Mental health has long held a stigma cloud over it, but it's only by bringing it out of the darkness and into the forefront that change can happen. Meggie Tran aims to do just that and destigmatize traveling with a a mental illness. It's long overdue.
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While traveling with her dad through Canada’s British Columbia and Alberta in the summer of 2018, Meggie Tran, a world traveler since her first plane ride at 10-months-old and a mental health advocate for travelers, started experiencing strange behaviors that affected her traveling experience.
Instead of taking in the beautiful scenery as they drove on the Trans-Canada highway linking several of Canada’s provinces, Tran said she became overwhelmed with obsessive thoughts about scribbling bad words on the roof of the rental car. She imagined the rental car company reporting her “deeds” and going to prison in a foreign country.
Luckily for Tran, these were just thoughts she never acted on, but the frequency and force of what she felt despite not yet understanding it left her overwhelmed and wanting to seek help, she said.
“The symptoms I had stole my attention from the scenery right outside my window,” Tran said.
Upon returning to Arizona, where her family lived at the time, Tran was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder or OCD as it is more commonly known and social anxiety, a longstanding and excessive fear of social interactions according to the Mental Health Foundation.
For Tran, a 21-year-old Vietnamese American, having a name to go with the strange behavior and symptoms she’d been masking since the age of 10 was a relief. While OCD and social anxiety affect everyone differently, Tran understood they go hand in hand and, in her case, feed off her fear of being imprisoned.
Instead of curbing her enthusiasm for traveling, she said the diagnosis set her on a new journey to demystify mental illness through travel. Tran launched Mindful Meggie’s Travel Blog, where she shares mental health resources, mindful travel pdf guides, and her travel insights.
“My mission is to destigmatize mental illnesses through travel. I believe travel should be an equal opportunity even for folks that have mental health considerations like myself,” Tran said.
While making clear she’s not a physician, Tran likes using her knowledge, traveling with mental health conditions, and the use of therapy in the hopes people like her will explore treatment or whatever they need to help make traveling with mental health easier.
An Arizona State University senior completing her undergrad degree remotely, Tran often travels on family road trips exploring the country, preferring nature trips and open spaces to traditional sightseeing and skyscrapers.
The flexibility of studying online, something she’s done on and off from a young age, provided extra time for family travel so long as she completed her schoolwork.
On these trips driving along Route 66 and I-40 from Missouri, where she was born to visit her cancer-stricken grandmother in California, Tran discovered her love for travel, she said.
Unlike others whose OCD might induce fear of flying, Tran said boarding an aircraft isn’t an issue for her. She’s been on trips to countries in Europe, Australia, and Central America. However, going through customs and immigration brings about her obsessions with imprisonment.
She’d been planning her first solo trips to Asia and South America in 2020 but changed her plans when the global pandemic closed borders around the world. Opting to travel domestically like most Americans, she planned an extended trip closer to home after getting vaccinated.
On her first solo trip to New York City and New Jersey, Tran spent a little over a month exploring both sides of the Hudson River and mainly staying at Airbnb’s in Jersey City, New Jersey and Queens, New York, downtown Manhattan, and the Upper East Side.
A member of the virtual gaming community, Tran said her main reason for choosing the New York Metropolitan area was to meet members of the Twitter Club Penguin community, the Disney-owned game she’d been playing with since her teens.
Tran flew Alaska Airlines from San Francisco to Newark, New Jersey, meeting up at the historic Fraunces Tavern in New York City, with her Club Penguin group, which had only known each other as bobbing penguins online, she said.
To decompress while traveling and exploring the diverse neighborhoods of both New York City and New Jersey, Tran incorporated days to do nothing but relax at her Airbnb and maybe read a book, journal or go for a short walk, she said.
Tran said it’s essential to take breaks as necessary on long and short trips to accommodate mental health needs and seek therapy before embarking on your travels.
Because there isn’t a cure for mental health issues, Tran doesn’t believe in travel quotes saying travel is a great way to forget one’s worries. She says treatment and knowing how to cope with your mental health issues is just as important at home as it is while traveling.
“I would say going to see your therapists is just as necessary as seeing your physical doctor. When I first got treatment in 2018, I thought, okay, I’m done with it. Hopefully it won’t relapse again,” Tran said. “But then I had several relapses within the last few years.”
That lesson taught Tran to see her therapist as a doctor she can see once in a while, ensuring her mental health is okay. She compares it to what she would do with a physician to ensure she is physically healthy.
Tran spent several weeks planning her solo trip, including looking up local public transportation options, yet leaving herself room to add things of interest once at her destination.
In Jersey City, where she spent most of her time, Tran visited state parks, various ethnic restaurants, festivals, a drag show, and even took a nearby kayaking tour of the Hackensack River with the Hackensack Riverkeepers.
Raw and vulnerable about her mental health condition, hoping it will inspire others to travel, Tran said mental health awareness is vital in Asian communities that see mental health as taboo and believe in toughening up.
“Based on these cultural understandings, there might not be enough knowledge about the reality of mental health, how it’s a real health diagnosis, and how it needs to be treated by a medical professional or a mental health therapist,” Tran said.
Her hope, she said, is to see more representation of Asian Americans and travelers that have mental health conditions.
“I feel we need to be more aware of our marginalized identities in the sphere of travel,” Tran said.
For instance, she said travel writers have traditionally been white males, and she’s hoping Asian-Americans can celebrate their voices and experiences to diversify their tribal community and answer or raise potential issues.
One example of that was during her East coast trip this summer. Verbally attacked twice for being Asian, across the street from Bryant Park in the Big Apple and another time in Jersey City, Tran said the negative experience hadn’t stolen her joy of traveling. It’s just made her more self-aware of it happening again at home in Southern California or while traveling during the pandemic that’s brought about a rise in vitriol against the Asian community,
For now, with the rising cases of the Delta variant, part-time job, and schoolwork, Tran continues updating her travel blog and destigmatizing traveling with mental illness. In honor of OCD awareness month, she’ll be speaking with the Nomadic Network of online travelers on October 12.
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Photo credit: Seen here in Canada's Banff National Park's Lake Louise, Meggie Tran or Mindful Meggie as she is known is demystifying mental illness through her travels. Courtesy of Meggie Tran / Courtesy of Meggie Tran