In the months leading up to my move from Portland to Nashville, my life wasn’t exactly going smoothly. My family situation was growing more stressful by the day. Some of my closest friendships had turned toxic. I felt extremely out of place in the hipster culture that dominated the city. My boyfriend wasn’t happy in his job and was getting increasingly depressed. I suffered from terrible anxiety that had started around the time my neighbor’s house had been broken into, and kept me awake most nights, convinced that every creak of our old apartment was a robber prying open the downstairs window.
Those long nights gave me lots of time to think about how unhappy I was, and what I could do to fix it. Therapy, new friends, better self-care, meditation, and sleeping pills all came to mind (and in fact, I’d tried many of them already), but all these potential solutions were always eclipsed by one word: leave.
When I started telling friends and family members how miserable I was, I noticed a common thread in their responses. I’d reveal my plans to move away and start fresh, and they’d gently touch my shoulder and say, in hushed and concerned tones, “You can’t run away from your problems, you know.”
“I don’t expect Nashville to fix everything,” I’d tell them, “but I just really need to go.” They seemed to want me to adjust my expectations, maybe stick it out and try a little harder, for a little longer, to make Portland fit. To them, my moving away was a band-aid, a sleight of hand to distract from real issues that had nothing to do with my zip code. And hey, if my problems were just going to follow me anywhere, what good would it do to leave?
In one of her most famous “Dear Sugar” columns, “The Truth That Lives Here,” Cheryl Strayed doled out a simple but powerful piece of advice: “Wanting to leave is enough.” In the context of the column, she was talking about relationships, but I think it can be applied to most things, really: a job, a city, a friendship, an apartment, a college, a party. You don’t need to have a long list of logical reasons to change your situation; wanting to leave is enough.
It’s been almost a year since I moved, and looking back, I can see now that my friends were right — I was running away, but it wasn’t nearly as superficial a decision as they made it out to be. My yearning to get away came from a deep place, born of wanderlust and wonder and “what if?”, but also frustration, exasperation, and the heavy weight of stagnancy. I wanted to start over. I wanted distance from painful relationships and suffocating family connections and a culture where I didn’t feel welcome. I wanted to pull up the anchor of my life (that I’d never wanted to drop in the first place) and set sail for something new. Put simply, one of my biggest problems was that I needed to run away.
I could have stayed in Portland, gone to therapy every day, meditated, made a hundred new friends, and loaded up on anti-anxiety meds, but none of that would have fulfilled the craving I had for newness. New city. New scenery. New culture. New climate. New people. New life.
What “you can’t run away from your problems” fails to take into account is that sometimes the only way to see your problems clearly is to change your context. When I “ran away,” some things got harder, some things got easier, but everything got clearer. The pieces of my unhappiness that were tied to place instantly fell away; the pieces that lived deeper within me became impossible to ignore. Running away from my problems turned out to be exactly what I needed to confront them in a real and meaningful way.
Do you need to work on yourself and your issues no matter where you live? Yes. Do you need to be accountable for your own life, and brave enough to fess up to the ways you’ve contributed to your own unhappiness? Absolutely. Can a little distance help you do that? Hell yes.
A reader emailed me recently after seeing some of my essays about moving. She felt stifled and restless in her hometown, stagnant and uninspired. Every fiber of her being was urging her to move away and start fresh, but everyone she talked to cautioned her against it. “They keep telling me that a new place won’t solve my problems,” she wrote. “They think I’m running away.”
“You know what?” I told her. “I ran away from my problems, and it was the best thing I ever did.”
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