What rollercoasters and culture shock have in common.
I remember the very first time I went on a rollercoaster. I was at a dilapidated theme park in central Phoenix with my dad and sister. At the tender age of 8, I hadn’t ever been on a rollercoaster. The most I’d done were those teacup rides at Disneyland. For the record, I hated those.
My dad decided that the only way to break me of my irrational fear of rollercoasters was desensitization. The key to desensitization is this — over a period of time, slowly (read: SLOWLY) approach the stimuli until you no longer respond with fear. They use this strategy to break people’s phobias of anything from spiders to heights.
But we didn’t have time for any of that. Impatient, my father decided to expedite the process.
I remember the nausea-inducing horror I felt when my dad led me firmly by the hand into the line for the park’s biggest rollercoaster. It was the only one with a loop, which I found defiant of both the laws of physics and human physiology. Why would anyone want to hang upside down while strapped to a sad, squealing excuse for a train?
But I trusted my dad. He’d never put me in harm’s way before. Yet even while they strapped me in, I had a sinking feeling that this was all going too fast. Before I could scream bloody murder and demand immediate removal from my seat, the ride lurched to a start and clicked like a metronome up the tracks. There was no looking back.
Long story short, this was the day that I discovered I was not an adrenaline junkie — at least not in the traditional sense.I emerged from the ride’s exit gate sobbing while my dad — pale-faced and guilty — asked me if I wanted to go home.
This was a tough pill to swallow. I didn’t want to be the kid that always played it safe. I wanted to be the girl that learned to ride a bike before all of her friends did, or the kid who went to birthday parties at Six Flags. Regardless, I spent a good portion of my adolescence making up reasons I couldn’t do things that scared me — like learning to swim, how to snowboard or kissing someone for the first time (more on this with a later post).
Only years later would I discover the other kind of adrenaline rush — the kind I would eventually find was my metaphorical drug. You see, there are two types of adrenaline junkies: those that get hooked on the physical, tangible rush (the rock climbers, the bungee jumpers, the extreme sports enthusiasts), and those that chase a looser, more amorphous type of high.
Sometimes we don’t see the latter for what they really are. That’s probably because their rollercoasters or cliff faces are weird and hard to categorize, and sometimes not even tangible at all.
You see, there are two types of adrenaline junkies: those that get hooked on the physical, tangible rush (the rock climbers, the bungee jumpers, the extreme sports enthusiasts), and those that chase a looser, more amorphous type of high.
I am the latter, and my cliff face is on the other side of a 20-hour plane ride. Strangely, it was only after 10 years of chasing this particular high that I recognized my addiction for what it was. Yes, I wasn’t inclined to climb mountains or jump out of planes, but I was driven to disappear into the cultural ocean of entirely different places.
I think a lot of world travelers are like this. A lot of people call it ‘catching the travel bug’, but I disagree. I think that some are immune to it no matter how many times they go overseas, simply because they aren’t much of a junkie. The ones that do catch it were chasing their high well before ever stepping on a plane.
Because I jet-set early, I didn’t get to experience that much before I discovered the thrill of travel. But now that I’ve chosen to take a hiatus from traveling — and have begun to firmly plant roots in my home state — a funny thing is happening. Like a junkie in withdrawal, I’m on the hunt for a high that can match what I got when I was overseas.
I’m not saying that I’m flying down the highway at 120MPH or making out with strangers in a bar, but there’s definitely some heavy stuff happening in-between my ears. In practice, it’s a lot less sweating and crying than actual withdrawal, but what’s going on in my head is as close to total meltdown as I think a functional adult can be.
Like a junkie in withdrawal, I’m on the hunt for a high that can match what I got when I was overseas.
Just to keep from self-sabotaging, I do a lot of distancing — imagining myself as an entirely different person, sometimes a character in a movie, etc. This is effective, but it’s also impermanent. Sooner or later, I’ll spot an opportunity for a high from a distance and I’ll sprint toward it. That day is a scary one I know will come, which puts me in a funny position of trying to keep my shit together while knowing it’ll all eventually come tumbling down like Jenga.
And that’s maybe the worst part about reverse culture shock, especially if it’s coming from a place of glorious and indescribable cultural chaos. Your sphere of the world can only really meet about 10% of your emotional needs, so you’re left with a choice: resign yourself to emotional emptiness until your brain re-calibrates, or fill that other 90% with stuff that is very, very likely to get you into some trouble.
For now, I’ve chosen the former — but I’m not confident it’s sustainable. I know the day will come when my carefully-woven “I got this” exterior will unravel, but I can’t worry too much about it without it coming to pass sooner than I’m ready.
But who knows — maybe my seams will stay sewn and I’ll keep my stuffing in until the dust settles. Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll find my new rollercoaster and despite my better judgment, I’ll strap in.
I’m still a second away from an explosion of grief and elation. Keep up with my descent into oblivion here.