Solo travel reframed life in my 40s after years of NHS burnout

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My solo group travel trip to Vietnam earlier this year made me feel alive after one of the most stressful periods of my life. In fact, you could say it topped up my soul.

I work as a dispensary manager at a surgery in Kent, England, that serves 28,000 people. Like many others, I had a frontline role in the pandemic, helping to dispense medication, liaising with physicians and working very long hours with burnt-out colleagues. Managing a team in the NHS is incredibly difficult and it doesn’t leave much room for you to think about yourself. You often have to be the person holding it together.

At the same time, I also had my grownup son and daughter move back in with me during Covid and the combination of these different roles – single mum and NHS team leader – meant there was zero space to consider myself. Beyond the pandemic, we still have so many problems at work, with lack of funding and staff and not being able to see patients in the way we’d like to.

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I knew then that my body was crying out for a break

During a life coaching session we were all offered as part of NHS services, the coach asked me, “What do you see when you look in the mirror in the morning?” My answer was, “The room’s dark. The lights aren’t working and I’m not particularly scared or bothered by it. But I can’t see anything – there’s nothing there.”

I knew then that my body was crying out for a break, not least because I’d also gone on medication for high blood pressure for the first time in my life. You could say it was fate that, soon after, an ad popped up on Instagram for Flash Pack’s Vietnam adventure and I decided to go for it.

I didn’t have any expectations of the trip beforehand. I was working flat out until I left, so I barely even looked at the itinerary. It was also my first big holiday following the pandemic, and one of the first times in my life I had travelled so far away alone.

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I had no idea how much I’d love solo group travel

I had no idea how much I’d love it. The experiences, the food, the landscapes and the friendly people. Vietnam blew me away and exceeded every hope I had. For the first time in a long time I didn’t have to make a decision about anything. A moment on the train from Hanoi to Danang sums up my feeling. Four of us were sat together looking out of the window at the passing landscapes when someone said, “Shall we get a beer?” That was the biggest decision we had to make on an adventure where everything was curated for us.

As I was so relaxed, I was able to immerse myself in some incredible experiences; things I would never try on my own. It’s so easy in daily life to talk yourself out of something that feels a bit scary. It’s easy to make excuses and constantly put up barriers to stop yourself. 

But with Flash Pack I didn’t have any of that uncertainty. Everyone was so supportive and inclusive. Before I knew it, I found myself jumping on the back of a motor taxi or kayaking between caves in Halong Bay. A woman even taught me how to ride a bike again on the cobbled streets of Hoi An. I haven’t cycled since childhood and I was sure I wouldn’t be able to do it. Somehow though, I did.

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Our group dynamic was incredible and we shared a similar mindset

Hoang Le, our tour guide, was the exact same age as me but we have very different stories. We ended up having so many amazing conversations in the evenings. I knew all about his family and he knew everything about mine. I love him to pieces. He really showed us the authentic, local, off-the-radar side of his country. 

One of my favourite, pinch-me experiences was when we sailed on a traditional junk boat through the UNESCO World Heritage site of Halong Bay. There was this real sense of opportunity ahead, of having new things to taste and try and discover. Everyone was so warm, too.

As for our group dynamic, it was incredible. Somehow we just knew how to get on really well and be there for one another. We didn’t talk about our jobs back home or politics or anything. Instead, we got to switch off and be present, just connecting in the moment and laughing at inside jokes. We shared a similar mindset and we had space to engage with the group vibe as we pleased.

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I’m going to keep hold of this newfound sense of confidence

It had been so long since I’d experienced the tight sensation in my shoulders relaxing, my neck not hurting and my brain not having 20 tabs open at once. I almost forgot what it felt like to be relaxed and engaged and to have a conversation with someone that solely centred around what we were going to eat next or the scenery in front of us. That ability to unwind was beautiful. I really did have the time of my life. 

Returning from the trip, I realised how powerful it is to step away from the roles and labels we’re given in life. From now on, I want to avoid saying “yes” to every commitment. Instead I will focus more on what lights me up within. On the trip, everyone knew me as the easygoing one who was forever laughing and joking. Yet, that isn’t how I see myself ordinarily. I’m curious to get to know that version of me some more. 

I’m also going to keep hold of this newfound sense of confidence and ability to push myself, something I never would have got from two weeks on a Benidorm beach. Back in my twenties, when my children were still little, I took them on an eight-month trip around the world together. My Vietnam trip has fired up that appetite for adventure again.

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I’d encourage others who are burnt out to consider travelling

I’ve already booked another trip with Flash Pack to Vietnam and Cambodia. I’m also thinking about taking an adult gap year, where I work and travel in different places. 

I think a lot of us imagine that your 40s are a time to settle down in life. For me it’s the opposite. I have at least 20 years left of my working career so I think I can afford to spend a few of them messing about, carving out time for new experiences and the things I truly enjoy. 

My kids are super proud of me. They’re both big travellers themselves and I think they recognise that, as a young mum who has worn many hats in life, now’s my time to try something different.

I’d encourage other people who are burnt out to consider doing the same, too. Before I tried solo travel, I didn’t realise the true effect that stress was having on my wellbeing. Life was so shocking under Covid, somehow I got used to it. But I’ve learnt that, when your body and soul is telling you to do something, you just have to take the plunge and do it. 

Kirstye Todd is an NHS dispensary manager who lives in Canterbury, UK, and travelled with Flash Pack to Vietnam

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveller like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: Flash Pack

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