Part III: O God—What Have I Done?! (And, a Real Transformation)
by Olivia Pennelle
Editor's Note: This entry is part of a three-part retrospective series on one of the greatest leaps of faith I've seen in my adult life: a move from the UK to the United States.
Part I looks at the process of her decision to move. Part II deals with the surprising culture-shock she experienced, and Part III uncovers the things she's learned along her brave journey. A great story of resilience and transformation. Enjoy! - DDM
Is This What I Dreamt About?
Six months of planning, dreaming, and challenging finally landed me in Portland, a place I had spent months dreaming about, a locale I hoped would help me realize my potential. The new setting also teemed with vast outdoor spaces, mountainous terrain, and lush forest skylines. It was a place where a lot of creatives live. A place of promise.
There is only so much preparing you can do to relocate. After all, I was moving to a country that spoke the English language, where I had spent summers during my teenage years and sporadically visited in my twenties. I knew what American culture was.
Or so I thought...
I was ill-prepared for Portland and the challenges I faced. I hadn’t expected to feel like a foreigner when I'm actually a bona fide, real, American citizen (but one with a distinct British accent). What surprised me the most was how much mental space was required to process the move. My expectations did not serve me well.
But in those dark moments, I transformed and encountered magic. The more risks that I took, the more the universe positively rewarded me by providing for my needs: housing, work, comfort, and reassurance. I felt "held," embraced by a love I can't quite explain, even in the challenging moments, of which there were plenty.
Fuck, I’m here. Oh, God—what have I done?!
Those words came out of my mouth when I landed at PDX. And they are words I have repeated continuously over the past three months. The first thing that surprised me was when I landed in San Francisco I was met with a shiny, polished and well-kept airport. Landing in Oregon, I noticed the Portland airport's carpeted, dimly lit and outdated decor. Even the baggage belt lacked the slickness of the Californian service-driven machine. The pace was immediately slower.
Relieved to have my suitcases—my only belongings—I ventured out of the airport. I am doing this. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck!
When people told me that Portland was weird and wonderful and different, I hadn’t considered how; I’d only thought the prospect of new experiences and people was exciting to me. I love new cultures and all that encompasses.
However, the drive out of the airport was yet another wakeup call as the cab drove through North Portland. What struck me was the abrasive, clunky, industrial-looking skyline and steel bridges. It had a starkness to the landscape—punctuated by dilapidated buildings, empty spaces, and the occasional abandoned car. Homeless people pushed their belongings along in shopping carts.
There was a level of poverty that shocked me.
I had lived in a post-industrial city, Manchester, for the past 15 years. It is a city with a high rate of homelessness, addiction, and unemployment. Perhaps I had become more accustomed to the shiny new gentrification it has recently undergone; it was much less rough around the edges in my last few years living there. But as I rode through the grey, jagged areas of Portland, I felt ill-prepared and wondered what I had let myself in for.
Still, I continued to wonder that there was yet more I would have to see firsthand.
Settling In . . . Month One? Whoosh. Gone!
I landed in the hostel, and the feeling of what I had gotten myself into lingered. I became sick. I mean, really physically ill. The warm, comfort blanket of family and sunny California had spoiled me. Then, in Portland, I had never felt so exposed or anxious. I let myself experience these feelings and cried, many days and nights. I delved into my faith; I reminded myself it would be okay. I didn’t dwell too long with what I'd done though, because I didn’t have that luxury. I had to make ends meet.
I quickly secured housing. I moved out of the hostel into my first home in Portland within five days. I unpacked for the first time since the 9th of December. I landed—or so I thought.
Fortunately, my recovery wits served me well. I made plans to meet two women that I had been “e-introduced” to in preparation for my move. One is a fellow writer and Portland native, and another is also a writer and blogger who had just relocated to Portland a few months earlier. I met one the day after I arrived and asked for her to take me to a meeting. She gave me the warmth I was seeking—she held my hand, and I felt more at ease, less alone. A few days later, my mood was lightened further as I had laughs and giggles in the doggie park with the other woman. I particularly loved the face licks from her dog, Joey.
My first month here was not easy. It was what people said it would be, that I would doubt myself. I experienced a range of emotions from confused to surprised, sad and depressed, intrigued and stimulated, to again wondering what on earth I had done. I felt at times completely lost and alone. The greatest challenge has been the space my brain required to process the move and acclimatize to Portland culture. I was tired.
So much to process!
And a brain fog seemed to linger—maybe it's something like pregnant women experience, or something people who suffer from long-term stress and depression feel. The worst part was how distracted I was—I’d go upstairs and forget what I was there for, and fall all the way down the stairs on the way back down. I was bruised black and blue for the first few weeks and that wasn’t my only fall.
Winter Storms a Brewin'
Then there was the weather. No one expected that in January, Portland would experience the worst weather and ice-storms it has had in years. Then, another sort of "storm"—post-election riots hit downtown. Many days I was trapped inside. I couldn’t even walk to the store as the pavement was covered in thick ice. Still, I tried. I tried to tread as carefully as I could, but I fell and bashed my knee. That still didn’t stop me though.
One day I was so sick of being stuck indoors that the hardened Brit in me thought, Fuck it. I headed downtown despite a forecasted ice storm. The ice storm was worse than expected—businesses closed and transit was brought to a halt. I got stranded. The feeling of being a foreigner abroad finally struck me hard. I missed the familiarity of Manchester, knowing my surroundings, and who I could call to help me. I eventually got home, sobbing the whole way. I texted a friend who reminded me how far I’d come and told me that not many people would have made it this far.
He’s right. Not many people would be able to pull off a move across the globe on their own.
Processing a move on this magnitude was mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting. I had to re-learn everything that I had taken for granted in the UK. For example, finding the grocery story (one I could afford) and decoding names for produce—we call a rutabaga "swede." Cilantro is "coriander." And we Brits are far too efficient to have someone bag our groceries!
I had to re-orient myself with cycling on the other side of the road, and of course making right turns on a red light. I had no idea how the transit system worked—like where to find the bus, or what a trolley street car or "light rail" was. Who knew buses don’t give change here, that you need to have the exact fare?!
I had a long list of practical tasks that seemed never-ending. Like opening a bank account, figuring out payment systems, getting a US cell phone, and finding a gym. While small details in isolation, the tasks added up to being a lot to process and navigate in short succession.
I tried not to "become" the see-sawing emotions that washed over me. I bought a bike. I started with small rides. Even as a seasoned city cyclist, I was too frightened to ride downtown, a surprise for me. But I knew my mojo would return. So, I kept traveling downtown and exploring places, like Powell’s City of Books. I went on hikes. I kept saying yes to every invite. I went on dates.
I continued to overcome hurdles and challenges.
Challenges to Overcome — Finding my Resilience
One challenge has been my British accent. It has been quite the revelation that people find it so surprising, but it's been also become a disability for me. One one hand, the guys love it. I’ve never been hit on as much in my life! A bus driver loved my accent so much that he asked me to stay on the bus to tell him stories. I’ve heard about a hundred people tell me, "Oh! I just love your accent." But some people look at me like a dog would upon hearing a strange noise, tilting its head and perking its ears. It's like they cannot process the accent and the cultural nuances of the UK-English versus American-English.
Add in my emotional and physical exhaustion and it can be quite frustrating to communicate even my basic needs, like finding something in a grocery store or opening a bank account. An American with a British accent is . . . confusing. It was difficult to prove who I was. Landlords want to run security check on you, despite having no credit history, as I grew up and paid taxes in the UK. The bank leafed through my US passport, looking for my visa. I was refused a credit card.
The second challenge has been finding a recovery community—my "tribe" if you will. The men in meetings have been very friendly, but some women I’ve met have come off cold or guarded. This is a complete contrast to the women in meetings I mingled with in the UK. I was taught to immediately go up to any newcomer, or a woman I didn’t recognize, and introduce myself, or even make her a cup of tea. Here, it’s different. I have had—as the newcomer—to take the initiative, to go introduce myself. Some women haven’t engaged with me at all. Instead, they just stare at me blankly.
Some people after I introduce myself just throw a cursory hello my way, only to leave me standing while they go off talking with their friends. I have fought my instinct to run and continued to share that I am new and need help. I then met a woman who shared her experience of being new to Portland that I could relate to. I introduced myself to her after the meeting and told her of my experience. She got it and took me under her wing. She introduced me to friendly, caring women that embody the fellowship the way I understand it. I finally felt relief that I was beginning to work my way into my tribe in a new place.
After just three weeks in my new home an unexpected turn came in my path: I had to move.
I couldn’t believe it. The move would be my fifth in two months. Superwoman (me!) came to the rescue and found a new, lovely little place in Southeast Portland. Again, I unpacked and I'm settling in. I have slept more in the last week than the last six months. I can see the trees of Mount Tabor from my window.
I hope I’ll be here for a while. But who knows? I have learned during the last six months that life is uncertain, and security doesn’t necessarily come from a place we think it should.
Thankfully, the tense, challenging moments and pockets of self-doubt have been punctuated by glimpses of actualizing my dreams. My move has been a transformative experience and I have surprised myself by my abilities to network and jump at opportunities—like obtaining a scholarship for an entrepreneur group, or going out for dinner with new friends.
Despite the seemingly never-ending challenges, I have persevered. I’ve decided to keep dating and I met a lovely chap—he loves my accent and reminds me that I’m a badass when the self-doubt starts to kick in. I keep seeking out that great expanse that drew me here. I have worked on my laptop in coffee shops on Williams and Fremont frequented by other creatives, writers and musicians. In those moments I have realized my blessings and I pause to soak it in. Those moments ignite my fire, they fuel my passion to continue to pursue my creative dreams.
Except, of course, when the coffee shop is too narrow-minded to offer any kind of decent food (other than sugary pastries) like avocado on toast with poached eggs—an essential ingredient for my writing. Or when they are too cool to offer WIFI, preferring instead to encourage discussion (despite the fact the clientele are all people on their own, working on laptops and stealing the neighbors WIFI).
That aside, I’ve reminded myself that I don’t have to get up and go to a job that I hate. I have the freedom to start work and finish work whenever I like. Some days I take off. Other days, I know I work longer than a standard job, up to 15 hours. Since I love what I do and I want to continue, it doesn’t feel like work.
I discovered a resilience I didn’t even know that I had. I didn’t let the weather or my roller-coaster emotions dull my spirit for too long; I keep bouncing back. I uncovered a reservoir of faith I didn't know existed: that there is more, that everything will be okay, and there is a purpose in my being here. My resiliency to the challenges I've met has carried me through the dark times.
You know what? Things have worked out. I have recently secured more work providing a second month’s full-time wage.
Today, I continue to believe and to wonder. I keep taking chances. I have taken a monumental leap of faith moving across the ocean to pursue my creative dreams. I’ve overcome fears, weathered the storms, and faced challenges straight on. At times, I thought I was crazy for going through with it. Many people don’t have the courage to take on something like I’ve done, or to question whether there is more to life than the doldrums of a dead-end office job.
In my experience, the horizon of life spans further than you think. Dare to dream big. Take some risks. Scare yourself shitless. See new places. Meet new people.
The magic is out there and you can conjure it — just take that leap of faith to get your journey started.
About the Author
Olivia Pennelle is a regular contributor to Transformation is Real. She now boldly claims her home city as Portland, Oregon and works as a freelance writer and recovery advocate. Visit her fine website at Liv's Recovery Kitchen and discover her wonderful (and healthy) recipes and frequent interviews she conducts. She's also on Facebook and Twitter.