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.

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.