At the moment, I’m preparing for a long weekend trip. Like many people who suffer from mental illness, I’m not a great traveller. There’s so much instability inside of me that I try to control and stabilize the world around me. However, I’m determined to not be limited, so I do travel quite a bit.
The way I prepare is to treat my trip like I’m traveling with a nervous toddler. Prepare well, keep yourself distracted, and don’t sweat the small stuff.
Before the Trip
1. Plan an itinerary.
Think about it: What does a toddler do during a trip? “Where are we going? How are we going to get there? When are we gonna get there? How long now? What are we doing?”
First, realistically evaluate your destination and transportation options. If you’re still suffering from major symptoms, it’s probably best not to hop on a fifteen hour international flight. Plane trips can be nerve-wracking for anyone, and people have very little tolerance for people acting strangely on airplanes (it’s sad and unfair, but it’s the truth). In addition, international medical emergencies can be confusing, stressful, and expensive.
However, if your symptoms are manageable and you feel you can handle international travel, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t give it a try. If stress is an issue, look for low-key destinations. For example, if you’re not good around crowds, avoid Beijing and look into Bergen. Investigate places where English is a native language or a very common second language. If you’re worried about emergency medical costs, you can investigate buying travel health insurance. Or, you can avoid this in favor of domestic travel. There are so many places to go and so many ways to travel that there’s bound to be something that works for you.
The itinerary doesn’t need to be a blow-by-blow checklist, but planning roughly what you’ll do and where you’ll sleep is a big help. If you know what to expect, you can prepare yourself for the difficult parts of travel, like crowds, bed times, and meals. You can also use the itinerary as a countdown during the difficult parts of your trip. If you know that the plane ride takes three hours, you can reassure yourself that the turbulence won’t last forever. In addition, this makes medication timing a lot easier, especially if you need to coordinate meal times.
2. Pack by priority.
Think about it: What would you do if your toddler needed a stuffed animal to sleep, but you left Mr. Carrots at home? You can’t just buy her a new rabbit!
When you pack, there are a lot of things to think about and remember. Clothes, electronic devices, chargers, toiletries… there is just so much stuff! I inevitably forget something. So what do I do? I plan for my forgetfulness. I make a list of everything I need, but I really concentrate on what I can’t replace or do without when I arrive at my destination. For example, I can always buy new socks if I forget those, but forgetting my medication would be a nightmare to fix. I can go without my favorite hand lotion, but I can’t go without my phone.
So, before you start packing, determine what your Mr. Carrots objects are. Mine are:
- Credit cards
- Important documents (driver’s license, passport, tickets, etc)
While it would be nice to remember my Bose earphones, I can always pick up cheap headphones at a Walmart. I also need my Fitbit, but I can even buy a new one if I forgot it. I cannot, however, find a new passport at Walmart (maybe you have better connections that I do). Keep the list as small as possible and know that as long as you remembered that stuff, you’ll be ok.
3. Figure out what needs to happen for you to stick to your routine.
Think about it: Have you ever encountered a toddler who missed his nap time? It’s not pretty, and it’s not quiet.
His reaction would be pretty similar to mine if I didn’t take my pills at the right time or didn’t get the right amount of sleep. Before you leave, notice what you do during the day. What time do you wake up? When do you go to bed? At what times do you eat? How much downtime do you need between activities?
Once you’ve noticed your routine, think about ways you might stick to it. For example, if you take a break between work and dinner every day, set aside an hour or two between your museum tour and that restaurant reservation. If you’re hitting up Vegas for a bachelor party, let everyone know you might not be joining them after midnight. These are the small things that make a huge difference once you’re there.
While You’re Traveling
1. Keep yourself distracted.
Think about it: Would you rather sit next to a bored toddler or one who’s busy with a puzzle?
What I’ve found is that the more time you have to think, the worse the traveling process can be. I try listen to music or audiobooks. Sometimes, I grab a magazine or easy book. If you’re traveling with others, you can always play games like Going on a Picnic or the license plate game. Essentially, I try to jam-pack my mind during travel so I can’t think about anything else.
While You’re There
1. Treat jet lag as a real trigger.
Think about it: It’s 3am and your toddler is jumping on her bed, wide awake and ready to go. Not a fun time.
If you cross timezones during your trip, jet lag can be a huge concern. You can use these tips from IAMAT to help avoid jet lag. In addition, medication scheduling is important. You can start by using a website like this one. Once you have a basic schedule, run it by your doctor for his/her advice.
2. Do things you enjoy.
This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how easily you can overlook that. Things happen, concessions are made, and suddenly Ethan is busy throwing combs at the wall in the American Girl Hair Salon. If you’re not a fan of walking, I’m willing to bet that you won’t be very happy at the end of an eight hour hike. If you get sea sick, a whale watch might not be the best idea. If your days are filled with hikes you don’t want to take and whale watches you don’t want to go on, travel won’t be a very good experience.
If you and your fellow travelers enjoy doing the same things, that’s great! If you don’t, try finding an activity with which you’re both comfortable. If Eloise hates Legos and Ethan hates dolls, try visiting Disney instead. I aim for activities that are slow-paced, interesting, and have opportunities to leave if I get nervous.
3. Know your limits.
Think about it: Your best friend Elliot really wants to go to a midnight parade. It might be fun, but you know it’s loud, intense, and way past your daughter Eve’s bed time. How would that night be for Eve? How would the next day go?
These are critical moments. That parade might sound incredible, but if loud noises, late nights, and crowds are big triggers for you, you might want to sit that one out and settle for the pictures. It might not seem like a big deal at the time, but stretching way beyond your comfort zone could ruin your trip and even have lasting effects.
These are just a few tips to get you started. If you’re curious to know more or actively planning a vacation, check out the resources below. Bon voyage!