Aeroplanes

Surviving a Shitstorm

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“I had planned to go easy on you, but there’s this fierce warrior-goddess inside you, fighting with all her strength, calling out for a deeper treatment”. That was my reflexologist, mapping the soles of my feet exactly five days after my world imploded. I wanted to believe her, but not even head-to-toe chainmail could have made me feel warrior-like. A shitstorm had hit me, and I didn’t have a clue how to survive it.

You don’t need the hyperventilating, tears-and-snot detail of it all; suffice it to say, 2016 tore me apart. It dealt me one blow after another throughout the year, culminating in pure heartbreak. It unstitched me at the seams and didn’t stop until it had sunk its beastly claws into the very core of me. It catapulted me into a reality I could never have imagined and that I couldn’t stomach; anything I ate rose back up my throat choking me like the words I couldn’t say out loud. For a while, I’d had the only thing that mattered to me – LOVE – and in the slam of a door it went up in flames.  

Just like the two fishes symbolic of his zodiac sign, my lover’s heart began to swim in two opposing directions: one half chased something he didn’t even know existed, while the other half clutched at the shadows of the happiness he was throwing away. He became the epitome of Piscean indecision; a dark, deep, watery, enchanting and soulful mystery, whose penchant for living in a fantasy world ultimately demolished the reality we’d built down here on earth. Bags were packed, contracts were broken, memories were stuffed into boxes, keys were returned. The sky went black.  

In the first waves of shock, I sank. I reeled from the agony of it all, barely breathing. I knew that existing solely on wine and toast wasn’t sustainable, and that crying all day at my desk would wear thin with my boss, so I gave myself permission to do whatever was necessary to feel human again. If this involved letting people down, changing plans on a whim, over-indulging and over-spending, so be it. Anything to make me feel safe. Anything to make me feel loved. Anything to replace the weight of mourning with the lightness of joy. I asked myself: where do you want to be while you feel like this? Bali. The answer arrived like Usain Bolt. Just like that, I gave myself permission to escape.  

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I clung to this decision like a liferaft in the Drake Passage, with resounding approval from loved ones. “Put an ocean between it all and it might look a little funnier”, a text message read as I departed Heathrow ashen and depleted of strength. I dragged the shell of my former self 7,760 miles from the source of my pain, and touched down in The Land of a Thousand Temples, desperate to be healed.

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I never thought I’d be grown up enough to take a sabbatical. That was a word you heard whispered amongst your parents’ friends, referring in hushed tones to an acquaintance whose life had fallen apart to such an extent she couldn’t get through a dinner party without laying her mascara-streaked face down on the crockery and going to sleep in front of seven strangers. Yet here I was, amongst the hippies and the Hindus, beginning my own sabbatical. “I just need Bali to throw as much weird healing at me as possible”, I declared, and the island dutifully delivered.

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Legend has it that the magic of Bali – the very essence of why it’s such a healing haven – lies in its volcanic soil. This magic crept under my skin, whispering reassuringly, and I had no choice but to listen. I dug my feet into the earth. I howled at the moon and drank the stars. I climbed peaks in the blackness of night to watch the sunrise. I ceremonially released the past and beckoned the future with the help of the wildly crashing ocean. I covered myself in glitter and danced to reggae with strangers. I formed a coven with two amazing merwitches (a word we hope The OED will officially recognise someday).

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I skinny-dipped and delved into life’s big questions with a beautiful Alaskan kindred spirit. I poured my sweat and tears onto the yoga mat at every opportunity. I confronted my fears. I ate my weight in tropical fruit. I found a 95-year-old medicine man who healed me in mysterious ways I am not meant to understand. I bathed in waterfalls and monsoon downpours. I received massages and heart-melting smiles from locals. I gained a Balinese family. I met a guy at the public cremation of a princess. I met a guy whilst rescuing a litter of kittens from certain death. I drank coconuts and cocktails, watched sunsets and let turquoise waters kiss my skin.

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I practiced gratitude and spent time alone, absorbed in the chaos of my inner world, trying to make sense of it all.

I SURVIVED.

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After months of suffocating anxiety, finally I was able to just sit – with no distractions or support – and contemplate my life without the overwhelming sense of panic, anger, grief and fear I’d been consumed with. Where once I’d been rigid with tension, my body now relaxed and the waterfall of tears slowed to a trickle, rising up only in moments of healthy release. I gave myself permission to trust my instincts again, without which I would never have washed up on the shores of Bali.

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“Find closure”, people say. Closure. When your heart is still fully engaged in a situation, closure is the kind of word that makes you want to tell everyone to kindly fuck off. But the truth is, whichever word you use – peace, acceptance, forgiveness – you will eventually find a way of not being consumed by the issue every breathing second. And when you realise you’ve reached that point, it’s a Margaritas-all-round kind of milestone.

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Sometimes I still crumble – actually, let’s go with often. I’m a work in progress. Because I handed over my heart to a boy with blue eyes, for what I understood to be a lifetime. Because his face makes me weep with love, familiarity, confusion and loss. Because we shared private jokes nobody else gets. Because of memories and landmark dates. Because when he danced my sides split with laughter. Because he was my home. Because I can’t switch the love off. Because the world we created together was demolished one Wednesday night. Because trust was replaced with betrayal. Because my mind takes me to dark places when I imagine him smiling with someone who has thinner legs than me, a nose piercing, and the kind of forehead that can pull off a fringe. When my brain lures me there, I tumble through deep portals, into galaxies of the unthinkable, unsure if I’ll make it back alive. But I always do, somehow.

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Living without the person you love to the depths of your soul feels like shit, guys. There’s no sugar-coating it. But somehow we must rise. Somehow we must find a way to steer our ships calmly and authentically through stormy waters. Somehow we must hold the shards of our shattered hearts in our palms, and ever-so-slowly place the pieces back into our chests. Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces will never fit together the same way again, but a new shape will form, which we must grow to love. Above all, we must remember that scars are beautiful; they’re the tapestry of our existence.

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Every day during my two months in Bali, I’ve embraced fire; to cleanse, to feel strong. I’ve breathed volcanic air, fired up my muscles in Vinyasa Flow, lit candles and incense at bedtime and burned the toxicity of 2016 on the beach at midnight. I’ve worshipped that majestic fireball that’s born in the sky each morning and that dies on the horizon each night. Fire has become everything to me; it has attempted to evaporate the water of his Piscean energy and to dry the tears that have drowned me. There’s a burning determination within me to turn my pain into productivity. He may have written the ending to our story, but I’m in charge of the narrative from here on.

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Will I write a tale in which I transform the turmoil of 2016’s shitstorm into progression, personal growth and flourishing creativity? Yes.

Will I continue to heal, slowly and delicately unfurling like a leaf in a slow-motion nature documentary until I’m vibrant and whole again? Yes.

Will I remain steadfast in my pursuit of a life that sets my soul on fire? Yes.

And will the warrior-goddess that my reflexologist saw within me rise triumphant in the end? Absofuckinglutely.  

Blog 1: A Stranger Called Sam

There comes a critical moment as I find my seat on any long haul flight which I call Meeting My New Temporary Best Friend. I size this person up quickly, because if I’m travelling alone, then for the next 12-24 hours they must tick many boxes. My preferred criteria: 1) Friendly but not overbearing. 2) Physically fit, in case of emergency. 3) Healthy – I don’t want to catch anything. 4) Respectful of personal space. 5) Willing to have bones broken in a vice grip during turbulence. 6) Sense of humour added advantage.
On the 27th December 2012, as I left London for a two month Asian adventure, I struck in-flight gold; my jet plane buddy Sam fitted the description perfectly and made what was to be a dreadful Kuwait Airways experience distinctly more tolerable.

No journey is without obstacles, and when you travel it’s far better to embrace adversity, roll with the logistical punches, resist nothing and accept change; a philosophy which needed speedy adoption when I arrived in Kuwait expecting a short connection and found myself stuck there for 12 hours without any local currency or language. Bleary eyed and dehydrated, I dived into the chaos of an angry crowd at the “information” desk where it took an army of incompetent airport workers three hours to inform me of nothing more than Kuwait is a dry state (imagine my horror), I might need a visa to enter even for 12 hours and that process is guaranteed to be lengthy and confusing, I might be given a hotel room, I might have to collect my baggage (or more likely it will continue on to the wrong destination), the onward flight might also stop in Malaysia en route, the flight number might change and there is no predictable departure or arrival date/time. As our passports disappeared into the hands of a man of questionable honour, the angry crowd’s temper was fuelled further, and I contemplated my lack of appropriate attire for an unexpected overnight stay in this Middle Eastern mayhem. The situation was far from ideal but I felt alive, being on the road again, having the Virgo control freak beaten out of me by change and disruption.

And so I spent a sleepless night in a soul-less, sickly green hotel room, listening to my neighbour blasting the Arabic Top Ten Countdown through paper mâché walls, with just a cigarette butt to keep me company, and no trustworthy source of drinking water. Silver lining: the courtesy buffet didn’t give me food poisoning, unlike my My New Temporary Best Friend.

During the onward flights the pandemonium lessened and I was soothed by the gentle tones of a father and son singing melodic Indonesian folk music behind me. They appeared to know only one song, which they harmonised in unison repeatedly over many hours, so thankfully it was soft and exceptionally beautiful to my foreign ears. It was with this as my soundtrack that I caught my first breath-taking glimpse of Indonesia, the land I would call my home for the coming months. As the island of Sumatra crept into view, the sun burned orange to red on its graceful descent behind storm clouds. Volcanic peaks rose through low mist as menacing reminders of their constant threat to the land that geologists call The Ring of Fire. This part of the world remains a scientifically recognised hot spot for natural disasters, but flying over the Andaman Sea on such a calm night it felt impossible to comprehend that this body of gently rippled water could wreak such devastation as it did on Boxing Day 2004.

With a 33 hour journey behind me, I landed in Jakarta for what should have been a Love-Actually-style airport reunion scene with Ben, but fate would have it otherwise. Scanning the crowd for his face I paced up and down arrivals, carrying 23kg on my increasingly sweaty back, ignoring offers of taxis or help, and maintaining with great conviction that he would be there. Some time passed. Anger crept in; how could he leave me stranded? Some more time passed. Then worry; had there been an accident? After 90 minutes I became the sole traveller in the empty arrivals hall, and with my mobile out of action, I conceded it was time for a taxi. I confess that my mood was hanging precariously in the balance, and by the point I reached the hotel lobby and was informed there was no record of my booking or of Ben Reason, that balance was tipped. Cue tears of panic and desperation. There was a huge language barrier; all I could do was keep repeating my myself (with increasing levels of mime and hand gestures) which I did for some 20 minutes until the manager finally realised I was referring to the Ben Reason that was staying in room 511, the Ben Reason who had been in the room all day waiting for me. Embarrassed, he swiftly dialled room 511. The conversation went something like this…
Me, through gritted teeth: “I’m here.”
Ben, buoyant: “Hey!! Baby you’re here at last!! Woohoo!! Amazing! Hell yeah!!”
Me, seething: “Come downstairs. Now.”
Ben, quiet: “Oh”.
With patience, compassion and profuse apologies Ben collected his sweaty, tearful, fuming, she-devil girl from the lobby and within minutes I was calm. In short, Kuwait Airways had outdone themselves in astounding incompetence and failed to publish the day/time of my delayed arrival, leaving Ben to assume the best course of action was to remain at the hotel, our “If-All-Else-Fails-Meeting-Point”. Because my phone wasn’t working I didn’t get his messages. Add into the mix some IT failures and a couple of confused Indonesians, and you have the root of the problem.

So I had spent the first 24 hours of my trip with a stranger called Sam, but what did it matter? Such twists and turns are the heart and soul of travelling, and there would surely be many more…

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