I’m on all fours in a hotel room, poring over the cream carpet and scouring it with a tissue. I’ve been so stressed that my hair is falling out, and I know there is a smooth, walnut-sized patch at the top of my head. The speed of the hair loss has frightened me, with new clumps and strands appearing everywhere every day — in the shower and on the bed linen, but mostly on the floor. I hide the evidence and pretend there isn’t a problem, because I’m ashamed to let anyone know something is wrong.

I did this “cleaning” routine every day for weeks, months even, during the darkest time of my life. It was worse than watching my father die from bleeding on the brain. It was worse than being threatened with violence by my parents when I refused to marry someone. It was worse because it was my stubbornness and ambition that got me to this point, and now I was stuck.

I can’t tell you where I live or where I work, because I could be deported and the people I work with harassed, arrested, or chased into exile. What I can tell you is that I paid a high price for believing my work was more important than anything else.

It started in 2017, when I was offered what seemed like a dream job. It was a chance to live, all expenses paid, in an Asian country known for its hostile media environment, reporting on stories that mattered and would make a difference. Government corruption, unsolved murders, environmental pollution — it was the kind of journalism that started my career and the only reason I had gone into the industry at all. I knew journalists in that country were routinely intimidated, imprisoned, abducted, and assaulted. It has languished far down the press-freedom rankings for years, which means strong reporting is even more vital because it holds the government to account. It also lets the rest of the world know about this country’s dark side.

I was excited and more than a little smug that I’d gotten the job. But more than that, I felt terrified at having so much responsibility, not just for my team but also for the work the newsroom was famous for. I started to think about how to protect my identity, paring back my social media accounts and deleting my LinkedIn profile so that only the minimum about me existed online. I had been editing rather than reporting for the past few years, so my profile was already low, and that would make it easier for me to deny being a journalist if I was asked.

I started to imagine what my life would be like. It was an isolated and conservative developing country and not an obvious place for expats, so I wasn’t sure how I would make friends. But I told myself I could do it for one year, because the professional payoff would be tremendous. Surely I could have any job I wanted after that. After bouncing from one toxic newsroom to another, this new job seemed to offer autonomy, as well as some creative freedom to develop my ideas and interests. What could go wrong?

My first setback came when my application for a visa was rejected, even though I had carefully massaged my job title and responsibilities. I couldn’t protest without drawing attention to my job or my team. I had uprooted my life, moved to the other side of the continent, and ended up having to stay in a neighboring Asian country, trying to manage my team of inexperienced and poorly resourced staff over email and by phone. It was frustrating and exhausting, attempting to explain what needed to be done and why — all day, every day, to half a dozen people.

Friendships don’t last when they are built on deception, but even liars need company.

Socially, I did what I could in my unexpected new home to meet people, asking for introductions, joining expat groups and Tinder, and signing up for fitness classes. But I was paranoid and insecure because of my job and my illegal working status. It was a small, close-knit community where everyone knew each other and had connections with the government.

So I lied to the people I met. I was Raquel. Mexican. Catholic.

Over the next three months, I had to fly in and out of the country every 30 days to renew my tourist visa. I felt sick when I thought about going through airport immigration, because I knew I would have to lie. Officials asked with airy and disbelieving tones what I was doing in the country, and I recited my lies with conviction and emotion, even as my mouth dried out and the bile rose in my throat.

It was my last chance to travel before I got married.

I wanted to learn how to surf.

I was taking cooking classes and photography courses.

I even brandished a (fake) engagement ring.

My passport was handed back to me and the raised eyebrows lowered, but I was terrified I would be held back for more questions—or turned away.

The effort of getting into the country and staying there hardly seemed worth it. I was always the newbie in the room, and while a few people said hello or made eye contact, I was rarely invited to hang out with anyone. Nobody was interested in me. One snub followed another, every day and every week. The rejection was so overwhelming that I gave up trying to make friends.

I was struggling. I felt so isolated and so alone that I started to stay in hotels every night, because at least in a hotel there would be housekeeping to knock on my door every day. At least there would be somebody checking on me in case something happened. If I died unexpectedly in the middle of the night, or if I harmed myself. My passport had my next-of-kin details, and hotel reception had a copy of my passport, I told myself.

This went on for three months. I found excuses not to eat. I resented bathing and dressing. The harassment in the street scared me more than before and stopped me from going out. I went 25 days without socializing because I didn’t know anyone. I did everything alone.

Friendships don’t last when they are built on deception, but even liars need company.

I focused on my work, which I knew had the power to rattle the government and get people talking about underreported problems in this stifling, repressive, misogynistic country. I didn’t want to quit, especially not as a fortysomething woman of color. I worked 10 hours a day, six or seven days a week, and kept hearing how brilliantly I was doing at the job. I never told my paymasters that I was struggling, because I didn’t want to be perceived as weak or emotional, and I also suspected they didn’t care. I had always prided myself on being resourceful and resilient, because I have faced far worse in my life.

I was simply devastated that I could feel myself failing. Adversity had always made me thrive and was where some of my best work had come from, but I felt out of my depth for the first time in decades. I started to wonder if I really knew myself and whether I had overestimated my capability. The isolation felt like a wound and gnawed away at me.

The plot was like something from a scratchy old spy novel, and part of me, I suppose, was addicted to the drama and ridiculousness of it. But mostly it was fear that propelled me forward.

I loved reporting, but I was old and expensive. I was also under pressure to conform to social and cultural norms; a woman my age was either “supposed” to be married with kids or “should” be living with her family instead. I didn’t have a partner or children and had spent years overseas. It was my work that gave me a timeframe and structure: two years in this place, six months in another. I was scared that if I couldn’t work, I would lose my freedom, and then all those opportunities, all the satisfaction and joy of journalism, would end. There were also consequences for the team if I quit — unemployment, at the very least — and I didn’t want that on my conscience or my career history. And much of my anxiety came from feeling guilty that I wasn’t there with the reporters; I was unable to properly mentor them or help them develop. I was letting them down by not being more patient, stronger, more creative.

I knew I had to leave.

I was so lost in all this conflict and anxiety that I just couldn’t see a way out. When I reached rock bottom, I was refusing to sleep just to avoid waking up bald.

Eventually, two people in a city of millions rescued me.

There were simple but moving gestures: meals cooked from scratch and gifts of squashed boxes of herbal tea from familiar, faraway supermarkets. They had done a lot of globetrotting, and their home was a living museum of their travels. They had each other and their children and knew enough people to insulate them against the unspoken yet tangible unfriendliness of the country.

My tourist visa was running out, and I knew I had to leave. My next destination was bigger, more international, and better at absorbing outsiders. But mostly I chose it because I had two friends there. Two, I had learned, was enough to keep the loneliness away.

This time, I purposefully sought out a co-working space, because I wanted to be able to say good morning to people, or chat at the water fountain, or pester IT about the sluggish Wi-Fi. I was tired of my own company and didn’t want to work out of an apartment or café.

I made some friends in my early days, sharing snacks and small talk. I thought my heart would burst when someone called me “buddy.” We had catchphrases, running jokes, crushes, gossip, and a chat group. I eventually told them my story, but they decided I was a spy and nicknamed me Lady Espionage.

We all understood the cost of moving around the world and leaving behind somewhere that feels like home. We also knew there was a balance between making friends and investing too much in people you might never see again. But there was a duty of care that started to bind us together. I think we would call that friendship.

My contract ends soon, but I won’t be looking to stay on. The story and the cause remain important, but moving around Asia and working illegally in so many countries left me drained and unhappy. It was a huge personal risk to assume my job would be enough to sustain and nourish me.

The past few months have taught me that I need good people and a support network, regardless of where I am or what I’m doing. That visa rejection, I can see now, was a blessing. For the first time in a long time, I know that part of my job is taking care of myself, too.