Fall solstice is just around the corner and I'm gleefully looking at all the Halloween items popping up on store shelves and even on some doorways already. Piping hot ersatz squash beverages are out in full force. Unsurprisingly, people are trying to get those last minute vacations in if they didn’t already before the kids went back to school.
I took a summer staycation this year partly due to exhaustion and partly on account of just plain not getting much time at home the first half of 2018 (now that I'm recovering from foot surgery at the time of writing, hi! I can't wait to get the hell out of the house and hit up GDEX, Gameacon, AdventureX, and even just have more human contact than the taco delivery guy!) When you’ve been a free agent this long, you develop a knack for doing things off-peak to both avoid crowds and save money. When it comes to vacation time though, sometimes you just have to function at peak times when your clients and colleagues are also packing up for vacation (or have mentally checked out preparing for it because it’s been too long.)
A staycation was just what I did with limited options financially when I was a student then a professional resume-submitter between jobs that required me to be anchored to the city. But once Sonic Toad and was born and the freedom to travel became a possibility, can you believe I often stayed home because I’d get depressed on the road?
Yes, travel depression is a real thing!
If you just Googled “travel depression” like I used to back in the days when it would frequently strike, you’re probably seeing results for traveling with depression. If you have clinical depression or know someone who does, you should absolutely take a look at those articles and accounts of personal experience! But I'm about to dive into a totally different concept. It's about getting depressed while you're traveling when you wouldn't normally feel this way and it feel like a plague that just stops you from being happy and/or productive at all.
In the old days, I’d get excited about a trip like traveling for GDC, trying to do a long weekend myself, or going to visit a friend for the weekend. But not too much longer after arriving, I’d get incredibly depressed. Even if I was busy with the conference or had fun things planned, my brain would just launch into this pernicious overdrive dredging up the absolute shittiest feelings. Like feelings of impostor syndrome being at an event like GDC, seeing happy couples having a great time while I'm at a punk show in a different city and don't know a soul and it would start hurting like hell when I thought about my nebulous prior relationships and I'd just wish that least one of my friends was with me.
It's soul-crushing and consuming. It makes it difficult to concentrate on the present, even if there's awesome things happening around you.
But you're not alone if you've felt this way regardless of whether you're a newbie traveler or not.
Why Do They Call It "Vacation Depression", Anyway?
I was determined to figure out why my brain did this, hence the furious rounds of searches that came up fruitless. The closest I came to was "vacation depression" which strictly has to do with taking a vacation opposed to traveling in general.
Perusing the search results, people frequently post on mental health forums about feeling incredibly depressed on vacation whether they're traveling alone or usually with family members opposed to friends. Common reasons cited were just being bored doing things by yourself which is 100% relatable, seeing happy couples when you're single and/or bitterly divorced, followed by the existential dread of feeling like the whole experience was fruitless and totally wasted money if you're not enjoying yourself on what little time off one gets from the average job. Suddenly the gears started turning in my head. People felt guilty about having time to themselves for a change, and didn't know what to do with it. That's what drove me mad on prior business trips and other non-vacation travel: except it wasn't so much the time but having the headspace one just doesn't get at home.
Think about it: home is full of distractions. It's a comforting place of refuge when you work a 9-5 job and if you're a free agent, it's often a place where you just get down to brass tacks when you've got a lot to do and you know you'll be distracted or restless sitting down in a coffee shop somewhere hoping no one steals your space if you need the bathroom. But even at home, there's distractions too. That pile of mail and business cards next to the computer. The dishes that need washing. And depending on your living situation and family status, tiny humans that need or want your attention or a housemate's entertainment preferences are interfering with your concentration. Being at home can be relaxing but it can also be overwhelming in a sense. Hence, the reason why public places with wi-fi and co-working spaces have grown more popular in recent years: as more people are working from home, the more we want to just get the hell out for a bit and get some headspace.
When you're in that very early stage of starting your new venture, whether it's an indie game studio or deep-diving into getting quality writing-for-hire clients as you write your manuscript, you're probably spending a lot of time at home. This is likely out of a mix of needing to save money and also focus on getting things done-- been there, done that. Sometimes you just do what you have to do or do what works. For some people, being at home helps them focus while for others it's this horrific prospect you can't wait to get away from. But if you're in this spot and now you've got this sudden shake-up in your routine whether it's going on vacation or embarking on that conference you're amped up about? Chances are your brain is going haywire from finally getting some headspace from your surroundings changing, whether you're headed to a smaller and more intimate conference like ECGC or this all-consuming week-long summer camp like GDC.
I invoke toads here: they're quite provincial animals. If your home has a yard or any other areas hospitable to local fauna, have you ever seen a toad there frequently? It's the same toad! They got a homing instinct. This is why wild-catching toads for pets is bad (please stick to captive-bred or rescue toads!) because even taking a toad to a different area less than a mile away is like going from where you live to across the country.
If you've experienced travel depression (or specifically vacation depression), you're taking on a toad-like trait. There's nothing inherently bad about it, especially if you're a homebody and not a wanderer. But do you want to stop feeling this way on the road and get to actually enjoy it?
Kicking Vacation and/or Travel Depression's Sorry Ass
Speaking just for myself, I had some subconscious issues I needed to work out that were definitely preventing me from enjoying travel. Part of it was realizing that the sudden onslaught of headspace sent my mind hurtling too far into the past or future to focus on what I could be enjoying right now.
But one of the biggest things was just remembering why I was there. It doesn't to be have a bucket list trip for travel depression to strike, or the vacation of a lifetime. It can be just a long weekend or a conference. But well, why are you there? What's in the present moment? If you're a free agent or just starting this type of life, is the freedom to travel this one of the reasons you took it up?
It is for me, definitely. Sonic Toad Consulting is all about building a life and career by YOUR design. And it's okay if it doesn't include much or even any travel! At first, I just wanted to have the freedom to not have to say no to things like faraway punk festivals, those occasional invitations for long weekends from friends and colleagues, and to be sure I'd make it to major career-boosting conferences like GDC that I couldn't attend while being stuck working 80-hour weeks during tax season. That soon morphed into being on the road 30-50%+ of the year and building a new vlog series, The Traveling Shitposter! (Coming soon, still taking some video editing classes.)
We can't be stuck in the past forever. Doing just that is what's holding society back, for sure. Travel can help you focus on the present but to get in the right mindset for it, you need to remember why you're going. With that said, there's nothing wrong with making appropriate trips to the past to remember why you are who you are. Making time to play is what helps game developers remember why we got into making games. The way they made us feel, the escape they provided, the dreams that they put in us. I don't know about you, but playing the Carmen Sandiego games definitely helped plant the seeds for wanting to see the world. I had a hunch that investigator jobs at places like Acme weren't real, but it put this dream in me no less to have the type of job that took me places. Fortunately, the ability to have your own business in a couple clicks and take your work in a backpack anywhere where there's internet became a very real possibility to seize in my lifetime.
But now to hurtle back into the present.
You're reminded of why you wanted to go to this place. What made you want to have this adventure. But how about who you are right now? What do you want right now?
When I engaged with various media from the age of 7 onward, it put a dream in me of going to Japan which I made happen in 2017. It was a scary prospect! I'd never been on a plane that long or crossed the Pacific before, can't speak or read Japanese, and I was afraid that my travel depression would strike and just ruin the entire trip. But I thought about the things that put my mind in overdrive like wanting friends to be there: my friends couldn't be with me in real life, so I took lots of pictures and posted them on Twitter in real time. I looked up specific places I wanted to go like Frog Street in Matsumoto and old temples in Kyoto, or would just wing it by randomly exploring a new neighborhood in Tokyo or using my rail pass to go to other cities. (Pro tip sidenote: you don't need to plan an itinerary to a T if you'd like to visit Japan, but I wish I would've gotten a one-week instead of a two-week pass with the way my timing worked out. I also wouldn't have activated it until the day after arriving in Tokyo.)
On the flipside, it's also okay if you just want to chill in the hotel room and read or play a game: it's your vacation or adventure, you can do what you want with it. Sometimes that pressure to see and do everything is enormous, and trying to live up to it will just get you disappointed. I got mad at myself as if to say, "I can read a book or play a game at home! Why am I wasting my vacation thousands of miles from home!" And all of that contributes to travel/vacation depression! But I'm going to keep saying that magic word: headspace.
You still need time to actually decompress whether you're going away for business or for fun (or both, as is the case for my AdventureX trip because I love that exception in the tax code for international business trips where the whole thing is tax-deductible if it's under 7 days.) Something about being literally almost 7,000 miles from home where I don't speak the language was actually pretty soothing. Having a quiet breakfast in a coffee shop where everyone was staring in the same direction and few people had conversations, and what I could pick up was totally incomprehensible. Not like the noise I constantly hear around me back home that could be any number of funny or salient quips or obnoxious comments, where once again I got those ever-familiar noises of my apartment and neighborhood and the cantankerous subway that I now know definitely isn't going to be fixed anytime soon.
It just dumped my brain out and actually let me enjoy both my impulse airport purchase of You Are a Badass and Winter Wolves' Roommates. Old me couldn't handle the headspace. But this newer version that got a better grip on it from more frequent travel and opportunities and long used to dividing time at and away from home? Was suddenly relishing that headspace and freedom from business and personal distractions at home to actually engage with the media I was consuming. I finally felt receptive to inspiration again and playing Roommates struck a chord in me both on a game design level and a personal level with its themes and daresay inspired me to be even ballsier that glorious summer.
But as my bones started settling upon the ever-familiar sight of the cluttered slalom that is JFK Airport, the ultimate realization was that here I had this autonomy to get up and just go halfway around the world all this time, whether I'd take work with me or not-- but hadn't actually exercised that autonomy. Suffice to say, that voyage to Japan wasn't just knocking a trip off my bucket list: it was a turning point that turned me right back to the present and killed off my travel depression for good.
So in conclusion, don't overthink it whether you're going just 60 miles away for the weekend or several thousands miles from home. Remember why you're on that journey and to make the most of it, but also don't feel pressured to be busy every single minute. Travel depression is totally normal but it doesn't have to ruin your life! You just need to find that root cause and address it so you can live in the now.