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?