Imagine. You’re in Paris for the first time after dreaming of visiting the City of Lights for over a decade. Your excitement is overwhelming – crepes, the Eiffel Tower, cheese, the Louvre, Versailles, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, and the countless other sites and experiences of Paris are at your beckon call. Oh and the wine. Can’t forget the wine. You are even qualified for free entry to most places because you’re under 25 and an EU resident so budget be damned, the city is yours for two full days. Nothing can stop you.
Your first day is exactly how you imagined. Despite the rainy weather, you find yourself wandering around the city on a free walking tour where the guide has you laughing from jokes between his historical and educational anecdotes about the city, eating macarons and crepes, admiring art in the Louvre, examining the intricate engineering and architecture of the Eiffel Tower, and enjoying the slowly changing leaves on the brisk fall afternoon with some cheese and a glass of French wine. As evening draws near you join dozens of other tourists atop the Tour de Montparnasse to watch the Eiffel Tower light up against the pink setting sun before meeting some new friends at your hostel bar for a night of drinking and dancing amidst a beautiful international community. You go to sleep smiling from this perfect day and looking forward to day two, with plans to experience the beauty of Versailles, Notre-Dame, and Montmartre.
But you wake up and your PTSD decides you have different plans involving flashbacks, anxiety attacks, and depression. So your day of Parisian exploration turns into a day of staying in bed, watching Netflix and arguing on the internet because that’s what you do best when mental illness strikes.
This wasn’t the first time during my two plus months of backpacking where my mental health got in the way of my plans. And I doubt it will be the last because that’s the reality of living with mental illness. I will always have PTSD, depression, and anxiety, but I have and will continue to learn how to cope with and overcome the symptoms. It’s not always perfect and it doesn’t always go as planned, but every day gets a bit easier as I continue to learn, grow, and heal. And that’s what this backpacking trip is supposed to be about: taking time for myself to do focus on that process and give myself a break from the stress of life.
But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a walk in the park. Travelling with a mental illness is a challenge. Sure, I’m doing something I love – experiencing different cultures, meeting new people, trying new food, and seeing as much as I can of this magnificent world. Shouldn’t that be enough to make me happy and cause whatever chemical imbalance or trauma at the root of my illness to just go away?
Well, it isn’t. There are still bad days. And travelling with mental illnesses means that on the bad days when PTSD, anxiety, or depression strike (or sometimes all three at once), not only is in the usual bad of not being able to get out of bed, being stuck in spiralling negative thoughts, and feeling like my chest is going to implode from the anxiety induced hyperventilating, but it’s compounded by the fact that I’m missing out on what I love and the chance to experience a new place; I feel guilty because I’m losing out on the time and money I’ve invested in this trip.
Travel has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember: from cross-country road trips with my family growing up, to studying and moving abroad, to deciding to spend a year backpacking around the world. I can never seem to get enough to satisfy my wanderlust. And on the whole, travelling long-term has helped me further learn to cope with my mental illnesses, a life-long process that is never fully complete. Constantly being on the move – never spending more than three or four nights in one place, with six nights being a rare treat – has taught me that whether or not I’m ready, whether or not my mental illness agrees, life keeps moving. Sometimes I’ll be able to keep up, other times I won’t. And that’s okay.
Travelling or not, it’s okay to take a day to myself, it’s okay to have bad days. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t have a bad day. I wouldn’t be me without those experiences because good or bad, everything that has happened in my life has made me who I am today, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world. For me, when the bad days come, it has been about learning the balance between being gentle and tough with myself, focusing not just on self-care but also self-love – even if that’s sometimes a bit of tough love. It’s been about learning to confront the bad and the ugly of life so that you can get back to the good and the great. It’s not a linear process, it’s not easy, it doesn’t happen overnight, and everyone will have different needs and experiences. And that’s okay.
Travel has taught me the benefit of stepping out of my comfort zone, allowing me to try new ways of coping and figuring out how to be comfortably uncomfortable because as much as we wish it were, life isn’t always comfortable. Solo travel has forced me to become my own best friend, making the days of depression laced with painful loneliness a thing of the past, making the depression alone easier to confront. I’ve discovered how a support system doesn’t have to be friends I’ve known for years, but can be complete strangers turned friends. I’ve seen other cultures and life philosophies at work, reminding me that everyone has a story and unique needs and desires, giving me the opportunity to develop more empathy for others, and in turn myself.
Travel has made me a stronger person. And when the bad days come, like it did in Paris, I know I’m ready to take them on.