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Monday, June 17, 2024

How to Travel Solo Again After Being Sexually Assaulted

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By the age of 19, I was well-traveled. A Navy brat, I had lived in many towns along the coastline of the Eastern United States, vacationed in Jamaica, and spent a few of my childhood years in Cuba.

Travel was a regular part of life. I thought nothing of moving to California at the age of 20, even though I would be 3,000 miles away from my family. I was raised to value independence, and I was always looking for my next adventure.

All of that changed when I turned 21.

Weeks after being raped by my husband on vacation, I presented him with divorce papers. I was rewarded by waking up the next day with a knife to my throat.

Though he was arrested for assault and permanently removed from our home after the attack, I waited until after his criminal trial was over and our divorce was final to relocate.

During that year, I battled anxiety made worse by his refusal to obey the restraining order. By day, I pretended to have a normal life — kept busy by the demands of work. At night, I returned home fearfully, paranoid I would find him in my apartment waiting for me.

I learned to avoid going out alone at night and stuck to places that were familiar. I was alive. He had not killed me. But he had managed to destroy my sense of independence and adventure. It would be many years before I would consider traveling alone again.

Years later, on a trip to Costa Rica, my boyfriend was detained in customs, forcing me to taxi ahead and check into our hotel alone.

I was there to attend a weeklong academic residency and had already missed the opening day of registration.

Panic gripped me as I took the 20-minute ride through seedy streets with a male driver I could barely communicate with. “He could kidnap and rape me or get me killed,” I thought every time he slowed down near a densely packed curb full of strange bodies. It was 2am.

Checking in to the hotel was not much better. The concierge sprung into action, smashing the critters that scattered across the floor of my room once the light flicked on. The cleaning crew had accidentally left the patio door ajar.

“I don’t know what to do, but I can’t do this alone,” I thought, panicking, after he left. Feeling raw, uneasy, and fearful of every imaginable threat, I drank the champagne left for a celebration for two.

I slept in intervals, fully clothed on top of the covers, in the fully-lit room, not knowing when my boyfriend would arrive. He eventually did, a full day later. I vowed to never put myself through that type of stress again.

When I read articles about women traveling solo, they are always labeled brave, courageous, and heroic.

We marvel at those who travel to foreign countries and immerse themselves in different cultures. It is viewed as the pinnacle of independence.

“What about women who have survived trauma?” I ask myself.

We may not aspire to travel to India or Bali, but each day that we are able to get up and live productively is an act of courage. Each day that we do not succumb to anxiety, depression, or self-sabotage is significant.

This year, I traveled alone for the first time in many years.

I was invited to a writers’ seminar in St. Petersburg, Florida, and knew it was time to challenge myself. After coordinating accommodations and flights ahead of time, I spent a little time each day reflecting on the experience I wanted to have.

I visited Yelp and the official city website to familiarize myself with the area. I felt silly reviewing crime records initially, but later accepted my prerogative to do whatever it took to feel safe. I read hotel reviews and got a sense of where my accommodations were located in proximity to the restaurants and local landmarks I wanted to visit. I opted for prepaid transportation to and from the airport so that I would not have to deal with any small details.

By the time I was ready to leave, I had my own little personalized travel guide, complete with preferred plans and backup options. I uploaded helpful apps to my phone and felt confident that I would have a fun trip, whether or not I met anyone at the seminar that I would connect with.

After overcoming domestic violence or sexual assault, you are entitled to experience the freedom of solo travel.

Because of all the preparation I had done for my trip to St. Petersburg, I was off to lunch and a spa treatment 20 minutes after arriving at my hotel. After the hectic pace of traveling, I needed a few hours of downtime to pamper myself and decompress. That set the tone for the rest of my trip.

My hotel offered free transportation to any address downtown. At times, I walked to areas where I felt safe. I visited restaurants, a museum, and rooftop bar — only paying for transportation once to visit the beach. It would have been easy to stay at the hotel and enjoy its amenities, but I felt as though I owed myself the opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone.

Are you a survivor of domestic violence or sexual assault? Here’s what you can do to make solo travel a positive experience:

Start small.

Take advantage of a quick work- or school-related trip where you will be around familiar faces. I chose to travel solo for a work-related weekend trip. I knew I could stick it out for two nights. There was a block of rooms set aside for my colleagues, instead of being housed amid random strangers, made it easier to sleep at night.

Travel domestically.

You don’t have to travel far to experience adventure. You can have an amazing beach, mountainside, or metropolitan getaway stateside — without the hassle of overseas travel. It would have been overwhelming, not exciting, for me to deal with language barriers and cultural differences on my own.

Research everything.

Familiarize yourself with the town or city and make a list of areas to see and avoid. Any feelings of trepidation I had about successfully filling my recreational time with activities I enjoyed were erased once I knew what my destination had to offer.

Let yourself sweat the small stuff.

Pre-arrange anything you may deem a hassle while traveling. You can do everything online, from checking into your flight to arranging your airport transportation. I utilized a service that even allowed me to prepay the total cost of my ground travel, including the tip for my driver. I saved time and skipped the awkwardness of calculating gratuity.

Keep it simple.

Opt for a weekend getaway where everything is central to your hotel, so you can keep your adventures close to your “home away from home.” My hotel was downtown and within walking distance of restaurants, museums, bars and shopping centers. It was easier for me to explore new places knowing I could be back at the hotel in minutes if I was not enjoying myself.

Check in with yourself.

How do you feel? Acknowledge and accept when you do not feel comfortable or safe. Travel should be restorative. Don’t force yourself to do things you don’t want to do. I spent less time at the pool because it was rarely occupied and in a secluded area of the hotel. I wanted to swim more, but I chose to honor my desire to feel safe.

Experiencing domestic violence or being sexually assaulted can leave a lasting impact on anyone.

Each day we must actively choose not to be a victim of our past and try to move forward.

If you formerly loved solo travel, or if it is something you always wanted to do, I encourage you to make travel plans. Use solo travel as a way to take your life back one new experience at a time, recognizing the powerfully healing benefits of changing your surroundings to change your mindset.

In the end, my trip was amazing.

Not only did I feel empowered, but I was able to reconnect with my formerly fearless self.

I opened up to new experiences in a way I had not done in years. I took pride in how easily I adapted in a new environment, venturing to each location on the checklist of places I wanted to see — feeling not just brave, but bold.

NOTE: If you need emotional support while traveling, RAINN has a 24/7 Hotline. Call 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit the link to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider.

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