At 25, I thought I had it all figured out.
I had a job that paid well, and made me feel important. I had a house by the ocean, a brand new car and a boat to spend lazy weekends. I had a long term partner who cooked for me, cared for me when I was sick and got along well with my friends and family. I had a beautiful black Labrador that I loved like a child, that followed me everywhere and showed me what love is really about. My family lived a few blocks away and we spent weekends laughing, sharing bottles of wine, and telling stories. My best friend and her husband completed my perfect little life, the boys would go out fishing and we would sit on my deck and watch the sun set, with our dogs at our feet and a good feed on the table.
I thought I had it all.
But at night, when I would crawl into my four-poster bed on Sheridan Egyptian cotton sheets, to the sounds of boyfriend murmuring in his sleep, and the comforting presence of my Labrador at the food of my bed… and I would feel hopelessly empty. I would lay awake, staring at the ceiling, trying to figure out what I had missed. I had followed the guide book to a T. I had ticked every check box. I had everything I ever wanted.
My chest felt like a cave.
My boyfriend and I started to fight, a lot. He could tell I was unhappy. I was vicious. I blamed him. I tried so hard and things were still not working so it must have been his fault? My perfect life began to feel restrictive. I started to suffocate. The responsibility of being a home owner, a pet owner, an adult paying off a mortgage and talking about weddings started to terrify me. The wanderlust gypsie inside me was hyperventilating. I had spent my whole life wanting to travel and explore and be wild, I felt like I had fallen somehow into a trap without even realising it. I don’t remember ever making the conscious decision to pursue this path. I just found a guy I liked, a job I was good at, and I started running on that treadmill. Four years later I didn’t know how to get off.
So I bought more beautiful home-wares. I told myself this is growing up. I told myself I was lucky, and I needed to stop being selfish. I immersed myself in living the lie. At my weakest moments, I would drink a bottle of wine and cry to my best friend about how I felt like a fraud, how unhappy I was, how stuck I felt. This life was not my own. I was a prisoner in designer clothes. I earned a fortune, and I spent it all on meaningless possessions and labels. The more I spent, the less I felt like myself. Who was I???
One day while walking my dog with my mum, I asked her if she ever felt this unsure before marrying my dad. She laughed. ‘Catt’ she said ‘I still feel unsure every single day, and we’ve been married thirty years’ It momentarily gave me strength. I was normal. This was normal! Crying myself to sleep in silence, drinking until I felt like myself, screaming at my partner almost every day because I was so unhappy…. This was normal. I tried so hard to believe that. I put myself into a corner. I couldn’t see a way out. I saw this relationship / life as a jail sentence, all I could do now was make the most of it. I would destroy too many people by leaving. I would lose my beautiful dog, my family would be devastated, I would be alone. My partner, who despite his flaws (he was definitely no angel) would be heart broken. All my friends were married, I would be sat at the kids table for eternity. My partner was my brothers best man. Could I really make my brother’s wedding photos all feature a man we no longer knew? Could I really be that selfish to live my life to make MYSELF happy, and only myself??
In a crisis of character, I identified one thing I was missing. I wasn’t contributing. I wasn’t helping anyone. I was living this charmed life, and I was not giving back to society at all. Maybe that was all I needed, some sort of purpose. I booked myself a ticket to Vietnam and signed up to spend a week in a rural community building houses. I told my partner I had to go on my own, and I settled into my seat on the plane and started to feel like myself. I was travelling. I was alone. I was doing something to help people, I was exploring, and I was enjoying my solitude. I smiled like I had just run into an old friend.
By the time I arrived in Ho Chi Minh, I was ecstatic. I had this feeling in my chest… it took me a while to identify it. I felt free. I felt happy. I felt like me. I dropped my bags off and meandered through the markets, bartering with the locals, sipping the local beer, covered in sweat and the stench of seafood that Vietnamese markets do so well. I was liberated. I was on my own, and I was unbelievably happy.
After taking myself out for dinner at the local restaurant, I met with the rest of the group in the hotel lobby. I was thrilled to see a group of 8 other solo travellers, many professional like myself, all doing something on their own, something to make a difference. I felt at home. These were my people. They told me stories of previous years on the build, and tried to prepare me for what to expect.
Nothing could prepare me.
We drove for an hour out of Ho Chi Minh along dirt roads to the middle of a swamp. We stepped cautiously out of the minivan and took in our surroundings. We were in the middle of a rice field, with no electricity poles as far as I could see. The father of the family we were building for cautiously and shyly stepped towards us, and shook each of our hands, with his eyes cast towards the damp earth below us. The humility, grief, and sheer gratitude written on his face caused the term ‘First World Problems’ to really hit home. I looked away in embarrassment. What the hell was wrong with me.
We spent a week up to our knees and elbows in swamp water, mortar and building materials. None of us escaped injury. At the end of each day we would show eachother our most recent cuts, bruises, blisters, torn muscles. We would do so with gigantic smiles on our faces, laughter falling from our lips and eyes that shone with purpose. I suddenly felt so intensely grateful for my beautiful house, the clothes in my wardrobe, the food in my fridge. I also felt increasingly disconnected from my designer homewares, my brand new shiny car, and my boyfriend. The week ended and the father cried as we handed him the keys, as he could now provide a roof over his families head and shelter from the weather. The house had no flooring, no glass in the windows, no running water, no electricity. It was just a shelter with a lockable door. It was all he had ever wanted. He cut down fresh coconuts from the tree next to his house – they were the only things he had to give. We sat around with the family and sipped fresh coconut milk, and I felt complete.
I spent the following week in a resort in the north of Vietnam. A resort that pre-build Catt had booked. A resort to enjoy on my own and to try and sort out my head. I spent a week surrounded in copious amounts of beautiful food, fine furnishings and a sunken spa bath on my balcony. I spent a week writing pro’s & con’s lists, reading books about making big life changes, and searching for that voice in my head that I had lost. I spent that week feeling sick over the money I had spent on that resort and the difference it could have made to the family I was with the week before.
By the time I hopped on the plane and started heading back home, I knew I was kidding myself. This illusion of choice was just that – an illusion. I did not have a choice. I did not want to spend my life in a loveless marriage. I did not want to silence the voice in my head that was yearning for more with fine home-wares and designer clothes. I did not want to work a job that made me feel empty inside, just so I could afford the luxury items required to forget my unhappiness. I did not want to spend the rest of my life living in the one place. I did not want travel to become just a thing I did once a year to get a tan and a stamp in my passport.
I did not want this life I had created. I did not want this to be the way my story ended.
By the time I landed in Australia, my hands were trembling with fear and excitement. I finally saw a light at the end of the tunnel. I began to crawl out of this dark, deep pit that I had laid down in, and I started to breathe again. I looked around at my world with fresh eyes. I knew where I wanted to be, and the only way I could get there was by setting fire to my life and letting the ashes fall where they may.
I had work to do.