When I was a little girl, I journeyed to distant lands. I went on archeological digs in Egypt and on expeditions into the steamy jungles of the Amazon. I hung out with the Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert. When I stepped out of the back door of our house, the backyard and the neighboring fields transformed from small town Michigan into the world beyond. Sometimes, I was accompanied by my stuffed animals, my guinea pig, or my little brother Billy. Sometimes, I trekked alone into the wilderness.
When did curiosity turn into escape? Maybe it was always that way. Things were tense at home from the beginning. I have vague memories of thuds, screams, and my mother’s muffled sobs. School was hostile territory. The teachers and the other children made it clear that I was an unwelcome foreigner. My desk became a portal to Easter Island. A place almost too remote for their ridicule. In the third grade, when school became unbearable, I went to a place that doesn’t exist, a place from which I’d return exhilarated and uneasy. I called this place There. I had no memory of it after I returned. It was a void. Every time I went There, less and less of me came back.
As I got older, the internal voyages became less frequent. Life got better for a while, and then took a dive. My father defeated alcoholism only to be overcome by schizophrenia. I had a brief period of relative success in high school, but then I became the subject of vicious rumors. I got a job, saved my money, and planned my getaway to California. Everything would be better there, in a place where no one knew me. As soon as I graduated, I hit the road. And I’m still running.
An uncontrollable impulse or desire to wander or travel. – The American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary
We receive the messages that we need to hear when we’re ready to hear them. Several years ago, I happened upon this word in a magazine article. It appeared before my eyes during a random jaunt across the internet. The words knocked the wind out of me. I knew this behavior. Running away from the pain of loneliness and the fear of being rejected. Travel as self-medication. Always making preparations to flee. I was not an enigmatic vagabond, but simply a wounded person who was running away.
Dromomania is considered an impulse control disorder. With these types of disorders, there’s a buildup of anxiety and pressure that can only be relieved by performing a certain task – gambling, starting fires, cutting your own flesh. I don’t agree with the trend of designating every eccentricity as a psychological disorder. There’s probably a pill for this ill, but I refuse to take it.
Not all those who wander are lost. So said Tolkein. This quote has been so overused that it’s become a platitude. Whenever I come across it on travel blogs, I wince. Most people who travel a lot have healthy wanderlust. Some of us, however, have drifted into the murky territory beyond. Some of us who wander are lost.
Behavior becomes a problem when it interferes with a productive life. By the time I had lived for thirty years on this Earth, I’d had just as many jobs and residences. Every city I lived in eventually sucked, but the next one would be better. And, for a little while, it was. I attended five colleges, but I received no diploma, because I couldn’t bring myself to stay for one more semester. I flitted from job to job until I finally just signed on with a temp agency. As soon as I started to settle in, the assignment would end and I could disappear into the anonymity of a new post. It was perfect. Because once people got to know me, they’d turn against me.
In the worst years of my depression and misfortune, I went without food so that I could save up for a trip to Thailand. The malnutrition caused painful red cysts to erupt on my face. But the two weeks of escape from my normal existence was worth it.
I would stare for long periods of time at maps, transfixed, running my fingers down highways, from country to country, across mountains ranges and deserts and seas. So many empty spaces to fill. Once, a colleague caught me staring at the office wall map of the United States. I was so mesmerized that I hadn’t heard him come up behind me. Where are you going, Julie? His smile was kind, curious. I shook my head in annoyance and walked away. Nowhere. However, within a couple of weeks, my possessions were packed in a U-Haul trailer. I left that job without saying goodbye, as I had done so many times before.
You seem so lost. You’re running away. People told me this over and over. Even my colleagues at the travel agency thought I was extreme. I had hardly returned from one trip and I was planning another. I was devouring places rather than savoring them. I fled as if I was being pursued by a predator. And I was. The monster was myself.
There are worse afflictions to have. At least with dromomania there is discovery. From the ruins, I’ve unearthed that original joy of exploration. The solitude of the road is not a lonely place. I’ve managed to be married for fifteen years. These days, the itch of restlessness is less frequent. When I roam, I linger and luxuriate in every moment. Rejoicing in the bliss of finding my way back.