I recently heard a great analogy on personal growth that used the life of a lobster as it’s metaphor. Bear with me. Apparently as a lobster grows, its rigid shell becomes very confining and it feels oppressed. The lobster gets so uncomfortable that it is forced to hide out under rocks avoiding any predators as it sheds its shell. Newly naked, it stays hidden until it produces a larger, more comfortable shell and heads back out into ocean life. Much like the lobster, I too was finding my rigid shell of a life far too confining. I got up. I went to work at a job I hated. I came home, went to bed only to do it all over again the next day. Occasionally there were some fun times thrown in for good measure; hanging out with friends, hiking, road trips. Yet I couldn't escape the feeling that I was a lost piece of luggage on one of those baggage claim conveyer belts; going around and around yet going nowhere.
I had to get off. I had to find a hiding place to shed my confining shell and contemplate building a new one that actually fit who I was, or who I was growing to be.
Instead of choosing to hang out under a rock, I decided I needed sunshine, empty beaches and cheap beer. So I booked a solo trip to Central America for six weeks.
I’d traveled alone for long periods before but this time I was older and wiser. Instead of approaching my travels with dreamy wonder and a certain naivety; I was approaching them with a heavy heart and many unanswered questions. What better place to do it than Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica?
I’m not sure what I imagined when I initially set off on my trip. A part of me wished, hoped, that I would miraculously find some like-minded fellow travelers who would welcome me under their wing and party away my woes.
But they never appeared.
Instead, I was left with long, languid days stretching out before me with nothing but myself for company. “Sounds idyllic” I hear you crow with envy. It was. But only for a short while.
Once the novelty had worn off I realized with horror that nothing had really changed. I had just taken away the everyday stressors such as commuting to work and a stressful job but I was still thinking the same thoughts. The same worries. The same anxiety.
I had expected to be dancing down the beach, drinking a coconut, filled with raptor that I was living out my own personal Blue Lagoon fantasy.
Instead, I was left with severe anxiety and insomnia. Turns out you can’t run away from yourself.
Much like the lobster, I had to start becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. I had to turn my gaze inwards instead of looking for the next distraction; the next frozen margarita.
Granted, staying in remote beach villages wasn't the worse place to begin some soul-searching but it came with its own set of unique challenges. I was alone most of the time. There was limited phone reception and the lifeblood of modern society, wifi, was slow as molasses. Making matters worse, my Spanish was pretty basic which limited my exchanges with the locals to ordering food and a quick, hey what’s up. The rest was conducted with effusive sign language and much laughter (them, not me).
Needless to say by the end of week one I was starting to get sick of myself and my unending spiral of thoughts.
I dug in deeper.
Without the internet to distract me I began to journal, typically bitching about another sleepless night when I awoke in the morning. I took long walks to clear my head. I journaled some more over lunch. I read numerous books. I tried to come up with story ideas, searching for inspiration in the simple life I was currently leading.
I got really uncomfortable.
And then, two weeks in, something weird started to happen. I began to relax. Turns out that when you spend your life in a busy city working a demanding job your stress-levels don't magically dip down to zero the minute you set foot on the beach. It takes time for the body, and most importantly the mind, to unwind when it has been stuck in fight-or-flight mode for months.
I began to notice how incredibly uptight I had become which was causing the sleepless nights. Turns out that the one benefit of spending a lot of time alone is that you become hyper aware of your moods and impulses. When I started thinking about the changes I needed to make in my life when I returned back to reality I would immediately search for a distraction. Find a bar. Find a yoga class. Find a friend. Anything other than facing the fact that I had big decisions to make.
The third week passed and I began to get into the rhythm of the trip. I continued my daily practice of journaling and writing, mixing it up with sightseeing and many, many hammock naps.
I started to feel less uncomfortable. I felt a little beacon of hope switch back on in the very recesses of my brain. I started to sleep better. I began to enjoy connecting with the wide range of people I met along the way. I started to laugh again.
By the time the six weeks was up I felt more like myself than I had in years, I began to feel excited about life again.
As the plane descended back into JFK I felt that I had undergone a seismic shift of sorts. I was still the same person with the same wants and desires, but something was different. My old life felt constraining, almost alien to me. And that’s when I realized I had come through the other side. I had shed my old shell, opened myself up and embraced this new vulnerable state. It was time to start building a new shell.
Victoria Cox currently resides in NYC. She has written for Amanda de Cadenet's "The Conversation", Tiny Buddha, Elephant Journal, LifeHack, The Lady Project, Dumb Little Man and The Numinous. You can connect with her on her website (www.thevictoriacox.com) or on Instagram (@vcox23).