I was five years old the first time I ran away from home. My mother wouldn’t let me play with a set of watercolor paints, and I resolutely decided that it wasn’t a situation I could live with. I snuck out after dinner, but it was still light when I set off down our dirt road and into the woods. Soon I walked into a clearing, where I saw — stay with me here — the witches. Two smiling women stood next to a bubbling black pot. I stumbled, terrified, and sprinted home.
When I told this story years later, my mother was dumbfounded. As a child, I had neglected to mention the women — whose bizarre appearance she finally chalked up to the New Age mysticism popular in our small Australian town — and simply told her I would never run away again.
I was 25 when I broke that pledge. It wasn’t spontaneous like it had been two decades earlier, but the underpinnings were the same: Something was wrong, and I decided I couldn’t live with it.
I had long been cautioned against losing myself to a relationship, but nobody ever warned me that a career could be an equally wolfish consumer of my identity. A career, I was taught, was a conduit for independence; establish one, and everything else would follow.
And so I went off to college in New York and found journalism, something I liked and excelled in. After graduating, I stayed in the city — it was where ambitious people wanted to be, and I was pretty sure I was one of them — and got a job at a news startup that seemed exciting to a 22-year-old, with its kegs and branded sneakers. But it was a demanding, toxic workplace. I spent 10 or 12 hours a day spitting out thousands of words I was rarely proud of, and I was too tired to notice.
Something was wrong, and I decided I couldn’t live with it.
After nearly two years, the dysfunction and exhaustion were intolerable. I found another job at an independent website that I loved for its fearlessness, and my jadedness receded. But not long after I started, its parent company was bankrupted by a lawsuit and subsequently acquired by a corporate giant. Donald Trump was elected president a few months later, and working in the news felt like looking into a funhouse-mirror version of the country’s most primordial urges. The new administration worsened the already long hours and intense pressure fundamental to the job. As a newly promoted editor, I felt like I could no longer afford to dissociate from work, because I was responsible for the success of people besides myself.
I had always ignored the looming specter of cataclysmic burnout. Without work, what would I have? But it suddenly and violently materialized. I spent my commute fantasizing that the train would derail. I stopped seeing friends. I woke up every morning filled with dread.
Eventually, the things I had leaned on to craft who I was — a career, the place I lived — began to feel largely symbolic. They were devoid of meaning beyond the fact that I chose them, like a haircut or a couch. A baptism by the cataclysms of early adulthood — bad relationships, familial upheaval, and the blunt realization I wouldn’t fix the world — knocked me flat on my back. I was miserable and stupefied, but inertia breeds its own kind of perverse satisfaction, and the unhappiness was like a fever: It would only break when it was ready.
I wish I could say it happened during some beautiful, meditative moment. In truth, I was sitting on my living room couch when I decided to disappear. Oddly, it felt like choosing something to make for dinner; only later did I realize this was a mechanism to insulate myself from the weight of what I was doing. I booked a plane ticket to Australia that day.
Despite a distance of more than 10,000 miles and a time difference of 15 hours, there were practical reasons for going to Australia. My extended family lived there, which would significantly lower the cost of the trip. I had an Australian passport. And in much the same way that you never forget the smell of your grandparents’ house, I never lost my instinctive awareness of the country’s nuances, which was a comforting alternative to the alienation I felt toward America.
There were also less concrete reasons. I’d been gone for 17 years. I had never visited as an adult. I never made peace with leaving, because it wasn’t my decision to move away. Being from there had never fit neatly into my identity, and so I never tried to understand where to put it.
But I had a nagging feeling that, especially as a woman, I wasn’t supposed to do this. I wasn’t supposed to drop everything, including the people who relied on me, to galavant around in another hemisphere. Megan Mayhew Bergman talks about this in an essay for the Paris Review: Women, she writes, have rarely been afforded the luxury — and it is in every way a luxury, because it’s almost always only an option for people who are privileged enough to consider it in the first place — of adventure.
In a world where fight is prized, flight can seem careless and selfish.
As a woman who spent much of her early twenties wondering if she could finagle her way into having it all, it felt oddly sacrilegious to run away from both a job and a relationship, albeit temporarily. Yet it was also freeing. I was escaping, but I was also going back to an old life, and I hoped it would help me make sense of the restlessness that had bloomed since I left.
It made perfect sense in my mind, but it felt as though most of the people around me were baffled. Friends wondered what would happen once I got back. The explanations I gave my boyfriend were never enough. My bosses asked if I was sure. Everyone wanted answers, but they didn’t seem to grasp that I did, too.
Before I left for Australia in August, I read Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. “I travel not to get away from my troubles but to see how they look in front of famous buildings or on deserted beaches,” she writes. “Back at home we generally understand each other better.” I thought about this line frequently while I was gone, and it still pops into my head every once in a while. It was my explanation, too: I left not because I thought it would solve all my problems — in fact, leaving created new ones, as dropping everything inevitably does — but because I thought pulling myself away would let me see their shapes better.
People tend to view running away as the weaker impulse. In a world where fight is prized, flight can seem careless and selfish. The day I left, part of me still believed I had made a terrible mistake; that I would fall back in love with the life I had just given up as soon as I realized what I had done.
The opposite happened. I suddenly remembered all the things you could do with a single day. I sat with the strangeness of seeing places I once occupied, knowing them now only as museums of my own making. I gaped at all the bubbles that floated around outside of my own. I visited the seaside hotel my great-grandfather helped build and remembered that I didn’t spring up out of nothing. I hiked around a 600 million-year-old rock formation and realized that I did, in fact, spring up out of nothing. I forgot about things back home. I remembered that most things would change anyway. I was ready when they did.
Above all, I decided I had been right. I hadn’t made a terrible mistake. I did exactly what I needed to do. It was a solitary, months-long exercise in building confidence — in my independence, in my ability to know what was best for me, in my awareness of what I was missing.
Once I got back, it felt as though things — big, nebulous things; things I couldn’t yet name but felt in my bones — had changed. For a brief moment, I had an opportunity to slip back into my old life, with an offer for a similar job in the same city. I almost took it, because after months of change, the familiarity was reassuring.
Then I wondered why I had hurled my entire life off a cliff if all I was going to do was race down to the bottom with my arms wide open. I let it go instead.
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