It’s okay not to be okay.
Everyone has mental health. The brain is an incredible organ that literally controls your: organs, feelings, personality, breathing rate, heart rate, the whole shebang. When we have ‘bad’ mental health, it makes sense that all of these things, that are controlled by said beautifully complex organ, can be affected, right? This is why I can’t wrap my head around the people that are convinced that mental health should not be taken seriously, that is it not a thing. A stigma remains around the term “mental health” and it baffles and saddens me because it is something that can have a huge impact on living your life. Bad mental health does not discriminate, it is not a luxury, it is not for a select few. It is real, everyday struggles for people, regardless of the boxes that we put ourselves in: ethnicity, class, sexual orientation or faith.
With all of this in mind, I decided to write this post for complete transparency. Yes, moving to a new country [temporarily] has been exciting and wonderful. Mike and I have been exploring and posting all of these different experiences and fun adventures, but the flip side is that moving country is one of those huge life changes that impacts your mental health drastically. In addition to a country move, add in a career change, a change in your relationship dynamic, and you have a combination of variables that come down on your mental health like a tonne of bricks.
The reason I have found this post so hard to write is that I have not discussed my mental health, even prior to these changes, with many people in my life. I am embarrassed that I have struggled with it, as I consider myself to be privileged and to have no “real” reason to experience bad mental health: there’s that no discriminating thing we discussed earlier. However, after a series of bad days last week, I discussed why I was struggling, and this feeling of embarrassment that I am struggling, with my other half and he was shocked.
“Emma, you always discuss other people being brave to talk about these things and are always emphasising the importance that we discuss our mental health: good or bad. Why are you embarrassed to talk about your own?
Having bad mental health does not make you weak. It does not make you weird, or odd, or strange. It makes you human. This is something that I have struggled to accept. Maybe this post won’t make sense to you, and there is the chance that people will consider it “attention-seeking” or “dramatic” but I feel it is important to write it anyway. For myself, for transparency and to let other people know that it is okay not to be okay.
My name is Emma, I grew up in a small town and I can honestly say that I am extremely lucky to have had a fantastic childhood. I get along with my family, I class them as my closest friends, nothing particularly awful/sad/challenging has happened to me. I completed university, I got a job, I made good friends and nothing is particularly out of the ordinary in my life. Despite all of this, since high school I have struggled with anxiety and panic attacks. (Please note, anxiety is completely different from feeling anxious). There are many ways that this anxiety presents itself, but one of the ways it presents is as health anxiety. I will completely convince myself that I have the symptoms of a chronic illness or life limiting disease. Not in a ‘haha hypochondriac’ way, but the sort of way that when I focus on it I become engulfed and cannot focus on anything else. In the way that it can disrupt my every day life.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America discussed this in a way that I found to be very helpful at understanding why I think the way I think:
“Health anxiety is the misinterpretation of normal bodily sensations as dangerous. Healthy bodies produce all sorts of physical symptoms that might be uncomfortable, painful, unexpected, and otherwise unwanted — but not dangerous.
Picture a car with an alarm system. It’s useful if your car alarm goes off when a criminal is breaking in, but it’s problematic if it goes off every time someone walks by. Your car alarm would be misinterpreting innocent pedestrians as dangerous criminals.”
I know I am absolutely fine, but I also know that I don’t feel right and there has to be some reason for that. I know that the doctor gave me an explanation, but these symptoms are real and something has to be causing them. It is an endless cycle of noticing the “symptoms” and becoming pre occupied with them so that they last longer and become more severe. Even though I understand that I am most likely fine, and I now understand that it is health anxiety, it does not make the experience less scary or lessen the impact it has. Often times I will end up having a panic attack, though these two are not always correlated.
When I have a panic attack: I feel dizzy, my throat feels like it is closing up and I feel like I cannot breathe, I feel nauseous, my heart is racing, there is an awful sense of not being right and the concern that I won’t feel right again. Most websites will discuss this as a “sense of impending doom” and it is bloody terrifying. You genuinely do not know how you will get passed this, despite knowing that it has happened before and you have been to the other side. Despite having a medical background, and being able to rationalise that it is indeed a panic attack. Despite knowing that- however scary- I will not die from this. It does not get any less scary each time it happens. And each time it happens, there is a period where you live in fear that it is going to happen again. In public, when you’re alone, somewhere where you will “embarrass” yourself or in front of someone who will not understand, therefore “embarrassing” yourself. Sometimes it is completely obvious what triggers it, a period of stress like a new job or a life change, but sometimes I am completely unaware of the trigger and these are the scariest. How can I be panicking when I can’t understand what is making me panic? I don’t suffer from these every day, there will be months when I don’t have one and then there will be weeks when I notice them increasing. I have had panic attacks on planes, trains, buses, cars. I have had them in public, alone, at home or in work. Throughout my life, I have found ways to cope and ways to bring myself a feeling of calm, but they have never completely disappeared.
Moving to another country [even temporarily] was one of those triggers that decided to introduce panic attacks back into my everyday life. I no longer have a career that I use to define me and that makes me incredibly anxious, there have been many sleepless nights. When people here ask “and what do you do”, after Mike has discussed his incredible new job, there is a crushing feeling of inadequacy that well, right now I do nothing. I am not a nurse here, I cannot use it to define who I am. So the first task, for me, that has impacted my mental health since moving is that I have to tackle head on “who am I?” A pretty huge question that I now have the time to sit and contemplate. Do I want to be a nurse? Do I consider this who I am? What will I do instead? And all of the fears that come with those weighted questions.
Secondly, there is the fact that there has been a huge shift in the dynamic of my relationship. Mike and I have always had separate “things”. Our own bank accounts, our own friends, our own jobs and hobbies. We lived together, but we weren’t always together. Moving to a country where you know no one, it makes it a little harder not to always be together. This person you love, has become your only person. That is a huge relationship dynamic shift in itself. Luckily for Mike and I, we do like each other so it hasn’t been too much of an issue having to rely on each other a little more than we used to. However, I have had to get used to enjoying my own company far more than I previously had to, which has also been a challenge.
Being [currently] unable to get a job also means that I now rely on someone else’s income, which is a position I had never considered being in at 24. Communication here has been key, our own conversations are obviously private, but if you find yourselves in a similar position -due to unforeseen circumstances or maybe a move [like ours]- I seriously advise having a sit down one night, when you have nothing scheduled, and discussing how you are going to make that dynamic work. Relying on someone else brings a lack of control, another challenge.
Not having a job, which is where many friendships are formed, has been hard. My third anxiety. Although I recognise that there are ways to meet people without working with them, and a fellow blogger suggested “meet up” which is a website with events and groups that are meeting up in your area, meeting new people is bloomin terrifying. I don’t know if any one else worries the way I worry, but even before I meet the person I have already decided what they won’t like me for. An incredibly negative outlook I realise, it is something that I am working on changing. Moving can be incredibly isolating, whether it’s state, country or just down the road. It’s okay to feel that it’s hard, because it is.
All of these anxieties that I focus on, and many more, have caused my mental health to slip. I reached a place where I was calling Mike at work because I felt like I couldn’t breathe and none of my usual coping mechanisms were working: opening up the headspace app for meditation, deep breathing, concentrating on things I can touch and smell. I feel like admitting that my mental health has slipped is my first major step to finding my coping mechanisms again. I don’t know if any of the above that I have discussed has had an impact on you. I don’t know if it helps anyone to know that even though someone looks like they’re having an exciting new adventure [in their online presence], they might also be struggling a little. However, typing this post has helped me. I should not be embarrassed, I should not feel weak. I am accepting that it is okay not to be okay, but it is important that we talk about it. Addressing mental health stigma is more than just posting a quote or a tweet or a photo for one day of the year. The more we talk about what makes us scared or anxious, or something that we may be struggling with [like health anxiety or panic attacks], the more it will become second nature for us to discuss our mental health. These discussions will strip the stigma, and it is why I whole heartedly believe we should be having them. I can’t preach that we have them and not discuss my own mental health, and that is why I have written this post. It’s a scratch on the surface, but it is a start.