Why embarking on the right journey is only the first of so many steps
Boarding my 14-hour flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong, I felt weightless.
I had no job. No apartment. No car. No bed. Not even a cat or a cactus to be responsible for.
I was in that rare, sweet spot in life where so many claim they wish they could be: 32 and single. Capable and financially padded enough to survive the next year or two abroad If I pinched my Rupiahs, Bahts, Euros and Pesos right.
I had pulled the faded IKEA rug out from under the life I’d worked so hard to build, finally admitting–after seven long years of working through chronic pain–that I just couldn’t do it anymore.
My case of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI or what some also call Fibromyalgia) was extreme and stubborn–said doctors and therapists after they’d run through all the tricks in their little black bags. I had done acupuncture, acupressure, breath-work, several types of massage, three rounds of physical therapy, personal training, biofeedback, myofascial release, neurokinetic therapy, reflexology and naturopathy.
Most had helped to reduce my pain levels at first, but not with sustained results. And none had come close to ridding me of it.
I’d known for years that eradicating this condition would require something more drastic.
I’d have to quit working.
It was the most obvious remedy for a “work related injury.” Yet it was the solution I’d resisted most. Because so much of my identity had been wrapped up in my job title; my big career.
But by late 2015, every sore muscle in my inflamed, sleep-deprived, sickly mess of a body was telling me it was time.
So I forfeited my sought-after graphic design position and struck my name from my apartment lease. For months, I worked tirelessly to downsize from a fully furnished apartment into a 5x8' storage unit, while carefully packing the bare necessities for my round-the-world travels into a few pieces of luggage.
Then suddenly March 30th had arrived. It was the day I’d take charge of my recovery and show up to my own big adventure. The day I’d really start celebrating my singleness instead of wallowing in it.
After a long voyage via plane, train and taxi, I arrived to my crammed, Hong-Kong style studio apartment around midnight. I was greeted by a chatty Airbnb host who looked concerned about my willy-nilly plans to wonder around the city (and the world) on my own without so much as a SIM card or street map.
The next morning I gave up fighting jet-lag-limbo around dawn, peaking out my tower window to get a look at my new surroundings; of concrete high-rises draped in a bright, hazy blanket of smog. The heaviness in my lungs and the knowledge that my smart phone would be rendered stupid once I left my apartment’s wifi radius were enough to keep me inside my tiny, well-decorated cell well past feeding time.
But when I finally ventured out I was pleasantly surprised.
That first day wondering around Hong Kong Island was full of beauty; magic even.
For the better part of seven hours I wound up and down a labyrinth of chaotic concrete paths. I ogled at structures that have existed centuries longer than anything you’ll find in The States. Ordinary objects (like moss-covered stone walls or rusty, ornamented sewage drains) that were layered in grit and other-worldly appeal.
I marveled at all the contradictory details of a city that has ping-ponged between two polarizing cultures like a kid with divorced parents. A well-loved graffiti wall; mish-mashed with Latin and Chinese characters. Centuries-old Buddhist temples bumped up against modern, Western high-rises.
The whole bi-polar metropolis was like a bizarre crossroads between the East and the West; the old world and the new. One patch of concrete could have been the set for Blade Runner or Star Wars, where scenes from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon could have been filmed just around the bend.
By mid-afternoon the smog had burned away; clearing my lungs and coloring in the background scenery.
I walked at my own pace–stopping to take as many photos as I pleased–without the pressure to keep up with anyone else’s ideas for the day.
As much as I love graphic design, I was grateful to be out from behind the computer desk (where I used to spend hours on end feverishly pushing pixels, often forgetting to breath, to meet another looming corporate deadline).
So this is what weightless feels like, I thought, feeling the oxygen rush to my head as I sighed in relief.
Being so captivated by the freedom and wonder of the day, I managed to forgot all about my physical limitations.
Just as the sun sunk behind the skyline, turning skyscrapers and streets a pinkish-orange sepia tone, I was hit with familiar pinches of pain in my hands and forearms.
These warning signs were my cue to hail a cab and call it a day. But I just kept snapping my shutter like an automatic weapon–not wanting to miss another breathtaking, real-life moment on account of the pain that had dominated the life I’d just left behind.
Deep down I knew (from experience and so many failed attempts at recovery) that getting better wasn’t going to be fast or easy. But that afternoon–like an arrogant teenager who prematurely removes their own cast–I wanted to be better now.
And I paid for it.
Climbing the six flights back up to my matchbox apartment, the muscles in my upper body ached and burned. And my head had started second-guessing the entire concept of going on a long-term healing journey.
As it came time to tuck myself in, my resolve to embrace the solo mission also wavered. Throughout that long, sleepless second night, my phone lit up with periodic messages from not just one man who was vying for my attention, but three. And since I so desperately wanted to be wanted, comforted and fixed, I gave it to them.
I found myself in an all-too-familiar state: whimpering in a fetal curl like a skewered shrimp; still managing to entangle myself with a host of meddling men.
And like the Greek goddess Cassandra (the “foreteller of doom,” as ancient myth describes her), my inner pessimistic profit was feeling chatty.
“You can walk away from your fancy career, hiding out in far-reaching corners of the planet all you want. You can turn your whole life up-side-down…”
“But you may still never beat this thing,” the voice said.
“And if you don’t get better, what will be left of you?”
“You’ll be a designer who can’t design.
A writer who can’t write.
A creative who can’t create.”
“Forget photography, cooking, driving, or playing an instrument. Most days you can’t even turn the pages of a book without being in pain!”
She was laughing at me now.
“And you may as well forget about having a family. How long do you think you’d be able to lift a baby with those broken mitts?” she taunted.
“I think it’s safe to say that if you don’t beat this, you’ll be useless.”
That was when I really lost it; going drively all over the cotton bedding.
When my mind finally went quiet, I slept like the dead for maybe two hours before a sliver of sun peaked in below the curtain, stirring me awake again.
I spent the majority of that day resting my eyes and licking my wounds in my tiny studio–feeling too zombified to do much more.
Since beginning my travels back in Hong Kong, I’ve had a few other rude awakenings. Set backs. flare ups. Sleepless nights. Days that still start and end with pain.
All of which have helped me to understand that there is no quick ticket out when it comes to chronic pain.
I’ve realized that I can get pissed off at the universe for not giving me the break that I think I deserve, when I think I deserve it. But said universe will just keep laughing and devising other plans for me.
And perhaps my snide, inner doomsday prophet has a few good points. Regardless of how long I steer clear of the 9–5; of what diet, remedy, voodoo, witch-doctory, sorcery, or exorcism that I try; I may never fully recover from this condition.
But that doesn’t make me worthless.
Even if these broken mitts are a permanent fixture–I can still do the things I love, just not in the same way that I did them before.
I may have to pass on job offers and design projects that speak to me, and resist the urge to go hog-wild with my DSLR. I may never be well enough to sit all day long, cranking away at my next blog post or pouring out chapters of my book like a full-time writer.
But on my good days, I can still tap lightly at the keys for a few hours in the morning, snap some great shots when the lighting is right, talk design until I’m blue in the face, and find odd little projects that fulfill my urge to create–all without opening myself up to a world of hurt.
I can pace myself.
The big trick is to focus on the things I can do, instead of fixating on the things I can’t.
To acknowledge that embarking on the right journey is only the first of many steps.
And to remember that this spin around the globe isn’t about collecting post cards, passport stamps or hitting all the tourist photo-op spots; it’s about giving my body the kind of serious rest and recovery time it needs while seeking the help of international healers.
While my eight days in Hong Kong were full of intrigue, I left for my next destination feeling ready to swap the crowds and chaos of big city life for a simpler, more peaceful place.
Next stop: Bali.