It's been just over a month since my last day of work. I was reminded of the anniversary by a friend I made in Romania who'd read my blog post on 'Why I quit my job to travel'. She also suggested writing a reflection on the journey so far. I'd been meaning to write one since coming back from Cuba - a much-needed kick up the arse comes in many forms!
As I sit here in a Central London café, next to my fellow Escapee (nutrition coach-in-training and future female mental health tech mover and shaker) Billie, I think back to a year ago...how I felt then and how I'm feeling now.
It was around this time of the year that I'd applied to Escape Tribe. I was in a very dark place - lost, depressed, emotionally suppressed and wading through life that was no longer my own.
Now, 12 months on, I definitely feel like I'm heading in the right direction. To which destination I still don't know, but I'm walking and it feels 'right'. I still get sad, but now I embrace the pain that comes and can smile through the tears. I speak now with the people I meet on my travels (when it feels safe to) and to you, our readers, about the pain and the joy that the pain brought me. I tread not on the carefully laid path but step on the fresh grass - the unknown that is my own.
When I shared by reasons on why I quit my job to go travelling, there were a few themes in by head. Healing, exploration and discovery. One month on, I reflect on the baby steps that I've taken.
In the years following my brother's death, I had great difficulties dealing with sudden, unexpected situations that would ruin plans. It will sound strange to you, but I would get flashbacks to the moment I heard about my brother's death.
The in-laws were over in Korea visiting and we were in a big car that we'd rented out. We were just setting off from a hotel in the mountains and my dad answers a call. I remember the funny feeling in my stomach as the guy on the phone tells my dad to pull over, making sure the car is stationary. I remember being winded as though by a punch to the stomach and the emptiness and searing pain that followed.
I'd experience this with differing intensities. This would happen even in situations where I didn't even like the plan in the first place. I remember a few months ago Iris and I were supposed to go see some of her school friends after work. I didn't really want to go - the dinner was far away and it had been a long and tiring week at work. When Iris and I met up after work to head to dinner together, she said that she wasn't feeling too well and that we should cancel. It's a ridiculous situation, but one that highlights how severe the situation had gotten.
So Cuba was a great idea! A country of curve balls! It seems pretty stupid to throw a mentally fragile person into an environment where there would be countless triggers in a day, everyday. Yet I discovered something on that trip. That maybe I wasn't so fragile after all. In fact, I think that I coped relatively well when Cuba threw curveballs at me (like at the Viazul station or when the jeep didn't come). I even killed a cockroach that found its way into our bedroom in the middle of the night (with an empty water bottle)!
I don't think I made a miraculous recovery in two weeks. But I was finding a coping mechanism, and discovering courage and faith in myself as a whole and resourceful human being. The lessons were in two parts.
One was minimising triggers. The sudden and unexpected were triggers. I found that I could counter this with careful and thorough research. I read many blogs, websites and books to prepare myself for the various situations that I might encounter in Cuba. I knew what fair prices to pay were, common scams, alternative travel routes and quirky etiquettes - the works!
This would only take it so far. Things would always slip through the net. The second was being mindful that the unexpected would happen and being aware of what that could potentially trigger in me - and that it didn't have to. I think that awareness, reflection (through therapy and talking about it with people) and mindfulness exercises helped with this.
Breaking down my defences
Having been used to living in London, where you don't even know your neighbours' names, travelling alone opened me up to meeting new people. I couldn't have ever imagined just initiating conversations while relaxing in the hostel common room or even in a café, rather than just staring at my phone - and people responding rather than thinking you're looney!
Romania, and especially Podstel and the people I met there, provided opportunities to really open up and connect on a deeper, human level to talk about things that really mattered to us. Things that we wish we could talk about more in our lives, whether at work or with friends, but rarely get the chance to. How we see the world. What our deepest fears and wildest dreams are. What success means to us. What our inner critic whispers in our ear. What does it mean to be a 'man'? What does it mean to be 'human'? Our own 'hero's journey'. I felt 'seen', and I hope they felt seen too. It strengthened my determination to create such a space back in London (or wherever we end up after our travels).
Meeting me again
I also felt more fun and carefree than I had done in a while. I could let down my defences, take off my mask and just 'be'. There was no-one to judge me here. Travellers come in all shapes and sizes and all were welcome.
Hanging off Emperor Trajan's dragon in Bucharest (also the ugliest statue in the city)
There was also freedom in what to do - I could choose to go on a tour of the city or just chill in a hammock reading and writing the whole day. There was no 'right way' to travel and that was respected (even those that travel just to consume!)
After five years of corporate life, with the pressure to perform and behave in a 'professional manner' (whatever that is), this was most freeing. Of course, looking back, I realised that the pressure was mostly self-inflicted. An untested story that I'd told myself, as I'm sure many of us working do. If I don't behave in this restricted way, I'll surely be rejected. Worst of all, we propagate this lie to the young people joining the companies that we work for, leading to a deep schism in the psyche of many people - a split-personality disorder created by society.
No wonder we lose touch with our hopes and dreams. Our values. No wonder we struggle with the question "what do I want from life?" No wonder we can't answer the simple question "what do I want?", leading to unhealthy choices and lifestyles.
This past week has been like meeting myself again, but the real 'me'. I don't know him very well yet - we're just starting out again, but am certainly looking forward to getting to know him better over the coming months.