It’s been a while.
In my last post, I hinted about the dissatisfaction I’ve been battling with over the last couple of years and it was getting those feelings down on a, um, screen that finally convinced me to make the changes I’ve been putting off for so long.
I knew I wasn’t living my best life and my health and happiness had been suffering for years. I was in real danger of slipping back to the pre-travel version of myself; the one with all the panic attacks and eating issues, who was too messed up to step outside. So I did the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.
I stopped everything.
I stopped travelling. I stopped working. I stopped using social media. I stopped answering emails. I stopped refreshing Amazon reviews of my book. I stopped staring at Google Analytics. I stopped comparing myself to other people. I stopped everything that was making me unwell. I pushed the reset button.
And then I started living.
Slowly, at first.
Defiantly, much later.
And it was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.
Here’s what I learned.
Not Traveling Showed Me There Are More Important Things in Life
I’d booked a dream trip, then spent days beating myself up when I cancelled it. I felt so lost: after four years of building an identity that revolved around travel, who even was I if I no longer found it appealing? What did it mean if all I wanted to do was surround myself with familiarity instead of embracing the different?
There was only one way to find out: to stop travelling and start doing what I was craving.
I spent much of the first week at home in bed. Sometimes you don’t realise how exhausted you are until you stop.
When I felt stronger, I began to exercise. I looked forward to my afternoon walks alongside the River Thames with my mum, like a golden retriever who couldn’t wait to explore all of the world right now. Those small moments with my family while I was home were the moments I treasured the most: walking for hours with my mum and chatting about what her life was like when she was my age; bonding with my dad over music and heading out together to see a Cambodian rock band play in Hackney; having my sister take me to her favourite burger joint, then treating her to afternoon tea; and the random conversations that never seem to occur over Skype calls when you only have 30 minutes to share your updates.
My friend Kurt offered me a spare ticket he had to a David Gilmour show at the Royal Albert Hall. Before my life revolved around travel, Pink Floyd was my everything. A few years ago, a bad breakup with a guy who was well-known in the fan community had led me to extricating myself from that world to focus on something new. It was heartbreaking to suddenly find the music that had got me through every challenging moment in my life could now only surface bad memories.
With several years having passed, I dove back into that world and came up beaming. I showed my friend Drew around Borough Market and Covent Garden, and we ate camel and zebra burgers before the show, and we didn’t talk about travel once, because he rarely travels. Instead, we chatted about music and his job, and he caught me up on what our mutual friends had been up to.
I hung out with Kurt, and we chatted about photography and music and his life in Los Angeles as a kickass visual effects guy for every big movie ever.
I met up with Alex and we chatted about his work as a radio DJ and we excitedly reminisced about our days spent sitting on Pink Floyd forums for hours on end.
And it felt so good to take a break from talking about travel for once.
And the show was incredible.
It was so good, in fact, that I rushed home and bought tickets to the next two shows because I was desperate to recapture my past where something other than travel made me happy.
I’m someone who always believed her obsessive personality would never allow her to cultivate more than one passion at a time. I jump from one addiction to the next, casting off my old obsession as soon as something shinier comes along.
But my time at home showed me that I can have balance in my life if I work at it. I can go to gigs while I’m traveling — I just need to make the effort to do some research on where to go beforehand. I can fit exercise into my life if I set an alarm to remind me to close my laptop and go outside. I can indulge in my makeup obsession on the road if I throw out some clothes so I can fit my enormous makeup bag into my backpack.
And it’s not just play that I figured out how to inject into my life. It’s rest, too.
Not Working Helped Me Discover What I Want to Work On Going Forwards
When I was writing my book, I’d spend almost every idle moment composing a list of everything I wanted to write about here once I’d finished.
When I handed in the final manuscript and could finally start tackling the 3,000 item list (seriously!), I froze. I was paralysed by too many options. I had two years worth of travel to write about, plus all of the site updates I wanted to do, plus the non-travel-related articles I wanted to write, plus the articles I wanted to write for other sites. Should I start catching up from way back in Mexico, two years ago, when I stopped writing regularly on Never Ending Footsteps? Or should I stop posting chronologically and write about whatever I want? Or should I draw a line under all my travels and skip forward to now, never sharing some of the best experiences I’ve had?
I’m incredibly fortunate that a chunk of my income is passive these days, which means I still have enough of an income to live off of if I’m not actively writing. So, I stepped away. I stopped writing and I stopped worrying and I started reading. And I devoured 23 books in six weeks[!].
Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy showed me that I’m not alone in the weirdass things I do when I’m anxious. It had me thrusting my Kindle into Dave’s hands every few minutes, because she explains what it’s like to have a mind like mine so well.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic helped me to stop obsessing over negative book reviews and inspired me to write because of my love of writing. To be creative again and to stop being such a goddamn perfectionist.
And Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection had me sobbing on my flight to Saigon, which was perplexing because I’ve always been so unbelievably scornful of self-help books. But this book changed my life. Seriously changed my life. I’ve finally taken steps to embrace my imperfections; to learn how to manage the high levels of shame I never even knew I had; to be vulnerable around friends and family; and to show compassion towards myself. I so recommend this book.
Reading books is where rest comes in to my life. Because I never used to do it all that much, but it’s so valuable and so healing, especially if you struggle with anxiety.
Quitting Social Media Helped Me Switch Off
I’d never linked my anxiety to social media before, but deciding to take a break to focus on myself showed me how it can be exhausting. It makes me feel like I have to be *on* at all times: making witty jokes on Twitter; sharing updates of what I’d been doing that day on Facebook; showcasing my prettiest photos on Instagram; Snapchatting everything I do throughout my day. I felt so much pressure to perform non-stop.
Taking a break helped me get my shit together. I discovered that I missed Twitter most, because I feel like it’s where I most get to be myself. Within a few days of quitting, I was back and enjoying it. And I learned that scheduling all of my Facebook posts in advance takes the pressure off and helps me focus on building a fun community there instead.
Not having to worry about sharing every aspect of my life helped me focus on the things that mattered without worrying about whether I had done anything that was interesting enough to share online. I prioritised me. And watching the Great British Bake-Off.
It Was All Kind Of Like a Holiday, I Guess
I’m forever telling people that I haven’t taken a real holiday in over four years, but I can tell nobody really believes it.
I’ve definitely taken breaks from work for a week or so to lie on a beach, but I’ve never 100% switched off during those times. I’ll always end up discussing my site with Dave and brainstorming new projects and coming up with new blog post ideas.
This break felt like a real vacation, because I managed to stop. I didn’t care what other travel bloggers were doing, and I had no idea how many people had visited my site that day or how many copies of my book I’d sold or how many Instagram followers I’d gained. I guess I was being mindful, or something like that.
Then I Reunited With Dave and We Flew to Southeast Asia
I had a panic attack the night before my flight to Bangkok; just like my Seychelles trip, I didn’t want to go. I flew from Madrid to Abu Dhabi and had another panic attack at the airport. I flew from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok and had a panic attack on the flight. This wasn’t looking good for me and travel.
But then I stepped into the sweet Bangkok air and a weight lifted. Humidity felt good. Healing, even. There was something about being in Thailand that made my anxiety melt away.
We checked into a gorgeous Airbnb apartment, and I spent the next week surrounded by some of my favourite people — Jodi, James, Stuart, and Diana. I ate delicious food, and Jodi helped me discover that I don’t actually hate Thai food — I’d just been eating the wrong things. And it was weird, because I started to feel like myself again.
No panic attacks. No anxiety. No fears. No stress.
I was happy.
Cambodia Was Better Than Ever
Cambodia is one of my favourite countries and this visit was one of my favourite trips ever.
We kicked things off with a stay on a floating hotel on the Tatai River, in a remote area of jungle, only accessible by a thirty-minute boat ride. We were blissfully offline, spending our time sunbathing and tubing on the water, reading piles of books and taking cruises at sunset.
We flew to Siem Reap and told our tuk-tuk driver to take us to where the tourists aren’t. We spent a day at Angkor climbing ruined temples without anyone in sight and found some kickass places I can’t wait to share with you. Walking along the walls of Angkor Thom was a definite highlight, as was a quiet sunset at Angkor Wat.
My time in Cambodia was so wonderful because I finally was able to put into practice the stuff I’d been thinking about at home. It was all about practicing play and rest. Travel didn’t feel too fast-paced when I wasn’t spending every single spare moment working. Everything felt manageable. Balanced.
Vietnam Was Just As Good
I was concerned about how I would manage Vietnam, because Dave and I were going to be showing his parents around and I didn’t know if I was strong enough to handle it.
I felt this overwhelming pressure to perform and try to come across like a normal person who isn’t still dragging herself out of a breakdown.
Because what would happen if I got anxious and had a panic attack? Or if I couldn’t eat and it made me look like I was anorexic? I’ve seen the looks people give me when I don’t eat a meal and I know what they’re thinking.
But I needn’t have worried, because I handled it like a pro, with only one bout of anxiety that was due to doing too much in one day (and drinking Vietnamese egg coffee until I had heart palpitations, ha) — there’s that need for rest again.
I visited Hanoi for the first time and fell in love with the chaos and confusion. I re-visited Hoi An and marvelled at the beautiful lanterns. And I returned to Saigon to drink avocado smoothies.
The fact that I experienced very little anxiety on this trip when previously, I’d had a major panic attack over Dave and I having friends staying for one night in our apartment in Madrid shows me how far I’ve come. I’m starting to feel, well, normal, for the first time in a long time.
I’m Finally Ready to Start Writing Again
I said in my previous post that I desperately wanted to find a way to get back to my old self. But as my friend Kate gently suggested, that wasn’t what I wanted at all. Instead, I needed to find a new self. A version of me that is post-travel and pre-book in terms of anxiety, but who has also found a way to add play and rest into her life. Who doesn’t work so hard.
I won’t say I’ve found that version of me yet, but I’m the closest I’ve ever been, and I’m feeling incredibly optimistic about it.
Normally, I’d end a post like this with a huge list of all the exciting things I’m going to write about over the next few weeks, but I’ve learned my lesson now.