Hello, hello… Here’s the story of my undiagnosed ADHD, or else… and general mental health journey in New Zealand.
In the past couple of years, I have opened up here and there to people about my struggles with ADHD symptoms and anxiety. After the pandemic and moving to New Zealand, my mental health has been hanging by a thread for a hot minute. To oversimplify and not get into too much detail, my struggles during this time made me try and reach out for professional help.
I wanted to share my story time and time again for my own relief and validation, but also in the hopes of normalizing the conversation of mental health struggles.
Mental health awareness week
I started writing this post inspired by Marsha Linehan’s memoir, Building a Life Worth Living. Once I was almost finished writing, I was trying to decide a date to post it when I realized it’s mental health awareness week in New Zealand. What are the odds! Although I started out writing this post about my undiagnosed ADHD story… It ended up becoming the story of my mental health struggles in New Zealand.
As I said before, reading Marsha’s memoir, along with my (slowly but surely) regained self esteem and confidence through my own therapy sessions, inspired me to share a little bit of my journey at this point in time.
When I looked back at the past couple of years, I struggled to figure out what really happened. The reality is… A lot happened.
Before I start talking about my story in detail, I wanted to say, in case anyone finds these topics triggering: Although I won’t touch on any mental health issue in too much detail, my story entails topics relating to childhood PTSD, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, isolation, cultural shock and covid-19.
My life before traveling
I won’t go into detail about my childhood because I don’t really want to share, and it’d take us ages. I’ll just say for context, I have complex childhood PTSD. Basically, a whole lot of baggage I’ve been waving around for a while. I’ve had two big mental health crises in my teens. One at the end of high school and one in the middle and end of university.
New Zealand cultural shock
Before Covid was even in the radar, I had experienced cultural shock from the moment I stepped foot at the Australian airport before arriving to New Zealand:
Even when I wrote this Cultural Shock blog post, I didn’t really understand New Zealand culture and the difference between a society like this one and Mexico. I also needed to learn and understand what part of these feelings had anything to do with my culture and what part was my own personal life experiences and mental health issues. Of course, I will keep learning and figuring things out with time but for what felt like an eternity, I wasn’t able to vocalize my thoughts, feelings and frustrations. Sinking even deeper into the intrusive thoughts and tornado of anguish and confusion.
You might or might’ve not heard about the stages of migration. Have a look at this blog for more context: Stages of Immigration.
I was experiencing the shock from the get go and plot twist: I didn’t know I was migrating to begin with. I didn’t choose this. For all I knew, I was staying in New Zealand for a year tops to make some money and keep on travelling. But after Covid, I couldn’t escape.
Adjusting to multiple cultures
Even though we made it through all the adversity of the past years, let’s not forget that I met my boyfriend, Jono, a whole lot of six months before coming to New Zealand. Having to process the cultural shock, a global pandemic, mental and physical health issues while still getting to know each other and adjusting to each other’s personalities, needs and cultures. On top of that, I lived with Jono’s family for about 2 years during Covid and I had to adjust to their own family culture and history of migration and life as a Hong Kongese family in New Zealand.
New Zealand is also a very culturally complex society. Because of the low population, their short and young history, lack of colourful folklore and developed popular culture… When I arrived, I saw New Zealand as an empty and plain (sorry) country and culture. The more I learned, I realized how complex and ongoing their dynamics are as being a young country, they’re still navigating their sense of identity and interactions between the different minorities and overall diverse groups of people.
With this, I came to understand that New Zealand’s culture, at face value, is not one thing to adjust to but also deeply ingrained behaviours from both the European and Maori – Pacifica descendant predecessor’s cultures and histories. Therefore, giving conflicting signs for foreigners to catch onto.
With Covid-19, in came the factor of not being able to work and with my one year old degree in Tourism Business Management, fresh out of university, in a new country, let’s just say it wasn’t the ideal case scenario. Other things that I did back in Mexico for money and as hobbies, I couldn’t do anymore. Both because of low demand within the country and because of Covid.
Through all this time of isolation, as many people, I resorted to finding ways to keep me occupied in a productive way. I took the first months of the pandemic as a gift. I was able to put in the time to build my vision website and social media to become a digital nomad. Although I made big progress, my lack of knowledge and skills were a huge setback. Without mentioning that my niche, travel and tourism, was wiped off for the years Covid remained, especially in New Zealand.
As time went by, I was constantly trying to build up this blog and build a little craft business for my self. Both because they were passion projects of mine but also because of my underlying history of bad work environment experiences. I didn’t thought I was fit to be in a normal working environment. I didn’t feel fit through any of the different stages at school either. So I had to make it and build something on my own.
After much work, frustration, and disappointment, I decided I just wasn’t fit for this world. My baggage and cognitive dysfunction made it impossible to be consistent. Adding into the mix a lot of newly found self-loathing and insecurities.
I stopped pursuing the blog and youtube channel. I was afraid of doing or saying the wrong things. Especially in this world of emerging woke and cancel culture.
I lost drive and interest in persuing anything I was once excited about. What was the point?
On top of the mental strain, the numerous physical health issues (such as chronic pain) I developed as time went on, sunk me into a depressive spiral and mental health hell. I was not physically able to do many things anymore. Nerve and muscle pain infested my body much too often.
Mental and physical health spiral
Growing up, I always thought, once I have a home of my own, I’ll go around and fix myself piece by piece. I didn’t expect, as I landed to this new life, there would be so many new broken pieces and things to fix…
As soon as my visa allowed it, in early 2021, I went to the GP for a whole lot of things. Not only did I had long term issues to attend to, but I now needed to figure out three big health concerns:
- A repetitive strain injury in my right hand (of which I’m still having trouble now).
- Premenstrual dysphoric disorder, which thank God, eventually went away.
- And irritable bowel syndrome. I’m realizing now, it might be that I got this issue only here in New Zealand.
Amongst other things. I visited 4 different GPs with around 4 to 5 different concerns each time in a span of maybe 2 or 3 months.
Trying to get diagnosed
Back in mid 2021, I tried to get diagnosed through the public mental health system in New Zealand (big mistake). The psychologist/psychiatrist made it really clear from the beginning that he wouldn’t diagnose me with ADHD because he was opposed to letting people get access to medication. Sentiment that I can understand, but then again, if I do have it and need the medication or other type of help, without even talking to me, he’s already decided?
I wasn’t in for the drugs. I actually am one of those people who wouldn’t take painkillers unless I felt like dying to keep as many substances out of my body and so that they keep being effective when I really need them. What hurt me the most was the ever-present feeling of shutdown and invalidation.
I was diagnosed with an anxious and perfectionist personality – true. But these two are some of the most common comorbidities and masks in women with ADHD and undiagnosed ADHD is known to cause these and more mental health issues. Needless to say, my encounter with the psychologist or psychiatrist (nobody ever bothered telling me what he actually was) put me off from reaching out for help and pursuing a diagnosis any further.
Counselling and anxiety group
One of the GPs referred me to counselling, and I had a few one on one sessions along with an anxiety management group. This counselling program helped me a lot. The flip side is that with counselling programs, there’s always a limited number of sessions, and this counselling centre was catered towards people under 24, and my time was coming.
Should I have been more assertive and asked them to set me up with a long-term therapist like I did this year? The rest of my experiences in New Zealand might’ve been lighter but then again, I don’t think I would’ve been ready.
With my history of childhood PTSD, outgrowing a counselling service was further baffling. You’re telling me, after experiencing all that in my youth and not getting help, now that I’m trying to help myself, there’s no helping me?
My struggle with validation and labels
Before I tried to get diagnosed and learned more about ADHD, I didn’t know or understood the implications and world of misconceptions around this diagnosis. I was trying to label myself because I needed the validation that my issues and pains weren’t because I’m inherently defective.
In learning about ADHD I joined a Facebook group for adults with ADHD in New Zealand – my saving grace. Here was a whole community where I could relate and share my experiences and struggles, and it was so relieving and validating.
I thought getting diagnosed with ADHD would be the best thing that could happen to me. After all, saying you have ADHD is way better than saying you have cognitive dysfunction and many other symptoms because of your childhood traumas, right?
Many people discouraged me from labelling myself and went out of their way to say what their thoughts on this diagnosis were. Yet again no one actually encourage me or helped in me getting to the bottom of it to get the help I needed.
Moving to Wellington CBD
Although the support of Jono and his family were and are still vital for my stability and baseline in adjusting to New Zealand, having to bottle up and process things in this way, made me fearful of living, working and highly insecure in further immersing into New Zealand life and culture.
I had lost my sense of confidence and esteem. We had the option to move to Wellington CBD for at least a few months before we did but I had lost confidence in my ability to fend for myself and making it in this country. When we finally moved, I experienced strong feelings of agoraphobia and anxiety. Applying for jobs kept me in high alert and periods of panic.
After getting my jobs at the national museum of New Zealand and Paintvine, for a period of time, everything was better. But now Jono and I had to balance living a “normal” life with full time jobs and having a “normal” couple dynamic without the troubles and tribulations of travel, living in hostels, a van, locked down due to covid, etc. It was an adjustment curve but after these years, our relationship has strengthen through the ambiguities of life. Not having the option to leave, made the hard work of a long term relationship a must. Something that we both hadn’t experienced before.
Going back home after 4 years
In august 2023, we went on a trip overseas for the first time since Covid and the first time since stepping foot in New Zealand. This was a dream, finally a dim light in the distance. Although I’m very grateful and we had amazing experiences, it was hard.
I was going back home to my old life. Through out these years, I faced everything that happened with the idea and feeling that I had no support system or home to go back to in Mexico. Not because people didn’t care for me but because of complex family dynamics and history. Lot’s of things I thought I had left resolved, arose while facing many of the bumps in my life road this far. Now I had to go back and interact with this distant part of my life, further distanced by all of these experiences I have endured.
I didn’t purposefully escaped my home life as someone I shared my story with recently said. My parents above all else, encouraged me to go overseas and experience and do what they couldn’t. They wanted to give me my best chance with education and support for me to be able to move around and choose my place in the world. Keeping in mind the difficulties of living in a country full of social, political, economical issues.
To name a few (Human Rights Watch, World Reports: Mexico):
- Violence and Impunity
- Criminal Justice System
- Military Abuses and Extrajudicial Killings
- Attacks on Journalists and Human Rights Defenders
- Women’s and Girls’ Rights
- Migrants and Asylum Seekers
Jono’s father passing
During our time abroad, Jono and I received news of Jono’s father falling ill. We made the decision to return to New Zealand earlier than expected to spend time with him. Sadly, in early January of this year, he passed away prematurely, and since then, we have been grieving his loss deeply.
All of this has made 2023 a year filled with grief. We grieve for the loss we have experienced and also for the time that has been lost. I feel the effects that these past couple of years in crisis have had on our mental and physical well-being, and even on our spirit deeply.
Much needed therapy, seeking help once again
This year, 2023, I decided to take a mental health break, working just about 3 times a week 5 hrs a days on average. This mental health break slowly became the nail on my coffin since my efforts for self care became very isolating and depressing.
A few months back, I decided to get help again, and I reached out to my GP to get me enrolled in counselling. Finally, being able to assertively use the counselling sessions to help me find and settle with a most needed long-term therapist.
It was a tough decision to make since the very efforts for self care, my mental health break left me scraping by with my savings from the past year. On top of that, part of my anxieties and trauma triggers are linked to the work environment and money. Yet, I needed to get help to get me out of that situation and back on my feet again.
Although the therapy sessions are not intended to diagnose me, the therapist and I agreed and determined, a side of being anxious (which I’ve always known), I was depressed. Generally, I have tendencies of depression. This was a hard pill to swallow. But accepting this was the beginning of my healing journey.
Looking at a brighter future
My mental health journey is ongoing as I’ve only recently started seeing it from outside the ditch. As of ADHD, I remain undiagnosed. Anxiety, depression, learning disorders, physical health, and many other conditions can cause symptoms that look like ADHD but aren’t.
Maybe it’s just my personality (INFP) or the amalgamation of other mental illnesses or remnants of my childhood or long term effects of constant stress that have left me with permanent scars. Maybe it’s everything, and maybe it’s nothing at all.
Through all that has happened, natural reactions to crisis, culture, health diagnosis get all mumbled up. I’m finally seeing a future where I don’t need a diagnosis to protect me from the world.
Whether I have ADHD or not, or ADHD even exists (as some people argue), one thing is for certain: Even after long periods of observation during my ups and downs, managing anxiety and depression, I still see and portray many symptoms and aspects attributed to ADHD as well as I did back when I was young. I do share many of the symptoms associated with ADHD and I relate to them but I still haven’t figured it all out yet.
I can see more and more how with lots of effort, many aspects of my life are improving and things that used to be unbearable or seem impossible start looking closer and clearer. The next book in my read list is “Nobody’s Normal: How culture created the stigma of mental illness” by Roy Richard Grinker. Maybe this read will bring some more clarity. I’ll make sure to write all about it.
And you, what’s your story? Let’s change the stigma around mental health conversations together. Until next time,
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