Traveling with Depression
Sweaty, sunburnt, and feeling grateful…
for the warmth and spontaneity of this moment in Penang, Malaysia when the universe dropped new friends and impromptu drumming lessons in my lap during a depressive cycle.
It was summer, and one of my first solo trips. The sun shone brightly over Thessaloniki, but the dark clouds forming inside me rapidly grew darker. I was trapped by the buildings, old and new, towering over me. I was blinded by the sun bouncing off glass windows. The aggressive sun beat down on my head and the heat crushed my chest until it no longer rose and fell with breath. I was unfathomably lonely when I was alone, and extremely irritable and jumpy when anyone spoke to me. I was falling down the side of a cliff I hadn’t seen until I had already slipped.
This wasn’t new to me. I have struggled with depression and anxiety since childhood, but travel had always been an escape from my mental health issues. I never felt depressed or anxious (ok, not cripplingly anxious anyway) while traveling. For awhile, I believed travel was the magic cure I had been searching for my entire life. When my arch nemesis Depression snaked her way back in in a place as far from home as Thessaloniki, I was in denial, and then I was terrified. My highs and lows can be pretty rough, but normally, I’m surrounded by people who know me and know how to be with me when I’m at my lowest. This time, I was halfway around the world, with no one I knew in the same time zone as me, let alone the same country. I called my mom repeatedly, sobbing from my hostel bed because I was so empty and so scared. I had the booking page for a very expensive last minute flight back home to New York open on my laptop. I wanted nothing more than to be home in my own bed, with my friends and family and trusty food delivery services close by, but this was one of my first solo adventures. I had always thought of myself as brave and adventurous. I greatly enjoy my own company, and always dreamed of traveling solo. Being in this beautiful place and being unable to enjoy it, unable to stop crying, unable to get out of bed, unable to find any purpose to anything at all, I felt like a failure. I had based my life and a large part of my identity around travel. Who was I if I gave up and went home? What kind of life could I hope for if any time I reached one of my dreams, depression was destined to step in and stomp all over them?
I didn’t fly home. In that moment, choosing to stay and stick it out was an extremely painful decision and I questioned it every moment. Things did eventually get better. Near Thessaloniki is an island I had fallen head over heels in love with the year before, and I missed it every single day since I left. I went back, thinking some remote beach time would be better for me than trying to explore a bustling city. I made myself a deal that if I was still really low after a few days on my magic island, I’d fly home. Luckily, I didn’t need to. I started to feel better, and I went on to Turkey, and then to Swaziland for a last minute work opportunity, and the trip that had started out so terribly turned into one of the best of my life. I am so grateful for how things ultimately turned out, even the miserable first part, because the experience taught me a lot of important things about traveling with mental health issues.
Travel is not a magic cure-all. Traveling can do amazing things for your personal growth, it can change who you are and your goals and dreams. Traveling can’t change your genetics. It isn’t going to solve your problems for you, and believing that it will will only distract you from getting the help you need. Once I accepted this, one of the most important things this experience taught me is to not hate myself for things out of my control. I am not weaker or lesser than anyone else because I live with depression. Falling into a depressive spiral while traveling sucks, but choosing to take time to focus on self care rather than exploring does not make me less of a traveler. It makes me a healthier, safer person, and ultimately, a better traveler, because I’m respecting my own limits and taking care of myself first. If you live with depression, traveling will not fix you, but depression doesn’t have to stop you from traveling either.
The first and most important thing to do when you’re depressed abroad is to respect your limits and let go of stigma. If you need to spend a day watching Netflix in your hostel because the idea of having to interact with a whole bunch of strangers out in the world stresses you out nearly to the point of tears, do it! You are not “wasting time,” you are not “traveling wrong.” Sometimes we all need those rest days. If you are feeling terrible and choose to power through, you aren’t going to truly enjoy the experience anyway. Know your limits, know what you need. If you need down time, take it. If you need to order Domino’s pizza one night instead of local food because it’s comforting, do it. Be good to yourself, and leave the “I shoulds” behind. Call a friend or family member back home. Depression can make it really difficult to want to be social. It’s an isolating disease, especially when you’re surrounded by strangers and your loved ones are very far away. Even if you don’t feel like talking, resist the urge to isolate and call someone back home who you’re comfortable with. Being depressed abroad, especially when you’re alone, is miserable and scary, but you will be ok. Let go of all the pre-conceived notions of what you “should” be doing, let go of the trip you planned to have, and embrace the one you are having. Take care of yourself in whatever way you need to, and know that you will come out of this.
A year after my Thessaloniki nightmare, I was traveling alone around Malaysia. A few weeks in, I again felt depression creeping back in. This time, I was (more) ready for it. I went out and kept busy, but spent time reading in my hostel common area when I felt overwhelmed. Indian food is my absolute favorite cuisine, and lucky for me Malaysia has a large Indian population and I was in Penang, a city widely considered to be the food capital of the country. One night I decided to treat myself to a nice big dinner in Little India. The restaurant was completely packed, and I was lucky to get a table. I was sitting alone at a table for four, and about half way through my meal a woman named Annie asked if her and her husband and their friend could come and sit. What started as friendly small talk quickly turned into an exciting evening with new friends. They told me this was the best vegetarian restaurant in town, a claim that was not hard to believe after all the amazing food I had just shoved into my face. Dinner turned into tea, and even though I was sweaty and anxious and hadn’t been anticipating socializing this much tonight, conversation flowed. Annie’s husband Raj is a yoga instructor, and would I like to join them for class tomorrow morning? I had been traveling with my new lightweight yoga mat, but had been struggling to find places to practice. Meeting a local yoga guru at dinner was exactly what I needed.
After class the next day, I met Anne (not to be confused with Annie) a bubbly Irish-Malay woman who owns the studio. Almost immediately, she mentioned her family’s history of depression. She told me about her experience with it, her children’s experience with it, it was a battle she faced every day. Anne is the type of soul who immediately puts you at ease, and I quickly opened up to her about my own struggles with depression, and how very much like fate it felt for us to have met right when we did. Anne canceled her plans for the day. She took me upstairs where she showed me the singing bowls she got in Tibet for emotional healing. She gave me a lesson on Indian drumming, as she had spent 10 years in India studying the art. She introduced me to her family and we all went out for dinner, and then she and I wandered around the marina sharing stories of our lives long into the night.
I will never forget Anne and Annie and Raj and the kindness that they showed me. They came into my life exactly when I really needed that kindness. When I was staring down the black hole of depression yet again, the universe gave me this experience to remind me that I’d always come out of it. When you’re depressed abroad, it’s easy to feel isolated and alone but you never truly are. Breath. Be kind to yourself, take care of yourself in whatever way that looks like for you, and know that you are never truly alone.