The most important and empowering lesson I have ever learned first presented itself to me while I lay crying on my bedroom floor in a small pink house in rural, Northeastern Thailand. I felt helpless, desperate and heartbroken – all feelings, ironically, that I had come there to get away from in the first place.
I grew up with an extremely comfortable life. From where I stood, my parents, my sister and I formed the perfect little family of four. We had a nice home, we were all in good health, we did lots of fun things together and we wanted for nothing. I had always done well in school, and I flourished more than ever in university, feeling like I’d found my place in the world. I was happy; I didn’t question any of it; I thought it would last forever.
But throughout the year of 2012 – the last year of my undergraduate degree – all of these assumptions upon which my life had been built began to be turned upside down. I suddenly realized the career path I’d been following wasn’t the right one for me; my parents leaned heavily on my as their relationship started to fall apart; I worried incessantly about my sister when she became sick. It felt like everything was going wrong. The things that I had always known to be true no longer were. It seemed like everything bad was happening to me and it was out of my control.
I applied to teach English abroad to get away from all of this – from the difficulties and decisions I didn’t want to face. It seemed like the perfect plan to delay dealing with all of these changes that were so terrifying to my type-A, control-freak, 22-year-old self. I would move to the other side of the world as soon as I graduated, work as an ESL teacher for a year, backpack around Southeast Asia, and all of my problems would be behind me.
You probably already know how this one goes: nice try, kid.
Turns out, you can’t run away from your problems.
Turns out, being across the planet from the things most familiar to you, even while they are crumbling, doesn’t make it less painful – just harder to deal with.
From thousands of miles away, trying to support my parents as they separated was so much more difficult; worrying about my sister’s wellbeing was so much more consuming; puzzling over what I wanted to do with my life was so much more confusing. And to top it all off, falling in love with the amazing guy I had started seeing a few weeks before I left for Thailand was becoming so much more impossible not to do.
Don’t get me wrong: at first, I thought I had it in the bag. I arrived after 30 hours of flying in Bangkok and was thrown right into my teaching orientation and the bustling life of the city. I made friends fast and we embraced the craziness of our new lives, exploring our novel surroundings (and drinking lots of Chang beer). For a week we lived in a boutique hotel in the heart of the city, learning the nuances of local culture, the tips and tricks of ESL teaching and the basics of the Thai language.
If I’d have stayed in Bangkok the whole time, surrounded by people and wifi and shopping malls, I probably could successfully have managed to hide from myself until I finished my one-year contract and got on a plane back home.
But, as luck would have it, I was about as far away from city life as I could possibly have been. Instead, I lived in a small rural farming village eight hours Northeast of Bangkok. I lived in a tiny pink house on the compound of the high school where I worked, surrounded by rice paddies on all sides for as far as the eye could see. I lived with two other English teachers – a couple from New York – and we became great friends. I honestly don’t know how I would have gotten through that year without them.
But even so, it was quiet, isolated and often lonely. I spent almost every single night in the teachers’ lounge at school Skyping someone back home, and the rest of the time stuck inside my own head, being crushed under the weight of all of the scary, daunting, difficult things I’d tried so hard to leave behind but had dragged across the world with me anyway.
And so that brings us back to me, crying on my bedroom floor in a small pink house in rural Northeastern Thailand. Nothing was working out like it was supposed to. I was in love with someone on the other side of the world. My parents hated each other. My sister was going through so much pain. And I had absolutely no direction and no idea what I wanted do with my life. I felt completely helpless, desperate and heartbroken.
It had all become too much – I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was exhausted. I was weak. I was depleted. I got home from school one day and collapsed on the floor in hopeless tears. I couldn’t imagine ever finding the strength to get up.
But as I lay there, I became aware that I had a unique perspective. I saw things from an angle I hadn’t before – literally. From my spot on my stomach on the floor, my eyes were at the same level as the bottom shelf of my bookcase. Something there caught my attention. On the shelf was a book my mom had given me two Christmases earlier – The Success Principles by Jack Canfield – a book I never thought I’d actually read, to be honest. But I’d tossed the book into my bag because, let’s face it, I figured I should pack every last unread book I owned when I was headed to rural Thailand.
As miserable as I was, something in me couldn’t resist. I picked it up, and I opened it. And this is what I found:
“If you want to be successful, you have to take 100% responsibility for everything you experience in your life. This includes the level of your achievements, the results you produce, the quality of your relationships, the state of your health and physical fitness, your income, your debts, your feelings – everything!”
This concept struck something deep within me. A powerful truth fell into place; one that changed the way I thought about myself and my life. It suddenly became clear to me that I, and only I, was responsible for what I did, how I thought and the way that I felt. If I wasn’t happy with where I was, it was my responsibility to own it and take action to change it. I realized that I held the agency in my own life; that I was not helpless and things did not just “happen to me.” And not only that: I discovered that I was actually able to manifest exactly the life that I wanted.
It was liberating to learn that my happiness would not, in fact, be subject to the whims of the people around me and the randomness of the universe for the entirety of my existence. How I felt and what I thought did not depend on others’ moods and ideas working in my favour. It was empowering to uncover the simple truth that I have the ability – and the responsibility – to create the life that I want, and that no one can take that away from me.
Of course, it’s never going to be perfect. Shit happens. Some things in this world are simply out of our control. And there will be events in each of our lifetimes that push us beyond what we believe we can handle. But even in challenging times, it is how we choose to act and react to our circumstances that allows us to take back our lives.
But I’m not going to sit here and tell you that ever since that day on the floor in the pink house in Thailand, I have unwaveringly upheld this lesson in every nook and cranny of my life. Not even close. Many times since, in fact, I have struggled with the same sense of helplessness, desperation and heartbreak that loomed over me then. I have learned and relearned this lesson, over and over, throughout the past four years, and I expect to continue my studies on this subject for the rest of my days. But I am getting better. It sticks with me better each time I stumble.
And the best part is, it never gets old. No matter how many times life brings me this lesson, it’s always just as empowering and encouraging to learn.