She sold her house, quit her job, left her family and packed her bags for an adventure on the other side of the world: How being struck blind by a panic attack saved Linda’s life
23:49 GMT, 22 July 2012
Escape: Linda fled her old life and rediscovered happiness
Darkness had fallen and, feeling exhausted, I was desperate to get home after attending a long sales conference. As I drove south on the motorway, without warning I was struck by a stabbing pain behind my eyes followed by a sudden and terrifying loss of vision. It was the moment which would change my life for ever — the moment I knew I had to assess my life and all that was wrong with it. Somehow, I managed to pull on to the hard shoulder and stop.
Fear gripped me. I was 36 and suddenly blind. I just sat there whimpering, praying to a God I hadn’t thought of in decades. It was 1995 so I didn’t have a mobile phone and no-one stopped to help me. So I sat in my car for what seemed like hours, feeling alone and lost.
I looked back over my life. I’d married my childhood sweetheart at 21 — a boy I’d met at 16. Our marriage predictably fizzled out and we parted, amicably, when I was in my late 20s.
As a newly-single mother, I concentrated on bringing up my children, Gail and Graham. I did the only thing mothers in my situation could do: I got on with life, rushing headlong through each day, my own needs well and truly buried beneath everyone else’s.
Money was tight so I’d taken a job as a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company, which I hated. Juggling work and children was terribly stressful, and there was no time for romance. I felt trapped. As a result, I was eating the wrong foods and drinking too much. Little wonder I cried myself to sleep every night.
That evening on the hard shoulder I vowed to make some major changes. After two hours my sight miraculously returned and I was able to drive home safely. It may sound strange, but I never went to the doctors and the problem never came back. It felt as if I’d been given a second chance at life — and one I must not waste.
I bided my time and made my plans. The moment for action came three years later, when I was 39. Graham was 18 and had left home to join the Army, while Gail was 20 and at university. Both were happily following their dreams. My job as a mother was done.
So, one summer’s evening, we sat down for supper together at our house in Bristol. I looked across at them, all grown up, and said: ‘Is it OK if I leave home’ I explained what I’d been going through, that I wanted to go out into the world and make a difference.
The term ‘mid-life crisis’ was coined by Canadian psychologist Elliott Jaques in 1965
We nestled up on the sofa and the children said they were totally behind me. Knowing I had their support was the catalyst I needed to resign from my job, sell the family home and either sell or give away all my belongings. I didn’t want, or need, them.
I’d decided to move abroad as an aid worker. I’d trained as a nurse when I was 18 so at least I had some medical experience. So I packed a small suitcase and spent the next few years working on aid projects in Uzbekistan, China and India.
It was strange doing without all the things I used to take for granted, like hot showers and home cooking. Yet I felt instantly revitalised and found the work — and my new nomadic lifestyle — rewarding.
Adventures: Linda with the Dalai Lama
In December 2004, when I heard a tsunami had struck South-East Asia, I got my first taste of life on the front-line. I was 45. I’ll never forget the telephone conversation I had with an incredulous Thai Airways agent when I tried to book a one-way ticket to Bangkok a week after the disaster. ‘The planes heading out there are flying empty — why would anyone want to holiday there now’ she asked.
But I was convinced I could help. When I arrived, I relied on locals to direct me to a tsunami survivors’ camp near Khao Lak, a beach resort that had been destroyed. This once-thriving paradise in southern Thailand was now a landscape of floating cars, suitcases, pillows and bits of houses.
I could see bodies caught in the debris, washed up on the beach, limbs tangled and trapped in the branches of uprooted trees. The putrid smell of death lingers in my memory to this day.
I’d travelled to Thailand to help, but now I wasn’t sure if I had the strength. I felt faint and vomited.
I managed to pull myself together and headed to a camp where my bed for the night was in a communal tent, sandwiched between a toddler and an elderly lady.
Royal encounter: As part of her traveling Linda met Prince Charles
At no point did I regret being there. I just kept thinking what my matron used to say to her young nurses: ‘It’s not about you.’ That strengthened my resolve. There were times, after a gruelling day, when homesickness threatened to roll in. But I’d square my shoulders and plough on.
I stayed in Thailand after many aid workers had left and got involved in other projects. One was a psychological recovery programme for children; another helping fishermen to build boats.
I felt torn as Christmas 2005 approached. I badly wanted to see my family, but being so close to deprivation made the thought of festivities difficult to stomach.
So I decided to spend Christmas on the beach with some fishermen and their families. My children sent cards and messages, and my parents, who still live in Bristol, were also supportive. I’m sure there are times when they all think I’m crazy for not having a conventional life, but they’ve never tried to stop me doing what I love. We are emotionally very close even if we’re often miles apart.
Many people go through some kind of mid-life crisis. I think of it as an expression of the soul’s cry for meaning: ‘What is it all for’ ‘What do I really want to do’
Some head to a Harley-Davidson dealer or read books like Eat, Pray, Love. I wanted to make my life count. On my last day in Thailand, after two years, the fishermen paid me the ultimate tribute, naming a beautiful boat after me. As far as I know, it is still there to this day.
Since then I have worked in trouble spots all over the world, living with tribes in the Amazon rainforest and nomads in the deserts of Uzbekistan. I have escaped a rebel army in Nepal, evaded rape on a train in Sri Lanka and been held at gunpoint in countless places.
My nursing skills often come in handy, but my real expertise is working with private companies to establish new businesses that will bring prosperity.
One in four over-55s is planning a gap year or has recently been
I miss my children, but we keep in touch regularly by text and email. I have wonderful friends all over the world and I’ve enjoyed a few romances along the way, too. My children and I try to meet every three to six months, either in England or wherever I am in the world.
I’m a grandmother now to Graham’s four-year-old son Alfie, and we have a magical time when I’m with him. But I don’t feel I’m missing out as I have my own life to lead. I don’t have a regular salary but my costs are covered by the many business sponsors I have worked with over the years. A nomad like me doesn’t need much to live on.
I live out of my suitcase, carrying just a few clothes, sarongs and shawls, plus wet wipes to wash with.
I don’t mind sleeping rough, but I like to look glamorous so I’m never without my mascara, lipstick and perfume.
I carry a hip flask of whisky, too — not to drink but to brush my teeth with, or to clean wounds.
I also carry a wooden Buddha someone gave me and a photograph of my children. If I have those by my bed, it instantly feels more like home.
A typical mid-life crisis often involves a motorbike, as has mine — though in rather more dramatic circumstances than most. My most terrifying trip was in Nepal, where I was riding pillion in dense forest behind my guide, Karma, when our path was blocked by a gun-wielding Maoist rebel.
The gunman froze when he saw my blonde hair — he was shocked to see a foreign woman — then started shouting furiously at Karma, forcing me to dismount. I was certain he was about to shoot me. All I could think as he pointed his gun at my chest was that it was my son’s birthday the following day and he would wonder why I hadn’t phoned.
We were taken to a camp but managed to escape in the dead of night when all the rebels had drunk themselves into a stupor. We drove off at high speed on our motorbike as gunshots blasted and branches tore at my hair.
After so many adventures, friends have joked I’m a cross between Florence Nightingale and Indiana Jones, but I’m certainly no saint. And if there’s a chance to have fun, I’ll take it. In 2002, I had an hour’s audience with the Dalai Lama who was thrilled when I gave him a miniature musical box. I will never forget sitting there with him, listening to the tinny strains of Singin’ In The Rain.
I’m now 53, and reaching a stage where I would like a long-term relationship. I’m longing to have a base somewhere — perhaps in Tibet, where I feel at home.
My partner would have to understand my nomadic instinct and accept me as I am, because I know I could never live my old life again. I remember a friend asking what I wanted for my 39th birthday, and I said a blue suitcase. A few years later, it was still unused, a symbol of how stuck I felt in my old life. Now it goes everywhere with me and is battered and bruised by the thousands of miles we have covered together.
It contains everything I own and is one of the few constants in my life as I continue my incredible journey.
Marmalade And Machine Guns, by Linda Cruse (linda cruse.com), is published by John Blake on August 6, price 17.99. To order a copy for 14.99 (p&p free), call 0843 382 0000.