“Is your anxiety better or worse in Timor?”
Two friends now have asked me this question since I’ve moved here, and I’ve answered each differently: to one I said better; the other, worse.
Both answers were true.
The first friend asked me in the weeks immediately after I moved to Dili — acknowledging that an international move is a stressful thing for anyone to undertake, least of a self-declared stress head with a year of therapy and a history of panic attacks behind her.
I surprised both of us by telling her, truthfully, that it was a lot easier than I’d expected. As I wrote in my very first post on this blog, AVI organised everything for us for our move to Timor: flights, layovers and an airport pickup; maps and SIM cards and visas and security forms; our first fast-tracked friends and an itinerary of activities before a month of pre-planned daily Tetun classes. I didn’t have to think for myself; I just fell into step and let myself get taken cared of.
I suspect to many people those first few weeks sound claustrophobic and unbearable. But I loved it. So spooked I was by the enormity of the decision I’d made in relocating that I welcomed the fact that AVI had organised my dinner for me. So whiplashed I was by the pace of moving from Melbourne to Perth to Dili within a week that I celebrated the sparse supermarket shelves with one choice for every product. So intimidated I was by the thought of this foreign place being my home for the next 18 months that I slid gladly into the backseat of my friend Christine’s car and let her drive me around the city on our first weekend here
I didn’t have to make decisions; I didn’t have to second-guess what I”d chosen. I just had to let it wash over me.
Coming from frenzied, hyped-up, nonstop Melbourne, I welcomed the change.
And, likely, I’d gotten myself so worked up with nerves and second-guessing before I left for Timor that anything slower than my own mental riptide would have been pleasant.
Now, eight months on.
Slow-paced work and a lack of instant gratification has eroded both my professional confidence and my self-esteem.
Insecurity and heightened sensitivity have punctured my natural good humour and my ability to laugh at myself, leaving me feeling hot, ashamed and panicked in everyday conversations and events.
In all honesty, the last six months of my life have been the most challenging I’ve ever experienced, in terms of my mental health.
A combination of normal new-workplace challenges and the usual difficulties associated with a new environment are to be expected with a move like this — and the unfortunate sucker-punch of losing my laptop, camera, phone and wallet in the same fortnight was just terrible, unlucky timing.
None of them was particularly good for my mental health, but perhaps the most destructive thing has been that I haven’t given myself permission to break down.
“You’re not crying about your laptop, are you?!” I scolded myself, when I wanted to grieve the loss of three months’ worth of work, old photos, short fiction I’d written and the most valuable object I own.
“You’re angry because you have SO much money you have to keep it in a secure account?” I asked myself, disbelieving, that lonely night I lost my bank card and thought I maybe wanted to go home for good.
“Oh, it’s so hard speaking native English, hey?” I asked myself every time I cringed through a broken-Tetun conversation with my neighbour who runs the electricity shop at the front of my house.
“Yeah, it’s really hard eating Burger King and cranking the air-conditioner and paying $10 for boot camp and driving to the beach for sunset cocktails, isn’t it,” I chided, as I went for sanity-saving exercise classes and dinners with friends and sunset Metiaut trips every couple of weeks.
I feel a pervasive, urgent sense of disgust with myself — for how privileged, bloated and lazy I am; but then for how unhelpful I’m being by speaking so poisonously to myself.
“It’s difficult,” I explained to the second friend who asked, an old colleague from Australia who visited Dili for a week-long work trip. “You don’t want to get bogged-down in guilt, but you don’t want to be so lenient on yourself that you forget what’s upset you in the first place.”
The friend nodded; understanding.
Then, he spelled out for me everything I’ve since realised about how badly my anxiety, my perfectionism, my obsessive tenancies, my self-criticism affect me here — which led to my answer.
My anxiety is worse in Timor than it was in Australia. In terms of second-guessing everyday decisions and putting myself under enormous pressure at work it’s a lot easier to manage here than it was back home — but in the way that it infiltrates my every thought; making me second-guess my ability to do my job; making me wonder whether my friends really like me or are just too-deep-into-it-now; furrowing my brow and refusing me to lean into my life of 12-hour sunshine and 50c mangoes and skinny street cats and sweat down your back — it’s a lot worse.
And I don’t mind it.
I wanted to move overseas to challenge myself. I wanted to put myself in an unfamiliar environment and see what I could learn from it.
I think, deep down, I know I’m more capable than the fretful narrative in my mind tells me I am.
And this year, I get to prove it.
I have, of course, taken my anxiety abroad to a country that doesn’t even recognise the word: in Tetun, the word hanoin neatly subs in for think, worry, wonder, anticipate, contemplate, angonise, brood, sulk, fret, and the dramatic hanoin barak, think a lot, is the equivalent of the English word “stress”. I haven’t yet asked about “Type-A”.
So, it’s an interesting environment in which to be a stress-head.
I couldn’t be more glad to be here. And with that, anxiety will not win. This is always worth it.
The fears are paper tigers.
The photo at the top of this post is from dinner last night: I went to my favourite restaurant in Dili with my favourite person in Dili and drank beers and made stupid jokes and laughed my head off and officially cheers-ed to the end of the slump and the lightness in my heart from the last month-and-a-half and watched paper lanterns float free into the night sky. It is a night I will look back on whenever my mind next tries to upset itself.