The Traveling Academic: Maintaining (a Reasonable Amount of) Sanity

Recently, I listened to a new episode of one of my favorite podcasts, The Hilarious World of Depression, during which the host and Jeremy Pelletier, a non-profit director and geographer, talked about the impact of travel on mental health, particularly Jeremy’s. After having a major panic attack in an airport a few weeks earlier, it was so wonderful to hear that I’m not alone in my travel panic and anxiety. I know I’m not alone. I’ve been a mental health advocate for several years now. “You are not alone” is my mantra, but in the moment (several hours) at that airport it REALLY felt like I was very much alone.

Art Institute in Chicago.
Photo Credit: who took this photo of me??

While listening to the episode , I began to recognize many of my own anxieties, obsessions, and paranoid tendencies towards travel. I recognized how little importance I’ve placed on my mental health. I travel quite a bit for both work and personal random excursions. I’ve always loved to travel and explore. As a kid dreaming of roaming around the world. It may be partially why I majored in anthropology in undergrad…. (did not work out. Apparently, I’m not as cool as Ruth Benedict.). But I suffer from major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, and panic disorder and have for many years. Why I didn’t connect the anxiety of travel with my mental health struggles, I’ll never know.

I didn’t notice a change in my mental health and traveling until slightly after I moved to Utah in 2016. During my postdoctoral fellowship there, I attended (flew) to a lot of conferences. I was also had a partner in Florida and all my family back in Georgia. Requiring lots of holiday travel which I’ve never needed to do before. I made the mistake of flying several red eyes (New experience. Never again.) to Florida. Red eye flights mentally and physically knock me out for days. Personally, it’s not worth it.

During one flight to Florida from Utah for Thanksgiving, I had my first panic attack mid-flight. I had a window seat (where I sit has now become very important) and suddenly wanted TO GET OFF THE PLANE. IMMEDIATELY. NOW. Of course, the plane was in the air which posed a few problems. I felt an overwhelming sense of fear, claustrophobia, racing heart rate, confusion, and dizziness. Somehow I calmed myself down (or cried and calmed down or mentally shut down.) My memory is always a little fuzzy after these experiences. Either way I did eventually get off the plane.

The worst (to date) has been when I went to three cross-country conferences back-to-back-to-back: Philadelphia, Chicago, and Stanford. Why would any relatively intelligent person do this to themselves knowing ONE conference is draining enough? Still haven’t figured it out. I wasn’t pressured. I asked to go. Dedication? Stubbornness? Odd belief in myself? Bad ideas, eh?

By the time it was time to finally fly out of the San Francisco airport, I essentially crawled onto the plane, physically sick, and agonizing every moment I wasn’t home yet. Again, in my brain, I begged to GET OFF THIS PLANE once we were in the air. It took a several days for me to recover once I got back to Utah. I could barely function. The combination of extreme panic, stress, anxiety, and depression overwhelmed my brain and body. Small tasks were impossible. Hopefully, that will remain the worst.

My travel anxiety begins the minute I book a flight. I stress over everything – getting a hotel, figuring out my schedule if it’s for a conference, wondering irrationally how I will get from the airport to my hotel or AirBnB (what I can’t find a Lyft?!?!?). There are a few tricks/tips that do (most of time) help me.

  • TSA Pre-Check – lasts for 5 years and relatively expensive ($85) for the relief it brings my getting to the airport anxiety.
  • AISLE SEAT – I need that seat. I will not change seats with you, fair warning. Some illusion of freedom is what I need.
  • Early morning flights – less people and we’re all usually half asleep anyway. Nice and quiet.
  • Klonopin – Just saying. Psychiatrist prescribed.
  • My worry stone and my “I am enough” ring- my former therapist in Utah taught me a lot about how something physical or doing something tactile can help (e.g. tapping side of your leg softly, practicing four square/box breathing). Small things do wonders for me.
  • Making a special playlist and downloading several episodes of podcasts.
  • Delta Sky Club if I have a long layover – Honestly, you’ll spend the same amount of money in the airport, but in the Sky Club you have quiet. And cookies. And all the outlets. And fewer children.
  • Making up stories about people on the plane. Flying brings out surprisingly unique habits and actions in people (me very much included).
Me & Snowpocalypse in Philly.
Photo credit: Julia Skinner.

Sometimes these don’t work, and I end up in a random corner of LAX crying. But THAT’S OKAY. I’m not okay but that’s also okay. In that moment, I’m doing all I can. I can’t let my brain mishaps keep me from doing the traveling I love. I live with mental illness and probably always will. That’s the reality I know. But I’ve made it this far. Can’t stop me now.

Readings of Interest: