Every time it was the same.
After prying myself out of a bed covered in weeks-old sheets, I’d reluctantly drag myself to my therapist’s office. I felt numb. I had no affect, no spark, no lift to my voice. I felt like the walking dead, trying to put on an optimistic face for an hour so I could get back home and climb back into bed.
Patrice, my therapist, read over my intake survey each week. Over the past two weeks, how often have you been bothered by any of the following: Little pleasure or interest in doing things, feeling down, depressed, hopeless, feeling tired or having little energy, feeling bad about yourself or that you are a failure? She’d chart my answers and assign each a score.
My scores were dismal.
I have struggled with depression in the past, but it had never been this bad before. This time around things were dire.
I almost quit going, not because Patrice wasn’t good, but because I felt so bad for her. I couldn’t stand being in a room with myself, so I couldn’t imagine what she might be feeling.
Patrice, my primary doctors, physical therapists and friends all offered worthy advice. And I tried it all.
Duloxetine, Trazodone, indica, sativa, red wine, whisky, a sun lamp, a psychiatrist, a massage therapist, and an acupuncturist. Nothing helped. Books like Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, The Body Keeps the Score, Lost Connections, and The Lonely City offered excellent advice and brought me to some epiphanies, but I was too bogged down with despair to follow through.
I wasn’t feeling suicidal, but if my car were to careen into a ditch, I wouldn’t have fought very hard to live.
That’s how bad it was.
I remember my previous therapist, Megan, challenged me during an earlier episode of depression to consider what exactly was causing it. Yes, depression is a chemical imbalance, but could there be other factors conspiring against me as well?
The anti-depression meds didn’t seem to be working and I only felt good in spurts; it has always been this way. If I am traveling, I feel alive, happy, and filled with hope. But as soon as I come back home, within a few days, the despair sets back in.
Patrice has said that I am the ultimate paradox. You travel all over the world alone! You do things most people would never consider doing. Yet, when you get home, you hole up inside your house, don’t venture out, and lose your sense of wonder. It’s perplexing.
It perplexed me just as much as it did her. When I could muster the energy, I dedicated my time to trying to figure it out.
Blaming my malaise on the perpetual lack of sun in wintertime Michigan, I hatched a plan to move to Florida. I would buy a little trailer and maybe that would help.
But, my mom raised worries about the sweltering heat in the summer. Also, she worried that most trailer communities only allow people over the age of 55. I countered, I spend most of my time holed up inside anyway, so what would it matter? At least I would have some sun outside my window. I bet they would make an exception for me if they knew I was single with no kids.
Imagine thinking spending 3 months inside your home, surrounded by people several decades your senior, is an acceptable compromise.
Though I started looking at trailers, and researching gave me something to do, it did nothing to lift my spirits. Something just didn’t feel right.
Then one day, my good friend Beth sent me this video of an older woman named Emma who chucked it all, dropped out of conventional society, and built herself an off-grid yurt in Wales. After watching the video, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. For days, I kept thinking of that woman’s words, of the coziness of her space, of how calm and peaceful she seemed. I longed for that same level of serenity.
It was when she said the following that I really sat up and listened: “I don’t want people to mortgage away their lives. I want people to be happy. I think the earth wants us to be happy… I consider that I live in luxury and I have a really fantastic life. I think we’ve kind of lost track of that possibility in the complexity and expensiveness of the madness.”
It was as though a cog clicked into place and I had an aha! moment. Like the literal flip of a switch, I felt alive and filled with adrenaline.
(I’ve felt this feeling just a few times before in my life: when I filed for divorce, when I created a school-within-a-school for my district, and when I booked my first trip to Europe.)
Why didn’t I think of it before?
I was feeling dead inside because I was not living the life that worked most for me: an unconventional life far from the world of 9 to 5s, mortgages, and traditional society. Maybe my despair was rooted in the fact that convention and tradition have never really worked for me.
I am a 47 year old single woman who chose never to have kids. When I married, I eloped and wore a dress found at Goodwill. When I divorced, I stayed single, choosing to never marry again. I’ve never had a bridal or baby shower, a reception, or any of the other traditional rites of passage most women have. I’ve traveled to eight different countries alone.
As a teacher, I was always the different one. The one who rebelled against the traditional canon and longed to create lessons that challenged the expected. (This was probably why the invention of the teacher evaluation system, a system that glorified norms and procedures, was the death of my career.) While other teachers wore professional clothing, complete with coordinating necklaces, shoes, and hair accessories, I wore no makeup, no accessories, comfortable walking shoes, and a revolving wardrobe of thrift store finds.
Furthermore, I have always lived in unique spaces: a boat for the summer, a studio apartment with a ladder for the bed, and a three-room lake condo. Presently I live in the two rooms that comprise my great-grandmother’s upstairs.
I have always done things differently than most people my age. Always seeking to downsize never to upgrade.
So, maybe there isn’t anything wrong with me feeling depressed. It is depressing that I am trying to live a life not designed for me. A life filled with possessions, ceremonies, packed closets, mortgage payments, ‘best’ practices, and standardization.
Maybe we are made to feel we are mentally ill when, in reality, it is our society that is damaged.
It’s funny, my therapist Patrice has been telling me about her plan to retire early, sell her home, and take off in her RV. Likewise, my good friend Beth just found a buyer for her home and is actively searching for a vehicle to live in full time. (Recently, my friend Kara questioned why I wouldn’t be going along with Beth.) These little hints have been there, whispering in my ear. I didn’t catch them at first, but now they are plain.
Turns out, there is a whole society of people out there called Boondockers. They live in vans, trucks, campers, and RVs and find places to legally park for free. Whether they park in rest areas, Walmart parking lots, casinos, wineries, or on state and federal land, they do not pay to park.
I started to think, I could do this! I could buy a van or a small RV and head out to live my life on the open road.
With a renewed sense of hope, I began to do some research. And this time around, the research made me feel alive for the first time in months.
That didn’t mean the path was all rosey, however. I did have some worries. A lot of them.
My primary worry revolved my cats: Sophie and Bowie. They are my babies, I committed to raising them, and I will not abandon them. I almost gave up before I started, thinking there’s no way I could bring them on the road.
Instead of giving in though, I googled “cats living in vans.” Within seconds, I was seeing pictures and videos of people happily traveling and living with their cats on the road. Turns out, there are ingenious ways to hide a litter box, decreasing the tracking of litter, smells, and unsightly decor. There are also screen systems that go right over the opening doors of the vehicle. Pop up screen rooms and play-tunnel systems would let the girls do their favorite thing which is to outside watching squirrels, birds, and other wild animals go about the business of living. Oh, and an occasional cage-match thrown in for fun.
But, what about the vehicle getting too hot or too cold for them while I am away?
Again, the internet is filled with ways to keep a traveling home safe and comfortable for pets 24 hours a day. My favorite youtube video addressing the worries that come with having a cat on the road is from this couple: Stefany and James. They own a Travato (the vehicle I have my eye on) and take their cat Mel along on all of their adventures.
It all comes down to how off-grid homes are powered. Solar panels, lithium batteries, inverters, and other gadgets allow people to live completely off of the grid. These power sources provide heat, air conditioning, running water, wifi, and all the luxuries of home.
So, after watching countless videos, I was confident that bringing my girls along with me was completely doable. I even decided to make a hashtag for Instagram based on our future adventures. It’s based on the name I chose for my home: #thecatavan.
Now that I had my number one worry out of the way, I moved on to my second concern: money.
I retired from teaching early because I was granted long term disability due to the chronic effects of stress. (My doctors and my insurance provider both agreed that returning to my job would, in short, kill me.) I am now granted 60% of my former income. I used to feel guilty about that, but I have reached the point where I can say, with my head held high, “Trust me, I earned it.”
But, the fear is always there. What if they take the disability payments away?
Because this has always been on my mind, I have been saving from every paycheck since the day I walked away from my classroom. I moved in with my mother as a way to lower expenses for both of us (as well as a way to help her with my step father’s recent stroke.)
Van life will mean I have no mortgage or rent; my car payment will become my house payment and vice versa. And I still might have enough left over to keep my tiny apartment at my mom’s house for those times when I need a break from the road or she needs my help.
I will still need extra money for gas, food, and entertainment though. In the past, I did two things to supplement my income: online transcriptions and dog-walking.
A laptop, a small table, and the internet is all I need for transcriptions. My future home will have a small home office, (with an ever changing amazing view) and a mobile hotspot for the internet. I can work right from my vehicle as a digital nomad. As for the dog walks, I can use my wag and rover apps anywhere in the states. If one area is short of walking gigs, I simply move my van to another location. Problem solved.
Because I will rely on my van for work purposes, I might even be able to write off some expenses on my taxes.
If I suddenly lose my disability payments, I still will not return to teaching. The nice thing about tiny living? It’s affordable living. Once I pay the upfront costs of buying a van or RV and outfitting it, my expenses will be quite low. (I plan to use my past investments, the value of my current car, and some savings to purchase my vehicle.) My monthly living expenses will be: gas, groceries, internet hotspot, car insurance, phone, and healthcare. I will not have a mortgage, house insurance, property taxes, and many of the expenses that are currently drowning Americans in debt.
If I can’t pay for the internet at first, a parking lot next to a place with wifi would do the trick. Or, a library, coffee shop, or hotel lobby can easily become my office for the day. If I can’t afford to fill my tank with gas, I stay put until I can.
Healthcare is a huge concern, but I think that is the same for everyone. On disability I am able to keep my healthcare with a low Cobra payment. But, prescriptions are pricey and I am on a lot of medications for various stress-related conditions. With an election looming, I am hopeful for some radical change in our healthcare system.
My third worry about living in an RV full time revolved around safety.
As a single woman safety is a constant concern. But a few things reassure me. First, as mentioned before, there is an entire online community of Boondockers out there. They share tips on which areas are safe and which are not. There is also an online community of solo female travelers; they often invite others to park near them to help keep an eye on each others’ homes. (Lindsey, a young woman from Michigan, designed a van that is stealth, She details it on her youtube channel. This would be a definite option for me.)
For those times when I am all on my own, I plan to be prepared. I will have gel pepper spray, my keys ready to hit the panic alarm, and a bullhorn that will make barking-dog sounds to dissuade intruders if I see or hear something suspicious. I will also have a kill-switch, GPS tracking system, outside security cameras, and a steering wheel bar for times when I am away from the vehicle. (After all, they steal my vehicle, they steal my home.) If I am in an area that makes me anxious, or I notice a suspicious person, I will climb into the cab and drive away.
Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, my friend Beth just happens to be heading out on an adventure of her own. We plan to coordinate our travels whenever we can for added safety. Anyone who knows Beth knows no one (and I do mean no one) messes with her. She is one of the most genuine and kind souls you will ever meet, but if you try her… you’re going to learn. Not only does she make me feel safe, she is crafty, funny as hell, and challenges me to step outside of my comfort zone. We are brainstorming an instagram handle that will be perfect for our adventures. So far we have #bitchesbeboondocking, but we aren’t completely sold on that one yet. (Have an idea? Leave it in the comments section.)
Speaking of comfort zones, my fourth worry revolved around the fact that I am an introvert. Will I venture outside of the cocoon of my van and be social?
Honestly, I might not. And that’s okay. The nest that my vehicle will become will be comfortable and filled with my favorite things. But, I might surprise myself.
I have discovered I am a unique introvert (INFJ on the Myers-Briggs if that means anything to you.) I am only introverted in certain situations and with certain people. Deep inside, I long for companionship and community. I long for meaningful and deep connections. Connections not based on small talk, societal expectations or norms. If I find a like-minded person, (a minimalist, naturalist, or empath) I long to share my experiences and my life.
The best example of this is the time I visited an off-grid village of Jamaicans near Negril with my friend Beth. It was a life changing experience and left me with an overwhelming desire to join their community. I remember thinking: these are my people.
Something I plan to explore with this life is volunteering. The thing I miss most about teaching is being able to help others. I need to feel needed again. (This is probably a huge part of my depression as well. I have lost the opportunity to help others.) There are farms, animal sanctuaries, Habitat for Humanity communities and state parks that are constantly looking for volunteers. This would fill my needs as an empath and, at the same time, create meaningful connections with like-minded people. Whether I am supervising a lighthouse or helping to build homes for a woman’s shelter, I will have a place to park my van and stay awhile.
My last worry revolved around one of my favorite things: a hot bath on a cool night.
There is no doubt that I will have to get creative with getting clean. But, if you have ever done rustic camping you know it is doable. Wet wipes and boiling a small amount of water for a sponge bath can do an amazing job. My favorite way to bathe is jumping in a fresh stream or clean lake with biodegradable soap that is safe for the environment. When I camped through the highlands of Scotland, fresh water rivers gave me my daily bath. There is no better way to wake up in the morning!
Besides, being away from the simple luxury of a hot shower makes the moments when I do have access to one that much sweeter. This passage, from one of my favorite novels, captures the feeling of taking a shower after going weeks without one.
Sometimes, you have to go without in order to appreciate life’s simple pleasures.
Of course, there are times when you just have to have a hot shower. A membership to Planet Fitness means I can stop off anywhere in the states for a shower. Splurging on a nice campsite from time to time is also an option.
If I change my mind on that front, I always have the option of buying a vehicle with a shower. Though my water supply will not be as plentiful as I am used to, it will be there in a pinch.
Also, I do still intend to go back to Michigan in order to let my mom use The Catavan. While she is off on her adventure, I will have a nice little tub all to myself. I also plan to continue doing pet sits all over the world, via my favorite website trustedhousesitters.com. Each home I visit offers the simple luxury of a bubble bath.
But what about having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night?
If I convert a van, my toilet will most likely be a composting one. The first time I used one, at a rustic airbnb in Glastonbury, I was skeptical. But, I found it was easy, functional, and hygenic. Besides, it’s kind of cool to think that my waste will go into feeding the environment via compost. I will do the same with my food waste. It fits in with the vegan lifestyle I am adopting, a lifestyle meant to aid the healing of the planet while healing my body at the same time.
Besides, our ancestors lived with way less. My great-grandmother kept her outhouse and chamber pot just in case she lost power and had to resort to living the way she did as a young girl. If she could do it, so can I. Hmm… maybe I will bring the chamber pot along with me.
I am sure there are other things that I have not factored in yet, as much of this new lifestyle will be trial and error for me. This couple, Trent and Allie, created a youtube video that clearly explains some of the down sides of #vanlife. When I first watched their video, I was almost dissuaded, but then I took the time to read the comments. Many people offered solutions to some of the issues presented by the couple in the video and the solutions seem legit.
When I first started contemplating this move, my mind was filled with the what-abouts. They came in rapid-fire motion. But just as quickly, I found a solution.
What about food? I will have burners and an oven for cooking fresh and healthy finds from farmers markets all over the country. What about the cost of gas? It will be less than the cost of a mortgage or rent. What about doctor’s appointments? Both my primary physician and my mental health provider offer online consultations and returning to Michigan every three to six months for appointments is a great time to visit my mom. What about prescriptions? Walgreens pharmacies are located all over the states. What about fumes? My van will have a carbon monoxide detector built in and an emergency shut off switch.
The ‘what-abouts’ will always be there, but when they overwhelm me I like to recite one of my favorite poems by Shel Silverstein.
Who knows, maybe this new life will allow me to throw out some of my anxiety and mood medications. Being out in nature gives me life and calms my ever-ruminating mind. Riding down a highway with my music blaring, singing along at the top of my lungs, is one of my favorite stress relievers. (Sophie and Bowie are not fans, but I will do my best to compromise.) I also might see my blood pressure levels stabilize without the daily help of Amlodipine and Metoprolol. Hashimoto’s disease and fibromyalgia will always be with me, but both seem to lessen in temperate climates. When my stress is low, my pain is low.
So, the decision is made. The Catavan is becoming a reality. I just have to decide between purchasing an empty cargo van and converting it (like Lindsey from Michigan) or spending much more money on a finished Travato (like Stefani, James and Mel the cat.)
I invite each of you to join me on this adventure as I intend to continue blogging and posting as I make progress.
The road is opening up before me. I can see the path ahead clearly now.
Hop in. Let’s go.