Looking back at my 2015 New Year’s post, the overall tone is upbeat. Which is as it should be. I mean, I’d made it. Right? I’d poured myself into getting the best education possible, I’d done the grind of part-time retail jobs and internships, run the gauntlet of networking events and online applications, and I’d gotten where I was supposed to be. I was a professional Digital Communications Something Something, with a healthy income and a nice apartment in a nice city with easy access to the rest of Europe. I had a handsome boyfriend and a good circle of friends, with plenty of opportunities to make more. I was the postcard for “Where Do You See Yourself Five Years After Graduation?”
And I was, to put it delicately, abysmally fucking miserable. Because when I wrote that post at the start of 2015, I failed to mention that I was living with chronic anxiety and every ounce of my energy was going into maintaining a façade of socially-acceptable OKness. Even here, on my blog, which is supposed be an outlet, not a performance.
Maybe I seemed fine. I certainly thought I should be feeling fine. But my cushy job was an endless source of soul-crushing stress. For most of the year, it took all my willpower to drag myself out of bed and into the office, even when I was only working three days a week. I avoided my friends and co-workers, people who respected me and cared about me, because I lived in constant terror of somehow disappointing them or making a fool of myself. I was waiting for everyone to figure out that I was a failure, a loser, a fake. I was pouring all my social efforts into a thoroughly mediocre relationship, attempting to make myself – my passion, my brightness, my lunacy – small enough and dim enough to be acceptable to a man with the emotional range of a cabbage. This relationship would end with me being unceremoniously dumped. In retrospect, this was one of the best things that ever happened to me, but at the time I was devastated because it felt like one of the only flickers of happiness in my life had just been extinguished.
I was so anxious I could barely bring myself to leave the house. I was living on the edge of a panic attack. I cried constantly. I spent my weekends sleeping and staring blankly at my desk. I was always tired, no matter how much or how little I slept. In my sleep, I clenched my jaw so tightly that sometimes I could barely chew my breakfast in the mornings. The solution was, of course, to stop having breakfast, which was easy because going out for groceries was such a colossal hurdle that I frequently didn’t have food in my apartment. Something as banal as meeting a friend for a drink felt like running a marathon, leaving me completely wiped for days afterwards.
All my passions became huge drains on my depleted emotional and mental energy. I couldn’t engage in feminism, in politics, in history, in pop culture – any of the things that would normally get me fired up, thinking and talking and researching. Even fiction – my most reliable escape – started to drag and grate on me. I couldn’t stomach anything more challenging than The Great British Bake-off or Skyrim. I started drinking alone. It got to the point where it wasn’t unusual for me to polish off a bottle of wine, by myself, on a week night. I paid for this habit with miserably paranoid hangovers that left me useless, trembling, jumping at nothing.
It’s difficult to admit this, even now, with distance and perspective. I’m as good as anyone else at banging on about the importance of mental health awareness and ending the culture of shame around depression, anxiety disorder, ad nauseam, but holy hell, it’s so different when you’re the person who has to stand up in front of the whole world and say: “Yes, so basically I didn’t do anything for six months because I was too paralyzed by my own irrational fears to go outside or interact with anyone.” This is part of the reason I’m writing this post.
And I know, I know, it’s easy to think, “oh, poor little rich girl feeling sorry for yourself in your fancy apartment, there are people out there who have it so much worse, so why don’t you just suck it up?” I know, because I said those exacts words to myself hundreds, perhaps thousands of times as I sat on my bed, gritting my teeth against a fresh wave of panic or a stress-induced migraine. This mantra didn’t make me better and it didn’t quiet the terrifying clamour in my head – it just made me feel ashamed on top on everything else.
Being dumped was rockbottom. The only way to go was up. I started practicing yoga again after a long hiatus. (At home, by myself. The thought of presenting myself at a public class was impossible.) I started an exercise called the Morning Pages, which helped me identify a lot of my repetitive anxiety loops. (I was basically just saying the same five things to myself over and over again in different configurations. For the record: “You are not good enough”, “You will never be loved”, “You will never achieve anything”, “You are a fake” and “Nobody likes you.”)
In June 2015, I looked at my bank balance and decided I was going to Vietnam. I have a good friend who lives in Hanoi and I’d often said I wanted to visit, in the way we all say these things to good friends who live faraway. But this time, I booked the flight. (Silver lining: turns out when you’re living with chronic anxiety, it’s also really easy to save money because you never want to go anywhere or do anything). I decided that this wasn’t going to be a quick turnaround trip. I decided this was going to be an undertaking. I’d never been backpacking in my (relative) youth and even though the thought terrified me, I decided to commit to an open-ended trip across three countries.
My parents worried, of course, especially my mother. Considering I was calling her every few days, in tears and hyperventilating over some mundane task that had taken on Everest-like proportions, her fears weren’t exactly unfounded. If I could barely get myself down to the shops, how on Earth was I going to navigate my way through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand all by myself?
But, dear reader, I did it.
I moved through Vietnam in a blur of culture shock, cheap beer and whiskey, night buses and austere temples. It was a delightful blur in many ways. I couldn’t have asked for a better host than my dear friend in Hanoi and I met some wonderful people, saw some amazing things. But I was still running away. I was still drowning out the broken record of my anxiety with alcohol. I kept myself too tired to think. By the time I got to Cambodia, I was functioning on a thirty hour sleep deficit.
But in Cambodia, things would change. Because I had booked myself into a place called Vagabond Temple for a yoga retreat. Regular yoga was one of the few things that kept me from a total meltdown back in Geneva, so it seemed like a smart move to dedicate some time to improving my practice and learning a bit more about the spiritual side of things in the process. I am a natural skeptic, but I promised myself to approach the retreat in the spirit of polite inquiry.
Before I left on my trip, I dropped into the doctor in my hometown in Ireland. I told him about the panic attacks, the migraines, the constant fatigue, the jaw-clenching and teeth-grinding. He gave me drugs. He spoke to me for less than fifteen minutes, but he prescribed me two different types of mood-altering drugs. I didn’t take them. And now I’m so glad I didn’t, because after a month of daily yoga, of meditation, of sitting still with my own thoughts and a few emotional sessions with my mentor, I knew I was going to be fine. But not only knew – because obviously I had always known, in an intellectual sense, that I was fine – but truly understood in my bones that I was a good and worthy person with plenty to offer to the world. For the first time in what felt like a century, I felt loved, loveable and capable of loving.
I still don’t consider myself a spiritual person, but I can’t deny that something was transformed inside me in the month I spent at Vagabond Temple. Unlike many retreats, no one was trying to hard-sell a specific philosophy or path. I was offered a toolbox of spiritual traditions and techniques, told to pick and choose the ones that worked best for me. I was encouraged to investigate each method and come to my own conclusions about their efficacy. To observe and listen and evaluate on my own terms. I was also living and practicing in a community of people who were on journeys similar to mine. White Westerners mainly, who had quit jobs or ended shitty relationships, who had left all the comforts and conveniences of their lives in London and New York and Paris and Copenhagen and Toronto to find something. I was immersed in an ongoing interrogation what it means to be happy and what it means to be free, and I discovered that my deep dissatisfaction with the trajectory of my life was by no means unique.
I am better. But that’s not say what I went through wasn’t real, nor that pitching up at a spiritual retreat in Cambodia is the definitive cure for anxiety. To unpack everything I’ve learned and why it has worked for me, I need a book, not a blog post. I don’t think I have all, or even any of the answers. I haven’t arrived yet. I may never. But for now, I’m learning how to be open again, to be myself around people, to make real connections, to joke and laugh without curdling with embarrassment at the sound of my own voice. I am better. I am not my anxiety. I am myself again.
Today, I’m back in Cambodia. I wandered through Thailand and wandered home for Christmas, but Vagabond Temple asked me to come back as a volunteer and that’s what I’m doing with my life right now. I wake up before six most mornings, make myself a cup of tea and get back into bed to write my morning pages. Then I walk down the lane and get settled on my mat in the yoga hall, ready for practice. My office is a bamboo hut. My work clothes are denim shorts and a tank top. I have not worn shoes in a month. I eat fresh mango and dragonfruit for breakfast. I laze about in hammocks and read or paint or write or meditate in my downtime. I am paid in food and board and yoga classes. And I am content. I may not be drawing a salary, but I wake up every morning filled with excitement, not dread. And that feeling is priceless.
In 2015, I predicted a year of change and uncertainty. I was right. Looking back, I am proud of myself for having the strength to change direction. It seems weird, I know, to be proud of myself for managing to go on holidays, essentially, but when I look back at that girl who was a prisoner in her own apartment, that girl who felt like she would never be happy again, I can’t believe she made it all the way out here and I can’t believe that she was me.
I don’t know what I’m going to do next and I’m remarkable sanguine about that uncertainty. I’ve come to realise that the best way for me to do my life is to bumble along and figure it out as I go, take opportunities as they arise and let go of the things that no longer serve me. I’ve learned from hard experience that life-altering revelations don’t come from sitting at home and staring at the wall. I have a strong gut feeling about where I don’t want to go, and that’s all the roadmap I need for now.
This post was easy to write because this post has been the cholesterol clogging up my creative arteries for months. But publishing it will be one of the hardest things I ever do. I feel approximately seventy times more vulnerable than I did when I was talking about my belly. But if one person who is trapped where I was six months ago reads this and thinks “thank fuck, I’m not alone”, then it will have achieved something worthwhile.
Thank you for reading.