I’ve been living in a foreign country for almost 9 years. I know I’m lucky and privileged for the fact that I’m a healthy and able person who finished university with no debt and a stable full-time job but, nonetheless, during those 9 years, I have been through my fair share of depression and anxiety. I understand aloneness and loneliness. I understand sexism and racism. I understand judgment and prejudice. I understand rejection and humiliation. I understand pain and heartbreak. I understand fighting for your place in the world. And by “understand”, I mean I have experienced them all.
2019 was, by far, the hardest year of my life. I know life then, objectively, was nothing compared to life today in the COVID-19 era. But it was my personal breaking point. After a series of unfortunate circumstances, I found myself in a place where I had nowhere to run and hide. Well, I decided to stop running and hiding. I saw no point in bullshitting myself any longer, especially when life was getting so real. So I went back to basics and faced myself all and for once. All the bad decisions I’d made and all the emotional wounds I’d superficially band-aided quickly caught up with me, putting me into a constant state of anxiety and fear. For the most part of the year, I was in psychological hell.
I suspect I might have had a mental breakdown. The only way I could describe that period of my life was that I was walking in the dark. It was pitch-dark. No more alluring fantasies or illusions. No more ego or bullshit. Just plain old me. And with that, my future turned into a void. I couldn’t see anything in front of me. There was no direction, no hope. There was only pain and confusion and fear. I was alone in a rented room in the heart of London and I didn’t know why I had to be there, why I wasn’t with my family, and what was next. I woke up every day from a daunting nightmare, gasping for air — angry, scared, and desperate.
Can you imagine experiencing that on a daily basis while not being able to be honest about it with anyone because it’d be shameful and I didn’t even know where to start in order to fix the mess that was my own existence? It was so tough. It was too big of a job. It was almost unimaginable. That’s why, now, as I look back at all the photos of myself taken in 2019, smiling, having fun, I felt in awe. I recognised strength. Only I know how hurting I was deep down; I know that smile I put on was, in itself, hope. Perhaps it was also a survival instinct. I felt like I didn’t have any other choices then but to push forward. My only way out was through. On one of those nights when I was paralysed in bed by anxiety, I wrote, “This can’t be it.” And I believed that.
I’m okay now. I’m pleased to say I’m in a stable and happy place with many good things going on. This year, while disruptive for obvious reasons, has been relatively fine for me. Though I know, for many people, 2020 has been unbelievably hard. So many lives have been lost and the way we go about our days and interact with each other might have been changed forever.
In this article, I want to use the insights I’ve learned from going through 2019 to help myself and others get through 2020 — or any other hard years ahead.
Take it one day at a time
During 2019, when I made changes to improve my life, I didn’t know how it would turn out. I just did things which I believed were good for me then and hoped for the best. As I said, life transformation felt like too big of a job, so I broke it down into little steps and took it one by one. There wasn’t a grand goal to achieve; instead, I tended to my daily needs the best I could. I made schedules for the week, sometimes even just for the next day, without thinking too far ahead. I didn’t give myself a deadline when things had to feel better. At some point, they just did. The benefits from positive daily changes and routines accumulated and turned my life around gradually.
I’m doing the same for 2020. With COVID-19, uncertainty has become a familiar friend. We don’t know what might happen next year or even in the next six months. So I’m putting my focus on the present, on today, on this week. I’m thinking about how I could make myself happy and full — physically and emotionally — right now. In fact, even without COVID-19, I’d still recommend this approach to life. I genuinely appreciate having this circumstantial (though unfortunate) opportunity to slow down and pay more attention to my surroundings — it’s very gratifying.
If you struggle to be present, the most common advice would be to meditate. Though I understand it is not the easiest or most intuitive thing to do. So I’d suggest doing something creative you enjoy, such as drawing, crafting, or even playing video games, which will help ground you to the moment. Journaling can be beneficial too. When you write down your thoughts, you can examine them and retell your story in a way that makes sense to you and nurtures you.
Reach out for help
In 2019, the thing that I’m grateful for the most was seeking help. When I reached my breaking point and had my panic attack, I called a crisis helpline. Then they gave me a number for a talking therapy service. Then I started exploring my therapy options for the first time. Then I looked into hobbies that would help me improve my mental health. And I did all that. I had weekly therapy scheduled. I participated in a team sport, I learned to swim, I took up courses, I built new genuine relationships. I opened up myself to others and good things poured back inside me.
I used to think I was different and I was alone in my suffering. Oh, the ego! Of course, I was wrong. Help was all around me and people were happy to offer their insights and support. My problems weren’t unique and there were solutions to my pain. But it wasn’t those solutions per se that changed the course of my life; it was being able to get over myself in the first place to admit that I didn’t know best, I was hurting, and I needed (professional) help. And because I saw the real — and immediate — benefits of asking for help, it became second nature to actively make life more enjoyable for myself and to choose healing over suffering.
Likewise, during COVID-19, I’d suggest not keeping things to yourself. If possible, talk to friends and family and look into all support options. Use social media to share your feelings and connect with others; it will benefit them too. I hope you find comfort in knowing that there is help available to you and, if you reach out, you will get the help you need and you will feel better. It’s important to believe deeply that you will feel better. Your mind needs to get unblocked first then your path to happier days will be too.
Reconnect and stay connected
At the core of my improvement was the process of reconnection with my authentic self. I believe there’s tremendous power in our true self under any circumstances, especially hard ones. Evidently, I was the weakest when I wasn’t deeply attached to anything in my life, when I surrounded myself with flimsy connections that didn’t align with my values. The moment I started embracing those very values and using them to make big to small decisions, I immediately saw a difference in the quality of my experiences and, ultimately, my life.
In 2019, once I realised the way I lived my life wasn’t serving me, I made the decisions to move places, change jobs, Marie-kondo my social circle, and stop dating to rebuild and solidify myself. I committed to activities that made me feel more myself and, through these activities, I found many people who had similar values to mine and added quality to my life. Then, through these activities and people, I gradually regained my sense of self. I fell in love with my life for the very first time. Slowly yet definitely, I felt stronger and happier. I had more energy and confidence to march forward into the unknown, hopeful of a better future.
Now, in this strange time of social distancing, I believe it’s vital that we reconnect and stay connected with our authentic selves and physical surroundings. When uncertainty looms over and many sources of comfort are severed, anxiety is inevitable and fear might deplete your strength. It might feel like part of who you are has been taken away and you’re at a loss as to how to fill yourself up again. The answer is within you. The source of strength is within you. There’s endless positive energy in your present and the nature around you, waiting for you to bathe in. It’s okay.
Keep pushing forward
Life right now is hard. It might get harder. The key is to keep pushing forward. Especially when it’s dark out there, keep walking. Do you know what the thing I’m most relieved about after going through 2019 is? It’s that I will never have to do it again. It was ridiculously hard but that year was done and it was done forever now. This year is no different. Once we get through 2020, we will never have to do this year again. Heck, today’s hard? We will never ever have to do today again. Tomorrow is a different day and it’s another opportunity to turn life all around.
It’s the beautiful thing about life and the linear nature of time. Sometimes, all it takes is that you don’t give up on yourself. Live for another day because you don’t know what will happen, what impact you can make on the people around you simply by being you and embracing your own sparkles. Be positive. Cultivate meaningful values. Find joy in little things around you. Connect with your community and, importantly, your true self. Keep pushing forward.
After all, we only have one round of it all; might as well give it a try and see till the end, eh?