Trigger warning: mentions of low mental-health and similar themes
There were many times when I was abroad and I didn’t feel okay. There was nothing physically wrong with me but I could see the signs that my mental health was beginning to deteriorate. There were many reasons: I was away from home for an extended period of time and in an unfamiliar environment, I didn’t have my support network around me, I was getting frustrated with myself because I wasn’t achieving what I thought I would and then sometimes there was no reason at all. When I looked around me, I would remembered how lucky and privileged I was to be in Spain, and doing what I wanted to be doing, and then I would feel incredibly guilty for feeling low… and compounded with my pre-existing mental health issues I would spiral.
I was meant to be having the time of my life, exploring Spain and Spanish culture but all I wanted to do was stay in bed. I found myself making up excuses to not go out on the weekends, because I didn’t want the awkward discussions around mental health in a language I still hadn’t mastered. During the week it was harder, because I was working and I didn’t feel like I could take a few days like I normally would have at home. So I put on a mask and I pretended that everything was okay so that I didn’t worry my host family but at night I would cry myself to sleep when that mask came crumbling down.
When we hear travel stories, especially when the person has been travelling for a long time we rarely hear about the challenging parts and one of the most challenging things to deal with when abroad is poor mental health. We don’t have the same structures and systems that we would when we’re home, so there’s a lot of navigating in the dark to try and help ourselves recover because it’s not great feeling down, and whilst we can hope the feeling will pass, sometimes there needs to be extra effort from ourselves to get to the other side.
I had to develop new coping mechanisms whilst I was out in Spain. I couldn’t retreat or withdraw like I typically would, and before you say “that doesn’t sound healthy” it works for me (different things work for different people, I cannot stress that enough). Withdrawing gives me time on my own to recharge, to reflect and to feel more in control because the main reason for why I spiral is because I feel like I don’t have any power. Being in Spain and living with a host family as an au pair with obligations, I couldn’t withdraw because in my head I would rather suffer than let people know I was suffering (I know, I know… I’m working on it). So this unique and new experience, forced me to find other ways to cope, so I leaned heavily on my friends for support. I talked with them on the phone, and it brought a sense of familiarity and safety which really helped. I also channelled my feelings into writing; I wrote down my gratitudes, my fears and everything else running through my mind, and I wrote some poetry and short stories because that has always been an outlet for me to work through my emotions and thoughts.
It was a trial and error process to figure out what would work for me whilst I was abroad, it wasn’t as straightforward as I would have liked and it didn’t always work so there was also a lot of ‘riding it out’ and waiting for things to regulate. Acknowledging my mental health (both highs and lows) whilst abroad was so important in making sure that I had an enjoyable time and that I was taking care of myself.
Yes, we’re abroad and we feel like we should always be doing something, making the most of the experience and having the time of our lives, but that can be draining. Forcing ourselves to enjoy every moment can create the opposite effect. It’s okay to not be okay and it’s far better to listen to what your body is telling you. The adventures aren’t going anywhere, and they can wait until we feel better.
If you are in need of urgent help, remember you are not alone. For resources and services to contact, please visit Mind.