Taking depression on the road…
Travelling all over the world is beautiful, adventurous, romantic and fantastic. I feel like a “citizen of the world…and I love the whole thing – the good, the awesome and the ugly.
But let’s face it – it’s not all roses and can be equally difficult and dangerous for those of us who travel with medical issues like depression or other mental health issues which make us look healthy on the outside, while our mind is melting into something untouchable. Indeed the challenge is mighty to maintain the balance we all require for wellness – but a person with depression must be diligent. It can be a massive challenge at times to just feel like a normal person in your skin, alone in crowds of familiar-like faces but apart from the motion of another world. It’s a very strange feeling. And I really did my best – but there is no way to replicate the kind of gentle balance you can create for yourself in your home environment, when you know the food, the roads, the people – it’s just different.
I must admit I was entirely dismayed when about 9 days after arriving in Australia I dropped into a deep dangerously dark place after trying hard to keep my feet on the ground and carefully walking the edge of a very precarious mind. I hadn’t felt like that in years! Traveler’s exhaustion coupled with the fast pace of each day “trying not to waste a second” of where you are at, knowing it could be the only time you see it, rich food, booze, sugar – my body probably went into some form of shock. When travelling it just goes with the territory that your physical balance is completely shot with constant restaurant meals, wired eating hours, too much food, wine and not enough weed – harder to find anywhere when you are new. Imaginably for anyone, there are variety of reasons why when travelling you basically relinquish control of your body to the elements of the land you find yourself on.
It is my hope to use my own story with purpose to help break the stigma of depression. It is so important that we are speaking openly about our struggles when it falls on us like a lead weight.
If you’ve never had it – you won’t understand this.
But if you have it – I hope this will make you feel less alone.
Just in case you are not familiar with depression, I’d like to emphasize three things –
1- Depression is not “a bad attitude”, lack of knowledge or some weakness that those without depression don’t.
2- You cannot overcome depression through “sucking it up”. I saw a tee-shirt in Sydney that said…
“Depressed? Have a cup of cement and toughen the fuck up”.
3- Depression does not go on vacation just because you do. And maintaining the necessary disciplines you need when you are totally outside of your comfort zone – presents some unique challenges.
As a person who uses “natural and usually illegal” means of managing depression, the challenge is greater, because no matter what country you travel to, obtaining such “medicine” requires that you get to know folks a little less than casually or they think you are undercover something or other.
So, four days into Sydney, in the largest city I have ever been in, I found myself quite literally on my knees. It was wicked. I sat in the bath crying, praying – and feeling like a burden to the entire planet – depression closes the world in around me and makes me the only thing I think about – not good for anyone. For whatever reason (every good depression has its own “theme”) this was all about the past – I began reviewing all the regrets of my past – which are very few actually except for the absolute bleak loss I feel when I think about the people and animals I love who have died in the past few years. Depression brings back the ghost of deep grief for me.
Over the years I have come to understand that even the darkest times will reveal eventually to me a reason – that it is inevitably something I need to see inside myself, and that those are the times when self-care is absolutely mandatory. The idea that “happiness is created from the inside” is poignant and sharp like a good Pinot Noir. But you can’t think your way out of depression. The only action to move towards healing is non-avoidance – not try and rid yourself of it, but to recognize, reflect and adapt. It is imperative you remind yourself that everything is changing – all the time – the happy things the sad things – are all changing. So – as my mom loved to tell me…
“This too shall pass…”
Even if you don’t believe it.
I know how lucky I am – even when I am in the darkest of them all. . Unlike the people I see living on the streets who suffer from mental health issues, I have a fantastic partner, who is always standing at the ready to help bail me out of this place. But this one was different – even he was afraid he wouldn’t find me in there.
Here’s how I handle depression…I get into a bath and I cry, and I pray and then I cry and pray more.
My first “bath tub” prayers were to my mother. I miss her in such a tangible way, especially as I travel. She was my entire inspiration for loving the world and travelling through it like I do. When I first found out she was my mother, my family sent me to Africa to live with her. This was my first experience far from home, but unlike the experience I have had in any place since, Africa was home to me. My feet touched the red soils of Guinea and I was simply – home. I was happy there with her, basking in the hot African sun, reveling in the multicultural celebrations of living in an expatriate environment. My friends were from all over the world, from all imaginable places. Emmanuel from Ethiopia, my best friend from the US and my first boyfriend from Belgium. I heard the drums, I danced in the rains, and said forever more that we shared a common disorder – la malady d’afrique – my heart was left in Africa.
In the bathtub that night I prayed…oh did I pray. For a miracle. I needed a good one because nothing looked like it would ever feel good again. I fight with my husband, angry that he is talking to work while I fear I may be dying – not even imagined, it was really how it felt. I think about my mother – my mother – my mother – how she could always talk me down from the ledge, I didn’t even to tell her, she just knew me like two cells from the same being know each other. I miss my friend.
I find it cold here in the deep city – I mean “people cold”. Everyone rushing to work running never saying good morning or making eye contact. A person could really get lost in such a place. But I break free from john and I go and sit on stairs, away from the maddening crowds, where evening commuters are passing by.
“Fuck it. I’m going to sit here and just be.”
I think about what a long way I am from who i used to be – from shopping in New York for dresses as a young woman, only caring about my hair and shoes – to sitting here in my Nepalese poncho and ripped jeans, messy hair – I have never looked (or felt) more homeless in my life. It also felt more free than my “former designer self” had ever felt.
People are rushing by me in the evening commute. I count – one, two three – But no one looks at me, or acknowledges me. I feel like a ghost – invisible. I imagine this is what homeless people must feel like. The loneliness of being invisible and sad was almost indescribable.
I keep my eyes down mostly, sitting on the cement stairs, away from the world walking above me. Occasional post work commuters pass by me, I see shoes – jogging shoes, pretty pumps, sensible men’s shoes.
27 people go by before a man stops in mid step and asks
“Excuse me miss are you OK?”
All I can say as I look up at him is
“You’re number 27….”
He looks confused and a little embarrassed – apologizes to me and moves on. Clearly concerned but not wanting to invest any time.
I continue to count pairs of shoes, my mind still begging for a miracle in this cement world I had crouched in. I see more people, more shoes. More time passes. I think about the 15 times a day I stop in the city to make human contact with a homeless person – and I am awash in the wonder of how amazing that must feel to someone that may have this kind of loneliness every day. I feel sorry for myself – why isn’t anyone doing for me what I freely do all the time?
“Am I the only one who cares left on this planet??”
Just in time – a nice pair of casual sneakers stops and I look up to a bright green shirted man; he is number 72 but I don’t say it wanting to be alone as much as I wanted him to not leave.
He looks at me authentically concerned;
“You ok mate?”
I decided to be honest,
“Not really. I have had way better days, but this will pass. Thanks for asking.”
I try a smile but it probably comes out looking like post stroke victim smile all crooked swollen eyes sadness leaking from my face.
He lingers and looks at me then. It was clear he was no stranger to deep sadness. He had been there, done that and had gotten the tee shirt. I was grateful for the understanding and connection.
“Good on ya!” Giving me a “that’s the spirit” kind of look.
“You take good care of yourself”, he added sincerely and went on.
That was just enough real human contact for me to be able to get up to my feet and walk back to our hotel to greet my worried husband, wondering at my gratitude for having had the opportunity to feel like a homeless person for a while. It made me want to tell you how important it is to someone feeling bad, homeless or not, to feel humanity from you, even if you don’t have money to give a person – that exchange can make all the difference.
The next morning when I didn’t wake feeling any better, I dragged my sorry self-downstairs to smoke a cigarette (I know I know – I’m trying to quit I swear). I was working on a hopeful song, inspired by talking to a young musician excited about her first composition – I felt a focus that was not ME. Very important!
It allowed just enough to open a crack of light…possibility.
The smoking area is a big common square with comfortable benches where people commune to smoke and generally look at their cell phones. I went to be with my poetry. I sat on a bench, concentrating on my own composition when suddenly the blackest man I have ever seen in Australia, I mean BLACK like Africa beautiful black, comes to me and interrupts saying with an angry voice almost, no eye contact,
“May I sit here?”
I look around – most of the benches are empty – why would he want to sit with me?
“Sure”, I say lamely.
I see he is obviously homeless, dirty pants and shirt, and probably suffers from something like paranoid schizophrenia or something along those un-socially acceptable mental health illnesses that cause so many to be homeless. His eyes have no “connection” with me.
“Of course”, I smile at him, wiping the rain off the bench so he can sit in a dry place, pretty sure no one had done something nice for this guy in decades.
Just that first action of doing a kindness for someone else – thinking about someone other than my self – was a great start back to me.
He looks at me long and hard, watching my hand move back and forth across the wood of the bench, a distress, beginning a hushed conversation with only himself. I lean into him, trying to understand.
“Are you African?” I ask bluntly.
“Yes of course, where the hell do you think I come from” he says in a thick beautiful delicious accent – a
Balm to my ears.
I have to turn my head so he doesn’t see my tears – now from gratitude. I know it’s my mother sending me what I need…no one else would know this.
“Where do you come from?” I ask trying to get him to focus his talking on one thought.
“Africa…Africa. I left Africa when I was just a child. I am from nowhere now. Everyone my family is all dead form there – there is no more Africa.” He says almost angrily.
I think about the beautiful smiling children I loved so much in Africa…the real people who danced and played and understood the way of nature. The fresh smart beautiful people of Africa, no pretention and such honesty we have never known in the west. I wonder sadly if this man was one of those proud children learning the drum from his father in a circle of proud family and tribe members.
He starts talking nonsense – about his wife and loss and sadness…
“You are the nicest person I have met here”, I interrupt him unable to hide the grateful tears in my eyes.
He is quiet.
I think he hasn’t smiled in so long his face seems stuck in this frown.
“I’m a musician”, I tell him. “Music makes me feel better”.
I sing him a song – he closes his eyes.
We agree together that the world is fucked up because not enough people sing a dance.
I tell him it would be grand fun to bring a drum into this common place and make the serious people dance so they speak again to the wind – like we did in Africa.
Now he is laughing – and we are both laughing. I put my arm him and I hug him.
“You are very wonderful”, I say to him.
“Your energy is why I am here – you speak to me”. He says quietly – suddenly completely “there” with me. I feel the power of this.
We sit again quiet comfortable like old friends. I put my hand on his arm and we are happy…connected and not lonely. Not depressed – now we feel good together in our aloneness.
Soon, his busy speaking mind takes over and he is forced to move on by its vapid imperative to him.
The most unlikely, my husband and his coworker and I go to the Manly Island ferry – world famous for its view of Sydney. I can tell you right now that touring was NOT in my plan – I could barely have wrapped my mind around being near people, never mind travelling by subway and ferry with crowds of fellow travelers.
But hey – if I have learned nothing else my plans are always not as good as god’s plans…and I only wanted to feel less sadness. I was – as they say – as willing as the dying can be.
We take the subway, my eyes are swollen. I see myself in the window – I look old and tired. My eyes avoid further self-scrutiny.
Arriving at the quay for the ferry my husband says…
“Jo – do you hear it?”
I am breathing in the fresher air of the harbor incredibly grateful for not being in the city, feeling my feet reconnected…a peace coming over me.
“No”, I say to him distractedly.
Then I hear the sound…the Australian didgeridoo. It has been my only desire to connect with and learn from the Australian aboriginal people, who are incredibly difficult to find in the cities.
Suddenly my feet are running…I am, literally tearing through the crowds, pushing the too slow aside. Maybe I am running for my life? It feels like I am running to someone or something familiar. I couldn’t have stopped myself if I would have tried.
And then I am DANCING…the dig playing under me lifting me up, and old man and me – he is shaman, dancing beside me. I have rain sticks and I am leaping all over I feel the power of it all and I am ELEVATED by it.
The old shaman invites me beside him – a dew dance. I am FILLED with it all – like a magic that is so hard to describe to you, UT I really want to try. I want everyone to know this so possible.
He looked at me, and the man on the ground playing the dig and suddenly we are the only ones there.
I feel it shift in me – my joy. He has shaken my joy free – is all I can think.
We leave them eventually to take our ferry ride – but what happened next was all miracle.
My energy so high, everywhere we went people were smiling and talking to us and everyone interchanging. The ferry people around us soon became like friends, interchanging our experiencing around the world. Talking about how amazing it was to all be together tree.
I can ASSURE YOU that had I gone on that trip with the original energy I came with – one of that would happen.
So here’s my point –
Travelling with depression can be hard – a dive it happens to you, well then you have some work to do.
- Take exceptionally good care of yourself
- Create write draw express.
- Stop caring about what people think.
- And most important…WAIT FOR THE MIRACLE.!! don’t be so impatient 😉
- The lower down you go – the greater the beauty that is available.
- Be a badass…and love it all!
And so, now we are on a different route, back on home territory for us in Australia continuing on with the old shaman’s lovely energy forever inside my heart.
FILLED WITH GRATITUDE and determination to keep myself as well as possible for the people I love and this world I am dedicated to.