The Heartache of Travel and the Chest Pain of Home

There’s always a sense of heartache when you leave a place you’ve traveled to and loved. It comes with the knowledge that the odds are you’ll never return and the memories will slowly fade over time. Like most heartache, though, it’s more a feeling that is more beautiful than painful, because it comes with the knowledge that, though temporary, you’ve experienced something irreplaceable and maybe even just a little bit magical. After a month in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, I certainly feel a bit of loss along with the almost absolute joy of exploring and discovering these countries.

As my trip winds down over its long, four flights over four days conclusion, though, it’s hard not to think about what the end of the trip means. While it certainly means time to reacquaint myself with friends and familiar Helena haunts, sleep in my own bed, and get some much-needed work done, I also know that it means a return to the stress that has been such a significant part of my life for the past few years.

I’ve always been more stressed than a person should probably be. Even as a little kid, I felt stress and anxiety in uncomfortable settings that were somehow more than normal little kid apprehension. I’ve always been someone who worries too much, stews too often, and stresses things that perhaps don’t require stress. To a certain extent, it’s one of my strengths as that neurotic energy has always given me a strong work ethic and even some empathy for others, but it’s always been the source of my greatest failures as a person, too.

The past few years, though, the feeling has been much different. I’ve felt feverish, more easily frustrated, and less able to transform that stress into productive energy. During the past couple of years at school and thinking about school, I’ve experienced chest pains that I’ve, without really discussing with a physician, have chalked up to the natural consequences of a lifestyle and diet that just haven’t been what they should be.

A month away in Europe, though, has complicated that diagnosis. Despite being more active than I ever am at home and despite trying the three best cream cakes of the former Yugoslavia, I haven’t felt that tightness in my chest or that shortness of breath once since the last day of school. I haven’t felt that listless lack of energy in the morning, nor have I had a single headache.

It makes sense that a person would be happier and more carefree during travel. Hell, even if it were just the summer in Montana, I’d, like most of my colleagues at school, likely feel better. The lesson here, though, isn’t that travel is the antidote to the stresses of real life; try as I might (and I have tried lately), travel will never be more than something I can do occasionally. I’m no expert, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s not a sustainable plan to imagine that I can spend the rest of my career in the Helena School District buying off ten months of anxiety and stress with two months of travel every year.

Some of this feeling is certainly self-generated. Like my ironic hero Don Quixote, I fight too many battles and tilt with too many windmills; instead of ignoring some new frustrating policy change or injustice directed at someone else, my first instinct too often is to leap into the fight. Perhaps those are even somewhat noble characteristics, but if you’re playing a rigged game, eventually, you’ve got to learn that the fight isn’t noble any longer; it’s futile, self-aggrandizing, and self-destructive.

After every trip, I feel a renewed sense of optimism about putting these stresses aside and living a healthier, happier version of my life. Typically, though, I jump right back into the stresses of a school district that seems almost perfectly calibrated to trigger my anxiety and frustration. This time, though, I still have six weeks before I return to school, which means six weeks to work on tools to resist the ways it undermines my physical and emotional health.

I think I have always resisted the obvious truth that anxiety is something I need to deal with. It’s always seemed like such a nebulous, empty diagnosis that doesn’t offer much hope for a fix. Changing yourself isn’t as easy as the Stoics would have you believe, after all, but all we (all I) can do is try.

As I leave Croatia, with the thought of its beaches, truffles, and incredible views fresh in mind, I know that little heartache of departure is likely to remain with me, hopefully for a long time. The trick is to find a way not to replace it with the pain in my chest that vanished the moment I arrived here.