Struggling around the globe: travel with anxiety

About two months ago, I handed the keys to my apartment in London back to the landlord, gave 90% of my stuff away and begged a friend to look after the one item I wanted to keep: my old-fashioned comfy chair.

I packed my suitcase and flew 11 hours and 20 minutes to Los Angeles. Then Las Vegas. Then the Grand Canyon. Then Vancouver. Then New York City. 
And the journey is still going. All by myself.

I suffer from anxiety, which for me is always accompanied by depression and after having been a victim of a violent crime I added PTSD to my mental health plate. It has become a fun little mix.

None of those mental health issues usually prepare you well for solo travelling. In fact, they are great at blocking it all. Adventure and anxiety? Just the thought of taking a leap of faith into the unknown used to send me into a mental abyss.

With many of my peers suffering from similar issues, I have been asked a lot about how I manage this journey. How do I not fall apart in every new place?

The truth is, I do. 

It did not hit me back in London when I was giving all my kitchen items to charity, nor when I dumped the old carpets. I did not cry when I said good bye to my therapist nor to my neighbour’s cat who had been such a good listener for seven years. I was busy with— well being busy. 

My intuition told me to leave London for a while, leave all the trauma behind and see what the world had to offer. Write from wherever the wind blows. It is a very romantic idea. 

Reality hit me in the face the hardest when I arrived in Vancouver, my second main destination on this trip. I knew nobody there and I could not remember why I even added this city to my itinerary.  But here I was in an AirBnb where the host was out of town, feeling utterly lonely.

Naturally the bad thoughts were creeping in. Who would notice if I was not on this planet anymore? No single Canadian would care if I was there or not - they didn’t know I existed in the first place.

Suddenly all the surprised faces back when I had announced my travel plans made sense. How do you cope when you are out of your comfort zone, far away from friends and family and the only person you have to thank for being in this tricky situation is yourself? 

Going through trauma has taught me one handy thing though: do not suppress your emotions. During my worst times with anxiety and depression I always felt embarrassed to reach out, to try and explain my bad feelings, which were seemingly coming out of nowhere. But when the traumatic incident happened everyone suddenly wanted me to break down, to collapse and let go.

But I didn’t. For the first months I had no emotions and I laughed about everyone turning it into such a big deal. It took me a few months to allow the pain and to finally acknowledge that it was in fact a life-changing incident. It taught me to genuinely let my emotions out without shame or guilt.

So instead of holding it in, all alone in Canada, I sat on the couch in a stranger’s home and wept. I wept because I couldn’t appreciate Vancouver’s beautiful nature, I couldn’t take a deep breath of the crisp air, I couldn’t go outside to watch the whales. I wept because I brought this on myself and at the same time I wept because it seemed unfair that I had to deal with mental health issues when other ‘happy’ people embarked on these kind of journeys all the time. At least they did on social media!

If this was supposed to be the adventure of my life time, it would be a pretty bad memory. So I cried about that as well. About feeling lonely, and not fitting in,  about not knowing how to get out of it.

The good thing with crying is, it will stop at some point. It can take a long time, but eventually your body is so exhausted, it cannot go on crying. That’s when the mind becomes clearer and calmer. 

When the silence replaced my sobs, I was able to breathe again and the world around me appeared sharper. 

I would love to say that I made it outside that day, that it was nothing but a small hiccup and only happy travel days followed but that wasn’t the case.

What I did manage is to walk the five minutes down to the beach the next day to watch the waves. The next day I took my host’s bike and did what everyone in Vancouver seemed to be doing: I cycled along the coast. My butt started hurting after fifteen seconds but that kind of pain was so very easy to handle compared to my own mental torture.

Canada was a low point for me, which I only managed through allowing myself the emotions that came up.  I accepted that I felt pretty shitty without digging around for the reason. I just was. Taking it day by day is easier sad than done. Nobody wants to ‘waste’ their time on this earth. But every day I learn a little bit more about myself, my triggers and what is worth fighting for. Being a solo traveler fast-tracks this massively.

I am not going to sugar-coat that solo travel with mental health issues is anything but a challenge (one I genuinely underestimated) but it is possible and it depends on your own ‘emergency-plan’. If you don’t have any methods to get through an episode when you are abroad, I would not recommend trying it. You need to be prepared for it. I wish I would have thought that part through a little bit more before my journey began.

The methods to take the edge off are different for most of us. Some use breathing techniques, some are able to call their friends or family, some (like me) cry it out. The list is endless. But above all, I learned that you have to be okay with not being okay whilst travelling. You might miss some days of sightseeing. You might not feel like being amongst people. Or going outside. It makes no difference where you are. If it hits, it hits.  Knowing these big-little issues are in your suitcase and being aware is a good way to make them smaller. So what, if they sneak in? You are prepared. You won’t be hard on yourself for feeling low. Regardless how beautiful the landscape around you is.

Because at the end of the day, if you want to travel, nothing should hold you back. Certainly not your own mind. When people tell me that I am so strong I always reply that although judging  from the surface that might be true, I don’t feel like it. But then I look at all the challenging days that I battled with myself and came out alive. It makes me smile. Look at the evidence - you are still here.