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Travel writing & depression: a real life story
Adam Turner shares his struggles and offers advice for travel writers facing similar mental health challenges
This week’s newsletter is a moving and brave admission written by Adam Turner, a freelance travel writer who has suffered mental health challenges for much of his life. Here, he lays bare the realities of his experience and offers his own coping mechanisms to those of us facing similar issues. We would like to thank Adam for sharing his story in such a courageous way, and we hope it encourages anyone out there needing help to seek a kind ear to listen.
When Lottie first asked me to write this piece, I felt privileged to share my mental health battles with fellow writers. But quickly, the idea of random folk in the industry judging me for my irrational fears and catastrophic thoughts felt akin to marching through WTM naked while playing the bongos. So I binned three editions for fear of sounding too gloomy and full of self-pity and told Lottie I couldn't do it.
But I realised that's the point: to normalise mental struggles and if I can make one reader feel less alone, that's far more important than embarrassing myself.
I've suffered from anxiety, panic attacks and low mood for as long as I can remember. As an adult, most of my struggles revolve around health. I'm a diagnosed hypochondriac, which comes with a stigma. A sense of shame is attached to even writing the word, which is often bandied around with negative connotations.
My health anxiety probably came from the trauma of being sick as a kid, seeing family members suffer strokes and cancers, and having a fair share of chronic illnesses. Over the past two years, I'm sure you can imagine being a hypochondriac travel writer hasn't been a walk in the park. And if you can't, think about getting a root canal on the Central line at rush hour, and you won't be far away.
After years of therapy and long nights spent psychoanalysing myself, I've boiled it all down to a fear of death. But oddly enough, it's that precise debilitating fear that has allowed me to live. Knowing that life is fragile and nothing is given has been strangely empowering. Having felt close to the edge on so many occasions has led me to appreciate things, however small, with weight. It sounds cheesy but every panic attack I survive feels like a second chance, and every day without anxiety is a blessing. When you live with mental health problems, you soon learn that mundane days are special.
Despite the bouts of depression, spells of anxiety, and crippling panic attacks, I've endured — thrived even – as a travel writer. I've hiked a live volcano in Guatemala, skied (unsuccessfully) in Japan, and flown in a hot air balloon over Arizona and a helicopter above Chicago. Of course, each prefaced by panic attacks, catastrophic thoughts, and sleepless nights. But I did them anyway.
I remember one occasion when I thought I was going to die Steve Irwin-style on a paradise island in Panama after being stung in the sea by an unknown creature. I had a panic attack comedically while cradling a coconut and looking out to a turquoise sea under a cloudless sky. I've also pictured having a stroke (they run in the family) on a long-haul flight to the Maldives, as well as Barbados, Thailand, South Africa, Costa Rica etc. etc. Then, only a few weeks ago, still suffering from long covid, I worried that a trip to Bhutan would lead to me dying, somehow, in the Himalayas. It sounds absurd even writing these things now when I feel healthier, more rational and having enjoyed that last trip so much. Though I still send heartfelt messages to family and friends before every trip, just in case anything goes wrong.
However, with every trip, experience and encounter with a local from a foreign place, these worries dissipate a little. Over the past four years doing this job, I have become, not stronger nor more resilient, but more confident that the next time, things will probably be alright. Even if they aren't, it feels worth it to do what I love. This job, after all, is a huge privilege.
After suffering for over a decade, I've found some tools, practices or simple distractions that have helped me. Some which may help you. Here are a few of them:
- Reading the Chimp Paradox by Dr Steve Peters (a layman's breakdown of the mind)
- Sitting beside or swimming in the sea or a lake
- Walking in moors, forests, mountains, woodlands
- Yoga and meditation (hard to stick at when you're feeling good)
- Eating less sugar and processed food (with various degrees of success)
- Spending less time on my phone
- Deleting social media for periods
- CBT/ therapy
- Celebrating achievements privately and looking back on old work
- Saying no to plans
- Not taking on too many projects
- Taking Mondays off
- Playing golf
- Spending time with my niece
- Working for a charity
- Keeping a gratitude journal (don't tell my dad)
Work-wise, as cliché as it sounds, I've accepted that my mental health is more important than a trip to the Caribbean or a Times commission (still waiting). Although, as I said before, I'm feeling pretty good at the minute if any PRS or editors are on the lookout?
Jokes aside, if you're ever struggling, remember that, as cliché as it is, with every storm, there's a clear sky that follows. And there's always a trip just around the corner, a city full of dive bars, a unique experience nobody else has the privilege to call work. Or, more likely, a segway tour or a horse ride through an arid landscape.
Failing that, take some time off. Walk by the sea. Go for a run. Read. Write. Take meds. Go to therapy. Take a bath. Speak to your mates. Find what works for you. But don't keep things to yourself. And if you ever want to talk, feel free to reach out any time.
This was the third installment of our October mental health series, which we’ve made free for all subscribers. If you value this newsletter, please consider becoming a paid subscriber.