I’m sure you’ve seen these memes on your social media feeds. The ones with the picturesque backgrounds ― usually a beach or some all-too-perfect nature scene ― and dreamy script fonts telling you, “Mood: wanna move to a new city and start a new life” or “Let’s change our names and start a new life somewhere on the other side of the world.”
While they sound like you’ve robbed a bakery and are now on the run from the FBI, the sentiment is the same: We all dream of leaving our old life behind in order to create something new.
I get it. In fact, I’m living it. Six months ago I packed my red Volkswagen Beetle with my earthly possessions, including a temperamental black cat, and moved from Toronto to Prince Edward Island. I didn’t know anyone there. I didn’t move for a job or a lover. No, I moved for excitement, change and adventure.
I had never planned to move from Pickering, my hometown outside of Toronto, where I’d settled after the wanderings of my 20s. I had a routine, I had a boxing gym, I had a life. I lived near my parents and my nearest and dearest friends.
But after a month spent in Charlottetown, the capital, a couple of summers ago, I fell in love with Prince Edward Island. I fell in love with its slower pace. I fell in love with its serene scenery, its shimmering waves and rolling green hills. More specifically, I fell in love with the person I was on the island. I felt more in touch with myself than I had in the variety of cities I had called home (Florence, New York, Vancouver, Toronto) over the years. PEI seemed to fit with the current embodiment of who I wanted to be: organic, expansive and free.
I returned from my trip and told my friends that, one day, I wanted to move there. At the time, that day seemed so far away, but in reality it came only 15 months later. My dream apartment that I had leased only a few months beforehand ended up being a nightmare. My landlord gave me the option to opt out of my lease, giving me the chance to make my “new life, who dis” fantasy a reality.
As a single freelance writer whose only dependent was a moody cat ― and as someone who’s pretty good at saving ― I was in a primo position to make such a huge transition happen.
So I packed up everything I owned, hired a moving truck and planned the 18-hour drive that would take me and the cat across four provinces. And over 1,000 miles later, as I crossed the Confederation Bridge, I knew my life would never be the same. In fact, I knew my life had just begun.
Just kidding. While the above is all technically true, let’s get real about what it means to fully embody the meme fantasy of running away to start a new life from scratch. Because, though it sounds really romantic and cinematic, starting over in a new place is hard work.
First of all, you don’t know anyone. Like, no one. Before you say “That sounds like heaven! Just what I need!” let’s acknowledge that humans need contact. Loneliness has been proved to be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Factor in the well-known reality that making friends as an adult is damn difficult ― especially for someone like me who freelances from home ― and it’s no wonder that I opted to befriend a group of outdoor cats for some kind, any kind, of connection.
Despite that innate belief that I am where I’m meant to be, I’ve had dreams about fleeing back to Toronto. Was my craving for change really worth the price of gut-wrenching homesickness and all-consuming loneliness? Did the beautiful surroundings, like the ocean outside of my kitchen window and the rolling Anne of Green Gables hills, make up for the creature comforts of my hometown?
Moving to a new city means a complete restructuring of your life, and that shit is hard. It means joining new gyms and clubs, and awkwardly asking acquaintances out for coffee even if you’re nervous as hell. It means staying home alone for many nights, watching “Friends” for the umpteenth time, while seeing your friends on Facebook post pictures of fun nights out.
That squeaky new feeling of being somewhere “different” quickly wore off, leaving me with a sense of confusion and a constant feeling of, “What do I do now?” I can’t count how many times I thought to myself, “I’ve made a huge mistake. I must leave.” I constantly visualized myself packing up and driving back to Toronto. Back to what felt safe and comfortable. Back to what I’ve already experienced again and again.
But I didn’t drive all those goddamn miles to repeat the past. Because I knew Toronto meant returning to old patterns and behavior, stagnancy, and playing small. It meant routine and complacency, the opposite of how I had intended to live ― and what I had initially experienced ― on the island. So when I found myself slipping back into those outdated habits, I had to check myself.
Because here’s the most important thing about moving to a new place: You can’t outrun your crap.
Those attractive memes might make it seem like picking up and starting over somewhere else will instantly heal your broken heart, fulfill your wildest dreams and, basically, give you a better life, but it won’t. It can’t. Because the non-Pinterest reality of it is, only you can give yourself that.
You must do the healing, the therapy and/or the crystal bathing to figure your stuff out because no amount of air miles is going to do that for you. For me, that meant getting super honest with myself. I had to ask myself, regardless of my postal code, what did I want? And how was I going to put those goals into manageable pieces of action in order to create the life I desired?
I know in order to make this transition work for me, I, too, must transform. Creating an actual life from scratch that looks and feels like change and growth takes time, effort and energy ― it’s not just a one-way plane ticket to paradise.
What’s wilder still is that you can create a new life exactly where you are right now. You don’t need to drive over 1,000 miles with a wailing cat in the front seat to begin again. You simply need to get honest and ask yourself: Why do you want to pack it all in and run away? And how can you change your current circumstances to reflect the life you really want to live right here?
It’s 180 days later and though the feeling of freedom and growth is still in the air, it’s been diluted with work assignments, volunteering and day-to-day errands. After what felt like six months of a “Game of Thrones”-style winter, it’s almost summer and the island is finally waking up. There is greenery everywhere, punctuated by numerous “dairy bars” (ice cream stands), and trips to the beach are a regular thing now.
There’s a coffee shop I like to visit after hot yoga, and I have met a couple of friends here who aren’t feline. I’m saving up to purchase my first home, and my writing career is flourishing. Pangs of loneliness linger, but they are soothed by the promise of something new on the horizon.
In short, It’s not paradise. But it is home.