Coming home: How to deal with the post-adventure blues
For those of us with an adventurous streak, there can be few things more exciting that setting off on a new expedition. Exploring the world around you, pushing beyond your comfort zone, learning about yourself and how you respond in challenging situations — what could be more exciting and more rewarding?
But what happens when the adventure ends? What happens when it’s time to head home and go back to “normal life”? Sometimes it’s as simple as looking forward to and planning the next adventure. But as Australian rider and adventurer Christie Hamilton discovered after last year’s Indian Pacific Wheel Race, sometimes it’s not quite that simple. This is Christie’s story.
Over the weekend I had the pleasure of speaking at the Bright Adventure Travel Film Festival. Preparing an hour of ramble about my bike ride from last year seemed like a fair exchange for a weekend of rubbing shoulders behind the scenes with legitimate adventurers, and it was certainly worth the price.
By Monday, we were sitting on a picnic table by the river in the dappled light of a maple tree nursing hangovers. One of my new best friends, Elisa (who has travelled the world on a motorbike, skied ice-caps and is genuinely bad-ass as well as lovely), asked me about the post-expedition blues. It’s an innocuous label that barely describes the highs and lows of returning from an adventure.
At first, I gave a flippant response to what seems to be a flippant question. Pick a new goal, give your body time to recover, that sort of gaff. But really, on reflection, there’s more to it. As someone that’s battled with it for more than eight months now, and failed miserably in the past, I think I’ve started to put together a concept that’s more than simply resting and picking a new goal.
After all, if the solution is more adventures, it’s entirely unsustainable. Not that I’m talking about copping out and joining the suburbs, but instead, if you’ve put it all on the line — everything — sometimes there isn’t further to go. Your cure can’t be more of the same, almost by definition.
The trip was fantastic, but I can’t bear right now to put myself through that level of intensity again, neither physically nor mentally.
We need an adventure-blues cure that isn’t simply more adventuring. We need to create a place that means we can go adventuring out of want, instead of necessity. I’ve lived in loops of every-single-weekend escaping to the snow and the mountains. At the time I thought the fixation on views and landscapes, and lying under a tarp gently flapping in the night breeze, was romantic. Now I realise it was more than that. An addiction to adventure that’s only satiated by more adventure.
I’ve always done big trips, and trained for stupid-long events. I brag about completing kayak races covered in my own vomit for six hours, or being so injured that I couldn’t feel my hands for two months. And that means, sometimes, the thought of going back out into the fray is more than you can bear. It’s a vicious cycle of love-hate, of destroying your body with movement and then destroying it with inactivity on your return.
For me, post IndiPac, a few things have been going on. Nightmares about road trains, the anxiety of being passed by traffic. Thinking about Mike, who wasn’t even a friend, still makes me choke up — an emotion I don’t even feel is reasonable.
My business was in tatters, my partner of four years had found love in a new partner and a new sport, the house I came back to was empty, and I’m left alone, surrounded by friends who have little understanding of what’s in my head. After all, I’ll be the first to tell you: it was just a long bike ride.
Weeks pass and my bike, which used to be my tonic for all ills, seems to be unavailable, so my solution is to throw myself into the puzzle of downhill mountain biking. Another adventure-friend suggests a bit of loose sex. The noise shuts everything else off, but again, it’s not sustainable, although arguably less dangerous than drinking myself into oblivion.
And to the people in the town, I wonder if I just appear to be a reckless child that has refused to grow up. Not driving her business forward, resting on her laurels, and partying every weekend with whichever set of friends was up from Melbourne, all the while avoiding any events where people might come up and ask her about the race. Making jokes and throwing parties to create a diversion.
The compounding problem is that before IndiPac, my road bike was the panacea. I rode it to manage my weight, my stress with the business, to process thoughts and to come up with ideas. And on coming home, because of physical injury, and mental anxiety, my magical elixir was no longer available to me. At possibly the time I needed it most, try as I might, I didn’t have road cycling anymore.
I wouldn’t define myself as mentally ill, just a lost soul.
And if I put myself through an adventure like that again, perhaps we wouldn’t be any closer to a solution. It’s almost a decade since the kayak race of six hours of vomit and a damaged RC joint. At the time I didn’t realise how long it took me to get back on the water. That time, I went into riding motorcycles and rowing surf boats, possibly the most exhilarating sport I’ve ever played. Another downhill mountain biking solution.
I cannot be an adventurer that adventures seriously every 10 years. Life is too short. And while the highs are often worth the lows, the return is not.
We know about the call. We understand the fantastic power that stepping through the portal and really committing to a quest has to provide solutions to the problems, but we often overlook the return. It’s my belief that a failure to return is the cause of the post-expedition blues.
So what is the return?
The return is the part of the journey where the hero returns to their village with their bounty. It’s the end of the trip and the sharing that defines the return.
And the return is often refused by the adventurer. In Campbell’s monomyth it’s about not wanting to share the boon, whether that be a princess or a golden fleece. But it can also be a case of feeling that the message or stories won’t be understood, or aren’t important to others. Who cares about road trains and road kill? The return is choosing to come back and share your knowledge with your community.
For me, it’s feeling like my learnings aren’t worth sharing, that everyone around is already better and more knowledgeable than me. After all, I just rode my bike. And yet, evidence suggests to me that it’s not the case. It’s almost a year later, and people still come up to me in the street. People still send me messages online. Very clearly there are people that do want to hear.
I think the solution to post-adventure blues is in storytelling. Sharing the message, unpacking and repacking it. Passing on the knowledge you’ve gained, and becoming the guide to the next round of adventurers, instead of keeping it within. I know people who would kill for the opportunity to ride across the continent and I hold that knowledge without sharing it.
The best I’ve felt in these past months has been when I’ve been talking about IndiPac. Not big-noting myself (although I’m sure there’s enough of that), but sitting with other would-be riders and sharing my knowledge on gear, route, planning. Helping others step through the portal.
And this solution doesn’t require me to step off the wharf on another adventure to cure the blues. It’s the refusal to return that’s the cause of post-expedition blues.
The most important tool for adventurers is telling their story. Passing on the knowledge to the next wave of adventurers, and becoming that member of the new tribe. I sincerely believe that everything else is only managing the symptoms.
More to it, it’s a deliberate act to incorporate your lessons into everyday life, and to share the knowledge you’ve gained with your community. By doing so you’re becoming a guide for future adventurers, mentally unpacking lessons for yourself, but most importantly, shifting your place within the community whether it’s your small town, or the online tribe.
Even when I write this, it sounds terrible. I’m not a humble person. I’m arrogant and self-assured, and I still feel like I don’t have any right to talk about IndiPac, I just rode my bike a long way. The struggles I had, in the light of day, don’t seem that hard. I bent a wheel, I hurt a bit, sometimes I ran out of food and water. So why would anyone care? And yet, for months, people have been telling me that they do. Directly, to my face, that they want to hear about it.
And, there are definitely people in the community that don’t want to hear it. It can be confronting when someone achieves something you’d never dream of. I suppose the reality is that those people will cut you down whether you tell your stories or not, so you might as well talk.
Is it refusal of the return? The way that, after the finish, I chose to sleep on the floor of a hotel, at the foot of a bed with my riding companions in the heart of the city I grew up in, when I was literally surrounded by close friends that wanted to welcome me home and put me in fresh clothes, warm bedding, and hear my stories? My sister literally begging to be let to drive me to the airport with my nephews when I thought hauling a bike box on the train was a better solution.
Was that refusal to return the beginning of the problem?
So my answer is, storytelling.
Storytelling is the solution to the post-expedition blues, passing your knowledge forward. Sharing your bounty with the tribe. Do that, and you can always set out again, out of want, not out of need.
About the author
Christie Hamilton lives in Bright, Victoria, Australia. She’s an avid adventurer and mountain biker who competed in the 2017 Indian Pacific Wheel Race, a solo, unsupported 5,500-kilometre bike race across Australia.