Despite having an anxiety disorder, Suzie is a world traveler. She shares with us her story, how travel has improved her mental health, and some practicalities of traveling with mental illness.
Guest Post by Suzie Smith
I have an anxiety disorder. I say it far too often. I feel the need to explain my behaviour.
Almost two years ago, I suffered a complete nervous breakdown. I was a teacher at the time, and it turns out this is not uncommon. In fact, in one survey by NASUWT showed that 67% of the 3500 respondents said their job had adversely affected their mental or physical health; with almost half reporting they had seen a doctor due to work-related physical or mental health issues. But knowing that others have been affected doesn’t make it any easier to get through.
I have suffered because of my mental health for a long time, but this time it was something different.
Anxiety. Depression. OCD. My triple threat.
More severe, and far scarier than I thought possible. It broke me. I lost all confidence in how to actually be a person. It was like forgetting how to breathe. Like being trapped underwater and desperate for that breath, knowing there is no way you can surface. I spent days, weeks, months trapped inside my own head. Physically confined to my bedroom simply because I had designated that ‘safe’. Feeling safe is huge for someone with anxiety; anxiety disorders are not rational, it isn’t like you are nervous about flying or because you have to speak in public, it is feeling physically incapable of moving yet desperately not wanting to let anyone down.
I spent days, weeks, months trapped inside my own head. Physically confined to my bedroom simply because I had designated it a ‘safe’ space. Feeling safe is huge for someone with anxiety; anxiety disorders are not rational, it isn’t like you are nervous about flying or because you have to speak in public. It is feeling physically incapable of moving yet desperately not wanting to let anyone down.
Read More: How Travel Forces Me to Face My Fears
How far I’ve come since then.
Fast-forward two years and I am halfway around the world in New Zealand, and I travelled through 26 countries to get here. I’ve been on the road for 14 months and plan to be for at least 5 years. I’ve met countless people and made some wonderful new friends.
And only 20 months ago, I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom on my own (it seriously took me a good 6 weeks to work up the courage to have a shower without my husband stood at the door telling me continuously that I was safe). I couldn’t even talk to my parents on the phone (I’ll be honest, I still struggle with phone calls and will avoid them if they really aren’t necessary) and just the thought of being in a crowd was enough to trigger every physical symptom of anxiety.
So, how did I go from a shell of a person to able to travel indefinitely?
Honestly: one day at a time. I have to take it one day at a time.
There are still days where I can barely function. I have had palpitations in crowds and I sweat profusely meeting new people. I have had tears over burning dinner. My husband has to remind me how to breathe on occasion.
I have had breakdowns in airports over seats – flying is still something that I really struggle with, and we do everything possible to ensure that we are sat together, but sometimes airlines change things at the last minute. We’re talking tears, heart rate rising to the point that my vision begins to black out, a full, body-shaking panic attack.
This is one of those times that I have to explain myself. And this is also one of those times that complete strangers prove how wonderful humanity really is.
And yet, despite all of this
Travelling has helped my mental health exponentially. I am free. I don’t feel like I am letting anyone down. I don’t have time pressures. I practise my grounding techniques; I think it sometimes helps me to see the world more clearly.
Part of it is to start small and build out so you don’t get overwhelmed. Start close to you; focus on details. Tiny, insignificant things. Sometimes these tiny details make the most interesting and beautiful photographs: a unique perspective on the world around us.
Convincing myself everything is safe can be somewhat more difficult. I do share dorm rooms in hostels, but I do have conditions. First, I take the top bunk, this is just how it is. I can’t share a room if I am on a bottom bunk. Ideally, my husband has the bunk under mine, but that isn’t always possible. I always pick the bed closest to the door if that is available because I struggle with feeling trapped or enclosed. I like to know my escape routes, I pick them out wherever I am.
This is just part of how I get through each day. It is important to know the strategies that work for you to help get you back to level so you can implement them when you feel that first crack.
I’ve always said that I feel more comfortable when I am somewhere I don’t know, and I know this seems completely illogical. But I think it is simply because it is expected that I will feel out of place, so my anxiety becomes normalised. Expected. And because of that, I can control it.
The practicalities of traveling with mental illness
They can be somewhat overwhelming – sometimes they are more stressful than being lost in a sea of people.
It is vital to always carry medications in their original packets, along with a doctor’s prescription to prove they are yours and you should have them. It is unlikely anyone will question you over an asthma inhaler, but carrying antipsychotics and antidepressants is a completely different game.
I am not currently on any long-term medications – I struggle with the side effects more than my mental health, and I’m now able to use my coping strategies to keep me on an even keel. I do however carry diazepam for emergencies. In the past, I have always just continued my repeat prescriptions at home and had medications sent out to me by my mum – although this does mean you have to stay still for a period of time whilst you wait for your parcel to arrive.
It is also vital to know that you aren’t letting anyone down if you take a day, a week, or however long you need, out. Book into a hotel and really focus on you. The world will be waiting for you when you feel strong enough to tackle it.
I still have days where my mental health issues win, but I know can take one day out. The world will still be there when I feel up to being part of it again.
Hell, I jumped out of a plane last month. Not bad for someone who couldn’t leave her house two years ago.
About the author
Suzie is a history nerd and mental health advocate from England. She travels full-time with her husband and is currently based in New Zealand. At home in the UK, Suzie was a primary school teacher and her love of learning influences all her travels and writing. You are most likely to find her in a museum or wandering around admiring nature and architecture. Suzie specialises in overland travel; especially train and campervan journeys. She likes to pretend that she enjoys hiking (she doesn’t, and will give a running commentary of how much she doesn’t enjoy it whenever she goes), but continues to set herself travel challenges regardless of how ridiculous they seem. Next up, she’s challenging herself to cycle the length of Japan and South Korea.
Read more from Suzie on her blog I Am But Wandering.
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