Freedom and Independence Mental Health

Can A Place Be The Best Medicine?

I am having my morning coffee, looking out past the end of our terrace to our awakening town.

It rained overnight, so there are small puddles on the tiles and the air is cool, not cold.

I am allowing the calm beauty of San Miguel de Allende to seep into my soul.

It is a great time for contemplation.

Have you ever thought not only, “what is my place in the world?” but “where in the world is my place?”

They are questions worth thinking about. Especially now, when the world is in turmoil. And most people are too.

The first question is one for the ages. Tomes written and entire lives spent trying to eke out an answer that may never be found.

The second question, where is my place? My dot on a map. My grounding. Where I place my feet. Where I feel home. Where I am my best me. That might be a bit easier. But the search might be just as long. You have to open your mind to it.

I grew up in Los Gatos, a pretty town about an hour south of San Francisco. I have lived in seventeen apartments, cottages and homes, traveled to 53 countries, and been homeless.

I guess you could say I have been searching for quite a while.

I thought I had found my place twice. Santa Barbara and Yountville. Both in California.

In Santa Barbara, circumstances determined when the town felt really right for me. First, I was in an apartment, in the northern part of town. Away from the action. A bit too far to just take a wander in. The apartment was ugly, in a long building with a walkway that ran the length, upstairs and down. There was no outside, no terrace or patio. Just rooms with sharp corners and small windows. It was what I could afford, but I wasn’t healthy.

Then a friend moved to town, and we found a cottage to share right in the middle of town. Two blocks off of the main street. Two blocks from old-fashioned movie theaters, galleries, restaurants, and shops. Two blocks from the farmer’s markets on Tuesday and Saturday. Here, I could meander, stroll. Walk down to the beach. I enjoyed fine weather and sunsets.

The cottage was in a pocket. A cluster of cottages on each side of a tiny lane that ended in the back of the property. A dead end. Our own little world. We made gardens and gathered on our porches at night and on weekends. We even had a hammock under our avocado tree. Wine was abundant.

For once, I didn’t go into work on the weekends. I made brunch. I was content. Less stressed. Less driven.

Until I wasn’t. Then I crashed life down on me and had to leave my little oasis.

A few years later, I settled in Yountville for two years. I was both running away from something and to something else. I rented a cute townhouse, surrounded by other cute townhouses with a pool, in the middle of vineyards. I had spectacular sunrises and sunsets there too. An outdoor space. And walks in the evenings, when I allowed myself to.

Yountville is small. Then it was only the two short principal streets. Other streets went off of them, but not too far. Once again, I had my gathering places. Courtyards surrounded by restaurants and shops, where music played on the weekend. A gallery, salon, small grocery store. There was a community. It was a great place to live. It matched all my soul requirements. But I wasn’t great mentally when I was there. Extended mania made sure I finished in a heap, and I had to leave. Homeless in the end.

It took me thirteen years to find a home again. Then it was a person, Glenn, who became my husband.

Sure, moving to Oakland in 2013 helped. He owned a cute little cottage in the Temescal neighborhood, which bordered Rockridge and Piedmont. And there were some pretty streets just a walk away, with those restaurants, cafes, and shops again. But we lived in a city. And my triggers still descended on me as I battled on.

I was still searching. Soon, we both were.

Glenn had lived in San Miguel de Allende in 2005 for a year. Visiting him during that time from Santa Maria, I gave myself permission to eat again. I had arrived at seventy-eight pounds. Not only was I anorexic and bulimic, but I had just been diagnosed with Bipolar 1 along with a few other disorders for that time.

San Miguel was color, texture, flowers, and sun. It had the courtyard restaurants, cafes, and shops I craved. I wasn’t frantic here. I was still very sick, but I felt lighter. I laughed again. I even danced. There was a brilliance in the sunsets we watched from Glenn’s rooftop terrace. I started to feel a bit of brilliance in me.

But 2005 wasn’t the time for us as a couple. Or us for the town. We weren’t quite “there” yet. But we both felt a nudge.

I returned to Santa Maria where I had found help; doctors, medications, therapists. And I became fearful, lost hope. What would happen to me if I wasn’t there? If I lost that link. I felt trapped. This was not my place. There was an Applebee’s. I lost my mojo again right away. And I stayed bottomed out. I went in a circle.

I was in therapy at least once a week for over twenty-one years. Paying someone to listen to me.

I have taken medications for my mental illness for that long too, and I am still on them. I still touch base with my therapist. But now they are a tool, not my world.

After years of a long, winding, fragmented journey, Glenn and I finally got to the same place at the right time.

We married in 2017 and made a plan.

Temescal was changing. We were becoming the oldest people in the neighborhood, and it was time for Glenn to take early retirement. We just couldn’t do it anymore.

Selling our house and belongings and returning to San Miguel made sense. Of all the countries and cities we had both visited, Mexico just seemed to match all the needs on our checklist. With a lower cost of living, the money from the house would go a long way if we rented.

We moved to Mexico in 2018.

I have had a few ups and downs since then. But nothing like the hamster-wheel roller-coaster I experienced in the United States. After spinning days, I now settle. I have help I need not make an appointment with.

For me, a sense of place can be just as medicinal as a prescription.

If I could bottle San Miguel, I would fill it with sunshine and bougainvilleas, mariachis, and the clink of glasses. Add in bells and grilled meat, fireworks, laughter, and community, and I’d make a fortune.

I have switched office rooms for courtyards and terraces. And my therapy sessions comprise of an afternoon chat with a bottle of wine with my husband or good friends. We have time. We don’t see time as a luxury anymore; we see it as a necessity.

Instead of living a lifetime on a street with neighbors who aren’t. I live in a community, expat and otherwise, that is always growing. I can be myself and discover more of who I am with each passing day.

I wander in wonder, not glancing over my shoulder.

We invest in people and experiences, not things. Somedays we just read. And that is ok too.

We live comfortably, not extravagantly. And my husband’s biggest desire and purchase recently was a cast-iron skillet to try out new recipes in.

We have simplified. And we don’t see that as a negative. The less we have, the less we have to take care of.

We rent houses fully furnished. We don’t have to pack, store and ship. We don’t have to “keep track of.” This simplicity has reduced my stress levels and I can take things one at a time as they come up.

We reduced things to live a fuller life. But we have not reduced our lives.

We were lucky. Very lucky, we had the means to make this move. Find our perfect corner of the world.

A healthy one for me and him. Change of place was our best medicine.

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