Travel is a kaleidoscope of colour and chaos. It’s adventure and adversity mixed with awe-inspiring and soul-crushing moments. It’s a whirlwind that catches us in the eye of a storm, and it’s often not until we come to a complete stop that we realize how far we’ve come and all we saw on our journey. Depression does not compute.
A traveller once told me that cities were designed to distract us from the emptiness and meaningless of modern cubicle life. If this is true, then travel is the ultimate fairground attraction. Look at the shiny! The variety! The glorious! It’s the travel life landscape – replete with newness and wonder, culture and shock. The only thing a traveller doesn’t get is sameness.
This is why, when someone is felled with depression while travelling, it feels almost like an out-of-body experience. How can one be in glorious far-flung locales while being ravaged by despair? How can loneliness become so desolate when so much grandeur and stimulation is all around? How can we be depressed when everyone else is so envious of us?
It’s as catch-22 as catch can get.
It’s arguable then that depression whilst travelling is as bad as it gets. It’s also as shakeable as depression gets. How can depression be both, crippling and dismissable?
Meh. Don’t know, but that’s the way it goes, grasshopper.
Depression & Travel: The Contradiction
Here’s some of what I’ve learned first-hand.
First off, it’s soul-crushing to be depressed so far from home and have people, who you haven’t confided your depression in, tell you time and again that you’re “so lucky” and “living the dream!” If depression wasn’t making you feel like a loser already, it sure is now. How do you tell them, “Hey, I’m in _________ and I wanna be anywhere but here. I’m hardly able to drag myself from bed, I’m frustrated, and I’m lonely”?
Second, depression is often like pulling a thread on a sweater; you don’t realize it’s unravelling until it’s almost too late to stop it. Add that to exotic locales, incredibly beautiful sights, delicious foods, and endless variety, and sometimes it’s just too hard to see your reality between all the distractions, until one dark night comes and it just hits you.
They call those afflicted with mental illness “the walking wounded.” Well, if you never stop walking long enough to take internal stock, then how do you know how far down the mood goes?
And so it is that I recently accepted that I was depressed. I’m here in the city that many Mexico fans will tell you is their favourite city on the planet, and I’m just not digging it. Or not doing much in order to dig it. San Miguel is where I realized depression was smothering me, not where I’ve fallen in love with the weird expat-Mexicano dichotomy that is this hybrid city.
My Reckoning with the Darkness
This confrontation with depression upended my sleep. I was waking for 3 to 4 hours a night, not just for a couple weeks, but going on three months, and here was where it plateaued to the point that I wanted to scream – literally scream – upon waking at 2, 3, 4 am. The final straw was when I flipped over and freaked out, punching the bed 30 or 40 times until I was even more exhausted. During daylight, I became more anxious, unsettled, frustrated. Worse, I lost my mojo, and if you’re a writer without mojo, you might as well be adrift at sea.
My depression wasn’t new – it was just easy to ignore until it ravaged my nights and insomnia took me to a new level or irritability bordering on terror.
If there’s a time when depression is inescapable, it’s in the dark of night when alone in bed. It’s like the quote from Granny Death in Donnie Darko: “Every living creature on Earth dies alone.”
Thoughts like that find me easily when I’m in the dark, in bed, in depression. Thank God for the internet, Twitter, and Facebook, because they help to remind me I’m not alone and the world is out there.
I’m This Way… And That Way
I’ve been through bleak no-hope depressions, and this is not that. This is a mild chemical depression that’s unshakable because chemistry and was manageable until it began disturbing my nights. Now that I’m sleeping again, I’m turning a page, but that’s because I’m able to resort to medication. When I was deep in the darkness in 2006, and suicidal thoughts were toying with me, it was modern pharmaceuticals that saved my life. I’m lucky now to know one works for me, and it’s there in the distance like an old friend, just waiting to be summoned to the fore again. And so I’ve done just that, and now I’m sleeping, and with sleep comes both healing and courage. And maybe a little mojo too.
It’s important, though, that those back home realize that I can be living a dichotomy: I can know I’m in the throes of my dreams come true, I can have zero regrets about making these choices, but I can also be alone and depressed when the stunning, fabulous sights fall away and the darkness of the bedroom surrounds me.
For anyone currently travelling and feeling like an asshat for being unhappy, don’t. It’s not a mutually exclusive experience. Travelling does not ensure happiness. Being abroad instead of at home doesn’t mean all your problems evaporate. Sometimes making your dreams come true is exactly how you realize you’re depressed. If getting what you thought you wanted didn’t fix you, then you’re still broken, and you need to find out why.
For me, I still have to work and earn an income as I travel. Worse, I need to find new clients and new opportunities, and I can’t just pop into a networking event and hand out my card. I can’t do the all-important glad-handing and interviews that build business. All I’ve got are my words and my Wifi. And there’s no safety net here to catch me. There’s no rich benefactor to save me. There’s no bottomless credit to bankroll me.
Suffice to say, I have never felt more alone than I do now. I know I’m not… but I am. That’s travelling for you. It’s an unshakable awareness that things are different and harder because you’re not in Kansas anymore. Picking up and going home isn’t a solution because the limited funds I have here in Mexico at least pay for my Mexican life. A Vancouver life ain’t in my budget and going home is absolutely not a part of the solution.
Sometimes There’s a Reason
As a 42-year-old woman dealing with peri-menopause, depression is just part of “the change of life.” Hormones are a fickle bitch, what can I tell you? They don’t care that I’m in Mexico or that I worked my ass off to achieve this dream. They don’t care that, as a writer, the thing I need most is my sane mind. Hormones just don’t care.
The funny thing is, being away from home, I kind of have to come clean and tell everyone “Hey, so, I’m self-medicating my depression with some pills that saved my life a decade ago,” because I don’t have the luxury of having a regular doctor. I’m on my own thousands of miles from home, and I’ve got to just wing it, and I need spectators to tell me if I sound like I’m going awry.
10 days into this dosage, things are on the up and up. I’m not more anxious or suffering darker thoughts – quite the opposite – so I know they’re working now. Still, people think that my cluing them in – which is only so I have observers – and so they think it’s an invitation to tell me how to battle this affliction. It’s not.
Guess what? When you start telling depressed people to do X, Y, and Z, then you become another layer of the problem. The depressed person is likely to go “Omigod, am I not doing enough?” They then feel failure and feel like they’re “doing depression wrong.” That, friends, is a bad place to put your depressed pal, and your ill-informed attempts to help them could hurt them.
Lucky for me I know that I’m doing all I can do, so when I started getting advice from others, I shut them down.
The only thing you need to say to your depressed friend is: “Wow. Good for you for sharing that. If you need me, I’m here.”
Tricks for the Depressed Traveller
If you’re the person travelling, and you’re at a loss because, unlike me, you’ve never been diagnosed with depression and you don’t know what to do next, then here are some constructive avenues for you:
- Write an update in social media letting your friends and family know you feel lost and alone. Everyone has been there before and you can use some from-afar love. This is critical. Do this.
- Google for places frequented by expats so you might find yourself in a place where everyone speaks your language, especially if they have comfort foods you’ll recognize from home, because sometimes that makes the world feel a little smaller. Even if this means eating at McDonald’s, that’s okay, it’s all about what YOU need, not what others think you should be doing.
- Look up “must see” places in that area and plan a big day out. Treat yourself as well as you can afford to do, and try to “achieve” something along the way, like climbing insane stairs, meeting new people – anything that can help you feel like there’s something excitingly new you’ve done. (Going on a weekend is dicey. You have to accept this, on any day, can make things worse if it’s not as awesome as you hope. Proceed with caution. Staying home is OKAY.)
- Stop into an incredible cathedral in the off-hours and meditate a bit. When you open your eyes and realize This is your amazing life, it helps… even if just for an hour. Believe me, those hours are how you realize you can beat this thing. All you have to do is string together enough hours.
- Sit down and write down all the places you’ve seen, the things you’ve done, and then give yourself an hour of cleaning, napping, anything else, and then go back to re-read it and amaze yourself.
- If you have a doctor or therapist back home that you can contact from the road, go for it. Let them know you’re worried about yourself and ask them for clinical advice.
- Give yourself permission to stop the wagon-wheel for a while. Chill out. Stay in your fat pants, eat what you like, have drinks but hydrate with water too. Go on a Netflix binge for a few days, and don’t worry about seeing the world. Sometimes we can be overstimulated and pulling the plug is how we emotionally recharge.
- Sleep in. Try to have a “me day” like you would at home. I personally found going to movies abroad alone to be cathartic in some countries where they’re subtitled in the foreign language but audio is still English.
- Research new places to travel. Price them out, look at the possibilities, read what others have experienced there, and give yourself something to look forward to. If you can afford it, pay for the next plane ticket or train journey and revel in the joy of expectation.
- If you’ve been staying everywhere on your own, book a couple nights in a hostel known to be really social, and go make some connections, have some laughs. Hostels are really great for meeting people who “get” where you’re at when you’re travelling, and it’s about the cheapest therapy you can find when you’ve been alone too long.
- Join travel communities on Facebook. Put out an SOS that you’re feeling blue and ask if anyone’s in your city and wants to hang out, or if anyone a short plane, train, or car trip away is into having a travel buddy for a few days. Maybe you’ll at least find out some great places to explore locally that can help shake the funk for a few days.
Buckle Up and Hold On
Just because travel is a dream come true doesn’t mean we stop being human, or that we stop needing deeper, more meaningful connections.
Life is hard enough without judging yourself as a failure just because you’re having a human phase.
Depression can be a gift, it can shake us out of our routine, or clue us into how much others love us if we’re courageous enough to give them the chance to say so. It can make us take a gratitude-check or even change our life if we realize we’ve been on the wrong path. Travelling alone is easily one of the most insular, isolating experiences in one’s life, but it doesn’t need to stay that way.
Your voice is the greatest weapon you have in fighting depression. If you don’t speak up, no one can help you save yourself – you can. More people understand what you’re experiencing than you realize, and the power of community might be a life-changer for you – even when thousands of miles from home.