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When Panic and Anxiety Strike in Paradise

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I began having panic attacks when I was about 16 years old, typically around times of exam stress. I’m now 35, and sometimes, it hurts to think about how long I’ve been living with them. Then, I have to remember all the things I’ve done despite them. One of those things was traveling, which led me to the island of Bali, where I taught art and then English. I met a wonderful Balinese man and made the island my home almost 10 years ago when we married.

Bali is an island in the Indonesian archipelago, and despite the masses of tourists who pour in through the island’s international airport, it is still a developing country, especially when it comes to healthcare. The Balinese are very spiritual people and their religion (Hinduism) is ingrained in everything they do from the community and family temple ceremonies, offerings laid twice a day, to the rites of passage for birth, marriage and finally death. Because of their belief that life is a balancing act of good and bad karma, mental illness is often attributed to bad spirits or black magic.

Talking about or showing emotions isn’t a thing here. Locals aren’t touchy feely or gentle with each other’s feelings. You don’t want to make others feel uncomfortable or burdened by the way you feel. Although they may feel strong emotions, children are taught from a young age those feeling should be kept to themselves or hidden away from where others will see.

I should also explain Balinese families generally live together in family compounds. In my family compound, there are 22 other people. I’m never really alone. Yet, when I’m in the midst of a panic attack I feel more isolated than you can even imagine.

Many people say I’m living the dream, home on a paradise island, exotic husband and two amazing kids. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, but this means nothing in those moments when all I want is someone to say, “I understand and everything is going to be OK.”

When anxiety and panic strike, it means putting on a brave face and getting on with my usual routine. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it is often the distraction of normalcy I need. However, as other people who struggle with panic attacks will know, there are times when being able to explain to someone how you feel is the key to knowing you are going to be OK.

I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist in Bali for about nine years now. I see her once a month to get my prescription and have a short chat about how things are going. I like her and knowing she is there is comforting to me. We also speak in Indonesian, a language I get by fine in, but expressing myself, when it comes to feelings and emotions, is hard work.

Recently, my dad has been ill and being away from him, my mum and sister in the U.K. has been a constant worry. However, I don’t think I realized how much it was affecting me until I began to have more serious panic attacks, which culminated in an almighty breakdown one day when my husband and kids were out. I felt completely out of control, completely disassociated from my surroundings and completely alone.

My mother and father-in-law were home but that made me feel even more scared, knowing I couldn’t tell them what was going on. I ended up taking medication for the first time in years. It’s now taking me some time to regain my confidence and feel like I can get back to myself.

Bali is beautiful. It has beaches, jungle, sunshine all year round and it’s my home. However, it’s not a cure for the struggles I face inside my own brain and never will be. Wherever I am, I will have to face the demons of anxiety. Even in paradise, I face them pretty much alone, until more people begin to understand anxiety doesn’t equal “crazy.”

I have hope for this though. My husband understands much more now than ever and supports me through tougher times. I have also met local people at my doctor’s office who are getting treatment. More than anything, I hope for them that the stigma of mental illnesses and panic disorders become a thing of the past and they can openly get the help they need.

Originally published: August 30, 2016
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