What They Don’t Tell You About Long Term Travel
Travel is a privilege. Wandering the earth for longer than your regular Contiki holiday or Greek Island Instagram photo shoot is a common escape from the grips of societal expectations. Many leave the comfort and security of home for a one-way ticket in search of fresh perspectives and purpose, to be immersed in a new culture and to unleash an inner child that has long been suppressed, in countries we have only caught a glimpse of through images – or at least, that’s why I have chosen to live a life without a fixed address for as long as I possibly can.
When you have packed up your life into a 20kg backpack, you learn immediately the importance of adapting quickly to new surroundings and living off the most basic of human needs. Before you know it you are faced with uncomfortable realities and indescribable, intimate moments. Expectations are either wildly exceeded or bitterly unmet. The longer you’re away, resistance becomes increasingly likely to set in at the idea of returning to a life where materialism and its intrinsic relationship with social acceptance is valued more highly than being true to yourself. When you travel or temporarily relocate abroad, you become increasingly susceptible to the volatile traveller’s mind.
Aside from body image concerns and lingering sadness from breakups in the past, I have never considered that I had issues with my mental health; that was until the last six months of living in Sweden. I found myself facing panic attacks that came out of nowhere. My self-esteem plummeted. I became reclusive. Despite being adept at living life independently, the intense feelings of loneliness increasingly overshadowed my experiences. I found myself engulfed in guilt for feeling this way, which made it even more difficult for me to reach out. “How can someone who is fortunate enough to live in another country by choice feel such overwhelming sadness? You should be grateful!” This conversation regularly took place in my head like a song on loop. Did I mention I had spent the last six years attempting to understand the complexities of the mind and contributing to research on mental health promotion programs? Oh the irony.
Loneliness, anxiety, stress and depression are not always openly discussed when one is away travelling. It is often masked by a Valencia-filtered image of Iceland’s wild landscape or a snap of that place in Italy where pastel abodes overlook the sea. The reality is that when we hold on so tightly to the notion that travel is a privilege (and I am not saying it is not) and when we are reminded of how fortunate we are to travel, it becomes harder and harder to talk about mental health struggles on the road.
Travel revealed a lot of unexpected and unresolved issues and conflicts I thought had been boxed up and hidden away for good. It highlighted my fears and forced me to face them head on. After months of denial, I sought professional help (not covered by travel insurance by the way) which provided me with the tools I needed to manage my anxiety, to move forward and to continue to grow. Upon reflection I couldn’t help but feel that the increasingly distorted idea and perception that travelling equates to happiness or freedom is thanks somewhat to social media. It has added another dimension and source of pressure, another sort of norm that has subtly infected our minds as to what one must adhere to socially, how to think and how to behave even if we are travelling to places off the grid. Travel does not make you immune to the volatile mind, regardless of privilege.
Cover by Michael Hull