This is my first of many posts to come. It’s a little lengthy, so please bear with me…I wanted to lay the groundwork. I hope you will follow along as I share experiences, memories, and lessons learned in my years abroad and returning home. You can follow along on Instagram. Thanks for joining me!
Part One: The Part No One Talked About
So there I was, sitting completely naked on the edge of the examination table, bawling my eyes out to the woman who was, seconds before, looking deep into the abyss of my lady regions. All she asked was a simple question: “So, how’s everything else?” I’m sure she meant it medically speaking, or rhetorically, even...she was my gynecologist, after all. But “how I was doing” was so emotionally raw and vulnerable that this (seemingly) non-threatening question sent me straight over the edge. It opened the floodgates.
You see, I had just returned home after six years of living, working and traveling abroad. For the last 18 months, “home” was a wildlife reserve in Zimbabwe. My mornings were walks with the lions; my nights were campfires following jaw-dropping African sunsets. Now, I say “just”...but, really, I had been back for well over a year. I used this phrase all of the time when a new person asked me about myself: “Oh, I just returned from living overseas...” Even when I’d been back for more than two years, in my mind it was still so fresh, it felt like I had literally JUST returned – yet it also felt like a lifetime ago. It was like maybe it even happened to someone else, or in a dream, or...did it really even happen at all?
The most frustrating part was that usually the response was, “oh, that’s cool,” and then the person would move the conversation along without a single follow-up question. I’m sorry, but in my mind, that is, like, the world’s best conversation starter! No one seemed to bite; no one was interested in hearing what I did overseas for six freaking years. On the contrary, in fact. It seemed to be more of a conversation ender. I felt so isolated and misunderstood. I no longer knew what to talk to people about. I didn’t fit here anymore.
When you are traveling, there is never a shortage of things to talk about. Never! Fellow travelers sit around sharing past experiences and cool places you’d never heard of before, but couldn’t miss now; kindred spirits recount hilarious stories of drunken mishaps or have deep conversations about how travel has changed us...given new perspectives outside of our once limited scope. And now, I was right-smack-back-in-the-middle of my bubble in Texas. It’s not necessarily that life is mundane in the bubble; the edges are just a little dulled. But when you are used to living a life where literally everyday is a new adventure – a new culture, a new “world’s best beach,” a hike up a gorgeous mountain, a swim underneath a stunning waterfall – it’s an adjustment, to say the least.
This is the part I wasn’t prepared for. This is the part no one talked about.
This was repatriation.
Part Two: Life Doesn’t “Pause”
Life was breezy in my mid-twenties. I had recently graduated college, had a great job, fantastic friends, an active social life, a couple of boyfriends (not at the same time)...I loved my life. I could picture exactly how it would all play out: I’d get married (to my next future boyfriend, of course), buy a house, have a couple of kids, raise them alongside my friends’ kids...and life would surely be awesome! But then it happened. At work, I was given an opportunity to move to London: the full expat package. It came out of nowhere. The excitement washed over me; it was an opportunity too good to pass up. The day before, I had been planning my future kids’ names and literally, the next, I was planning my move across the Atlantic. I was thrilled, but just viewed this little adventure as a “pause” in life, if you will. My company made me sign a two-year contract, to get a full return on their investment. I tried really hard to talk them down to 18 months. Two years seemed like a lifetime! After all, I was 25 and still needed time to come back, find a husband and pop out a couple of kids before I turned 30! Anyhow, a few short months later, I had loaded up my life into a shipping container and I was on my way – via one-way business class – to my new home in London.
There is plenty to share about my years in the UK, but that’s for another time. Something unexpected happened in London: I realized that life goes on, wherever you are. No, it doesn’t “pause.” It goes on. I made friends; life-long best friends. I traveled. I had relationships. My career progressed. I ended up staying almost four years. By the time the two-year mark came around, I finally felt settled. I had worked really hard to make friends and build a life that I loved, and I wanted to stay a little bit longer and enjoy the fruits of my labor. And so, two years turned into three, and that turned into four. As I was approaching the end of the fourth year, I felt an itch for the next chapter. I thought this meant I was ready to return home and get back down to the business of “settling down.”
But first, I wanted to take advantage of a phenomena I had learned so much about in my time overseas: the Great European Gap Year. You see, no one had ever told me that young adults elsewhere were taking time off to travel the world and “find themselves”...perhaps, to consider what they might want to do with their lives before attending university or starting their first jobs. I felt royally gypped! Why had no one ever told me about this in America?! And so, I decided that while I was in this transition period between leaving London and moving back to Texas, I’d take the long way home...and spend a year traveling the world on my own gap year. Then, I’d go home and “settle down,” of course.
Part Three: Falling In Love
The first time I stepped foot on African soil, I was in love. She does that to you.
I’ve always felt that I have two totally different personalities. I fit into city life without skipping a beat, but I feel most connected to myself when I’m in nature. I’ve also always known that I am more of an animal person than a people person, so communing with wildlife in their natural habitat is my dream. And a dream it was: I volunteered my way across the continent, falling in love more and more every day. I probably would have stayed in Africa the whole year if I hadn’t already pre-planned a trip to meet my parents in China at the halfway point of my trip. I was desperately sad to leave, but I knew deep down that I’d be back...
Following a wonderful trip around China with my parents, I headed down to Southeast Asia and really experienced the backpacker way of travel. Slow…no plans…figure-it-all-out-as-you-go...let the wind take you wherever it may go. I fell in love again, and I probably would have spent the rest of my trip in Southeast Asia if I hadn’t already pre-booked a very expensive (by “backpacker standards”) hostel accommodation in Sydney for Christmas and New Year’s. After my adventures around Australia, I moved on to New Zealand and that was the final leg of my journey home. I was supposed to be moving back to Texas for good. But life had other plans.
When you live a life open to the possibilities, you’d be surprised at what can happen. When you stop trying to control every situation and every outcome, life has a way of really opening up her arms to you. I was headed back to Africa.
I returned to Zimbabwe, to the lion conservation project that I had loved so deeply. Once a corporate executive in London. Now, I was the intern, and I loved every moment of it. It gave me the opportunity to step away from a life outside of my comfort-zone and learn something new. Shortly thereafter, I was offered a permanent position as the volunteer coordinator. It was everything I could have hoped for...and also everything I never could have dreamed up for myself just a few short years before. After all, how would I have even known that I have a deep passion for lion conservation if I had never left home?
Part Four: The Paradox - Confronting Depression While Living My Dream
I spent 18 glorious months in Zimbabwe, living my literal dream. I lived every day with passion and purpose in the middle of the African bush. I was so lucky. But at the same time, I started showing first signs of depression. It was weird to me that two such different emotions could live simultaneously, intertwined...the joy and the loneliness. I was living in a bubble of another kind. My entire daily life happened at that bush camp in the middle of Zimbabwe. I slept there. I ate there. I worked there. I rarely left camp. When you live where you work, you never really stop working. I was surrounded by people, but I felt more alone than I had ever felt up to that point in my life. I ran a volunteer project, so each week I welcomed interesting people from all corners of the world – but each week, I also sent them home. It was a revolving door and I started to disconnect from human connection as a coping mechanism. After all, they were just going to leave again in a couple of weeks. I was lonely, but looking back at it, it was my own doing. It felt like Groundhog Day. Each week began to feel the same. I started to miss the companionship of true friendship and family. Ultimately, I made the gut-wrenching decision to leave my dream and return to Texas. For real this time.
My family and friends welcomed me home with open arms. They celebrated my return. Life had changed since I had left six years ago. People had gotten married. Babies were born. Everything was different...yet exactly the same.
Reverse culture shock is real, people. I was surrounded by the people who knew me best, but again, I felt alone. I was no longer the same. It was me who had changed. No one knew who I was anymore...but they didn’t even realize it. On the outside I looked the same, but I wasn’t the same person who had left them. I put on a smile and faked it for a long time. I didn’t want to hurt or disappoint my parents or my friends. I internalized everything and realized maybe I didn’t know who I was after all. My entire identity had been caught up in who I was as a “world traveler.” Without it, who was I? I had no idea. I felt like an empty shell, and so I self-medicated. Instant gratification has always been my weakness and my drugs of choice were food and clothes. And then more clothes...because the new ones I bought didn’t fit anymore because...all of the cheeseburgers I was cramming down my throat! I stopped showering, I stopped changing out of pajamas, I stopped leaving the house altogether. I re-watched the entire series of Felicity on Netflix for no apparent reason other than to remind myself of how stupid Felicity was for cutting her hair and choosing Ben.
I don’t remember exactly when I realized that this was depression, but I did at some point. Then, I thought I could “think” myself out of it. I was self-aware enough to recognize it and I knew the things I needed to do to get better (checklist: see my friends, stop spending money I didn’t have, take an occasional shower...you know, the basics). But I COULD NOT MAKE MYSELF DO THEM. This went on for months. I remember accepting that this was just my new life. I would never look at life the same way again. I would likely never travel the world again. I would never find friends who understood me. I would never get out of debt. I would never lose the weight I had gained. I would never be happy again. I was never suicidal, but I was down a dark pit; I just simply accepted that this was my life now.
While I had accepted it, it still made NO sense to me. I literally had lived out a DREAM. I had lived my dream more fully in those six years than most people get the chance to live in their entire lifetime. I knew I was so lucky to have had that experience (if traveling the world will teach you anything, it’s empathy and perspective). I loved my friends and my family, so I didn’t understand why I felt so alone and so hopeless.
I didn’t understand that this was the disease. This is what depression does. It strips away all of the joy and replaces it with hopelessness. It is deceitful and dark and whispers lies in your ear on repeat until, finally, you believe them.
Part Five: The Sum of My Experiences
I don’t know what changed in me, other than I eventually hit a point so desperate that I had no other choice but to reach out for help. I am very fortunate that my doctor had been seeing me for the previous decade and recognized that this person crying on her exam table was not the person she knew. She helped me understand that taking a prescription drug for my disease was not a failure, but that it was, in fact, brave. I am fortunate that I have parents who love and support me, and when I was finally able to share with them the depths of my depression and the shame of the financial position I had put myself in, they were there to help me make a plan to get my life back on track. I am fortunate that I had friends who loved me without judgment when I told them what I had been going through and accepted me back with open arms even though I had neglected our relationships.
I am fortunate that I was able to live a chapter of my life far bolder and more adventurous than most. I am fortunate that I have finally realized that my past is my present, because I am the sum of all of my experiences. I am not someone who once lived an extraordinary life...but whose life is extraordinary. Because I have truly lived it.