Overworked, overwhelmed, and crippled with anxiety, I found relief in an unconventional life.
Throughout my teenage years and into my early 20s, life had been an uphill struggle.
I went through periods of deep depression and crippling anxiety, interspersed with periods where everything was more or less OK. I could not put my finger on the problem, but everything felt wrong. I felt like a jigsaw puzzle piece in the wrong box.
I already knew I was a highly sensitive person (HSP) and felt things more deeply than others — I was extremely sensitive to external stimuli (like sounds and smells), I’d absorb others’ feelings as though they were my own, and I’d easily get mentally and emotionally flooded.
Those HSP traits were with me at my best times and my worst times — my emotions were constantly magnified. Needless to say, that doesn’t improve anxiety.
Then, two years ago, taking a job in a dementia and end-of-life care home made matters worse.
I started working there to pay back my student loan debt, but the environment was an overstimulation nightmare: the bright strip lighting, the loud medical beeps, the screaming of frightened patients. Plus, there was the constant blaring of overlapping televisions and radios and the wailing grief of family members who had lost a loved one.
My highly sensitive receptors were totally overloaded.
My Breaking Point
Soon I had 96 patients to look after and only 30 hours a week to try and make sure they all had loving interactions and meaningful activities to take the edge off their lonely days.
I was under tremendous time constraints and had reams of paperwork piling up in my “office.” (Really, it was an oversized storage cupboard crammed with games, DVDs, and yours truly. I couldn’t even stand up without falling over an inflatable dartboard.)
It wasn’t all bad. There were rewarding moments, like the beaming face of a resident at the garden center who had not been on a trip for years, or the grateful embrace of a family member who told me that I’d made the final weeks of someone’s life a little happier. I also formed a wonderful connection to a patient who believed she was my supervisor and spent the day following me around the corridors and telling me I was doing an excellent job. (Super validating!)
I spent my spare time hiking in the forest or cycling in the hills. Occasionally, my closest friends were able to pry me away from the outdoors and convince me to go for a drink in the local pub.
But even in these moments of pleasure, I was struggling so much beneath the surface. I lasted five months in the job before experiencing terrible burnout.
I would cry when I laid in bed at night and cry when I woke up in the morning. I would cry in my horrible little office and pull over when the crying meant I couldn’t see the road ahead of me.
I thought about all the years that life had felt so hard. Was I doomed to a life of being sad? Was I ever going to get any better?
But I had no idea how much my life was about to change.
The Modern-Day Nomad Who Changed My Life
One weekend, I had a chance encounter with a Frenchman who was hitchhiking around the world. That Monday, with only a few hundred pounds to my name, I quit my job and joined him on the road
We lived in my little yellow tent for three months, exploring uninhabited islands and vast empty beaches of Scotland. In the daytime, we’d hike through the hills; in the evening, we’d pitch my tent wherever we ended up. Sitting on a cliff, hammered by horizontal rain, we ate foraged seaweed that we’d boiled with my pasta.
The beauty of nature is just one thing that highly sensitive people need to be happy, and I was definitely getting a good dose of it. Now, my highly sensitive senses were working to my benefit, as I’d notice all the details around me, from the way the eagles wheeled above our camp to the sounds of the dolphins that crashed in and out of the ocean below the cliff.
I didn’t have much money, but I didn’t need much either. We wild-camped every night — setting up camp away from organized campsites — and foraged for a lot of our food. We also did a lot of hitchhiking and met some beautiful people along the way.
On a side note, the experience totally restored my faith in humankind. People are so overwhelmingly good when given a chance. And, as an HSP, this made me tear up more than once.
However, things were not always easy. I was not magically OK now that I had left the real world behind me. I cried easily and a lot, and I got so cold that I went through thermal shock on more than one occasion. (Thank you for saving me, emergency blanket!)
But everything felt different now. Because now, I was hurting with the Earth. I found great healing in the open sky and orange sunset clouds since my connection to nature is a precious gift that comes from being an HSP.
At the same time, I was entering a new relationship with a man I barely knew. I have no idea why I thought it was a good plan to join a stranger on the road, but I’m glad I did. Florian is now my husband, and our relationship brings me so much peace and happiness.
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A Life That Nourishes the HSP Soul
We now live in the back of an off-grid van, a Peugeot Boxer that Florian lovingly converted into our home. Powered by solar panels and a lot of love, we slowly make our way through Europe’s wild places and winding roads.
It also turns out my sensitivity makes me an intuitive and compassionate horsewoman, and I have now worked with horses all over Europe. I’ve become a freelance travel writer and author, as well, earning a living with the creativity that so often comes with being HSP.
However, this life on the road isn’t always glamorous: Most of my clothes have a hole in them somewhere, and I have eaten more plain pasta than any one person ought to in a lifetime. And sometimes I miss my family and wish that I could make roots in a loving community.
My lifestyle is certainly not conventional, but it works for me — and I never even dreamed that things could feel this good.
Follow the Call of Your Sensitive Heart
For the sake of your mental health, I think it’s crucial to follow the call of your heart. Highly sensitive people process everything so deeply, and we aren’t going to be content just to bury our authentic emotions and live like we are told we should.
Whether your dream is to live on the open road or in a mansion, it doesn’t matter. What matters is having the guts to ask yourself what you really want from life, and then stepping toward your dreams with trust and courage.
I am deeply connected to nature and happily disconnected from the noise and expectations of daily life, of my former life.
Maybe I will settle down one day, but for now, I am on the healing journey of a lifetime. I don’t regret a single decision that I’ve made and only hope that you also follow the path your heart guides you toward.