Travelling the World with OCD
Updated: Feb 15
I have been curious all my life and have loved exploring. I have travelled all over the world but one piece of baggage I can never unpack is my Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a chronic mental illness associated with repetitive, cyclical thoughts and anxiety. But I will not let it stop me from seeing the world, meeting new people, and trying new things, even if certain things in the environment trigger my OCD.
As a teenager, because I wanted to deny that I had any mental health issues, I continued suffering from my OCD. The longer it was left untreated, the more severe it became.
When I was 18 years old, my road trip through Western Canada (specifically Alberta and British Columbia) pushed me to finally seek mental health services when I got home. Although Mother Nature’s wonderful spectacles were in front of my face and outside my rental car window, I couldn’t fully enjoy them. My OCD made me worry about writing bad words on the interior of the rental car roof. While my dad was driving on the road, I would periodically lean back and stare at the roof, making sure that it was free of bad words. Although I would never do something so silly, my OCD made me feel so unsure. The more I checked the roof, the more anxiety I felt.
My OCD told me this scary narrative: ‘If you left bad words on the car and returned it to the rental car company, they are going to find out about the words, arrest you in a foreign country with no way out, and taint your records for life!’ My OCD was extremely fearful of keeping my records clean to the point that it manifested illogical worries, like the car roof writing.
When I returned home, I told my parents all about my strange symptoms, then sought a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with the most severe level of OCD. Then I visited a therapist who specialized in OCD treatment, from whom I learned how to live properly with OCD. Instead of believing the thoughts that came into my mind, I relabelled them as “OCD,” then moved on with my life while tolerating the lingering anxiety and feelings of uncertainty.
My most common OCD triggers while traveling are not the typical ones most people would assume. I am not scared of germs, flying, or disorganized items laying on a table. The things that trigger my OCD the most are museum exhibits, the possibility of losing my possessions, and airport security.
While traveling through Western Europe with my family, I applied my therapeutic techniques to these triggers. As I perused through museum exhibits in several Irish cities, I felt pressured by my OCD to read all the displayed information because it wanted me to make the most of my time and money. Even if I thought the exhibits were boring or would have likely forgotten about them in the future, my OCD would hate it if I missed something. To put my therapy into practice, I remembered that these thoughts were from my OCD, not myself. I have always had the freedom to choose what and what not to read.
Riding on public transportation around Paris was also nerve-wracking because of the pickpocket risk. It didn’t help that some of my family members were even more high strung than me. Even though my backpack zippers were locked with paperclips, my OCD kept nagging me with the possibility that maybe I didn’t lock them. No matter how many times I checked the latched paperclips, my OCD wasn’t convinced. It was hard to tear away from my compulsions, but I eventually did. I did my best to lean into the anxious and uncertain feelings coming from my OCD.
Although airport security was an entirely different trigger from Canada’s rental car roof writing, the root fear was the same: I would be imprisoned in a different country with tainted records, and thus, my life would be ruined. I felt nervous at any airport, including Paris’ Charles de Gaulle, especially when around security officers. The most fear I felt was when an officer stopped me for taking pictures while walking down the jetway to my plane. He not only told me it was illegal, but I would face severe consequences. I quickly showed him that I deleted the photos. Although I was an innocent traveller who didn’t know the rules, I was still really scared because my OCD kept driving the narrative of getting arrested into my head. My OCD, coupled with my social anxiety, wanted me to believe that the world was out to hurt me. Then I reminded myself that beyond the officers’ daunting appearances, there were human beings who had lives, families, and friends. They weren’t robots targeting me.
Although I am proud to travel despite having OCD, I want to make it clear that travel does not cure mental illnesses. Sometimes, I see “inspirational travel quotes” on the internet that promote travel as a substitute for therapy. This is not only false but dangerous. We’ve already seen in my case that travel alone isn’t therapy for my OCD. A beautiful Canadian road did nothing to improve my symptoms. In fact, it exposed how severe they got.
However, once I received proper treatment from my therapist, I could travel knowing how to deal with the OCD thoughts coming into my head. As far as travel itself, it has helped me become more confident navigating through uncertainty and facing my fears. After all, travel is an activity that rarely sticks exactly to the plan. Seeing that I’ve travelled a lot also makes me feel prouder of myself, I didn’t let my mental health problems stop me. Yet, I will not fall under the illusion that travel itself helped improve my mental health problems. It’s my therapy that got me to where I am today.
In 2020, I decided to come out publicly about my OCD and other mental health issues. I would like to make travel more accessible for people who have mental health concerns like I do by sharing practical resources. Furthermore, I hope that my stories will let others know that they aren’t alone in their struggles. Writing about mental health while traveling benefits me as well because I can reflect on how far I’ve come. It is my blogging and writing mission to destigmatize mental illnesses through travel.
Thank you so much Meggie for helping those of us who don't know what it is like to travel with OCD to understand the struggle and hopefully somebody who is reading with any mental illness will gain some encouragement from our writing.
Meggie Tran is a Vietnamese American traveller and mental health advocate with OCD and social anxiety who destigmatizes mental illnesses through travel. She shares funny and inspiring travel stories as well as resources to help those with mental illnesses travel at her blog, Mindful Meggie. Her travel writing has appeared on Fodor’s Travel. You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube. who destigmatizes mental illnesses through travel. She shares funny and inspiring travel stories as well as resources to help those with mental illnesses travel at her blog, Mindful Meggie. Her travel writing has appeared on Fodor’s Travel. You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube.