Traveling was a temporary fix for my problems, until it wasn't anymore
Along with yoga, meditation, and face masks, traveling is often regarded as a “cure” for those who feel stuck or lost. Not sure what to do after graduating college? Try backpacking through Europe. Just broke up with your boyfriend of three years? Bali should do the trick.
Like many “cures,” traveling is a privilege, and it really can be an amazing time for self-discovery—but on the other side of the coin, isn’t traveling just running away from your problems? What happens when you have to return home and face them?
Browse a travel group on Facebook and you’ll see tons of posts from women who spend months (or even years) abroad, but now are back home, feeling stuck, sad, and even depressed in some cases. They generally blame “the travel bug” or “wanderlust,” but I think they just want to keep running. I say this not because I think I’m better than them, but because I’ve been there, too. I honestly feel like I’ve been running ever since I was old enough, with enough of my own money, to do it.
But while a six-month internship in New York City or a summer studying abroad in London was one thing, recently quitting my job to travel full-time as a “digital nomad” was another. Of course, when I first started my travels, I felt like I was running carefree through a field of daisies. But a year and a half into them, I felt like I was running for my life from a grizzly bear (or a Dementor, or a toxic ex).
But, let’s go back to the field of daisies first.
It was August 2017, and my lease in New York City was about to be up. For the last year, I had been working at a women’s media company, and while I loved the freedom to write and I had great co-workers, I felt underpaid and overworked. I knew I was probably never going to make enough money there to feel comfortable living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. It wasn’t just the job, though—something in my life was off. I was feeling more anxious, and maybe even depressed. I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning, I quit working out entirely, and my sex drive was practically nonexistent.
Everybody on social media seemed to be going to Thailand to “find themselves,” and I was still looking for the real Ashley. Or, at least, I was looking for a sign from some higher power to tell me what to do with my life. Because I sure as hell didn’t know.
A company called Remote Year advertised a 12-month program wherein a group of “digital nomads” (people who worked wherever they wanted from their laptops) visited a new country each month and worked together. While I wasn’t willing to spend $29,000 to be stuck with a bunch of strangers (I was a poor introvert, after all), going to a new country every month sounded nice. Moving home to my childhood bedroom and not paying half my paycheck to rent sounded nice too, so I decided to do both.
I figured I’d have my parents’ house outside of D.C. as my home base, but I could travel freely without having to waste money on rent or a storage unit to hold my stuff. I also would (hopefully) combat my fear of being lonely while traveling, because I’d be able to return home to my family.
The plan was pretty genius, if I do say so myself. Although my travels were a bit derailed by some medical complications, I took my first solo trip to Los Angeles in March of 2018. In the next year and a half, I spent time in Spain, Morocco, Gibraltar, China, Thailand, Belize, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and more. I also visited N.Y.C. pretty frequently, hit Las Vegas, and went back to L.A. a couple of times.
Ultimately I was only spending about five to seven days at my “home base” in D.C. each month. While my travel schedule seemed crazy to my parents, it was just what I needed at the time. I would spend a week in D.C. working extra-long and hard, then I’d jet off to a new destination where I could work for half the day and explore for the rest of the evening. If I found myself feeling lonely or overthinking, I could just bury my head in my work and/or a new vegan donut shop in whatever city I was in.
Yes, working for myself and traveling was great, but it wasn’t answering the questions that had been giving me anxiety back in New York.
I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t know where I wanted to live or what I wanted my romantic relationships to look like. I hadn’t figured out anything that I’d wanted to include in my “five-year plan.” But because I was constantly on the move, it was easy for me to “live in the present” and ignore them. It was too hard to plan the future when there was so much uncertainty.
I loved what I was doing work-wise, but I still wasn’t making much more money than I had been at my former job. I was really into the guy I was seeing (hence all the frequent trips to N.Y.C.), but I had no idea if we had a future together; deep down, I knew that we probably didn’t. I loved nearly every city I visited, but I also loved N.Y.C. when I visited. I still had no idea where I wanted to live permanently, or at least for a few years.
Don’t get me wrong, living in the present was great. I felt (slightly more) spontaneous. I saw amazing places. I met really interesting people. I worked on really cool projects and actually saw work as an escape when my travels were too overwhelming. I learned a ton about myself.
But in February 2019, before traveling to Thailand, I realized I had tons more to learn about myself. That same anxiety I’d felt back in N.Y.C. crept up on me again. I had been digital nomad-ing for a year and a half, and more and more often, people were asking me about my long-term plan. I started feeling extra anxious when I’d return home—like I didn’t really belong there anymore, but I wasn’t excited to leave for my next trip either. I wanted to stop stressing about money so much. Though I had saved a lot, I still felt like I wasn’t making enough to comfortably get my own apartment, a car, and all that other shit normal people have to pay for. I literally made my mom sit with me while I packed for Thailand, or else I wouldn’t have gotten it done at all (I normally pack two weeks in advance for my trips).
I felt like one of those girls who jumps from relationship to relationship to fill the void, except instead of compulsively dating, I was jumping from country to country.
Thailand was the first place I had planned to travel after quitting my job, and it ended up being the last place I visited before closing the chapter on my digital nomad lifestyle. Thailand was amazing and I’m so glad I got to experience it, but I felt that I couldn’t appreciate it fully. I was so anxious about what was coming next. I spent a lot of my time in that country wrestling with options for my career (Did I want to build out my freelance business? Should I apply for a full-time job?), my relationship (Should I have “the talk” with the guy I was seeing? What did I event want?), and my living situation (Could I happily live with my parents for a few more months while I figure out what I want to do?).
The only decision I could easily make was that this would be my last trip for some time. When I next got a on a plane, I wanted to be flying somewhere I’d be staying for a while.
Aside from one more family trip in March, that’s exactly what happened. After returning from Thailand, I started applying to a few jobs in Los Angeles—the one city where I always felt the most at home while traveling. Much quicker than expected, I got a great job offer where I’d be doing work I enjoyed and making double the salary of my last full-time job. I had six days to get my shit together and move to Los Angeles before my start date. It was a little crazy, but not any crazier than some of the trips I took in the last year.
I still have a lot of work to do on myself and my five-year plan. But now I have structure and routine (which I low-key love). I’m making enough money to be less stressed financially, and unlike with freelancing, I always know when I’m getting paid. I ended my situationship in the best way possible—we had a mature conversation and accepted that, though we enjoyed spending time together, it didn’t make sense to keep things going if neither of us saw a future together.
Putting my life metaphorically on hold for a bit to live in the moment was great for me. I really did “find myself,” at least some of myself. That’s why, in no way, I am advising against taking a year off to travel, doing the digital nomad thing, or quitting a job that isn’t working for you. I’m so happy that I did all of these things because 2018 was probably one of the best years of my life because traveling allowed me the space to figure out what I truly enjoyed doing and how I want to do it. That that wouldn’t have been possible if I wasn’t taking things day-by-day and only focusing on the present.
What I don’t recommend is pretending that traveling the world will cure all of your problems, when in reality it’s just another distraction.
Sure, pictures with the Eiffel Tower look a lot better on Instagram than pictures of you distracting yourself with tequila (and traveling is certainly the healthier option between those two). But at the end of the day, you will still have to sit down with yourself and face your internal issues. The good thing about traveling alone is that you learn to truly enjoy being alone with yourself, and listening. That’s the gift from my travels that will keep on giving.