“I Trust Myself to Handle What Comes”

Grace Gettig
Major: Global and International Studies & Japanese
Daito Bunka University, AY 18-19

That’s what I have to tell myself everyday.

When you have any kind of mental illness, it may be daunting to study abroad to a different country, especially for a whole year. It definitely was for me. I was afraid of how I would deal with myself completely on my own. Sure, my friends and family are always there for me, but having a 13-hour time difference makes it difficult sometimes. I’m going to tell you now about my experiences, so far, dealing with mental struggles in Japan.

So, in September 2017, I decided to seek out help at Sindecuse Heath Center, WMU’s medical facility. I went in thinking I might have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder), and after several tests and consultations, I was diagnosed with GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder). I struggle with staying focused, worry about little things, social anxiety, self-doubt, and over-thinking, to name a few. To be honest, some of the doctors thought I might have a mild form of ADHD, but they couldn’t decide for sure. Oh boy. Apparently, I’ve got all sorts of crap going on up there. Fun times. Anyway, I decided not to go down the medication route, and to instead start counseling. I don’t have anything against taking medication, not at all. I’ve seen it work wonders for others. It’s just that for my specific symptoms, I felt that talking with someone and learning how to deal with them was the best path for me. I met with one of the counselors at Sindecuse once a week for almost a year. Well, towards the end of that year I was able to limit my appointments to once every two weeks. Since I knew I was going to study abroad this year, my main goal for counseling was to learn how to process and cope with my thoughts by myself, that way I would (hopefully) be fine in Japan, where I don’t have access to that type of help at my university. The counseling honestly did wonders for me (super recommend going if you need someone to talk to! Plus it’s free at Sindecuse for students!).

Now that we are done with my mental history – yay – let me tell you about how it’s been six weeks into my year-long program in Japan.

As I was preparing to leave the U.S., this whole thing didn’t seem real. I felt like I was on autopilot. Going through the motions of packing, finishing up the summer semester, buying my plane ticket, etc. I wasn’t properly processing the huge change I was about to go through. Even in-transit to Narita Airport, I wasn’t processing. All I could think was, “I just need to make it through my next flight” “I need to make it to my next gate” and so on.  That was one of my first times flying on my own, and my first time internationally. You can imagine the kind of anxiety that would have induced. Still, nothing. Just autopilot. I arrived at Narita, made it to my dorm, started to get settled in… and then it hit me. All of the anxious thoughts, worrying, over-thinking/over-analyzing that I would’ve done that whole time, came crashing down on me. I’m actually IN Japan. What was I thinking? I can’t just up and move to a different country, that’s ridiculous! Well, too late. I already arrived. There was no way I was going pay for another plane ticket to bail on this thing I’d been working towards for so long. I had a couple of moments in my dorm room where I almost had a panic attack. Thanks to the tricks I worked on with my counselor back home, I was able to pull myself back and calm down.

There was a lot of positive self-talk going on. I reminded myself why I was doing this, why I’m in Japan. I told myself, sure, there’s a lot of unknown things here, and yes it will be nerve-wracking trying to speak this foreign language, but you know what? Life would be really boring without these types of unknowns. It’s going to be totally awesome once I can have a conversation with a Japanese person without issue. Think of all the amazing places I can go see! I made myself think of the end goal and overcoming different obstacles is just getting me closer and closer to it. I also find grounding techniques quite useful. It’s not just a bunch of hippie stuff, it really works. For me at least, and I’m pretty sure I’m not a hippie…

Another thing I deal with is getting overwhelmed pretty easily, especially when being around a lot of people. Not fun when you live in a country where the trains tend to be packed, the city streets are almost always busy, and you freak out whenever someone tries to talk to you. Yeah… not fun. One thing I noticed myself doing back home is almost like putting blinders on. Not physically, but mentally. I focus more on myself and getting to where I’m going, and I block out what’s happening around me. That way I don’t get overwhelmed. The thing is, even if you see me walking around and you call out my name, I may not respond. It’s not that I’m trying to avoid anyone, it’s just that I’m so focused on the inside that I’m not fully aware of the outside. I was doing the whole “putting the blinders on” thing right away when I arrived in Japan, but it was another thing that was keeping me from fully experiencing my new surroundings. What’s the point of being in this new place if I’m not paying attention to it, especially when my time here is limited? One of the grounding techniques I learned has really come in handy with this. Instead of blocking out what’s going on, I become extremely aware. I leave my thoughts behind and focus on my senses. What can I hear/see/feel/etc? Oddly enough, that really helps. For example, say I’m standing at the train station, on the platform, waiting for my next train (these places can get really crowded). I am aware of the other passengers’ presence. I hear the ding-ding-ding of the railroad guards coming down over the nearby road. I feel the rush of wind as the train whizzes into the station. These thoughts quiet down the anxious ones.

Image: Koi Fish swimming in a pond. “Sometimes I feel like there is more Yin than Yang. It balances in the end though.”

If you have anxiety, or any other mental issue, you can absolutely still study abroad. I would just recommend finding different coping techniques that work for you and your situation. I use grounding techniques, affirmations, self-talk, and a way of organizing and planning that helps me to keep track and complete my homework. I’ve also had to develop different strategies to make sure I don’t get overwhelmed by what life throws at me. It’ll be hard being in a new environment, new country, possibly surrounded by a new language, but it’s totally worth it.

I don’t try to hide the state of my mental health, but I also don’t flaunt it. If you ask me, I’ll tell you. Most people just don’t ask. I’m writing this in the hopes that it could either help others understand what it’s like dealing with mental illness in a new environment or another student that is thinking of studying abroad. To be honest, I think studying abroad to Japan and just throwing myself outside my comfort zone has been one of the best things for my anxiety, as weird as that sounds.

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