How Travelling Put Me Back in Control
Depression and the importance of doing
Two years ago, every day, I stayed in bed and watched a lot of television with unmemorable plot lines. A university student at the time, studying nothing and everything in the hopes of being swept off her feet by a “calling” she could pick up and answer like a telephone. A university student who hardly went to class, and never went to 8am class, even though 8am was Writing 101 and the only lecture she never regretted attending when she dragged herself into the cold to attend it. I think I had what you might call the “anti-university” experience. Short lived and lonely, I lacked social skills and extroversion, two traits that don’t necessarily make student life the fiery frat film it wants to be, but tend to at least throw some kindling into the mix. So I was alone and my dorm was always cold (these were 10 month long Canadian winters) and I finally fell into the depression that had been teetering between “will she or won’t she?” for years. And now, two years later, I’m in a place where school is back on the table. The time since then has been nothing like a lecture or a classroom, nothing even remotely resembling a schedule, but arguably the most educational years of my life.
Year one, I worked and went to therapy. I moved back home, made coffee and wiped tables all week long, and then treated myself to some talk therapy. I also started meditating. I discovered how much I could split myself, how warm I could be in the customer service business while still feeling cold on the inside. I learned how to be sad in my own time, outside of anyone’s line of vision. Because sadness makes people uncomfortable! Especially if there’s no conspicuous reason for it, and no one’s crying because they rolled their ankle, they’re crying because they can’t see a point to life. It’s too much for the average coffee drinker, and so a separation is what I had to do to survive.
What I really wanted was to travel. I didn’t know, logistically, how I would do it, or how I would fare away from the creature comforts of my parents’ house. Did I even know how to be on my own in my neighbourhood, let alone out in the world? But it was this desire I had, something to save up for, yet at the same time, something I knew I’d never act on. So even when I’d earned enough money to travel for months and months, I kept working, and earning, and saving. These days, most of the money from that time in my life has been spent. But it doesn’t worry or scare me seeing low numbers in my bank account. Because I know where that money has gone, where it’s been, and the uses I’ve put it towards. When I was working that year, all I wanted was something worthwhile to invest it. Everyone around me went out every weekend and bought cars and trips to Palm Springs, and had hardly two pennies to their names. But they were living and spending, and I was doing neither.
So that was me, saving and saving, until I quit my barista job and started hostessing at a much nicer restaurant in a better part of town. On paper the job sounded fantastic — wear a fancy dress, work in a bustling area, get discounts off the menu. But it was far away from home, I was on call all the time, and having to drop everything and run into work within a half hour’s notice. It wasn’t worth its minimum wage, so I gave in my notice once again. After my last shift, I drifted back to my old workplace for a coffee. Maybe for nostalgic reasons, maybe to beg for my old position back, but regardless…my cousin Anya was sitting there, working on her application to graduate school. She told me she was going to Central America in two weeks. She invited me along, and I said maybe. On my way home, walking the same route I always walked from work, with the same drink in my hand, seeing the same faces, I made the first real decision I’d made since deciding on a university nearly a year ago.
The next two weeks were a whirlwind. We decided to start in Mexico, make our way to Guatemala, Belize and then maybe Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba, or wherever. We were completely unprepared, completely plan-free, I had to get vaccinations and malaria medication mere hours before our flight. I borrowed a backpack and packed hardly anything. Books, some t-shirts, bug spray. But I felt completely ready — I had, of course, been preparing since I left school. I’d just needed a push, I’d needed Anya to shove a map into my hands and say “point.” She didn’t know about the state of my mental health, nor did she care, she just knew how much I wanted to see things and she wanted to see them too, so why not see them together? So I said yes, even though I had doubts, even though I was worried about being overridden by my brain, by its defaults and its patterns. I said yes because I didn’t have time to say no. Because I was so desperate for an opportunity like this that saying no would be too heavy of a regret for me to carry; it would do more damage to my mental state than what potentially awaited me overseas. But when we landed in Mexico City, and made it to our hostel in the dark, I didn’t feel the worry or the fear. I felt in my element. I wasn’t alone anymore, I was exploring and stumbling through the Spanish I’d wanted to use for years. I felt like I was starting my life over again, where I was this person, the girl who travels and knows the ins and outs of cheap transportation and finding the best local tamales. Where everything around her demands its own photo, instead of just a room and a bed and a café.
Within those first few weeks, I was changing every day. Anya and I grew closer, got drunk together, kayaked in the rain together, wandered and sun bathed together. And we talked. I mostly listened, at first, but we found common ground on things I never thought we would. She was outgoing, introduced me to people, talked to everyone at the bar, found us more and more companions and connected me to others in a way I had never experienced. For me, it was such a different context, meeting people on the road. It’s so brief and intense, and everyone is there to be inspired in the same way you are. I had real conversations. I don’t think I’d ever had a real conversation before I left. Only skin deep, small talk, chit chat. Travelling, I enjoyed conversing, instead of dreading it and feeling insecure about my own words. I was too engaged to doubt myself, and I said what I wanted to say, I listened and I responded. I heard every accent under the sun in those hostels, every opinion, every viewpoint (though we all still agreed on the singular point that Donald Trump was a moron). I met writers and filmmakers, musicians, construction workers, activists. I also met my boyfriend.
I continue to learn from him. He pushes me, but he’s delicate and understands how a wave can come and knock me off balance for a while. And that that’s okay, because I’ve learned how to make the current sweep me upright again. Or sometimes, I can let it do its thing and let it pass, like a falling tide. We talk about congruency and balance, about the ebb and flow, the inhale and the exhale. In Cuba, I decided to travel with him for another three months. Big decision número dos. We saw Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, plus New York for a few weeks at Christmas. He makes me want to write, and compose, and generally just jump up and down all the time. And it’s not perfect, I get scared of the things I can’t do and the things I don’t know. I breakdown, and shut off. I isolate myself. But every day, we see something beautiful together. And that wouldn’t change even if we stopped travelling completely. Because a room and a bed and a café can be just as beautiful as the Australian coastline. The sun is always the same sun, the moon is always the same moon. And you have to work, sometimes, all the time, to be better and earn your keep. But that can be beautiful too; the process.
That’s where I am now, appreciating the process, the difficulties of long distance relationships but the euphoria of seeing someone you love after months of waiting. I still work at a coffee shop at home, but when I’m working towards something, there’s no thought in my head saying it won’t, or can’t, become a reality. And I know things change, naturally. That I will start to study again, but I’ll do it for myself, on my own time, at my own pace. I’ll do it to learn and I’ll do it to grow. Learn, grow, and repeat. For me, a lot of my depression relied on stagnancy. Standing still. Now, I move and I spend and I stand still, sometimes. But I have some clarity, and the sense of control that I used to grab aimlessly at with my eyes closed. Control is much easier to take hold of when your eyes, or at least one eye, is open (bonus points if you’ve roused the third as well). Maybe it’s therapy, yoga, travel, or following through with a passion that does this for you, but I can’t stress how important it is to do — even if “doing” is the last thing on your mind. I was hit with a loss of desire to do the things I loved most, but simply the act of doing (even something as small as cooking a proper dinner instead of pouring a bowl of cereal) got me out of my room, out of my head, and forced me to focus on something other than my own confusion. This series of distractions eventually became a life, which eventually became a life I was invested in. I faked it, and faked it some more, until it dawned on me that at some point, I’d stopped pretending. I found the sweet spot, a place I never thought I’d have the capacity to reach. But I believe depression and happiness can coexist — maybe not in the same moment, but most definitely in the same lifetime. Some days I feel more of one than the other, but eradicating any emotion isn’t the answer for me. It’s the control, and the understanding of those emotions that pulls everything into a paved path, aligned and walkable. And then, from there, all that’s left to do is tie your laces, turn the corner, and take the walk.