• Verneda Adele White

Why Australia? Taking a Sabbatical Abroad to Reset Your Mental, Emotional and Physical Wellbeing

“For the better part of a decade and a half, I have not been living. Alive and breathing, yes…but not living. The experience has been more like sheer surviving flanked by cycles of exertion/exhaustion that left me overworked and burned all the way out.” – the author

Having written numerous times about the impact the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and the loss of my cousin Wesley to AIDS has had on myself, our family, and generations to come, it was Wesley’s death that also fueled the passion behind my commitment to ending stigma, advocating for LGBTQIA acceptance, my independence as an event consultant, and my drive to help others through the birth of my apparel brand HUMAN INTONATION, with particular focus on HIV/AIDS and women of color.

All inherently good things. Yet, over the last 14 years, I have not given myself much opportunity to grow beyond the scared, angry, grieving, untrusting 22-year old I fully embodied on February 4th, 2006, the day Wesley passed away.

Until now, very little in my adult life motivated me outside of the traumas brought on by Katrina and HIV/AIDS.

It seemed to all work for a while, until it didn’t.

Over time, little did I realize how much I began living for the legacy of my cousin, living to “help” others, living for any and everyone, except for myself.

Like many black women, I had hopes of righting wrongs that were beyond my control, yet I felt unduly responsible for.

Then, somewhere in the last 5 years, something began to shift.

Growing increasingly unsettled, frustrated and disappointed with my own life not being or looking anything like I want it to...I decided to do something about it.

Ironically, I immediately found that making a change required that I uncover some of my old feelings of feeling scared first.

This time, however, it was the good kind of scared like when you know you are stepping out for something greater, a leap of faith that would take me out of New York City 10,353 miles to the other side of the world.

Once boarded, I let reality begin to sink in as I settled next to the strapping Aussie heading back to his home, from whom I could not help but ask for a few tourist recommendations.

My flight to Melbourne with a layover in Sydney marked the beginning of a life-changing adventure, and the first step in my taking a major new approach to address my mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.

For the next 10 weeks, I would be starting my journey to exemplify what it means for me to be myself, my own version of “Eat, Pray, Love”. I dubbed my sabbatical “The Verneda Adele Project”.

While I did not know what was to come, the one thing I was clear on is that it is time to completely let go, to give myself the opportunity to grow, and to start living for myself for the first time.

How I got to this point is nothing less than serendipity, some would call it a Higher Power when last spring I found myself on the other side of a completed project sleep-deprived and literally weighed down by a number of heavy bags I was taking home from my client's office.

When I normally would not have, I took a shared taxi to Brooklyn from midtown Manhattan which led me to meet Bunny, who in turn introduced me to my now business coach Bonny (I’m not kidding Bunny and Bonny), and the rest, as they say, is history.

From the beginning of our sessions, Bonny picked up on my less than living state of being and he quickly suggested if I wanted a shot at making a change, that my only next course of action was to take a 3-month sabbatical…

Who me? “Who just ups and goes for 3 months? What about money, my apartment, my boyfriend, my life?”

Putting these questions aside, I reminded myself of the many days and nights I have felt trapped behind a glass wall, watching the life I desire on the other side, constantly feeling out of reach.

But was it really? Or is it just the story I have been telling myself for longer than I like to admit?

Grief and guilt can cause a person to do many things that you would not normally do, as a way to protect oneself from the depth of pain.

I had no choice but to get on that plane.

Since arriving in Australia, it was like a weight lifted off of my shoulders, like my protective shell was beginning to shed.

In preparing for my trip I was introduced to the concept of WWOOFing, where volunteering my time on four very different organic farms in exchange for food and housing would not only allow me to sustain my extended travel, but also learn about what foods are sustainable for me and others to eat.

In the first few weeks of my sabbatical, I have done things I never thought I would do; from being pushed to think more critically about how we treat our planet (as my chest burned from inhaling the smoke haze of the Australian bushfires), to literally scaling mountains with no equipment while hiking to an amazing, untouched waterfall with nothing but a 12-inch wide pathway to stay on between a rock wall and the kind of cliff one would not bounce back from (I am still grateful with the help of my fellow WWOOFer and hiking guide, we made it).

I have driven tractors, chopped tree trunks with a chainsaw, got stung for the first time by a ferocious bee but could not have felt prouder for, because then I was able to help my hosts to make our own honey.

I made friends with kangaroos, wombats, peacocks, koalas, and dove into the ocean from Byron Bay to Bondi Beach.

With every stretch, I am giving myself the gift of life outside of my “survival comfort zone” in ways I never would have experienced had I stayed in New York.

Being in the Australian bush has presented me with an opportunity to do a complete 180°.

Now, as I find myself writing this post from a harbor-front café on a Monday morning in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, while back in New York where it is still Sunday, and my friends and family are no doubt taking in the first half of Superbowl LIV in advance of JLo and Shakira’s epic halftime performance, I am determined for that scared 22-year old to know she does not have to be scared anymore.

There is no guilt for her or me to shoulder.

She deserves, as we all do, to not only survive, but to thrive and receive what I have always wanted for my life: to feel comfortable in my own skin no matter where I am, what I am doing, who I am with, and to live fully in contributing something meaningful to the world that feeds me and others at all levels.

Once I made my decision to take a sabbatical, the question I have been asked most is “why Australia”?

The truth is that I could have gone anywhere in the world, however, the idea behind my sabbatical is to give myself space to focus on myself, get quiet and listen.

I scratched off any places with great safety concerns or direct historical or cultural trauma (though I will admit no matter how many times I have been told in Australia I am perceived as American first, I have never forgotten I am a black woman).

I chose an environment where I could focus my attention on what is it that I like to offer, feel consistently passionate about, how I can have more fun, and take steps to reimagine my life, in spite of my fears.

Following right behind “why Australia?”, the second question is whether this process is working (i.e. have I figured out what I came to figure out yet)?

About that, what I can say is this…expect your sabbatical to be a process within a process. Your process.

My journey to personifying my true self will not end when I touch back down at JFK.

In the process of getting quiet and listening, I have no boxes to check, only to give myself enough space to see, as cliché as it may sound, that the only person standing between me and the life I want is me.

For me to truly make a contribution that will benefit others, I must first make deposits into my mental, emotional and physical wellbeing; to let my spirit dance in the release from guilt and grief.

I want ALL black women to know that it is OK to take care of and live for ourselves first.

When life calls for a sabbatical, take it. You may not know what change will look like when you return, but one thing I can promise is that you will never be the same.

Many asked, “Why Australia?” I simply asked, why not?”

This piece is based on the author’s experience between 9 December 2019 to 3 February 2020.

For more of my experience during the Australian bushfires check out: https://humanintonation.wordpress.com/

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