Last year, Carlos and I spent six weeks traveling through Europe and Africa. We brought along our four kids — and our full-time jobs — to combine a family vacation with a working holiday.
We had such a great time, we couldn’t wait to do it again this year. Originally, we planned to travel overseas with our youngest daughter, Jade, the last child to leave the nest.
But when COVID-19 hit, everything changed, including our travel plans.
As we learned more about the virus and how it spreads, we started playing around with the idea of traveling cross-country in an RV. This would allow us to avoid crowds and have more control over our environment.
Traveling by RV also gave us the flexibility and space to invite all of our children on our adventure.
Our college-age kids were all enrolled in online classes. The only person who couldn’t come was our oldest daughter. She had just started a new job and, sadly, didn’t have enough time off.
At first, our kids were hesitant about RV life. So was I. As an introvert, I need my space. The RV we ended up buying is big — when all the slide-outs are open, it’s equivalent to a 400-square-foot tiny home — still, there was no way I could survive living in a tin can with my so many other people.
But in our research, Carlos and I discovered that many RV parks also rent out cabins. We realized we could use the RV to travel from place to place as a family. Then, once we arrived at our destination, we could spread out by renting the kids their own space.
It seemed like we had a perfect plan.
Getting Ready. Getting Stressed.
Our plan may have seemed perfect, but gearing up for the trip was stressful. Moving into an RV takes a lot of planning. And, just like last year, our trip was preceded by an especially busy few weeks at the firm.
My stress levels shot from 10 to 100. I started feeling ill.
It wasn’t COVID-19, thank goodness. Instead, it was a strange set of conditions that I’ve been battling for nearly a decade now.
It all starts with brain fog and dizziness. Then, I get these strange blips of pain that radiate from my head to my arms, trunk and legs. My face and limbs get puffy and I can’t move my fingers. Eventually, it feels like my whole body is swollen and on fire.
While I’ve dealt with this anomaly for years, this bout of symptoms was the most painful. It was also the longest-lasting. In the past, the symptoms would subside in a day or two. This time, I was miserable for more than a week.
Releasing My Stressors (Or So I Thought!)
For me, stress is the feeling of being pulled in 20 directions at once: Jade needs help with her schoolwork, the AC at the house is on the fritz, the fire department decides to conduct a surprise audit of our office.
It feels like I’m in constant fight-or-flight mode. Unfortunately, I’m very good at functioning under these conditions. Since law school, my success has been — and still is — dependent on my ability to thrive in chaos.
But if I was so good at managing my daily stressors, then why was my body screaming at me?
Interestingly, once we got on the road, I started to feel better.
Even though I was still running the business from the passenger seat as Carlos drove, I started to feel a sense of lightness.
As we drove west, the feelings of relief and ease became stronger. My swollen fingers returned to normal. The dizziness subsided.
The breaks we took to hike cleared my mind. Something about the fresh air and the dirt in my shoes gave me permission to let go. I focused on dodging bushes on the trail rather than obsessing about emails.
It was like every step lifted a little weight from my shoulders.
Trading In Our Schedule for Our “Daily Rhythm”
Before we left on our adventure, I had enrolled Jade in an online school that came highly recommended from a friend. We also hired a tutor, who came along on our cross-country drive, to help Jade get the most out of her lessons.
One of the school’s philosophies is the importance of establishing a “daily rhythm.” Rather than following a strict agenda, the school encouraged us to work with Jade’s natural rhythm and adopt a schedule that alternated between periods of rest and work.
It’s a concept that I’m seeing more of in mainstream media. Daniel Pink just came out with a new book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, that also addresses the importance of working with our body’s natural tendencies.
We decided to integrate this principle into every aspect of our trip. Rather than setting a “schedule,” we established a “daily rhythm” that allowed us to accomplish what we needed to do each day, while honoring the needs of ourmind and bodies.
Each morning, everyone woke at their own pace. Carlos was usually the first up. I typically padded into the RV’s kitchen while he was making coffee. As the kids woke, everyone made their way to their work stations — Carlos and I claimed the comfortable chairs in the RV’s dining space. The kids worked on park benches and picnic tables.
We took frequent breaks throughout the day. I spent mine watching deer sprint between the trees surrounding our RV. Occasionally, a chipmunk or skunk would pass by.
We usually closed our laptops around 3 p.m. The rest of the day was spent exploring and hiking until it was time for dinner back at the RV. We often stayed up late, talking and laughing until the campfire died.
It was glorious. I didn’t want to come home.
Learning How to Make Space
Every trip changes us. This one was no different.
In the final days of our RV adventure, I found myself dreading the thought of trading the trail for my home office.
The symptoms I had experienced earlier were starting to return. I could feel a panic attack lurking. I noticed my fingers starting to clench.
Having had the time and mental space during the trip to reflect on my symptoms, I realized it was my body’s way of telling me it’s time for a change.
Throughout my adulthood, I’ve spent way too much time and energy trying to control my stress. I’ve buried myself in books about Zen, signed up for every meditation app under the sun, and spent hours trying to perfect my downward dog.
But, in hindsight, I realize that all of those efforts were actually an attempt to push my problems away.
I wasn’t practicing yoga because I wanted more lower-back flexibility; I was contorting my body in an attempt to achieve the holy grail of a stress-free existence.
But the reality is, no matter how good my downward dog, stress will always be a part of life. My kids will still do things that drive me bananas. Clients will still need me to put out fires. My cat will still vomit on my nice sheets.
I realized the symptoms that have been haunting me for decades are actually my body’s way of saying I need to change my relationship with stress. Rather than finding ways to escape it, I needed to find ways to live with it.
As I reflect back on our RV adventure, I see how the daily rhythm we established empowered me to better deal with that feeling of being pulled in multiple directions at once.
Even though we were on the road, my clients still needed me. My kids still needed me. But because we had built plenty of downtime into our daily rhythm, I was also able to honor my own needs with hiking and meditation breaks.
I had found a way to not fight my stressors, but make space for them.
Obviously, this is just the beginning. Since we’ve returned home, I’ve already been dealt a myriad of new stressors ranging from a son with COVID to a mom who needed quintuple bypass surgery.
Am I fully embracing every new challenge with open arms? Of course not.
But I can feel an internal shift in how I respond to them. Rather than trying to tackle each problem head-on in an attempt to make it go away, I’m letting myself sit with the problem, accept it and only THEN work to try to find a solution.
Surprisingly, the symptoms I experienced before we left haven’t returned in full force. Even though I’m dealing with even more stress now, I’m still feeling relatively okay.
My hope is that by building in time for stress in my daily rhythm, I’ll find the balance my body needs to do its job — so I can do mine.