Chapter 11: Cultivating Calm

I arrived in Chiang Mai with a list of goals: find work, set a healthy routine, save money, get regular foot massages, and prioritize me-time. As I walked past the pool and then threw open the door of my one bedroom apartment, I knew it was going to be a good month. Our accommodations in Thailand were a dream. Everyone in the group had their own apartment in one of three buildings all side-by-side. Each building had a pool and a fitness room, leaving me no excuse not to try to get back in shape. Jill, a personal fitness coach, was piloting a new holistic wellness program for the month and taking volunteers, so I hopped onboard and began tracking my daily activities. It was time to get back in touch with my 2019 new year’s resolutions.

My first week in Chiang Mai, I was on track. I worked out and stretched daily, cooked and ate healthy, monitored my spending and went head down on the job search. Within five days of hunting, I’d lined up four interviews. Within a week of sending my first resume I’d secured a part-time gig that would help refill my checking account and keep me busy for three weeks. While I was relieved and extremely proud of my ability to go after it and manifest exactly what I needed, I’d forgotten how hard it is to prospect for new work. Reviewing job descriptions, writing cover letters and adjusting resumes, nerve-wracking interviews and then the pressure of actually starting a new job takes its toll on anyone. Doing all of this as someone who is naturally shy and introverted, while in a completely different time zone, is unbelievably draining.

While I loved my inward focus and personal routine for the first few days, it quickly became dull. Living in such close proximity to everyone, I found myself being very social, as I’d known I would be. Another goal for the month had been to connect with the group more and even just within the first few days in Thailand I was doing just that, meeting friends for coffee, lunch, dinner, massages and pool time. As I started working nights I began looking for places to work so I could leave my room and avoid cabin fever. The new gig required me to work from 10pm-6am, so prior to starting full-time I eased my way in, working a few hours each night to get onboarded. This required me to adjust my normal schedule and threw my new routine for a bit of a loop. Luckily I had friends like Kayla, a new addition to our group, and Mariyah, who were also working nights and could help with this transition.

I tried not to sign up for too many activities throughout the month in order to keep my spending down. Of all the paid events and experiences Remote Year offers I only chose one: a day with elephants at the Elephant Freedom Project. A week after our arrival, a group of us headed to the sanctuary to feed, walk with and bathe a herd of rescued elephants. They were beautiful and sweet and we enjoyed a relaxing day in their company.

Bathing elephants at the Elephant Freedom Project

A week later the majority of our group headed out of the city yet again, but for a very different kind of all-day excursion. Our first stop was to visit a very flashy, well maintained temple out in the countryside. From there we drove on to the day’s main attraction, the sticky waterfall. The rock over which the water flows is a grippy, porous texture, which allows you to climb directly up it. There are slippery spots where moss has grown, but if you walk in the stream of the water and hold the ropes that have been hung there, you can climb all the way to the top.

Torie and I hung back at first, concerned that our feet, which were still healing wouldn’t get us to the top. Her plantar fasciitis was still bothering her and my ankle was still quite stiff. I wasn’t sure I could rely on it to carry my weight or flex correctly as needed. As we watched everyone else climb up the main route, we decided to try a side route that looked less steep with side railings rather than ropes. We didn’t realize that path would only take us halfway up and that we’d have to go up the main route the rest of the way. As we rejoined the others for the last stretch of the climb, I nearly panicked as I began climbing with the rope up a particularly slimy part of the falls. My left leg was shaking from baring more weight than it was used to and my toes hurt from being forced to bend more than they had for the past four months. I stopped, took a deep breath, and recognizing the only option at this point was to keep going up, I kept on climbing until I reached the top. Although it may have been a small feat to some, I was so damn proud of myself for climbing that waterfall. Once again I’d pushed myself to achieve more than I thought possible. Like scaling the pyramid at Teotihuacan while still in my boot, I’d tested my abilities and gone at my own pace to accomplish something most wouldn’t attempt.

Climbing the sticky waterfall

Although I’d agreed to tighten my belt financially for the month, I just couldn’t bear the thought of missing out on the islands while in Thailand. Most of our group was planning to spend some amount of time off the Southeastern coast in Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. Although I couldn’t go crazy, I found a way to plan a budget trip to Koh Phangan, where I figured a few days of sun and beach would do me good. The flight to Surat Thani was less than $90 round trip and the ferries to the islands cost me no more than $60 total. I planned to spend the first night in Koh Samui with Sam and Steven at a hostel and then rent a room at a coworking space on Koh Phangan for the next four nights. The last night of my stay was the Full Moon Party on the southern tip of the island and a few of our friends were planning to attend. I thought I’d make this a solo trip and spend some time relaxing and doing my own thing, but meet up with the group for the party the night before heading back.

Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly how things worked out. As I mentioned previously, I was hired for a short-term job filling in for a project manager at a branding agency while she was on vacation. The night of the Full Moon Party would be my third night on the job. Since I was filling in for someone on vacation, I couldn’t exactly take a night off myself, so I left for the islands knowing I would miss the main event. The night before we left was my first all-nighter. I didn’t sleep until we got to the airport, and then as we made our way south I stole every moment I could to nap. We arrived at our hostel 12 hours from when we left Chiang Mai just in time to eat something and then start my workday. Unfortunately the hostel didn’t have Wi-Fi, so I found myself scrambling to find a place to work for the night. The process of finding a workspace had me completely frazzled. I was on an island and didn’t know how reliable the Wi-Fi would be anywhere. Every cafe I found closed at 11, which is when I was supposed to start work. I got caught in a rainstorm after dinner and somehow found time to run back to my hostel and freshen up before heading to the only workspace I could find. This was important since I had an interview that evening and didn’t want to look like a drowned rat. I finally got to the workspace and settled in, but at first the music was too loud and I was nervous about making calls with so much background noise. The music eventually quieted down, people trickled out of the space and I was left on my own to focus. Somehow despite everything, I’d found a way to make it work.

The next morning we caught a ferry to Koh Phangan. Once again, I’d hardly slept. As we left the hostel and headed for our next destination, my solo part of the trip, I started to feel some anxiety creep up through my chest. I was having second thoughts about being on my own for a few days, but I wasn’t quite sure why. I tried suggesting to Sam and Steven that we grab a bite together before I left for my accommodation, but Sam misunderstood. I got upset, because I felt like he was pushing me away sooner than he needed to, so in order to avoid making a scene I excused myself from the table where we were eating breakfast, saying I’d see them on the ferry. I couldn’t explain at the time where this fragility and anxiety was coming from. I just hoped it would go away once I got settled in my Airbnb. When we landed on the next island, I went with Sam and Steven to rent scooters. I wanted to rent one myself, but it had been years since I’d driven one and I wasn’t confident in my abilities. I left the rental shop on the back of Sam’s scooter and we headed for my Airbnb. I had found a coworking space with several rooms for rent right on the beach. I booked a room for $40/night figuring it would be a busy hub from which I could easily meet strangers and relax by the water. When we got there I was extremely disappointed. The coworking space was on a quieter part of the island and although it boasted a large workspace, there was hardly anyone ever there working. My room was a tiny room upstairs with a twin size bed, an internal window and no air conditioning. There were several other guests, but no large social scene like I’d imagined. The beach behind the house was a small, quiet private beach that hardly anyone visited. I’d wanted a solo vacation away from our group, but I hadn’t hoped to be so isolated. Steven, Sam and I grabbed lunch at a restaurant down the street and then they left to check into their hotel. I found myself alone in the house, because that’s what the coworking space actually was, and as I felt a panic attack coming on, I forced myself to sleep it away.

I woke up hours later feeling a little better, but still not great. I felt anxious, depressed and isolated. What had I done? I thought a few days alone would do me good, but in that moment the last thing I wanted was to be alone. I texted Sam and told him how I was feeling and he invited me to come to the night market with him and Steven for dinner. They came to pick me up and I was so relieved. We spent about an hour at the market and then they drove me back to the house to start my workday. I returned feeling rejuvenated and ready to work. I set up a workstation in the open-air kitchen facing the beach, brewed some coffee and enjoyed the sea breeze on my face.

My kitchen workstation on Koh Phangan

I woke up around noon the next day feeling anxious yet again. I was intimidated by the thought of leaving the bedroom and trying to find my way down the road to breakfast. I took my time getting ready and started to put together a plan. I’d found a tattoo shop I wanted to look into for a Thai-style bamboo tattoo. I would head that way and see about an appointment then check out a cafe someone had mentioned might be open 24 hours. I was hoping for a better place to work on Monday and thought I’d scout it out. Having a destination in mind gave me the courage to head out and hail a truck, the local “taxi” that could transport multiple people back and forth on the island. Sam had texted me earlier to see how I was feeling and I texted him back thinking maybe I could meet up with him after the cafe. I’d been adamant before leaving Chiang Mai that he wouldn’t see me until Sunday and it was only Saturday, but with how shaky I was feeling, I needed the company. He told me I could join them in their plans for the day and for whatever reason, I didn’t like the way he’d put that. It felt as though I was being invited to tag along on their itinerary. He and Steven were at a beach on the northern point of the island and would be heading back south to their hotel in about two hours. Sam offered to pick me up on the way back south. He asked for the name of my Airbnb and I told him I wasn’t at the house. He then asked for my address and I gave it to him, thinking he wanted it for future reference. When I got to the cafe I shared my location with him in WhatsApp so he’d know where to pick me up. Unfortunately, I was told the cafe wouldn’t convert to 24 hour access until the next month. Disappointed, I enjoyed a latté and a croissant and sat to wait for Sam.

Eventually, I got a text saying “I’m outside”. I looked out the window and didn’t see him anywhere. I asked where he was and he said he was outside the house. Frustrated, I told him I wasn’t there. He had to turn around and drive north a few miles to pick me up. At this point I’d been waiting for about 45 minutes. Anxious and feeling that my day was slipping away from me, I was upset. He pulled up and I made it clear to him how I was feeling. To make matters worse, I’d realized right before he arrived that my debit card was missing. I tried to explain to Sam what I was feeling and why, but he just didn’t understand, and quite honestly, I don’t think I did at that point either. He tried to shrug off my bad mood saying “Come on, you’re not happy, let’s change that. Let’s go have fun and save this day.” That just angered me more. I didn’t feel like he was trying to understand why I felt the way I did, but was just trying to get me to move on. I couldn’t do it. I got on the back of his bike, still sulking, and we rode south. I wanted to get over it and stop being angry, but I couldn’t quite shake the way I felt.

We arrived at Sam’s hotel and I felt an odd mixture of jealousy and disgust. We were in tourist central, surrounded by young party bros. I had specifically booked accommodations away from this spot because I wanted a more relaxing vibe. They were staying on the beach where the Full Moon Party would take place, so naturally the place was crawling with tourists and souvenir shops and the type of inauthentic crap that inevitably and unfortunately springs up in any beautiful place. Despite my distaste for the atmosphere, I felt the FOMO and longed to be part of the action. If I was staying here, I wouldn’t feel so desolate and lonely. Sam and I walked along the beach and I tried to explain my feelings. I was emotionally drained from having put myself out there again and again as we traveled and got used to new places. I also realized the process of interviewing for new jobs had only added to this. My social anxiety was flaring up because I’d been pushing myself out of my comfort zone too much lately. On top of that I’d started working evenings and hadn’t gotten enough sleep in the past few days. This physical exhaustion was just exacerbating my emotional fatigue. Sam listened and tried to understand what I was feeling, but I didn’t feel much empathy. I wanted him to wrap his arms around me and just tell me it would be all right. Tell me my feelings were valid and that with how hard I’d been working, these were normal feelings. But that’s not how he thinks. Instead, I’d get a pat on the hand and then he’d go into distraction mode, trying to change the subject and get me to move onto something more cheerful. This did not help.

We went to dinner that night and at one point I found myself thinking “this is not fulfilling. I’m not happy. I still don’t feel any better. Sam said something that offended me and I snapped. I said some angry words to him, started crying and got up and ran away. I headed about 30 feet down the road and sat on a curb angry and upset. I hoped he would come and find me. Instead I watched him walk down the hill back toward his hotel. I was indignant. How could he leave me there? I headed to his hotel texting him on the way. He was waiting when I got there. I yelled at him, asked what was wrong with him and why he couldn’t be the emotional support I needed. I said I just needed someone to hold me and tell me it would all be okay, but that he couldn’t even do that. He said he’d been told before that he’s not good with emotional matters and that it’s just not something he understands. But as I stood there crying, he came over and put his arms around me and slowly pulled me over toward the bed. We lay down and he held me while I sobbed. We fell asleep like that and napped for a few hours.

When we woke up I felt better. I thought everything would finally be okay. We put on some music and started mixing cocktails then went to the beach to find the party. We didn’t go crazy, but shared a “bucket” of booze between the two of us. We danced and watched a group of pub crawlers burn themselves on the fire jump rope.  After a few hours we went back to the hotel room and called it a night. I wrongly assumed it was alright for me to spend the night. I took a shower and prepared to crawl into bed with Sam, but was stopped in my tracks when he asked if I was ready for him to take me home. And just like that, I was back on shaky ground, unable to control my anxiety and depression. I had just started to regain my footing and felt sure that a night beside my partner would be the cure, but now I was facing rejection and being told I had to go back to my sad, isolating Airbnb. I couldn’t take it. I lost my cool yet again and this time I was just drunk enough to take it too far, saying hurtful things I didn’t mean. My only explanation for this behavior is that I truly felt that vulnerable, insecure and emotionally raw in that moment that I pulled out the low blows and lashed out as my only defense. As ashamed as I am to admit it, it worked in my favor. Sam finally understood just how desperate I was to not spend the night in that house. He texted Steven and told him I was spending the night and then we got under the covers and went to sleep.

I woke up the next morning exhausted and ashamed. I was embarrassed by my behavior and knew I had quite possibly compromised the future of my relationship because of how I’d acted. I got on the back of Sam’s bike and he drove me back to the house. I apologized yet again and told him I’d be okay to spend the day on my own. He said he thought that was best, but that he would be there if I needed him. I showered and got ready for the day asking my host where I could rent a bike. She referred me to the woman just down the street and I set out to buy my mobility. I got my bike and rode it to the tattoo shop. There I parked and then grabbed breakfast next door before going to consult with the artist. Meemi, the young artist and receptionist at the tattoo studio showed me the photos she’d pulled for me and then I sat there while she drew me a dragonfly, similar to one I’d liked. I scheduled an appointment for a few hours later and then headed back to the house. I got lunch at a Thai restaurant down the street and then prepared to head back to the studio. I was feeling better than the day before, but still very raw. The best way to describe it is an emotional hangover. I hopped back on my bike and went back to the studio, where I lay for just over an hour while a large, sweet Thai man who didn’t speak a word of English perched a dragonfly on my shoulder. Why a dragonfly, you may ask. Dragonflies represent change and a change in perspective. They symbolize mental and emotional maturity and an understanding of the deeper meaning of life. Although I wasn’t feeling very emotionally mature after my actions of the previous day, I have felt for a while now that I’m at a point in my life where I’m exploring and getting to know myself and my life’s purpose in a more meaningful way. This whole year is about change for me, and the many things I’ve experienced, both good and bad, are a part of my growth and deeper understanding of myself.

My dragonfly, a reminder of my personal power and poise

When my tattoo was finished, I got back on the bike and headed to the far North side of the island to Malibu Beach. It was a pristine white sand beach and the perfect place to watch the sunset. Well, almost perfect… I sat on my towel and crossed my legs to watch the sun progress, but couldn’t quite find the peace I was searching for, as a group of drunk Brits kept yelling from the water for their friend George to bring them beer. I don’t know what George’s problem was, but I really wish he would have just grabbed a six-pack and gone to join them. Despite the ruckus, it was a beautiful sunset and the freedom I felt in having driven myself there, almost halfway across the island, was good for my soul.

I woke up the next morning still feeling a bit sullen. It was the day of the Full Moon Party and all I had to look forward to was Cozy’s arrival. Don’t get me wrong, I was glad to have someone else from our group to spend the day with, especially someone I knew I could talk to about what I’d been feeling, but I wished so badly I would be joining her and everyone else that evening on the beach. Cozy came and dropped her stuff off at my Airbnb and then we headed down the road for lunch. From there we hopped on the bike and rode north to Zen Beach. It was overcast, but not rainy and we had the beach pretty much to ourselves. I told her what had happened just days before and she commiserated as best she could. We ordered smoothies and lay in hammocks and took it easy for a few hours before heading back south. She and I hopped on a truck from my Airbnb and rode all the way down to Haad Rind, where the Full Moon Party would take place. Sam met us and we ate a quick dinner before the madness began. I left feeling bummed out, but somewhat resigned to my reality. I bought a bottle of red wine at 7-Eleven, set up my workspace at the house and mentally prepared myself for a late night of work. Thirty minutes after I fell asleep at 8:30am, Cozy came by to pick up her stuff and catch the ferry to Koh Tao. An hour after that I left to catch the ferry back to Surat Thani and the mainland.

Cozy and me at Haad Rind before the Full Moon Party

Once on the ferry my depression hit me again full force. I had spent five days in the islands and what did I have to show for it? Instead of the relaxing, reflective solo vacation I’d anticipated, I’d spent three and a half days in an emotional stupor and had almost destroyed the most meaningful relationships I’ve built these past six months. How could I return to Chiang Mai like this? I felt like I had a knot of unresolved emotions and problems sitting deep inside my chest and although I could feel them and almost make out what they were, I still had to take some time to untangle and better examine them to understand what had happened.

From the ferry I boarded a shuttle to Surat Thani Town. I was supposed to spend a night there in an airport hotel and then fly back to Chiang Mai the next day. The thought of staying the night alone in an airport hotel nearly brought on another panic attack. I felt like I would suffocate or drown in depression. When I got off the shuttle I saw a sign for Krabi. My friend Jean had asked me if I planned to visit Krabi while in the South of Thailand. She’d wanted to go years ago and regretted that she hadn’t made time. Suddenly, an idea formed in my mind. Instead of going back to Chiang Mai, I could spend a few days in Krabi. I felt that more than anything I still needed a few days alone. I would salvage my solo, beach vacation and get away from everyone I knew in a different slice of paradise. I sat in the bus terminal and quickly looked at flights from Krabi to Chiang Mai. My biggest question was “could I afford it?” For $30 I could fly directly back to Chiang Mai. I then looked at hotels and found what looked like a decent resort for $60 per night. I booked for one night, crossed my fingers for decent wifi, and inquired about a bus to the other coast. Somehow I found my way to the “locals” bus terminal and was told I could take a shuttle leaving in 45 minutes for $8. I bought a ticket and sat back to wait, already feeling better about things, having taken action. I knew that an extra $300 was worth every penny if it meant regaining my sanity and emotional wellbeing. This decision to spontaneously head off to Krabi seemed like a bold, brave move. I was pushing past my funk and finding the strength to head off on a solo adventure with little to no planning. I felt my strength return, my chest untighten and my mental fog start to clear.

As I sat on the shuttle and watched the countryside pass by before me, I came up with a new idea. I would take the “solo vacation” a step further and observe an isolation period. In order to really get away and get in touch with myself, I should truly disconnect from everyone I know. I decided to spend 72 hours without social media, messaging apps, phone calls or any other contact with my friends and family. I would only be available via email and Slack so I could work in the evenings. I told Sam and a handful of my closest friends that I would be out of contact for the next three days. I told Helena, our Program Leader, and my parents where I was and what I was doing as well. Then, that evening once I’d settled into my hotel, I deleted and logged out of all of my apps. I had scheduled a therapy appointment earlier that day for exactly 72 hours from the moment I disconnected, figuring in three days I could work through my thoughts and feelings and then unload and analyze it all with Dianna over a two hour session once I returned to Chiang Mai.

For the next two days I slept in late, walked along the beach and boardwalk, read and journaled by the beach and the pool and ate cheap meals at the local restaurants and night market. I worked evenings from my bungalow where I had complete privacy and a decent Wi-Fi connection. By disconnecting from my daily life and all my streams of influence, I was able to hear my inner voice and have the conversations with myself that I’d been avoiding. I identified the four causes of my meltdown: stress, fear, jealousy and discontent. Stress from finding and starting a new job, suppressing my daily bouts of social anxiety, the financial stress I’d felt since the previous month and lack of sleep. Fear of interacting with strangers on my own, meeting the expectations of my new job, spending money I should save and fear of missing out on the island vacation my friends had planned. Jealousy in having had to book budget accommodations instead of staying in the resort part of the island, in having to work while everyone else partied, and for being unable to socialize as easily and independently as others.  And discontent because the accommodations I’d booked were not what I’d expected, it was harder to meet people than I’d hoped, I wasn’t able to get around easily without a scooter, and I was turned off by the island’s young party atmosphere. This perfect storm of circumstances and feelings had caused me to lose my footing and as I fell, I expected Sam to catch me. While I was disappointed that he couldn’t support me the way I’d hoped, I also came to acknowledge that I’d been neglecting basic needs that would have better prepared me to help myself. I made a list of needs that only I could fulfill: a real budget, regular alone time, a list of my strengths that I could look back on in moments of insecurity, regular conversations with friends and family back home, more journaling, and less drinking.

Sunset at the beach in Krabi

I returned to Chiang Mai on the third day and made my way back to my apartment without running into anyone I knew. I slept most of the afternoon and then called Dianna for my therapy session, which turned out to really just be a validation of everything I’d discovered on my own over the past 72 hours. When I turned my apps back on that evening and rejoined my social sphere, I felt as though I’d finally found the calm I had sought since leaving Hanoi. I was nervous to connect with Sam again after what we’d been through, but was pleasantly surprised to find he’d missed me just as much as I’d missed him. We’d both needed a few days apart, but after about 48 hours we felt ready to reunite. I knew I was returning to Chiang Mai a more whole and emotionally sound version of myself and as we left a few days later for Singapore, I felt prepared to move forward with my new set of insights to guide me.

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