By: Cassandra Stout
It seems everyone and their mother is traveling these days. And that includes those of us with mental illnesses. For those of us living with mental health conditions, especially bipolar disorder, breaking from our usual routine can have disastrous consequences.
You could slip into a depressive episode that takes weeks of care back at home to recover from. Or, the more likely and worse option: if you’re not careful with your meds or sleep, you could go manic.
So how do you travel with a mental illness? Read on for some tried and true tips from may own experience as a woman managing her bipolar disorder while traveling across the country during the writing of this post.
Prioritize sleep As you and I both know, good sleep hygiene is essential to managing our bipolar disorder. As a woman with bipolar I, when I get less than five hours of sleep in a night, my brain starts revving up and won’t stop.
Two nights of little sleep and I get irritable and tense, snapping at my family. My mind starts racing and I can barely keep track of my thoughts, making focus difficult to find.
This, my friends, is the beginning of a manic episode for me. If I don’t get my sleep back on track, I start losing control of myself, talking a mile a minute, and expressing bipolar rage.
Even if you don’t suffer the same consequences from missing a night of sleep, you must agree that sleep is crucial for not going manic, whatever level of manic that you experience. And sleep is necessary to ward off depressive episodes as well if your bipolar disorder trends toward depression.
So don’t do what I did this trip and book your flight for 7:15 am, necessitating a 3:45 am wake-up time. I couldn’t sleep the next night in the hotel and almost went manic, feeling exhausted but wired, but a good night’s rest the night after (last night as of this writing) set me to rights.
Almost. My shoulders are still tense and I am still wired, but the sleep took the edge off the manic episode. I’m carefully ensuring that I sleep well tonight by winding down before bed with a hot bath.
Don’t make my mistake. Prioritize sleep
Stick to your typical day as much as possible
Routines are what get my family through the day and make managing my bipolar disorder much, much easier. If you don’t have a series of routines that you go through throughout the day, I highly, highly recommend you start some. (Click here for a post on how to start creating and sticking to routines.)
When you’re traveling, sticking to your typical day as much as possible is the easiest way to remember important things like when to take your meds.
Back at home, I center my family’s day around our meals. We regularly eat at 9 am, 12 pm, and 5:30 pm. These are the rocks of our day, and everything else we do (morning park trip, afternoon study time, evening house cleaning) revolves around those bedrock times.
So I try to have my family eat at 9 am, 12 pm, and 5:30 pm when we travel, too.
Think about what you do every day at home and try to emulate that when you travel. Sticking to your typical day will help you remember crucial things, like the necessity of prioritizing sleep.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
As soon as you find out you’ll be traveling, make a packing list with everything you think you’ll need to have on hand to stick to your normal day. I have such a list on my phone, and I check the virtual boxes off when I’ve packed each item.
I highly recommend investing in a well-balanced backpack or cross-body bag. As the mother of two children, I carry a ridiculous amount of items with me, which I use throughout the day. Travelling makes my backpack even more necessary.
· Things I bring and carry on my person include:
· Shelf-stable snacks. A blood sugar dip is the quickest way to get everyone hangry, and hangry is no way to be on a trip.
· A first aid kit.
· Three days of extra meds. These are important to have because you might find yourself in my situation yesterday: visiting family all day past the time when I was supposed to take my meds. If I don’t take my evening meds on time, I can’t sleep, which as we’ve discussed is my #1 priority when traveling. Luckily, I carried spare meds.
· Water. Dehydration is the worst.
· Antibacterial wipes.
· Masks for myself and the kids.
· A portable battery and chargers for various electronics.
· My wallet with my ID, cell phone, and planner.
You absolutely do not have to carry all of these items or any of them, really. Your situation is undoubtedly different than mine as a mother with bipolar disorder. But
the more you prepare for your trip ahead of time, the easier it will be to stick to your typical day and prioritize sleep.
If you’re traveling, you absolutely cannot suffer a mood episode. Not only will you not be at home where you can better take care of yourself, but you may also end up derailing the plans of your travel companions.
If you have bipolar disorder and you are planning a trip, make sure to prioritize sleep, stick to your typical day as much as possible, and prepare, prepare, prepare.
I wish you well in your journey.