Anxiety Abroad: Dealing, or not, with Generalised Anxiety Disorder while Working Abroad

Anxiety Abroad: Dealing, or not, with Generalised Anxiety Disorder while Working Abroad

I think I’m OK.

But there’s something nagging me.

I’m not sure what it is, but I just don’t trust anything that these people say to me.

Why are they looking at me like that?

Why do they think that way?

Why don’t I think about things like they seem to?

Have I missed something? Or am I just looking at this the wrong way?

Nope. I’m not OK.

Welcome to large swathes of my life.

Really, I’ve got to be grateful for the fact that my anxiety has improved over the last couple of years, but even so, walking around and being worried about everything just sucks.

In all honesty, I used to be too nervous to leave the house unless it was absolutely necessary.

I spent 8 months living and working in Japan; living my absolute life’s dream. Aside from work, and two flights to Hong Kong to see my long-distance girlfriend (trips which, I should mention, were completely ruined by depressive episodes (seriously, how the hell is she still with me)), I left my neighbourhood a total of 10 times. Three of those were to go to government buildings in Tokyo to sort out paperwork for my Chinese visa, so that she and I could be in the same country (we’re still 1,000 miles from each other, but at least it’s the same country/time zone).

The other times, I would only go with one of my colleagues, who seemed to understand my anxiety, as she too had problems. Japan is not a country in which it is ok to have mental health issues. And I don’t just mean there’s a stigma, I mean “any problem, big or small, means you are crazy”. I was fully aware of this fact before going, but excitement causes hypos, and this often leads to making decisions which are not helpful.

But, seriously, can you imagine?! You manage to fulfil the biggest goal you’ve ever had, and then your brain just refuses, point blank, to let you experience it. “You can’t speak the language”, “they don’t understand you when you try”, “they hate you for it”, “one person told you a story one time about foreigners being refused service for no reason, so it will definitely happen to you”, “just stay home, in the dark, where it’s safe”.

Of course, I had to leave my flat occasionally, for food, booze, and cigarettes. But just to make sure that I didn’t get judged by the people at the 7-11 or curry restaurant near my house, I cycled through the three or four which were within a ten minute walk. No further than that, unless it was necessary (which it rarely was). I still felt as if I was being judged anyway, but nowhere near as fiercely as if I’d just gone to them same place over and over and over again.

The one time I tried to go to a sushi restaurant alone, the waiter asked me questions. This is good service. This is friendly. They just want to make sure you enjoy your experience. I didn’t order. I said “sorry” (which was one of the few Japanese words I could remember), stood up, walked out, and burst into tears in the street. As a then 29-year-old, who had lived (and continues to live) abroad since I was 25, this was the peak of my embarrassment, and disgust at myself.

This ended up triggering one of the worst, and longest lasting, depressive episodes I have ever had. An episode which completely destroyed the experience which I felt I had been waiting for for my entire life. The only bright spot in my day was looking at the mountain range from my balcony as I had my morning cigarette. But that would always fade to “this is the only view you’re going to see all day”.

I still look at this as being wasted time. Too scared to have made any friends aside from the people I worked with. Too nervous to have gone out into some of the most beautiful countryside I had ever seen. Too embarrassed to admit this to anyone. “The work wasn’t what I was hoping for” (true). “The pay wasn’t very good” (comparatively true). “The people I worked with were awful” (lie). “The city I lived in was just a bit shit” (lie, the old town was beautiful, and one of the places I did manage to explore extensively on one of my few outings).

The only truth that I got out of it was that I want to go back and visit again. The work I’m doing now in China suits me down to the ground, and I have enough time and money to travel (post COVID restrictions, of course). And when I do go back, I’m going to suck it up and go to that sushi restaurant. Just to prove a point. Hopefully I’ll be more comfortable next time, but you never really know…

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