…But sometimes a few words, a few random moments in no particular order happen to be the exact words and the exact order of events that will change your life forever.
My name is Tamara Hansen, born and raised in Denmark. I want to share our story with you, honest and real. This story is about sacrificing everything to pursue love and life. It is about gaining the courage to leave safety behind and travel the world. It involves eating disorders, money problems and family issues. Because we are real people. We are us.
This is Complete Honesty Mode.
For most of my life I thought I had my future figured out. I decided early on that I was going to be a doctor. In high school I was smiling to myself at my peer’s frantic expressions whenever the issue of ‘what to do with your life’ popped up. There was simply no question about it for me. I finished high school with one of the highest scores of my year and applied to med school immediately after. I got a job at a startup Jewelry Company, wearing heels and sparkly rings every day. I moved to an apartment in Copenhagen, the capital, and started studying one of the most prestigious degrees in Denmark. I found myself saying the line “I do distribution in a jewelry company, work part time as a substitute nurse and study medicine” over and over again. I was always perceived as ‘a successful girl with a lot of potential’. I was a sharp and determined personality with an intimidating drive, priding myself on my so-called ‘intelligence’ and ‘promising future’. I also had a habit of organizing everything, wearing black and white clothes and counting calories.
Turn back time a few years and I will tell you my story once more:
My parents were divorced when I was little and I found myself caught in between them for most of my childhood, feeling like a bad child for not being able to make them both happy. I was a rebellious teenager, picking fights over nothing because I didn’t know how to react to the emotional chaos burning inside of me. In an attempt to feel like my life was in my control I would settle for nothing less than perfection and decided to become a doctor because who could possibly look down on that. I also decided that I needed to loose weight because thin equals success. Graduating from high school I felt like I was thrown forcefully out of my comfort zone. I moved out of my childhood home, got a demanding adult job, broke up with a boyfriend and started a new school in a matter of months. My obsession with losing weight went from a half-hearted attempt to eat healthier to a full-on phobia of gaining a single gram. I suffered from the delusion that I would gain weight from eating more than 1000 calories a day and started throwing up most of my meals as a result. For weeks I ate nothing but Greek salad with 7 olives for dinner. Breakfast was 50 grams of frozen blueberries, 35 grams of oatmeal, 180 grams of water, 10 drops of 0 cal sweetener and 7 shakes of salt. The majority of my money was spent on chocolate crackers, which I flushed out in the toilet precisely 30 minutes after consuming them. Med school was as hard as I had imagined but of course no such thing as average existed in my head. I met a lot of nice and cool people but my eating disorder had made me completely isolated and I dreaded all social gatherings and the food/alcohol they would involve. Better to just not let anyone come close enough to see the cracks in my white-polished façade.
The next summer I was admitted to a small hospital on a Spanish island. During a vacation with my mother’s family I suddenly got acute heart arrhythmia as a result of purging everything I had eaten for weeks. Being around my family I was forced to eat for the sake of pretense, and of course eating three meals a day would have had ‘chaotic consequences’ if I didn’t get rid of the food again... Coming home I was diagnosed with “Anorexia Nervosa with severe bulimic tendencies”. Suddenly I was no longer the ‘good girl’ but the object of whispering conversations at family gatherings. “There she is, the proof that too much of the good is no good.” I lost every concept I had ever had of myself as was forced into treatment by winter. My body and mind had become cold and I could no longer trust my memory or sense of logic.
While my studies where temporarily paused, I spent half a year sitting in a circle with other girls, figuring out how this obsession had come to seem like a solution to all of us. When it came down to it, for me it was a type of escapism. It seems that we grow complacent in the world we are born into and the world we know. I was afraid to take a chance at something different, risking losing what little I had. As a result I tried the best I could to fit in instead of attempting to find myself and my own place in the world. It is so easy to convince yourself that being unhappy is a part of life, that the best thing to do is the same as everyone else, because that is the safe option.
After six months I had not only gained an almost healthy weight, I had also decided not to go back to studying medicine. I had stopped organizing the food in my fridge according to calorie content, and stopped choosing soup flavor based on cals pr serving. I felt like a white blank page and was determined to get away, determined to fill myself in again with new places and new people. So I packed a backpack and took a flight to London from where I started my trip around Europe. “Oh me? I used to study medicine but kinda quit everything and went traveling.”
Alex had lived a life in America that contrasted mine quite a bit. He was more carefree and open about practically everything. Whereas I was counting calories and organizing my wardrobe Alex was wearing the same shirt for days in a row and throwing house parties going until the next morning. He owned a house with four friends in a college town and every night was an attempt to outdo the last. He would invite local bands to play live shows in his basement every weekend. The entire city would gather at his house and dance wildly into the night with Alex laughing and hugging each person that came. He did everything he could to fight time, taking chances and laying on rooftops with the people he loved, constantly aware of the passing minutes stealing his youth. One of his favorite hobbies was running across the city, finding his way into abandoned buildings with friends, always pursuing the next great adventure.
However the adventure he was seeking never seemed to exist. He searched for it in crowded basements, long conversations and moonlit rooftops but he never really found what he was looking for. What he needed couldn’t be found in America. This country, while safe, never truly felt like home to him. A value system based on consumerism and the size of your house tasted bitter on his tongue from the day of his birth. There was always a small itch telling him something wasn’t right but he could quite find what. It all changed in 2010 when his family took him to Italy. This was the first time he had left America in his life and the experience left him shaking with the desire for more. The small things mattered here. Rather than talk about income and mortgages people would teach you a new recipe or tell a story of their youth. Two weeks away from the busy indulgent American lifestyle changed him to his core. What he really needed to be content was not a raging party but simply a calm interesting culture to surround himself with. True adventure can be found walking the ancient streets of a quiet village and eating in a restaurant built into the house of a local. True adventure is feeling lost with a girl you met in a hostel and trusting strangers with everything you own. He felt a calling to be lost in the world and to run as fast as he could into a raging river of experiences far from home.
When he graduated college and found that it was time for him to be a part of the adult routine he felt more lost than he ever had. When you meet with relatives they stop asking how you are and instead ask ‘What do you do?’ That dreaded phrase… ‘What. Do. You. Do?’ He never knew how to answer. Yes he had an “adult job” and yes he had a respectable degree but how can that be all there is to this life? He saw his future laid out before him one long passionless year after the other. The value of his life, his precious minutes and his limited hours, being broken down to a number on a pay slip. He didn’t know what he was doing, but it felt wrong. It’s so easy to lay back and let life take you where it wants you to go. Getting a healthy paycheck every month and settling into that daily routine, it can be almost impossible to leave. But he had an absolute need to address his passions before committing to adult life and a carrier. There was too much fire rattling in his bones, begging him to get lost in the world.
About a month and a half into my trip I came to Granada, Spain. From the very first night Alex caught my eye, and after only talking to him for a few minutes I knew that he was nothing like anyone I had ever met before. He was a good-looking American, so I had expected him to be arrogant and obnoxious. Instead he turned out to be empathetic, intelligent and extremely passionate. He heard the colors in music and touched the smell of rain. He inspired me to jump off bridges and explore abandoned places. It only took five minutes of conversation waiting in line for the bathroom with him for me to realize this was something amazing. Within minutes of meeting we were talking about my anorexia and his beliefs on travel and love. There were no walls to climb and no secrets to reveal, I was honest and interested from the moment his mouth opened. With his usual confidence he whispered 'let's get lost' and we ran as fast as possible into the labyrinth streets of the Albayzín. We found a viewpoint perched on the edge of the city and listened to his favorite music. He turned to me and asked what I was thinking as I looked out over the city. Shyly and shaking, I told him the truth: I was thinking about how beautiful the moment was and how much more beautiful it would be if he kissed me. It was in that moment that everything in my life changed forever. That night it seemed we talked about everything that mattered to us. I was speaking as fast as I could, trying to cover every possible topic imaginable before our time together ran out.
He left Granada a couple of days later but I changed my travel plans to meet him for a single day in Barcelona. That single day was one of the best of my life and seemed to last forever. It was spent soaking each other on the beach, absorbing smells and touches and unending conversation in an attempt to make up for all the years we had not known each other. When the sun rose the next morning he got on a train to go back to America and I felt as if I had lost a part of me. We talked online every day and I craved him with every inch of my soul.
Just one month later I flew into Austin airport and was greeted by Alex in his green Saturn. We had only known each other for 4 days in Spain, but during the month of separation I had decided that I needed more of him. I was originally going to move on to Italy after Spain, but I knew in my heart that if I did not chase him I would forever wonder ‘what if?’ The plan was to simply not think, go to Austin, to where he had moved after traveling, and see what would happen. I could always travel on. I always liked America, so why not? As it turned out we spent every waking (and eventually sleeping) moment together in Austin, exploring the city and making it ours. Every second with him was as amazing as I had imagined. I went through a long battle against my controlling side, which kept pointing out the lack of logic in starting a serious relationship with a guy living halfway across the globe. I tried as hard as I could to fight the attraction, knowing how much it would hurt to not be able to actually be together. There was no denying it though. His canvas was painted with the colors of the world and I had never seen anything so perfect. I fell madly and irrevocably in love with the beautiful tall American I had met in Spain.
After our initial time in Austin we had to put up with an excruciating three months of distance. We would text and call constantly. He'd fall asleep with the phone by his ear so he could listen to my life go by. Finally I ran back to Austin to take in a breath of air after feeling like I had been holding it for months. Once again I felt everything fall into place as soon as I was in his arms. Every moment with him seemed precious and I had never been happier. Underneath the surface there was always the looming fear, the knowledge that I would have to leave again. I could only be in America for 3 months on a tourist visa and it was the same for him coming to Europe. And of course, both trying to lead “normal” lives with jobs and apartments in our relative countries, neither of us could actually leave for three months at a time. We also couldn’t afford the $1000 flight ticket across the Atlantic over and over again. As the date of my departure came closer, this knowledge grew to a dark presence that loaded every word and every embrace. If I had not been so happy the whole time I would have broken down crying every five minutes because of the hopelessness. The more time we spent together the more aware I became that he was the one I wanted, the one I wanted to be with. All my other priorities seemed to shrink in to the size of a coin next to him.
"Tell me why is it hard to make arrangements with yourself when your old enough to repay and young enough to sell"
We were discussing this Neil Young quote by Ladybird Lake when we both realized that the only thing keeping us apart was fear. The same fear that had made it hard to leave home the first time and ‘waste time’ on traveling. The same fear that had lead me to work hard doing things I was not passionate about. The fear of not succeeding and the fear of not progressing in life. Visa laws might seem the major obstacle, but all we had to do was leave. If we were traveling, no one could tell us not to be together. Looking into his deep hazel eyes I rephrased Neil Young’s question and asked;
“Why is it hard to just leave when we are old enough to give what it takes, and young enough to give up what it takes?”
We both had a bit of money saved up. We could pay for it. Neither of us had any huge obligations. We would just have to quit our jobs and sell our apartments. This was the only time in our lives when we would be in a position to simply do this. The value of an hour lived fully cannot be given a number. Traveling we could make the hours infinitely invaluable.
I remember holding him close, for the first time feeling a spark of hope in my heart, that maybe, just maybe, I could really have him. Not borrow him for a while but really have him and stay with him.
It seemed unreal at first but we started planning the leave. I gave out my three-month notice for my apartment and Alex gave out his as well. After having been apart for another two excruciating months he flew into Copenhagen with a small bag holding almost everything he owned. The rest was shipped to his parents in Cleveland or mercilessly sold on Craigslist. He stayed with me in my apartment in Copenhagen for a month, working his online research job while I was working full time as a substitute nurse in the closed psych ward. Even though Copenhagen was too cold for his taste, he seemed to like it and again it almost felt like we lived together for a while. Technically we did, because Alex was now per definition homeless with a home address at his parents place in Cleveland. When the month was up I went back to America with him, for the first time going to Ohio. For two weeks we lived in his parents house and I adored his loving family and three cool brothers. The last time I left him was the most painful ever. We had both met each other’s families and we had already planned to go traveling for the sake of being together. Everything was planned out and we only had to get through another two months of distance before our final departure date. Maybe that is why it hurt worse than ever. He was at that point an extension of myself: my love and my home. Getting onto the Megabus to New York City I noticed that Alex’s grand mom had put a box of Kleenex in my snack bag. I sent her a mental ‘thank you’ as I broke down in tears, only comforted by the fact that I would never have to leave him again after that. Hopefully. If the world is kind.