A few weeks ago, I scared the crap out of my AirBNB host because I was sitting out on the back porch around midnight in complete darkness. She had gone out to recycle something and I made her jump. The mist that had been beading on my canvas parka was turning into steady rain. I was chain-smoking even though I hate cigarettes and never smoke. Looking back, I realize this is something Dana in College™ would have done when she felt like being a total shit.
My AirBNB is very nice. It’s so convenient to everything that walking everywhere isn’t weird, the house is super clean and smells nice, there’s a dog (!) who I say “Good morning, sir!” in a dumb baby voice to every morning, and did I mention that my host is a therapist?
So when she found me on the back porch like a scene from a Tim Burton movie, we struck up a conversation. I told her about how miserable I was here. How it was very hard to connect with people. How I was bored. How it was emotionally draining to not be able to date (one of my favorite things to do!) much because of the sheer amount of misogyny—subtle and not so subtle—perpetrated by the men here and how none of them were used to being called out on it. How I missed talking to others with big dreams and big ambitions (outside of getting married, a house, and kids) and an entrepreneurial spirit. How no one was weird here outside of “Phish fan”-brand weird (we get it—you smoke weed and wear tie dye and live in an RV voluntarily). How I had been desperately looking for the people with insane origin stories, wants outside of staying in Asheville forever, and interest in having something other than “average” conversation. (Please note that I ultimately found some fabulous people here who these attributes did not apply to, but they were few and far between.)
My host stood in the doorway in the freezing cold in only her pajamas to talk to me about how the periods of discomfort in our lives teach us the most about ourselves. Now listen. My host is a total badass with a degree in wilderness therapy. She has dug holes in the ground to sleep in. She has worked in places that are only accessible by helicopter. I’m living in a house with heat and toilet paper and coffee. There is no comparison in terms of the level of survival skills we have had to develop and employ. But we talked about the feeling of being by yourself and how it shapes the mind. It fucking sucks, but it opens you up in a way that is very unique. It’s raw and it hurts. Something I wasn’t expecting from this leg of the trip is how I became more receptive to pain and more aware.
Everyone’s averse to discomfort; no one likes being sad. We distract ourselves, we self-medicate (in healthy and unhealthy ways), we try really hard to avoid sitting with our feelings. Because feelings suck. In Boston, I wasn’t sad. I was having the time of my life. I actually wanted to extend my trip (but couldn’t or else my mother would kill me for not being home for Thanksgiving). There was no sitting with sad feelings in Boston. My three factory settings were: blissed out, horny, and both.
In Asheville, I let myself be sad. I let myself spend a day in bed bingeing The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (I very rarely watch tv), I let myself call my mom, I let myself wrap myself in blankets and eat a hundred pistachios for dinner when I was too sad to leave the house, I let myself cry when I missed people. And, most importantly, I didn’t judge myself for it.
There was a moment where I looked into changing my flight so I could come home early. I even pitched a story to Playboy where I’d attend a sex party in Brooklyn a week before I was supposed to leave Asheville. I actually did want to go to the sex party (because how fun would it be to write about that?!), but I was more interested in them accepting the pitch so that I had an excuse to get the fuck out of here.
There was a part of me that knew I’d feel immediate joy upon landing back in New York, but it would be fleeting. I emailed my therapist, who said she supported whatever decision I made. She reminded me that I am allowed to give myself the option to leave early if that’s what I needed to do for my mental health. I don’t believe in “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and stick it out” mentality; I believe in doing whatever you need to do to take care of yourself. I believe in being kind to myself and nixing plans if they don’t end up being in my best interest. Leaving early felt like taking care of myself.
I gave myself enough flexibility in the trip that if I ever wanted to stay in a certain city for longer because I loved it or wanted to leave early because I hated it, I could. That was a gift I gave myself before the trip ever started. But, deep down, I knew that once that flash of joy upon returning to New York passed, I’d be filled with regret. Because somewhere inside myself I knew I could do it.
Playboy didn’t end up accepting the sex party pitch and I’m glad they didn’t. Mostly because I pitched something much, much better afterwards and I have a feeling they’ll go for it, but also because it made me more resilient. Even though I absolutely hated it, I rode out the rest of my time here. I did it.
In Boston, I learned I am enough. In Asheville, I learned that I am fucking strong.
So thanks, Asheville, for testing my limits and forcing me to live in some discomfort. Thanks for putting me through something that was important to facilitate the realization of a few things I needed to recognize. Thank you also for:
1. The opportunity to meet someone I had been online buddies with for years (List App, despite being dead, still brings people together!). Katie’s a wonderful person who let me gripe to her about dating in Asheville, who checked in on me when I wasn’t feeling great, and didn’t judge me when we went to French Broad Chocolate Lounge and I washed down carrot cake with hot chocolate because I have a sweet tooth some doctors have referred to as “concerning.”
2. Meeting a new friend from my old life in NYC publishing! What are the chances someone from Hachette Book Group (who left right before I got there!) now lives in Asheville? (Also, is there any greater joy than reminiscing about former coworkers with someone hilarious? Especially when the company was a complete insane asylum?) Meredith introduced me to the best restaurant in Asheville (Copper Crown) and is also responsible for my most fun night here in which we went to a Britney Spears-themed dance party WHERE THE DJ DIDN’T PLAY ANY BRITNEY SPEARS, took a 90s limo to a dive bar where us and our four friends were the only people on the dance floor when we got there (and then the whole bar was dancing by the time we left), and I didn’t get home until 3am. We also witnessed a drunk chick refer to a perineum as a type of flower, which, I’m sorry, will be the only thing I will be able to think about for the next 12 years.
Oh, btw, THIS IS THE ACTUAL LIMO THAT PICKED US UP:
3. Being the leg of the trip where I finally got off Ambien for the third (and last) time in three years. It SUCKED (it is so, so hard, so GO ME for actually doing it), but it was important to get off of it because it had caused me to develop NOTICEABLE memory loss and I was like oh boy definitely don't want to forget how to, yanno, find words or think or whatever.
4. The knowledge that I can never live in a small town. By learning that I cannot live in Asheville, I can now say without a single doubt that I can’t live in places like Burlington VT or Portland ME or Crotchcheese NH or that charming cottage Kate Winslet owns in “The Holiday.” Before this trip, I had always wondered.
5. The necessary quiet (and pain, ha) to get so much fucking writing done.
So that’s it! Bye, Asheville! See you again never, but thanks for the memories.
Passionate about everything having to do with the body, Dana Hamilton writes about sex, dating, relationships, body image, and eating disorder recovery. She is a regular contributor to Playboy and her work has appeared in VICE, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, and SELF, among other publications.