I laid naked in the foetal position on the floor of the hostel shower, crying uncontrollably while my friend stood over me to supervise. I had made the mistake of going out drinking on a pub crawl in Buenos Aires, against all my better judgment. Alcohol amplifies the symptoms of my borderline personality disorder (BPD), and makes it so much harder to block out the intrusive thoughts that I am ugly, unwanted, and unlovable. When these thoughts had taken over, I had called my boyfriend in Australia and asked him over and over if he still loved me and if he was going to leave me.
This intense fear of abandonment is characteristic of BPD, and one of the symptoms that I struggle with the most. My friend had decided that this was toxic behaviour, and took my phone away from me. I felt a raging, exploding, blind panic at being torn apart from my main support system. I started threatening to jump off the roof of the building if she didn’t give me my phone back. These aren’t actions that I’m proud of, but the urge to manipulate to avoid abandonment is a big part of living with BPD. I have to ignore those impulses each and every time I get upset. The truth is that alcohol just makes it so much harder to cope with.
BPD is hard enough to live with, as I have written about at length, but travelling with the disorder is even more challenging. She is my least favourite travelling companion. The kind that would love a party weekend or a booze cruise in Europe, but can’t hack the challenges of long-term travel. If I get one drop of alcohol in her, she starts whispering in my ear about doing shots and taking as many drugs as possible. She is impulsive, unpredictable, and out of control. The hyper-stimulating and unique nature of travel means that the symptoms are harder to keep a handle on. Travel with BPD is possible, but you need to adapt in certain ways.
Avoiding feelings of abandonment.
Travel is particularly difficult when you live with BPD, because everyone that you love and care about is on the other side of the world. It is helpful to have a regular contact schedule with loved ones, and remind them that the distance is hard on your feelings of insecurity. I often became obsessed with the idea that my boyfriend was going to forget about me while I was gone. Having regular phone calls and video calls with him helped me to cope with these fears.
It is also important to form close relationships with other people while travelling, to stave off the loneliness. I wrote about this in this post, with Couchsurfing and study tours being effective ways to make genuine friends.
Coping with extreme mood swings.
Mood swings are so common with BPD that sufferers often have depressive periods, manic anxiety, intense happiness, and surges of anger every single day. This is truly exhausting, and more so when you are in an unfamiliar environment while travelling. The anger and intense sadness are the hardest to deal with, because trying to confide in a partner or friends back home can often lead to conflict. Distance makes all relationships harder, and I often felt like my emotions were too intense and taking a toll on my relationship with my boyfriend. One of the most effective ways to deal with extreme emotions is writing them down in a journal. You should not moderate yourself when you do this, and write as intensely as you feel, for as long as you need. I have often torn holes in pages from how vigorously and angrily I am writing, but it helps to offload some of my emotional intensity, without taking a toll on long-distance relationships.
Coping with the urge to self harm.
It is easier to resist the urge to self harm when you have your partner or close friends able to come over and help soothe you. When you are overseas and alone, it takes a lot of self-control to ignore the impulse when you are upset. I take my coping techniques from dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT), which is a form of therapy devised for people living with BPD. One of the main components of DBT is distress tolerance, which are skills used to cope with emotional pain, while avoiding self harm. Another component is mindfulness, which focuses on being in the present moment and concentrating your attention on one thing. I use both when trying to cope with the urge to self harm. I listen to loud music to drown out the noise in my brain and give me something else to focus on. I use hot showers to calm my body down and concentrate on the sensation of warm water. I also use self-soothing techniques like rubbing my inner arm with my fingers, and speaking out loud to myself. It is important to devise strategies that feel more natural for you, and which you can do in any place.
Coping with impulsiveness.
The freedom that comes with travel is addictive for someone who is already impulsive. Individuals with BPD are inherently impulsive, often in self-destructive ways. My main impulses are related to alcohol and drugs. I found it especially hard when travelling in South America, because cocaine was widely available and often being used around me. However, I stayed sober. I reminded myself that I don’t ethically agree with consuming cocaine, and I abstained from binge drinking as much as possible. Alcohol is truly a gateway for me, because it lowers my mental filters and really plays into the impulsive nature of my BPD. When I feel like I don’t have full control over myself, I am vulnerable to acting in harmful and stupid ways. Some people can drink and not suffer for it, but I am not one of those people. It is important to identify your own points of weakness for acting self-destructively, and avoid putting yourself in situations where you will be more emotionally vulnerable than usual.
Travelling with BPD can be truly overwhelming. You are already living with the intense emotional symptoms, which are further exacerbated by an unfamiliar environment and unlimited freedom. It is easy to go off the rails or push yourself too far, but this simply leads to horrible emotional breakdowns. Travelling alone with BPD is definitely possible, but you need to take extra precautions to keep your symptoms in check. BPD will always be your travelling companion, but you can at least keep her quiet.