Eternal Arrival
Wellness

Solo Traveling with Depression: Learning When to Say “Enough”

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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.

Years ago, If you told me I'd have summitted a mountain, I'd have laughed in your face.

Years ago, if you told me I’d have summited a 8,000 foot mountain, I’d have laughed in your face.

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.

On my last day of my trip, I couldn't even go out and explore Copenhagen.

On my last day of my trip, I couldn’t even go out and explore this gorgeous city.

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.

Sometimes, even days when you find yourself smiling make you feel like a fake.

The most infuriating thing about depression is the way it makes you question your own lived experience.

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.

When the daily act of feeding myself - literally my favorite thing in the world - felt like a burden, I knew I needed a change.

When the daily act of feeding myself – literally my favorite thing in the world – felt like a burden, I knew I needed a change.

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.

Luckily I have this adorable pup at my side to get me through.

Luckily I have this adorable pup at my side to get me through.

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

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14 Comments

  • Reply
    Janet
    November 17, 2016 at 8:33 pm

    Beautiful post and thanks for sharing. We all struggle with our own inner demons, but most of us are too scared to admit they’re really there. I’ve had some very low moments over the past year too, and totally agree with your thoughts on solo travel. I feel solo travel often makes me question so many of my life choices, having that much time alone in your own company to think everything out can be quite scary! I definitely have a love-hate relationship with it and also know that breaks are always needed.

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      November 17, 2016 at 10:11 pm

      Thanks Janet <3 Yes, there's something about solo travel that really makes you ask yourself the hard questions. Ultimately I know it builds you up stronger, but it can also create this echo chamber in your own head that distorts your ability to think straight. It was hard to admit I needed a break after "only" 4 months - I had imagined being able to travel for months and months on end without a break - but I'm learning my own limits and how to balance it all. Hoping to learn and grow from this time at home - the mental journey is just as important as the geographical 🙂

  • Reply
    Raphael Alexander Zoren
    April 12, 2017 at 2:33 pm

    You have a beautiful soul, Allison! Wish you the best and hope to meet you in person soon this year! Best wishes and a hug of wonders 🙂

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      April 12, 2017 at 2:38 pm

      Aww thank you so much Raphael, that means a lot! Hope so too 🙂

  • Reply
    Andre
    March 15, 2018 at 9:45 am

    I’m fighting depression for years nd I got to your bog because of Albania. I think you pretty much wrote the best travelogue for the country. I live in Brazil and I’m grateful to have stumbled upon your 75 reasons to go to Albania now. Thanks you, I’ll djus my meds and plan.

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      March 15, 2018 at 2:12 pm

      Hi Andre. Sorry to hear that you are struggling with depression as well. It is really hard to co-manage that with a desire to travel, but it’s great that you are recognizing it, treating it, and fighting it. So glad to hear you say that about my Albania post — I do hope you get a chance to visit soon and see why I feel so strongly about it. 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

  • Reply
    Jessie Stringfield
    March 19, 2018 at 2:45 am

    Hi Allison. I wanted to write to you letting you know how much better this post has made me feel. I’ve been traveling solo for “only” four months now and I’ve started to notice a change in feeling towards this backpacking lifestyle. What use to fill me with excitement now leaves me feeling jaded and longing for the familiarity of home. It was encouraging to read your words and to know that I am not the only one feeling this way. Maybe it is the introvert in me that makes constantly being on the go difficult. Most of the time I’d rather be at home playing a board game and enjoying a drink with close friends, not constantly partying with a different group of hostel bros every night. Traveling is my passion and I will never give it up, but I hope, like you, I can find a balance. Do you still think that routine is the enemy? I’m curious to know, because I felt the same way before embarking on this journey. However, now a routine in combination with frequent travel seems like the perfect remedy.

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      March 19, 2018 at 10:22 am

      Hi Jessie! While I’m sorry you’re feeling that way (and also — “only” 4 months is a long freaking time!) I’m at least glad this post could help you out. The more and more I talk to my community of bloggers the more I realize that this feeling is not that unusual. I am so very introverted and constantly being on the go is hard. And I worried that people in hostels didn’t understand my introversion – that they thought I was being rude or weird or lame – and so even when I wanted to take a night to watch Netflix and relax, I never even felt comfortable doing that, you know?

      I still have trouble with routine but I’m working on it. I just moved to Sofia 3 weeks ago and am trying to settle into a life here, and I’m making time for 2-6 week trips in between spurts at ‘home’. So far, I’m feeling a lot less depressed (though my insomnia is a whole other story, lol), but I think in due time as I settle in I’ll start to feel a lot better. One thing that was really helpful for me recently was to take a whole month in a city and just explore from there. That’s actually what made me move to Sofia :P. I made friends with a few expats and saw them a couple times. I had an Airbnb for the month, did some cooking, and did day trips to places rather than constantly moving from hostel to hostel. I hung out at hostels a few times, when I met people who were staying at one, but I didn’t actually stay at one – and that made a huge difference.

  • Reply
    Mayuri Patel
    May 7, 2018 at 8:18 am

    at one or other time , we all are dealing with depression.Its such wonderful post
    I also feel at some points in life like this
    thanks for sharing

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      May 7, 2018 at 11:03 am

      Thank you for your kind comment, wishing you strength for future challenges!

  • Reply
    Chris Jackson
    July 6, 2018 at 10:41 am

    I only recently realized that i have been depressed for a very long time. I am currently struggling with a desire to get away and regroup, rekindle who i was. So much of what you wrote really touched me and energized me. I am glad I found this blog.

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      July 6, 2018 at 12:45 pm

      I’m glad you found it, too, and that these words resonated with you. Sometimes it can be hard to realize you’re depressed, until you finally do and you’re like “what took me so long?” Here’s hoping you get the peace you deserve 🙂 Keep up the good fight

  • Reply
    Mark
    November 11, 2018 at 9:01 am

    Hi, this was a good read. I’ve currently been travelling for three months (two months solo) and it’s a struggle. I kind of expected it would be but people kept telling me “It’ll be fine when you get out there! You’ll have a great time!” and stupidly I believed them. For the first month with my friends we did a lot of stuff because they arranged it all, it’s self-motivation that is the biggest issue for me, thinking that even if I somehow motivate myself to find a day tour to go somewhere, that I’ll just not enjoy it anyway and it won’t be worth the effort. I’ve spent way too may days just going through the motions and way too many days just sitting in my hotel/hostel room where the only plan for the day is it to go out and grab some food and thinking about if I go home how much of a wasted journey to the other side of the world it will have been.

    Anyway, I just thought I’d share, perhaps you have some words of wisdom for me?

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      November 11, 2018 at 10:19 am

      Self-motivation is the biggest problem I face too when I am depressed. Booking things that I can’t cancel without wasting money helps – it motivates me to at least get out of the house and get my money’s worth. I’m usually just grateful whenever I am able to get out and do something, even if I’m in a bad mood and not making the best of it. And if you’re truly struggling with your trip, there is no shame in going home early and regrouping. I did so, took two months to rest and evaluate, and then ended up going back on the road a few months later and had a much better time. Just be kind to yourself and listen to what you need – whether that’s treating yourself to some things that make your time more comfortable even at the risk of a shorter trip (if hostels exhaust you, staying at hotels; if motivation is an issue, do day tours), or going home early if needed. You can always go back on the road!

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