Why I wound up depressed backpacking Europe… and what I did about it

Before starting this blog post, it’s worth mentioning that I do not use the word ‘depressed’ lightly. If you are someone who wrongly confuses the word ‘depressed’ with the word ‘sad’, on account of the fact depression is often named by scientists as the fasted-growing epidemic, it might be worth taking a moment to check your country’s health organisation’s website for a description of the illness. Open and informed conversation can be life-changing.

In November 2019, a month after arriving in Europe after a year saving for the trip in Australia, everything got a little too much. Since I arrived in the continent, I had found myself unable to experience joy or pleasure. I couldn’t tell the difference between a sunset view and a rubbish tip and hell, I couldn’t really taste food anymore. Not even potatoes. And guys, I loveee potatoes.

Instead, I woke up every morning with an unbearable feeling of dread. In studies, brain imaging has shown that depression shows up the brain’s pain centres, which is why the disease can be sadly life-threatening when this feeling of anguish won’t go away. This is why it’s so important that we can understand and talk about it.

Advice for those struggling on the road: https://cassiethehag.com/travelling-mental-health-anxiety-depression/

With that in mind, rather than forcing myself to write blog posts about areas I experienced the worst of my anxiety, I’m going to increase the amount I use this blog to talk about mental health instead.

I WAS WORRIED ABOUT THIS TRIP BEFORE I LEFT!

Before leaving Sydney when my Working Holiday Visa expired, I was worried my mental wellbeing was going to take a hit on my next backpacking adventure. That may sound weird – how could I enjoy temping and working more than exploring? But you’re probably only asking that question if you don’t understand depression (and why travelling abroad makes it harder to live a lifestyle doctor’s recommended for those suffering). More on this in my upcoming blog series.

The short version is that in Sydney I had much easier access to a community, a healthy diet, routine, better sleep and plentiful places to take a walk (aka the only version of exercise I’m not too lazy to partake in). I always remind myself of the privilege of having the choice to travel, but since it really was a choice, I also find myself asking, why the hell am I doing this to myself?

YOU DON’T LEAVE TRIGGERS BEHIND JUST BECAUSE YOU LEAVE THE LOCATION THEY OCCURRED BEHIND

The main cause for my specific downward spiral in Europe was largely due to triggers from my past. Who knew that simple proximity to my home country was going to lay them on thick and thin? Ouuuch. (That ouch was real – those pain centers remember!)

In addition, I’ve felt intense guilt and stress over spending money. I know what it’s like to have to move out of your rented room cuz you can’t pay rent. In fact, the first time I lived out of a backpack was when I slept on a different couch of friends and colleagues for four months. That was only three years ago!

Watching my bank balance go down this trip – despite not overspending – caused me to experience the same stress I did back then. So, I guess financial anxiety was simply another trigger from my past haha, though not as bad as the other traumas I was ruminating on.

DEPRESSION DIDN’T SPIRAL. IT JUST DIDN’T BUDGE.

It got so bad I couldn’t get out and explore. So then I felt MORE anxiety that I was paying for hostels, earning nothing, and not even exploring the countries I’d come to visit. I felt like a humongously stupid idiot for booking flights to Europe in the first place. I’ve been pretty foul to myself about it if I’m honest haha.

AM I FEELING BETTER NOW?

I mean, kinda. I’m definitely getting there. These things don’t happen overnight, but I’ve started the process. 🙂

I also did get to use sections of this trip to see friends who flew out to Europe (a week with Pete in Montenegro, 4 days with Becca in Ohrid and 2 days with Sarah in Lisbon). Although the feeling of dread didn’t subside during these visits, it feels good knowing I’m playing an active role in maintaining these beautiful friendships.

HOW AM I GOING TO MAKE SURE I KEEP FEELING BETTER?

Okay, so before I answer this question… remember this is a PERSONAL blog post! While I do plan on doing more research on mental health for this blog, this one is purely personal. Please don’t read the below as advice for others. This is merely a personal diary.

I AM CUTTING MY TRIP TO EUROPE SHORT

Yeah, so this was an easy decision. I think I wanted to cut it short the moment I arrived to be honest. It just didn’t feel right.

Because I’m now leaving about 6 weeks earlier than planned, it meant having to cancel a trip with my best mate (which thankfully we hadn’t booked, or I’d have of course stayed haha). As such, I’m heading to England to stay with her a week just before I go. Although she’s working, the timing work’s out that it’s when her partner’s way, so I won’t even take up space.

AND I’M HEADING SOMEWHERE CHEAPER

See above: financial anxiety. As I joked to one of my friends, ‘if I’m going to be depressed, I might as well do it somewhere I can save money!’

It’s the wrong time of year to move my plans to begin a WHV in New Zealand forward (since seasonal jobs will all be taken and it’s the holidays) so my plan is to head to a cheap country in Southeast Asia, meaning I’m more or less en route. Here I’ll see if I can get a private room with good wifi, potentially in Thailand, and work online as much as I can.

I actually don’t like not working. It doesn’t suit me at all – I like to keep busy and for my time to have a purpose. Which is the whole reason why this blog exists innit. So at least this way, even if my bad brain doesn’t subside, I’ll at least feel like my time isn’t totally ‘wasted’ like I have in Europe,

I AM NOT GOING TO WORRY ABOUT EXPLORING BEFORE I GO

I write this in Porto, Portugal. I’ve actually been sitting in this cafe for four hours already. Possibly the most fun I’ve had since arriving in Europe tbh (except the terrible Christmas soundtrack, jeez).

When I first arrived, I remember how much I ALWAYS wanted to visit Portugal! How many beautiful photos I’ve seen of Porto! How many things there I want to do here! Annnd then I felt like huge poop cuz I realised I wasn’t going to do any of them. Yeah, I could have forced myself, but any time I tried to force myself to sight-see, I felt panic attacks smugly poke at my chest till I gave up.

So I made a decision to make peace with my body’s silliness and listen to it. Not in a ‘it’s my panic attack and I’ll cry if I want to’ kinda way, but in a ‘what CAN I do?’ way. So I’m ignoring Porto’s famous blue tiles, I only took a glimpse at the river on a daily speed walk… and instead, I’ve decided to spend today and tomorrow sitting in cafes, doing some writing. After 2 weeks of finding it hard to sit down at my laptop for anything more productive than a Netflix bingewatch, this actually feels pretty good!

It’s okay to take time for yourself, instead of the location you’re in. Who knows, you may come back one day and feel proud of how far you’ve come. 🙂

I’VE BEEN CONCENTRATING ON EATING HEALTHILY, KEEPING HYDRATED AND WALKING DAILY

And if I can’t be bothered to drink water, I’m buying sparkling water (glass bottles ofc). This is how I force myself to hydrate hahaa – if I paid for it I feel like I have to drink it! With the bonus that it gives me an excuse to sit in this cafe for another four hours. 🙂

Thankfully, Porto is full to the brim of vegan restaurants offering tons of veggie protein and fresh produce, which feels good after my carb-heavy Balkans diet.

And each time I go out to eat or write, I’m going to shove some music in my ears and take a ‘long route’ to keep me active.

I MESSAGED FRIENDS TO TELL THEM I WAS FEELING LIKE A POOP

I never ever used to do this! So this is a big step. While travelling solo I’ve realised it’s so important to be honest about your mental health or there’s really no lonelier position to be in. I had to be honest with my best friend since this affected our (now cancelled) future plans and she couldn’t have been more supportive. And another friend and I are going to somewhat keep tabs on each other, by way of sending relevant youtube videos and checking in.

Couldn’t be more grateful to the support of people around me. Depression’s gonna tell you nobody cares… but even if you don’t know anyone else in a new country, there will be reminders that you really are never alone.

So if you’re ever in this situation, be sure to tell someone how you feel.

Thanks for reading this update. 🙂

I have two weeks left in Europe. A weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I gonna be okay.

If you suffer from mental health issues and are also a full-time or regular traveller, or are a health professional, please get involved if you may like to be involved in contributing to my upcoming series on travel and mental health. Thanks guys.

Photos by Rob Mulally @robmulally