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Sweatpants & Travel | Travelling with Anxiety

How I rediscovered my love of travel after my mental health diagnosis.

By Megan Lewis

I had run around my small flat in laps of utter excitement. I had lain on the bed staring at the ceiling doubting my decision and crying myself into a state of utter misery. Both were a result of booking a two-week long trip to Italy, and with the time creeping ever nearer, I couldn’t get a grip on my ever-changing mood. A holiday to a beautiful foreign country sounded amazing when I had booked it on one of my good days. I felt brave, trusting in myself to fulfill my dream to travel solo. The catch? I had recently come out of the hospital having been diagnosed with chronic depression and anxiety.

As the plane took off from South Africa, I realized it had been exactly five months to the day since I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital with a severe mental breakdown. At the age of 27, I lost control of my brain and all sense of rationality. My psychologist explained that I had an overwhelming influx of emotions with which my brain couldn’t cope. All I know is that it was one of the scariest times of my life. I was diagnosed with the combination of major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. However, admission and diagnosis brought on a sense of relief, once I realized that the white coats were there to make me better rather than send me to my untimely doom.

I wasn’t really sure why I had booked the trip to Italy, except that the old me—the one before hospitalization—loved travelling. I wanted to reconnect with her. A couple of weeks before leaving, I started a travel blog, as I had been to various countries previously, and with the pending journey I had decided travel was going to be my thing again. Three hours into a 17 hour plane ride, the most daunting part was thinking ahead about all the time alone that stood in front of me. It was glaring at me, challenging me to overcome it or crumple into a heap of panic attacks.

640x640 Traveling with Anxiety Inset

Being by myself, when I had over the past months become so accustomed to having a crucial support system in the form of my partner and family, was difficult at first. I made excuses to myself that I wished they were with me in Italy to share a moment when really, in the beginning, it came down to needing the old security blanket. I would go out to eat at restaurants and having to pick up a glass without visibly shaking was one of the first hurdles I had to accept and then overcome with just a step rather than an almighty jump. It wasn’t just an overseas holiday, it was a fact-finding mission to discover how to travel through life with my illness.

I can, at times, due to my mental illness, be borderline agoraphobic. So while convincing myself that having a day away from the world, taking time out from people, is a good thing what I really did about a quarter of the way into the trip was hide from the world for an entire day. This was the single lowest point in the holiday. As the day dragged on, I became more depressed about being locked away in my Roman tower but more afraid to leave it. It was only when I woke the next morning that I finally managed to shake the feeling. Going out as soon as I woke up became the most important part of each day, perhaps even more so than breakfast!

Sometimes you’ve got to do something you think for the moment, perhaps for the majority of the time leading up to the moment, you don’t want to or can do. Because if you don’t do that thing, whatever it is, you know in the pit of your butterfly-filled stomach that you will be locked into fear forever. Fear flourishes on inactivity, it manifests when left to do so; be it inactivity of the mind to stop self-deprecating thoughts or to get up and leave the room. If I had let my anxiety get the better of me and gave into my agoraphobic fear for the rest of my holiday, I would have sunk into deep depression for failing to give myself a chance at an amazing time away.

In spite of my petite stature, I used to be a no-nonsense type of girl but as I journeyed into womanhood I left this confidence behind and replaced it with defensive insecurity. Taking a risk to go on this expedition into the unknown, I also took a journey into the self. Not necessarily on purpose, but upon reflecting it is clear that through travelling I have fought and won back a piece of the old me. I will never be the same post-hospitalization. But I have gone to the personality store and redeemed some parts of me that had been forgotten. It took me going away to come closer to who I am.

Megan Lewis is a South African people-and-planet activist who freelance-writes when she’s not fighting for a more just world. She loves to travel and has recently started her own travel blog: http://shortybecool.weebly.com.

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