Asking the Hard Questions

I'm a freelance writer, but to what end? Presumably the writing I am doing now should be building toward something, should be part of a body of work that can be used to achieve a next goal. But what is that next goal?

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How God and the Catholic Church nearly ruined my twenties

"Before we go any further, I have to tell you something."

Eric looked at me expectantly but I could feel my nerve wavering. This was the talk I had been preparing to have for days, but now that the time had come, I wanted to forget the whole thing and go back to making out.

We had only been dating for a few weeks but things were going well. Eric was nice, funny and respectful. We liked each other. It didn't hurt that he had a ridiculous body. There was no apparent reason not to keep heating things up between us.

Except...

"I'm a virgin. I'm waiting to have sex until I'm married. So we can't have sex."

"OK."

"OK?"

"Yeah, that's fine. We don't have to do anything you don't want to do."

I should have been relieved. Hadn't my fear that the virgin card would bring things between us to an end been abated? Instead, I turned away from him, tears in my eyes. I was embarrassed, and angry that I felt so hemmed in by the constraints of Catholicism, the religion I had practiced for most of my life. I was 24, and seriously sexually frustrated. But at least I was making God happy, so that was some warped consolation.

I had been raised on the promise of Heaven for the faithful, Hell for the wicked, and the latter group included fornicators. I was told that God had a man chosen for me and I was to trust in His plan and wait for "the one." No sex before marriage. The message had been burned into my brain during 12+ years of Catholic school. Never mind that the vast majority of my classmates and fellow Catholics seemed to have disregarded the abstinence lesson. I was convinced that if I stayed pure, I'd be rewarded one day.

But when I was 23, I started questioning everything about my religion. And that included the Church's mandate against pre-marital sex. I wanted to be having sex, but fear of being damned in the eyes of God prevented me. I felt that I was missing out on a huge part of my young adulthood and was feeling increasingly out-of-place and uninformed during conversations with my friends about our love lives.

When I think back now on the beliefs I held then, I shudder. There are few things more irrational than telling human beings that they must utterly refuse themselves an act that they are biologically wired to perform. Forcing people to deny their most basic impulses or to feel shame at every hint of a stirring in their loins is cruel and foolish. We've seen how well such practices have worked out for the multitude of Catholic priests exposed as child molesters, and in the many cases in which abstinence-only education has resulted in high rates of unplanned pregnancies.

Having abandoned Catholicism, and religion, altogether three years ago, I can see now how warped and backward my thinking was. I used to cling to the promise that God would lead me to the right man and that it shouldn't matter to a guy whether or not we had sex. It's absurd to me now that I ever believed such a thing. I know that I would not marry a guy or commit to a serious relationship with him if he refused to have sex with me. It's an essential, intimate part of a romantic relationship and I would not expect someone to pledge his life to me before we had determined if we were compatible in that way. Yes, I realize there are a number of other areas that are vital to a long-lasting relationship. But this one is a requirement of mine.

I resent the fact that sex, and all of the fun related activities, were such a source of guilt and fear during my formative years, all because of the teachings of a corrupt and antiquated institution. But I am grateful that I awoke to the realities of the Church's teachings in time to heal and get to know myself as a sexual being.

Things between Eric and me ended before I made the leap into atheism and decided to become sexually active. When I did start having sex, my early experiences came with what I suspect are the same insecurities and uncertainties that accompany a lot of people's first forays into that area. But I felt no guilt. I felt no shame, and no fear of burning in the pit of Hell for all eternity. The only judgment that concerns me about my sexual activity now is my own.

Why Hannah Horvath is my hero, or something like that

Last night I watched the season two finale of Girls, and was compelled to share some of my thoughts about it. This isn't about why Girls is such a damn fine show, whether or not Lena Dunham is a feminist hero, or even about how brave she is for showing her naked, "real" body on camera every week.

My love of Girls has always been an intensely personal one, and this blog post is personal as well. I do think this is a high-quality show and am always happy to have a spirited debate about what makes it such from a critical point of view. But that's not what I'm writing about at the moment.

Hannah Horvath, Girls, HBO

My initial interest in Girls was piqued by a New York Magazine piece that referenced the painfully awkward sex scenes and the "realness" of the main characters' naked bodies. I was skeptical of the promised gritty, realistic portrayal of how 20-somethings live, and watched with the expectation of being proven correct in my assumptions.

But I liked the show immediately, so much so that I proceeded to hold regular viewing parties with friends, in Beijing during season one and in Chiang Mai during season two. My friends and I would debate the merits and flaws of the characters and divulge who our favorites were. Each of us confessed that the character we found most endearing was the one who reminded us most of ourselves.

From Hannah's first monologue, in which she declared that she thought she could be the voice of her generation, or "a voice of a generation", I knew I had found a kindred spirit in this character.

Throughout both seasons, I have winced at her willingness to debase herself for a man, cringed sympathetically when she was called out on her self-absorption and empathized perhaps a little too well with her spiral into anxiety, OCD and presumably, depression.

I saw some of my own worst qualities reflected back to me and much as it pained me to watch them, I also thirsted for more. Here at last was a character who reflected not the traits I was proud of or aspired to possess, but the things I feared and was finally ready to see in myself.

It's been nearly a year since I entered into a period of emotional upheaval, intense reflection and many months of emotional extremes. In some small way, the presence of Hannah Horvath in my life was a comfort, a validation. I was mortified by some of my internal thoughts and insecurities. I didn't want to tell other people about what I saw then as the horrors in my head. Instead, I could watch Hannah and take some comfort in the fact that anyone who could write such a character must occasionally grapple with the same brands of insecurity, self-doubt and uncertainty that I was feeling.

The development - or regression - of Hannah's character in season two particularly resonated with me. Certainly I could relate to the messiness and futility of her relationship with Adam in the first season, but I didn't really need to see my own mistakes with men mirrored back to me to learn my lesson. I knew that what Hannah was doing was kind of fucked, much in the way that I knew my own behavior was every time I made excuses for a guy who had repeatedly shown he wasn't good for me, just so I could feel a little less bad about continuing to be involved with him.

Hannah Horvath, Girls, HBO

It was the unraveling of Hannah's inner world that kept me hooked on the show during season two. Perhaps I projected some of my own life onto the character, but I related to her apparent fears of not being able to deliver on professional promises, of being a failure, of being alone. The sense of being disconnected from everyone around you. The harsh reality of sitting, alone, in your apartment in your pajamas, unwilling or unable to get out from under the covers and face the world. Were these not the very things I had been berating myself over for months in between bouts of lethargy?

Where Hannah had OCD, I had panic attacks. Seemingly out of nowhere, I would find myself imagining my own death by suffocation. This would lead to me hyperventilating, clinging somewhere in my mind to a thread of rationality even as I broke into a cold sweat or hot flashes, paralyzed until the all-encompassing fear had subsided. "You're not dying; you're alive and you're OK" became the mantra that kept me in the moment. These attacks became so frequent at one point that I briefly went on Xanax in order to make it through the day without going through the physically exhausting and emotionally draining process at alarming intervals.

I was embarrassed and it took me a long time to admit to my close friends what was going on. I probably would have continued taking the Xanax had it not exacerbated my depression. Instead, I started working with a therapist again and can happily say I haven't been back to such a dark place in months. But I remember it. And I'll always be able to empathize with what it's like to be there.

It's cliche at this point to thank Lena Dunham for presenting her audience with heavy issues in such frank and raw ways, but I thank her all the same. In Hannah Horvath, she gave me a character I needed to see and love at this point in my life, a character who has helped me better see myself. And through writing this character, she made me feel a little less ashamed and a little less alone on the morning I woke up viciously self-attacking for sleeping with a guy I knew didn't respect me, or the many days I could barely get out of bed because I felt so much like I had sold out as a writer and had failed at all of my goals and dreams.

Hannah Horvath, Girls, HBO

There is so much to be said about the season finale of Girls, both about the writing and story lines and the potential social commentary. But my initial reaction to the show, and the season, was gratitude for a character who is, if nothing else, a very real embodiment of some of the most serious issues that many of Dunham's fans face.

Being my own Valentine

When I was in grade school, I loved Valentine's Day. Adored it. I relished picking out those boxes of marvelously corny valentines, usually Barbie and/or Batman, to write out for all of my classmates. Valentine's Day was one of my favorite days at school - an entire afternoon blocked off for exchanging cards, eating Dunkin' Donuts munchkins and watching movies. What's not to love? Barbie Valentine

But as I got older, Valentine's Day became an increasingly stressful holiday. By my junior year in high school, it became downright panic-inducing. That was the year all my friends got boyfriends and my long-held nightmare of being the only single girl among us came true. Why God was plaguing me with such emotional torture, I wasn't sure, but I set about mitigating the public humiliation days in advance (I have since relinquished the notion that "God" had anything to do with it, but that's a post for another day).

There were fewer things more horrifying to me than being at school on Valentine's Day when I was single. What was I going to do while other girls had roses and candy grams delivered to them, sit alone and die of fucking embarrassment?

Not a chance. Rather than orchestrate a cleverly timed trip to the nurse's office or a doctor's appointment that would take me out of school through lunch period - by far the most torturous stretch of the day - I decided I simply was not going to school on Valentine's Day.

Humiliation in any regard was one of my greatest fears as an adolescent, and I felt that not having a serious boyfriend when all of my friends did was a tremendous shortcoming on my part. I went through long bouts of self-loathing, admonishing myself for "fucking up" by breaking up with guys who had actually liked me.

Like most people, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to my romantic relationships as a teenager, but I was convinced that I was some unique breed of singleton. On my worst days, I lamented the fact that I was clearly a mean, spiteful person who deserved to be alone. I virulently criticized my appearance, personality, intelligence and aesthetic tastes until I was nauseated from crying and self-hate.

This made regular days at school stressful enough, but Valentine's Day, I was certain, would be unbearable. Worst of all was the fear that my loneliness and shame would overwhelm me and I might cry during the middle of the day, and that was a hell to which I would not subject myself. Batman Valentine

Of course, I realize now that it wasn't that big of a deal. Being single, not having a Valentine...none of it mattered all that much. And no one would have treated me like a leper had I shown up to school boyfriend-less on Valentine's Day. But the shame of it ate away at me all the same.

And so, well in advance of the big day, I would announce to my parents that I was not going to school on Valentine's Day. Fortunately, by the time I reached the second semester of my junior year, they had stopped fighting me on taking days off and gave their tacit approval to my writing my own absentee notes, so this proved to be a less difficult conversation than I would have originally anticipated. I had my temporary reprieve from the shame of my singlehood.

Once I escaped the Valentine's Day Hell of high school, there came college. None of those are particularly remarkable - lots of chocolate eating and rom com watching with my single girlfriends, if I remember correctly. I still spent much of college longing for a boyfriend, and I still found admitting that I was single to be an exercise in emotional torture, but everyone's love life is a mess in college so I was in good company.

Then came the post-collegiate years of 22-24, which passed in boozier and occasionally more dramatic fashions (in one instance, a former love interest called me at 2 a.m. the night before Valentine's Day and called me "an asshole" when I got upset that we weren't spending the holiday together. Dubious though my taste in men was at the time, I did have enough self-esteem to promptly end that affair.).

The best thing I ever did for my love life, it turned out, was move overseas. I've had more flings, dates, sex and relationship-esque situations in the past three years than I did in all of the years between high school and my early 20s combined. Through the combination of therapy and some serious introspection and reflection, I learned to heal some of my own insecurities and change my perspective on relationships. That opened up a whole new world for me and I gained confidence and became a little less afraid to put myself out there.

And somewhere along the way, I stopped alternately hating and feeling sorry for myself because I was single. I no longer berate myself regularly for not being in a relationship. And when I realized that Valentine's Day was upon us this week, for the first time in years, I found myself looking forward to it. Michael Jordan Valentine

There were no traces of shame or sadness and embarrassment. In fact, those were replaced by a sense of optimism and even elation. This is not the first Valentine's Day I've spent solo but it is the first one that I won't be pining away for or fostering resenting toward someone from my past.

It's the first one that I've felt comfortable with my single status, not because "I've given up on love forever," but because I actually feel open to love and to meeting someone when the time is right, without old fears and losses and baggage hindering my current happiness.

So this year, I'm allowing myself to remember how much I do love Valentine's Day, cheesy and manufactured though the holiday may be. And I will celebrate, probably by watching a movie and treating myself to a glass of cheap red wine. Because even though I'm single, I'm celebrating for that 16-year-old somewhere inside me who can finally be at peace and know she's worthy of love and celebration, even if she doesn't have a boyfriend. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Valentine

All photos from BuzzFeed's "150+ Valentines from Your Childhood"

A reflection before the new year

If I had been asked last Dec. 31 where I expected to find myself in exactly one year, on the last morning of 2012, I probably would not have said sleeping in the back room of a friend’s bar on an island in Thailand. But that is where I found myself this morning, and somehow, it seems a completely appropriate ending to the year that’s been. I’m in Koh Phangan, Thailand, and because it’s New Year’s Eve, and there is a Full Moon Party tonight, there are no available rooms and this bar is the only thing between me and sleeping on the beach.

I don’t remember exactly what I expected 2012 to be like, but it’s safe to say that it turned out far differently than I had envisioned in nearly every way possible. For a long time, I tended to think of the year as a bit of a wash, marred by stress, emotional upheaval, and professional frustrations.

But when I lifted that gloomy pall a bit, I saw that the past 12 months have been more nuanced than that.

Yes, there were some dark and low points. Yes, I worked to the point of burn out not once, but twice, this year. Yes, I went through bouts of depression and anxiety that felt at times like they would never end. Yes, some relationships that meant a great deal to me ended, in sad and less than ideal ways. And yes, there were times when I felt that unresolved issues from the past were too great to surmount.

However. There has been more to celebrate this year than there has to lament.

In the past 12 months, I’ve visited three new countries. I’ve lived with elephants for a week, experienced an intensely beautiful lantern festival I’ll remember all my life, and been to a rave on an aircraft carrier in China. My friends and I started a t-shirt company, and I had the opportunity to write for the Wall Street Journal and Vogue India, two publications that, when I was just finishing grad school a few years ago, would have seemed like a far-off dream. Some relationships ended, but new ones were formed, ones for which I am deeply grateful. And others have become stronger, more honest and rich throughout the shared experiences of the past year. I came through the other end of depression with more emotional clarity and a stronger sense of self than I have ever had before.

If there was one thing that I was searching for throughout the past 12 months, I think it was a sense of peace - an acceptance of the past, a putting to bed of old insecurities and grievances, a freeing of my mind, energy and attention to embrace all the possibilities of the present and the future.

It has been a struggle at times, but as I reflect on the past year, and all the curves in the road, the unexpected and often delightful experiences I’ve had along the way, I think I am closer to finding that peace than I realized. Perhaps I’m not quite there yet, but I’m finally ready for it. I’m ready to allow myself to let go of the regrets and struggles, the self-criticisms and the bad days. That’s not to say I’ll forget them, because all have provided valuable lessons I’ll take with me going forward. I’m just ready to put them to rest, forgive myself and move on. I’m excited for 2013 and about working toward the new goals I’ve set for myself.

I don’t want to sugarcoat 2012, but I don’t want to dwell on it either. As I enjoy the last day of the year, I will focus on one simple theme: gratitude. I’m grateful that among the bad, the stressful, the frightening, I have had so many beautiful opportunities to explore and learn about the world, to meet people and to gain a greater understanding of myself. And most of all, I am grateful to be alive to experience all of it, and to have the opportunity to move forward and create new memories, new bonds, learning from but not being imprisoned by the past.

Things I'm learning as a solo traveler

Since departing from Beijing about two and a half weeks ago, I have essentially been a solo traveler. To my delight, two of my close friends happened to be in Thailand the same time I landed here so I was able to spend some time with them and have been meeting some lovely people along the way.

But for the most part, I’ve been alone.

This alone-ness was kind of the point of the trip, to spend a couple of months relaxing, journaling, identifying my own preferences, developing healthy habits on my own. Besides, I had always wanted to do a trip by myself because I thought it would be a great growth experience. So far, it has been.

But it’s been some other things, too.

The Downsides

For one thing, it gets a little lonely. Sometimes when I’m sitting alone in my guest room reading or watching TV at night, I find myself wishing I had someone to talk to or grab a beer with. Someone to discuss the events of the day with. Or just someone to sit around and watch “How I Met Your Mother” with me on the occasional night in.

Bungalow in Pai

Traveling alone has also proven to be a bit stressful. When you’re with other people, there’s always someone there to keep an eye on your bags in the bus station when you need to run to the bathroom or want to grab something to eat. There’s always someone with whom to cross-reference your packing list when you’re leaving a hostel and venturing off to a new city. And there’s someone to navigate tense, frustrating or nerve-wracking situations with you. Not that I’ve been in any extreme situations thus far, but there have been times when I’ve been aware that having a travel buddy would definitely alleviate the stress or anxiety - or at least there’d be someone to share the burden.

And traveling alone can be scary. Earlier today, I arrived in Chiang Rai, a city in the far north of Thailand that sits close to the border with Myanmar, or Burma. I’ve had mixed impressions of the city so far - the food is crazy expensive and most places were closed on a Sunday afternoon, though that may be due to the fact that it’s Thai Mother’s Day so I won’t judge it solely on my first impression. On the bright side, every person I’ve met here has been incredibly nice and welcoming.

However, a little while ago, shortly after waking up from a nap, I heard a sound not too far away that sounded like repeated gunshots. I took a breath, told myself the sound could have been any number of things and tried to put it from my mind. But 10 minutes later, the noises started up again, this time much closer to the guest house where I'm spending the night.

Now, the Thai family who runs the guest house was, and still is, sitting outside having dinner and none of them seemed disturbed by the noises so I’m sure it was not gunfire and if it was, it's not something I needed to worry about.

But for a few minutes, despite my rationalizations and reassurances to myself, I couldn’t shake a sense of fear and my mind flooded with horrifying scenarios of rebels or terrorists busting into this small village-esque neighborhood and slaughtering people to make some kind of political point. I felt sick to my stomach, going to extremes and thinking, “What would I do if that did happen? How would I escape? What if I’m shot? How would I get help? What if I die?”

The sounds eventually faded and then stopped altogether and all seems to be well outside. I know the noise probably wasn’t gunshots and that the probability of a rebel group shooting up this small guest house are likely slim. But it was another moment when I wished I had someone with me. Not if there really was an attack, because of course I would never want to see anyone I care about in danger. It just would have been nice to have a friendly face here tonight to reassure me that everything was fine and to help me calm those fears.

The Positives

There are a lot of up sides to traveling alone, too. Until this trip, the most traveling I had done on my own was my move from the United States to South Korea about two and a half years ago. With two layovers in a flight that took me to the other side of the world, I was traveling for two days, entirely by myself. I actually quite enjoyed it, as it gave me time to reflect and think about the new beginning ahead of me.

But as soon as I arrived in Seoul, I no longer felt alone. I became friends with several of my co-workers and immediately started going out and meeting people. All of the traveling or moving I have done since then has been with friends or to a city where friends are waiting. Which is awesome. I’m really grateful to have had people to travel and share experiences with. And knowing that moving to Beijing meant spending time with wonderful people I care about from the moment I landed was exciting and reassuring.

Pai River

Still, I always wanted to try traveling alone. I knew it would be a whole different ball game than going with other people and this trip I'm on now seemed like the ideal time to give it a try. Burned out and looking for some rest and just a space to heal and grow emotionally, coming to Thailand on my own seemed the obvious thing to do.

And aside from the occasional hiccup, it’s been wonderful. I’ve spent so much time journaling, going for walks, doing creative writing, trying new foods, seeking out new destinations and opportunities - all based completely on my interests and preferences.

Only two and a half weeks in, I’ve learned a great deal about myself. It turns out long bus rides through the beautiful Thai countryside make for rich reflection and self-conversation opportunities. Many thoughts and memories, some from the past few years and some from much farther back, have been coming up and I feel as though I am able to understand and process them in a new light.

The hours upon hours of just seeing where my mood or preferences have taken me have proven rich so far and I expect will become only more so as I work toward getting healthy and really being present and making the most of this trip.

Plus, I've just been having some fun adventures. Like renting a riverside bungalow by myself and learning that while reading in a hammock on your front porch is everything it's cracked up to be...living in a bamboo hut and sleeping under a mosquito net while animals crawl dangerously close to the cracks in your roof in the dead of night is maybe not as romantic or appealing as I once imagined.

Of course, I don’t want to be alone all the time. I love having my friends around and embrace the chance to spend time with them in a place as lovely as Thailand. I’ve been going to meet-up groups and getting to know some other travelers, which has been fun. But I am also learning more than ever the importance and value of “me” time and believe that by the end of this journey, I’ll be stronger and healthier as an individual and a better friend, listener, partner - a better everything - to those I care about.

And that will be a very good thing.

Embracing second chances

Five months ago, I wrote my first post on this blog. I had just set out on a month and a half long vacation to Malaysia and Thailand, and was simultaneously eager to visit new places and also burned out to the point of extremely unhealthy exhaustion. At the time, I declared that this was an opportunity for me to rejuvenate, get inspired and reconnect with myself.

The reality turned out somewhat different than that.

Through a combination of personal issues and diving back into work less than two weeks into vacation, the trip was far less relaxing and rejuvenating than I had expected. While I saw some incredible places and have some fond memories of the trip, I came back to China only slightly less burned out than I had been when I left.

While traveling, I dove headlong back into work before I had really had a chance to rest, took on new projects, overcommitted myself, and then was surprised when a couple of months later, things began to unravel. For real this time.

It started out as a few bad days - throbbing headaches, irritability, a feeling of boredom with my work and circumstances in general. "I just need more sleep," I told myself. "There's no reason to feel upset. It's just X thing that's stressing me out. I'm fine."

Then came the full body aches and the exhaustion that had me napping multiple times a day, reluctant to do much of anything that required me to leave my apartment.

I had to admit something was wrong. Some days were great, and I'd feel happy and enthusiastic about my life. Others were the exact opposite, and I'd find myself filled with shame for not doing better work, not being further along in my career, frustrated by certain aspects of my personal life, and above all, exhausted at every level.

Things weren't out of control, I knew. Yes, I was going through a tough time, but I could make changes, figure out the root of the problem. I made regular appointments with my therapist, which helped. But I also recognized that I needed a break. A real break.

It was 4 a.m. on a Monday and I sat on my couch crying, confiding in a friend about how I'd been feeling. I described the sensations of exhaustion and numbness, and a sense of being unmotivated and emotionally drained. Intellectually, I knew that there were a lot of things to celebrate in my life, and that there were a number of work projects I was doing that I loved and was proud to be working on.

Somewhere in my mind, I knew all of that was true, but I couldn't connect with it emotionally. Most of the time, I just wanted to curl up in my bed and hide.

"I just keep having this thought that I want to go away," I told my friend. "I want to be left alone for awhile, to really let things go and give myself a break."

"Maybe you should," he said. "Maybe you should just go somewhere and be by yourself for awhile."

The relief broke through as soon as he said that. It was exactly what I had been thinking privately in recent weeks. To go away somewhere, to give myself a second chance at that relaxing, rejuvenating vacation. To really spend time traveling, tasting, experiencing - not keeping one eye on the scenery, and one on my computer screen. A vacation during which I'm not spending most of my days holed up inside a cafe working or stressing about things beyond my control.

The more I talked about it, the more excited I became. Yes, I could go away somewhere beautiful, somewhere quiet, somewhere fresh. I could rest, meditate, write, meet people, return to exploring my love of photography. It all seemed so colorful and easy and right.

By the time I crawled into bed as the early morning light broke over Beijing, I had decided to go back to Thailand.

The relief and excitement I felt in the following weeks told me I had made the right decision.

Still, the similarities to the beginning of my last trip could not be ignored. Burned out, overworked, running on perilously few hours of sleep and emotionally drained, vacation was meant to be a sanctuary, an oasis toward which I had crawled, fueled by the promise of rest and relaxation. The same patterns that had brought me to that point last time are what had brought me to the same place again.

Vacation is not a cure-all for what ails me. I know that. I have to deal with the underlying issues that push me to take on excessive amounts of work, to set aside things I'm passionate about in favor of less worthy pursuits, to become preoccupied by things that are not emotionally healthy, to move so quickly through my days that I don't stop to reflect, breathe and keep perspective.

It hasn't been all rough, though. Things brightened as soon as I committed myself to taking a vacation and taking that time to myself. I found that, while I hadn't broken the old habits, I was becoming more conscious of them, being more proactive to start healthy ones and feeling more appreciative of the great people, relationships and circumstances in my life.

Despite the chaos surrounding the actual travel out of Beijing, I left on a positive emotional note, and feel confident that I'll be to open myself up to the good things and all the new opportunities there when I come back.

In the meantime, I am happily back in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and consciously appreciating this second chance I've given myself, and all of the opportunities it represents.

A Somber Afternoon in Koh Phi Phi

I've been in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand for about a week, and the experience thus far has proven to be full of beautiful beach landscapes, a neverending Spring Break party scene (which is not quite as charming as it sounds, depending on your perspective) and moments ripe for self-reflection. A few days ago, however, I stumbled upon something that took my thoughts outside of myself, for a moment anyway.

I was about to enter a quiet beachside bar to check out their happy hour situation, when I spotted a sign for the Phi Phi Tsunami Memorial Park. I had already passed numerous tsunami evacuation route signs during my walk, so I had already been thinking about the tsunami that hit Thailand in December 2004. Up to this point, those thoughts had mostly been of the "I know it's unlikely, but what would we do if a tsunami hit while we were here? Would I be able to get to safety? What if that's how I die? Is the evacuation route actually of use to anyone or do most people die anyway?" variety.

The memorial park was quite small: a few thick overgrown flower bushes, three benches and a stone memorial covered in plaques naming those who had died. Aside from three cats sleeping on the benches, I was alone in the park.

As I stood in front of the small memorial, I started to get that sick feeling in my stomach. That vaguely nauseous one that creeps into the gut when presented with the reality of death, and of lives that ended abruptly, without any warning. 

A handful of pictures and letters had been placed around the memorial by loved ones who had come to pay their respects. The photos are now faded from the elements, but most of the faces are still visible, and haunting.

One plaque described a man and woman as "missing in the tsunami disaster on 26th December 2004." Somehow that chilled me more than if it had simply said "died in the tsunami of Dec. 2004." Immediately I imagined the man and woman, whose names had been Craig and Barbara. I imagined what death had been like for them, and for all the others listed there. How their bodies had washed away, and were never seen again by those who loved them.

The tragedy felt immense to me. I found myself crying as I read the other notes and inscriptions that had been left, ones that recalled a man named Jeremy's sense of humor or one survivor's hope that he would live a life of which those who had perished would be proud. 

The three benches had been purchased in honor of two young men who died that day in Koh Phi Phi. One's name was Connor. His parents had purchased not only the benches, but another plaque as well. There was an inscription promising to honor his memory, and below that a photo. The tears welled again as I looked at the picture. It was a graduation portrait, perhaps from university. He was probably about the same age as me.

The other bench bore simply the name of another young man, James, and below it the word "Irreplaceable." He was only two years older than me.

The stories, and the photos, went on. Just beyond the small park was the water, calm and beautiful, receding to low tide. I thought of all the people I had just seen on the beach, all also young, on holiday, happy, partying, most likely all with the expectation that they'd make it home, or on to their next destination, safely from Koh Phi Phi. I thought of Will, and Kelly and Phil, who were off snorkeling for the afternoon. I thought of myself.

I shuddered imagining the morning that tsunami hit, the fear, the panic, the desperation that must have seized people. I cried thinking about lives ended so quickly. One night you're out playing beer bong and socializing at tacky Banana bar, the next you're dying, killed by a force of nature you neither expected nor could have escaped.

As so often happens in those moments, the mild irritations I had been nursing earlier in the day seemed far less important than they had 15 minutes ago. The idea that I could die tomorrow has always been one that helps shift my priorities into perspective. I know it's cliche, but it's a good way of recognizing what's actually good and bad in your life, and what's absolutely of the highest importance imaginable and what doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things.

I tried not to dwell on the thought the rest of the day, though. I tried instead to be present and appreciate the incredible beauty surrounding me. Sure there were a few empty beer bottles sullying the otherwise lovely flower bushes, and sure it would have been more pleasant if the beach had been a little emptier and less riddled with drunk Euros today, but are those really problems to be dwelled on? No.

The rest of the day I spent indulging innocent whims: walking and shooting photos along a seaview path, savoring a glass of chilled white wine while lounging in a hammock and reading A Dance With Dragons as the sun began to set over the water. They were small pleasures but they mattered. I decided then that if I should have the great misfortunate to meet my end in some tragic way, the way those poor souls when the tsunami hit Koh Phi Phi, I would like to know that the day before, I paused for at least a moment to remember what was important and to be present for the little things that make up a life.

To walk free and own no superior

One of my stated goals of this vacation was to delve deeper into my own personality, and gain greater insight into who I am and what uniquely characterizes me. There have been a number of topics rising toward the top of the priority list, and I made some good progress on one today. Because I've spent time in, and benefitted greatly from, Internal Family Systems therapy, my journaling and self-knowledge work often involve talking with different "parts" of myself, or different aspects of my personality. These include young childhood parts, protectors and defenses that developed in response to childhood trauma, and others that reflect my interests and passions. So it's highly likely that I will refer to "a part who said X" or "part that feels X" at certain points while writing on this blog.

For what it's worth, I have found IFS therapy to be incredibly rewarding, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in doing self-work.

Earlier today, I had a six and a half hour bus ride through the Borneo countryside to ponder the mysteries of me. This was glorious, and quite fruitful.

Between bouts of deep contemplation, I began reading the late Harry Browne's book "How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World." The book had come highly recommended, so I expected it to be quality, but was pleasantly surprised to find myself almost giddy reading through the first chapters. Browne talked quite a bit about recognizing yourself as a unique individual, and abandoning the notion that you can or should try to change someone else. Everyone is unique, he said, and only each individual can know what is right for him or herself.

Of course, consciously, I knew this already. Obviously each person is unique and obviously only each individual can and should decide what's right for themselves, I thought.

In truth, it's not that obvious. Whenever I find myself slipping into old patterns or roles around people, it doesn't take long before alternating thrums of anxiety and resentment, and eventually frustration and anger, kick in. The anxiety happens when I begin trying to either manage or conform to other people's expectations, whether real or perceived. The resentment kicks in when I begin wanting those around me to conform to certain standards in order to allay my fears; I want them to behave in a way that is not so anxiety-provoking for me.

I don't relish feeling either of these emotions under these circumstances. I accept them as what I am feeling in the moment, and feel curiosity about my emotional experience and what is causing this upset. But I don't want to spend my time managing other people, or passive aggressively trying to manipulate other people into managing me.

That last line may sound harsh toward myself, but I fully embrace that those tendencies are within me, as I suspect they are within many people. They are there for a reason, a defense that built up a long time ago, and while I feel the urge rise from time to time, I don't act on it (at least not consciously, and not, I hope, frequently).

Nonetheless, I feel the competing urges rise when I'm not fully aware of my emotional state, and the confusion and disorientation that come with them. They're also often strongly accompanied by a fear of how those closest to me, my best friends, are perceiving me. In the past, the slightest disagreement would reduce me to tears, and a sickened feeling would grow in my gut, knowing that "the friendship is over," and I was going to be alone forever, unloved because I'm such a mess and too unreliable and too bad of a friend for anyone to bother with.

Things aren't that extreme anymore, but the fear is still there. I discovered several months ago a deep, deep fear of being abandoned and alone, and that manifests itself in many ways. One is constantly seeking the approval of others, and hingeing my emotional successes and well-being on their attitudes toward me and their behaviors.

It's kind of like when people say that you won't be happy until you love yourself; no external factors (i.e. good job, boyfriend, etc.) can ever make you truly happy until that happens. Well, I will never know my true self-worth, never truly experience that until I am confident and strong regardless of the opinions of others.

I have moments of that, and the beauty of the unconscious is that I suddenly experience warm memories of times when I felt utterly strong, fearless and blissfully independent, often at times when I need them most.

But that state of mind takes work to cultivate and maintain and when I'm not paying attention, sometimes the old insecurities come back, and with good reason. Those parts are trying to keep me from ending up alone or becoming entangled in constant disagreements with friends. I don't wish to be alone and I value the respect of those I love and care about.

Before that, however, I have to own who I am. I have to be able to stand confidently, even if that means with no else at my side, and embrace my interests, my passions, my desires and my own path, and do it for myself, not in order to secure the approval or promises of friendship from other people.

This crystallized for me today when I read a quote Browne included in his book, from Walt Whitman:

"Freedom — to walk free and own no superior." 

It reinvigorated my commitment to knowing myself intimately and becoming whole on my own before asking others to love me. And it reminded me of the freedom that comes from living for oneself and no one else.

Arriving in Borneo, gaining some peace of mind

We arrived in Borneo today, and for the first time since departing from Beijing Sunday morning, I can finally feel myself relax. Before going on, I should clarify that when I say "we," I will most likely be referring to my travel companions and close friends Will, Phil and Kelly. Anyway, we left Beijing Sunday morning, took a train to Tianjin, and a flight from Tianjin to Kuala Lumpur. After spending about a day in KL, we hopped another flight, this one to Borneo, and now it feels that our vacation truly begins.

The entire month of January, and first two weeks of February, were extremely chaotic for me. I was wrapping up projects and starting others, and began writing for some great new clients. But I was also trying to pack up my apartment, tie up loose ends in Beijing until I return at the end of this trip, and maintain my friendships and the great momentum I had developed in terms of my self-work.

This was all well and good until about the beginning of February, when everything came to a head. In the turbulent first two weeks of the month, I worked an insane amount of hours and survived on almost no sleep. For five consecutive days before leaving for vacation, I was up working until 5 a.m. every day, allowing myself to pass out only when I had begun to hallucinate from exhaustion, then waking up four hours later to do it all again.

My diet consisted mainly of double cheeseburger meals from McDonald's and noodles from the local Xinjiang restaurant in my neighborhood, washed down with large doses of Diet Coke and strong coffee.

In short, my lifestyle had become extremely unhealthy, with a horrible work-life balance. I actually went three days in a row without showering because "I didn't have the time." If I wasn't working, I was sleeping. There was almost no time for anything else.

I promised myself that all of that would change once vacation started. First thing on the agenda: give my brain a break. When you start hallucinating due to sleep deprivation on a regular basis, wake up every morning confused about where you are, and your short-term memory, including about what clothes you have on your body at the moment, begins to fail you, you know things are not good.

And now that I have arrived in Borneo, I feel that pattern beginning to unravel. While the first two days of the trip have been exciting and interesting, they've also been full of travel, planning and a sense of anticipation for arriving in Borneo.

This afternoon, sitting on my hostel bed, gazing through the broken shades at pink building across the alley, I felt an oddly giddy sense of relaxation. The view from our room is nothing spectacular; this is a budget backpacking trip.

But finally getting to sit with the quiet, with nothing on the immediate horizon except indulging whatever whims and interests I want, up to and including a long nap, I felt I was on vacation at last. My brain, though tired, has stopped hallucinating and already I am feeling more alert and clear-headed, which is good since I don't want to miss any of the storied wonders Borneo is supposed to offer.

Sinking into sweet uncertainty

Two years ago, I packed all of my belongings and completely uprooted my life. In a few short weeks, I went from working as a writer for a Capitol Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C., a position that fit perfectly along the carefully planned trajectory I had laid out for my life ten years earlier, to teaching English to kindergartners in Seoul, South Korea. A year later, I shifted gears once again. This time Beijing stood imminent on the horizon, and the freewheeling lifestyle of a freelance journalist and editor lay thrillingly before me.

Now, as I approach my 365-day mark in Beijing, I'm about to do it again.

But this time, I'm not shuffling into a new apartment or relocating to another city I'll temporarily call home, at least not yet. This time I am fulfilling a lifelong dream of backpacking through Southeast Asia, taking with me only what I can carry, and living a nomadic lifestyle of which I've secretly dreamed since I was a young child.

This is the first post on a blog will be a personal one, though I'll combine elements of travel writing as well. It's about exploration and growth; introspection and forging a greater connection with the world around me.

The name, Spinning Free, is inspired by the song "Sweetness" by the band Jimmy Eat World. I chose to name my site after it because the lyrics burst to the forefront of my consciousness the night I decided to make this trip more than a simple vacation, and began seeing it as the turning point for the next chapter of my life.

Since hearing the song as a high school student many years ago, these two lines have felt particularly poignant to me, more so in recent years:

"String from your tether unwinds...

Sinking into sweet uncertainty"

Sinking into sweet uncertainty. I had always reveled in the idea of allowing myself to spin utterly free, to embrace the unknown with wide, welcoming arms. Even when I left the U.S. for Korea, and Korea for China, I had a plan, a strategy. I had never allowed myself to simply go in without a plan and take what came in stride. Until now.

I'll delve into all of this in future posts, but for the moment, I simply want to debut this blog to the world, and celebrate the beginning of what I believe will be a beautiful, fruitful and thrilling journey in my life.

As I write this, I am on a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I have spent the past hour gazing at a sunset more spectacular and rich in its warm fiery gold and piercing pink hues than I can convey. And now, as I watch the horizon fade to black, I see the first star in the night sky and imagine that this beauty is nothing compared to what lies before me in the jungles of Borneo, on the beaches of Thailand, in the myriad wonders I will see during the next several weeks as I travel through Southast Asia.

The past two years, with all their upheaval and learning and friendship and joyfulness, have been beautiful, and I will likely reference moments from them frequently on this site.

But this change feels different. I am different. I have reached a new moment of clarity, openness, wonder and a sense of self I had not known before.

I will explore new places, taste new foods, meet new people. I will learn, about my travel companions, who are three of my closest friends, and hopefully more about the world.

Most importantly, this will be a journey during which I learn more about myself, which in my life thus far has led my greatest adventures of all.