Being an expat in London, Mental Health

2018, a survival story.

2018 has been a lot of things for me, from new beginnings & great opportunities to close calls & complete meltdowns. I moved to London on January 4th and it took me about a year to feel like I may actually belong here – which is kind of ironic since Brexit is just around the corner.

At first glance, 2018 felt like a decisive year – I would either make it and thrive, or give up and die. It sounds radical, and in a way I guess it is. I must admit that having a black or white outlook on life is a bit of a pain. It’s like I’m blind to colours and shades of grey when it comes to my existence, yet my soul gets high on rainbows and bright skies. I can’t explain it, but I’m working on that. With hindsight, however, I think it was a year of transition – a year where I learnt so much about me, about my needs, about my limits. Maybe it was a bit of both.

What’s weird is that I started off the year with so much hope and enthusiasm. Living in London had been a dream of mine since I was 15 and there I was, with my 3 suitcases and my rucksack. Ready to unpack. Ready to start over. But the truth is, as adaptable as I am, it was never going to be that easy. I left France with a lot of baggage and as much as I wish it could have stayed at customs, it did follow me across the channel.

The pain of these past few years shadowed me like a puppy. It had become so familiar I couldn’t see it was pure poison, slowly possessing me until I didn’t own myself anymore. Misery wrapped itself around me like a fuzzy dressing gown on a wintery morning, whispered in my ear like lovers do on a passionate date and tucked me in bed every single night, singing lullabies of cruel lies. It was strong and lingering, manipulative and powerful. It felt like burden was carrying me – dragging me, really -, not the other way round.

And so, it turned out that the most threatening entity to my happiness weren’t the obstacles I was facing as a fresh Londoner but my own mental health – even though I did go through some shit that definitely didn’t help. Moving to a new city, even one you know well, is always tricky and comes with a bunch of challenges.

I was lucky to find a job without having to look for one, especially one that could be done from the comfort of my couch. I didn’t question the inconvenience of the situation until it became a source of tension. London is quite an expensive city and it’s almost impossible to live on your own unless you’re loaded or, alternatively, in a relationship. I moved into a flat-share with 3 other people, a flat-share that kept changing in the first few months. I didn’t really get to know any of them and I didn’t really get to meet anyone outside of my house because my only contacts were all freelancers. Virtual colleagues, minus the bonding for the most part.

I’d always been a solitary person but the loneliness I experienced in London was like nothing I’d ever felt before. Some days, it would hit me around dinner time that I didn’t even talk at all. I think I chose to ignore how much the silence was affecting me, because other job alternatives had not worked for me in the past either. I had to make this one work. 

The situation got more critical when one of the roommates spread himself everywhere and started showing signs of anger and aggressiveness. The flat was no longer a safe space, it was toxic and testing. I had been longing for a place to call home, but it felt like a cul-de-sac instead. One where I felt cornered and trapped, because sure I could try and find a new apartment but what guarantee did I have that it wouldn’t be the same or worse. When your work space and bedroom merge into one but provides no escape, relief or enjoyment, it quickly turns into a jail cell more than an office or a home. By the end of Spring, I was exhausted. I felt isolated and defeated by months of trying to make it work – first in Paris, then in London – and getting nowhere.

Depression crept up on me again, greeting me like an old friend. It crawled underneath my skin, wove its way through vital organs. I had lost so much along the way, and the dreams that kept me going slowly withered one after the other. Life tasted bitter, until it didn’t taste of anything anymore. Not even halfway through the year I had expected to be like a rebirth of some sorts, I wanted life to end. And, funnily enough, that realisation almost killed me. I couldn’t believe I let my mind go to such a dark place, again. In my defense, it wasn’t really me. Mental illness has a way to turn you against yourself.

I felt like I had two options left. I could kill myself and put an end to the pain, the indifference and the solitude. Or, as a last resort, I could turn to professional help. I never really believed in therapy. I didn’t believe in a concept where you have to pay someone a ridiculous amount of money so they can tell you what’s wrong with you. I already knew what was wrong with me, I knew what kept me awake and what made me eager to sleep. My friends could hardly get through to me, how would a perfect stranger get anything out of me? Since I knew they didn’t have magical powers and couldn’t fix my problems with just a flick of a wand, I didn’t trust them to be the answer to my problems. Or, one of the answers, at least.

But, to my surprise, I gave it a go. I turned to an affordable service that was recommended to me. Counsellors are in training, so patients are asked to decide on a fair price for consultations depending on their financial capacity. There’s a minimum rate, of course, but my budget was no more than £10 and they respected that. I was assigned a gentle, motherly lady that I saw each week for a few months. I can’t say it was miraculous and, actually, I wasn’t very impressed with her method. I don’t really think she had any, to be honest. She didn’t give me any tools or coping mechanisms to confront my grief, anxiety, depression, eating disorder, and all other troubles I needed to address.

Regardless, she listened attentively to everything I had to say, without ever a trace of judgement. So, I talked and talked and talked some more and, truth be told, it was liberating. Also, the medical centre wasn’t close to where I live, so I welcomed the journey – a busy train station, soft music playing in my ears and a delightful walk through the park, underneath weeping willow trees. It gave me an out from the harmful environment at home and granted me the gift of human interaction. Each Monday gave me a purpose, something that had been missing from my life for so long.

Nevertheless, I still felt like it was too insignificant of a reason for me to stay alive. It was only an hour a week and it wasn’t effective enough to defeat the voices in my head that kept telling me I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t pretty enough, wasn’t talented enough. That I was worthless. That I was not worth saving.

Summer turned out to be a turning point, although I wasn’t aware then of the shift that was happening. The flat situation was changing but for it to improve, it first had to get messy – kind of like the process of cleaning but in a much more invasive and aggravating way because we had limited control over it and I had little space to breathe. I couldn’t see the positive outcome because I was stuck in a state of sheer frustration. The past few months had drained me of the last bits of energy I had left.

My personal life was at a standstill. I’ve never been skilled at introducing myself and going up to people. I don’t have any trouble chatting randomly to someone in most cases, at the shops or whatever. But making friends? Yeah, right. That shit ain’t happening. I’m the weirdo who will stand in a corner for hours at a party, waiting for somebody to come and save me from the awkwardness of not knowing anyone there. I’m so scared to interrupt, so terrified to disturb, so afraid to say something stupid that I can’t get myself to make contact. Also, not that it should have been an excuse, I worked strange and long hours as well as every other weekend, which made having a social life that much more complicated.

After a while, I simply felt unfulfilled by my job and utterly bored of the alienation that came with it. It was almost Autumn and I had made no real connection outside of my roommates, who I barely got to hang out with anyway. Looking back, I guess one of the main issues is that I was spending too much time with myself and I just wasn’t very good company. The accumulation of everything just made for a more painful struggle.

I had decided to give life another chance and give myself some time to think it through, but time’s pointless if days are tedious and meaningless. Don’t get me wrong, I did have pleasant but fleeting moments of relief here and there with friendly faces from my hometown, but the cheer of it never quite sunk in. My skin had grown thick, impenetrable… or so I thought.

I started feeling resentful. I was going mad, insane. I grew impatient and restless. My body could barely keep up with the pace of my days and the nights, too short for me to recover. My brain felt pressured by the expectations I set for myself and others set for me. My heart suffered the loss and absence of so many things, I couldn’t even count. I tried to push it all away, bottled everything up. Until, unfortunately, there were no limits to push anymore. 

And so, as September came to an end, I completely broke down. It was brutal and ugly. It was destructive, inevitable like the swift blow of a sword with the impact force of a cannonball. I was at the mercy of the most vile and mighty feelings, lost in a train of thoughts I couldn’t disentangle myself from. Ashamed that I’d failed to be everything I set out to be. London was supposed to be a fresh start, yet somehow ended up being the final straw.

I figured it was finally time to say goodbye. Time to release myself from the pain and the many holes in my chest that only self-doubt and self-loathing seemed to be filling these days. I was just so tired.

That’s where the (un)predictable plot twist comes in.

I went to the theatre with a friend to see a musical we had seen a couple of months before. It had been nice, the story uplifting but not life-changing. My walls had stood tall, impassable. This time though, while I was at my most vulnerable, it meant something more. In fact, it meant everything. I connected with it in a way I hadn’t connected with anything in a very long time. It was like a switch had suddenly been turned back on to light up the darkness inside. To set it ablaze.

For the second time in 10 years, music saved me when I least expected it and yet needed it most. It might sound absurd to a lot of people, but it’s true. To this day, I owe my life to the UK production of Heathers and to one cast member in particular, whose interpretation of his character somehow gave me clarity. His voice was like a soft healing balm on my wounded heart. It still is. 

And, although it’s hard for me to say it, I know I should also give myself a pat on the back. I kept going even when I couldn’t find the strength to carry on. I could easily have given up – I almost did. But I fought the urge to disappear, over and over again. I went to war with my most deadly instincts in a fight for survival I never thought I’d win. And yet, here I am. Alive. It’s not like I’m rid of demons for good and I definitely didn’t find myself miraculously cured of depression, but I’m still here and it’s important I remember that I owe it to myself as well. 

So, where did this rescue mission that actually wasn’t one take me? Well, it’s a learning curve, really. I’m learning to both say yes and no at the same time. Yes, to rest and leisure activities. No, to alienation and excuses. I’m learning to clock off, and the importance of boundaries. I’m learning to feel again, whether I like it or not. I’m learning to step out of my comfort zone, take risks and be spontaneous. I’m learning to keep busy or go to bed at a reasonable hour if that’s what my body needs. I’m learning to get out of my room to spend quality time with my roommates and another couple of friends I made along the way. I’m learning to communicate, and stand up for myself. I’m learning to stop scrolling down on social media, and be more productive with my time. I’m learning to exist in a world where everything is a race I want no part in but am still running for some reason. I’m learning to accept that disorders and mental illness don’t make me worthless. Most importantly, I’m learning to be gentle with myself and appreciate who I am, from the most overwhelming flaw to the most insignificant strength.

The most amazing thing that has happened though is getting my voice back, and I don’t just mean literally. It’s only an echo of what it used to be, so far. But I’m hopeful. For months, I couldn’t write a thing. Actually, I couldn’t do anything that once used to drive me. That once gave direction to my life. The voices in my head deprived me of mine, silenced me to think I had nothing to say. The demons mockingly reminded me that no one would listen, anyway. Words had been my greatest weapon, until they became my biggest failure. Now, look at me go. I’ve typed like 2500 words and can’t seem to stop. Isn’t it just wonderful?

The conclusion of this year – and the last couple of years, really – is that life is tough. There’s no denying it. It’s taught me that not only do circumstances affect your journey, your mind also plays a key role in how you respond to a situation. For some of us, sadly, it pulls the strings like an evil puppet master and takes perverse pleasure in playing tricks on the chemicals in our brains.

Luckily, I am surrounded by some very special people who will always do their best to be louder than the voices in my head. And so, before I wrap up this article that’s gone on for far too long, I want to be that special someone for anyone out there who needs it right now.

Please know that, whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever you’ve gone through, you are not alone. And you certainly are not worthless. You matter. You matter like the Sun to the Earth, like the Stars to the Universe. I know the voices in your head will do everything they can to try and convince you otherwise, but that’s all they are. Voices. You are so much more. You’re all flesh and bones, oxygen and blood. You’re unique, and you’re here. I won’t promise that everything will be ok, because I can’t. I don’t know what the future holds and I would be lying if I said I’m not anxious to see what it has in store for me. God knows I wasn’t blessed with good fortune in the last few years. I guess that makes me a masochist then, because I do want to stick around and find out. Don’t you?


14 thoughts on “2018, a survival story.

  1. I read the 2500+ words, I cried and there are just three words that come to my mind : “I worship you”.
    I could write a long comment about how strong and inspiring you are, but I know that you know these three little words carry more meaning and love than anything else I could ever write.

  2. J’en ai les larmes aux yeux. Merci pour ce partage. On ne sait jamais ce qui se passe de l’autre côté de l’écran.
    Tu es une belle personne, ne l’oublie pas. Je te souhaite que du bonheur et de belles choses.
    Tu es forte.

    Merci ♡

  3. Hello Justine,

    J’ai lu ton texte et sache que tu n’es pas seule. Je n’imaginais pas ce que tu as pu traverser cette année.

    D’ailleurs, comment faire pour te faire parvenir une carte ? Je sais que tu l’avais mentionné un jour, mais je ne parviens pas à retrouver l’adresse où je pourrais te faire parvenir quelque chose…

    Je te souhaite beaucoup de courage et bien évidemment le meilleur pour l’année prochaine ! Je crois en la vie, et je sais qu’elle n’a pas fini de nous apporter de belles choses !

    1. Salut Nadège, merci infiniment pour ton commentaire. Ça me touche énormément <3

      Il faut que je m'en occupe en 2019, je voulais ouvrir une boîte postale ici cette année mais disons que c'est vite tombé en bas de ma liste de priorités...

      Merci beaucoup, je te souhaite également le meilleur pour la nouvelle année !

  4. Merci pour ces mots. Ça signifie beaucoup pour moi, notamment parce que cette année a été assez difficile, surtout la fin. J’ai un peu les mêmes problèmes que toi et c’est pour ça que cet article m’émeut particulièrement. Je voudrais te remercier pour tout ce que tu fais, tout ce que tu écris, ça aide vraiment à comprendre que nous ne sommes pas seuls à ressentir cela.
    Je te souhaite pleins de bonnes choses pour 2019. Tu as du courage, Justine. Merci.

    1. Merci infiniment pour ton commentaire Lisa. Je suis de tout cœur avec toi, et je te souhaite en retour le meilleur pour 2019. Puisse cette nouvelle année être douce et pleine de jolies surprises :)

  5. Ton texte est magnifique et surtout très poignant. Je pense que tu vas faire beaucoup de bien à ceux(elles) qui se trouvent dans la même situation que toi. Nous sommes tous uniques, c’est ce qui fait la richesse des échanges humains. Crois en toi car tu es une belle personne,intérieur et extérieur (et oui tu es très jolie).
    J’ai vu en te suivant que tu aimais l’eau alors pense aux reflets d’un soleil étincelant sur l’eau et que toutes ces ramifications soient des moments de bonheur pour toi.
    Courage et bonne année 2019 de

    1. Merci infiniment pour ton commentaire Nathalie, ça m’a énormément touchée. Et merci d’avoir lu l’article, je te suis vraiment reconnaissante !
      Bonne année 2019 à toi aussi :)

  6. Oh Justine, je ne m’attendais pas à çà. Ton texte m’a tellement touchée…
    J’aurais aimé être plus présente pour toi dans ces moments difficiles.
    Sache que: you’re special to me, your friendship is precious.
    Be brave and be you!
    Wth love

    1. Don’t worry about it love, I had a hard time letting people in anyway. Je n’ai pas vraiment pris de nouvelles non plus – une chose que j’espère changer en 2019 !
      Merci du fond du cœur Noémie, ça me touche énormément. It goes without saying that I feel the same about you. x

  7. Coucou Justine,

    Quel magnifique article. Je me retrouve dans certains de tes mots / maux car 2018 a été une année difficile ici aussi. Alors je ne peux que te dire à quel point je suis fière du chemin que tu as parcouru, des épreuves que tu as surmontées et de la force que tu as récupérée au passage. On m’a dit une phrase qui m’a marquée l’année passée : l’humain n’apprend que dans la souffrance. Et putain que c’est vrai.
    Quand on trouve la force de se relever, on est plus fort et déterminé à avancer, en mode baby step mais on avance.
    Alors continue à avancer, chaque pas t’éloigne un peu plus de ces voix. Et même si je ne suis pas une de tes amies proches n’hésites jamais à venir papoter, cela me ferait vraiment plaisir.
    Belle année 2019 à toi <3

    1. Merci du fond du cœur Alicia, ça me touche énormément que tu aies pris le temps de lire l’article et que tu aies pris le temps de commenter <3
      Je suis navrée d'apprendre que 2018 n'a pas été facile pour toi non plus. J'espère sincèrement que ça s'est amélioré depuis et que tu vas bien. Je te souhaite le meilleur pour cette nouvelle année et encore félicitations pour la publication de ton roman !

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