October 27, 2020

What it’s like to Live with Adjustment Disorder.

Like many of us, my life was thrown into chaos in March of 2020.

Up until that point, I was happy in every sense of the word.

I was enjoying my 30s as a strong, independent woman with a successful business, a beautiful home, friends and family I could count on, a healthy long-distance relationship, and from all angles, an optimistic future.

The work I had put into learning about and becoming comfortable with myself in my late 20s gave me feelings of confidence and contentment—I felt unstoppable.

And then the world changed.

I’ve never been afraid of change; I’ve made several big changes in my life. However, this time was different, this time I was not in control, not at all. The changes hit me hard, and as I moved myself to Finland, I was propelled into what I have self-diagnosed as “adjustment disorder.”

Before I go on, I want to give a short definition and highlight a few terms:

“Adjustment disorder” results from a group of conditions that occur as a result of the inability to cope with a stressful life event. Generalized, adjustment disorder is sometimes called situational depression. It has been described as an “abnormal” and “excessive” reaction to an identifiable life stressor.

Identifiable life stressor: this one was pretty easy. Borders closed, and I was locked out of my home. I lost my business, physical connection to my friends and family, and my entire comfort circle. Thankfully, I was eventually allowed to cross EU borders and move to live with my partner. Don’t get me wrong, living with my partner after spending our relationship 50/50 long-distance was a positive but hello identifiable life stressor.

The other two terms I would like to highlight are:

Abnormal and excessive: when I read this, I immediately sprang into defense mode. The negative connotations that come with both of those words really got to me. It was like the words were challenging the validity of my emotions, which of course worsened my condition.

But back to it—I arrived in Finland from Thailand where I had been stuck for four months, and I was my usual, upbeat self. Elated to see my love, ecstatic to eat all of my favourite Finnish treats, and thrilled to be arriving in the middle of summer.

The change of scenery gave me a momentary reprise from the stress and confusion of thinking “what’s next,” but as the days passed, I could feel myself becoming unhinged. I had gone from owning and operating my own business seven days a week to “keeping house;” from dinners out on the town with friends to nights home alone with a tub of ice cream; from travelling internationally every other week to living in—and rarely leaving—the suburbs.

It was all too much too fast, and I couldn’t hold myself together. I fell apart.

Adjustment disorder comes with all the fun bells and whistles of most anxiety disorders, like mood swings, lack of concentration, loss of self-esteem, and a withdrawn attitude, but what really shook me was the depression and the crying.

I am a sensitive person by nature, so it’s not odd for me to cry. I’m of the opinion that there’s nothing better than a good cry to release stored up negative energy, but this was different. It wasn’t a few soft tears on my cheeks, it was full-on bawling breakdowns that lasted for over 10 minutes and that left me drained mentally and physically. And this was happening every day, with no apparent trigger. Exhausting.

What came after the crying was both a red flag for me and a symptom of adjustment disorder: rebellious or impulsive behaviour. I began taking prescription pain killers. I would finish an episode of crying, swallow the pills like they were candies, and go on to spend the next 24 hours feeling unable to move or think, but still able to cry—how convenient.

To try and deal with what I was experiencing, I reached out to friends, often sobbing my eyes out during long-distance phone calls about how difficult I was finding life. There was always a lot of love being sent back to me, but then there were the comments like, “At least you’re with your partner instead of being alone,” “At least you’re safe,” “At least you’re healthy,” and, “A lot of people have it a lot worse.”

This is the type of response that, despite how well-meaning, triggers the issue at hand; it takes away the validation of the emotions being experienced, and in my mind, translates to “you shouldn’t be this emotional—you are being ungrateful, dramatic, excessive.”

The thing is, I did feel alone, I wasn’t safe, I definitely wasn’t healthy, and I could not contain my emotions just because others have a harder life. This culture of comparison, especially in women, is toxic and dangerous.

No one can tell you what you should be feeling—it’s violent, damaging, and judgmental, and my experience with this sent me even deeper into the darkness. For me to come to terms with my adjustment disorder, I needed someone to listen—just listen. I was so lucky I had the friends who were able to hold space for me and do just that, who let me express myself the only way I could. There were no judgements, no opinions, just open ears and words of love.

But coming to terms with it doesn’t mean acceptance.

I wrote this entire piece in the past tense, when in fact I am still battling adjustment disorder. I am still not okay—but that’s okay. My feelings are valid, there is nothing wrong or abnormal about me. I am doing the best I can.

For now, I can’t see the light, I can’t see how things will get better, but I have hope that when I do make it out of this cavernous nightmare of emotions, I am stronger than I was yesterday.

My name is Hayley, and I am suffering from adjustment disorder.

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