On September 1, 2007, I boarded a plane bound for Bangkok, Thailand, unaware of just how much the next 8 months would change my life.
I was nervous.
I was going to teach English to 1st graders in Thailand.
I was excited.
I was going to travel my strong, independent self around Southeast Asia.
I was terrified.
I was going to run away from my seemingly carefree 22-year-old life, which had, unbeknownst to most people, broken into a pile of shattered glass. That pile of glass had once resembled a shiny, glossy mirror but after a bad break-up (and quite frankly, a bad relationship), had shattered into painful shards that cut my life into a rather sad, dark place.
Despite the deepening sadness, I arrived in Bangkok and put on a good face.
Inside however, I was struggling just to make it through the day.
I cried. A lot.
I kept talking to my ex-boyfriend regularly on the phone.
I laid on my cartoon sheets at night thinking, “Where the hell am I and how did I get here?”
I trapped myself in a self-preserving cocoon of loneliness and kept from doing fun things like going out, meeting new people and ENJOYING my living abroad experience. Instead, I relegated my normally extroverted self to weekly pedicures, foot massages + outings to the local market and spending far too much time in Internet cafes pondering (and over-pondering) life’s meaning in search of some semblance of happiness. All usually alone.
Besides Mama Everythingtarian + some of my best friends, not many people knew what I was going through. I can be a really good actress when I need to be, if I do say so myself.
I kept laughing, even if on the inside I didn’t feel like it.
Then, in a fateful turn of events, a new teacher from New York arrived at my school.
And perfectly placed in my life was a person who liked me. Who treated me well and with respect. Who I had things in common with. Who I laughed with. Who I could talk to. Who challenged me. Who fought through my “I’ll-carry-the-bag-myself-because-I-am-an-independent-woman-of-the-21st-century” self to grab my bag and respond, “Why can’t you let anyone do anything nice for you? Give me the bag, and stop being so god damn stubborn.”
That shut me up.
And honestly, that is not an easy thing to do.
Slowly but surely, after his grand December arrival, I started to regain the sense of self-confidence I had completely lost in my previous relationship. I looked to him for help, but more importantly, he helped me help myself. I ventured out a bit more. I went out drinking a couple times. I stopped talking to my ex-boyfriend. I opened myself up to the people around me. I allowed myself to have fun. I even made friends with a dog.
Yes, things were still complicated in my life.
But somehow, for the first time in a more than a year, I felt hopeful.
Then, the universe somehow figured how I had found hope and sought to test me on it.
In the span of one month, I ended things with my ex-boyfriend (one word: messy), found out I had an infected sebaceous cyst, had three surgeries (one under anesthesia) to drain the infected cyst, visited the doctor everyday for three weeks straight, found out my school never submitted my health insurance information, got a case of the worst bedbugs known to man and declared January 2008 the worst start to a year. Ever.
But ya know what?
I made it through.
What didn’t kill me (having two McGyver-style surgeries in sketchy back rooms of Thai hospitals with doctors that barely spoke English) only made me stronger (and $1500 poorer when I finally paid out of pocket at a decent, English-speaking hospital for the final surgery).
In my last two months in Thailand, I made a list of all the things I wanted to do before I left.
I took weekend trips to Ayutthaya and Lopburi.
I took a Thai cooking class.
I visited the Grand Palace, Kanchanaburi and learned how to barter with tuk tuk drivers for free rides (hint: let them bring you to tourist shops in exchange for a fee-free lift). Most excitedly, I planned a two week vacation before I headed back stateside, which included a week of solo traveling through the tropical islands of Southern Thailand.
And, because I truly believe Mama Everythingtarian when she says, “What goes around, comes around,” my final night in Thailand was spent with the person who helped me more than he will ever know and who I adore more than he will ever realize (probably because I’m too hard-headed to ever actually admit this to him).
After almost 24 hours of travel, I arrived back in Wisconsin.
Hugged the people I love most in the world.
Started taking care of myself and taking pride in who I am.
And somehow, things started to fall in place.
That’s not to say I haven’t gone through my fair share of stress, heartache and tough times since then or that I’ve magically come to accept myself wholly and completely for who I am. I am continually striving to be okay with who I am – always have, probably always will.
But I realized that I am so much stronger than I ever give myself credit for.
Most likely, so are you.
And that is the most important life lesson I learned in Thailand.