My name is Maggie Parker, and I am a travel addict.
Many people say they are addicted to travel, but the difference between being a travel fanatic and being a travel addict lies in what happens when you return home. When I get home from a trip, I come down so hard it’s as if I spent a week on cocaine or ecstasy (I imagine).
I enter into hibernation, where I don’t leave my house for a week, claiming I need to “recover” from the exhausting trip I just had, but in truth it’s a lot more than that. I feel like I’m in a black hole and I cry a lot. About what, I couldn’t tell you — it’s different after each trip. I miss the people I met, the culture I learned about, the things I did. I need to get back on a plane again soon, even though I wouldn’t be going back to the place I’m missing or to see the same people. I just need to feel that high again. When I am finally back on the road, I get that high automatically. No matter where I am and who I’m with, I’m in my element and it feels like I’m soaring high above that black hole that is waiting for me at home. There are times, however, when I feel that I’m just on a trip to satisfy my craving for travel and discovery, and that I’m not actually there for any other reason. I’m just going through the motions of travel and discovery so that I can get my fix.
The author traveling through Koh Samui, Thailand. (Photo: Maggie Parker)
But is travel addiction a real thing?
After a trip do you just want to be alone? (Photo: Thinkstock)
“It can be an addiction. Whether this is a medical condition depends primarily on how it affects your life,” explains Dr. Art Markman, a cognitive science specialist. “If the lows you experience after travel are so bad that you can’t really function in the rest of your life, then you want to get some help to deal with it. If you have to travel in ways that eat into the budget you need for life’s necessities, then that is a sign you should get some help.” On the other hand, he says, “if you don’t feel that your life is unmanageable, despite your real need to travel, then you are probably just at the extreme end of a continuum that includes lots of travelers.”
Sarah Bentley, a 28 year old former travel agent, explained that she feels the anxiety hit while she’s still traveling. “It almost impedes my trip because as my departure nears, my stomach forms knots and my mood completely shifts,” Bentley said. “I start to shut down before I get home, as a means to prepare myself I guess,” she adds, “which actually just makes the first week back even worse. By the time I’m leaving, the anxiety is so bad that I cry the entire flight back and am usually physically ill by the time I get home, with nothing to blame but my mental state. The next week involves a lot of anger and frustration.”
Many academic studies address compulsive travel as a “behavioral addiction.” There are three elements to a compulsive behavior that make it a behavioral addiction, according to a study on compulsive consumption: a drive or urge to engage in the particular behavior, denial of the harmful consequences of the behavior, and failure in attempts to modify the behavior.
Travel addicts are ready for anything, even if it might be harmful (Photo: Getty Images)
Travel addicts feel an intense urge to travel. There are definitely times when taking a trip can be harmful in more ways than one (think terrorism, environmental effects, monetary restraints), but we still hop on a plane, mostly because we are in denial of the negative effects travel might have on our lives. The terms “dromomania,” “hypermobility,” and “binge-flying” have all been coined by researchers and authors to unofficially to describe an addiction to travel.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Why do travel addicts feel so depressed when they get home? I am extremely happy with my home life; I love my job, my friends, and my lifestyle. Plus, I travel every other month. So if I have no reason to dread coming home, why are those first few days after a trip so miserable for me? “It seems that after you finish traveling, you find it hard to engage any other goals,” Markman says. “You have planned a trip, and you have had a set of wonderful experiences, and now it’s over. The combination of being drained from the trip and having focused your life and preparations on this particular trip make it difficult to really engage any other significant goals. So, for at least a week after, you feel aimless,” he nailed it. “That is actually quite normal,” Markman says. “It is hard to switch gears immediately from a great experience to return to the routine of life. It takes some time to readjust to life after the big event you have planned for.”
According to Markman, the reason travel addicts are never satisfied is because, “Whenever you achieve a goal, there is an initial sense of satisfaction, but quickly your brain looks for something else to do.” Travel is a real “process goal,” Markman says. “There is not a particular outcome you are seeking, but rather a process you love, which in this case is travel planning,” he explains. The problem is that “you expect that the trip itself will have some set of outcomes that will create a sense of completion for you.”
Can travel addicts be cured?
(Photo: Getty Images)
To balance the highs, Markman suggests acknowledging not only that we are addicted to travel, but also that we are addicted to travel planning. “One thing you can do to improve your overall reaction to travel is to recognize that you are excited by the process,” he said. “Accept the fact that there will be no perfect trip that will end your desire to travel, because you are deeply engaged with the process of being a traveler.”
To avoid the low, or just make it go by faster, Markman suggests having a plan for when you get home. “Ahead of time, assign yourself something to do for when you get home (anything that excites you) so that as soon as you have gotten some rest you have another goal to engage.” This will help with that aimless feeling.
In terms of long-term treatment, ask yourself why you are addicted to travel. If it is because you have an insatiable urge to see the world, “then it would be helpful to find ways to align the rest of your life with the thing that brings you joy,” Markman suggests. For example, find a job that allows you to travel. If you are traveling because you have an urge to escape your daily life, “you will need to do some work to understand what you are escaping. Until you address that issue, travel will not be as enjoyable,” Markman warns.
If our daily lives make it impossible to travel whenever we want, we need to find ways to make our daily lives as exciting as our travel lives. Pretend you are traveling in your hometown, try an activity that you would normally try only when traveling, take some day trips, learn to cook exotic foods. There are many ways to make your daily life mirror your travel life so that you can get a little bit of that high that travel gives you without actually traveling.
Are there recovered travel addicts out there? (Photo: Getty Images)
After speaking with Markman about how to cope with travel addiction, it occurred to me that if travel addiction were indeed just like any other addiction, there would be recovered addicts out there. I wanted to find one to see what the recovery process was like and if there is a light at the end of the tunnel for us addicts.
Bridget Crocker’s travel addiction began long before she got her first passport stamp. “I escaped an abusive childhood by creating a safe place for myself in my closet,” Crocker reveals. “I pasted the walls of my refuge with glossy pages ripped out of National Geographic, spending hours crouched on the floor plotting my getaway to the African savanna. For me, being far away meant being safe,” the 43-year old memoirist explained. “I landed a job guiding canoe safari trips in Zambia when I was twenty, and left to distance myself from my past.”
Crocker believed that if she could just find the right place, she would discover who she really was and finally feel comfortable and safe. She continued looking for this “right place” for 12 years. When she stayed put for too long, she would start to feel irritable, discontent, lonely, and disenchanted. “I felt cut-off from the world, like I was missing out on the life I was supposed to be living, an elusive life that was happening somewhere else. I’d fantasize about how my life would improve if I started fresh in a new spot,” Crocker said.
The thrill of boarding the plane was one that never gets old (Photo: Getty Images)
Once Crocker finally got her fix, she felt hopeful again. “I’d feel the thrill of possibility each time I’d board the plane with my new life ahead of me. I felt liberated — like the bars of a cage had fallen away and no one could touch me. With every river guide location change, I thought, ‘This time, I’d find my utopia.’” But she never did, and the glamour of travel started negatively affecting any stable life she did have. “While traveling gave me the space I needed to develop a self outside of my troubled family of origin, it failed to give me the deep sense of belonging that I was desperate to have,” Crocker confirms. “I began to feel increasingly lonely, like a perpetual outsider.”
Crocker began having difficulty making it through a guiding season. She would quit or be fired from jobs before the season was even over.
“I became angry and despondent. I realized that in order to find the peace and sense of well-being I craved, I would have to stop running,” she said. Crocker finally accepted that she had to fix what she was running from in order to find the happiness she was searching for. “I learned how to face uncomfortable emotions instead of distracting myself by running away, never giving myself the opportunity to really heal,” she reveals. Her recovery process required help from mentors, therapists, and 12-step programs. After working through her inner problems in a stable environment, she was able to start traveling again because she was no longer trapped in the cycle of using travel to escape pain.
"I’ve developed other tools to move through uncomfortable emotions,” Crocker said.
Travel addiction doesn’t have to be dangerous. Travel addicts should recognize it and adjust their lives and their travel routines so that everything is manageable, and no aspect of their life is suffering, which might require professional help.
(Photo: Getty Images)
“There is nothing inherently dangerous about travel, and so the problems come when you are doing things that get in the way of the rest of your life,” Markman said. “If you can align your obsessions with the rest of your life, it can be quite healthy. Everyone has some need for sensation-seeking. For some people, just going out and seeing friends can satisfy that. Other people need more extreme and risky experiences. For other people, that sensation-seeking may require getting away from everyone and seeing new things, which is where travel comes in.”
Maggie Parker is a New York-based journalist specializing in travel and entertainment. Follow her on Twitter @maggie_wp