Tomorrow I stuff my suitcase, cello, and myself into a six person carpool and drive for nine hours to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to perform with ELO tribute band Strange Magic.
Before my diagnosis in 2013, I could travel like a rock star. For example, I spent two years taking a weekly red-eye bus to work, which seemed just fine on paper, even a little badass. So was cramming several bandmates into one hotel room, or driving through the night in a snowstorm right after a show with a car full of bassoon players.
I prided myself on being extremely flexible. I still am, in spirit, but living with bipolar disorder has meant monitoring every aspect of my day-to-day living: maintaining routine in my sleep and wake cycles, timing my medications, eating right and on time, reducing stress, and understanding and controlling my triggers.
I feel safe and comfortable in my home surroundings and have become so attached to my daily routine that the idea of change comes with a lot of worry, even when travelling to a familiar place like my parents’ house. Now when I am faced with travel I get anxious. I have to protect my wellness.
Everyone gets a little nervous and stressed about travel, especially regarding:
- packing and the possibility of forgetting something important
- developing the itinerary and allotting enough time between connections
- adjusting to a change of time zone, if applicable
For a person with bipolar disorder, or other mental illness, we have all of the same fears, as well as:
- losing the comfort and reliability of our daily routine
- not having healthy or familiar food choices available
- getting overwhelmed by our itinerary and being in a new place
- having our sleep schedule disrupted
- forgetting to bring or take our medications (or running out of them)
- being away from our support system, including our friends, family, doctor, and therapist
- feeling pressure or obligation to “follow the crowd,” such as getting up early, staying up late, or consuming alcohol (I find this especially challenging when traveling with rock bands)
- any of the above triggering an episode while away from home
All of these stressors can be experienced times ten if you have a comorbid anxiety disorder.
In the days leading up to my trip, I have been pretty anxious about all of the unknowns, but I am comforted that the main details are already in place: I know where I am going, who is driving, where I am staying, and have a rough idea of the itinerary. I have put a lot of preparations in place to help me travel with confidence, which has inspired me to write this post to share with you.
Here are my 10 tips for travelling with a mental illness:
10 TIPS for TRAVELLING
1. Plan ahead. I repeat, plan ahead. As soon as you book your travel date try to put as many details into place as possible. Book off work. Start writing a packing list with check boxes that you can easily add to as you think of items (I like Google Keep). Book your connecting planes, trains, and automobiles. Be clear on what time you need to meet your transportation, and allot for extra time at the border, if applicable. What time will you need to get up? Check that your passport is not expired and place it in your bag days ahead to avoid forgetting the biggie. The more clear a picture you can make, the better.
2. Count out your medication. Make sure you have a few extra doses. Know your prescription by heart, and take a copy of it with you. Set alarm reminders to take your medication, it can be easy to forget in new surroundings.
3. Purchase travel insurance. Do it! You could be facing thousands of dollars in medical bills if you were to hurt yourself or become unwell. CAA is a good option for Canadians. They have very affordable travel insurance, even if you are not a member. It just takes a few minutes.
4. Visit the bank. Take out some foreign currency. Also, call your credit card company to tell them when you will be travelling, so they don’t see your card activity as suspicious.
5. Leave extra time. Don’t try to fit in other activities on the day you travel. You will remember a few things last-minute; better to give yourself breathing room so you don’t have to rush. You can always use your extra time to visit the restroom, get a snack, read a book, or just breathe. In your itinerary try to plan some time each day that is just for relaxing. If you can, book yourself a recovery day for when you return home. Don’t try to hit the ground running.
6. Pack early, pack light. Start packing a few days ahead, and look up what the weather will be like when you arrive. Pack light so you aren’t bogged down with too much stuff. You can always do a makeshift load of laundry in a hotel sink and hang to dry overnight. Quick-dry material is great for this. Remember that you can often get away with the same pair of pants for more than one day. Wearing layers can help keep your bag lighter.
7. Take a picture of your cards. The front and back of your credit cards, ID, and bank cards. Email the pictures to yourself, and print a copy to stash in your bag. If your wallet is lost or stolen, you will be glad you did. Purge your wallet of anything nonessential such as store points cards, library card, chequebook, or unused gift cards.
8. Know what you need. Stating what you need is incredibly important, and essential for staying well. Practice telling people what you need. Other people will likely respect the boundaries that you make clear. Here are some helpful phrases: “I could use a rest stop in the next twenty minutes.” “It might sound silly, but I’m more comfortable leaving about thirty minutes early.” “Thanks for a great evening, but I need to turn in.” “I’m fine with just water and lime, thanks!” “If I don’t have to be up early, I prefer to sleep in.”
9. Have an emergency plan. Write out a list of instructions and warning signs for when you become unwell. Include the contact information of important people, such as your doctor, psychiatrist, and therapist. Leave your emergency plan with a trusted person or people, and keep a copy in your wallet. Make sure to include your list of medications and your travel dates.
10. Don’t forget your essentials. Many things can be easily replaced, but I know it saves me a lot of headaches to remember these essentials: my phone charger and other chargers, extra batteries, water bottle, eye mask for sleeping, tissues, pens, toothbrush and toothpaste. You might like to bring along a journal to capture the details of your trip, or for a great outlet if you are having a difficult day.
In the end, remind yourself that travel is temporary. You will be home before you know it. You have an opportunity for new sights and adventures, so take lots of pictures and enjoy. Bon voyage!
Postscript: I ended up having a fantastic time, the highlight was being one of six rock musicians singing ELO hits in four-part harmony in the van; and of course our awesome show, complete with glow sticks!
I would love to hear about your essential travel tips in the comments below.
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