As I write this I am sitting at the window of my cabin on a Hurtigruten cruise watching the Norwegian Coast slide by and contemplating the value of holidays. I suspect I am not alone in saying that the trouble with holidays is that it doesn’t matter how far you go or how long you stay away, you always take yourself with you.

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As I write this I am sitting at the window of my cabin on a Hurtigruten cruise watching the Norwegian Coast slide by and contemplating the value of holidays. I suspect I am not alone in saying that the trouble with holidays is that it doesn’t matter how far you go or how long you stay away, you always take yourself with you.

We are very lucky

My partner and I have been away from home for almost a month. This is extremely self-indulgent of us, especially since it is our second holiday this year. A set of circumstances beyond our control has left us in this enviable two-holidays-in-less-than-6 months situation. We have done some wonderful things and there have been none of the expected mishaps, but the holiday has not been not without associated angst.

We are very lucky that we can now afford to take holidays like this. Before we left, this comment was made to me many times - by family and friends, patients and colleagues and I have to acknowledge the truth of it. I also have to say that I feel very guilty for being able to afford to do these things when others cannot.

This “vacationer’s guilt” is only one of the downsides to holidays for me, both in practical and in psychological terms.

“How will I manage while you are away!”

A month’s hole in my work schedule is a frightening thing. I have people who need me to be around. Will they cope without me? How will I feel if they don’t cope? I console myself with the thought that this may be an opportunity for them to find other people in their lives to help them out, and that will be a good thing for everyone.

But what happens at home in my absence is not the only issue. It’s what goes on in my head while I’m away that is the most disturbing.

Winding down

It takes about 2 weeks away from home and work for me to relax. This is something I’ve known for a long time and is the reason I try to take holidays of at least 2 weeks duration. When I’m working I do a lot of things, often all of them at once, and it is a truth universally accepted that people like me are using work to escape from themselves – staying busy to prevent other issues from rising to the surface and taking hold. As a result, my holidays need structure and purpose to keep me on an even keel.

Working hard at having fun

So, here we are, in the hands of the weather and the tides. We are cruising along the Norwegian coast on one of the boats that delivers the mail and acts as a ferry between ports for the local people. The company has been doing this since 1893, when the remote and isolated communities depended entirely on the sea for their contact with the world. Initially the steamboat came once a week, but in recent decades daily services have been provided by a fleet of small high-class cruise ships like the one we are on.

While on this cruise we can laze around as much as we like on deck, in the jacuzzi, in the activities centre or in our cabin. We can sit at the window, as I am now, and watch the extraordinary landscape go by. We can read and write, circumnavigate the deck or go to the gym.

Over delicious meals we can meet fellow travelers from all over the world and polish up our French, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and Norwegian. We can talk Trump to the Americans and studiously avoid taking Brexit to the Brits. 

We can go to daily lectures about Norwegian culture and history.

We can also  get on and off the boat at least once a day to take a close look at the quaint towns and fishing villages, or take-land based excursions to meet Sami families or to see reconstructions of Viking villages, to see how eider feathers are harvested from the ducks on Vega island or to see how salmon are farmed. We’ve even hiked over a mountain to find a sandy beach – still warm and bright at 10.00pm in the arctic evening.  

There is plenty to do, but also a lot of space and time to think.

Beware of the thinking time!

The seas have been calm but I have to admit my thoughts have been stormy. All my usual concerns about not being good enough and not having achieved what I wanted to achieve in life have risen up to fill the vacuum left by the absence of my ordinary life and have had to be wrestled into silence. As always happens in these circumstances, these thoughts of my own inadequacy are eventually replaced by plans for self-improvement – goal setting, future planning - but these thoughts surge back and forth, fed by the sense of inadequacy that breeds them in the first place. The frantic plans for self-improvement become a source of stress in themselves.

This doesn’t sound very comfortable or relaxed does it? 

I have some choices here. I could use various chemicals to control my thoughts - alcohol would probably work but I know from experience that that would be a decision I’d regret. I could meditate and exercise regularly, but I do that already – or I beat myself up about not doing it. I could write a blog post a day, read all the work-related material I don’t get time to read when I’m not on holidays or catch up on my Continuing Professional Development. I have tried all these on previous holidays. I suspect they might be the reason that I often come home at least as stressed as I was when I left.

A new destination

What I’d really like to find somewhere in the world is not a new and improved self, but an acceptance of the self that I have. Maybe then taking myself on holiday wouldn’t be such a struggle.

If you have any ideas about where I might find this state of self-acceptance, please let me know. I’ll book a ticket immediately.

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Dr Jan Orman

Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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