leaving the UK and everybody in it on a one-way ticket to Bangkok seemed enticing 6 months ago, but in the past few months as January the 15th has been creeping up, my anxiety has followed in uncomfortable harmony. Today was not a good day. At least I couldn’t identify it as good as it was unfolding. My body seems to have a tendency to be physically retentive whenever I am anxious, and so the night of the 14th and the morning of the 15th of January I found myself with diarrhoea after months of on and off constipation, and crying into the benevolent chest of my girlfriend. Something had caused an overflow, and my purge was taking place, with the suitable beautifully sad background music of ‘migration’ by Bonobo which I had bought that morning (a very appropriate album title).
I’ve been with Magda for around 3 years, and she has been incredibly supportive with my decision to quit my job as a content editor to travel. We have complete trust with each other and although she acknowledges the difficulty of being in a temporarily long-distance relationship, she recognises the perceived benefit the trip would have on us both. When I found myself in tears being comforted by her I felt particularly invalid; primarily as a partner, as it seemed to make more sense for me to comfort Magda than vice versa, and secondarily as a traveller. What ‘traveller’ saves up all their money for over 2 years, quits their job, moves back in to their mams house for 4 months, all so they can travel, and then has second thoughts the month before they leave? It wasn’t my first time travelling as I’d been to South-East Asia twice before, and it wasn’t being alone as I’d left the country multiple times on solo adventures. It was in part missing everybody I love, but I knew that I had accounted for this and I knew that I wouldn’t be gone forever. In those moments that I had soaked the shoulder of my girlfriend’s sweatshirt with tepid breaths and salty tears, she pointed out that the reaction I was having was not just about missing home. Here’s how she was right…
I have had issues with self-value for a long time. I only really understood and identified it as an issue of such a nature when I had an experience with the psychedelic plant medicine, ‘Ayahuasca’ and was confronted with the various conditioning that had taken place from my birth through culture and up-bringing. I won’t go into the full details, but it taught me that I need to learn to be more open and drop all self-loathing as it was unjustified. It is self-loathing that has made me seemingly unable to have a good time with any typically enjoyable activity, as something inside of me feels undeserving.
I had got into the pattern (and I think I still might be in it, though to a lesser extent) of having to prove myself in various ways to feel worthy of anything. It started from childhood, with my mams protestant ‘work as an intrinsic good’ perspective being drilled into me, while she worked all day and night as a bar person, leaving my wellbeing to the incapable hands of 5 year senior sister with mental health issues manifested in her adolescence as behavioural problems. My dad wasn’t around to help out – he was also in a bar, just not the same one as my mam, and not to work but to feed his addiction, which eventually was responsible for his death. Growing up in the working class culturally deprived North-East ex-coalmining town of Sunderland in the 1990’s further elevated this idea of not being worth anything unless you where working. Recreation of any form was taboo as the time spent having fun could be time spent making some money under the illusion that if you had cash you where safe.
I had major problems with asthma growing up and was dependent on the 24 hour care of my mam, who would sleep by my side in case I had an attack – I regularly did. I was known by staff at the hospital, and I had favourite wards etc. If my name was mentioned in a&e, I was seen immediately, as the staff where aware of the severity of my condition. This dependence on my mam lead me to feeling extreme guilt for making her have to work so hard just to keep me alive. As a child you are unable to intellectualise your feelings and trace them back to source, but this idea of being inferior really did resonate.
I found that from my adolescence through to adulthood I became determined to find ways to assert my worth to myself and others. It started when I was 14 and got a tattoo. I had always been interested in art and illustration as it was comforting to me when I was in hospital beds. I could create my own worlds in my mind through my drawings and reside in the flow state that was created from it. The tattoo seemed a logical step given the significance I attributed to visuals, and so I got the astrological ‘m’ shaped Scorpio sign on my right forearm in a run-down tattoo shop with no windows in a residential area of Sunderland for £20. My Dad came with me. He didn’t approve of me getting it done but knew that I would have got it done anyway, so thought it would be a suitable bonding activity, and that his presence would make it known to the tattooist that he was consenting to the idea of permanently marking a minor (Ironically, this is the worst form of ‘i.d’ you can offer. Not that they requested to see any). The lady working at reception even asked if we where ‘going for a pint after this’, which I understood as an effort to express that she knows I’m underage but is OK with that and will play along with the whole transparent façade. We didn’t get a pint after it was done, or at least I didn’t. My dad likely did.
The tattoo attributed me with some social worth in school. I had always felt different from other children growing up; I had no interest in football, wrestling, or guns, and I’d rather sit in the house making things then socialise with anybody else my own age. I could handle the company of adults but not my peers. I felt oppressing judgement from people my own age, but not as much from adults (this never really left). I didn’t feel ‘cool’ enough or ‘fun’ enough or ‘sporty’ enough. The steroid tablets I was on for my asthma increased my appetite, alongside the temporary comfort I would get from the the satisfaction of my limbic survival mechanisms through over-eating. I was told to be on a ‘diet for life’ by my doctor, Doctor Lowery, which was the start of my eating disorder and unhealthy relationship with food. I had grown up accepting that I was too weak and ugly to ever be loved, and I’d look down in the bath to see my naked belly surfacing the water with rolls of fat resembling processed corned-beef, thinking how if I ever tricked somebody into loving me then I would worship them so they would never leave me. Now I had a tattoo, and anorexia, so If people paid attention to me it wasn’t because I was fat, it was because I had a tattoo (and a 25 inch waist).
A few months prior to me getting the tattoo I had met a girl through the introduction of my cousin who showed interest in me romantically, and I would contemplate how my cousin must have convinced her friend to go out with me through pity. The first time I recognised that her interest was authentic after spending some time with her on the evening I couldn’t sleep for crying at how overwhelming it all was. I had my mind made up early on that I was too undesirable to be of interest to anybody, so this contradictory revelation took me off guard. I had learned what it felt like to be desired and I wanted to do all I could to maintain her enthusiasm, and so I put myself on a diet of sugar-free soft drinks and Trebor extra strong mints. Having the tattoo was the next step in my attempt to get rid of my self-loathing through extreme strategies.
I lost my virginity at 14 years old to the girl mentioned, and became what in retrospect could probably be considered a sex addict. I would finish my day at the all boys catholic school I was intending and go to her house, where we would sleep together from 3:30 until around 4:45, then I’d leave in time for her parents’ arrival with hair stuck to my forehead. My sex drive wasn’t exclusively the result of having regular heavy doses of hormones surging through my body through puberty, but of feeling united with another being and completely open and vulnerable without feeling any form of judgement. It was the experience of the loss of self and merging into one with another being experiencing the same thing. When all your defences are gone it’s easy to fall in love.
Being in a long-term relationship at 14 is not healthy, especially when you’re inadvertently using your partner as a means to justify your existence. When she cheated on me after 9 months of being together I was heartbroken. I’d never felt devastation like it. If I noticed another girl that I found attractive I would feel ashamed of myself and immediately repress my thoughts like a strict protestant parent. I expected her to act equally against nature’s rules, but I was too dependent of what we had to give it up, so we stayed together. 3 months later she ended up, and I found out that she had cheated during that time. I knew that I would have still taken her back, but it was no longer my choice. Mother nature is always going to do her thing.
My attitude to sexuality soon shifted, and I became detached from the significance I’d previously attributed sex with, now seeing it as recreational escapism and ego-strengthening. I began to get more female attention by adopting the popular trend of the time period of what was known as ‘scene’ (long hair, snakebite lip piercings, stretched ears etc.). I had my Scorpio tattoo covered up at 16 with a larger skull and rose tattoo. Being tattooed became my method of releasing adrenalin. The commitment made under the needle was ceremonial; it provided certainty and objective truth. It provided permanence. Popular girls seemed to like tattooed males, and thus began the start of various limbs getting coloured in for the next few years and a series of girlfriends on average 3-4 years my senior.
I would enter into relationships with no active intent to hurt anyone and I continued to try and be a good partner, but my choices where often based on how open I believed the girls sexual availability to be. I’d also find older women automatically more attractive as they could offer more sexual experience and emotional maturity. My relationships generally lasted around 3 – 12 months, and I would be confused when I found that I didn’t enjoy the company of the person I was with but enjoyed sex with them. I struggled to allow myself to get emotionally connected as I knew it wouldn’t last. I was searching for the sense of purity and purpose I experienced when I was with my first girlfriend but too scared to allow myself to feel it. It wasn’t that my first girlfriend was ‘the one’, but rather she was the one I happened to be with when I was inexperienced enough to lower my defences and feel every feeling in total nudity. I was searching for self-worth through the bodies and emotions of others.
During my more sexually active adolescence I found that alcohol helped me pretend to be more confident than I actually was. I would go out to rock and metal nights in a club in Sunderland most Thursday nights from around the ages of 15 – 17. There where a few experiences where alcohol helped me massively and I genuinely did have fun, but a lot of the time when I was drunk, I felt empty. I only drank in company (apart from one night where I woke up alone in a Jack Daniels-scented-vomit-flooded pillow), so it wasn’t that I was trying to escape from day to day life, but when I did drink I had made an assumption of a promise of a good time. I was treat for my general depressed disposition on a combination of medication and therapy for a while. When alcohol didn’t hold up it’s end of the bargain and provide me with happiness I would get even deeper into myself. I gave up drinking on and off when I started to realise this at around 17, but chose to abstain in totality when I was brought home by the police after being pinned down by my best friend while attempting to jump off the same bridge that my late grandmother did a few years before I was born. I have never drank alcohol since.
I went through a period of more self acceptance but had grown something of an ego as a thin shell to cover up my insecurities. I had now earned some kind of status through playing in a band that where reasonably well-liked locally and getting a little attention from girls. I could act patronising and condescending to those who I deemed deserved it, as if I could soak up self-worth through diminishing the worth of others. Somewhere in there I recognised I didn’t genuinely think I was better than anybody else, but it felt good to pretend that I did.
I had a best-friend who I admired greatly. He was 4 years older than me and I was impressed by his positive demeanour and enthusiasm for life. He was inspiring to be around and would shower me with compliments. We got on incredibly well. The friendship grew increasingly intense, to a point where it was unhealthy. He was openly gay, and I could sense he was attracted to me but he was fully aware with total certainty of my heterosexuality.
He began to act in ways that would be typical of a psychologically abusive partner through his frustration with the dynamic, and I would have to not mention my girlfriends name in front of him to avoid jealousy (which always lead to terrible moods and ruined evenings together). If I didn’t agree with his opinion on something I would be bullied into pretending that I did to avoid interrogation of my character on the whole. He made me make an agreement where I would text or call him on a daily basis, and would request that I told him I loved him claiming that if I felt weird saying it then I must have been homophobic. There are many examples of similar behaviours, but despite it all, it was clear that he did have genuine love for me and when he was in a good mood we had an amazingly good time together.
For the first few years I became accepting of his controlling behaviour in return for the sense of worth he placed on me. The intensity eventually became too much and I had outgrown my reliance on him to confirm my validity – his presence was more of a chore than a pleasure. Fortunately, he met a partner, and the dynamic between us was strange but manageable, until his recently developed daily dependence on cannabis brought on symptoms of psychosis. That lead to him cutting all friends out his life out of the blue around a year ago, about a month after he asked to borrow £50 for drugs. When I figured out that the cost to gain ratio of his company was unfavourably balanced, I had to look elsewhere for affirmation.
I had a varied academic history, through my lack of commitment to a particular discipline through fear I wasn’t good enough at anything to make it into a career. After sixth form I was lined up to do a foundation art course, but was convinced that I’d not be able to independently survive as a ‘starving artist’, so I managed to get a place on a B.Sc Psychology course at Sunderland University. While my tutors did seem to like me, it was clear that a discipline of science was not what I was meant to do, and after 9 months and 9 grand of student debt, I dropped the B.Sc and enrolled on another foundation art course.
I did well on the course and earned a distinction, which secured me a place on B.A Illustration and design course. It was during these years that I started to actively go to meditation lessons, and became obsessed with beat literature as I resonated with the sense of discontent discussed in poems like Ginsbergs, ‘Howl’, and was infatuated with the romance of the travel accounts of Kerouac. Meditation and beat culture created a sense of the alternative to being stuck in the head space that I was. I applied this inspiration to my university work, and got dependant on the concrete certainty provided by high percentage marks for my work. I believed high marks to equate to a positive and secure future, where I would no longer be working weekends at Starbucks for minimum wage. My unrecognised tendency to look for answers where there couldn’t be any was in full swing again.
When I graduated I felt lost. The sense of meaning my life had when I had a goal was my identity, and getting a job in the design field is not easy, even with a first class degree. At my graduation ceremony I noticed there where also some M.A students receiving their symbolic rolls of paper that had given them the status as ‘Masters’. I had saved my maintenance loans and had savings from my weekend job, so I spent £3,300 on an M.A Illustration and Design course, to buy me a little more time before attempting to enter the cyclical void of the 9-5 that I inevitably would have to settle with.
I really enjoyed the M.A and the dynamic it provided. Though I only had 4 hours contact time a week, I would be in the studio daily and produce a lot of work. I started to write a blog and post my work on networking websites, following the cliché pattern of equating attention to validity. It was during my M.A that I started to recognise this sense of fundamental dissatisfaction – that no matter what I achieved I still felt unhappy. In Buddhism, this is known as ‘Dukkha’. I was watching Ted Talks for inspiration for concepts in my work, when I came across the previously banned talk from Graham Hancock, ‘The War on Consciousness’. It was Hancock who introduced the world of Plant Medicines to me, which I initially responded to with dismissal, given my self-conditioned understanding that all drugs (including alcohol) where for escapism. I became fascinated by research on psychedelics for anxiety and depression, and managed to find a UK ceremony that I later attended. It was this experience that finally opened me up to self-work with full authenticity. It was at this time that I met Magda, which was timed perfectly.
During my M.A I had applied for various PhD’s, as this pattern of finding purpose through academia was working for my ego very well. I had submitted a very misunderstood proposal to multiple universities, all of which rejected me, with the exception of one. After many anxious months following an interview, I was offered a partial studentship to complete a 3 year research project. They would pay for all my fee’s and give me 2.5k a year to do it. My previous success in academia had given me the inaccurate assumption that It would logically continue, and so my mind was made up that I would do a PhD. I began the research in October 2014, and quit in December the same year, as it became apparent that I was not ready to do what was asked of me, and whoever had accepted me made a mistake, or misunderstood what it was I wanted to do.
After making the commitment to quit the PhD fuelled by some integration of what I had learned through ayahuasca, I began looking for a ‘proper job’. I was offered an interview as a graphic designer for a clothing label in London, which I reluctantly accepted. A few days later I was offered an interview for a content editor position in a local high-fashion e-commerce business. The day of this interview, I got a call to say that I was successful in securing the London job. I didn’t really want either, but I needed independence after relying on the kindness of my mam to put me up through my long-winded attempt at an academic career, so I took the local job. I was relieved that I got to stay near Magda, and getting offered jobs made me feel good. Even better when you aren’t really bothered either and have surrendered to settling the way that long-term couples often do when through time they’ve grown into different people to who they once where. I didn’t know what path to go on, but I was OK with that now.
Working in that job terrified me from day one. I was surrounded by people around my own age, who where conventionally ‘cool’. It felt like a regression back into starting in secondary school. In my M.A and even Ph.D, the authority figures where there to ensure you produced the best that you could, for your own gain. There is no sense of hierarchy, but rather a community of supportive staff and peers. In a workplace with a boss, all motivations are driven by capital. There is a hierarchy based on how long you’ve been in the job, and nobody really cares beyond a superficial level about anything other than small talk, as they are all feeling equally imprisoned by the impeding sense of meaningless that the role offers.
My first few months had me a nervous wreck, and almost incapable of communication with others. I would sit outside on a rock in the rain in the winter to eat my lunch, rather than having to spend time in a communal kitchen which was shared by all departments. The thought of potentially embarrassing myself by showing my personality in any way effectively made me mute. Most of the people I worked with seemed to treat materialism as recreational escapism (high-end fashion sculpts people into mannequins beyond just their clothing), but the majority where nice people who I had very little in common with. My sense of alienation was no secret. I did get on with those in my department who I had to opportunity to communicate with on a human level, but it was clear I was disliked by everybody else for being so weird and quiet. You just feel it in your gut.
The job itself was the equivalent of a digital cleaner. I would use photoshop to alter the appearance of photographs of clothing on a website so they looked more desirable. It wasn’t technically too challenging, but when you can’t trick yourself into believing that what you are doing is purposeful, fulfilling, or necessary, then simple tasks can become almost impossible. You can’t keep track of your thoughts when they are so boring that you forget what they are about as soon as you’ve started having them. The situation I was in was no worse than the standard Western employee in a meaningless 9 -5 (or 9-6 in my case), but given my desire for personal fulfilment that I would normally acquire using one of my evolving methods (food, tattoos, sex, academia etc.) I found it unbearable. I attempted working 4 days a week, living in a shared basic flat on a simple vegan diet and using my 3 days for illustration work, but that was still not enough. It was in the height of my despair that I made the decision to quit, and opt to travel with no intentions of answering any questions, but to learn and experience more organically.
I moved back into my mam and step dad’s house (after having moved to Newcastle for a year) and bought myself a one-way ticket to Bangkok. I’ve had a fascination with Asian culture for years (especially Thai food). Although I’d been twice before (once alone for 3 weeks or so) I’d never really experienced the uncertainty of ‘travel’ through my fear driven desire for answers and lack of trust in my capability as an independent being. I spent September until January finishing up a few illustration jobs I had fortunately managed to get, and tutoring B.A Illustrations once a week.
When I had first moved back home I was excited about the prospect of travelling and dropping all commitments that I had. No rent or bills, no uninspiring weekly cycles, but freedom and novelty. I had saved £5000, which I had thought would last me 6 months or so. Though I didn’t have a specific plan, i knew I would start my itinerary in Thailand where I’d spend a month or so, but I had nothing else planned afterwards. I knew I wanted to see India at some point in my travels, but I thought it made sense to keep that as my final destination as it was closer to home than the other places I’d be (so cheaper to fly into). I booked a flight Manila in the Philippines for the 8th of February, to ensure I would be granted entry into Asia to start with (it isn’t possible to get into a country on a 30 day visa without proof of exit). I wanted to keep my options open and keep it vague, but immigration laws don’t always make that easy, so I then booked a flight to Bali to allow myself entry into the Philippines. This was all I had arranged at this point.
I hadn’t fully acknowledged the organisation that the trip would require while I was back at my mam’s, as I was distracting myself through completing the illustration work that I had taken. I had a small square IKEA side table that I placed at the end of my bed, and this was my desk. I felt like a hack knowing that once a week I was teaching degree students how to be a successful illustrator (and was even on a panel that the university compiled of ‘successful alumni’ to give advice to final year design students of all disciplines) while simultaneously working for next to nothing in the attic of the home I spent my years as a student. I really enjoyed teaching, as it gave me an opportunity to stop focussing on myself and instead focus on helping others. My techniques of distraction where as present as always, just more mature and subtle as I got further into adulthood. Perhaps this is when these techniques could be considered most dangerous; they become so nuanced they are barely noticeable.
In the past few months I realised I couldn’t longer avoid that my trip was approaching. I struggled to enjoy producing illustration, as I was too focussed on anxiety about my trip. I felt a contradiction in my psyche, as part of my intention when travelling was to learn to accept spontaneity and uncertainty as it doesn’t come naturally to me, but it’s not always easy to distinguish what is free-spirited Kerouacian romanticism, and what is just dangerously poor organisation. From around November onwards everything I did was tainted with the recognition of impermanence. When I would spend time with Magda or with my friends I couldn’t be fully present, as I knew that I soon had to face being alone with myself for a long period of time. I would be laughing with friends and then suddenly remember that soon my laughter would just be a shadow barely visible my memory as I was leaving (again, contradictory as my travels also weren’t permanent). In Buddhism this is known as ‘annica’. The difference between a holiday and travel is that on a holiday you know you’re experiencing a temporary escape that’s enjoyable but not likely to be authentic, whereas with travel you are welcoming the rawness of it all, often in places that are considered dangerous and poor.
The countdown to Christmas and New Year filled me with horror, as I knew that once January hit it was time to go. My rose tinted vision of my adventure was beginning to become murky with the addition of my loyal anxieties. I voiced my concerns to Magda as knowing how much I would miss her was adding a new layer of intensity to the suffering. We both expressed that we recognised how difficult it would be, but would ultimately result in mutual benefits. Magda had some things to take care of too, which she could focus on without my distraction. We knew there was a delayed pay-off to be gained.
From January the 1st the days became walls closing in on me. On Saturday January the 14th I spent my last day with Magda. We went to a coffee shop ran by an old school friend while I finished my final illustration job and bought the new ‘Bonobo’ album (previously mentioned) that was released the day before. On the evening I was sending some emails, listening to music, when it all came out, as vulnerable and raw as a new born child.
This brings me to back to where I was in the first chapter, crying on the shoulders of the girl I love and who I was about to leave for 6 months. She was right when she said that this wasn’t just about missing home. It was about finally confronting all my fears of uncertainty, social unease, and dealing with my own bullshit with no means of being able to escape it. I’d been putting it off all my life because I didn’t think I was ready or wasn’t even aware of its presence. I still don’t now if I’m ready, but I don’t think I have the option not to try anymore.
This is how it’s been going so far.