Travelling with depression or any mental illness can be challenging. As a long term sufferer of severe, chronic depression and a traveller at heart it’s important to me and to my well being to find ways of getting away when I can. This piece is written with my own experiences in mind and should be taken only with consideration of your own symptoms and experiences – I cannot judge that for you. Trust yourself – you know your own limitations and boundaries.
Depression can manifest itself in numerous different ways; a distinct lack of joy in life, and things that previously gave you pleasure no longer do so. Being unusually tearful, irritability, lacking in motivation, lacking in concentration and poor memory are also indicators. Usual sleep patterns can be disturbed, as can appetite. It is important to know which areas affect you and how you generally cope with them.
Deciding whether you should travel is a very personal choice. I have never let my travelling be curtailed by how I feel as I almost always feel better when I’ve done it, even if it seems a mountain too hard to climb and there are tricky days whilst I’m away. I’ve always had specific coping mechanisms in place though to deal with panic and anxiety and they’ve worked well for me. If you feel out of control of your behaviour and symptoms then it’s something to think through carefully and maybe to discuss with doctors or therapists who know you well. Everyone is different.
It’s also important to think ahead and make sure that you have all your medication requirements with you and to investigate the countries you are visiting and to make sure that you have any necessary official paperwork with them should you need it. It’s best to travel with medication in its original box, with the pharmacy label on it which shows it’s made out to your name. Also take only what you need plus three days extra supply so you don’t look like a dealer but have sufficient to cover delays.
What makes me feel safest when I’m overseas is knowing what to expect. Before I travel I generally know where I’m staying, at least for the first few nights, and what I want to do when I get there. It’s unnerving to arrive in a strange place without somewhere to stay. Others might like the excitement of it but I find that it’s good to know, go straight there and have somewhere to leave my stuff. I like to have done some research so I have an idea of what I might like to do when I get somewhere. I might even have booked in some activities in advance – not too many as an element of freedom is nice but as I often travel alone it’s nice to have some things to look forward to. When in Rome I visited the opera, in Istanbul I saw the Whirling Dervishes and an evening of traditional dance, in Jordan I was with a tour for most of the trip but once I was on my own I booked some scuba diving. The planning process is one that I enjoy and it gives me a loose structure to my day.
I also know that when I’m having a rough day small steps are the key. It’s the same at home. When I’m in London on a bad day I break it down into achievable tasks. On a really bad day they get as small as sitting up in bed, standing up, walking across the room. On a not so bad day they might be, get up, have breakfast, shower and dress. In this way I get myself up and moving. Then, in a hotel it might be that I have to work out where to go to get to the thing I’d like to do, how I’m going to get there… once I’ve done that I’m usually on the move and the rest of the day begins to happen more naturally – getting up and out is always hardest for me.
It’s important to look after yourself whilst you’re away. New places are exciting and there is also the eagerness to see a whole place whilst you are there. Make sure that you get adequate rest and relaxation. Don’t be hard on yourself. If you’re tired then take a break, go to a spa, sit in a park or read a book in your hotel room.
Sometimes you will need to do some long days – a site you particularly want to see or a day of travelling. Try and plan slow days around them so that you don’t get overtired.
Make sure that you eat and drink sufficiently and try to avoid too much junk. It will help your mood if you’re functioning on good nutrition and fully hydrated. Remember that in hot climates you will need more liquid than usual so always ensure you have more water on hand that you think you will need.
Although it seems obvious avoid too much alcohol (if drinking at all). It’s a drug and although one drink might make you more relaxed it soon can drag your mood down. Many anti-depressants recommend that you avoid alcoholic drink altogether as it can mix with the drugs you’re on and produce unwanted side effects or reduce the efficacy of your medication so follow the advice on the label or from your pharmacist. It goes without saying that you should avoid all illegal drugs completely.
Lastly make sure you have a back up plan and can get yourself home or to the care you need.
Above all it’s important to enjoy your travels and have fun. Do things that make you feel good, and try not to force things. It is possible to travel with depression but take it easy on yourself and look after your well-being as you do so.