Extra Baggage: How To Travel With Mental Illness
Here's a scary statistic for you:
Around 450 million people currently suffer from [mental illness], placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.
Can we please just take a moment to let that sink in? 450 MILLION people.
Mental illness is here and it's about time we started talking about it. For reals.
The WHO also reports that 'one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives'. Which means that, chances are, one out of the four people you see waiting at the airport with their suitcases, or hanging out at the backpackers, or rocking out at a music festival, will be experiencing some form of mental illness.
And I used to be one of them.
For eight long years, I suffered from depression and anxiety [the double-whammy] and it cost me dearly. Jobs, opportunities, friends...even my marriage. So when I decided to go travelling solo around Europe in 2012, my biggest fear wasn't getting stranded, or being mugged, or any of the other common travel fears - it was how I would be able to travel when I was having constant, crippling panic attacks.
It was a daunting task and I lost many nights of sleep laying in bed, gripped by terror, convinced I wouldn't make it. In fact, the night before I flew out of Australia, I told my mum that I wasn't going. Locked in yet another overwhelming panic attack, I convinced myself that travelling alone was too big, too much, too impossible to imagine. I was willing to lose all my money and everything I had invested in this once-in-a-lifetime trip that I'd been dreaming of since I was seven years old. That's how terrified I was.
But come the next morning, I found myself on the plane and beginning my four-country transit across the world. Turns out that whilst I was prepared to give in to the fear, my mum wasn't and she delivered me promptly - shaking knees, churning tummy, freaked out expression - to the airport at 4 am.
I did okay up until the international leg of my journey began. After suffering from a panic attack that lasted 6 hours whilst flying from Sydney to Jakarta [trust me, nothing sucks more than losing your shit whilst flying at 30,000ft], I was exhausted. Spent. Frayed at the edges. But I dug deep, popped another Xanax, continued to transit across three more countries, and two days later found myself in Germany.
I never had another panic attack whilst travelling again.
Now, I'm not a doctor and I certainly don't think that all of life's problems can be solved with a pill - let's just make that clear. But there are certain precautions that you can take to ensure that you can still travel - and love every moment - even when suffering from mental illness.
Is it harder? Definitely. Scarier? F*ck yes. But is it worth it? You better believe it.
Here are some of my top tips for travelling when you're carrying some extra baggage - and I ain't talking about your luggage, dude:
1. Talk to your doctor. Before I leave home I always consult with my healthcare professional to make sure I've got everything I need: prescriptions, correct dosages, and emergency health contact details. Even now, after so many years and countries travelled, I always pack an emergency stash of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication just in case. I may not use them, but at least I know they are there if I need them. Travelling or living abroad can be stressful and you don't want to be stuck somewhere without a lifeline. Once affected, always vigilant.
2. Pack your coping strategies. Deep breathing techniques. Meditations. Visualising. Journalling. Positive Affirmations. Whatever works for you, whatever pulls you out of those deeply scary moments when your mind is taking over your body - remember to use them if the situation calls for it. Just because you're going overseas, doesn't mean you have to be some big, brave, intrepid traveller who loses all sense of routine straight away. Ease into it, keep up your relaxation practices, and keep your mind healthy. For me, it's drinking fruit-based teas, meditating, and writing. Works like a charm.
3. Something old, something new, something familiar for when you're blue. Homesickness can be a motherf*cker for even the most mentally strong of travellers. I recommend taking something comforting to remind you of home or something that you associate with happiness. A small teddy bear, stuffed toy, pillow, photographs, your favourite team jumper - whatever makes you feel comfortable. When you feel those pangs of anxiety starting to kick in, just cuddle up and let your senses enjoy the comfort of something familiar.
'Repeat after me: Home is always a part of you, and you can always go there in your heart and mind. You are never as far away as you think.'
4. Get your paperwork sorted. I never leave home without an up-to-date letter from my doctor clearly stating my pre-existing medical conditions and what medication I am authorised to travel with. Even though I no longer have active symptoms or occurrences of depression or anxiety, I still take precautions to ensure that, if they were to return whilst I was abroad, I could go to a health professional to get the help I need with valid medical evidence. Going through the whole mental diagnoses and treatment routine overseas is difficult - if not downright impossible - so err on the side of safety and be prepared.
Likewise with travel insurance. Trust me, you'll need that if you have to see a doctor for a prescription refill or an emergency consult.
Or if you set your face on fire (but that's another story...)
5. Monitor your intake. Travelling can play havoc on the body and mind: late nights, early mornings, little sleep, long hours spent in transit, questionable food choices, irregular exercise, alcohol, partying, sex. Yep, travelling is rarely a relaxing, zen-like experience and keeping the body/mind balance can be difficult. And, if you are one of those sensitive souls who suffer from mental health issues, then you also have to contend with keeping your mind in check.
Watch your alcohol consumption; don't mix meds and booze [the outcome is rarely positive]; try to eat healthy, vitamin-rich whole food options when available, and get some sleep. Keep track of your medication intake and maintain a routine - don't suddenly stop taking them or forget your dosage and double up. You may have to do a little more 'behind the scenes' work than other travellers, but your mind will thank you for it in the long run.
6. Get outside your comfort zone. This is possibly the scariest, but most rewarding part of travelling with a pre-existing mental condition. The shit that scares you the most will actually be the most beneficial to you. A big part of having anxiety is fear, and what better way to overcome that by facing it front on? I did some exceedingly scary and crazy things on my first solo trip that I believe to be the catalysts for my recovery. Seriously.
I'm not saying you have to go skydiving or get a face tattoo, but challenge yourself to break free of the restrictions of your mind and just. Have. A. Go. Meet new people, try new things, say 'YES' to adventures. You'll find that it gets easier the more you do it.
7. It's okay to share. Let me make this clear: It is perfectly acceptable to tell people of your condition if you choose to do so. Having a travel buddy that knows the basics of your mental health status - and what to do in an emergency situation - is not only okay but sensible. You don't have to tell everyone or have cards printed to hand out, but confiding in a trusted person will give you peace of mind and [hopefully] a helping hand if shit gets gnarly.
Don't be embarrassed; plenty of people successfully travel with all sorts of ailments and no one laughs at them. Be proud of yourself for being honest. If they are truly awesome friends, they will understand and be thankful that you let them in on your secret.
*Let me take this moment to offer up my gratitude to all those I've met in my journeys who looked after me when times were tough. And especially to Lisa and Siobhan - two fellow Australian solo female travellers who reached out to this crazy little blogger in Europe and made our wild little travelling posse possible. Even after so many years, you girls are still my favourite travel buddies.
8. Believe in yourself. Above all else, this is the key to successfully travelling with mental illness. At the end of the day, you can pack as much as you want, get as much insurance as possible, and plan for every alternative in your diary, but if you haven't got the mind power to believe in yourself, you're screwed. Know that you can do this, no matter what your head or other people may say. You may leave home a shaking, trembling, pill-popping, knee-knocking mess, but I guarantee that you won't come back the same. Is travelling a miracle cure? Hell no. But is it a powerful tool that could be the key to your recovery? I believe so, with every fibre of my being. I know it's what saved me.
Go forth. Travel. Be open. Dude, you got this.