Lately, I’ve stumbled upon a lot of articles reminding people that travel won’t fix them.
Don’t run away, they say! Wherever you go, there you are. Your problems follow you. You’re still you in Costa Rica or Hawaii or Switzerland.
And I don’t totally disagree. Travel isn’t a magic pill. It doesn’t cure PTSD or erase that nasty divorce you’ve just been through or render grief and loss and tragedy unimportant.
But I worry that we’ve taken this idea too far. In trying to temper expectations, have we erased some of the very real magic that travel can have?
I say this because I didn’t expect travel to change or fix me, but in some ways it did.
When I left my Denver home to travel the world full-time in 2012, I was in the worst depression of my life. There were days when I genuinely wanted to die—not to hurt myself but just to push the off switch, to disappear into darkness, to fade away. I didn’t want drama or pain. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I just wanted to slip quietly out the back door of this party we call life. An Irish goodbye of a permanent sort.
A doctor put me on anti-depressants. I adopted Luna and found purpose in taking care of her each day. I went regularly to therapy. But I couldn’t imagine that I’d ever feel different, that I’d ever feel better. I was grieving several deeply personal losses and feeling very small and alone in the world.
When I left to travel full-time, I did it in the middle of all this. I did it to save myself. I did it because I thought, If I have to be depressed, I’d rather do it in Scotland than Denver. I’d rather cry my eyes out on a French beach. I’d rather sleep 12 hours a day after hiking through a German forest or climbing a Swiss Alp. If I was going to feel miserable, at least I could do it somewhere new. If I couldn’t change what was going on inside me, at least I could change my external circumstances.
So, I left. I packed my bags, I tucked my dog into her carrier, and I boarded a plane for the UK.
I fully expected to keep feeling the same.
But I didn’t.
Hope—an old friend I hadn’t seen in awhile—showed up as I disembarked in Manchester and boarded a train for Edinburgh.
It wasn’t that my depression was cured (I’ve dealt with it off and on for many years now and don’t expect it to ever fully, magically disappear). It wasn’t that travel itself fixed me.
What it was was something more subtle. Something difficult to put into words.
You see, part of my depression was connected to my sense of self-worth. I’d grown up believing that to be a good person (and, more important, to be lovable) you had to deny yourself completely. Extreme self-sacrifice and martyrdom (both figurative and literal) were the path to goodness and lovability. Anything less than perfect wasn’t good enough. Life was black and white. It was pass-fail. Less than perfect was a fail.
Of course, being human, I was less than perfect. And the losses I’d been through were further proof, in my mind, that on that pass-fail scale, I was a failure. And who could ever love a failure?
For so many years, I’d been denying myself, making myself small, biting my tongue in every conflict, sacrificing sleep and health and my sense of self over this belief that my worth, my lovability, was tied to how good I was. And my goodness was measured by my sacrifices.
Which is why, when I dragged myself out of that depression long enough to book that one-way ticket to Scotland and leave, something inside me shifted.
It’s the first time I remember doing something so unabashedly self-serving. The first time I did something just for me. Not for another person or a cause or a religious mandate. Not partly for me. Wholly and completely for me.
And that changed everything.
It was a turning point in a long journey to self love. It was a jumping-off point for over six years of unconventional living, personal growth, and deep and abiding mindset changes. It changed me in a very real, very long-term way.
So when people say travel won’t change you, I get what they mean. I get that they’re trying to warn people away from the idea that running away solves all your problems.
But what about the times where it does?
What if sometimes we need something and travel delivers that thing? A mindset-shifting encounter with someone we never otherwise would have met. A chance to do something completely for ourselves after a lifetime of making ourselves small. The space to explore new ways of living or thinking or believing without the pressure that normal life and our normal social circles bring with them.
What if travel can sometimes save us? Not because we’re running away, but for other deeply personal, emotional reasons.
There’s more than one thing that saved my life. My dog. My therapist. All the work I put in to re-frame my thinking, live healthier, prioritize my well-being.
But travel is also on that list.
Because there is no black and white answer here. This isn’t a pass-fail quiz. Travel doesn’t always change you, but sometimes it really, deeply does.