How To Travel Alone When You Struggle With Mental Health

For the past nine months, I have been gallivanting around the globe with one of my truest and dearest friends. But, for the past two weeks (a drop in the bucket by comparison) I have been trekking on my own to Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Budapest. We were supposed to rendezvous in Hungary but, because of a mechanical malfunction on her flight, we will have to wait until Sunday when we arrive in back in Prague. Traveling on my own was like hitting the reset button for my mental health, then trying to blow on the N64 cartridge to get the fucking shit to start up again. I felt glitched, out of sorts, like I ceased to be myself.

As much as I love Anya, I knew this was something I needed to do because I had to know that I can stand on my own. But…I was fucking freaked out. Anya knows every last detail about me; she fraternizes with my faults and even drinks whiskey with my demons, so I knew I could rely on her whenever I experienced intense anxiety or panic. When we had a five-hour bus ride to Slovenia from Croatia, I was gripped by panic; Anya rubbed my back or held my hand so that I could get through the ordeal. The thought of being on nearly opposite ends of the continent was enough to make my chest feel tight and my breathing become labored. Which is why I knew I had to do it.

At first the experience was discouraging, it felt like all the hard work I had put into my mental health had been ripped away like that new bus-boy you hired who looks over at you and says, “watch this” while violently pulling the tablecloth trying to have all of the cutlery and china remain in the same position. This isn’t a cartoon Carl, and you’re fired.

One lesson I have learned again and again is how rhythmic life is. I don’t believe there is such thing as opposites; they are identical in nature, but different in degree. For example, “hot” and “Cold” are terms used to describe heat, but they are not opposites because where does one start and the other end? The same can be said for “sharp” and “dull”, or “hard” and “soft”, they represent the far ends of each polarity on the same spectrum.

When thinking of your mental health, what words do you use to describe it? As someone who has struggled with mental health issues for nearly the past decade, I would always say things were “shit” and I just wished they were “good”. When things get dark it’s so difficult to see the shades of grey that are there, and no I’m not talking about BDSM. “Good” is not the opposite of “bad”, once I understood this, I was able to feel emotions like excitement simultaneously with the dread that I was used to experiencing. I really tried to adjust my thoughts around anxiety and depression while traveling on my own. Whatever I was capable of doing was what I was going to do. No more, no less.

In the past, the good days felt like a drug high (even when I wasn’t using), because they happened so infrequently that when they did happen the euphoria was intense, with an equally as dramatic fall. It made the pattern of my mind feel like a Yo-Yo in the hands of a puppeteer on speed. But, by softening the mind a bit, by being a bit gentler with myself, I found the swings will still come and go, but they will be far less severe.

So if you plan to do some traveling on your own, be kind to yourself. Prior to parting ways with Anya, I wiped my mind of any expectation. If I was going to be able to take part in a crazy adventure that involved mustachioed women, dancing bears, and skinny dipping, then that would be great and I’ll be sure to send you a postcard from the circus in Moscow. But, if all I was capable of was just staying in bed and resting, then that is fantastic in its own way because that is what I needed to do.

Things that happened while traveling alone:

  • I lied a lot more
    • Back in high school I was a straight-up pathological liar. I lied about everything, which stemmed from lying to myself about being gay (and later lying about being a drug addict). I was so insecure that I cooked up the idea that if I had fabulous stories, people would think I too…was fabulous. It got so bad that I had to train myself to even recognize when I was lying so that I could change the behavior.
    • This came up again when I traveled alone. I didn’t feel enough, so in the beginning, I stretched the truth and by the end, my “stories” became contorted and completely unrecognizable.
  • I was very soft spoken
    • I’m 6’4”, but for way too long I felt in the way, I would try to make myself as small and as quiet as possible.
    • Instead of using my voice for its intended purpose, my speech had an apologetic tone, like I was sorry for the noise I was producing.
  • I became way more sensitive
    • If you experience anxiety some of you may vouch for this. Whenever anxiety is slapping my mind in the face, my other senses either becomes completely dulled or hypersensitive. While traveling alone, I felt like a balloon in a field of needles. Small things like someone dropping a plate or a dog barking would make me jump out of my skin.
    • Good headphones are an absolute must for me. I made a playlist on Spotify (that I am always adding to) of the songs I like for when I feel out of control of my anxiety, or honestly whenever because the songs are stunning. You can find the playlist by searching my name ‘Wolfe Erikson’ and the playlist is called “Thick Time”.
  • I felt uninspired
    • I had my camera with me wherever I went, but I actually only took photos two of the days I was there because nothing felt beautiful. If you have been to Copenhagen, you know how photogenic the city is, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to find beauty in anything because my mind was constantly elsewhere.

These are all very old patterns for me. I was terrified initially that they were here to stay, but of course like I mentioned before anxiety, like everything else in life is rhythmic. This was a window to my past and allowed me to truly appreciate how far I have come.

What you can do if you travel alone:

  • Take breaks
    • Do not feel like you need to constantly be doing/seeing something. I didn’t give myself a chance to rest and wish I had. Every day I was in Copenhagen I walked for miles, for eight hours every day I walked. The reason I walked so much was honestly because I was afraid of stopping. If I had a place to go or a task at hand, my mind would be distracted enough to keep anxiety just under the surface, still able to be felt but not overpowering. But, because I didn’t adequately rest my mind I never enjoyed myself. I know that is a sad thing to say, but it’s true. There were a few fleeting moments of enjoyment, but overall it was a frantic pursuit. So be sure to rest.
  • Have an emergency release
    • For me, this is writing and music. I carry a pocket journal, a pen, and headphones with me wherever I go. Writing for me is cathartic; it feels like the pressure is being released from a valve when I spill ink onto the page. Find something that you’re able to wrap your mind in and carry it with you.
  • Adjust your expectations
    • I am quite proud for doing this so well. I knew that the more I pressured myself to be social and “have a good time”, the more I would provoke my mind with anxiety. It is a powerful thing being comfortable being alone.
  • Know your triggers
    • For me, my two largest triggers are transit, and anxiety (Put your hand down, I’ll explain later). I didn’t actually take public transportation in Copenhagen until the last two days because claustrophobia (particularly feeling like I can’t breathe in a crowd) is a huge trigger for me. My second trigger is anxiety itself, more specifically having anxiety or a panic attack in front of people who don’t understand what they are. I am fucking terrified of asking for help; in all honesty, if I had an asthma attack I think the embarrassment would overshadow any other emotion. So I made sure I knew how to take care of myself if things got out of hand by knowing the emergency number in Copenhagen, and by having a crisis support hotline like ones you can find here (The number is at the bottom of the link) if my friends were unavailable.
    • So know what and where your triggers are. Push them when you can, but be smart and safe about it. It took me a full week to work up the courage to take public transport and I always carried my journal with me.
  • Be able to say no
    • By all means, say yes to some things, but don’t spread yourself too thin by agreeing to everything. Sometimes anxiety makes it difficult to disappoint people, I would advise on learning how to do this prior to traveling on your own.

Some of the best intentioned people have given me the advice to “take the plunge” when seeking advice on something that I was scared of. But, in all honesty I don’t think this is the best approach. Anxiety is tricky. If you bite off more than you can chew and choke, you may learn to be afraid of food. So instead, fight back incrementally. Little by little challenging yourself to widen your comfort zone will help dramatically. But, it is not a quick fix, because quick fixes either don’t work, or will only work for a bit and will leave you worse off than before with a nasty addiction…at least that’s what happened to me.

As always:

Much love and many adventures,

Wolfe.