It was the summer of 2017 and I was having a quarter life crisis.
I’d been in Florida for a year and some change. In that time I’d run a marathon, been promoted twice, and lived in a lavish apartment. With a very decent salary at work, I’d often sneak a little time to swim in the ocean.
Also painfully single, I worked and trained myself half to death, and was *struggling* with undiagnosed mental illness. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was really close to a breakdown both physically and mentally.
All I knew was that something had to change. And when I wanted a big life change, it always started with a daring adventure. Sometimes it’s as simple as cutting and dying my hair or taking on a new hobby like marathoning.
But this time was different. I needed something bigger to soothe my soul.
I needed to take my first solo vacation.
My First Solo Trip
So I finally used that PTO and took a week off work to go on a road trip around South Florida. I had it all planned out: Starting in Naples, I would venture south down the Tamiami (Tampa to Miami) Trail to the Everglades and then the Keys for some snorkeling. I’d then loop around and head home through Alligator Alley.
Now I’m a penny pincher in some respects and I found that out of season camping was going to be the cheapest way to travel. With a twinkle in my eye and a State Parks pass in my wallet, I headed out – camping gear safely stowed in the back of my SUV.
What Could Go Wrong!?
As I quickly found out, camping in Florida in the dead of summer has its ups and down. As I lay sweating through my sleeping bag (which I slept on top of) the first night, swatting No See Ums – I cursed my sense of frugality. I was also a little unnerved that I had to sleep with a machete under my pillow for the larger Florida predators. Fortunately the only thing that was vaguely threatening that night was an extra chatty but harmless campground neighbor.
As the night wore on, I began to wonder if I should just drive home – I was only about an hour from Tampa at this point. But something stopped me. Maybe it was pride, maybe it was a sense of adventure I don’t know.
I remember getting up and staring through my tent across the gorgeous lake I’d camped next to.
Over the still water, I could see an amazing array of heat lightning rumbling away in the distance. It lit up the water in the most incredible way. The bug symphony rose and fell as I watched the light show, soothing my fears. It was a truly awe inspiring moment.
Soon, I fell asleep to the gentle crash of far off thunder, feeling better about my decision.
Naples Botanical Gardens
The next day, I ventured into the city of Naples to find the Botanical Gardens. Now I’ve been to a few botanical gardens in my day, but this one will always be my favorite.
Sure they have amazing orchids, gardens, and koi ponds – pretty standard Florida fare. But the way the Naples Botanical Garden incorporates those elements into the design of their land is really something special. To me it was a magical place full of hidden treasures. Everywhere I turned I found something new to explore.
My favorite part was a carefully crafted labyrinth surrounded by greenery. Even though it was a Buddhist styled creation, the labyrinth reminded me of the ones used during the Christian time of Lent. Those labyrinths symbolize, among other things, our ever changing relationship with God (or the Universe or the Center, however you see it).
Opening up to others
Sometimes you’re close to the Center and sometimes you feel very far away from it. No matter where you are though, you’re always on the path and you can’t go wrong. As I mentioned, I was a pretty hot emotional mess during this time so encountering this labyrinth in the midst of my soul journey brought me so much peace.
This was a time where I didn’t speak about my mental health to anyone but for some reason this experience in the Botanical Gardens reminded me to speak out on Instagram about my issues for the first time. I think that may be where the seeds of My Soul Balm were planted (pun intended). Since then, I’ve always connected flowers and plants with my blossoming mental health and they remain a symbol of strength to me even in my darkest times.
A bumpy beginning of the great end
I moved on to Homestead, Florida (the gateway to the Keys). If you’ve never been there, let me just say that Homestead is not exactly the spiritual capital of the world. More like the sweaty spiritual armpit 😛
I was staying there out of pure utility because it was located between the Keys and the Everglades – my last two destinations.
Here I actually sprung for a hotel room but I think I might have been better off camping. That’s how scary it was staying in the no-tell motel, the only place I could really afford. I’d stayed in “old Florida” hotels plenty of times so when I booked this one, I thought it would be pretty much the same: a little rough around the edges but generally fine.
Not so much. The door didn’t even lock properly. Yikes.
Anyway I survived the night and woke up bright and early to make the trip to the Everglades. It was an exceptionally hot and steamy day that threatened to break out into a rainstorm at any moment. At one point I believe I was literally the only tourist in the park.
I think the staff must have thought I was totally nuts as I rented the little yellow bicycle to travel around the glades. But I was in heaven. If you’ve never been to a vastly untouched natural place all by yourself, you’re really missing out on an awe-inspiring, life changing moment.
The thunder clouds stretched across the horizon while the sun forced its way around them, creating a shimmer that reflected in the waters. I was amazed at the fact that I was literally surrounded by shallow water for miles and miles, teaming with life from alligators to fish to marsh birds.
Of course being in such a vast wilderness all by myself also brought on a major panic attack for me. Here I was in the most beautiful place I’d ever seen and I was about to collapse under the weight of my own brain. I had spent so much of the trip fighting my anxiety and it had chosen this moment to unleash hell.
Being a part of nature
I stopped my little yellow bike and sat on the only bench for miles. Since I was lightyears away from help, all I could do was just sit with the panic. I cried, I meditated, I cried some more. My tears mixed in with the sparkling water around me. I like to think I became a little part of the Everglades at that moment.
Eventually, the terror subsided and I opened my eyes to a new world. I wasn’t really aware of it then, but something definitely shifted inside of me. Living through a terrible panic attack without any help was unnerving sure, but it was also uplifting. I felt stronger than I had in years.
Now, when I feel like I can’t go on, I remember how I survived that moment. It’s changed my life in ways I can’t even describe.
A new start
After I returned home from that trip, things remained mostly the same but subtly different. As if I was piloting a small boat on the open ocean and had just changed course ever so slightly. if you know anything about navigation, you’ll know changing course just a little bit in the moment can yield a huge change in your ending destination. And that’s what happened to me.
I began doing things that benefited me. That meant less time at work and more time on myself. I made mental space for a potential partner to join my life. Finally, I began to work towards healing things between me and my mom.
I’m not saying life was perfect after that trip. In fact, things got noticeably worse for me over the next two years (left three jobs, ended up in the hospital, lost all my friends). But the revelations and decisions I made on that solo trip gave me the strength to navigate that stormy time. They still help guide everything I do.
Today, I’m proud to say I’m about as satisfied with life as I can be. My husband (whom I met three days after coming back from the trip) and I are building a beautiful life together, I’m on the road to recovery, and I’ve learned to value myself.
And it all started with that wonderful, scary, amazing, and painfully intense solo trip.