Depression, Burn Out and Renewal on the Streets of India

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Depression, Burn Out and Renewal on the Streets of India

Was it just a funk? After nine month of nonstop travel, was I simply burning out? Either of those situations I could handle, but my real worry was that my once-vanquished depression had returned. Thousands of miles from home and on the ‘trip of a lifetime’, I found myself spending more time hanging out and reading in cafes than getting out and exploring.

I first noticed I was slowing down in Laos but attributed it to the mellow, slow pace of that lovely land and its people. The Lao tourism motto is “Stay Another Day!” and it’s a perfect and true choice. There’s something about sitting by a river and watching it ease by while sipping a cold and cheap Beer Laos that makes it so very easy to put off buying that bus ticket and say “maybe just one more day…”

By the time I reached India, I had to admit that something had gone amiss; some spark had been lost.

By the time I reached India, six weeks later, I had to admit that something had gone amiss; some spark had been lost. I was posting less and less often on the blog and when sitting down to write I’d just stare at a blank screen with an equally-blank mind. The words wouldn’t flow and I had less and less to talk about — my oddball adventures and mishaps were becoming few and far between. Only so much can happen within a few blocks of your hotel, after all.

Prior to this trip, I had developed a pretty severe depression. I don’t want to oversell this — I wasn’t exactly standing on a ledge with pills in my hand. But I was more than ‘just blue’. Blue was a good day.

I was able to function in day-to-day life reasonably well but all non-work hours were spent at home alone, watching TV or playing video games. I developed a nasty social anxiety and for a few years I was pretty much a hermit. I just couldn’t handle crowds or groups of people I didn’t already know.

Eventually, I’d had enough and got medicated and got better. It wasn’t that simple, of course — I didn’t take a pill, then wake up the next day and say “What was that all about?” But gradually the meds gave me the emotional distance I needed to examine my life and figure out why I was feeling the way I did. And one of those reasons was that I’d given up on ever making the trip I’m on now.

A year from the day I made that realization, I was on a plane to Bangkok. And in my standard half-assed fashion, I hadn’t spoken to my doctor about quitting the meds — I simply cut the dose in half until I ran out and hoped for the best. I had planned to, of course. I just never got around to it.

I don’t recommend that you try this at home. After a month of mood-swings and an incredibly annoying zzzzzzzt! sound that I heard and felt right in the center of my head every fifteen minutes (which really did make me want to kill myself), I was med-free and loose in the world. It was good.

Until Laos and now India. Landing in Bombay, I decided I had a problem and checked at several pharmacies for my happy pills but they’d never heard of them. “Too new” was the usual explanation. Generic Prozac seemed to be the only option but just trying head meds at random seemed like a recipe for disaster.

My next stop was Pushkar, where I had planned on staying for a week or so. It was comfortable, interesting and relaxed. I stayed a few days extra to experience the Diwali holiday and then the famous Camel Fair was only five days away and then I had to rest up from the crowded madness of the Fair and then…

Somewhere in there I decided I shouldn’t fight it — I just didn’t feel like going anywhere so I didn’t. The usual doubts about what I was doing and why surfaced often but I ignored them as best I could.

I read a lot –a book a day, generally– and wandered about taking photos, or sat at cafes and watched the endless procession of humanity that flowed through the streets. I wasn’t bored but I wasn’t excited. I just was.

After five weeks, I decided it was time to get moving again.

After five weeks, I decided it was time to get moving again. I felt rested and, though I wasn’t exactly on fire to get out and see the world, I was feeling a bit of the old zest for life. At least, I hoped I was.

I bought a train ticket to Rishikesh and it proved to be a difficult trip. My stomach was acting up and I ended up in a compartment with a family that just didn’t seem to like me from the moment we met. After trying several times to initiate conversations or get some kind of vibe going, I gave up, climbed into my bunk and read for the rest of the ride.

The train stopped in Hardiwar, where I needed to catch a bus or taxi onwards to Rishikesh, some 20km away. My stomach was still unhappy –I wasn’t sick or throwing up, but I was continually mapping in my mind the location of the nearest toilet– so I decided to spend the extra cash on a tuk tuk. It was an extra 300 rupees ($7.50 US) but seemed the wise choice.

It proved to be –in it’s own weird way– exactly what I needed.

The driver was a young guy, spoke no English at all and –like most tuk tuk drivers in India– was completely insane. The tuk tuk itself was the standard black three-wheeled affair with a canvas top and an engine that sounded as if was about to shake itself apart with its crazy arrhythmic “tikka tikka TONK” beat — any drum corp that could copy this sound could win Nationals easily.

Before I was fully in my seat, he launched us into oncoming traffic, narrowly missing a speeding truck.

Before I was fully in my seat, he launched us into oncoming traffic, narrowly missing a speeding truck. My cry of “Jeeeeeeeesus!” earned me a smile and a wink in the rear view mirror.

The tuk tuk only seemed to have two gears –low and lower– and he had it fully wound up. The engine sounded like it was full of angry bees on acid, screaming in pain as someone beat on it with a steel mallet. He charged onto a bridge in the wrong lane, ignoring the honking of an oncoming bus and I quickly crossed myself, before remembering that I’m not Catholic.

That all happened in the first minute. Only 45 more to go, I thought grimly. Looking out the rear window, I expected to see men with guns chasing us, but there was nothing behind us but a wall of taxis and tuk tuks with angry drivers shaking their fists.

It was a two-lane road –which in India means you can expect at least four lanes of traffic– but my driver somehow forged a fifth one through the chaos — all at full speed and without the use of brakes. I don’t think we even had brakes. At one point he hopped a wheel up on the opposite sidewalk to dodge a truck, and just missed sending an unsuspecting sadhu on another spin around the Wheel of Life.

He never let up, never slowed down — in my memory now, the ride is just one long blur of close calls, blaring horns and screaming (I’m pretty sure that was me). My backpack had nearly bounced out of the tuk tuk and I as was rearranging it, I noticed that we were now in a race with a bus and another tuk tuk. The bus was in the actual lane, the tuk tuk was passing it and we were passing the tuk tuk. The finish line was a rapidly-approaching speed bump and railroad track.

We won, if you consider hitting a speed bump and railroad track at full speed ‘winning’. The speed bump launched the rear end of the tuk tuk into the air and I smashed my head on one of the roof supports. I seemed to hang in the air for awhile, seeing stars, before gravity reasserted itself.

The rear wheels met the railroad tracks and headed skyward just as I hit the seat on the down stroke, instantly reconfiguring the family jewels into a necklace and matching earrings. Everything went white.

I found myself curled into a fetal position in the back of the tuk tuk, one hand slowly surveying my skull for open wounds and the other buried in my crotch, as I blinked tears from my eyes and whimpered. And in that moment I knew something had changed. Despite the pain and fear, I was grinning like a thief. The funk was over. The spark was back.

Was it a real break-through? Or just the inevitable result of a concussion and testicular trauma? At that moment, I didn’t know and I really didn’t care.

I’m back, I squeaked.

I’m Johnny Vagabond. And this is my world.

{ 125 comments… read them below or add one }

Neelima January 19, 2011 at 10:21 pm

That was a real nice read! As many have pointed out already, it is interesting for me to read about how you deal with ups and downs of travel.
People look at all of my fun pictures and assume it is all bright and shiny on travel. Of course it also stands that I do not publish about the gloomy days.. :D
I used to wonder earlier how is it possible to maintain the same level of enthusiasm and excitement on all days? Now I’ve come to terms with the reality of travel. It is all part of the game. :)
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Rebecca January 20, 2011 at 9:10 am

Thanks for sharing Wes – very open and honest of you. Glad you’ve got your mojo back and I hope it sticks around!
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Keith January 21, 2011 at 3:21 am

You win. Great story and perfect similes. Remember, next time you’re drifting into the abyss of depression, bang your head against something really hard. Works wonders. :)

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joshywashington January 21, 2011 at 4:39 am

Johnny-fucking-Vagabond, you are the real thing, man. This post made me smile (and a little jealous of your tuk tuk crash somehow!)…i guess this is a classic case of life smacking you upside the head.

welcome back my ninja!
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wes January 22, 2011 at 9:01 am

Thanks Joshy. Sometimes all you need is a swift kick in the #$%@#…

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Tracy January 21, 2011 at 10:17 am

This story really made me laugh, it made me feel like I was back in India!
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Theodora January 21, 2011 at 3:49 pm

It’s great to hear that you’re back. And I hope you’ve conquered the black dog. I know what you mean about blue being a good day. The bad days are grey, grey, grey.

Thanks, also, for being so honest about your experiences. I think a lot of us are running from something — or, better, running towards something (two sides of the same coin).

Though hopefully we won’t all end up in a tuk-tuk with a genital necklace…
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Christina January 21, 2011 at 8:10 pm

Glad to hear you got your Johnny back! Your story made me actually LOL. “Only 45 to go.” ha ha. “Was it a real break-through? Or just the inevitable result of a concussion and testicular trauma?” HA ha haha. You got the gift, man. Keep on rockin’.
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suzanne January 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm

welcome back, dude. You were missed.

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wes January 22, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Thanks! Still light on posting this week, but it’s due to lack of electricity, rather than navel-gazing. Back to full speed soon.

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Trang January 23, 2011 at 10:05 pm

Thanks that was just the read I needed… your posts at times are hilarious and have me laughing all the way through.. strange as I was reading I realized that it had been a moment since I had read one of your funny post keep em comng glad your back…

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wes January 24, 2011 at 8:20 pm

Thanks a bunch.

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Don January 24, 2011 at 9:19 pm

Love your articles. Pretty inspiring, glad to hear people get over their rough points.

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Erica McGillivray January 25, 2011 at 4:51 am

Glad to hear you’re back, and thank you for sharing about your struggles and how travel is not always puppies and rainbows.
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wes January 25, 2011 at 9:17 am

ha! no unicorns either! ;)

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Catherine B January 26, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Thanks for this! I’ve had a post in pending over at Gadling for over a week now that deals with travel and depression, but I’ve been a bit too timid to publish it. Thanks for putting this out there and sharing a topic that I think many people understand and deal with, even if they don’t “put it out there.”

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Aswin Anand January 30, 2011 at 12:01 am

Wes! What an awesome post this one. I was laughing like anything towards the end of the post… especially this, “Despite the pain and fear, I was grinning like a thief. The funk was over. The spark was back.” – Very nice!
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wes January 30, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed it :)

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Julia February 3, 2011 at 11:55 pm

This was a really amazing post. I just want to tell you that I have had similar feelings while traveling, and it was great to read what you had to say!
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Aaron @ Aaron's Worldwide Adventures February 4, 2011 at 12:16 pm

What a wonderful story to share! I totally get the travel funk as I experienced it myself after nearly 3 months on the road. I spent a week holed up being sick and after that I was never quite able to get in the groove of things. I was rather lazy and kind of ready to be done!

Glad you were able to find a way out of your funk, albeit through such “shocking” way!
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wes February 4, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Thanks, Aaron. It was certainly more painful than therapy but decidedly cheaper ;)

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Priyank February 4, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Hello Wes,
That was one of the most inspiring pieces of writing I have seen, and I think its because the message was hidden in your sense of humor…. I haven’t been through such a situation (depression, spark, etc.) before so I can’t relate to it, but, well, welcome back!
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Angela February 6, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Fantastic, your vivid account of driving in India made me literally laugh out loud. I just got back from India myself, we drove throughout the Rajasthan state, I tried all possible “transports”, from cars, camels and those great tuk tuk, it’s unbelievable how they drive, and I thought the Chinese were reckless!
You got your spark back in the best way possible, I totally understand how India can be so inspiring. Well done, looking forward to your next posts!

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GotPassport February 7, 2011 at 1:48 am

Dear Wes,

What a courageous post this was, opening yourself up to the world about a very personal and intimate part about you. I admire you for sharing it so. I too can relate to your story- been there and by that I mean, back in Texas feeling depressed and feeling alone when I was surrounded by so many. It still comes and goes sometimes, but here in CM, it’s not so debilitating as it was back there. I feel more alive here.

For what it is worth, I hope that being in CM surrounded by new found friends with similar minds, is a good addition to your already adventurous life of amazing experiences and tales.

I’m glad we finally met in person. I’m glad you’re here. Glad to know you got your spark back. And if there’s ever a time that you need a friend to talk to, remember that J and I are here!

Cheers and again, welcome.

A
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wes February 8, 2011 at 11:13 am

A, thanks you so much. You n J are two of the sweetest, most-inspiring people I’ve ever met and I am thrilled to be part of your community here in CM. Looking forward to sharing many great times together :)

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Catherine B February 8, 2011 at 11:29 am

You’re in Chiang Mai?! I just left.

Your post did inspire me to finally be brave and publish my piece on traveling with depression over at Gadling: http://www.gadling.com/2011/01/26/10-tips-for-traveling-with-depression/

Thanks again, and wish we could have crossed paths in CM.

Catherine

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wes February 19, 2011 at 5:01 pm

D’oh!? I missed ya :(

wes February 19, 2011 at 5:03 pm

also: great article. Stumbled it :)

The Hungry Traveler March 21, 2012 at 9:25 am

I’ll be reading and sharing your post at Gadling as well! :)

Bubba March 6, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Wes,
I finally dug up your post after our brief conversation last night, and I’m glad I did. I find it courageous for anyone to talk about their personal strifes, as well as their triumphs. I’m glad to have met you in person, and have you as a new friend. Hope to have more chats, both deep and shallow, real soon. ;-) Cheers.
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wes March 6, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Thanks, brother :)

Paul March 17, 2011 at 2:21 pm

This this is the first time I stumbled into your blog and I’m loving this post.

The moment you realize that, once again, you’ve got the world by its balls, is the moment you snap back to kicking ass.

Good for you man.

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wes March 18, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Thanks, man!

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Roy March 29, 2011 at 7:29 am

Hillarious! There’s nothing like a bit of testicular trauma to bring back the zest for life :)
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wes March 31, 2011 at 11:02 am

It works wonders ;)

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Andrea April 9, 2011 at 2:44 am

Great read, very personal blog. Glad to know you are back on track!

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Kelsey April 9, 2011 at 8:43 pm

I’m bipolar, and this really resonated with me. Sometimes traveling can really exacerbate it, and I’ve had many situations like the one you describe here. And, just as you experienced, sometimes it takes an extreme situation to jolt me out of it. Great post!

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wes April 10, 2011 at 9:39 am

Thanks, Kelsey! Sometimes, we just need the universe to give us a little kick in the pants, huh?

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MousE April 12, 2011 at 11:29 am

Great storytelling, thank you!

And I went thru the same thing trying to get off that damned drug. Those zaps are something else. Never again. Next time, I think I’ll go to India.

Cheers, eh?

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Marti (Wrabbit) April 18, 2011 at 4:34 am

My favorite article thus far! Perhaps the tuk-tuk driver was a psychologist in his off-time?? Hope the boys have recovered as well! ;)
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aimee f April 20, 2011 at 7:45 pm

“….instantly reconfiguring the family jewels into a necklace and matching earrings. Everything went white.” Holy Hannah. That made it all perfectly clear for this female reader.

Brilliant. More please. Not of the rearranging of the family jewels (God no, wouldn’t wish that on any male), but the pitch-perfect story telling.

Aimee
(Toronto, Ontario)

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wes April 20, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Aww.. thanks so much. On both points ;)

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Mike On The Cheap Route June 18, 2011 at 12:12 pm

I’m trying to get out of one of these over travel funks right now, I have bursts where I get excited about trips, but I feel more obligated to see things than excited at this point. Can’t wait to snap out of it!
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wes June 19, 2011 at 7:53 am

Sounds like you need a tuk tuk ride, my friend ;)

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Jen August 23, 2011 at 12:48 am

I needed to read this today. Thank you.

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wes August 23, 2011 at 7:24 am

Glad you liked it :)

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Kathy September 5, 2011 at 9:54 am

Fantastic post! I found your blog through Our Travel Lifestyle and I LOVE it, you have a true gift for writing and I am enjoying reading about all your adventures. Congrats on being able to do this full time, it is an absolute dream of mine to do the same thing one day down the road. Cheers and I can’t wait to read about Honduras, I have always wanted to visit the bay islands.

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lakshmi March 20, 2012 at 5:34 am

I just discovered your site and your wonderful postings. Amazing to read about your tuk tuk experience in India.

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The Hungry Traveler March 21, 2012 at 9:31 am

Awesome read my friend! I’ll be writing up something similar here real soon, as I’ve been in a funk the past few weeks, stuck in the Philippines and not really going anywhere of value. Taking pictures of the local fare gets boring after awhile for a world traveler. Plus we get all complacent, as you did in Laos. But.. this gives me hope that it’s all temporary and things change over time. Glad you have your spark back and I could help you fix the link to be able to share this must read story!!

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Kevi Naleo Mor May 14, 2012 at 6:10 am

Maybe you were falling ill and you didn’t realize or maybe you had a food poisoning!!! By that tuk tuk you mean an autorickshaw? lol you really have very good way of representing what you saw and what you did. I heard you get lots of weed in Haridwar?

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wes May 14, 2012 at 9:11 am

Yes, it was an autorickshaw — quite the ride :) I only passed through Haridwar so I can’t say but weed/hashish seem to be pretty available in many towns…

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Kevi Naleo Mor May 15, 2012 at 12:14 am

hehe thats what I thought an autorickshaw. hai have you been to nagaland in India? or any other North Eastern Sates? In case you like hiking do let me know

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Cindy Knul June 24, 2012 at 9:44 pm

Sorry about your early depression but could relate to your ride. When my Indian host had to take a taxi just to get us across the street I was relieved to know it wasn’t just me.

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Casey E. August 13, 2012 at 9:03 pm

Thanks for sharing your story. Traveling with depression can be really difficult – you’re supposed to be having the time of your life, but can’t shake the negative feelings, the lethargy, the overall sense of malaise. I can relate to your experience, and your honest account will hopefully give other people reassurance as they go through similar experiences through their travels.

For those out there traveling and looking for a place to rejuvenate, get one-on-one life coaching assistance, and make healthy, sustainable changes that will allow them to cope with their depression effectively, there is the New Life Foundation near Chiang Rai, Thailand. This is a haven for people suffering from addiction problems, depression, stress, burnout, and relationship issues and allows them to recover in a low-cost, community environment. I have spent time here myself and it is a truly wonderful program.

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Karpagam August 4, 2013 at 10:58 am

That was an incredibly funny post!! I’m from India and we also call it “Autorickshaw” or “Auto” in short. You should try the Chennai Auto ride sometime. Actually, I was a bit upset with something when I started reading the post but by the time I came to the end, I was laughing so hard, my husband stopped eating and came over to check on me. However, it doesnt mean I dont understand the pain and shock you would have felt. Sorry if I have hurt you. Glad that the incident jolted you out of the bleak mood.

I came upon your blog today while searching for good blogs on travel, food and culture. Your post felt like something I would have written myself if I had to, on my daily auto rides. It’s one of the best posts on India I have read so far. Your blog is also truly inspiring and has strengthened my motivation to travel more. Looking forward to reading more on your experience.

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wes March 21, 2012 at 10:26 am

Thanks! Glad ya liked it :)

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