I feel different. Good different.
Last time I was here, I was a real mess.
In June 2014, I came to Mexico to travel and study for my third year of university. To begin with, I was having a wonderful time. I made some amazing friends and managed to integrate myself happily into Mexican life and culture. It was all fun and games until the 20th November 2014, when I took part in a protest in Mexico City. This protest and events surrounding it caused me to have a breakdown, which has completely changed my life.
The breakdown was caused by post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. I haven’t been able to write much about PTSD until now because it has taken me until now to understand it. Over the past year, I’ve had the term thrown about around me, in passing comments and suggestions by doctors, therapists and family members alike. But as I was so intensely wrapped up in my own depression, I really had no idea what it meant. I thought PTSD must just be depression with a breakdown.
As I had already been diagnosed with depression some years beforehand, it took us a very long time to discover that the depressive episode that started as a result of the protest was actually a symptom of the PTSD that I was suffering. The depressive episode was so severe that it masked most of the anxiety symptoms that usually come with PTSD until five months of cognitive behavourial therapy lifted my depression in March 2016.
Even then, I didn’t immediately realise what was wrong. After CBT had finished, I had felt great. But slowly, I began to get bad again. This time though, it was different. I was scared of everything. Of people, of crowds, of plans changing, of not being ‘prepared enough’. I had lots of mini panics and crying attacks over things that ‘normal people’ would have never been bothered by. I was embarrassed, because the therapy was supposed to have made me better, but its effects had hardly lasted a few weeks. I felt awful and blamed myself and tried to hide it for some time . This will pass, I thought, I’m better now.
Of course I was wrong and things only continued to get worse. It wasn’t until I received an NHS pack in the post about PTSD that I started to understand what was really going on with me. My previous therapist had recommended that I look into CBT for PTSD after a short break from my other treatment, but somehow in all my self pity and shame I had forgotten about it.
The pack gave a long list of symptoms with tick boxes next to them for me to indicate which ones I identified with. Depression was on there, as were flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks. There was also a section entitled ‘avoidance’ in which I ticked nearly every box. Avoiding memories, tick. Avoiding the news, tick. Avoiding high pressure situations and situations which I can’t escape easily, tick tick. And the list went on, highlighting just how much I’d failed to notice about myself.
I had hardly spoken to my friends since I left. I knew nothing about what was going on in the world. I mostly avoided socialising and crowded spaces and alcohol and friends from home who ‘didn’t understand’. The idea of speaking/learning/reading German made me feel sick (whilst Mexico was the trigger, most of the breakdown happened in Berlin from April-July 2015) and the idea of studying at all terrified me because I no longer believed in myself. I struggled to trust anyone, even my closest friends and family. I was living in a box, a very small box, stuffed to the brim with candy floss and fairy lights and cotton wool to create a sickly sweet and safe cell to protect myself from the outside world.
These realisations caused the worst panic attack I’ve ever had and forced me to take three weeks off work to deal with the aftermath. At first I really thought I was going mad. I was terrified of my own thoughts that were completely out of control. I couldn’t be alone, because it made me panic. Crowds became more imposing, more threatening, more like my memories. I cried until I threw up more than once. I was finally facing the root of the problem and it wasn’t pretty.
This is when I knew I still needed more help. I started to attend psychotherapy. I already had my flight booked to Mexico on the advice of my previous therapist, but I no longer knew why I was going or if this was a good idea. If the thought of going to Mexico made me want to explode from terror, was it really very smart to go back?
However, my new therapist had high hopes that this was the best thing I could do. When you fall off a horse, the best thing you can do is to get back on it, otherwise you risk never riding again. A conversation with a friend’s aunt helped erase my fears about it making me worse; ‘Either you’re a crying mess here or you’re a crying mess there. The only difference is, nothing is going to change if you stay here’. Even my boss encouraged me to go, saying he believed it was the only way I was going to be able to get past this and make Mexico a healthy part of my life again. And that’s what I wanted more than anything.
So I handed in my notice at work, swallowed a whole lot of fear and on 20th June at 6.55am, I boarded my flight to Mexico.
The flight was terrifying. I couldn’t sleep because my head was on fire with all sorts of doubts and worries. When my plane touched down, I still had over an hour of customs and baggage collection to get through until I finally got through the doors and my friend Elihú jumped on me and held me so tight. I was in such a daze. There they were, some of the people I love most in the whole world, who I had once thought I would never see again. It had been over a year since I had last touched them, hugged them, kissed them. I couldn’t believe it.
First group selfie just after they had picked me up from the airport.
The sensation that it was all a dream didn’t wear off for a good few days, due to a mixture of jet lag and disbelief. Quite a few people offered to pinch me. As the reality came into focus, so the fear began to melt away. I had done it, I was back and I wasn’t losing my mind or getting worse.
I’ve been here for nearly two weeks now and things that would usually set me off aren’t having any effect. I’m standing up for myself. I am getting the metro alone, making plans, changing them, going with the flow. I have faced my fear and in doing so, proved to myself that the threat wasn’t Mexico as a whole, but the horrible situation I had found myself in nearly two years ago.
I feel wonderful. I can feel how different I am now, how far I’ve come in the past 14 months. Everyone else is saying it too. That there’s something different about me, about my face, that they can’t quite put their finger on. That there’s something inside that is so obviously different that it shines through. It’s nice to hear that from people who knew me so well in some of my darkest days. The people who stuck through with me, despite the distance and hardships and language barriers.
I can wholeheartedly, 110% say, that this is one of the best decisions that I’ve made all year. Maybe in my life. I am so utterly and completely enamoured with this country and my friends here, that the prospect of cutting them out of my life completely was never a real option. It was one of the most terrifying things that I have ever done and it was worth every ounce of fear, every doubt, every panic, to finally be able to come back here and enjoy it again.
This is hardly the end of my recovery journey, but it is definitely now in its final stages. I’ve overcome the biggest hurdle and when I get back home, I get to see how that maps onto my life in the UK. I’m both chuffed to be here and also very much looking forward to seeing what my future looks like. I never thought things could be this good again. I may end up dealing with the effects of PTSD for the rest of my life, I may overcome them in the next few months, but either way, at least I now know that I can be happy too.
Tonight, I’m off to a 90s club with dance battles and tomorrow I’m going to a place that doesn’t exist to see fireflies. Now that sounds a lot more like me than panic attacks and sick notes, don’t you think?
Some facts about PTSD:
- It lies. It tells you that you are going crazy. That you are weak for being affected by something that may not have affected others in the same way. I was with five other friends in that protest and they all reacted to it their own way. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that everyone is different and processes things in different ways. This just so happens to be my way of dealing with it. So don’t listen to the lies, because you are not weak and you are not crazy. You are human.
- It sucks. I’m not going to sugar coat things (hopefully this post proves that), but there is an important distinction here: PTSD sucks, life does not. You are not your PTSD and it is not your life. Things will not be this way forever.
- It is serious. PTSD completely blew my life apart. I had to drop out of university. I lost a lot of friends. I acted up and acted out and did some things that I am not proud of. If I had let it, it could have ruined me or driven me to suicide. Like any other mental illness, it should not be taken lightly.
- It can be overcome. It may be serious but that does not mean that all hope is lost. I am living proof that perseverance, strength and a hell of a lot of courage can take you through to the other side. And of course, love. A whole lot of that. People need other people to survive, never forget it.
I’ve added some useful links throughout this post to the Mind website that provide more information about PTSD, its symptoms, causes and treatments. As always I also recommend the NHS website for more useful information.
If you feel like you might be suffering from PTSD or any related mental illness, please don’t hesitate to seek medical advice as soon as possible. I promise, overcoming the illness is worth the initial fear and/or embarrassment you might feel about talking about it.