What Happened When I Quit My "Perfect" NYC Life

Photographed by Bek Andersen.
Me back in NYC.
Sometimes, I do this thing where I take a picture of myself after I've been crying. It started a little over two years ago when my boyfriend and I briefly split. I only do it when I feel really, really hurt, sad, or lost, so I only have four or five of these pictures (otherwise there’d be a million since I cry all the time  — I cried for 10 minutes the first time I saw a baby giraffe at the Bronx Zoo). It’s like a diary entry, a record of where I was and what it was like to experience that feeling. For example, below is a photo of me about a week before I left my job, my friends, and the life I'd spent 10 years creating for myself to move to Cape Town, South Africa, with that same boyfriend. 

For the eight and a half years that he and I have been together, he's worked on developing energy and infrastructure projects all around Africa. There were so many times he'd come home with amazing photos and stories (Hiking to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda! Going to the beach in Sierra Leone! Meeting with tribal leaders deep in the bush!), and I'd be almost too jealous to look at him. I talked about leaving New York all the time, but I never thought I really would because I'd spent so much time and energy building my career in fashion, moving from magazine to magazine, switching departments every time, crafting a super-varied résumé, making friends, making connections...

When he first asked me if I'd consider moving to South Africa, I pretty much told him “0% chance, bud.” But, the more we talked about it, the better it sounded. I've always wanted to travel, work on my own projects, and do my own thing. I always expected that by my late 20s I'd feel more in control of my life (and emotions, for that matter — if I haven’t made this clear, I have lots of feelings). The more I moved forward with my work, the more I thought I’d stop feeling like a total fraud and be confident in what I was doing, and also proud of my accomplishments, and finally be this capable adult mega-babe and it would all be so great. But, that wasn’t what was happening. At all.  
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I have a ton of anxiety, and I’m incredibly competitive. I freaked out constantly that I wasn’t doing enough, and every time someone senior scheduled a meeting with me, I was 100% sure I was about to be fired. I put so much pressure on myself that I completely lost perspective, and I was becoming really unhealthy. I was a human bag of stress and weird feelings. I was negative and mean and unhappy. It wasn’t good. If I’m being honest, the minute I found out we were actually going, I felt this huge sense of relief. I had completely lost sight of how much I love fashion and being creative, and I could only focus on what I wasn’t doing or wasn’t accomplishing.

At some point, I realized that every day when I said good morning to a friend in the Condé Nast cafeteria, we'd both greet each other with "Ugh, it's Monday," "Bleugh, TUESDAY!" "Hey, it's hump day!" "Tomorrow's Thursday!!" "It's FRIDAY!!!" I spent every day counting down to the weekend. 

On the weekends, I set my own schedule: I’d exercise in the morning, have lunch with a friend, go to galleries or museums or just wander around popping into stores, and eat my way through lower Manhattan. I liked feeling like I could really just be myself and dress for myself, rather than trying to live up to an invented standard but inevitably fall short because I am not, in fact, a billionaire's daughter, and then just give up and give in to sloppiness. I was never any good at dressing “professionally,” and my style has always been casual, to say the least. But, I lived in jeans, sweaters, and sneakers for so long that my personal style could best be defined as Travis Birkenstock in a Rut. When I was just getting dressed for myself, though, it was weirdo-central party time. Vintage kimono? Great! Fancy dress and Birks? Sounds good! Crocs and vintage Levi’s? Let’s do it! (Yes, I love Crocs — I honestly think they’re cute and cool and fun, and it makes me feel great to wear them, so let’s move on.)
This was about two hours before we got engaged. We drove up onto these incredible sand dunes, and the sand is so bright against the blue sky that you lose all sense of depth. The dunes look like they go on to infinity. The sand is unbelievably soft, and running around on the dunes was like running across a cloud.
But, then we actually got to Cape Town, and I freaked out all over again. I realized what it actually meant to not know a single person in a new city. On top of it, I didn’t know a single person in a new city where everyone looks like a supermodel and has picturesque hangouts with their other supermodel friends on the beach all day, every day, and does anybody even need to work here? What’s going on? Also, why does all of the electricity go out twice a day for three hours? (Answer: When there’s not enough energy to meet the city’s demands, the city cuts power to different areas at different times.) Then I had to figure out how the cell-phone system works and that we have to actually purchase credits for our Internet, cell phone, and electrical account, and if we forget to do it then we lose access to those things, and, oh my God, our phones are dead, we can’t get online, and I’m locked in a dark bathroom.

And, then it all started coming together, and as it turns out, doing things “by the book” sometimes isn’t the best way to get where you want to go. Now, I get to be myself full-time. I signed with a creative agency out here, and I started meeting with photographers and booking shoots. I met insanely creative person after insanely creative person, and I started to feel like an insanely creative person again, doing really neat stuff. I’m working a lot, and I’m really proud of the work I’ve done so far. I’m starting to make friends and realizing that coming here was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I'm styling and contributing to some of my favorite sites and publications, and I'm thinking a lot about what my next moves will be when we do go back to New York (probably sooner than we'd like).
The red sand dunes in the Sossusvlei Dunes of Namibia are unbelievable. I can't get over how fine and soft desert sand is. I have a very real fear of heights, so I'm quietly panicking in this photo. But, descending the dunes is pretty neat, actually — you sink into it up to your shins, and you can leap down or kind of sashay through the sand. It's like wading in a giant pile of whipped cream.

I realize how many people would love the life I had in New York, and I am definitely grateful for what I had there and what I'd accomplished; it's just that at a certain point what was being offered to me became too good to resist. I loved my life, as nutty as I felt, but I'm relishing the privilege I have to live and support myself in the most beautiful city I've ever been to.

Still, I have anxiety dreams about not being able to find work and about my friends and family forgetting about me. I worry about my parents' and grandparents' health more now because I'm a 24-plus-hour flight away from home in Texas. I spend a lot of time alone. I'm already feeling anxious about Fashion Week — not because of my busy schedule or worrying about what I'll wear, but because it's a little heartbreaking to see how seamlessly things march on without you.

There are lots of adventures happening (like when Justin and I got engaged on the Skeleton Coast in Namibia!), and I haven't even gone cage-diving with great white sharks yet! Our apartment has a view of the beach and the Twelve Apostles mountain range, which turns bright gold at about 8 p.m. It's also summer here (sorry, guys!). But, my favorite thing about our place is that we have a dressing room. And, I didn't pack light, so suddenly getting dressed is really fun again. More on that later.  

Stay tuned for more from Laurel, including stories about detoxing from New York fashion, what it's like to fall in love with fashion again, and how to pack for an impossible trip.
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