With Mental Health Awareness Week just over a week ago, I finally admitted in a Facebook post that I had been suffering from anxiety about travel for many years (which at its worst led me to miss some research trips and conferences). I thought the problem had largely passed, or if not, that I had developed effective coping strategies, but I realised recently as I was contemplating my schedule for the next month or so, that it was definitely still there. I am trying to do something about the anxiety now (I have seen my doctor, I am arranging counselling sessions, using a meditation app etc.)
Discussing with my wife about the possible origins of my anxieties she suggested a number of contributory factors that I had either forgotten about, or didn’t see the connection. It’s all too apparent now. I should say that I am fine with travel within the UK, and it is just when going further, particularly flying, that the problems occur. There are also some non-travel issues that have contributed to these anxieties.
The first of these ‘factors’ was being stopped by US immigration at least 5 times when travelling there for conferences or holidays. Each time it was apparently because my name flagged up – there must be a Robert Jackson out there who is on some alert list. And each time they eventually let me continue my journey after they had established that I was not the person they were concerned about. But this kind of experience does nothing for confidence when travelling! Since it last happened, in 2012, I have a new passport, so if I ever travel to the US again, maybe I’ll be spared the ordeal? Only time will tell.
The next factor concerns my travel in Brazil. I have been there several times for research collaborations and conferences. On more than one occasion my travel plans have been disrupted because of various factors. On one occasion I arrived at Sao Paulo to be told my onward flight to Lisbon and London had been cancelled but they would ‘put me on a flight to Madrid’. There were other occasions like this, none of which helped my confidence. Added to this are the long waiting times and the considerable distances flights cover, which adds to this. Finally even when I last travelled there, English was not widely spoken even in the international airports, making it difficult to get any information. This is a great pity as I love the country, and would like to to go back there!
I also need to mention a trip to South Africa (in 1997) when I was supposed to be doing research collaboration with a colleague in a university there. This trip was very problematical for me, and I ended coming back early. The reasons included less than ideal accommodation, being assigned a student who was not interested in working with me, and the general palpable sense of unease about the place. I only returned there 3 years later because I knew I would be travelling with friends and would always have company.
Moving on to issues related to travel, there is the nightmare that is involved in using an airport now. Everything that is involved, from having get there so early, going through security, etc just makes the whole experience more difficult. As this has got worse my sense of disquiet and alarm has increased, to such an extent that even going to an airport is an ordeal. Not long ago I set out on a trip to Hannover and was turned away at the departure gate (!) because my passport only had about 4 months validity left on it! This was actually an incorrect interpretation of the rules (I found out later), but didn’t help me at the time. It added to my general disquiet about travel!
Finally, not related to travel is my very personal perception of politics and the UK’s position on the world stage. As an international traveler (well certainly until recently) I am acutely aware of how we are perceived in other countries, which doesn’t make me feel good about travelling. And the political situation locally has dented my confidence. Those that know me will know that I take my politics very seriously. For many years I felt I had a home in the Labour Party, but no more. I tried the LibDems for a while but didn’t find that worked for me either. The consequence is that I feel politically homeless. With Brexit coming up, and my old party ignoring the majority of its members in supporting the government line, I feel detached from everything and depressed about the future. This only feeds my anxieties further.
I hope very much that things will get better, but I am unsure what good counselling can do, as it didn’t really work before. But it does seem my only hope. My doctor has been very helpful, so I am getting support there. My family are wonderfully supportive, but there are limits as to what they can do. Some aspects of my world are very dark at the moment, and I hope to see some light soon.