Where Air is Water
I wish I had taken ballet as a kid.
The pirouettes I force myself into, avoiding seemingly inevitable collisions with scooters and cars, on roads that have no sidewalks to speak of and drains wider than a cat is long, would make my grandmother proud. Add to that the scrapes on my hand and pride from my failure to tame a Balinese scooter to my will that morning, and the ripped strap of my only backpack, I consider that perhaps it wasn’t ballet I should have taken up early on, but basic coordination.
Being depressed, you’d think I’d be the first in line to stay in Canggu. But I’m honestly the last person who should voluntarily travel to Bali, considering I’m trudging along the road towards a promise of a beach I don’t even want to visit anymore sweating through jeans, double-laced chucks and layered shirts. It’s almost enough to paint me as the protagonist of an Avril Lavigne song.
Hey, hey, you, you, I don’t like your girlfriend.
No way, no way, I wouldn’t like me either.
Truth be told, despite the aforementioned misconceptions, I didn’t come to Bali to find myself. The only Elizabeth Gilbert book I’ve read has been Big Magic, and while I honestly revelled for a few chapters in being a “genius”, I certainly wasn’t eating, praying and loving my way to Indonesia. Big Magic helped improve my writing and my confidence in it to an extent, but had absolutely nothing to do with my choosing to go to Bali for a month to improve my confidence in it further.
I’m a person of cold climes. My ideal outdoor temperature is so low, the air conditioning in my room doesn’t even have it on its dial. I’m spoiled by privilege; access to public transport, toilet paper, cashless wallets and somewhat affordable gluten-free products.
But I applied to an ad on Facebook that looked interesting, fully expecting to be rejected and instead found myself accepted the very next day. Luck doesn’t smack me in the face that often, so I went for it. I went for it ignoring my distaste for warmer climates, ignoring my fear of crowded places and not knowing the language, ignoring the ever-present and niggling fear in my belly that tattooed doubts against my guts that I was just not good enough to go.
So I went.
Raising a one finger salute to those doubts, I went.
But being lost in another country and lost in your own head at the same time doesn’t make you found, regardless of where you are or how inspiring the trip is, or how desperately you want to show your own anxieties up.
Kicking rocks into the gaping gutters as I wonder how long it would take me to literally sweat myself to death, I consider how utterly helpless I feel in this place; having arrived a day earlier than everyone else in the course, having failed at procuring a form of transport I had been confident I could access, having no knowledge of the language, having a rapidly emptying water bottle and warnings and reminders not to drink from the taps here swirling in my head. I realise that I have been thrown physically into my mental struggles; like I’m drowning even though I’m standing on dry land.
I suppose that it’s not really a surprise when, less than a week later, I learn in language class that in Indonesian, “air” means “water”. It makes sense why I can’t not be drowning here.
Unfortunately, travelling with a mental illness opens you up to so much more than the usual woes and worries of getting out of one country and into another. And the thing is, I travel often enough that laid end to end, the number of just-too-long-to-be-safe objects I’ve unwillingly donated to New Zealand customs would probably stretch from Auckland to Denpasar: safety scissors, nail files, metal-bodied pencils, toothpaste in very threatening tubes over 100ml. I travel with a doctor’s note to prove that the suspicious amount of pills in my luggage are in fact to keep my mood steady and my brain functioning rather than a way for me to make bank when I land by selling them off to enterprising young drug lords.
Every time I travel, I’m asked if I’m going to “find myself”, if this is the trip which I return from “healed”, if this is the one that I’ll realize that I can’t escape my problems and need to face them head on. The thing is, I don’t know. I never know. Because I don’t travel to find myself, or heal myself, or escape from my problems. I travel to grow as a human being, just like everyone else. I just happen to have the burden of my brain to check in as extra carry-on luggage.
Often, stories of success when it comes to healing or progressing positively with your mental health come at a time when such things are unfathomable, let alone even on the radar as achievable for a lot of people. And so inspiration rots with pressure, and many people stagnate in their own healing. The only images of us broken-minded practicing self-care in blogs and media — especially in places like Bali — are those curled into yoga pretzels in front of temples at sunset, or laughing illogically while holding a mason jar filled with green goo.
For me, Bali is a flashback to a war.
For me, Bali is everything I fear, everything I find uncomfortable, everything that is against my very nature, wrapped up in one Air New Zealand Grab-a-Seat package. Bali is the war in my head. Bali is the aftermath where I attempt to pick up the pieces. It’s the sweat and tears and blood I spill in my endless attempt to smile holding a yoga pose for a selfie.
I don’t even like yoga.
That’s why the place has changed me so much. Being yanked from a mental sphere into a physical arena is eye-opening, a reminder of just how hard we non-normies have it, at home and abroad. I’ve found ways to adjust my breathing to keep from choking most days. Not every day, because there’s only so much my stash of medication, and good conversation, and Pocari Sweat can keep me buoyant. But most days.
I know I’ll leave Bali unhealed, unfound, and having not escaped even the least of my problems; I’ll leave it struggling, and that’s okay. I’ll leave it remembering the hard days, and that’s okay. I’ll leave it glad to return to a soggy, unpleasant, Auckland winter, and that’s okay. Because in the end it’s the little victories that add up to the huge successes. My little victory for this trip was learning to face my mental battles on a physical field, and coming away stronger for it.
And, perhaps, learning to breathe underwater.
Cover by the author