June 19, 2024

How I Discovered I Was Neurodivergent Whilst Solo Travelling

Being an undiagnosed neurodivergent solo traveller made me feel like I was exploring a different planet from my peers. We might follow the same map and end up at the same landmarks, but every traveller has a very different journey. Mine began at 27 when I booked a one-way flight to Tokyo. Like many others before me, I chose this unexpected path because I was already lost. The truth is that, although I grew up with depression – a common theme among neurodivergent kids – hope had always driven me forward. I believed I’d find a career and a home and feel like I belonged somewhere. But, of course, things didn’t go to plan. And that’s why I’m writing this from a budget hostel bed in Malaysia and not an office in the UK.


The truth is that when hope fades, it can be a dangerous thing. No one tells you that depression lasts decades, not months. I couldn’t bear to think of it lasting a lifetime. And with my invisible, undiagnosed conditions, I had no idea what resources I needed to heal. So, when a new temp job, lots of overtime, and a whole lot of privilege allowed me to save for solo travel, I had to take the chance. Hope returned; I even felt like I was saving my own life as I boarded the plane.


Solo travelling will be the best adventure of your life, right?

Every solo travel blog I read to prepare for travelling alone told me the same thing: you’ll meet new friends, have an amazing adventure, have lots of fun, and learn something new about yourself. But what happens when you realise your experience is different from the other solo travellers described? Although I did learn something new about myself, it wasn’t exactly the empowering lesson I was promised. At least not at first.


At times, I loved the challenge of solo travelling. A backpack can make for a wonderful costume and is a telltale sign that you’re part of an exciting community. Pretending to fit in was easy at first. The conveyor belt of similar interactions – Hello, where are you from? How long are you travelling for? – was tiring, but at least the predictable conversations were easy. However, I also found the organisation involved and constant sensory overstimulation overwhelming. I was continuously anxious, barely sleeping, and sometimes I couldn’t leave my hostel bed for days at a time because I was so burned out. Honestly, I presumed everyone was lonely, exhausted from always meeting new people, and craving real connections where they could just be themselves. The longer I travel solo, the harder this gets. In fact, I can still go days without speaking to another human (33 days is my record) even if surrounded by other travellers. Sometimes travel just seems more manageable that way.


On the other hand, I began being frustrated by the effects of being unable to ride a bike or drive a car. Often, I couldn’t partake in activities just because I couldn’t get around. In addition, finding my way around new places (directions) and the new motor skills involved with travel were exhausting. I didn’t think much of it then, but ‘easy’ things like packing and unpacking are surprisingly fatiguing when you’ve always struggled to do up buttons. The loneliest part of solo travel wasn’t even being lonely – it was the uneasy feeling that I was doing something wrong. Or worse, that there was something wrong with me. I searched for similar stories from other solo travellers but found it hard to relate to their experiences. Sure, everyone was talking about bad days, but these anecdotes were paired with posts about ‘how to make friends’ and how empowered they felt. During those long anxious nights spent alone, I often wished I could give the privilege of travelling away to someone more like them – someone who would enjoy it. What hope did I have if I couldn’t enjoy myself doing the coolest thing in the world?


Lockdown gave me space to breathe, think, and get diagnosed.

If this were a regular travel article, I would write about the otherworldly destinations I’ve visited with amazement. Without a doubt, I am incredibly grateful to live and work abroad. My younger self would never believe I’ve been to almost 30 countries. But it’s a blessing that I wrote truthfully about how I felt online. I wanted to reassure anyone going through the same thing that they weren’t alone – I wanted to give them someone to relate to. And, sure enough, someone did relate. From how I’d described my brain, they assumed I had ADHD – just like them. Then, a few months later, another follower told me the same thing. I’d suspected it years earlier but, true to ADHD form, been unmotivated to do anything about it. Now, there was zero doubt in my mind that they were right.


In 2020, I arrived in New Zealand five days after the borders closed, knowing no one in the country. With a full-time but easy temp (that I was still struggling to concentrate on) and plenty of time to think, I set an online psychiatrist appointment for ADHD and depression. My mind was so busy during the appointment that I couldn’t even focus on what she diagnosed me with- I had to wait till I picked up my prescription from the pharmacy to find out! Which is perhaps the most ADHD way to get diagnosed with ADHD. Relief and disappointment flooded over me, alongside grief for all the missed opportunities and anticipation for the future. Of course, this diagnosis didn’t answer all my questions. I had ADHD friends who were social butterflies, and I still didn’t know why I couldn’t ride bikes or drive cars, or why I’ve never been able to braid hair, click my fingers, and struggle to do up buttons.


If you know much about neurodevelopmental disabilities, you already know I’m describing dyspraxia, a condition that affects motor skills and coordination. An adult not being able to drive or ride a bike might seem unusual, but within the framework of dyspraxia, I realised that I was totally normal. Speaking of being normal, the ‘good-at-school’ to ‘flailing around exhausted with no career or stability’ pipeline is a common ADHD stereotype. After a lifetime of wanting to fit in but failing so badly that people thought I was being weird on purpose (urgh), it felt so good to be normal. Of course, the next step is to be proud of what makes me different, too. But fitting in is a beautiful place to start.


How learning I was neurodivergent has changed the way I travel… for the better!

Before I got my diagnosis, I set my expectations for travel based on what neurotypical travellers said. And don’t get me wrong, I read a lot of excellent advice that reassured and advised me. Solo female travellers unknowingly helped me pack, plan itineraries, and stay safe. The travel advice was fantastic. It’s just the solo travel advice that didn’t quite fit. Learning more about my condition has helped me realise that I have to travel solo differently. And honestly? Sometimes that’s disappointing. If I could have chosen my own travel story, I’d have wanted to be a fantastic, fun, adventurous female traveller who inspires other women to travel with incredible experiences and is constantly trying new things. No one wants to be a travel blogger who has to say, ‘hey, actually, I’m depressed. I’m not enjoying this.’ You can’t write inspiring blogs about all the times you skipped activities because you were stuck to your bed. But, for the most part, I’ve made peace with this. After all, whether or not you’re neurodivergent, your mental health should always come first. You can’t decide not to pack depression or neurodevelopmental conditions on holiday. You can’t pretend to be someone you’re not, but you can find ways to accommodate your needs to make travel a happier and calmer experience. And maybe, one day, I can help other travellers who are just like me. I can help them know that they’re not alone.


Here are a few things that help me enjoy solo travelling as a neurodivergent human:


  • Slow travel. Staying in one place long-term means less packing, moving, and organisation. And you can still take day trips and short trips. Staying in one place longer also makes it easier to make friends.
  • I am leaning into my special interests, for example, visiting places relevant to a book or movie I love or spending time with animals. Volunteering at an animal sanctuary for five months and subsequently petsitting have helped give me both purpose and connection while travelling. Fortunately, animals don’t really like small talk either. ?
  • Having a routine – this could be as simple as having a slow morning with a good coffee or getting back to the hotel early to relax and watch movies. Now that I work remotely, it is much easier to stick to a routine, so work is weirdly comforting.
  • Being honest with myself. If there’s an activity I really want to do, but thinking about it is stressing me out, I ask myself – is it worth it? I’ll still push myself to try new things, but not when the effort makes me feel physically sick.
  • On that note, sometimes small activities are better than big excursions; a long nature walk, a coffee in a local cafe, a visit to a local museum, or even just staying in and reading a book. So, I’ll do what will make me feel calm and happy, not what I think a ‘travel blogger’ should do. (And best of all, that leaves me with the energy to do things I REALLY want to do!)
  • Listening to other people’s stories. Following neurodivergent creators has been hugely comforting and informative. Learning how my brain works – rather than relying only on neurotypical advice – helps me plan trips better around my needs. I’ve also learned about my privilege within that community, which often centres around the experiences of white men and women.


While solo travel hasn’t always been an easy journey, it’s not a path I regret taking. Perhaps I haven’t found the home or “place of belonging” I always yearned for. But when I do, I’ll look back at the years I spent travelling alone and know that it helped me find my place in the world.

Meanwhile, I continue towards an unknown future, and I’m learning to make peace with myself and the journey. Best of all, there are so many incredible views to see along the way.

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