On She Goes

Steady as She Goes: Staying Healthy with Mental Illness while Traveling

Diagnoses don’t have to define or limit us.

Emilly Prado
Emilly Prado
October 3, 2017
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I told them it was a “bad acid trip.” They were acquaintances who had witnessed my first (and only) manic episode, who would bring it up to me later in conversation, and I played it off as if it were nothing more than a bad trip even though I didn’t even do drugs. After experiencing the symptoms in line with hypomania, I admitted myself to an emergency inpatient mental health clinic and was diagnosed with Bipolar I disorder just four days later.

Receiving my diagnosis at the age of 20 was scary and it forced me to rethink my lifestyle. As I surrounded myself with outdated pamphlets explaining how to not be a “repeat offender,” the months following my diagnosis were riddled by fear of a relapse. People with bipolar disorder experience waves of high and low moods, and when you’re getting better, the goal is to maintain a balance. Excessive drinking and lack of sleep contributed to my episode, and if I didn’t continue treating my body well, it could reignite symptoms. Mental illness wasn’t something that I was familiar with nor was it something that had ever been discussed in my family, but over time I learned from research, experience, and professional support how to best manage my moods so that I could continue my stability.

Sayulita, Mexico.
photo by Emilly Prado

During that summer of my diagnosis, I had also graduated from college. As I sped through the last months of my degree requirements, I desperately wanted to take a trip abroad. Finding out that I was bipolar presented itself with additional barriers. I began seeing a therapist and psychiatrist regularly, in addition to monthly pharmacy trips for a refill on meds. Although I worried about what could go wrong, I consulted my mental health care providers for guidance. After a year of saving up and feeling stable, my psychiatrist and therapist gave me the green light and I set out on a three-month solo trip around Europe. Careful logistical planning beforehand ensured that my trip was a success.

While a mental illness diagnosis might make you feel small or limited, diagnoses don’t have to define us. I’m here to share examples of the ways I’ve maintained my mental health while traveling. These are the tips that have worked for me and my mood disorder, but it’s important to remember that our needs are all unique. Always consult a mental health professional before embarking on trips, and always remember that it can be manageable and you can do it.

Keeping organized in Sayulita, Mexico.
photo by Emilly Prado

Before your trip
I’m inclined to forget things, so I always create a to-do list before my trip so that nothing is missed. Squaring away paperwork is essential. Make copies of your passport, visas, transportation details including flight info and your initial destination’s address, and emergency contacts. Being organized in this way helps to alleviate stress and forms a solid foundation to build the rest of your trip. If you’re on medication, bring a letter from your doctor that states your diagnoses and authorized prescriptions, and bring a translated copy too if necessary.

Since schedule disruptions can make it easy to forget to take your meds, I purchased a seven-day pill organizer with AM and PM dividers. Buy one that fits the requirements of your dose intervals and be sure to pack it in your carry on so you don’t risk it getting lost in your checked luggage. When I went on my trip, I had to coordinate with my psychiatrist to grant permission for the pharmacy to fill four months’ worth of medication instead of the three I’d be gone. It was worth the hassle to have the additional dosages should I need them.

O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
photo by Emilly Prado

Financial stressors—especially the unexpected ones—are inevitable, but looking into phone plans ahead of time can save substantial dollars. Even if you think you won’t need it, it might be worth the investment should you be lost and in need of GPS. This beats trying to figure out how to get your phone on an international plan while you’re abroad,  and figuring it out before the trip gives you time to explore different phone plan options. You might think you’ve saved yourself a lot of cash on a budget airline flight, but they’re also notoriously sneaky. Measure and weigh your bags to make sure they’ll fit their restrictions, which are unique to each airline. You might even want to print everything out because some airlines charge hefty fees for printing your ticket at the airport. When you’re ready to pack, consider bringing things that remind you of home and are comforting, whether it’s a box of your favorite tea or an ultra-plush pair of socks. Prepare your favorite podcasts and mellow playlists in advance and download a meditation or breathing exercise app that doesn’t require Wi-Fi.

Lastly, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with your own warning signs and establish support systems for folks you can reach out to in case of crisis. Can you call, email, or text your therapist while you’re away? What are their rates? It’s better to find out and establish this before you leave.

Sayulita, Mexico.
photo by Emilly Prado

During your trip

Once you’ve arrived at your destination, create a schedule and stick to it. This doesn’t mean everything has to be planned out cruise-ship style, but eat meals regularly, stay hydrated, and go to bed and wake up around the same times. Listen to your body and regularly check in with yourself. Do you need a second to calm down in a crowded area? Try finding a bench or—my personal favorite—an open place of worship. Not only are there tons of beautiful churches and mosques, but they’re almost always quiet. When you go out, know it’s also okay to travel without drinking or doing drugs. Similarly, don’t be afraid to skip an activity or stay in. You don’t have to do all of the things all of the time. Europe will be there. And if it isn’t, oh well.

Traveling by yourself can be lonely, so in 2014 I used Couchsurfing to make friends in the places I visited. I also met up with friends who were living in Europe at the time and asked folks to connect me with their expat (or international) pals.  If you struggle with addiction, you can look up local AA chapters for in-person support. Identify friends who you also can call when you just need someone to listen. If you have a travel companion, don’t be afraid to clue them in on your mental health needs. Transparency is important and can be extremely useful when you can turn to them and openly say, “You know what, my anxiety is through the roof right now and I need to go take a walk by myself,” without further explanation.

Janitzio Island in Patzcuaro, Mexico.
photo by Emilly Prado

Remember that even though you’re traveling, you don’t have to feel any type of way. Despite what Eat, Pray, Love may portray, every moment of travel isn’t always euphoric or profound. Some days you might find yourself tired or restless or sad. The day after my middle-aged hostel host repeatedly tried to get me to sleep with him, I had to travel for two hours on public transit to relocate to a pricey hotel in Istanbul and I was really broke. I felt like shit and cried a lot. It’s okay to forgive yourself and be gentle with yourself when things don’t work out as you’d hoped. On the flip side, be open to change your plans and expectations as well. Days after that incident, a fellow solo traveler from China let me take a nap and refresh myself in her hotel room because I told her I had traveled on two overnight buses in a row. I found out it was her birthday and I treated her to a celebratory glass of raki.

Since I often stop eating when in crisis, I pack plenty of snacks beforehand, like chili picante Corn Nuts and organic fruit leather. Depending on where you’re going, it might also make more sense to stock up once you get there. I always bring a journal to doodle, write, and make lists. You might prefer to dance or take a nap. Continuing an exercise regimen or starting one while abroad might also be a great idea—don’t forget to pack running shoes if you want a different way to explore the city you’re staying in. Take time to relax but don’t neglect to keep moving your body.

Above all else, remember your coping strategies that work at home and practice what works while you’re abroad.

Flowers in Chicago.
photo by Emilly Prado

After your trip
It’s admittedly taken years of travel for me to understand this about myself, but having a few days to acclimate yourself when you get back from a big trip is key to fighting the post-vacay blues. Ease back into your daily and weekly routines and don’t overload yourself with commitments if possible. Hang up your new souvenirs, order prints for a commemorative photo album, and reflect on the great trip you just took. Schedule appointments with your therapists and psychiatrist to continue your care. And if after a few weeks you’re still sorely missing the excitement of travel, find new places to visit around your town while you begin plans for your next adventure.