Until this year, I’d always though that my depression wasn’t really “depression,” but more a product of me being anxious and unhappy in my (static) environment. The theory seemed to hold up pretty well for a couple of years; I’d be at home or at school, crippled by anxiety and general unhappiness, and eventually I’d remember that traveling makes me happy and I’d book a trip. I’d go out into the world, with a friend or by myself, and suddenly everything was better. I met new people, ate new foods, and felt the twisting fist of anxiety that torques my stomach slowly loosening its grip on me.
And then, sometime in early June, 2013, I was bitch-slapped by the reality of my mental health situation, going from totally fine to very not fine over the course of a couple of weeks. I had been studying abroad in England and having the time of my life, and even though that chapter of my life was closing, I still had a lot of amazing stuff to look forward to before I went back to the United States. I had a whole summer full of exciting travel plans; I was going to see Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Morocco and Greece. And I was pretty sure that it was going to be awesome.
Cue the start of all this “awesome.” I got to Israel after an unexpectedly long flight from London and was exhausted. I didn’t really feel like talking to anyone the first night, so I laid low. It was hot. I was tired. There wasn’t air conditioning and I didn’t want to see the sites. I’d wake up early in the morning and totally tackle the day, I thought.
And then I woke up and never, ever wanted to get out of bed ever again.
It would pass, I told myself. I’d bounce back; I just needed a few days rest. Leaving England, my new home, to throw myself back out into the world was a difficult adjustment. I had set out two weeks in Israel, a country of people who share my heritage. I wanted to explore! Meet people! Connect! I didn’t want to lie in bed watching flies crawl up the wall all day. I wanted to get out of the hostel, go see the sights, taste the tastes and smell the smells.
Except that I didn’t. Ever. It never happened, that enthusiasm and lust for life was simply gone. Eventually I met up with a friend, and ended up totally running her trip with my apathy. I was exhausted and I didn’t want to do anything. Israel came and went, and I was back in England for a few days before I was scheduled to go to Morocco, a place that I’ve been dying to see for years.
But I didn’t do that, either. I didn’t have the energy, didn’t have the drive. I just didn’t care. All I wanted to do was sleep. I was unable to stay in England due to visa stipulations, so I went to the one place where I felt totally comfortable retreating into my hollow shell of nothing: Dublin.
In Ireland, I slept more than fourteen hours a day, leaving the hostel periodically to scavenge for food. Every few days I’d try to go for a run to get those mythical endorphins pumping. I was still catching up, I told myself. I was still so tired; I needed that sleep. I needed that break. I’d feel better soon, I’d come back to “me.” A few days went by. A week went by. And I didn’t feel a single thing other than crippling apathy. I didn’t feel happy, I didn’t feel sad, I didn’t feel curious, I didn’t feel lonely. The only thing that held my interest over this period was an extreme dedication to the Hunger Games trilogy, which I devoured in its entirety in approximately 68 hours.
I think there were days when I didn’t talk to anyone. I don’t even remember, to be honest. I was so utterly over everyone and everything, and once the whole “not feeling” thing stopped, I was suddenly faced with two really unpleasant feelings: guilt and isolation. I had friends, I was surrounded by people who were dying to meet other people. I was set to meet one of my best friends for a vacation in Greece, which was supposed to be really, really exciting. But in spite of all of this social potential, I couldn’t talk to anyone about how I was feeling. I mean, I wanted to roll my eyes at myself when I tried to express my thoughts. I was given an amazing opportunity to see the world, I was financially secure, I was totally free to do what I wanted when I wanted and there was absolutely nothing stopping me. Except me. I was stopping me, and I desperately wanted to stop stopping me, but I just couldn’t.
Talking to fellow travelers about it wasn’t helpful. Most of the ones I met in my “safe” places were young Americans, new to the traveling scene and completely amped about every single possible experience they could have. And if it wasn’t a fresh-faced, overzealous American, it was a happy-go-lucky, life-huffing Australian on a two-year global trek who’d stare at me with confusion and more than a healthy dose of judgmental disdain when I asked if he or she ever just felt “over it” sometimes. I met one or two long-term travelers who were beginning to feel the same way as me, but I still didn’t fit with them. They were road-weary, whereas I was just… fucking tired.
And forget trying to tell anyone at home about it.
Because here’s the thing that nobody told me about depression: no matter where you go and what you do, your depression is still going to be there. Sometimes it’ll go away, but more likely than not, it’s going to come back. You can’t run from your depression, because it’ll always catch up with you. And a lot of times no one is going to understand it, and if you didn’t already feel badly enough about not being capable of giving a single fuck about anything, telling someone stuck in a 9-5 job at home will almost always end up making you feel like the scum on the bottom of some pond full of toxic waste.
And then there’s that other thing that no one ever told me about (but that’s probably just because no one ever talked to me about traveling with depression): No matter how dark it is or how bad you feel, no matter how many days you spend in bed hating yourself for not loving yourself or seizing these great opportunities you’ve been given, no matter how much you miss, there’s always a turning point. The morning when you wake up and suddenly you don’t hate the sun any more. Or you do, but that’s better than not feeling anything about the sun at all.
It’s the day when you meet someone who finally makes you smile again—a real smile, not the one you’ve been passing off as your real smile but actually means “please don’t hate me I’m trying really, really hard to connect with you” or “I’m smiling because I’m so horribly afraid of failing this human interaction test you’re giving me and falling into the inescapable zombie-filled pit of isolation for the rest of the day or the rest of my life.” It’s the day when your food stops tasting like cardboard, or when you find a puppy on the street and are so thrilled that you get 100% lost from your walking tour because your too busy suddenly remembering what it feels like to be totally in love with something you’ve never seen before.
Although this photo probably just looks like some kind of vain cute-animal-selfie, this is one of the single most important photos of my entire year abroad. This was the first moment in months in which all the apathy just melted away and I could finally remember what it was like to be happy again, if only for ten minutes. It wasn’t all puppies, rainbows and unicorns from there on out, but it was a start. And even though it kind of feels stupid and vain sometimes, I’ve made a special place for this photo on my wall where I tend to look first when I’m lying in bed, because that’s where everything starts and ends for me. When I’m feeling horrible I tend to crawl into bed and just cocoon myself up for as long as I can possibly get away with, but forcing myself to look at that photo serves as a constant reminder that even though I’m feeling bad, someday soon there’s going to be a day when I stop hating the sun and start to remember what its like to feel love again.