Conversation with Ashley (Subject: Why Travel is Good for Mental Health)

When we think of someone who struggles with mental health, we picture someone who perhaps isn’t at work because of their mental health, someone who finds it hard to maintain relationships, who struggles in social situations, who doesn’t leave the house. This picture represents some people with mental health issues, but not everyone.

Ashley is someone who reminds us that you cannot stereotype mental health.

On paper, twenty five year old Ashley has the perfect life. She left Canada to travel the world. She now lives in sunny Australia. She teaches, a job she loves. She’s a talented artist and the owner of a business called Bliss and Shine Design.

But Ashley struggles with her mental health, too.

After using art therapy as a coping mechanism and having her confidence boosted by travelling, Ashley speaks to me this week about the power of travel on mental health and recovery.

In your own words, describe your take on mental health.

Mental health is one of the most challenging things to talk about because it’s so subjective and individualised that it’s hard to describe. Every brain is wired differently. It’s hard to try to get help for something that you can’t even fully understand yourself.

But for me, as cliché as it sounds, mental health is like a rollercoaster. It’s constantly going back and forth, it’s worrying about what it might be instead of being optimistic. It’s putting on a brave face and trying to be okay when you feel anything but.

What is life like with depression and anxiety?

To live with anxiety and depression is to live unpredictably. You never know what kind of state you’ll wake up in. It’s hard to accept yourself as someone who struggles because you don’t want to be that person. It can eat at you, destroy you and make you want to be someone else. On the flip side, it can bring you closer to other people and be an opportunity to support and help others.

I have struggled a lot because of the fact that my life doesn’t look like the life you expect someone with a mental illness to have. I have a good job, I travel the world, I have supportive friends and family and I’m healthy in basically every other aspect, so I’m expected to be happy and enjoy life all the time, but that’s not the reality. There are a lot of happy moments but there are a lot of FML moments too.

At its worst, what did your mental health feel like?

It made me feel like the most powerless, defeated and embarrassed person in the world. I was surrounded by people who constantly raved about how great my life is/was, but they only saw the highlight reel, never the battles that I fought against myself every day.

I didn’t think that the darkness would ever end. I felt like everyone around me was progressing while I was at a stand still. I saw friends and family go to events, classes and parties but I couldn’t even get out of bed. I truly felt hopeless and I wanted to disappear more than anything. I didn’t want to feel the pain anymore. Giving up and not existing seemed like the best option to escape it all.

But thankfully, I continued.

You credit travel for being the thing that really changed things for you. What made you decide to go travelling?

I decided to take the leap of faith to travel when I realised I was no longer tied to a city. After living what felt like a life on a loop of breakups and hating myself through of university, graduating was my escape. It was my chance to be free, discover a new me and get away from the towns that destroyed me. I strived for a clean slate.

I was terrified but there was always something in me telling me to go. It was the perfect opportunity because I was in a ‘it can’t get any worse so let’s try something that might make it better’… and it truly did.

How has travelling impacted your life?

Travelling has impacted my life in the most beautiful, confidence boosting, freeing way. I can’t think of anything else that makes me feel like I do when I am travelling. I love the thrill of going to places that are unknown to me. I love making beautiful memories with friends and my grandma who I’ve got to travel with.

But above all else, I love the self-discovery that comes with it. I’ve moved across the world by myself, I’ve driven around an entire state – there has been nothing as rejuvenating and freeing as that.

What things have you learnt about yourself through your travel experiences?

Travel has taught me independence like I’ve never known before. Travelling often involves a lot of time flying or driving and it’s in those moments that I reflect on my life, where I’ve been and where I want to go. When I moved to Australia, I had the choice to let my mental battles overcome or learn how to handle them.

It has not been the easiest journey by any means. I envisioned moving to Australia, having my insecurities disappear, meeting the truest friends, falling in love and living a dream life. The reality is that although some of those things happen, you are who you are no matter where you are.

But from moving to a place where no one knows my name, I’ve learned that you are the only person you truly need. I’ve put my effort, energy and love that I tried to give to others who didn’t value, appreciate or care about me and put it towards myself. Travelling has given me the chance to figure out who I am without input from anyone else.

I hope that every single person in this world can find something that gives the happy, escape and passion that travelling gives me. Everyone deserves that kind of feeling.

Some people say that travel gives them a chance to reinvent themselves, others say that it allows you to redefine yourself. Where do you stand with this?

Reinvent and redefine would be two incredible words to describe what travelling has done for me.

Moving across the world is the ultimate test for relationships. I have learned that some people I thought would be in my life forever were just a beautiful temporary. I truly believe that every person you encounter teaches you a lesson, some are painful and heartbreaking, and some are beautiful and sparkly, both are equally important. Without awful friendships, I wouldn’t value true friendships as much because I wouldn’t know otherwise.

I have built my courage, strength and confidence to overcome the sadness, fear and worry of cutting people out of my life. Recognising that my mental health and well being is more important than people who bring me down and make me question myself was a huge, and important, revelation for me.

Overall this journey has taught me to be gentle and patient with myself. I now know that someone can have the most incredible support system, the best job, and a glamorous life, but that doesn’t equate to a happy mind. It’s good to recognise that no matter how picture perfect someone’s life seems, you don’t know what it’s like when you take off the lens.

What advice would you give to someone who is looking to travel as a way of getting a fresh start?

I would encourage them to just do it. To not hold back and wait for the ‘right time’ because truthfully, there never is one. There will always be some obstacle or hurdle that you can justify putting it off, but don’t.

If you could go back in time and speak to yourself when you were struggling, what would you say?

I would encourage myself to be a more gentle and patient. I would remind myself that healing comes in waves and the dark days do fade.

I wish I knew earlier how much making a big change helps you grow and heal because maybe I would’ve done it sooner. I wish I knew that the people who caused me so much pain and sadness wouldn’t matter in a year. I would have loved to know that I would get out of the dark dungeon I was living in and become someone who is positive, happy and a huge mental advocate. I would have loved to know then how independent, strong and capable I am on my own

I’d also tell myself to always be kind to yourself, to your friends and to the world around you. You can regret a lot of things in life, but you’ll never regret being kind.

What steps do you now take to support positive mental health?

I try to open conversations about things that I’ve struggled with. I have discovered that my friends and family were so understanding, loving and supportive when I opened up to them on the raw state I was in, so I try to be there for them too. I check in on people and make sure they know that I’m always willing to be an open ear to listen or offer advice if they’re ever struggling.

Something that has really helped me is accepting that struggling is okay. I have previously had to take social media breaks because of the negative impact it had on me mentally. I’ve since learned that it isn’t an app that is destroying me, but the content on it, so I cleaned up who I followed. I stopped following accounts that set unrealistic expectations of beauty and happiness and filled my feed with authentic content.

If you could sum up your outlook on life in one statement, what would it be?

The ugly makes you appreciate the beauty. The darkest times bring the brightest days. Some things will never make sense in the moments they happen, but eventually you can find some sort of rationale on why it happened or what it taught you.

And things always, always get better.

If you’d like to follow Ashley’s travel journey, you can find here on Instagram here

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