I developed major depressive disorder when I was eighteen, caused by severe social anxiety. Treatments failed, perhaps not unexpectedly, as most of them focused on the symptoms of the illness, and not the cause. I tried Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in an attempt to fix the underlying issue but that required effort. Since I had no energy, it too failed.
For a long while I had wanted to go backpacking and use it as exposure therapy to treat the social anxiety. I dissuaded myself for years but when it became clear that I was not getting well, I finally committed to the trip. There was nothing to lose, after all.
In 2012 I began a six-month backpacking trip around Asia. It was an opportunity to face my social fears, repeatedly, every day. Cafes had intimidated me, so I went to one each morning for breakfast. Restaurants had frightened me, so I went to one every lunchtime, and again in the evening. Bars had made me particularly nervous, so I went out for a few drinks every night. I had always avoided talking to other people, if at all possible, so I talked at every opportunity. Where I had always said ‘No’ to invitations and new experiences, I now said ‘Yes’ and experienced as many things as I could afford. The trip healed me completely of social anxiety which, in turn, healed most of the depression. It was the most miraculous transformation.
In 2015 I fell into depression again, this time as a result of life events. I knew that my previous method of recovery could not help here—I didn’t need exposure therapy. What I needed was an opportunity to retreat from life and to think through my issues. The Camino de Santiago beckoned. It’s a pilgrimage—a backpacking endeavor where participants walk 750 km across the north of Spain. It’s open to everyone regardless of their religious beliefs.
I went to Spain and started my Camino, a long walk broken down into short daily stages. Each one completed provided a daily boost to my self-esteem and I also benefited from socializing with the other walkers. I was always one step outside of my comfort zone and I had time to think. Once again, I recovered from depression. The Camino is a loving, safe and supportive environment and I recommend it.
I maintain a blog called the Depressed Backpacker and have written a book with the same name. I hope to encourage others to participate in this form of recovery. There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain.