My Living in the Darkness series about dealing with depression continues with traveler Trever Clark.
What was your experience with depression before you began travel?
I’ve lived with depression, anxiety and OCD since I was 15 years old. At the ripe old age of 32, that’s over half of my life now. In high school, I had days where I just couldn’t face school. Luckily my parents understood and, after talking to them honestly about what was going on, so did the school administrators. I graduated with a horrible attendance record, but managed to eek out a decent GPA.
I had a child and got married pretty young, in my early 20s. I had wanted to travel since childhood, but somehow fell into the trap of cubicle jobs, a mortgage, and a meaningless consumption-driven lifestyle by my mid-twenties. My travel dreams seemed out of the question. My depression led to poor work performance and an unhealthy lifestyle. I coped with long days in a cubicle under fluorescent lights by smoking heavily, drinking every night, and surfing the web reading travelogues while I should have been working.
My only succor was in dreaming about escape. I would fantasize about just leaving everything behind and going, with or without my family, to some remote part of the world to start fresh.
I believe that the standard debt and consumption-driven American lifestyle contributes to depression in even people who would otherwise be healthy.
How has living with depression impacted your life?
I spent most of my 20s in a state of perpetual depression. It really robbed me of that decade of my life. I think that there’s a genetic component to it, and that I was born with a dearth of certain brain chemicals. But then, due to the depression, I made poor decisions early on and fell into bad habits which made things worse.
I believe that the standard debt and consumption-driven American lifestyle contributes to depression in even people who would otherwise be healthy. And in someone who’s prone to depression, it can lead you eventually to a breaking point.
Luckily, I reached that breaking point when I was 28, rather than, say, 50. I was making decent money as a Network Engineer. But I was working 50-hour weeks and had spent the past 5 years finishing my bachelor’s degree on top of it. My marriage had become toxic, my health was a wreck, and I had no mental energy for my child, for friends, or for hobbies.
As I said, it all finally came to a head. My wife and I split up after a series of particularly nasty fights. I was suddenly in the midst of a bitter, knock-down, drag-out divorce. Three weeks after the divorce proceedings began in earnest, I lost my job due to my poor performance, attitude, and attendance. I could no longer keep up with our mountain of debt on top of the legal fees.
So I had a decision to make. Continue to wallow in the downward spiral of depression, which would probably have led to suicide, or decide at that moment to see the loss of my job and my marriage as a blessing and to make some changes.
I chose the latter.
I began exercising. I quit smoking. I cut down on drinking. I vowed to never again work in a cubicle, even if it meant that I had to live under a bridge. For awhile, I lived with friends and family. But the lifestyle choices that I was making started to ameliorate the depression after all those long years.
I started working for myself, online, running a couple of websites and doing part-time tech support. I met someone else who shared my vision of a less conventional, lower stress lifestyle.
And I finally started to travel. In 2009, when I was 29, I took a leave from my online work, and we took a long 3 and a half week trip backpacking through the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. I felt like I was being reborn. Those 3+ weeks were some of the best of my life and, although we’ve continued to travel steadily since then, I’ll never forget that first trip and the sense of possibility that it engendered in me.
What types of medications or medication alternatives have you used to try to treat it?
I’ve been on various medications since I was first diagnosed at age 15. Through my teenaged years and early 20s, I tried a variety of SSRIs. I was on Zoloft for most of my 20s, and my dose just kept going up year after year. I peaked out at 200 mg a day.
They also put me on 0.5 mg daily of Haldol for the OCD and intrusive thoughts when I was 23.
We think that we can live an unhealthy, unfulfilling lifestyle, and just take a pill to cope with it.
I really had no idea whether these were still doing anything for me, or whether I was just dependent on them. So after my “renaissance” a few years ago, I spent 6 months weaning myself off of the Zoloft. The result? Higher highs, but lower lows. I realize now that the high dose of Zoloft had dulled my emotions for years. My happy moments are so thrilling now that I’m able to feel them fully. I actually cry during sad movies now. Of course, the corollary is that I feed sad moments more fiercely also, but it’s worth it to me to be able to “own” my emotions and feel the entire range of them.
I also tried getting off the of the Haldol, but discovered that my OCD was really out of control when I did so. I would love to get off of it eventually but, for the time being I feel that the pros outweigh the cons.
I’ve come to believe that SSRIs are overprescribed for a variety of reasons. We, as Americans, want a magic bullet solution. We think that we can live an unhealthy, unfulfilling lifestyle, and just take a pill to cope with it. While some people truly need SSRIs for a short time to cope with a mental health crisis, taking them long term deadens our spirit, and prevents us from dealing with the lifestyle issues that cause depression in the first place.
With that being said, I DO still maintain a prescription for Zoloft and take it on an occasional basis, but never for a month at a stretch. In particular, I always take a bottle with me when I travel. I find that with the stress of travel and the loneliness that can come from extended periods in a foreign land away from close family and friends, there are times when I need to use it as a crutch. But at those times, I take the minimum dose, and plan from the start to get back off of it as soon as I feel able.
Was it hard to consider travel during depressive episodes?
Depressive episodes are when I most intensely feel the need for travel! I’m still especially prone to depression during the long, cold, grey winters in Michigan. So I plan most of my travel for those months. The planning gives me something to focus on, other than the way that I’m feeling. It gives me a purpose; a goal. I find that planning for travel when I’m depressed is almost as much a tonic as the travel itself.
What have you noticed about how depression has affected you during your travels?
On short trips – 3 weeks or less – I find that the change of pace and the sense of adventure completely washes the depression away. And I find that the rejuvenating effect lasts for weeks once I get home.
On longer trips, especially when I’m staying in one spot and working, I find that depression is something that I have to account for. When you’re on the road for many weeks or months at a time, it just becomes your life. When the initial excitement wears off, depression can sometimes rear its ugly head at inopportune times.
I find this to be especially true when I’m traveling alone, and find myself in stressful travel situations without anyone who’s close to me to turn to.
A couple of examples:
Last year, I flew into Costa Rica and ended up traveling overland through Nicaragua, with the intention of flying from Managua to the Corn Islands. As a small town Midwestern boy at heart, I wasn’t prepared for handling the chaos of Managua on my own. I came into downtown Managua on a bus, and was swarmed by vendors and shady characters when I stepped out into the market area where non-locals seldom venture. I jumped into a taxi to go to the airport.
On the way there, at a traffic light, I was solicited by a child prostitute, which I found intensely depressing. At the airport, I found out that I had to wait until the following morning to fly out. After another taxi ride through this grimy, crazy Central American metropolis to get to my hotel, the taxi driver doubled his fee at the last minute because he had provided the “additional service of putting my luggage into the trunk.”
The stress, the sadness about the child prostitute, and the knowledge that I was completely on my own led to a profound sense of depression and isolation. It just washed over me. I went to my room at the guest house, locked my door, and just sobbed for 10 minutes.
My saving grace was the excitement over getting to the idyllic Corn Islands the next day.
Another example was the trip that I just returned from last week. I had spent almost 3 months in Costa Rica, where I rented a house near the beach and did my online work part time. I had my niece with me this trip, and my current wife was able to spend about half of the trip down there with me.
At first, it was paradise. But after awhile, I started having my down days, just like I do at home. It’s just a part of life for me. Even in the perpetual tropical sunshine, I had days where I felt despair and started questioning every choice I had ever made. Most days were great. I had far fewer “down days” than I would have had at home. But as someone who tends toward depression, these days are just a fact of life, and they don’t disappear just because you’re in a tropical paradise.
I find that I have to engage the same coping mechanisms on the road as I do at home. I need to exercise regularly to keep my serotonin up. I need to eat right. I have to try and keep the partying to a minimum (not always easy when traveling). And I have to get past my introversion and reach out and make connections with other people who I meet locally. On my “dark days”, I baby myself. I’ll treat myself to a meal out. I’ll sit on the beach. I’ll lose myself in a good book. Anything to keep my mind off of the feelings and remind myself that they will pass, as they always do.
If you have long time periods when you don’t travel, do you tend to experience a relapse?
It’s very seasonal for me. Summer time in Michigan is beautiful, and there’s enough to do to keep busy with seeing friends, traveling regionally, and maintaining my garden that I don’t feel the intense drive to travel during the warm months.
Winter in Michigan, though, isn’t like winter most other places. And without travel, I always experience a prolonged relapse at some point during the winter. What’s different about Michigan in winter is the lack of sunshine. It’s some kind of effect related to being surrounded by the Great Lakes. Other places may have colder winters, or snowier winters. But I’ve never been anywhere else where winter means not seeing sunshine for 10 days at a stretch. The grey skies can be suffocating.
So rather than deal with prolonged depression during Michigan winters when I don’t want to get out of bed for weeks at a time, I travel. Now that I’ve tasted it, I feel like I don’t have a choice anymore. As I said above, I’ll still have “dark days” while I’m in the tropics. But I don’t experience the debilitating weeks or months long ruts like I do during Michigan winters.
Does living with depression change how frequently you travel?
Travel is something that I feel driven to do nowadays. And I feel that drive whether I’m feeling depressed or not. If I’m going to have depressive episodes, I’d rather work through them on a beach in the Caribbean, or while exploring Mayan ruins, than sitting at home on my couch.
Have you found any non-travel-related activities that have a similar impact for you?
Yes, but very few. The things in life that give me the most satisfaction and stave off depression are deep connections with other people, a connection to the land, and the excitement of travel. When I’m not traveling, I find that deepening my connections with family and old friends has a tonic effect. My gardening addiction provides a great deal of relief in my struggle against depression as well. When I’m working in my garden during the warm months, I feel a connection to the planet and to all life on earth that’s similar to what I feel in my best travel moments.
I guess I see my ideal lifestyle as one that combines those things. As a result, we’re considering a permanent move to the tropics in the coming years. We’ve got close friends now in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. A move there would allow me to continue to connect with friends and the community and provide for year-round tropical gardening, while allowing for frequent and affordable trips exploring the rest of Central/South America and the Caribbean.
What advice do you have for other people who are dealing with depression?
- Get away from the default American lifestyle. It’s destroying the planet, it’s destroying our bodies, and it’s destroying our souls. There are so many other options aside from the default that’s been forced on us since we were kids.
- Get out of the cubicle.
- Get out of debt – just walk away from it and file for bankruptcy if you have to.
- Eat organic, non-GMO, local foods.
- Get off of the Internet and away from your TV and meet your neighbors.
- Exercise – it’s a revolutionary act in our sedentary, car-based culture, and I promise that it’s 100 times more effective than any antidepressant.
- Get off of all of the unnecessary medications to the degree that it’s possible for you.
- Do meaningful work.
- Learn to live with less. Do you really need that huge house and expensive car that you’re working a toxic job to be able to afford?
- Know your limitations, but practice going beyond them. Treat yourself right.
- Travel. Explore. Have adventures. Even if it’s only in your own region or city.
Any thing else you’d like to add?
I feel like I’ve just written a novel. That pretty much covers it!
I’d like to think Trever for his willingness to be so open with us and share his story. I hope his story, and the others in this interview series, helps someone else who is dealing with depression or with a loved one suffering from the illness.