Going on holiday when you’re severely depressed

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Can you go on holiday when you’re severely depressed?  Yes but even before you get there you can face a mountain of mental problems.

If you’ve been following me for a while (particularly on my Facebook page), you’ll know that the last major holiday I took was back to South Africa in January of this year for a couple of weeks.  You’ll also know, therefore, that I struggled with almost every aspect of that trip from initially booking the flights to even 2 weeks after returning to the UK.  I found the adventure to be extremely traumatic for my mental health and as I face another (quick) trip, I want to break down the thought process for going on holiday when you’re severely depressed because, whilst it’s a privilege to be able to travel, it’s not about being ungrateful if you can’t enjoy it.

I arrived in Lisbon, Portugal earlier today, except that I don’t want to be here; Portugal has never been on my travel wish-list.  I don’t like city breaks, European history and I hate hills but I’m here because I need to.  Confused?  Let me explain…

Since returning from Africa in February, I haven’t had any time off work save for a few sick days.  I’m burnt out and need the rest.  And there will be those who don’t suffer with mental illness who will simply say ‘I haven’t had a holiday in 10 years’, ‘I haven’t taken time off since last year, suck it up’ or “try having a family, you’ll never rest!”.  For those people I say, “this isn’t the post or even website for you, move along”.  For everyone else who understands what it means to be exhausted and burnt out, you’ll know that taking a break is incredibly important and one of the best ways to self-care.

For the past month I’ve been stuck in a suicidal episode.  For those that don’t know or understand the difference between that kind of episode and a major depressive one, it means that for the past few weeks, even whilst working or speaking with friends, I have been thinking of and wanting to end my life.  Every day.  I’ve slowly and unintentionally cut myself off from friends and family and haven’t been so active online. I’m completely worn out both by the depression and the endless dark thoughts that stem from it.  So I need a break.  A chance to catch up on physical rest and hope that the mind follows but I agonised over the decision to travel at all and to come to Lisbon and I wanted to break down the thought process to show you that even positive things become problems when we’re ill…

To go stay or go away:

I could have taken a week off work to do things locally but know that I would have just stayed in bed the whole time and berate myself for wasting my time off.  Unfortunately, I also know myself well enough to appreciate that if I travelled to a destination that I really wanted to experience, I would be out all day every day taking in the sights and activities which goes against my dire need for rest.  So, my first problem; go somewhere I don’t care about and feel guilty for wasting money heading to a destination ‘just for the sake of it’ or stay at home and feel guilty for wasting my time off because I can’t bring myself to get out of bed.  After many, many days and weeks tossing between the two devils, I chose the former.

Picking the destination:

This was another headache stemming from the first point.  I either go away to somewhere I don’t care about and feel like I’m wasting my money or go somewhere on my wish list and struggle to do or see any of it due to how I feel and feel guilty for it.  So I decided to see where the cheap(er) flights would take me and work it out from there.  I knew virtually nothing about Lisbon other than my friend lives here as an expat and loves it from the vibe to the food.  It wasn’t until after I’d booked the flights and found some energy to research my destination that I realised it has lots of hills and is steeped in European historical sites (both things I avoid when I’m travelling).  Score one for the ‘own goal’ match.   However, had I chosen somewhere I cared about, I would have felt pressure to explore even on days when I wasn’t up to it which would have, in turn, not allowed me to enjoy my trip.

Knowing your needs:

That sounds like an obvious suggestion but it’s amazing how much we can push ourselves, even when we’re struggling, to ‘see and do everything’ except, if you’re already running on fumes, how long do you think you can keep that pace up?  I had almost every day pinned down with an activity whilst I was in South Africa but I quickly realised that keeping that face for 2.5 weeks wasn’t feasible so I incorporated some sporadic days at the beach or just sitting on the city tour bus because my body needed the rest.  If you need to spend 2 days on the beach or by the pool or even sat on your hotel balcony reading a book, do it because I guarantee that trying to do an energetic activity when you feel like shit will bring out the worst mood in yourself and you’ll hate the day.

Managing expectations:

I barely told a soul that I was coming to Lisbon – this post will be the way the majority of my friends and family know I’ve even left the county never mind the country.  Why?  Because people who know I’m struggling will likely assume one of two things; either that I’m feeling better even I’m travelling or that the holiday will make me (guaranteed) feel better.  I obviously hope for the latter (it is one of the biggest reasons I’m here) but I don’t expect it.  The second I think it will make me better, I add pressure and expectation on myself and that’s bad enough but adding in others expectations of how a holiday will effect you is a level of pressure I can do without so I’ve not told anyone I’m here.  Likewise, for the actual trip, I am keeping expectations to a bare minimum.

And you may read all of the above and call me ungrateful, pathetic or even just plain old miserable and if those are the adjectives that come to your mind, that’s ok because I know there will be many more people that completely understand.  This post is written for them.

Travelling is a beautiful freedom to experience but when you’re suffering with depression, it can feel completely the opposite and cause so many additional dark thoughts because of the stress and anxiety attached to it.  So my wish for this post is to help you realise that it’s not your fault and you’re not alone if you feel the same way about travelling or attempting to do anything fun.

Enjoy your trip if you can but if you can’t, so be it.  You tried and that’s all any of us can ask of ourselves.

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