginning to wash away.

Around the one-year mark, though, things began to change. My new life, which had once seemed so exhilarating, started to lose its sheen. You might say things became a little too easy. Too familiar. Too comfortable.

And when life became less thrilling and more comfortable, my heart was able to chime in with a quiet reminder that I wasn’t really okay.

Sadly, this didn’t suddenly shine a light on the real underlying problem–the message wasn’t that clear, or perhaps I wasn’t ready to hear it. Instead, I simply felt compelled to make a change.

My own interpretation of my heart’s sudden unrest went something like this: “Hmm, I should really be in a Spanish-speaking country, shouldn’t I. That’s what I’ve wanted all along! Latin culture, and the language I love the most–now THAT’S the dream.”

And at that point, with some money saved up, I could finally make my long-held dream a reality.

I said goodbye to Thailand with a heavy heart, but remained hopeful. I now had my sights set on South America, and I knew the challenges that lay before me were sure to mean further growth and evolution.

After a quick stopover at home, I found myself en route to Venezuela buzzing with anticipation of the transformation this new travel adventure would bring. What I wish I had known at the time, however, is that transformation, while a powerful experience in its own right, is not the same as healing.

Healing is an intentional, participatory process whereas transformation can happen even to the unwilling. Across all of the continents and through all of the cities, I had never set out to heal myself, and I didn’t yet understand just how much effort it would require.

So, you can now probably guess where the story goes from here. My travels through seven South American countries that year, three Central American countries the following year, and dozens of European countries the year after that, were little more than a distraction.

I remained fixated on transformation and continually overlooked healing, a process that would require my careful, focused attention, but would ultimately set me free.

Throughout this period, the latter half of my twenties, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why my self-esteem remained so dismal. I’m not a confident person even now, but back then I really began to doubt that I was even capable of becoming one.

Over and over again, I would make decisions that did not align with the person I wanted to be. Over and over again, I disappointed myself, failing to live up to my own standards.

At times, this was downright devastating.

It wasn’t until a balmy summer night on the coast of Spain that, while chatting with a friend, I came to a life-changing conclusion. I realized that I was not that person anymore; the person who’d made all those poor decisions. For all of the mistakes I’d made in the past, I had to forgive myself.

It was the only way forward.

That night was the very first time I’d ever known what it felt like to heal. It was my first taste of true, unconditional self-love and it opened my eyes to a world of possibilities.

Healing From Within

Fast-forward to present day, and I’m living in the place that I first called home. The very place that I was so afraid of thanks to the pain I’d associated with it all those years ago. Only now, things are different.

I’m no longer afraid to look my pain square in the eye and say, “I see you.”

I’m no longer oblivious to the ache that emanates from my damaged heart.

I’m no longer looking for band-aid solutions to gaping emotional wounds.

I’m here, ready to do the hard work I avoided for so many years. Ready to give that poor sixteen-year-old girl the healing and closure that she deserves.

No amount of healing can ever bring my dad back, and I’m sure a small part of me will always feel cheated for never having the chance to really know him. For the day I get married and he won’t be there to walk me down the aisle.

But at the very least, I now know that true healing is possible, and that it must come from within.

A month ago, I took a major step in my healing journey and saw a counselor for the very first time. I’ll never know why I didn’t seek help much sooner, but that was obviously the path I had to walk.

And of course, I wouldn’t trade my travel experiences for anything in the world. They not only added richness and abundance to my life, but they molded me into the person I am today. Independent, resilient, courageous. And if not for my travels, who knows if I’d have ever started this blog–my creative outlet and at times, a source of healing.

So, fourteen years after the worst day of my life, I made my way to a counselor’s office. My first and only visit so far was a basic get-to-know-you session, but even this revealed to me holes I hadn’t even realized existed. It’s clearer than ever that I have a lot of work ahead of me.

It won’t be easy, but growth never is.

And as the rest of my story unfolds and my healing takes on a new form, I will continue to travel for the love of it, but I’ve already started to see the experience with new eyes. I appreciate it for its transformative nature without trying to turn it into something it’s not.

Travel does not heal. It cannot heal.

Only I can do that.

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  • Reply Charlotte November 9, 2017 at 1:43 pm

    Travel may not be healing, but sharing with such openness and honesty seems like it could. Good luck on this journey. Our 16 year old selves (and in my case, 6 year old self) deserve our best.

  • Reply Hannah Finch November 9, 2017 at 3:31 pm

    Yet again, a beautiful post Leah. While I don’t like to go into the details, I can definitely relate and know I need to bring it all up at some point, but I just keep hiding it away. Thank you for sharing. It can often feel quite lonely when you keep the pain locked up but reading your words reminded me that I’m not alone and that courage does heal. Keep writing from the heart. <3 Hannah

  • Reply Saki Galaxidis November 9, 2017 at 5:37 pm

    This is very beautifully written, and I can relate with so many things said here. Our journeys are similar. Travel helps ease the pain, yes, it helps you grow and prepare you to face the challenges you’ve left untouched upon returning home. I am dealing with that now, as I have no travels planned anytime soon. Thank you for expressing yourself and helping people on similar journeys realise they are not alone.

  • Reply Katie Featherstone November 10, 2017 at 3:17 am

    I wish you all the best on your journey towards healing.
    Katie Featherstone recently posted…Completing the circle – þórsmörk.My Profile

  • Reply DCF November 10, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    So beautifully written – so articulate! Best wishes for your new “journey” into the depths….

  • Reply Jakiya Brown November 11, 2017 at 4:34 am

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I really needed to read this today. I think people can relate in so many ways.

    Stay strong and heal on.

  • Reply V Reddy November 13, 2017 at 4:20 am

    This is a soul searching journey..thanks so much for sharing your inner thoughts. I thoroughly enjoyed going through this article.

  • Reply Andreina Escobar November 13, 2017 at 7:21 am

    This is what i needed to read just today, thank you for sharing such a deep and inspirational post, it´s always great Reading you. best of luck in your journey.

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