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Tess' first book “Leap: Leaving A Job With No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want” was published in August 2015 by Random House Harmony. For more information on the book, go here.

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Tess Untethered | I Want My Old Life Back (Not Really)
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Oct 12 2017

I Want My Old Life Back (Not Really)

I called my parents a few weeks ago. They weren’t expecting it. We usually text, but this time I needed to hear their voices. It was morning for me in Bangkok, evening for them in Oregon, so I crossed my fingers that they’d be home.

I don’t think I got five words out before the tears started falling.

 

“I want my old life back,” I managed to blurt out between sobs.

 

I like to think of myself as a grownup woman who can handle her own issues. But sometimes, even at an advanced age, you just want to go crying to your parents. Fortunately, they were home.

 

My life abroad is a most remarkable adventure. Every single day is new and different, if for no other reason than I’m living in a foreign country. I know I am lucky beyond measure to be living this life, and I don’t have a lot of cause to complain. But over the span of several weeks, I found myself dealing with multiple health issues, the disintegration of a relationship, and growing concern over a number of looming decisions that have to be made about whether I stay on this adventure or go home. Things just kept happening that would destroy the joy of each succeeding day.

 

It all became too much on that morning and I said it:

 

“I want my old life back.”

 

My backyard in Pasadena

I was imagining myself sitting on my favorite chair in the backyard of the house I owned in Pasadena, with a glass of California pinot in my hand, a cat in my lap, husband firing up the grill for some Santa Barbara tri-tip, closets inside full of clothes and shoes, large comfy couches for watching favorite primetime TV shows, and a nice car that I’d parked in the driveway after coming home from my well-paying dream job.

 

All I wanted in that moment… was to go back to all of that. I wanted to go back to normal.

 

I wanted to go back to easy.

 

It’s the first time I’ve truly felt like that in the five years since I quit my job. I suppose it was bound to happen at some point. It’s not that I haven’t had any regrets over those years. I’ve had plenty of them. But I don’t remember wanting to hop in a time machine like I did that day.

 

A time machine is not possible, of course. And I know deep in my soul that I don’t really want that. But for several weeks it sure felt like it. It felt like all I wanted and needed was the comfort that would come with … normal. The comfort that would come with walking the dogs around my old neighborhood; the comfort that would come with dinner with girlfriends who’ve known me most of my adult life; the comfort that would come with knowing I had a job to do and to go to every day; the comfort that would come with having my own furniture; the comfort that would come with a long-term relationship; the comfort that would come with the familiarity of years spent in one place.

 

My beloved California

 

It’s been five years since I started giving up all of those things… since I handed in my notice at my job. Since then, I slowly cut the strings on career, marriage, house, pets, car, material goods. And now I live abroad with none of those things. And for probably 90 percent of this time, that’s been just fine. In fact it’s been exactly what I wanted.

 

But the adventures that land on Instagram and in Facebook posts aren’t always the full story. What nobody tells you at Moving Abroad School is that living alone in a foreign country is hard, especially when things are going wrong. Everything that’s in any way challenging is magnified because it’s happening far, far from home, and the rhythms and melodies of life are unfamiliar. Some of my fellow expats have said they, too, feel that change in the barometric pressures of their lives — this heightening of everyday experiences, both good and bad. Something that might have been a little scary becomes terrifying. Something that might have been a minor annoyance becomes a huge pain. I’ve gotten really good at dealing with whatever happens when I’m actively traveling and plans go awry. But what I’m talking about in this instance is different. It’s far more emotionally and psychologically draining.

 

The health issues cascaded over several months, all unrelated to one another, and included one illness that had a major and negative impact on my psyche, even though it was not at all life-threatening. I don’t have health insurance here in Thailand so all of my doctor and hospital bills have been out of pocket. (I have travel insurance, but it doesn’t cover non-urgent care. And I can’t afford separate U.S.-based health insurance. This is a choice I made.) I’m fortunate to live in Bangkok, a city with world-class healthcare, but it’s still tough to go through some of this stuff and wonder if there might be different or better diagnoses and solutions back home.

 

And although I have wonderful friends who I’m sure would have accompanied me had I asked, I do live alone, and so when I ended up in the emergency room in the middle of the night last spring (on my birthday, no less), I went in an Uber, by myself, to a hospital here in Bangkok. It was a lonely, scary three hours on that gurney.

 

I even sometimes find myself wondering how long it would take people to notice I was missing if I died alone in my sleep. That, of course, is a familiar notion to anyone who lives by themselves, whether they live in a foreign country or not, but what I don’t have here is a community that’s known and cared about me for a long time, or a longtime partner, who would notice my absence. At the very least, I’d have that community if I were back in the states.

 

The end of a short but intense romantic relationship was another a reminder of what I gave up when this journey started. Yes, the end of my marriage was at my request. My ex and I both now agree it was the right decision, and we couldn’t have had a more amicable or drama-free split. But hindsight tends to put a gloss on memory… and sometimes I look back wistfully on the time when I had someone to come home to, someone who knew me better than anyone except (maybe) my parents, someone who was a partner in establishing a life. I’m grateful to say we’re still good friends. But I look back on the marriage, and after two years of dating abroad, I’ve wondered if I gave up the only truly good guy on the planet. We weren’t meant to be together forever, but he was, and still is, absolutely one of the good ones. I’m reminded of that every time a new romantic interest proves as disappointing as the last one. (I’ll write about those adventures someday in a post that I will ask my parents not to read.)

 

And finally, amid all of this, I am now at the point, two years into the adventure, where I’m forced to start thinking about financial practicalities. I know most people will never, ever, in their lifetimes, be able to do what I’ve done – a self-granted sabbatical with an option not to work. So I’m not seeking sympathy! But soon, I will no longer have that option. I will either have to find work abroad (which I’m discovering is NOT an easy task), come up with a way to monetize my skills and become one of those digital nomads who work from anywhere (I’ve tried to figure this out but am so far terrible at it), or … go back to the states and hope to find work there. And for anyone who thinks that last option would be easy, given my long career track record, remember: I’ve been out of the official workforce for five years. FIVE YEARS. That means I have a gigantic gap on my resume. Yes, I wrote a book, yes I freelanced, yes I traveled — but not every employer will find value in those things. I’m also five years older. We’ve all read the articles about how tough it is to get back into the working world after time away, and especially as you get older. I’m no magical exception to all of that.

 

I’m also not sure I’m ready to come home. In fact, I’m not sure I ever want to live in the states again. If I have to do so, it’s going to be an enormous adjustment after the constant sensory overload of the life I’ve led for the last two years. I’ve also started to resign myself to the idea that I probably won’t ever have a job like the one I had before… I won’t have the prestige, the audience, the title, the everything else that came with being near the top of my profession. The chances of that ever happening again are slim. I’m a realist about that. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to contemplate being a rung or two – or more – down the ladder. (I talked about this dilemma at length in my book.)

 

Rose from my backyard in Pasadena

All of this mental detritus swirling around my head is what led to that sentence I was so surprised to hear myself utter: “I want my old life back.”

 

I don’t. I look back on the last two years… actually the last five years… and I can’t believe what an extraordinary time it’s been. I don’t want that time machine. I really don’t. But I guess this is all to reveal that, surprise!, it’s not all unicorns and rainbows. The quotidian suckiness of life pops up no matter where you are, or what you’re doing, or how fortunate you might otherwise be.

 

I’ll figure it all out. I always do. Maybe it won’t be pretty. Maybe I won’t get what I want. But I’ll figure it out.

 

And I know my parents are there on the other end of the line if and when I need them again. They offered to buy me a ticket home, on the spot, that morning I called. Just come home, they said, and you can recover and start making decisions and figuring things out from here. I shuddered at the idea of living with them for any length of time… not because I don’t love them to death (I do, and their guestroom is super comfy) but because something in my brain tells me it is the height of awfulness to live with your parents when you’re nearing the half-century mark. If I were an Italian man, this wouldn’t be an issue. But I’m a grown-up American woman and so it is an issue. My folks said they wouldn’t tell anyone. I laughed. Maybe whenever I do come back, it’s something I’ll have to do for a month or two. I don’t know. I suppose at some point I’ll just have to get over myself.

 

At the end of our call, I said I would wait 24 hours and see if I felt better before buying a ticket home. After 24 hours, I did. In fact, I felt better after just sobbing it out with the two people who know me best. I’m still in Bangkok (not secretly in Portland living with my parents). And since that call I’ve traveled to and fallen in love with Hong Kong, I’ve gone on dates, and the health crises have mostly resolved. Two of my best friends in the world are coming to Thailand in a couple of weeks. And I get to see Mom and Dad in November when we meet up in Jordan. So the dark period – at least this particular one – has passed.

 

I know there will be others. They might be around the corner. If they happen, you won’t hear about them on Facebook or Instagram. I’m not even sure why I’m talking about this one, except to show that all the pretty pictures never tell the full story.

 

But for now I can safely say… I don’t want my old life back.

 

I wouldn’t trade this one for anything.

 

 

 

 

 

18 Comments
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18 Comments
  • Pris Robichaud
    Reply

    I have certainly been there in some of the situations you describe. Things got better and I moved on. You seem to have a positive look on life so you bounce back.

    Best to you, and I hope whatever is next peeks its head up soon.

    October 12, 2017 at 8:31 pm
  • karen kiefaber
    Reply

    Oh Tess….Bravery comes in many forms. What you bring to us, is the bravery, but also the human second guessing and emotions on the decisions we make. We are in control of our lives. That being said, there are mis-steps and there are adventures. I must say, when I look back at the zig zags, I end up understanding the WHY. You will too. Some times it’s foggy, but soon enough the sun comes out and burns that fog away.

    As one that sat in that backyard with you, yes it is missed. The fun, laughter, watching our dogs, and oh, the trick-tip! But….We have the memories, and the thought of another time waiting for us in the future.

    You are loved….Kettleoneup

    October 13, 2017 at 12:21 am
  • Blair
    Reply

    I wonder if settling in an English-speaking country that is not the U.S. would suit you? I wonder if building a new life in, say, New Zealand (my personal fantasy) would meet your need for a certain level of exoticism and distance, but also comfort and domesticity? Also, the reminders of what you used to do for a living will not be omnipresent! It might be easier to reinvent yourself elsewhere.

    October 13, 2017 at 9:42 am
  • Mary Feeney
    Reply

    Tess, I have one word of career advice for you: Podcast. You have such a wonderful voice and are a fine writer. Find your way back into the broadcast world via podcast and find a sponsor. I’d be the first to sign up for your podcast on travel or any other topic.

    October 13, 2017 at 9:43 am
  • Hi Tess,

    Life is full of chapters and phases, good and bad, and rarely do the rainbows and butterflies endure for long periods of time. I’ve found its important to live slow and not feel rushed. You have many pockets of skills, experience, networks, and reputation you’ll be able to tap into when the time is right. Happy to be an ear if you ever need one.

    Carl

    October 13, 2017 at 10:08 am
  • Maria sturgeon
    Reply

    I can’t think of something transformative I could do or say, but I am sending you a big hug from Gresham

    October 13, 2017 at 11:01 am
  • I’ll try to be brief and since I’m a virtual stranger to you, you should know that being “brief” is something I am horrible at. I am reading Leap. Six months ago, I quit my job, sold my beautiful home and left all my friends. I had no plan other than to move closer to family and to stop giving all my “good stuff” to a job. What. The. Hell. Was. I. Thinking. I have found myself on every page of your book. You have given me a heroine as an adult; a real live brave, funny, honest woman who has gone before me and is willing to share her journey. And I am learning from you. I don’t say that to place pressure on you. I say it so you know that you have people- lots and lots of people. Some you know and some you don’t but…We. Are. All. Rooting. For. You. And for what it’s worth, from a virtual stranger, I think you’re just fabulous and irreplaceable. And so it seems is that new brave, funny, honest life you’re living.

    October 13, 2017 at 11:21 am
  • Carol Crawford (Nicole’s Mom)
    Reply

    You are an amazing woman!! I am sure many people admire your tenacity and strength. Living your dream as you have done for such a long evolving 5 Years. If going home is the answer for awhile you could think of it as a tune up to emerge to your next adventure. I know you through Nicole and have loved all of your wonderful posts. Thank you for your gifts to me and others.

    October 13, 2017 at 11:40 am
  • Francesca
    Reply

    Well, clearly hardship and challenges make for engaging, authentic and wonderful writing. So honest and from the heart. I’ve lived in Singapore, France, Israel and yes- this resonates and important to share. Thank you for taking me on part of your journey.

    October 13, 2017 at 11:54 am
  • Jennifer Trundy
    Reply

    A) I can’t believe it’s been 5 years already
    B) parents rock at any age and how lucky are we to have them?
    C) dating sucks everywhere
    D) it’s totally ok to crave comfort (and wine)
    E) you’ve got this…..really
    D) there’s always law school

    October 13, 2017 at 1:01 pm
  • Bhagwandassharma
    Reply

    How beautifully describe.i safely say I don’t want

    October 13, 2017 at 1:30 pm
  • Tess, thank you so much for sharing this. We often judge the fabulous lives of others on the photos and experiences they share. It’s nice to be reminded that it’s not all as it looks. I’m glad to hear you’re over that moment of homesickness and doubt. I look forward to hearing about your future adventures (the good and the bad).

    October 13, 2017 at 11:25 pm
  • David Palmer
    Reply

    Tess, this is part of your adventure. I did something similar (moved to Belgium on the spur-of-the-moment and stayed for seven years) and went through similar down times, but they pass. I was saved by falling into teaching English (300+ students over six years), and it made all the difference. You could do some podcasts, as one of your friends suggested, and share your personal experiences (you would get a good audience). Anyway, hang in there and let the brief storm pass (there will be others, too, but you’ll be ready for them). Best of luck! David Palmer (friend of Judi Laing; I met you once at KPCC)

    October 14, 2017 at 5:11 am
  • Richard Core
    Reply

    Tess, judging by the caring, thoughtful, appreciative and heartfelt responses I see in the other comments, you’ll always have a home — wherever you are. In the last five years (can’t believe it’s been that long) your explorations of the world and your trips of self-discovery — and your marvelous ability to share your experiences and reflections so gracefully and beautifully in words and images — have been a real joy. From my perspective, you have so many people who have been touched just by you being you. That’s a pretty great thing. I can understand the doubts that creep in, but I have a feeling that if you keep following your bliss, you’ll be just fine. Thanks for sharing this piece. Safe travels!

    October 14, 2017 at 10:39 pm
  • Sari Makofsky McConnell
    Reply

    Tess, when I was a freshman and you were a senior at NU (same house), you always stood out to me as someone who chartered her own path. I admired your focus enormously, and still do. And hearing your voice on the radio was a constant reminder of it. Many women successfully step in/out of the workforce – I’m on year 5 at home with kids after two decades of career building. as a fellow backpacker (formerly GM at an Australian TV station) once told me at a hostel in Turkey … if you don’t have enough confidence in your skills and reputation, maybe you didn’t deserve the job you left in the first place! That one comment has given me so much freedom and strength to charter my own course. So no regrets! No regrets, Tess.

    October 17, 2017 at 2:08 am
  • Bryant
    Reply

    great post!

    October 17, 2017 at 10:18 pm
  • A. Chaffee
    Reply

    I adore your writing. And of course a podcast is a brilliant idea. You be the star. You be ths focal point. We all love your voice and your Voice.

    I appreciate the phrase, “quotidian suckiness” immensely and understand it all too well. I took a sharp contrary action recently and have had a lot of ups and downs. I HOPE it gets smoother but am really trying to enjoy the ride. I admire how much you are doing that while acknowledging the difficulties. You are terribly lucky to have parents and thdy arr lucky to have you. Have a marvelous time in Jordan! I anticipate some gorgeous photos!!

    October 18, 2017 at 7:29 pm

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