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MY GUT SAID, GO, GO, GO. I almost married the wrong man and started growing old. And yet leaving felt like a bat trapped in my chest, beating its bony, leathery wings.

The fear of suffering…How does that go again? A heart never suffers…No.

The car barreled over to the left lane without a signal. I was speeding now, and then the light ahead went red. Come on, come on.

Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dream1.

I’d devoured Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist three months ago. It’s a novel about a shepherd who bravely parts from his flock to find a distant treasure. In a moment of doubt, the universe tells him the truth about fear and suffering. I’d read those pages secretly; neither Brian nor my high school friends, a lot known as the ‘princess pack,’ would have understood. When I finished the book, I felt a pull. For a while, I had been able to ignore it.

— an excerpt from Chapter Two, Taking the Long Way, of How to Meet a Nice Man from Medicine Hat, by Natalie Appleton

IN MY POST Stories to Stay Alive, I asked, ‘What story fell on your lap at the very moment you needed it?’

I have made some of the biggest decisions of my life–leaving a man, moving to Bangkok–on the heels of reading an author’s inspiring words.

I have made some of the biggest decisions of my life–leaving a man, moving to Bangkok–on the heels of reading an author’s inspiring words. It has occurred to me, more than once, that sometimes I found those books, and sometimes they found me. I was given The Alchemist a few weeks before a phase I now call my ‘Mid-mid-life crisis.’ I was 22, living with a man I didn’t love in a city that was suffocating me. But my life wasn’t so bad. I had friends, a job, a house. I thought I should be grateful. 

The Alchemist taught me not to be afraid to ask for more. To be happy. A few weeks later, I left the house, the almost-husband, and Medicine Hat, my hometown. I did look back, all the while chanting Coelho’s words. Our brains are strange things. They don’t like change. I needed a mantra to outsmart my mind.

MY MOM KNEW the ‘What if’s’ were strangling me. What if I was supposed to marry him? What if I can’t make it anywhere else? So she handed me a copy of Who Moved My Cheese?

It’s a fable written by a doctor to help people handle change. Two of the book’s main characters, Hem and Haw, are running out of cheese. Haw thinks they should enter the maze and look for new cheese; they can always come back if they’re wrong. Hem’s too scared to leave the old pile. Haw decides to go alone, and in his search he finds dead-ends but also enough crumbs to keep him going. For his patience and persistence, Haw is rewarded with a mound of cheese the size of a city. We don’t know what happens to Hem. The last line asks: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

This book helped me shove fear into the backseat and see that Medicine Hat will always be there. I can always go back. In effect: We can always be unhappy, but if we don’t court change, we can’t be happy.

Because of these two books, a few bottles of wine and a gifted tank of gas, I left. I ended up on the other side of the world, in old Bangkok. There, two oceans and 12,000 kilometres from where we were born, I met a man from Medicine Hat.

1. Coelho, Paulo. The Alchemist. Harper: San Francisco. 1993.