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Travelling with mental illness

Travel is one of my greatest passions. Both literally and figuratively, it is an escape from normal life. I can see things I would never normally see, meet amazing people, and immerse myself in different ways of life.

Another significant part of my life, however, is mental illness. Though it does not define me, it remains a significant factor in most areas of my life. Unfortunately travel is no exception.
When I first went travelling without my family at 18, I optimistically thought that my mental illness would stay at home while I “found myself” in a string of European bars. The need to find food and shelter whilst attempting to take in each city proved successful distractions.

I optimistically thought that my mental illness would stay at home while I “found myself”

However, this was jarred by the fact that I still had to push back episodes of panic. I didn’t feel depressed, but the new challenges and environments instilled a constant sense of anxiety within me. Though there were many moments where I felt an unadulterated happiness, there were equally moments when my normal difficulties crept back in. Travelling alone brought similar challenges. The day before I left, I was a mess. I didn’t want to go and I had convinced myself that something terrible was going to happen. Conversely, it was an amazing experience.

I took my mental illness with me, but more importantly I proved to myself that I can cope. Solo travel had previously been off the table, but I managed it in spite of my additional baggage.
My most recent trip – a month-long road trip around California and Nevada – showed me that even after years of travel, there still can be difficulties. I packed ample medication, a plethora of self-care items, and planned extensively to help me relax.

I proved to myself that I can cope

However when we landed in San Francisco, I was immediately clouded by a level of anxiety that stopped me from eating, made me exceptionally irritable, and bound me to my hostel dorm for the first 12 hours in the city. At points I was hyper-aware of my self-harm scars as they became more prominent in the sun. There were days when I simply could not eat and others where I had to escape to the car in order to get some respite from my anxiety.

I had an incredible trip. However the most important lesson that I learned is that no matter what I do, I carry my mental illness with me whether I like it or not. Whatever the severity of mental health issues people must be willing to properly take care of themselves while travelling.

There were days when I simply could not eat

A wheelchair user wouldn’t leave their wheelchair at home if they went travelling, so those with mental illness must accept that they need to take their self-care with them. Travelling has given me a level of confidence and self-belief which I never had before, but that does not mean I am always “okay”. It has taken time and there will be difficult periods on my trips, but I feel more able to cope because of travel.

My best times while I have been away have not happened in spite of my mental illness. They have happened when I accept that I have limitations and I work with rather than against them. In this, I have realised just how beneficial travel is to my own health.


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