Small Steps

Through struggle comes strength.

Finally kicking back: How years of work on the couch paid off at the beach this summer

Relax??!!@?? A vacation sabatoger finally learns how

It wasn't how I imagined it. I thought I'd devour a few novels. Or maybe I'd work on a book proposal in one of the shore-town libraries I'd mapquested. I never set foot in one. Instead, I loosened up. I leafed through magazines. I stared at the sea. I enjoyed my family and visiting friends, good food and expensive wine. I even took a nap - which I rarely do (without Xanax).

Vacation = Relaxation + Fun. Hardly news. But that equation has rarely worked for me. Just ask my husband. Too much time on my hands, catapulted out of structure, and I get depressed and anxious. In Cape Cod or California or Paris there I am searching relentlessly for distractions. I become obsessed with finding the right hotel or restaurant, the right tour, the right hour to go, the best bargain. I try to recreate a routine and become jostled by the unexpected and then get hard on myself, feeling guilty because I'm not a happy vacationer. I can't produce the perfect holiday. And when my husband inevitably says those two words, "Just Relax," as he frequently does, I want to sock him.

See All Stories In

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

But this summer I learned to chill. It happened in a two-week rental at a house with too many chachkas in a tranquil, historic Jersey shore town a block from the beach. No, I didn't shut myself away from computer or cable. I brought along my Mac, made sure I had fresh Netflix, and joined a 24-hour gym (gritty but air-conditioned and less than a mile from the house).

Something was, indeed, different this year. I allowed myself a break. I enjoyed being with myself and others. I embraced some spontaneity. I indulged in naughty food. I let go. All of which shows - my therapy is working!

Here are some other things that happened:

• Took three long ocean swims, frolicking, yes, frolicking in the waves

• Stared at the sea with amazement and at children playing in the sand. I stopped myself from bemoaning my age and thought instead: Wouldn't it be nice someday to have a grandchild?

• Kept my mouth shut when my daughter invited six college friends for two nights and they smoked about 400 cigarettes on the porch and deck and whooped it up ‘til all hours. At least they used ashtrays.

• Was visited by three female friends and one couple and I didn't take it personally when an invited guest or two canceled

• Saw the movies Funny People with my two young-adult children and (500) Days of Summer on a rainy day by myself (I was good company.)

• Took twice-a-day walks and played ball with my much-neglected Labrador Angie, but on a busy weekend when she became a burden

I placed her in a fancy boarding place and refused to feel guilty about the three-day expense

• Ran three miles a day on a treadmill, except for the two I took off. And that's knowing that other people I'm training with for the New York Marathon are up to 17.

• Ate pizza twice - a rarity for me

• Ate real (not light) ice cream, a double scoop - a bigger rarity

• Delighted in all my visitors - brother, father, in laws, friends and especially my children

• Enjoyed my husband (yes, we managed to squeeze that in)

• Hosted my supervisor and colleagues for a full-day beach retreat - I took back that vacation day - and celebrated the fact I have a job and boss I don't dread coming back to

Rested and tan, I have returned to cool weather ready for fall, a season that can be intense when you work for a university. But I have that new-penny-loafers-and-school supplies feeling I had as a kid and I'm ready for anything - all because of a good vacation.

So, next summer. Same time period, same town. I'm already researching 2010 rentals. I guess this means I'm starting to slip back to my hyper-drive self. But this year won't be so bad.I now know I am now capable of giving myself a respite. Down time with people you love is both fleeting and precious. Perhaps you have to grow older to cherish it.

Carla Cantor is the author of Phantom Illness: Recognizing, Understanding, and Overcoming Hypochondria, as well as an editor at Rutgers University.

more...

Subscribe to Small Steps

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.