Why Leaving Everything Behind to Travel the World Didn’t Change Me…
…or at least it didn’t change me in the way I thought it would.
I had dreamed of solo backpacking through Southeast Asia for years on end. I had huge expectations for how it would go and how it would end. I’d leave my whole life behind, travel the world, and come back with doors wide open to clarity and transformation.
Or, so I thought…
Instead of opening new doors, I was forced to examine what’s been behind the doors I’ve tried to walk away from for so many years.
I’m a recovering perfectionist and Type A person. Since I was 16, I’ve had multiple jobs, internships, educational courses/degrees, new business ideas, and plans to basically take over the world (#whorunstheworldgirls). For 10 years, I counted every macronutrient and spent hours in the gym striving for the body of perfection. I was always busy, always accomplishing, and always pushing.
Fast forward to being an adult and “having it all”. A big career in New York City, a blooming side hustle, an Instagram body, friends and lovers with connections galore, and a coveted social life.
And then I walked away from it all…
I was incredibly burned out. My tech startup job ended with a cozy severance, I sold my stuff, ended my lease, disconnected my cell phone, and took off on a one-way ticket to the other side of the world.
I’d been going over this moment in my mind for years. The moment I would land. What would it feel like to be completely free?
What’s left when I strip away what makes me, “me”? The identity of my career. My success and professional connections. My physical fitness and strength. My relationships and friends — the people I spend my time with. When there is nothing left to attach to. No ego. No clout. No labels. No excuses. Nothing left to distract me. All that’s left is me.
When I finally landed in Cambodia and settled in, there was an overwhelming feeling of freedom, bliss, and…unfortunately, intense anxiety. For the first time in my life, I had absolutely no obligations. It was the dream I’d been dreaming of. I didn’t need to do anything. I didn’t need to answer to anyone. I had nowhere to be but right there — in that exact moment.
The serene turquoise waters, stress-free hammock cat naps, shiny new travelers to meet every day, and amazing locals to connect with, kept me busy. I learned how to create friendships (and boundaries) with total strangers. How to navigate difficult situations completely alone and on my own. I learned to breathe into the moment. All of these experiences brought me new perspectives, experiences, and gratitude that I will treasure forever.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t have my familiar labels and identities. I wasn’t busy, I wasn’t striving for perfection, I just was “being”.
However, instead of finding delight in the freedom, I struggled. I couldn’t even count to 10 without feeling distracted and somewhat anxious. Insomnia filled my sleepless nights. I finally had the time to do everything I had ever wanted, but I was undeniably distracted, ungrounded, and unsettled.
After nearly 4 months of wandering, I felt in my soul that I was ready to return to New York. I had an overwhelming sense of confidence that I’d start my life over again, even better than before. I was looking forward to stability and structure. I snoozed happily on my free flight (thank you credit card points awards); confident and sure.
If you’ve gotten this far, and you’ve seen the theme, I’m sure you know how this is going to end.
There I was, back in NYC in the beginnings of Spring, getting dressed up for job interviews and excited at the prospect of creating my new life. I spent time reconnecting with my family, relationships, and friends. I could speak the same language as everyone on the subway. I could sleep in a bed that was all my own. I was back at the gym. My life felt on track.
However, within 2 weeks, reality settled in. It soon became clear that my return was more of a crash landing than an easy smooth ride. The end of my romantic relationship had me reexamining friendships and connections, a family illness hit hard, a shoulder injury kept me from being active, and I was all sorts of confused about all the things that once brought me happiness and fulfillment. Returning hadn’t settled me, it had stirred everything up.
All of the reasons that had me decide to leave NY seemed to be waiting on my doorstep for me to come home. Even though I was now Zen Melissa, that didn’t change the circumstances and obligations that life had in store for me.
Free once again of my newly created identity as a wandering yoga-happy backpacker, I quickly realized that something had to fill the space of identity. Something always has to fill the space. I realized that you can never truly be identity-less. Traveling itself has its own identity: the free-spirited backpacker content with living in the moment. And if I didn’t consciously fill the space with things that I love and want to create, the perfectionism, Type A tendencies, and all the insecurities that come along with them were ready and waiting to jump right back on my back.
While I was in Southeast Asia, I lived a much calmer life. As I drank coconuts, swaying in hammocks and getting into lasting conversations with strangers about nothing, I had very little to actually “do”. But that feeling of momentary bliss doesn’t replace the magic that is the sense of purpose back home where my roots lie. The passion and drive that keeps me on my toes — which is why I chose to return.
This time, I chose to stay on my own volition. I had tasted paradise. I could have stayed longer. But, I had still chosen to land back in the smoggy city that never sleeps. I chose to come back to understand, who I am and why am I here, in one of the most challenging cities in the world.
It seems to me that struggles and darkness are easily magnifiable in a bustling city like The Big Apple. On the surface; it’s a city obsessed with labels, attachments, success, and just plain “doing”. But, if you dig a little deeper; it’s a city full of shiny treasures. Mirrors that shine back insecurities and questions of self-acceptance, of love. It’s a city that shows little mercy. It rarely stops for those who are wandering, indecisive, close-minded, or insecure. This constant vulnerability forces self-acceptance. To accept fully; the dark, the light and all the in between to not only survive, but thrive.
Nothing is more important than doing the work to understand what makes you tick, what lights you up, and what has you rise day after day. I’ll tell you, the process has not been blissful or peaceful, but it’s worth it.
I’m out to learn it all. And that’s how traveling changed me. It got me interested in who I truly am and how I can find purpose and be of contribution to the world — even if that only is by being my best version of myself (flaws and all).
My solo backpack trip didn’t end like a cathartic rom-com with a melodic theme song. It paints a picture of struggle and evolution, a process of inner examination and questioning. An evolving journey. Not a fairytale ending. At least not yet…