Slipping my seatbelt on and settling in for the safety briefing, I thought of the last time I’d prepared for take-off. It was three months earlier, heading home from a mini-break to San Sebastien during which I’d suffered my second miscarriage.
In the weeks that followed, life span rapidly out of control – until I crash-landed into a mental breakdown. Diagnosed with symptoms of PTSD, signed off sick and spaced out from new medication, I was barely getting out of bed. Months of anxiety left me exhausted, and I was reeling from a five-year relationship turned toxic.
Yet I was grateful for the people around me. When I’d fallen into this place two years before, I’d fought continually to access medical help. All in vain. This time, however, I was referred to the crisis mental health team, granting me daily home visits and sessions with a brilliant clinical psychologist. Slowly, with their help, I began to focus on my recovery.
Crawling back up
“You’ve hit ground zero, but you’re a phoenix. You’ll rise from the ashes,” the clinical psychologist reassured me in his calm but confident way. Perhaps it was his belief that gave me a sudden burst of motivation, and on December 20, 2019, I told my boss I’d not be returning from sick leave. The reality was, I didn’t know when I’d be better — mental breakdowns aren’t linear and I didn’t want to recover under a time limit. Instead, I booked a one-way flight to Melbourne.
I purposely chose New Year’s Eve for my departure date. After that traumatic year, I wanted nothing more than to travel through the time zones and wake up in 2020. No ripping pages off the calendar while crying into a bottle of Shiraz in someone else’s kitchen. No pretending to be feisty and positive about the new-year-new-me vibes. I simply wanted to rest my head on a travel pillow and allow the murmur of in-flight entertainment to lull me to sleep, ready to wake in a whole different decade.
So there I was on December 31, half-listening to the stewardess point out the life jackets, when I spotted a parallel. The breakdown had been its own lifeline. It had given me the chance to do something important. Something for me.
In a year of desperately trying to get pregnant and keep hold of my baby, I’d lost all sense of who I was. Lost sight of my relationship, which had become so damaged. At 37, I’d walked away from my job, my relationship and the future family it once promised. But I had a blank sheet of paper and I wanted to fill it.
I knew I was heading to my cousin’s place in the suburbs of Melbourne, but not much beyond that. True, I was nervous about how I’d handle being far from home so soon after receiving daily crisis care – but making this spontaneous decision had given me a sense of calm. I realised this trip was less about the destination and more about letting go of the reins.
Learning to be
The year I lost two babies, my partner’s substance misuse had escalated. I’d found myself gripping on to control, tighter and tighter. Until eventually, something burst and what spilled out was anxiety. Now, I was done with the panic. I wanted to learn to be. To experience life without a rigid plan. To trust in not always knowing.
I spent the next few weeks in Melbourne slowly building up confidence, safe in the company of my cousin and friend. From the odd solo stroll around the suburbs to a full beach day in the blazing sun, I gradually got used to my own company and, by the end of the month, I was ready for the next part of my journey — going it alone.
I thought about what was important, what gave me both energy and peace. I’d always sought nature when anxiety became deafening. I wanted to sit small against soaring wild landscapes, shrinking my troubles into perspective. My next destination became obvious — New Zealand.
For the next month, I made my way around the beautiful South Island, booking buses merely the night before, or sharing a ride to an unplanned destination with a new friend from the hostel. Sometimes I’d go on long hikes alone, discovering the Great Walks of New Zealand. Other times, I jumped into group activities like kayaking with seals, or wine tasting. It was liberating and peaceful, and it reminded me of who I’d lost.
Since childhood, I’d been described as bubbly, the kind of person who could talk to anyone. But the traumas of the past year had buried that character. In my state of heightened anxiety, I had become a muted version of myself.
Gradually, though, she began to re-emerge. I realised how far I’d come when my sister flew out for a fortnight’s reunion in my second month of travelling. Back in November, I’d stayed with her as she helped me with the most basic of tasks, from getting in the shower to having breakfast. Now, in February, lounging on the sands of a small Indonesian island, she turned to me — “I’ve got my sister back,” she smiled. “You’re you again.”
Of course, I still had moments of loneliness. Of sadness. Of self-doubt. But they didn’t spiral. I sat with them and trusted they would pass. And then the pandemic swept in, forcing me home just three months into my adventure and tearing my still almost blank sheet of paper in two. As we hadn’t yet managed to sell our flat, it meant returning to the only home I had — with my ex. Somehow though, I was able to accept that this was just another turn in the road. I’d already navigated so much, surely I could handle one more detour.
One year on
I’m writing this twelve months on from booking that one-way flight. And as I look back on 2020 and what has undoubtedly been a chaotic and distressing year, I feel blessed. Not in the hashtag sense, I hasten to point out, but in a very real way. I know I was blessed to have been able to experience three months of travel that brought me back to myself. Blessed to have gained a new perspective that’s helped me get through everything this year has thrown at me – from living in lockdown with my ex, to selling our home and navigating online dating afresh aged 38.
Facing adversity and letting go of the reins has helped me handle the upheaval of this most uncertain of years. It’s been tough going at times, for all of us, but I end the year at peace in my own flat, having landed a job and a promising new relationship. And as we look towards 2021 with so many fearing isolation once again, I now know I have little to fear. I might even celebrate the new year this time…