The Transition: Like a bad ex-lover, it always shows up

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Since returning to the States, I’ve had several conversations with my International loved ones about our experiences leaving London, missing London, pining for London, being angry at London for refusing to embrace us permanently, and feeling sad and lost and confused without London.

After one such conversation with a typically light-hearted, more optimistic friend of mine, it became clear to me just how universal this experience is, and how one experience seems to transcend all cultural boundaries: The Transition.

The Transition is scary. The Transition comes after a period of permanency, stability, security. The Transition comes when you think your future is certain, guaranteed, secured. The Transition can come when your arms are open and ready to embrace and ride with it, or can knock you off your high horse when you least expect it to.

So many of us who have left are still reeling from the intensity of the Transition. Not only have we been kicked out of the academic cocoon with no safety net, but we’ve been kicked out of the country, away from our temporary homes and our permanent friendships. But while I have blogged about the U.K.’s direct intention to do so in the past, this blog isn’t about the bureaucratic processes that cause this sometimes unwelcome and difficult-to-prepare-for Transition, but about the emotional process.

When I left London in December, I left so much behind me. I left a place that had begun to settle over the course of 15 months. I’d established a family of sorts, comprised of close friends, flatmates, a cat who climbed in my room at 4am each night and cuddled between me and my partners’ knees, a collection of grocery stores aisles and cafe couches who had begun to provide small comforts to me in my home away from home. In fact, my home away from home had become the home that I would soon be going away from.

Four months after adjusting to The Transition, I’ve only just found a part-time job pouring coffees and cleaning counters. Not a glorious move for someone with a Master’s, and that’s been a sobering reality for me. I’ve caught myself thinking in negative loops, wondering how I’ll ever make it to see London or my partner again, how I’ll afford to pay rent and save for tickets, at the same time. I’d sit on Skype and cry, panicked that I’d never see the life I love so much again, panicked that it had somehow ceased to exist without my consent.

But one day, while chuckling at work in San Jose with an Egyptian coworker about her British beau, I began to feel less disconnected from my life in London. Suddenly, in the brief absence of panic, it dawned on my for the umpteenth time in my life; the heavy-weighted sadness, the anxiety elephant sitting on my chest, and the unpredictable, erratic trails of thought – this is all The Transition.

As anyone who has ever lived, studied, worked, or otherwise moved abroad will tell you, it teaches us so much about who we are, what we’re capable of enduring or achieving (or both) in ways that you could never imagine or anticipate without experiencing it. And as I’ve said before, returning to the homeland is an experience that we are equally unprepared for. But the lessons we can take from it can apply to so many different parts of our life.

While I was listening to my sweet friend share her anxieties about graduating and trying to negotiate her wanderlust wither her desire to be home with the pressure of suddenly making more serious life choices, I was thinking of my return from Dublin to California. It occurred to me that my transitions now (London to San Jose) were not all that different from my transitions then (Dublin to Santa Cruz). While I had realized this a thousand times over already, suddenly I was struck with the profundity and power of realizing that sometimes the most powerful thing we can do in a transition is recognize that in the grand scheme of things, what we’re grappling with can simply be reduced to a temporary Transition.

Because The Transition comes, always. Whether we’re aware or not. Whether we’re prepared or not. Whether we want it to or not. The Transition comes with death, when we have to readjust to life with the absence of someone we love. The Transition comes with life, when we have to readjust to life with the presence of a new (and sometimes exhausting, and sometimes incredibly rewarding) being to care for. The Transition comes when an opportunity arises that we’ve always wanted but feel not ready for, the fear of regret if we don’t take it and the fear of regret if we do. The Transition comes with failure, when we land face-first on the pavement in broad daylight in the middle of Times Square and have to stand up with millions of onlookers. The Transition comes with success, when we’re standing completely alone at the top of Mt. Everest and we have no where else to climb but back down the mountain and no one their to spot us while we do.

Why does this matter? Because it’s perspective. Knowing this elevates you out of where you are. Transitions like this often mean that we can’t see what’s ahead of us, which is precisely what makes it so difficult. Whether we are goal-oriented people or not, often times our “light at the end of the tunnel” comes from fixing our gaze on something that’s ahead of us and using that as a marker, so as to propel ourselves forward from where we are. But when you’re in a transition with no security in sight, moving aimlessly into an abyss can feel overwhelming. Understanding The Transition is important because it’s that understanding that allows us to let go of our fixed gaze and just rise above the overwhelm. We learn how to trust to process, have faith that we’re moving towards something, anything better than the insecurity and instability, and most importantly, to stop our anxieties from paralyzing us so much that we feel we can’t move in any direction.

I think what’s the most powerful about understanding this is learning the ability to let go of the future, experience the now and trust that you will be somewhere amazing again eventually. Whether this means literally in a Parisian flat kiddie-corner from the Louvre, or it means riding the emotional life-highs that come with reaping the rewards of long-term commitments, or taking some new risk (i.e. starting your own business, applying for a PhD, taking a new job that’s challenging you out of your comfort zone, or learning how to windsurf, insert-your-form-of-risk-here), you will experience some form of metaphysical bliss that is comparable to the bliss you felt living abroad. It will just take time and some adjusting to where you are now, because that’s how life works.

Yes, The Transition comes when you don’t expect it to, or maybe even when you don’t want it to. But sometimes, the things that come when we least expect them end up being the most rewarding periods of our life if we just open ourselves to the experience and give it a chance.

One of the hardest parts of being in the States has been accepting the distance between my partner and I. I’m not only missing the comforts of the life I’d built, but I’m missing the familiarity and the happiness I felt in the life I’d built with him. This was impossibly difficult for me to let go of. I’ve had a hard time even willing myself to look for ways to settle here, out of the pure fear that it will mean I will settle so much I never see him again. But after yet another conversation with another dear friend in a similar situation, I began to understand that this fear in itself was creating a pain so intense, it might have been the very destruction of everything we had built. So I let go.

Letting go is key to moving forward. When we tether ourselves to the past, we restrict ourselves to something that no longer exists and holding ourselves back from experience new things. When I let go of our past, our relationship reached another level of honesty, clarity, and effortlessness- and so did my life here. Jobs started falling into place, opportunities started popping up left and right; suddenly, life began forming its own direction around me that made sense only after I’d tread 1/4 mile of it.

I’m sharing this because no matter how many times I think I’ve mastered The Transition, it always comes back to teach me something new. But I only learn what it has to teach me when I’m open to it; when I don’t, I end up exhausting myself and earning wounds in the fight against it. What I’ve learned this time ’round is that actively changing your mindset almost entirely determines the outcome of that process.

So for now, I’ve moved towards taking the positive road and have made The Transition my friend. But how did I manage this? A few tangible changes I’ve made:

  • Journaling – Each night, I write a little about my day. I include it all; the hard things, the painful thoughts, and at least one positive gratitude to keep it balanced. Writing seems to always release my inner tensions, and help reorient me to the present by somehow letting it go on that paper.
  • Thinking and talking positive – Whilst in my worst phases coming home, I realized that I was turning lemons into stale, rotten ones by emphasizing the negative in my mind and poisoning my friendships with it. One day I got so tired of listening to myself b*tch that I finally just forced myself to turn around and keep it more positive. I don’t regret or feel guilty for the conversations spent in negativity, because trudging through the thick of the pain was part of the process that would have been seriously interrupted had I not shared it, but I am grateful that I managed to turn it around and get back on a good track, and that I did that through my relationships.
  • Allowing nostalgia – At some point, like an old relationship, I started letting myself be nostalgic about London and all it entailed without feeling bad about it. I let myself just remember it for the sake of re-experiencing it in some small way, and without the guilt of feeling like I was inappropriately dwelling on something, I started to enjoy my little day-dream trips without them taking me too far away from where I was in the now. This was my less cliché version of “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
  • Reading – I think one of the best hobbies I’ve picked up has been getting back into non-fiction. I randomly picked up “A Clock Without Hands” by Guy Burt at the library one day, on no basis other than that it was in the non-fiction section and that it was set in both London and Florence, two places I’d been during my U.K. stay. Reading this book, although it’s completely unrelated to anything I’ve read or done in the past few years, has been a sort of cathartic vacation-of-the-mind for me that reconnects me to my past in a way that kind of expands on it with new stories and adventures in the present.
  • Volunteering – This is by far my favorite one. After months of struggling to find jobs anywhere doing anything, I basically said “Hey, f*&% you job market” and started giving my skills free to organizations I deemed worthy; refugee committees, community gardens, local non-profit art galleries, and of course, the Bacon and Beer festival. While this has provided me with some pretty cool opportunities (potential blogging jobs and job opportunities), the best part has really just been networking and creating a full life of activity and productivity that I have more jurisdiction and control over. And it just feels good. No one bosses around a volunteer because shit, you’re working for free!

So there’s my twopence. The Transition is a relentless son of a bitch who always comes round, but if you just don’t allow that to hinder your life experience, there are sage wisdoms to be taken from each The Transition’s many visits. The key is all in how you approach that.

So – what’s your key to dealing with The Transition?

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