Backpacking is booking a flight to Bali on a whim, dreaming of The Yoga Barn and walking through the Monkey Forest. Everyone at the yoga retreat in Cambodia encouraged a trip to Bali. Your mom wants you to go. You haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love, but you know a thing about heartbreak and could use a chat with a monk and a juice cleanse. Your Instagram following could use a boost and what’s $3 a night for accommodation? Sigh. Shrug. Pleasant ‘mmm.’
Backpacking is uncontrollable sobbing in your hostel dorm, sending a flurry of contradictory messages to people who are on the other side of the world, who are ready to go to bed or go out for the night. Something, which you’ve been sure was ‘hormones’ the past two days, has a grip on each of your lungs and each of your eyes, relentless. You’re out of balance and out of control and wondering at what point you’re going to have to accept your personal definition of “failure” and book the flight back home.
Backpacking is both of these events happening at the same time.
On Facebook groups dedicated to women who love to travel, love to blog, love to travel and blog, love to make money through a remote job in a kitsch coffee shop in Amsterdam, I’ve seen posts about travel curing all ails. Clickbait title or not, I rolled my eyes then, and I roll my eyes now.
Again, I haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love, but I get the gist. A woman goes abroad to cope with a failed marriage. In Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the author goes on a wild hiking adventure after a divorce and her mother’s death. In My Year With Eleanor, the author hikes Mt. Kilimanjaro and participates in other expensive adventures after getting fired from her job, approaching her 30th birthday.
All of these stories are inspiring, and New York Times bestsellers. On the surface, it looks like travel is the cure for everything, right? Instagrams and hostel romances and white sands and living out of a backpack?
Not only are these opportunities available to a privileged group of people, a plane ticket or awe-inspiring adventure is not going to solve your problems. Whether you are dealing with trauma, suffer from any form of mental illness, or carry along baggage from past relationships, you’re still going to face these issues in Italy, Indonesia, India, or Indiana.
Travel Won’t Make Your Anxiety Disappear
…and why the hell would it? Traveling, especially backpacking or long-term travel, involves constant change, last-minute cancellations, little privacy, a wide range of personalities, code-switching, putting up a front for new faces, unexpected snags in the budget, rejections, and not having immediate access to your support system (or your favorite junk food. Like Cheez-Its.) That kind of stress, even if offset by wonder and sunsets and motorbikes and authentic Pad Thai, can be harmful.
I knew this going into my trip. I wrote about preparing myself, mentally, for backpacking without an end date. Even though I was leaving the people I loved most at home, I made a promise to myself and to these people that I would live in the present moment. I envisioned that living in the present moment meant leaving the present moment, my present situation, my travels altogether, if it wasn’t suiting me; after all, I had the world at my fingertips, right?
But how do you know when it’s time to make these big changes? Where is the line between “this is a challenging moment” and “I need to leave”? Is it next to, or far away, from the line between “I need professional help,” and “I need to stop complaining,” a line I’ve been looking for for years?
Working in Kuala Lumpur
I planned on working in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, months before I actually arrived. Working at a hostel was a bucket list item for my trip. I planned on teaching yoga classes, practicing while I was off my shift, and slowly exploring the city. The job sounded hip and cool; working at a hostel allows you to meet travelers from around the world and have a free place to stay in a big, exciting city.
Within two weeks, however, I was in the situation I described at the beginning of the post. I was living in a dorm room instead of a private room I had been promised (the privates were under renovation, and then no longer available for staff). My yoga practice was limited to moments where my room was free (ha!) or early in the morning when no one was awake to watch me practice outside. Practicing in front of a bunch of backpacking dudes throws you into the “…can you…do a…split?” situation that I’ve so ranted about in a previous post. When you’re a woman sitting at a hostel desk in front of an open door, or walking down the street in Malaysia when you decide to wear shorts, you already attract enough stares and energy pointed at you for the next century. I just wanted to be left alone, for a minute.
A few moments came up during those first few weeks and as I watched them go by, I had to ask myself, “Is the universe telling me something? Do I need to make a change? Do I need to leave?” But I was always second guessing myself. I could only see two sides to the situation: the situation was not right, or I was not right. I could control myself and my attitude, and I enjoyed so much about working in KL (I really did,) and felt like leaving was disappointing people who worked hard to give me this opportunity. I felt like leaving was an insult, was giving up, was weak, and that I would be looked down upon.
The messages were mixed and I didn’t know how to judge the situation objectively.
I don’t know what game-changing moments look like for other travelers, specifically volunteers. I haven’t had too many conversations about what motivates people to move from place to place, to drastically change plans, or to decide to go home. Maybe more of these conversations need to be had over Changs, in hostel lobbies, on blogs, who knows. No one wants to talk about traveling with anxiety, but it’s just as real as politics back home or our most wild hostel stories.
In fact, it became increasingly embarrassing to talk about anxiety or feeling depressed. I began to feel isolated, and the blurred lines were farther away from coming into focus. I was questioned and accused of lying, validating my fears and forcing me to look down on myself.
And then one morning I booked a flight to Bali, cutting my time in Malaysia short by about 10 days.
(Looking back, the situation is pretty funny. I woke up at 6:30 a.m. one morning to do yoga on the outdoor patio. I was twisting when I looked into the building next door. An old man caught my eye; he was staring at me from the apartment above. After trying to shoo him away, multiple times, I rolled up my mat, opened my computer, and made a budget for classes everyday at the Yoga Barn. And booked my flight to Bali.)
Within a week, I wanted to change my flight to Bali and arrive a week earlier. I had a stressful, thankless day at work that involved guest emergencies and raised voices hours before my shift started. For hours, I could only visualize myself spending hours curled up in the dark. There was no yoga in sight, and the events of the day had scared me into staying in my dorm for the rest of the night. Instead of changing my itinerary, though, I reached out to a friend and gave myself the night to chill out and look for places to practice and work out in the mornings.
I found a gym and spent the last of the cash I had for the month on a two-week subscription. Within minutes, I realized I had made a very smart purchase. (This realization has nothing to do with the fact that the person at the front desk decided to play exclusively One Direction during my workout / yoga flow…nothing at all…)
I fell in love with yoga all over again. I felt a heightened sense of compassion after my practice, I felt like I could breathe for a minute.
I didn’t extend my Bali trip, but I didn’t regret booking the flight, either. Throughout the rest of my stay in Kuala Lumpur, I continued to fight anxiety attacks. At one point, I made the decision to leave early. I won’t go into detail, because the incident is still fresh, but it was a good decision.
Your Mental Health Doesn’t Go on Holiday
Yoga has been crucial in helping me identify what is happening regarding my physical and mental health. I owe yoga so much for helping me cope with anxiety…but like a plane ticket, it’s not a cure. Anyone who claims that one cure is available for depression, anxiety, addiction, etc. is only putting people in more harm. There’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for mental health. Yoga has given me the tools to work with and breathe through negative emotions…but in no way does it guarantee their departure forever.
In ten years from now, panic attacks may still affect my romantic relationships. I’ll still have trouble breathing now and again. I’ll have days where I depend on excess amounts of food to get me out of bed. I’ll have days when tears are on the starting boards of my eyelids, ready to run when the buzzer sounds.
I’m not sure where this blog or where my travels will take me. I may end up in Austin, Texas next year and never pick up my Osprey again. Travel may become a constant in my life. If travel is a constant in your life, or if you go on holiday or plan a backpacking trip over the span of a few months, know that your mental health matters. Rest when you need it. Leave money in your budget for mental health days. Make time for the things that help you through periods where you don’t feel your best. Listen to your body. Don’t listen to fellow backpackers or voices that put too much pressure on you to have the perfect Instagram-worthy trip, 24/7. Reach out to people. Send me a message. Traveling isn’t always perfect, or glamourous…it’s life. Yours is important. Stay healthy.