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Travelling with PTSD

CRACK. A loud bang went off nearby just as we were sitting down to lunch in a crowded food court in Istanbul. Startled, I looked around for the source – it was only a popping balloon – but I quickly turned back to my husband, concerned for him. He doesn’t deal well with unexpected loud noises.Β His body was rigid, his eyes were closed, and his jaw was clenched as he tried to bring the flood of sensations he was feeling under control. I placed my hand gently on his arm trying to lend him whatever energy I had to help ground him. We’ve been here before, many times.

In 2013, David was diagnosed with PTSD resulting from his military service, and the past five years have been a big learning curve for our family. It created a lot of uncertainty for our future, and we have had to learn to work around this ever-present beast. On top of that, he has several injuries that both causes him daily pain and affects his mobility.

So why did we choose a lifestyle that requires frequent movement and exposure to unfamiliar places?

It was a hunch on my part. We very much wanted to take our children’s education of the world around them to the next level, but we were uncertain of how David would cope with full time travel throughout foreign countries. But I had a feeling that a worldschooling life would be more beneficial to him than remaining at home.Β Reading Lauren Juliff’s book How Not to Travel the World gave me hope that someone with severe anxiety could find travel therapeutic.

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Feeling a sense of contentment as we watched the sunset in Santorini, Greece.

I thought that, with a balanced approach, travel would help him to remain engaged with the world, rather than retreating into hermitism as so many veterans do, and the gentle walking and movement would keep his muscles strengthened to assist his injured joints.

We left with an out.

By the time we launched, we had put enough struts in place so that if at any point he needed to come home we could do that. We didn’t sell our house, we rented it, and we loaned our car to friends instead of selling it. We bought 6mths travel insurance and flew 8hrs into Australia’s “backyard”, South East Asia.

We began the trip with a purpose: to find my husband’s Singaporean ancestor, and to visit the old homes of my father’s family in Malaysia. From there we took it a step at a time – Thailand, then Cambodia… By the time 6mths was up, my husband was well and truly over the hustle and bustle of SEA. He struggled a lot with being shouted at by touts, and the general noise and population density. I reminded him of the option to return home but he wanted to keep travelling, so he picked another familiar place: Greece, where he had spent three years growing up as a child.

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David took this selfie at Angkor Wat, Cambodia, when the crowds and touts caused his anxiety to peak.

Greece was good for us. It helped us to realise that touts, noise, and population density are not exclusive traits of SEA, and we have been learning how to manage that. We spent 3 months there, setting our own pace and by the end we had developed an overall feeling of contentment for the life we had made for ourselves.

Then we arrived in Turkey.

Our first accommodation in Turkey was in the city. We had booked it for a month and we were right across the road from a mosque. Firstly, all cities are the same: busy, loud, and rude, whether that is Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Athens, Istanbul, or Sydney, and it’s terrible. We’ve now set a personal rule to never stay longer than 2 weeks in a major city. And secondly, the frequent calls to prayer were a problem. It’s not the calls themselves, but because of my husband’s deployments the calls have been associated with a traumatic time in his life which has created negative associations for him.

As a result, over the course of the month, he had more frequent nightmares which disrupted his sleep and his anxiety rose. I wasn’t faring much better for other reasons, and so by the time we needed to make our next lot of travel plans we were just about ready to leave Turkey altogether. We even put returning to Australia back on the table again. However, there was one thing preventing my husband from leaving Turkey just yet:

Gallipoli.

As a former soldier, he didn’t feel he could leave the country without first seeing for himself the conditions the ANZAC soldiers faced in 1915. So we decided to hire a car for one week to make a quick trip to go and see it, and to see if travelling the Turkish countryside would make a difference to how we felt about the country in general.

It helped.

Getting out of the city was the right thing to do, and a bout of fast travel was just what we needed to lift ourselves out of our funk. And this is what we’ve learned to do: to take it one step at a time and to regularly check in with ourselves about how we’re going. Sometimes we need to plonk down somewhere to take a break from travel, and sometimes we need to pick up the speed a little.

With each unfamiliar situation that David overcomes it gives him the confidence to keep going.

My husband will always have ptsd and chronic pain whether at home or abroad, there is no escaping that, and so far travel is proving to be beneficial to him (and us) overall. It keeps him mobile and engaged, it tests his capabilities, and so far he always comes out on top. Β One day the answer to the question of should we return home will be yes, but that time hasn’t come yet.

Father first, soldier second
“Daddy, look at this!”

I love you very much.

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