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An Expat’s Lament: I Want My Old Life Back (Not Really)

The conflicted thoughts of former public radio host Tess Vigeland


(Tess Vigeland left her job as host of public radio’s national personal finance show, Marketplace Money, in 2012 without having a Plan B. She then wrote the book, Leap: Leaving a Job With No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want, and hit the reset button for her life, spending the last two years as an expat in Asia. She’s currently living in Thailand. This article originally appeared on Tessuntethered.com.)

I called my parents a few weeks ago. They weren’t expecting it. We usually text, but this time I needed to hear their voices. It was morning for me in Bangkok, evening for them in Oregon, so I crossed my fingers that they’d be home.

I don’t think I got five words out before the tears started falling.

A Tearful Call to Parents

“I want my old life back,” I managed to blurt out between sobs.

I like to think of myself as a grown-up woman who can handle her own issues. But sometimes, even at an advanced age, you just want to go crying to your parents. Fortunately, they were home.

My life abroad is a most remarkable adventure. Every single day is new and different, if for no other reason than I’m living in a foreign country. I know I am lucky beyond measure to be living this life, and I don’t have a lot of cause to complain. But over the span of several weeks, I found myself dealing with multiple health issues, the disintegration of a relationship and growing concern over a number of looming decisions that have to be made about whether I stay on this adventure or go home. Things just kept happening that would destroy the joy of each succeeding day.

It all became too much on that morning and I said it: “I want my old life back.”

Imagining a Former Life in Pasadena

I was imagining myself sitting on my favorite chair in the backyard of the house I owned in Pasadena, with a glass of California pinot in my hand, a cat in my lap, husband firing up the grill for some Santa Barbara trip, closets full of clothes and shoes, large comfy couches for watching favorite TV shows and a nice car that I’d parked in the driveway after coming home from my well-paying dream job.

All I wanted in that moment… was to go back to all of that. I wanted to go back to normal. I wanted to go back to easy.

It’s the first time I’ve truly felt like that in the five years since I quit my job.

I suppose it was bound to happen at some point. It’s not that I haven’t had any regrets over those years. I’ve had plenty of them. But I don’t remember wanting to hop in a time machine like I did that day.

A time machine is not possible, of course. And I know deep in my soul that I don’t really want that. But for several weeks it sure felt like it. It felt like all I wanted and needed was the comfort that would come with … normal.

Credit: tessuntethered.com
Tess Vigeland

The Comfort That Comes With Normal

The comfort that would come with walking the dogs around my old neighborhood; the comfort that would come with dinner with girlfriends who’ve known me most of my adult life; the comfort that would come with knowing I had a job to do and to go to every day; the comfort that would come with having my own furniture; the comfort that would come with a long-term relationship; the comfort that would come with the familiarity of years spent in one place.

It’s been five years since I started giving up all of those things… since I handed in my notice at my job. Since then, I slowly cut the strings on career, marriage, house, pets, car, material goods. And now I live abroad with none of those things. And for probably 90 percent of this time, that’s been just fine. In fact it’s been exactly what I wanted.

But the adventures that land on Instagram and in Facebook posts aren’t always the full story.

What Nobody Tells You About Being an Expat

What nobody tells you at Moving Abroad School is that living alone in a foreign country is hard, especially when things are going wrong. Everything that’s in any way challenging is magnified because it’s happening far, far from home, and the rhythms and melodies of life are unfamiliar.

Some of my fellow expats have said they, too, feel that change in the barometric pressures of their lives — this heightening of everyday experiences, both good and bad.

Something that might have been a little scary becomes terrifying. Something that might have been a minor annoyance becomes a huge pain. I’ve gotten really good at dealing with whatever happens when I’m actively traveling and plans go awry. But what I’m talking about is different. It’s far more emotionally and psychologically draining.

A Health Scare Without Insurance

The health issues cascaded over several months and included one illness that had a major and negative impact on my psyche, even though it was not life-threatening. I don’t have health insurance here in Thailand so all of my doctor and hospital bills have been out-of-pocket. (I have travel insurance, but it doesn’t cover non-urgent care. And I can’t afford separate U.S.-based health insurance. This is a choice I made.)

I’m fortunate to live in Bangkok, a city with world-class healthcare, but it’s still tough to go through some of this stuff and wonder if there might be different or better diagnoses and solutions back home.

And I live alone, and so when I ended up in the emergency room in the middle of the night last spring (on my birthday, no less), I went in an Uber, by myself, to a hospital in Bangkok. It was a lonely, scary three hours on that gurney.

Missing: a Caring Community

I even sometimes find myself wondering how long it would take people to notice I was missing if I died alone in my sleep. That, of course, is a familiar notion to anyone who lives alone, whether in a foreign country or not. But what I don’t have here is a community that has known and cared about me for a long time or a longtime partner who would notice my absence. At the very least, I’d have that community if I were back in the states.

The end of a short, but intense, romantic relationship was another a reminder of what I gave up when this journey started.

Yes, the end of my marriage was at my request. My ex and I both now agree it was the right decision, and we couldn’t have had a more amicable or drama-free split. But hindsight tends to put a gloss on memory… and sometimes I look back wistfully on the time when I had someone to come home to, someone who knew me better than anyone except (maybe) my parents, someone who was a partner in establishing a life. I’m grateful to say we’re still good friends. But I look back on the marriage, and after two years of dating abroad, I’ve wondered if I gave up the only truly good guy on the planet.

We weren’t meant to be together forever, but he was, and still is, absolutely one of the good ones. I’m reminded of that every time a new romantic interest proves as disappointing as the last one. (I’ll write about those adventures someday in a post that I will ask my parents not to read.)

Thinking About Financial Practicalities

And finally, amid all of this, I am now at the point, two years into the adventure, where I’m forced to start thinking about financial practicalities.

I know most people will never be able to do what I’ve done — a self-granted sabbatical with an option not to work. So I’m not seeking sympathy! But soon, I will no longer have that option. I will either have to find work abroad (which I’m discovering is NOT an easy task), come up with a way to monetize my skills and become one of those digital nomads who work from anywhere (I’ve tried to figure this out but am so far terrible at it) or … go back to the states and hope to find work there.

And for anyone who thinks that last option would be easy, given my long career track record, remember: I’ve been out of the official workforce for five years. FIVE YEARS. That means I have a gigantic gap on my resumé.

Yes, I wrote a book, yes I freelanced, yes I traveled — but not every employer will find value in those things. I’m also five years older. We’ve all read the articles about how tough it is to get back into the working world after time away, and especially as you get older. I’m no magical exception to all of that.

I’m also not sure I’m ready to come home. In fact, I’m not sure I ever want to live in the states again. If I have to do so, it’s going to be an enormous adjustment after the constant sensory overload of the life I’ve led for the last two years.

Getting Realistic About the Job Market

I’ve also started to resign myself to the idea that I probably won’t ever have a job like the one I had before… I won’t have the prestige, the audience, the title, the everything else that came with being near the top of my profession.

The chances of that ever happening again are slim. I’m a realist about that. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to contemplate being a rung or two — or more — down the ladder. (I talked about this dilemma at length in my book.)

All of this mental detritus swirling around my head is what led to that sentence I was so surprised to hear myself utter: “I want my old life back.”

I don’t. I look back on the last two years… actually the last five years… and I can’t believe what an extraordinary time it’s been. I don’t want that time machine. I really don’t. But I guess this is all to reveal that, surprise!, it’s not all unicorns and rainbows. The quotidian suckiness of life pops up no matter where you are, or what you’re doing or how fortunate you might otherwise be.

I’ll figure it all out. I always do. Maybe it won’t be pretty. Maybe I won’t get what I want. But I’ll figure it out.

Living With Parents in Midlife?

And I know my parents are there on the other end of the line if and when I need them again.

They offered to buy me a ticket home, on the spot, that morning I called. Just come home, they said, and you can recover and start making decisions and figuring things out from here.

I shuddered at the idea of living with them for any length of time… not because I don’t love them to death (I do, and their guestroom is super comfy) but because something in my brain tells me it is the height of awfulness to live with your parents when you’re nearing the half-century mark.

If I were an Italian man, this wouldn’t be an issue. But I’m a grown-up American woman and so it is an issue. My folks said they wouldn’t tell anyone. I laughed. Maybe whenever I do come back, it’s something I’ll have to do for a month or two. I don’t know. I suppose at some point I’ll just have to get over myself.

24 Hours Later

At the end of our call, I said I would wait 24 hours and see if I felt better before buying a ticket home. After 24 hours, I did.

In fact, I felt better after just sobbing it out with the two people who know me best. I’m still in Bangkok (not secretly in Portland living with my parents). And since that call I’ve traveled to and fallen in love with Hong Kong, I’ve gone on dates and the health crises have mostly resolved. Two of my best friends in the world are coming to Thailand in a couple of weeks. And I get to see Mom and Dad in November when we meet up in Jordan.

So the dark period — at least this particular one — has passed.

I know there will be others. They might be around the corner. But for now I can safely say… I don’t want my old life back. I wouldn’t trade this one for anything.

Tess Vigeland
By Tess Vigeland
Tess Vigeland is author of Leap: Leaving a Job With No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want. She is the former host of public radio's Marketplace Money, and was the recipient of the Excellence in Personal Finance Reporting Award from the Radio Television Digital News Association and the National Endowment for Financial Education. She currently lives in Thailand and you can follow her posts about the expat life at Tessuntethered.com.

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