Traveling alone is hard. Traveling alone with a history of mental illness can be hellish. There are days when all I want is to go home, sleep in my own bed, and hang out with friends who I know I won’t have to say goodbye to in a few days.
Unfortunately, I don’t know where home is anymore, and even if I did, I don’t think I’m ready to go there yet. I have things to undo, things to learn, ways in which I desperately need to grow. I need to learn to be okay with solitude and to take care of myself without relying too heavily on other people.
I have slept in 20 different beds since June 27.
My mind is constantly racing. I’m traveling without a plan, so the possibilities are endless. This is both exhilarating and completely exhausting.
There’s no right answer and no wrong choices. There are shitty choices, but there’s always something to learn. And lord, I have learned a lot about what I do and don’t want and what I can and can’t handle.
This list is to help people who are considering traveling alone, with or without a mental illness, but also to solidify some of these thoughts for myself.
How to survive on the road with only a backpack, a heart, and an overactive brain for travel buddies:
1. Create a safe space: As you might remember, I arrived in Barcelona without a place to stay. This was terrible planning that led to a desire to say “fuck it” and go home within my first few hours. This is the kind of scenario that typically gives way to impulsive decision-making out of fear.
My new routine is to book a hostel or an Airbnb for my first one or two nights in any new place. Transport is tiring. I need at least 24 hours to recuperate and those 24 hours should include a whole lot of nothing. This brings me to my next point…
2. Don’t feel guilty about laziness: Half of my time in Florence was spent chilling on a couch and at a kitchen table, chatting and eating and resting my eyes. And I watched tv for the first time in a long time. It was awesome. I’ve learned that my body can only handle a few hours of sightseeing per day. More than that, and it starts to feel like a chore. If you run from historical monument to historical monument, you’re not really taking anything in. You become a tourist who only sees the world through their camera lens.
3. Travel slowly: If you bounce from place to place every other day, your body is going to flip the fuck out. I had my period three times in a month and a half because of this. My current preference is for long term stays — at least a week, but two weeks to a month feels best. I’m not trying to operate at full speed. I’m trying to process emotions, learn about myself, and make friends. People have been far more influential than statues and museums and it takes more than a few days to really know someone.
4. Turn off your devices: This is a tough one for me because there are a lot of people I want to stay in touch with, but if your mind is already overactive, the internet WILL NOT help. It stresses me out more than anything. I’m working on limiting my internet time to a few hours in the morning — otherwise, I’m not present in my surroundings. Plus, I end up searching for validation from people instead of validating myself when I’m uncomfortable.
5. Remember that the first few hours in a new place will probably suck: The closest I’ve come to losing my mind is always at the start of each mini journey. I’m disoriented, scared, and know absolutely no one. But the feeling passes, usually within a few hours. This is part of why I’ve started booking private rooms/hostel beds for my first few nights. I need a calm space to collect myself and my thoughts, to meditate and watch a mindless TV show.
6. Do something nice for yourself every day: My current favorite thing is seeing movies alone, but this could also include treating yourself to gelato, reading a trashy magazine, going thrifting… anything, really. In DBT, we call this “build positive experience,” and it’s hugely important for the maintenance of sanity.
7. Don’t drink too much: This is a really hard one, especially when you’re constantly surrounded by different people with different habits. It’s really easy to latch onto said habits — another reason why alone time is so crucial. It’s super fucking easy to treat European travel as 24/7 party time, but that way of life is not at all sustainable. Plus, it gets really boring.
8. Learn to say no: Also really hard, especially if you’re a guest in someone’s home and a people pleaser at heart. I struggle with this A LOT, especially in Italy, where people expect you to eat until your buttons pop off. But this is crucial, especially for trauma survivors. The inability to say no can lead to a slew of sticky situations. I’m trying to do this more and more every day. I have a long loooong way to go but ummm…. Rome wasn’t built in a day?
9. When you start to freak out, stop what you’re doing: Take a breath. Go for a walk. Remember that all feelings pass — that the loneliness will soon subside, that you’re safe, that it makes sense that you feel this way, but the world isn’t really falling apart. Then breathe again. Feel your feet. Listen to a five minute meditation on your headphones. Splash cold water on your face. Pull the covers up over your head and watch a Judd Apatow movie.
10. Keep yourself busy: The kind of travel I’m currently doing is not my favorite. I have four more cities to visit before my visa runs out and little to no sense of purpose. I don’t like it. I’ve learned that I prefer long term work exchange scenarios because I get to know people, I can unpack my bag for a while, and I stay busy. I want to make the most of Europe while I still can, but I’m looking forward to planting my feet soon.
That’s all for now. My thumbs are blistered from the flag-burning. This is just what I’ve learned in the past few months, so there will inevitably be more later. I hope this is helpful for someone, even though it was written too quickly and kind of sucks. BYE!!!