friendship

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.  

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The Auspicious Night Bus

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Two girls board a night bus in Bangkok, expertly and competitively bagging the upper-deck front seats.  They’ve sent their men to stow the baggage.  The Norwegian girl smiles affably at the English girl, realising they have the same intent: maximum comfort for the long journey ahead.  Their bond is instant. The men get along too, but that’s immaterial.  Twelve hours seems like two.  A month of shared experiences follows, then flights between their respective countries.  Wedding vows are witnessed, babies are born, families are entwined.  Throughout it all the girls’ bond remains strong.  This is travel friendship at its best.

A Balancing Act

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Sunday 16th February 2014, 9.59am, Koh Phangan, Thailand:

My backpack is locked in my beach bungalow. What a ridiculous problem to have on departure day. My own attempts to open the little wooden door have, obviously, failed miserably and now a small army of local boys (loosely imitating staff) have turned up with a box of a hundred unmarked keys which one of them is unsystematically trying the jammed lock with, whilst another is breaking in through the window, taking entire panes of glass out as he goes. He looks at me as if to say, “This shit happens all the time around here” and I smile, because it’s unequivocally true. He then tries to charge me 200 Baht for fixing a problem that was quite clearly there before my arrival, which is something else that happens all the time around here. Because this is Thailand, and this chaotic, corrupt, disorganised and wildly beautiful land is the place I chose to be during this one-month escape of a cruel annual joke in England we call winter.

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Last year, as my 30th birthday drew closer it intrigued me that I had never properly ventured solo into the world. All my life I’ve been seeking, discovering and exploring the planet within the safety of great and trusted company. Why had I never gone alone? Was it through fear? Complacency? Habit? It was time to find out. One passenger, one ticket, one bag. Destination: Koh Phangan.

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My other reason for this trip was the simple need to pause and process the mayhem of life. As a friend so perfectly put it, I just needed to go somewhere beautiful for a while and clear my head. What followed was a month of auspicious encounters, surprise adventures and a healthy dose of introspection. The clearest way for me to describe the past month is by dividing it into lunar phases, representing not only some key moments during my journey, but also the moon that is so hedonistically celebrated on this island.

Part 1: Solitude (aka Waning Gibbous Moon)

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Bangkok was its usual polluted self: a blend of intense heat, pandemonium-inducing traffic, neon lights, cheap clothes, persistent hawkers, street food, rats, throbbing club beats and political protests. My room was a typical windowless box above an Indian restaurant which doubled as a noisy all-night karaoke bar. The bed crawled with insects, the walls were adorned with unidentifiable stains and, outside in the soul-less concrete corridor, strands of electrical cables hung from the ceiling, dripping with water and sparking frequently. The end of the corridor was blocked by prison bars (to prevent travellers making a desperate escape by leaping off the roof?) and I would not have been surprised to see Robert Carlisle’s paranoid head emerge from within darkened corners. It was your typical Bangkok dive, costing a total of £3.50. Most people fit neatly into either the Love or Loathe category where Thailand’s capital is concerned, and I’m never quite sure to which I belong. On past experience I have to reluctantly conclude it’s the latter, but I’m prepared to believe that could yet change. In any case, 24 hours after arrival I beat a hasty retreat south.

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My first few days of island life were spent in relative solitude. Beyond ordering food and haggling songthaew taxi fares I barely engaged in conversation. During those days I mostly worked, albeit from the beach with a beer in hand, chipping away at the word count for an approaching deadline. Convincing myself that each hour of work should be rewarded with equal time at the hands of a Thai masseuse, I would break frequently because, really, what’s the point of being a freelance writer if you can’t choose your “office hours”? The more days that passed, the fewer words I spoke, which generally felt soothing, until a need for meaningful human interaction kicked in. I submitted my article, bid my masseuse farewell and switched locations on a whim.

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Part 2: Liberation (aka Half Moon)

A whim, it turns out, can be quite the gem if you act upon it… Enter Camille, the wise and funny Zimbabwe-born Australian resident who I affectionately call Blondie. Two travellers, one available beachside bungalow and an unexpected invitation to share. We became friends instantly, bonding over our shared interests and curiosities about the world. Island life with Blondie on Koh Phangan was a series of spontaneous and fun events, like the enticing trailer of a summer movie: neon-painted bodies dancing carefree at the Half Moon Party; sun-kissed skin and salty hair; the wind-whipped exhilaration of motorbike rides over tropical terrain; beach-hopping island exploration; new friends, cold beers and old songs; sunsets and uncontrollable laughter.

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It was a liberating time. The cobwebs of winter were blown away and I felt vibrant again. We shared a mutual understanding of each other that belied our short friendship and gave us confidence in its longevity. Seven days later, with farewell tears at the jetty (pathetic or what?) we went our separate ways. Some people’s paths are destined to cross, and meeting Blondie brought me back to myself again. As she departed, the next chapter beckoned: The Sanctuary, a holistic retreat where I would spend a week cleansing my system and clearing my mind.

Part 3: Rehabilitation (aka New Moon)

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Arriving via a rough but mercifully short longtail boat ride, I was plunged straight into The Sanctuary’s hub and it felt a little overwhelming. The place was packed with hardcore hippies; dread-locked, tattooed and deep in stoned conversations about progressive ideas for rejecting the modern world. Even as someone who is perfectly at home with New Age living, I had to admit it was an intense environment. There was so much colour, texture and eye-catching detail coming from the artwork in the wood-carved space and from its inhabitants that I found myself in a bewildered trance. Very soon, of course, what had seemed intimidating felt perfectly normal, and I relaxed into a nourishing routine.

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Opting out of a strict detox programme, I took the middle road which permitted a few beers at night and didn’t involve voluntary starvation – the thought of fasting made me practically weep when I saw the veggie menu. I spent the week engrossed in yoga, meditation and a host of holistic healings from which I drew deep benefits and learned some potentially life-changing things about myself. I slept in a 10-bed dorm overlooking the sea, devoured daily spirulina juices and treated myself to herbal steam and cold plunge sessions at dusk. I rose with the sun, read in hammocks and floated on my back letting the sea carry my weight. As each day passed, my mind felt less cluttered.

IMG_1405A close ally at The Sanctuary made an astute observation one day, commenting that it felt a little like rehab in the sense that you checked in with your own issues and by the time you checked out you’d take on everyone else’s too, which was both amusing and true. The hub of the restaurant was like an obstacle course of social encounters – it was imperative you chose your seat carefully or you might end up with a side order of Group Therapy to go with your curry. It became commonplace to tell intimate secrets to someone you met moments ago. Strange as it may sound, it felt completely normal, perhaps even cathartic, in that environment.

Within that social bubble I met a fascinating cast of characters: The sexy photographer/yogi from Sydney whose humour and easy company instilled in me a sense of peace; the esoteric Canadian with the intense stare who spoke freely about his depression and had no concept of personal space; the bubbly Camden girl with the beautiful eyes who was learning the art of letting go; the kind-hearted but wild pensioner trying to kick the habit of a lifetime; the unfulfilled surf instructor moving from one meaningless fling to another; the Italian farmer who hiked miles through the jungle each day in preparation for a Nepal trek; the quiet girl who engaged with nobody and slept around the clock; the tattooed German heavyweight fighter with the surprisingly gentle character; and last but never least, my good friend and close confidant, the kind-hearted nurse with the enviable zeal for life who needed time out from caring for others to nurture herself. Then there was me: how would others have defined me in one sentence, I wonder?

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The retreat’s setting was lovely, tumbling down a thick jungle mountainside to a small bay, but it was also isolated and after 7 days a feeling of claustrophobia was growing within me. I had gained so much from my experiences – The Sanctuary possesses a mysterious and special kind of magic – but I needed to escape the bubble and get back to the “real world”. Plus, all the soul-searching in the world won’t quench a woman’s thirst for shopping…

IMG_1561Part 4: Contemplation (aka Full Moon)

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During the final phase of my trip I wanted to marinade in all that I had experienced, somewhere with sunsets and broad horizons. I intended to be alone but remain open to company should I meet the right people, thus striking the balance I’m so conscious of maintaining in life. I found a small wooden beach bungalow on the opposite side of the island, a few metres from the water, with a hammock on the verandah and plenty of palm trees for shade. It was basic, but I made this hut my home, unpacking my few belongings and burning incense and candles for atmosphere.

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Nearby were daily yoga and meditation classes, fantastic home-cooked food courtesy of a smiley woman called Pim, and a charming community of long-stay travellers who invited me in without hesitation, sharing esoteric conversation, joints and astronomy lessons around the bonfire. It was exactly where I needed to be, and as I surrounded myself with people who were so firmly on my wavelength, something was unlocked within me. I noticed that life was starting to flow more fluidly, more creatively. I’m certain it’s the same whatever your walk of life; medical students feed their appreciation and understanding of the workings of the human body when in the company of an award-winning surgeon, just as fashion students might buzz with excitement during an encounter with an accomplished catwalk designer. When you accept that every encounter or experience we have in life can teach us something, all sorts of windows and doors start appearing where previously you only saw walls.

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After this month of travelling alone, what is my verdict? Decidedly positive. Once my initial nerves subsided I found that it felt completely natural, and discovered that it not only suits but excites me. The possibilities are endless and the choices are my own. Solo travel tests my fondness of time spent alone, gives me space to be myself and meet strangers with a clean slate, and the chance to ponder such mind-boggling questions as what makes me happy in life, and why tropical sea lice don’t sting your tongue when you open your mouth in the water (the latter question could be put down to an excess of sun and coconut water). Most crucially, my experiences have given me a deeper understanding of living through my heart rather than my head, they’ve taught me to trust my instincts and shown me how to focus on my passions. In short, this has been a blessing.

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And so, as the whole island prepares to celebrate the Full Moon, I prepare for departure. It’s not exactly a celebration for me – because who in their right mind would want to leave such an idyllic haven? – but I can feel proud of what I have accomplished on a personal level, and rather than returning home with a heavy heart and a cluttered mind, I feel relaxed, inspired, creative and centred. Now if only I could retrieve my backpack from that locked bungalow…

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