“Living with mental illness doesn’t mean you have to live a diminished life—you can still do many of the things you dreamed of doing, but you just have to be more methodical, more mindful, and more forgiving to get there.”
For environmental journalist Jeremy Hance, traveling has always been an anxious activity. It’s an excess of unknowns… As an established travel writer you would think that he would have no problem traveling the world but his severe OCD and anxiety creates stress along every step of the journey.
In his new book, Baggage: Confessions of a Globe-Trotting Hypochondriac published October 2020, he chronicles his entertaining and heartfelt adventures of traveling the globe while bringing along his trusted companions anxiety and OCD, everywhere he goes.
Now that many people across the world are facing these same unknowns, and fear for the proper safety and cleanliness precautions to be taken during future travel, Jeremy describes his best coping mechanisms and offers his tips on how to prepare for travel based on his own experiences of traveling while conquering his mental illness.
What do you feel like the biggest challenges of traveling with OCD have been?
“Panic attacks at thirty thousand feet? Trying to find doctors in remote areas? Inflicting my neurosis on strangers? I mean, there’s just so many different ways OCD can impact a trip, and I feel like I’ve experienced most of them. I think the biggest challenge, though, is probably attempting to plan a trip that both fulfills the objectives of my story but also doesn’t have a high chance of going completely awry mentally and emotionally for me. It’s in many ways a high wire act with my anxiety.”
Do you have a special routine for when you travel that makes you feel safer?
“I’ve really come to believe in the power of preparation. I make sure I have as much planned as possible, from where I’ll be sleeping each night to making sure I’ve got funny podcasts and meditations downloaded for the plane. I figure out transportation ahead of time, i.e. how I’ll get from A to Z, as well as making sure I have all my medications packed and easily accessible.
I also do a lot of mental work ahead of time: telling myself that it’s only so many days and that the worst thing that can do wrong is I’ll be eaten alive by stray dogs. I always bring a token with me, usually a small plastic animal, just to have something to hold when I’m anxious or homesick. This was an idea given me by a therapist over a decade ago and as trivial as it sounds, it’s served me well.”
What are some pet peeves/particular things that bother you when you’re traveling that you can provide some insight into?
“I don’t know if it’s so much pet peeves, because really when I panic or get anxious about how things are different in a foreign country, it’s not their fault—it’s very much mine. It’s difficult to travel in countries where the water will surely make you sick, but, really, it’s far more difficult to live in such countries. Westerners have no idea how much we take clean, accessible water for granted.”
What’s the best travel experience you’ve had so far, and why?
“I think every big trip has included at least one, if not many, incredible travel experiences. I mean I’ve been so blessed to hangout with singing rhinos, hike with Komodo dragons, and chase after newly-discovered animals. But as for the numero uno? I’d have to say the solenodon. What’s a solenodon? Only pretty much the most incredible animal you’ve never heard of. The full story is in the book.”
“I always bring a token with me, usually a small plastic animal, just to have something to hold when I’m anxious or homesick.”
Where would you like to travel that you haven’t been to yet?
“This is always such a difficult question. Does everywhere count? I mean it’s wholly unrealistic, but I’m fascinated by so many things. I’ve long wanted to go to Russia, being obsessed with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I’d love to go to Egypt for the archeology and to Tibet for the spirit. As for wildlife though, I’d love to make it to the Congo rainforest to see forest elephants and gorillas, South Georgia for the seabirds, India for the tigers, Mongolia for the jerboa, Madagascar for the fossa, and New Guinea for the birds of paradise, among others.”
When did you first decide you wanted to be a travel journalist— and when did you realize that your anxiety surrounding travel was higher than normal?
“I sort of fell into environmental journalism more than deciding on it. I fell into it, though, and it fit. A trip to Peru and the Amazon was what really led me on the path to writing about nature—both its wonders and its myriad threats. It was the same trip where I realized just how much traveling could spike my anxiety, to the extent that it nearly ruined the trip and my relationship with my fiancee. It was only after this trip that I’d be diagnosed with OCD for the first time.”
Can you tell me a story about a time that you ultimately overcame a challenge that arose from your anxiety of traveling?
“Every time I get to end of a day while abroad and I’m not in a hospital or on a plane home, I consider a victory. Really. You gotta give yourself credit when it’s due. I think one of the bigger recent ones is highlight in the book: it was a time when I had a panic attack on flight from the US to Southeast Asia, a flight that lasted 12 hours before a layover and then another 8 hours to my destination. I seriously contemplated running back home during that layover and cancelling my trip. I didn’t. I made it. And, of course, I’m so glad I did.”
What is your preferred method of travel, and why? (Are certain methods of travel cleaner, or safer in your mind?)
“Well, my preferred method of travel is walking, because it’s pretty hard to die from walking. But obviously walking won’t get me most of the places I need to go. I hate air travel, I also hate bicycles, motorbikes, and cars. All of them spike my anxiety. But there’s no way around it: whenever I travel I have to put in the work to come to terms with my anxiety.
I guess, the one way I like to travel best are trains. For whatever reason, train travel just feels more chill than the others. You can sleep in a train as opposed to a plane, where it’s almost impossible. A train is connected to the ground and allows you to see the landscape change, and unlike, say, a car I don’t have to see the person driving it or worry about oncoming traffic.”
What do you think people can learn about implementing safer and cleaner travel in the future, from this pandemic?
“Travel will always have an element of risk, but I would like to see saner travel. Many airlines seem to think they can continue to make air travel as unpleasant and awful as possible and no one will raise a fuss. But they are messing with people’s mental health—as well as their staff’s—and ultimately many people may just stop doing long flights. In many ways, that would be a good thing, given the carbon footprint of flying. Personally, I’d love to see more investment in train travel. Not only is train travel far more sane than flying—it also can be much cleaner, less destructive in climate terms.”
What would you say to encourage other people who also experience OCD when it comes to conquering a fear of travel and the unknown?
“Well, I’d say first of all, don’t force yourself to travel if it’s not something you’re really, really enthused about. The reason I force myself to do it, despite my neurosis, is that I love it (and it’s my job). If you are passionate about traveling, but struggle with anxiety or OCD, then I would suggest starting small and build up. Go on trips closer to home and for shorter periods in the beginning. Once, you’re feeling somewhat more comfortable (or as comfortable as possible) then look into bigger trips. But make sure your wanderlust doesn’t overwhelm your caution. Be smart about where you travel and how you travel. Do the preparation ahead of time to make things run as smoothly as possible. Most importantly. One panic attack, one bad day, even one bad trip doesn’t have to ruin it forever.
For those who struggle with anxiety and OCD who are interested in accomplishing or trying new things outside of travel, I’d give much the same advice. Take it slow. Start with small exposures and build up. Talk to your therapist about a plan—and if you don’t have a good therapist, look for one.
Living with mental illness doesn’t mean you have to live a diminished life—you can still do many of the things you dreamed of doing, but you just have to be more methodical, more mindful, and more forgiving to get there. Get to know your limits and build your resilience.”
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