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On Mental Illness, Medication and Moving Abroad

If you ask a group of people in my generation if they have ever been diagnosed with depression or anxiety, more often than not, the answer will be yes. More awareness of mental illness, the availability of anti-depressant/anti-anxiety medication, and the horrible self-esteem issues that stem from constant contact via cell phones and scrolling through self-serving social media posts have caused an influx of these diagnoses. However, I've found that many people say they "grew out of it" or stopped needing the meds at some point.

Unfortunately, I have yet to reach this post-depressive phase. I've had many diagnoses such as bi-polar disorder, acute anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder, chronic depression and chronic anxiety over the past 12 years and have been on medication for eight years.

From a young age, I had intense mood swings that my family assumed would stop as I became more emotionally mature. At the time, I didn’t tell anyone that these outbursts were based on uncontrollable self-deprecating and occasionally suicidal thoughts that I didn't understand. The scary mental states would come and go through elementary and middle school, but everything came to a head around age 15. Hospitalizations, intensive therapy programs, rotating diagnoses, as well as medication "cocktails" followed. The worst years transpired from sophomore year of high school to sophomore year of college. This post isn't meant to be a tale of my mental health track record, but I feel like context is important here, with a touchy subject like depression.

Fast forward four years, when I decided I was emotionally stable enough to fulfill one of my dreams: moving abroad. I had my sights set on Southeast Asia and began speaking with a Peace Corps recruiter. It didn't take long to discover that my lengthy history with mental illness could get in the way of acceptance and placement at such a far-away destination.

I had heard of CIEE through a girl I met during my post-grad travels around Europe. Once I perused the available programs, I called the Teach Abroad Program Coordinators to find out if I could participate even with my medical past and reliance on pharmaceuticals. They told me I could teach anywhere except China and South Korea, where mental illness isn't widely accepted yet.

Step one: Convince my doctor and mom that I could go without therapy for several months. Step two: Figure out how to maintain the supply of the medications I still need to stay stable from across the globe. Ultimately, I got the health-related logistics worked out, received a placement in Chonburi, Thailand, and boarded a flight to Bangkok.

I knew moving far away from the support network I had cultivated over the previous six years wouldn't be easy. I knew I would miss my dog who has slept on my bed and kissed away my tears since I was 14 years old. I knew taking a break from therapy, as much as I didn't like going to appointments, was a risky move. But for the first time in my life, I didn't feel like my intrusive, controlling, and annoying “sad brain” (as opposed to my “logic brain”) had to hold me back.

Based on a family history of suicide and my own lifetime of depressive thoughts, most doctors have said I'll be dealing with mental illness throughout the rest of my life. Despite that fact, I'm not the sick, codependent girl I once was. I'm not a walking diagnosis or someone whose most prevalent personality traits are anxiety and depression. I'm a curious 20-something who is proud to be 9,000 miles outside of my comfort zone, finally able to see what other people have always believed I was capable of.

I don't recommend making a leap across the world if you're still suffering with self-harm, suicidality or other tendencies that worry the people who love you. However, if you were once convinced that all you'd ever be was a prescription number, a weekly therapy attendee or a homebody who couldn't leave your familiar and comfortable space, it might be time to take the newfound (or established) strength, stability and controlled thoughts, and run--or fly--with them.

I won't lie, dealing with the homesickness hasn't been easy. I constantly have to remind myself that the sadness and loneliness I feel, even though I’m here with amazing new friends, are not necessarily symptoms of depression. Rather, they are the side effects of living in a foreign place where my best friend, dog and mom can't give me comforting hugs.

Just during my first month of Thailand living, there have been a handful of very tough days. My mind has jumped back to former thought processes and emotions I haven't felt in years. When this happens, I think about how far I've come as an individual and remember that all of the other foreign teachers in my orientation class have moments of unbearable homesickness. Maybe my brain chemicals make them worse for me, maybe they don't.

The point of this post is to make one thing clear to myself and people who have similar experiences but want to make the leap. What's more important than those terrible years of adolescence is the fact they helped me become the person I am today. I’m Christine Hayes: published writer, brand-new teacher, loving aunty, world traveler, excessive talker and a more independent woman than I ever believed I could be.

Follow me on Instagram (@christinehaze) and Twitter (@chrishayes65) for updates on my time in Thailand between blog posts.

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