A trip abroad for the summer sounded like a dream to most, but to me? Well, I was just trying to see if travel really could heal a broken heart.
I had spent most of my 20s in a relationship. It was a twisted, wildly exhausting and, at times, emotionally abusive relationship. I had poured my whole heart, my whole self into this relationship, and I didn't know who I really was anymore.
Almost an entire decade had passed. It was a decade during which I should've figured out who I was and wanted to be. Instead, it seemed I had lost most of myself along the way. The truth of it was, I had spent the majority of my “defining decade” living my life for another person. I was trying to constantly make someone other than myself happy. I couldn't help but think I had wasted my “best years.” Who was I in my early 30s, besides a mess?
In a time when little made sense, the one thing that did was that I needed to go. My heart was in pieces, and I didn't have a clue how to put myself back together, or what I would look like once I did. I was desperate to get away, and I was itching to get “out of my own body.”
I was desperate to remove myself from my own life. I didn't want to be … me. I needed to escape from the memories at every turn, and I needed to turn off the scenes of our relationship that constantly replayed in my mind.
Sure, you've heard of people taking off on a week-long vacation after a breakup. They go to clear their heads, step away and maybe dabble in a one-night stand with a foreigner wearing super tight pants. A week wasn't going to cut it for me. I needed to step out of my own skin so I could, essentially, breathe again.
I came up with a plan. My intense hope was that revisiting and covering up the old memories with some new ones would help rebuild me, one new memory at a time. Was it a uniquely weird approach to heal, or a brilliant one? Willing to try anything, I left. I left my life in the city and hightailed across the ocean.
I knew three things: I was leaving, being alone with my thoughts terrified me and being alone at all terrified me.
Exhibit A: I used to cry when I saw people eating alone at a restaurant. Now, I was going to be one of the people I cried for. Perhaps I hadn't thought this through enough.
This is how I found myself in charge of a classroom full of non-English speaking Italian children in Tuscany for the summer. Did I speak any Italian? No. Did I care? Not really.
Why Italy? Well, Italy held the lovely memories of the turning point and culmination of broken promises of our relationship during the last trip I had taken with my ex. It had been a place I dreamed of going for years, but then it was tainted with memories I'd really rather burn to ashes than relive in my mind anymore. So, I decided I'd just write over them. I'd rewrite Italy for myself. Simple enough, right?
My first thought when I landed on foreign ground? “I've made a terrible mistake.” I couldn't do this alone. What was I thinking? Anyone who witnessed the dawning of this realization and moment of sheer terror that followed probably avoided me like the plague.
Immediate thoughts of dropping the rest of my monetary worth on an impromptu return trip home were pushed reluctantly aside. The moment passed, and I took it one step at a time. I wrangled Italian children for the summer. I lived a local life that resembled nothing of my previous one. I rode a rusty bike in the rain, and I accepted a random Italian man's help when the chain fell off and fruit embarrassingly flew from my basket, scattering all over the road. I ate gelato for dinner. I took three trains and a bus to visit a Tuscan town I was interested in seeing. I learned to be alone, and sometimes, I even enjoyed it.
It was the exact opposite of easy. However, something about the drastic change in atmosphere was undeniably motivating. That fact, and knowing that after this, I would have new memories tied to Italy, are what pushed me through. I had uplifting moments and, of course, supremely sad moments. But eventually, I could breathe again. I was on a roll, and I didn't stop my attempt at shaping the impressionable minds of the Italian youth. I kept traveling for weeks after my teaching stint was up, venturing all over Italy and Switzerland.
What I relished in was the freedom that came with being in a new, unfamiliar place, where no one knew my backstory. No one was commenting, “He was an assh*le, anyway.” No one asking me if I was OK. There were no looks of pity.
I could be anything I wanted. I could try out any sort of personality, if that had been my goal. But, my main objective was just to discover who I actually was, as a person, as myself.
I was an “I," not a “we” now. As unhinging as it was, I kind of liked it. I could be the kind of person I wanted to be, not what I thought I should be in order to make someone else happy.
I made the choice to go out and explore instead of sit in my room. I developed a case of raging FOMO. The busier I was, the better. I befriended strangers. I herded sheep. I went to bars solo. I hitchhiked on an Italian island. I allowed myself to be adopted by a boisterous bachelor party. I laughed effervescently for the first time in a long time. I pushed myself (and my extreme fear of heights) out of my comfort zone by rappelling into a canyon with an encouraging group of Koreans cheering me on.
I tried things I had never tried before, and I ultimately did things that scared the sh*t out of me. And I survived. I was creating my own epic story alone, and I was OK with that. Dammit, it actually felt good. And I had to wonder, is this who I was the whole time?
Traveling provided an opportunity to rediscover who I was. When enduring a breakup, isn't that part of the heartache? You're mourning the loss of part of your heart, part of yourself. Let's be real: You can be the most independent person in the world, but in a serious relationship, part of you is that other person. Part of your heart and self is defined by someone else.
So, can travel heal a broken heart? No. I don't think it's as simple as that. Travel itself cannot heal, not definitively, anyways. Just as everyone's relationships are different, people's experiences with heartbreak are as well.
How do you know for sure what you need to heal? I don't think you do. You just have to follow what's left of your heart, and leap. You have to take what you can from whatever experience you choose, and you must mold it into what you need.
For me, travel initially provided the obvious physical escape. I was literally broken, and it was a major and much welcomed distraction. Emotionally, I chose to return to a place that held recent memories and make new ones. It was massively hard, but ultimately freeing.
Travel provided a place for me to try out being myself, a person who was, until then, a complete and utter puzzle. It was the jumping-off point. It opened my eyes, mind and heart. The world kept going, and I didn't want to hide from it anymore. I wanted to be as much a part of it as I could.
Traveling allowed me the space to breathe again, and I could interact with people who didn't know my previous life or the immense heartache I had tucked inside. So, little by little, I was able to make new memories, learn how to be alone and even revel in it. I pieced together the mystery of who I was at my core, and who I wanted to be in the future.
I surprised myself and found that I wanted to keep surprising myself more and more, to see what I'd uncover. So, maybe traveling solo didn't necessarily heal me or my heart. But, it was a grand start. It was a grand restart.