Since my last major depression I have created for myself a small, insulated world – completely accessible on a 20-plus-year-old pink bike. My doctors, work, favorite restaurants, grocery store, dog park, gym and ocean are within a five mile radius of my cozy little house.
I like it that way. Driving a car is unnatural for me. It brings back heavy, gray memories of commuting 25 miles from the suburbs of Detroit into the city to work. In March, when dirty snow and a gray, seamless cloud took over the sky, the commute fueled my depression, already acute from months of seasonal-affective disorder.
Life got better after I moved to sunny Florida but depression still smothered me. Death and divorce will do that regardless of the weather. I responded by making my world small. I preferred riding a bike to driving. For awhile I had a scooter but then went back to my beloved bike.
When I ventured out of my bubble for work or vacation, I always had a reason and purpose. Conferences, graduations, reunions and exciting adventures meticulously researched. For years I have travelled with my boyfriend – a free spirit like me. We research what is available to see and do in an area, but make few plans and reservations besides renting a car.
We have slept in the back of an SUV and stayed in five-star hotels. When a mountain stream looked as though it might have some trout in it, we pulled over and fished. No timetable. No plans besides the occasional baseball game at legendary fields – Wrigley in Chicago and the Green Monster at Boston’s Fenway.
But those vacations ended when my friend was diagnosed with cancer. I hadn’t been on a real vacation in nearly three years. Instead, I took staycations that I filled with lists of home repairs. I desperately needed to travel but felt as though I couldn’t without him.
Three weeks ago, I whined to a colleague about my lack of a vacation. Like me, she is a single-middle-aged woman.
“Why don’t you just go by yourself,” she said. “I’ve done it. It’s great. You get to do what you want, whenever you want.”
The clouds parted and I booked a trip to Paris to see the final stage of the Tour de France in Paris.
I was elated, then scared – then terrified. What the hell did I just do?
“You just booked a flight to Paris. Alone,” I heard myself say.
I have never struggled with anxiety. Just depression and bipolar II. So, I had no idea if anxiety would trigger my depression or mania or some other mental health crisis. I dutifully counted out the number of pills I would need and made sure they were in their prescription bottles.
I felt fine, even confident, until I stepped off the plane and into the terminal at Charles DeGalle Airport. Everyone was speaking French – something I knew would happen but for some reason it freaked me out. Signs were in French, too. And the money – Euros – looked and felt like play money.
Intellectually, I knew all these thing but the reality of it all hit me at the airport.
“What the hell have you done?” I asked myself. I desperately wanted my boyfriend or my daughter – my dependable travelling companions.
I made it to the hotel – located in a perfect neighborhood near the Louvre, the Grand Palais and the Tulleries. My room was the size of a prison cell. The carpet was worn and dirty. My linen closet is larger than the shower stall.
“What the hell have you done?”
Anxiety smothered me.
“Am I really in Paris – alone?”
A nap helped. I vowed to use the anxiety as a reminder to take my medications morning and night.
And then I was off.
I met a friend of a friend who lives in Paris and he showed me around. I relaxed. The excitement of the week ahead hit me and I righted myself.
“Don’t forget to take your meds,” I told myself. I didn’t.
I had big plans. I had been to the Louvre before but this time I was going back with a vengeance – to study and spend as much time as I wanted. That went out the door when I took a look at the line – longer than any ride at Disney. I had also planned to rent a bike and ride aimlessly around the city. That dream ended as I watched cars cut off riders.
I gave myself permission to roam aimlessly and sit in parks and cafes. I made myself sit still. The weather was glorious. I forced myself to sit longer than comfortable. “You have no where you need to be,” I kept telling myself. I went to Mass at Notre Dame, comfortably segregated from the tourists.
There were moments when I was terribly sad and lonely. And moments when I felt swaddled in serene solitude. I found the oldest macaroon and candle makers in Paris and savored and smelled the Paris that I love. I visited the small, nearly empty gallery of Henri Cartier-Bresson – my favorite photographer. I stumbled upon an exhibit of art from the Congo.
I staved off loneliness with work. I brought with me an assignment to cover the final day of the Tour via social media for the newspaper where I work. No writing. Just learning how to shoot video and compose posts on SnapChat. I loved it. The final day of the Tour was glorious – despite the rain.
What I intended to be a vacation became a journey. I gained confidence in my mental health. I accepted the anxiety and loneliness as normal and it passed. I gave myself permission to ignore the museums and tourist attractions. I worked because I wanted to.
I gained confidence in my mental health. My wanderlust flourished. I can travel…again.
Pink bicycle photo available from Shutterstock.