Dealing with post expedition depression

Sometimes the hardest part of a journey comes once it's over. We spend so long cooking up ideas, looking forward to our adventures and enjoying the mixed sensations once we're in the midst of an ever-changing experience, but it's easy to forget entirely about what happens next.

What about once you've reached your finish line, packed the tent up and shipped the bike home?

Post expedition depression haunted me for years and I found the key to dealing with it was a combination of understanding why it happened, acceptance and future focus. 

Success in all aspects of life is defined - for me at least - by the ability to adapt, and surviving those down times after a long project (just as valid in a non adventure sense) hinges on one of two things: patience, or mindfulness - in the sense that mindfulness means you're comfortable with your current situation, regardless of what has gone before.

After the kaleidoscopic daily colour, promise, blisters, campsites, hurdles, new friends, challenges and the ultimate focus of having a daily target to aim for, life back home just seemed grey. The endless "What's Next?'s" are just infuriating hammer blows to your sad little Hungry Hippo, a constant reminder that this was your experience and nobody else cares what happened, what you went through or how you're feeling. 

The "What's Next" is just their way to move the conversation on, and it's confirmation that you're alone in this. There's solace though, in that you lived your adventure for yourself, not for others, and it's now for you to consolidate those experiences. 

So often I've felt this way, wondering how the past few months have passed in a blitz, struggling to glue together the thousands of digital, photographic and written reminders of what just happened with the feeling of being swiftly removed from a proverbial time warp.

But that process of cathartic remembrance, along with claiming the right to rest your weary limbs and a sadistic embrace of how natural these blues are, they're all rungs on a ladder out of the pit.


It's going to happen, so accept and understand it

If you spin on a roundabout for ten minutes you're going to be dizzy for a while afterwards.

If you've had something to spur you on, an end goal to pull and push you through the hard bits, you're going to miss it afterwards. We thrive on purpose and even a self-set reason to keep moving gives us meaning. Without it, we're lost.

We're just a ball of lovely chemicals bouncing around and these physical chemicals are just as habitual as our minds. We become accustomed to our regular diet, movement, action and environment. 

Take off in a plane in Australian Summer and land in a snowy Arctic landscape and your body will take a while to adjust - in that while we'll experience a slump in happiness. Stark contrasts are not natural and we're not just a button to switch on and off. Transition takes time and it's unsettling.

After an adventure our hormones need time to shift to a new schedule and expectation. 

Like coping with heartbreak, not dwelling while actively doing what we can to move on, at the same time as trusting - knowing - that this pain will pass, it's all part of the process.

"How could this be that in adventure I'd found the one thing that brought me fully to live, but it came with the compromise of sadness" - TEDx Brussels, March 2017

Swimming Upstream

After swimming the Lower Missouri in 2012 I battled with a trauma that had grown in my mind like a plague for 58 days. Although I'd been skateboarding across Australia for five months and spent three months a piece on the Mississippi and Murray, that swim was brutal.

It changed me, certainly for a while, and the notes I wrote after that journey were fuelled by a craving to overcome depression and to reclaim a lost identity.

Written in October 2012

What happens when everything you've worked towards is over, how do you deal with having to start a new period of life?

How do you go in one person and come out another, then understand and cope with the cause of change without needing a period of readjustment?

Who was I back then? How have I changed? Is this the time, finally, when I reach the end of an expedition and don't plummet into a hole of loss, grumpiness and soul searching?

How bizarre, that in the immediate aftermath of a stark confirmation that ordinary people can achieve the most extraordinary things there comes doubt, fear and mild, dare I say it, depression?

It takes some time to sink in, that the life you've become accustomed to has ended all of a sudden. It's like a break-up, I'm now without my nights with sandbars, my days with a wetsuit and a raft. Heck, my team have all gone home. Friends, companions, people I've intimately shared this most recent, life-changing experience with. Gone, now.

For five years after my first adventure I wasn't sure if avoiding PED or PAB (post adventure blues) was possible. I wondered whether the key to immediate happiness post-expedition is having a combination of stable base, a home, a long-term partner and/or a new focus to sink teeth into, but it's easy to assume that comfort is the answer especially after a period of relative discomfort - which of course is the state of any adventure.

This time round I decided not to go back to London, the magnet that has tugged at me following every one of my previous adventures. On return, I'd seen a familiar city uncomfortably through new eyes, become surrounded by stern, unwelcome faces, caught up with friends who had no comprehension or true interest in what I've just been through. How can you sum up months of adventure and struggle by answering the question, 'How was it?' How frustrating to get through that particular challenge and without a chance to understand it be faced with the now typical, 'What's next?!' It's almost as though the last expedition didn't happen.

It's always depressed and suffocated me, surrounded by sameness. So I decided to stay away this time and instantly begin a new adventure. I'm not fooling myself; there will be readjustment. I miss my team, I miss the river and I miss the daily challenge. But I need to rest. I need to get my pen out.

There are things to sort out, feelings to understand and process. I need time. In the last year and a bit I've completed 5 enormous adventures and I'm tired. Really tired. I haven't afforded myself one of my passions, to write, so now I'm taking six months off to polish off some books. I can't wait. I'm going to sleep, get fat, and write. And after that I'm going to go on another adventure. A sleepless, weight-shedding journey worthy of a new story. I don't know what it will be yet, but it'll come.

For now I need to deal with my new identity. I've been recognised as 'The Swimmer' since August 10th. My wetsuit and goggles have defined me. Now, with the same body and the same overly hairy head and face I'm being regarded with suspicion on city streets and in cafes.

I look vaguely like a tramp. The lack of a wetsuit means I'm no longer instantly unique, I'm just a regular, shabby-looking guy desperately in need of scissors. 

Producing a solution

Humour is a start if you're following on from the scissors comment. But there's a reason most comics are depressives. Papering over a crack isn't a long-termer, you stomp across it enough and eventually it will break. There's still a hollow feeling underneath. 

After a while I was determined to find better ways to cope and even defeat the post trip blues I suffered so badly from after my first adventures.

I broke down the factors that helped me thrive on an adventure but were lacking afterwards to find the gap in understanding.

Fitness | Focus | Social stimulation
Simplification | Identity | Presence | Story

I actively sought ways to replace these key parts of my adventures, wherever I ended up post trip:

Diving headfirst into a pile of bean bags and not moving after you've spent weeks on the move is a huge shift in action. Steadily exercising less and less is a better idea, it's a more gradual downturn in habit. I'm not a routine bunny, I can't do the gym and I tend to let comfort get the better of my beer belly safe in the knowledge that at some point soon I'll be on the road or river again, getting fit and healthy but an immediate stop in exercise hits the head just as hard as the body.

Creating a new project is super healthy, and writing a book or making a film can be a great way to set yourself daily deadlines or word counts. Or you could focus on something totally different.

Expedition1000 was a huge long-term project that created meaning for each of my smaller trips, and it removed that feeling of 'what next' that I naturally had following a big journey. 

Social Stimulation
I revel in the ice breaker of being in the midst of a journey. While I'm totally content spending weeks by myself floating down a river in relative silence I absolutely adore bouncing from town to town meeting people. When you have a story to tell and are in the middle of a trip your passion and focus is attractive. Back home you don't need anything so you engage less.

My solution for this when back home in the UK was creating the YesTribe, a community of now thousands who want to make the most of life and help others do so, too.

There's a joy in carrying and moving with everything you need in a  couple of bags. Life makes sense when it's at its most simple. Carry less and you tend to spend less, so the pressure is off to do things you don't enjoy just for money. 

Spend time with simple people - I mean this in the best sense of the word. Avoid stress and unnecessary expectation. You make the rules on your adventure and you can in life, too.

Such a shift from a decade ago, my lifestyle and values now rely on an avoidance of unnecessary stuff, financial outgoings and anything that can impinge on my freedom. For years all of the things that I needed to function personally and professionally - my laptop, a phone, hammock, a couple of t-shirts, a tent, roll mat, sleeping bag, passport etc - can fit in one bag (a drybag, in case you were wondering) and with that simplicity - even now I have a boat to live on and a bit more space - comes solace.

We're superheroes when we're on a journey. We stand out from a crowd, are full time riders, paddlers, pushers, pedallers, skaters, but we're good at it. Our mindset is strong. We've made a decision and stuck to it. Having a purpose to wake up for each morning, a mission to carry out daily, it's powerful. Adventures create such a strong identity and it's natural to feel lost when that comes to an end. 

In everyday life we can still stand for something, though. I try to carry myself day to day just as I would in the midst of a trip. I just shower more!

It feels amazing to have a story to tell. Your adventure gave you that so encapsulate your experience in a way that can live on and help/ relate/ entertain others is really powerful. Turn your trip into a talk or book or film or all of the above, and then realise it's just one chapter and there are plenty of others to create and enjoy. 

Living in the moment is easy on an adventure, so much more than when you return home. Being comfortable with where you are at any time, accepting your choices as your own and the inevitable events that you can't control brings power to that shift in circumstances that comes when your project is over.

It's time for a new start, yes, but you also did what you did for a reason and now it has reached a conclusion. There's no pressure to always be happy or Instagram-friendly. Now is pretty good, even if you feel weird or sad it'll pass.

I don't think I've suffered from serious post expedition depression for over half a decade, and I've completed multiple journeys in that time. Working on the factors above made a huge difference to me. 

This is how I feel when I finish up a trip these days:

You know what, I've done what I set out to do, so I'm happy with that. One journey has ended, another begins right now. This one, I suspect, will be just as exciting.

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