Travelling with a Mental Illness
Walking towards customs, all I can think about are the hundreds of tiny pills stuffed into my bag, little chemical concoctions that help me live every day. The fear of withdrawals is too strong to leave them in my suitcase, so I stuff them into my carry-on. I know they don’t have my brand of vice where I’m going; they don’t recognise my dependence as an illness. For the next five weeks, I won’t be able to get a hold of the drugs I need. Clutched between my trembling hands is all I have to get me through.
I am sweating, jittery. There is no one more conspicuous in this airport than me right now, and I know it.
As I get closer to the bored, white-gloved officials who will determine the fate of my trip, all I want to do is grab one of those pills and try to swallow it, even without the aid of my confiscated water. Even though I’d probably end up coughing and drawing more attention to myself. The temptation is there, but I’ll have to rummage through the mountain of other drugs to get to what I need, and then I’ll definitely be pulled into some awful backroom where god-knows-what will happen. Or so says my anxiety, which is currently betraying me by making the pores in my forehead dilate and sweat.
The white-gloved officials scrutinise my bag through their thermal camera, see the sweat dripping down my face and decide we need a chat. The urge to bolt is so overwhelming that I run on the spot, frozen but shaking with the energy expended running a marathon. I try to remind myself to breathe. In. Out. In. Out. Hyperventilating is not breathing. Everything will be okay, I think. You’re fine, you’re fine.
I step to the side, watch the white-gloves open my bag, watch them pull out my supply as the other tourists gawk at the proceedings. My anxiety is screaming at me to say something, to run away, to do anything to get me out of this situation. I want to cry. I want to be back at home. I want to never even think of travelling again. My brain won’t function; I can’t think past the terror of being arrested, of my future being stripped from me.
“Hey,” he pokes me. “What this?”
With trembling fingers, I pull out an old, crumpled piece of paper from my back pocket. It’s a note from my psychiatrist explaining that I’m not a drug dealer and that all the pills I have are legal, prescribed and supposed to be in my carry-on. It also holds absolutely no weight – my dealer was on maternity leave when I needed to legitimise my daily hits. All I have is this year-old scruffy note with a printed signature that somehow survived weeks in South-East Asia and Oh my God they’re going to arrest me, they’re going to arrest me, they’re going to arrest me.
I can’t stop shaking as they read over the note, look into my bag and scrutinise my pills with the nonchalance of people who know they are in control. I need those pills to survive this holiday like I need those pills to survive this experience.
“Is okay. You go.” He waves me away, moves on to the next person.
It’s okay? I can go? I don’t think I’ve had to hold myself back from running away from government officials so much since that one time I tried streaking down a busy road in Cape Town.
Obviously I’m not actually a drug dealer, but some of the little whites I take can be found on the black market. One of them warns that it can cause hallucinations and “hypnotic-like states”. Another is pink and legitimately has the word unicorn in its title. It’s good to laugh about these things (though not in the face of anyone important).
I’ll probably never get over the feeling that I’m doing something wrong just for travelling with my meds, especially in an airport where “DEATH PENALTY TO DRUG TRAFFICKERS” is emblazoned on the first wall you see. It’s things like that though – things that take you so far out of your comfort zone you can’t see over the wave of uncertainty about to wash you away – that allow you to grow.
It’s hard to leave home with bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression or any mental illness. It’s frightening. But it’s also one of the best things you can do. It won’t “fix” you, it won’t make you “better”, and for those of us who take medication, it isn’t an alternative. What it can do is make you more confident and hopefully help you realise that travelling with a mental illness is just travelling; the only difference is that you have a little extra baggage stuffed into the overhead compartment.
Cover by Alexander Caliman