Dealing with Depression While Travelling
Does travelling help or hinder mental ill health? One writer shares their experience of travelling the world, only to have depression follow them
Picture this: a small, seaside town along the Albanian Riviera, Dhërmi. The mountains are on one side, the sea on the other. On one of the mountains, a forest fire rages away from civilisation, and in your head it looks like Mordor. It’s been hitting forty degrees all day, but the sun is sitting low in the early evening, and the heat feels dry and still. You’re sat on a pebbled shore, which somehow feels softer than sand would, and is easily far less annoying. Your belly is full of salted squid and warm beer. The sun is winking off the sea, which is hot and silky; some of the water has beaded on your skin. Your freckles are starting to make an appearance. Families are packing up their bags. The beach starts to empty. The only thing you can hear is the sea each time it kisses the shore.
For the first time in months, there is nothing else in your head apart from this moment. You are calm, you are present and you are alive. You smile, and you mean it. The kind of unabashed smile a child gives to the moon on nights staring up at the sky. Beautiful, right?
It wasn’t always like this. For the last couple of years, I had been dancing the line between intense periods of depression and small glimmers of happiness. I had just graduated from university, having lived some of the best moments of my life there, consisting of blooming friendships and nights spent dancing under bright lights, wishing they’d never end. Yet, it was also when my depression had bared its ugly face. For me, it was – and still is – the feeling of never quite being fully awake. Of seeing the world through a blurred lens, like I’m not wearing my glasses. Of never being present. And, of course, the indescribable pain of feeling, so resolutely, that there is something deeply, deeply wrong, but never knowing what it is. Looking back, I can safely say that I was in a good place during my final months at university. I felt like maybe, just maybe, I was starting to turn a corner. I had my first big trip planned to travel around the Balkans with my boyfriend Louis, to places I’d always dreamed of visiting. Surely, after all this time, depression wouldn’t chase me there.
In the lead up to my trip, I’d been worrying incessantly. An unmatching accessory to excitement. I’d been asking myself if it was a good idea to go. Whether it was wise to risk having a bad episode in a new country. Whether it was fair to put that all on Louis. Whether I could deal with the oh-so-long nights all over again. It had happened the year before, when we went to Budapest, and during some of the times I’d visited Louis in Prague. What would I do if I became lost again? Would I be dragging other people down with me? It was something I’d tried so hard to move on from, and if I had to pick a time for it not to come back, it was now. At the same time, I had always pictured melting sunsets and cobalt seas in my future. The idea that I could finally begin to travel the world after so long was also a strange comfort. Could this be something that would help? I’d been told by numerous people that it wasn’t the best idea. But I had it fixed in my head that I could outrun it. Was it truly something I could escape? An obscure kind of therapy? Or was I doomed from the start?
Eventually, I’d decided that these worries couldn’t stop me doing something I’d spent years waiting for, even if I didn’t feel quite right. Like most people, I had read about the mysticism of Thailand in The Beach, seen the toppling opening sequence of the Na Pali Coast in Jurassic Park, and watched as the boys in Stand By Me went on their coming of age journey into the Oregon wilderness. What intrigued me most is that you could find something better than in storybooks when travelling, make your own adventures and maybe discover more pieces of yourself along the way. Something good.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. When departure day arrived, depression had settled into place. The sleepy excitement I’d feel when I was younger – after being bundled into the summer holiday crowds at the airport at five in the morning – quite concerningly wasn’t there. Not even when the plane was in the air; I was asleep before I could revel in the take-off. Instead, there was only worry and the sheer weight of nothingness. Already, I’d tuned out from my surroundings, no matter how new they were. Roaming through the white streets of Tivat, trying freshly-caught seabass, sipping on cocktails as I looked out over Galicica National Park; all were moments felt through a glass wall. My fingertips hadn’t touched the other side. I could see that they were stunning in their fleetingness, and that they were, in many ways, a work of art, but I couldn’t feel them. It wasn’t a wonderful surprise when the sun set peach over Roman ruins, or when we’d had to pay only one euro for a long taxi ride. It was muted, dulled. Like I was looking at a film roll rather than its pictures. It was as if I wasn’t really there.
I know I was lucky during this time to have such a great support network, but I sometimes think about how it would have panned out if I didn’t. I like to think I can do everything by myself, but this is obviously not true. Nobody can. Travelling can do wonders for depression, but I should also stop looking at it as a cure. After over two thousand years, Confucius still hits the nail on its head when he says, “no matter where you go, there you are.” A lot of people attempt a trip when they’re feeling rosy and ready to follow a childhood dream, whereas others use travel as a form of escape, a way to ‘fix’ themselves. I think, for me, it was a mix of both. The thing is that it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, it can catch you unaware. It’ll suddenly be sat on your shoulder, smiling its familiar smile, and you’ll think about how on earth you can get rid of it this time round.
But it isn’t everything. In truth, I look back on some parts of my time in the Balkans with an extreme contentedness that is both out of place but welcomed. In past, present and future travels, there are bad days, but there are also good ones. You may feel like the world is going to end, but then you’ll realise that it’s not. Some nights, you’ll breathe in the warm air and feel it keeping you afloat. You’ll feel a tiny but tangible millisecond of bliss after you open your eyes in the morning. You’ll feel happy.