Everyone seemed to promise that travel would be, at least at first, an all-consuming source of stimulation and excitement. Most days would be full of bright new experiences and stimulating social encounters with travellers and locals alike. Sometimes things could be expected to be stressful or lonely, but at the end of the day everything would add up to a great learning experience.
I’ve spent my whole life trying to run from my depression. I fought seeing a psychologist for many years before relenting, and even then resisted trying antidepressants for longer still. I was in denial about my illness, assumed that everyone had it the same or worse, and hated the idea that seeing a therapist would show that I couldn’t handle things on my own. I was even more resistant to antidepressants because I assumed that they were for people with “real” depression and not for people like me who probably just needed to try harder. It took until I had a huge breakdown in 2014 that I finally accepted that I couldn’t handle things on my own anymore.
Most people experience depression at some point in their lives. It is usually situational and goes away after a time. The difference with chronic depression is that it never goes away. I go through cycles where my depression is very, very bad and times when I am just more tired and unmotivated than the average person. I still go to work and university, but when it gets really bad I regularly sleep through lectures and tutorials, and struggle to stay alert and engaged with customers while at work. Medications and therapy lessen the impact on my life, but I haven’t felt free from the grips of depression since my childhood.
Despite living almost eight years of my life with depression that has ranged from mild at best to severe, I falsely believed that long-term travel would be untainted by my illness. Depression in my everyday life manifests itself in pretty typical ways. Excessive sleeping, avoidance of responsibility, inability to concentrate, and an underlying feeling of emptiness and despair feature pretty regularly in my life. For some reason I hoped that the excitement of travel would completely erase these symptoms from my life. Sadly, chronic illness just doesn’t work that way.
Depression while travelling looks like this.
You’re staying in a gorgeous studio apartment in one of the hippest neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires, and yet you’re so tired and sad that you sleep at least twelve hours a night and take two-hour naps every day.
You’re regularly taking showers at 3am and crying alone as you sit on the shower floor, trying not to make too much noise in case anyone else comes into the shared bathroom.
You forget to take your antidepressants one morning, and by the evening you are so consumed by nausea that all you can do is lie on your back and close your eyes while you wait for the medication to kick in.
You lie with your back to everyone in your hostel room in Montevideo and cry silently so that no one can tell how much you aren’t coping and, God forbid, ask you questions about it.
You don’t want to go out drinking with new friends in Bogotá because you know that alcohol lowers your mental filters. But you don’t want to be left out either so you push through and you lose those mental filters. The ones that block out all the negative thoughts that constantly lurk below the surface. You’re ugly. You’re worthless. No one cares. No one cares.
My depression doesn’t define me but I can’t pretend that it doesn’t have a big impact on my life.
Maybe the only learning experience I can take from this is that my depression will follow me everywhere and I need to adjust the way I travel in order to cope.
In my next post I will talk about practical tips to cope with chronic depression while travelling. Do you live with a chronic illness or disability that impacts on the way that you travel? Let me know in the comments below.