Post-travel depression: Is coming home harder than leaving?

the happy and the sad of traveling

They say that if you’ve never known sadness, you’d never know happiness. For me, happiness is my traveling. It’s hearing the laughter of children as I teach them a new game, the light in the eyes of the old couple as they welcome me into their home, the views of clouds under airplane wings as I take off for a new adventure. My time traveling has been some of the happiest in my life, and if the old saying holds true, it’s because I’ve known sadness in my life as well.

My sadness is heaving my heavy suitcase up the stairs to my cold and dark apartment, the sound of drunk people arguing politics on the train from the airport, the smell of the polluted city I live in. The worst sadness is knowing that while everything I’ve seen on my travels has innately changed who I am as a person, life has not changed for anyone I’d left behind. 

Chicago feels gloomier since I’ve been back, even though the sun is still shining most days.

What is Post-Travel Depression?

This thing I call “Post-Travel Depression” isn’t just about having to return to the daily grind after a fabulous vacation, it’s something more insidious than that, scarier. It’s almost like the feeling that every single thing you left behind was somehow frozen in time while you were gone and unfroze when you got back, like you’re walking in the past. It’s almost like you actually are able to travel to the past with knowledge of the future but without being able to change anything. It’s almost as if everything you once loved about your home turned into some Stepford-Wives type facade where nothing underneath seems real. It’s a hard feeling to explain, but the emotions are there. It drains you. 

After literally seeing children relieving themselves in the middle of the road in New Delhi, the effects of the failing tourism business in Egypt, realizing that people literally live in a giant slum in a cemetery in Cairo, and more… how are you supposed to go back to living your privileged, easy life? How do you leave all of those people who made such an impact on you behind? How do you just walk back into your comfortable apartment in Chicago where you have money for food, running water, electricity, and then just not cry every single day thinking about what you’ve seen. 

I just spent 2 months in Eritrea, where I made some really amazing local friends and saw some of the most fascinating, but also saddest things in my life. I feel like I got to know a lot about the culture and people during that time, made a lot of new friends and lived a whole different experience than ever before. This time changed me. I came home a different person. It’s not something my friends would notice right away, if ever, but I noticed it. I suddenly noticed everything around me differently, too.

laws of physics

After I left Eritrea, I had a 14 hour layover in Dubai so I left the airport to wander around Dubai Mall. When you are able to see some of the worst poverty in the world and then fly 2 hours to the richest country in the world, it feels as if you broke some law of physics. A human being shouldn’t be able to experience both of those things in one day. It was heart-wrenching. Walking through the remnants of a crumbling Asmara where the people don’t have electricity or clean water and then walking through the most extravagant mall in the world with so much superfluity breaks your heart. Where is the middle ground? 

Chicago from above.

Things that happen to you when you come back from traveling: 

1. You lose friends

You lose some friends after traveling, especially if you’ve been gone for a long time and depending on how much you were affected by what you saw. You soon learn that while barely anything changed in the people around you, and your whole world has been altered, your friends seem to want to talk more about what their boyfriends or girlfriends said while you were gone and who did what last Friday night. You’ll be shocked by how few people ask how your trip was, or ask any details, or even ask “how are you coping with being back?” because no one understands, and fewer people care to understand. The burden of knowledge is huge. Like Earnest Hemingway said, “happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know,” because it’s hard to be happy when you’ve seen how difficult a place the world is.

2. You feel like no one understands you

I think the worst part of coming home is how little your friends understand you and the things that you’ve seen. The things I learned are things that no news outlet reports on when they talk about Eritrea, things that the people I am friends with will never understand (seeing as most people can’t even pronounce it or point to it on a map). So then how am I supposed to communicate what I saw and how I feel about it all when I come home?

3. You don’t cope very well and/or you feel depressed

So how am I coping with all of this? Not very well. The things I’ve seen this summer weigh heavy on me. I feel guilt for being back and being relieved to have internet and Starbucks. I feel sadness for the friends I left behind. I feel like crying every time I see wasted food and I cry more often than I’d like to admit. Yet… is it wrong to care about those so far away, while there are homeless people on the corner that don’t have the same privilege than I do? It’s easy to feel shame for having those privileges, and it’s easy to get caught up in the conflicting emotions you feel. I feel anger at my friends for not understanding how I feel, and even more anger at the people who know nothing about what’s going on in the world around them. And then once again I feel guilty for being able to see the world while other people will never have the opportunity. But will guilt solve any of the world’s problems? No.

4. You figure out things you can do to fix it

So how do you deal with Post-Travel Depression? Seriously try talking to someone. Don’t wait for your friends to ask how you’re coping – tell them you’re not. Hug it out. Cry over dinner while telling stories about the things you’ve seen. Research donation groups that help the people you care about, get involved and volunteer somewhere. Do noble deeds right at home that ease the burden, like help the homeless woman on the corner. Spend your time wisely. Don’t victimise those who have less privileges than you, and don’t vulnerablise those that are already vulnerable! Write about it, read about it. Expand your knowledge and the knowledge of the people around you. Hit the road again, never stop traveling, never stop seeing, never stop telling your stories.

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