The emotional shopping list of running away from your problems

- illustration by ajsaajsaajsa -


Ages ago I remember sitting in a café and overhearing a conversation between two women who, by their wonderfully lyrical accents were from South America. They were talking about living in Dubai and when it came to one of them uttering “the cost of living”, to my ear, and with their accents, it sounded more like “the cost of leaving”. This tiny, usually unnoticeable moment, is what prompted this article.

I’ve always pondered on what it means to physically leave, by one’s own will. When you’ve put so much time, effort and love into building a home, a safe-space, relationships, a career and it gets somewhat uncomfortable on a personal level, what does making the decision to leave fully entail? I myself have been moved around my whole life, mostly against my own will, and I’ve not ever really sat down, and said to myself: “You know what? I don’t like this anymore. I’m leaving.” Even on a much more basic level, I’ve been known to stay in uncomfortable situations because I’ve gotten so used to them and I’m mortified at the idea of change when it comes to anything related to home.

During my early years and my teenage years I was moved around more than fifteen times. From the UK, to Switzerland, where I moved from house to house every few years, My sense of home had taken a beating. Wherever I would go, I would nest, but always with a cautionary “ready-to-leave-at-any-moment” kind of attitude. Dubai was different.

I’d been living in Dubai for four and a half years as a graphic designer and illustrator. It was the longest I’d ever been, anywhere, since 1999. The first year in Dubai was total and utter discovery; new traditions, culture, food, people, mannerisms, languages, religion and geography. Going from the crisp fresh-aired mountains of Switzerland to Dubai’s dusty, humid sand dunes was already a shock in itself. When I first arrived I was scared, it was the first time I had moved so far and also, my first professional career-starting job. I moved for the job. At the time I had finished university and was petrified of being unemployed. Between the fear of being unemployed and the fear of moving, yet again, it was a 50/50 decision. I moved.

I’ve always pondered on what it means to physically leave, by one’s own will. When you’ve put so much time, efforts and love into building a home, a safe-space, relationships, a career and it gets somewhat uncomfortable on a personal level, what does leaving fully entail?

I started working in advertising in Dubai and on my first day, I came to realize what my move actually meant. I realized that it wasn’t going to be something I would enjoy in the long run. Call that negative thinking, it absolutely was. I sat at my desk, staring through the glass wall that surrounded the design lab, as we called it, and I remember thinking: “What the hell did I land myself in?”. As weeks turned into months, the hours at the office became cruel, the job was personally unfulfilling and I was starting to lose faith in what I had learnt in university. On the bright side, I knew I was there for a reason and the longer I stayed, the longer I had to learn what the real world of design facing client meant. For that, I’m eternally grateful to the advertising industry.

I decided to quit my job in March 2017, with no savings and no particular vision, and continue on as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator. I ran away. I had faith in myself, and I also had a great support system. Had I not spent two years in advertising I wouldn’t have been able to branch out on my own. I learnt how to structure my work, how to present it to a client, how to make everything look… gorgeous. Ultimately that was what advertising was, to me. A beautiful looking bundle of stuff; pretty, unrealistic things that were never going to happen because, well, the client never had the money.

Freelancing is great. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing people. Instead of being at a desk for fourteen hours a day, I’m running around to meet people, present my work, enjoy after-hours wine with new clients. It was a new take on what work was “supposed” to be like, at least, what work was like for my parents. I also had a newfound control owho I was working with, and not be force-fed anything I thought was unethical or downright boring. It has its pros and cons like any form of work. It was a different kind of stress. It was survival stress, much more of an animalesque way of feeling than being sat at a desk for five to seven days a week. It was fighting for my life, and not someone else’s. I’d done way too much of that.

Two and half years later, still freelancing in Dubai, I had gotten to a roadblock. My work was starting to morph into a giant blob of sameness. I wasn’t challenged, I wasn’t learning and moreover, I wasn’t excited to do any of the latter. I didn’t feel like going out; when I would have a client meeting, I would do anything to avoid leaving the house. On top of the feeling of simply not loving the city I was in, the outside world that I would usually be interested in — the art galleries, art classes, comedy and theatre— felt so constructed and inorganic, and I found myself actively craving impromptu gatherings, meeting new people out of the blue, randomly going on a walk and being surprised and intrigued, getting lost, or sitting in a cafe talking to an old lady. I had known all of that in Switzerland, back in my university days and I missed it deeply. I couldn’t wait for the next vacation, I wanted my life to be the next vacation.

Being the extreme person I am, total black and white vision, I obviously pinned it down to the city I was in, rather than blaming it all on myself. I’m so happy I did that, because I moved.

- illustration by ajsaajsaajsa -

New York

I left Dubai on February 22, 2019. No savings. I’ve been known to run away. People view this as bad behaviour and most of them come back immediately with the typical insecurity-fed, self-help book response: “Oh you can’t run away from your problems, they’re just going to follow you. It’s an inner healing process”. It’s absolutely not.

My problems ended up not following me. They took another flight. I haven’t heard much from them in the past month. I’m a completely different human being. Change your surroundings, watch yourself change. I’m not saying the change will be something you see straight away as positive, it may seem catastrophic at first. When I moved to Dubai, I changed in ways I first thought were terrible, and later, looking back, turned out to be just what I needed. So why was New York going to be any different?

I’ve been known to run away. People view this as bad behaviour and most of them come back immediately with the typical insecurity-fed, self-help book sentences: “Oh you can’t run away from your problems, they’re just going to follow you. It’s an inner healing process”. It’s absolutely not.

So what exactly does it cost to jump in the deep-end and move to another city? There’s a plethora of emotions that will hit you like a ton of bricks. No one person’s situation is ever going to be the same as anyone else’s, but here’s my list:

  • You’re going to be so unstable in the first month that you’ll question your decision on an hourly basis. Stick with it, roll with the fear, anxiety, sleepless nights, watery poops. It’s a normal human reaction to ask yourself what the hell you‘ve done and for your body to do the same.
  • Resist the incessant urge to buy a flight back to wherever you came from. You left for a reason, remember that reason, engrave it in your brain as deep as you possibly can, and action it. Don’t let fear get in the way of whatever you want to do. You want to do stand-up comedy but you have a massive fear of people laughing at you instead of laughing with you? Ride with the insecurity, play it out, don’t go up on stage straight away and start off by signing up for a stand-up comedy class. You’ll learn.
  • Remember to leave the house every, single, day. If you’re a freelancer like me, take your computer, your synthesizer, your brushes, or whatever you use, and go work outside, in a cafe, in a library, but not at home. Being a socially anxious creature, I tend to hibernate a lot. I’ll have the weirdest irrational fears. A perfect example is being in a coffeeshop with my laptop, needing to pee, and being too scared to ask the person next to me to watch over my stuff. Massive trust issues lead to massive miss-outs. Go out.
  • When you start feeling homesick for whatever reason, accept it as something that’s totally normal and move past it. It’s just a feeling, it’s not going to stick around forever. Call a friend, cry it out, go eat some fried chicken, buy a scented candle; do something for yourself that feels warm and homey.
  • Write. A lot. Whenever you have a feeling that’s new, unsettling, downright awful, or even so beautiful you can’t catch your breath, write it down. I’m a massive fan of the notes app. I get all mushy, but one of the note’s I wrote when I first arrived in New York said: “I’ve departed with a beating heart. I’ve arrived with a beating heart”. Just re-reading that makes me feel fuzzy, and reminds me that as long as I’m breathing, I’m capable of anything I set my mind to. Cheesy with a capital C, and I love it.
  • I’m not one to function on a bucket-list type of agenda. I take things one day at a time. Arriving in New York City I realized that I’m on my own. Instead of taking that as a bad thing as I usually would, I’ve taken on the flip side and absolutely love waking up asking myself what I fancy doing that particular day. Things don’t need to cost money, it could be simply people-watching in a new park.
  • Prepare for your sense of home to be spat on by the universe, scrunched up like a paper ball and thrown into a garbage can. You can rummage in the garbage can as long as you want, but home as you knew it isn’t going to come back to you anytime soon. That’s alright. You’re the only home you have.
  • Have faith, especially in yourself, every second of every day.
- illustration by ajsaajsaajsa -

It’s only been a month

In no way do I proclaim myself a city-hopping, globetrotting expert. It’s not something I’ll add to my instagram bio anytime soon. It’s just something I do when I’ve had enough. Will I ever settle? I don’t know. When life allows it, I most likely will. I want to live alone, with a cat, I want to nest and decorate, and the moment the tide comes in, or goes out, you’ll most likely find me hammering nails into a wall, finally putting up my frames and calling it a day.

Moving doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It costs a lot in time, emotions and is particularly physically exhausting. Money comes and goes. So does time, emotions, and aches from carrying giant suitcases around by yourself on a rainy, windy day. There will be doubts, insecurities, moments of sheer anxiety; totally normal, you’re unsettled. You’ve initiated the biggest change, and change isn’t comfortable. Remember that you ultimately asked for discomfort when you made a decision to move. Have total and utter faith in that decision.

You were willing to face the cost of leaving.

Bottomless pits of thought and I’m here to heal.

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