In the summer of 2016, I went on a three-month trip around the world, solo. I visited five countries: South Africa, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Fiji, and America—all of them taught me new things about myself. I set off on my trip with diagnosed depression and anxiety...two ingredients for an uneasy start to my travels alone. I have come up with ten tips to both help and inspire you to just go for it, mental health conditions and all.
Tip #1: Pack great reading material and inspiring music.
One of the books I packed to aid my trip, and one I highly recommend for others, was entitled Wild, written by Cheryl Strayed. It is the true story about a woman who suffers through various tribulations, including heavy drug use, marriage infidelities, as well as the death of her beloved mother. The book, coupled with the movie and the related soundtrack, inspired me to become my best self: full of strength, free of inhibitions, and possessing the courage to try new, exciting things, and to meet new, exciting people. I kept the book with me throughout my travels, and whenever I felt isolated and alone, it helped me through that too.
I decided to download music on my iPod, which had links to the different countries I was visiting. For example, I chose The Lion King soundtrack and Toto's "Africa" for my trip to South Africa, the Jungle Book soundtrack and score for Sri Lanka, and a lot of tropical paradise music for Fiji. Listening to the music whilst being surrounded by the setting of each country really helped me remain in the moment without the worry of closing in on myself and overthinking.
Tip #2: Book activities and excursions in advance.
Booking things to do in advance whilst traveling gives you something to look forward to and become excited for. This is particularly important during low times when you might not feel like doing anything at all. Knowing something new and different awaits you, and all you have to do is show up, is a great motivation. Sometimes I get anxious about planning things, but if they are all sorted well in advance, it takes the strain off and I am able to enjoy the natural excitement leading up to it with minimal worry. Some of the trips I planned in advance during my travels include, a trip to the Waitomo Caves, a Bay of Islands tour and Hobbiton tour (pictured) in New Zealand.
Tip #3: Keep in contact with family and friends, but allow for space, too.
Keeping in touch with loved ones back home is, of course, very important. You'll want to keep them updated on the exciting things your doing and they will want to make sure that you haven't been eaten by lions. Contact in moderation is a great thing, but make sure that you are not so consumed with what is going on back home, that you forget to live your life in your current country. Letting go slightly allows for you to grow in strength and independence, and your family and friends will definitely see that for themselves.
Tip #4: Keep a diary or journal. Record your experiences.
This tip might not sound like everybody's cup of tea; however, it is a great way to make sure you don't forget the little details about your travels. I kept a day-by-day journal, and even when I didn't have the time to write much, just a few short sentences currently allow me to remember the foods I ate, the animals I saw, and the birthdays of my new travel friends. A further way in which keeping a diary helped me is that it helped me come to a revelation about myself. After being diagnosed in 2014, but having suffered for many years before, I felt angry, disappointed, and I hated myself for a long, long time. I didn't think I was worthy of the love and support shown to me by professionals, family, and friends. However, writing these thoughts out on paper really helped me shift things into perspective. I cried, I screamed, I took a deep breath, and I moved forward.
Tip #5: If you are on medication, stick to it.
Not everyone suffering from mental health problems will be on medication, and that is absolutely fine. I chose to go on medication because I found that it helped me a lot with my anxiety. There were times during my travels when I felt so happy and lifted, which occasionally made me forget to take my medication at the times I needed to. My withdrawal symptoms included nausea, which dampened some of my days and I ended up laying in bed waiting for the sickness to pass. It is important, that if you are on medication, you need to keep it up, even if you are having the time of your life.
Tip #6: Social media isn't the be-all and end-all.
Don't get me wrong, social media is great for connecting with others and for sharing your experiences. However, there is a life outside of it all. I got rid of all of my social media accounts before going travelling. They didn't make me feel good about myself and some people can be cruel online. However, when I got to South Africa, I made an Instagram account under a pseudonym where I could connect with the friends I met whilst travelling and share photos with them. Currently, I still don't have Facebook or Twitter (almost three years without them), and I don't regret deleting them. If partaking in something doesn't make you feel good about yourself or makes you scared or anxious, you have absolutely every right to shut it down and move on. Don't feel obligated to continue to be a part of something which makes you unhappy.
Tip #7: Don't be afraid to talk to new people around the world. We all have stories to tell.
One thing which is guaranteed when traveling is that you will have the opportunity to meet some truly amazing and inspiring people. Travelers of different ages, cultures, and backgrounds will walk into your life and teach you things you never knew, both about yourself and the world around you. Everybody is willing to share a story, a joke and a good time. However, some people will also be very different from you and that needs to be embraced as you will learn more from them.
Tip #8: Share your mental health experiences with others—you might discover new coping strategies.
In addition to generally meeting new people, you will also come across those who are on a similar journey to you, those traveling in the same boat. Share your story with them, and listen well to theirs. People have different ways of coping and dealing with things, and therefore you will probably pick up some new coping strategies—ones which never even crossed your mind. You will have one thing in common though...you are both traveling with a mental health condition, proving to others that it is no different from traveling without one.
Tip #9: Know that not everybody will understand, and that's okay.
This is key. Depending on where you are traveling to, attitudes will vary widely. For example, some cultures' opinions on mental health will be very different to others. Mental health is definitely becoming more understood in the West, but in some other countries, there is still stigma there. However, there will also be people in the countries with high stigma who are incredibly accepting and visa versa. But you must understand that a variety of responses and opinions is okay, and that you do not need acceptance from others to be able to accept yourself.
Tip #10: Traveling gives you the opportunity to reinvent yourself. Don't be afraid of change.
I was not happy with the person I was before I went traveling. I changed, I grew, and I became stronger because of it all. You will become much more confident and independent, with some incredible experiences to look back on. You will gain new life-long friends and obtain a whole new outlook on life. Create a bucket list, write down the things you want to see and the countries you want to step foot in. Mental health is not a barrier, it is a gate which you can open towards your newfound perspective. Don't be afraid of change, and come home happier, healthier, and more capable than before.