Health

How Leaving New York City For The Countryside Cured My Depression

By Justyna Czekaj
·  9 min read
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I was living the life I had dreamed of. I was a “boss babe” running a successful luxury real estate business in Manhattan. My Instagram was littered with photos of my tall and handsome boyfriend, my dream car, and me in bikinis in exotic locations.

I thought I had done everything right. I finished college and graduate school at the top of my class. I got good jobs. I worked my way up and delayed starting a family so I could be financially independent…and I was absolutely miserable.

I was so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed most mornings. I had little energy, no appetite, and no matter what I accomplished, I felt worthless. Depression feels like getting big gulps of air in the middle of the ocean before another wave comes to topple you – you’re never sure if you’re going to make it back to the shore. At best, there’s some relief that you’re actually surviving.  

I tried everything to overcome depression. My Kindle was littered with every New York Times Bestseller self-help book. I went through cycles of anti-depressant use, which only made me feel like a zombie. I tried therapy and yoga, and I meditated till I “OHM-ed” my little heart out. I even flew to Peru to do ayahuasca, one of the world’s strongest hallucinogens and reported to help with mental disorders. It all felt like putting a band-aid on a gushing wound. I grew accustomed to the idea that this was life, and I wasn’t meant for a happy one.  

What Caused My Depression?

I knew that I didn’t have a chemical imbalance like my doctors had told me. I was depressed because my life sucked and needed an overhaul. Recent study findings undermine the chemical imbalance theory, giving weight to the idea that perhaps it’s our environments and choices that make us depressed. This is an empowering notion – it’s easier to fix how we behave and the environment we find ourselves in than some trojan horse resting in our biology.

I liked my job, but I had no boundaries with my clients or in my life. I missed weddings, baby showers, and birthdays because I made the most money on weekends, and I wasn’t willing to even let one $3,000 commission slide. Most of my personal relationships were toxic, drilling further dents in my self-esteem. I surrounded myself with people just as disempowered as I was, and going out with them left me more tired and demotivated. My soaring stress levels affected my health – I got bronchitis, upper respiratory infections, colds, and stomach bugs every year. I didn’t know what my values were or what I wanted my future to look like, so I let everything and anyone into my life.

I didn’t know what my values were or what I wanted my future to look like, so I let everything and anyone into my life.

I know I’m not the only one who lived this way. I showed apartments to so many clients who shared similar feelings. They were burnt out and trapped at work. Life felt pointless. They couldn’t keep their relationships stable or healthy. We were living through an epidemic of hopelessness, and no one seemed to know how to get out. 

The Solution to My Problems

Then, in April 2019, sick of it all, I packed up my apartment in four days and left New York City. In May, I bought a dilapidated 115-year-old farmhouse with no running water and moved to a town of 900 people. And my depression hasn’t returned since.  

In the hours I spent renovating my house, I had time to think about what went wrong in the past decade and why my life improved dramatically when I left New York City. I pinpointed four factors that made the difference: creating a life of meaning, realignment with self, time spent in nature, and community.  

How I Created a Life of Meaning 

I started renovating my house and enlisted my family to help. I spent months learning how to sand drywall, caulk trim, paint, lay tile, and design a home that would be a safe space for myself and others. My life began to have meaning. What I thought would come from making money and succeeding in a male-dominated industry instead came from tending to my land, caring for a house that had long been overlooked and forgotten, and bringing life back to this little pocket of the world. By the end of that first summer, my writing improved, my positive mood felt unwavering, and I had tons of energy. 

There’s a lot of psychological research into why this kind of work creates meaning and, in turn, happiness. Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, called what I was experiencing a “flow state: a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” I was consumed by the task at hand, and my brain didn’t have the time to think about depression or anything that could go wrong. But you don’t have to renovate a house to get into flow. Gardening, drawing, cooking, playing an instrument, or other hobbies in which you work with your hands (and you’re consistent), increase these flow states.

Through constantly learning new skills and seeing what I was capable of, my self-esteem began to climb. I could feel my brain rewiring and connecting that self-esteem to intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, things like kindness, resilience, being an honest person, or not giving up when a new task seemed hard. My nails were black, there were dead spiders in my hair, the crevices in my hands were filled with dirt, but for the first time in my life, I felt like I was living up to my potential.  

Finding Myself Again

Although it would take me a few years to understand this, the energy I embodied changed since moving to the countryside. While living in the city, I embodied a darker masculine energy that was solely focused on achieving, working harder, making more, and always in pursuit.  

In the country, I felt something gentler coming over me as I stepped into the full power of my feminine energy. Even though I spent my days in overalls and construction boots, I felt graceful, calm, and more capable than I ever had. In tending to my land and my house, I became empowered through nurturing, caring, and loving more of the world around me – traits attributed to the feminine. Away from the pressures and ideas of the city, I started dreaming about having children and finding a partner aligned with the family values that I now possessed.  

In tending to my land and my house, I became empowered through nurturing, caring, and loving more of the world around me. 

Instead of chasing and forcing things, I gained empowerment by cultivating patience and waiting for things to come to me. A huge weight fell off my shoulders when I understood that I could create the life of my dreams by receiving what was meant for me rather than pushing for and forcing something that wasn’t.

Time Spent in Nature Is the Road to Happiness

I no longer question what it was that made Emerson and Thoreau head to the woods and stay there. Time in nature is essential to mental well-being. Being outdoors boosts mood, concentration, and creativity (probably why so many famous authors recommend walking when experiencing writer’s block), and reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol (the stress hormone).

In the country, there are limitless opportunities to be outside. I spend my winters skiing or ice fishing. In the summer, my dog and I swim in the nearby creeks and lakes, or we’ll hike to one of the local waterfalls or lookout points. I recently started beekeeping. On late spring mornings, I head to the hives armed with bee food to keep them alive before the first summer flowers bloom.

All the hours I spent outdoors gave me the time, space, and silence to be with my own thoughts and examine them. I got a better understanding of who I was, what I stood for, and the people and things I was willing to accept in my life.  

Exposed to this beauty, to the smell of smoke curling out of chimneys, and the abundance of medicine found in the plants and trees around me, fills me with gratitude. It serves as a daily reminder that the things we really need are not somewhere in the future; they are in our own homes and often just outside the window.

Building Community

When living in New York City, I never had a community. Not only because I spent so much time working on my career, but because relationships were often built more on the phase of life I was in. There were my real estate friends, my club friends, and friends I knew from school. Once one of us left these environments, the relationships fell apart. Add to that the city’s transience and how many people use it as a stepping stone in their career, and you have a turnstile social life with people coming and going.

Yet, science has repeatedly found that our community is the backbone of our lives and happiness. We need stable relationships to feel whole, to ensure that loneliness doesn’t settle into our hearts and become immovable.

Here in the mountains, I know all my neighbors by name. We walk our dogs together in the morning. I always have cake or cookies made in case someone drops by. What bonds us is something tangible – our love of nature and these mountains, the warmth of helping each other when someone gets stuck in the snow, and sharing our homemade goods. Sometimes it feels as if time stopped here a hundred years ago, and we’re living closer to how we should be. We breathe in the mountain air together, our phones are never out, and we watch the world turn while sipping tea. It’s a simple life, but we remind each other that that’s the best kind.

Closing Thoughts: My Happily Ever After

I wish a decade ago someone had told me that my depression was not some failure of my thought processes or personality. I wish I had seen it for what it was: an opportunity to reroute, find my direction, and be less influenced by what modern society values.

Maybe the most important lesson I learned living in the countryside was to listen to my intuition. I think this might be the surest way to combat depression – give yourself opportunities to reconnect with that wise woman inside of you, go out in nature, hear her voice, listen to her directions, and know that she above all others will never lead you astray. Sometimes, you may have to overthrow your whole life to hear her, but I think it will always be worth it.  

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