When Traveling Affects Your Mental Health

I know I haven’t posted in a long time, and now that I’m back to writing again, I debated whether or not I wanted to talk about why. This is something I’ve shared with only a few people in my life, because of the stigma associated with it. However, I’ve decided to use this travel blog for more than just talking about vacations. I’m going to use it to talk about my mental illness, because I believe what I’ve been going through is something that a lot of people struggle with, albeit in different forms. I originally published this post last summer, but I’ve decided to update it to include more of my story. So here goes.

Travel Burnout

2019 was probably the worst year of my life so far. It wasn’t terrible on the outside – I had great students and coworkers at my job teaching English, I liked Poland (although the company I worked for wasn’t my favorite), and I was living abroad. But my mental health was suffering.

rome streets summer
In happier times, on my first trip to Rome.

When I was sixteen, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD). I thought I had it under control, and most of the time, I did. I have a great support system in my family. They’ve helped me acquire the tools I need to combat my mental illness, which includes medication and coping mechanisms like exercise and eating right.

But a combination of a lot of different things – lack of stability, stress, no exercise, junk food (my doctor later referred to it as a “perfect storm”) – was making it harder and harder to be okay. When you have a mental illness, the worst thing about it is that it distorts reality. You think your world is hopeless, or that you are. You feel like you can’t relate to so-called “normal” people. You make decisions you normally wouldn’t make. And you allow things to spiral out of control.

That’s where I found myself by winter. I had pushed myself so hard – getting my master’s degree, traveling frequently and with little rest in between trips, taking jobs that offered no stability and no benefits, being around little that was familiar and comforting – that I was on the verge of having a nervous breakdown.

After my contract ended with my current company, I had planned to spend the summer in Berlin teaching online until I found something else. But I quickly realized, with the help of my parents, that if I lived alone, spending all day working from home, the problems would only grow worse. I hadn’t been feeling like myself for the past year. For the first time in my life, I felt that the medication wasn’t helping. And no amount of vacation days was going to make up for that.

So I made the decision to go back home to spend two months with my parents. I saw my doctor and learned that my original diagnosis was incorrect – I was bipolar. I remember not knowing what to think about the diagnosis, but still being relieved, because I finally had something to explain my severe mood swings, intense emotions, and obsessive thought patterns. I wasn’t losing my mind. I was prescribed new medication to help combat some of these effects. I got a good job teaching high school in Krakow, where I would move with my friend at the end of August. Everything was going to work out perfectly. But my journey wasn’t over yet.

A Mental Health Nightmare

A few weeks into taking my new medication, I noticed a few things: I didn’t like being left alone. I couldn’t sit down and give my attention to reading a book. But things didn’t really get bad until I emailed my new job to make sure my medication was available in Poland. I received a reply, later the same day, and it was devastating: because my medication could technically be classed as an anti-psychotic, I was deemed dangerous to the teenagers I would be teaching. The school rescinded the job offer, and just like that, all my plans collapsed.

I’ve had a pretty privileged life. I’d never been discriminated against before. It was shocking and degrading. The worst thing was that I couldn’t send an angry email like I wanted to, because that would just have cemented the idea in their minds that I was crazy.

greenbelt idaho falls summer
The Snake River in downtown Idaho Falls, Idaho, USA.

To top it off, the medicine wasn’t working. I tried to deny it for a few months, because I wanted so badly for this to be the answer to my struggles, but eventually, I had to accept the truth. I was so anxious every single moment of every day that I couldn’t function. It was so bad that I would take long naps every day just because it was easier than being conscious. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t work, I needed to be with other people all the time. I remember one time when I was shopping with my parents in a shoe store and just started crying uncontrollably for no reason, because the anxiety I felt was so overwhelming. I had felt bad before, but this was worse.

I made another appointment with my doctor, where I admitted sheepishly that I may not have been entirely truthful about the symptoms I was experiencing. My doctor, who’s been fantastic since I was diagnosed, explained that sometimes, it’s not the medication, but rather the events of our lives that can affect our mental health, and it’s important to adjust accordingly. We decided to go with a slightly higher dose on my original medication, and I was just fine, and have been for over seven months now. I moved back to Poland, and though I’m not where I thought I would be, I’ve had some great experiences.

Strategies for Coping with an Episode

Here are some things I’ve learned through this experience, and I hope they can help anyone struggling with mental illness, or anyone who loves someone who is. Remember that this is just my experience, and not everything may work for everyone.

st mary's cathedral limerick ireland
Stained glass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick, Ireland.

Take care of yourself. I’m not talking about going to the spa, or throwing a bath bomb into the tub, or any other form of so-called “self-care” – unless, of course, that makes you happy. What I’m trying to say is that mental illness is hard. You may not feel like getting up at all in the morning. But sometimes, you have to. One thing I know from experience is that if you continue to make excuses based on the way you feel (which is going to be awful some days), or exclude yourself from events because you “don’t feel like it,” (which is very common with me), you will become more and more isolated from everyone else. And that absolutely doesn’t help. We have a saying in my house, “punch depression in the face.” Your mental illness is your enemy, and you have to fight it every single day. For me, that means never missing a day of taking my medication, exercising at least four days a week, and making sure I get enough sleep. I’m not always perfect at it, but I’m getting better.

forest poland
Fall colors in Zory, Poland.

Have a support system. I’ve done a lot of things I’m proud of – run a marathon, gotten a master’s degree, traveled and lived all over Europe by myself. But none of that would have been possible without my family. My mother educated herself about mental illness as soon as I was diagnosed, and probably knows more about it than I do. My family is very understanding when I have a bad day, and knows my triggers, as well as the things that will make me feel better. Sometimes, of course, my illness makes me not want to talk to anyone, but I’ll still send a short message just to let them know I’m okay.

Not everyone has a great family, of course, but great friends can help, too. You’d be surprised how many people I’ve talked to over the years who are struggling with the exact same things I am.

Know your triggers. Anything can set off an episode, but there are certain triggers which can be specific to each person. For example, I get upset and depressed when I have a fight with someone, when I am very tired, or when I have a lot of stress at work or in my personal life. I can’t always control these events in my life, but being aware of my feelings from day to day can help me anticipate triggers and ramp up my response.

Finally, come up with a treatment plan. In conjunction with my doctor, I’ve come up with a treatment plan that includes medication and coping mechanisms such as exercise, healthy eating, and communication. Personally, I’ve never used therapy as part of my plan, but that doesn’t mean I won’t in the future, and it doesn’t mean it’s not right for someone else.

One thing I realize is that the medication doesn’t solve everything. I have to talk myself out of some of my behaviors, and use coping mechanisms for the rest. Fighting mental illness requires effort – unfortunately, there’s no “magic pill.”

My treatment plan has changed and evolved over time, as my situation and needs change. When I need an adjustment, I always come home to visit my doctor. I don’t trust anyone else. But I stick with my plan as much as possible, because when I start to let aspects of it slide, that’s when my mental health starts to slide, too.

I’ll get back to writing more soon, because that’s one of the things that makes me happy. But for now, I’m just going to take things one day at a time. I hope this post helps you do the same.

transfagarasan highway romania
Transfagarasan Highway near Brasov, Romania.

4 thoughts on “When Traveling Affects Your Mental Health

  1. Łukasz Kaźmirek August 5, 2019 — 1:42 pm

    Sending love from Chełmża.


  2. Thanks for being genuine, open, and real! I’m sorry that you are having to deal with this, but I know that you are strong and not alone.


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