I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder when I was 14. It has taken me decades to come to grips with what that means, and to be in a place where I’m comfortable talking openly about it. Nowadays, I’m really open, because I work as a travel blogger, connecting with people and places for a living. I actually started my career at a nonprofit office job, thinking that was what I wanted. But the traditional professional life was something I couldn’t live up to, and I frequently used travel to re-center. I’m very lucky to have turned it into a career, because I’ve learned that travel can be one of the most incredible experiences for those of us struggling with our mental health.
For many of us, myself included, it can be hard to get out of bed some days. Depression comes crashing down, and just the thought of moving becomes overwhelming. Needless to say, the idea of journeying to the other side of the world can seem downright impossible.
But I’ve found that waking up in a new place can be very effective in breaking a downward spiral into an extended depression. My brain becomes too preoccupied with learning about a new place to focus on my mood. That said, traveling with a mood disorder also has its perils. So here are some tips and lessons (some of which I learned the hard way). May they help you, too!
Before You Go
Make Sure You Have Enough Medication. Most of us go month-to-month on our meds. That can be a challenge for an extended trip that overlaps with your refill period. I usually work with my doctor to get a two-month’s supply when I know I have a trip coming up to help with that issue. My pharmacy is also aware that I travel often and works with me to push up refill dates if needed.
Brief Travel Companions on Your Needs. Solo travel is easier for me in many ways because I don’t have to justify my emotional needs to anyone. However, when I travel with others, I try to discuss with them what I need (downtime, alone time, etc.) before we go. That way, we can work out systems that allow me to get what I need within the framework of our trip.
For example, I love taking road trips with my father, and it’s something we’ve been doing since I was a little kid. One of the systems we have in place is that when I feel like I need some alone time, we stay at a hotel with one-bedroom suites. He sleeps in the bedroom, and I sleep on the couch in the living room. Just that one wall and a few feet gives me the precious personal space I need.
Plan. For many of us with mood disorders, our anxiety worsens with the unknown—so having a plan can help with that. This doesn’t mean I have every day planned out, but I go into a trip with at least a rough itinerary. I also try to alternate busy days with lighter days to build in some downtime for myself.
Prioritize Self-Care. I refuse to neglect my self-care when traveling. For me, emotional balance begins with a good night’s sleep (at least eight hours, preferably more). I’ve accepted that this means I will rarely enjoy the nightlife in a new place, and I’m okay with that.If your self-care involves exercise, meditation or something else, structure that into your trip. Try to find hotels with fitness centers, room in your suitcase for your meditation materials, or anything else you may need.
Know Your Triggers. Our illnesses (unfortunately) don’t disappear because we’re on vacation. Our triggers are there as well, so we need to continuously pay attention to situations that can activate them. Knowing what our triggers are ahead of time can help us avoid things that might set them off, but sometimes it still happens. What do we do then?
When I was in Japan, I visited the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. It was extremely crowded, and at one point, people were all around me, and I felt like I was trapped. I had a panic attack, and I decided that rather than push
through the rest of my day, I would take care of my needs and leave. I told my travel companion that I would meet him back at our hotel, and I left.
Practice Self-Compassion. This one is still hard for me. After a situation like the one in Kyoto, my natural inclination is to be upset with myself. What I (and my illness) needed that day prevented me from seeing a place I wanted to see. While shame, guilt or disappointment might be our natural first reaction, it’s important to then be compassionate with ourselves. Doing what is necessary to maintain balance is hard, and doing it at the expense of something we were looking forward to is even harder. We make tough choices like that every day, but prioritizing our emotional needs is never the wrong choice.
Keep Your Support Structure Engaged. For some people, this means doctors or therapists. For others, like me, it means certain friends and family members. My friend Ana is one of my first calls when I have panic attacks or depression spirals at home. So even when I was in Kyoto, she was my first call when I got back to the hotel. Hearing her voice, even while on the other side of the world, made me feel like I wasn’t helpless or isolated just because I was gone.I do my best to make sure my support structure is aware of what’s going on with me while I’m gone, and I have emergency procedures in place with my therapist and psychiatrist just in case.
After You Return
Update Your Doctor and Therapist. I find it helpful to do a “debrief” with both my psychiatrist and therapist when I return from a trip. What situations did I handle well? What do I wish I would’ve handled differently? How did my meds work in a completely different environment? I believe that we learn by doing, and keeping the professionals we trust informed of our discoveries along the way is important.
Congratulate Yourself. Regardless of whether or not you handled every situation in a way you consider “perfect,” you were able to travel with a mood disorder. That is an accomplishment that needs to be celebrated! Look through your photos, tell stories to your friends, and know that if you did this, you can do anything.
Jonathan Berg is a volunteer facilitator for the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and the founder and editor of the travel blog The Royal Tour (www.theroyaltourblog.com). He struggles to keep his bipolar disorder in check and shares his adventures and struggles with his readers.