Traveling With Depression

It’s New Year’s Day. I just spent Christmas in the San Blas islands and celebrated New Year’s Eve in Cartagena with a bunch of rad weirdos. I am 3 months into a year off work which I’m spending frolicking around the world. So why am I depressed? 

I’m surrounded by new friends. We’re all recovering from New Year’s Eve hangovers. We’re sharing stories from last night, planning hangover meals. I know this is a great moment; I want to enjoy the camaraderie but all I can think about is wrapping myself in my sheet, curling into a ball, descending into a catatonic state and not emerging for days. I look around and instead of friends I see a lack of privacy and personal space. I see the one tiny window, inexplicably at the bottom of the wall in a corner of the room letting in little light and no air. I see an explosion of belongings, food wrappers and empty bottles from last night’s festivities. The room is air conditioned but I know that the heat outside is oppressive. I imagine it pressing into the walls. My world is reduced to this claustrophobic space. I can barely think. 

New Year's Eve.
New Year’s Eve in Cartagena. Photo: Rav Bachra.

The last week has been lived in a suspension of reality. On the islands our sole responsibility was to have a good time and not get sunburnt. With no wifi, phones or shoes it was easy to ignore the outside world. New Year’s Eve provided another excuse to delay ‘life admin’ and decision making. Now I have to make some choices. My two major goals for this trip are in conflict – I want to visit Antarctica and I want to spend my year without taking an airplane. The Antarctic season ends in mid-March and I’m currently in the far north of South America. Boats to Antarctica leave from the southern tip of the continent. The prospect of traveling the entire length of the continent alone, without flying, and leaving enough time to find space on a boat to Antarctica is overwhelming.  

I’m paralysed by indecision. Do I give up on Antarctica? Do I compromise and take one flight to Argentina or Chile? Am I giving up too easily? I didn’t make these goals because I thought it would be easy; should I push through and try to figure out land or sea transport south?

San Blas islands
It’s easy to ignore important decisions when youre stranded in the San Blas islands.

I need to respond to Sarah’s email. I need to find a post office and send those postcards. I need to connect to wifi. I need to update the blog. I need to book accommodation for the next few days. I need to get back to Glen about kitesurfing. I need to learn better Spanish. I need to back up my photos. Oh god, I’ll need to submit my Canadian tax return soon. Why is my bag so heavy? I need to get rid of some stuff. I need to do washing. I need to research transport south. I need to make a decision about Antarctica. I need to make up with Martin. Where am I going to live when I get back to Whistler? Where is my underwear? What am I going to eat for breakfast? I know these problems seem trivial. I know that most of them are easy to solve. But sometimes I just can’t

I lie in bed and do nothing. I try to smile back at my friends. 

Travel is challenging for anyone but people who live with mental illness face extra hurdles. My depression is mild – I can usually manage it with a few simple lifestyle changes. If I start to feel myself slipping I know that sticking to a routine, exercising, staying sober, eating well and keeping a regular sleeping pattern will get me back on track, usually within just a few days. Tidying my work and living spaces also helps a lot. Unfortunately, travel usually delivers the exact opposite lifestyle. 

We like to party
We drink, we skip meals, we have no privacy. Photo: Rav Bachra.

We stay up late to party. We wake at 3am to hike volcanoes. We’re woken in the middle of the night to the sound of someone humping in the bunk across the room. We live in chaotic, cramped dorm rooms surrounded by the debris of lives lived out of bags. We hike and swim and surf but we also sit for hours in buses and bars. We drink. We take drugs. We load up on cheap carbs. We stuff ourselves at free breakfasts and skip meals later in the day. We make strong connections with extraordinary people only to say goodbye a few days or weeks later. We have no privacy. Our support networks are far away and the wifi only works if you stand on one leg in the third shower stall from the left and hold your phone in the direction of the northwest corner of the ceiling. Unless it’s raining. Then there’s no wifi. 

For me, this is a recipe for disaster. I’m struggling. I swing between extreme happiness – a deep sense of connection with the people around me, joyfulness and an appreciation for the experiences I’m having – and extreme apathy; a sense of deflation. I consider buying a flight home. 

Crowded hostel room.
Personal space? What are this?

So what’s the solution?

For me, for today, I will get out of this hostel. I’m going to stay with Mona and Daniel in a nice hotel for the night. I will make a to-do list, I will organise my bag, I will have a proper shower, I will connect to wifi, I will sleep in a comfortable bed. I’ll say goodbye to these wonderful people for now and hope to catch up with them in Santa Marta. The rest I will face tomorrow.

Soundtrack: Spoon – The Way We Get By

11 thoughts on “Traveling With Depression

  1. This is awesome!!!!!!

    Could you guys come check out my blog. I’ve just started and M enthusiastic about created a community of people who can connect about depression and self harm. Thanks!! <3


  2. Awesome post Em. I have had exactly the same experiences while travelling. I think part of the problem can also be that you are supposed to be having the ‘best’ time of your life so whenever you’re not (and let’s face it, everyone has downtimes) it’s kind of amplified by the sense that you shouldn’t be feeling like that and that is intrinsically unhelpful.


  3. I love this post and that you have been so honest. I have suffered badly with depression in the past and as you do, every so often it creeps back up. For me being totally selfish is the answer. Taking time alone, doing exactly what I want, not letting friends sap my energy and eating well.
    I hope you have a fantastic 2016 and be selfish!! 😊😊😊


    1. Thanks for your comment Sheree! It’s important to know what works for you when you start the descent. Food is really key for me too, but I think exercise has the most profound effect, especially because it also helps with sleeping well.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hey Em,
    I am sorry you feel that way but it is unfortunately a side of travelling that no one ever talks about. I think that no one ever wants to admit they are not having an amazing time when they are travelling because you spend so long talking about how amazing the adventure is going to be and so much time on planning it and saving for it. But it can get you down. I think you have made the right choice staying at a hotel. Sometimes it is just calling a loved one that can reinvigorate you to continue your journey….Sometimes it may take more than that.
    I know you had goals going on this trip, but perhaps you need to prioritize them….which means more to you…Antarctica or not flying? Focus on what is most important and what is going to make you happiest in the end…..
    Hope you feel better soon!


    1. Thanks Emily! I’ve done some research and decided I’m going to continue by land. I’ve given myself a few days to relax and regroup and I feel much better. I think I can still make it to Antarctica!


  5. Thank you! This is the raw truth no one ever wants to face on social media but we all need. You had a momentous plan that looks so different up close. The verrry short amount of time I spent visiting central America, I spent the majority of it sitting on a bus watching the beautiful but very redundant scenery go by, not experiencing. No regrets but I did learn that rather than trying to get more passport stamps, in the future I hope to focus more on just soaking in a few places instead of spending it in solitude on crowded bus (that was most likely taking me to the wrong place b/c my Spanish stinks). I know sadness is so much bigger than this but in the really short amount of time that I met you, you truly inspired me! You’re a wonderful person and no matter how you feel, that’s still true! Best of luck chica and take care of yourself :)


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