Living abroad with depression

Full steam ahead.

One and a half years ago I moved to Germany. Around the same time my depression got out of control. I wouldn’t say that moving to Germany caused my depression. It had been around long before, but it definitely contributed to it.

Moving countries is hard enough as it is. There are different procedures, visa regulations, possibly a different language, and you’re in a different environment and culture. Throw depression and anxiety into the mix and you’ve got a cocktail for danger.

I think the biggest problem for me was moving out of home. My large family lived in a small house and now I had not only a bedroom and a bathroom to myself, but a whole floor. I shared my new home with a family, so I wasn’t completely alone, but going from having my sister sharing my room and always being in my pockets to having my own space was a big change that I struggled with.

To top it off the German authorities forbade me from working until my visa was approved so I had nothing to do for two months. That only made things worse. Boredom is the fuel to the fire of depression and anxiety. It gives you time to think, or as the German psychiatrists say ‘grübeln’. Grübeln is a fantastic word that doesn’t really translate well in to English. It means to ponder or brood very deeply and it usually has a negative connotation.

When you’re depressed, deep thinking can be dangerous and damaging.

Once I got my visa I found out that it would need renewing in a year’s time and that for it to be renewed the authorities would assess if I was earning enough to support myself. Naturally as a freelancer I didn’t have stable work and so whenever I didn’t have as much work as I wanted I would ‘grübeln’ and worry about whether I would have my visa renewed the following year.

That lead to me to hospital.

It wasn’t just my visa that fanned the anxiety and depression. Moving overseas meant lots of paperwork; paperwork I couldn’t do. If you think paperwork is difficult in your own language, try doing it in your second.

There was a letter I received from the tax office which I simply ignored for quite some time until a social worker stepped in and took care of all my paperwork.

Then there were the assumptions. Often people thought that I was depressed because I was in Germany. Often people would tell me to ‘come home’.

‘I am home’, I would tell them.

Other people would think I was escaping something in Australia. Some people suggested moving city instead of country and one psychiatrist asked me, ‘what was so bad in Australia?’.

Nothing was bad about Australia. But when I was 16 I fell in love with Germany and ever since then it had become my dream to live here. 

My Mum has supported me ever since I bought my plane ticket to Germany. Even though she would love me to move back, she knows that home is where the heart lies and that my heart lies here. She knew that moving back to Australia wouldn’t fix my depression, in fact we both feared it would make it worse.

So I stuck it out.

It got better over time. I got used to living alone and I got very good at asking for help with paperwork when I need it. Sometimes I ask one or my landlords or a friend or even the company I’m filling the form out for. The other day I left a checkbox unchecked on some paperwork. But that was ok, they just resent the paperwork with the field highlighted. It’s no big deal.

I’ve also learnt to simply trust God that I will have enough work to provide for myself and have visa renewed.

That said though, sometimes Germany throws me some curve balls. Recently I’ve been struggling with the language. After set backs in finding a fully contracted job last month, I decided that would do what it takes to become a recognised school teacher in Germany. The first step is learning German to a point that I will speak like a native (CEFR C2). I set myself the goal of reaching that level within in three years. So, I started taking an online German course and was told I was at level B1. It was a whole level below what I would have picked for myself and that was a huge disappointment. Still, even though the company allowed me to move up half a level it is still very upsetting to be told you’re not as good as you thought.

Now as I actively learn German l get angry with myself every time I make a simple mistake. I criticise myself. ‘I should know better than to use the singular form of the verb with a plural noun.’ ‘I should know better to put than to put the verb in the middle of a subordinating clause.’ ‘I should know better that it’s ‘wurde’ and not ‘würde’.’

I’ve been speedily learning German. I feel like it’s a comfortable pace for me. I don’t feel rushed or that information isn’t sinking in. Quite the opposite actually. If there’s one thing I keep getting wrong I practise it again and again until it becomes second nature. But yesterday my tutor implied that I’m racing through the course too quickly. It made me feel judged and bad about myself. For the rest of the day I couldn’t even think about learning German.

My mum said not to listen.

Earlier this week my mum told me I shouldn’t drive faster than 100 km/h, maximum 110 km/h. I simply laughed and when I was on the Autobahn I drove at speeds of up to 170 km/h (for the tiny section of road that had no enforced speed limit). When I told her I was upset at what my tutor said, she told me:

When I make comments about you driving “too fast” on the Autobahn you laugh at me – and do it anyway. So that’s the attitude you need to have about some German language tutor saying he thinks you’re going too fast. It doesn’t matter what he thinks – that’s the whole point of online learning modules – you can do them at your own pace!!! It would be different if you had enrolled in a class and was trying to work ahead of the class.

So it’s time for me to stop worrying what other people think.

Full steam ahead.

Did I have an eating disorder?

For the first time I can ever remember, I believed I was beautiful and only because I had lost weight.

Every time I get changed I inspect myself in the mirror. I think a lot of us are guilty of this. Looking in the mirror has become my daily ritual. I always have a good look at my stomach. I’m not so bad as I used to be, now I try to be positive and tell myself I am beautiful, but for a while there I was a little obsessed with how much fat I had on my body.

I was a really fat kid. In particular, if you look at pictures of me as a fourth grader I was pretty round. I was unaware of my rather large size however, until it was pointed out to me by my classmates in grade five. Every day the entire male cohort of my year would laugh and ridicule me that I was ‘so fat’ and I ‘looked pregnant’. Being fat became my identity and I started to believe that I was ugly and no one liked me because I was overweight. At the age of 11, I had my first suicidal thoughts. The daily bullying was too much for me to bear.

The words which these boys told me continued to affect me for many years and still do today. In fact, until I was 18 I had real problems trusting boys my age. Often if a boy was nice to me I always thought it was a joke -that he was making fun of me behind my back. If a boy spoke to me I would be rude to him; I would push him away so he wouldn’t have the opportunity to hurt me.

Around the age of 19, we made the discovery that I have various food intolerances. Some of the foods I can’t tolerate include artificial additives such as preservatives, colours and MSG (that nasty stuff they add to Chinese food). It turns out that two of the many symptoms of my food intolerances are increased appetite and weight gain.

About a year after changing my diet, I was getting dressed for a concert and discovered the dress I was wearing was no longer tight under my arms but actually a bit loose. I had lost a lot of weight. I mean A LOT, and I hadn’t realised till now. It was also around this time that I looked in the mirror and actually liked what I saw. For the first time I can ever remember, I believed I was beautiful and only because I had lost weight.

I lost even more weight when I moved out of home. I wasn’t trying to lose weight, but my diet just naturally changed because I was now independent. This caused me to rapidly lose weight in a short time frame.

I got so much praise from my friends and the more weight I lost, the more comfortable I became in my body and the more I believed I was beautiful. However, I also became more and more obsessed with my weight and slimming down to that magical dress size and reaching a healthy BMI.

It wasn’t just the words of my former classmates but also the words of my friends which drove my obsession. Reward and punishment had taught me that I should be thinner. The words ‘have you lost weight? Congratulations’, ‘you’re so fat’, ‘wow, look at you, you’ve lost so much weight’ and ‘you look pregnant’ drove me to obsession. My self-worth and my weight became directly related.

I was so proud of myself for losing weight but started to develop a fear of putting the weight back on. This was a huge fear for me, as big as losing my job or my visa, or not having enough money to support myself.

Ironically the obsession with my weight became even worse when I was admitted to hospital. Every Wednesday during my time in hospital I was weighed. Before then I had always avoided weighing myself, but now I was forced to face the numbers every week. I started to obsess. I had to get down to 75 kg. That would give me a healthy BMI. I was so close. 4 more kilos to go and I wouldn’t bear the title of ‘overweight’ anymore.

It wasn’t to be though. My weight stopped decreasing. Two weeks in a row my weight stayed the same. When I saw my weight hadn’t changed I started to count calories. I would eat only one bread roll for breakfast instead of two I made sure I got in exercise everyday. But it wasn’t enough, my weight started to increase.

Unfortunately one of my medications had the side effect of increasing my appetite and making me put on weight. I was having trouble controlling my desires to eat and started overeating. That’s when the trouble started. The overeating made me hate myself. Really, really hate myself.

Weight loss. Weight gain. Overeating. Calorie counting. Praise for losing weight. Criticism for being fat. ‘Look at you skinny binny.’ ‘If you lose 10 more kilos you’ll look perfect.’ ‘Have you lost weight?.’ ‘You look pregnant.’ ‘You’re so fat.’ ‘Is everyone else in your family fat?’ ‘Are you expecting?’ ‘You still need to lose more weight.’ ‘You should be proud of yourself for losing so much weight.’ Anxiety. Fear. Low self-worth. 

I was terrified of gaining weight. It became my number one fear. It fed my anxiety disorder. Gaining weight would mean I wouldn’t be beautiful. It would mean I would be letting down all the friends who congratulated me on my weight. I couldn’t get fat. I couldn’t.

It was my first week in the day clinic when the psychiatrist suggested an eating disorder. I started to get worried. Did I have an eating disorder? He wanted me to keep a food diary and suggested I might need to go to another clinic for eating disorders after my time in this one. My doctor told me that my self-worth and weight were on a seesaw. If one went up the other went down. I held the believe that I was worth more skinny, people would like me more that way.

Talking about an eating disorder made me think about food even more and one night I found myself standing over the toilet bowl with my fingers down my throat. But just before I started purging I stopped myself and asked, ‘what are you doing?’.

It was that moment that I took control. I never attempted to purge again. I still have that desire to lose weight and I pray to lose weight. But in my prayer I also ask God that I would want to lose weight because I feel better when I’m healthy, not would because I fit the world’s standards.

I know I still have healing to go, but I can truly say, as I write this, I am happy with who I am and I am happy with myself. And, I am not fighting my battles alone, I have both a psychiatrist and a psychologist, I am looking after myself by taking my medication and listening to my doctors.

My two pieces of advice:

  • If you notice a friend is losing weight and wish to give them a compliment, focus on their overall appearance rather than their weight. Tell them they look beautiful or nice, or that new dress looks great on them, but avoid words like ‘skinny’, ‘slim’, ‘weight’, etc… While it’s well intended, complimenting someone on their weight loss could spark an eating disorder.
  • If you suspect you have an eating disorder or have issues with your self-worth or know someone who does, I strongly advise you to seek help from a professional. See your GP, psychiatrist, therapist or counsellor.

The road to hospital

At home I would just lie on the floor crying. I couldn’t get up, no matter what I told myself.

I could have died last year. I’d thought about killing myself so many times. Sometimes on the way to church, I would think about getting on the wrong train and heading in the opposite direction to a place where I would end it all. I remember once thinking ‘at some point I’m going to kill myself, why should I wait?’. In December I wasn’t just thinking ‘I want to kill myself’ or ‘I should kill myself’, I was thinking, ‘I’m going to kill myself. Yes, I’m going to kill myself. I’m going to kill myself. I’m going to kill myself. Yes, I’m going to kill myself. I’m going to kill myself. I’m going to kill myself…’. You probably get the picture. But seriously, this went around and around and around in my head like a broken record. By Christmas I had been fighting suicidal thoughts for months and I was at breaking point. I couldn’t go on anymore.

Anxiety was building inside of me like a large pressure cooker about to explode. I would look ok on the outside, but I would be screaming on the inside. At home I would just lie on the floor crying. I couldn’t get up, no matter what I told myself. Over and over I would tell myself to get up. Get up. Get up. You can do this. Get up. But I just couldn’t. It was like my arms and legs couldn’t hear my brain. Get up. Get up. I’d walk so slowly too. I’d tell myself to go faster. Come on you can do this. You can walk faster than this. But I just couldn’t. My legs were so heavy. They just couldn’t move. Everything was so challenging. Household chores just weren’t happening and a few times my dishes only got done because a friend would do them for me.

I hated myself, I couldn’t love myself. In fact, I couldn’t love anything or anyone. All the joy was sapped out of my life and I had such an ugly idea of myself that I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be friends with me. People I didn’t know would come to me in church and ask if I was ok. It was obvious something was wrong. I was always crying and I was always looking down. People kept telling me to look up, but what they didn’t understand was that I couldn’t. My head was just so heavy and when I tried to look up I just felt this enormous weight. That was one of the physical effects of depression.

At this stage I had been taking medication for months. I was on a herbal anti-depressant called ‘Laif’. It was great because it had very few side effects, but it was designed for mild-moderate depression and I’d surpassed moderate depression a long time ago. I was also receiving counselling which likewise wasn’t helping. My counsellor told me my sessions weren’t going to work until I had the right medication and although my GP had referred me to a psychiatrist, the appointment wasn’t for another month.

Over Christmas, I stayed with a friend in the Black Forest. She probably couldn’t see it, but I enjoyed my time there a lot for someone with such severe depression. However, this was my breaking point. I had severe depression and anxiety, I wasn’t thinking straight and I came the closest I ever came to killing myself. Fortunately, being in the Black Forest and in an unfamiliar house meant I had fewer methods available to kill myself and so I didn’t make any attempts.

I doubt I will forget that moment when my friend, cried and made me promise not to hurt myself. She was afraid to leave me alone and the next day, on Tuesday the 29th of December, 2015 she gave me no other option and brought me into hospital. I was not happy about going to hospital, but I was unable to think for myself anymore. Neither of us spoke during the whole car trip from the black forest back to my home. I couldn’t. My brain was too busy processing a billion thoughts of why I knew I needed to go to hospital and why I didn’t want to go. My friend took me home and told me to pack my bags. I just complied. The decision wasn’t mine anymore. I was too sick to make a decision. Everything was just too hard or too scary and I am thankful that she stepped in and made the decision for me.

During my first night in the hospital I just laid in bed and cried until I fell asleep. That was quite early mind you because I was on a high dose of medication to calm me down, which also made me drowsy. I spent the next 7 weeks in hospital and a further 13 weeks in a day clinic. Hospital was absolutely the right place for me; I was put on medication which really helped me and had various therapies. Over the 20 weeks I had psychotherapy, art therapy, music therapy, occupational therapy, enjoyment classes, depression classes, role plays, social competence training, dance therapy, movement therapy, and outings. I didn’t enjoy all of my therapies, but some of them definitely helped.

I have been out of hospital now for 7 weeks and life is better. I still have off days and am still learning to deal with the side effects of my medications. But I know how to deal with my illness now and what to do if I’m upset.

If you are suicidal or know someone who is suicidal, seek help immediately. Call a suicide hotline or if a life is in danger call emergency services. Mental illnesses do not need to be fought alone. Don’t wait. Get help.