Working and mental illness

I would like this post to be a bit of a discussion as I need some advice people! 

Now that I’m back home I’m starting to look for a job and what better way to get the ball rolling than by writing up a CV? Of course I’ve mentioned my travels because I haven’t been sat on my arse for the last few months, and I’ve put blog writing down as an interest of mine. 

But how far should I go? Do I mention that my blog is to spread mental health awareness and that it helped me to achieve a dream of mine? 

It’s a tough call. 

Let’s face it, many potential employers will be put off if they see that a candidate has a history of mental illness despite the fact that I am an excellent worker. I’ve never let my illness get in the way of my work or education yet the negative stigma against mental health says otherwise. 

At my last job I worked in a demanding sales environment which I enjoyed, but I didn’t initially tell my employer that I had any of my own issues because I didn’t want the judgement. I hate to say it but I worked in a male dominated office and I would have felt humiliated and even worse, ashamed, if any of my colleagues had found out. I just felt like they wouldn’t understand or take it seriously. 

In my second year of working there I needed to get some more therapy (nothing to do with my job, I just had a lot of derealisation). The problem was my therapist finished work at 5pm so I would need to be with her at 4pm midweek for 6 weeks. So I had to grow some serious balls, sit down with my boss and explain why I would need to leave early once a week for the next month and a half. 

I was very nervous before that conversation but in the end it was a breeze because he was so understanding and actually it really created a friendship between my boss and I, so I was more open with what I was going through in future. He would always check in on me in our weekly 1-2-1s asking, “So how are you?”

I actually remember one time he said, “Of all the people who come crying to me at work, I always expect it to be you. But it never is.” That’s saying something and it really meant a lot to me. 

Maybe I’ve just been lucky, I can’t expect everyone to be so understanding. But I do believe that my mental health should never prevent me from getting a job that I would excel in. So why should I hide it? Even the point of this blog was to do my part against the negative stigma and spread awareness so I should be setting an example, there is no need to be ashamed. And if it does put a potential employer off would I really want to work with them in the first place?

So guys what should I do? 

A – shall I not mention the blog at all?

B – shall I mention just that I blog? But then how do I handle further questions down the line? 

C – shall I mention the blog is about creating mental health awareness in my CV? 

I would really like to hear back from you, especially if you have a strong opinion on this subject so let me know what you think by commenting on the blog or messaging me. 

Thanks guys! 

My final day

Wow it’s time to come home already. Where has the time gone?

I’m so proud of myself. All the anxiety about leaving and the panic I suffered so badly at the beginning of my journey, especially in the Maldives, feels like only yesterday and yet I have come so far since then.

It makes me laugh that I am actually getting anxiety at the thought of going home purely because I’ve become so used to doing or seeing something new each day that the thought of being in a place like Teddington makes me worry. I mean, what the hell am I going to do everyday?! And when I get home and lie on my bed I’ll think, “Shit, it’s really done. I can’t believe it’s all over.” Now my travels will be just a dream.

(See my memory slide show at the bottom of the post..)

Having said that I am really really looking forward to seeing my family, my boyfriend, my friends and my guinea pigs. There’s a lot for me to do when I’m home but there are a few things in particular that I want to do for myself when I’m back to reality:

1. Undertake EDMR therapy. I was actually contacted by a therapist who had read my blog on therapy and approached me recommending “Eye movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing therapy”, this website explains it better than I can: I’m interested in this therapy because I have persistent problems with triggers (my list of which has been getting longer and more varied) which cause anxiety, panic, derealisation and nightmares. No therapy is ever easy and this type will be particularly tough for me mentally and emotionally because I’ll have to relive a lot of my trauma to reprocess it but I’m willing to give it my all if it will benefit me in the long run.

2. Keep up my fitness. Taking care of my physical wellbeing is brilliant when it comes to dealing with PTSD, it was especially effective in the first year of having the illness so I used to work out a lot whether by cycling to and from college, walking long distances when I panicked and taking numerous fitness classes such as spinning and weight training. Doing exercise takes concentration whether on your breathing, on a fitness instructor or on your own movements, there is barely any space to do anything but focus on the present which is exactly what I need to counteract derealisation and anxiety. I’ve done a lot of physical activities on my travels which has really helped me grow stronger physically and mentally so I’m aiming to keep it up.

3. Find a job which allows me to look after myself. I’ve come to the realisation that I need to put my mental health first. The culture of any company will be extremely important to me, so if that means taking longer to make sure they really care for their staff then so be it. If it also means things like working shorter hours than I had before, or living closer to work so I can fit in exercise and therapy (when I need it) into my week then that’s what I’ll do. Finding a job which I can take genuine pride and pleasure in will also help make being stressed more rewarding, I think I would like to work with a mental health charity some day.

4. Continue my blog and write with other mental illness sufferers. Many people have mental health issues but not one of their stories are the same so I would really be delighted if I could collaborate with someone to share their story as a co-writer or anonymously. Writing about my illness has helped me to grow so much as a person so I would love to share that experience with others.

My mental health comes first. I know that now and I will work hard to achieve a good balance between improving myself, doing well in a job and keeping fit. Lord knows how I’m going to manage that, it’s easier said than done I’m sure!

A lot to look forward to! I will definitely be continuing my blog once I’m home to keep you all updated with how I’m progressing and I will be writing more about different aspects of mental illness to continue to raise awareness and to end the negative stigma associated with it.

My goal for my travels was to prove that anyone can achieve any dream in their life. My dream was to travel despite having a mental illness and I have succeeded. Realising this is making me cry with happiness.

I can’t really summarise my whole journey into words so I’ve done something super hi-tech and made a picture slideshow! Have a flick through:

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My mother in Ayia Napa 

This one hasn’t got much to do with my current travels but as I lie here in my room in Indonesia I remember the time when my mother came with my friends and I to Ayia Napa, the party town of Cyprus.

Ok …WTF? Is a common response when people hear that. I love this story so much but never really tell the whole truth as to why she was there – because I have a mental illness. 

So how did this even happen?
No, I wasn’t on an episode of Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents. In case you were wondering. 

Me and some friends were planning a trip to Napa. Woohoo girls trip and all that, I’d never been on one before and was really excited. But there was a problem:

My girls knew what was going on with me and in particular that I had a major relapse with PTSD after a holiday gone wrong with a used-to-be friend some months prior. I had been doing so well but relapsing plunged me into a deep depression worse than ever before, it wasn’t until then that I started struggling with self harm and suicidal thoughts. Because of that, I can’t remember which order it was in, but one of my friends or their mum didn’t want her to go on holiday with me. Ouch. I have to say it felt like a knife in the heart – that conversation is up there with the more painful memories I have. I understood it because they were worried about the responsibility of “looking after” me, that it would be too much and things would go upside down as they had the once before. They were concerned about me that’s all. I knew that. But I’d still essentially been kicked off my holiday about something that wasn’t ever my fault. I really felt – why me? I don’t deserve this. I don’t deserve to have PTSD or to have gone through anything traumatic. Now this too. WHY ME?!

And then … SuperMa to the rescue. 

I told her what had happened and a couple days later she said to me, “I was riding my bike when I had a genius idea”, (my mum always starts with “I was riding my bike” when she has a light bulb moment because she cycles everywhere and is always pondering things whilst doing so, and to be honest it’s pretty 50/50 whether it’s a good idea or not despite what she says. She’ll not be happy that I said that!) 

My mum suggested that she come to Ayia Napa with me as she and my Aunt Sally were planning a getaway anyway.

Err no.

Obvious first reaction. But she said she would stay in a nice hotel someplace else which was close enough to get to if I needed her. I put the idea to my friend and her mum and tadaaa problem solved. Carin and Sally are hitting Napa. No joke

It’s well known that my mum loves music. She’s an indoor cycling/ spinning instructor which requires a lot of thumping bass remixes so she’s always having a boogie around the house yet had never been clubbing. Ever. Even when she was in her 20s and moved to London, always at bars but never went to clubs apparently. 

My mum really wanted me to take her out and properly pestered me about it. I always said hella no until I got to Napa and after a few days I thought, “You know what? She’s done a heck of a lot for me. She deserves a night out”.

Visiting my mum and aunt at their hotel

My friends came along too and I think we all had a blast, Ma and Sally even came to our party hotel for pre drinks and caused a lot of stir with the other guests, they were really in the spotlight – drunk people were just so surprised in an awesome way that I was with my mum and aunt! 

We went to a club on the main strip in Napa. I couldn’t help but appreciate that my Ma, in her Late Late 40s, had come all the way to Cyprus so her daughter could get pissed with her mates and wouldn’t be left out. She danced away with Aunty Sally (who was also a hit with my friends), got lots of attention and had a brill first clubbing experience. I kept drunkenly saying:

“I’m so proud of you Ma, you’re so cool”.

“I’m so proud of you Ma”.

“This is so cool”.

Well well, how about that for a super supportive mother! I really enjoyed telling this story because it brings back a lot of heart warming memories and I had a great holiday. I’ve used the word proud so many times in this post but there isn’t a better way to describe how I feel because of my Mama for being there for me through thick and thin, happy and sad, boozey nights and chill days. And sometimes for being pretty cool, but not all the time so don’t push it.  

My mother is so kind. We all need someone like her in our lives. Unfortunately it’s the sad truth that a lot of people, especially young people, who suffer a mental illness too often go without the support they need at home. I’m very lucky in that respect. 

Please share this happy memory of mine to prove that mental illness is not all downs! There are plenty of ups to be had despite it and this one, and countless others, wouldn’t have happened without my mother.

Help break the stigma and spread mental health awareness! 

Living with a monster 

Living with a monster is what having to control PTSD feels like to me. It’s an endless cycle of oppressing my demon to prevent all hell breaking loose. 

The best way I can describe it is with a diagram, excuse my poor drawing skills:

The picture shows my silhouette with a rip through my chest. That’s where I feel all my emotions including love and happiness. This means my fear, depression, anxiety and panic is also stored there. 

When I picture PTSD I can physically feel the little monster that’s inside me, to keep it in control I must cage it. My chest is the cage. It can lay docile for weeks yet remind me that it’s still there by poking me with one sharp claw. It feels like a nail inside me about to burst my chest, like the moment before a needle pops a balloon. When I feel my anxiety strengthening my fear increases so I feel the claws scratching me feverishly from the inside, frantically trying to break out of it’s cage so my chest tightens and I use a lot of mental energy to keep in control. 

                                        “Keep going Anna, do not let hell break free”.

Sometimes I’m lucky and the creature subsides. Other times I fight so desperately for fear of loosing control. I know how it feels to have a panic attack and I am afraid. I know how it feels to loose my mind and I am afraid. I have come so far yet sometimes I come so close to loosing myself again. 

The monster knows when you think you’ve won and lies in wait to prove you wrong. (That rhymed, haha!) 

Why am I telling you this? 

Last week I posted this photo on the blog’s Instagram:

I had truly not had any anxiety for several weeks and having realised it I was happy and wanted to share my success, I was winning. But having a mental illness is not so easy, as they say, what comes up must come down. Since then my demon has taken the opportunity to remind me it’s still there so I’ve been struggling with persistent derealisation for the last week which started off subtle but has gradually grown stronger. 

The last few days I’ve been in a national park called Bako in Malaysia. It’s a beautiful wild jungle with lots of wildlife and I really enjoyed being there, I love Malaysian Borneo already! We went trekking which was tiring and the whole time I was feeling a bit off thanks to derealisation, the accommodation was gross as well so I didn’t get much sleep. The following morning I still didn’t feel like myself and whilst we were walking (not strenuously) I started to see things. I kept going and kept myself as mentally strong as I could until all of a sudden the trees around me twisted and turned upside down. I couldn’t walk. I felt so dizzy from the illusion I thought I was going to throw up. I had to sit down to breathe, gain some stability, and use all my strength to keep the monster from breaking free and controlling me. 

                                   “Do not loose yourself here Anna. It’s ok, you are safe, 

                                               remember you are safe. Do not panic“. 

This was an extreme case, in fact this is the first time I’ve experienced objects moving upside down. Normally they move side to side, change shape and sometimes colour yet are flat and two dimensional. Fortunately the girls I was with were very caring and patient, they sat with me until I could stand and walked me back. I seem to have been very lucky on my travels to have met kind people, in fact I’m coming to the conclusion that backpackers in general, especially solo travellers, are all very open minded and understanding. Yay for me! 

From this you can see that having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental battle which you feel very physically, where anxiety, panic, depression and fear can all manifest into a monster that plots to control you. I still don’t feel quite right after that experience which was a couple days ago but I’ve had four years of practice so as frightened as I am, I know I’ll be fine. 

It’s important for me to show the highs and lows of a mental illness. Don’t get me wrong, just because I’ve had a tough couple of days doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy my trip to Bako National Park and I am having the time of my life on my travels. Dealing with the woes of PTSD alone is just part of it.

The monster is a metaphor but it feels very real to me, claws and all, no doubt other mental illness sufferers can relate. I think it’s important to teach those who are lucky enough to have never had a mental illness how difficult it can be to keep in control and how draining it is to fight against something inside you. It does not simply go away if I’m having the time of my life and it does not only appear when I’m feeling sad. After four years of therapy and learning I can recover quicker but I still can’t make it go away quickly, this is going to be a lifelong struggle and it’s an unfair, cruel illness which I would never wish on my worst enemy. 

I am still really enjoying myself. I’m actually very pleased that I managed to pull myself through that experience despite being in the jungle. I knew something like this was bound to happen at some point on my travels and the girls I was with told me how impressed they were with my self control and composure.

When I return home next month I will be better, stronger and fiercer for it. The more the monster appears the more practice I get and the more I can kick ass. 

Let’s keep fighting the stigma against mental illness! Openness is key even if it is just one blog post at a time. 
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Why true friends make living better 

In my last post I talked about making new friends, and in other posts I have mentioned opening up to my friends at home. But I’ve never really taken the time to write about the impact of friendship on mental illness and how blessed I am to have a supportive group at home. 

To put in context:

I had a couple of friends who knew about the traumatic event which occurred about five months before I had PTSD. Remember, when the illness crept up on me I couldn’t explain what was happening let alone to anyone else so I struggled with the idea of telling people – if I don’t understand how will they? Once my Mum and Dad found out they wanted to know what kind of support I’d had and straightaway picked up on the fact that I was hiding my illness away from almost everyone in my life and honestly, keeping up a happy facade 24/7 was exhausting. So they insisted that I widen my support network.

Why did I open up the way I did? 

Making that kind conversation happen is really tough, even now I find it emotionally and mentally draining to tell my story right from the beginning (this blog has been great for me because I can tell little snippets of my experiences which pushes my limits without over doing it). But it was even harder at the time because opening up was still very new to me and I hadn’t been diagnosed with PTSD yet so I couldn’t “label” what was going on to make explanations simpler.

It took a few days of my mum convincing me until I saw sense in telling my friends but I knew that repeating the same emotional conversation with each friend individually would be too much on me, so I sent a short message to all my girls saying they needed to come over that evening because we needed to talk. I have no idea what thoughts were going through their heads but it makes me chuckle in hindsight at how dramatic it must’ve seemed! 

The reaction?

I sat in my living room with my Mum and one friend who already knew holding my hands. I had around 10-12 of my closest girl friends all squished onto the sofa opposite me waiting for the last person to arrive and for me to start talking. To this day I’m still amazed how many people made it to my house on such short notice! That’s good friends for you. 

The biggest hurdle was getting out that I’d been through something very traumatic. I still don’t talk about it in detail (apart from with my therapist) and no one but my absolute nearest and dearest know. It is still so deeply painful to remember. After getting that out, which took considerable effort, I begun to explain the changes I’d been going through over the past few months and that I would be going to seek professional help. 

Initially I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many blank faces staring back at me which lasted for just a few seconds whilst everyone absorbed what just happened before a few jaws dropped and even a few tears fell. I think the main confusion and shock impact was because no one had noticed a change in me, no one had picked up on any depression and that was because I was ashamed of what had happened to me, so I had been scared that someone would notice and want an explanation. I became very good at hiding behind my smiling, same-old-Anna mask. So it was a total shocker for my buddies.

The outcome? 

Honestly, give my parents a pat on the back because it was a great idea. My girls treated me almost no differently than before, which was a good thing because I was scared their opinion of me would change. 

But they always checked in on me when we were out, asked me how I was progressing and never ceased to remind me how proud they were of me. Now if something is wrong and I can’t get through to my parents or my boyfriend I am comfortable calling any one of them or just writing “someone please call me” in our group chat and knowing help will be on the end of the phone in a flash. They may not understand what it feels like when I have derealisation or anxiety, and they don’t pretend to either but they can calm me and make me smile which is most important thing of all. I would say to some extent they kept me in college because I knew I’d be safe and distracted if I was with them.

It gives me a lump in my throat to remember their kindness. 

If anyone reading this has been hiding like I did and wasting all that effort to seem fine when you’re not, I would 100% recommend opening up to at least one friend if you haven’t already. Make it so you have minimum one person in your support network that is at home, at school and when you’re socialising who can take care of you when you need it. That’s one of the things about travelling alone that’s been so tough, I haven’t got my best friends with me! 

I realise I’m very very very lucky to have a group of friends who respect my privacy, who haven’t gone and blurted out my trauma and illness as gossip. I’ve spoken to a few people who, so sadly, have not been so fortunate. In reality we shouldn’t have to hide mental illness anyway, but a true friend can appreciate that it’s your story to tell not theirs. 

Of course it was tough on them too so there were a few minor downs along the way but that only brought us all closer together. If you don’t feel comfortable or safe talking to anyone you know, then you got a friend in me. I’m happy to help and to talk! You are most certainly never alone. 

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So far, so friendly 

The first thing people tell you about travelling is “you’ll meet so many people” especially going solo. I have to admit I was worried that I wouldn’t, I mean how do you even get a conversation going with a complete stranger?

I was especially worried about how to handle having anxiety, panicking or just having a down day in front people I barely know. You can’t predict how they’ll react and probably will have a negative association with mental illness so just end up distancing themselves from me. I was fully aware that there would be no privacy in hostels for me to escape to either which concerned me because I didn’t want to have to bottle up my emotions so no one would see.

It was difficult initially. The first people I spoke to was a group of 3 Irish girls on holiday and then another girl from Switzerland who started chatting to me on the way to Koh Tao from Bangkok. It was a nice surprise to have someone come and talk to me, even more so that a group of girls would bother going out of their way when they already had each other. 

Once getting to the first hostel, which was is Koh Tao, I found that a lot of the people there were travelling alone too which made everyone happy to talk. After a couple of days I found that I was surrounded by a big group of people, yet I felt oddly lonely because no one really knew me. I definitely felt unsettled thinking the whole of my travels would be me bouncing from conversation to conversation with loads of new people without getting to know anyone and make real friends. 

I obviously worried too soon because a week on I’ve had a blast with several people who I’ve traveled with from Koh Tao to Koh Phangan! I’ve been on so many nights out not even drinking heavily just dancing and having fun with the Irish lasses, Livia from Switzerland, Sofie from Germany and Carlos from Colombia. It’s crazy the mixture of people you meet, but even crazier how you can get so close to some people in such a short amount of time.

On two particular occasions I was pleasantly surprised by how people came through to me:

1. I told Sofie a that I had PTSD which was really nerve wrecking to do because it was the first time I’d told someone new on my travels, I don’t think she knew much about the disorder but she seemed to take it well (though I’m not sure how I was expecting her to react). Anyway I had a really bad case of derealisation one night in Koh Tao, my body kept feeling like it was floating away from me in my bed. Obviously I didn’t like it at all, I got zero sleep that night and consequently I was very tired and emotional the next day. Sofie picked up on it immediately and when my emotions did get the better of me she didn’t push me for an explanation, just gave me a big big hug and a shoulder to lean on. Such a simple gesture did me the world of good and showed that she might not understand but she cared.

2. I hadn’t really mentioned PTSD to Livia when I got upset next. We were in Koh Phangan at the “Jungle Experience” party which turned out to be a druggy rave which was something I used to enjoy before I got PTSD but now I have a negative association anything like that because I’m scared the lights and trippy patterns will make my derealisation blow up into a panic attack. I was really uncomfortable and quite frightened being there which Livia noticed. Again, without demanding much of an explanation, she held my hand the entire time and didn’t leave my side so I could try and relax. I actually ended up enjoying myself after a while even though the music was rubbish and I only had 1 beer the entire night! 

The three of us have gotten to know each other really well on a deeper personal level and it really was the best of luck that I stumbled across these two lovely girls in the first part of my adventure, they made me feel like I wasn’t travelling solo but with friends. We’ve done all sorts  together from diving to trekking.

We hiked up to a beautiful view point together
I was actually really sad to say goodbye to them, Livia returns to Switzerland and Sofie is going to a different Thai island, although we may see each other again in Koh Phi Phi (my next destination) where I will be meeting the Irish girls and Carlos. 

As I said, I feel incredibly lucky. I know not everyone will be as accepting or even as fun to be with but it’s awesome to know that I wasn’t judged and going forward there will hopefully be others who “get me” too.

The whole reason why I went travelling alone was to prove a point – if I can do it then literally anyone can, having a mental illness or even just doubting yourself should not mean that you hold back. If you have any questions or are considering going yourself do get it touch.

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2 days in Bangkok 

I had to get up at 4:30am on the Sunday morning to get a boat from Naifaru, Maldives to a domestic airport which would fly me to Male. The sea was extremely choppy which I embraced as a sort of roller coaster ride for about 10 mins before the constant soaring then crashing into the waves became quite uncomfortable for my stomach. It also meant the boat couldn’t go as fast as normal so once I jumped off the boat I had to run to the airport. But I made it with 20 mins to spare and hopped on my plane to Male, arrived and waited for my departure flight with Bangkok airways (which was good actually, especially the food, I recommend). 

I landed at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport on Sunday evening and went to stay with my cousin, Hannah, and her husband, Will, who have been living in Bangkok for 10 months whilst working as teachers.

Landing in Thailand, I got ripped off straightaway by the cabs at the airport who were all demanding 600 Thai Baht (TBH) instead of 300 THB to take me to my cousins! But after a 30min taxi ride and 15 mins waiting outside of their apartment building (having forgotten to save their number and I was without wifi) I arrived safe and sound. 

First impressions of Bangkok – holy crap it’s big!! Skyscrapers here, there, and everywhere, dotted across the skyline so I couldn’t figure out an apparent city ‘centre’. It was quite intimidating but impressive as well. 

The view from the roof

The apartment I stayed in was 25 storeys up and had a really nice view of Bangkok. My hosts and I wrote a list of sights to see in this vast city which I could do after I collected my tickets to Koh Tao on the Monday morning. They were going to be working so we’re unable to show me around so I went out into the city on my own. 

Day 1:

With a paper list of things to see in my hand I got a cab to Hua Lamphong station to get my train tickets, easier said than done because the collection point for these tickets wasn’t actually in the main station as I had thought, but a 10 minute walk underground away. A minor blip but it made me feel really lost, out of place and anxious. Once my tickets were collected I went back to the main station area, sat down and stared at my paper list. I felt too shy to try anything on the list alone so after half an hour of sitting and fretting I chose a safe option and went to a shopping mall to attempt buying a new rucksack whilst trying not to get ripped off again by taxi drivers. 

I knew going there was a safe option and I was kicking myself for it but even being in the mall alone was tough. I was trying to blend in by acting like I knew what I was doing and where I was going whilst wasting my time in a shopping mall so I could call it a day, go back to the apartment and have an excuse not to go anywhere else alone. Once I purchased a nice and cheap rucksack, I headed back to the apartment, put the TV on and sighed in relief but also at myself for being such a wimp. 

After a lovely Thai dinner and a couple of cocktails with my cousin and her hubby I lay in bed and promised myself the next day would be more successful. 

Day 2:

It was pouring with rain first thing in the morning so I took the opportunity to look into some attractions in Bangkok and settled on getting a tourist boat for 150 TBH which takes you up and down the river and allows you to hop on and off at different sites. I managed to see the Grand Palace and go for a little shop around all by myself in the rain. I still couldn’t quite relax into being alone and I did keep thinking how much easier this would be if I had a friend, my boyfriend or my mum and dad with me. But I persevered because I didn’t want to waste my last day in Bangkok and I didn’t want to shy away from having a potentially good time even if it risked getting lost or ripped off on the way. 

Wat Arun temple

In the end I had a pretty good day and managed to see quite a few sights in this crazy city, I even walked back to the apartment from the boat pier because I was feeling ballsy and couldn’t be bothered to find a taxi. On my walk it struck me how big the difference between rich and poor is in Bangkok. One second you’d be in a dodgy street, the next you’d see big homes and fancy commercial offices. You can see the difference even more from the height of the apartment where you can overlook slums with mansions next door. 

Great view of a fraction of Bangkok complete with towers and slums

Later that afternoon I packed my things and hopped on the night train which took me to Chumphon where I got a coach to the pier then a ferry to Koh Tao, a small island hailed for its diving on the Gulf of Thailand. When I was lying there on the train bed I was feeling pretty pleased and chuffed with myself! It may not seem like much to anyone else but I really pushed myself and my nerves on that day which had paid off and I don’t have to feel any guilt for wasting time because I didn’t sit around watching films all day in my comfort zone. 
River cruising In the rain

In hindsight I think the cause of my shyness or fear of exploring Bangkok was feeling a lack of control which, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, gives me a lot of anxiety. Bangkok is a huge maze and crazy busy so it’s not surprising I just wanted to stay where I felt safe and relaxed. 

I did enjoy Bangkok and as a solo traveller with mental health issues I am really stretching myself which makes me proud of what I am achieving. Even “normal” people might struggle or wouldn’t do this on their own, at least that’s what my mum tells me!

Happily, I was really looking forward to getting to Koh Tao. Being on a smaller island where it’s a bit more laid back appeals to me a lot more than a hectic, big and bustling city like Thailand’s capital. More about Koh Tao in my next post!

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The real Maldives – 9 things I didn’t expect

Wow three awesome weeks have gone by so fast! I’ve had a few downs but so many ups and I’ve learnt a lot about myself yet even more about the Maldives.

When you picture the Maldives you vision beautiful beaches, hot weather and 5* resorts over crystal clear water, but all that luxury is in stark contrast in comparison to the local islands such as Naifaru where I stayed. 

It’s been a big culture shock in many ways but these are the most surprising:

1. Religion – most people don’t realise it but the Maldives is a very Muslim country. Before I left I was told to bring a pair of 3/4 length trousers and tops that cover your chest and shoulders but I hadn’t realised we would have to cover up everywhere, including going to the beach and snorkelling. The resorts in the Maldives are exempt from that rule and others such as drinking alcohol and smoking so not to deter tourists. The call to prayer is 5 times a day starting at 4:30am so all the shops and cafes open for just a few hours at a time to work around the prayer schedule. Because of the secluded style of the resorts most people who visit the Maldives would leave without noticing its religious background. 

Snorkelling fully clothed is a must, especially for women.

2. No toilet paper – yup, the plumbing here on Naifaru can’t handle tissue paper. There is none on the island so we have to get some delivered to the volunteer house for us to use and then we have to put it all in the bin. 

3. Everything looks the same – all the streets and houses follow a similar pattern with no road signs or names. Unless you know where you’re going you can get pretty lost here which I did on my second night when I attempted to walk home alone! Fortunately it’s a pretty small island and the locals are happy to help. 

The streets of Naifaru

4. Monsoon season – When I think of rainy season I think of it pouring for a couple hours then stopping. In my first week it was dry season, baking hot sun which burnt you in a flash and very humid. But at the beginning of the second week it thunder stormed for most of the day and night for at least 5 days and it’s still raining a couple times a day now. Because of the storms causing choppy seas, leaving the islands is near impossible because the only way off is by boat. But I did like the cooler temperature the season brought which made walking about and working at the turtle sanctuary a lot more comfortable, although the sun was still strong through the clouds and can catch you off guard. 

5. Turtles – volunteering with the turtles has been incredibly rewarding and I’ve grown attached to a few favourites! I had no idea before I came here how much ignorance there is towards turtle well being. It is illegal for people to keep turtles as pets, eat or hunt turtles, and take eggs from nests. Unfortunately these laws aren’t taken as seriously as they should be especially by big resorts who take eggs from the nest and keep the hatchlings in poor conditions then often charge tourists a small fortune to “release” them. Handling the soft eggs also causes a lot of damage to the embryo inside which results in some severe deformities (see below video of Donatello who’s shell is folded so he cannot swim or balance properly). But with the work of Atoll Volunteers (who run the turtle sanctuary) there has been a lot of improvement regarding all turtles’ wellbeing especially with educating the locals who have really taken the project to heart. Keeping the babies as pets is now seriously frowned upon and the locals often bring us injured and unwell turtles they have found. 

6. The big blue seaso clear and so beautiful! We snorkelled on most days and you always see something new despite the corals being bleached due to sea temperatures rising. I’ve seen dolphins, flying fish, baby sharks, wild turtles and a whopping great big cowtail sting ray! The Maldives is in the India ocean so the water is lovely and warm and turquoise. I had no idea how much stunning wildlife the Maldives is home to.

Under the sea there are so many fish species!

7. The locals – are the most laid back people I’ve ever come across! For example, If a boat is due to leave at 8am sharp I guarantee it no one will turn up till 8:30am earliest and the boat probably won’t even leave until 11am and is often cancelled last minute because of the weather. Everything about life on the local islands is extra relaxed, everyone is so friendly and wanting to chat, especially the children. 

8. Waste management – there is none. All rubbish gets burnt on the islands or shipped to the capital, Male, where it’s buried under the sea. So there’s a lot of litter around and most of which ends up being washed away into the sea. All the waste from the big fancy resorts end up in the ocean too which is really sad and terrible for the environment. Fishing nets are banned in the Maldives, however due to its location, nets from other countries such as India and Sri Lanka drift to the Maldives trapping turtles and other wildlife along the way.  Most of our turtles with amputations are found stuck in nets.

After just 30 minutes of cleaning we had 16 bags of rubbish from the beach. It didn’t even scratch the surface.

9. The government – is unfortunately quite corrupt, even volunteering is banned in the Maldives! I wouldn’t have realised it if I was just on a resort holiday but being so close to the locals you can see how it’s effects people’s lives, especially when running a non-profit organisation. It’s very frustrating to see. 

I’m really sad to go and say goodbye to the turtles! If you want to go backpacking alone but are a bit nervous about it I would 100% recommend doing some volunteering for a few weeks to get you started. It’s given me the confidence I need when adjusting to different cultures, I’ve made good friends with the other volunteers so I’ll find it easier to talk to all the new people I’ll meet and has just generally relaxed me into travelling solo. If I had the opportunity to go back to the Maldives, I would do it this way all over again. Besides, I think I would get bored on a resort for two weeks.

I’m now heading to Bangkok, Thailand. The thought of adventuring solo now is really exciting and I don’t feel panicky at all! I’ll be in Bangkok for two nights before getting an overnight train, coach, then ferry to Koh Tao. 

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Dreaming of insanity 

Apologies for the radio silence this week but this particular post I really struggled to write so it’s taken a while…

Since being away the stress of travels has affected me in numerous ways, but after the first week and a half of being here insomnia has surprisingly resurfaced for a little while. 

Sunset Beach, Naifaru, Maldives
For about six months during my second year of college I had dreadful insomnia and it was a vicious cycle. I’d have what I named an “insanity dream” where I would have a very realistic dream identical to my real life with the exception that everything around me was all in my imagination. Then I’d dream that I had woken up and was still insane but without realising I was still asleep. 

The trouble was when I did wake up I struggled to differentiate between the dreams and reality and it could take me hours of testing my surroundings to figure out whether I was awake or not. 

Imagine being unable to tell if your reflection, your home, even your family is real. 

The tricks my mind played on me meant at night I’d be too frightened and anxious to fall asleep and when I did I would have another insanity dream. This endless cycle basically had me too petrified to sleep to the point that I was only getting 2-3 hours of rest a night. 

In hindsight I believe the dreams were the result of experiencing derealisation and panic disorder without understanding what was happening to me. The insanity dreams only lasted a couple months but the fear and struggle of sleeping lasted for much longer. 

After some time I was prescribed some sleeping pills which were bloody horrible! They sure knocked me out but it felt artificial to me and I would be so drowsy in the morning. I also had a bizarre side effect that made me taste chemicals and metal all the time. So my two favourite pastimes, sleeping and eating, had been taken away from me! Not cool. 

Anyway, eventually I weaned myself off the medication and finally started to have a good night’s sleep although I am a little bit afraid of the dark now. But I am exceptionally proud of myself for continuing my A-Level studies and still getting okay results despite everything! 

I haven’t had too many problems with sleep for a while but I started to have some issues since being here in the last week. My emotions are swinging up and down at the moment. I think as a result of the stress I started to have some dreams which were really messing with my head to the point where I was getting too anxious to fall asleep. 

That were a few pretty unhappy with a couple of breakdowns in the mix, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t felt really depressed. Thankfully lots of love from home sending me happy thoughts means I seem to have pulled out of it nice and quickly. I’ve still been trying to have as much fun as possible despite feeling drained, but my rewards were paid off when I got up early and snorkelled with wild green turtles the other day! 

A beautiful wild green turtle

“Takes a deep breath.”

This post was a tough one to write.  Because of the dreams loosing my mind is still my biggest fear so writing about it brings back an awful lot of memories… but I’m trying to encourage openness about mental health so I shouldn’t hide my issues away if I want to set a good example. 

If you are having trouble with bad dreams or insomnia I would say the best thing to do is talk it out with someone qualified who can teach you coping mechanisms and how to move past it.  For me the key was learning about PTSD and its side effects so I realised it was normal for me to feel this way, I wasn’t crazy after all.

Onwards and upwards. I’m leaving for Thailand in a few days which excites me yet terrifies me at the same time so I’m sure I’ll be loosing some sleep over that!

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5 ways anxiety actually feels 

Anxiety is a term frequently used by anyone and everyone generally to describe a feeling of nervousness or worrying such as before an exam or job interview.

I’ve mentioned my anxiety a few times in my posts as it’s one of the main side effects of PTSD and other mental illness’ so I wanted to take a minute to explain how having anxiety can actually feels to someone like me: 

  • A constant cycle. My anxiety is not generally caused by anticipating something like an exam which I would relate to as nervousness with butterflies in my tummy. I have a wide and varied range of triggers which can be anything big or small from feeling out of control, watching Tv for too long or talking about/ watching/ reading something violent or distressing. But unlike butterflies and clammy hands it is not fleeting but lingers for up to days at a time and builds up usually until I crumble and then it’s just a waiting game for it to happen again. 
  • It’s all in your head. Well it’s not actually. Anxiety is every bit physical as it is emotional and mental. I experience breathing problems, heart palpitations, dizziness and if it continues for more than a few hours I start to panic, my derealisation (often the trigger of anxiety) gets worse and I am unable to sleep, have nightmares and struggle to get out of bed in the morning. And that’s just for me personally, different people will have other side effects often a lot more extreme than mine. 
  • Feeling trapped. There is no medicine or cure that can prevent or stop my anxiety unlike a physical pain where usually you can just take some painkillers. The best thing for me is to is distract myself and do breathing exercises but there is no guarantee that they will work so it leaves you feeling out of control and unable to escape. Sometimes I feel like I desperately want to get out of my head, get away from myself and just make it stop.
  • Unfortunately unavoidable. As I said I have lots of anxiety triggers and many, such as a violent film, can be avoided most of the time. But I can’t control other people and what they say, do, or any subject they might bring up. Just a word can trigger a memory for me and I can literally feel my head swooosh whilst I fight to stay in control. Fortunately the stronger I get the less susceptible I am.
  • Exhaustion. It’s so so exhausting. I’m sick to death of it and PTSD I hate hate hate it. It brings such strain to my life, prevents me from doing things I want to, stops me from enjoying myself when I should be and just makes me feel physically, mentally and especially emotionally knackered all the damn time. 

So when someone tells you they suffer with anxiety take it seriously. And don’t think you can’t help either! In fact the best remedy for me is keeping busy which makes people the best antidote. God knows I would struggle so much worse if I didn’t have my boyfriend, family and friends to keep me occupied and often just being sat with them and chatting soothes me (see below, having a laugh over breakfast lifts my mood). 

Obviously I don’t always have that support whilst I’m here alone, consequently my anxiety is the worst it’s been for months. Happily though I’ve just discovered that a few of the volunteers with me in the Maldives have found and read my blog, so I don’t feel like I need to it hide as much anymore! But it’s an important reminder that just because you cant always see a physical manifestation of mental illness that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Of course there are many different ways anxiety affects my life and it will vary for others but hope I managed to shed some light on how living with anxiety feels and you can probably tell it’s not pleasant at all! There needs to be a better understanding of the disorder so please share, help spread some awareness and please be there for anyone who has anxiety issues like me. 

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