Guest Posts

The Expedition Never Really Ends

March Guest Blogger: T.J. Burgin

Travelling alone is often a frightening proposition. The world is a big place, with languages and people and practices that don’t make sense, that are foreign in every sense of the word. In 2009, I was a ninth-grade student with good test scores, a relatively active lifestyle, successful in track and field, and few friends. At this stage in my life I had pretty average, standard mental health issues – I had bullies, and I had coping mechanisms. At the end of 2009, I was offered an opportunity by my school.

An outside organisation, World Challenge, was looking at leading expeditions to southeast Asia for intrepid students; a mix of character building, leadership development, and community development. To my parents’ immense surprise, I wanted to go, and over the next twelve months, I prepared for a month-long trip with a group of total strangers. My school only had two students who wanted to go, so our group worked with another school who had a much larger group, and we formed a team. The team building was far from perfect, and I didn’t truly know anyone who was going with me as we boarded the plane on the 23rd of November 2010.

The museum at Hellfire Pass was a place of great reflection and meditation on the expedition – It commemorates the building of the railroad by prisoners of war, and a place of despair and death for hundreds

What followed was four weeks of learning and development. Thailand and Laos are beautiful places with incredible people, and for four weeks, us students, aged between fifteen and seventeen, organised accommodation, activities, food, budgeting, and excursions in country. About half way through the expedition, I did notice that I wasn’t suffering as badly as other team members – I noticed that I wasn’t as homesick, I wasn’t as stressed, I wasn’t as anxious. I also didn’t have the same level of interpersonal support they had. I began to notice that maybe I was a little more resilient than I thought.

Sculptures at Erawan National Park in Thailand – We had a long and beautiful walk here, surrounded by waterfalls and huge fish that would nibble the skin on your feet if you dipped your bare toes in

This realisation was very obvious to me when I went back and read my journal. Every night I wrote in it. I stuck bus tickets and train tickets and brochures in it. It bulges now, its bindings stretched, my name embossed in gold on the tan leather cover. But when I go back, even now, nine years on, I can actually see the change in my writing and the ways I recount events. I am reminded of how I changed.

Because the journey was so long ago, I do now have to go back into my journal and look at the pictures I took on the expedition to remember exact events. But I believe the actual events are less important than the way I handled them. And the way they changed me.

A little girl in a Mong Village in Laos, all dressed up for a dance-filled celebration of the new year. None of the children smiled when photos were taken but seemed to like to pose solemnly for us, and show us where they lived

The most profound changes took place afterwards though – in direct response to the events in Thailand and Laos. I got back feeling better, stronger, happier. I was back home, and I knew I could do things. Catching a plane by myself? That wouldn’t be that bad. At least I spoke the same language as the customs staff here. I felt better. I felt older and almost like a new person. I had real stories that I could use and relive. This wasn’t the end of the story though.

Despite all of this, all of the positive things that came of World Challenge, university and the changes that leaving school entails had a radical effect on my mental health. I had a breakdown, took a semester off, changed my major, made terrible dating choices, and ended up on medication for my anxiety and depression. During all of this, I journaled; I made sure to write everything down, and it was during this time that I remembered World Challenge. I went back to that beaten up handmade notebook and flicked through it.

The slow boat from Thailand to Laos was an interesting experience – I didn’t read as much of my book as I expected to, but I made sure to keep a hold of the token given to me before I left

When I opened it I found the notes written to me by the other members of my World Challenge team, the other students who knew me as no one other than the youngest member of their team who went overseas. We exchanged letters on the plane on the way home, and the words of those friends literally saved me. Five years later, six even, they saved my life.

The journey never ends. Life is an expedition.

About the Author: T.J. Burgin is a young Canberra author and scientist just working things out – She has published one YA novel (The First Tail) but has half a dozen manuscripts undergoing editing. Her favourite things are pole dancing, cats, and learning how to be herself. Burgin has spoken on several author panels at local conventions and continues to write mainly for herself. She believes writing is the best therapy. You can follow her on Instagram @tjburgin2015 and visit her website at www.tjburgin.com

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