The Woman Who Thought Too Much

Inside the magical—yet destructive—thinking of OCD.

Sigmund Freud's Emotional Baggage

If travelling makes you anxious, you're in distinguished company.

Therapists go on holiday in August; unfortunately, anxieties don't. High summer gives them far too much to feed on: you're supposed to be having fun, which makes it worse if you aren't; the heat makes everyone irritable; you are expected to expose your imperfect flesh; you probably go on holiday yourself, and that involves travelling.

I've recently returned from a family holiday to Vienna. While we were there, we made the obligatory trip to the Freud Museum, so that I could pay my respects to the good doctor. There isn't much left there, and hasn't been since 1939, when the family fled the Nazi-occupied city; what there is was donated by Freud's daughter Anna when the museum was founded. One of the items she sent back to her old home was her father's travelling trunk, which can be found sitting solidly in the original vestibule, along with its owner's walking stick, and the soft hat he wore on his hikes through the Austrian woods.

It's a highly significant piece of luggage, not only because it reminds visitors of the Freud's exile from Vienna and of the persecution that engendered it, but also because, throughout his lifetime, Freud maintained the most intense and ambivalent attitude to travel. It was one of his great passions, but at the same time, it aroused great anxiety in him. In one of his letters, he coins a word, half-german, half-french, to stand for the practical and emotional difficulties that always seemed to attend him on journeys: 'reisemalheurs' - literally, 'travel woes'.  

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The methods and scope of travel may have changed a great deal since Freud's time, but the woes remain. Travel is one of my favourite things to obsess about. There are just so many ways for a journey to go wrong: lost tickets, missed connections, delayed trains, traffic jams, lost luggage, separation from one's travel companions, problems with passports, visas and other paper work, all kinds of accidents, uncomfortable encounters with one's fellow travellers ... you name it. And if I'm travelling to an unfamiliar destination, as I was to Vienna, it's all the scarier. As an obsessive ruminant type, I expend a lot of time and energy beforehand trying to anticipate all these difficulties and think my way round them; during  the journey itself, I am, at best, tense and snappish. And we were flying: flying might be statistically safer than any other method but as far as I'm concerned that doesn't make it right. We were travelling with our eight-year-old son; I'm ashamed to say that I whined far more than he did.

Yes, I whined, and I was snappish, and I hated almost every minute of the journey, but I got to Vienna with my family, and we had the enjoyable holiday that we would have missed out on if we'd given in to my anxiety and stayed at home.  It was far too hot of course, and incredibly humid to boot, but then that's August for you.


Joanne Limburg is an award-winning writer whose memoir, The Woman Who Thought Too Much, explores her life with OCD.


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