Lonely in Lisbon
I thought it was about time that I put something raw and honest out into the ether. I considered a selfie video, but decided against it for several reasons. Firstly the storage on my phone is full, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how to fix it. Secondly, I thought I might genuinely cry. And thirdly, what I wanted to articulate was going to require brain power, something I didn’t have a lot of after crying in public at a world heritage site.
Ok I’m going to rewind a little, and start at the beginning, because that’s where every good story begins, right? If you’ve looked at my IG recently - you’d think that I was living the dream. And you wouldn’t be wrong (on paper anyway). I’m living exactly the life I’ve wanted for so long. I’ve dreamt about living in London for years - a classic New Zealander thinking it would be chic to pop over to Europe for the weekend. That, and I am unhealthily obsessed with the British accent. Being over here for the last few months has definitely had its highlights. I’ve ended up in some of the most exclusive private clubs in London, I kissed a very sexy guy from my coworking space in the elevator (lol) and eaten at some of the most amazing restaurants. But in all honesty for the most part, I’ve not been having the best time. Life has felt hard. It has felt lonely. If I could epitomise how I’ve been feeling as a sound - it would be the one when your earpods tell you they’re about to die. Why am I writing about the sad workings of my inner brain for all to read? Because I don’t want what you see on my IG to be another comparison to a life that from the exterior, seems shinier than yours.
This weekend I went to Lisbon, and trust me when I say, it didn’t turn out to be the trip I was hoping for. On my first night I took myself out for a cute little date. I ate beautiful food, and had a couple of delicious cocktails. I don’t normally drink alcohol when I’m by myself, but I’d never been to Lisbon, it was a Saturday night, and I thought it fitted in with the spontaneous theme of the weekend. For context - I literally booked my flights that morning. Don’t get me wrong, night one in Lisbon was a blast. I wandered home after midnight, hopped into bed and slept pretty well. I did the classic waking up from 4am to pee every half an hour, but other than that - no hiccups.
Day two. I woke up with my heart in my throat. If you’ve never experienced anxiety - imagine that horrible pounding feeling as if you’re about to walk on stage in front of thousands of people (assuming that like me, you also hate public speaking). Actually - imagine you’ve also lost your speaking notes, that’s how I felt. I put my running shoes on, a habit I’ve recently picked up, and thought pounding the pavement to sweat out last night's margaritas would help the situation. I followed my nose to find a view of the city. I thought maybe if I could get a little higher and see the beautiful place I had woken up in, that I wouldn’t feel like a giant bag of balls.
I ended up at Jorge someone's castle. Ironically not on my list of things to do in Lisbon - but it probably should’ve been. After waiting in the world's longest queue, I made it inside and I’ll tell you - the view did not disappoint. To paint a picture, it was a castle built in the 1700’s that looks over the whole of Lisbon. I sat on a dodgy looking rock wall, next to a couple who had set up a tripod to take photos of themselves, and tried really hard to feel happy. I tried to remind myself how lucky I was to be in Portugal. In a city that I had always wanted to explore. And how amazing it was that I could afford to be here (even though admittedly I had transferred money from my emergency fund to pay for the flights). I reminded myself how lucky I am to have the fluidity with my work (and my personal life) that allowed me to be in this part of the world. No matter how hard I tried to change the internal dialogue, I looked out at the view and felt nothing but emptiness. I felt lonely. I felt sad. To exacerbate the situation, I thought it would be a great idea to put on the saddest playlist I could find. I was alone at the top of a huge hill, listening to Holocene Bon Iver. Brilliant.
I text my sister who is in Sydney and literally said “I’m feeling really sad - can you talk?”. She replied with “I’m going to sleep”. The hardest part of being on the other side of the world has been that almost everyone I love and care about, is sleeping when I’m awake. It’s an isolating and strange feeling. I started to take myself on a tour around this ancient castle, and messaged one of my good friends asking if she was around to talk. She was free (thank god as she’s living in Amsterdam and in the same time zone). She rang me almost immediately, and within two minutes of talking to her I was in full blown tears. I explained how stupid I felt for feeling so sad, when I should be having the time of my life. She started off by saying that she has cried at almost every UNESCO heritage site “there's something heavy about those places, the eiffel tower, Machu Pichu - you name it, I’ve cried there ” she said. It definitely lightened the mood slightly, but at this point, I am in the middle of a giant castle, bawling my eyes out. There are hundreds of tourists walking around me as I sit on the ground, crying like a 5 year old who's been told she wasn’t allowed ice cream.
My friend (bless her f*cking heart) validated everything that I was feeling. She told me that she’s felt the exact same way before, and that she understands my frustration having the same debilitating thoughts playing on loop. My phone was about to die, the reception was cutting in and out, and I had no idea how to get myself home. So we hung up the phone and there I was again - lonely in Lisbon. I decided to swiftly exit the castle, and take my puffy face in the direction that I thought was home. I felt mildly better after voicing how I was feeling, but I still didn’t really know what to do with myself. The problem was, I knew wherever I was physically, whatever activity I tried to distract myself with - that pit stomach feeling would still be there. I knew the incessant thoughts that make me doubt myself, would follow me to whatever European city I decided to fly to. It wasn’t the place, it wasn’t the people, it wasn’t my dead phone, or my slightly hungover state - it was an unstable frame of mind I find myself in too often. It was anxiety. And it was coming with me whether I was in Lisbon, back in London, or flying home to NZ.
I feel as though anxiety, depression, or just generally feeling low - isn’t talked about enough. Sure, mental health has somewhat been destigmatised, but it’s associated with an element of weakness. Most companies offer mental health days, but how many of us actually put our hands up and take them? And then on top of that, often we have this perception that we’re the only ones feeling this way. In that rock bottom moment, I really needed my friends' validation that what I was feeling was normal, which is why I’m writing this article. If we’re always comparing our somewhat mundane lives with those enjoying European Summer, or skiing in the French alps - of course we are going to feel inadequate. Of course we’re going to feel alone in our lowest points. But guess what? Beautiful places, don’t make your mind a kind place to be. There I was in Lisbon, feeling the loneliest I’ve ever felt. You’re not going to find joy by flying somewhere new. It’s a bigger problem, and one that until recently I haven’t given myself permission to admit.
Ok back to the Lisbon saga. So I made it home, got myself changed and took myself out for round two. While wandering the streets, I started listening to a podcast titled (and this is not a joke) “2 practical ways to enjoy time by yourself and overcome feelings of loneliness.” One of the things it spoke about was how warped our perceptions are about alone time. And that feeling lonely, is when we feel weak on our own, whereas solitude is feeling strong when you’re on your own. The podcast also spoke about how we’re always filling any alone, by listening to a podcast (ironic), or music. We hardly ever allow time for things to bubble up and to process. So I whipped out my earpods, and tried to explore this idea of feeling strong on my own. Remembering that I had in fact CHOSEN to be in Lisbon, by myself. In the space created by pulling my beloved earpods out of my ears for once, and walked over to (again not a joke) hug a tree.
A friend had recommended some gardens that were worth checking out. At first I felt a little silly with my hands wrapped out this giant trunk in broad daylight, and then remembered I genuinely didn’t know anyone here. For a moment I looked up and noticed how steady and strong it was. How deeply its roots had dived into the soil. I looked at all the dents in its bark, and thought about how imperfect it was, but in the best way possible. And then I thought about how this tree doesn’t get confused in Autumn when its leaves fall off. It knows that change is inevitable. It’s not uncomfortable with it. Right now, I feel like my leaves are falling off and my god it feels uncomfortable. I’m trying so hard to hang on to every last leaf, because it feels weak and exposing to have branches without leaves on them. But I am trying to remind myself that we change, just like nature. And that the best thing I can do right now is trust in the process. Let the leaves gracefully fall to the ground, knowing that one day soon, prettier coloured ones will grow back in it’s place but that right now, I might need some help with the gardening. And by gardening, I mean my mental health. And by a gardener, I mean maybe anti-anxiety medication.
I continued wandering around the park, paying attention to things like the sounds of the birds, and feeling the ground each time I took a step. I noticed small things that no doubt I wouldn’t have noticed if I’d had my head buried in my phone. I watched as a woman in her 80’s stretched out her calves as she sported bright pink trainers. I spoke to a guy who had a cute dog. And I continued on with my day not feeling like myself, but definitely feeling a little better.
For the rest of the trip I still felt pretty average. I had a moment of clarity in that park, but if you’ve experienced any difficult times with your own mental health, you’ll know sometimes it can be hard to predict how you’ll feel. It can feel like an exhausting rollercoaster that no one lets you get off. Over the years I've gathered many tools to help me combat it, but I still don't feel like I've found the answer. From exercise, meditation, journaling, breathing exercises, Ashwagandha, going to therapy - honestly you name it, I’ve probably tried it. And of course I’m going to continue to exercise, even when I don’t want to. I’m going to try and meditate, even when I am feeling lazy. I’m going to keep reaching out to friends if I want to talk about it, but I am also going to remember that it’s normal to not feel normal. It’s ok if I feel a lot of sad emotions, because it means I have the capacity to feel all the good ones too.
I’ve always had this hang up when it comes to taking medication. It’s so silly how if you have a broken leg, you’d let a doctor put it in a cast. But if you’ve got debilitating anxiety you refuse to take medication to help. It’s been a real battle to get to a place where I’ve taken the steps to get a script, and start taking medication, but it was in that moment in Lisbon I decided it was time to try. I decided to think about it as one more tool I’m adding to the toolbox. For too long I’ve been hung up on statistics about antidepressants being the most over prescribed drug in the US. For too long I’ve been worried that people would think of me if I took medication for my mental health. And for too long I’ve lived with crippling anxiety, refusing to take something that I quite clearly need.
It’s now been two months since my literal rock bottom moment, and one month since I started taking anti anxiety medication. I feel better. Not completely normal, but it’s definitely an improvement and I feel really bloody proud of myself for taking that step. This is by no means an advertisement for medication, it’s just a reminder that you’re not a failure if you decide that it’s something you need. I never judge my friends, or people I know who take medication, but for some reason when it was me, I couldn’t stop judging myself.
I hope my story acts as a reminder for anyone who's not feeling top dollar - that we’re not shiny all of the time. We’re only human, and feeling sad or anxious doesn't make you a freak. Emotions are energy in motion, they move and change - just like the seasons. Struggling with your mental health doesn't make you any less capable, you may just need to water your roots. To add new and different tools to your toolbox. I may have been feeling lonely and anxious in Lisbon, but I know that my anxiety doesn’t define me. And most importantly, I am never truly alone.