So­phie White

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - ACES -

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

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