My question, in short, is this: If you could do anything, or go anywhere, what would you do?
I’m in this position, but it’s not all great. What’s that saying? “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
I’m almost 30. I spent much of my 20s in depression, and then I worked my butt off for some time in therapy, and I feel I’m on top of it. I’m not depressed anymore. That’s a nice feeling. But because of how much energy and focus that took, I haven’t spent my 20s doing much else. No career to speak of, just a list of temp jobs and weird detours that I would stay in long enough to get OK enough at, before leaving.
Last year, I decided to finally go overseas, something I’ve wanted to do since I was in my early 20s, but which my depression defeated me on every year until my 28th. Not only that, but it seemed that every time I was about to take the leap, a relationship or a financial or family situation would leap up and stop me. But I was determined this time: I was going.
Of course, life has other plans. Just before I left to take up a teaching position in Asia, I reconnected with the only girl I’ve ever loved, with whom I have spent the last four or five years drifting together and apart, herself a victim of poor emotional wiring. We decided to do the long-distance thing. There was a part of me that was frustrated, because this was to be the beginning of a grand escape from my homeland that I thought would last several years. However, I was ready to compromise for her and return after a year (and I suspected that I could ultimately, in fact, convince her to join me for more adventuring otherwise).
We were serious. I came home to visit; she came over to visit. It was tough, but for the most part it was OK in the first six or so months. This was until she suddenly found it too hard. What followed were months of increasing anxiety and fear; I would often get phone calls, desperate and hysterical, over any number of issues, both to do with me, and not. At first I was able to keep a lid on it and being completely supportive and loving. However, as her anxieties built, I felt the familiar threat of my own depression and fears starting to bubble up. It was like I was an ex-heroin-addict dating a user. Suffice it to say, she had an awful childhood, and she’s yet to fully deal with that stuff — my absence began being read as abandonment, and there was nothing I could do. I tried to solve the problems she had, with little success. I started feeling the walls closing around me, as if someone was trying to steal from me the grand adventure (and freedom) that I felt I had fought so hard to win. Frustrated, I started to fight against her anxieties. Finally, it all got too much, and she broke it off. We were both heartbroken. I was only two months away from getting home.
So now I’m here. A month remains until the end of my teaching contract. I have a few weeks planned of traveling around Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, and then I was going to go home. But now I don’t have to.
I could try and go home and win her back, and I’m pretty sure I could do it, once I was there in the flesh, although by this time it would be the fourth or fifth attempt we’ve had at a relationship, and everyone around us must be getting pretty bored of it by this stage. And will I just end up stuck back home, in the place I’ve only recently managed to escape? She fantasized with me about traveling together, but one of the major sources of our frustration was her inability to commit to any plans for what we would do after I returned home to her. Or should I go home anyway, and try to do the responsible thing of getting a career and a “life”? After all, I’m near 30, and I can’t be the traveling dilettante forever.
Or should I collect up my coat and brush off my hat, and step further into the unknown? I can always get teaching jobs wherever I go, or bar-waiting, or call-centre work. Plus I make a little money from my writing, of which I’d like to do more, and which lends itself well to traveling. I’ll never be able to buy a house, and I’ll probably forgo any chance of having a lasting relationship with her, the only girl I’ve ever loved. She’s a great girl, and one day she’s going to get over her crippling anxieties, and some lucky fella’s going to snatch her right up. Or maybe he’ll arrive even before that, and he’ll just do a better job at helping her than I could.
So what to do, Cary, what to do. Am I the wayward son who returns home to learn that what he’s wanted was there all along? Or is this the part when I break free of the concerns of the first act of the story and seek out greater rewards and adventures beyond?
I hope this email finds you well.
Liberated, or Alone?
Dear Liberated or Alone,
I say keep going. Keep going into the unknown. You are not through wandering. You have to wander until you find some peace. She will not bring you peace. Coming home will not bring you peace. Keep wandering. When it’s time to settle down, you’ll know it, because you will want to. Don’t do it because you think you have to. Do it when you get the signal from deep in yourself. Until then, keep wandering. Keep looking at the world and asking what it wants from you. Keep looking and asking, What is in the world? What is it made of? What other riches does it have for you?
I read your letter several times but did not read it closely enough the first few times and was consumed with my own thoughts and with your first line — “If you could do anything…” — but it turned out that your choices are not that broad, and you do not have a magic genie; you just have a choice of whether to keep doing what your soul needs or to turn back. I thought of what “overseas” must have meant to you all those years that you were depressed, and what your depression came from, and how we are so wrapped up and cocooned in our little worlds and how the living part of us needs to break out of that, and why rock ‘n’ roll has saved so many lives because it lets us break out of that, it lets us unleash the howl that is in us, and how in your generation travel also seems to answer that call, and how in your generation of the digital far more than mine there seems to be a kind of hush that must be devastating and stifling, a hush of preparation for some unspecified future that may or may not come, but meanwhile you are stuck preparing for it and trying to do the right thing, and your life and your appetite for adventure are passing by.
So when the right thing comes along and you want to do it, you will do it. Until then, keep moving. Keep exploring the world. Get lost. Go deeper into the unknown and get even more lost until out of your lostness comes a found. This found will be a secret, like an amulet you can clutch; it will be something that will come to you, maybe while you are walking or riding a train or sitting at a hotel window looking out on a crowded street. It will be something that will come to you when you are mopping up or serving drinks, and you won’t know its name at first but it will live with you and teach you its language. Wait for this thing. Keep moving. Do not give in. You have barely started your journey.