Sitting on the plane on my way to South America alone, my emotions began to overwhelm me.
What was I doing?
Was it a good idea to jet off on my own given my recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder? Would it have been better to stay at home, or travel with a friend?
Fast forward two months, I couldn’t believe I’d questioned my decision to travel solo with bipolar.
The amazing things I’d done and seen – living with a local tribe in the Amazon, trekking to Machu Picchu and sand boarding in the Peruvian desert. I had found my happy place.
The media creates a skewed perception of what bipolar disorder is… and how it will affect somebody’s life. Whilst shows like Homeland and Spinning out, can raise awareness of the disorder, they’re in danger of not showing the whole picture.
I’m here to give you the real truth about bipolar and the truth about travelling with bipolar!
What is bipolar?
Bipolar disorder is a mental health illness that characterised by alternating periods of high moods (mania) and low moods (depression)
During the high moods, symptoms can include:
- Extreme happiness
- Impaired decision making, e.g. excessive spending
- Feeling self-important and full of great ideas
- Full of energy
- Being easily distracted
- Not wanting to sleep
- Delusions and hallucinations (in severe cases)
During the low moods of bipolar, symptoms can include:
- Lack of motivation and energy
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feelings of emptiness and worthlessness
- Suicidal thoughts (in severe cases)
Would you like to know more about bipolar?
Read one woman’s bipolar memoir – An Unquiet Mind. Find out what it’s really like to live with bipolar. A good read for anyone suffering from bipolar, or affected by somebody suffering with bipolar.
How is bipolar treated?
Bipolar disorder is, generally, treated with a combination of medication and counselling.
The medication helps with the imbalance of chemicals in your brain, aiming to prevent significant mood swings. There are many medications available with differing side effects. I take a medication called quetiapine once a day.
The main side effects are weight gain and sedation. Most people gain around 1 stone in the first year of treatment. And for me, approximately, 1 hour after taking it I am heavily sedated and need to sleep.
My medication helped me start to regain control of my moods once I had been diagnosed. Without it I, think I would still be back in a very crazy state!
Counselling is also an important treatment for bipolar disorder.
By learning to understand your thoughts, you can process your emotions better. This helps for long term recovery of Bipolar Disorder. But will likely help any person, mentally ill or not! The only negative is that counselling is hard to access in the UK on our national health service.
These treatments are what has made it possible for me to travel with bipolar disorder.
However, there is no cure, and I will always experience high and low moods at points. This is something I’ve had to process and accept about my life.
But how can I travel solo with bipolar?
Now you’ve had a bit of an introduction into bipolar, you may be wondering how I managed to travel solo.
I have always loved the idea of travelling and when I decided to go away for a long trip, I’d only been in treatment for a few months. I was determined to be able to travel alone with bipolar, and I was determined that my disorder would not define me. If other people could travel solo, then why shouldn’t I be able to?
However, travelling with bipolar disorder does take a bit more planning than your average trip. Because of my alternating highs and lows, I knew I’d have to have a bit more stability in my trip. By booking some of my trip in advance, this helped to prevent any excessive spending or crazy intense itineraries.
Furthermore, there are logistical issues such as obtaining travel insurance and getting enough medication. It’s important to maintain a connection to your support network at home too. However, over time I’ve developed many tips for travelling with a mental illness.
But despite all the planning, when I got on that first plane on my own… I was terrified! However, I knew that I needed to conquer my fear of travelling with bipolar. I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life being dependent on other people to travel with, or worse, not travelling at all.
When I got to South America and settled in, I began to enjoy my new found freedom.
My moods stabilised slightly, and I began to experience the happiness every traveller has when seeing new things.
How can travel help bipolar?
Travelling has certainly helped my bipolar disorder. While various healthcare professionals told me I needed stability. I have found that doing what I love, travelling, is the best medicine.
For example, I was at my unhappiest when at university and working jobs at home, but travel offered me a new lease of life. It stimulates my mind and body on a daily basis, and provides something to focus on that wasn’t just a 9-5 life.
However, let me be clear – I’m not suggesting travelling is a magic cure. I still suffer from bipolar disorder and will always need my medication.
What are the hardest parts of travelling solo with bipolar?
- Being depressed without friends and family around to drag me out and about.
- Not having a constant line of communication to home. Partly due to time difference and partly due to the difficulty in phoning home. It can be lonely travelling solo, and this is something you have to prepare yourself for… mental illness or not!
- Medication – I get very sedated when I take my medication and need 10 hours sleep a night. Explaining this to fellow travellers is difficult – or trying to get 10 hours sleep in a dorm room!
- Not being able to drink often – Because my medication clashes with alcohol, if I drink heavily, I will be wiped out the next day and will need to sleep the day away.
What are the best parts of travelling solo with bipolar?
- Freedom – living my life how I want to live it. Seeing new things can help me get out of my low moods.
- Enjoying my highs – Being able to see new things and talk to new people means I can have a lot of fun when I’m feeling happy.
- I can experience the world in a very happy and intense way at times, that others will never get to do
You can do it to!
Do you suffer with a mental illness but want to travel? You can do it… Yes it takes more planning but it is definitely possible! Check out my top 10 tips for travelling with mental illness.
Let me be clear: there are points in the last six years where I have not been well enough to travel. It’s important to recognise when you’re not well enough to travel solo.
Fortunately, I’m happy to say that since starting treatment, I am little bit more in control of my moods.
Need any more help planning a trip when suffering from mental illness? Feel free to get in touch with me here.