Travel As Antidepressant

I have experienced only limited benefit from chemical antidepressants. Fluoxetine, quetiapine, venlafaxine, nortriptyline, wellbutrin, trazodone, lithium, lorazapam, clonazapam… probably others I can’t remember anymore. I try them, a little hopeful that they will lighten my mood and make things easier. They tend not to live up to their promise.

Travel, however, is a different story. It always works, even when I think it won’t, it can’t.

I headed into my recent trip to China, ambivalent about the whole idea of traveling. I’ve been so exhausted, so depressed. It seems like too much effort. But I’ve paid for the trip months ago with no possibility of a refund, and I’m not one to waste money. So of course I go, leaving last week on a direct flight from Seattle to Beijing. Eleven hours flying north over Alaska and then south over Siberia. We arrive, make it through customs and immigration, meet up with others on the tour, and spend two hours being transported through insane Beijing traffic. The driver drives in the emergency lane except when there are cameras recording, when he cuts back in front of a truck.

It’s a long day of travel, plus 15 hours of time difference, and I’m off schedule for my venlafaxine. The next day we spend all day sightseeing with an energetic guide who marches us through the Forbidden City and a visit to the Hutong. I’m very tired. No doubt that contributes to the suicidal thinking that continues to pop up. My head says, Oh, how beautiful the view is here. When I get home, I should buy a gun… 

That night I turn down opportunities to go out in the evening and get eleven hours of sleep. That certainly helps me climb the Great Wall the next day. I have some nice moments, trying to communicate with a Turkish photographer who struggles up the steep 2200-year-old steps with us, helping some Chinese teens video their dance on the wall. I laugh more easily than I have in a long time. But the dark thoughts don’t go away either.

Even as we move on to Xi’an, my mood fluctuates. My husband and I ride bikes on the 600-year-old city wall, happy  to be free of the guide and the group for a while, enjoying the views as we bounce over the rough stones. That night I construct a plan for the gun purchase I’ll make when I get home. I’m surprised myself at the mix of thoughts and emotions.

I’m a little more cut off from the world in China than I had anticipated. It hadn’t occurred to me that the disagreement between Google and the Chinese government would mean that I couldn’t access my gmail at all. I hadn’t really thought about what I knew, that Facebook was blocked. Anyway, even for sites that weren’t blocked, it was hard to get reliable internet. But I did find that in the hotel I could send iMessages to other iPhones. E also has an iPhone. I text her and describe this bizarre mix of happy interest and suicidal thinking. She is responsive and supportive as usual. She suggests I adopt a mantra:

I seek peace. I deserve peace. No matter where my mind may wander, my spirit holds the intention of peace.

I like that idea, among other reasons because it reminds me that I am more than my thoughts. I use this the next day, repeatedly. It helps to interrupt the negative thinking and gives more space for me to enjoy the beauty and focus on my interactions with new people and places.

The more room I make in my head to think about China and everything I’m learning, the better I feel. The improvement continues to build from day to day. By the time we get to Shanghai, I’ve given myself over to travel flow and spend a lovely afternoon people watching on the Bund (along the river that cuts through Shanghai). It’s taken me longer than it usually does on a trip, but I’m curious and engaged and alive. I delve deeply into the paintings at the Shanghai museum and feel inspired to start drawing and painting again.

I wonder. If I sold everything I own and just travel pretty simply and inexpensively for however many years my money might last, could I free myself of this long-lasting depression?

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29 thoughts on “Travel As Antidepressant

  1. What a beautiful thought. I wonder too. When I travel and it’s not to MO, I am beyond happy and in the moment. It’s pretty incredible. I wish you a peaceful rest of your journey in China. Xx

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  2. Hi Q,

    I am glad you’re enjoying your trip. It is fascinating to hear a perspective that is so different from my own. I have always found that traveling while depressed simply drags my misery along with me and I can’t enjoy the trip, with the added burden of feeling as if I’m wasting my money. And not being able to touch base with familiar and comforting surroundings or to just leave makes me feel trapped. That saying “wherever you go, you take yourself with you” resonates for me.

    Does it make a difference for you whether you are traveling alone vs with someone?

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    • Traveling with my husband is good, because he’s so accepting of me, whether I’m low energy and wanting to go to bed early or excited and pushing to do more. He’s flexible and easy, so that always helps.

      What I notice is that I the more unfamiliar the setting, the better. Traveling to the east coast to see family, for example, does not have the same helpful impact at all.

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  3. Travelling is an ideal way to combat depression, however it’s also another sort of addiction, to give pleasure. Not dealing with pain, and running around to seek adventure only makes one avoid pain.

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    • Thinking about this some more–there are things about traveling with a group of people you don’t know that can bring up some pretty negative reactions. If we stay open to those experiences too and learn from them, then I think travel is must more complex than just pleasure seeking and can help us learn so much about our own psyches.

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment.

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  4. Perhaps. You could also try to really identify what it is about travel that helps and attempt to replicate those experiences in your day to day life. Please don’t buy a gun.

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    • I think when PD mentioned “being in the moment” that she described a lot of what is good about it for me. And then there is my love of learning, especially if it relates to other cultures and languages. You are right; I need to make sure that my everyday life makes space for the experiences that make me happy and healthy.

      (My darker side says: I reserve the right to buy a gun! Don’t tell me what to do! My wiser self says: Listen to Andi, Dark Side!)

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        • Right – I certainly have no other purpose for it. No worries, it’s not a strong thought this week. I’m thinking about interesting things our Shanghai guide said instead. For example, “We only have the Communist Party here, so you could say it is a dictatorship. It is, actually. But they aren’t dumb. There are a lot of highly educated people making policy decisions…” Meanwhile we wait to find out who will be making policy decisions in our own country…

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  5. I wonder whether travel would work the same if it was everyday life, instead of a break from everyday life. I like the mantra too, and I’m so happy that some of the weight lifted off your shoulders.

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    • I don’t know if it would work. Certainly some of it is the freedom from responsibilities (no work, no bills to pay, in the case of China, not even any emails to answer). But some of it is that novelty and the opportunity to learn about culture and history and language engages a healthy part of my brain. It seems like I should be looking for ways to keep that part busy.

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  6. Just tell me PLEASE that you have taken advantage of the tea opportunities there. My mix of thoughts goes something like this

    I hate when I see beauty but still want to die.
    Please tell me she stopped for tea.

    There are times when my heart is so down that nothing can lift it, not even wonders of the world. Not my cat, art, reading or tea can lift me. I know how hard it is to reconcile feelings that are polar opposites.

    She’s at the Great Wall of China (aka – the great blood wall) I’d be depressed there.
    She’s said nothing about tea.

    Oh good, good, I’m so happy she was able to contact her therapist.
    Who goes to China and doesn’t have tea? She probably ate the heck out of sushi but didn’t have tea. Who does that?
    Focus Faith, this isn’t about you.

    Don’t buy a gun. Please don’t do that.

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    • I did drink tea! Oolong tea, black tea, green tea. I’m not a coffee drinker anyway, and it was lovely to always have so many options available.

      I ate excellent food, especially noodle soups with wonderful mushrooms. And shrimp dumplings and pork dumplings. Delicious.

      You are right and goodhearted to think about all the lives sacrificed to build that wall. It’s easy for me to sometimes let that slip away because it was so long ago, but the lives of all those Chinese workers mattered too. It’s not enough that more than 2000 years later, it’s a place of beauty where people from all over the world meet each other as they huff and puff up to the highest spot. We need to keep those who suffered in our hearts, along with a resolve to pay attention to the impact on workers of everything we make/buy. Thank you for that reminder.

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  7. Please always write with honesty like you have in this entry. It is helpful for you to have someplace to write without worrying you’ll upset someone.

    I personally have lost the feeling that I can say anything I want without fear. It can be difficult to regain focus and confidence to speak openly, but it can be restored.

    Faith

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  8. This is beautiful. My two best weeks in the past year have been when I traveled with my orchestra on tour to a foreign country. The mental health issues didn’t disappear, but they did take a back seat to the amazing experiences I was having. That said, I think there’s a distinct difference between traveling with someone who cares for you (for me, my best friend in orchestra – for you, your husband) and traveling alone / with a group of strangers. That doesn’t feel as healthy to me. It’s interesting how even within the realm of travel, people are what “make or break” it for me. I also echo Andi, and add – while you absolutely do reserve the right to buy a gun… I really, really hope you don’t. xoxo

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    • It’s nice to hear that you had the same sort of experience, where the delights of traveling outweighed the suffering. For me, the presence of my husband was very important (is always very important) because I didn’t find I had much in common with most of the other travelers. I would have felt both like a misfit and kind of dissatisfied if I had only those strangers to spend time with.

      I’m home now and napping my way through a cold and jet lag, but no plans for a gun purchase, so don’t worry (but thanks for caring).

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Dad, Election, Flashback, Fiction? | la quemada

  10. Traveling helps cure many things! I have been to China a couple of times. It’s a beautiful and historic city. I recommend keeping the travel spirit alive. Even if it’s just a weekend road trip near your city. Keeping that longing and drive to see & experience new things helps everyone. Take care!

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