For some reason, I frequently find myself in very uncomfortable situations. Not just of the socially-awkward variety but, “What kind of decisions have I possibly made in my life to end up in this pit of misery?” type. To be completely honest, they aren’t always literal pits of misery. Mostly a state of mind made up of crippling self-doubt and panic-inducing fear.
Although one time I did not have any money and had just come off a million hour flight and lived of granola bars and didn’t shower for a solid four days… So there was that… I think the last time I had gone that long without showering was during my roadie-ship and was living out of a van and we were so busy showering was just kind of forgotten. But enough about my lapsed hygiene practices…
The last time I wrote (let’s make a pact not to add up how long it’s been, ok? Ok.) I was in one such spiral. My ex had just moved away, and while things ended amicably it’s a bit destabilizing when someone you’ve spent practically every moment of the past five months with is no longer around. I suddenly had all of this free time to think about what my plan was. I was definitely living comfortably thanks to a couple full-time freelance gigs but wasn’t earning enough to save anything (or even get home).
I’ve mentioned before how expat life in Cambodia seems to cycle through people. About every six months or so someone new is showing up while old friends move on. At this point, my little community was prepping for another such exodus. Those with higher-paying jobs were considering moving to new, nicer apartments while the few with free time were considering life as nomads for while. My best friend already had her flights booked home before starting a graduate program in Australia. Things were changing and I decided it was best to jump on that train, too.
Thanks to hindsight, I can laugh at my naivety upon returning home. My new “plan” had been to relax and enjoy the Christmas festivities with my friends and family and then crack down and find a job, surely by the end of January, because that’s when my new phone plan bill was due and once again I was without a steady income.
My one-month job hunt turned into two, then three, then four.
I’ve always struggled with anxiety and depression. I’m really good at being upbeat and talking about how magical everything is, but when I’m down I get really down. Every day I applied for jobs after thoroughly researching the each company and writing unique cover letters. I was putting in the effort. And crickets. For every 20 jobs I applied to, maybe MAYBE I would get one response back. At this point, even the rejection letters became a reason to think positive because at least I was hearing something. But even those were few and far between.
Every day was an endless span of potential disappoint. It became harder and harder to look on the bright side. Despite knowing my parents are super supportive and would do anything to help me out I was keeping a running tally of everything I had asked for and could only seek such help after working up a really good anxiety attack. After bleak periods I’d snap out of it for a week or so, somehow tapping into some new source of motivation and positivity making all the past despair seem silly and unnecessary. And then out of nowhere, the dread would be back, like an elephant sitting on my chest. I’d stop showering regularly because for some reason that’s the first habit to go…
I went on a few interviews. They’d see the gap in my employment after I left Cambodia and ask what have I been doing the past few months. Like a punch to the gut. Like I’d been twiddling my thumbs since January and not actively, desperately seeking employment. Each rejection, especially from jobs I’d been over qualified for made me question the time I spent abroad. It was as if those two years, during which I had worked the hardest and overcome the most, meant nothing in the eyes of recruiters.
I started seeing a therapist and struggled to find ways to describe my feelings: I can’t find work, I’m questioning my self-worth, I just can’t get out of bed in the morning, but I’m also having a hard time processing everything I’ve experienced the past several years. Herbal supplements didn’t help. I started anti-depressants. It somehow made me feel better to think that my depression was stemming from a chemical imbalance and was actually out of my control. I’m type-A. I felt like I could take depression off my plate if that makes sense. Something that isn’t my fault. Medication helped calm the swirling negativities that had been distracting me, but I was still jobless.
My parents and I discussed how best to move forward. Up to this point, I had been driving my dad to work so I had access to a car for days I had interviews and we decided having a car of my own might take some of the pressure off. They helped me with the down payment and from that point on it was like dominos.
The day after my 26th birthday I had a very promising job interview and the following Friday I received an offer. I could breathe again. I could afford my new car payment.
I’m lucky. I have incredibly supportive parents who never made me feel like I was a burden during my unemployment. I have friends who were always encouraging. I’m grateful that even though those six months sucked it was the kick-in-the-pants to get myself into therapy and start examining the thoughts that hold me back.
Now that my life has some sort of structure again I’m able to think more clearly and without (as much) anxiety about what I want. I’m saving to travel again. I’m building my portfolio. I can dream about all of the possibilities of the future instead of just dwelling on the past.
Not to say that employment has been a magic wand waved over all of my issues. I still have plenty of those. But I’ve learned (and continue learning) ways to give myself a break. We all need to give ourselves a break sometimes.
So here’s to finally dusting off the motivation to write again. And to regular showers.
Travel memoirs, especially those written by free-spirited women, have been my favorite genre for the past several years. In preparation for my adventure, I started re-reading some of the books in my rather large collection. I scoured worn (sometimes coffee stained) pages searching for stories about women in Cambodia, hoping for some insight and advice. Even though I couldn’t find any the authors’ tales encouraged me, even though some of their experiences didn’t go exactly as planned (muggings, crippling illness, lost luggage, etc.) they all survived and grew into stronger, more determined women because of their hardships.
One theme I noticed throughout is the idea of wanderlust; that feeling of needing to see and experience new things. I’ve felt this pull inside me ever since I journeyed to Uganda in 2007. It started as a small nagging, an idea that there has to be something more to see and maybe if I try hard enough I might be able to experience it for myself. When I returned from Europe a few summers ago the nagging became louder and more persistent: there has to be more than this.
The women in my books describe a transformation of self in which they finally realize they can’t sit still anymore. Ordinary jobs, relationships, and families feel stifling. I knew taking this job in Cambodia was going to alter the rest of my life, but I didn’t realize how drastic it would be until I was sitting in JFK waiting to board my plane. After this, there is no going back. I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, unsure of everything except that a life without this topsy-turvy feeling would be maddeningly dull. It’s addictive, being disoriented followed by the satisfaction of learning something new and figuring things out on your own.
I haven’t even started my new job yet but I already know working in a normal office would probably kill me. If I want to keep living unexpectedly I have to be open to everything. No more taking opportunities for granted. If a door opens, you bet I’m going to leap through it. I’m already tumbling towards Wonderland, I might as well experience all it has to offer.