All photos by the author.
Certain things are expected of us, it seems. We’re supposed to go to college, get a good job, get a promotion, buy a house, get married, and have and raise kids, all the while maintaining a respectable appearance, a good circle of friends, and a career. And though not everyone conforms to this strangely unappealing “norm” that someone once created, the pressure still falls upon us to have/do all of these things. You might not realise it, but not fitting into these molds could be subconsciously stressing the hell out of you.
I always knew that manufactured idea of a life wasn’t for me. Not to say that there is anything wrong with it, if it makes you happy. But for me, the thought of it filled me with dread from a very young age. It still does.
Recently I contributed a short piece to an article in U magazine about the pressures that we face in our 20s. The responses I received from around the world were incredible. In fact, they inspired me to write this article. What I wrote for U magazine was only a tiny portion of the story.
When I was 22 I graduated from the Royal College of Surgeons with a Masters in Pharmacy. My family was proud. I was exhausted. My degree had been a struggle and to say the same about my Masters would be a massive understatement. By 23 I had a permanent job with a large pharmacy chain. I was paid well. I had a two bedroom apartment that I lived in by myself. I was dating a man that was madly in love with me. So that’s career – tick, house – tick(ish), relationship – tick. And for a little while, I was happy. I mean, I was supposed to be happy with that, right? That’s what everyone kept telling me.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved where I was living — Torquay, Devon is a beautiful place. I loved my apartment. I even loved my staff and most of my patients. I had great friends around me. But there was something wrong. I just couldn’t explain it.
I first noticed it in mid-2013 when I started to go to bed straight after work. My routine: work until 6pm, home by 7pm, in bed by 8pm. I didn’t have a TV in my room, I would just lie there. No matter how much sleep I got my mood was unstable. I’d go from singing songs in the dispensary to crying in the toilets so that my manager didn’t see. One night I came home, got straight into the shower and cried like I’d suffered a serious personal tragedy. It wasn’t quiet, pretty little sobs like you see in the movies. They were angry, loud, wailing tears. The kind of tears I hadn’t shed since I was a child. And I had no idea why. I just had this dark empty feeling in the middle of me. By 2014 there was rarely a day where I didn’t burst into tears at work or at home.
My mother came to visit me once and I started crying when she was leaving because I didn’t want to be alone with how I was feeling. I ended up running out to the car-park after her, desperately hoping she hadn’t left yet, balling my eyes out. I could barely breathe through the tears. And when she asked me what was wrong I didn’t know what to say. All I knew was that I wasn’t happy. She was worried about me then.
One evening in 2014 I needed to go to the local shop for some bread. It was only a 3-minute walk from my apartment but it took me a lot longer. My limbs felt like lead and I could not shake the extreme fatigue I felt. I was less than 50 metres from the shop when I genuinely felt I couldn’t go on. It seems ridiculous now. I can’t even imagine feeling that tired, but at that time it was so real. I looked to my right and there was a little alcove at the front of a cafe and all I wanted to do was give up, curl up in a ball, and go to sleep right there. That really terrified me. I ended up sitting on a bench just seconds from the shop, crying. And again, I could not understand why. I never made it to the shop.
Not many people knew what was going on. I didn’t talk about it, I lived by myself, and most of my close friends had moved away by then. From the outside, it would have looked like everything was going great for me. I was doing so well in work that they wanted to promote me. I had smashed all my targets. But my manager knew that there was something wrong. She wanted me to talk to my doctor, and I really considered it. I knew from working at a pharmacy that medication could help people; I just didn’t want to be one of those people.
A couple of times fellow pharmacists had come into my pharmacy to fill their prescriptions for anti-depressants. And as I handed it out to them I thought to myself, is that what I’m going to become? Is it inevitable? That was when I realised that I had to make some changes in my life. I needed to change what I could about my situation and hope that it made a difference.
I had no set plan, but I strongly craved change. I was desperate for it, and I started with my relationship. By that stage I was completely indifferent. My partner wanted to settle down and the very thought of it horrified me. Once the relationship was over, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. The darkness was not gone, but the edge was taken off.
I started doing little things to try and take better care of myself. I started running again. I needed that serotonin boost. I only listened to music that could be considered “up-beat”. I bought things I liked and tried to eat healthier. I never stayed late at work and I started practising meditation.
After much consideration I realised that my life had gotten off track. It wasn’t one thing in particular, it was everything. I didn’t want all those things that people and pop culture told me I should be happy to have. So, I decided to remove myself from the situation, to remove myself from that cookie-cutter life that I had fallen into.
For a long time I blamed my job as a pharmacist for my unhappiness. If you work in a medical environment then you’ll know how extremely stressful it can be. And the company I worked for continuously put incredible amounts of pressure on their pharmacists to achieve targets that were unreachable (at least without compromising patient safety). There was, in fact, a plethora of articles about how this company (mis)treats their pharmacists – leading to compromised patient safety and mental health issues with their staff. I was desperately unhappy while working for them. However, I can’t say that my job was the reason for my depression, but it certainly pushed me to make the change in my life that I needed.
I left my job, I gave up my apartment, I said goodbye to my friends, and I bought a round-the-world plane ticket. That’s when I started my website, Where is Tara? Some people thought I was brave. Others thought I was crazy. I didn’t feel brave – I was just desperate to help myself. It felt like the obvious thing for me to do.
I’m not going to say that travelling got rid of the darkness and suddenly made me prance around the room like a cheerleader. It didn’t. But it changed my perspective and reminded me of who I really am. I still feel the emptiness sometimes, but it’s fleeting and manageable. There are times during my travels when I am exhausted, hungry and irritated. Travel is not always glamorous. I often suffer from travel burn out. But I no longer cry with the emptiness and hopelessness that I felt before. I am so overwhelmingly happy with what I’m doing with my life at the moment that I could never feel ungrateful for it. All I have to do is remind myself of where I used to be just two years ago and a smile spreads across my face, no matter the circumstances.
Today I travel the world at the invitation of tourism boards and airlines. In 2016 alone I visited 18 countries. I meet incredibly interesting and varied people from all corners of the globe. I’ve had photos featured in Lonely Planet and other major travel publications. I’ve written travel articles for national newspapers. I do what I love and somehow manage to get paid for it. I am truly happy with where I am in my life at the moment, even though I live at home, have no permanent job and am not anywhere near marriage or kids. Most importantly, I can’t remember the last time I cried that wasn’t PMS-related.
I haven’t completely turned away from my profession; I still do the occasional pharmacy day in Dublin. I’m not one of those “quit your job and travel the world” people. But I pick and choose when and if I want to work at all. And I generally only choose the high-paying, fairly quiet pharmacies. It means I get to keep up my knowledge without over-stressing myself. And, since I make a decent bit of money from my website, I only ever work a maximum of eight days of pharmacy a month. Sometimes I work four, sometimes none. And I don’t have to ask anyone for permission to go on holiday. It’s really worked out incredibly well in that respect, though I didn’t foresee that as an option when I was at my darkest. It really is very surprising how life works out sometimes.
My family has finally come around to my big life change. For a while my mother kept trying to “fix” my “problem,” but it wasn’t something anyone else could fix. I needed to figure it out for myself. And I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not fully there yet, but I’m on my way.
[This post was published in its original format here, and re-printed at Matador with the author’s permission]