Depression and The Solo Traveler

Traveling solo comes with a lot of upsides. There’s the freedom of doing exactly what you want at any time, the ease of finding a place to crash since one body takes up very little space, and, in the case of van travel, the fact that you have the whole bed to yourself, which is significantly more comfortable than sharing in such a cramped space.

I’ve seen about 7.2 million articles and blog posts praising and encouraging the solo wanderer, and I absolutely agree that it’s something every traveler should at least try, but I’m not here to talk about the positives of going through the world alone. Not today, because I have been stuck on expelling this dark, sticky, ugly part of traveling from my head and into words since about three months into my time in New Zealand – and the way this nastiness affected my life has been a big reason that I haven’t been able to write about anything with grace or flow since my last post.

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This is not a very happy post, so here’s a preemptive Kea

Depression as a solo traveler is rarely blogged about (and you certainly won’t see it on Instagram or Facebook), but I know it exists, because for the last 12 months living a transient lifestyle, it has been my only constant companion.

There’s nothing pretty or inspiring about depression – for every day I spent in some of the most beautiful places in the world, I had two or three days of struggling to convince myself to do something as basic and fundamental as getting up to brush my teeth.

Those aren’t the days that you want to show. Those aren’t the days that make you feel like you’re really taking life by the balls. But with depression, they are inevitable.

During the worst times, the only thing I consumed in a day was a(n entire) bottle of wine (or box wine aka goon – $20 for the equivalent of 4 bottles, thanks New Zealand!), and as much Netflix as I could afford to watch on the extremely expensive campground wifi. I would view my situation from the outside and wonder how it was that I could be living such a crazy awesome adventure, and still not find the motivation to get out of my nest of a van. That’s the thing about depression, it doesn’t make a lick of sense, even to those in itss terrible, terrible embrace.

Luckily, the worst times were few and far between, but even when depression eases up, or amazingly takes a break long enough to go on a three day hike and enjoy every minute of it, there’s that niggling knowledge that it’s always just there, looming over my shoulder, searching for a weak moment to extort and exacerbate.

BUT (yay there’s a but)

I never for a minute let the fact that I was dealing with this clingy, incessant shadow convince me that it wasn’t worth continuing to try. Sure, when it’s day 3 of feeling worthless, of not showering or even leaving the van except to pee, and I’ve read two entire books that weren’t even particularly good, it might feel like it would be easier to just sell the van and buy a ticket home. But then what? I’m not saying that isn’t the right move for some people, especially if you are feeling suicidal or are a legitimate danger to yourself, but for me, I wasn’t at that point, I couldn’t let the depression win, and I definitely didn’t believe going home would affect its omnipresence.

So I analyzed my situation time and again, working toward bringing myself back to feeling unburdened, pushing away the heaviness that enveloped my limbs and mind, and coming back to myself again. At this point, after years of just dealing until it resolves itself, I’ve discovered a decent strategy to expedite my recovery process. Not sure if it can help anybody else, but I hope someone else will find it useful.

I allow myself to feel/be depressed

Instead of being frustrated or ashamed that I feel awful and useless, which was my reaction for a very long time, I’ve learned that I have to accept it, let it happen, and do my best to care for myself emotionally. There’s nothing more counterproductive than getting upset that I’m upset.

Like yeah that makes sense, just send yourself into a shame spiral, Kayleigh. That should fix everything.

I set a time limit

This can be difficult, because if I don’t stick to my planned “depression allowance,” I still have to follow rule number 1. But, I found that if I allow for 2-3 days (depending on depth of depression, weather, life circumstances, etc) of not forcing myself to do anything at all, it’s almost like I can recover the emotional strength it takes to begin pushing the shadow away.

I look for inspiration, and plan something I love

Particularly aimed at travelers or people who live in more outdoorsy places, there’s nothing better for my state of mind than getting outdoors in an active way, such as exploring someplace beautiful, going climbing, or running along the ocean. At some point during my self-allowed hiatus from life, I look to adventure sites or Instagrams to find someplace to go for an activity that I know regularly gets me out of my head and into the world again. Anything that has successfully beaten back that dickbag depression in the past is fair game. I mark it mentally and use it as an option when he’s setting up camp again. Just the thought of a trip or activity on the horizon is sometimes enough to get my determination back.

(My favorite go to adventures are climbing, hiking, snowboarding, mountain biking, and running.)

I follow through, even if I have to push plans back

Easily the most difficult part of my strategy, it’s also the most crucial. Getting out and actually following through on the hike, or climbing trip, or whatever else, is about 75% of the battle. Not easy, because the longer I am a blob of hopelessness, the less willpower I have to move my body, but after even just an hour into my chosen activity, everything begins to make sense again, and I can feel life returning in a wildly refreshing way.

It's literally impossible to feel depressed looking at this view. Scientifically proven.
It’s literally impossible to feel depressed looking at this view. Scientifically proven.

I’m currently in an upswing – riding a pretty awesome wave of happiness after three weeks in Colorado, which has made it easier to write about my experience in a more detached, objective way. I’d like to continue writing, even if I’m the only one who reads it, so I’ll post an update on my life and what my next move is (because I’m not done traveling) later this week.

Nothing I’ve said here should be considered a 100% cure for depression, and I’m definitely not saying that anything I’m doing should replace an anti-depressant or therapy (though I am not utilizing either at this time). I just want to share my experience with people so they know that it is possible to have enjoyment and feel like you’re living your life while battling depression.

PLEASE READ:

If you are experiencing depression, anxiety, self harm, eating issues, or anything else, and need someone to talk to, please feel free to message me. I AM NOT A PROFESSIONAL (clearly), and I urge you to talk to one for definitive help, but I understand that even just having someone who cares and will listen is extremely comforting and helpful.

“You just do it. You force yourself to get up. You force yourself to put one foot before the other, and God damn it, you refuse to let it get to you. You fight. You cry. You curse. Then you go about the business of living. That’s how I’ve done it. There’s no other way.”

~Elizabeth Taylor

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Tongariro Northern Circuit: Three Days on A Great Walk, Day Two

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Waking up is consistently the hardest part of my day, made infinitely worse when waking up to a warm sleeping bag surrounded by a cold, unforgiving hut. Fortunately, my hiking partners and I only had a three hour walk ahead of us, so I was able to laze my way through the morning ritual.

With knowledge of yesterday’s clothing requirements, I stuck to two light layers and a wind shell for today’s hike. This turned out to be the right choice, and even a little much at times, since the weather was much calmer and the sun decided to stick around more permanently throughout the day.

Like the weather, the track section from the first to the second hut was much milder. We made our way up and over several dunes and valleys, all while under the distant, watchful eyes of Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu. The peaks of the sleeping giants were perfectly visible at last, making for stunning contrast against the scrubby volcanic desert below.

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So much scrub

The last push is definitely the most difficult for this relatively short jaunt. The trail runs into one of the only two forests we encountered on the circuit and steadily climbs up and out of the forest for a good 30 minutes, emerging at the top of a hill from which the Waihohonu hut can be spotted down below. I descended carefully due to some knee pain that started about an hour before, and was glad to only have a three hour day.

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Hut Day 2

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The Waihohonu hut is practically a resort. Built in 2010, its common area is massive, with two clothes drying racks operated by pulley system, five 6-person tables, and two separate kitchen areas. With so much time to waste, Sydney, Averie and I spent time alternately napping (Averie), speculating how the pulley systems could be improved (Sydney), and sitting in the sun reading random New Yorkers left in the corner (me).

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As afternoon turned to evening, other hikers started trickling in, leaving the entire common room completely filled. Our tiny group connected with two kiwi guys who shared their whiskey and chocolate with us, and we spent the night discussing travel plans and absurd American politics. It was almost enough to make us forget how miserable the forecast was for the following day…

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Mt Ruapehu looming in the distance
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Mt Ngauruhoe from afar