I have always been a ‘big dreams’ kinda girl and always had the wanderlust bug. My parents did a one year honeymoon around the world, my dad travelling around the world three times! And I was always fascinated by the stories and memories they shared.
I spent 6 months solidly researching my big trip and decided yes I would go to Thailand, do a teaching course and then go to Vietnam to teach English. I was so excited! Travelling the world! I began researching and I shared to all my friends, family and social media. #wanderlust #bigadventure
However, the one thing I didn’t research or prepare for was travel anxiety and how I would feel mentally before my trip. I didn’t account for my previous history with anxiety, I wanted to be the no plans, conquer the world kind of girl. About a week before my big trip I started to get really nervous. I would google travel anxiety, couldn’t relax and started to have problems with sleep.
Just before I was due to fly out it got really bad. I couldn’t sleep, by that, I don’t mean tossing and turning for hours, I mean I actually didn’t sleep at all for days and days. I tried everything, sleep podcasts, the heavy scent of lavender, natural and prescribed sleep medication. However, I was so worked up, so scared, my mind just could not, would not turn off.
For me, sleep deprivation was a horrible horrible experience. My mind was racing, thoughts going over and over in my head. I couldn’t relax. I remember thinking to myself, the next hour I will sleep, the next hour, the next. It would feel like forever and then I would watch the sunrise, hear the birds chirping, and realise with dread, another night with no sleep.
I debated going and not going on the trip and I eventually decided the day I was due to leave, to go, I just didn’t want to let myself down.
Upon getting on the plane, I freaked out, I started hysterically crying, at this point I didn’t care what people thought of me, I was just too scared. Scared of not achieving this dream I set out for myself, scared that it wasn’t working out the way I wanted it, scared I was pushing myself into doing something I couldn’t do.
Once the plane landed and I got to the hotel, I called my parents straight away and begged them to come get me. They said to talk to the people in the company in the morning. Another night of no sleep and by this point, it was many days with no sleep. My mind was just so worked up that I could not form sensible, logical thoughts anymore.
I started suffering severe panic attacks. I could not catch my breath and every time I had a panic attack, it honestly felt like the end. In my sleep-deprived state, having never suffered a panic attack before, in a foreign country, knowing no one, I freaked. I honestly truly believed that I was dying every time I had a panic attack, and I had multiple in Bangkok. I couldn’t catch my breath, I would be heaving air in great gasps, my heart racing and then it would end and I would be so confused. What is happening to me? I ran out to the beach at sunrise in Bangkok with one of the girls from the trip and I truly thought that it was my last sunrise. I didn’t know what was going on.
I was in Bangkok for a very short time before I got pulled from the program and sent home because I was so unwell. On the plane from Bangkok going home was the lowest point I have had in my life, I have never ever felt so low.
When I landed in Australia and got home, I thought I was okay, sad and extremely tired but okay. However, I was too worked up. I went to the local doctors to take sleeping medication and eventually at home I went into a short sleep.
The next part of my experience is a blur. I woke up from my short sleep and freaked out. I wasn’t okay, I was so worked up, so sleep deprived. I felt trapped in my mind, I was so, so scared. I remember I was screaming and I couldn’t stop. I felt out of control of my own mind and body, almost like I was floating outside my body watching what was happening with no idea how to control it. I thought I was going to lose control of my mind forever and that is what truly terrified me. My psychologist told me later that I don’t remember parts as that’s my brain protecting me from trauma.
I then got taken to hospital and spent a month in the mental health ward where I struggled to swim back up to the surface of my panicked confused mind. I learnt later before I got discharged from hospital, that what I had experienced was a psychotic episode, where I felt like I had lost touch with reality.
It felt like wave upon wave was crashing down upon me. The anxiety and mounting panic, the sleep deprivation, struggling to breathe, can’t breathe, thoughts racing, sinking, drowning in it all.
However, in some of the hardest days, I have had in my life I will never forget some of the nice people in the ward. The psychologist in the ward had a way of relating with me, that made me feel understood, cared for, he even made me laugh. He used to say to me, in the words of Jim Carey from the movie Liar, Liar “Jess, stop kicking your own ass!”.
Some of the patients too were supportive. Some almost too supportive! There was a guy that liked me in the hospital. He wrote me notes, poems, even arranged for me to have my favourite flowers when he left and I was still there. Me and the guy, as well as others in the ward, we formed a group, all trying to help each other through things. It was hard tho, we were all fighting our own demons.
The hospital staff started calling me ‘mother Teresa’ because other patients would come up to me and tell me their problems. I would listen patiently and try to help them. It helped me for a little while, focusing on other people’s problems instead of my own, but eventually, I burnt out. I had to focus on my own recovery, it was not selfish but necessary.
Once I got out of hospital I had to adjust to life again slowly. I remember I felt guilty and ashamed by what happened and how I behaved. I felt somehow that I was weak to react the way I did. My family, who I lashed out at in my psychotic episode, instantly forgave me, but it took me a lot longer to forgive myself. That I hurt others and my behaviour was my deepest shame, however, the psychologist in hospital simply said ‘of course, you were scared, you were not yourself, and you were not well’. My brother said to me when I had my psychotic episode, the light left my eyes, I wasn’t Jess. My friend who is studying to be a psychologist listened to my story and explained the psychology behind what I experienced, all in the setting of a Maccas car park!
I was my greatest enemy for a long time. It was the people around me that helped to teach me, self-love, again. Whether it’s by their actions or their words or ability to listen, it made all the difference. I found it very helpful when people just listened, did not judge or feel they have to offer advice, but just simply listened and acknowledged how hard it must have been.
My mum was always there listening, with a shoulder ready for me to cry on. I remember we went down to the beach one day and my mum said you seem angry, you should let it out, scream! And I did, I released my anger, my scream at what I went through to that empty beach with my mum and the waves as my audience. I screamed out the emotions that had been bubbling away inside me, wanting to be released.
It wasn’t until a year after my experience that I started seeing a psychologist because I realised I was still carrying this heavy burden of guilt and shame. I was also motivated by the fact that I had just booked a 3 week holiday to Peru with my brother and I wanted to make sure I was mentally prepared to do it and manage any potential problems. My psychologist was amazing and words will never express how grateful I am for her. She said that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress from the experience I went through, and with her, I went back and we discussed what happened, the many reasons behind it and the psychology of what I went through. She helped me to accept my experience and no longer feel ashamed. It was through talking with her and practising self-care that she recommended, simple things such as going for regular walks and doing yoga, that I could let go of the burden of guilt and shame and feel the lightest I ever have in my life. I also had the best time in Peru after with my brother hiking up to Machu Picchu! The trip in itself was one of my most healing experiences, with my brother who knows everything about what I went through and who is one of my biggest supporters and closest friends.
I have come a long way since this experience. I have moved out of home, have a full-time job, travelled to many parts of the world and I can talk about my experience, the ugly parts and be okay. I still struggle sometimes with feelings of guilt and shame over what happened but I’m getting better. I know now that it wasn’t my fault, it was just not the right time for me then and I was unwell, my body and mind reacted. I can still be that ‘big dreams’ kinda girl. I just have to learn how to travel and live my life in a way that suits me. I am now preparing for a big round the world trip with my boyfriend. I realised I don’t want to do it on my own and that’s okay. I have learnt so much about myself, my limitations, but also my strengths.
My experience in mental ill-health, while it was horrible, it shaped me, it made me become the person I am today. I never thought I would be here, sharing my experience, yet here I am, standing bravely before you all, in the hope that my darkest time may shed a little light for others. I am conquering those big dreams in that big dreams kinda way.
Written by Jessica