I had big plans for my three months in Thailand.
Writing a Koh Tao guide. Overhauling my archives. Pitching freelance outlets I’ve been itching to write for. Tackling items on my to do list that have been stagnating there for, oh, I don’t know, years. I had mighty ambitions for doing all those things in my quarter year back in Southeast Asia.
And you know what? I did basically none of them. I failed spectacularly at that list. Instead, my time back in Thailand was focused around a much more crucial goal: a little thing I call not losing my flipping mind.
Because guys, I was close.
I’ve really struggled with how to write this post, because the last thing I want to do is come off ungrateful for my life or unaware of how privileged I’ve been to lead it. But every lifestyle involves sacrifices. And this one, for all it gives me, does lack in some things I’ve grown to feel the absence of — the comforts of a routine, the depth of long term friendships and relationships, the stability of regular employment, a place to call home, a sense of balance. The truth is, for me, much of 2014 was spent on the brink of burnout. Two of the things I love most in this world are blogging and traveling, and from those passions grew Alex in Wanderland. Yet somehow, around my third anniversary of non-stop travel and blogging, I came dangerously close to loathing both those things. When you create a business out of your passions, you have to be somewhat protective of yourself in order to make sure that flame doesn’t burn out — advice I simply was not heeding.
I sobbed tears of relief when I got to my hotel room in Bangkok, knowing how close I was to an apartment in Koh Tao where I’d sleep in the same bed for weeks in a row, and finally catch up on the backlog of work that was haunting me every night in the form of severe insomnia. I couldn’t say I was homesick — I don’t even have a home. But something wasn’t right. When I got to the island and caught up with one of my oldest and closest friends there, I confessed to her how lost I felt. “Anna, I’m so, so tired. I’m dreading every plan I have coming up. I don’t know if I ever want to travel again.” She considered me closely. “Be careful who you say that to,” she replied. And I know she was right. Travel fatigue doesn’t elicit much empathy. But you guys are my people, and I think I can say pretty much anything to you.
Over the next three months, I gave myself permission to push all those big goals I had to the backburner. I splurged on a light-filled studio and rented a motorbike. I opened my apartment up as an office where my girls Katy and Anna — who also work online — came over almost every day for laptop time and laughter. I did my most pressing and urgent work, and then I firmly closed my computer. I went to muay thai or yoga or to the gym. I went paddleboarding and hiking and diving. I had a regular Sunday spa date where I gossiped with my friend Janine over foot massages. I went out drinking with my friends Brian and Chris. I ordered pizza and laid in bed and watched The Daily Show. I went beach and pool hopping with my girl Päivi. I started seeing a guy who made me smile and made me think. I had movie nights and friends over for drinks. I had unpacked my bags entirely, and I felt deeply content every time I ran my hand along my things, neatly hung in my small closet. My heart swelled when I looked down and saw my keys in my palm — my bike, my apartment. I cancelled two upcoming trips and felt great relief at doing so. My days were filled with friendship and sunshine and the simple pleasures of sitting still. I cannot remember the last time I was so happy.
When it did come time to do a bit of traveling around Thailand — as I had committed to some things ahead of time, before declaring myself on hiatus — I basically brought my new life along with me. My jaunt to Koh Samui, Bangkok, Pai and Chiang Mai was filled with camaraderie, silliness, and a sincere lack of hoots about much else.
Now, I fear some of you might be reading this and thinking, “Hey, it didn’t look like you were having such a bad time when you were jetting around Maui and Las Vegas and gallivanting on the beaches of Greece! So what’s the deal, were you lying then or are you lying now?!” Well, I wasn’t really lying ever, but I maybe was at times selectively showing only the peaks of what had becoming a nauseating roller coaster ride of highs and lows. My mood swings were almost manic. I’d have this beautiful day on a beach somewhere and feel so grateful to be alive, and then as soon I disengaged from the moment I’d descend into a pit of anxiety about every and anything — did I update my accounts to reflect that recent payment, when am I going to find time to write that post, am I going to earn enough income this month, oh my god I never answered that email, how am I going to juggle next month’s itinerary and partnerships, where am I going to be sleeping next week. Yes, I was having fun, but the metaphorical emotional hangovers were excruciating.
I look at pictures from this year and I have the most poignant bittersweet emotions. For example, writing that third anniversary roundup post — I was so proud of that milestone, but I was sick with stress that week, and when I went out to dinner with my mom and sister that night, I didn’t even make it through the meal without crying. I was up and I was down and it was all going by too fast for me to savor or process or anything it.
But finally, in Thailand, life slowed down. I had lots of time to think and reflect. And I looked at myself and said, self, you are not happy! Is it time to pull up the anchor and sail in another direction? (And before you judge, I ask who among us does not use ocean metaphors when contemplating major life changes.) Bloggers far deeper in than I have done so. But in the end, I knew I needed a renovation, not a total rehaul — and now we’re onto home improvement metaphors. Rest in peace, Young House Love (seriously, you should read that article I just linked to).
And so I made some changes. As financially strapped as I was feeling, I was even more hard up for time — so I hired a part-time assistant who is now taking care of a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff for me. I slowed down my travel schedule, in order to cut back on the amount of shuffling and planning and unpacking I do, and to give me ample time to both run my business and to enjoy the places I’m in. I thought long and hard about what my priorities are in my professional and personal life. I vowed to make saying no to things that don’t align with those priorities my New Year’s resolution. And I gave Thailand time to work its magic.
And you know what? It did. Those three months followed by my current six weeks of sitting still in New York — they worked. My wanderlust is back. My excitement at waking up each morning to work is back. I’m back. And I’ve learned some invaluable lessons. I’m not ready to stop traveling and I’m sure as heck not ready to stop writing — you won’t get rid of me so easily! — but I am ready to start embracing doing both a little bit differently. And part of that is going to involve much more time in Thailand to recharge, just like I had here. I’m sure this isn’t the last time I’ll fall into a rut and I can promise you it wasn’t the first. But for now, I’m going to enjoy being on the upswing.
And be grateful to Koh Tao for waking me up, again.
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How do you cope with burnout?