Last year, I moved across the Atlantic from small town South Carolina to London, England. I had just graduated from college and was bewildered at this wonderful adventure I had managed to stumble into — London has always kind of had a knack for finding me (but more on that later..).
I get teary-eyed thinking about all I’ve managed to overcome in the last ten years and how seventeen-year-old me would never be able to guess what was up ahead. I spent my teenage years deep in the grip of anorexia, pummeling myself to the ground every day in an effort to do, to strive, to achieve, to climb. And by doing so, I also buried my true self somewhere deep down inside and made sure to numb out her voice with every decision I made. It wasn’t until my second decade on this earth that I fully came face to face with my demons and told them I didn’t want them to rule my life anymore. I was ready to do the work, I was ready to overcome.
What I didn’t realize, and what I don’t think I ever would have realized if I had never become an expat, was that while yes, I did turn down the road to recovery, I had still wrapped it all up in the mission of “doing,” of catapulting myself forward into this new, bright life without pausing to unlock the door to myself I had slammed shut years before. When I tried to tuck away my extremes in an effort to heal myself from one thing, I simultaneously hid my depth. I numbed the sharp edges and blocked out my heart’s whispers because I believed I couldn’t trust them. And that was only repeatedly reinforced by culture, by my relationships, by what I saw modeled for me out in the world.
Moving to London was glorious. Moving to London was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Even though I spoke the language, everything was different. I had all familiarities stripped away, all of my comforts and safety mechanisms were no longer accessible. I was in that weird early-20’s limbo between school & “real life,” and in the midst of that I needed to somehow figure out how to do all of the adulting things — like paying bills, apartment hunting, bank accounts, direct debits, getting sick thousands of miles away from your mom, shopping for lightbulbs, dealing with heartbreak — all on my own and in a foreign country.
I won’t lie, my first year was difficult. It was like this alternate universe of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Every time I walked down the sidewalk my love affair with this city began all over again; I didn’t know it yet but that tugging in my gut every time London made eyes at me was my sweet inner voice trying to break through. But I also experienced a thorough breakdown in the actual sense of the word — not some dramatic, loud tantrum, but a silent collapse.
A Course in Miracles teacher Kenneth Wapnick said, “We should be grateful for all situations that make us the most uncomfortable, because without them we would not know there is something unhealed in us.” My numbing mechanisms worked until I pulled the carpet out from underneath them — with no firm ground to stand on and every dial in my life switched to CHANGE, I was forced to feel, to become.
London has been an incubator for self-discovery. It has been an exaggerated time for “space” (over 4,000 miles, that’ll do it..) and a sped-up period of growth where life has thrown me all the painful lessons I’ve been avoiding for so long, the messages I’ve only been buying into halfway.
In his new book To Shake the Sleeping Self, Jedidiah Jenkins says, “I have learned this for certain: If discontent is your disease, travel is medicine. It resensitizes. It opens you up to see outside the patterns you follow. Because new places require new learning.” This discomfort, this massive uprooting, has forced me to look myself straight in the eyes and confront my shadows. We are all just collecting stamps in our life passports, and it’s up to us how we interpret this multi-colored roadmap. What really matters is how we use all the pinpoints, all the destinations and wrong turns and delayed flights and unpredictable hardships, to inform our story.
We all need to lose our way sometimes. We all need to have our phone die on the outskirts of Copenhagen, on our first solo trip abroad, and then we all need to spend the rest of the afternoon blissfully lost, encountering Christmas markets and beautiful, blonde locals with bicycles and kind words. We need to taste the sweetness of time unbound, we need to feel the wildness of uncharted territory.
In my case, I needed to be stripped of all conditioning and all familiarity to discover what was left — me. I was so obsessed with seeking that I forgot how to appreciate stillness, the kind of pause that only really sets in when all of your programming is thrown out the window and you are looking at the world with the eyes of a newborn. I was racing along the track outlined by “should,” “would” and “could,” but the piece that I was missing, that it took literally jumping continents to discover, was this: No matter how hard you seek, there really is no “finding.” There is just a constant unearthing, a continuous process of discovery that is always simultaneously coupled with loss. Our story is ever unfolding, and every “aha” moment signifies a beginning, a march ahead, rather than a definitive end. Our deepest sighs usually proceed our most profound realizations, whether we understand it in the moment or multiple passports later.
Recently, I was walking in the park (God bless that park, which at this point could more aptly be called my place of worship) just like every other Sunday. But this time something was different. My heart felt sad and my body felt heavy, my limbs like lead with each step, but something in me resisted this narrative of pain. I felt a soft breeze on my cheeks and just like a soft sigh, a voice in my heart said, “oh…here she is.”
Here I was feeling heavy, feeling the weight of all the lessons of the past year threatening to break my foundation. But instead of shattering, I noticed myself shedding — slowly releasing the hurt which I refuse to let make a home out of me and unveiling everything that I actually am:
I am all of my incredible accomplishments, my beautiful family and their undying support, I am my signature burgundy coat and my “I’m-a-lady-and-I-moved-to-London” Kate Spade handbag. I am 15+ addresses in the last four years, an Ivy League degree and a predilection for 19th-century poetry. I am the trauma of a severe eating disorder and the battles I waged every day for a decade to reach the pinnacles of overcoming. I am my heart, so precious in its unbounded optimism and deep ravines of feeling, I am the grace of my ancestors and the excitement of my future children. I am the heights of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the depths of Lake Keowee, and the breadth of the endless rolling Carolina hills. I am all of this and choose to see it as the absolutely bloody brilliant HONOR it is to have this life.
I am my own destination. And every day I am closer to coming home to her.