Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I remember the day like it was yesterday. It was summer 2007. My husband and I were both working for Amgen (the world’s largest biotech) in Thousand Oaks, California — about an hour north of Los Angeles. He was a systems administrator in the IT department, and I was working in the training end of manufacturing as the assistant to the department head.
We had a beautiful house in a small, almost-rural town 45 minutes from work. We were enjoying the best salaries we’d ever made in our lives, which were complemented by bonuses and stock options. We had two cars, two motorcycles and two cats.
We religiously took two vacations annually — Europe, road trips to neighboring states and frequent trips back east to visit family and friends (Paul is from Washington, D.C., and I’m from New York City).
We had no children (by choice) and by all accounts were living the life. Some might call it the American dream. And apart from working between 50 and 70 hours a week, we were.
The ‘American Dream’s’ Stress Has Costs for Health
I woke up one Monday morning with an aura, which told me a migraine was minutes away — but this wasn’t new, I had been there many times before.
I ran through the list of possible triggers: How much water had I drunk the day before? How much caffeine had I consumed the day before? Had there been more stress than usual the day before?
No, actually for a change I was certain none of my usual triggers could be the culprit. I got out of bed slowly, grabbed the half empty glass of water from the nightstand and headed for the bathroom. I reached inside the medicine cabinet for two acetaminophen tablets.
First one and then the other, and I hoped within a few minutes the aura would disappear and I could get ready to go to work.
I knew from experience the worst thing I could do was to dwell on the migraine or worse, start running through my workday ahead of me. But there I was, sitting on the bathroom floor trying to remember all the unfinished things from the previous day’s To-Do list as well as the new things I would add once I got to work — assuming this migraine let up and I could drive.
When 45 minutes passed and the migraine hadn’t dissipated, I got concerned. Usually, if I caught the migraine at the aura stage, I could get rid of it quickly. Sharp pain on the right side of my head wasn’t much of an issue — the fact that I had no peripheral vision in my right eye meant I couldn’t leave the house until I could get it under control.
I crawled along the carpet to the nightstand and looked at the time. It was seven o’clock, and I had a staff meeting at 8:30. Even if I could jump in the shower at that moment, I’d still be late.
While I was still on my knees, I reached for the phone and called the other assistant in my department. She picked up on the second ring. I skipped my usual pleasantries: “I won’t be able to make it for our 8:30 meeting. I have a nasty migraine. Could you please…,” and with that I proceeded with a long list of requests to ensure she could get the meeting underway and then get my boss prepared to attend her meetings, with a promise I would try to make it in by no later than noon.
I hung up and held the phone as I tried to stand, using the bed to help hoist myself up. My legs could make it and my arms had plenty of strength, but my head didn’t want to do what it needed to do in order to stand upright. I fell backward and hit the floor with a thud.
I narrowly missed smacking my head on one of the tall wooden posts. The room was spinning a million miles an hour. “This is no ordinary migraine!” I said out loud to nobody.
The phone was now under the bed. Maybe I’d kicked it as I was falling. Using my elbows, I dragged myself across the carpet to feel around under the bed for the phone. The next call was to my doctor. I am not generally a drama queen, but I was scared. I knew something wasn’t right.
I explained my symptoms to the nurse. “You should come in right away,” she said. I’ll cancel her 9:00 AM, and you take that slot.”
Geez, how often does a doctor do that? I called my husband, who normally left the house by 5:30 so he could arrive at 6:30 and leave by 2:30 in the afternoon. I may have been able to drive slowly to the doctor’s office five blocks away with a migraine, but vertigo was making it difficult to stand and stay upright. I couldn’t trust myself behind the wheel. Paul came home and took me.
‘Keep This Up and You Won’t See Your 45th Birthday’
“I am going to shoot you straight,” said my primary care doctor. “This is your third bout with vertigo. You have migraines constantly. You’ve had an EKG, an endoscopy, a colonoscopy and CT scan to rule out cardiovascular disease, a tumor or other serious abnormalities in your brain and colon cancer. Combined with the heart palpitations, idiopathic IBS and intermittent numbness and tingling in your extremities, you have classic stress symptoms you’re ignoring. If you keep up this lifestyle, you won’t see your 45th birthday.”
I had just turned 41 and wasn’t ready to die — certainly not for a job. I looked at Paul and back at my doctor. “Okay, we’ll make changes.”
When Paul and I returned home, we had a very long talk. By the end of it, we’d made the radical decision to quit our jobs and buy an organic farm in Puerto Rico. Our idea was to get my health on track, reduce our stress and give something back to Mother Earth by leaving it in better condition than we’d found it.
Regaining Health and Wellbeing in Puerto Rico
Our plan was to get some goats for dairy, chicken and ducks for eggs, grow bamboo (for construction and myriad other uses) and fruit trees from around the tropical world. Our hope was that within ten years or less we could be completely self-sustainable.
One by one we told our friends and family of our plan. All thought we’d lost our minds. And then the questions came — you know, the ones designed to talk sense into us:
“Are you really going to give up your salaries, bonuses, stock options and beautiful house in the suburbs to buy a farm?”
“What do you know about Puerto Rico? I hear there’s a lot of crime there.”
“What do you know about farming?”
“Do you even speak Spanish!”
“Where is Puerto Rico anyway?”
“You’re going to raise goats? What do they even eat?”
Certainly any person with a modicum of intelligence and sanity would have seen the problems with our idea that was conceived out of desperation. Of course, all of them were right: By leaving our all-consuming, consuming all lifestyle, with every single one of its known entities, to buy a farm on an island we’d visited twice for a total of a month and where we knew just a handful of people was absolutely crazy!
But for the first time in our lives we felt not only sane but in complete control.
What we knew is that we’d had a great time in Puerto Rico and that we liked the people we’d met. For our second 2-week vacation, we had stayed in a farmhouse on 8 acres in the interior of the island (about 2 hours from San Juan) and by day two felt like we’d been traveling the first 40+ years of our life and had finally come home.
The rest of the details, we decided, we could figure out as they would come up. After all, there’s no shortage of information on the Internet or in books, and surely we’d meet other organic farmers in our town.
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