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.