You will never know how much pain you can stand until you see someone you care about get sick and be unable to help them in any way. The smallest things become crucial, like holding their hand or kissing their cheek. Those tiny actions are all you can offer but they seem so much more powerful and important than ever before.
Around eight years ago my uncle passed away suddenly. He was young, only 47 with two little girls. It was a little after my 21st birthday and I remember, clearly, him being unable to make it to our family get together to celebrate the milestone birthday. I wasn’t sad he missed the party but knew he had missed a rare opportunity to spend time with our whole family, a gathering that doesn’t happen too often. His passing was, in a way, a key part of everything I have now.
As it often does, the loss of a loved one caused me to take stock of my own life and, overwhelmed with sadness, I felt like I was seeing myself for what I really was. I knew, even then, I felt hugely unsatisfied with my life and angry for all the bad choices I had made. It feels awful to finally realise you’re the one responsible for the shitty situation you find yourself in and you can’t blame anyone else for it anymore. You have to own up to having let yourself down. For me, it was all-consuming.
I took a week off work and on my first day back in the office ended up staying late, long after everyone else had left, staring blankly at my computer screen, a million thoughts running through my mind. I suddenly felt restricted, confined and suffocated, the weight of my life bearing down on me, leaving me trapped. I don’t know what made me do it, but I jumped onto a travel website and started looking at flights to anywhere. I took my credit card out of my wallet and booked a one-way ticket to Paris then went to Matt’s house and told him I was leaving. No invitation. No explanation. I just shut down.
The sudden loss of someone I loved caused me to take stock of my own life and finally accept how unhappy I was. That trip was the catalyst for my love of travel, which led to Matt and I moving to London, starting Little Grey Box and, eventually, quitting my job and having my dream career.
The past fortnight has presented me with a similar situation – the dire illness of a loved one. Somewhere in the midst of two of the most heart-wrenching weeks of my life, I paused to realise I haven’t gone through the same feelings as before and, in desperate need of a silver lining, I found one.
Matt and I have changed our lives so much and there are times it’s still really scary. We earn significantly less than we did in our old jobs, we have no retirement plan and no job security or guaranteed income week-to-week. But we are both infinitely happier and, for us, that’s far more important than anything else. When my uncle passed, I had money, job security, a great place to live and a clear career path and eventual retirement security. I was indescribably miserable. Now, I have a job I truly love and a life I’m deeply proud of. I am happier than I have ever been. I no longer drop my shoulders and look down when I tell someone what I do, I hold my head up high and smile.
These past weeks have reminded me to keep listening to my heart and doing what makes me happy, not just what makes the most ‘sense’. It reminded me how, really, we don’t know how much time we have and worrying about the future is worrying about something that hasn’t even happened or may not happen. I’m not one to say ‘live every day as if it’s your last’ because if that were true I’d be spending all my money, doing crazy things and probably experimenting with a lot of hard substances rather than pouring my heart into my business. All that truly matters is doing what makes you happy at each moment, to stop making bullshit excuses and do all the things you want to do. To love those you love, openly and unashamedly, to say what you mean and be truthful. To fill your life with things you love and cut everything else out.
I’ve written before about not wanting to have children (if you haven’t read it, you can read my blog post about it here). I’m constantly told I’ll change my mind and, one day, want babies. Those words put a tiny grain of doubt in my mind that whispers things to me like, “Maybe they’re right…. maybe you will.” Big life moments, especially the illness of someone you love very much, have a way of bringing your true feelings to the surface. I’ve been worried that in the midst of all this heartache, I would feel my own mortality and suddenly want children. I don’t. I feel more strength in my desire not to than ever before. I can’t tell you how much of a relief it is.
There are a lot of things I have learned over the past few weeks. I’m far stronger than I thought I was and far more loving than I thought I was. I find it hard to express love to those I feel it for and find it very hard to open up, let people in and trust them. This week, I realised I’m capable of all those things and just because I don’t do things in a way I admire in others, doesn’t make it wrong. Eight years after first going through a terrible situation, I found myself in one again and was able to see just how far I have come and am proud of the changes I’ve made. It has given me peace of mind that I won’t find myself in a situation of regret, wishing I had done more with my life.
To anyone reading this who has felt those awful feelings I did eight years ago, I want to say this – you can change your life. I’m nobody special. I made small changes at the beginning, working to weed out all the things in my life that made me miserable. Saying no to things I didn’t want to do or was only doing to make other people happy. Then, I started doing more of what made me happy, trying different things until I found what filled me with true enjoyment from head to toe. That’s how I started. I don’t come from a wealthy family who funded my journey, I didn’t have a lot of money to rely on, I didn’t have a lot of help from anyone else, just the invaluable support of my friends and family. There was no special planetary alignment, just the quiet decision to change, no matter how long it took or how hard it was, because the alternative was impossible.
It’s all too easy to get swept up in routine, blinded by what we’re told we should do or care about. To be distracted by the insignificant, fuelled by the unimportant and lulled by the mundane. We can have everything we’re told we should and still be miserable, I know first-hand, yet lose it all and feel totally free. Really, it’s the small things that matter most. Like holding someone’s hand or kissing their cheek. When all is said and done, those tiny actions are far more powerful and important than we realise.
Note: if you know me personally, I’d ask you not to comment anything that may share details of what I’ve touched on in this post. Family matters are close to my heart and I’d like to respect them by only sharing my experience, not anyone else’s. Thanks for your understanding x
Phoebe Lee is a travel writer and award-winning blogger with a love for storytelling. Phoebe creates practical, fun and engaging written content designed to inspire and energise travel-lovers and dreamers. Follow her and Matt’s adventures at home and around the world, right here on Little Grey Box and through Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.