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/