Traveling with Mental Illness
A lot of people have asked me about cycling across Canada, and if it was everything that I had hoped it would be. In a lot of ways, I can say that it was. But in other ways, it was among the most miserable I’ve ever been in my life. I usually don’t say that, figuring people don’t really want to hear it. Some people, however, do; and I think young people in particular should.
To get what I’m talking about, you don’t really need to know the different reasons of why I was feeling down, you just need to know that I was. For a lot of the trip, and especially the last month.
The following two photos illustrate how I was feeling. The first photo is from a hike in Arches National Park during a road trip across the American Southwest with my twin sister last fall. The second is from a lonely stretch of highway on Vancouver Island while finishing the last two weeks of cycling. I meant them both to be fun, adventure-filled selfies, but seeing the two of them together makes me unspeakably sad.
In the first photo, I really couldn’t be happier. You can see it in my grin, in the sunglasses hooked on my shorts and my bare feet on the rock. In the second, by contrast, you can see lines on my face. When I took that photo, I planned for it to be a joke about Smokey the Bear, but when I looked at it later in the day, I nearly cried. All of a sudden, I could see what I felt.
Back in the winter, I read an article written by Matt Van Swol about how the outdoors helped him fight depression. “There’s hope and joy to be found in the outdoors,” he wrote. “There’s beauty to be viewed and to be celebrated every minute of every day, regardless of whether you are rich or poor, single or married, loved or unloved. There is beauty out there, waiting for you to find it.” I resonated with what he said about the outdoors lifting him up. I had experienced that myself a hundred times.
So why, I thought to myself while cycling down the coast of Vancouver Island, am I so miserable?
I felt guilty for not being happy while I knew some people could only dream of experiencing what I was doing. I felt ashamed for not keeping up with the standards of the journalism project. I felt tired, obviously. I was homesick and weary. Most of all, though, I was confused. I was confused because I felt like I had symptoms of mild depression, but I thought I couldn’t really have a mental illness. I told myself that mental illnesses are serious, and I shouldn’t try to claim to know what that was like just because I was a little run-down. But in doing so, I stigmatized myself. While I didn’t have a mental illness, I did have mental health—and it wasn’t doing well.
There’s no great revelation to this story, no turning point. I limped home with a food-poisoned body and a heart that had long been reaching for familiarity and stasis, and that’s where things started to change at last.
But this story does have a few lessons. Some are obvious, some aren’t. Most of them are obvious now, but weren’t at the time.
Firstly, recognize that anyone can struggle with their mental health.
Including your heroes, and including yourself. That Smokey-the-Bear selfie shocked me because I’d been putting on a smile on my face for weeks or months, and suddenly I could see through it myself. A smile doesn’t mean anything more than an Instagram hashtag.
Ask for help.
After sleeping in the rain at Kitwanga and Highway 16, I posted on Facebook: “I need some help finishing the last two weeks before making it home. Prayers and encouragement and reminders of how much I like kites welcome.” I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner. Dozens of people reached out to say the words that I needed to face the coming days.
Be a role model.
When I decided to post that call for help on Facebook, it was because I had thought to myself the night before, what would I tell a kid at summer camp to do? What would I want them to look up and see me doing? Being a role model in terms of mental health, to me, means talking about sadness, acknowledging vulnerability, asking for support. It doesn’t mean being strong. It means being authentic.
Lastly, and this is the big one, bring a mental health first aid kit.
I wish desperately that I could go back in time and give myself coping mechanisms for that last month of cycling across Canada. Smudging. Writing. Prayer. Ritual. I still don’t know exactly what works best for me, but I’m learning. It’s something to think about, isn’t it? Most of us wouldn’t travel anywhere without a properly stocked first aid kit to patch ourselves up, prevent infection and manage our physical health while on the road, yet we throw ourselves headlong into stressful, tiring, isolating environments without a second thought about our mental health. So be proactive. Create strategies for coping, find ways to go beyond the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel struggle of long, challenging journeys. Get a kit.
That’s where I’ll end for now. I hope you found something useful out of this reflection. If I haven’t been articulate, at least I’ve been honest. Sometimes travel isn’t easy. It’s important to talk about it.