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15th February 2020

Lessons of being alone—an international student’s perspective

Writer Heidy Lo shares the struggles and triumphs of living alone, with some advice for getting to know yourself
Lessons of being alone—an international student’s perspective
Diary Photo: Ana Tavares @Unsplash

Being an international student means something different for everyone. For me, it means living 9617km out my comfort zone, and its impact has not always been positive. However, I am proud to say that the struggles have fostered growth that I would never have thought possible in as little as 3 months. 

Is it hard living alone for the first time? Definitely. What I found most challenging, and something no one could have taught me, is being alone with my thoughts. Sounds like a basic skill, but I could not let my mind wander. I always needed something to focus on—a book, a TV show, some music. It got to a point where even when I was not alone, I had to make up stories in my head to avoid actually thinking. Why? Because for me, thinking leads to overthinking and overthinking leads to anxiety and depression. To protect myself, my brain developed a defence mechanism—to not let myself think at all.

Moving to England exacerbated my problem. There was only so much distraction I could find through my laptop and phone, hence overthinking possessed my mind completely. Not to mention that, other than my usual problems, I started to feel guilty about my feelings—people were facing so many problems in the world and here I was, with a privileged life, unable to process my emotions. Change was desperately needed.

My first changes concerned honesty and acknowledgement. As important as it is to be honest with others, I think it is so important to be honest with yourself. This is difficult because not everything we think is pleasant, but I realised that lying to myself was useless. What I find helpful is keeping a journal—a safe space, created for myself. Here I can be honest about my feelings, and process them without fear of judgement. It’s like taking the trash out of my head space.

By being honest with myself, I learned slowly how my brain is wired. That my overthinking, for example, was rooted in social anxiety. I cannot stand the thought of the people I like or admire may think badly of me, and the most trivial things can trigger it — a cease in communications, an unanswered text, or even a less-than-enthusiastic smile when we greet. So now, when I start to get anxious over a friend, I check in on them, and it should come as no surprise to you that things are always fine, my mind just overthinks.

I feel more confident, I have a more positive mindset, and my mind, formerly my worst enemy, has become my friend. Of course, the road to good mental health is not a linear one: I still have bad days, but I truly believe that as long as I am still fighting, I am winning.

The same applies to you. I do not know your experience, but I know how suffocating and all-consuming emotions can be. If no one can understand how you feel, please know that you are not alone and that you are stronger than your struggles.

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