Traveling with Depression: 8 Ways to Cope
If this is the first blog post of mine you’re ever reading, great. I’m glad we’re starting off on a really honest and real note. Also, I am thrilled that you’re here.
I want to start this post by saying that I am extremely happy. I really do believe that I am coming into my own and finding the things in this life that make me tick and bring me joy. However, I’m not being totally honest if I don’t address something that might not be super obvious all of the time. Part of my life that I’m trying to be more open and honest about in blog posts is my battle with clinical depression.
My first diagnosis came in 2011. Since then, it’s been a constant struggle.
I’m writing about it now because I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s unfair and misleading on my part to show you all of the beautiful pictures of things I’ve seen and the places I’ve been and pretend like my life is picture perfect. Spoiler: my life is not perfect. No one’s life is perfect. The person with the most beautiful Instagram pictures or coolest vacations or highest paying job’s life isn’t perfect.
So then why is dealing with depression or any of the other myriad of issues that arise by just being a human such a hush-hush thing? I have a few theories ranging from the negative stigma associated with mental health issues to people not wanting to bog others down with perceived negativity. The one that seems the most likely for me personally is, depression comes with a nasty side effect of crippling self-doubt.
I dealt with this a lot when I published my “Van Life Will Break Your Heart” post. I’ve written whole posts before only to scrap them because I feel like my ideas are sometimes better than my writing abilities. Or I feel like I’m screaming into the void and my words don’t have an impact on anyone. The last thing I want to do is waste others’ time. I’m paralyzed by the fear that people will get to the end of a post and think, “well, that’s ten minutes of my life I’ll never get back.”
This fear leads me to shrink into myself. I have the knee-jerk reaction to not even write a post, let alone write a post about depression – the risk of sounding like an entitled whiner or coming across as a total downer is almost more than I am willing to take on.
However, as I mentioned earlier, that’s totally unfair to the people who may be reading this thinking I’ve got my shit together and I never deal with ugly stuff like depression. If you’ve scrolled through some of my recent Instagram posts, you know I’m trying to be more open about my past struggles with eating disorders and other mental health issues. For whatever reason, typing out an Instagram caption about those struggles is a lot less committal than doing a whole, all-in blog post about it. But here I am. Troy and I are recent retirees of the van life and we’re pouring our energy into making our new house in Florida feel like home, finding jobs, continuing school, etc. In this little lull in traveling, I’ve had enough down time to think about why it was so hard for me to write while we were on the road and how my depression affected me while traveling full time. For these reasons, and for the sake of trying to be more honest and transparent with y’all, I wanted to share some ways that I’ve found to rectify my love of traveling with the challenge of fighting clinical depression.
The true me, the person underneath depression, loves to travel and get out there. Real me loves to wake up early and hike all day and take good care of my body and mind. Depression takes a dump on all of that. When my depression is bad (for me, it comes and goes in waves that I’ve learned to deal with – more on that in this post), I struggle to want to leave my bed. I have to actively fight the urge to wall myself off from what and who I love.
If you’ve ever found yourself in a similar position where you crave adventure, but sometimes your brain chemistry doesn’t want to play along, here’s some tips that I really honed on the road to deal with that inner struggle:
- Don’t feel obligated to be overly happy or expressive all day. You don’t have to put on a show for anyone. I used to be afraid that Troy would think that I wasn’t having a good time if I didn’t have a smile plastered on my face every second of the day while we were traveling together. Even if you’re not struggling with depression, you’ll sabotage your good time if you feel the need to convince others you’re having fun. In the moment, you’re going to get tired. You’re going to get hungry and cranky and sweaty. And, you know what? It doesn’t mean the Grand Canyon is any less amazing. It just means you didn’t get enough sleep the night before you went to see it and didn’t bring enough snacks to the park. It’s okay to be a person and have other feelings besides overwhelming joy every moment of every day you’re traveling.
- Struggling with depression while you’re on vacation doesn’t make you a terrible person or a downer. In my brain I know that depression is something I can manage, but not something I can control. It’s an illness just like the flu or chicken pox. If you’re struggling with depression, IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT. Would you think that catching a cold on vacation makes you a terrible person? No. That’s totally illogical. Everyone knows it’s not like you went out and got a cold on purpose to ruin their trip. Same goes for depression. Not. Your. Fault.
- Find ways to take breaks to be alone or practice familiar self-care rituals. Before you leave on a trip, think about the things you do at home if you’re having a bad day or your depression or anxiety is really acting up. Do you read? Go for a walk? Journal everything? Call a family member? Whatever it is that you would do at home, try to do the same things while you’re traveling to have some kind of familiarity in your self-care rituals. It’s tempting to want to fill every second of every few precious days you have set aside to travel with something new and exciting, but if you carve out a little bit of time to take care of yourself, you’ll avoid stressing yourself out to the point that you can’t enjoy all of the awesome new experiences you’ve planned.
- Make sure who you’re traveling with knows when you need a break. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve looked at Troy and said, “I’m done.” Not the kind of done like “the elevation gain on this trail is killing me and my body is tired” or “I can’t finish these chili cheese fries” done. No, this is the kind of done where I’m a half second away from bursting into tears and/or really emotionally shutting down. He knows what that looks like, and thankfully, he knows how to help. Try to travel with a buddy who knows when you’re done for real and knows how to care for you in that moment. (Note: solo travel is also the bomb. Only bring a buddy if you think it will help you and don’t be afraid to forge your own path if being alone is more beneficial.)
- Journal. I actually wrote a quick little post recently on why I started journaling. It has really helped me with the transition period after living in the van this summer, but I wish I had journaled more while we were actually traveling if only to remember each little place we went. Also, writing in a journal gives you a chance to do something where there’s no pressure to be crazy adventurous or perfect. Your journal is for you to unpack your thoughts while traveling and it can be whatever you want it to be.
- Gently push your boundaries and expand your comfort zone. There comes a point when you’re traveling that you realize you’ll probably never see the people you’re around ever again. Use that knowledge and let it set you free. Sometimes the best way to pull yourself out of a rough patch is to fake it ‘til you make it – gently of course. Maybe find a tougher, more technical trail to try than you usually go for, ask a local where to grab dinner and actually go to that hole in the wall they recommend, do something that excites you and know that there’s no pressure to love it or impress anyone along the way.
- If it helps, create a vacation routine even if it just means waking up at the same time every day and having a cup of your favorite coffee or tea every morning. If you’re like me, a lack of routine is the best way to start spiraling out of control. But, of course, I’m naturally spontaneous and love to adventure – my depressed self and my actual self are a really fun little enigma. *heavy sigh* But really, you can be adventurous and spontaneous, but incorporating little routines along the way might make the mental health situation a little easier.
- Schedule down time for yourself when you head back home. It’s tempting to want to book your flight home on Sunday night when you have to work again Monday morning, but this is probably the best way to give yourself that post-vacation burn out. I know I’m just now starting to return to a sense of normalcy and Troy and I moved out of the van in July, so just be gentle with yourself, and if at all possible, return a day or two early to decompress before you have to get back to life again. Erin over at Erin Outdoors recently wrote a really good post on the whole struggle of returning home and how to come back to reality after traveling. This post really made me feel validated and encouraged, and I definitely recommend it for anyone who needs a little help settling back in after all of those adventures.
I hope we can eventually get to a point that it’s not weird to talk about these issues without fear of judgement or negative responses from others. If there’s some wisdom that I’ve learned from all of my years of soul searching and traveling with depression, it’s this: your depression ,anxiety, eating disorder, whatever it may be, DOES NOT define you. You deserve to be able to look back on your life and say, “yeah I was really going through some shit on that trip to Paris, but man, I did the damn thing.” Even if it’s just for a moment, try to look through all of that doubt and realize that you absolutely deserve to be happy.
Have you done a lot of traveling with depression? What advice would you give someone who was going through something similar? I’d love to know in the comments.