Mental Health, Travel

Dealing with anxiety and depression on the road: what the instagram posts don’t tell you

Travel was supposed to fix me. So why hasn’t it worked?

Like many people, I have turned to travel when I felt unsatisfied with my life because of the opportunities it provides to heal, let go, and regenerate.

I wrote previously about how discovering a love of travel gave me a new lease of life at a time when I was feeling very low. Travel forces you to be excited about new experiences, to challenge your assumptions, and really appreciate the beauty and diversity in the world that is sometimes hard to see when you’re stuck in a grey life in the grey suburbs. It made me see colour in a world which, to me, had become washed out.

A few months ago, I was feeling overcome with anxiety and depression in a way I haven’t experienced in a long time. I felt suffocated in the situation I was in, overwhelmed by self-loathing, and got caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of negative thoughts and feelings, unable to see a way out.

It therefore seemed natural that, wanting a change in career, in circumstance, a chance to start again, the idea of finally getting to travel long term in a new continent was something I fixated all my hopes on.

This is far from unique to me. Why else do people trek across the world in the self important hope to ‘find themselves’?

This post isn’t really about me specifically. And that’s why I’m writing it.  Everyone I know seems to be fucking depressed. At least half of my best friends have made this clear to me.  Some talk about it very openly, others make it obvious in the most British way possible, through thinly-veiled sarcasm, quickly brushed off with a dark joke and a denial. Some share it only after more than a few drinks, very earnestly, and try to pretend the conversation never happened in the morning. Others get in competitions with each other about who has had the toughest time in life. As unique and beautiful as we like to imagine our pain is, we are really all just the same. Life is hard. It’s sad. We should never underestimate what another person has been through, because everyone is hiding darkness in some form.

I’ve never talked openly about the difficulties I’ve had with mental health for as long as I can remember. Even partners, with whom I have shared the most, have never had a full picture. I’m not one of those people that tends to post on social media about this sort of thing, and I could never understand why people do. To expose your vulnerabilities at scale seems, at the very least, attention seeking and embarrassing, and at worst, the most hideous nightmare come true- after all, the last thing a person with social anxiety issues wants to do is, I reason, draw attention to themselves. What would be worse? Being lavished in attention and well-meaning comments? Or to be totally ignored and realise that you were right all along, and no one really cares, and you might as well be dead?

But I’m writing this because the number of people who have said to me ‘I would love to do what you’re doing. You’re so brave. I’d just be too anxious to go, especially on my own’ is far, far more than I’m comfortable with. I was really surprised when more than one old friend, people whom I haven’t talked to in years, have got in touch saying how much they want to travel, but have suffered setbacks in their personal and professional lives due to mental health issues, so would have to live it vicariously through me and hope they might be able to one day. If only they could leave the house.

I’m writing this for them. Because let me tell you something. I’m not brave at all. I’m scared all the fucking  time. All I can remember in my life from being a young teenager is an intense, burning feeling of social anxiety, gnawing in my gut, fuelled by self loathing. So I’m not dismissing their/your feelings and genuine anxieties by saying this- I totally understand that it may not be possible for them- or for you- right now.

But there was a time when I was too anxious to approach an ice cream van, because requesting a FAB would necessitate talking to a stranger. At university, I was once so overcome by anxiety in my first term I didn’t leave my room for several days, eating cold food out of tins and trying to coax myself into rejoining the social bubble. At work, even in the last year, I would sometimes get so distracted and wrapped up in dark thoughts that I’d have to rush out to the toilets, or the car park, to breathe myself back to calm before anyone talked to me and noticed the tears running down my face that I’d tried to hide by turning to the wall.

So I totally get it. But my point is this. If you think you can’t travel because you struggle with depression, you really, really, can do it. Look at me now- I’m here, eating dinner on my own in a restaurant housed in a tent around a fire in Ecuador. Earlier I went paragliding. Tomorrow I’m going ziplining over waterfalls. I’m meeting friends later that I started chatting to in Spanish lessons last month, and kept in touch with, and met up with again. So, I’ve convinced myself, some people must like me, and I have been extremely lucky to do some awesome things. Through an awful lot of counselling and whinging about my feelings, some incredible partners, and friends, and by pushing myself each year to do more things that instinctively make me  extremely uncomfortable, I’ve become considerably more capable of dealing with the symptoms of anxiety, and sudden lows of depression, that I still deal with all the time. And if I can do that, anyone can. And that means you, too.

But I’m not fixed. And this is the other point of this post.

People often talk about ‘overcoming’ depression. Several times in life, I’ve gone through a period where I felt a lot better, and thought I had ‘got over’ the insecurities of the past and was now moving only forwards, onwards, and upwards, to the new, awesome me! And shortly after, of course, there would come the inevitable spiral.  So  I strongly believe that dealing with depression doesn’t mean tablets, and even with counselling (which I do recommend) it doesn’t mean one day you will be magically ‘better’: as much as I hoped it would, travel hasn’t fixed me because it can’t. Depression will come and go, and if you’re susceptible, you may have to live with it returning your whole life, like a boomerang covered in shit. And so I’ve come to realise that dealing with depression and anxiety, therefore, is not about a ‘cure’ or being ‘fixed’, but about resilience. The ability to endure the ups and downs, and keep going. And this can be especially important when you’re travelling.

Because when you’re on the road with anxiety and depression, it’s not like being at home, where you can retreat to the comfort of your own duvet, not speak to people, listen to Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter, and cry into a jar of peanut butter until you feel better. Every day is a challenge. No one speaks your language. You don’t understand the bus system. You have to make new friends in every hostel, even when you have no energy to do so. There’re often no comforts like decent wifi,  flushing toilets, or sometimes even electricity. You have to be more wary than usual of being a target of crime. You can’t kick back and relax- every day you have to work hard to look after yourself and get through new and unprecedented situations.

But when you do deal with them, as stressed as you may feel at the time, you get a huge burst of confidence- wow! I managed that. I’m still here, I’m safe. I could manage that again. And that means, even if you still panic the next time, you might panic a little bit less. Because you become someone who  knows that you can deal with stuff.

Being depressed doesn’t mean you necessarily feel bad all the time- you can still have great days, feel excited, and feel love for everyone around you. For a while I convinced myself I was bipolar because of this contradiction, and the frequency of the dramatic swings from one emotion to another, over which I seem to have little or no control. And while a lot of the time I have to work hard to ‘perform’ a happy face, or a silly or sarcastic exterior to cover what I’m really feeling,  a lot of the time I am also genuinely very happy. Which is why I think a lot of people who know me would be surprised to know the extent to which every week that passes can be a struggle.

Because even after a high, there is always a down. This could be environmental or internal, and it takes practice to recognise what is happening and try to at least slow it down. No doubt, for me at least, depression is fuelled by the dual mutually reinforcing problems of ‘the state of the world’, and my own self-loathing. And I think travel can help with both.

Before I left home, I’d become completely obsessed with how much darker the world has seemed to become in the last year or so- which is not entirely illogical, given the rise of terrorism, the surge in popularity of right wing extremism, inhumane treatment of refugees, and much more. But it became unhealthy. I would lie in bed at night becoming physically boiling hot with fury and tears, and would stay awake until dawn,  as I imagined and tried to count in my mind how many people are homeless right now, how many people are being raped, fleeing war, are starving, are slowly dying of preventable diseases. I felt that I could hear the screaming in my ears, that I could smell their blood, and tears, that they were choking me, until I couldn’t breathe, and yet what was I doing about it? Having a panic attack in a semi in Leamington Spa. Ridiculous.

So, although a new environment can be challenging, the positive thing about travel is, if your environment has become a reinforcer of your depression, you can remove yourself from it until you feel better able to deal with it. It’s harder to be constantly inundated with the news. People that are regular sources of negative energy can vanish suddenly from your life. There can still be stress, but it seems less chronic, because if you don’t like a situation or a person, you can just move to the next place. You do see some difficult things- poverty especially- but you also see people with so much less than you who are unfathomably happy with life.

And that leads to dealing with second part of the depression- self loathing. A lot of people say that to feel less depressed, you should feel grateful for what you have. But this has never made me feel better.  Because no matter how much I care about all of these terrible things I worry about at night, what am I really doing about them?  I am unworthy of the ridiculous luck I have received in life. Other people suffer every day, and I’ve lived a life of comfort, education, decent work, and never knowing hunger, or war. And why? Because my ancestors mass-slaughtered thousands of individuals, and our lifestyle in the so called ‘developed world’ depends entirely on people’s continued oppression. What a fucking cunt.

In the end, everything always comes down to this. Everything that goes wrong. And it’s impossible to drown out the voice in your head that says it’s because you’re a cunt. You stupid fucking cunt. Fat cunt. Pointless piece of shit cunt. Why do you even fucking bother trying, cunt. You will always fail.

Things go wrong often when you’re travelling. And it’s always because you’re a cunt. But, in order to survive here, you can’t leave it at that. Shut up, cunt head. And you get on with dealing with whatever it is. And you survive.

So travel doesn’t fix depression. But it can make you more capable of dealing with it, more sure of your ability to look after yourself.  It will increase your resilience, as well as show you loads of incredible things to inspire you to see positivity in the world along the way.

The good news is, if you’re living with depression, you’re already a person who has practiced extreme resilience. To feel every day like you wish you were dead, to fear that everyone around you hates you and wishes you were too, to be afraid, and miserable- and still get up, go to work, be nice to people, go to the pub and act like everything is normal- it takes resilience.

Resilience isn’t an inherent trait, but a thing you can practice to become stronger. So what I’m saying is- even if, right now, you don’t feel confident to get through things in life, let alone trying some place new- but you really want to travel- you don’t have to go the whole hog straight away. Just push yourself a little bit, every few months, and see how you cope at each hurdle. You might surprise yourself. Try a little weekend trip. Take a week in a country closer to home, or somewhere where they speak the same language as you. Travel with friends before you venture to travelling alone. You’ll probably find that not only can you do it, but that you love it- and as cheesy as it sounds, you’ll learn to allow yourself to love YOU a little more along the way.

For as long as I can remember, I have always assumed that my life would end when my fight with depression eventually gets the better of me. The fact I have fought it for so long, and come so far, without defeating it, cements this idea in my mind during bleak moments. But bizarrely it has also given me a strange sense of calm. Because if you think you already know the ending, without being ready yet, and you have to stay unbearably, painfully, inescapably conscious every day- you might as well throw yourself right into this bloody arse of a thing called life as much as you can. I’ve realised I’m not ready to give in. I will take this dance with depression and we will fight each other to lead. I will fight this fucker to the end  by living life as much as possible, and then maybe- maybe- I will win.  Because while it hasn’t fixed me, travel has given me experiences worth living for.  The time I almost got squashed by a hippo in the Okovango Delta. Getting lost and climbing over cows in the crazy streets of Varanasi. Sky diving over the Kalahari. Spotting a bear while hiking in the Andes.

And that is why, if you feel there is nothing to live for, you should try to travel. And every day up to that point where you feel strong enough, and during travel, remind yourself of your own resilience, your own power in the face of the darkness. The things you have overcome.

Because today I woke up feeling low, and alone. And I said, shut up depression, I’m going paragliding. And I did.

And so can you.

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