The Traveler’s Therapist – The World

Sad in South America? Depressed in Denmark? Anorexic in Athens? Stressed out in Singapore? Broken up with the boyfriend in Brazil?


You thought you'd left these challenges behind in the dust when you set out on the big adventure. But apparently, they've dogged your trail halfway around the world. To make matters worse, you are now far from the network of friends and family who normally help you cope. You’ve been backpacking a few months and your psyche is starting to feel as battered as your backpack. But you can’t just pick up the phone at eight in the evening when everyone's asleep back home. You dream of when you used to sit in a coffee shop with your best friend and endlessly discuss the stresses and strains of life.


Just because you like being alone, doesn’t mean you like being lonely. You're feeling irritable and wonder if maybe you have made a mistake with this travel dream. Then, you feel guilty because you “should” be enjoying this “trip of a lifetime” and you’re not. You're surrounded by strangers who don't know the real you. The guilt breeds depression and the depression breeds more guilt.


Your vision of becoming carefree and leaving all your problems behind has backfired. The novelty of exotic locales acts as little more than a temporary distraction from what is churning inside. Perhaps now you’re tired, you’ve had diarrhea for three days, and the only word you know in Spanish is “no”. You’ve found that relationship with your significant other at home isn’t as solid as you had thought. Absence does not seem to be making the heart grow fonder.


You left a therapist at home, convincing yourself you wouldn't need one on the road. Or you wish you had one at home. And now you want to just sit down with one and unload your problems, if only for a few minutes. You long for someone to connect with on more than a superficial level; someone who can be objective about your feelings and who also understands what it’s like to be so far from home. It would also be nice to share and process the wonders of what you’re seeing and doing.


Excess baggage is more than too much in your backpack. It is all the emotional issues you couldn’t leave behind. Its weight is uncomfortable at best, “back-breaking” at worst. It starts by pulling you down and eventually, may wear you out completely. You may not even feel like getting out of your hostel bed, uncomfortable as it is. You wish you could stow your woes overnight in a 24-hour locker at the nearest bus terminal.


Then, there’s the "re-entry phenomenon". When astronauts return after long periods in space, they’re carefully debriefed and prepared to return to life on Earth. When you return from a year-long trip around the world, there is no such debriefing. It may not be easy to adjust to the life you left 365 days before. Just like an astronaut, you may find the atmosphere different. You may have changed as a result of what you saw and did so far away. You don’t feel like the same person anymore. You may want to leave again after only a few days at home.


Who ya gonna call?


Meet me! I am the Traveler's Therapist. I could be that woman sitting next to you on a bus or a plane, “all ears”, without you even knowing it!


I’ve been a psychiatric mental health nurse for almost thirty years. Approaching official “middle age”, I decided to pursue my life-long dream of traveling around the world. After a few months “on the road”, I had plenty of opportunities to get to know some of my fellow travelers. In the process, I recognized that all of us were toting around excess baggage of one sort or another. I was also experiencing many of the stresses associated with traveling that they were – plus, I was older, female and physically feeling my age a lot of the time – more than I wanted to!


The idea of expanding my practice as a nurse psychotherapist to include travelers and others away from home; backpackers, college students and military personnel, for example, suddenly occurred to me in one of those “a-ha moments”, during an 18-hour bus trip across Argentina. I could relate and empathize with the kinds of emotional issues with which my fellow travelers were dealing. I had already seen them many times in my traditional office practice. Depression, anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, stress, anger and relationship difficulties. Not to mention those behaving “in extremes”, or acting first and thinking later – and suffering as a result. I also knew through my professional and personal life experiences, that people can’t simply run away from their problems. Many I met weren't even aware that they were running!


I started to see those American Express ads in a different context: “Don’t leave home without them!” You can want to leave home without your personal issues trailing behind you like stray dogs looking for food. You can try to leave them behind. But it is just not possible. I thought about how I could pursue my own love of travel and continue to help others with my skills as a psychiatric nurse even while I might be on the road myself.


Technology, I realized, could make it possible! In almost every good-sized city, there is access to the Internet and/or telephone, with the cost coming down and availability increasing all the time. I saw people waiting their turns in hostels to use the computer to check their e-mail, or chat with people at home – whatever they could do to stay connected. And I also heard about and experienced first hand what it was like to try and maintain long distance relationships. Some people I met while traveling had long standing mental health problems like depression, anxiety and addictions. I knew in my heart how much it might help if they had a therapist like me to “talk with” during their travels.


I already had a small online counseling practice, so it was a simple matter for me to incorporate travelers into my clientele. I was at ease with “chatting” online and answering emotionally laden e-mails. I adjusted my regular fee schedule for e-mail exchanges, online and telephone chats, on the assumption that travelers who might seek my help probably had more frequent flyer miles than dollars. I made things easier for them by accepting PayPal – no problem converting funds.


I’m also a “night person”, which makes it easier for me to help people in different time zones. Via e-mail or instant messaging, we arrange definite meeting times, when they know they will have computer access and I can make myself available. Many internet cafés also provide headphones for online chat via services like MSN, Yahoo and AOL. I’ve conducted lots of counseling sessions this way. This suits those who don’t type quickly or prefer the sound of a human who speaks their language, literally and figuratively.


Travelers also like the anonymity which online counseling provides. Transcripts of chat sessions and copies of e-mail, once printed, provide great reviews and summaries of issues we address, reinforcement of suggestions I provide and solutions we devise together. Many like e-mail because they write and share their thoughts and feelings in one destination and find a caring, thoughtful reply from me when they arrive at their next one.


These transcripts are also easy to tote around and can be pulled out and studied in greater detail on a long bus, train or air journey. There’s no commitment as far as the number or length of time sessions. It may be a one-time situational problem that requires a “quick fix” or something that takes a few sessions to work through.


The practical issue of internet access and connection stability also has to be considered. There may be weeks at a time where this is very limited. Flexibility on my part and that of the traveler are essential to making therapy while traveling work successfully.


If you’re reading this on a computer from some far corner of the globe, the next time you’re traveling for whatever reason, and you feel overwhelmed, scared, anxious, depressed, frantic about a relationship, or without direction about what you should follow, take comfort that although you’re miles away, you’re not alone. There’s a professional, caring therapist just a computer or phone call away (or maybe even sitting next to you) who can help you navigate through the storm, end up safely on the other side, or perhaps just provide you with an umbrella and a map until you find your own.


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