Exactly 2 years ago today, I landed in Brazil for a 3 month adventure. The following is a blog post I wrote about traveling with a mental illness. The original post is at www.valinbrazil.wordpress.com. Hopefully this gives you a bit of insight into what traveling is like for someone affected by mental illness. I have been to 43 countries and have realized that no matter where I go, I take myself with me. I have already written a blog post on the subject of travel but this one is much more personal.
"I had a small panic attack yesterday. Yesterday was a bad day. I cried at work and had to take the rest of the day off, and today. Most of you reading this probably know already how involved I am with mental health and how much it affects me personally.
I spent years believing that if I tried harder I could be better, normal. I saw most people living without crumbling at every onset of emotion and decided that I was doing something wrong. It took me years to realize there was a reason things were more difficult for me, but even then I continued to believe that failing to experience things normally was a flaw in character as opposed to a medical condition. I was taught this by the stigma placed on mental illness, by the attitude of select people in my life, of police officers, of hospital staff. There are so many people who should know better.
I now know I’ve struggled with mental illness my whole life. Everything I feel is magnified and my ability to rationalize those feelings is underdeveloped so, most often, emotions hit me completely unbridled. I watch people keep an even keel while I struggle to hide the tidal wave of my emotional reactions. I find myself shaking, or crying. Sometimes I have trouble breathing, or I feel dizzy or nauseous. And I often spend the time in between blaming myself for my inability to do better, convincing myself I’m weak and a burden on those who love me.
Having reached the other end of the tunnel alive, diagnosed, and supported by great people, I can understand what is different about me, how it affects my life and how I can manage it. In the case of so many people like me, mental illness is a chronic problem that will be managed for years if not the rest of their lives.
Traveling with a mental illness can be even more difficult. Traveling alone, for an extended period of time, can bring on strong emotions. Being overwhelmed, feeling out of place, missing home. Feeling these things when you have a predisposition to strong feelings and having trouble coping can lead to difficult moments. Thankfully, I have amazingly supportive people behind me. People who understand these issues, who know what I go through. The people I work with have been incredibly understanding and supportive and have let me tell my story. They have been accommodating and have been there for me when I needed them. My family has reached out, asking how I am, offering advice and encouragement. My boyfriend is an even keeled rock in my life. I could not express how understanding and supportive he always is.
It can be difficult because my issues make me disappointed in myself. I feel weak, I feel less than, I feel not good enough. Sometimes I think maybe I’ve put too much on myself, work, training twice a day, the tournament. I feel like I should be able to do it all but I need downtime to process sometimes. But one thing I try to remind myself is that I’ve been through hell and come out the other end. I can get through it and I can fight.
This is something I’ve both learned from and been able to apply to jiu jitsu. The part of my game that is most lacking is the mental aspect. My hypersensitivity to emotional distress and my lack of confidence often show when I roll. I’m beyond grateful for the supportive teammates who understand this, who know how to help or simply how to respect the fact that some nights I’m done early. I’m starting to learn when to push myself and when to take my body and mind’s cues that I’ve had enough. Jiu jitsu has both exposed some of the things I need to work on most and has been a therapeutic tool through which to work on them.
This has shown me what my main strength is in this thing, continuing to show up on the mats, continuing to show up in life, continuing to push even if I have to take one roll off or one day off to stave off a panic attack, continuing to compete even though it can sometimes feel soul crushing, continuing to live even though it feels too hard sometimes.
Living with a mental illness can be difficult but traveling with one has proven to have its own set of challenges and setbacks. I’ve done it before. I did Europe alone for 4 months, I was in Africa for almost a year. But still, every time these things come up. I’m working on my stuff as I always do, trying to be transparent so people can understand better. There is so much stigma attached, I’m sure you can understand how scary sharing can be. Hopefully this helps you understand better, feel free to leave any questions you have in the comments. I’m trying to be as open as I can. And please check out www.submitthestigma.org. Erin Herle has created an important initiative to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness in the jiu jitsu community. This cause is dear to my heart and has encouraged me to be more open and speak out about this. Wear the patches, listen to the people in your lives, educate yourselves, be excellent to each other."