I’ve been writing about that urge to roam. To travel freely. Unencumbered. To experience the world through the lens of constant motion.
My first post in this series introduced the terms “Dromomania” and “Drapetomania,” which placed this desire squarely in the medical model for disease. The word “disease” itself has been defined as: “a condition of the living animal or plant body, or of one of its parts, that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms” that is “not simply a direct result of physical injury.” A disease has also been said to be “a particular quality, habit, or disposition regarded as adversely affecting a person or group of people.”*
And there are four main types of disease: infectious, deficiency, hereditary, and physiological diseases. Diseases can be communicable or non-communicable, and when we have absolutely no idea what causes one, we call it “idiopathic.”
And let’s not forget mental or psychogenic diseases.
In fact, the suffix “mania,” in dromomania and drapetomania, arguably places the old terminology squarely in that category of mental illness.
So, is the compulsion to flee, to explore, to wander the world, a mental disorder? And what are those so-afflicted fleeing from?
Well, besides writing about travel, if you’ve followed my blog you’ve seen posts where I talk about an illness I have contracted in just the past couple of years. I was medically diagnosed with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), also known as Idiopathic Environmental Illness.**
Because various medical groups have been infighting on how to classify and name this disease, and because symptoms seem to be vague and vary widely between those affected when triggered, there is a portion of the medical community that consider this disease to be purely psychogenic.
Now, I like that term “psychogenic” better than “mental illness.” It just doesn’t seem to carry as much stigma – at least not yet.
And you know how it goes with the medical community. If they can’t figure out what causes something (idiopathic) and they don’t know how to treat it, well, then it must be the patient’s fault. They’re psycho !
BTW, as I write this, I was just exposed to some cleaning agents, and I am, in fact, having a neurotoxic reaction to those chemicals. Onward, I write. Even as the world spins in my brain.
So, it’s no surprise that when investigating my own condition, I came upon a “research” article (and I use that term “research” loosely here) that explores the possibility that contracting MCS may simply be a present-day method of reaching the end-goal of hermitism.
“Hermitism” or “hermitry” or “hermitship” is “the practice of retiring from society and living in solitude, based upon a variety of motives, including religion.”
And the “researchers” in question pontificated a very overgeneralized set of conclusions by performing a comparison between historical hermits and those living reclusive lives with MCS. And just for fun they threw in a couple of patients with electro-hypersensitivity (EHS).
The historical hermits chosen for the study included:
Noah John Rondeau, (July 6, 1883 – August 24, 1967) who was a widely known hermit in the High Peaks of the Adirondack Mountains of New York State.
Roger Crab, (1621 – September 11, 1680) who was an English soldier, haberdasher, herbal doctor, and writer who is best known for his ascetic lifestyle which included Christian vegetarianism.
St. Simeon Stylites, (c. 390? – September 2, 459) who was a Syriac ascetic saint who achieved notability for living 37 years on a small platform on top of a pillar near Aleppo (in modern Syria). The Greek word style (for “Stylite”) means “pillar.”
St. Anthony (January 12, 251 – January 17, 356), who was a Christian monk from Egypt, known as the Father of All Monks or the “Father of Monasticism”.***
The patient group for comparison, those with MCS and/or EHS only consisted of six persons. The study provides no information on how these six individuals were chosen other than saying they were selected after doing an extensive web-based search.
The authors conclude that people retreat from modern society because society is a source of anger and anxiety. Regardless if there is a historical and religious-based struggle, or “whether it is against evil spirits, restrictions of society laid out by those in power, or by ubiquitous chemicals or radiation, isolation can therefore be considered a reaction to the perils of their society.” In all of their chosen cases, the people “eschew modernity and retreat into what they consider a more natural state, free from the constraints and dangers of culture and community.”
And apparently, for such individuals, there is a feeling that there was no choice with regard to this decision to become hermitical.
Now I didn’t necessary mean to take this turn from traveling and hiking in the wilderness, and enjoying all to behold in Nature, to the point of someone seeking total seclusion and isolation from all of society. But I did want to look at what might be called the “drivers” of this so-labeled “ailment.”
What causes many of us to choose this path of wandering?
I believe that my disease is not really a driver of my desire to be in constant motion. While I agree that modern society is a distinct source of anxiety, I have no desire to cut myself off completely from it or place myself in a hermitic seal. Not at all. I find some of the trappings of modern society to be quite desirable, like this technology that allows me to blog on WordPress. 😊 And I love my interactions with many here in the physical plane. Especially, when I meet strangers and we exchange our stories of rambling.
Coincidentally, I am similar to Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (last post) in that I have an aversion to clothing and footwear, but my aversion stems from having neurotoxic reactions to the chemicals put into those products as part of the manufacturing process. Something de Vaca would not have had to contend with back in the 1500’s.****
Oh, and I tried walking barefoot and it would take me a long while to get used to that.
I do have a great appreciation for the Natural World, and I do find relief from some of my symptoms when traipsing about the mountains, forests, deserts, and beaches – in the fresh air. But MCS is not what has ultimately given me this disposition and I don’t think having this “disposition”, this compulsion to flee, adversely affects anyone else. Although I might be addicted to living in motion. 🙂
And I’m also not sure how one would say that acquiring one disease serves as a cure to another?
Contagious? Humm, now that’s another question. And if such an illness is idiopathic, unexplained, then how could it be contagious?
But when people do get a taste of this open road living, they often tend to like it. Just look at all of those “diseased” people touring about in their RVs. There is an entire culture built up around this form of nomadism.
Although I will add this sentiment, one that I do take to heart, from Edward Abby:
“You can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamn contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you’ll see something, maybe.”
I hope to be on the road for a long while, and hope to bring you all more stories of my travels. Maybe you too will be infected with this disease, or another, that drives you out into the open wilderness. And maybe I’ll bump into you on the trail somewhere. I would like that.
Beware that Highway Song
Photo: In Grand Teton National Park.
Post Script: While I don’t believe my wanderlust was produced by my MCS, I do find the meditative state I enter when out in the wilderness to be good medicine for treating it. Perhaps MCS has fueled my desire to continue to be “out there” and being “out there” necessarily means being a bit detached from modern society. A more reclusive lifestyle.
Although, I imagine there are some out there now that would not take exception to being a hermit in this moment of time as we face the coronavirus . . .
Previous Posts to the Series:
* The word “disease” derives from the Old French desaise “lack, want; discomfort, distress; trouble, misfortune; from des- ‘without, away’ (dis-) + aise ‘ease’ (ease (n.)).”
** I was tested for 110 different classes of chemicals and tested positive, or reactive, to three classes, which are literally contained in hundreds of commercial products. I have also tested positive for heavy metal poisoning with lead, mercury, tin, and antimony. And discovered I have a number of food allergies as well. All of these can be triggers for neurotoxic reactions.
*** I pulled the information on these four hermits from Wikipedia. I know, not the best resource, but hey, I only needed a bit of an introduction to them.
**** I’m chuckling at myself a little here, because I don’t believe in coincidences. It is rather uncanny that I find myself in a similar position to de Vaca in not wanting to wear clothes.