LET ME START WITH HOMESICKNESS. The first year I went to summer camp (I was nine or ten), I had an acute case. I cannot recall the symptoms exactly, but they involved suppressed tears, a stomach roiling with dread, a feeling of being lost in a vast space. The camp was located on a heavily wooded island in Maine; to get there I took a train with strange girls, alone in a curtained upper berth that I would have enjoyed had I been less anguished. Once there, I was installed in a cabin with more strange girls, trying to master my kidneys so I wouldn’t have to climb down from the bunk bed and go to the outhouse in the middle of the night.
I have never felt so lonely. I wrote letter upon letter, arrows aimed at my parents’ hearts: COME GET ME! It was a veritable campaign of sorrow. They held out for a few weeks, hoping, I think, that I would settle. Now I can only imagine their anxious conversations, how they worried. At last, my father drove hundreds of miles to bring me back.
In the car home I chattered gaily, regaling him with tales of archery practice, singing camp songs, and generally giving the impression, I’m sure, that if he hadn’t rescued me, I would have survived quite well. In a funny way, I could enjoy it only when I was no longer in it.
THE CAMP DEBACLE, in retrospect, included two elements of travel anxiety that have been with me ever since: panic over the trip itself, and the deep ache of homesickness when I leave the nest. I’m not exactly a xenophobe; I no longer confuse my resistance to travel with a flat-out dislike of anything strange or foreign. Although I still count the days until the return to familiar ground, after an initial period of discomfort I adjust to being in a different place. Getting there is another matter (more than once I have thought that modern technology, instead of focusing on communications devices, could rouse itself to produce a Magic Carpet, or an updated version of Dorothy’s ruby slippers).
The countdown begins, two weeks or more before any plane trip, with a deep, visceral, unreasoning disquiet. No matter how much I recite the stats to myself—flying is safer than driving, etc., etc.—the very idea of boarding a Thing With Wings makes me sick. I must have an aisle seat; it was years before I could look out of a plane window once we (that deceptively reassuring we of the flight attendants’ announcements) were aloft. An anti-anxiety pill taken a couple of hours beforehand manages to put a little distance between me and the fear, but it is still there, lurking.
The only way I can make it through a flight is pretty much total denial. I am not really in an airplane (I say to myself); I am in a sort of floating living room, albeit not a very comfortable one, wherein I can read, eat, drink, sleep, and watch movies. It remains stationary while the artificial-looking skyscape, blue with clouds or pitch black with intimations of dawn, moves likes automated wallpaper. Eventually the runways of Paris or New York or Chicago appear and I get off, heaving with relief, saved one more time, vowing never to travel again.
Of course, if there are any untoward noises or undue turbulence, the illusion is ruined.
I know there are people who cannot fly at all, who stumble away retching when the plane starts to board, but sometimes I think it is worse to be borderline, like me. I can do it, but I do it in a barely controlled state of panic. And, by the way, this has nothing to do with tiny seats, lousy or no food, outrageous extra charges, or unconscionable delays. Those are rationally motivated annoyances; this is blind, senseless fright.
FEAR OF FLYING. When Erica Jong’s novel was published in 1973, we women (and probably not a few men) read it avidly. Partly for the sex, naturally; the phrase zipless fuck passed into the language (not that I was ever brave or foolhardy enough to have a no-strings encounter). But the book’s title was a metaphor for a more general sense of terror and desire, and I felt as if Isadora Wing, confined and then soaring free, was my avatar.
What lingers now is not Jong’s announcement of sexual liberation; it is the question of one’s ability to move, both literal and metaphorical. To fly, yes, or to leave home, flee domesticity, venture into adventure. The sound of Nora’s door closing in A Doll’s House resounds over the decades since Ibsen’s 1879 play. Mere geographical displacement means nothing momentous in itself, but if you feel constrained from traveling, your world starts to shrink, and what were once chosen and temporary limits can start to seem inevitable, fixed, permanent. When women were expected to work only at home, unpaid, the sense of entrapment, for some, must have been acute. But for most, born into this destiny, a scaled-down, more localized life probably seemed normal. It is no accident that twice as many women as men are agoraphobic, nor that a book I once read on the subject was called, quite brilliantly,Women Who Marry Houses.
I no longer have agoraphobia as such; some 25 years ago I beat it, more or less (I wrote about the experience in “The Nightmare of Agoraphobia”; see Published Work/Nonfiction on this website). My recovery, not surprisingly, involved becoming dependent again; my mother moved in with me, and I almost had to relearn the autonomy a two-year-old gradually acquires: clutching her parent’s knee, running off, returning to clutch it again…until she learns that unmoored activity is safe.
BUT MY ANXIETY endures, if in less virulent form, and it seems to focus more on travel than anything else (well, heights, too—the vertical version, as it were). Whenever I leave the familiar routes of my daily life, whenever I confront vertiginous alien places and forces, I am nervous, whereas some people are stimulated and engaged. Plane trips, the ocean’s undertow, roller-coasters, mountain roads, cable cars, and cliff edges are anathema to me. Avoiding them makes life an obstacle course.
I wasn’t an exceptionally protected or nervous child, although, as the youngest and a girl, undoubtedly I was coddled. I do remember that at around eight years old I was physically fearless, even about heights, clambering over a rocky New England coastline with the local kids and my brother. Yet a couple of years later, at the time of my camp ordeal, I seem to have turned inward and afraid.
Maybe it was the onset of puberty, the arrival of a whole set of crushing expectations (viz. Carol Gilligan’s research on girls). Or maybe it was my parents’ impending divorce (did I sense it coming and thought I needed to stay home to keep an eye on things?). Or maybe it was the fact that we moved away from a rural setting, where driving would have been essential, before I was old enough for a license. In any event, I’ve never driven, which is certainly a way of remaining enclosed and dependent almost anywhere except Manhattan, where I live. (However, that’s no excuse for not learning; my stepchildren, city-born and -bred, all did.) Like a blind person who seems sighted as long as she is in her familiar setting and knows where the furniture is, I feel as if I have brought off a sort of imitation maturity. I’m a fake adult.
I ONCE READ that anxiety can be interpreted as a sign that you are imaginative. Unable to be engrossed in the now, you are always saying what if?, preoccupied with a distressing past or possibly disastrous future. It is true that in my head there is an endless loop of dark tales involving airplanes plummeting, cars colliding, 2:00 AM arrivals in unknown cities, taxis that don’t come, bags that are overweight, reservations that are lost…. But I can’t honestly regard this as the sign of a fertile mind. The sort of anticipatory grippe I suffer from is unattractive, compulsive, and painful. It is crippling rather than creative. I wish I didn’t have it. I wish I could fly with joy and navigate new places with aplomb. I wish I didn’t regress to the woeful camper.
I do think, though, that there is something valuable in my attachment to the rituals of ordinary life—a capacity to find freshness and depth in the habitual and routine. I just read Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, a fine memoir of her friendship with the late writer Caroline Knapp and their respective dogs. Although as a reporter Caldwell had ranged all over the world, once she got a dog and started working at home she became reluctant to disrupt herself with travel, and Knapp was the same (“Paris is overrated,” she liked to say). Caldwell describes the two of them as “wedded to the sanctity of the familiar,” which I think is a rather lovely way to describe home’s quiet rhythms and subtle pleasures.
IT WOULD BE NICE, however, if staying put were a choice, not a cowering default position. Only once can I remember being completely free of travel anxiety. Alone on a transatlantic flight, I happened to be sitting next to a British lady who had never been on a plane before. In reassuring her, I forgot all about myself. I shifted from miserable girl to composed and experienced adult.
Of course it didn’t last. But it showed me that my fear is essentially narcissistic. If I can lift my head from the contemplation of my own quaking navel, I may find that somewhere inside me, along with the panicky demons, is a firm and gutsy soul who could have been a trapeze artist, test pilot, mountaineer, or builder of bridges. In another life.