Krank(i)er: when physical health takes its toll on mental health

Two months or so ago, I wrote something fairly light-hearted about being ‘ill’ in Germany, primarily intended as a chance to whine about not being able to buy lemsip here. And until that point, the kind of ‘ill’ that can be cured with a swig of paracetamol-infused hot lemon and a few early nights was the only kind of ‘ill’ I’d ever really known. But – perhaps as a punishment from fate and karma to punish me for daring to write something so melodramatic and trivial – that spell of feeling under the weather in early October, when it the trees still had leaves and I didn’t need six layers to go outside, was only the start of what has turned into quite an ordeal.

I’ve been toying with whether or not I ought to write about this. I’m certainly not writing to spur sympathy, or out of self-pity. I have been trying to remain – at least outwardly – as upbeat and positive as possible while this has all been going on, as much for my sake as anybody else’s. But over the past few months I have found myself despising myself for my own pre-year-abroad naivety, wishing that someone had warned me how hard it might be. And when Carolina said, when she visited last week, that from my blog, and my instagram posts, and social media in general, that she had thought I’d been having an “amazing” time, I realised I was only helping to perpetuate the completely illogical misconception that year abroad is somehow a year off from real life, a bubble in which one escapes any of the horrible bits of being alive.

There is nothing scary about a headache. There is nothing really scary about a headache every day for a week. Or ten days, I told myself. Or two weeks. My self-reassurance began to flounder after this point. Headaches in funny places; burning pains at the back of my neck; a feeling of fuzziness right from my crown, stretching down past my ears. Spells of weakness in which my legs felt they might crumble underneath me. Waking up at dawn because my heart was beating so quickly that I was finding it difficult to breathe. Strange shivers rippling from the back of my skull to my heels. Chest pains. Stomach aches. And always, always, a headache. Not always in the same place, but always there, niggling, pulsing, telling me that I was not okay. I looked forward to going to sleep more than anything, and dreaded waking up. My anxiety-ridden mind invented a series of terrifying explanations for me, playing a private reel of awful scenarios on loop at every waking moment.

And I stayed silent. I saw little point, then, in spreading my worry to my family or to Sam or to my friends, all of whom were several hundred miles away and unable to help. The time I spent with my new Leipzig friends was the only relief from my fear of my own company and my own terrorising imagination, and I didn’t want to spoil the solace of casual chit-chat with my gloom. Despite having the most wonderful, caring, motherly supervisor I could have hoped for, I didn’t want to blight the professional persona I’d developed for myself at work by mentioning it there. And since I didn’t want my colleagues to know that anything was wrong, going to the doctor, something that would almost certainly involve taking time off, was out of the question. I turned to myself for help, the worst thing I could have possibly done. Google searches gave me all of the answers I didn’t want to hear. I convinced myself that something was really, dreadfully, incurably wrong with me, and I trapped myself in a self-built prison of panic.

Three weeks in, Felix came to visit, and after a weekend of my whining – I’m sorry, F – he persuaded me to see a doctor, which I did, wistfully hoping that he might press his magic medical button and cure me on the spot. I was, inevitably, not so lucky. Over the past five weeks or so, I’ve been an object of investigation. Two blood tests, one for anaemia and one for diabetes. Six physiotherapy sessions (free on the German healthcare system – take note, NHS!), to soften and relax my horribly tense shoulder and neck muscles, quite possibly responsible for the pain. I even tried, at my aunt’s recommendation, ear-acupuncture, which despite my absolute scepticism, did work a little bit. But any positive effects of any of those things were horribly overshadowed by the looming prospect of the MRI Scan. My German doctor absolutely lived up to the national stereotype of blunt-ness as he referred me. “And of course, it could be a brain tumour. I mean, I hope it isn’t, but it could be, and I won’t know until we have a look.”

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ear acupuncture: desperate times call for desperate measures

Brain tumour. Brain. Tumour. Brain tumour brain tumour brain tumour. Two little words, somehow capable of bringing such devastating panic. No amount of rational thinking – that the muscle tension and anaemia were perfectly plausible explanations in themselves; that the chances of anyone, let alone an otherwise healthy 20 year old developing something so unusual were tiny – could shake the awful thought.

And so, without really meaning to, I made a mountain out of a molehill and was left to try to climb it. Some days I almost make it, and I’m smiley and calm and relaxed, metaphorical summit in sight. Other days I tumble, crashing back down to base camp, making excuses to leave work early because bursting on to tears while cycling home is far, far better than doing so in the office. I’ve walked around town in a daze, staring in bewilderment at anyone and everyone older than me, wondering how they managed to make it so far into their lives with their health at least seemingly intact. I’ve hovered over the ‘confirm’ button on the Flybe website, wondering if being at home might just cure me. I’ve thought back to all the times that people told me that my year abroad would be the making of me, while it seemed that that ‘making’ in fact meant a ‘deconstruction’, leaving me as a nervous, broken shell of my former self. The last month or so has been a blur of bad days and good days; of teary skype calls home interspersed with absolute fury at myself for being miserable on my year abroad – something I absolutely did not intend. I have tried my hardest not to let my anxiety stop me having fun, and have done all sorts of lovely things – drinks with friends, Christmas Market outings, a trip to the ballet, visits to Vienna and even England – but always with panic hanging over me, threatening to take over again as soon as I was alone. In one particular moment of horrible worry, I dropped out of the wonderful choir I’d joined here – maybe the thing I regret the most. Melodramatic? Yes. Maybe. But the problem with health anxiety is that knowing that you are a hypochondriac doesn’t make any difference. You know that the chances of it being something awful are slight, but it is not impossible. And that makes all the difference.

I’m writing this today because Friday was a turning point. A phone call from the doctor. I am severely anaemic. My iron deficiency has probably been building up for months, maybe years, probably a result of my almost-entirely-pasta student diet. It explains all of my horrible symptoms – nausea, chest pains, shivers, coldness, feeling horribly, awfully low, a heart that beats too quickly for comfort, a dry mouth that tricks me into thinking I’m thirsty all the time, and, of course, the headaches – and because it’s been building up for so long, it could take six months, even a year to go away. There is such an overlap between the symptoms of anaemia and depression that doctors often give blood tests to patients with suspected depression. But I’m not diabetic. And I don’t have a brain tumour. Irrational and unreasonable as that worry may have been, it has completely overshadowed almost every moment of the past two months, and I’m suddenly FREE and okay. I’m following a new iron-heavy diet: lots of steak, spinach and lentils; galleons of orange juice for iron absorption; and a blanket ban on coffee, because apparently I can’t do caffeine and iron at the same time. I am coming to terms with the miserable prospect of not feeling well again for quite a while, but it is a prospect that seems infinitely more manageable now that the weight of crippling worry has been lifted. And while I might have spells of panic – what if the doctor was wrong? what if he missed something? what if I have chest pains and stomach ache for the rest of my life?! – I’ve learnt enough about knowing how to calm myself down (deep breaths, a gripping podcast, a cup of ginger tea, maybe some colouring, and absolutely no googling of symptoms) to feel okay about it. (And I can rest assured that, should I get a medical-based finals translation paper, I will be able to absolutely smash it.)

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appointment prep: real-life vocab list in action

Last night, my wonderful new group of Leipzig-based friends – some English, some American, some French – came together to celebrate Thanksgiving. And in the spirit of that, I realise I am hugely, hugely thankful to be someone who has always known good health, and who will know it again. I am also incredibly thankful to have such a wonderfully supportive family, who have put up with me as I switch between sophisticated-grown-up-living-abroad (or something) and pathetic snivelly mess who wants to skype every night. (Mum even flew back to Germany to come to my scan with me). I am going to be fine. I have seven weeks left living here, which seems horribly few, and I am determined to enjoy them. My heart might be beating quickly, but my nerves will be calm and cool.

Thanks for reading.

ps.(Although, if anyone knows a quickfire cure to a dry mouth and tongue, please let me know. It’s driving me round the bend).

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headache therapy from mum: a scarf wrapped tightly. chic and soothing…
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2 Comments

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  1. Holy shit, Ella! I’m so glad you’re feeling ok. A diagnosis is hugely reassuring. (Apparently anaemia is SUPER common for women in their 20s, at least in part, as you say, because going away to uni can mess with one’s diet quite a lot.) Hooray for doctors and tea and mums 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If you put a load of spinach in your pasta then you get the best of both worlds! Hope you’re feeling better now though 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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