Londoner Karen Athwal, 25, had what she thought was her dream job and was building what seemed like her dream life -- until she was blindsided by a layoff. Getting axed forced her to own up to the pressure she felt to appear perfect to her family and friends. It also propelled her to re-imagine her future -- 2,000 miles away. Here, as part of our series on young women who dramatically changed their situations to live with less stress, Karen tells us her story.
I became the manager of a new makeup brand’s store in London in 2007 -- I ran the day-to-day. I had been there for two-and-a-half years and thought I was going to stay there awhile. The owner and I had regularly talked about it. But three months after I began renting an expensive apartment, I got a phone call. The London office wasn't making [enough]. My boss said, “I'm sorry, Karen. There's no longer a position here for you.”
I was literally shattered. I found myself in a brand new apartment with really high rent that I realized I could no longer pay. I didn't want to admit I was failing, that I had lost this high-flying job. For three months -- three months -- I paid rent that I could not afford because of my stupid pride. Finally, I called up my mom and dad, who also live in London, and I was like, "Look. I'm going to have to move back in with you.” It's a horrible feeling. You’re moving forward, and suddenly it’s all taken away from you.
I looked for work for 18 months. I didn’t have any money coming in, and I could not afford to go out with my friends. I was alone. The pressure started to show. I developed acne all over my face, out of nowhere. I started losing weight as well. I had [spent time] in Marrakech [Morocco] before, and I had a little bit of savings left. I thought, "Look, I can either be really sad and depressed here, or I can take a month out, relax, and get myself together." My boyfriend was living there, too.
When I came back, I trained as an English language teacher, but I still wasn't getting anywhere. Then one day I was surfing the net, and I came across a job in Marrakech, as an English teacher and nanny to a small girl. I moved there in August 2011, and I stayed with that family for three to four months until I came across another opportunity, writing content for an online magazine and travel guide. Three weeks later I was hired. It seems as though when I really push myself out of my comfort zone -- when I just go for it -- things develop from there.
So much of my stress has lifted. The cost of living is very, very low. I am able to enjoy going out to dinner, going to cafes and being able to have more of a social life, something I couldn't do in London where it was always a stretch financially. Now, my salary isn't great -- there's that line where you're just barely comfortable, and I'm there -- but I'm saving so much more.
I'm much less materialistic now, less selfish. My new apartment is definitely a lot smaller. Having that extravagant apartment in London was a big deal. The thinking was, "You have this great new home; you made it." But I felt like I was always competing with the people around me to have the latest in everything, to be able to go out for fancy lunches and brunches. I would take, maybe, an hour and a half to get ready every day. My hair always had to be good, my makeup had to be good. There was so much pressure to look the part, but the weird thing is that I always felt inferior.
Now, I wear a good pair of jeans and a white t-shirt or button-down, which I accessorize with a printed scarf. I'm obsessed with ballet flats. I stick to what makes me comfortable and what I feel good in.
Here, it's a simpler lifestyle. In London, everyone was very much obsessed with "busy-ness" because when we're busy, it looks like we've made it. It's a crazy mentality. Now, I realize I have a lot I can do with my time. My boyfriend and I go to the farmer’s markets together. We pick up fresh food and we cook it together. I make the time to talk to my family and friends. When we want to travel somewhere, we go.
When I was at the cosmetics company, I thought, “I'll just carry on working, I'll be a high-flying career girl, and I'll live in this great pad alone, and I'll have my fashion and go on holiday with my girlfriends.” That was literally how I saw the rest of my life -- being alone and 100 percent focused on my career. Now that has really, really changed. I see women daily who have businesses of their own, who have families, and who can still relax. Now I am in the process of starting my own business. That dream hatched as soon as I moved to Marrakech -- maybe it was the new surroundings?
I think, if I'm totally honest, that I didn't push myself enough before. I was too scared to leave my comfort zone, and that made me feel such pressure. Yet I was so afraid to give up my lifestyle and have everyone look at me and say, "Oh, she failed." Losing that job was the best thing to happen to me. I don’t know how long I’ll say in Marrakech. [But] there is no fear to jump anymore, I'm ready to take the leap.
Karen is not sure how long she will say in Marrakech, but feels the move helped make her more brave.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.