What was your experience with depression before you began travel?
When I stop and think about it, I feel that I was dealing with depression for a long time before I knew what label to apply to it. When I would spend weeks on end locked up in my college bedroom just writing and sleeping and wishing away the week, I figured it was just a funk I was in.
So while being out in the world and learning more about myself allowed me to see what was wrong and address it, it’s safe to say I spent most of my young adult through adult life dealing with depression. If anything, it’s far worse when I’m not on the road. Those itchy feet that get us all traveling are accompanied by a rapid loss of interest in anything and a withdrawal from the social scene.
It basically gets to the point that I have to travel because I’ve left myself with precious little else in my home life. The last two times I’ve been home for extended periods of time it has worsened to the point that I was calling in sick from work on a weekly basis, blowing off friends, and spending entire days without seeing sunlight. Travel definitely keeps that at bay better than being at home.
How has living with depression impacted your life?
It’s coloured a lot of what should be my happiest memories. I look at photos from an unforgettable trip and I remember that moments before it was taken I was dealing with near crippling anxiety or just a sense of self loathing that can’t be seen behind that well-rehearsed smile.
I’ve missed a lot of opportunities through that mix of inactivity and low self confidence that tends to be part and parcel of depression. I’ve had to spend most of the last six or seven years away from home because being there almost always leads back to dealing with my demons. That, in turn, has meant missing the births of my niece and nephew, the deaths of my grandparents, and the biggest moments in the lives of my friends and family.
It seems a selfish choice to make – giving up being there for them in exchange for a little peace of mind for myself.
What types of medications or medication alternatives have you used to try to treat it?
Prior to being given a diagnosis, I tried a bunch of things I read online. I wrote as a form of catharsis; originally poetry but later that evolved into keeping journals. I exercised on the advice of an ex-girlfriend and found that was quite good.
I even toyed with self medication when I learned how easy it was to get prescription medicine without a prescription in South Korea. In between messing with anti-depressants I also tried St John’s wort to no avail.
In the last few years I’ve had a more “conventional” treatment of therapy (when I am home), SSRIs, and a more active and social life.
Was it hard to consider travel during depressive episodes?
On the contrary! Travel and changing my situation is one of the first thoughts that crops up when I am in the depths of a dark period. It’s avoidance, I know, but almost all of my great travel adventures have begun with an immense sense of dissatisfaction with the life I am leading at home.
What have you noticed about how depression has affected you during your travels?
On the occasions where depression strikes abroad, it is generally a more benign beast than that I’d deal with at home. I generally manage to surround myself with good friends while abroad, so it’s easier to find a shoulder to cry on or an adventure to distract me.
That’s not to say it’s all peaches and cream. Depression has meant there are times where I waste weeks or months inside avoiding the real world when I could have been traveling and experiencing new things. Thankfully, those periods are becoming fewer and farther between.
If you have long time periods when you don’t travel, do you tend to experience a relapse?
Most definitely! As I said earlier, my darkest periods have been in early 2011 when I returned from South Korea and found myself in a rut, and again in early 2012 when I’d managed to carve myself out a life but found it wasn’t making me at all happy.
Does living with depression change how frequently you travel?
I travel a lot more because of my depression, but also a lot less. Depression often motivates me to make a drastic change like moving to South Korea or China, but it also means that once I get there I generally settle into a bit of a rut after a few weeks or months.
I’ve seen more of China’s farther flung provinces than I have of my own simply because it’s so easy for me to stay in bed (or in front of a PC) all day when a foul mood strikes. When I’m in Xinjiang or Sichuan for only a week, it’s a lot easier to drag my ass out of bed and force a smile.
Have you found any non-travel-related activities that have a similar impact for you?
Only running really comes close to travel when it comes to distracting me from my on again/off again relationship with the black dog.
I’m far from a hardcore runner, but only the thrill of a new adventure can match the smile that finishing a trying run can bring to my face. It’s usually short lived, but it’s magnificent while it lasts.
What advice do you have for other people who are dealing with depression?
Share your story. You might not want to do what I did and share your battle with depression with the world wide web, but talking to somebody and having them shoulder even the tiniest piece of your burden is a tremendous relief.
Being active is another thing I can’t recommend highly enough. Whether it’s a team sport or running or simply hitting the beach and having a harmless splash around in the breakers – getting out in the sun and getting your heart pumping is better than any amount of video gaming or alcohol consumption.
We really appreciate Chris and others who have shared their battles with dealing with depression. If you haven’t already, please check out the other interviews in our Living in Darkness series.