Post-Trip Funk (PTF)

Eric Weiner: On the malady's treatment and symptoms, which include a marked tendency to pick up one's home phone and ask for reception

03.29.10 | 12:09 PM ET


Much ink is devoted to the question of how to prepare for a trip. From Lao Tzu’s famous aphorism that “a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step” to Lonely Planet’s “When to Go,” everyone, it seems, is quick to proffer advice about the before of a trip. Far fewer have anything to say about the after of a journey, and that’s a shame, I think, because personally that’s where I need help. For me, it’s the last step of a journey, not the first, that always trips me up.

Invariably, when I return from a trip—a few days or a few months, it matters not—I fall into a low-grade depression, what I call Post-Trip Funk (or PTF). Symptoms of PTF include lethargy, sleeplessness (or sometimes sleeping longer than usual), irritability, loss of appetite (or sometimes ravenous hunger), spatial disorientation and a marked tendency to pick up one’s home phone and ask for reception.

PTF carries with it not only very real psychological problems but also intense feelings of guilt and shame. The best part of a journey is coming home, the poets tell us. Yes, I know that, intellectually, and I am genuinely glad to see my wife and daughter again, but—and they will vouch for this—I am not especially pleasant to be around for the first 48 to 72 hours upon returning home.

I’m flummoxed by every little decision, especially the ontological question of when to unpack. Do I do it right away and thus re-enter “normal” life as quickly as possible? Or do I leave my luggage sprawled around the house for weeks, like some sort of wheeled shrine to the journey I mourn? For years, I employed the latter strategy, figuring that as long as I don’t unpack, I’m not really home. But this never really worked. I’d just trip over my luggage for days, bruising myself back into reality. Now I practically start unpacking on the taxi from the airport.

Re-entry, as the astronauts know, is all about getting the angle right. Too steep and you burn up; too shallow and you skip off the atmosphere back into space, never to be heard from again. We all know travelers like that.

There is, sadly, no known cure for PTF, but wearing money belts and applying large quantities of sunscreen can alleviate symptoms. No one knows exactly why but researchers surmise these techniques “trick” the body into believing it is still traveling.

There are other, non-invasive ways of coping with PTF. I know some people who always end a journey to an exotic locale by tacking on a buffer trip—a few days spent somewhere anodyne, like Belgium. It’s not a bad strategy, but somehow strikes me as cheating, not to mention unfair to the Belgiums of the world. Nobody likes to be the transitional relationship. Likewise I’m sure Belgium doesn’t like being the transitional nation.

Psychologists would probably explain PTF in simple terms: On the road, we are free, enlivened, while back home we are shackled by car pools and bills and that darned light bulb in the foyer that keeps burning out. True, but that’s not the entire picture. When we come home, we’re the same person who left. Only we’re not. The road changes us, in small but essential ways, and often those changes aren’t apparent until we’re home. PTF, in other words, is a painful but necessary part of any journey.

That doesn’t mean that victims of PTF must suffer alone, though. In fact, I’m thinking of starting a PTF support group. We can hold weekly meetings and offer each other a kind word, a hug, sunscreen. The first meeting will be held in Maui. Or perhaps Siem Reap. Yes, those are fine venues. I’ll pack my bags now.

13 Comments for Post-Trip Funk (PTF)

Jenny 03.29.10 | 2:06 PM ET

Thought provoking article, for sure. Made me smile at all the possible “re-entry” adjustments one has to do to finally be home.
The first emotion I must deal with when re-entering is guilt - for leaving my two large dogs at home with a sitter and their very pointed, guilt producing suspicious looks and hoover-like inhalations of my suitcase.
The second emotion is complete loathing at having to go back to my day job.
The third emotion is a pro-active planning of the next trip!

Roger 03.29.10 | 4:26 PM ET

I never seem to reach my travel threshold, and I’ve seldom ever been bored on a trip. I’m glad to see that Eric has the same sort of feelings about returning from a trip as I do. He has articulated my exact feelings everytime I come home from a trip. Well done. By-the-way, I’m just now getting around to reading Eric’s “The Geography of Bliss…” and I’m really enjoying it. What really gets me about coming back from a trip is that back at work, your wonderful experiences on the road are only mildly appreciated by coworkers for a day or two and then everyone forgets that you’ve been anywhere.

Joya 03.29.10 | 10:55 PM ET

PTF is hard for me. I am stuck in a routine of a 9-5 job when I want to go back to that feeling of being free when I travel so I can completely relate to this article. I am planning a short trip right now and want to see if that will fulfill me but I have feeling I am going to need a much longer trip abroad for a year or two. It just doesn’t feel quite right at home.

mary hazlett 03.30.10 | 1:12 AM ET

Belgium has developed a thick skin.  Walked all over by the Germans, their chocolate scored as second rate to the Swiss; trust me, they’re resilient.  They have waffles. 
Re-entry requires a team to reacclimate you to gravity again.  Family, pets, that “it may not be the spa, but it’s my home smell,” whatever.  Just go to bed.  I also find planning the next trip helps lessen the grumps. 03.30.10 | 9:00 AM ET

Great point about PTF!  Many travelers probably can’t sit still when they get home because they’re used to traveling for days and weeks.  Some may even get depressed because everything thinks the same or they fall back into a routine.  Perhaps the key to PTF is to ease back into it.  Even though you get home, schedule a weekend get-away somewhere or go spend some time in nature.  Go hiking or horseback riding.  This way you’ll not quit “cold turkey” from traveling!

Lisa 03.30.10 | 10:09 AM ET

Wow Eric, you’ve hit it right on the head with this one.  This article is my travel-life in a nutshell.  I always feel some sort of sadness when I return from an amazing vacation.  I don’t know whether it’s my exhaustion from being jet-lagged, or the fact that I am dreading returning to work on the way home from my excursions.  Maybe I’ll just move to Europe so that travelling amongst foreign countries is more accessible than from the US.  Give me a call when it’s time for the first meeting in Siem Reap!

Fiona 03.30.10 | 12:46 PM ET

Great post and I hear you on the difficulty of adjusting back into the daily routine when you’ve been free to roam. I have to say I’m in agreement with the buffer trip idea or the notion of where I’ll take my next trip. The minute I start getting excited about the next place I’ll travel to I get enlivened again, even if it’s not for a while.

Sonya 03.31.10 | 12:23 AM ET

Charming and insightful post on Post-Trip Funk (PTF)!  After a long journey, I do appreciate sleeping in my own bed for a few days.  Then I long for airports, hotel lobbies, train stations, museums, Internet cafes, exotic foods…..

Austin Beeman 04.03.10 | 10:38 PM ET

When to unpack?  When I’m leaving for the next trip.  ....or when the dirty clothes in the backpack start to smell.

Christy 04.03.10 | 10:52 PM ET

I think this article is great! I know so many people (including myself at times) who suffer from this condition and now I have a name for it. :-)

I do agree with the conclusion - that travel changes us and sometimes it is hard to know how to live with our post-travel selves in our pre-travel world. for others who have not traveled much or at all it is pretty difficult to be excited about listening to a bunch of stories that do not have recognizable “characters” so to speak….not to mention that sometimes it is threatening to others as they feel like you are trying to show them up by your stories as all they have to talk about is the guy who cut them off on the way to the grocery store! this leaves little outlet to talk about and come to a closure with your experiences as well as make them apart of your life at home.

.....OR maybe we just don’t want to leave with the 9-5 and the flickering light bulb. :-)

Guylaine 04.05.10 | 2:44 PM ET

I experience PTF almost as an illness, like the flu. I sleep off the jet lag, feed myself bland foods, keep the blinds drawn and cocoon myself in my room until I feel ready to meet “reality” again.

David 04.06.10 | 10:33 PM ET

I return from a trip full of life, radiating energy as though I had gotten my tan from plutonium.  Then, about a week later, ordinary life catches up with me and a large black dog sits on my head and stays there.  It wasn’t a post travel funk; it was the regular old funk.

Linda Walters 04.11.10 | 11:04 AM ET

right on..  As a host / sending mom of several exhange students we always prepped them on the newly named PTFness.  Returning home after several months to a year away friends often recalled they hadn’t seen the traveler aroound in a while let alone knew the location of Iceland, Honduras or Sardinia.  Get over the funkness and savor those travel experiences; consider yourelf among the fortunate few!
into trips after retirement… with no 9-5 commitment… try your own Belgium ( mine is a day trip to San Diego… yeah, no luggage and the beach as well! )
traveling with friends we do find out that our brains tend to move ahead at the end of a trip and begin attacking that endless pile of mail awaiting us ... won’t even get into the luggage issue;  but , then there are wonderful experiences to savor as well as my very own pillow!  Enjoy!

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