I think I have a (first-world) problem: I can’t go on vacation. Physically, yes, you can throw me into a car and plunk me on a beach. Fine. But in reality, I’m like Woody Allen in “Annie Hall.” (A movie he initially wanted to call “Anhedonia,” which means the inability to experience pleasure with things usually found enjoyable. Like, you know, vacationing).
I grope at my iPhone like a Pavlov dog, longing to check my email. Oh, sure, I set the requisite “out of office” message to make my absence official. But I was checking, sneakily, every hour or so. I even wrote a few people back. (One kind soul, responding to an email, told me that I was doing a poor job of being on vacation. Trust me, I know.)
Look: I realize I’m not that important. Nobody’s life or career is going to perish if I’m not available. This is pure selfishness, you see, simple self-preservation: When I’m not tethered to my workday schedule, I kinda go crazy. Here are some things I think about on vacation, with nothing to worry about:
1. My kids growing up and leaving home. I watch them playing on the beach and imagine a day when they’ll leave. Then I picture myself walking through an empty house, standing in the doorway of their vacant bedrooms, sobbing. What is my problem?
2. My kids growing up and marrying people I loathe, and never visiting me again. With this kind of behavior, would I blame them?
3. Dying of a horrible disease. On the drive to the beach, I was scrolling Facebook (bad idea) and clicked on a post by a friend whose longtime neighbor died of some horrific, quick-acting cancer. Bingo! Goodbye, beach reading! I cast aside my frothy thriller and proceeded to dive into a rabbit hole of Go Fund Me updates, photo albums and 5K charity websites. Then I began palpating my body, looking for lumps. Please note: Bathing suits make it even easier to examine rogue bruises, strange bumps, possible swellings and odd discolorations.
4. Whether I’d actually finished all my work before signing out. Did I send all the emails? File all the stories? Get back to all the right people? At this point, I begin roaming the beach searching in vain for some kind of phone signal. No luck. I was going to die of a horrible disease, and worse: I was going to die of a horrible disease before cleaning out my inbox. And my phone was starting to get wet.
5. Why I wasn’t totally enjoying my vacation. At this juncture, after picturing myself (1) abandoned by my children, (2) dying young and (3) alienating my colleagues, I commenced stressing over not being relaxed enough. Back at the house, with functional WiFi, I began scrolling friends’ Instagram feeds: snaps from kayaking trips in Maine, gorgeous rolling hills of Vermont. Meanwhile, if I had to Instagram my current venue, it would be a mash-up of WebMd.com, a medical alert necklace and an email inbox with a slew of messages titled, “YOU’RE FIRED!”
Is anxiety a Jewish thing? I don’t know. I know it’s a widely discussed stereotype. Sometimes it’s easier for me to blame my gene pool on my woes rather than delving more deeply into why, exactly, lounging at the beach allows images of deathbeds, empty houses and overflowing inboxes to rise to the surface.
I’ve done plenty of therapy. I have well-chronicled issues with anxiety. This isn’t new. But, for the first time, I decided to do something new: Instead of Googling “bile duct cancer” or “do boys desert their mothers?” I looked up “how to stop hypochondria.”
I came across this analogy:
Anxiety is like water. It needs a container, a thought to give it shape; a channel to flow through. That “shape” may be insecurity in a relationship, fear of the boss, hypochondria, or anything. If you try to take away the container (by advising they try not to think about what they fear), the water is still there. To cure someone of an overwhelming worry, we need to deal with the source of the worry (the feelings), not just the container (the thoughts).
Instead of searching for a disease and then playing matchmaker with my symptoms, I stopped for a minute: What was I so afraid of? Did I rationally think my kids were going to vanish from my life? What were the odds of me suddenly contracting an obscure illness? Did anyone really care that much if I didn’t email them back?
Nope. It’s about loss and insecurity. It’s about knowing that everything we have (work, health, kids) could someday be gone, washed out to sea, because we have no control.
God, that’s scary. And it hits home when you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself. How is it possible to enjoy anything, when it all could be taken away? A vacation is a microcosm of perfection, a pat on the back for a busy life. But by stopping to appreciate all you have, you also take measure of how much you have to lose.
I know, I know. Calm down, honey, and have a mai tai.
Which I did, but not before thinking about this: To conquer anxiety, we need to be able to stare into the eye of those unsavory feelings that burble to the surface when we don’t have anything left on our to-do lists, and we’re faced with the stark, darker forces of our nature that usually simmer just below the surface, tamped down by busy schedules and hectic days.
Once I admitted to myself that my out-there worries were just symptoms, just stand-ins for bigger fears, they actually became more manageable. Life is unknowable and often uncontrollable. Trying to predict the future by bracing against some imagined, horrific fate isn’t going to change that or make us more resilient. It might, however, ruin your trip.
On that note: I also decided to abandon the idea of having a thoroughly blissed-out, Instagram-approved hiatus. This phrase, found in more of my internet wanderings, really helped me: “Anxiety in the heart of a person causes dejection, but a good word will turn it into joy,” translated into Hebrew as Da’agah belev ish yashchenah, vedavar tov yesamchenah.
For me, this meant that I stopped pretending to have a great time. I confided to my husband that I was feeling anxious and panicky. When people asked how my vacation was, I said, “Good, but I’ll also be happy to be home. I’m feeling kind of anxious!” Because it was true. My vacation did get better. I did manage to turn down the noise in my own head and recalibrate a bit. I ate good food, I swam, I slept in.
But I’m also happy to be back to my normal schedule, with mundane companions for my existential woes. We prize vacation, and should, but sometimes an untended mind isn’t relaxing at all. Once I accepted that, I started to have a better time.
I’m still dreading my sons’ empty bedrooms, though.