amazed to even be in possession of after being in the clutches of suicide ideation for a harrowing period of months, I hit the dusty trail for a planned six months of tentative exploring. I say tentative, not because I was nervous of the strangers I would encounter, but of the stranger I was travelling with —myself.
Embarking on a fairly loose itinerary of South America, New Zealand, Australia and South East Asia was an unusual move for a recently mad person whose hands shook and whose mouth was still unbearably dry from the medication, a supply of which was now stowed in a backpack.
I thought it was brave of my parents to let me go and brave of my friends to take me with them, but perhaps they could see that I needed this chance to get to know this cowed new person who seemed to wear my face like a mask.
Right before I left Ireland aged 22, I was terrified of everything. I was terrified of how dark things can get inside our own minds. I was petrified of being sucked back down to that bleak place. I was afraid I would never be normal, that I would never be free of my bad thoughts.
I was afraid of going to sleep, of waking up, of running out of my medication, of needing to be on my medication forever, of looking at my face in the mirror, of seeing the faces of my family when I tried to explain what was wrong. It was exhausting.
Over the next few months, travelling taught me that while I would never be the same as I had been before, I could actually be someone else, maybe even someone better.
On this island, anonymity is virtually impossible and we are endlessly defined by whose daughter/son/ brother/cousin we are. Travelling allows a freedom to find out who you might be without the hangover of family history. It is also a great leveller; possessions and status are delightfully meaningless when you live out of a backpack.
When you are travelling, you surprise yourself every day, and it’s not just getting from A to B, it’s making friends, navigating the unfamiliar, the curious new social cues — the ‘moutza’, a derogatory hand gesture used in Greece looks a lot like the raised hand we use when greeting people, which led to a lot of confusing, angry confrontations.
What began as a fairly textbook backpacker odyssey through hostels and camp-sites in Argentina, Chile, Easter Island and New Zealand eventually veered into a slightly more unexpected, free-wheeling way of life for many years.
Being on the move gave me a new future and probably not one I would ever have picked for myself had it not been for my breakdown. Though my modes changed (from plane, to bus, to van and to bicycle), I didn’t stop wandering for about six years.
I developed an extreme aversion to committing to plans longer than a few days in advance — this, I believe, was responsible for my later near-jilting of my husband — I never wanted to know what was ahead.
I mastered that tricky knack of living in the moment. I saw how other people lived. I learned how to cook for a living and write for fun (this has undergone something of a reversal since).
I lived in vans and tents, I swam in glacial lakes, I had a brief love affair with rock climbing, I had a far longer love affair with snowboarding, I learned how to make a shower and make do in general. I learned how to prove dough on top of an engine and cook on an open fire. But most importantly, I learned how to not be afraid any more — well, except for offending Greek people, I’m still afraid of that, that s**t is scary.
Travelling is the kind of education that you will never realise you were lacking until you have it. Six years of rambling is, of course, not feasible for everybody but even the shortest leap out of your day can be invigorating. For some, talking to strangers can be a leap while for others, jumping out of airplanes, or off bridges into the unknown will give you a fresh perspective.
During a three-month period of travelling in France by bike and living in a tiny tent, we never once planned a route, only a vague path to the nearest boulangerie. One day after an hour of cycling into a dispiriting headwind, we decided to simply turn left. I still think of this as the ultimate freedom. No reservations to make or obligations to satisfy, just a wide open world in which to play and explore and, if you’re feeling philosophical, find yourself.
‘I mastered that knack of living in the moment’
Sophie on the journey of her life