Traveling, to disconnect from the day-to-day hustle, is part of our mental health as human beings. Unfortunately, living in the city often makes it difficult to slow down, process and execute. In a complex world that depends on moving quickly and working long hours to get ahead, it should be no surprise that 40 million adults in the United States suffer from anxiety and depression. Dr. Mona Lisa Schulz, the author of The New Feminine Brain, discusses the effects our environment maintains on our emotional condition. Mostly, according to Schulz, it is women who suffer. She writes that women have more simultaneous connectivity in the brain, making us vulnerable to the feelings within ourselves and of others. In addition, we are also trying to compartmentalize those sentiments while living in a masculine dominated work world. The results she exposes are plenty and heart wrenching, forcing me to evaluate how I care for myself.
I found myself falling into the rabbit hole of anxiety as I reached milestones I had set out for myself. Why, I wondered, don’t I feel more relieved now that I’ve accomplished this goal? Instead, once I hit a home run, I kept working towards another. And another. Even today, there is still so much I have to do. But how healthy is the drive that never rests? Not very. Schulz writes, “What’s worse, problems with the psyche don’t stay in the psyche. Eventually, chronic depression and anxiety increase your chances of having debilitating health problems including obesity, heart disease, pain disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and cancer.”
In my commute to work, for instance, I am bumped into and pushed aside. My feet might get stepped on or someone might walk directly into me. I might look down at my watch, too slow for the person behind me, and get shoved into a wall. When I realized I was creating problems for myself while trying to survive in the concrete jungle, I took a step back and knew it was time to slow down. With limited funds and wanting to be around people who love me, I organized a four-day cruise to The Bahamas with my big sister, my niece (12), my nephew (10) and my fiancé.
The trip was less than $2,000. My smart phone was useless and, for the first time in a long time, I had the time and space to disconnect and move at whatever pace felt the most comfortable. In my hands at all times I held several colorful pens, two notebooks (one full, one in progress) and the book I was reading, In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. The voice of the ocean was both blaring and mute, living together in a harmony lost on many. For my hustle and bustle mind, the balanced energy it produced was soothing.
While taking a break from life, I wanted to experience being with my niece and nephew in a new environment. It was their first trip out of the country, even if on a cruise, and I wanted them to absorb being in a new place with people who live differently than what they are comfortable with. In addition, I wanted to consume their youthful, generous and innocent perspective on the world. Being with them reminded me of the Chinese proverb, “One generation plants the trees, and another gets the shade,” because I didn’t have a passport until I was 25.
Christian, my nephew, brought with him a humor and activity that lived out loud. He wanted to do everything, be everywhere, eat it all. He asked a millions questions, building them up as premeditated traps. He was most curious about “baby making” (of course) and asked about it when he and I were alone, my sister having retreated to her room for a nap. At first, his voice was hesitant; he spoke slowly and unsure if I’d tell him to stop.
“So…how are babies made?” He asked me.
I was taken aback, not prepared but excited to probe him on what he knew as well. I answered his question like this, “Well, a man and a woman each have certain body parts that have to come together. The man has a penis and the woman has a vagina.” He was silent walking by me, as we searched for the pool area. People passed by us and I noticed the interest in their faces. “The penis has to go inside of the vagina because it releases a liquid called sperm that has to merge with an egg inside the woman. When it merges, a baby is made. The baby then stays inside its mom for nine months until it’s ready to come out.”
“How does it come out? Through the butt?”
“Through the woman’s private area. Sometimes the doctor has to cut the woman’s stomach and the baby will come out through there.”
“So I came out from my mom’s private area? Ewww!”
And in this way we continued. I did the Olympics around his questions, proud of his curiosity and anxious to inform my sister later. Being in the presence of such energized and innocent interest, I had to think carefully about my answers. I wanted to provide him with responses that made sense, which would lead to healthy choices when he becomes a grown man. We finally found a pool that wasn’t crowded and jumped in. In it, I challenged him to race me. We did a few rounds of this before we stopped to rest. Heaving and holding onto the rim of the pool, his questions started up again but directed toward Alex, my fiancé. I was curious about whether Christian would approach questions differently now that he was engaging a man. Sure enough, Christian no longer stumbled through his questions. He laughed about them, loosening up and making it all playful.
I love remembering that interaction with Christian; it was cute and filled with his naiveté. It was the first time in my life I had to explain what “baby making” was, how it happened, why it happened and between who. He asked about same-sex relationships and whether they can make a baby, too. I became curious about what he and his friends talk about. I asked if any of his friends were having sex, he said no. I asked if he or any of his friends liked someone of the same sex, he said no. I asked about where his inquiry came from, he shrugged. In due time, of course, I will find out his truth.
Hazel, my niece, brought with her a shoulder of silence and a sweetness filled with emotion. She’s a soft spot for me: she’s the first baby in my family and I was in the room when she was born. When she was much younger, she made me feel like she worshipped the floor I walked on. Now? She doesn’t want to get in the pool or play any games. She didn’t want to talk. She wanted to walk around, then go sit in a quiet area and people watch. When she’d had enough, she said, “I’m just going to go to the room.”
I didn’t recognize her anymore. The Hazel I remembered, even from just a year ago, was much less contemplative. As a 12-year-old, she watched people closely. Every so often she’d come to me and give a hug or hold my hand. She’d make a joke or ask me to join her to go somewhere. And then I’d watch her retreat into herself again — silent, wanting to be with her mom or alone. In not being able to understand her, I desperately wished I could experience her on a day-to-day. I wanted her to trust talking to me about whatever it was she was probing. She was growing up so quickly, and I could only learn so much about her from phone conversations or FaceTime.
Aeysha, my big sister, is my first friend. I’ve been told stories about how she carried me around like a doll, putting me inside of her toy stroller while I went on the joy ride. Aeysha is just two years older than me, but has always put me under her wings. When I was in college, she paid for my cell phone and would send me money every once in awhile. She’d drive the four hours with the babies to visit me on campus. She’d give my boyfriends the side-eye, her way of asserting her dominance in the relationship. Because I left home right after high school, my sister and I have never been partying or drinking together. We’ve never met each other at the park after work to chat and loosen up. This was our first vacation together out of the country, even if just a short stop away to The Bahamas.
I missed being with her the most. We shared drinks, told stories and accompanied each other in a comfortable silence. Being able to take the kids off her hands for a while so she could nap made me ecstatic. I wanted her to feel relaxed and without the worry to care for others. As with all mothers, though, she couldn’t turn that caregiving off so easily. It is with her that Hazel and Christian are the most comfortable, respectfully. I admired their bond and enjoyed being a witness. I am taking notes.
My recent trip to The Bahamas allowed me to pause in more ways than one. In The New Feminine Brain, Schulz provides step-by-step ways to relieve anxiety and/or depression. She also reassures that to deal with it isn’t a bad thing, but rather, a human thing. What she emphasises, though, is that we must be made aware, at the very least, of the reasons behind those fluctuations so that we can participate in activity to balance it out. Schulz stresses that we do things we love because it releases dopamine and serotonin, a natural antidepressant that our body creates, increasing our ability to pay attention and retain memories. There is much needed repetition around regular exercise, eating the right foods and taking vitamins. She says, “One of the most important ways of sharpening your mind is coming to peace with your unique style of paying attention to the world.” For me, I needed to be on a boat, in the middle of the ocean with my family.
I returned to the city with my back straight, shoulders pulled back and with a deeper connection to my ancient primal self. Until, of course, I need to get away again.