Dealing with depression thousands of miles from home
SINCE I WAS IN MY EARLY TEENS, I’ve made most of my decisions based on two factors:
- A deep desire to travel
- An often debilitating depression
I’ve been lucky enough to visit 18 countries through various means: study, research, work, and travel. All of these experiences have been incredibly meaningful, but not all have been “blissful.”
I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression during college, and I’m on a daily dose of pretty, pink antidepressants, which have made life much sunnier. But even with the medication I still have stormy days. And these days don’t go away just because I’m in an exciting foreign place.
Before I was officially diagnosed, I backpacked through South America; a friend and I spent six weeks on buses up and down the continent. After disembarking from a bumpy, 12+ hour ride from Bolivia to Peru, we walked around Cusco. It rained that night, and my friend and I ran back to our hostel, criss-crossing alleyways and splashing past empanada vendors.
We planned a trip to Machu Picchu the following day. After consulting with the hostel owner and introducing ourselves to a tall Swede who would be travelling with us, we began to get ready for sleep.
As my friend got into bed, I started re-organizing my pack, and I realized that I had forgotten my favorite scarf on the bus. I immediately broke down into hysterical sobs.
I rushed to the communal bathroom, and I lay down on the dirty tile and cried, ignoring the knocks of travelers trying to shower. I sobbed and shuddered, my chest heaving choppy breaths and tears falling down my cheeks.
My mind raced. I thought about what a failure I was. I couldn’t do anything right. I couldn’t get to Machu Picchu. Was I crazy? I couldn’t even remember to grab a scarf. What was I doing there? In Peru? I didn’t belong there. I sucked. I was the world’s worst backpacker. I was wearing the same pair of underwear for the third straight day. I didn’t even own hiking boots. Who did I think I was fooling?
I could barely breathe, curled into fetal position on a grimy hostel bathroom floor in the Andes. I felt pathetic, and it didn’t matter that I knew my thoughts were ridiculous. They felt so real, so true. I cried until my head pounded. I later realized that that 30 minutes on the tile was the longest span I had spent by myself in nearly five weeks.
I wasn’t upset about the scarf. I had loved it, but its loss didn’t cause my hysterics. It was just a trigger for an emotional collapse. Its loss was a black hole, sucking away all of my excitement, all of my energy.
Emotional collapses can be brought on by anything. Before I was diagnosed later that year, my silliest reason was dropping the remote control from my bed to the floor. I wailed for nearly an hour about what a loser I was.
Traveling is stressful for anyone, but particularly for someone with depression or anxiety issues. You get very little alone time, you have to make small talk with strangers, you get lost often, and cultural issues can be confusing. Travel companions don’t understand the need to do nothing when they’re somewhere they can do anything. Travel means a schedule, a list of sites to see and things to do. Travel doesn’t include time for a breakdown.
Sadness while traveling can seem almost criminal because I not only feel sad, but I feel guilty for feeling sad. I begin to believe that I’m spoiled, that I’m ruining a once-in-a-lifetime experience, that I’m unappreciative. But I’m not. I’m just a person with depression in a strange place.
7 Tips for dealing with depression on the road
- If you use medication for your mental health, make sure to pack it. It should be the first thing that goes in your luggage. It can be hard to remember to take medication when you are doing something different everyday, so I keep mine with my toiletries. When I brush my teeth in the morning, I also take my pill. You could also keep it near your undies or put it in your shoes before you go to bed.
- Don’t be afraid to say no. When I travel, I have a tendency to push myself to do things because “I might never have the chance to do it again.” But if that thing is going to the bar with your travelling companions to try Bolivian beer, and you would rather stay at the hostel and read a book, it’s okay to stay at the hostel and read a book. (Bolivian beer sucks anyway.) Depression is an exhausting illness, and it is okay to rest.
- Forgive yourself. When you are in a new land with a new culture you will make mistakes. Maybe you’ll pass a dish to someone with your “unclean” hand or maybe you’ll address a kind grandma as “Senor” instead of “Senora.” Just take a deep breath. Apologize if the situation merits it, and then forget it. Everyone makes mistakes in new places. This does not make you “rude.” It does not make you “ignorant” or “ungrateful.” It simply makes you foreign.
- Write things down. Every traveler should keep a journal. Writing down what happens to you is the only way for the trip not to seem like a whirlwind years later. It’s especially important for a depressed person. Use the journal to record the day, but also to keep track of your moods. Have you had mostly “up” days? What were your triggers before a “down” day?
- Bring a reminder of someone you love. When I travel I like to have something physical to remind me of my familiar, comfortable home. Usually, I bring a hard copy of a picture. I like to hold the picture of my family before I go to sleep. You might bring an old t-shirt or a scrap from a favorite blanket. Knowing that I have someone I love back home makes me remember that travelling is just temporary. These stresses won’t last, and neither will the positives of the trip. So just enjoy the experience.
- Make sure you have a way to contact home (or your doctor). Make sure you have money on your Skype account or a phone card, so you can contact your family, friends, or therapist, if you need help immediately.
- Open your eyes. Walk on new streets. Eat new food. Smell new smells. Look around and be amazed.
- Say no
- Forgive yourself
- Track your moods
- Reminder of home
- Emergency contacts
- Try things
Two days after my collapse (plus two rides in creaky vans driven by 17-year olds and one post-sunset hike along a train track), my friend, the tall Swede, and I arrived at Machu Picchu. That day was one of the most incredible days of my life. Maybe doubly so because I had done it in spite of my depression.
We walked into the site before the sun rose, and fog still covered the grounds. I felt breathless as I watched the sun rise, the clouds lift, and the city reveal itself. In the early afternoon, I hiked the mountain behind the ruins and stared down at the ancient city, imagining the people who had called its walls home, each with her own dreams, her own memories, and her own sadness.