Moving Abroad With Mental Illness

Many of you have (kindly) asked how my move to Hong Kong and transition to life here has affected my mental health. This past April, just over a year from when I was diagnosed with Type 2 Bipolar Disorder and a slew of other anxiety and panic disorders, I started a new combination of medications. One is an anti-depressant, and one is for severe moments of anxiety. I had reached what felt like a breaking point in my life and this was the third treatment option my doctor and I were trying.  Within just a few weeks I was stunned to realize that I felt “normal” for the first time in as long as I can remember.

Normal meant I was no longer waking up in the morning with twisted knot in the pit of my stomach before I had even opened my eyes. I no longer entered each day feeling defeated and on edge, like at any moment the tenuous rope of functionality I was holding onto could unravel. Yes, some days I still struggled with anxiety, especially when faced with something particularly triggering. But where my base level for anxiety used to never dip below a 4 on a 10-point scale, even on my most stable days, now I find that many days, my baseline is a 1 or a 2.

The best way I can describe it is that it feels like relaxing your muscles after holding them all in tension every moment of every day for years. Most days this feels like a miracle.

The past few months have objectively been extremely stressful. I think the stress of moving internationally, changing jobs, and being separated from your spouse are things that would cause anyone a decent amount of anxiety.  I don’t deny that there have still been moments where I have been overwhelmed with anxiety and fear. I have also been deeply sad about leaving behind my life in Columbia. But the thing that stands out to me is that somehow, I have managed to cope in a way I don’t think I could’ve done a year ago, or even back in March. And not only cope, but find moments of sheer joy and new excitement for this new life.

I can’t describe my gratitude for this. And at the same time, I have to acknowledge the fact that I am not “cured”. I am on a journey. I am managing so much better than I was a year ago, but it’s not as simple as just popping those two little pills each night. My mental health is a holistic battle and the reality is that it will probably be a lifelong fight.

This past Sunday we visited a church for the first time since coming to Hong Kong. We haven’t really met anyone here besides coworkers, and we are hoping to find a community. Throughout the afternoon I could feel myself getting more and more anxious. By the time we left our apartment, I felt like I was in a daze. Everything seemed a little too bright and blurry around the edges and the sounds around me were like a low buzz in my ears. Jonathan tried to talk to me about other plans for the night and for the future, and I could barely process what he was saying to me. Eventually he gave up talking to me until after the service was over.

After we sat down in the church auditorium (which looked like the church auditorium of many an evangelical church in America), all of my thoughts and all of my energy were consumed with trying to get through the service without panicking. Understand, it was a perfectly normal evangelical-style church service. There was nothing particularly objectionable about it. But for most of the service I felt simultaneously like my skin was on fire and like I was going to pass out. “You are OK. This is OK. There is nothing wrong here,” I kept chanting to myself.

After the service was over, we ducked out and went to dinner where I tried to explain to Jonathan what I’d been feeling but failed (though he was gracious as always). By the time we got home later that evening, I was utterly exhausted. Coming down off of the adrenaline that had fueled me through the afternoon was like crashing after a sugar high. My whole body ached.

Moving abroad has helped move me out of some old patterns that were not good for me. At the same time, it’s launched me into a world of unknowns, a somewhat precarious place for bipolar planner like me.

The thing about mental illness is, it’s effing scary. It’s scary to feel like you don’t have control over your own mind, or that your body has these visceral reactions you may not even understand. It’s scary to know that it’s possible for your feelings to not accurately reflect reality. The fight for wholeness and wellness forces me to choose every single day to actively work towards healing.

It’s a holistic effort. Medication is a blessing, but it is not enough. Meditation, exercise, and diet help. Nurturing life-giving relationships helps. Prayer helps. Avoiding triggering situations helps. Turning off the introspection to show love and care to the people I encounter every day helps. But the thing that helps the most is hope. Hope each morning when I wake up that today can be a good day. It can be good no matter what yesterday was like and no matter what may come tomorrow. Today I can be well.

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PS- I just wanted to give another shout out for my new travel website www.keeproamingon.com. I’m proud of the work I’m doing there and would love to have you follow me if you are interested in sharing my travel and living abroad adventures. You can follow by clicking the follow button at the very bottom of each page.

 

 

 

 

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5 comments

  1. As someone who emigrated after a period of anxiety, I can really relate to this. It is a very brave thing to do and to be finding moments of happiness in a new situation which is truly a demanding one for anyone, at any time, means you must be on the right path. 🙂

    Like

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