by Alan K. Flora

If you ever need to kill a couple of hours, ask me about my incredible experiences with my wife and our two sons on family vacations. I enjoy nothing more than getting away from the daily grind and building memories with the people I love. My favorite trips are when it’s the four of us with one small suitcase each, crammed in a car on a multi-state odyssey. It is exciting to start the day without knowing where we will sleep that night. I have also had some fantastic excursions with my sons through Scouting. There are many stories about the fun places we have been, but for reasons I’ll explain later, almost all of them have occurred since 2017.

Over the past few years, my family has accumulated quite a collection of epic adventures. We have backpacked through Bryce Canyon in Utah, ziplined across Palo Duro Canyon in Texas, and gone whitewater rafting in Buena Vista, Colorado. We trudged through snow high on Mount Rainier in Washington until we lost visibility in the fog, despite it being a summer day in July. My sons created custom chocolate bars in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and the following day we ate fresh seafood at Inner Harbor in Baltimore, Maryland. We love our North Carolina barbecue, but my wife and I believe that the “lobstah” rolls in Boston, Massachusetts, might be the best thing we have ever eaten. My kids have marveled at the endless cityscape from atop the Empire State Building in New York and gazed upon the reflecting pool from the Lincoln Memorial in D.C., awestruck by the grandeur of our nation’s capital. We toured a creamery in Tillamook, Oregon, where we finally solved the mystery of who cut the cheese. Don’t even get me started about the “World’s Largest Ball of Twine” in Cawker City, Kansas; it was breathtaking.

I’m going to hit some highlights below about why vacationing is more than just fun; it is essential for your physical and mental health. But let’s start with the fact that in your mind, you just traveled through eleven states and one federal district and didn’t once stress about work. There is a lesson in that. Sure, it was only a minute and a half of distraction, but I’ll bet that at least one of the places I mentioned captured your imagination. It was probably the twine. Perhaps you even smiled and felt a tug in your heart to go there, maybe with someone you love.

This point brings us to the first vacation benefit; merely planning the trip boosts one’s happiness. According to a 2021 article by psychologist Kathryn Isham, some people report elevated moods as much as two months before departing for a vacation. Dr. Isham also cited a study by the Arizona Department of Health and Human Services that found women who take vacations report being more satisfied in their marriages than those who don’t. I’m not one to question such compelling science, so let’s go to the beach!

Jeffrey Borenstein, a medical doctor with the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, wrote in 2019 that vacations directly contribute to better physical and mental health. Work issues are a significant cause of stress, often leading to heart disease, stroke, immune deficiencies, sleep, and digestive problems. Chronic stress, which is common among those in helping professions, can result in depression and anxiety disorders. It can also cause fatigue and memory issues that result in poor decision-making and diminished work performance.

Breaking up stressful work cycles with occasional vacations allows one’s body and brain to recharge and recover from the adverse effects of stress. Because mental and physical well-being are closely intertwined, the relief one experiences during vacations improves overall health. The positive benefits are felt immediately but can also help prevent long-term problems. Dr. Borenstein notes that people must periodically disengage their minds from work for optimal physical and mental health. It is especially beneficial if they spend time away with loved ones. While it may seem counterintuitive, quality time away from the job makes one more efficient and productive when one returns. In other words, if you aren’t getting enough done, consider taking some time off.

If you take nothing else from this article, please pay attention to the sentence about disengaging one’s mind from work. I’d love to tell you that I have always gotten that part right, but the truth is I went through a rough patch a few years ago where I completely missed the mark. I was very good at taking vacations in the beginning and middle of my law enforcement career during the ’90s and early 2000s. I trusted that someone else was covering things, and I was glad to have the breaks. But as my caseloads and professional responsibilities increased, the amount of time I devoted to my wife and children decreased. I was physically present for most family events, but my mind was often on my job, even at home. And then, somewhere in the 2010-2012 range, I forgot how to take vacations.

I never meant for it to happen, but I became that guy who packed my laptop and case files before I even thought about putting clean socks and underwear in a suitcase. A pattern developed of family beach trips during which my wife and kids played in the surf and sand while I was in a hotel room typing case reports and reading work emails. I didn’t intend to ignore my family. It just seemed as if there was so much to do, and I couldn’t afford to get behind. What I did not see then was that I was falling behind on my most crucial roles of husband and father. And no matter how much time I devoted to my job, I only seemed to feel more stressed and go deeper into the hole.

My failure to comprehend the obvious culminated in the summer of 2016. My wife found a bargain on a condo on the North Carolina coast for two weeks. It was too great of a deal to pass up, and yet I was very anxious about being away from the office so long. As the trip got closer, I reasoned that I should work at our agency headquarters in Raleigh for the first week and join my family during week two. When I finally arrived, I spent about half of my time working, including a day recruiting the local police department to join our ICAC program. I redeemed myself somewhat late in the week when I rented a pontoon boat. We spent a day cruising the Intracoastal Waterway and playing on a beach. It was terrific, and I regretted that it had taken me so long to pay attention to a family that craved my affection.

Driving home a couple of days later, I was alone following my wife and kids. It was during that lonely ride when I finally put things in perspective. My family had a great two-week vacation, and except for the one day on the boat, I just wasn’t there. My boys were 13 and 7 at the time. I did the math on how old they would be when I retired in 2021 and realized I was running out of time. That was when I hit the reset button on what/who I prioritized in my life.

In 2017 we took a road trip through Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the D.C. area. I purposely planned daily activities that would require constant interaction and left me no time for looking at a computer. I delegated office responsibilities before leaving and tried not to think about work while we were away. I wasn’t perfect, but it was the beginning of getting very good at taking time off. Not surprisingly, the more I improved at that, the better I became at my job. I now see that taking time off helped me thrive at the end of my career and prepared me to walk away happy when it was time to retire.

A couple of months ago, I walked with my family on a cliffside trail in southern California. I stopped to tie my shoelaces and then looked up to see the three people I love most in the world holding onto each other to take in the view. I snapped a quick photo and then joined them to watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean. I thought about how lucky I was to be there with them and how close I came to missing it all.

Alan K. Flora
Alan K. Flora  retired in 2021 as the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the Computer Crimes Unit of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (NCSBI). He began his law enforcement career as a Deputy Sheriff in 1992 and then moved to NCSBI in 1998, where he served on the Hostage/Crisis Negotiation Team for fifteen years. SAC Flora spent the last fourteen years of his career in the NCSBI Computer Crimes Unit as part of the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force. From 2015 until his retirement , SAC Flora served as the Commander of the North Carolina ICAC Task Force.