What living abroad has taught me

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Current Age: 25
Country: USA

 

I celebrated this past November on a long boat in Krabi, Thailand. Exactly three years before I had stood on thin ice on lake Mendota by my fathers house in Wisconsin waiting for it to break.

Like those annoying dark eye circles some things may never leave our sight. I have fought, surrendered to, conquered, and relapsed into depression and social anxiety on and off the past six years of my life.

Living in Singapore has given me great insight into just how important mental health is worldwide now that I have managed to confront reality in a different light.

 Some background: 

My first depressive episode began my freshman year of university. I was terrified to make new friends, yet somehow rationalized this was to be expected when leaving home. I remember my stomach clenching up in a knot when I had to talk with professors or other students. My chest felt heavy. All I would think is “when can I be alone?”.

Despite talks with my mother about transferring schools, I felt Cornell was too big of an opportunity to pass up. I was there for a reason–to study, compete as an athlete, and ultimately succeed in life…

Two years later a major foot reconstruction operation kept me from doing what I loved the most. Without running I had no identity. The following cold winter months lead to more depressive thoughts, sleeping pills, weed, and other sedatives.

By summer I was fully healed and resumed training. I starved myself to lose weight, running well over 130km each week. When I returned to campus my mind was in a daze. Everyone and everything around me felt distanced; it was as if I was living in a parallel bubble. The little things became daunting to carry out. I was fighting with my girlfriend and isolated myself from my teammates. I ran one race and finished first for our team. Little did anyone know I was completely geeked out on caffeine and pain medication to deal with an injury I trained through.

I dropped out of Cornell in October. I could not cope with my reality. Therapy sessions commenced to address my depression, social anxiety and restrictive eating habits. I had only had professional help once before after my parents divorced. The following months were a whirlwind of more social isolation, prescription drugs, and doctors visits. There are several distinct, dark moments I contemplated ending it all. I felt like a burden to be around.

At one point I was taking four different  medications for sleep, anxiety, acne, and digestive support. It all felt so terribly wrong. I wanted to get to the root cause of my issues. This is when my passion for alternative medicine, fitness, nutrition, and balancing my brain chemistry through lifestyle modifications began.

I started a blog on health (no longer active) several months after returning to Cornell to finish my degree. Despite my newfound obsession, I remained very much socially isolated and depressed. My girlfriend broke up with me a week before graduation. Three days later I moved to New York City.

By August I found myself broke, unemployed, and living alone in Harlem.  My dear depression was back. I went for many long walks, pondering where this self-doubt and inability to take control of my life stemmed from. Central Park became my safe-haven, a place to retreat into and forget my problems.

Through the help of a friend, I took a job working the front desk at the Cornell Club, sporadically training members of the gym. Yet I was strapped on cash and had no sense of direction. My positive outlook on life carried forth on social media. I tried modeling and even donated sperm at a clinic for some extra money. I dated and slept around a lot, trying to overcome my anxiety and feeling like a failure.

 

An Escape to Asia:

Moving to Singapore was as much a form of escapism as it was trying to step out of my comfort zone. Singapore sounded exotic enough and like an “out” to my current situation. Thanks to my summer internship I had an opportunity to work with a local start-up company. It was a chance to start over. I arrived with an open mindset. I was determined to be be the kind of guy I always admired: confident, friendly, and true to his own path.

People began to enter and impact my life. My coworker took me under his wing and has showed me how much of life is simply putting yourself out there and not worrying so much what others think. Another guy I befriended brought me out clubbing and taught me how social situations don’t have to be so scary after all when you work on and cultivate a detached mindset. My wonderful housemate helped me see the value of reframing life as a series of chapters, full with people, places and documented memories. I got out of my head and experienced life in a new light. Most importantly, I learned I was not alone here. Others in Singapore and worldwide talked with me about their own episodes of depression and fear.

The more I have exposed myself to people and let go of past self-perceptions, the easier my own mental struggles have become. Of course, my fears and worries of the unknown still exist. But they do not paralyze me as they once did. I journal, write down the highlights of my day, occasionally blog,  and surround myself with individuals from different nations and woks of life. My travels throughout Asia help reinforce a newfound sense of excitement and gratitude for my life. Things aren’t “fixed” and may never be. I still have anxiety around sleep and cannot calm my mind sometimes. What’s important is recognizing that many of us deal with our own devils and need to cultivate healthy habits around them.

No matter who you are or what you might be going through right now, I encourage you to write down several things you are grateful for. If you constantly worry like I do, write down your fears too, and how you can address each one if it comes true. Take a moment to sit outside in silence and really observe what is around you. Break your normal routine– even just once–and see how it feels. Talk less, listen more. Heal through the words of others. Be fully present to listen to their life stories. Remain humble and curious about those around you.

You never know, your reality may not be so bad after all.

 

Gabe Heck has been living in Singapore since early 2016. He manages www.stayfitabroad.com, a website with fitness and health hacks to look and feel at your best. 

 

(Disclaimer: This is just my experience and suggestions. I have received feedback that my words can be misconstrued to circumnavigate professional help. This is NOT my intent, as I have definitely benefitted from therapy. I only offer a few additional suggestions that helped me and acknowledge I am very privileged to have a supportive family through this process.) 

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