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Why “Getting away from it all” for me, means going home

On Instagram I saw a selfie of someone on an early train to London.

I instantly felt the intense, headachy smell of public transport, the sickly dread, the palpitations, the knotted gurgling tummy and irritated bowel, the pressure in the head from exhaustion, and the stress of travelling. 

I was shocked at how convincing the scent memory was – how I was briefly in the picture. Smells bringing memories is one thing but images recalling smells is something else. 

It was a not-so-welcome reminder of how painful and exhausting any kind of travel is for me. Of how I fail to relax, fail to sleep; how I am bombarded by scents and noise and other people moving too fast, and how I am flooded with anxiety until my guts knot and my mouth goes dry. Of how before any kind of trip I am focussed almost entirely on times and arrivals and coping with getting through so that I can’t sleep or eat, and spend hours, days, sometimes weeks just physically and mentally getting ready to leave, to travel, to feel the assault on my senses. Pacing with palpitations, anxiously rejecting any enjoyable activity or sensation from my life and mind. Even when finally seated aboard whatever vehicle it is, inside I’m pacing. My eyes are darting around, I’m gnashing my teeth, squeezing my fingernails into my palms, desperately attempting to appear calm. If I manage to get comfy (unlikely) and close my eyes, it is a pretence. The smells are as loud as the sounds. And the presence of others pushes against me until I must open my eyes and look again to check where everyone is. And the smells don’t just remind me constantly that I am not at home, that I am surrounded by the unfamiliar, but they also make me nauseous and poised for escape. 

How does that man manage to sleep right next to that woman with the highly-scented hand wipes?! 

I used to watch other people when travelling on long or short trips (I say used to because it’s been years since I took any kind of trip that didn’t involve sitting in the passenger seat of my husband’s car): I watched the readers, the talkers, the sleepers, and those who sat sleepily observing the world whizz past the window, and also those anxious travellers who like to sit near the front, holding on tight and looking ahead, secretly helping the driver deliver them safely. 

I wanted to read. I wanted to doze off. I wanted the ability to really sit still as well as just appearing to sit still. But I couldn’t. I can’t. 

Unlike the anxious passenger who is secretly trying to control the vehicle, I don’t have any huge trust or control issues, no: what is have is what I’ve more recently begun to identify as Self-performance Anxiety. It’s about me coping. It’s combined with with hyper-awareness and sensory bombardment. And I am already ill and exhausted from the build up to this journey. I am taking a personal test each time as well as a journey. And the purpose or destination becomes blurred almost to the point of irrelevancy. 

On a plane, while my husband is nervously reimagining every disaster movie he’s ever seen, worrying about whether the pilot is tired/too old/too inexperienced, and, I expect, really rather wishing he could meet and chat briefly with him/her and then check if the engines are well-serviced and refuelled, I, on the other hand, am pretty convinced of their experience and ability, and am instead coping with the effects of days of build-up anxiety and the utter exhaustion and the feeling of a clogged up lymphatic system it has given me. I am coping with head pain, stomach pain and overwhelming feelings of hyper-vigilance and anxious thoughts that are more internal than any feelings of pilot-incompetence or engine failure paranoia. My muscles are knotted with stress and tension and I feel bruised all over. And while dealing with all that, the non-stop world of travel chucks out so many movements and noises and smells and changing lights that I feel my animal survival mode kick in. 

My husband attempts to lift the arms of the seat as we land and his feet shoot forward as he exclaims “Brake!” He can’t help it – he is anxious about flying. As a passenger in our son’s car he holds tight to the grab handle, asks questions about the car and sits up straight. He can’t help it, he is an anxious passenger. 

But if he can put himself through it, he will reach a destination and sleep. It’s stuff he could probably deal with through a course of therapy or hypnosis or CBT. It’s what I call Actual Anxiety because it relates directly to a thing in itself here and now. It’s outside of himself and he’s scared because he can’t control it. It’s irrational but still understandable and solvable. 

My anxiety is on a whole other planet. I won’t sleep. I won’t rest. I will be ill for days following my ordeal. The exhaustion will be enormous but I will be too wired to sleep, and for days afterwards – even if in a safe place – my mind will have forgotten how to let go and relax and I will feel ill and slightly disconnected while I try to piece my life back together again and reassure my inner frightened animal that it is okay to sleep. Days of sleep-deprivation and anxiety will gnaw at my head like a hangover. Exhaustion will flood my cells and no part of me feels normal. 

Over time I’ve gradually begun to realise that holidays just aren’t worth the ordeal because there are too many days lost in recovery and then there is always the forthcoming journey home nagging at me and tainting any enjoyment. The animal survival mode often lasts for a whole holiday because there is simply no point relaxing until I am back in a place where my peace and my pace can thrive again, and where I can switch off that blasted sensory overload that is continually processing. 

Looking at the photo again on Instagram, I remember the morning 6th form bus trips to college, the morning bus trips to town for a winter job in Marks and Spencer, the morning bus journeys to work in a local pub when I didn’t know what else to do with my life, the morning bus journeys back to college at age 23 to try again and fail again, and how by the time I’d got into a seat each time, I felt ill, sleep-deprived and unprepared for the day and desperate to go home again. Anxiety was constant. Sleep was fitful. And this was just the short trips. 

I think I spent my life looking for escape. And these days, when I’m not home, I think I still do. Home is the only place where that devastatingly exhausting survival mode can switch off. 

I believe I hid it well. I believe no one knew. I’m not sure how much I knew other than I felt like everyone looked like they were coping so much better than me. 

My best work happens at home. My best thinking happens at home. I’ve noticed other people seem sad to think of it like this but for me the best rest comes when I’m back at home too. Journeys are not out of the question – new sights, sounds and things to photograph are always exciting – but they’re certainly not the escape that other people experience. And each and every journey – however long or short and whatever the reason – is something to be recovered from. To live with chronic, ever-present, background anxiety is tiring enough, to exacerbate it always seems less attractive than easing it.

Rather than seeking adrenalin kicks, I seek out adrenalin breaks. And the best of those can be found at home.

Note: I almost didn’t publish this post. I’ve written about 10-12 blog posts recently and not made them public. It often feels too self-indulgent. But last night I spotted a piece in the Guardian by a fellow autistic woman and found her experience interesting and helpful and not at all self-indulgent, and remembered that my silence isn’t very helpful for other people!

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