Travel can be challenging; it can make us reevaluate ourselves, it can help us grow and it can change our perspectives.
But the thing with travel is, wherever you go, you take yourself with you.
This is what gives traveling with a mental illness a unique set of challenges. We don’t leave our symptoms at security when we hop on a plane. When we travel, we often experience feeling out of place, being overwhelmed or missing the comfort and familiarity of wherever we call home. Experiencing these things when one already has a predisposition to strong feelings and a difficulty coping with them can lead to challenging moments.
Each mental illness has a different set of symptoms and preparation can help us deal with them. One of the most common is anxiety and panic, which can exist with several illnesses from anxiety disorders to bipolar disorder and OCD. It is then logical that an abrupt change in setting, time zone and an exposure to new and different people may bring up anxiety or panic. If we know we are prone to these symptoms, it is important to prepare to take with us the skills and the items that help us manage these at home. Medication can be an invaluable tool and it is important to ensure we have enough for our trip, as well as the documentation required to bring it into the countries we’ve chosen to visit. For some, things like music or a favourite book are extremely important. Traveling with a mental illness requires self-awareness and knowledge of what works for us. Preparedness is crucial. It is essential to be aware of our triggers as well as the self-care practices that keep our symptoms in check.
With illnesses that have more severe or difficult to manage symptoms, these guidelines apply but other precautions can be taken as well. Illnesses that come with psychosis or hallucinations need to be well managed before traveling. With these symptoms it is often best to consult with the mental health professional in your life before taking off. An episode of psychosis in a foreign setting, without the support network one regularly has access to, can be far more severe than one that occurs at home. That being said, this does not preclude people with illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar psychosis from traveling. It simply requires preparation and care as well as the advice of a mental health professional.
At home we work on managing our symptoms, sometimes with the help of professionals, medication and a supportive network of loved ones. When we travel, we can often be on our own. Medication can obviously be transported but therapists, psychiatrists, mom and dad or best friend cannot be squeezed into a backpack. Travel makes us face ourselves, often by ourselves. We face our strengths and weaknesses and learn about our capacity to adapt. Traveling can bring on difficult situations and teach us how effective our healthy coping mechanisms are, but the fact that it can display our strengths is a benefit of traveling with a mental illness.
My travels have taken me to 43 countries thus far and have taught me quite a bit about my illnesses as well as how I manage them. My travels have also shown me my main strength. That strength is that I continue on my path. I continue to show up, I continue to push forward even when things get difficult, when symptoms are acting up. If I need a day to myself to stave off a panic attack I take it. It does not make me weak or an unsuccessful traveler, it instead means that I have learned my limitations and know how to work within them.
I’ve learned to manage the symptoms specific to my illnesses as well as the way they affect my travel habits and how I handle new situations. A good example of this is how Bipolar disorder affects me and how I react to things due to it. Bipolar disorder means that I experience highs and lows to a magnitude healthy people do not. My highs usually take the form of hypomania, a less severe form of mania, and can mean that strong positive emotions become too strong and can be unhealthy and dangerous. I rode an ATV around Mykonos in Greece once, my hair free in the wind and my iPod blaring as whitewashed and blue-trimmed towns blurred by. I turned a corner and found myself at the top of a cliff watching the sun set into the deep turquoise of the Mediterranean. I stopped and stood on my ATV, turning the music even louder. I could have jumped off the edge of that cliff. In that moment I felt invulnerable, indestructible. But it wasn’t real. This was hypomania talking, and a small part of me knew it but I stared out as if I would never have the chance to look at a sunset again, as if I would never be this complete again. By the time the last ray of sunlight disappeared behind the horizon I felt empty again. Traveling is a true passion for me, meaning it brings on strong emotions like this. Exploring new places, finding myself in a new city with new smells, new sounds, etc, it can feel like being a new person, it can be so exciting that it takes me to a dangerous place. These highs are usually followed by a crash, which can be just as dangerous. This is when I have to remember that this is a symptom, and I have to remember how to manage it.
If there is anything to take away from this, it is that knowing our boundaries and operating within them does not make us less than, or inadequate. It instead displays the self-awareness to be able to achieve our goals and accomplish what we set out to despite setbacks or challenges. Traveling can be stressful on just about anybody. When it comes to having a mental illness, a few simple steps can help us lower the chances of our mental illness drastically affecting our travel plans.
Things to remember:
· If you are on medication, it is important to ensure to have enough to last your entire trip and a few days after you get home. Some pharmacies require documentation from your doctor to dispense larger amounts of your meds at the same time and some countries require documentation to bring the meds passed their border. Be aware of these stipulations. If you are changing time zones throughout the trip, try to set alarms so your medication schedule is not disrupted.
· If you have coping skills or tools you frequently use such as music, a book, positive self talk, etc, be sure to have what you need with you and perhaps make a trusted travel partner aware of what works best for you when you need help coping with a situation.
· If you are seeing a mental health professional, discuss the trip with them. Brainstorm situations that could come up that would potentially trigger symptoms and discuss how you would handle these.
· If your mental illness is likely to require hospitalization should your symptoms become severe, be prepared by having the appropriate travel insurance.
There are very few things that having a mental illness precludes us from doing. What we can do is plan ahead and be aware of how our life differs due to that illness. For me, the important thing to remember is that I am a true traveler; I love adventure and I feel wanderlust every day of my life. This is not affected by the fact that I have a mental illness. It does not make me a less experienced traveler, and most importantly it does not make me a weaker person.