Aunt Acid: Advice on Travel Anxiety and Bigoted Relatives -The Toast

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Dear Aunt Acid,

I’m going on holiday with a friend soon. We’ve only known each other for two years but we’re close. It’s a short trip for her birthday, and we’re going to visit one of my favourite cities (I’ve been there before, but she hasn’t), because she has some childhood friends living there at the moment. I’m scared of traveling with her, because in the past when I’ve been on holidays with friends it hasn’t gone well. I feel like when I travel with people I’m unlikeable — I get very nervous that we’ll want to do different things, then spend all my time worrying about whether they’re enjoying themselves and make myself miserable. Different cities make me overstimulated and annoying, I get buzzy and hyper and then angry with myself for being such a pain.

My friendships don’t tend to survive travel. I have a long-term and fairly severe anxiety problem that I mainly manage with routine and meditation, though I am seeking therapy at the moment because it’s been getting worse. Obviously this kind of self-care is difficult when you’re with another person for four days straight. She does know about my anxiety, and she’s been supportive in the past, but I’m scared she’ll see me differently after this trip. I want her to enjoy her birthday and I don’t want her worrying about me, which is why I haven’t talked to her about how nervous I am. How do I protect her from my anxiety? Can I talk to her about it without dooming our trip to failure? I really don’t want to cancel it. 



Dear Ali,

Oh, please don’t cancel the trip. Avoiding the thing you’re afraid of gives the fear oxygen — MiracleGro, even — and your fear is already oversized.

I know you’re scared to talk to your friend, but the first and most important step in dealing with the fear is to sit down and talk with her. She’s a good friend. She might even know you better than you assume she does. You’re close enough that she wants to travel with you! Traveling with someone can be more intimate than sex. It can certainly be as revealing.

So sit down with her in a place and a time that feels comfortable to you and tell her you’re scared. Tell her you sometimes find yourself behaving in off-kilter ways while you travel, ways that other people can find alienating (or so you fear). Tell her you’re so anxious you’ll lose her friendship that you’ve considered canceling altogether. You’re not telling her to get her to reassure you. You’re telling her simply to tell her. She’ll have a better sense of what she’s in for and of what’s going on in your head, and you will feel better for having been honest and up-front.

Don’t expect the conversation to extinguish your anxiety; your anxiety won’t go that easy. It’s braided and baked into you, part of your dough. She won’t have any magic words to change that. Honesty doesn’t trump anxiety. What it does often do is reduce it down to proper proportions, make it a more manageable size.

Once your anxiety is a more manageable size, you two together can come up with a plan to, you know, manage it. Figure out how you can work some kind of routine self care into your life on the road. Meditation in the hotel room before breakfast, perhaps. A mid-afternoon yoga break. At least one meal a day of healthy food, maybe assembled from fresh ingredients rather than purchased from a restaurant. Anything that interrupts the momentum of the day, that allows you to pause and collect yourself, to take note of what you need and how to get it, will help.

Odds are your friend will have some things to say, too. Maybe she has asthma, or allergies, and must take certain precautions. Maybe she snores and she’s been embarrassed to warn you. Maybe she’s freakishly frugal. Everyone has quirks that come out when they travel; you’re not the only one who gets thrown off by being in a new and different place. Hearing what she’s anxious about may actually help you. At the very least it will remind you that you’re not alone in being a human being who requires consideration. We are each of us an imperfect bundle of nerves and needs. She’s lovable anyway, right? So are you. Try to remember that.


Aunt Acid

Dear Aunt Acid,

I am a high schooler. A few years back I found out my dad is prejudiced, and so is his entire side of the family. Shocking it took me so many years to see it, right? It started when I began seeing my boyfriend, who is black. I showed my dad a picture of my boyfriend and he responded with a racist comment. I had never noticed it before, but that side of my family has a habit of making racial comments. Once they found out I was infatuated with this guy they swarmed me with their insults and prejudice. I found out my father and grandmother also do not approve of any of my friends, because some of them are gay, transgender, or have depression.

My father criticizes my relationship often and tries to convince me to find other boys, or cheat. The thing is, he has not had very good relationships himself and cheated on my mother before their divorce. He smiles to my face and then blows up on my mother on the phone, saying she is a horrible parent for allowing me to have the friends and the boyfriend I do. My grandmother also likes to make comments about my mother and her “poor” parenting. I have cut off most of my communication with her besides the occasional text. 

I find my dad and his family are very toxic people in my life. I keep wondering if I should continue to see them. Besides the prejudice and bigotry, they are nice people. I do love them, which makes this decision hard. I need advice on what to do. 



Dear Ashley,

Oh my goodness. You say these particular members of your family “are nice people,” aside from all the ways that they are bigoted and cruel, and it is amazing how that can happen. It is also amazing how “nice” can mean so little. Maybe they volunteer at soup kitchens, or maybe they just haven’t killed anyone with an axe lately/yet. My main concern for you is that they’re not being nice to you, and they show no signs of wanting to change.

If you had just started dating your boyfriend, and your dad had said a couple of racist things but had apologized for them, the situation would be different, maybe. If he were making an effort to come around and see this guy who makes you happy as an individual human being rather than a collection of sinister clichés, there could be hope. Instead, the picture you paint—not merely of your dad but his whole side of the family—is bleak. Super bleak. Bleaker than the prospect of cabbage for dinner, bleaker than Bleak House, bleaker than a Scandinavian winter. If you want to give up and cut these people off, you are entirely within your rights.

Here’s the thing, though. People can change sometimes. They need two things: 1) time, and 2) really fucking good motivation. Before you excommunicate your (very flawed) loved ones, you could, if you wanted to, try to be that motivation. It seems like you will probably be leaving home soon, either to go to college or simply because your high school days are over. Once you’re out of your father’s immediate vicinity, you could use the best leverage you’ve got—that would be you—to try to effect change. Tell him, “I’m sorry, Dad, but I can only hang out with you, or come to Christmas and Thanksgiving, if you agree to be civil about and to [boyfriend]. If you are racist or rude, we will simply leave: no warning, no apology. If you want a relationship with me, I need you to respect my choices and the people in my life.” Even while you still live at home, you can set similar limits: “Dad, I’m done listening to you talk about [boyfriend] like that. If you make an insulting comment about him, the conversation will be over. I will walk away, period.”

And if he does anyway, follow through. Don’t engage. Just leave. Make those rules and stick to them. If your dad has to choose between his retrograde bluster and his daughter, hopefully he will choose his daughter. If he doesn’t, or if he can’t, well, you can always try a temporary excommunication: cut him off for some length of time (say, a year). You can do that and still remain open to the possibility that he may make a genuine effort, if only because he misses you so much, in the future.

I do believe that cutting off genuinely toxic people can be the best gift we give ourselves, at the holidays or anytime. I also believe that, when those people are close members of the family, cutting them off should be the last thing we try.

Meanwhile, whatever you choose to do, take care of yourself. Remember that although adolescence is rough, this too shall pass. Seek support from your friends and chosen family. Yes, your instincts are correct; people of color and trans people are people and deserving of respect. Your father and folks who think otherwise are in the minority, and they are all the more flailingly desperate because they know they’re outnumbered. They might be singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” but you know, and you’re right, that actually it belongs to us. We are sure as hell not giving it up.


Aunt Acid


Note: Letters have been edited and condensed.

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