I Had a Wonderful Vacation! Why Am I Backsliding into Self-Judgment and Anxiety?

Life can't always be a vacation, but it does it have to feel like this?
Publish date:
August 30, 2013
mental health, anxiety, vacations

Vacations have always been a blessing and a curse for me.

As a person who has suffered from often crippling anxiety for most of her adult life, I crave escape. Vacations, whether at home or away, are always a staggering respite for me. I mentally collapse.

I love the calm that comes with knowing that my only obligation is to relax and turn off. It's the aftermath that I dread.

As soon as I step off the plane, as soon as I wake up on that first morning of being "on the clock" again, as soon as I go back to my routine, I feel as if I've taken a jolt to my heart. Everything races -- my brain, my pulse, my whole being. I have an overwhelming sense of guilt over the things I did not do while my computer was off, or my phone was on silent for the week.

I so envy the people who waltz into the office after a week or two off and emit an air of placid fulfillment. They are relaxed, revived, invigorated to begin the daily slog again.

I am not that person.

For the first week or so back, all I think about is what I was doing "at this time last week." It's an entirely self defeating and stomach-churning mode of behavior that try as I might to curb, I cannot. All I think about is how I SHOULD have held onto that precious down time harder, how I SHOULD have maximized every second, how I SHOULD be better for it.

Any rest and recuperation is undone by brow-beating myself into guilty, exhausted submission. Submission to the fact that just when I think I have that merciless monster of anxiety beaten, it swallows me whole again.

I am currently in the throes of that anxiety.

Last week was a dream. My cousin, really more of a sister to me, came to visit Hawai'i. I took a day off and we spent two glorious days catching up on each others lives and giggling about the old days when not only did I live with her family, but also spent every vacation with them.

At one point, we were standing knee deep in ocean, dresses hiked up, toes buried in the silky sand, sizzling under the Hawaiian sun, and we talked about where we dreamed of being in 10 years. It was something out of a movie. The pleasure in another human's company was so all encompassing, one of those "time stopped" moments I will carry with me to those 10 years from now, and beyond.

The morning my cousin left, hours later, a friend of mine from Los Angeles arrived. Without going into it too much, with respect to her, this trip was incredibly important to our friendship. Ours is a friendship that we had fought and clawed to preserve due to an argument years ago that would have ended most relationships.

The five days she was here were spent healing, finding "us" again, and surrendering the guard that both of us had so carefully constructed over the years. We swam in the ocean, we bathed in the sun, I let myself be still.

Then, like one those 20 foot swells off the North Shore, it all crashed down on me the moment she climbed out of my car early that morning at the airport.

My body felt tanned and toned from my week of soul searching, but it felt like every neuron or nerve or whatever they are, fired in my brain all at once, and I experienced an intense sense of guilt at literally not having "worried" the whole week.

I worried about not having worried.

What deadlines had I put off? What phone calls did I not return? How much money had I lost in the four days I'd taken off? How many balls had been dropped for the event I was planning that weekend? When was I going possibly going to find time to fix my phone? Was my cat out of medication? Which draft of which script was due? Would I be able to catch up? What if I can't catch up? What if I never catch up? Who have I let down?

I went home, had a panic attack, and fell asleep for two hours before I had to be at work.

Since last week, I feel like I've been in a fog. I had a lot of work to catch up on, and rationally it was and is all very doable. But the trepidation with which I'm approaching all aspects of my professional life is paralyzing me.

I've dealt with depression and anxiety long enough to recognize my symptoms -- I barely sleep, but all I want to do is sleep, my heart races from sun up to sun down, gathering my thoughts requires every ounce of my focus, and after the job is done, I'm spent.

My down time is spent escaping into books, movies, television, after which I catch myself mentally flagellating myself for not being as productive and prolific as the people who created that entertainment. More guilt, more self judgment.

At the root of all this, I am disappointed. I am disappointed because I thought I was doing so well. In the weeks prior to my vacation, I had often remarked to my husband that I felt so calm, that the worst was over, that I had found a balance.

But now here I sit, hands shaky, pausing every now and then to mentally go over the checklist of things I was supposed to accomplish today and fretting about anything I might have let slip through the cracks.

I share this with you not as a bid for sympathy, but to share with you how my anxiety manifests. Maybe you're the same way.

Of course as I write this I feel pangs of guilt, "I'm fortunate enough to be ABLE to go on a vacation and have a job and a home and people who love me. Nothing bad happened!…Who am I to complain?"

But anxiety is not logical, it does not take into consideration your bank account, or your status, or your relationships. In fact, it tosses all of that aside and brings the glaring focus to all that you deem SHOULD be, but is not. At least for me, I feel as if I'm spiraling into believing that I really am a terrible person.

I suspect that in a week from now I will have gained much or all of my equilibrium back. I will revert back to the seemingly happy-go-lucky gal that many of the people here in Honolulu have come to like. Most of the time that person is real, I think.

However, I know that the fear and worry will be tickling around the edges. Despite therapy, support from friends and family, and the struggle to frankly, be kinder to myself, a new worry has presented itself: Will pleasure always be sideswiped by pain? Will I ever be able to fully enjoy something without worrying about the aftermath?