Could I take a sabbatical abroad?

After a much-wanted promotion left her feeling anxious and flat, twenty-something professional Gabrielle Lane realised she needed time and space to just be. She writes here from Australia, one month into a sabbatical

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Could I take a sabbatical abroad?

There’s a girl bounding along a narrow track ahead of me that snakes through dry scrubland. The long path, leading to a small bay, has become steep on both sides and lined with thick branches and reeds. The air is hot and sticky, and I can hear nothing but the chirping of insects. The ground has suddenly gone from cracked and flat to thick with black mud and, with our feet bare and my new-found friend laughing (at me), I realise with fear, surprise and a weird sense of joy, that we are about to submerge ourselves up to our shins.

A hike through an Australian National Park with a near-stranger is a long way from my typical Monday morning as a media professional in London. Six months ago, I would never have dreamed I’d be doing this. I was far off the sort of quarter-life crisis I saw some friends edging towards, aggravated by precarious employment and frustrated hopes.

Outwardly, my life was secure and interesting. But shortly after getting a promotion I’d thought I really wanted, I had an inkling that something wasn’t right. Days began to seem longer and more arduous, while time overall felt like it was racing – a classic symptom of anxiety. 

The fertile void

However, with no obvious source of distress, the unease I felt was confusing. I was scared of making any decision that might sacrifice a relatively comfortable life, and so I pushed the feelings away.

Then a friend talked to me about a Gestalt concept of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ while new desires come to us – a state referred to in psychology as the fertile void. As Dave Mann, author of Gestalt Therapy: 100 Key Points & Techniques (Routledge, £16.99), explains, ‘In the West, we so often rush from one thing to another; when one task is completed, another is already lined up. In doing so, we can desensitise ourselves. When we let ourselves go into the emptiness of this void, fullness can emerge.’

The idea of ‘waiting and seeing’ is something that is rarely embraced in the modern achievement culture. It struck a real chord with me, as I had always planned ahead and worried about the future. So when a former colleague invited me to visit her in Sydney for three months, I jumped at the chance. It would give me the opportunity to appreciate what I missed (and didn’t) about my London life. But first I’d have to persuade my employer to keep my job open.

The conversation was easier than I expected. I’d been with the company for five years and I had the shifting nature of working life to be thankful for – it is now compulsory for businesses to consider flexible working patterns for all permanent staff, and questions about work/life balance are more professionally acceptable. My boss agreed to allow me to take extended leave, and said it would give other members of the team who had been looking for their own new challenge the opportunity to step up. I was elated.

Loose ends

Just the thought of the sabbatical changed my mindset overnight. I felt excited, and then weirdly rebellious. My impending departure became a ‘get out of jail free’ card that made me prioritise people I wanted to see and things I wanted to do, before time ran out or I thought too deeply about any consequences.

I decided to give up the lease on my flat rather than sublet. It made sense from a logistical point of view, but, emotionally, I also relished the idea that I might not come home. When you are moving 15,000 miles away, you have to believe that there may be some great love or life-changing opportunity waiting for you – to do so gave me confidence and openness.

One of the most impulsive decisions I made was to meet up with an ex who’d had the biggest romantic impact on my twenties. While his false promises and inability to commit would always be destructive, I missed his zest for life and longed to see him again. In my mind, the sabbatical was a buffer of space and time between the short and long term. It would allow me to enjoy his company without compromising my future stability. It was the chance to take a sunny afternoon between chapters.

In reality, the meeting wasn’t cathartic or electric. My ex-boyfriend and I had an awkward coffee in my kitchen while I ceremoniously packed boxes. He mumbled about how much he cared without committing, and so there was
no neat, happy ending.

However, I took strength from life in London shutting down as a whole and swallowing all unfinished business. When I boarded the plane it was a statement of intent; I was ready to let go of the past and move on.

Finding spontaneity

Living in a new place forces you to be present. A month into my time away, the minor differences in surroundings mean that even daily tasks have become absorbing rather than automatic. I have ridden a horse along a mountain trail, only for it to bolt at the sight of a wallaby; eaten indistinguishable street food with locals in backstreet cafés in Hong Kong, and shared wine and stories on sandbanks that only appear at low tide. Each time I have said ‘yes’ to
an opportunity, it has led to other invitations, leading me to ask if life in London would have been just as rich if I’d devoted less energy to work and rediscovered some spontaneity.

Of course there are those ‘wow’ moments when the sky is coral pink, the air has a lush green, almost smoky scent to it at dusk, and seafood sizzles on the plate as you sit cross-legged, outside and content. But every navigation of the supermarket, or beach, or train station needs concentration and feels like a novelty. Such connectedness means travel is often likened to mindfulness. Without the distractions of a hectic routine, feelings are both more apparent, and more transient.

I have learned that you can’t out-run your emotions. There is nothing like swimming in beautiful bays or sunbathing on clifftops to make you feel lonely and wish you had someone to share the experience with; to hold the towel when you take a swim, or help you across the rocks.

However, the tears I have shed when lost in cities by myself have made way for closure in that old relationship that didn’t offer anything of value, and cut through the cold stability of my routine.

I can see now that I’d fallen into the habit of endlessly planning ahead, of hiding the heartbreaks and hangovers of my early twenties in order to make progress in my life. But with it, I lost a sense of fun and living in the moment. In fact, I’d learned to be ashamed of any lack of composure, because my youthful inexperience had, at one time or another, cost me a promotion I was told I wasn’t ready for, and a man I loved who thought I was too unpredictable.

The other self

Tellingly, writing this article almost didn’t happen. Asked to write about my emotional experience, I sent cliché after cliché to the editor, from the midst of one of the worst cases of writer’s block I’ve ever had. It was as though the colour of my trip drained every time I put on my professional hat. The girl who spent her morning scrambling in the wilderness looking for glow-worms, and the one who scrutinises articles for commas were frustratingly incongruous.

And so I am learning about myself. Dr Oliver Robinson, a psychologist who has studied life-stage anxiety, says, ‘The idea that we are one straightforward person is wrong. The person that people get to see day to day is [often] our work personality. What can happen is, a few years into a career, we can think, “What other parts of me have been left dormant?” We feel competing parts of our personality and it can be good to explore that.’

For now, I haven’t made any decisions about my future, but I am comfortable with the idea that a sabbatical is not about finding an answer, but about making space for one. My hunch is that any resolution will not involve meddling with the old, but welcoming the new. Relaxed and free of a cloak of tiredness, I can see that my family and friends – and yes, my work – remain a real passion. But, I am not missing them yet.

For now, I am enjoying the times I am able to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’. And I’ve realised how much richer that experience is when you allow yourself to acknowledge the highs and lows.

Sabbaticals: more inspiration

The law

Employers are not legally obliged to offer a sabbatical. If they do, they must offer the same opportunity to full- and part-time employees. If an employee is paid during their sabbatical, the contract of employment is in force. If an employee is unpaid, the continuity of service may be preserved (for statutory purposes) if the leave is agreed in advance.

Support for quarter-lifers

Mind The Gap Coaching is a targeted programme that offers support and guidance for those in their twenties and thirties seeking to establish a meaningful lifestyle and career, by boosting confidence and creating focus.

Travel motivation

Tribewanted offers members the opportunity to immerse themselves in local culture and support socially responsible tourism in places such as Bali, Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea. Think building huts for accommodation, sailing with local fishermen and living among fellow adventurers in a tropical location. 

Photograph: iStock