I have a theory that solo travel accelerates everything. Without other human constants to stabilize you, you experience everything more starkly: both more harshly and more beautifully. Your challenges are more Sisyphean; your successes, more revelatory. For someone like me, who has long battled mental illness, traveling with depression makes this even more true.
My four and a half months of constant travel – three of them solo – accelerated the pace of my life on an epic scale. I did things I’d never dreamed I’d do. I climbed the highest mountain in Montenegro, rode camels through the Sahara Desert, hitchhiked through Albania, and had conversations in six different languages with varying degrees of success.
I met people from all walks of life. From the happiest octogenarian in Trebinje, Bosnia who poured rakija after rakija for me to the lady in Berat, Albania who led me hand-in-hand up a cliff’s edge to the castle, I had so many touching moments with incredible, unforgettable people.
Even the shitty people I met along the way taught me something about myself: about my resilience and stubbornness, about my dogged belief that despite the bad apples, the world is still filled with good people, and that it’s worth fighting for.
I’ve always been a fairly resilient person, but after months of non-stop travel, my resilience began to flag as the familiar dark cloud of depression has appeared on the horizon. There were days in Rome where, after hours of motivating myself, I left the hostel only to walk around in a daze, feeling like I might fall asleep on my own two feet just while navigating the city.
I stayed up until 5 am, slept until 1, then berated myself for having wasted the day as the sun loomed low on the horizon just as I was leaving for the first time that day. I burst into tears when I accidentally skipped someone in line at an Indonesian takeaway restaurant in Amsterdam. When Trump was elected, I couldn’t even leave the Copenhagen apartment I was staying in, because I was sobbing for hours.
But here, to speak of my present, I need to go back to my past.
I was first put on antidepressants at age 18, after a nervous breakdown in my first year of college that nearly ended in me dropping out of NYU and moving home. I’d alternate between nights so full of anxiety it felt like my bed was full of needles and I couldn’t sleep, and depression so gripping that even getting juice from the bodega 30 meters from my apartment felt impossible.
After seeking treatment, life started to get better. Once my antidepressant began working, anxiety seemed to be my main challenge. It’s such a physical, visceral sensation: that choking feeling, the coiling stomach, the alienation you feel from your own brain.
But depression is so much harder to suss out. How many days does a bad mood need to last for it to be depression? How many times a day can I smile before I can’t quantify that as a depressed day? How many hours a day do I need to sleep restlessly to qualify as a depressed person? Anxiety is clear: the physicality obvious, painfully so. But depression is murky, questionable, to the point where even you question how much you deserve help.
Years later, having rebounded well from this episode, I made the decision to go off antidepressants rather abruptly and without the assistance of medical professionals, which — as anyone who knows anything will tell you — is stupid as fuck.
I remember standing on the train platform of the J train in Bushwick, Brooklyn, as I got my first brain zap. It felt as if someone opened an enormous door in the middle of a wind tunnel, opening a portal between my ears. The world — all of it — felt like it passed through my two eardrums. And I was scared. What the fuck had I been on that made me feel like this?
I redoubled my commitment to stay off of antidepressants. After all – something that makes me feel like that can’t possibly be good for me. The brain zaps gradually decreased, and for a time, I felt quite okay. When things started to go awry yet again about a year later, I placed the blame squarely on external sources. My dating life sucked. My roommate was terrible. The job I just started was incredibly stressful.
For years, I dealt with it, thinking it was part of life. For four long years, I took nothing but the occasional anti-anxiety pill when my reality felt too much to bear and the only thing I could do to calm myself was lie down, face-down, and breathe.
I thought that quitting my job and getting out of the city that I had grown to hate would fix me. I thought that what I was suffering was purely situational, that traveling would cure my anxiety and depression. So, I planned my exit strategy. I sold all my stuff, gave notice to my job, and set off to travel, like all the blogs told me I should.
For a while, I truly was living my dream. Anxiety and depression were dots on the horizon. I met every challenge with moxie and determination and improvised wildly. I chatted with every stranger, challenged myself, and threw myself into this new life. And god, was I really happy.
Traveling is what I want to be doing. Travel animates me and endlessly fascinates me. It brings me in touch with my best and truest self. Routine is what gets me down. Routine is what kills me. But the last month or so, I was stuck traveling with depression, which is barely traveling at all. It’s survival mode. I’d make deals with myself to urge myself out of the room, escaping only for a few blocks before the world felt oppressive and heavy and I’d retreat to my room or dorm. That? That wasn’t travel.
It’s not travel that causes depression for me. I was still suffering when I was a teacher in NYC. Except I was too busy with paperwork, with calming and trying to teach disabled kids, with the day-in-day-out bullshit of the job. When surrounded by chaos, it was so easy to forget that I was depressed – I was too busy focusing on everyone else because I had to.
Not to sound dramatic, but with the kind of kids I worked with – the kind who’d dart out of the doors and off into the city if you batted an eye the wrong way – lives were literally on the line. It was only when I’d go home and sink into bed and feel myself give in to the void – that’s when I would I remember I was suffering.
But when depression rears its head and you’re traveling solo, you have no distractions. You have time. You are your own company. You feel every feeling acutely. When you are traveling alone, your mood becomes your traveling companions. And let me tell you… anxiety and depression make terrible travel buddies.
Finally, I said – enough. I found a cheap flight back to California a month early – thank you Norwegian Air for being absurdly and improbably cheap and for having direct flights to Oakland. So now I’m back home, working with a psychiatrist to help me get my medications sorted, to get healthy routines in place so I can stay healthy and fit while I travel, and treat myself with the self-love that I always tell others to have – but often forget for myself.
I know that I’ll be able to beat this. I’m a phoenix. I’ve emerged from worse.
At heart, even in the throes of depression, I am filled with a deep, immense, abiding love for myself. I know I have value. I know I still have lessons to teach and even more to learn. I know that I can still bring joy to others, and that others have put smiles on my face so wide they’ve hurt. I have more stories I want to tell. These fingers are just getting started.
“I am a series of small victories and huge defeats and I am as amazed as any other that I have gotten from here to there.” – Charles Bukowski
Allison is a full-time freelancer and travel blogger, exploring the world solo in pursuit of new and exciting adventures. She’s happiest when climbing things, snuggling any animal who will let her, and eating improbably large amounts of food.