How Slow Travel Helped Me Heal From Burnout

Writer Erin McKee unpacks burnout whilst packing her suitcase. How she left a career in mental health nursing and turned to slow travel (and how you can too)

By Erin Mckee

30 March 2022

eaving nursing was not an easy decision. A career chosen in my early twenties, with the intention of saving lives, spreading hope and generally helping others, was weighing heavy on my shoulders as I approached 30 and was slowly chipping away at who I’d known myself to be. A feeling that I’m sure resonates with anyone having suffered burnout.

If this was being a lightworker, it was becoming heavy weight.

My travel plans were put on hold when the initial lockdown rolled in - the first of the uninvited and unwelcome guests of 2020. Like many other essential workers, I found myself out in the world while most of the country was being encouraged to stay home. Working in a Crisis Team meant continuing to support those in mental health distress and visit them in their homes. During a time when people’s mental health was deteriorating more than ever, it certainly did not feel right to take a break or stop for even a second to fathom what on earth we were collectively going through; there was far too much to be done.

Erin is a freelance writer and has founded The Healing Travel Club, which is both an online journal and a club on The Stack World - showcasing the possibilities for wellness travel.

Fast forward to over a year of working on the front line during the pandemic, I, like so many others, was ready for a break. Being in a privileged position of relative freedom - no kids, no mortgage, plus some savings - I was able to hand in my notice and leave my job with relative ease, logistically speaking. Emotionally, however, it was a different story. Leaving did not come without guilt - the lingering feeling of failure, that somehow I could have done more. Not to mention my worries for the wellbeing of colleagues I’d left behind, as rising numbers of healthcare workers were leaving the profession.

My boyfriend had been telling me about a website called Workaway, a list of global work exchange programmes, where hosts post the kind of help they need and, in return for 5 hours work a day, you are provided with accommodation and food. All kinds of jobs are listed, from working the land, animal care or cooking, to helping with marketing. I’d always thought it sounded great - but for other people, not me. How could I ever leave the job I thought I was born to do (despite it making me miserable), to take off on what sounded like a delayed gap year?

One grey morning, however, we were scrolling through the site and stumbled across a British couple who were now living in the mountains of western Portugal, running an off-grid yoga retreat space that they had built from the ground up. Their smiling faces beamed up at us from the screen, as their advert explained they needed help with tending their land, some building jobs and generally helping run their space. In return, we’d have our own cabin and food - lots of which was grown on their land.

I was sold, and after an exchange of messages it was decided. We would be with them in two weeks, with an initial agreement of staying for a month. One way ticket to Lisbon booked, we were off.

“Some days it felt as if I was melting into the earth - a full sensory experience of healing in a new landscape.”

Our hosts picked us up from the nearest station as the sun was setting. We drove for another hour, deeper into the unknown, whilst the full moon rose in the sky above. After being in London for so long, the mountainous landscape - unspoilt by any light pollution - felt like a warm hug; albeit a slightly scary one.

We soon got into a routine in our new life up the mountain - in the morning there was yoga, before starting work at 8am. Our days were spent on the land, learning about the soil, knee deep in nourishment. We were surrounded by a forest of eucalyptus trees, which are a particularly bad fire hazard, and with fire being a big threat in the summer months, there was work to be done cutting down trees and clearing the land.

Our electricity came from solar panels and our water from a nearby well, yet we had hot showers daily and were always able to connect to the wifi. I was amazed at the symbiosis between the modern and the natural world.

The end of our initial month soon rolled round, and then another, and another after that. The cool, green spring soon turned to the red, hot heat of summer and it didn’t take long for our hosts to become like family, as we shared birthdays, bereavements and lots in between during those months together.

The seeds we’d planted in Spring, were providing us with tomatoes, courgettes and beetroots by the Summer. Just as they grew, so did I. Some days it felt as if I was melting into the earth - a full sensory experience of healing in a new landscape. I started to truly understand the concept of the universe having my back - an idea which my previously jaded and cynical self would have scoffed at.

Of course our time there wasn’t always idyllic and came with unexpected complexities. Emotions seemed to intensify up the mountain, but it also somehow felt that everything was happening just as it should. I dreamt of my old job a lot for the first few months - it felt both disturbing and cathartic to let go and lean into the unknown, and the new work was, at times, physically gruelling. I learnt how to mix cement and lay bricks when we built a tiny house, and how to work with wood when we constructed a compost toilet.

“One of the hidden benefits I’ve discovered is that being away from social obligations and familiar support systems is conducive to engineering and designing new habits, reimagining how I want to move through the world.”

Although our nearest neighbours were at least a kilometre away, we were fully welcomed by a community of people all having decided to create a life in harmony with nature. Some had travelled far - from the United States or Canada, others from across Europe. It felt like a melting pot of values and cultures, all bound by a desire to exist on their own terms.

There was something monastic about our life up there. Our daily habits’ simplified. There’s a Plato quotation that kept coming back to me - “In order to seek one’s own direction, one must simplify the mechanics of ordinary, everyday life”.

We left Portugal after 4 months, journeying on to Costa Rica, followed by Mexico, where we are now. In each of these places we have used either Workaway or Trusted Housesitters to form connections with people - integrating into their way of living and being in a place. This conscious and connected way of travelling means we can be on the road without needing a huge budget.

It has also given me space to think, feel and grow. One of the hidden benefits I’ve discovered is that being away from social obligations and familiar support systems is conducive to engineering and designing new habits, reimagining how I want to move through the world.

It comes as quite a surprise to me, that in leaving the job I thought to be my life’s work, I’ve inadvertently come to understand my purpose in a more nuanced way. I’m still motivated by the wellness of others, but now through a different lens, and I’m learning that choosing myself doesn't have to mean I’m selfish.

The Short Stack

A story of hope, nourishment and reconnection to self through creating a life immersed in travel.

By Erin Mckee

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