Calls For Action, Musings, San Miguel de Allende

Can A Place Be The Best Medicine?

September 11, 2020

I am having my morning coffee, looking out past the end of our terrace to our awakening town.

It rained overnight, so there are small puddles on the tiles and the air is cool, not cold.

I am allowing the calm beauty of San Miguel de Allende to seep into my soul.

It is a great time for contemplation.

Have you ever thought not only, “what is my place in the world?” but “where in the world is my place?”

They are questions worth thinking about. Especially now, when the world is in turmoil. And most people are too.

The first question is one for the ages. Tomes written and entire lives spent trying to eke out an answer that may never be found.

The second question, where is my place? My dot on a map. My grounding. Where I place my feet. Where I feel home. Where I am my best me. That might be a bit easier. But the search might be just as long. You have to open your mind to it. Not be afraid of change.

I grew up in Los Gatos, a pretty town about an hour south of San Francisco. I have lived in seventeen apartments, cottages and homes, traveled to 53 countries, and been homeless.

I guess you could say I have been searching for quite a while.

I thought I had found my place twice. Santa Barbara and Yountville. Both in California.

In Santa Barbara, circumstances determined when the town felt really right for me. First, I was in an apartment, in the northern part of town. Away from the action. A bit too far to just take a wander in. The apartment was ugly, in a long building with a walkway that ran the length, upstairs and down. There was no outside, no terrace or patio. Just rooms with sharp corners and small windows. It was what I could afford, but I wasn’t healthy. It didn’t make me so.

Then a friend moved to town, and we found a cottage to share right in the middle of town. Two blocks off of the main street. Two blocks from old-fashioned movie theaters, galleries, restaurants, and shops. Two blocks from the farmer’s markets on Tuesday and Saturday. Here, I could meander, stroll. Walk down to the beach. I enjoyed fine weather and sunsets.

The cottage was in a pocket. A cluster of cottages on each side of a tiny lane that ended in the back of the property. A dead end. Our own little world. We made gardens and gathered on our porches at night and on weekends. We even had a hammock under our avocado tree. Wine was abundant.

For once, I didn’t go into work on the weekends. I made brunch. I was content. Less stressed. Less driven. Almost healthy.

Until I wasn’t. Then I crashed life down on me and had to leave my little oasis.

A few years later, I settled in Yountville for two years. I was both running away from something and to something else. I rented a cute townhouse, surrounded by other cute townhouses with a pool, in the middle of vineyards. I had spectacular sunrises and sunsets there too. An outdoor space. And walks in the evenings, when I allowed myself to.

Yountville is small. Then it was only the two short principal streets. Other streets went off of them, but not too far. Once again, I had my gathering places. Courtyards surrounded by restaurants and shops, where music played on the weekend. A gallery, salon, small grocery store. There was a community. It was a great place to live. It matched all my soul requirements. But I wasn’t great mentally when I was there. Extended mania made sure I finished in a heap, and I had to leave. Homeless in the end.

It took me thirteen years to find a good home again. Then it was a person, Glenn, who became my husband. His arms encompassed me and provided safety and warmth.

Sure, moving to Oakland in 2013 helped. He owned a cute little cottage in the Temescal neighborhood, which bordered Rockridge and Piedmont. And there were some pretty streets just a walk away, with those restaurants, cafes, and shops again. But we lived in a city. And my triggers still descended on me as I battled on.

I was still searching. Soon, we both were.

Glenn had lived in San Miguel de Allende in 2005 for a year. Visiting him during that time from Santa Maria, I gave myself permission to eat again. I had arrived at seventy-eight pounds. Not only was I anorexic and bulimic, but I had just been diagnosed with Bipolar 1 along with a few other disorders for that time.

San Miguel was color, texture, flowers, and sun! It had courtyard restaurants, cafes, and shops I craved. I wasn’t frantic here. I was still very sick, but I felt lighter. I laughed again. I even danced. There was a brilliance in the sunsets we watched from Glenn’s rooftop terrace. I started to feel a bit of brilliance in me. Like I could reinvent myself, become a different me.

But 2005 wasn’t the time for us as a couple. Or us for the town. We weren’t quite “there” yet. But we both felt a nudge.

I returned to Santa Maria where I had found help; doctors, medications, therapists. And I remained fearful, lost my hope. What would happen to me if I wasn’t there? If I lost that link to healthcare? I felt trapped. This was not my place.  A good night out was  an Applebee’s. I lost my mojo again.  And I stayed bottomed out. I went in a circle that had no end.

I was in therapy at least once a week for over twenty-one years. Paying someone to listen to me.

I have taken medications for my mental illness for that long too, and I am still on them. I still touch base with my therapist. But now they are a tool, not my world.

After years of a long, winding, fragmented journey, Glenn and I finally got to the same place at the right time.

We married in 2017 and made a plan.

Temescal was changing. We were becoming the oldest people in the neighborhood, and it was time for Glenn to take early retirement. We just couldn’t do it anymore.

Selling our house and belongings and returning to San Miguel made sense. Of all the countries and cities we had both visited, Mexico just seemed to match all the needs on our checklist. With a lower cost of living, the money from the house would go a long way if we rented.

We moved to Mexico in 2018.

I have had a few ups and downs since then. But nothing like the hamster-wheel roller-coaster I experienced in the United States. After spinning days, I now settle. I have help I need not make an appointment with.

For me, a sense of place can be just as medicinal as a prescription.

If I could bottle San Miguel, I would fill it with sunshine and bougainvilleas, mariachis, and the clink of glasses. Add in bells and grilled meat, cobbled streets, fireworks, laughter, and community, and I’d make a fortune.

I am still working hard at maintaining a balance. I will always have to be aware of my triggers and moods.  But I have switched office rooms for courtyards and terraces. And my therapy sessions comprise of an afternoon chat with a bottle of wine with my husband or good friends.

We have time. We don’t see time as a luxury anymore; we see it as a necessity.

Instead of living a lifetime on a street with neighbors who aren’t. I live in a community, expat and otherwise, that is always growing. I can be myself and discover more of who I am with each passing day.

I wander in wonder, not glancing over my shoulder. I am not scared of life here. I know I can manage it.

We invest in people and experiences, not things.

Somedays we just veg out and read. And that is ok too.

We live comfortably, not extravagantly. And my husband’s biggest desire and purchase recently was a cast-iron skillet to try out new recipes in.

We have simplified. And we don’t see that as a negative. The less we have, the less we have to take care of. More time is the result.

We rent houses fully furnished. We don’t have to pack, store, and ship. We don’t have to “keep track of.” This simplicity has reduced my stress levels and I can take things one at a time as they come up.

We reduced things to live a fuller life. But we have not reduced our lives.

We were lucky. Very lucky, we had the means to make this move. Find our perfect corner of the world.

A healthy one for me and him.  Change of place was our best medicine.

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11 Comments

  • Reply Bindu Chandrabose September 17, 2020 at 10:57 pm

    Mental illness is hard to have and even harder to talk about. You are brave to do it. Very best of luck.

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    • Reply ourprimeoflife September 18, 2020 at 9:01 am

      Thank you, Bindu. It is strange, but when I decided to talk about my mental health I found that I reduced its power over me. I hid it for so long and bought into so many of the stereotypes and fears. I stayed away from friends, embarrassed by what I had done or said in crazy moments. Then I went to a party after not allowing myself to see them for years. And it was like old times. No one dwelled on my past behavior except me. No one brought it up. I think bringing things out in the open can reduce the amount of guilt we put ourselves through and we can truly enter and bring forth a dialogue about mental health that is very much needed. I hope others can find their own special place that allows them to be the best they can be.

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      • Reply Bindu Chandrabose September 19, 2020 at 8:01 am

        I think people can be more understanding and forgiving than we believe. But when you are not well (or at least when I am not well) the effort involved in accepting that and engaging, or re-engaging, can be overwhelming. I am glad that you have been able to do so, I know it takes a hard leap of faith sometimes. Not easy in these times when things sometimes seem to require an awful lot of picking yourself up. Something new and awful every day. RIP, RBG.

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  • Reply Pat Hall September 13, 2020 at 3:33 pm

    Just wondering — where is the beautiful place in the photo at the beginning of your wonderful article?

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    • Reply ourprimeoflife September 13, 2020 at 4:28 pm

      Hi Pat, Glenn and I took a walk one day up one of the little staircases off of Salida a Queretaro and then turned right and followed the street down and saw this off of it. I can’t tell you where exactly. It is a private drive. It is beautiful though. I am sure someone in San Miguel would recognize it.

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  • Reply Athea Marcos Amir September 12, 2020 at 9:21 am

    I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed your piece and how much it parallels my own life. Especially this one episode. I had moved from L.A. proper to South Pasadena into a house built in 1906. I loved it so much I kept wandering the room and kissing the walls. Then I had to take my son, about 8 at the time, to visit his dad in Cupertino. The day I was to pick him up I had some time to kill and went into an RV place, where I struck up a conversation about philosophy with one of the salesmen. After we had talked a while he asked me if I’d ever been to the University of the Trees in Boulder Creek. I said no, I’d never been to Colorado. Not Colorado, he said, California! I followed his directions and wound up climbing Highway 9 from San Jose headed toward Santa Cruz. When I finally got to Boulder Creek I thought I was hallucinating the redwoods whose tips were brushing the sky. I couldn’t believe what my eyes were seeing, and considered that I might have “died and gone to heaven,” as my mother would have put it. When I returned to South Pas I told friends I was moving to Boulder Creek, and they thought I’d finally “lost it.” We lived there, my son and I, through his fourth grade academic year, a time that changed my life. Thereafter I’d drag every friend and daughter-in-law I could to Boulder Creek for a weekend. I still love it, but the big developers came in and made it a bedroom community for San Jose, driving prices off the charts, much as has happened in SMA, where the rich with their ubiquitous automobiles have changed the pueblo with one car, one taxi, and a burro that I once knew and loved. John Prine said it best in his painfully heart-wrenching song “Paradise,” and Joni Mitchell in “Big Yellow Taxi.” Everyone needs to see “Chinatown” again.

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    • Reply ourprimeoflife September 12, 2020 at 10:01 am

      Beautiful comment! Thank you so much for sharing. I remember very well driving highway 9 from Los Gatos over to Santa Cruz when I was younger. I am so glad you were able to find a place that called out to you, and that you listened. Special places are out there. Different ones for different people, personalities. It is nice when people are open to change and make a concerted effort to find a place that they can truly be their best selves.

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  • Reply Patricia Rincon September 11, 2020 at 10:55 pm

    This story/experience was very heartfelt and touching..,thank you 🌸

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    • Reply ourprimeoflife September 12, 2020 at 7:31 am

      Thank you, Patricia, for letting me know you enjoyed the post. I love writing about things I feel really connected to and finding balance is one of them.

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  • Reply Jane Dill September 11, 2020 at 4:48 pm

    “If I could bottle San Miguel, I would fill it with sunshine and bougainvilleas, mariachis, and the clink of glasses. Add in bells and grilled meat, cobbled streets, fireworks, laughter, and community, and I’d make a fortune.” LOVE THIS!!! You nailed it – what a great story, so glad you found your place.

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    • Reply ourprimeoflife September 11, 2020 at 5:52 pm

      Thank you, Jill! It was a hard lesson in some ways to learn that sometimes you have to rip off a band-aid of settling because you think a change may be too hard. But boy, when you find the right place that lets you be yourself and flourish you think why couldn’t I do this years ago.

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