February 29, 2024

Wander to Heal: The Transformative Power of Therapeutic Travel

"Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind." – Seneca

Medical training is all-encompassing, and one of the costs is a lack of time with loved ones. Like many of us during the pandemic, I began to recognize the urgency of living. I contemplated potential regrets, and at the top of the list was not spending enough time with my mom. Thinking about life in acts, I'm in my second act, and she's in her third act. I also considered that the window in which she could do a vigorous trip would eventually close. It may be too late if I waited until I had more time and more money (insert any excuse here).

My mom and I haven't always had the most Hallmark card mother-daughter relationship. As I got older and moved across the country, our calls have been less frequent, and sometimes it take a little longer to connect in conversation. Our house wasn't always the most calming environment growing up, and while I know she did her honest best, there were hurts that I had to attend to later in life. I also know that she made many sacrifices to raise a daughter from extremely humble beginnings to attend college. She paid for dance lessons on a payment plan. Later, she even managed to buy me my very own French horn, along with private lessons. Clothes went on layaway. She picked up extra shifts to ensure that I got to do all the things she never did as a little girl.

Thinking about her generosity and sacrifices got me thinking about what I could do to repay her kindness. Knowing her deep pride in her Irish heritage and lifelong dream of traveling abroad, I decided to make her dream come true. So, in the fall of 2022, I picked up the phone and said, "Let's go to Ireland!" Despite all the challenges of being an emergency physician, we still make a good living. I booked the trip for both of us. I could offer her a small gift for the immeasurable amount of money and time she invested in me growing up. Yet, it wasn't the amount of money I spent; it was the planning. It was the activation energy I provided to make her lifelong goal happen. The commitment to go together was much more valuable than the actual cost.

Fast forward to the spring of 2023, and we embarked on our journey to Ireland. My mom had never left the United States, and her first international flying experience was challenging. Two flights were canceled, and she arrived a few hours before our tour started versus the two days we had initially planned. I was proud of her determination to make the trip happen and that her excitement propelled her through her jet-lagged state on the first day of the trip.

I anticipated a delightful trip filled with Guinness and scenic countryside. I also expected some historical and cultural learning, but I did not predict how this learning would change my relationship with my mom. We learned about the struggles under British rule, the devastating potato famine, and the Irish Revolution. These stories of survival moved me deeply, and I began to view my mother's side of the family as a lineage of survivors. It became evident that their genes carried the weight of generational trauma, and my grandfather's alcohol dependence, which I had once seen as a personal failing, was now framed as a coping mechanism within a much broader narrative that stretched back to Ireland. This journey through Ireland profoundly expanded my compassion for my mom and her family.

As an American, I sometimes feel disconnected from the stories of my ancestors. However, by visiting their home countries, retracing their steps, and gazing upon the same landscapes they once did, my perspective on my family's narrative and place within this broader tapestry shifts.

Cliffs and Moher.jpg
Cliffs of Moher in Ireland with my mom, Mary Austin.

Our relationship has grown stronger since going on this journey with my mother. We now communicate more frequently through calls and texts. This shared experience has brought us closer together. Witnessing her navigate the challenges of an international trip and recognizing her personal growth since I was a teenager has given me a newfound appreciation for her. This trip was the most time we had spent together since I graduated high school. While I knew I had grown a lot, I now recognized that she had too. In some ways, I had a frozen view of her from when I graduated high school. Spending time with her showed me that she was growing, too. As she grows and changes, so will our relationship, and this trip provided a window into how we could continue to connect in this phase of our lives.

I won't tell you that a trip with a relative will be all roses. There were times that she annoyed me, and vice versa. I am also an ambivert, someone who can swing between extroversion and introversion. With this knowledge, I knew I'd require a few days to myself. Before returning to San Diego, I spent time exploring London alone. I indulged in sleeping in, relished eating whatever and whenever I pleased, and strolled around the city at my leisure. One of my favorite memories from the trip was watching Six, a British musical, in London's historic West End. Throughout the trip, I journaled. Many pages formed the beginning of chapters in a book I'm writing.

As you consider your vacation plans for 2024 and 2025, I encourage you to reflect on how you can incorporate therapeutic travel into your plans. Therapeutic travel is about anticipating what you will need to rest, recover, grow, and connect. Looking at your life, reflect on what season you're in and what you anticipate in the next few years. Are you in a phase with more energy and want an up-tempo trip? Is it a time that you're going to need rest? Do you need time to connect with yourself, your partner, your friend, or an aging family member? In addition to planning rejuvenating vacations, perhaps consider embarking on journeys that can connect you with your family's history.

Here's a of the mix of travel I need now to cultivate connection, joy, and rest, balanced with new experiences:

  1. An international trip (10–14 days) with my husband every 1–2 years
  2. A trip to connect with my mom (4–7 days) every 1–2 years
  3. A trip just for me (4–7 days) per year, solo travel is vital for connecting with myself. I gain huge bursts of creativity through exploring a new location and having the solitude to develop new ideas.
  4. A beach trip per year, which I have flexibility around. It can be alone, with friends, or husband. Beach trips are great for being in the water (one of my favorite things) and resting. On these trips, I minimize device use.
  5. Conferences (ACEP Scientific Assembly is a must) + others related to EM, Simulation, and Technology. I love connecting with my professional colleagues, and it's a bonus if it's a new city! On my list for 2024 and 2025 is a writing conference.
  6. Trip with my best friend from undergrad- flexible, her city, my city, or anywhere around the world

What's your travel mix for this phase of life? I recently interviewed Dr. Kristine Goins on my podcast, and she shared how she is a Digital Nomad as a child psychiatrist. As my dad gets older, I'm reflecting on my work and how much of it can be digitized and done remotely. Fortunately, much of my administrative and teaching responsibilities can be done anywhere. The ability to work remotely is giving me a lot of solace as I navigate his worsening health, knowing that I'll need to fly home more often.

Pro tip for returning from trips, especially international trips with circadian cycle disruptions: build-in recovery time from your vacation! After my trip to Ireland and London, I had three full days off before returning to clinical shifts.

Take time to reflect and plan your travel wants and needs for 2024 and beyond. Sometimes, travel gets a bad rap as being frivolous. When done intentionally, I believe travel is integral to our personal development. I am not the same person I would be without the places I've been and the people I've met. After all, "Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer." – Anonymous

This article includes passages from my upcoming book, Revitalized: A Doctor's Journey from the Frontline to the Heartline. I'd love to hear how this article resonated with you. Please email me (andreaaustinmd@gmail.com) or message me on IG @revitalizingdoc.

Andrea Austin, MD, FACEP, CHSE
Chair-Elect, AAWEP


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