The first time I spent the anniversary of my mother’s death doing something different, I was in Bolivia.
Before, it was always some variation of the same. I’d wake up sad without knowing why, then I’d remember the date and feel worse. I’d go to work and try to hide the sad. Come home and wallow in it. Or try to take my mind off it with a movie, a video game, a book. Anything to escape.
That was it, in the end. I had always dreamed of travelling. When I was a kid it was Hogwarts, Middle Earth. As I got older I dreamed of more reachable places; Peru, Thailand, India. My ex and I worked jobs we hated and lived in a flat that was too small and too expensive, and always we talked of travel, of running away. Eventually, we started saving, started planning. We made it happen.
So, the 2nd May 2014 saw me in a very different place than in previous years. It was the eight-year anniversary. But on this day I woke up in a hostel in Bolivia. I didn’t feel sad – at least not in the usual way.
I left Sam in bed and went out for a walk. Me, on my own, in La Paz. If you knew me back then you’d never have believed it, but travel was already starting to change me. I was getting braver. More sure of myself.
Later, we did a walking tour that ended at the top of a high rise building, where the guide offered us the chance to rappel down it with local company Urban Rush. No one said yes. Until, in a sudden rush of reckless daring, I did.
At the time, of course, I didn’t reflect on any of it too deeply. But now, when I look back, that moment is like waking from a dream. Before my mum died, I used to be the same shy, awkward girl that I mostly am now. But I was also this dorky little adventurer, this girl who climbed onto the roof from my bedroom window when no one was home, who went on school camping trips and did things like climbing and abseiling. I’d always had this slither of bravery in me, but it was far off and forgotten, buried under years of existing only in grief.
I’d be lying if I said I was constantly unhappy for eight years after my mum died. In fact, I was happy most of the time. It’s just that, without even fully realising it, I’d let my grief change me.
It drew out the worst of me: the awkward, anxious, uptight, jealous, paranoid, darker side of me. I lived in utter certainty that more pain was right around the corner. I pushed the people I loved away because I didn’t trust them not to leave me too. It was rare that I’d get through a 48 hour period without crying – and that had become something I’d simply accepted. I had a lot of triggers, and rather than work on them using the tools various counsellors had taught me, I indulged them.
In a strange and hard-to-define way, I almost enjoyed the pain of my grief. Like pushing a bruise when you know it’s going to hurt.
My backpacking trip in South America was not a cure. It was just one of the later steps on a long road to a kind of recovery. It was the final push, perhaps, towards a return to that side of myself from before, the version of myself that was happier, fiercer, stronger, better. The more I travelled, the more I found I could do. My independence grew. My sense of inner strength.
And so I found myself, on the eight-year anniversary of my mum’s death, running face-first down a fifteen-story building dressed as batman. The only person from an entire tour group brave enough to try it. Braver than my ex, braver than the bolshy, laddish blokes we’d been hanging out with. Braver than my own self, just a few months before. It was the most incredible rush, not just because I did something insane, not just because the fear pulsed through my veins like an electric current… but because for once, I felt like I was honouring mum properly.
She would never have wanted me to spend days crying, when there was a whole world out there of beautiful landscapes and crazy adventures. Of course, she’d never have wanted me to go to Bolivia either – or anywhere else remotely dangerous.
But, cliché though it is to say, she’d have wanted me to be happy. She gave me this life. Gave me the body I moan about and the hair I love and the shyness and the storytelling. Not the nose – that was all dad! But most other things. And she’d have wanted me to make the most of them.
It’s been fourteen years now, and I can’t pretend that my grief has gone. It’s just something you get used to, like an old wound that plays up in bad weather. But what I can say is that travelling brought me back from a brink I didn’t even know I was on. That it taught me how to be strong, taught me the power of facing your fears in order to learn just what you’re capable of.
And on a smaller, more personally crucial level, it helped me move forwards. Or backwards, in a way: back to who I was before and forwards to who I wanted to be after. Whether I realised it or not at the time, and I think at least a part of me did, that day in Bolivia was a turning point.
I wrote this post over a year ago, but never published it. Recently, I found it in my drafts so I decided to dust it off, update it a bit, and publish it as part of my new challenge to write at least one new blog post a week.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts… so please do scroll down and leave a comment!