On the Road Revenge Travel Helped Me Learn to Manage My Anxiety
Though I estranged myself from my toxic family, their hold on my mind still needed to let me go. So I got on a plane and left.
After weeks of researching the Turks and Caicos Islands, the decision to travel there was a no-brainer. In pictures, I saw the endless stretches of powder-soft sand. The waters so turquoise that the bellies of the clouds reflect their color. The sunshine that blesses the islands 350 days a year. Then there were the logistical pros: Their currency is the American dollar; their beaches are, however this is determined, award-winning ; the government requires tourists to present proof of vaccination upon entry; and local nightlife is relatively nonexistent, ensuring the quiet and relaxation that my therapist told me I needed. Apart from trips with my partner’s family, weddings, and other special occasions we were duty bound to attend, Turks and Caicos would be our first vacation in eight years and our first international trip together.
And yet, as soon as my partner booked our weeklong trip at an all-inclusive resort, a familiar dread settled in my chest. Our vacation was still two months away, but I pored over the confirmation details he forwarded to me. Then I downloaded the JetBlue app, incessantly refreshed our flight-details page on my laptop, and called customer service twice in a row the next day when I couldn’t ascertain whether our resort had booked us on Blue or Blue Basic fare. I didn’t sleep until I knew our seats included carry-on luggage, as I had read from outraged travelers that such a thing was no longer guaranteed.
My panic only grew from there, hunting for opportunities to manifest itself. I checked my USPS Informed Delivery emails with increased desperation as my partner’s expedited passport renewal was processed and mailed to us a mere month before our trip. I measured and remeasured my quart-sized bag of liquids and what could fit inside. I memorized the immigration form provided on a Turks and Caicos website and began packing clothes weeks before I needed to, terrified I would forget something vital.
“I haven’t even stopped my mail yet,” I confessed to my hairdresser. She had graciously agreed to cut my hair when I mistakenly showed up a day early to my appointment. That same day, I snapped at my partner when he argued there was no reason to schedule a taxi to the airport when public transportation could get us there just fine. My stress had hit a breaking point.
“Sounds like you should take more vacations,” my hairdresser said.
My partner agreed, suggesting that perhaps I needed to focus on how we would spend our time there. But whenever he brought up some aspect of the vacation he looked forward to—snorkeling above coral reefs, kayaking through mangrove forests, walking puppies from the local dog rescue—I tensed instead. I thought constantly that, if I wasn’t careful enough, something would go wrong, and these experiences would never happen.
Days before the trip, my therapist leaned forward in his chair and sighed. He was confused by how his advice for me to travel had morphed into a high-stakes, anxiety-ridden challenge.
“Do you hear your parents telling you to do these things?” he asked.
I had been estranged from my family since the start of the pandemic, but I admitted I could still hear my parents in my head, screaming at me in airports and hotel rooms. This was not only my first international trip with my partner; this was also my first international trip without them.
Up to that point, estrangement had been the happiest change I had made in my life. A while back, I sent my parents and siblings letters that stated I would no longer be in contact with them (an in-depth explanation would take several other essays). Then I bought my first pullover hoodie and my first box of Pillsbury Toaster Strudel; both were previously forbidden by my parents because they weren’t for “proper” people. I started showing off my tattoos more often; I’d realized I was inadvertently hiding them, as if scared that my family would jump out from behind a corner, ready to judge and moralize about my appearance. I signed up for introductory classes in critical theory and trauma studies, subjects they would have scolded me for taking due to their lack of “practicality.”
“I can get married now,” I once said out of the blue. My partner arched an eyebrow. “Not right now. Just that I can.”
Still, I was thrilled at the prospect of not inviting my family to my wedding. It haunted me that my parents would have been quick to control, insult, and throw tantrums at all my major life events, as they had done for school dances and graduations. While estranged, I could live the rest of my life and its milestones away from a family who wanted to keep me from experiencing them.
And I wasn’t alone. I announced my estrangement to friends and acquaintances joyfully, and I often learned, as they celebrated my news, that they themselves were estranged from family. I read myself in Raksha Vasudevan’s essay on her own estrangement when she had grown “tired of trying to find belonging and safety where there’s none to be found.” In describing estrangement from her father and discussing the literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of ostranenie—or defamiliarization—Elisa Gonzalez writes that “estrangement revives perception,” a sentiment that resonated with the newfound experiences from which I was barring myself. Unlike Vasudevan and Gonzalez, however, I felt no complex emotions about my estrangement. Just sheer bliss. So why was I treating this vacation as an insurmountable hurdle?
While estranged, I could live the rest of my life and its milestones away from a family who wanted to keep me from experiencing them.
As Covid-19 restrictions were lifted around the world, news outlets reported that 2022 was the year of “ revenge travel ,” as travelers caught up on experiences they felt the pandemic had stolen from them. A vacation to Turks and Caicos appealed to me for that same reason. In New York, I was eating well, sleeping well, exercising, receiving praise at work, hanging out with friends, and feeling utterly hollow. If everything seemed awful, perhaps it was because the pandemic had stuck me in a monotonous routine that had gone on for too long, no matter how healthy and disciplined I was.
Until my therapist asked if I could hear my parents, it hadn’t occurred to me that the true vengeance I sought through this vacation was against a family who believed I was so pathetic that I could not handle a trip like this without them. As I scrolled through reviews of waterproof phone cases, what came to mind was how my little sister chided me in Florence for an unzipped pocket on the anti-theft crossbody bags my parents had bought, as if the point of the trip was to thwart the advances of pickpockets rather than to enjoy a faraway destination. As my partner praised me for finding a resort that was close to everything we wanted to do, I remembered how my parents scolded me for not memorizing the half-English directions that an Italian stranger had provided to us as we wandered the streets of Rome, lost and in search of our hotel. They had already done so much work for this trip, they complained. My ingratitude by not listening was unbelievable.
Whenever my partner listed places he wanted us to visit, I thought about how my parents laughed off my attempts to study abroad in Berlin and Prague. They imagined unlikely horrors there and strictly believed that everywhere that wasn’t “home” (my parents’ house in Pennsylvania, the Philippines, and never, ever my own home of New York City) was dangerous and life-threatening. My little sister, meanwhile, traveled abroad frequently, living it up at her internships in Dublin and Manila. When they offered me a four-day trip with my mother to Prague and Vienna as a graduation gift, they didn’t recognize their own implicit messaging, nor did they understand why I rejected their offer: They did not believe I would survive without them. A well-planned trip could fall apart if they weren’t there to dictate everything I did.
The psychoanalyst Ruth Leys offers a mimetic model of trauma in which victims “identify” with their abusers and unconsciously imitate their abusers’ behavior until the distinction between them vanishes. In my experience, my negative self-talk and frazzled behavior was a repetition of my parents’ treatment of me, extending the stress they imposed on me to my partner. No matter how free I thought I was from them, this international trip exposed the vestiges of their hold on me.
“Don’t bring them with you,” my therapist told me. “They didn’t pay for this trip.”
The last thing I wanted was for them to ruin my trip, even if their presence was all in my head. If I was going to conquer the fears my family had instilled in me, I had to stop catastrophizing about all the ways this vacation could fail.
“Whatever happens, we’ll handle it,” my partner reassured me after the session. I promised to chill out. Fretting about everything was not going to result in a better vacation. What was the worst that could happen?
The worst that happened was that I vomited off the boat when my partner and I went snorkeling. The ocean waves were choppy, making my vertigo impossible to ignore despite the sight of the incredible reefs below.
“It’s beautiful down there,” I told my partner as he patted my back.
My nausea summoned a school of dazzling yellow fish to the boat, and the other snorkelers excitedly thanked me for the bait, so to speak, as much as they comforted me. When we returned to shore, a half-hour nap helped me recover. Soon enough, I was chugging piña coladas and going hard on the resort’s dance floor.
“Don’t bring them with you,” my therapist told me. “They didn’t pay for this trip.”
The rest of the trip similarly self-corrected at the first sign of any trouble. Otherwise, all went smoothly, and any concerns I had before the trip seemed ridiculous in hindsight. TSA agents joked with me and didn’t pat me down; resort staff reminded me throughout our stay that I could have whatever they offered, our stay was all-inclusive; our waterproof phone cases captured blurry pictures of sea turtles as we kayaked around their mangrove sanctuaries; the puppy we walked along the award-winning beach was definitely the cutest puppy at the rescue. There had been nothing to fear after all. On our last day, I sat in a cabana and listened to the gentle lapping of the ocean.
My partner held my hand as we waited for the AirTrain when we returned to JFK.
“You sounded nervous with the customs agent,” he said. My voice tightened when I declared the duty-free rum and hot sauce I bought as souvenirs. “Are you okay?”
I laughed then apologized for worrying him. Overcoming the travel-specific trauma from my family was and continues to be difficult. But proving to myself through this vacation that I deserved these leisurely journeys and peaceful experiences without destroying myself was “revenge travel” in the purest sense.
“Yeah,” I said. “I can’t wait for our next vacation.”