As I write this it’s 10:41pm here in Dunedin, New Zealand, the city where I’ll be living for the next few months (living, not just visiting or vacationing or spending some time… but actually living. That’s enough to raise the hair on my arms.) That means it’s 5:41 in the morning (yesterday morning) at home in Texas. My mom is sleeping. She’ll probably wake up in a few hours, right as I’m falling into bed. We’ll send each other some texts, maybe catch each other on the phone for a couple minutes. “What time is it there?” is a new favorite question of mine, but it’s ultimately just for show. I already know the answer. I count it on my fingers all the time.
I came here with the idea that I would learn to be more reliant on my own company, and it’s been an uphill battle so far. I was determined to be alright on my own: I would teach myself how to give my own shots in the legs, and I would learn to enjoy long walks alone with my thoughts. My plan was to cook and study and explore all by myself, so that I wouldn’t need anyone! That way, when in a few months I ultimately leave New Zealand to go back home, it won’t hurt so badly. Not like leaving Austin did.
I quickly came to understand that this was the worst plan ever. My first amendment to my new resolution of “doing it on my own” came a few days before I left Texas, sitting on the edge of my bed with a needle poised over my thigh. I will never, ever be able to do this, I thought with the syringe hovering just a few inches from my newly swabbed leg. I sat there trying to move my arm for close to ten minutes before I finally caved and texted Jon to ask if he could FaceTime me and walk me through the procedure, being as he had been the one to administer my shots for the past year.
“Okay, now just pinch your leg and insert the needle at a 45 degree angle,” Jon’s voice encouraged me from my propped-up phone screen.
“I can’t! I just can’t!” I wailed, grappling with my own willpower and the strangeness that is sliding a piece of metal into your own flesh.
“Just, just- okay, no, don’t cry! That’s going to make it harder to see!” Jon, ever practical, did his best to instruct me, but the first shot took maybe twenty minutes longer than it should have between my nervous crying and shaking hands. Only once we had changed the subject to the new movie I had watched did I get the courage to actually stick myself. After the initial prick the rest was smoother sailing. I felt a burst of pride and gratitude.
Jon and I both cheered in celebration, and I thanked him for helping me. There was no doubt in my mind that I never would have been able to do it had I continued sitting in my room all alone, bullying myself into action. For a moment I remembered how good it was to reach out when I felt too weak to go at it alone.
Buoyed by my first success, I let my resolve harden and decided to take the three consecutive flights (twenty-two hours of travel in total) all by myself. It was a mistake, but ultimately one I am glad I made. There are some things you just have to prove to yourself that you’re capable of surviving, and sometimes solo international travel is one of them.
I can’t pretend I handled it all with maturity, though. I hugged my parents goodbye at the first airport and they stayed to watch me go through security. The last thing I said to my mother was shouted over my shoulder through the line: “Don’t let my fish die!” When it was time to head to my gate I turned and waved at my parents, and then bravely walked off to the terminal. It only took a few seconds for the panic to seize me, and thankfully they stuck around long enough to wave at me again when I came back a second and a third time before I finally moved forward. It was the exact feeling of being five years old and getting dropped off at daycare- mommy and daddy have left you, and you know you’ll see them again sometime, but you don’t know exactly when.
Arriving in Dunedin, the first thing on the Shannon Takes Care of Herself List was food, which I’ve made clear can be a complicated task for me. In addition to not being able to digest most mainstream food groups, I also can’t cook to save my life. And that’s exactly what I would be doing in a broad sense, if I could only have the patience to teach myself. But even the threat of starvation wasn’t enough to get me in front of an oven, so I scoured the frozen food section with a heart full of hope.
I didn’t know this at the time, but the gluten-free scene in New Zealand is pretty awesome. I’m not sure if it’s trendy right now or if their wheat is just less processed, but you can pick up a gluten-free pastry at pretty much any cafe in the city. Any other dietary restrictions, though, and you’re out of luck. I ended up with a lot of bagged soup (soup is bagged here?) I still haven’t really made it into the kitchen, but my flatmates have really warmed up to my illness and on two blessed occasions I had meals cooked for me. One may have been a drunkenly made egg-white omelet at three in the morning, but still, it’s the best I’ve eaten since arriving.
That was another blow to my new “do it on my own” philosophy, but I figured a little help when it came to cooking was okay. Especially since I was trying so hard to be independent in other ways.
I did go for a few walks by myself. In preparation for this, I texted my best friend Kristen, who is currently working at Disneyworld and attends some of the parks by herself.
“So who do you talk to?” I asked.
“I don’t, really. I just sort of walk around and do my own thing. It’s kind of nice, not having to worry about what someone else wants to do,” she replied.
“But… like, when you’re thinking your thoughts… you just don’t say them to anyone?”
“You know how I am,” she responded warmly, “I don’t need to talk or think as much as you have to!”
Turns out I wasn’t so prepared. On my first morning, still pretty mixed up from the jet lag, I woke up several hours before dawn. I decided that I would adventure out and take some pictures of the sunrise, so I piled on my clothes, grabbed my camera, and headed out to the botanic garden at the end of my street. Every time I saw something cool I would turn to point it out to my mom, just to realize she wasn’t there. My hand was itching to pull my phone out and call her, but I didn’t have a New Zealand carrier yet and so a phone call just wasn’t possible without a wifi connection. I took a couple pictures and headed back to my flat.
Back in my wifi connection, I excitedly sent out the pictures of my walk to my mom and several of my friends.
“Cool!” one responded, “Who took this picture of you?”
I then had to explain that I set my camera on self timer and placed it on a bench. The lonely life wasn’t as satisfying as I thought it would be.
As far as exploring goes, I didn’t do any of that on my own. I lucked into meeting a girl named Carly on my second day and immediately bonded with her so hard that we spent every day together in the two weeks that followed. It turns out she’s from Colorado Springs, a town that Kristen, my mom and I visit every summer. Being with Carly was like getting to know someone new and keeping my two favorite ladies close all at the same time. I got along great with her flatmates as well, and so the four of us would venture out into town together on countless trips to purchase the things you don’t realize you need when you’re living in Texas (I’ve bought two parkas since arriving here. TWO.)
I can’t say that I’ve been taking care of myself perfectly. If being in another country is disorienting, then having a disease in another country is just plain ridiculous. First, I had to go to the student disabilities office to register as disabled with another school (always a good boost to the self esteem,) and then I had to find a gastrointerologist to take care of me for the few months that I’m here. There’s also the little issue of trying to ship my medication from the U.S. to New Zealand, which has to be accomplished by the end of the month or else I’m out of luck for my next treatment. And there have been a few nights were I skipped out on one fun activity or another because I just wasn’t ready to have to explain my random diarrhea attacks to friends this new.
But I’ve been making it through. I do worry, though, that I’m too busy trying to survive all this change and not busy enough enjoying it. I fantasize about coming home, I get my feelings hurt when I don’t hear from friends back in the states, I maybe spent the first few days a little too connected to my wifi. I’m trying too hard to live in two places at once.
Last night I had a conversation with my flatmate, Patrick, and it was the most honest I’ve been with anyone on this side of the world so far. “I need a person,” I said, “someone to talk to about real stuff.” And so we stayed up late and figured out that we came to New Zealand for a lot of the same reasons, and we share a lot of the same worries. He mentioned that he was scared that he relied on other people too much for his happiness, and I almost leapt out of my chair. “Me too!” I said, “That’s why I came here! I wanted to see if I could leave everyone and still be happy!” And he gave me this look like, “So, are you?”
Maybe not quite yet. I’m not settled, not feeling safe and warm and loved. But I’m not unhappy. I’m just a little raw and achey, I feel, and I’m still reeling from all of the transitions that seem to be happening at the same time. I’m starting to think that loneliness and big, life-changing adventures go hand in hand. Maybe that’s okay.
Maybe it doesn’t matter that I cried in three separate airports on the way here, or that I still call my mom every day, or that in every single way I’ve planned to take care of myself by myself I’ve wound up meeting some person here who is willing to help me out instead.
I came to here to confront being on my own for the first time, but really I’ve found myself confronting the idea that we shouldn’t glean happiness from other people. So what if I love other people? I find that most of them are kind and helpful and open to loving right back.
I know that on some level all the advice I’ve gotten about going it on my own has been an effort by people who care about me to protect me. And I know that it’s irresponsible to make your own well-being someone else’s responsibility. That’s not fair to anyone. But if I’m careful, if I spread my happiness out among a lot of people (and I have so many good ones in my life to choose from) wouldn’t that be okay?
I get that it would be super convenient if all I needed to have a good time were my own thoughts. But that’s just not me. And I’m tired of feeling guilty or broken for getting fulfillment from outside of myself. I need both.
There are some things I’ve done to get myself to New Zealand that I didn’t think I was strong enough to do. I’m proud of myself for that, but I also recognize that without the help of so many other people I wouldn’t have found the strength to begin with. And still, when I think about the most incredible, exciting thing about coming here, it’s that I showed up at a place where I didn’t know a single person, where no one had to love me, and I made friends.
After Patrick and I talked, we all went out dancing. The lights were low and I spun around, shouting out lyrics and hanging on to Carly’s hand. I looked around at every face in my group and realized the beautiful absurdity of it all- here I was, having more fun than I could remember having in a long time, and I didn’t know any of these people even two weeks ago. After that, it was easy. I knew what made me happiest.
I know that I find my joy from loving other people. I will always find it that way. I can do things on my own, but I’d rather reach out because that’s what fills me up. And if that means that I’ll get hurt more often, then I’m okay with that.
Maybe I’m no less brave for it.