Last night I went to the cinema alone and watched The Blue Caftan. During the final scenes, tears were streaming down my face and I tried to cry silently so as not to disturb the two wrinkled women in front of me. It was just the three of us in the theatre—them in the center with their glasses of wine from the restaurant on the second floor of the cinema, and me with my sneaked-in convenience store drink and snacks.
It has become a running joke that I cry every time we go to the cinema, no matter what we see. But my constant bubbling-over at the slightest emotional weight is starting to pull on my awareness. Hardly a day has passed in at least a month when I haven’t broken down in tears about something. Last night with shaky hands I wrote:
I feel like my soul is aching desperately for something and I have no idea what it is.
I am so lost and overwhelmed by thoughts of what to do next, how to get myself out of this hole, what the next few weeks or months or years of my life will look like.
I’ve been putting off trying to write about my most recent malaise because it feels so daunting. The feelings press down on me with a great weight and yet they are vague and almost unidentifiable. I suppose I could point to a few sources of my struggling, but does that really explain what’s going on?
My friend said today that I expect a lot of myself. I feel like I should be happy and not struggling so hard right now, and that is neither fair nor helpful. When I zoom out a little, I can see that there are a lot of factors contributing to my current unease. I chose a nomadic life which seemed like a dream when it started, but it began on rocky soil. I had only barely made it out of living paycheck to paycheck and am still paying off debts, so I have to keep working no matter where I am. I thought that I was dealing with things and figuring myself out, but really I was just finding new ways to distract and cover up my pain. While I’ve had some incredible experiences, I’ve also separated myself from my community and support network. I’ve experienced an array of health issues this year—birth control triggered IBS and hormonal imbalances, an ankle injury followed immediately by a back injury, chronic sleep problems. Not to mention the anxiety and depression and PTSD that have lurked around the corner for years, always ready to pounce on a low moment. I feel like I’ve been clawing my way out of a never-ending hole and I don’t even know what it is that keeps dragging me down anymore. There are a number of truths that I think I’m still afraid to look dead in the eye.
3 years ago, I had just driven back across the country to return to Denver. There, I threw myself into protests and community organizing and mutual aid. I found a community that I had been lacking, I fought alongside people who would become great friends, and each day was filled to the brim with meetings and events and working and strategizing and feeding people. It was also during this time that I began traveling more, as I found freedom from the back of my Subaru. The world was falling apart but I could drive into the wilderness alone and recharge. As the year went on, I maintained an unsustainable level of involvement, constantly running from place to place, overextending myself in the name of helping others, drinking a lot of PBR, and barely stopping to take a breath. I felt so alive doing all of this, but in a frantic sort of way. I was desperate to do as much as possible, constantly.
By the following summer, I had completely burnt myself out. I arranged to take a month off of work, but I never returned. I lost a dear friend and almost called the trip off, but decided to go through with it. I drove to the Pacific Northwest for the first time and fell in love with the great trees and ferns and roiling ocean. I knew pretty quickly that I couldn’t go back to my job and life in Denver when that month ended, and I never really did return. That trip was the catalyst that led me to stay in Washington and Oregon for nearly three months, returning to Colorado only briefly to sell most of my possessions and re-pack the car for a longer trip. I made my way to Glacier National Park, where I found a community that was living my dream life. I worked hard and drank harder, obliterating all the emotions of the previous year(s).
In a haze, I drove to Arizona for the winter. I left a toxic relationship and then found myself at a dude ranch—it was there that I finally got sober, but that was the easy part. I am still fighting my way into/through recovery. Then, the road trip of a lifetime took me to Alaska, where I spent last summer working my ass off and frolicking in the tundra. An unexpected breakup prompted me to follow my life-long dream of visiting New Zealand and hopefully kickstarting me into “backpacking around the world” as I’d always imagined. I applied for the visa on a whim, and was approved in less than 24 hours. I took that as a sign that my barely thought-through decision was the right one, and I made arrangements to move to the other side of the world. (The Big Book says you shouldn’t make any major life decisions in the first year that you get sober…oops).
My propensity toward burying myself in work and activities and busying myself away from ever truly feeling or facing my emotions continued. This time, in a place where I had even less of a support network than I did in remote Alaska. Eventually, my body got so fed up with me that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. Injuries sustained at work were not healing, and I was faced with daily pain and a partner begging me to take a break. With just a bit of kicking and screaming, I am finally taking a long overdue break. This time, I hope to do the opportunity justice.
It’s been a week and a half since my last day of work. The emotional experience I’m having now reminds of the first few months after I got sober, when all of the pain I had been drowning was suddenly banging on my door and I had nothing to soften the blows with. Overworking myself might be the last poor coping mechanism I had (although I’m sure I’ll discover more in the coming years…). I’m not sure that I ever really learned any proper, healthy coping mechanisms. How does anyone actually cope with life? Hopefully I can figure it out because what I’ve been doing my whole life is clearly not working, and it is finally all catching up to me.
I do have some ideas about where to start… I need to stop running and hiding and compartmentalizing. I need to give voice to all the pain buried within, face it so that I can take accountability, and let it go so that I can move on. This will probably look like finally doing the Step 4 that I’ve been putting off (and then, the rest of the Steps can follow). I need to find my true self that is suffocating beneath all the layers of expectations, patterns of behavior, body image issues, beauty standards, lost dreams, fears of disappointing, and all of the other bullshit that has been crushing and warping me for as long as I can remember.
How do we know who we truly are when there is so much built up around what we’re expected to be?
How do we properly tend to old wounds so that they may heal?
How do we deal with living in a world that is so corrupt and dark?
Perhaps one day I’ll be able to answer these questions. For now, one day at a time, I will get through this. I will do my best to take care of myself and accept the help that is offered by those who love me. I will take this break as a chance to make meaningful change in my life so that one day, I can live vibrantly again. Hopefully I can return to this space in the future with some reflections on how this all works out for me—which strategies were helpful and which weren’t, what I learned along the way, and so on.
Post-script: I hope that this does not all come off too self-pitying or anything. It is not your pity that I seek. Rather, I want to share an honest account of where I am at right now. When I give people the bird's-eye view of my life, they often remark at how amazing it must be to travel and have done so much. And it is in many ways! But that does not mean that life stops or that it is without challenges. In many ways, I have failed to take care of myself. I share this because I know that I am not alone in my struggles (as much as the voice inside often wants me to feel that way). If you are having a difficult time, know that you are not alone, and know that there are ways to move through distressing times. I love you. I'm with you.