I saw Nikita share a post about her challenges with depression on her blog Life in Transience, and I invited her to participate in this series. I found her answers to be quite powerful and eloquent, and I hope her experiences help others.
What was your experience with depression before you began travel?
Before travelling, depression was my day-to-day life, and had been since I was a child, making weak attempts at suicide by trying to smother myself with a pillow. Depression grew up with me. It was the voice in my head, the one telling me I would always fail. It consumed me so much, I couldn’t draw a line between where it ended and my real self began. We were one and the same.
I either had trouble falling asleep, or getting out of bed, or both. I deprived myself of food; I liked the lightheaded, disconnected feeling it gave me. I wanted so badly to disconnect. Every morsel of sadness in the world, every tragic story seen on the news or overheard on the bus weighed so heavily on my heart. I felt responsible for all the sadness in the world, and worthless for being unable to stop it. I cut myself with a poorly stashed razor blade as a teenager, then moved to more subtle ways of hurting myself when that started to feel self-indulgent, when the redness criss-crossing on my arm disgusted me. I didn’t want anyone to have a glimpse at what was going on inside. I thought about death constantly, planned out elaborate suicides and felt like a failure when I didn’t follow through.
But in all this, the worst part was the hopelessness. I honestly didn’t believe that I could ever change. This was who I was, a failed, broken human incapable of happiness.
How has living with depression impacted your life?
I think the greatest impact has been my relationships with others. I was afraid of letting people see how much I was hurting, and that caused me to pull away or lash out. I truly admire anyone who stuck with me through the really rough periods… I must have been near impossible to live with.
I had one nervous breakdown that forced me to take a couple of weeks off work. That was definitely my lowest point. I had to return to my parents’ place, and I would sleep for 15 hours straight every night. I wasn’t eating. When I was awake, I couldn’t think straight. My only thoughts were this chaotic pleading in my mind, begging the universe to make this stop.
The craziest thing, though, is that most of the time my life appeared normal. It always baffled me that I could go to work, run errands, attend university, and have a social life. Even when I was feeling absolutely floored by depression, when I’d spent my day doing nothing but lying on the floor and feeling hopeless, I could slap on a smile and be a normal member of society. And that’s what scares me the most. The possibility that I could have just gone on like that. I could have gotten married, had a career, started a family, without even acknowledging that as a person, I still had a lot to work on. I could have powered through 80 years of life hating every second of it, not realizing that I could be celebrating instead of enduring. It would have been a slow and bitter destruction.
What types of medication or medication alternatives have you used to treat it?
I’ve never been on anti-depressants. Recently I’ve been very interested in how diet affects all aspect of our lives, and I’ve been trying to include more foods that increase dopamine or serotonin levels, such as apples, bananas, legumes and leafy greens. I also try to exercise every day and drink a lot of water. It sounds cliche, but a healthy diet can change so much, along with other practices such as meditation, and getting plenty of sunshine. If I don’t have access to healthy food for a few days, my mood plummets as well as my physical energy. Body and mind are connected.
Was it hard to consider travel during depressive episodes?
It was easy to dream of travel. I had a series of fantasies, of meeting amazing and beautiful people, of going on long ventures on my own over epic mountains, of finding solace in the ocean waves crashing onto shore. But it all looked like a carefully curated dream, something that was being sold to me by someone else. I didn’t believe in it. I didn’t believe in myself enough to reach for it. Staying at home and stagnating made me miserable, but making myself miserable was what I did best.
Honestly, I’m still amazed that I snapped out of it long enough to ever purchase a plane ticket.
What have you noticed about how depression affects you during your travels?
I’m usually in a very good place when I travel. Whenever I do start to sink into a dark place, I can somehow turn it into something poetic. I know that in my memories, loneliness in the rainforest will be better than loneliness in my bed at home. Crying my eyes out on front of the ocean will be better than sitting in a chair and staring at a blank wall. Sadness becomes a story instead of a way of life.
If I do start feeling sad, I can talk about it freely, without worrying that anyone around me is anticipating a relapse. Bad days are okay. I accept that more easily when I travel, because a bad day doesn’t risk trapping me in a cycle of apathy. With new things happening all the time, it can’t.
If you have long time periods when you don’t travel, do you tend to experience a relapse?
Every time I come home to Canada, I can feel my depression lingering on the outskirts of my mind, and it’s exhausting to constantly be pushing it back. The winters are especially bad. Anyone who’s ever experienced seasonal depression knows just how real it can be. But I want to be okay with myself no matter where I am in the world, and being okay here is a huge part of that. With lots of positive self-talk, healthy habits, honesty and a forgiveness towards myself if I do start to slip. I’m proud of how well I’ve managed to keep footing.
Still though, my best remedy for dealing with bad days includes purchasing plane tickets and planning new adventures. I’m hoping to get to the point where that’s something I want, and not something I need.
Does living with depression change how frequently you travel?
That’s hard to say. The only periods in my life when I’m not travelling or living abroad are due mainly to financial factors. Travel is what snapped me out of the lethargy I’d been feeling for years, and maybe that’s compelled me to make it such an important part of my life. If I’d lived a life free of depression, maybe travel would be a secondary focus, and I’d be working towards something unrelated. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t. Non-depressed me is pretty travel-obsessed as well.
Have you found any non-travel-related activities that have the same effect on you?
Reading definitely helps take me out of myself—probably why I was such a bookworm as a child.
Anything involving nature (camping, hiking, swimming, picnics in the park) helps me achieve that feeling of wholeness, of being truly connected.
More and more, I feel like I am getting people in my life who know all sides of me, dark and light, and who love me anyways. Spending time with those people helps, because I can simply be myself, however I’m feeling at the time. That’s a sense of freedom I’ve never known before.
What advice do you have for other people who are dealing with depression?
You may not believe me. But it can stop. You just have to trigger that on your own.
Find a dream that lights you up. Don’t aim to be the best at something, just find something you want to do. And do it.
It may seem overwhelming, you may not have faith that you’ll follow through… But do it. Break it into little tasks. Each one of those should be simple. Something you can easily picture yourself doing.
And, piece by piece, work towards the big picture.
For all the positive thoughts in the world, nothing will lift you up like a feeling of accomplishment, of achieving a goal, or at least of trying. It’s the best way to feel alive. You owe it to yourself, the self that’s hiding under the depression. You have to let that person go.
Also, don’t be afraid to tell people you’re suffering! Start small, tell a couple of people who you know have or have had mental health issues. It’s amazing how much smaller it becomes when you share it with others, and how many people will accept you regardless. Of course, others may not… But they probably weren’t giving you much positive energy anyways.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Travelling has changed me. It’s made me a more complete person, bolder, more loving, more accepting of myself and others. It taught me to be happy.
But if you take anything from this interview, it shouldn’t be that travel will make you happy. It should just be that happiness is possible. And you are worthy of it. No matter who you are, no matter where you are, I believe this. I hope you can believe it, too.
January 21, 2016
Beautiful! I have had pretty bad depression throughout my life, and I am very impressed you have found a way to make such an exciting, wonderful life. For me, personally, what finally changed my experience was getting on meds after 8 years of being told to try them and refusing. Changed my life and I am very greatful for them. I wish I had tried them sooner.
January 21, 2016
Oh, I forgot to mention the 20 years of therapy! But the therapy, while enormously helpful, alone didn’t do it.
January 26, 2016
I’m glad you finally decided to give them a try!
January 21, 2016
Thanks for letting me share this!