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Making Lemonade #16: Looking back on the lemon years

15 years of lemons, lessons & life – part II

Cross-posted from SubstackView original post

Hey friends,

Today we’re picking back up on the final five years from my 15-year roundup that I started last week. It’s funny because although a lot of pivotal things happened in those first 10 years, the last five years have felt like they’ve shaped me into who I really want to be.

I feel a bit like I spent 22-28 running away, both literally and figuratively. Like I’d had this deep, life-changing experience and I didn’t know how to deal with it. So, instead, I decided to just try and do all the other things in the world instead of just… finding a way to be in a world that looked very different from how I thought it would. 

It led me to live a very external life. It was all about adventure and pushing the boundaries.

But, as with anything that pushes you that close to the edge, you also end up almost breaking apart from yourself – and having to rediscover who you are on the other side of it.


Looking back, although I felt like I could travel forever, my final year on the road showed me all the cracks. It was like life was trying to prove to me that there was more to it than just constantly seeking the next cool place.

Although, as I wasn’t really noticing the signs, in the end it felt like fate intervened and made the choice for me.

For the best part of 10 years, I staked my claim in my identity as a traveller and an adventurer, above pretty much anything else. I held onto that identity so tightly that even after I stopped travelling, I didn’t want to let it go. 

It was like I didn’t know who I was without it – and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, either.

Enter… dementia. 

Honestly, nothing quite brings you back down to earth with a bump when you’re thinking about identity than a degenerative disease that literally strips your identity away from you.

And so, as I held my mum’s identity together for her, while getting to know the new version of her, I was also forced to step into my own new identity. An initiation of fire.

Buckle up (again), we’re in for another ride. 


I loved my life on the road, but I don’t think I’d have handled the turbulence of these last few years anywhere near as well if I didn’t have a solid home base (Esperance, 2020) Photo credit: Jay Whitman

28: my last year of full-time travel

We’ll pick up where we left off last time, in Florida. We’d bought a car, had all the camping gear (and a vague idea), and were about to leave on the trip of a lifetime and road trip over to the west coast and up to Canada.

Everything started off well. But then, a month or so into the trip, my partner’s dad had a heart attack and ended up in hospital. 

He initially asked us not to come back, but, by the time we’d got from North Carolina, where we’d first got the news, to New Orleans, where we were starting the long drive west, things weren’t looking good. So, we headed back to Florida instead.


After a few weeks, with the clock ticking on my 90-day visa, I had to leave the US and ended up booking a one-way ticket to El Salvador.

Note: skip past to the next photo if you don’t want to read about a mugging

Although I loved El Salvador, and I loved (and still love) travelling alone, one day I made the ill-advised choice to go to a remote waterfall without a police escort.

Yeah, I know what you’re probably thinking. By this point, after spending nearly five years on the road, I was usually pretty good with making choices that prioritised my own safety, but I figured that since I was going with two other women, and another woman from my hostel had gone by herself the day before, it would be fine.

Famous last words, hey?

Next thing I knew, a man in a balaclava with a giant machete was leaping out of the bushes and, while making eye contact with me, drawing his finger across his throat.

I screamed and we ran, but we were on a steep rocky path that was wet from rain. One of the women slipped, and the man caught up with her, holding the sharp blade of the knife up against her back, while trying to tear at the straps of her backpack. 

Ever the idiot, I threw my phone – the only valuable thing I had on me at the time – into the bushes. Unable to find it and probably keen to get away with the other two bags before anyone else came by, the guy ran away.

I picked it up, and then spent the whole walk back petrified he was going to jump back out of the bushes and physically hurt me.

Fortunately, although we were all pretty shaken up and not too badly injured (I still have chronic neck pain from falling badl), he didn’t come back, and we managed to hitch a ride to the police station. All’s well that ends, well, not so well, but could’ve been a lot worse, so I still count myself lucky.

However, I had nightmares about it for months afterwards – not about the mugging, because I know these things happen, but about the way I felt walking back knowing I’d made a choice that might come back to bite me in the ass. (Take if from me, humiliating/frustrating/angering people with sharp knives is not worth it).

It was far from the smartest choice I’ve ever made, and absolutely do not recommend anyone else making any similar ones. But it was the only connection I had to my partner and his dad, who by then was on his deathbed, and for some reason, that had absolutely overridden my survival instinct. 

I’m not entirely sure what that says about me, but I’ve done similar things in the past – like chasing burglars (separate occasions on separate continents) out of my house and onto the street yelling – once entirely naked – and have had a few other encounters where my body kicked in before my brain realises what’s up and suddenly my fists are out and I’m ready. 

I know I’m not a fast runner, so I guess my fight over flight kicks in hard to make up for it.


El Salvador is still in my top five countries I’ve ever been to – and I’ve been to many – so please don’t let my experience put you off (El Salvador, June 2018)

Just a few days later, Volcan de Fuego erupted just across the border in Guatemala. Already feeling the familiar sense of purposelessness that I’d had in Cambodia filling the existential void that had been opened by the incident, I decided to reach out to a hostel in Antigua to see if it was still open for tourism. Once I got the okay, I crossed over the border to see if they needed any on-the-ground journalists. 

Despite arriving with intentions of writing a story, instead, I ended up joining an expat/traveller volunteer crew. I got myself an apartment and for the next six weeks or so, helped with logistics and various relief work, including building a house (long story), fundraising, sourcing and dropping off medicine and supplies at the auberges, and volunteering with World Central Kitchen – an incredible NGO and one of the best I’ve ever seen in action. 

It was so fulfilling to actually feel like I was making a difference and to be part of something; community is something you almost end up excluding yourself from when you’re a full time traveller. I loved seeing how the community rallied together – and to be able to bring my experience in logistics (being a travel agent sets you up pretty well) and my very basic Spanish to the table and put it to good use.


Working in disaster relief in Guatemala – and the mugging – helped me realise that I needed more from my life than just aimlessly seeking the next cool thing or pretty place (Esquintla, June 2018)

Note: I’ve seen a few NGOs action now, including the Red Cross and UNICEF and… well, to put it simply, even when you’re a household name, it seems a little tougher to make such as much impact when you have to cross a lot of “t”s and dot a lot of “i”s. 

Many years ago, I was broke and desperate and did a week of door-knocking to raise money for the Red Cross, and… Well, it was as terrible as it was insightful about how the whole system works and how much of the donations get thinned out along the way. As desperate as I was at the time, it still felt icky and exploitative – like targeting high unemployment/low income places and preying on guilt. Unfortunately, seeing them in action didn’t really change my opinion either, which was quite disappointing.


While I probably could’ve stayed in Guatemala forever, Nick’s father finally passed away when I was there. After a rough few months, he came down for some respite and we travelled together through Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico, before heading back up to throw his dad’s ashes in an old rum bottle out into the ocean, just like he wanted.

Then, we finally got back on the road.

From there, it was all pretty plain sailing, despite a totally-out-of-nowhere desert storm annihilating our tent while we were sleeping, the car overheating in Death Valley, a few arguments, and a handful of other “hiccups”.

Well, at least until we crossed the border into Canada.

It was spectacularly beautiful, but the winter temps made sleeping in the back of the car with no heater a little tougher. We made it down to -12°C, but knew we wouldn’t last a whole winter.

As a couple, it was our final winter together, too, but that was a far harder choice to make. Sometimes, though, life has other plans, and mine seemed hell-bent on taking me to the other side of the world – although at the time I had no idea I’d end up staying here quite so long.


Cassie in Canada, near where I flipped a coin which told me to come to Australia and changed the whole trajectory of my life (Dec, 2018)

29

My final hurrah in my travel era was a two month trip to Bali, where I house sat with a friend for a bit and then got myself an apartment and a scooter and spent a month writing in cafes and living the solo adventurer life. It was bliss.

I couldn’t have asked for a better end to my adventure days, although, at the time, I still fully believed I’d be back on the road in less than six months.


30

For my 30th birthday, I took myself on a solo two week road trip. I’d recently met and moved in with my now partner, who was away in New Zealand at the time, and I knew it would help me figure out how I felt about it all. He wasn’t in a position to up and leave, so being with him meant living in one place and committing to a settled life, at least for a time.

Three months later, with borders shutting down around the world, and knowing my visa was about to run out, I knew I had to leave, but really didn’t want to. Perhaps it was the uncertainty or the collective panic we all seemed to be feeling at the time, but I knew I wanted to stay in Australia. I felt like it was finally home – at least for the time being.

Less than 12 hours after I left the country, they announced they were closing the borders. I spent a stressful and sleepless night at the airport and made it on the last flight back in.

It’s been nearly four years and I still get anxious every time I go near an airport.


31 – 33: the dementia years

There’s a lot to be said for the in between years, including working a terrible job where my boss sent me death threats (again, long story), a still ongoing anxiety-inducing visa journey, a move from the beach to the bush, foster failing a monster of a cat, and being stuck on the other side of the world from most of my family and friends for years.

The worst thing, though, was slowly watching my mum deteriorate from afar and knowing there was nothing I could do about it.

Although she started showing symptoms long before her diagnosis, it took years to get any answers – as is usually the case with any kind of young-onset dementia. I talked to her regularly on the phone and kept telling her to go to the doctor, and the doctor kept palming her off. It was stress, it was anxiety, it was depression, it was menopause.

It was frustrating.

Hindsight being 20/20, though, it’s also kind of interesting to look back now and realise that as much as those first years sucked, they were also years of hope. Perhaps it was menopause. Perhaps it was depression and anxiety. Perhaps it was a brain tumour. 

Perhaps it was curable.

Whatever it was, though, it was still devastating to watch. She had to give up work; she had to give up driving; she forgot almost everything she’d done in her life; she forgot her home of 30+ years was her home and kept asking to go home; she forgot who most of us were. 

I’d spend hours every day helping her to piece back the fragments of her life and her mind, like a puzzle, and then she’d turn around and ask me who I was. I became her friend called Cassie.


Me and my mum on my last trip back to the UK before her diagnosis (Dec 2018)

At the time, we were desperate for answers and clarity, but once we got the official Alzheimer’s diagnosis, it felt like our whole world was falling apart all over again. 

She was only 61. She had moderate young-onset Alzheimer’s, apparently. The second stage out of three. 

It was all downhill from there.

It was too late for the medications that slow down the decline to make a big difference. It was too late for my grandma, who’d just died after dedicating the last 18 months of her life to telling my mum she was just fine and everyone else was the problem, and then calling me in tears saying she didn’t understand why no one else could see it

Ultimately, I think she knew the end was coming and it was all projection and guilt about certain regrets that she had about her own life and wasn’t able to come to terms with before she passed, but it was too much to put on my mum who couldn’t understand any of it.

And, as for my mum, it was too late for her to be able to acknowledge there was something wrong. 

She still feels like she should be fine and doesn’t understand why she can’t remember anything or what’s going on or why she suddenly can’t tell the time or think of the right words. She’s in this constant struggle with herself because she knows something has changed, but doesn’t know what, and she doesn’t know what she can do about it.

Fortunately, though, she seems to remember who I am these days, even though our stilted conversations, which I somehow still manage to eke out to an hour, mostly revolve around talking about the weather and the dog, and long periods of silence where she gets distracted by literally anything else and puts the phone down.


It was rough. It’s been rough. Its still rough.

For me, the first year was about finding a way to keep my head above water. The second was finding ways to keep going – and growing – despite it all. To keep chipping away at my writing business and trying to dream about where it could go, even though I was feeling the weight of hopelessness after seeing my mum’s life and life’s work disintegrate into nothingness.

And this last year has been about rebuilding. About rediscovering what’s left when everything else is stripped away, and finding ways to reassemble myself and put myself back together, even if it all looks different now.

It all feels different now, too. My life is different now, my writing is different now, my energy levels are different now, my dreams are differrent now, my goals are different now. 

I’m different now. 


It’s surprisingly easy to forget that we live on a rotating rock in an ever-expanding universe, and that we, like nature and everything around us, including time, are always in a state of motion. That everything is always changing, even when it feels like nothing will ever change.

But every now and again, something happens that knocks you off your axis and changes how you view the world. How you exist in it. You start noticing things differently, things like the passing of the seasons, the sunrises and the sunsets, or the way that the sun and the moon and the stars track across the sky. All the tiny things that symbolise change is coming.

Years ago, when I was a kid, I almost drowned. I was at the beach and a big wave came out of nowhere and caught me and pulled me under. If I’d been paying attention, I’d have probably noticed the patterns in the waves; the way the water pulled back further, like it was making space for something bigger to come.


Sometimes there’s a rainbow (or two!) hidden behind a wave, we just have to take a step back far enough to see it (Perth, May 2020)

Looking back now, I notice so many of those signs in my life. So many breadcrumbs, leading me to where I am now, in my little home under the gum trees with my cat and my partner – we’re still going strong, even after a turbulent four years.

What I love most about looking back, though, is how much it also helps me to look forward. How all of this has taught me to pay attention to the world and the seasons  and all the things it has to teach us, if only we listen. Like the way birds almost get a preemptive warning before an earthquake, and there’s an eerie stillness that descends before a storm.

It’s funny how my life, which up until a few years ago, was about doing as much as possible, experiencing as much as possible, travelling as much as possible, has turned 180. Now, my greatest breakthroughs and my greatest wins have come from stillness. From having the space and the place to rediscover who I am now – not as a traveller, but as a human.

It almost feels like life was leading me here, so that when the world as I knew it shut down and my mum’s diagnosis and my transition into this caregiver role didn’t sweep me off my feet like that wave. At least as much as it could have.

Alright, that’s probably enough soul and story excavation for now! I can’t decide what I’ll be bringing to your inbox next week, but trust that I’ll be there and that for now, I’m cheering you on and hoping you can all find ways to make your own lemonade from all these lemons life seems to be throwing at us at the moment.

All my love,

Cassie xx


As always, I really appreciate all your likes, comments, shares, and subscribes! Thank you for all your support, especially with these more personal reflection pieces. They’re not easy to write, but I think there’s a lot of value in looking back and going to these places, too.

If you’re ever interested in digging into your own story and want to write it down, let me know. I offer one-on-one workshops and mentorship sessions so you don’t have to feel like you’re journeying to the depths all alone.

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