I was born into abominable circumstances in which mere survival was a daily struggle. My mother’s untreated paranoid schizophrenia catapulted her into violence and ineptitude. The chronic infidelity and cruel derision inflicted by my father galvanized a rage in my mother that culminated in assaults with hammers and knives. Eventually he bolted, leaving my sister and I to fend for ourselves with an out of control psychotic parent. He wasn’t all that sane himself and he most definitely lacked a moral compass. Truth be told, my sister and I only had each other to rely on. I was three years old and she was ten.
The apartment became infested with garbage and exotic strains of bacterium and insects. Whatever food we had was caked in mold. The conditions were abysmal and there was no escape. I and my older sister were held captive for weeks, sometimes months at a time. I remember us daring to sneak out to get fresh air in a nearby park. I watched helplessly as my sister endured a vicious beating for that infraction.
My family exemplified a dysfunctional, toxic ecosystem on the verge of collapse. By the time my mother was institutionalized my sister and I were at risk of becoming wards of state, I was a malnourished selective mute, frozen in a state of traumatic shock and slowly dying from an impacted rectum. Mother commanded, “it had to be held in!” As a result sepsis took hold.
Fortunately my paternal grandmother stepped in and medical intervention saved my life. Grandma Dora’s love and care became my lifeline, albeit further encounters with strife prevailed when my delusional parents attempted to reconvene as a functional family. I survived by becoming as invisible as possible.
In family systems theory the lost child ostensibly avoids chaos and abuse by trying their best to blend in with the walls. This was me. My fantasies and daydreams offered respite. Often that mythical world was derived from books, art and music. I fled the barren, bleak landscape surrounding me by escaping within. Like my mother, the self enclosed insulation and alienation I identified with and nursed incurred stigma. Like her, I did not belong.
Ultimately inherent longings ignited a desire to join the world of others. Survival necessitated forming connections and acclimating to life’s daily rituals. To be expected my efforts with socialization were awkward and fraught with abusive dynamics. I was an easy mark for bullies.
With perseverance and time I managed to attract positive attention. Much of this interest was prompted by acquiring customary social skills. I also morphed into an attractive young woman. Being noticed assuaged my self loathing and loneliness. It also opened doors to forming meaningful friendships, as well as opportunities to journey beyond the life I’d known.
My wanderlust took root in an unforeseen way. At sixteen ‘a sister from another mother’ coaxed me into joining her in applying for a summer scholarship to study in Israel. With much hesitation I gave it a shot. To my surprise the interview with the Rabbi proffered an invitation to attend Neve Yerushalayim in Jerusalem. For the next two months my friend and I traversed the land of milk and honey.
Two months of no drugs (other than hashish in Safed) and no familial violence catapulted me into semi-consciousness. Although my friend and I were too removed from normalcy to know how reckless we were being (neither one of us were familiar with the advantages of competant adult supervision), through our adventures I became acquainted with my resourcefulness, my defiance of authority and my passion for discovery. An intrinsic shift was ignited, prompted by a fascination with an unfamiliar culture and the innate sense of wonder sparked by the delights of foreign mediums of art, music, architecture, wonderful cuisine and the grandeur of nature.
From the Golan Heights to the Red Sea, through this sublime landscape I began to view myself beyond the scope of nihilistic despair and relentless fear. Hope seeped in and wanderlust took hold.
Throughout college I worked three jobs to save for sojourns with friends to Scandinavia, Portugal and Spain. Over the years I shared countless excursions exploring Europe, South and Central America, Morocco and my ancestral home, Russia. Every trip unearthed a dormant piece of me seeking integration.
Bonding with others through travel paradoxically roused the formative task of reconciling simultaneous needs for autonomy and support by daring to hit the road solo. I never relished traveling alone. So much of my life had been unbearably lonely, yet it felt like a necessary undertaking to set out alone to the Bahamas, Barbados and an ashram in Paradise Island. I needed to trust I could nourish myself and stand by my needs and wants even if there wasn’t anybody else encouraging me and having my back. It was a milestone critical to my individuation.
My world was a bleak place prior to traveling the globe. As much as I reached for vestiges of meaning through various art mediums and even achieved solace through acting out with mood altering substances, I required a more radical means to transcend my suffering. I sensed that massive doses of therapy and academic pursuits might comprise that blueprint, but until I established that travel was also an integral facet of my healing I and my recovery plan felt incomplete. When I understood that being moved and even healed by the immense beauty of the world was a critical aspect of my restoration profound psychological and spiritual shifts occurred. Stepping into unfamiliar ways of life in far away places expanded my consciousness. My fears of the unknown became mitigated through exposure to distant lands. The inherent meaning amassed from making wondrous connections with new places broke through my nihilism. Led by a Bedouin on a camel, to sleep overnight at the dunes in the Sahara Desert showed me that I was a part of something much greater than what I was born into.
The reliance on travel made it undeniable that my growth and healing necessitated taking unconventional risks. Moreover, being nomadic aligned with feeling displaced, disowned and dissident. I never was mainstream or conventional. Fitting in was not my calling. The pull towards exotic unusual locations evidenced my sense of disconnection from ever being securely anchored to family or home. Travel metaphorically showed me that where I find myself is where I belong. What I found through these global ventures was an intrepid self that was capable and curious.
Paradoxically, the immersion in other cultures and ways of being also brought me back to re-engaging with my own life from a place of acceptance and appreciation for shared human struggles, pursuits and longings. By finding myself I could better appreciate others.
As Mark Twain conveyed, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Not only does the reprieve of travel allow me to recalibrate and restore, but it also contributes to the cultivation of cultural competence. We live in a multicultural world. The appreciation for cultural diversity and the vast array of celebratory customs and ways of life spanning the globe is achieved through travel.
Although travel takes tremendous effort, time and money, so has decades of therapy for complex trauma, along with years of immersion in academia. All these investments affirmed for me that even when my internal world and the world around me is plagued by misery and violence, the pleasures and beauty that life has to offer are a source of potential sustenance. Hence, I hold on tenaciously to memories of abundance acquired through my journeys. They are blessings which sustain me so that I can generate the resilience I need to show up as a trauma therapist and as a better human being.
Despite stubborn feelings of alienation travel revealed to me that in fundamental ways we are more alike than we are different. Irrespective of culture, geographic locale or ethnicity, we all desire peace and happiness, struggle relentlessly with our lower impulses and wax philosophic. Everywhere we are hard wired to form meaningful bonds. In an age of lockdown measures, health pandemics, economic collapse and volatile dissent, now more than ever I need to be reminded of that delicate thread of humanity which connects us. I’m grateful that travel does that for me.