I’m starting to panic. Like full on, tight chest, stomach in upheaval panic.
I’m not sure what I was thinking when I decided that traveling alone was a good idea. I mean, I’m not a twenty-something backpacker. I’m a middle-aged woman with a husband. And children (albeit nearly grown and gone). And dogs. And a book to finish. And other responsibilities. Lots of them.
Yet when Hubs had to stay home because of his business, no longer able to join me for what was supposed to be our first vacation without kids in twenty years, I didn’t hesitate in forging ahead by myself. First I would meet up as planned with generous friends who invited us to join them at the Tuscan villa they rented. Then I would create a new plan of my own and continue on in Italy… alone. It seemed exciting then, but getting ready to leave, I could practically hear the echo bouncing off the word: “Alone…alooone… aloooooone.”)
This venturing into a foreign land by myself is something I have never done. It’s always been Hubs. Then it was the two of us and our kids. Or one kid, or the other with me. Or the TV crews with whom I told stories of far away places. But not this time. This time I would take on an itinerary I dreamed up just for myself.
I knew immediately going solo was something I had to do. It wasn’t an indulgence, but a necessity that I felt rise from deep inside of me, a compulsion that said, “You must go and figure out how to be on your own.” I wasn’t sure why or what I was supposed to discover, but that kind of certainty of path is a rare thing in a mind that has to think for ten minutes before deciding whether to go to the bathroom. So I listened. And got excited.
I embraced a venture on my own as a chance to rediscover myself as I discovered a new place. The truth is, I had lost touch with who I was outside my roles of wife and mother. I had gotten rusty at making decisions, often choosing instead the easier alternative of deferring to my family’s wants or needs. I had to take charge of my life and know I could stand alone and enjoy my own company instead of turning to another. So I considered my options and decided I would set out on a lesser traveled part of the boot called Puglia, the up and coming region of Italy’s heel.
The more I researched and planned my travels, the more enchanted… and nervous... I became. The beauty of the place was obvious, but rental cars (which I planned to use) are sometimes stolen there, which made me scour the crime reports, wondering how I would deal with that and if there were other offenses a woman alone might face. My mind flooded with old news stories I couldn’t stop it.
By the time my departure neared, fear had grabbed me full on by the shoulders and shook me in a way I have never experienced. I became as unsure of my venture as I had been sure of it. While I bought travel size toiletries and chose versatile clothes to minimize my load, my stomach was in knots that wouldn’t quit. I lay in bed at night, exhausted, but with eyes that wouldn’t close. I became emotional as I thought about leaving. And all of these new, big feelings made me worry even more. None of this had ever happened during my decades of traveling the world. Not once. Back then it was nothing but intrigue and excitement. But now, for the first time, I had somehow become a certifiable basket case. And it only got worse.
On the day of departure, the alarm clock sounded at 4:30 am and I got myself to the airport with plenty of time to spare. It was a smooth start, except for the nagging feeling that I could not do this. I started to ask myself what I was trying to prove going off on my own. I started to get nervous about things I had managed hundreds of times in prior travels. I began to wonder who would notice if I went missing, telling myself I could be dead for two days before anyone would know. Like a relentless shark, my mind circled on thoughts of dread and I began to wonder if my intuition was warning me of a future ominous fate.
My chest grew tight, my head got foggy. My mind told me that these feelings were ridiculous. It’s not like I was moving to Italy or staying for months. But my emotions could not grab hold of the logic. So I did what any panic stricken woman would do: I called my dear friend, desperate for her clear thinking and wise words. With the phone firmly planted against my ear, I sat at the gate waiting for my plane to board as she talked me off the cliff of illogical doom, my mind clinging intently to every word, carrying her message into my fear-filled body. I had just begun to feel a bit of calm when I looked up and suddenly noticed that the gate area was empty and the boarding city had changed from Boston (my connecting city) to New York. I hung up the phone as I ran toward the gate agents, my eyes wide, my breathing fast.
“Where’s the plane to Boston? Why didn’t we board?” The words raced from my mouth.
The two gate agents looked at one another as if to ask which of them would take this on. The woman spoke first, wincing slightly as she said, “It left a few minutes ago. We paged you… twice. And we tried to call your cell.”
Dread filled my mind as I realized the call I had ignored as an annoying solicitation was actually my one last chance to get on that plane.
“You have got to be shitting me,” I replied.
“I’m sorry,” she said sympathetically. “We really did try.”
“No,no… it’s not your fault. Thank you for trying. It’s just that I have never missed a plane in my life. Ever. How could I have sat right here and missed it?”
I stood dumbfounded, my find flooded with anxiety and embarrassment, wondering how I hadn’t seen the line of boarding passengers, or heard the loudspeaker calling my name. None of it had registered. And that scared me ever more. Every doubt I had about this trip raged in my out-of-control mind.
I knew I shouldn’t have tried this alone, I thought. Seriously. If I can’t even get out of my home town, how the hell am I going handle the south of Italy? Alone. Where I don’t speak the language. And cars go missing.
Still, I stayed with the plan because… well... it seemed to be the only thing to do. Just keep marching.
“I have to get there,” I pleaded with the gate agents. “I’m connecting to an international flight early tomorrow morning using frequent flier miles. Which means I have no status. I can’t miss it. I need another flight today. Please!”
The gate agent pushed buttons on her computer, explaining that an approaching hurricane and mass exodus from North Carolina meant sold out seats. My tight chest made it hard to breathe and, as she tried one option after another, the word please repeated in my mind like a tiny whispered prayer.
Two hours later, I sat in one of the last available blue-pleather airplane seats leaving Raleigh, counting myself lucky, but wondering at the same time if missing the flight had been an omen, a warning to keep me from entering a world of solo traveler land mines. I couldn’t just accept my good fortune. Instead, my crazy mind ruminated on this notion and I wondered if I should come home after the group part of the trip. The idea was comforting. It gave me options. And yet, at the same time, the call of this thing from deep within me echoed. I told myself I would make no decision until I had spent a few days in Italy surrounded by friends. It would be like solo-travel training wheels.
That night, alone at the airport hotel where I would cacoon myself until my flight early the next morning, I fell into a pathetic heap, crying on the phone with Hubs, telling him I didn’t want to travel without him. I didn’t want to leave him. Or the dogs. Or my mother-in-law who was visiting. I didn’t want to be a continent away from my children. I didn’t want the unfamiliar. It was as if I had never left the house in my life, this big bold world scaring me instead of invigorating me the way it always had. I had zero ability to see that I was like a five-year-old afraid of the boogie man hiding under the bed. At this point, it was hard to see anything.
On this dark Boston night, I didn’t even know who I was, drowning in a new depth of fear that I could not shake. But what I did know as I lay my exhausted, sleepless head on the stiff hotel room pillow, was that the way I was feeling was a problem. A big one. This was a new and extremely unhealthy level of fear. And dependence. And not trusting myself and, quite frankly, not trusting God. And I didn’t want any of it. But I could not will it away.
I have to pause here and tell you that it wasn’t just me diving head first into the turbulent sea of fear-induced meltdowns. Another woman heading to the same Tuscan gathering divulged that she, too, was scared. So scared that she had considered canceling her trip, despite being an experienced world traveler who wasn’t going off on her own after. Others have also told me they’ve also experienced the kind of over-inflated, illogical fear that moves in and takes over. We can feel utterly alone in it, but it’s important to know we are not. There’s comfort in that, in knowing that it’s not just me. Or you. That we are not the only ones fighting fear, the leech that latches on and seeks to suck us dry of joy and adventure.
If it’s not just me, I thought, maybe fear doesn’t mean anything at all. Maybe all of this is just a feeling. And maybe missing my flight was a lesson I needed to learn before going solo, a reminder to attend to what’s in front of me, right here and right now, instead of worrying about what’s coming in the future.
Making sense of my mistake brought a sliver of calm. So I tried to remain logical and attend to here and now, mentally preparing only for the next step. I left the hotel room for a practice run, finding my way through the airport’s long halls and escalators to the distant airline ticket counter where I would check in the next morning, timing my route so I wouldn’t be late. I focussed only on this and pushed aside thoughts of what would come when I would be alone a week later. And then I fell into bed, knowing extreme fatigue was only making matters worse. As my tense body refused to drift into slumber, I tried to pray myself to sleep:
Thank you for getting me this far today. Really. Thank you. I know You want me to do this, but I don’t like it. At all. Please help me to find my way back to myself, I whispered in the dark, quiet hotel room. Help me to be brave. And smarter than this morning. And to pay attention to here and now. And please be with me. In fact, how about coming with me? I brightened at this idea. Yeah, come with me on this trip. And with that, I asked Jesus to be my travel buddy. Then I invited God to join us. And the Holy Spirit. I needed all three. And suddenly I was part of a group, solo no more. With just a few hours to go until my morning alarm would wake me for the second leg of my journey, I finally drifted off to sleep.