**I know this is a travel blog and travel does play a part in my battle with depression. However, I think this blog is a good platform for me to get this off my chest and help other people who are going through the same struggle. I’m not guaranteeing that I can help you with what you are feeling, but this may be a new perspective for some people and it may change your life like it’s changing mine.**
Firstly, I’d like to start with my first encounters with depression. Depression is a weird thing because we speak about it like it exists to the unlucky, but I think it affects most people, if not, everyone to varying degrees. My first encounters were in my late teens, which may have been down to the fact that depression was cool then. A lot of the music I listened to contained romanticized poetry themed around depression and glorified suicide, anxiety and anything in that category. It was ‘cool’ to be depressed back then, or ’emo’ or ‘goth’ as it was called. Everything was revolved around doom and gloom, black clothes, pagan.gothic designs, spider webs yada yada… but this poetic version of depression actually helped a lot of people of my generation. It helped them face the reality of mental illness and the grit of real-life issues, something which pop music avoids at all costs until recently. These days it seems to be a topic that music magazines are willing to discuss on a serious level. Anyway, my point in telling you this is that when I became an adult and experienced my first deep depression, it wasn’t as cool as kids thought it was in the 00s.
I won’t go into every instance, but I’ll talk about my most recent and deepest depression and what things helped me to deal with it. So it started in the summer of 2016, when I went to Scotland on a long distance walk. Long story short, I got caught with my pants down (not literally) in a storm and ended up getting acute hypothermia and returning home. It took me over 24 hours to stop shaking and I lay in bed for a few days to get rid of the aches and pains you’d expect from hiking 20 in the pouring rain without walking shoes. I stayed with my family for a few days and decided it would be best to go to the town that I study in – to find work. I didn’t feel 100% but the weather was really nice for the first few days and I felt like all was good. Then, I had a relapse.
Little did I know then, that I was 6 months away from being diagnosed with crohn’s disease. From August to November I experienced intense pains on a regular basis. The pains were abdominal and I couldn’t walk further than 500 meters without curling up into a ball in agony, so I rarely ventured outside other than to collect groceries. I had diarrhea almost everyday for those 3-4 months and had so many blood tests related to my stomach that even the nurse who took my blood said she’d never seen anyone tested so much. All the tests came back negative and the doctors were trying to find new ways of finding the cause of my cramps. I had a camera down my throat, but they found nothing, so I was booked in to get an ultra scan on my small bowel. During this time, I was in agonizing pain on almost a daily basis, and I thought about suicide on a few occasions, but thought about how cruel it would be to my family and friends. The battle raged on in my mind on a daily basis, sometimes even hourly, but other times I would feel fine. The pain affected me so much that when my roommates drew my portrait to stick on our fridge, they captioned it ‘sad eyes’. On an almost daily basis, my roommates would ask if they could help, and where they could help, they did, but for the most part there was nothing they could do. I tried to stay positive and sometimes I would have ‘better’ days when it would seem like I wasn’t in that much pain, but sometimes I would just come back to my room and curl up in pain.
When November passed, December brought new challenges. The weight I had lost in November had degenerated discs in my back and caused my hip to seize up. The main symptom of this was sciatica, but means pain or irritation in the sciatic nerve which runs from your pelvis area down to your toes. It’s a common symptom for a lot of back and hip problems and it fucking sucks. Sometimes heat helps, sometimes you can stretch and relieve the pain, cold can help too, but sometimes nothing helps. You lie down, but you’re in pain, so you sit up, stand up, walk around, try different chairs, lie down again, take medicine, try the TENS machine, heat pad, ice pack, stretch your legs, hang over the bed, but nothing helps. This pain has lasted until today, but it is literally 95% better than it was back in December. I still sleep with a pillow between my legs and I still do physio and joined a gym just to stop this pain.
Maybe this post has made you feel depressed yourself, and or that I’m sorry, so let’s talk about how I took the fight to depression and crohn’s.
The first step was the diagnosis. When I had my ultrasound on January 5th, the doctor told me I had crohn’s and a few days later, I had a letter confirming. By January 20th, I was on a drug called Entocort. Entocort was great but it has side effects such as anxiety, depression, acne and short temper. The drug was helping, but it only lasted 3 months and as the dosage slowly dropped, my flare up started again and I was put on a stronger drug as well as Entocort. The new drug is also full of weird side-effects like sunlight sensitivity, dizziness and a lowered immune system, but I can deal with that if it helps my Crohn’s.
Once I was diagnosed and had started the course of Entocort, I started to gain weight and my sciatic pain became bearable. At my lowest point, my weight was about 58 kg, which for someone my height is less than 17 bmi, borderline organ failure. I am now at 64 kg and rising fast, but I still had to find something that could help me get back to health.
The most important thing I found was the Wim Hof method. The Wim Hof method is a combination of breathing techniques, cold water, and mindfulness. It might sound a bit hippie-trippy, but what makes Wim Hof different is that he has results backed up by science. A study in Holland found that he has conscious control of his autoimmune system and he has a number of world records such as longest time in ice bath and longest swim underneath an ice sheet. Oh yeah, he ran a marathon in the arctic circle too. Little did I know that cold showers reduce inflammation, increase testosterone, increase circulation, reduce the affects of depression among many other things. If I was to describe the feeling of coming out of a cold shower, it would be that of a warrior coming out of a battle. You feel invincible. It’s not going to cure cancer, but it is going to make you feel great.
The next thing is going to the gym. I think this one is more obvious and many people have mentioned the benefits of this online already. I go to the gym whenever I can and whenever I’m not aching all over. It can be tough if I have a relapse because I’ll ache for longer, but guess what? The cold showers also help reduce aches!
The other thing that has helped me is having something to look forward to. Usually a trip in my case, but it can be anything really. My next trip is from Romania down to Croatia with a quick stop in Serbia and a look in Bosnia. I’m not sure what my plans are for next year, but I’m not too worried because I can always change my mind and do something else. I think if you want to be ‘happy’ you have to be willing to recognize when something is not working and have the balls to do something about it.
My last thing that keeps me on my toes is always having aims or learning something everyday. I heard a quote somewhere, that when you stop learning, you start dying. I always try and learn little bits of language wherever I go and when I’m not traveling, I’m learning about places and looking at where would be cool to visit (at the minute I’m fixated on Ethiopia and Somaliland). I also like to challenge myself everyday. The easiest way that I do this is to watch something on the news that is liberal and then see the conservative perspective. I think this has helped my mind grow and gives me the strength to think of positives in negative situations.
So that is how I’m fighting Crohn’s and the depression that has plagued me for the last few months. It’s not really that complicated, but when you fall down a hole you can only see a small section of the sky above. You need to arm yourselves with the tools to climb out of that hole and mine are cold showers, gym bro-ing, booking things, and learning other things. Hope this helps you out there. You’re not alone.