The prospect of traveling to unfamiliar countries can be daunting. The same can be said about dealing with mental illness — in my case, anxiety and depression.
Combining these potentially volatile ingredients can, to those of us who may not have had much experience with any, invoke the taste of a potentially deadly cocktail on one’s tongue. Before heading out, I found myself nervously and honestly inquiring to no one in particular; “Can it be done”?
My answer, after careful consideration, is yes. Absolutely — yes.
To break it up, I’ve made a few points of things that have helped me along the road so you don’t have to resort to Google for answers that don’t entirely exist like I did!
1. Talk To Your Doctor.
First off, I am (obviously) not your doctor and cannot, therefore, tell you what can and cannot be done with regards to your specific condition. They will be able to help you whip up some coping strategies and, if necessary, figure out a plan for dealing with your medication abroad (if you are taking a prescription).
2. Figure Out Your Drugs!
This was probably my biggest cause of concern. Images of running out of or losing my medication constantly flashed through my mind. An emotional crisis in the middle of a foreign jungle. My poor dorm mates unequipped and unaware of how to deal with this black mass pulsing frightening energy from the top bunk (Obscurus, anyone?). Allow me to clarify the reality.
To begin with, my doctor was able to extend my prescription by six months – three of which were covered by health insurance, while the other three came out of pocket (amounting to about $60 CAD all together for a 50 mg daily dose of Sertraline, the generic brand of Zoloft). I kept about a week’s worth in my day pack and the rest in two separate pockets in my main bag. That way, if I somehow lost one of my supplies, I would have at least a little bit of time to get to a pharmacy. That brings me to another little known point: you can easily get many types of prescription medication over the counter in Asia that you would usually need to see a doctor for in most Western countries, and for about a third of the price. The only thing holding me back from filling my entire backpack with a year’s worth of antidepressants was the thought of declaring it at customs.
3. Find a Safe Place and Wait It Out.
A wise friend and experienced traveler once gave me this advice, and I carry it with me as one of my most valuable and well-used tools in the box.
Wherever you are in the world, these places exist. Spend a few extra dollars and get a private room for a night if you need to. If you need to extend your stay in a certain place, do it. Don’t go throwing yourself into a New Delhi train station with a head full of stuffing. I once found a lovely little cafe with a cat named Moon, mulled wine, and a wood-burning fire place during a particularly dark period spent in Northern Vietnam, and I spent a large part of my time here waiting out the storm. You all know deep down that whatever it is in your head will pass – even when your backwards pain-loving mentality tells you it is permanent, deserved, and intrinsically you. Sit tight, allow your eyes to glaze over, drool if you must, and wait for the inevitably brighter days ahead.
4. Don’t Abandon Your Support.
I love traveling alone. I love being alone. Often, when I am experiencing the deepest reaches of my sadness, I believe there is no other logical way to move forward than to abandon those I love, thus sparing them from what suffering I cannot spare myself.
However romantic it might be to revel in your disillusioned independence, dependent on the nature and severity of your illness, this can be dangerous and reckless. If you feel as though you are healthy and ready to support yourself on that quote-on-quote truly-authentic-deletes-all-methods-of-contact-no-wifi-solo-mission, then by all means, cool. You be the judge.
Support can mean staying in regular contact with those at home – something which has become so. incredibly. easy. The development I can see in communication technology even looking back at my 2011 backpacking trip through Europe is in itself mind-boggling. Talk to them. Let them know you are okay. By doing this, you are also letting yourself know you are okay.
Support can also mean having a travel companion. Traveling with a friend or loved one can be the best thing ever. It can also be very hard. I struggled with this for a while, constantly getting cold feet about leaving the country with a partner, before ultimately realizing there is no ”right” or “more authentic” way to travel, such as there is no definitive “right” or “more authentic” way to live. Right now, I am traveling with my best friend. We have had incredible experiences, both together and apart, and we have had experiences that have tested our friendship. Inevitably, the latter only makes us more patient and compassionate with one another in the long run. Having someone with me who knows my history (medical and otherwise) has helped me in times when I could not help myself, and has been an important stepping stone in learning how to deal with my temperamental mind abroad.
5. There Is No Shame In Going Home.
You owe absolutely nothing to anyone. Not even that weird, angry, volatile part of your brain that is telling you how much you suck for wanting to “give up.”
Your trip is your own, and, most importantly, so is your health – mental and physical. Said you were staying for a year? Most likely, no one even remembers this (sorry). Afraid of what your friends and family might think? I believe the definition of friends and family quite possibly includes something along the lines of “people who generally prefer spending time with a physically-present version of yourself over a glitching, pixelated blob on FaceTime.”
More important questions: Are you in a constant state of distress? Do you need medical attention beyond that of a sketchy Cambodian pharmacy? Are you not enjoying yourself anymore? Dude. Get yourself on a plane. You can always go back on the road. Don’t ever think that you have backed yourself into a corner. Ask yourself if you would be blamed for flying home after breaking your leg in an unfortunate bungy accident. We all know the answer.
Maybe — just maybe — traveling will help you in the way you hoped, but highly doubted (hey, anxiety!), it would. Maybe it will help your mind see in ways in couldn’t before, and help you find a place for the feelings that hurt you instead of burying them under a thin, translucent membrane of mundane routine.
Just try letting your mind wander when you are in the middle of a chaotic intersection in Ho Chi Minh City with motorbikes flowing around you like water. Crippling anxiety about your job? That you don’t have? Thought so. And how can you possibly be depressed when you’re eating the fluffiest rabbit-shaped pancakes you’ve ever seen!?!
First of all, you will be continually meeting people who will shine light on dark and angry corners you didn’t know you had, in ways you might not quite understand at first. These new connections, for me, have been integral in helping me recognize myself. You are seeing new things every single day. You are tasting foods you hadn’t even imagined existed, learning new languages, and deciphering the next currency exchange in this week’s country like it’s your day job (it is your day job, basically). Your brain simply doesn’t have time to build those black holes like it used to.
Believe me, it will try. And you will have your days. But there is something so naturally healing in surrounding yourself with a new environment, and new people, every day. You can no longer blame your mood on the dismal colour of your apartment walls. The quickness of it all, the force for thought beyond yourself, and continual processing beyond your menial daily tasks, ensures your mind is elsewhere.
Take a pill. Buy a ticket. Both. Neither. You will, over time, learn what works with your body and mind. There is — surprise — no right or wrong combination.