But Everything Was Supposed to Be Perfect: When Anxiety and Depression Follow You to Your Dream City

I seriously consider just staying in bed every morning.
Publish date:
September 22, 2015
travel, mental illness, depression, anxiety, fear

"Maybe I should just stay in bed."

I think this every morning. I seriously consider this every morning.

I look around at my tiny apartment, the apartment I go to sleep every night thinking, "How did I luck out with this?" and think, "This makes me sad." I don't have a solid reason as to why the sight of my beautiful apartment makes me feel so distraught, but I think it has something to do with the fact that it feels too good.

Like the depression that follows a glorious vacation, I tend to anticipate the bad things that might happen when things get too "perfect," too "un-Louise."

Though I'm fully aware that my life over the past few years has been wonderfully unreal (Hawai'i, Japan, Hong Kong), I constantly battle a creeping fear that someone will figure out that I am a terrible, undeserving crap-bag of a human and it will all be taken away.

I don't tell you these thoughts because I want to be bolstered with praise or sympathy, but because I believe such thoughts are common to many people suffering from depression and/or anxiety. It's the troll that grabs your bliss, your peace, and shakes it into submission.

And shake I do. Every morning, everyday.

As soon as I'm fully awake in the near silence of my lovely home the terror of the day settles into my chest, making my heart race and my hands shake.

"Really, Louise. You could just stay in bed today. You have to send those emails, pay those bills, send those pitches, write those articles, call immigration, pay more bills, buy cat litter...it's so much. This could be the day you fail. This could be the day you write the words that make no one want to read your words ever again. This could be the day they find out that you've wasted all their time. But there IS a way to avoid this. Avoid, avoid, avoid..."

It's so tempting.

If I don't do it, then they can't judge me. I can't judge me.

While I lie in bed, turning over the option to hide JUST FOR TODAY, I listen to Hong Kong screaming outside my window. Even from my ninth floor window, I can hear people barking at each other, cars honking, and the rumble of buses filled with tourists.

There are people who have NO CHOICE but to go out into the day, get their work done, for whom anxiety is not an option. There are people on vacation, people who have scrimped and saved to come to this magnificent city to forget their troubles and enjoy life for a while.

And that's when guilt joins the party.

"You're so lucky. You have the privilege of wallowing in your fears. Here you are worrying about your feelings, but what do you contribute? Stay in, go out, it doesn't matter because who do you think you are? Get your eyes off of your navel, Hung."

So I lie in bed, in the first few minutes of consciousness, fearful and cruel. It is in those moments that I enact violence toward myself. I am my own worst enemy.

Eventually I do get out of bed. I make a deal with myself to just go to the bathroom — just wash my face, just slather on my sunscreen, whether it's going to protect me from direct sunlight or just the sun that comes in through my windows. I can come back to bed if I want after that. And more often than not I do.

Sitting in my bed, I think about what staying in bed will feel like. Yes, it will feel good to hide, to avoid the possibility of failing. But I ask myself what it will feel like when the sun goes down and I will still have my list of "Must Do Things" hanging over my head. What will it feel like to have lost a day in the city I fought so hard to live in?

At this point, I'm still shaking a little, my heart is still racing, but I try to entertain one or two little steps I might do.

If I put on my clothes, maybe I can take the ferry across the harbor — I love that ride, with all the tourists and some locals. It's the same route my mom and dad took everyday to go to work decades ago, before I ever existed. I love feeling like I'm stepping into their old lives for the 15 minutes or so it takes to cross the harbor that separates Kowloon from Hong Kong Island.

If I get to the other side, and still hate the day, I can turn around and go home, it's less than $1 USD roundtrip. But at least then I've gained something. "OK, I'll do that," I reason with myself. So I put my clothes on.

And step by step, that is typically how my day unfolds. Maybe I can't bear to go that far from my home, so maybe I'll walk down the main road at the end of my street to the diner that doesn't seem to mind me sitting there for hours slurping on tea or coffee. Maybe I just make a deal with myself that I'll go see if the chubby pugs that hang out in the store down the street from me are there today.

More often than not, when I get as far as my "deal of the day," I want to push on, go further, get to work. I don't always escape my racing heart or shaking hands, but I do find ways to forget myself and embrace the city I've decided to call home for a while.

The lesson I'm quickly learning, while living in Hong Kong, my "dream" home, the basket I've put all my proverbial eggs in, is that the simple act of being here cannot solve my life-long struggles. Really, Hong Kong has brought my issues into focus.

My anxiety and depression can be crippling. My tendency, no matter what fantastic place is outside my window, is to hide at home. I fought these problems in Japan and Hawai'i and before with varying degrees of success, but somehow I thought moving to Hong Kong would erase or at least mute these challenges — it did not.

When I talk to friends and family about my new home, I tell them how I'm "in love" with the city, how I can't believe I live here, that I'm "living a dream." Those aren't lies. Every time I throw myself out of my bed and into the loud, congested streets, I am in awe of my wild adventure.

Little things like finding my way through the winding streets of the Central or Mid-Levels areas of Hong Kong side, being understood when I order tofu skin rolls from my favorite vendor, or merely swiping my subway card with casual confidence like a local, bring me such little bursts of pleasure. In those moments I find a reprieve from my worries.

In those moments I catch myself thinking, "Wasn't it all supposed to be like this? How can I be in my dream city and be struggling to leave my apartment? How and where did I make a mistake?"

But there is no mistake. Despite the muck of mental anguish I put myself through I would still rather be struggling here than any other place in the world right now.

And knowing this, I've had to pay myself the kindness of understanding that fear and doubt do not preclude the possibility happiness. If living in Hong Kong has taught me anything, it has taught me that it's OK if what you're doing isn't easy. Sometimes, it's better if it isn't.

After a long day of forcing myself to be more than what my worries dictate, the sense of victory I feel is more real than the anxiety that grips me for most of the day. Everyday I try to hold onto that a little tighter in the hopes that it carries over to the next morning.

I know the sentiment "Anything worth doing is hard" is nothing new. But sometimes, when you're in the thick of your mind betraying you, telling you, "It's too hard, you should quit now, you imposter," it's difficult to remember that it is worth doing.

I suppose what I want to say — a little bit for you, a little bit for me — is that it's all right if fulfilling something big and important to you is hard. It is not a failure if you have to fight for it. You are not a failure if you are frightened.

Again, this is nothing new, but sometimes hearing someone else say it makes it seem more real. It's funny how we often trust other's experiences more than our own.

I started this post with shaking hands, worrying about what lay ahead of me in my day, worrying about my abilities. Now I find my hands still, my heart rate steady. I've found some calm that I think will carry me into the evening.

And though I suspect that tomorrow morning will bring another bout of anxiety and self-doubt, I don't dread it like I used to.

All I have to do is get out of bed.