“I suffer from anxiety as well,” you see these exclamations popping up all over the internet. Dear Evan Hansen has become a portal for confession seeing that a singing and weeping titular anti-hero gruelingly opens up on stage night after night at NYC’s Music Box Theatre.
Let’s talk about depression and anxiety
During my visit to New York City a while ago, I walked by the theatre and a line stretched along the length of the street hours before the show. What the queue was for, I enquired. People had been standing there as early as 8:30 am in the hopes of scoring a cancelled ticket for the same day evening performance. I stepped in line but after waiting nearly three hours, was told to go. Only a few people had given back their tickets. The show was too sought after.
I should have tried again the next day. I signed up for the lottery. I should have looked at tickets in advance. I shouldn’t have beaten myself up about this. But the more I tried to not think about it, the more I happened to open my browser and google tickets for random dates coming months. Next thing I knew I got swallowed up by the maelstrom of youtube (wait, was it that I came here for again?), watching countless performances of ‘Waving Through a Window’.
This musical relates so much to me. Especially the past me. The anxious child who perfected her invisible ninja skills hiding behind mom, trees or furniture so as not to be perceived but desperately wanting to be called over. Wanting to play with other children without strings attached. (Jep, I had ‘friends’ that demanded but never gave.) Be allowed to laugh and not be laughed at. Be allowed to run wild and not be afraid of getting scolded.
When was the last time you were worry-free?
I remember laughing out loud at everything. I had a blast. I But then my ‘friends’ didn’t like that so much. Being the people pleaser that I was, I learned how to stop myself mid-laugh. That wasn’t enough. So I quickly unlearned to laugh altogether. Then, I stopped smiling while I was at it. Thinking of imaginary dead hamsters was my go-to image so I could be ‘less annoying,’ as my friends would call it. It made me wish to never have a hamster as that would only make me cry.
But not being smiley didn’t go down so well during puberty. “Smile more; you look like you just came from a funeral.” Strangers felt the need to let me know how my face wasn’t pleasing them. When my schoolmates started chiming in, I knew something was wrong with me. I couldn’t make it right no matter what. Smiling too much. Annoying. Not smiling enough. Cranky. Obviously the fault lay with me. I must be utterly unlikeable. I must be broken.
Needless to say I became a nerd, anxious over the mere thought of failure. Getting a B- resulted in a cascade of tears, in the safety of my home of course. I saw how a friend of mine got teased for not holding back in class (for an A- no less). So I tucked away my emotions. All but the deep dark blanket of sadness that I crawled under standing by the window in my room, watching people down below go by. Living life. I was waiting. For change? I didn’t know.
There is no “reason” for depression
My childhood wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t traumatic. (Well, except for that awfully cruel incident of public humiliation one of my teachers bestowed upon me for daring to suggest we hang up window decorations.) I grew up moderately privileged. But mental health doesn’t care for any of that. Sometimes your own mind is your worst enemy and outside circumstances happily – and often unknowingly – provide the sticks to fuel the fire. And throw a marshmallow on top while watching you slowly turn to smoke.
Luckily for me, school ended. University was a big turn for the better. But it wasn’t until I was left to my own devices that things started to slowly shift. Moving abroad – even for just a few months – was a life changer; a soul saver. It was what ultimately helped me. In England, nobody knew who I was. I could create a new identity for myself. I could be braver. If I failed, I could just leave.
I taught myself to cook my favourite meals. I talked to strangers. It was simple things like these that suddenly made me feel like I was winning at life. Like I knew how to function, if at least on a superficial level. That all fell away once I returned home. Everyone who has lived or studied abroad or travelled for a few months will know the slow burn that is reverse culture shock. It can hit you hard, especially with the formerly most familiar things.
Travel, coming home and the dark side of it all
Where the people treated me the same as before even though I knew I had made leaps and bounds in getting to know myself. In accepting myself. At home, nothing had changed and the little space I once occupied felt much much smaller. And it didn’t fit anymore. The excitement and plans I had after I returned were soon pushed aside for more studies, part-time work, job hunting, internships. I had arrived back in the daily grind.
I would like to say that things got so much better after everything I had worked for became true. A job, a car, a house. Nothing of that sort happened. 300 applications and two barely paid internships later I was looking my depression dead in the eye again, numb from crying myself to sleep every night. “Don’t think too much about it, push through, get a hobby” were not the responses I had hoped for when I finally admitted to my friends my self diagnosis. Depression isn’t something you can get over.
With each day I felt a little part of me die, friends slip away, hope decreasing. My heart had given up but my brain knew one thing: even if nothing ignited a spark anymore, travel was one thing I knew how to do. I knew how to conquer unfamiliar terrain. I knew I had been fine. I had been on my own before. I felt alone. Removing myself from everything, all the things that slowly poisoned me, the misguided advice, the expectations and preconceptions might be just what I needed. After all, it couldn’t be much worse.
How travel helped with depression
Everything before getting on the plane that would take me far away was a struggle. Visa requirements and doctors’ appointments. Confessing my travel plans to friends and family. Surviving daily hell at work. But once I gripped the orange backpack firmly like the beacon of hope it had become, I felt a new sense of power. I was suddenly in control. Every day was a new adventure, which I could steer into whatever direction I wanted. I climbed mountains despite my asthma. I slept in grimy hostel beds despite my OCD. I cried in front of strangers openly, talking about depression.
And everything was fine.
Strangers compassionately listened to my story, encouraged and helped me. Not wanting anything in return but an email telling them how I got along. I got stranded many times. But I got picked up just as much. Each situation that would have sent me into a dark place at home, fuelled my ambition. The only one who could take care of trouble I got myself in was myself. I wanted to see places, so I had to pick myself up. I figured out how to hack flight booking, so I could travel further. I learned how to be resourceful to a fault to stretch my budget. I learned the art of small talk so I could make money from a lousy temp sales job.
If you had told past me all the things I would be doing, I would have thought you had escaped from an asylum. I couldn’t have done it if I had planned it out. You grow with your challenges. You grow with your passions. And travel certainly is an immeasurable passion of mine. But even so, travel has saved me and I firmly believe, I am certain even, that travel I a life changer. You don’t have to sell your possessions, quit your job and rough it out on the road. You don’t have to burn bridges and break up with partners to do it. But try to travel.
There is no “reason” for depression
If I have learned one thing it is that there is always a way. For anything. It rains on a beach day? Let’s go swimming (unless there’s a thunder storm). Wet is wet. A road is blocked? Let’s take the scenic route. Your room is overbooked? Barter for another room at a super reduced price. Your airline has filed bankruptcy? Get your visa card to withdraw the payment. A stranger harasses you. Walk away. Change your plans. Be flexible. Take care of yourself. That must be your priority!
I am not saying it’s easy, but it’s possible. That being said, I am well aware that I am speaking from a place of privilege here. Undoubtedly, I am blessed that I had the chance to travel abroad growing up. That I could work enough while studying to afford my world trip (and not have any student debt to begin with). That I have met an army of supportive people along the way. But if you start seeing opportunities, if you start working relentlessly towards your goals and stop listening to the naysayers and ‘realists’ (“I’m just trying to be real with you”), I believe you can live a more fulfilled life. You can feel more whole, more happy with yourself and your life.
So if you feel stuck in life. If you suffer from mental health issues. Weed out your life. Seek out what helps you heal and feel better. Mental health doesn’t take care of itself. Let’s be honest, it’s a constant work in process. Depression and anxiety aren’t just leaving. They will resurface every now and then. It’s how you cope with them and how you become aware of it that makes all the difference. And travel, especially solo travel, is an unbeatable way to get real with yourself. You will learn so much about yourself, it’s not funny sometimes.
A “cure” for depression doesn’t exist, but you can make it better
Remind yourself of all the amazing things you have done or overcome each day. Of how blessed you are to be in the spot you are in. Of all the kind people you have met. Of how much you have seen in such a short time. And then be kind to yourself. Are you your own best friend? Are you there to pick up the pieces or step onto the shards and cut yourself for good measure? Travel allows you to shape the life you want and then grow right into the space you created. I’d say give it a try.
I could talk endlessly about how travel helps you grow. How it teaches you about cultures. How we all see the world differently. How perceptions and behaviours are culturally coded. How something that is done ‘right’ in one country, is ‘wrong’ in another. How nobody and no place is perfect. You will start to question how you’ve been raised, what you’ve been taught, what you’ve valued. That’s confusing. And that’s ok. We all need a good shake up every now and then. But I say if you step on this rollercoaster ride we call life, go full throttle!!
And talk about your depression. Don’t let it eat away at you like a little dirty secret. The stigma around it is nasty but we need to change that. The more you repress it, the more you hide, the increasingly powerful it becomes. It might be a part of you, but it doesn’t define you. If you need reassuring words, feel free to reach out on facebook, twitter or via mail. You’re not alone. Never.
What are your thoughts on travelling with depression and anxiety? Has travel helped with your depression as well? I’d love to hear your story.