It has taken me a long time to work out what to write in this post. Even longer to work out what to call it, as well as what I really think about what has happened over this last week or so.
When you search online for information about post-vacation or post-holiday blues, there are already many articles that talk about this and what to do when returning home. How returning to routine is difficult, and how existing stresses and problems in your everyday life become even more stressful. Perhaps what is missing in these articles are the personal stories, the deeper and more nuanced picture of what happens when we return from a break away. I had not considered this until this point, and never even searched for post-holiday blues literature, because I thought that I should just be grateful to have been able to get away. There are so many real problems in this world, and a week away in Scotland isn’t one of them.
Fast forward a week and I reached a very different place. No more lochs and mountains. The long road home had ended. Instead, I’m broken down in tears sitting in my GP’s office, with a referral to the crisis team and being told, ‘This is real Laura, we need to get you some help’. So what happened to me? This is what I’ve been trying to work through over this last week. How I could go from being a bit flat but doing ok just after we returned, to completely crashing just a few days later?
Holiday blues are one thing, but those blues were jet-black for me. I couldn’t validate myself though, not until my doctor did. Where we live in a world where depression caused by a thing such as going on holiday is deemed ‘not a real problem’ then might this stop others from being able to speak out, or worse seek help?
We know that being able to go on holiday is a relative privilege, but the aftermath isn’t. If we keep talking about depression and other mental illnesses through the lens of what is a worthy cause and what isn’t, then this will only prevent people from getting the help that they need.
Irrespective of the reason, depression is real.
Two photos, the first while in Scotland last week, the second earlier this week.
This shows how quickly depression can hit.
So first of all, I’ll share what happened. We got home on the Wednesday after driving through the night. Throughout that journey I documented everything, and now reading back through I can really see the transitions in my mood throughout. The highs of the Scotland and northern segments are evident, as is the change in mood as light hit and we got closer to home. But it wasn’t that I didn’t want to return home. Home is a good thing, it’s familiar and comfortable and after all, we live in Pembrokeshire, it’s gorgeous here. So again, how could I be so ungrateful for those things? How could I be so selfish? This is the voice of depression, invalidating any painful emotion caused by a good thing as a personal problem. Because society does that. It tells us that we should be grateful, and for the most part, we are, but it also stops us from acknowledging when we are unwell and what can be understood as a real problem.
In the days that followed, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, again things were okay-ish. We had returned home to a lot of worries and stress with my brother being in hospital over the weekend, and then my mother being unwell too as well as worrying about my dad juggling care for different family members. Yet worries and health concerns aside, I was still hyped over Scotland and everything that we had done and seen. Then, on the Saturday, amidst hospital and illness, my dad called to say he had booked us another week in Scotland next year, and that he was going to join us. To say I was over the moon would be an understatement. I know I’ve said this before, but Scotland has a deep personal meaning for me and my dad in particular. My dad was travelling around the Highlands back in the day, in the years when you could rock up at someone’s house in a remote corner of the north and be invited in for a meal. Pitching up a tent in gateways, washing in a loch.. his stories are so much more exciting than my own but that’s perhaps for another day.
The last time we were in Scotland together as a family, was a complete nightmare. My mother fell and broke her arm on the first night, only she wouldn’t go to a hospital for days and we didn’t know the extent of her injuries. That trip back in summer ’21 resulted in my mum being hospitalised for months due to complications arising from her disabilities. Adding to that we were grieving for a close family member at the time, and to be honest that entire trip was just immersed in a dark cloud. We got home in a rushed haze of stress, grief and hospital admissions and my mother has since said several times that she will never return to Scotland again. But it’s still special for my dad, so you see, making this work and planning a trip where he can be there with us is so important. Because Scotland has his heart as much as it does my own.
So that Saturday was stressful, exciting and emotional in equal measures. Seeing my nan who had lived in Scotland for years and showing her the photos was also a special moment. I know that she misses the Highlands so much and I also know that it meant so much for her, to see the places that were such a huge part of her life for so long. So, Scotland is an emotional place, it’s heavy.
Then Sunday hit and my word, did it hurt. That was the day when my blues turned black, excitement was gone and I completely crashed. I tried to write, but as you probably know yourself, writing or trying to do anything creative or productive when you are in that place is almost impossible. I drafted and deleted so many tweets on that day. I couldn’t share what I was feeling because I thought that people would think I was being ridiculous. After all, I thought I was ridiculous, I mean come on, many of us don’t like Sundays and especially not after a break away from life. But this break away was causing a breakdown, one that was happening without me even being able to recognise it. Because again, society says that post-holiday blues are not a real problem and therefore I wasn’t allowed to claim it as one.
Here are some words that I wrote late on the Sunday evening. You can see the social anxiety in this:
When leaving life for a little while, be it a break or otherwise, returning to things and life resuming can absolutely terrify you. For those of us with social anxiety, it is an indicator that you need to put back on a mask, a mask that is broken and no longer works adequately. For too many of us going back to life after a break from life is something that we’ve spent the entire break dreading. Many people have that return to routine dread, worry or even full-blown anxiety, but social anxiety specifically adds another dimension. Because it is not only about having to adjust, it is about having to pretend again and that might not be something that we can do. It’s a return to daily and nightly panic attacks, pressures to conform and pressures to say the right things in the right way. Once unmasked how can we mask back up and pretend, when we are broken inside and out?
This is how much social anxiety impacts my life, and I can only assume I am not alone in this going by what I see online. It’s not only about interacting with people, it’s interacting with yourself, thinking how can I be that person again? How do I perform that version of myself? Maybe for some, it is easier, or even a release to be someone else. That's both valid and logical. But for others, returning to routine is not welcomed because that routine is filled with complete overwhelm. It’s not my routine, it is someone else’s clock that I need to fit into.
I don’t think that people without this form of anxiety, will ever fully understand how worrying it is thinking about how to adjust your mind, body and overall composure to fit within an environment that was never made for you. It’s the little things, such as thinking and rethinking about what you said, what you might say, how will you answer certain questions and even when you have completely planned every little thing out you then end up saying something completely different and ridiculous.
I’m tired of being around people. It’s not that I don’t like others because I do mostly. I just can’t give the world what it wants of me - to be the chatty Laura that everyone thinks I am is just not me. That version of me comes at a great cost, it is such a performance that it keeps me awake at night. It’s embarrassing because it isn’t me but I know that if I was to be my true self I would be considered to be rude. Because I don’t want to talk to people, there is too much to plan and too much that can go wrong. This is where a lot of my social anxiety comes from, being around others is not something I can do readily, although it may appear I can. I’m a daft person when I do meet with people. I say silly things, act too friendly, or I'm too chatty. I don’t shut up, but that’s because I’m nervous and if I stay quiet I worry about what they are thinking about me.
We live in a hard world where our true selves are not accepted, so when we are allowed the time to be for a while it’s little wonder that we are completely overwhelmed when we are commanded back. Back into our broken masks. One day things may change, and hopefully, these masks will be discarded. Maybe one day we will finally be understood and accepted so we can be truly who we are.
As you can see, there was potential for some powerful stuff here but I wasn’t well enough to write it. It’s messy and disjointed because I was writing in a state of distress. That night I didn’t sleep, and almost ended up needing to go to the hospital. At that point I realised, be it the holiday or something else, I wasn't well and I needed help.
There are a couple of points I want to share about this story. The first is about underlying medical conditions.
1. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD):
That next day was when I saw my GP and she referred me to the crisis team. She said that this was the worst that she had ever seen me and that she was really worried. Another important revelation from this consultation which I am happy to share is that following a pattern in these cycles, she has now diagnosed me with PMDD.
I know from speaking with others online that hormonal changes can be debilitating, but PMDD is seldom spoken about, often replaced with PMS or ‘that time of the month’. But mood fluctuations with PMDD are serious, and this was another contributing factor to my sudden onset of depression. If you would like to read more about PMDD for yourself or a loved one, Mind have a useful article about this:
2. Sensory overwhelm
The second thing that I think is important to share about my post-holiday blackout, is what I’ve learnt about myself in terms of sensory experiences.
Following my GP appointment, I was contacted by an autism mental health specialist based within our local CMHT. I’m always very apprehensive about speaking with mental health professionals following years of negative experiences, but this time it was ok. They were incredibly supportive.
We spoke through everything that had happened over the last week, starting from Scotland, the journey home and everything after. What she told me is something that has helped me to understand everything not only through the lens of mental illness but through my autism and how this affects my processing.
We spoke for some time, and she said that basically my brain is overstimulated from processing too much. She told me that as someone who is autistic, all of the things I have seen, and the scenery across all of the different places we visited takes so much processing and that I needed a break from it. If you have recently watched Chris Packham’s documentary about autism this makes a lot of sense. Chris himself has said that when he visits his favourite woodlands, he isn’t just seeing the trees as one simple object but all of the finer details and connections between them. This was me in Scotland. I do a lot of photography, and honestly, whilst we were on the road pretty much every day, it was so beautiful that every single minute presented a new frame. It was actually exhausting as in hindsight I spent so much time taking photos as there were just too many to take. Beyond every corner, there was always a new image to shoot, a new creative opportunity. The mountains weren’t just mountains, there was the snow, the mist, the waterfalls, the rivers, it was just so much.
The irony of this is that since we’ve been home I’ve not been able to really work with these images as I’ve been overwhelmed by it all. For the first day or so, all of the familiar scenery of home was like looking at an image that has been greyed out. Nothing could compare to that scenery of sensory overwhelm, and my interpretation of this is that my brain wanted more but also couldn’t take any more.
I made this image throughout this time which is called ‘Shades in the dark’. This is not because it’s anything fancy or abstract but because basically, I’ve had to wear my sunglasses all week as everything feels too bright. So more broadly, it relates to this experience of post-holiday sensory overwhelm.
Sensory issues have not just impacted me visually. The days of this week have passed by in a blur, and I’ve not been able to do so many of the things I would usually do. I tried to listen to music the other morning, something I do regularly to start my day but it was too much. Listening to a song, I could hear every layer of sound so much more intensely than before. A bass buzzed through me, a drum hit me hard. I couldn’t write anything down because I didn’t fully understand it, and I couldn’t read because I was in so much pain emotionally and physically. The weather has been intense too, wind and gales create so much noise and movement that getting outside during these times hasn't been an option. This has been really difficult to navigate, as on top of feeling so low when sensory overwhelm is thrown into the mix, this prevents you from doing the things that you love just as much.
So as you can see, this story is not just one about depression or post-holiday blues. It’s a more nuanced picture, of emotions, underlying medical conditions, the complexities of being autistic, and trying to process everything that comes from going away on holiday.
I'll be honest, after all of this I’ve been thinking that I probably won’t be able to go away again. That said, I know that having the opportunity to do so is important, and taking that trip with my dad is greater than just a holiday, it’s so special for us both. So I do hope to do so again one day, but maybe next time I’ll have to take things at more of a gentle pace and give myself more time to process and recover from whatever sensory needs arise.
I hope that sharing this today will help you too. Because my story is just one, and I’m sure that many other people also have their own to share. What I hope you can take away from this, is that depression, holiday blues or whatever else we are calling it is real and can be caused by good things as much as bad. Because as with many things, there is always a more complex picture than that which we assume. Society just needs to allow us to share these stories so we can be better understood.
I would like to say a big thank you to everyone who has sent supportive messages over the last week, as well as those who have been accomodating and compassionate.
This is really appreciated.
As a final note on this, I would like to take the opportunity to share a recent post from my good friend, Mike, who writes about depression from the perspective of being an unpaid carer.
Mike is a huge source of support to so many and we will be collaborating on various topics coming soon:
If you have ever been affected by depression or sensory overwhelm following a break away, or anything else like this, feel free to share your experiences in the comments below or connect with us on Twitter.