Frontlines – The value of a sabbatical

A gap year spent travelling reignited Nigel Leaney’s spark at work

The weekend supplements have been trumpeting the arrival of the gap year. No longer just the preserve of young students; getting off the work wheel and heading out to the wild, blue yonder is becoming a desirable, accessible option for us all. And one I can vouch for.

A few years ago, following negotiations with my employer, I escaped the empathy business for one glorious, unsalaried year. Following a remortgage for the necessary funds, plus a deal with a letting agency to cover the repayments, we were on our way.

It was an odd feeling. A whole year dedicated to travel and whatever else. We journeyed through Asia spending a scorching 10 days in the desert on camels, sleeping under the stars at night. Then a chilling and exhausting, hardcore trek through the Himalayas, reaching a lung bursting 5,416 metres at the Throngla Pass. Just two of the highlights of our wanderings.

A year later I was back at home – and work. No one believed I’d return. But contrary to popular belief, raising chickens in rural Nepal into my twilight years was never going to be my thing. Disappointed? You’d have to ask my colleagues when they saw my grinning mug again.

Being on the road is simple. Life is pared down to the bare necessities: food, bed and where to next? Much of the everyday clutter that passes for the essential is erased.

It’s a lesson I tried to retain on my return. The bureaucratic tedium of the job needed to be kept in abeyance. Or else, like weeds, it takes over. I learned to relax more and keep things in perspective. As social care workers we need to keep alive a spark of creativity. For that you need air and space. You work deeper by staying lighter.

It wasn’t easy. The electronic age makes us work quicker. Competing demands have multiplied. We’re constantly working to other people’s agendas.

I keep a picture of Throngla stuck to my writing folder. A simple achievement but the hardest thing I’ve ever done – the trek, I mean, not sticking the picture. It helps when the walls start closing in.

In my mind I’ve returned countless times. Maybe that’s where it matters. That’s how the past continues to inform the present. Lumbering across a parched wasteland to the soundtrack of snorting camels tends to stay with you always. And, one day, it just may call me back.

Nigel Leaney manages a mental health residential service

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