Hi, I’m Barbara Smith from the San Francisco Bay area! I hit refresh at 53 and moved to southern Thailand, where I’ve lived for the last two+ years.
I had a wonderful life and career in the States. I was lucky to get in on the growth of the tech boom in Silicon Valley. I graduated from San Jose State University in the 80’s and worked for a variety of A-list companies selling computers and software. I had married early at 20, but spent many years getting through college, and getting my career established. I was lucky to welcome my daughter Julia in 1990, and my son Collin in 1993. Work and making money were always easy for me, but love relationships were not, since I had a habit of picking the wrong men. After 20 years of marriage, I made the difficult decision to divorce my husband because of his alcoholism.
In my usual superwoman style, I kept everything going: making money, paying the bills, helping with homework, cooking the meals, while simultaneously hurling myself headlong into the wild world of online dating. I dated up a storm, but I was focused on finding a new husband that could be a true partner to me and a loving step-Dad to my kids. When I met the man who would become husband number two, I felt like I’d had an anvil dropped on my head. Tall, dark, handsome, and smart, with a great job, a nice car, and financial security. Did I mention sexy? I thought this guy had it all, and we married outdoors in early September surrounded by family, friends, and the beautiful California redwoods.
About a year into the marriage I started to see problems, and we both agreed to go to counseling. As time wore on, I began to see the reality of my situation, and it horrified me. I’d chosen another alcoholic, but this time a very sophisticated one who was intent on hiding his drinking, lying about it, and gaslighting me whenever I brought up the obvious. I learned that alcoholism is progressive, and it will get worse and worse over time unless the drinking stops. In the years that followed our relationship was filled with drama, with him moving out, then in, then out again. Things finally stabilized in 2014 and I thought we were on the right track. We bought a vacation/retirement home together in California’s Gold Country, and I made it into a beautiful home for us to share.
I’d spent Thanksgiving in the Bay Area with my husband and best friend, cooking dinner with her and spending time together with our families. I’d gone for a routine mammogram the day before but didn’t give it a second thought. That Sunday night, my phone rang, and the hospital asked me to come in for a follow-up. “How about tomorrow?” they said. I knew that didn’t sound good. I was diagnosed with breast cancer one day after my 52nd birthday and had a mastectomy one week before Christmas.
2015 came around and I only had one job, Cancer treatment. Chemotherapy was recommended for me and I went into it figuring it would save my life. In actuality, it almost killed me. I had a severe allergic reaction to one of the chemotherapy drugs, my face beet red, heart racing, and my airway closing up. They needed to pump me full of antihistamines and steroids to get me to stabilize. But even so, cancer was my gift from the universe. It was my wake-up call to leave my impossible alcoholic marriage and eliminate the stress that it caused. My husband didn’t take good care of me after my mastectomy, complained a lot, and was sullen and unreliable. I left him in the middle of chemotherapy, a decision that very likely saved my life.
Once that was behind me, I promised myself a life of travel and adventure, peacefulness and happiness. I waited several months for breast reconstruction, and had a wonderfully talented team of surgeons that put me back together. I am forever grateful to them. When I was strong enough, I planned a trip to Japan to visit my daughter Julia who teaches English internationally. I followed that with a 32-night cruise to South America. When I finally returned home, I got online, got a job teaching English, got my TESOL, and bought a one-way ticket to Thailand. I went alone to a country I’d never visited before. All my friends understood my decision, even though they wouldn’t have had the courage to do it themselves.
Changing your life isn’t hard. Deciding to change your life is hard. Many people have told me they think I’m so brave and what I’m doing is so bold. I don’t think either is true. I think something like cancer changes your perspective forever. It seemed like the most logical decision I could make. My thinking was as follows:
I’ve just been through hell and I really want a fresh start.
I wanted to get away from my husband. Far, far, away.
I wanted a career change, and I believed teaching would be a good choice.
I’d already done a huge downsize and wasn’t attached to my material possessions.
My kids were independent, and my parents had passed away, so I was free to go.
So, I bought a one-way plane ticket and moved to the other side of earth.
Thailand has been very healing for me. When I first arrived pretty much all I did was work and sleep. Little by little, my life got better every day. Each month was happier than the last, and I could literally feel myself coming back to life.
Teaching turned out to be joyful and fun. I started by teaching kids, but when I had my first classes with adults, I knew I’d found my zone. I eventually took a wonderful job teaching the staff at 3 swanky hotels on the island of Koh Samui. After 2 years I began to want more time to myself, and more freedom to travel than I could get with a full-time job. So, I quit to start my own company in Thailand. That way I could still work legally and have more control over my time and travel. I developed an English curriculum specifically for hospitality workers, which is delivered online. It focuses on English for Front Office, Food/Beverage/Kitchen, Housekeeping, and Spa staff.
Life here is beautiful and easy. The cost of living is low, and it’s a wonderful culture. Most Thais are Buddhist and I love seeing the monks walking in the early morning in their saffron colored robes. It’s a very respectful, warm, and safe place for a woman living alone. I drive a motorbike here, which is something I’d always wanted to do. The feeling of freedom is just what I needed at this point. It’s so inexpensive here to have a great quality of life. I get massages anytime I want. You can eat out at every meal, since the street food is cheap and plentiful. They even pump your gas at the gas station, and you don’t have to wait forever for your turn.
I make friends easily, but it’s been an adjustment finding those who are really part of my tribe. Most of my friends here are teachers in their 20’s and 30’s. Most women my age here are retired expats, married, and not terribly interesting to me.
My current plan is to keep Samui as a home base for now, and travel throughout Thailand selling my curriculum. I’ll spend extended time in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Hua Hin, and Pattaya. I’ll probably move on to Vietnam after that, but we’ll see. I’ll have the freedom to visit my daughter and travel on extended trips making money as I go along. I’m looking forward to everything now, and the life I’ve created is amazing and kind of a dream come true, especially considering everything that’s happened in the recent past. I highly recommend Thailand for women looking to hit refresh. It’s been the perfect place for me to rebuild my life.
Member Spotlight highlights stories of inspiring women from our She Hit Refresh group. We hope that by sharing their stories of change and travel we can expose the unconventional paths that thousands of women 30 years and up have chosen. There is no one way to live a life, just your way.