I’ve had Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) since I was seven years old.
I’ve had an awful case of the travel bug since I was nine.
As anyone who’s experienced depression can attest, it’s a beast of a thing to deal with. It isn’t necessarily constant sadness, though: it’s a constant, persistent apathy, and life becomes defined by the word “nothing”. Nothing sounds interesting. Nothing sounds like fun. Your friends ask what you want to eat, what you want to do, what movie you want to see, and the answer is always, “Nothing; I really don’t care.” Life seems about as entertaining as watching paint dry. In fact, watching paint dry might be preferable to hanging out with people who love you.
The worst part of having depression is the pervasiveness of it. No matter how many miles I go from home, this particular monkey clings to my back with white knuckles, and only grips tighter when I’m far from anything familiar. It would be so easy to listen to the foggy grayness in my head and never leave my bed. But, the wanderlust flows forcefully through my veins, and there’s no chance I’m going to live on this earth and not see as much of it as I possibly can, mental illnesses be damned.
So, how do I manage depression while traveling? It comes down to three things: management, self-care, and chasing excitement.
Management Is Crucial
It doesn’t matter if you’re backpacking through Bali or exploring fine Parisian cuisine: do the same things to manage the depression that you would if you were home.
Do you meditate eight times a day and spend three hours doing yoga? Do you take a cocktail of pills to keep things at an even keel? Do you have your therapist on speed-dial? Keep doing those things, no matter where in the world you are. Download some of your best meditation guides, ask your doctor about bringing refills of any medication you may need, and talk to your therapist about counseling, and your phone provider about coverage.
It’s easy to discredit depression as “the blues”, but that kind of thinking can find you wallowing in your hotel room for a week, waiting for “the blues” to pass, instead of actually exploring the very place you wanted to visit.
Take Care Of Yourself, But Don’t Overindulge
Many a cold and gloomy day (and several bright and sunny ones, as well) have found me holed up in a cafe, sipping on tea and writing my heart out. These were the days I simply couldn’t bring myself to explore anymore; the days I was exhausted, frustrated with myself, and questioning my decision to travel in the first place. The journal entries from those days are defeatist, hopeless, and full of despair. But at the end of every single one of those entries is a resolute determination to accept that, no, today didn’t go well, but tomorrow is a new day, and the possibilities are endless.
As I said earlier, it would be far too easy to spend the day in bed, moping the hours away. I’ve done it. And those days, while not good by any definition, need to be accepted. Pretending those days don’t happen is more harmful than admitting their existence. But it’s slightly better to do something than nothing, and even a simple thing like a shower can turn the day around.
So, take a shower. Get dressed. Do something that brings you comfort; in my case, it was drinking tea in a cafe. Do something to process the depression: if there’s a root cause, like doubt, it’s possible to rationalize your way out of it. For example: a lot of my low days were centered around loneliness: “I don’t know anyone and I’m craving a real, human connection.” Once I found the source of the blue feelings, the solution was fairly simple: go talk to people. I still had the odd low day afterwards, but my trip became significantly better after that realization.
Process the feelings. Accept their presence, but understand they are not permanent, and their existence does not define who you are, nor the nature of your trip. Indulge in something (tea, food, a warm blanket and a good book), but take care not to overindulge. Besides, can you imagine the waste of your time and money if you spent the entire vacation holed up in the hotel?
Do Something Unexpected
The Wayfaring Kiwi has some interesting advice for when the doom-and-gloom feelings arise: go on a hike, by yourself.
It’s solid advice. Personally, I love solo hiking, and moving around and making quantifiable, physical, visible progress in some direction does wonders for the mental state. I encourage everyone to go hiking alone at least once, especially if depression is eating your brain. I like to take the Kiwi’s advice one step further, and open up more options: do something unexpected.
It’s not always feasible to randomly go hiking when you’re feeling gloomy in a major city. But, you can do something a little different from the normal routine and turn your day around.
I’m not a partier. Anyone who has known me for more than a couple minutes can tell you that I loathe parties, clubs, and any loud venue with lots of people crowded together. So, it’s really quite a surprise that I found myself in a club in Reykjavik on a celebratory night in late August (I forget what the exact occasion was, but it was an excuse to party, so the town was bustling). I sipped my beer as the small room began to fill. As the night progressed and the drinks flowed, the bodies of the other patrons began to sway in time to the music that thudded through the air. A loud, dancing group bumped into the table I was sitting at, saw that I was alone, and in heavy Spanish accents, immediately insisted that I join their little huddle of jumping, cavorting bodies. So, I did.
It was more than a bit surreal to be in the middle of this group, jumping in time to the music, shouting our conversations to be heard over the music. I learned they were from Spain, and they were camping, and that was all I could understand. They misheard my name, and cheered the mistake loudly. Under normal circumstances, I would have cringed to be in such a situation, but because it was so entirely out of the norm for me, it took me by surprise and knocked the depression loose, so to speak, and I was able to have an enjoyable time. I certainly wouldn’t have been laughing and dancing had I stuck to my original plan of reading in my hostel bed before falling asleep at the ungodly hour of ten pm.
It’s your life, so turn it on its head once in awhile, especially if you really don’t want to. The results may surprise you.
This isn’t all going to magic the depression away. I still struggle every single time I go somewhere, no matter how excited I was about the journey, and I know that I’m going to have that problem for, presumably, the rest of my life. My heart goes out to you if you’re in a similar situation, and please, never ever ever hesitate to ask for help. Hopefully, keeping these few things in mind can keep the depression at bay, and allow you to enjoy your vacation.