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“We’re in a freefall into future. We don’t know where we’re going. Things are changing so fast, and always when you’re going through a long tunnel, anxiety comes along. And all you have to do to transform your hell into a paradise is to turn your fall into a voluntary act. It’s a very interesting shift of perspective and that’s all it is… joyful participation in the sorrows and everything changes.” ~ Joseph Campbell
A month has passed since I left my full-time job in healthcare.
Taking the leap into the Great Resignation is the biggest decision I’ve made to date. I am finally honouring my need to pause and recuperate from post-pandemic stress disorder and years of burnout. But I know that taking a career break without a plan would be a shock to the system—physically, mentally, and emotionally.
For months leading up to my last workday, I worked closely with my psychologist to prepare for the transition: What my days would look like without the 50-hour work week. What I might feel or experience during this time. What I need to do to support my health and well-being.
I set my intention for the first month to be quiet, slow, and spacious.
I cleared my schedule for the first two weeks and kept only essential activities: sleeping, meditation, exercising, and medical appointments. After that, a short trip to visit my sister in Melbourne.
With the rest of my spare time, I gave myself permission to do whatever I wanted.
No structure. No rules. No self-judgement.
So, I signed up to do the Elephant Academy “Find Your Voice” summer program. I put aside many books (and bought more) to read. I even booked an appointment to see an astrologer to learn about my natal chart.
By the time I said my farewell and thank you to my colleagues, I felt prepared and hopeful for the new beginning. Without the “life support” of full-time work and stress hormones, I anticipated physical discomfort, mental unease, and intense emotions to come in waves, or even like a tsunami. But I knew I had the tools and support that I needed to navigate my journey ahead.
I slept eight to 11 hours on most days and still woke up feeling dazed and disoriented, as if my body was sinking into quicksand while my consciousness was trying to leave my body and float to the ceiling.
Tinnitus was blasting in both ears and my brain like a 90s disco rave party. And no matter how hard I tried, my breaths were so shallow that fresh air could not reach the bottom of my lungs.
My mind seemed to have lost its sharpness and alertness, like someone had smeared Vaseline to cover the grooves of my brain. Thick, sticky, and stuck.
Emotionally, I felt nothing. As if my heart had retreated into a deep sleep.
I could not do much, apart from personal hygiene, feeding myself, and some household chores.
No meditation. No exercise. No reading and writing.
Getting out of bed continued to be a struggle.
My whole body was stroked by this dull, achy tension, waves after waves. I imagined myself like an amateur boxer recovering after a tough match the night before. Heat packs and pain killers were nursing me round the clock.
Once I managed to get up, my mind would jump start itself from zero to a thousand miles per hour. A low, sneaky voice would start telling me on repeat, “Don’t be so lazy and weak, Bonnie. Stand up and doing something!”
I spent many hours standing up in front of my laptop.
First, I kept opening and closing the Elephant Academy website, again and again, but lacked the attention and focus to read or learn anything.
Then, I binge-watched show after show on Netflix, while my eyes and fingers compulsively checked Instagram and Twitter on my phone every few seconds.
In between, I ignored my dry eyes and sore back, pushing myself to submit an article on Elephant Journal despite not feeling 100 percent connected to my own words. (In hindsight, I felt my disconnection was accurately represented in the low readership.)
My psychologist explained that my brain had been defaulted to fighting mode during the pandemic. It would continue to crave actions and stimulations long after I stopped working. For the brain to rewire and relax, I needed to be patient and gentle with myself, and prioritise activities that support self-soothing or creativity. She also reassured me that it’s okay to binge watch Netflix shows every now and then.
At the end of the week, I woke up one sunny morning with an unfamiliar feeling that my brain could not quite register with.
Staring at the white ceiling, I realised that my body was free of pain and tension, and my head no longer felt groggy and hung over.
For the first time in decades, I said to myself, “Wow. This is what normal feels like.”
I looked forward to enjoying this week with excitement—travelling to Melbourne for the first time since January 2020, enjoying good food and chats with my sister and friends, and finally starting the “Find Your Voice” summer program.
But the universe had a different plan for me and my family.
Two days before my trip, I sat anxiously with my father in the doctor’s office. We were shown some diagnostic images and test results that confirmed a diagnosis of metastatic lung cancer. I would never forget that bright white marble pattern clinging so tightly on my father’s right lung.
My father, a devoted Buddhist, turned to me and said calmly, “This is my karma and suffering that I must endure.”
I was reluctant to leave my parents’ side during this difficult time. But the doctor reassured me that it’d be okay for me to travel, as more tests needed to be done before any decision could be made regarding my father’s treatment. He also reminded me that it’d be important to check in with my sister, who lived on her own in another state, and process the news together.
So, I flew to Melbourne carrying a full baggage of emotions inside me—sadness, worry, fear, heaviness, overwhelm, guilt, anxiety, exhaustion, a surreal sensation—and disappointment for missing the first small group meeting and live class of my program.
Melbourne felt too fast, too crowded, and too much for me.
I didn’t feel the high or excitement I used to feel when I was in the city. I didn’t care about their latest restaurants or best coffee. I didn’t have much desire to check out my favourite local makers and shops.
All I wanted to do was hibernate in the Airbnb all day every day.
I used to love Melbourne. What’d changed?
Maybe I was still processing the news of my father’s diagnosis.
Maybe I was out of practice with travelling after a prolonged period of lockdown. (I was so under-packed that I didn’t bring enough warm clothes for Melbourne’s chilly winter.)
Maybe many places and things that I used to enjoy in Melbourne no longer existed.
Maybe I had changed. So had everyone after living through a pandemic.
I no longer wanted to wear busyness as a badge of honour.
I wanted living to be mindful, spacious, connected, and meaningful.
So, I picked a handful of spark-joy activities to do while in Melbourne: spending time with my sister and her cat every day, seeing The Picasso Century exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, jellyfish watching at the Melbourne Aquarium, and reading, journaling, and idling at a different café each day.
On my flight home, I felt grateful and supported with my sister by my side. We were ready to support our family and each other the best we could.
When I left the office on my last workday, I promised myself that I would jump into this new journey with open arms, a curious mind, and a brave heart. I did not expect the first month to turn out this way.
But I believe nothing is random.
Every moment in life is an opportunity for us to look inward, understand ourselves, and embrace our being with loving-kindness. The more we nurture and connect with our heart and mind, the more able we are to empathise with and benefit others and the world.
“Whenever we are between here and there, whenever one thing has ended and we’re waiting for the next thing to begin, whenever we’re tempted to distract ourselves or look for an escape route, we can instead let ourselves be open, curious, tentative, vulnerable.” ~ Pema Chodron