Exactly one year ago today, I was making $90,000 a year and had just come back from a vacation to Italy, where I am currently sitting writing this. I’m not trying to brag by saying that – the lawsuit I’m currently involved in for owed wages has made that figure public. And I am the poster child for “Money Can’t Buy Happiness;” I hated that job. I spent 40% of my day looking up places to travel to and the other 60% worrying about what would happen when my company was inevitably shut down for decisions that were above my pay grade.
And sure enough, five months later, my workplace was closed without warning… on Halloween, of all days. Half the office was dressed up. In hindsight, it was a great day. I’ve previously described the experience as being in an abusive relationship, only for the guy to drop dead. That experience taught me a very important lesson: worrying about something is not going to prevent it from happening.
As a mental health professional, I feel like I should know that but it wasn’t until I lived it that I really understood it. I’ve always been a neurotic person. It’s the personality characteristic that got me to $90,000 a year in the first place. I finish things a week before the deadline. I plan. I budget. I come up with contingency plans. I have always been extremely cautious and ahead of the curve because that’s what keeps my anxiety at bay.
Several months and a string of unacceptable jobs later – unacceptable either because of pay or condition – I decided to leave. I took my hard-earned savings and instead of burying it into another overpriced Miami apartment, I bought a one-way flight to Europe, which has been my home for the past month. I had two jobs when I left, one of which I quit outright; the other is still begging me to return. And I loved that job, I really did. I was working as a therapist and helping people who really needed it. I cried when I left every single one of my clients my last week and I still deeply miss some of them. But I had to do right by me. Because as fulfilling as it was to be their therapist, it was exhausting and didn’t pay well. I might be happy as a therapist, but I would be struggling to make ends meet.
So I bought a one-way ticket to Brussels and have spent the past month traveling Europe and carefully considering where I can settle down. I check my credit card every week or so and I update my budget for this trip, but surprisingly, I don’t feel the kind of anxious fear I did back home when I knew I would have a looming $1000+ rent, groceries, car, and insurance payments. I don’t feel much of anything except happiness, to be honest. For the first time in my life, I’m doing exactly what I want to do: traveling and writing about it.
I had specifically planned a month-long Europe trip and the month is about to be up. But surprisingly, I’m not anxious, I’m not panicked. I’m having a great time with my cheap Italian wine and bubble baths in Ancona, and I can worry about what happens three days from now three days from now. I keep getting calls and emails about jobs in Miami and New York that I applied to months ago, and I find myself ignoring them. It’s not because I’ve become irresponsible or lazy. But because I’ve realized that maybe I’m not an anxious person; maybe I’ve just been living in an anxious society. And I’m not sure that I want to go back there for another job that I’m going to need to rely on to maintain a lifestyle that makes living there tolerable.
I’ve always been an anxious person. When I was in high school, I spent all of senior year worrying about which college would accept me. I spent the last year of college worrying about which grad school would accept me. I spent the last year of grad school worrying about what job I could get post-grad. And I spent the first three years of my first post-grad job worrying about promotions and raises. And I learned to accept that way of life as the way things are. But they’re not. When I found myself managing 18 other managers and thinking, “This is it?” I realized career success wasn’t quite what I expected.
Over the past month, I woke up every day whenever I wanted, like every day is a Saturday. I wear whatever I want, and I do and eat whatever I want. And I’m not worried about what I’m going to do with my life in a year because I’m more concerned with enjoying my life right now. And anxiety robs you of that. Planning moves five years ahead of time just so you can hope to make yourself rich by the time you retire is no way to live. Because I can barely deal with this European elevation at 28, so at 65 I wouldn’t even get to enjoy it without knee surgery.
When I used to get sick back home, I would go to urgent care for some short-term cure, worry about having to take one of my 10 days of PTO that I needed for vacations, and worry that a cold was an indication of something worse, like an autoimmune disorder. When I got a cold in Croatia, I cured it with Vitamin C, long walks, and Croatian honey brandy. Because if a cold is going to kill me, there’s really no reason to worry about it. Not when I have Croatian honey brandy.
Everywhere I go, I run into people who also love to travel and do it all the time. They’re artists or businessmen or teachers, like me. And they vacation in Croatia or Germany or Serbia. They don’t have to carefully plan where they want to take their precious two weeks of vacation because they have so much more than that, even if they’re just servers at a restaurant. I used to take pride in taking five vacations a year using just two weeks of PTO. But looking back on that now, it kind of feels like being proud of having the brightest uniform in a prison.
I’ve always had an embarrassing habit and a dead giveaway of my underlying anxiety: sweaty palms. They would sweat when I was in traffic trying to get to work on time. They sweat when my CEO asked me to lay off $300,000 worth of staff. They would sweat when I was interviewing for jobs I didn’t even want. They would sweat when I was trying to figure out how to afford living in Coral Gables and pay for my car with a teacher/therapist’s salary.
And yet, the only time my palms sweat while I’m traveling is when I’m walking uphill for more than 15 minutes. So maybe my sweaty palms were never just a symptom of anxiety; maybe they were my body’s way of telling me that I was living a life that would never make me happy.
Even though I have no idea what I’m doing a week from now, I’m not all that worried about it. That’s a striking feeling, because you never really know the weight of something until it is absent. And my anxiety was far too great a weight. But now I know better. I know I’ll figure it out. And if I don’t, there are worse places in the world to be homeless than Italy.