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A Message for Those Who Feel Lost and Are Looking for Answers

Man on Suitcase

“Wherever you go, there you are.” ~Jon Kabat-Zinn

On June 24th I got in a cab at the corner of 72nd and Broadway headed to JFK, hauling two huge suitcases full of medications, bug spray, sunscreen, gluten free foods, a bug tent (really), and cheap cotton clothing.

I checked in, made my way to the gate, and embarked on a 24-hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Months of confusion and identity crisis brought me here.

Almost a full year ago, after returning from performing with a national tour that ended up being a lot less fun than I had dreamed, and having a foot surgery right after thanks to a doctor who made just a little mistake, I decided I wanted to try going off of Zoloft, which I had been on for the better part of six years to help with anxiety and depression.

This marked the beginning of what I am now referring to as my “Quarter Life Crisis.”

I started working with a life coach, began a dedicated daily meditation practice, joined a yoga studio, broke up with my boyfriend of three years, and read Brené BrownMark NepoTara Brach, and Byron Katie.

I went to a million and one auditions, suffered some major loneliness and isolation living in a studio apartment in a Manhattan winter, began letting my ex-boyfriend back into my life, and after several months of this, working so hard to keep myself afloat, I felt 100 percent lost.

I began asking hard questions, like “Why are you in showbiz? Are you just trying to prove something? Was this ever what you really wanted to do? Do you even like New York anymore?”

I sat in my apartment and ruminated, oscillating between feeling God profoundly (life is beautiful! Look—God is in that steam coming out of your humidifier!) and feeling painfully hopeless.

On one of my few gigs last spring, I was chatting with the make-up artist about her travels to Southeast Asia the previous summer.

She told me about the nonprofit organization she taught English with. Before she went to Vietnam, she felt uninspired and “over it”; after, she felt like a new person. A light went off inside—maybe this is what I need to do!

In May I applied, and within weeks I had been interviewed and invited to join the trip to Duc Linh, a rural region about 100 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. I had five weeks to make up my mind, get my act together, and either board the plane or not.

I was terrified, but I said yes. I hoped that this trip would bring me some answers and force me to grow in the ways I needed to in order to make it through this no-mans-land of confusion, and into the next chapter of my life.

Duc Linh was nothing like I imagined and nothing like described. I taught English to a group of teenagers and some adults, and spent afternoons playing with little kids of all ages. They absolutely embraced me; it was unconditional love at first sight.

I felt simultaneously alone and isolated there, as well as overwhelmed by human interaction. The kids would yell “LOW-RAH!” as I walked by, run up to me, adorn me with flowers, touch my clothes, touch my hair, touch my armpits, and hold my hand, all while chattering away in Vietnamese.

I kept a blog and drafted posts that I assumed I would fully write and publish in a week or two, once I had learned some amazing, life-changing, clarifying lessons.

I couldn’t wait for several Oprah-worthy “aha!” moments. Those drafts remain drafts, and the “aha” moments came in smaller, less expected ways.

There was no “Aha! I want to be a (insert amazing profession that totally makes sense and clearly was my calling all this time)!”

It was more like “Aha! I can ride on the back of a bike with a fifteen-year-old kid who doesn’t speak my language, have no idea where we are going, and have an amazing adventure in a rambutan garden!”

Or, “Aha! I can become ‘big sister’ to a little girl and boy (Chi and Bao) without having a single conversation.”

And, probably the biggest one, “Aha! You are enough just as you are. They don’t care that the National Anthem you sang for them on the Fourth of July was totally off-key and had some improvised lyrics, they don’t care that you are a sweaty, frizzy mess, they don’t even care that you can’t speak their language: they love you just for being here.”

For the first time in my privileged life, I was exposed to an impoverished world, to kids who had no idea what the heck I was talking about when I said “Broadway!?” and who looked at photos of Central Park and said “Wow! It’s like a resort!”

They wore the same clothes every day and played outside barefoot in the dirt. They slept in houses with tin or straw roofs and anywhere from one to four walls.

But they were happy. They were beautiful, and giving, and constantly smiling. I realized that the things I thought were important and necessary were not. I realized that the first world doesn’t hold the key to happiness anymore than the third world does.

My concerns in Vietnam were much more immediate than my American QLC (Quarter Life Crisis) concerns.

I recalled my QLC problems and thought man, what a luxury to be able to think about that nonsense! If I had a working shower and a bed and a quiet space, I would be perfectly happy!

After spending a month in Vietnam, I became completely amazed at the life I live.

In Man’s Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl writes, “A man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative.”

When I first returned from Vietnam I was overwhelmed with gratitude for my life, but over time the normal anxieties crept back in.

The confusion I experienced before I left Vietnam was still there, waiting for me in my apartment on 72nd and Broadway, saying, “What, you think you can just leave me here all summer and I would move out?”

Before I left for Vietnam, I had a great plan of how the following months would play out. I would learn a lot, grow heaps, and hopefully figure out my life purpose over the course of the month spent there (so reasonable).

Afterward, I would return to the city a new woman with new dreams and plans and a clear sense of purpose and direction. I would write a captivating article all about my transformation and it would be inspiring, motivational, and amazing.

Everything in my life up to that point would make sense, and I would look back on the last few years and say, “Ahhh, I see why all that happened. It was all to bring me here to this amazing place of self-actualization and peace.”

Alas, there is no amazing conclusion, no way to tie this piece with a clarifying bow.

Of all the lessons learned this summer, the greatest one may be “Wherever you go, there you are.”

I’m still here, confused and lost and scared—but maybe that’s okay.

Maybe all we can do is be where we are, do our best, and go out on a few limbs, not for the sake of finding answers, but for the sake of fully living.

Man on suitcase image via Shutterstock

Profile photo of Laura Volpacchio

About Laura Volpacchio

Laura is a twenty-something graduate of NYU Gallatin (January 2011). She has worked as a dancer and model in both commercial and theatrical worlds. (You can view her performance website at lauravolpacchio.com). She currently lives in NYC where she runs a photography business (lvphotoanddesign.com), auditions, reads, writes, and tries to find her way. To read more about Vietnam, visit duclinhdiaries.blogspot.com.

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  • Hi Laura
    I really loved this post, and I totally related. Around that same age, I quit my corporate job to go teach English in Japan. I was experiencing that similar sense of unrest, not feeling happy and what have you. Many people look at decisions like that as ‘running away’ and maybe it is to some degree, but I really don’t think that is such a bad thing. Those bold moves can really shake things up in a good way.

    Your point about wherever you go, there you are, is a great one and something for people to keep in mind when they make changes to their outside experience in hopes it will change something within. It surely can in many profound ways, but ultimately, the heavier ‘stuff’ will stick around and we have to find ways to tackle that directly.

    Thank you for sharing your experience..I think a lot of people will be able to relate to it.

  • Laura Volpacchio

    Hi Kelli! Thank you so much for reading my post and writing this note! Going to a foreign place is such an enriching experience – especially teaching in a foreign place. Whether it is running away or not, it certainly taught me a lot about myself and solidifed the lesson you summed up so well – the heavier stuff will stick with ya regardless of where you fling yourself! I think it’s wonderful that you made the bold and courageous choice to teach in Japan – I’m sure you learned a ton and positively affected people along the way 🙂

  • Katydid

    I compare the time in your 20s to the next stage past being a teenager. Many of the same personality traits can carry over – too much time inside your own head, thinking the world revolves around you, or having so many career or life choices you get overwhelmed and immobilized.

    Spending time in service of others can certainly help with the transition to true maturity and adulthood. Often, I think, we can become immobilized and lost when we are not living in the moment or with enough gratitude.

  • Great post Laura. it is such an eye opening experience to be around others who we would consider to have nothing and yet they are much happier than we are. This sounds like an incredible journey and I do not think you are as lost as you feel. If you have not done so yet, I suggest reading A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle.

  • maria

    I too can relate to your story…throughout my life I have always run to the external (jobs, houses, travel, relationships….) only to find myself (after the novelty of the new) feeling the same lost, lonely, confused child that is hidden under all the thoughts and activity. What I have learned is that due to our experiences in childhood we carry emotional memories and attach beliefs and behaviours to these early experiences…when we stop ‘doing’ after exhausting all options, we are left with that anxiety/depression which is that child’s fear, that sense of no support and belonging and ultimately, a sense of not believing we deserve joy and happiness.

  • Hi Laura. You’ve shared an amazing story and given us much food for thought. I visited Vietnam as a tourist so caught a glimpse of what you speak about in your post. At the time I wondered how the people there could be so happy and bubbly with so little. Having the experience you had is an enormous plus for your life. You’ve experienced something most of us never will. It strengthens you as a person. As you say, it’s all about living fully and being the best you can be. And certainly you are the best. Well done. Thanks for sharing.

  • Melanie

    Hi Laura,
    I spent a year in NY for my studies and went back to Europe last summer. I went through everything you describe in your article, exactly at the same time, especially the “major loneliness and isolation living in a studio apartment in a Manhattan winter”. I also believe we have the same age because of the quarter life crisis and I’d like to let you know that I lived almost on the same street as you but on the Upper East Side. I also used to go to the AMC Lincoln Square near your place all the time.
    I’m writing all this because NY has been a huge eye-opener to me. I’m still looking for answers but I’m relieved to see someone else having the same experience. I only wish I had known you during this long winter so that we could have had a cup of tea together.
    Thank you for sharing !

  • Laura Volpacchio

    Transferring the focus from the self to others is immensely beneficial for sure! I’ve always done volunteer work but since returning from my trip I’ve gotten involved with a few different organizations in NYC I really love – helping others helps to get outside of one’s own head!

  • Laura Volpacchio

    Melanie! I wish I had known you too! You are so not alone. And yes, NYC has a way of really stripping you down – I’ve been here for 7 years now, and I’m a little tired! Thanks so much for writing this note.

  • Laura Volpacchio

    Thank you so much for reading and for this kind note! Vietnam was an incredible experience and I’m so grateful the opportunity presented itself and I was able to say “what the hell!? Yes!” I talk with the kids from the village regularly and they truly light up my heart 🙂

  • Laura Volpacchio

    A beautiful insight, Maria – I’m totally with you. So often when I am acting from a place of fear, I realize it is the little girl inside me terrified she will be forgotten or unloved, and I try to gently remind her that she never has been and never will be forgotten, and that she is always loved. Thanks for reading and commenting!!

  • Laura Volpacchio

    Hi Eric! Thanks so much for reading my post and for the book suggestion! I am an avid bookworm and will download that on my Kindle right now. I actually wrote this article a few months ago, and in the past month or so I’ve realized exactly what you said – I’m not quite as lost as I thought 🙂 Grateful to have had the journey and to be able to share a piece of it here!

  • Senaida

    Thank you for sharing these insights Laura. Reassuring ourselves during scary times is such a compassionate and holy thing to do.

  • Excellent post. I found my way to India and then Nepal and was wondering if I’m the only one to come here who did not get a spiritual awakening. I guess I’m getting it a bit slower than I’d hoped.

    Still in Nepal and still waiting for that Awe-ha moment.

  • Laura Volpacchio

    Thank you for reading Senaida!

  • Laura Volpacchio

    Thank you for reading! My advice to you is to just keep your eyes, ears and heart open to the experiences you are having on your travels, and don’t put pressure on having major aha moments (this took a bit of perspective for me to figure out). The aha moments have already happened and will continue to happen in little ways – you may not understand them or even realize they happened until weeks, months, or maybe years (I haven’t gotten there yet) after your trip. And befriend some kids if you can find them – they taught me so much!! Safe travels!

  • Paola

    Hi Laura! I can imagine what you’re feeling. This year I went trough the very same existencial crisis, and I oscillated between feeling a powerfull conection to God and the Universe and feeling lost, anxious and hopeless. The crisis isn’t completly gone yet, but it got hundreds of times better. Sometimes I didn’t even know why I was feeling so bad. So I got to the conclusion that it was my soul pouring out all the bad feelings I’ve been accumulating over many, many lives. Well, I’m not sure of what are your thoughts on reincarnation and New Age, but I belive that at this moment we on Earth are experiencing a transition to something better, and all the bad feelings we’ve been keeping inside for thousands of years are now being exposed to us so we can heal them. It is confusing, because racionaly we don’t know why those feelings are there. But it’s important that we heal them, so in a few decades we can also heal the Earth’s energy. I’ve had a bad time on trying to explain to myself what the heck I was feeling. My plan was to understand every single thing that went trough my mind and heart, so I could finally be happy and help other people with my experience. But I realized that, most of the times, I was desperatly seeking for answers because I tought that, if I rationally comprehended the problem, it would be gone and I wouldn’t need to feel it very deeply. Actually, what I needed was to accept and love the problem, instead of thinking “Oh, I’m feeling extremely miserable because my boyfriend didn’t answer my text yet. Oh Jesus, I’m getting attached to him. That’s horrible! I need to change that! Let’s see what are Osho’s thoughts on attachment, maybe I’ll heal this horrible part of my soul”. I realized that the more I tried to make the pain go away, the stronger it got. It’s because we need to feel it. We need to accept the pain and know that it’s ok. Oh, and one thing that helped me a lot was reading about The Indigo to Crystal Transitional Crisis. I belive that this is what I’m going through, maybe it will also help you.

    I’m not even sure if we’re going trough similar experiences, but I’ll be glad if what I wrote could help you somehow. 🙂

  • Laura Volpacchio

    Paola I am so with you! I actually wrote this article several months ago and since then things have changed a bit…I feel more accepting of the not knowing and more loving of the dark side. Thank you for reading and for this beautiful comment. We are absolutely going through similar experiences, and you would be amazed at how many people are going through the same – just in the past 24 hours I’ve received tons of notes from people. We are all in this together.

  • What a beautiful post Laura! I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at “Look—God is in that steam coming out of your humidifier”. I could totally relate to the confusion you describe 🙂 And you write that you would come home and write a captivating article all about your transformation?.. Seems to me like you just did!

  • Laura Volpacchio

    Hehe, thank you Cecilia! I guess that part of my vision did come true – but definitely a much different article than I imagined it would be pre-Vietnam!

  • k.nicole

    Wish I had the guts like you two to make such a bold move.

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    That’s really cool…where in Nepal are you now? Also, where did you travel in India?

  • I just did a little bit of India, Varanasi, Kajaraho, and in that
    area. Coming from the West, India was a great teacher for Nepal because as bad as it gets here I can always console myself by a reminder that ‘at least it’s not India.’ I think for this older lady, India was a lot to handle. I felt a lot like Goldilocks; Europe-much too expensive,
    India-much to much, Nepal, just right.

    I live in the Kathmandu Valley in Changunarayan. I have a guest house, not because I want to fill it up with guests, but because my Nepali landlords always kept the doors open and it would suck all the heat out of my flat. So, people come and stay at the guest house and that’s so nice. And then they leaveus and that’s so nice, too. Often they come back again before heading back home and that is so lovely. I didn’t think I was planning well for my ‘golden’ years, but I think it’s turning out perfectly. No IRA, no USreal estate-no problem; it’s Nepal. The guest house is brand new, Star View Guest House behind the temple at the edge of the hill overlooking the Valley and Himalayas.

  • Julie

    Really inspiring story to read Laura…well done : ) the satisfaction you must have felt for helping others less fortunate. I’m feeling lost at the moment but my heart always trusts in god and I try to live in the moment and switch my phone off in the day to reserve the distractions that set my head into unnecessary thinking…Just living in the moment and gratitude for what I have. Thanks again xx

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    “Coming from the West, India was a great teacher for Nepal because as bad
    as it gets here I can always console myself by a reminder that ‘at
    least it’s not India.’ ” If I may ask…how has your experience in Kathmandu different from the rest of the places you visited in India..??

  • Bravo for you–going on that trip instead of lying around being depressed!

    In the late ’60’s, after 8 years of college following a dream to become a biochemist, I made a decision to drop out from inside of a mental hospital. Having left the States 12 years ago to live in Mexico, I struggled with creating a theme for my memoir. What came up was how culture clash provided me with great opportunities to change. The clash presented by the counterculture vs my straight lifestyle, and then many factors here south of the border. This sounds similar to your experience.

    A friend came to visit and forgot to bring her Zoloft. After we looked in many places and couldn’t find it she said, “Maybe I really don’t need it here in Mexico”. This turned out to be true.

    My mom used to tell me: “If something in your life’s not working, try something else”.
    This has been my guiding principle.

  • Amazing post. I am debating if I should volunteer abroad this summer. I am feeling lost and unsure of my purpose or even passions for that matter. I am glad to see there is a way forward and you’ve accomplished it. What books did you read? Any other tips for us lost wandering souls? 🙂

  • I just discovered this page and notice how many people I never responded to. So sorry.

    Indians have a different national pride/attitude. Nepali are much more humble and genuine. But Kathmandu is like any capitol city. There are many less than genuine people. The surrounding villages still in the valley are much better, but you have to worry about the transportation issue. I have a driver on stand-by who gives me a good rate for the day. Doing it like that will allow you to have a car for when you need it.

    Now that the earthquakes have stopped Westerners who move here can do a lot to help the economy. It is really mostly the old, village homes that fell, not the modern ones.

  • Wow….I just rewlised this was six months ago, before that earthquake. I hope youre ok.

  • India is massive. I felt so small in India, but the police were amazing for me, as were the people.

    But Nepal, it just captured my heart. Nepal is not flattened. There is still lots to see and the people are even more kind and welcoming. We appreciate each tourist or volunteer who comes to Nepal.

    It’s still beautiful, safe and lovely. Only 2 trekking routes were destroyed. All the UNESCO sites have many temples still standing.

    Now is the best time to come to Nepal.

  • Just like disasters the world over, mostly the poor are affected. It’s so sad. I’m doing what I can to rebuild this village and get as many as we can out of the cold this winter. Otherwise, it’s going to be another disaster, but no one will even notice it.

    Thanks for remembering this little country.

  • Laura Volpacchio

    Hi Katya! I am so sorry I didn’t see your comment sooner! Books that helped me – Loving What Is (Byron Katie), Daring Greatly (Brene Brown), True Refuge (Tara Brach) and many more. Feel free to get in touch with me if you want more recs. Volunteering abroad is amazing and at the very least gives you perspective. It probably won’t give you the answer of what to do with your life, but any experience, especially those outside of your comfort zone, will force you to grow & learn about yourself. I also began journaling regularly when I was really going through a hard time, taking note of everything – what made me feel good? What made me feel bad? Eventually you begin to notice patterns and figure out what your deepest values are…then it’s a challenge of how to align those inner values with your outer world. And I can’t say enough how important it is to get out of your own head! Helping others is an incredible way to help yourself!
    Good luck, you’re great!