I’m lying in bed again, wishing the world would go away. Outside, the temperature hits somewhere around 35 degrees. I can hear galahs squawking out in the yard, and the crash of the Indian Ocean in the distance. There’s a long golden beach to lie on and sparkling turquoise waters to swim in, just five-minutes’ walk away.
So why the hell am I feeling so low?
Mention the word “depression” in the same sentence as “travel” and most people will give you a verbal slap in the face. Particularly people who have a conventional 9-to-5 job and 25 days of leave a year.
“I’ll tell you what depression is,” they’ll fume, “dragging your carcass out of bed and onto a packed commuter train at 7am every day, five days a week, 48 weeks a year, working eight hours or more, then shuffling back home to eat, sleep and repeat… Now that’s depression.”
Well, not really, mate. Depressing, yes. Possibly even dedicated, in terms of slogging to achieve something. But not depression.
I think these people are confusing depression with watching life disappear whilst wasting hours enduring a sh*t but safe situation, to pay for things they don’t really need, to impress people they don’t really care about.
Real depression is something else. Depression doesn’t care if you’ve found your soulmate to travel with, or have a family who love you unconditionally. Depression totally ignores how many genuine, caring friends you have. It creeps in through the back door while you’re celebrating success or enjoying something special.
And depression gives zero f*cks where in the world you happen to be when it calls by uninvited.
Feelings of despair, apathy, hopelessness and painful sadness can descend at any point, seemingly without reason, because depression is an illness. It isn’t simply a state of mind that can be snapped out of.
Sure, there are often factors that can trigger it: money worries; relationship issues; loss; fewer daylight hours; poor diet (the list is pretty long, as well we know).
But if a chemical imbalance or some mysterious ‘miswiring’ play up in the brain, our mental state can be at its mercy even during the adventure of a lifetime.
Besides medicating yourself to the point of numbed, zombie-like catatonia, what are the options when facing depression?
Everyone has their individual ways of keeping their black dog on a leash. With time and experience, the worst attacks can often be made easier, shorter, more bearable, by knowing your own mind.
And this is crucial if you ever plan to travel long-term.
Prevention is better than cure.
Keep yourself as healthy as possible, eating the right stuff and exercising regularly. Nate and I can vouch for the consequences of treating a travelling lifestyle like a permanent holiday. If you’re going to be on the road for longer than a month, then binge-drinking cocktails four nights a week and lounging by the pool rather than swimming in it are a sure-fire way to end up at a low ebb sooner or later.
Nutrition is also vital. Bananas and oats are just two kinds of food that help tone and soothe the nervous system. Search the web and you’ll find countless others (like here, for example: http://www.webmd.boots.com/depression/guide/diet-depression) We’re firm believers in using nutrition to treat depression. It might not fight it off completely, but it certainly makes the dark cloud more bearable when it comes.
Get to know your own mind by meditating, or at least endeavouring to become more mindful in your daily life. Meditation has helped us overcome some of our darkest days, by remaining calm in the face of difficult situations that might have stressed us out in the past. There’s also evidence that meditation and fitness combined can help reduce symptoms of depression; head here to learn more: https://www.mindful.org/meditation-and-running-a-treatment-for-depression/
Another important thing to remember about long-term travel is how isolating it can be. Although Nate and I have each other for company, there have been times when our illness has left us feeling lonely and utterly lost.
It soon becomes apparent that your network of support from close friends and family is far away, and you’re separated not just by miles, but time zones. Even organising a phone call in these circumstances can be challenging.
Partnered or not, you need to be prepared to face this isolation, as well as work out a way to reach others on those days when you’re not feeling so mentally strong.
Depression is a cruel illness, because it either fools you into thinking reclusiveness is a good thing and therefore has you cutting yourself off deliberately, or plays to your false-ego and makes you do things to get attention, such as posting YouTube videos of Eric Carmen singing “All By Myself” on your Facebook Wall.
So, what’s the answer when you’re 10,000 miles from home and feeling too low to crawl out from under a duvet?
One solution is to try to signal your plight to a close friend or family member. Sometimes the absence of communication can alert others to your well-being, so breaking a pattern of communication can help out too. Just having someone reply with a text message or a simple emoji can be enough of a reminder that you’re not alone with your illness. It’s up to you how and when you respond.
The other remedy for this awful situation is somewhat trickier.
Speaking from experience, the most effective extinguisher of dark thoughts has been to head out and explore wherever we’ve been staying.
This is easier said than done, especially when the black dog just won't leave your side, but we have felt so much better by simply forcing ourselves out to engage with complete strangers in an unfamiliar environment. When language barriers and bizarre customs suddenly pop up in your day, there’s little room for gloomy thoughts. You have to rise to the challenges, or else suffer a complete meltdown on the spot.
Venturing out into nature has also helped us during our worst days. There’s nothing like the stillness of a forest or the majesty of a mountain panorama to bring back feelings of hope, humbleness or just plain gratitude for the simple things in life.
And let’s not forget interaction with animals: being around non-humans is one of the simplest, most rewarding experiences you can have, all feelings of despair forgotten once you lose yourself in their company (check out our blog on pet-sitting to see what we mean: https://www.escapeartists1111.co.uk/single-post/2017/08/21/Why-Pet-sitting-is-Perfect-for-Travelling-Animal-Lovers)
Depression is a complicated, poorly understood illness. Its frequency and degree vary with every individual, with many sufferers learning to recognise an imminent onset. And while managing diet, exercise, medication or lifestyle can help, what works to alleviate its symptoms for some people has little effect on others.
If depression is affecting you severely and continually during long-term travel, we’d advise an early ticket home to be around loved ones as soon as possible, or at least be in a place where you feel safer and more stable.
But if your black dog is a familiar beast and you can detect his approach, the act of acceptance can get you through an episode whilst travelling.
Accept that today isn’t an easy one. Allow yourself the time and space to be alone, to be extra sensitive, to be sad about nothing in particular.
Accept that, at that time, you have depression, as opposed to saying: “I am depressed”, which implies it is a part of you, rather than something you’re only experiencing temporarily.
By bringing your awareness to the present moment, you can accept your condition’s temporary nature, observing it like a passing cloud that will reveal more sunshine at some point.
And when you think you have the strength, take yourself and the black dog for a walk, preferably to the nearest golden beach you can find.
It might be all you and he really needed.
To find out more about mindfulness and managing mental health while travelling, check out our latest book “How to Make Your Escape (and what to expect along the way)”, available as an eBook on Amazon and from our online store.
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