In case you didn’t already know, its #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek. And right up there with women empowerment, the fight against cancer and animal welfare, mental health is a cause that is very close to my heart since I know first hand how lonely, isolated and terrified one can feel, sometimes for no apparent reason.
I believe that bloggers are very fortunate to have a unique voice and platform to speak about anything under the sun. And while its great to talk about the latest trends and where we went on holiday, sometimes, its nice to open up about your struggles – they are what make you real and human. A blog is an opportunity to help somebody, help your readers realize they aren’t alone, that you have issues just like they do, to look at the bigger picture and send a message about an important cause. Which is why, I thought I’d share my story, in the hope of telling anyone else who felt like I did last year, that they aren’t alone and that all is not lost. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and you can overcome this yourself.
Now, I’m not somebody who has struggled with anxiety my whole life. I’ve had had a happy, secure childhood and I’ve always been very bubbly, confident and independent. And while I do sometimes stress about certain things, I wasn’t really phased by a lot. Which is why, when I tried to tell anyone that I felt scared or anxious, they’d be quite quick to dismiss me. “You? Anxious and depressed? You’re one of the most headstrong, out-there, confident people we know!” Which made me feel even more isolated and that nobody believed me when I said this big, scary thing that consumed my every waking moment was even happening.
People tend to only focus on what they see on the outside – what you choose to portray to the world. Maybe its easier to ignore the fact that someone is secretly asking for help because getting involved could be ‘messy’ or maybe they really do have good intentions and believe that expressing disbelief is actually a compliment and a way of showing you that they think you’re doing alright. But do know that if someone makes a remark like that, it is because they have a lot going on internally. And if they chose to actually share it with you, you have a responsibility to acknowledge and support them. And if you aren’t able to do so, find somebody who can. Either way, never ignore what is told to you, no matter how lightheartedly.
Now even though I had visited the UK for a few months at a time when I was young and was fairly familiar with how things worked, when I actually moved over and everything was new and scary, I started to freak out. All my peers seemed miles ahead of me – they knew things I didn’t know, they had their careers on track, they were getting promotions, saving money, buying houses and doing all of these really important things, while I felt like I was just struggling. That I was nowhere near as smart, I had to start my career from scratch in a new country and that I was always lagging behind and I’d never be ‘good enough’.
Its funny, because from the outside looking in, everyone thought I was always happy and had a dream life – married the love of my life, had a cute little dog, moved to an exciting new country and had a lovely home. And while all this was true and I am so, so grateful for it all, nobody saw just how much I struggled.
To start with, I had always lived at home with my mum and had never run a home by myself. I had to learn how to do all of these chores, toilet train a puppy, keep my husband happy and get used to living with this whole other person and his ways of life, survive the freezing cold and deal with being pretty bored by myself all day because James was at work and I had nobody to talk to.
It also didn’t help that I’m a city girl and we lived in the countryside with nothing around us but fields. The nearest shop or train station was a 40 minute uphill walk in the rain away since I didn’t drive and there were no buses. There was was nobody I could make friends with or ask to take my blog pictures because everyone was at work. I was the only person in my neighborhood who was home all day and sometimes, besides James coming home in the evening, I wouldn’t see another soul for days. It didn’t help that even though I’m a super friendly person, I wasn’t able to build friendships with a lot of the girls I was introduced to as we didn’t have a lot in common.
Going from one of the busiest, craziest cities in the world to that environment, as beautiful as it was, was a HUGE culture shock for me. I was lucky to have lots of support from James who did the best he could, and his amazing mum and grandparents who I adore, and my friends, Nicola and Amy. As well as crucial long-distance support from my wonderful mum and friends back home.
Eventually, a year later, James and I were in a position to be able to move. We moved to a lively, exciting suburb just a few minutes outside Manchester and I was beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Things were finally getting back on track! But then…James had to go away to the Philippines for work. It was initially meant to be a 4 week trip, which I was totally fine with. I had a new neighborhood to explore and the city centre was only minutes away on the tram – I was more than capable of keeping busy for 4 weeks! Only then, it was extended to 6 weeks, then 8, then 9 and by the time he eventually came home, he had been gone three months instead of one.
This was definitely a tipping point for me. I had never lived on my own before, and I was left with one dog who needed to have surgery (Poppy needed to be spayed and required a fair amount of post op care) and a brand new puppy who needed to be house trained (and anyone who has house trained a puppy knows how hard it is – you’re literally picking up after their messes between 12 and 15 times a day for six months!) and I had to do it all by myself. Both those things plus coping with living alone for the first time in my life and not having any definite date as to when James would return was making me anxious and stressy and depressed. Every time he would call, I’d take it out on him by picking a fight or yelling at him for something that wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t who I was a person and I felt like my life was spinning out of control.
Little things would make me cry. Little things would make me feel like my chest was tightening into a knot and I wasn’t able to breathe properly. And I had no release. While I did have friends to talk to, the friendships weren’t strong enough back then to talk to them about all of this, without the worry that I would be judged. So I told nobody what I was going through. I bottled it all up until I was ready to burst. I’d have terrible headaches and get so depressed, that it eventually reached a point where I wasn’t able to get out of bed for a few days at a time.
This was especially terrifying because a blood relative has schizophrenia and I was worried that I may suffer from some sort of mental illness, too. In a panic, I woke my mum at 4am one night and I was sobbing on the phone. I was so scared of what was happening to me. This wasn’t who I was but I couldn’t shake this horrible feeling of darkness inside of me and I needed some sort of external assistance. Luckily, she spoke to me calmly and reassured me that I was okay, that I was handling things beautifully given the circumstances even if I couldn’t see it myself, but if I really felt like I needed to see somebody, that she would support me 100%.
I found a psychologist local to me, and while it was expensive to go see her, my main reason for doing to was that I needed to learn some tips and tricks to calm me down when the anxiety paralyzed my mind and body, and that I needed someone who would listen to me in a safe environment, without any judgement, so I could say the things I wasn’t able to say out loud to anybody else.
Now therapy works wonders for some people. For me, however, it did nothing. And I went in with a very open mind. Every. Single. Session just tended to focus on my relationship with my parents and what my childhood was like, except for the last two sessions I went to where I talked about what I was struggling with most – my present life aka moving and all the trauma associated with it. I asked her to give me tips on how to stay calm when I could feel my chest tightening with anxiety and her tip was to ‘take deep breaths’. Uh, I didn’t need to pay £50 a session to be told that, I knew that already!
That day I went home and the worst possible outcome of a dog having surgery came true – Poppy had pulled all her stitches out, had re-opened her surgical incision and was bleeding. I panicked at first – our vet was an hour away, dogs weren’t allowed on the train, I didn’t drive, James was 6000 miles away in another country and my mum in law was at work and couldn’t leave. Somehow, miraculously, when I realised that nobody could save the situation but me, I went into fight or flight mode. I found a local vet and managed to convince them to see Poppy in an emergency situation. I then found a dog-friendly cab company who took us there. They fixed Poppy up and we came back home. And that’s when I realised, that if I could overcome my worst fear entirely on my own, well then I could do pretty much anything!
The next day, I decided that I needed to stop letting my anxiety and subsequent depression get the best of me. And that sometimes, you need to force yourself into a situation that you’re completely new to, to be able to overcome it. Because if you overcome it once, that’s the battle won for life! I also started a positivity journal, where I wrote down all the good things that happened to me that day, no matter how small, so I could reflect on it later and see that I wasn’t doing too badly after all. I signed up for driving lessons and got my friend to teach me how to cook (my two biggest fears were driving and cooking – I hated the idea of them both).
Fast forward to a year later and I’m back to my old self. James has been in the Phillippines again for two months and I don’t even feel guilty when I say I’ve really enjoyed the time to myself. I have my driving test booked for next week, I’ve made some amazing new friends and strengthened the friendships I had already made, I regularly take blog photos and go to blog events, am doing an internship I really love, going to the gym (I’ve lost about 8kg since last year) and I don’t feel anxious about much anymore! The best part is, I even booked our new pup, Millie, in to be spayed while James was away because I knew fully well from last year that I could totally handle it if things went wrong and that there isn’t anything to worry about.
I was lucky to be mentally and emotionally strong enough to overcome this myself, but everyone isn’t as lucky. Not everyone has friends and family they can depend on, which is why, it is our responsibility to notice the signs. If somebody looks lonely, sit with them. Talk to them. Ask them about their lives. And if they say something, even casually, that you might believe is a cause for concern, please, please don’t shy away from being there for them. I totally understand that it is easier not to, but for me, if I recognized that somebody was struggling and I didn’t do anything to help, I’d feel horribly guilty. And if, heaven forbid, they actually harmed themselves, I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. Take the time to listen – it will hardly take up any of your day and it will mean the world to somebody who is struggling inside. It may even be the difference between life, harm and death.
I’m going to share all my methods of coping with anxiety in the next post. But in the meantime, know that if I could get through my darkest hour, you can, too 🙂