How I Overcame Depression And Traveled To My Bucket List Destinations

depressed man traveling head in hand

I always wanted to travel. In college I attended information sessions in stuffy rooms and echoing lecture halls, for at least five different study abroad programs. I dutifully filled out the paperwork, scheduled doctor’s appointments, even met with the other folks I’d be spending time abroad with. It was exciting. But something always held me back.

My depression.

When it came time to actually book the flight, things started to break down. To picture myself trying to make a tight connection, rebook a flight, overcome jet lag, suffer homesickness, not able to speak the language? It was paralyzing. I felt myself spinning into that familiar, desperate cycle of blaming myself for not being able to do the things I dreamed of and not being able to do the things I dreamed of because of my depression. Each application deadline — Prague, London, Paris, Cádiz, Perth — that passed would send me back to bed, missing classes, ignoring friends, and feeling miserable.

While travel can be stressful for even the most mentally strong individuals, it can be an impossibility for those with existing mental health challenges. For those of us who suffer from depression, it’s not just about being overwhelmed by the planning involved in travel, it’s also being away from support systems.

Abroad you may lack access to your accustomed health care and even the medication that acts as a lifeline. Disruptions to your routine can further exacerbate these issues. Those who have their condition under control may regress. And developing a new mental health issue, in a new environment and without resources, is something anyone can face.

After college, I wrestled with my depression, but finally got it more or less under control in my late-20s. I found a therapist I related to and a medication regimen that worked for me. My relationships were better and I was making progress. Therapy is now, and has been for years, a part of my life and extremely important to me. It allows me to maintain structure and provides necessary checks and balances when I can feel myself slipping back into those dark, loathsome days. I thought of myself as someone who was now capable and adaptable. But I knew I needed to travel. It was something that called to me. A challenge.

It was when preparing for my trip that I came across Talkspace online therapy. I was skeptical, but it sounded like something at least worth checking out. I actually asked my therapist about it, but she didn’t know much either. I decided to sign up and we looked at it together. My in-person therapist was impressed with the qualifications of my online therapist and the fact that the platform was HIPAA certified and totally secure. I liked the fact that I could fire away questions in moments of sadness whenever they came over me, without waiting a week for my appointment.

It was worth a shot and after a brief introduction I found that I immediately got along with my online therapist, Tracy. We had a few video sessions that helped us connect more deeply, and I sent video and audio messages whenever I wanted.

While it wasn’t as impulsive and reckless as I’d always planned, I booked a flight and made reservations for the first leg of my trip through southern Mexico. I’d proceed through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. I can honestly say that my trip was life changing. I marveled at the Mayan ruins of Tulum, swam with whale sharks in Belize, touched walls of cathedrals pockmarked by Sandinista bullets in Nicaragua, and nearly became shark bait surfing off of an island in Panama.

There were also hardships. In the second month, I was in a small town on the Pacific coast of El Salvador. I had received news that one of my closest friends from high school, who I hadn’t seen in years, had died of an overdose. I felt guilt over emails not sent, phone calls not made. There was a flood of memories from school. Oh thing stuck out, how sweet Nate was with his little sister who he helped raise — braiding her hair and getting her ready for school each day — after his mother moved out when we were in middle school.

I was devastated. I stayed in my hostel dorm for days, remembering. And then I got a concerned message from my Talkspace therapist. Tracy hadn’t heard from me and wondered if anything was wrong. I told her everything and let the reality of the situation wash over me. My therapist helped me process the death, to grieve in a healthy way.

My friends at the hostel checked on me, invited me to dinner. I didn’t feel like going out, but my therapist thought that I should. Low and behold, after a plate of arroz con pollo, I felt better. I’ll never be fully over the loss of my friend, but it doesn’t send me into a spiral to think of it.

Though I don’t want to take away from the work that I did to make this trip happen, my Talkspace therapist was there to support me when I know I would have fallen otherwise. It’s hard to make a change. It’s hard to ask for help. It’s hard to do the work. But when you have someone who’s there for you, it’s a lot easier. I was able to live my dream and travel despite all the challenges because of online therapy.

Now I think back to college. How impossible it felt to be proactive and get help. I wish things would have been as easy as downloading an app back then, but I’m glad it’s available now. I was able to cross this trip off my bucket list, a goal I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to reach. Having my Talkspace therapist as a traveling companion was what made it possible. I’m grateful. Next up — backpacking through Asia!

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Published by

Matthew Mitchell

Contributor