5 Essentials: Managing My Depression Overseas

January 28, 2017

Managing My Depression; Provocative Joy; West Africa Benin; Life Overseas

Third time’s a charm

This third season with Mercy Ships is the best so far. Last year was the perfect storm as lots of factors combined to make a sucky year culminating with a season of depression that lasted too long. I entered this third season back in August optimistically because it could NOT get any worse. Things HAD to improve.

After my service in Madagascar came to completion, it was so much easier to see what I could have done differently to prevent the depression and isolation. Yeah, I slightly regret the past because I’ll never get that time back. On the other hand, I’m learning from my mistakes and I want to share with you what I’ve noticed.

Managing my depression while with Mercy Ships in Benin West Africa; Provocative Joy
Watching the dock draw closer as the Africa Mercy pulls into the Cotonou, Benin port. Photo credit: Dayle McCulloch

1. meds are non-negotiable.

For now, I’m dependent on an anti-depressant to keep my moods stable, rational and feel functional. I hate that, but I’ve accepted it for now. This is first on the list because it enabled everything that follows. Without this step, I couldn’t manage anything else. That’s the biggest problem with depression. It feels like you will never be happy again, with a giant cloud pressing down on you ALL the time. It is so HARD to find the energy and willpower to try to get better.

It took a couple months of being really down, hopeless and tearful before I admitted defeat and called myself out. I was actually already on anti-depressants, but it was a low dose. I felt like such a failure for needing to take more. As soon as I mentioned this to my doctor, she said she thought as much from her interactions with me. (One of the perks of working and living with your physician. #communitylife.) I started the higher dose and looking back, I’m glad I did. I’m also so grateful to the people in my life who reminded me that a dose increase was not failure in any way. Rather, it was a commitment to taking care of myself.

2. Making Myself Available

I am an introvert and LOVE the time I get to myself. That precious alone-time keeps me from getting anxious or panicked in big groups. I can feel shy and elusive at times, but my inner self loves learning about others and connecting over strange commonalities.  What trips me up is that I need to push myself and initiate. If I’m not feeling social at first, it’s a challenge to keep my energy level up. When I stick it out, it’s SO worth it and I have conversations and meet people I would’ve missed otherwise.

I stumbled upon some advice from Steffani Cameron at Full Nomad. She had some suggestions for those who are solo traveling like looking for Facebook groups to find other expats or Googling which hostels in the area are open and friendly. Even in my home country, these feelings can pop up. In the past I’ve used sites like meetup.com which connects you to others who have similar hobbies.

So yes, I’m an introvert and still LOVE and CRAVE quality time with others. I am human, and last I checked, we were designed to need connection in our lives.

3. Being Honest about the issues

I have experienced this phenomenon so many times I’ve lost count. When I hold the depression, anxiety, or whatever feeling, inside, it festers and gets worse. I almost never regret being truly honest with someone. There’s always more learning to be done about how to do this wisely, but yes, honesty is what connects us as humans! (This is why I enjoy counseling so much!) Depression is dark and has a nasty, shameful stigma, but there is always someone else! The only way to break the stigma and the isolation is to stop pretending like everything is fine when it’s not.

4. Exercise and sunlight

My definition of exercise is probably not the same as yours. By exercise, I mean not sitting on my butt all day. I love to write and read. I love to journal and go down rabbit holes on YouTube or TED. None of my favorite activities are very active. A life working on a hospital ship in Benin presents barriers to getting out no matter who you are, but I think it’s harder for an introspective homebody. So when I say exercise I mean taking a 20 minute walk outside. I mean kicking soccer ball around with a patient for 30 minutes. That’s about as active as I get for now. But getting fresh air and blood flowing makes me feel so much better!

5. Count out your blessings

I keep a list. The other day I went through old Facebook photos and it made me feel warm fuzzies that I hadn’t felt in awhile! It’s because I remembered I am so lucky! I’ve met so many unbelievable people. My husband and I have overcome unbelievable hurdles. I have a job that gives me warm fuzzies and co-workers that want to make a difference. That doesn’t always make me feel instantly super happy, but it does keep me from moping too much.

Facebook reminiscing works sometimes, but I keep a list of things I’m grateful for in my journal and add to it as often as possible. In the past I’ve kept lists of meaningful moments with patients.

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Related Posts:
Depression While Traveling: How Much Have I Missed
How to Benefit From Counseling
Just Because I’m Optimistic Doesn’t Mean Everything Is Perfect

More about ivannar@gmail.com

2 Comments
    1. These are great suggestions! I can’t imagine it would be easy to travel alone as an introvert battling depression (How do you even get medication?! You don’t have to answer that) but it’s awesome you posted this for others in the same position! I could relate to a lot you said. Happy travels!

      1. Luckily, I’m not alone! I live with my husband and a BIG community of wonderful people on a hospital ship in West Africa. That doesn’t change my depression though. It still affects me just the same. As for medicine? there are perks to living on a hospital ship 😉

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