I had heard and read about the infamous post-travel blues that long-term travellers get when returning home. And I came to realise that it can be quite a challenging experience. However, I think referring to the experience of coming home as post-travel depression – as many travel bloggers do – is somewhat problematic: it can diminish the seriousness of clinical depression. Feeling deflated after an awesome trip is, of course, understandable – but calling this ‘depression’ can do a disservice to people who actually struggle with this condition. On the other hand, many people use travel as a means to escape their mental health issues, so these problems can certainly rear their ugly head again – or become intensified – upon return.
Returning From Long-Term Travel
Obviously, post-travel blues are a ‘first-world problem’, so it isn’t an experience that should be catastrophised. Simply being grateful for the privilege of travel can make coming back home a lot easier to deal with.
When you return home, there can also be a kind of reverse culture shock, where your comfort zone is challenged, not by the novelty of a new country, but by the familiarity of home. Before boarding your last flight, homebound, you were comfortable with seeing new things, meeting new people and moving around. So after the initial reunion and catch up with family and friends, you realise your previous way of life has ended, and you must now re-adjust back to going to the same places, seeing the same people and staying in one place.
From the point of view of everyone else, though, complaining about coming back can seem like snobbery, entitlement and avoidance of the ‘real world’ – a curious term that translates into a somewhat depressing situation, of the felt unavoidability of the ‘rat race’ and the inherent pointlessness of it as well. Is this the direction I want my life to take? Charles Bukowski perhaps summed up the situation best in his novel Factotum (1975):
How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30am by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for your opportunity to do so?
I cannot help but think about how insane it is that this way of living has become normalised; it is Kafkaesque to the point of causing real and serious anxiety. You have no idea how things got to be set up this way, but you still find yourself inexorably pushed into, and a player in, this strange game called ‘real life’. Everyone does it, so don’t whine about it. But still, the thought is there: How do I get out?
But, to want to avoid this ‘return to reality’ can elicit self-denigration, judging yourself to be lazy, reality-averse, immature, weak – a self-entitled millennial. And you may find yourself having to deal with these judgements from others as well. There are expectations to meet and if you don’t meet them, then you might be considered a drop-out or dysfunctional. Coming ‘back to reality’ is always used in a way to mean that reality is dull and stressful, but it’s just how things are, so you have to deal with it.
Maybe everyone doesn’t come back analysing their life to such an intense degree – which might reflect my tendency to over-think things – but there does seem to be this undercurrent of life reassessment that people have when coming home from long-term travel. I’ve come back, so what now? If you still want to travel (especially if you find yourself addicted to the adventure that travel entails) then you might just want to do what you did before, save up again and then leave. And for many, this is perhaps the best way to keep yourself goal-oriented and to keep doing what offers you the most fulfilment in life. There is nothing unreal about travelling, after all. So that is an option.
But when you come back again, it could be worse, and unemployment and job hunting can destroy any self-esteem and confidence that you built up during your travels. Unemployment causes 45,000 suicides worldwide a year, illustrating the undeniable link between being out of work and mental health issues. This may speak volumes about how society at large perceives unemployment – as a personal failure – but this is ‘real life’ as well, and should not be taken lightly.
If you want travel to become a permanent part of your lifestyle, then there are ways to go about it. You could look into becoming a ‘digital nomad’, someone whose skills enable them to work anywhere in the world, so long as there is Wi-Fi. (You can check out Reddit.com/r/digitalnomad for more information, or check out blogs of people who have done it.) To add a caveat to this, however, it is by no means an easy path to follow, and many digital nomads are honest about the pitfalls of such a life: job insecurity, loneliness, no reliable circle of friends, distance from family and loved ones, and…no Internet means no work.
Other ways to stay in travel mode, with very little investment of time and money, including teaching English abroad, working holiday visas, volunteering (such as on a farm through WWOOF, Workaway or HelpX) or taking up a job in which travel plays a big part. On the other hand, if travelling and living in another country becomes your only goal, then if it doesn’t work out, you might still be left with the feeling of what now?
Following this train of thought, it is useful to create non-travel related goals when coming back home. Before coming home, I felt like I had to take inventory, as in, what habits I felt were worth throwing away and which ones are worth pursuing. So I came to the conclusion that I need to spend less time online and drinking, and more time reading, exercising, meditating, cooking, writing, drawing, continuing to meet new people, and exploring London (and the UK in general) as if I was a tourist looking to do something interesting. The challenge is becoming disciplined enough to stick to these habits, even when the motivation is lacking.
And to reinforce a point about working in another country, with a question: if you are doing something you enjoy, then why come back home? Well, the question can be changed slightly here: if you are doing something you enjoy at home, then why leave? Of course, planning and going on trips is still worthwhile, but if you are spending 5 days a week, 8+ hours a day doing something you are deeply interested in, or something which engages your talents and creativity, then you have pretty much escaped the rat race. You are no longer just living for the weekend, but trying to meaningfully improve yourself and work on something that you truly care about.
I had a sort of delayed reaction to coming back home after a round-the-world trip, but after 2 months it hit me, and the flatness and familiarity of everything made me want to leave again. But the grass is always greener, as they say. Being away from home (especially for so long) did make me miss and appreciate home comforts, friends, family, privacy, rest (as in actual rest, not multiple alarm clock-induced interrupted sleep), peace and quiet, routine, London, and even familiarity itself.
What I’ve realised is that if you are constantly pining for the past or looking for fulfilment only in the future, you will feel listless and empty wherever you are.