Memories that Last
When you have depression, even the most innocuous narratives that you face in day-to-day life can start to feel intimidating and isolating. And this is definitely true of the way that other people talk, think and write about travel. Seeing new places, experiencing new cultures and embarking on adventures outside of your comfort zone can sound wonderful in theory, but next to impossible in practice when the simple act of getting out of bed can feel like a journey in and of itself.
I spent years listening to my non-depressed friends and acquaintances wax rhapsodic about their travels while assuming that such things would always be beyond my own monetary and psychological means. Then I lucked into a junket in Las Vegas in 2011. It didn’t change my life, but that trip did manage to change my mind a little bit. I was just as depressed at the end of those four lavish days as I was at the start — and I didn’t manage to squeeze in quite as much as my mentally healthy counterparts — but I still enjoyed myself. I still got something out of the experience.
Since then, I’ve developed an interest in the art of traveling while depressed and how to make my desire to see the world outside of my bedroom enriching without draining or breaking me. I might not have the same kind of transformative experiences that other people have — or at least claim to have — when I’m away from home. But I’ve amassed some amusing and meaningful memories that have worked for who I am and where I’m at in life.
Every person experiences depression differently and the specific mindset and coping techniques that have helped me won’t necessarily help everyone. But I’ve come up with the following general tips for anyone with depression who is interested in traveling.
Don’t Place Unnecessary Expectations on your Trip
We’re constantly told that a change in setting or circumstances can lead to a major change in our perspectives or mental well-being. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking can make a person place all sorts of undue pressure on a simple excursion. When you combine that with depression’s lying and self-flagellating ways, this can easily lead to a scenario where you expect too much from your travels, and then feel guilty when your experience is anything less than perfect.
Travel can’t cure depression. Chances are that it won’t even make a major change in your life. That doesn’t mean that it’s a waste, though. If it ends up being little more than a minor distraction from your daily life, that has value. Even if you just end up being your usual depressed self in a new location, you’ve still accomplished something worth celebrating.
Don’t Place Unnecessary Expectations on Yourself
On that note, a trip where you don’t significantly change yourself isn’t a failure, either. Just like the trip doesn’t have to change you to be worthwhile, you don’t have to change in order to make your travels worthwhile. If you’re not feeling 100 percent the whole time, that’s OK. If you need to spend more time in bed than you think someone who has put time, effort and money into going somewhere should, well… at the very, very least, you’re hanging out in a different bed. That’s still something.
Besides, pushing yourself too hard to meet an arbitrary idea of being a good traveler is only going to make you feel worse in the end. And that’s a bigger threat to an enjoyable vacation than being your depressed self could ever be.
Be Honest and Be Gentle when it Comes to Planning
Look at yourself, your needs, your energy levels and roughly sketch out a plan that speaks to who and where you are in life. Can you think of a destination that sounds feasible and might make you happy or at least less miserable? Go with what sounds right to you.
Once you’ve figured that out, you can also assess what kind of pace will appeal to you and help you get the most out of your time away without making it feel like an exhausting slog or yet another obligation that you have to drag yourself through. Think honestly about what your limits are at this current time in your life, and aim for an itinerary that will gently nudge you out of your comfort zone. There’s no need to push any harder than that. Surviving depression is hard enough. You deserve some recreational time you might actually enjoy.
Don’t Be Afraid to Schedule Downtime
If depression is messing with your energy levels, or even if it just makes you think that a jam-packed itinerary sounds like pure torture, don’t be afraid or ashamed to make a game plan that actually sounds both good and survivable to you. The way most people talk about travel might make you think that you have to cram in as many sights and experiences as possible into your brief time away from real life, but that pace doesn’t work for everyone. Plan for breaks. Plan for relaxation time, whether it’s in your room, in a spa or somewhere else that’s quiet and low pressure. And plan to enjoy it, because there’s something very rewarding and refreshing about simply allowing yourself to recharge your batteries.
First and most importantly: If you are taking medication for your depression, do not forget to pack it. The same goes for any other aids you might require for mental and physical health purposes.
In addition to that, though, I also find it helpful to pack a few things that provide me some sense of comfort when I’m in a new situation. Whether it’s a trusted hoodie, an iPad stocked with a few choice episodes of my favorite TV shows or even a stuffed animal, I tend to function best while travelling if I have a few touchstones from home that can ground me when I start to feel exhausted, overwhelmed or unmoored in my adventures.
Go Where you Want
In terms of both your chosen location(s) and what you want to do there, choose to do what you genuinely want to do. Even if no one else understands it. Even if they judge you for it.
I’ve been back to Las Vegas a number of times since that first junket. There are probably other things I could do with my time and money that might enrich me or challenge me more, but I like going there. I love the kitsch, the food, the vintage clothing stores and the sheer spectacle of it all. I also love the ability to return to a place that is somewhat familiar while still being an alternative to my regular life. That’s exactly the kind of trip that works for where I am in life at the moment, so that’s what I do. And I highly recommend trying the same for yourself.
Build a Support System
If you don’t like traveling alone, this could, ideally, mean a travel buddy who cares about you and gets you. Maybe even someone who knows when to help you push outside of your comfort zone and when to back off. (I often travel with my mom because she’s fun to hang out with, likes similar things and is great at all of the above.)
If you’re more a of a lone wolf, plan to have a friend or two — or even a therapist — that you can check in with if you need them while you’re away. You’re not a failure or unadventurous if you need a little comfort or grounding from a familiar source while you’re exploring the outside world.
I’m not suggesting that you tell every random stranger your entire personal history but, if there’s a situation where you can casually and comfortably mention depression, why not try it? The worst that can happen is that you have an awkward moment with someone you’ll probably never see again. Best case? You might find an unlikely ally.
One of my favorite travel memories happened as the result of me making a joke about my mental health with a group of amiable strangers at a beach resort. The next thing I knew, I had a new best friend in a similar situation, and we spent the rest of the night giggling, comparing notes about our favorite places to cry by the pool and giving each other pep talks about how it was OK that we didn’t feel entirely OK in the middle of paradise.
It’s OK to Cry
You’re also allowed to give yourself a break from the pressure to feel happy or even remotely “better” while you’re traveling. Depression will probably try to convince you that you’re a failure if you trip is anything less than cheerful and positive — and then convince you to feel even worse as you beat yourself up about that and enjoy yourself even less — but it’s not the end of the world if you cry, break down or exhibit any other depressive symptoms while you’re away from home. Your trip isn’t ruined because neither you nor it are perfect.
Give yourself the space and permission not to be all right for a while. If you still feel like you’re missing out on new experiences, you can always find somewhere different and beautiful to cry in for a while. (The aforementioned poolside crying was actually pretty lovely, all things considered.)
Don’t Compare Yourself or your Travels to Anyone Else
One of my best friends is a world traveler who oversees elections in Eastern Europe and studies with Mongolian horse whisperers for fun. I’m thrilled for her. I’m inspired by her passion. When I’m not feeling the best about myself, I also feel a little insecure about how modest my travel history and goals are in comparison to hers.
When I’m thinking a little more clearly, though, I realize that I wouldn’t want the same things as she does even if I weren’t dealing with depression. It’s OK to like different things. It’s OK to want different experiences when you set foot outside of your home. And there’s nothing wrong with pursuing what actually appeals to you. The concept of what we “should” do already ruins so much for people who have depression. Don’t let it taint this, too.
Arguably travel itself is a treat — especially for those of us who don’t exactly come from means that make this kind of activity comfortably affordable — but it can also be a bit daunting when you’re facing the situation while dealing with depression. This is why I’ve become fond of budgeting for one indulgence that uniquely appeals to me and my needs when I go away.
Sometimes it’s a spa day. Other times it’s room service — which is a particularly good way to remind yourself that you’re out and about and doing something different from your usual routine, while also allowing yourself to curl up and hide from the world for a while. But it’s always something that allows me to take some time to acknowledge how far I’ve made it, and that that alone is worth celebrating.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up
It’s much, much easier to say than do, but try not to stress out about less than ideal situations that might transpire while you travel. Even if it starts to feel like the whole thing might be a fantastic failure. You might be surprised at what can become a treasured — or at least amusing — memory later on.
In the fall of 2016, I spent a night sobbing in a hotel bathtub, convinced that I had ruined my vacation, an important relationship and my life. Now it’s just a mildly funny footnote in a trip that I’ve come to cherish a lot. Even if you never get to that point, though, it’s still OK. You did something new. You went somewhere. These things have value. Don’t even let anyone, including your own depression, tell you otherwise.