Mental Illness And Expat Life

Catastrophe-in-waiting or self-development opportunity?

Hi everyone! Since I’ve been away summer has smiled on Ontario and Toronto’s already had its first heat alert; the beaches are open and the festival season is about to kick off. While I apologise for my unscheduled absence, (more on that in a minute) it has given me the opportunity to share with you a personal issue that also poses a dilemma for some would-be expatriates.

Livin’ la vida loca

As readers of my blog Expatlog already know, I’m diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). You can read about what that’s like to live with here, but suffice to say its hallmarks are emotional instability, black-and-white thinking, poor impulse-control, a hazy sense of identity and increased anxiety in the face of change. 10% of those diagnosed commit suicide.It won’t have escaped your notice these are the opposite of the qualities featured in those lists of essential personality traits for adapting to life abroad. I’d have to be stupid to consider becoming an expat with baggage like that, right?

WRONG!

I’m passionate about changing people’s perception of mental illness and I bet you never had me pegged as a crackpot, did you? Mental illness needn’t be an obstacle to achievement. Instead of viewing my BPD as a deficiency that needs fixing, I see it as a part of my character I must learn to work with and manage. It hasn’t stopped me learning new skills, carving out a career, functioning as a wife and mother, and dealing with life challenges like expatriation and culture shock, miscarriage, racism and rejection. I‘m no different from anyone else with their own unique set of personal characteristics. Often, the biggest thing holding us back is fear – fear of failure, fear of falling short, fear of being wrong; and fear doesn’t discriminate.

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Feeling the fear and doing it anyway

I wrote on Expatlog a while back about how BPD made me a better expat and I talked about how some of the things I struggle with actually equipped me to deal with the strains of expat life. After I moved to Canada in 2010 the reassessment of perspective and personality that naturally follows expatriation was hugely beneficial in terms of how I viewed my condition. Physical distance from my well-worn niche of existence back home, instead of working against me, helped me find a better balance – I now acknowledge my own needs more readily instead of consistently putting others first. I also took part in a research study for CAMH (Canada’s leading mental health research facility) investigating mindfulness in depression relapse prevention, and this also was an immensely positive influence. These are things I wouldn’t have experienced if I’d refused a posting on the grounds of my diagnosis.

But getting back to my absence, commitments in the UK mean we’re currently unable buy a house here and after three years on a work visa, the only thing that could distract me from yearning for a home of my own was the promise of fresh adventure. So, when a possible new posting failed to materialize back in March, it knocked me for six.

Facing the inevitable

Suddenly I was adrift with no end in sight. One by one I let elements in my repertoire for self-care slip; my daily mindfulness practice ground to a halt, I wasn’t getting out enough and when the prospect began to make me anxious I withdrew even more. I was so critical of my writing my mind assumed a self-conscious rictus every time I tried to put words on the page. Wracked by indecision I questioned myself constantly.

I felt useless, worthless, hopeless, helpless. Instead of waking up in the morning relishing the potential of a new day I felt exhausted at the prospect of another sixteen hours to endure. Eating and drinking were mechanical and joyless, showering was a chore. I despised myself for feeling such misery, which only served to make me feel worse. Weeks became months and I began to seriously consider getting professional help, something I‘ve managed without since my treatment ended eight years ago.

But I know there’s no quick fix. I’m fortunate to be able to manage my condition without medication and I was loathe to accede to a chemical crutch while I languished on a waiting list for therapy; I knew I needed to work through my issues and improve my skills for dealing with them.

Finding the strength within

So I made a decision. Thanks in no small part to the understanding of Jamie and Carole here at Expat Focus, and the patience and support of my husband, I was able to scale back my commitments, free myself from as much pressure as possible and concentrate on devoting time to myself and the things that make me happy and whole.

As a mum of three young children (3, 5 & 8 ) this wasn’t always easy, so initially I took my cue from them. We spent more time at the lake, breathing fresh air and sunshine, feeling the sand in our shoes and skipping stones. I put my arms through the sleeves of the present moment instead of loosely draping it over my shoulders, feeling the warmth and comfort I’d grown accustomed to overlooking. I took steps to cultivate and express my creativity, getting up early to free-write, picking up a pencil and starting to draw again. I bought new books to kick start my reading, which nosedived when I had kids and never recovered thanks to baby-brain and lack of alone-time. The warmer weather meant I could get outside and run in the light, early mornings and I slowly began to feel more like my old self.

I’ve read more in the last three months than in the preceding three years and just last week I got back on a horse for the first time in ten years, simultaneously reigniting a passion from my youth and putting behind me the painful circumstances that extinguished it (In my Other Life I’m A Cowboy).

So, here I am – out the other end and stronger for having taken responsibility of and managed my challenge myself.

Expat life doesn’t mean your life’s on hold and mental illness needn’t mean it’s restricted – both are opportunities to widen your field of vision that few get the chance to experience. Both require a change in perception. Both are about pushing boundaries and reconnecting with the childhood wonder of new discovery; and finding what works for YOU. Junk those expectations. Free that spirit. Step outside that comfort zone. Do what makes you happy and you won’t go far wrong.

It’s great to be back! Thanks for waiting…

Aisha Isabel Ashraf is a freelance writer and author of the popular blog EXPATLOG – a collection of irreverent observations from her experiences as a "cultural chameleon". It's where you'll find her, strung out on caffeine, humorously dissecting the peculiarities of expat life for her own amusement and the benefit of future generations."

She can be contacted via the usual avenues (e-mail, Twitter, Facebook) – just swing by the blog for directions.

Read Aisha's other Expat Focus articles here.


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