When Anna Wickham, 28, came back from 14 months of working as a digital nomad in the Philippines and Vietnam, she expected to settle back into her old life easily.
But six months later, the Oklahoma City native is still re-adjusting to American ways.
“It takes no time to uproot yourself, but inputting yourself into a social ecosystem is more difficult — I’m still at it,” said Wickham, who runs digital-marketing company Charm House and is now based in her hometown in the US.
After years on the road, the latest generation of digital nomads — people who work as they travel thanks to an increasing amount of remote opportunities — have come back home with a message: It’s not always a dream to work while travelling and re-integrating into a single community is difficult.
“When it’s good it can be amazing, and when it’s difficult it can be really, really hard to manage,” said Sean Truman, director of clinical services at the Truman Group, a therapy practice that specialises in mental healthcare for expats and is based in Saint Paul, Minnesota in the US.
The initial thrill of location freedom can wear off quickly
In the last few years, the nomad-at-work lifestyle has become even more popular. Almost half of digital nomads answering a 2014 survey by global freelancing network Upwork said they joined the lifestyle within the last year. And with co-working spaces popping up in once more touristy countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, location-independent workers can now make friends in some expat-heavy locations.
Still, “you arrive in a country alone, accumulate friendships and leave that country alone no matter who you’ve met,” Wickham said. And that’s one thing returning nomads say has sent them home to put down roots.
A typical trajectory
On the road, the initial thrill of location freedom can wear off quickly. When nomads embark on their journey, few realise that they likely will one day need the social supports they’ve left behind, Truman said. Though constant travel can start out to be exciting, eventually some degree of isolation sets in and may lead to more serious depression. Even keeping touch virtually via video chat may not be enough since having a physical presence is key to warding off loneliness, Truman said.
“When you are moving around, you don’t have the opportunity to develop [relationships] in those ways as you do when you’re at home,” he said. “That kind of historical continuity provides a stable platform.”
You start to value all the things you didn’t like initially
Many digital nomads end up slowing down and eventually heading home after an initial period of heavy travel. Take Taylor Pearson, 27. The digital-marketer-turned-author is now settled in New York, but spent almost three years traveling to Brazil, Vietnam and Thailand.
After months of travel, he wanted to settle down to spend longer in each place because he was having trouble working remotely while switching destinations. “Eventually, you realise you can’t get anything done travelling that often and end up in one place,” he said.
After years on the road, Pearson was eager to start a romantic relationship and have more than a few suitcases of belongings. “You start to value all the things you didn’t like [about being in one place] initially,” he said. “There were a lot of things about the US that I appreciate that I hadn’t appreciated when growing up there.”
Working in the US has made it easier to find new business opportunities, adds Pearson, who now writes business books for aspiring entrepreneurs.
A rocky transition
Because many of the digital nomads who boomerang home had never planned to return or come back earlier than planned, the re-entry process can be both time-consuming and mentally draining at first, experts say. For Wickham, even the most mundane tasks seemed complicated after years of travel. It took her months to get a driver’s license, car insurance and to furnish her apartment in the US. “I never thought I’d come back,” she said.
Trying to be understood will just make you feel isolated
Wickham estimates that she spent almost $10,000 more than anticipated (roughly the cost of six months of her life abroad). She had sold all of her things prior to moving out of the country.
Keeping up with friendships while abroad can reap benefits once you’ve returned, Wickham advised. She hadn’t worked hard to maintain friendships and since returning has had to re-invest in forging new relationships. Now, she tries to be in town to meet friends most weekends. She also keeps up with others who’ve come back from the digital-nomad life through blogs and forums, where it’s easier to share experiences of re-adjusting.
And she’s stopped trying to expect those she meets back home understand the thrill of being a digital nomad. “Trying to be understood will just make you feel isolated,” Wickham said.
You arrive in a country alone, accumulate friendships and leave that country alone no matter who you’ve met
Many digital nomads end up creating hybrid lives, between periods of travel and having a home base, said Victoria Watts Kennedy, 32, founder of the Bridges and Balloons blog, which focuses on her current travels and life back home.
She spent more than three years as a digital nomad with her now-husband and visited more than a dozen countries in that time. Now back home in London, she continues to keep a flexible schedule to travel for weeks sometimes months at a time. This year, she spent two months in New Zealand with her husband.
“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” she said.
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