The Unexpected Lessons and Good Grief in Travel

I'm sitting in my private little corner of Athens International Airport and I'm having a full-blown anxiety attack. Even though I'm upset, I find it entertaining that my trip is basically ending under the same circumstances in which it started...Me, panicking in an airport.  I'm not freaking out because I'm nervous about flying; I've just realized that the return plane ticket to the United States, which I booked somewhat spur-the-moment a few hours ago, has only left me with NINE days in Europe.

When I booked everything earlier, I had reasoned that I was probably ready to come home. I was okay with it. I definitely hadn't had a strong reaction in any form. I actually felt a bit relieved at the idea of having more than a few days in any one place after spending four months consistently on the move. I'd simply picked a date that looked far enough out on the calendar and also happened to land on one of the cheaper days to fly. It was when I actually counted how few days I'd given myself before flying home that everything hit me.

My stomach and my heart simultaneously drop as I yell in my head, "it's too soon! It's not enough time!" I text my mom to tell her how much I already regret booking the ticket and how upset I am. I'm angry at myself for making, what I now consider, such an uncalculated decision. I'm also angry that I'm venting all of this to her when I know she will probably feel completely powerless to do or say anything to help, but I need to vent to someone and she's the only person who knows I booked a ticket.

I start looking to see if I can refund the ticket or at least push back my departure without taking a tremendous financial loss. "If I can just have a couple more weeks," I tell myself. I decide to email my friend Matt and explain the situation. I’m hoping that he's maybe had a similar experience or knows some magic trick to basically make it all better. While this is my first long-term solo trip, Matt’s traveled like this before on several occasions and he’s been an invaluable friend and mentor before and during my tour of Europe.

I didn't really know what to expect mentally when I started this journey, but I REALLY didn't expect to feel like this. At this point, I'm so despondent that I don't really know what to do with myself. I abruptly realize what I'm feeling is grief. This isn't just a little Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh level of bummed out. A topic I studied in some college Psychology classes floats into my consciousness and I'm hit with another realization - I'm going through the classic model of the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.

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This further complicates my already frenetic mind, because I start to get angry at myself for experiencing grief over something that even I think shouldn't be this upsetting. I don't get emotional often and I've experienced some significant losses in the past. "That's the stuff you get upset about," I scold myself. "You were allowed to be upset when your grandparents were diagnosed with cancer. When your Dad died in a car accident. You got to be upset when your cat ran away. You do NOT get to whine because your four months of traveling is ending and you have to return to the real world. Because you feel almost like you’ve been institutionalized and you don't know how to cope with going back."

It's right now, when I'm deep in the throes of self-pity, that I get Matt's response to my email. He warned me before I left that there'd be some readjusting once I got back. I hadn't really taken his comment seriously. I'd even scoffed at the thought a bit in my mind, "yeah, sure Matt." I hadn't mentioned the grieving part when I wrote. I thought it'd sound stupid. I actually laugh when I read his response, "Processing will take time and it won't follow any timetable. In a weird way, it's a lot like handling grief in that it'll come and go." "Holy shit..." I mutter.

there’s value in having made the decision to come home and sticking with it. The whole trip has been making decisions and making the best of the outcome.

 

Another simple thought from his email resonates with me. Somehow, I can actually feel myself significantly calming down as I read, "there's value in having made the decision to come home and sticking with it. The whole trip has been making decisions and making the best of the outcome." I know he's right about me being easier on myself.

A lot of this trip has been me acknowledging and experiencing first-hand that everything has a way of working out. Even most of the stuff that's gone wrong has been balanced out in an almost karmic-like way. While I'm not stoked about ending my adventure, I at least know that I'm not completely irrational in having such a strong reaction. I just spent the last sixteen weeks of my life traveling solo through at least as many countries. I’m mourning the conclusion of a period of my life in which some of my core values have changed and, as a result, a significant part of my personality has as well. It's hard to reconcile that and it's okay to feel this way. It's like being in on a secret but only the people who can read Latin will be able to understand it. The best I can do for now is to try to get more people to take lessons.

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Shannon is currently biding her time in Iowa while she figures out her next adventure. She loves exchanging stories with other explorers and is especially fascinated by the psychology and sociology of group and solo travel. She's also a borderline adrenaline junkie, film/tv buff and goofball who was once pantsed by a treadmill. She can be reached through the WoA Facebook group or shayfarrier@gmail.com.