One year on

Yesterday, marked the one year anniversary of my move to Belgium, to take on a five month internship with the European Parliament as part of a career break, that I never returned from.

Although, it was never my intention to stay, as my life unfurled over the past 12 months, in turns of the utmost unexpected, Belgium became more of a home to me than England.

My internship officially ended on the 31st of May 2019, leaving me to face unemployment for the first time in four years. Growing up in the UK, I was often advised to avoid gaps in my CV as this reflected poorly, a notion that meant that I had been in continuous employment from January 2015 until May 2019, switching between five different roles for three different public sector institutions, despite the sometimes gut-wrenching periods of my life, that almost drained me absolutely.

Unemployment scared me, more so than the physical and mental burnout that I tried to rectify through short breaks to somewhere – minimal rest for maximum exhaustion in some cases. Employment for me was a mandatory dependency, lacking a parental unit to catch me when my world went to shit, self-sufficiency was my safety blanket in life and I was unsure how to survive without it.

In the end I was unemployed for 16 weeks, or a little over 3 months, and in this time I learned more about myself than I ever could have imagined, and my mindset and outlook on life drastically changed.

I spent the first month in my flat alone, waiting for a job interview for a position that fell at the last hurdle after I had depleted my savings, and also made me realise that I needed to work somewhere that was aligned to my values and beliefs or I would continue to live my life in deep blue hues.

During this time, before the last hurdle fell, I reached out to my mother for support to catch me as her child, but unfortunately this was once more met with the rejection, that I had become accustomed to expect from her, as I was told she was ‘unable to support me emotionally or financially, but she was always there for me.’

This was painful, but not unexpected, and was followed by a series of events that meant I finally stood up to her for the first time in my life. My courage was met with blatant faced denial, but although the voice of my truth was not fully heard by her it lifted the greatest weight off my soul.

It was a painful severing.

Part of me sees the possibility for reconciliation if my truth is heard and listened to, but part of me sees it like an infected limb – excruciating to live with and to remove, but better to live without even with the phantom feelings from time to time.

In this moment, that would have previously been awash with inky blue hues deeper than any ocean, another revelation was bought into my view; a new familial support network, unknown to me before I came to Belgium in 2018, in my aunt. A kindness unlike any that I have experienced prior, she has cared for me and shown me what unconditional love is; and for this I am eternally grateful. This act of kindness has allowed me the courage to stand up for myself and has given me hope in the future, my future.

Often when you read about battling the black dog of depression or the pressure of anxiety, finding someone that scares your internal demons and makes them run scared is recommended. It is often implied that this is a romantic partner, but it doesn’t have to be. I have been fortunate to find this in my family – my aunt(s), my cousins and older brothers; in my friends – in the UK, Belgium and elsewhere; and finally in myself.

So, as I sit and type, watching the sun-soaked trees go by in a green blur from the train window fading slowly in the vibrant but calm orange hues of sunset, which occupies most of my new work commute, I smile a little to myself in knowing that I am loved, I am supported, I am courageous, and for the first time in a long time I am happy– all I needed to do was follow the butterflies and take a leap of faith into the unknown, it wasn’t so scary after all.

Rule of thirds

For the last three days of April I did not leave my bed, my depression flung me into a low unlike anything I have previously experienced, even prediagnosis (the last time I actively tried to end my own life).

During these three days I could not eat without feeling an overwhelming pang of nausea and pain – even dry toast unsettled my stomach – to a point I convinced myself I was dying. I would wake with shooting pains down my right leg, that rendered me unable to move, so I laid in bed with the curtains drawn weeping into what felt like my end.

At some point on the third day, with encouragement from a concerned colleague I managed to get to a doctor. The two minute walk to the clinic down the road took ten, as I limped and stopped every so often to clutch my stomach as the agony of life washed over me. After being poked and prodded for a while I was given a prescription of anti-nausea medication and valium (diazepam) in order to restore some of my life signs, and allow my basic physiology to function.

Previous to these three days I had spontaneously booked a trip to Ireland, about a week prior, because I wanted to “go somewhere green,” mainly due an increase of stress in my work and personal life, the two of which have become more intertwined during the last couple of months, and as a result had manifested in physical deterioration and my all time low.

During my time in Ireland, I made the decision to unplug from all social media. This included WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. Also disabling all email notifications from my three accounts and leaving my usual travel devices at home in order to “take my mind off my mind for a while.” [McCormack, Mike. Notes from a Coma, p. 104]

In place of my regular social media consumption, influenced heavily by my personal fear of missing out, I took two books, a sketch pad, and a list of suggested activities for both Dublin and Galway. I allowed myself some allowances such as the use of my phone camera to take photographs, SMS, and music for the plane and coach rides. I can honestly say that this is one of the best decisions I have made for my mental health.

As I unplugged from the 21st century world of social media, intended to make humanity more connected but often leaving us isolated, I connected with myself again.

I found myself consuming my first book – Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig – within three days, reading it on the banks of the River Liffey until the single rain shower of my trip fell and I retreated to a nearby pub, sipping on pints of Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Alkoholfrei (annotating page 111 of my copy with “Ominous sign that when I started reading it started to rain heavily? – No! You’re in Ireland.”) as the bartender offered me a hurley to disperse of the gentleman trying to engage me in conversation.

Couple walking along the bank of the River Liffey
River Liffey – 3 May 2019

In between spells of reading, I socialised with the other patrons in my hostel even attending my first pub crawl, sober, and visited some of the many sights and attractions Dublin had to offer – my favourites being the Long Room at Trinity College where I wanted to bottle the scent of library that transported me into memories of my youth – particularly when I tried to live in the local library because “I wanted to read all the books overnight.” And my day trip to Glendalough, where I could have spent hours walking in the sunshine and sitting beside the babbling brook watching the wild deer and goats frolicking in the near distance.

After three days in Dublin I headed west to Galway, making a beeline for The Cornstore on my arrival, as after beginning my copy of The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, I found it did not feed my literary need after having read Reasons to Stay Alive.* I picked up a copy of Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack, a work of fiction about the life of a Romanian orphan adopted by the rural community of County Mayo, who suffers a sudden mental breakdown that leads him to volunteer for a government supported coma.

I again began to consume this; this time along the banks of the bay, on the side of Killary Harbour during a pit stop on a day trip to Connemara, and standing in the beer garden of O’Connell’s – sparking the curiosity of many, leading to icebreakers and new friendships, and even a piggy back.

Fjord on the West Coast of Ireland
Killary Harbour – 6 May 2019

Reading, singing, dancing, crafting new friendships and drawing badly in an unplugged world made me feel more connected to it. I lived in the moment and left my worries behind – “We [often] find ourselves through the process of escaping.” [Haig, Matt. Reasons to Stay Alive, p. 130]

Although, it is true that there were moments that I missed social media, no WhatsApp for instance made is difficult to message my new found friends (all on international numbers), which meant resorting to early 2000 meeting tactics when we wanted to hangout, but for the most part it allowed me the privilege of listening to myself without the distraction of life and its expectancy.

Yes, it is also true that I have the same battles ahead of me as I did before I went away; at the end of the month my employment contract ceases and I face being jobless for the first time since 2014, without employment I will most likely need to move back to the UK and leave my life in Belgium behind me, it is likely too that I will face homelessness for the third time if I am unable to secure my future.

This is a terrifying prospect, but if the sun can shine for a whole week in Ireland in May, then there’s also the chance it’ll work out in the end, and if it doesn’t as 13th century poet Rumi once said:

“Run from what’s comfortable. Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious. I have tried prudent planning long enough. From now on I’ll be mad.”


* I recommend Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive to anyone who has suffered from / is suffering from / or knows anyone who has or is suffering with depression. I owe my copy along with my immense gratitude to my perfect stranger who gifted it to me in December after stumbling across this blog – thank you, as the Joanna Lumley quote on the cover says it is “a small masterpiece that might even save lives.”


If you’re experiencing similar thoughts or feelings to those expressed in this post, it’s okay to reach out for help. You can find information about what mental health crisis services are available, how they can help and their times of operation here: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/crisis-services/useful-contacts/


10 … 9 … 8 … 7 … Sh*t

In 10 days my home country is set to depart from the European Union. As a British expat living and working in Belgium, this is a period of grave uncertainty for me.

Like most expats, both British and mainland European, living and working within the EU28, I’m still unsure about what the 29th of March will mean for me or them.

Will I be able to stay in my newly found second city? Or will I have to pack my bags on March 29th and bid farewell to the place I’ve called home for the last 6 months? Will the deadline for departure be extended until June, so I can live on borrowed time and in denial for a little longer? Or will we actually leave at all?

In short the will we won’t me of the situation is driving me a bit barmy, I hate the uncertainty. Not just this uncertainty, but all uncertainty. A somewhat ironic notion, as I love spontaneity.

A realisation I made a month ago, during an impromptu visit from a former colleague and friend, where a bottle of red wine on a Friday night resulted in a weekend trip to Amsterdam, the following day, because “Flixbus tickets are only €10!”

Following the 3 hours coach journey, we arrived in the Netherlands and I was washed over with a sense of calm. I often feel this way when I visit different cities and countries, despite the fact I often don’t speak/know the language, I’m usually alone, and my entire life in that moment is dependent on my mobile phone and EU data roaming.

As an anxiety sufferer who has struggled with my identity and finding clarity of thought throughout my life, arriving in an unknown place without understanding should probably feel me with dread, but it doesn’t. I didn’t realise this, until I saw that expected dread in another person.

I began to question why someone with my past life and current experiences, that could make up enough content for at least three series of a tabloid talk shows, was so calm with uprooting myself and placing myself in an unknown place without understanding.

After a day of thought the answer was simple: I inject cultivated chaos into my life which allows control over uncertainty, because I have chosen to place it there, and it is not something that is being done to me without my consent. If my world is going to be uncertain, I want to be the one to make it so. I want to find method in the madness and order in the chaos.

Unfortunately for me, and many people like me this isn’t always possible. Currently my external and internal being is uncertain, and I hate it.

I have a tri-factor of mental illnesses, which I attempt to subdue with a small yellow pill each night, but this doesn’t equate to the certainty that I’m not going to wake up screaming soaked in sweat because I had a flashback, because the chemicals of my subconscious decided to put on a private show of my nightmares and my memories … again.

These flashbacks of course stemming from the memories of uncertain things, which went against my individual autonomy and resulted in such a impactful mental blow it manifested as PTSD.

As someone whose internal being is so often against them, I often look to my external surroundings to find grounding in my life, but in this suspended moment that looks to be impossible.

My country is a shambles heading over a cliff’s edge into uncharted waters without a paddle or even a boat for that matter, and I find myself feeling hopeless and scrambling for something to hold onto in order to protect myself as my world descends further into madness. I don’t know what March 29th will bring, but I hope I can survive it.


If you’re experiencing similar mental health related thoughts or feelings to those expressed in this post, it’s okay to reach out for help. You can find information about what mental health crisis services are available, how they can help and their times of operation here: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/crisis-services/useful-contacts/


Is it more acceptable to be blackout, than blue?

I’m pleased to say that my dry January of 2019 was a success, not a single drop of alcohol entered my system for the whole month, even when temptation reared its head. I haven’t stayed sober in 2019, having had a few social events where an open bar and want to let loose have taken over.

Having abstained and indulged in alcohol this year I’ve come to realise a few things about myself:

  • I drink when I’m anxious, I drink heavily when I’m anxious, as someone with severe anxiety I’m anxious a lot;
  • I drink so I have an excuse to act out of character and a bit wilder than usual, alcohol gives people an excuse to let their inhibitions free – say what they like and do what they like all under the guise of ‘sorry, I was drunk;’
  • I still have blue days when I’m sober;
  • Other people will have a bigger problem with you not drinking, than you have with not being able to drink;
  • My social life revolves around beer and wine;
  • My nationality influences my relationship with alcohol greatly, and people expectation of it.

Circling back to the top of that list, anxiety, particularly social anxiety is a big problem for me.

Crowds freak me out. People freak me out. Life freaks me out. Since I was a teenager social situations fill me with dread, not because I dislike them but because I am convinced that people don’t actually want me there. 

You could probably link this back to an early childhood memory of mine, where I distinctly remember my two closest friends at the time running away from me under the pretence of play, often leaving me in tears on the other side of the playground, feeling rejected and abandoned, having spent a few minutes running after them – my small stature and naturally non-athletic ability rendering me fairly easy to leave behind. This memory has stuck with me throughout my life, and resurfaces when I experience similar moments in my adult life almost two decades later. 

As an adult, I realise that social events are necessary if you want to avoid becoming a hermit. Particularly when you live almost 400 kilometres/200+ miles away from home, away from your closest friends and family, away from the comforts, and the routine you had spent years crafting and altering to suit your needs.

However, like most people I’m still marked by the memories of my past, I still fear rejection from my peers so often find myself appearing rather defensive or cold as a means of protecting myself. In order to counteract my anxiety in social situations, I drink – because drinking is a socially acceptable coping mechanism, staring at people awkwardly from the corner, wide eyed, like a deer in the headlights, is not.

Even when you drink until you drunk dial your exes and wake up with hangover that feels like a 4am hotel fire alarm, realising that the pharmacies are shut and wanting nothing more than to crawl up and die, this isn’t considered as odd; when compared to saying that your anxiety is kicking your arse, your fight or flight is having a domestic in your brain, and you’re finding it difficult to breathe.

The month I didn’t drink was hard. I didn’t have a social crutch, and it was noticeable. People noticed I wasn’t drinking, and people questioned it. Part of the reason I chose to do ‘dry January’ was because it was a pre-existing premise, so I thought it would removed at least some of the questioning, but it didn’t. I still found myself explaining that the reason for my choice to not drink was because I wanted to see how it affected my mental health, which made for a very awkward set of conversations, because mental health still carries a very negative stigma which often makes people feel uncomfortable.

Another thing I realised in my month of sobriety was that the blue days didn’t disappear, as I was hoping they would. I hoped that not drinking would be the cure all to my depression, an easy fix if you will. Unfortunately, there is no easy fix to depression. It doesn’t go away overnight, and is something that many people struggle with throughout their lives.

I did however realise that drinking when I was blue exasperated my negative thoughts and feelings, turning pale false spring skies into the depths of an inky ocean, the monster within it spiralling in my mind and tormenting me until my emotions leaked out of me like waves crashing against the shore line in the midst of a tempest, toppling unsuspecting (relation)ships and swallowing them whole, with no remnants left behind.

I’ve suspected this correlation for a while but never really addressed it, the fear of being ostracised from the social circles which I’m desperately trying to infiltrate due to my loneliness has blinded me somewhat from this reality. However, following an unexpected visit from a friend last week, a spontaneous trip to Amsterdam, and a string of sunshine days following I have been able to see more clearly, and I hope this clarity will allow me to tackle life’s obstacles head on, from the root. Disregarding the opinion of others, and the societal expectation which I am supposedly meant to adhere to. I live for me and only me, I care for the people around me and who are in my life, but ultimately I take centre stage in my reality. 


If you’re experiencing similar thoughts or feelings to those expressed in this post, it’s okay to reach out for help. You can find information about what mental health crisis services are available, how they can help and their times of operation here: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/crisis-services/useful-contacts/ 


 

Dry eyes, dry January

This year I celebrated the first New Year’s in at least five years where I haven’t cried. From ill timed breakups to breakdowns New Year’s Eve 2013 – 2017 have each been unhappy milestones in my history – especially the year where I got food poisoning and spent the countdown alone in a pitch black room clutching my stomach in pain, whilst my then boyfriend sat celebrating in the room next door.

However, this year despite a rocky past few months, which was catalysed into overdrive in the last few weeks of December due to work and personal events I was determined not to repeat history. I was determined not to cry or find a reason to cry as 2019 chimed in (accompanied by a remix of the Auld Lang Syne).

Firstly, I spent it with friends, my best friends, the ones who have been there through thick and thin and would probably die for me (and even take a rail replacement bus service on a Sunday during the holiday season) just to see me happy. We booked tickets in advance to a bar event on the other side of the river, arriving early to avoid disappointment and loading up on carbs, to avoid ringing in the New Years hugging a toilet bowl while your mascara mixes with tears, alternating between apologising and heaving your guts out.

Drinking sensibly and surrounded by the people I love, I allowed myself to enjoy the moment, something I had forgotten how to do; I danced, I laughed, I took way too many selfies, and for the first time in a long time I had fun. I felt happy, I felt content, I felt loved.

Prior to our New Year’s Eve outing I had made the decision to partake in ‘Dry January,’ and in order to stick to my first challenge of 2019 I stopped drinking at 23:45 on the 31st December 2018.

I’m 8 days into the challenge and determined to succeed at it. I have spoken openly about my depression in previous posts and as most will know alcohol is a depressant, so it’s only logical that a depressant will make a depressed mind worse. For years I have used alcohol to self medicate my depression when it was getting too much, it has never helped, the destruction of my physical and mental state visible through the blackout moments I can’t remember – a stream of unfiltered WhatsApp messages the next morning jerking my memory to realise it was bad whatever it was – self loathing and a disregard of my safety driving me to act dangerously and feed the black dog of depression inside.

Alcohol does not soothe the beast, it enables it to drag you further into the pit of despair, closing the exits as you go deeper into the rabbit hole of your mind, convincing you that you need it to cope with the world around you and blinding you to the beauty in it.

Although, I have had a turbulent relationship with alcohol, there are moment where I have enjoyed alcohol without blackout moments and feelings of regret and deep sadness the next morning – New Year’s Eve for example.

I’m not sure if I’ll drink again in February or there after, but I hope this challenge will teach me how to cope on my blue days without alcohol, to go to social events without feeling the need to drink because my anxiety is running laps around my rational thinking and entangling me in paranoia, and I hope it will give me the tools necessary to fight the beast my way.


If you’re experiencing similar thoughts or feelings to those expressed in this post, it’s okay to reach out for help. You can find information about what mental health crisis services are available, how they can help and their times of operation here: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/crisis-services/useful-contacts/ 


 

 

 

Blue

If you have known me for more than a month, it is likely you’ve seen me on a ‘blue day’ – a period of time (sometimes a day, sometimes longer) where my depression and anxiety are royally kicking my arse, and I find it near impossible to cope.

During this time my insecurities manifest to point where I am convinced that I am sub-human, everyone secretly hates me, and I’d be better off if I just removed myself from the equation of life.

I also become insecure about the fact that I’m feeling depressed and anxious again, and am probably irritating my nearest and dearest with my apparent inability to be a happy person, instead I’m stuck in a seemingly endless loop of sadness, despite my best efforts.

My blue days are not always obvious, in fact I hide them quite well. Over the past few years I have created a facade of being a happy, smiley, confident person, which makes them almost undetectable.

Most people know about my blue days because I talk about my blue days. This is a recent revelation, which came about due to my hope, that by admitting my vulnerabilities, insecurities and flaws they could not be used against me, as well as being tired of pretending to be okay.

My platonic loved ones often tell me how much I mean to them; I am told I am brave, strong, beautiful, funny, admirable, smart, loyal, kind, as well as many other positive attributes either based on my personality or my appearance, unfortunately if I’m having a blue day I do not see this.

On a blue day I am in fact incapable of seeing this. On a blue day my internal vision is clouded by every negative thought, feeling, and experience I have gone through, I try to filter it out but the filter usually breaks, and the blue hue rushes over me, leaving me stained and bruised.

It’s a constant battle between myself and my own brain and it’s exhausting – a bit like playing Street Fighter when you and your mate want to both play as Ryu, so you end up playing Ryu v Ryu, and inevitably end up yelling at the screen because you can’t differentiate which Ryu is your Ryu, and you know it would have been far easier if you just played as Ken v Ryu, or Sagat v Zangief, or something, but instead it’s you v you, so you’re stuck in a paradox, scrambling for a way out.

Unfortunately, I have also found that my blue days are a breaking point for a number of people, and has laid waste to numerous relationships in my life, mostly romantic.

I have struggled with romantic relationships since my adolescence, having been bullied for my appearance in both my teenage and adult life, and having been in a series of emotional and physically abusive relationships, it’s often difficult for me to view myself as desirable. Adding to this the times where I have been desired romantically have been marred with ignorance, racism, and fetishism, which has made me sceptical that I will every truly find someone who loves me for me.

I often hear that in order to find love, you must first love yourself – that you have to be more confident, more positive, more … just more, but why do we always need to be more than who we are? Why can’t we be insecure, why can’t we be vulnerable, why can’t we be flawed? Why can’t we openly be shaped by our past?

People are not perfect, far from it in fact, so why are we so hellbent on pretending that we are?


If you’re experiencing similar thoughts or feelings to those expressed in this post, it’s okay to reach out for help. You can find information about what mental health crisis services are available, how they can help and their times of operation here: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/crisis-services/useful-contacts/ 


 

Eternal clouds of the anxious mind

Three weeks ago I moved to Brussels.

In the process of doing so I left behind my friends, my family, my hometown, and my sense of security and comfort.

I have moved cities once before, when I was 14. It was a move I did not want to make, but as a child at the time I did not have a choice in the matter.

Once I regained autonomy of my life and its decisions, I moved back to my hometown, after being accepted to study at the University of the Arts. I was the first person in my family to attend university, so for me this was a big deal.

Looking back at this moment, I harbour some regret.

I often feel that I should have moved further afield for university, like many of my friends did, although I have come to accept that at the time this was the right decision for me.

Eight months prior to starting university, I experienced the most traumatic experience of my life. An experience which altered my life permanently, and almost cost it entirely.

The fallout of this trauma includes; a criminal proceeding, countless therapy sessions, numerous suicide attempts, five years (and counting) of anti-depressants, flashbacks, panic attacks, breakdowns, homelessness, and a medical diagnosis for PTSD, major depression, and severe anxiety.

A difficult and trying adolescence/early twenties, with few constants, meant that my hometown, of London, became my safety blanket. The decision to leave it behind was an arduous one to say the least.

Although, over the past couple of years, I have felt like I have lost touch with my hometown. I used to know London like the back of my hand, and it made me feel safe.

However, following the Brexit Referendum and subsequent occurrences since, I began to feel like home was no longer my home. The negative aspects of my life seemed to become more prevalent, and so did my desire to escape my life there.

I applied for my traineeship in March, and was officially accepted in August. After securing a career break, I packed my worldly possessions into a storage unit (filtering out two suitcases of ‘essentials’), said goodbye to my friends, my family, and my home, and set off for Brussels, the new city which would act as my surrogate home.

Unfortunately since arriving I have started to experience increased feelings of fear, sickness, and hopelessness.

I felt fear when I first arrived, not knowing a single soul and not speaking either of the primary languages, served as a stark reminder that I was no longer surrounded by the familiarity of home, and that I was alone.

I felt sickness a week prior to moving, I began showing physical symptoms of ill health, centering around stomach pain and seemingly random bruising, which I attributed to stress. However, once I arrived the symptoms continued, and although they could be due to the stress of moving, I am concerned that they may be a sign of something far more sinister.

The hopelessness came following the sickness and the fear, as my anxiety and depression have worsened. I spent the last two days confined to the walls of my Airbnb, mainly sleeping and binge watching Netflix series. I’m at a loss of thought, I’m honestly not sure if I’ll survive this chapter in my life.

Looking over the trajectory of my life, through my adolescence and my adulthood, do things really get better with time?


If you’re experiencing similar thoughts or feelings to those expressed in this post, it’s okay to reach out for help. You can find information about what mental health crisis services are available, how they can help and their times of operation here: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/crisis-services/useful-contacts/