I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. In fact, over the past two years, I’ve had parts of this post running through my head, with me trying to find the best way to say this, or the least offensive way of describing that.
For that same length of time, I even ummed and ahhed over the titles I could use: How travel helped me to overcome depression or how travel helped me to conquer depression.
The truth is, neither of those titles work, as this article isn’t going to say that travel cured my depression. That would be a lie and I always knew that if I finally got the courage to write this post, it would be honest and it would be from the heart.
If you feel that depression is something that has never/will never affect you, I encourage you to read on anyway. This is a post about my personal experiences, but, if you ever do go through a form of depression, maybe reading some of these words might help you in the future. And please don’t think that this is going to be a post featuring only doom and gloom; it’s a story of a common issue and of personal growth.
The condition of ‘depression’ is one that can carry negative connotations. Say that you’re suffering from depression to the wrong people, and you might be met with judgment, an eye roll or even be called a drama queen. But, as more and more studies show, depression affects almost all people at some point in their lives. Whether it’s a temporary bout of depression brought about by a sudden loss or trauma, or whether it’s something that’s been passed down to you genetically, depression has been proven to be much more common than originally thought.
Mine first appeared when I was a teenager, and the change felt like it had happened overnight.
There was no cause. I had a privileged upbringing with two loving parents in sunny Cape Town. No one had recently passed away and nothing bad had happened to me.
Nonetheless, one morning, I woke up and felt a paralysing sense of sadness and lack of excitement for anything in my life. I felt helpless, and I felt immovable. Eventually I had to get up and go to school, but I carried the weight of this emotional state with me throughout the day. Over the next few weeks, I would continue to wake up feeling like this, and these mornings became frequent occurrences.
I didn’t know what was happening to me, and I felt powerless to change my emotional state. I struggled to feel happy about anything, I was irritable with everything and everyone around me, I couldn’t appreciate what I had in my life and it was impossible to set goals or think positively about the future. Where other teenagers would stay at home from school because of the flu, I would make excuses to stay at home during a particularly bad spell of depression. I would wake up and not want to move from my bed. I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to see anyone. And, the worst part, I hated being me. I was exhausted with this sadness that no amount of tears could shake – I felt stuck in this bubble and it crippled me of making simple decisions and of living my life. I can’t remember how long I remained in this state, but it was a good few months.
Other people in my family had struggled with depression before, and it was my mother who recognised that something wasn’t right. I admitted it all to her and I confessed that I had also been having darker thoughts more frequently too. I hadn’t resorted to self harming or suicide attempts, but I admitted that the thoughts had crossed my mind, and if my mother didn’t step in when she did, I know that, due to my age and immaturity, my state of depression would have followed that path eventually. It didn’t feel like a release to say all of this, though, and I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of shame that I didn’t seem to be like my sister or any of the other teenagers around me.
My mother coaxed me to the doctor’s office, and I was immediately prescribed anti-depressants. As my doctor put it, these pills would help to put right the ‘chemical imbalance’ that seemed to have been genetically passed down to me.
Whatever the exact cause of my state, the medication did help. Of course, anti-depressants don’t cure depression; you still get depressed, but when you do, the pills help you maintain some sense of control over your emotions and actions. They help you to feel ‘normal’ enough to be able to calmly make decisions and move forward.
I was on anti-depressants from the age of 16 until I was 26. Thanks to them and my wonderful family, I went on to excel at school and university and at my first few jobs. Of course, I still had plenty of low moments, but I was moving forward and making something of my life.
But, for many reasons, this changed in my last few years in Cape Town. I started feeling stuck again and, even worse, I started feeling numb. Even though I had a good job and lovely people in my life, I felt like I wasn’t living the life that I wanted. The only times that I felt alive was when I went for short trips overseas, either to explore various parts of Europe with my sister or to see family in Poland. I never had the chance to go on a gap year after university, so I always relished the chance to use some annual leave and jump on a plane somewhere.
I took a number of trips but the first one that started off my current state of wanderlust was in 2007, where my sister and I zoomed through France, Italy and Greece in the space of three weeks. It’s not a pace that I could keep up with nowadays, but that trip filled me with wonder and excitement. I was discovering new destinations and I was coming into contact with new cultures. During that trip and the ones that followed, I would always keep bumping into people who were out travelling long term or who had moved away from their hometowns. To me, these people were ‘doers’; since being numb and depression often made me feel passive, I felt a strong desire to be a doer too.
Apart from finding this new leaning, what I loved most about travelling was that it made me feel like I had a purpose and it was only during times spent away that I could momentarily shake off that numbness that seemed to be a permanent part of my daily life back home.
Since this was the case, in a desperate attempt to change my situation, I decided to move to London. I packed up my belongings, sold everything I didn’t need, got Scully her pet passport and immigrated to a city I’d never even visited as a tourist.
This was the best thing I ever did for myself.
Of course, I was lonely at first and I missed my loved ones back in Cape Town, but, as I navigated my new life in London, I started growing a sense of confidence that I’d never had before. I had moved across the globe, and, even though I expected disaster around every corner, I was actually doing ok. I enjoyed discovering new parts of the city, I managed to decipher London’s intimidating transport maps and I started making friends through writing about it all on this blog. I felt like I had taken control in my life and that I’d made a change for the better.
I started going on my first solo trips – to Ireland, to Belgium, to the Netherlands. I felt more powerful with every trip; for the first time ever, I was able to go around on my own, see what I want and seek the experiences that I wanted.
But that numbness was still there.
Describing the sensation to a friend, I would say that it “felt like I was floating above a body of water, with the events and interactions of my life happening underneath the surface. Try as I might, I could only skim my fingertips across the surface but never more than that”.
This sensation of numbness is a common side effect of taking anti-depressants for a long time. I felt like there was an invisible barrier between me and the ability to feel the full intensity of my emotions. At this point I was advised to try a different anti-depressant but my recent life change inspired me to do something different.
Since moving to London and solo travel had nurtured a newfound confidence and sense of control I had never felt I had before, I decided to try to live life without anti-depressants.
I do feel like it’s important for me to state this here: I am not advising anyone to stop using anti-depressants if they feel like they need to be on them. I sought medical advice before doing so, and going off them felt right for me, but it might not be the right answer for you.
Going off anti-depressants after using them for a decade wasn’t fun. Even though I did so by gradually decreasing my dosage, the side effects were still terrible. I felt nauseous and I picked up a lot of weight in a short space of time. I was having to deal with my first episodes of depression without relying on medication, and it was tougher than I thought.
I distracted myself by booking small, cheap trips, some within the UK and some to Spain, Poland and Turkey. I needed these little reminders of what brought about this decision in the first place and, the truth is, I felt my best when I was off exploring a new place. And, after going to gym produced no results, I turned to running to try and lose the weight I’d gained after stopping the anti-depressants, and it worked. Running also turned out to be one of my favourite discoveries; while running, this was the time of the day when I could clear my head and sweat out all of the negative feelings I had going on inside.
Please don’t misunderstand me, though. I have never, and will never, regret using anti-depressants. When you suffer from a long bout of depression and become used to feeling that sense of helplessness, it’s very hard to emerge from that mental space. Anti-depressants helped me realise what a normal, calm sense of mind felt like and any time I feel like my emotions are about to overpower me, I try to bounce back to that more level-headed space so that I can make better decisions.
Now, over two years on from being completely off medication, I can say that I am doing well. I have a supportive family, I have met the love of my life and I’m surrounded by wonderful friends. I still get depressed, of course, and that will always be something to be aware of, but that no longer scares me as it once did. I used to be terrified whenever depression reared its head but, odd as it may sound, people prone to depression also look for reasons to be depressed. Why? Perhaps because it’s such a familiar space to be in.
Instead, now I recognise depression for what it is. Yes, maybe I’ve woken up and feel like I can’t do a thing, but I choose to refuse to succumb to it. I refuse to lose another day to being rendered immobile by depression when I could instead be out there living or exploring or even writing a blog post. I refuse to let depression take over me because I know I’m strong and I know I can have the control.
There are many reasons why I feel this way, but I know that travel (to my new life in London and elsewhere) has led me to become this strong-willed, focused person, and has helped me deal with my depression.
Travel gave me confidence, travel reminded me that I am able to have control over my life, my time and my emotions, travel helped me to interact with other people in the world and see that, in essence, us humans are all the same. Travel gave me hope that all of my days could be as good as the ones I spend exploring new places, travel gave me ambition to follow my goals and travel gave me purpose – not only to see as many destinations as possible but also to write about them in my own way on this blog. Travel pushed me to decide how I wanted to live my life.
I don’t think travel is the answer for everyone, and I’m certainly not telling everyone suffering from depression to up and move to another country. It worked for me, but you might need something else.
And I hope that if you are reading this and recognising that you are feeling stuck as I did, I urge you to get up and go find something that gives you purpose and confidence, that makes you feel powerful and makes you decide to be the best possible version of yourself. Whether that’s making shoes, being an epic baker or tackling triathlons, find the thing that makes you want to find a way to manage your depression better, a way that ensures that you feel like you’re in control of your life and your own happiness.
If you’ve stuck with me up until this point in the article – thank you. These words haven’t been easy to say and, if they help even one person out there, I will feel like it’s all been worth it.
And, if you’re currently dealing with depression or are unable to shake off negative feelings and dark thoughts, please, please seek help. I have only been able to reach this point in my life because I was lucky enough to get help, and there is no shame in telling someone that you’re going through a tough time. Go see a doctor or call your local helpline (in the UK, you can call Samaritans on 116 123).
If you would like to talk to me directly about depression, please contact me via email on firstname.lastname@example.org; I’ll always do my best to be available and to reply honestly.
Have you suffered from depression? Or have you found something that has helped you to cope with it? This is your space to share your experiences.