World Mental Health Day 2018: How Getting Out of Debt Helped Me To Fix My Mental Health
World Mental Health Day 2018: My Story
I started having panic attacks when I turned 13. It was the late ’90s and there wasn’t much awareness of mental health as a concept back then, let alone how to deal with it, or support someone who is struggling. I initially visited my doctor, with no resolution, and when school started sending me home for the day when I had a panic attack, I quickly learned to keep what I was going through to myself for fear of being excluded. I felt isolated, alone and afraid in my struggles, and I’ve always known deep down that this was a major issue for me and if I didn’t fix it, it would get worse.
By the time I reached my twenties, it had. By that stage, my panic attacks grew into Generalised Anxiety Disorder, intermittent depression and a whole host of physical health problems, like IBS and migraines. I constantly felt exhausted, mentally and physically, from carrying myself around when my brain was giving me signs to stop. There were two sides to me; outwardly I was friendly, confident and social, and inside I was someone who would have to talk themselves through every possible scenario, anticipate every possible outcome, exhausting themselves with ‘what ifs’- I was completely lost with how to get out of the hole that I blamed myself for digging.
By my 30th birthday, things had deteriorated to the extent that I was living every day with either anxiety or depression and exhaustion. I was suffering with insomnia and most of my week was spent falling asleep on the sofa at 9.30, waking at 2 a.m. and worrying about how I was getting through the day ahead on such little sleep. My mind never switched off; it would pick something minor to worry about and fixate on all possible disastrous outcomes, until I felt sick over it. And then it would move on to the next thing. By the time it got to the weekend, I just wanted to hide away so as not to accrue anything else to worry about, and I became totally withdrawn as a result.
One particularly low point of the past few years was when we moved into our first home and my granny died, all in the same week. I was struggling to cope at work and so was my partner (who was working 70+ hours per week), and it triggered months of migraines and vertigo. Looking back, it was horrific; I would start the day with vertigo, and at lunchtime, the migraine would hit and I would spent the rest of the day feeling like my head was going to explode. I started taking medication which helped somewhat, even though it made me feel fuzzy or drained, and I had stigmatised medication and therefore felt as though I was a failure for opting to take it.
I had disclosed my mental health issues to people but I had never really ‘owned’ it; to me, it was something to be embarrassed of, something that made me defective. I wanted to prove to myself that it wouldn’t hold me back, but inside, I was completely held back. I had lost myself, my self-confidence, my ability to soothe myself, my ability to be happy or live in the moment. By the time I reached 32, I spent more years of my life living with these issues than living without them, and felt hopeless for my future. I had thoughts of suicide, not because I actually didn’t want to live- I always did- but because I couldn’t see a way out of my problems, and very often they felt too heavy to carry, and I worried that one day, I would just give in and stop fighting.
Paying Off Debt, and How It Helped
When we decided to pay off all of our debt, it wasn’t motivated by my mental health issues (as you may have gathered, dealing with them was very low on my list of priorities). My partner was at risk of redundancy and we realised at that point that we had put ourselves under pressure to make £400 in debt repayments every month, between our new car and our home loan, so we wanted to take that pressure off.
It took us a few months to get into the swing of making overpayments, but as we did, I started to realise that the reason we had gotten into debt in the first place was to make our lives look perfect and shiny, just as I had always done to mask my mental health issues, when the reality was that I was robbing my future self to do so. It was the first pang of empathy I had ever felt for myself; I was trying so hard to prove to myself and everyone else that things were great, but in reality, I was just making life harder for myself, and living a lie.
Within a few months of trying to repay debt with gazelle-like intensity, we hit every goal we set for ourselves and I started to feel confidence in myself again for the first time in a long time. I was sharing my story with like-minded people on Instagram and finally felt I had found my tribe; when I disclosed my anxiety, I was met with many stories just like mine, and not a single message of judgement towards what I was going through. It made me realise that many of us are in the same boat, trying to mask our own private struggles in a world where it is customary to document every facet of your life on social media. A world where ironically, debt is used to portray wealth and success. We were all feeling the same way. So it gave me strength to show my true self, warts and all, rather than a fake version of my life. Finally, I started to feel self-acceptance towards my problems.
And once I started to overcome my money issues, I started to realise the affect that living beyond my means was having on my life. It kept me in my current job, working full time. It required me to do overtime. It left me and my partner with a work life balance that felt unsustainable to us. And the only thing the money gave us was more ‘stuff’; which I had learned, through years of acquiring it, that stuff never makes you happy, despite what we are told. That coat we can’t live without? That new car? That bigger house? We think we will finally be happy when we acquire it, but the truth is, we won’t. And as long as I was living like that, projecting that fake version of myself into the world to cover my problems, I was ignoring that little voice in my head that had been nagging me since I was 13, telling me that my mental health issues stood in the way of my happiness.
So with money no longer a focus, and lots of free time recouped when I stopped distracting myself, I turned my attention to my mental health.
Focusing on my Mental Health for the First Time
For the first time in my life, I made time for that yoga class I was putting off, and I hate to be ‘that person’, but yoga works; it makes you calmer, it helps you focus, and it quietens your mind. Without a costly project to keep me busy, I finally had time to keep a journal and track my anxiety, noticing key things like: coffee makes it a lot worse, and that my anxiety is in sync with my cycle. And without the funds, we finally stopped saying ‘yes’ to all of those invitations to things that made us miserable (#sorrynotsorry). Without knowing it, I was decluttering my life, making time to relax, focusing on the things that mattered and finally figuring out what was going on inside my head. For the first time, I was getting answers to the problems I couldn’t articulate.
Debt Free Life- And Finally Figuring Out How To Help Myself
Paying off our debt in July this year gave me life– honestly, it was such a great feeling to achieve our goal, and our outgoings finally feel sustainable, so less worrying about how we will pay our bills. I reduced my working hours to two days per week, and I haven’t looked back. My three days off are spent writing, side hustling, spending time with people, going to the gym and chilling out. It’s a routine that makes me happy, but I could never get there if my anxiety was still in the way.
Somehow along the road, I figured out that my anxiety was mostly hormonal, and that instead of taking it slow when it hit, all these years, my reaction was to fight against it, distract myself and keep going with my demanding schedule. And when I did that, it would turn into exhaustion, then depression. In effect, my body and mind were out of sync; my body needed to slow down, which made my mind ramp up. The more my body had to slow, the more my mind refused to, trying anything it could to distract my body.
So while we paid off debt, there were plenty of reasons to slow down, because we simply didn’t have the money to distract ourselves. And after we paid off debt, I was able to make the conscious choice to lessen my working hours and allow myself to adopt a slower pace of life, which has worked wonders for keeping my anxiety under control. And not having those repayments to worry about definitely helps, too!
Bye Bye Debt, Hello Happiness
Getting out of debt has been one of the most significant factors in helping me figure out what was going on. My debt free journey and mental health journey have coincided, and I don’t think its a coincidence. My belief is that getting rid of debt, and changing our financial lifestyle, cut down our distractions, gave me back free time, encouraged me to find solutions to my problems and figure out what was important in my life. I finally understand how to take care of my mental health to prevent my issues, before they become a problem. And I can’t believe I finally have my life back- it’s been a long time coming.
There are many ways that I think our society promotes poor mental health; the pride we take in overworking and overwhelming ourselves, our obsession with documenting the best parts of our lives on social media which serves to reinforce our own feelings of inadequacy, and how debt is normalised because big businesses need us to buy products we can’t afford to make a profit, even though those debt repayments can cripple us financially and mentally. My journey towards debt freedom and my debt free life has given me a new life that minimises these things, and my mental health is much better as a result.
At the same time, we are now being told to start talking about our mental health, and being more open, so let’s actually do it. I am hoping that my honesty will give you food for thought, or comfort that you aren’t alone, or inspiration that it will get better, or perhaps even the courage to tell your own story.
Getting out of debt was money well spent. But regaining my health was priceless.