There’s often a stigma that comes along with mental health illness. However, this doesn’t have to stop one from exploring the world. In this episode, Meggie shares her experiences traveling with Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and social anxiety. We chat about how she opened up to it due missing out on awesome scenery, some tips to deal with mental health conditions, and ways to prepare yourself for a travel trip even when you have mental health issues.
- 04:40: OCD and social anxiety
- 08:30: Leaning into uncertainty
- 12:00: Opening up about mental health illness
- 22:00: Challenges when traveling with OCD
- 27:40: Catching your thoughts
- 33:35: Practices for calming yourself down
- 37:35: Traveling considerations and planning
- 39:35: Travel style and writing as an outlet
- 46:30: Selecting travel destinations
- 54:40: Tips for traveling with mental health conditions
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The following is an extremely summarized version extracted from the transcript of the full conversation. I strongly recommend listening to the podcast for all the valuable insights. You will also hear more detailed and contextualized stories from the guest(s), as well as pointers from me in a two-way conversation.
As a traveler who wants to raise awareness of mental health issues, is it easy to identify someone who is suffering?
You can’t see that stuff; mental health problems are hidden disabilities. You don’t even know if you’re suffering from anything or not. I admit that I hid my mental health problems for many years as a teenager and everybody thought I was a neurotypical person. The longer I hid my symptoms, the longer I suffered because I didn’t know what I had. I didn’t think I had OCD. I felt pressure to hide it from everybody, which was easy to do. But at the same time, it wasted so much of my time and energy. Eventually, I had an epiphany traveling through Western Canada, British Columbia, and Alberta. I realized I needed to get help from the mental health services because I didn’t particularly appreciate hiding it anymore. I haven’t done extensive traveling around the world yet. Still, I think the most beautiful drive I’ve ever been on, so far, is the Trans Canada highway. It stretches from Western to Eastern Canada; I only traveled the western part. It was beautiful because of the massive towering mountains and the turquoise lakes; it felt like a whole other world. I come from the desert in Arizona. So it was a wow moment for me. But I had OCD thoughts, and they kept distracting me from the scenery. I was so worried about all kinds of things. The thing about OCD is that it makes you worry about stuff that isn’t real. It’s illogical stuff. It’s called obsessive-compulsive disorder. Think of it like a broken record. These irrational thoughts keep coming up in your consciousness and making you worry so much about it.
Can you explain OCD a bit more?
A common myth about OCD is that when people see something on the table that’s not aligned, they have to align it. The thing about OCD is that there are so many kinds of obsessive thoughts and compulsions. Some people might have the aligning OCD, and some people don’t. I don’t, my desk is always a mess, and I have OCD; I don’t care. Every person who has OCD has different OCD thoughts, and the desk alignment thing is not the only one. But I do have other OCD thoughts, and some are better known. For example, one of my main OCD thoughts is the kitchen stove. Even though the kitchen stove is off, my OCD wants me to feel confident the kitchen stove is off. Even if I checked and all the switches were off, my OCD is unconvinced that it is off. The thing with OCD is feeling certain is impossible, but you want to feel sure. That’s why I would check the burner repeatedly.
I might look at the stove forever, but my OCD still doesn’t think it’s entirely off. Behind each OCD thought is usually fear. In that case, the fear is the house burning down and losing all my possessions, and being held responsible. That’s the fear that’s driving me to check the stove; it gives me so much anxiety, that fear. I learned through therapy how to cope with these thoughts and relabel them. It’s hard because OCD wants you to believe that you’re not checking carefully enough, but if you relabel the ideas, you can move on with your life. I have to feel the anxiety and accept it. I also have to accept uncertainty; that is probably the heart of OCD therapy. You have to embrace uncertainty, and that’s what I love about travel. I’m not using travel for treatment, but it teaches me to accept fate because we all know that travel is an uncertain activity. Things don’t always go according to plan. We have to adjust things and solve problems on our own. So, in a sense, trouble also builds my resilience against OCD. It’s not therapy, but it teaches me to be more accepting of uncertainty.
Can people without OCD suffer from these thoughts?
Yeah, that’s a good point you raised there. Many people don’t have OCD, but plenty of people have these thoughts that come to your mind out of nowhere. Like locking the door and checking the stove. Even though you don’t have OCD, the brain can still hang on to something. The difference between you and me is that you won’t stress out about these scenarios when you think about them. It won’t take up as much time and energy as it’s not a big deal. But for me, I would keep coming back to check. The more I check more anxious I would feel; my OCD is unconvinced. That is the difference. We spend at least an hour of their day thinking compulsively and obsessively. You feel so stuck on that one thing. It like your whole life depends on that one thing.
What was the trigger that got you to open up about your OCD?
So, the main trigger was my rental car. I was traveling with my dad, and we rented this car. OCD can come up with the weirdest stuff. One of those triggers was me writing things on the roof. My OCD was worried that I’d write bad words on the car’s interior even though I would never do something like that. I would never write nasty comments on the roof. I would never do something like that. Why would I do that? But my OCD was worried that I would do it; it comes up with the strangest things. The actual fear behind that weird thought was being afraid that I would get arrested. It comes up with all kinds of stupid narratives. The fear drove me to compulsively checking the roof while we were going through Canada. I saw some incredible scenery, but I also missed out on some novel views because these thoughts controlled my life, and that hurt me.
Once a road trip ended in Calgary, Alberta, I met a lovely friend. I noticed that Canadians are so polite and friendly, I have never met an exception, but I’m sure there are. Anyway, I made a new friend, and she noticed one of my OCD symptoms. I couldn’t believe it. This friend I just met indirectly told me that they saw I had some strange behavior. I couldn’t take it anymore; I was so tired of hiding it. I didn’t know what mental health problem I had, so after the Canada trip, I told my parents about my symptoms. They were very accepting of me. They were scared, but they were so loving. They wanted to support me in going to professional mental health services. I learned I had OCD, and from there on, I went through therapy and learned how to deal with these OCD thoughts. It’s a work in progress because it’s a chronic mental illness. It’s something I will live with for the rest of my life.
Was your OCD diagnosis an easy journey?
It has been quite a journey, and I survived. Now I’m happy to tell my stories. I can’t believe that I used to be so scared, but now I’m so willing to share my stories because I know there are folks out there who might be having mental health problems. It might be OCD; it might be something else. But it just warms my heart to see people thanking me for sharing my story. I love embracing this vulnerability of sharing my stories because it inspires people to come out. Then maybe they’ll even reach out to their families and seek professional health services. I’m so glad I get to influence people’s lives in such a beautiful way because mental health is hard to talk about. I love seeing people who need mental health services get help. It makes me so happy to see them doing that.
What common challenges do you face when you are traveling around different places?
I have to remember that I have OCD because sometimes, when I’m traveling and having so much fun, I can forget I have OCD. After all, it differs because some people who have OCD might be having more OCD symptoms. Some travelers have fewer OCD symptoms while they’re traveling, especially if it’s fast-paced travel. I noticed that if I’m traveling fast-paced, I have fewer OCD symptoms because my OCD doesn’t find the same triggers. But I have to be careful with that because if I get complacent, it can sneak up to me at any moment. Whether I’m traveling fast, traveling slow, it doesn’t matter what pace; I made the mistake of trying to distract myself by traveling fast. I had these OCD thoughts, and it was too much for me. I was eventually able to get back into travel and improve my mental health again. But you have to be careful about these things because an OCD thought can come out of nowhere, and you may not seem prepared for it. It would be best if you keep your mental health as a priority. You might be having so much fun keeping yourself busy, meeting new people, going to so many places. However, remember your therapeutic techniques. You always have them with you and never lose them, even if you have a setback. Setbacks happen; they happen quite a lot.
Sometimes relapses can occur too, be aware of those things and catch them early. I need to practice mindfulness work even with mental health problems. I read books about mindfulness in general, but there are also books about being mindful with OCD. It’s a lifelong process, whether I’m traveling or at home.
So, is it about positively channeling those OCD thoughts?
Yeah, you hit the nail right on the head. It’s about catching those OCD thoughts. Even people without OCD might be having negative thoughts that come out of nowhere. In some ways, that’s a lot like dealing with OCD, catching those thoughts quickly, and trying to move on from them. Admittedly, it’s tough because OCD is almost like a glue trap because it wants you to hang on to it because it’s so repetitive in my mind. Sometimes it’s tough for me to tear away from it. There’s mindfulness with OCD, too, but it’s slightly different because I understand that OCD thoughts are a lot stickier than other thoughts.
I have read some of your guest posts, and they read like you’re talking through your thoughts. Do you write a lot of content about your OCD?
I wrote a blog about the three most common OCD triggers during my travels. One of them is airport security. It’s that fear of being imprisoned in another country and my records getting tainted. There’s different OCD content, but the fears are the same. I’m going to get detained in another country. Because there’s so much surveillance at the airports, it scares not only my OCD but also my social anxiety. I feel so self-conscious at the airport. Writing that article was a healing process because I got to put everything down on paper, expressing it differently and sharing it with the travel audience.
Once I had just landed in San Jose International, Costa Rica. I was waiting for my hostel taxi driver, but I couldn’t find him. I asked an airport worker where the bathroom was, and it was over in the diner. I didn’t want to go over there because I was afraid of missing my taxi. That wasn’t an OCD thought; I didn’t want to lose my driver. So I stuck around where my anxiety started to kick in. The airport worker kept pointing over to the toilets and trying to get me to go and use them, even though I clearly said I didn’t need to use the bathroom. Eventually, I just gave up and went to the bathroom so she would keep quiet. But my anxiety, in that case, was, why are people targeting me? Why is this lady drilling me to use the bathroom? I feel that way at other airports now too.
In a sense, because the social anxiety makes me feel self-conscious, and then the OCD worsens the fear. So those two disorders can work together well, especially at the airport. I was once at this airport, and there was a security emergency. I was able to see the security guards for who they were; everybody was so scared. I could see them as human beings and not as people trying to get to me. I was able to unpeel their macho image and see them for who they are. I might still have OCD thoughts about airport security. Still, I think about that experience, and it helps me to embrace the truth about humanity.
What practices do you find helpful when you’re traveling and feel your OCD coming on?
I learned from an OCD mindfulness book to picture the OCD thought. I might imagine that thought on my desk or in the palm of my hand and see that it’s not a part of me. It’s just something I deal with, but it’s not a part of me. If I can get out of my head and look at it as separate from me, that helps a lot. It’s also about tolerating uncertainty. I have to feel the uncertainty, even though it feels terrible. I have to feel the anxious thoughts and move through them. When I force myself to feel those feelings, it teaches my brain that I don’t have to check these things and survive. I can train my brain that I’m not going to die or get hurt. I’m teaching my brain to lean into these therapeutic practices, even though they can be challenging because I’m going against my brain’s default. My brain is defaulted to keep checking. I’m teaching my brain that I’m not going to check or will check once or twice.
Does it get easier to do with practice?
I’d say it gets easier. I’m better off than before therapy but sometimes relapses happen. It happens to people with mental health problems because the brain is a malleable organ. It can make new pathways over time, new environments, and experiences. When I’m using the therapeutic practices, I’m able to use these new neural pathways that I made for myself, but the old ways will be programmed in my brain for the rest of my life. It’s easier in the sense that I know I have OCD, and I know how to deal with it. I was diagnosed with severe OCD, and it is a lifelong thing.
Are there other ways that you try to reduce stress while you’re traveling?
My favorite part and this is relevant for every traveler. Still, especially travelers who have OCD are not to make a lot of plans. A significant symptom of OCD that a lot of people with OCD have is perfectionism. That’s because OCD wants to correct this and make everything perfect. I know better than that, but I used to let my perfectionism and OCD craft such meticulous plans, and it was so tiring. So, to answer your question, I try not to make too many plans; I might visit a few places, but I try not to book the entire day because I need some time to chill out. Writing in my journal helps because it helps process what’s been going on through my day. Whether I’m talking about the travel experiences I’ve had or my mental health symptoms, whatever, I’m able to put it down in my journal.
How would you describe your travel style?
I want to experiment with this after the pandemic. I had a revelation during the pandemic after that European trip. I wanted to backpack through South America and Asia last year, and I didn’t get a chance to experiment with slow travel as much as I wanted to. But I’m trying to do that with day trips around Southern California. I think the great thing, the fantastic thing I learned from travel blogging and travel writing, is how I look at travel differently to writing. I’m trying to travel with a purpose. I’m glad that I started my blog last year because it made me more aware of why I am there and what I want to do, and how to make a story out of this. Being a travel writer has opened my eyes to a more fulfilling way to travel. I think traveling at a slower pace helps with that because it helps you understand the place better. You can create great stories out of getting to know one place better than going to 15 locations in 15 days. I’ve been practicing on my blog, even just going to the next county to go grocery shopping with my mom. That’s a travel experience in itself because I’m going to a different neighborhood. We’re grocery shopping in the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam; I could explore my heritage there and write a travel story out of that. I learned all these little things for my travel writing; it also helped me embrace that slower pace.
Does writing help you reflect on your thoughts?
Yeah, my travel journal is not limited to just travel; it is also about my mental health. I write about my thoughts and what is bothering me; I write it down, and it’s free. Once you write it down, it doesn’t linger in your brain as often it’s trying to find a way out. Writing is a beautiful way to process that; I learned this from my therapy and a writer’s conference. I attended a virtual writers conference, and they had workshops for writing about mental health. I also learned that writing helps process thoughts differently. It enables you to step back from them once you put them down in a physical place. I love it because then I get to go home and see what I wrote down, and then maybe I’ll write something public about it in my blog. I’m in a travel writing course with David Farley’s. I asked him how I could put down my experience immediately. He keeps this flippable notepad, and he writes down, what he sees, what he feels, etc. That way, he can capture the senses and what he’s experiencing at that moment, so he doesn’t lose them. When I’m writing travel books, I wonder how these writers can put so much vivid detail? They write down quick observations about what they see and feel, so they’re able to put them into their story.
How do you choose your travel destinations?
I haven’t thought about picking the destination because I think it’s better for my mental health. I go to a destination that I want to visit. Some people with mental health problems may pick a specific destination based on their difficulties with their medications or whether it’s a stressful city with all the hustle-bustle. I don’t know; maybe other travelers have those considerations, but I don’t, mainly because I don’t take mental health medication. I do like nature destinations better than city destinations. I don’t think that’s because of my OCD. I think that’s just because I love nature. I love hiking. I love looking at the scenery around me. I like nature and city travel, but I like nature travel better.
What advice would you give to people with mental health conditions that are considering travel?
Do not travel unless you have sought mental health services. There’s a misconception that you can escape your life problems and mental health problems if you travel. Even I thought travel could alleviate my mental health conditions, but it turned out it didn’t. So please go see actual therapy; travel is not your doctor. Learn from me; I went through a lot of these mistakes. Before you hit the road, find a therapist or a psychiatrist and get treatment for your mental health condition. After some time undergoing therapy, if you think you’re fit to travel, ask your mental health professionals for their recommendation. Once you do that, you need to check what countries list your mental health medications as controlled substances. Some have regulations, and you can only bring a certain amount into the country. If you have a mental health problem while traveling, there are ways to get mental health services, even if you’re in a foreign country. One of those options is online therapy services. Some websites offer therapy services online, and you can message them or them and face to face. So, it’s flexible, and I hear it’s cheaper than the standard therapy services. These are licensed professionals, too, so you can get help even when you’re on the road. You can even schedule a virtual check-in appointment with your mental health professional at home. There are options, but you have to be more mindful of your mental health. You need to make sure that you know how to seek help.
So do your research and be prepared before you venture out into the world?.
Yeah, and there are ways to get prepared for travel and accommodate your mental health condition. One of them is time zone changes because they can be stressful even for people who don’t have mental health problems. If you’re new to traveling, you could try to visit somewhere nearby and get used to it. You don’t have to fly halfway across the world to get accustomed to life on the road. If you enjoy these trips, you could take trips further away and visit destinations in the same time zone or nearby. For example, if you live in North America, you could go to South America, and that’s the same time zone. Be sure you feel comfortable with that, and then you can take the next step.
Are you open to travelers contacting you for advice and support with travel and mental health problems?
Yeah, please start by emailing me; I’m incredibly open about this stuff. So, any curious questions you have or want to say hi, I love getting to meet people. When I came into the travel blogging business, I didn’t expect to meet many other bloggers, content creators, or readers. But it’s such a privilege for me to get to know so many people. It is something I didn’t expect, but I’ve enjoyed it. It’s my favorite way to connect with people. I love getting emails and reading the things you share with me.