Some lady in a furry hat full-on bodied me without looking up from her phone as I was walking in the West Village a few weeks ago. I impulsively said, Bitch instead of mumbling an apology like I normally do. Was I finally shedding my obsequious Midwestern politeness after six months of living in New York? What was next?! Would I slam my hand on a cab and scream, I’m walkin’ here? I felt proud for getting tougher—for about two minutes. Then I started worrying I was just a total asshole.
Our collision happened in front of a hospital. Was she in a grief fugue after witnessing the tragic demise of her beloved son? Had she received a horrible diagnosis, and decided to play Candy Crush to distract herself? Should I run back and apologize? Had a bystander taken a video and uploaded it to the internet with the headline “Dickhead Blogger VERBALLY ABUSES Dying Cancer Woman, Clearly Deserves Neither Love nor Respect”???
I’ve become marginally less apologetic to rude strangers since moving to New York last summer, yet I’m the same self-flagellating wheel-spinner I’ve always been. My hand-wringing response made it more obvious than ever that I will never change who I am by relocating. I should know that by now, but every time I moved, I felt like I was that much closer to my goal-self, someone less throttled by the need to be liked, and less inclined to guilt and pity and indulgence.
(Imagine me sitting on a rocking chair, gazing out at the placid horizon of a cold, foreign lake. I turn to you with weary eyes. “You can’t run away ... from yourself,” I whisper. An owl hoots in the distance. The owl represents my wisdom.)
In Alcoholics Anonymous, addicts are often warned against the “geographic cure,” the idea that you can escape your flaws by moving elsewhere. It’s a recovery cliché for a reason: Moving is a way to gain instant distance from the past and start over, at least in the short-term. And it’s not exclusively for alcoholics!
Moving as a restart button is such an obviously bad idea that there are dozens of pat platitudes about it. Wherever you go, there you are, etc. It only took me most of my 20s and seven moves to figure that out. It still holds an equally obvious appeal. Every relocation I’ve made has stemmed from a feeling of sloughing off my flaws, the feeling that a braver and more fulfilled version of me would replace the impatient, whiny beta test. David Bowie decamped to Berlin and de-cocained himself, I’d think. Surely I could move and erase my own ugliest parts.
So I moved to Montreal with an expectation that I’d become a vaguely European sophisticate capable of pulling off jaunty hats; I still look stupid in a beret, but I did start smoking. I moved to the woods of British Columbia to become an even-keeled paragon of country calm; I neurotically scratched my mosquito bites so hard that I scarred my skin and had to apply prescription skin-lightening cream for two years. If you leave it on your hands, it burns.
The fact that I was fundamentally the same person after every major move did not dissuade me from moving again and again. One friend has nine different numbers for me in her phone.
I thought I’d become a more disciplined writer if I moved to New York—stoked into a fertile creative period by the city’s “energy,” if you can imagine anything more embarrassing. I’d be more confident, tougher, and (because I couldn’t resist pure wish-fulfillment) both thinner and more fashionable. This fantasy was my most recent terrible motivator for holding my life over a recycling bin and shaking it until everything fell out.
I’ve been careful to have much more valid excuses to explain my moves than “I am bored with myself,” since I did not want the people I was leaving to think I was a crazy person. I had a real excuse for picking New York—my job—but the feeling driving me to leave where I was remained the same as every other time I’d picked up and started over: I wanted to be different.
This is not to say that nobody should ever move. There are lots of valid reasons to move! Some of my location switches would’ve been perfectly reasonable choices if I hadn’t been harboring delusions that I’d access a secret excellent version of myself once I arrived elsewhere. I was happy for a while everywhere I went, until I’d figure out that I was never going to turn into the person I thought I’d be once I got there. Failures could be explained away by circumstances, and circumstances could be explained away by my immediate environment. If only I lived not-here, things would be easier. I wouldn’t have these problems. I should move.
Moving around so much had some of its intended impact. Regularly throwing myself into new environments meant I had to get better at dealing with loneliness. I’ve genuinely liked every place I’ve moved, including New York, and I feel lucky that I’ve made great friends everywhere I’ve been. If these location changes were simply a part of my trajectory through life, it’d be easy to acknowledge all the great things about experiencing new places. But in my case, hopscotching locales is more of a repetitive, circular pattern, since I’ve felt a compulsion to leave more than a propulsion forward.
The only thing more boring than staying in one place and dealing with the roots of my restlessness—fear of failure, plus a healthy terror that people will realize I’m not that interesting if I stick around too long—is being a permanent tourist through other peoples’ lives, and a runaway from my own.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
Kate Knibbs is a senior staff writer for Gizmodo. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.