I didn’t plan on posting this blog this week. I sat down, drafted and scheduled a nostalgic and light hearted post on my favourite things about growing up in the 90s.
And then I realised that it is Mental Health Awareness Week.
Four weeks ago I wrote a blog whilst sat on my own thousands of miles from home on a paradise island. It was my first blog and the most honest thing I’ve ever written. I wrote it for myself as a cathartic exercise to make sense of my thoughts and feelings. I shared it with a few of my close friends because it was easier for me to write it down than to try and explain.
I’ve toyed back and fore with whether I should actually blog this. Is it too personal? Am I oversharing? What will people think of me? Will I feel exposed?
But I’m going to bite the bullet and share it because we just don’t talk about this stuff, about our mental health, and I know that so many people will relate to the story I write below.
I’m posting it because I want to explain what it’s like to be inside the head of a person with anxiety to those fortunate enough to have never experienced this struggle day in day out…and what it feels like when you can escape that feeling, if only for a hours or a few days.
And I’m posting it because I know we must try to support ourselves and each other to get through these ups and downs and find our coping mechanisms together.
So…here goes… A tale of anxiety and a leap of faith
(I couldn’t think of a catchier title…soz about that).
Before I plunge in to this particular story, I think it would be a good starting point to explain that I’m more than a bit notorious amongst my friends, family and colleagues for being a complete academic that in contrast absolutely struggles with simple every day practical tasks that 8 year olds could probably grasp (i.e.I once skinned sausages because I thought the skin was packaging and I set foil on fire in the microwave in work).
I know, I’m so cool. Perhaps I should put this lil description on my tinder profile and just watch the super likes flood on in.
I’ve been wanting to write a blog for months, it was my New Years Resolution, and as I sit on a beach on paradise island (insert shaaaaaaameless holiday brag here, soz not soz) I thought this is a good a time as any to make a start. Because this trip has been a major life experience.
Why is this trip so special? Because I didn’t plan to be here, thousands of miles away from home, on my own.
This would be a good time to explain that the furthest place I’ve explored on my own is Cardiff’s independent arcades on a Saturday taking carefully edited insta pics (Valencia filter, always). Ok, that *might* be a little bit of an exaggeration for comedy effect but you get the idea.
You’re probably thinking, ok, what’s the issue, I’ve travelled all over the place on my gap yah, ya? You’re 27 years old, get a grip woman. Well, if travelling is your norm, which it is for many, good for you, you sassy lil independent solo traveller, you! But for me you have to understand travelling alone is a big deal! I’ve never been on a plane alone, I’ve never been on a long haul flight. It’s just not an Ashleigh thing to do.
Until this week. When I found myself travelling across the other side of the world. To see a boy.
There’s always a boy.
Since my last long term relationship ended 4 years ago I’ve had a number of short term flings, I’ve been on the dating scene but failed to hit it off with anyone. Like realllly hit it off, you know? Guard up. The wrong men. Commitment? Me? No thanks hon, I can’t really fit you in in between pub quiz, dinner with the girls and *insert festival, club/bar here* but I can *maybe* see you when I wake up at around 5pm on Sunday, oh and bring a Macdonalds for this hangover? You’re a babe!
However, over the last few months , I started to get close to someone. It started as a friendship and it crept up on me slowly and over time until suddenly feelings got pretty intense pretty quickly. But he was moving away. And he’d asked me to go and see him out there.
And that’s how this girl who struggles to make an effort to go to the other side of Cardiff for a boy ended up on a plane across the other side of the world.
But, spoiler alert, this isn’t a tale of romance. We didn’t hit it off. A few days in it became so blatantly clear that things between us were not the same.
There was no chemistry. We hadn’t picked up where we had left off .
This would throw off any one who had put themselves out there to fly to the other side of the world for someone .
However, here’s the thing; I’m an extremely anxious person. Which amplified the situation by 1000.
I have always been a worrier, for as long as I can remember, but I have recently gone through a particularly rocky patch which culminated in me having to admit to myself first and foremost, and to others, that I suffer with generalised anxiety disorder.
I’d built up this holiday as a temporary escape from my anxious little world that I’d got myself trapped in.
The fact we hadn’t clicked , that it just wasn’t happening, led to days of extreme overthinking and anxiety overdrive.
He doesn’t like me. I’ve made a mistake coming here. I look like an idiot. I’ve misread the signs. How could I be so stupid? What is wrong with me? Is this my fault?
Thoughts going around and around with no let up. Panic. Upset. Rejection. Insecurity. Self doubt. On a constant loop.
It’s an all too familiar drill with me.
The more I overthink, the more my usual bubbly and outgoing personality shrinks, the more I revert in to myself and get lost in my own head. I get increasingly frustrated that the funny, happy girl is in there somewhere but she’s just beyond reach. I try to coax her out but I can’t. She’s trapped inside a dark cloud that won’t shift, no matter how beautiful and hot it is outside, no matter how lucky I feel to be have this opportunity to travel here, no matter how many fancy cocktails I drink, no matter that the pool side DJ is playing some commercial deep house (thanks bae!) I just can’t shift it. I urge myself to snap out of it, to make the most of this once in a life time opportunity.
The more I overthink, the more difficult I am to be around. And I’m acutely conscious of this , which stifles me even more. Serious Catch 22 situ.
Anyone who has experienced anxiety and depression will be all too familiar with the feeling of being unable to get perspective or to work out what is real, and what that voice in your head is making up to taunt you.
And I don’t just mean in this kind of particularly intense situation. I mean, I can feel all of the above sometimes about going to Asda’s tomorrow. Or about having to walk in to a conference. About having to go on a plane on my own. About being in an airport. About something I said in work 10 days ago that’s still looping in my brain.
I once thought about going in to town shopping for 4 whole days CONSTANTLY. Not even in a negative way. I just couldn’t stop overthinking it. How I was going to get there. What I was going to do. What time I would go. What time I would get back. Every detail. Over and over and over until I was dreaming about it. On repeat. As you can imagine it’s really, really , really frustrating. And really boring.
Anyway, back to the plot; I got friend zoned about 7,000 miles from home.
And I’m stuck , in an unfamiliar country, in a completely alien culture, in this oppressive heat with this polluted air and high rise buildings towering over me. Stuck in my anxious, torturous brain.
He’s working for a few days anyway and I decide to get on a plane, to a neighbouring island to take myself away from the situation.
I’m in two minds about whether to go. What’s the point?! No matter how beautiful this place is, I’m still me, I’ll still feel the same. Just I’ll be me in a different location. And I’ll be alone.
But it’s that or stay in the city trapped with my thoughts and quite literally trapped in the hotel by night given it wasn’t safe to go wandering alone.
So I found myself on an hour plane ride out of the city to a neighbouring island alone. Terrified! I get to a tiny airport and get a boat ride across to the island.
And it’s paradise. I’m talking crystal blue water, white sand, palm trees, 35 degree heat.
I breathe a sigh of relief and take in the incredible views and the clean air.
I get to my hostel (I have my own room, not *quite* brave enough for the shared dorm experience yet…let’ not run before we can walk hon).
Within 30 minutes of being on island, on my way to the beach, I meet a beautiful and interesting girl who lives 1000s miles away from me, and who starts chatting to me and invites me out for drinks with her friends that evening. We immediately find common ground. We are the same age. We both work in the health sector. We are single. We’ve read the same books. We watch the same TV shows. Our younger brothers are already married and are completely showing us up! We clicked immediately easing straight in to the usual girly chat.
What followed is two days of fun , reflection and self discovery (OMG, spew!! I completely realise how absolutely cheesy and self indulgent this sounds, like, who do I think I am, Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love or what?!)
I’ve always put myself in to a box. I like what I like. I don’t like what I don’t like. AO’C does what she wants . Including referring to herself in third person by her initials. That’s me.
That’s an Ashleigh thing.
That isn’t an Ashleigh thing.
You can’t change me. So don’t try ok?
“I don’t like speaking on the phone.”
“I don’t do travelling”
“I’d never go on holidays alone, I really can’t understand people who do”
“I don’t really like chatting to new people, I’m 27, not 16, I don’t need any more friends”
“I hate conscription fun!”
“I just don’t do joining in”
(Note: I realise that the above makes me sound like the most blaaah person ever. There’s lots of things I do like , I’m not a complete vanilla misery I promise….right friends? RIGHT FRIENDS?! But let’s keep those for another blog…)
However, the situation I was in forced me completely out of my comfort zone.
Over the two very short but beautiful days on the island, I met so many interesting people from across the world and I found I was actually good at it! I found that when you take the time to try and focus on the present and to escape your own head and you make the effort to connect with people, even if only for a few minutes, you’ll be amazed at the interesting things you learn.
I went on an organised pub crawl which would usually make me want to curl up and die (I mean, at this age at least anyway….. 2006 orange face Ibiza Ashleigh…I’m looking at you!!)
Like, I had to wear a yellow tshirt and shot glass around my neck. Seriously. ( I should point out that I have an extremely low cringe tolerance).
I got adopted by a large Filipino family in the communal area in my hostel who showed such kindness, insisting on feeding me every 2 seconds and glitter tattooing my arm, Obvz (#festivalchic).
I listened to 2 guys playing amazing acoustic mashups over breakfast.
I spent hours on the beach reading, and swimming and people watching, all on my own time.
I went exploring without a plan or a direction and without checking the time.
I had such a hilarious night chatting and dancing to old school R&B with a gay couple who have promised to take me out in Soho next time I’m in London.
I loved it on my own. I could be myself. I felt liberated. I could do what I want. I could set my own agenda. My confidence was building hour by hour. I was feeling good about myself! I was my own best friend.
It got to about 11pm on the 2nd night of my little solo adventure, I was sat staring out to the sea and I felt a pang that something was missing. What was it? Like when you forget a word and it’s just on the tip of your tounge but you can’t quite get it. You can’t quite put your finger on it. I felt familiar panic rising in my chest.
And I realised that it was the little niggling voice in my head.I hadn’t heard her for 2 days. And I honestly can’t remember the last time this has happened!
The scared , anxious , taunting demon was retreating , overpowered by the ” me ” I’d been trying to grasp for months but who was just out of reach. She was back! Hey girl! Where ya been? Have a G+T and stick around for a while!
Ultimately, I took a risk. I put myself out there and it didn’t work out the way I’d planned. And I don’t regret it. It’s ok to take risks and to fail. It’s better than not trying at all.
The circumstances had forced me to do things I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing or even thought I was capable of.
I’ve got a long way to go in getting back to myself and I know my demon isn’t completely gone. She will always be there, sat on my shoulder, telling me I’m not good enough, trying to trick me, trying to put the real me in her box. But to overcome the demon even if only for a few days has given me hope.
We are all usually happy on holidays #obvz. I mean generally, it’s a lot easier to be compared with the stressful and busy fast paced lives we all lead back in the “real world”.
And I don’t think my message here is “in order to cure anxiety, just fly to a tropical island…easy!!”…there wouldn’t be enough tiny paradise islands to accommodate the 20% of the worldwide population that suffers with anxiety.
However I think for me , the most important thing I’ve gained from this trip, is the clear realisation that actually I restrict myself so much. All the time.
By taking down some of those self imposed barriers, could that help me gain a different perspective? Empower me? Liberate me? Increase my confidence? Could being more present , more in the moment and getting out of my comfort zone help me mentally?
I survived something I would have called my worst nightmare; a delicious little injured heart/anxiety combo in an unfamiliar place on my own. If someone had told me that I could have done that even a month ago I would have laughed in their face!
They say life begins at the edge of your comfort zone…I’m SO excited to find out!
So there we have it. I hope you enjoyed.
Posting that was pretty scary. But scary things are SO an Ashleigh thing now! *sassy emoji*
Update: since I initially wrote this a number of weeks ago, I’m definitely on a positive upward slope and feeling a lot better in myself.
Anxiety doesn’t just go away but you can learn your individual triggers and how to foresee it and tame it. My mechanisms are surrounding myself with people I love and who understand me of which I am lucky to have many, talking about it to my loved ones, trying to remain present in the moment (the Power of Now has really helped) guided meditation, yoga, spending time outdoors and writing down my thoughts and emotions (oh and some cheeky medz!).
The most important thing is learning to be kind and patient and forgiving with yourself (i.e. treating yourself as you would your bestest gal pal) and accepting that it’s a journey, and that’s ok.
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