February 12, 2020

2019 In Review: The Year Everything Changed

published by Bren

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I can’t believe it’s over.

Certainly the most significant year of my life, the most painful, the most joyful, the most emotional, the most humbling.

I always write annual review posts each year, but this one will be slightly different as the year was chaotic and didn’t really fall into the same structure as previous years. In fact I’m not even really sure how to write this post. Let me just start from the beginning and I guess we’ll both find out how it turns out in a minute.

Penang

2019 was the first year I travelled in January. Normally I start the year slow with a summer in New Zealand, training with my old squad down at Auckland MMA. However this year I was on the road as soon as possible, on a whim I chose Penang as my base for those early months.

Penang became a new home in many ways. I bought a membership at Scoopoint, a co-working spot in the centre of Georgetown, and quickly settled into a routine which consisted of morning yoga/gym/stretching, fruits for breakfast, work from lunchtime until 9-10pm, then catch the bus home and crash.

I met some fun people at that co-working joint and we would take long afternoon teas and hang out on weekends etc. It was almost like I was working a 9-5 again, but it was more like a 12-9, and I didn’t have to wear a suit, could walk around the office barefoot, play ping pong and Playstation when I got bored and didn’t have to pretend to like my workmates.

When you can do all that, working in an office is actually pretty fun.

While Bali and Chiang Mai and Saigon get all the love from nomads, I think Penang is just as good and supremely underrated. It barely gets talked about. But it’s super affordable, safe, lots of great places to eat and chill and Georgetown is beautiful. I’m puzzled as to why more people don’t love it. I’ve even been considering buying an apartment there.

I returned home briefly in February to speak at a conference, which was my first time speaking at an event and I really enjoyed it. I actually attended the same conference as a 21 year old when I had just starting work as an accountant. I was exposed to so many great individuals and stories and it really made a difference to my ambitions in life at that young age. It was an honour to be invited back as a speaker and share some stories of my own.

After that it was back to Penang for the remainder of February and March, and it was more of the same; getting lots of work done, hanging with my new friends and EATING LOTS OF FOOD.

Penang is famous for being a foodie city, and I documented (almost) everything I ate in my post, All The Things I Ate In Penang.

Had I not needed to leave again for some family stuff in April, I probably would’ve stayed a lot longer.

Verdict on Penang: Highly recommended!

South Africa

After spending some time with family in Sydney, I jumped on a flight to Cape Town. I’d always heard so many great things about this city, and now I finally had the chance to go.

My main reason for heading to South Africa was to attend the famous AfrikaBurn – a week-long event living in the Karoo Desert.

The Karoo is around an 8 hour drive from Cape Town, so I had 3ish weeks to prepare, buy supplies and do all my touristy things, then it was off into the wilderness.

I’d heard about AfrikaBurn a couple years earlier, and had always been curious to experience it. I was still in Penang when I first considered attending the 2019 event, and was talking about it on the phone with a friend while moping around in the Scoopoint lounge one night. Since it was only two months away and I felt like I’d be rushing everything I said “Maybe I’ll just go next year”, to which she said, “That’s brave.” And I asked, “What do you mean?” and she said, “Brave to assume you’ll even have a next year.” And that was the truest thing I could’ve heard, and I loved her for it. So I bought my AfrikaBurn ticket that night, and I didn’t have a flight to Cape Town yet, hadn’t even looked at the fares, didn’t know how I’d get to the desert, really didn’t know anything at all. But I knew I was going.

Cape Town turned out to be a special place, not because the city itself was so remarkable (though it has its charms), but because I met so many amazing people there. I spent almost a month there, not including my time in the desert, and I loved being around so many vibrant people. After many months of trying, I managed to put that experience into words in my story Love Cape Town.

AfrikaBurn

It’s hard to write about this experience. I look through my old photos from Burn, and it feels like it was a dream sometimes, like it didn’t really happen. That event has so much love and passion poured into it that so much of your energy is spent simply being there and taking it all in. For a community that big to come together and create something so elaborate and powerful and different was a spectacle unlike anything I’ve been a part of.

A few months later I sat down to write that story and it ended up becoming five parts, the length of a short novel, and I could’ve written five more. Even then I don’t think I aptly described what it feels like to be there, it probably fell flat for most readers, but the AfrikaBurn community really loved and appreciated it. It’s something that just needs to be experienced.

You can start reading Part 1 here.

Namibia

I finally left Cape Town in mid May, moving north to Namibia, on my way to my annual visit to Tanzania. I have some good friends in Namibia who I haven’t seen in a couple of years, so it was nice to reconnect and see them again. It had been the perfect start to the year, and I was looking forward to another adventure across Africa to finish the last half of 2019.

Unfortunately that was cut short, and life turned upside down overnight.

Emergency flight home

It started with some standard rashes on my arms and back. However they spread quickly, and flared up quickly, much more than I’ve been used to. I’ve dealt with eczema my whole life, but I could already tell there was something different about this.

The next day it was twice as bad, and had spread almost over my entire body, including my face. By the third day, I knew this wasn’t something that would “just go away” any time soon. I was in pain now, couldn’t move freely, couldn’t go five minutes without scratching, my skin was opening up with blood and ooze, and was only getting worse. I booked the first flight home and was on a plane the following morning.

That plane ride was ~30 hours and the worst flight of my life. My entire forehead had oozes and scabs all over it, and I couldn’t bring myself to look a flight attendant or customs officer in the eye, I was so ashamed of my face. I was actually scared they would look at me and send me to quarantine because it looked like I had some weird exotic disease.

Hell

I soon learned I was going through something called TSW or Topical Steroid Withdrawal. Over time steroid creams inhibit the body’s natural adrenals and cortisol, so when the steroids suddenly stop, the skin is unable to function. Even the tiniest rash causes a complete panic attack in the skin, it spreads like wildfire, and your skin basically shits itself and starts to die. The itch is unbearable and open wounds and rashes cover your entire body, rendering you almost immobile at times, your body will shed so many layers of skin it will look like your sheets are covered in ash. It’s not different to an alcoholic trying to give up alcohol, the body (skin in my case) goes through a vicious withdrawal period before it can operate normally again.

Now that I look back on it, it all makes more sense. I’ve used steroid creams my whole life but I’d been using them a lot more during the year, first in Penang, possibly due to the heat and all the junk food, and then in Cape Town, where my eczema had started playing up somewhat during the cold nights.

In my last couple of weeks in Cape Town I decided it was time to stop, so I threw them away and tried to let my body deal with it on its own. Over the last few years I’ve had great success in eliminating my long term medications, simply by ceasing use and focusing on diet and lifestyle.

I suspected I’d go through some kind of “detox” or adjustment period, but I didn’t realise how powerful or addictive steroids were, and that this “adjustment period” would send me to the darkest time of my life.

TSW isn’t widely recognised in New Zealand so my dermatologist was of no use at all. He actually diagnosed me with scabies and staph (I had neither) and sent me away with a laundry list of steroid creams and pills. I mentioned TSW, but he waved it off like an urban legend, and after a $300 appointment wanted to put me on prednisone, sleeping pills, more steroid creams and antibiotics. I already knew in my gut that was a path to nowhere. I threw the prescription away.

The next few months of my life became hell. Painful, sleepless nights, one after the other, constantly covered in blood and ooze, not to mention looking like a horror movie. But the real hell was not knowing it would be just a few months. At the time there was no end in sight, and for some people withdrawal lasted 2, 3, 5 years. In the depth of it, I found myself thinking that I would never last that long. I would walk into the ocean and never turn back before I ever made it that far.

It was this blog post by a Japanese woman named Tokuko who put me on the path to healing, and possibly saved my life. Luckily TSW is reasonably well researched and recognised in Japan. She had one of the worst cases of TSW that’s been documented, and was treated with near-miraculous results by a TSW specialist doctor in Osaka named Kenji Sato. She translated his protocol into English on her blog, which very quickly spread worldwide.

A support group she started on Facebook brought together people like me from around the world, and we leaned on each other. I met some warriors in that group, I don’t know where I’d be without it.

Tokuko has told us responding to questions from around the world and helping others with TSW is now a full time job for her, which she does voluntarily (bless her soul). She tells us thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people have since contacted her with equally miraculous results, and hundreds more each week. I’m happy to say I’m another name that can now be added to that list. So many of us owe her so much, and we’re trying to find ways to help ease some of her workload and also spread her message further.

I’ll have a much larger article on my journey with this condition and exactly what I did to heal, so I won’t write any more about it here. It’s a long story and I could write multiple books about it. If you do have questions in the meantime please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Living with TSW

One big problem with TSW is it’s unpredictable. Your skin can be healing strongly and at 80% one week, then drop to 40% within a few days for no apparent reason.

In my second month of TSW I was healing well after finding Tokuko, and being overly optimistic, committed to a press trip to the Solomon Islands two months later in August. Then literally a week before the trip my skin decided to flare horribly, almost the worst flare I’d had.

While my first intense flare hit my back, torso and forehead, this flare hit my face, groin and chest. What I had hoped would be a week of relaxing with cocktails and swimming in the ocean to heal my improving rashes, suddenly looked like a week of pain, sweat, itching and misery.

I tried to pull out of the trip, but literally thousands of dollars had been spent on flights, hotels, guides by the tourism board. This is the one time when being a travel blogger felt like the worst job in the world, but I’d committed to the trip and eventually forced myself to go.

The trip turned out to be a blessing.

My skin improved almost instantly as soon as I landed. I remember sitting outside my room on the balcony on the first day, and it struck me how it was the first time in months that I’d been able to just sit in a chair like a normal person. TSW makes you very sensitive to cold, as your skin no longer works so cannot hold in your body heat. Plus Auckland was having a particularly severe winter. That combination was miserable and even with heaters on full blast, just sitting down in a chair meant I was constantly shivering and in pain.

As soon as I hit the tropical weather of the Solomons, it was like my body suddenly relaxed and came out of crisis mode. I wasn’t cold and wasn’t in pain. I had never enjoyed sitting in a chair so much in my life.

For the next week I island hopped around the Solomons with three other awesome bloggers, and we ended up having an amazing time.

My skin was still very far from normal, and I couldn’t do all the fun snorkelling and swimming the others did, but it was still a trip to remember. We ate so much tropical fruit and fresh seafood, talked blogger life around the dinner table and sampled some of the country’s finest resorts. I would love to go back.

Three of my favourite days were documented in my posts A Day In Munda, A Day In Gizo and A Day In Honiara.

The Marathon

I didn’t tell anyone about the marathon, except my Mum. Back in Auckland after the Solomons, it was back to winter and bad skin, I was in hibernation mode, and wasn’t really talking to anyone about anything anyway. But I kept the marathon a secret because I wasn’t even sure I could do it.

Part of the Dr Sato protocol was to exercise daily. The exact prescription was to raise your heart rate to 120bpm for at least an hour each day. This does all kinds of great things for the skin, like releasing endorphins and hormones and sweat which all aid healing. It also hurts like f*ck as soon as you start sweating because the salt hits your wounds and makes you want to cry. But that was what was needed to heal.

At the time I didn’t have a bike, couldn’t go to the gym and definitely wasn’t joining any kind of fitness class when I only had half a face.

The only option was to run.

My first run was a highly unpleasant experience around my neighbourhood, which lasted about 20 minutes, 2.14 km and I arrived back at my doorstep barely breathing. I hate running, mostly because it’s really hard and also really boring – two things that are difficult to love. But I kept running each day, and part of me started to love it. Not the running itself, but the challenge. It felt like my way of fighting back, that every skin cell in my body was telling me not to run, and I was doing it anyway. I imagined all the pain I was feeling was the bad skin dying, and after every run I would imagine all the new skin being born.

It was one particularly bad morning the marathon idea came about. Sleepless nights were common, in fact I always dreaded going to bed at night, it brought me to tears sometimes, but this night was the worst. And somehow when the morning came, all I wanted to do was run. I felt like if I ran and sweated and beat myself down into nothing, I would feel better, I would feel alive again. One thing about Auckland winter mornings, they are fucking miserable. The temperature might only be 7 or 8 degrees, but the actual feeling in the air, the dampness, the sharpness of the cold, it’s like minus 100. That’s why everyone in Auckland is an asshole during winter. Auckland in winter is the most miserable place in the world.

I went outside that morning wrapped in my hoodie and sweatpants, it was maybe 7 o’clock, and just as I started running it began to rain. And the only thing more miserable than an Auckland winter day is a rainy Auckland winter day. I felt the rain patting against my face and have never been more angry at the world. I said I don’t care, your shitty rain can’t stop me from running, this shitty skin can’t stop me from running, I can run forever! Let me show you! So I got home and looked up marathons in New Zealand, and the Auckland marathon was nine weeks away. And I signed up that night.

At the time, a marathon to me was so far in the realm of impossible that even while training for it, I found it hard to believe I was actually going to show up for it. Whenever I went out to train, I visualised myself crossing the finish line, just thinking about it brought me to tears every single time. To go from a scabbing oozing bleeding blob of flesh to a marathoner in nine weeks? It was the ultimate mission impossible.

But I was diligent with the training, even though my training plan was just mashed together from some blogs I had Googled. When I finally ran my first 10 km in training, I thought Wow, that was a quarter marathon! I rested for two days after that, because I was so amazed I’d run a quarter marathon. And a few weeks later I ran 21 km, and I couldn’t believe that was a half marathon. By the time race day came around, I told myself, there is no way I’m not finishing this race today.

I think my Mum was more excited than I was on race day. It’s quite a big spectacle, being part of a marathon. I wasn’t excited at all to be honest. I was anxious, I just wanted to start, I wanted to get moving and start knocking off the kilometres and finish. I’d never been part of a race before, it was all new to me.

They say there will never be another day like your first marathon, you’ll remember it forever. They were right. Even though I hated every minute of training, I wouldn’t give back a minute of that race for anything. Nothing prepares you for the struggles and emotions out on that course. It will change your life.

You can read a full play-by-play of the race in my article Running The Auckland Marathon.

Marathon Number Two

After running Auckland, I felt a bit empty. I still had to run for my skin, but now running felt meaningless, because if I wasn’t training for anything it felt like every run was going to waste.

Not only that, the more I thought about Auckland, the more I felt like I had more to give. I looked back over my race numbers and thought, could I have pushed a little harder? Was I really that tired? Was that really the very best I could do?

And it started to bother me that I finished below average, that I didn’t have a better time, that when the 4:30 pacer group passed me, I let them go instead of grinding my teeth and staying with them.

The next big race on the calendar was Singapore, six weeks away. I was 50/50 on going for it, but if I’d learned anything during the year, it was that when you have the chance to do something, you do it. Life changes in a click of the fingers, and you can never know what tomorrow brings. Maybe your skin flares up tomorrow, maybe you lose your legs, maybe you’ll be in heaven.

I took one week of rest, then it was back to training.

Six weeks later I was in Singapore. My parents also flew out a few days before the race, to support me, and I suppose for a little holiday too. These events get pretty big and special, and it’s all new to them as well so it’s a joy to share it with them.

Singapore did not go as planned. I was mindful of running another marathon again so soon, so I was slightly undertrained for the race. I also underestimated the heat and humidity, and how much this would affect me on race day.

Short version: Running in Singapore is a nightmare, and that race nearly killed me. But I look back and I’m super grateful for that race, I learned so much, and just being there was special after everything I had been through. It was the perfect welcome back to life on the road.

You can read the full play-by-play in my post Running The Singapore Marathon.

Chiang Mai

After a few days unwinding in Singapore, my parents returned to New Zealand and I travelled on to Thailand. I had three weeks before I had to be home for Xmas, so I decided to finally check out Chiang Mai and see what the fuss is all about.

Chiang Mai is a beautiful city, at least in December. The nights are cool so you can sleep well, but the days are warm and sunny. Traffic isn’t bad so getting around is painless, and it has every western comfort you could want, while still being unmistakably Thai. It felt a bit bland at first, but I loved it by the time I had to leave.

My skin was bouncing between 75%-90%, some days it was perfect, other days my face was flaking heavily, but always pain free. Now that I looked like a normal person again on most days, I had started triathlon training, which meant lots of time in the gym and some swimming, along with regular runs.

Chiang Mai turned out to be the perfect place for this, there was a great gym just around the corner from my Airbnb for 100 baht per day, and the old ASEAN Games stadium in Chiang Mai is still maintained but always empty. That meant I had an Olympic quality running track and swimming pool to myself whenever I wanted it!

On the week before I left, I managed to get an entry into the half event for the Chiang Mai Marathon. One final race to finish the year.

When I went through airport security before my flight home, they tagged my bag and searched it thoroughly. These two ladies kept x-raying it and searching it over and over again and I couldn’t figure out why. I almost had to ask them to hurry up so I didn’t miss my flight. Then they asked where I was hiding the big metal balls in my bag.

I laughed and pulled out my Singapore and Chiang Mai race medals which I’d tucked into a shopping bag under all my clothes. They groaned and laughed at each other and I thought, I guess it’s not often people come home from Thailand with two big marathon medals. It was one of those moments where I realised how far I’d come during the year, not only did I survive the storm, I thrived in it, and I finally let myself feel proud for the battle I’d been through.

It was the perfect way to end 2019. Back on the road, training, eating noodles – life wasn’t 100% back to normal, but it almost felt like it. And after the year I had, the road was even more beautiful than I’d remembered.

A full recap of my time in Chiang Mai can be found in my blog post, Laps and Miles in Chiang Mai.

What’s in store for 2020?

I’ve got my first triathlon coming up in March, and after that it all depends on how good my skin is. If it behaves I’ll be doing a little travel, if it doesn’t I’ll just find somewhere warm to lay low and take care of myself. Like I said, life can turn upside down overnight, so I don’t plan too far ahead. Remember to enjoy each day as it comes.

Again, thanks so much for being with me this year. It’s been a privilege to share this journey with you. Sending all my love your way and hope 2020 is your most prosperous year yet.

B <3

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  1. Hey Bren

    It’s been almost a year since I last checked into your blog for a life update and HOLY SHIT, dude. I’m glad you’re still with us and kicking ass. I’ve done 2 half marathons in 6 months and that was enough for me. I salute your strength through adversity and I look forward to whatever comes next for you.

    Cheers from Canada

    Reply

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