Travel keeps me present in a way my mental health doesn't

Woman with messy curly hair and banks smiling at camera in a vintage-looking restaurant with a bar and decorated with pink f
Visiting Lillie's in Times Square on a recent NYC trip. (Source: Leanna Lee)

Quick note: I'm in the middle of a big move, so this newsletter might be shorter than usual. But I've got some big stuff planned for next month, including a new series about disabled/ill/ND experiences in self-employment.

Last month, I took my first solo trip since the pandemic began to show one of my sisters around New York City. The visit itself may not have been solo, but the flights to and from were all mine.

Travel-wise, it was kind of a nightmare. By the time I arrived at the airport frustrated because I couldn't seem to check in online, my flight had already been delayed. Minutes later, it was cancelled and I found myself joining a huge line of anxious customers.

6hrs and several re-bookings later, I boarded a mid-afternoon flight to Buffalo, NY. By 10pm, just 8hrs later than planned, I finally made it to our hostel on Manhattan's Upper West Side. It was a long, LONG and frustrating day but I was doing...shockingly well.

I didn't rage, cry, fall into a depressive mood, or zone out completely. My anxiety didn't often tell me I wouldn't make it, and when it did, I reminded it that we were on an adventure, so just shut up and enjoy it.

And despite my fear of travelling alone at night (thanks, PTSD), I took my usual precautions (headphones, strategic seat placement, grounding exercises, etc.) and made it without a single panic attack.

For a second there, I thought, "Is this it? Have I achieved the ultimate goal of keeping calm and carrying on?" Later, when I got super anxious about my sister running behind on our (my) itinerary, I realized that no, I hadn't magically left my mental health issues at home.

But amidst all the stress, and briefly wishing my husband was there to hold my place in line so I could pee, I enjoyed every single moment to myself.

I loved the random conversations. I loved commiserating with other travellers over delays and hearing their stories. I loved exchanging book recommendations and shop talk with my airplane seatmates. I loved wandering around the airports, treating myself to a meal, actually reading for once, and the endless people-watching opportunities.

Then it hit me:

Travel forces me to stay in the moment, something I rarely achieve in my daily life.

Anxiety, depression, and PTSD/Complex-PTSD (both trauma-based anxiety disorders) all take you away from yourself.

Anxiety throws me into a sped-up tailspin, like a round of MarioKart in my head. Depression shrinks my world to a pinpoint and pulls me into a suffocating world of everlasting brain fog. PTSD and C-PTSD distort my reality with out-of-body dissociative experiences or Halo-esque AR simulations.

So this trip came at a great time for me.

Since the pandemic, I haven't had much chance to travel anywhere alone. My trips consisted of short getaways with my partner and, when safe, with close friends.

Once we went nomadic, travel became a common part of our routine and that solo time was limited to watching scenery on bus trips or train journeys while my partner slept. The few times we stayed at hotels in major cities, I'd creep out in the early morning to sightsee and walk around.

I've always cherished alone time, and still make a point to walk to the library or take myself out to dinner once in a while. But there's just something special about exploring a new place or even reacquainting yourself with a familiar one. It keeps me anchored in the world around me and that's a huge gift.

As we discuss and plan the next steps for our future as digital nomads, I know I need to work solo trips back into my schedule. It'll take some time, so I'm starting small. I've opened a personal savings fund that builds interest and set up a credit card with travel bonuses.

My first solo trip is planned for late September and even though it's work-related (a conference), I can't bloody wait! For now, though, I've got a move to get on with.