You Can Do More Than You Think (and Other Things I Learned in 2015)

I started 2015 incredibly hungover in the back of a motorhome, parked next to a beautiful lake in Wanaka, New Zealand.  Despite my location and surroundings, I was miserable. (And not just because of the hangover.)


I started 2015 incredibly hungover in the back of a motorhome, parked next to a beautiful lake in Wanaka, New Zealand.  Despite my location and surroundings, I was miserable. (And not just because of the hangover.)

I was writing lyrics as follows,

I keep hoping
And I keep choking
On the words you said –
And I keep trying
But I keep dying
Begging for a God I can believe in

— Show and Tell, First Aid Project

…because everyone knows the best artist is an angsty artist. (Click to listen.)

Then, something changed. Through my circumstances the entire last year, I had been led to believe I was going insane. Actually, truly insane. I was isolated, and this was the only message I heard regularly. Because of this, I lost all perspective on myself.

If 2013 was a funk, 2014 was sky diving without a parachute. Nothing like a year-long free fall to snap you out of whatever you’re dealing with!

I’m gonna go see Dr. Finklestein and I’m gonna tell him we have a whole new bag of issues. We can forget about mom for a while.

Wedding Crashers

I started 2015 with the Kiwis.

I arrived in Fox Glacier to volunteer in a hostel on 3 January.

Regardless of my mental state, I always try to make the best of things. So, I chipped right in and did just that. The stay was incredible, the food was delicious, and I was making really great friends.

Suddenly, I wasn’t isolated anymore. People were asking about my situation and confirming to me over and over again – I wasn’t actually going crazy. At least, not the way I had been led to believe.

Things began to look up again.

I stayed in New Zealand for 3 months. This included my first experiences hitchhiking, meeting a new someone that has continued to be in my life, and my first time in a helicopter… which just so happened to fly up and over Mt. Cook and the actual Fox Glacier itself. Not a bad set of experiences, really.

Japan, Yellowstone, and beyond!

From there on out, I knew my grievous mistake had been putting myself in a toxic situation without any recourse for when things inevitably went wrong.

Hindsight is 20/20, but that’s why I write posts like this. Because, if I’m going to make epic mistakes on this grand of a scale, everyone might as well use my life as a warning.

After New Zealand, I spent a week in Japan – terrified that my return home would be sabotaged if I so much as breathed wrong. Thankfully, I found myself safe with family in California as originally planned.

Bicycle Tour: San Diego — Salt Lake City / 27 days / 555 miles

Once I returned to California, I was a woman on a mission. My first bicycle tour (and solo at that!) was from San Diego to Salt Lake City, and I had one month to plan it. I was a madwoman as I scrambled to get all the pieces together with what money I had raised, assembling the gear friends and family helped me acquire, and mapping out out exactly how I was going to make things work.

I didn’t quite iron out every detail before leaving, but with knots in my stomach, I cycled away as planned all the same.

I successfully arrived just south of Salt Lake City on my birthday, 21 May, and that’s how I ushered in my 26th year alive on this planet.

The details I managed to publish are here, if you care to check it out. One day, I’ll post up the last videos, I promise.

A month spent by myself on a bicycle served as a great detox for my mind, soul, and body.

I was camping and sleeping in strange (probably illegal) places, killing myself anywhere from 6 to 9 hours in a day doing physical activity I didn’t know I was capable of, dying of heat in the desert, freezing under rain in a canyon, getting caught in hail and lightning storms…

But you know what? I learned that I can survive.

Grand Teton National Park / No wifi, No reception / 4 months

After my bicycle tour came to an end, I was ready for my summer in the Grand Teton National Park.

There, I would be serving tables and earning $4/hour plus tips, in a place where no one could contact me, no one could find me, no one could bother me. I had designed it specifically as a retreat from the emotional manipulation I’d dealt with in 2014.

I wanted to be left alone, with any outside contact being on my terms.

Grand Teton Mountain Range

The summer served as a sort of monastery, if monks were alcoholics and partied every night of the week. (I say this with love for everyone there!) My experience over the summer was a kind of social experiment: What happens if you take 100 random people and remove all access to the outside world, while having them work, live, and play together 24/7 for an entire summer?

The answer is mixed, and it’s certainly not for everyone. However, I had the sweetest roommate and made some incredibly dear friends.

Not to mention, being surrounded by stunning wildlife and living right next door to Yellowstone National Park was a pretty great environment to let go of everything and appreciate how amazing earth can be.

Meanwhile, I got to take a class in mountaineering, go white water river rafting, and sit near natural hot springs while watching shooting stars over snow-capped mountains.

Over the summer, I learned how to sleep again, I balanced my self-perspective, and I was able to hit kind of a ‘reset’ button on my emotions.

Road trip! New Orleans – Seattle / 1 car, 2 friends / 2 weeks

I made friends with Chris over the summer. Somehow we had formed the kind of friendship that led to a travel partnership.

Both of us were ready to move on from the national park, Chris had never seen most of the states, and I had affairs to manage in Austin and San Diego. Thus, we arranged a road trip that spanned from New Orleans to Seattle, where both of us had a flight booked to Germany on 5 October.

We lived out of an Enterprise car we booked on an insane deal for less than $400 for those two weeks. We got drunk and had excessively loud, long, emotional conversations in Cafe du Mondé while eating beignets. We caught the last elevator down to see the Carlsbad Caverns with 30 seconds to spare. I got to reconnect with friends and family in Austin and San Diego. We went to a great music festival in San Francisco.

Also: Alligators. On this very boat.

It was an amazing time.

Europe: Domestic life, language classes, extraneous travel

Chris and I parted ways for a bit on our arrival to Europe.

I stayed with Melina (we met in New Zealand) in Germany for a few weeks, while Chris explored onward. I enjoyed being able to take it easy. 2 weeks on the road can really take it out of you.

Annecy, France

Other than a short trip to the south of France to visit an old high school friend, I enjoyed staying in one place for a while.

Life took on even more structure once Chris and I began German classes in Cologne.  The course was Monday through Friday, 10:00am to 1:30pm for 4 weeks. Apartment living, cooking, issues with hosts, everything you’d expect trying to settle in abroad for a month.

Then – we attempted to travel to the U.K. and Ireland.

After problems at the border in both countries, having a flight delayed for 3 days, and realizing just how freaking expensive both countries are, plans had to be rearranged and cut short. However, we made the most of it.

Scratching a hairy coo's head makes everything better

Between free tours through the Highlands, getting our delayed costs reimbursed by Ryanair, and meeting up with old friends (like the very first CouchSurfer I ever stayed with, or the lovely Jade I met in New Zealand)… we managed to salvage at least a few of our negative experiences.

However, it’s really hard to balance out being detained and interrogated for 4 hours (Stansted) and having your brand new 50€ winter jacket stolen (thanks, Liverpool).

What did I learn this year?

I learned that things can get really hard. Whether the sun is relentlessly beating down, hail is pummeling on your back, your body is giving up, your own brain is failing you, or your wallet is empty… life is just plain hard sometimes.

I also learned that I am a survivor. (So are you.)

Sometimes you have to wait things out. Other times, you have to keep moving forward. Usually, you have to adapt your plans.

Lesson #1

You can do so much more than you think you can. But, you have to actually try to.

I took off on my bicycle tour with a 50/50 chance in my mind that I’d really make it. Anyone who has met me can testify I’m not much of an athlete. Yet, I made it. I’m telling you, if I made it, you could have done it too.

What is it that you want to do that intimidates the hell out of you? Sometimes, you have to just go for it. Nike was right the whole time.

I also learned that positive social interaction is huge. The wrong kind of isolation will mess you up, bad.

Lesson #2

Be really picky about who you spend (lots of) time with.

It’s good to be accepting and friendly to everyone. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t spend time with people just because they’re not your favorite. You should absolutely try to get to know people, especially when you don’t naturally get along. It’s a really great social skill that opens up your mind.

But when it comes to your close friends, your inner circle – you need to be really careful about those people. Don’t let an overly charismatic character charm you right out of your common sense. Get to know people before deciding they get to have power over you.

Lesson #3

No matter what happens, you’ll find a way.

When people say that life balances itself out, or that anything is possible, they’re lying.

Let’s say you take off on your own metaphorical bicycle tour. To be honest – you may not make it. Making it isn’t the point, though, is it? (Hint: No.)

When you do something, anything, you’re participating in life. Life is short. Everything around you is a construct of what modern society has agreed to. You have to live within certain limitations, but beyond that it’s up to you to decide what reality is. Why not be constructive with that outlook?

I’m an insanely cynical optimist, which I guess makes me a realist. With that in mind, I offer these words of advice:

Challenge your perception of reality sometimes. Learn by making mistakes. Go big or go home. Step outside your safety net. Be willing to be wrong. Because, even if you don’t accomplish your goal, you’ll gain experiences, memories, friendships, relationships, knowledge, wisdom, perspective… to a level you can never have by staying within your perceived limits.

Don’t just question everything for a moment in your mind, question everything with your behavior.

Life is hard, so you might as well have fun with it. You _can _do anything, it’s just rarely going to be what you originally set out to do. You’ll find a way through it. Embrace chaos.

With every new experience, you’ll reach a new level of confidence. If you handled that, imagine what else you can take on?

Looking forward to 2016:

This isn’t a New Years resolution post, more a reflection on where I’ve gotten in the last year.

Anne Dorko: Embrace chaos

Right now, I’m going to be a paid writer and see where that takes me. If I can get the right visa for it, I may try and stay based in Europe for a while. But plans are just guesses, so we’ll just have to see.

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Tell me: What did you learn this year?

What were your biggest stories from 2015?

What lessons are you taking away?

How will you let those lessons change your life in 2016?

Tell me your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.