Musician Nina Plapp found herself in a world of anxiety, depression and superstitious beliefs. With help from her friends, she gradually found peace, happiness and a bright future
Just after Christmas 2013, I was making my way across London to the airport when I stopped in my tracks. The worst thing that could possibly happen had happened. There, on Oxford Street, was a shop window display containing shoes, dresses and bright yellow bags. Among these innocuous items were giant, plastic sunflowers. My heart began to race and I felt a wave of adrenaline. “The plane will NOT crash because of these sunflowers,” I warned myself.
“This is not a sign.”
I began bargaining with the irrational part of myself, making deals with my inner panic.
“OK, if this really is a sign, then I will have to see sunflowers three times before I can really trust it.”
Three times? That was unlikely. I was only an hour from Heathrow. I felt smug. I had beaten my irrational side down. I finally arrived at Heathrow and all was well. I was returning to Abu Dhabi after a visit home to see my dad. I got into the airport lift and a man in a grey jacket, holding a bunch of sunflowers, shuffled over to give me space. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.
“That’s still only twice,” I told myself. As the lift doors opened, I couldn’t believe what I saw. In front of me was a huge billboard, a woman smiling down, her head adorned with sunflowers, selling package holidays.
It was so ridiculous, but my thought process was that of someone in the middle of a nervous breakdown
I turned on my heels, got back in the lift and fled the airport. I missed my flight home without a doubt in my mind that I was avoiding an enormous catastrophe. It was so ridiculous, almost funny to me now, but this was the thought process of someone in the middle of a nervous breakdown.
In the months leading up to my “sunflower” moment, a few things had happened. I had become estranged from my brother, who I adored. I had broken up with my long-term partner, lost one of my close friends, packed up my Hong Kong home of four years, and made a rash decision to move back to the UK. I then paid a visit to my mother, whom I hadn’t seen in three years (it didn’t go quite according to plan).
There is only so much stress a brain can take before it short circuits and goes a bit wrong. The mix of culture shock, grief and personal chaos left me in a state of high anxiety. I couldn’t eat properly, sit still or sleep, and I would often throw up violently for no reason.
I started to become paranoid. I was convinced family members would cause me harm if I went back to my home town and I didn’t feel safe in London. Walking down the street, I felt a sense of constant danger from strangers. It never occurred to me that these weren’t normal feelings.
But I didn’t want to think about personal pain. I wanted to keep as busy as I could. I thought I just had to keep on moving. I pushed for work and ended up doing gigs and concerts in different cities and crashing at friends’ houses. I don’t think I spent one week in the same bed for a three-month period.
I tried to reconnect with friends who had settled down. I was active socially, had started dating again, had lost a ton of weight, and was always positive. I even got offered a full scholarship for my dream masters programme at music college.
At some point during this period, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. I turned down the scholarship, sacked off loads of music work, failed to show up for a good friend’s wedding and made another rash move, this time to Abu Dhabi, with my ex. As soon as I got there my manic energy deflated. It was replaced with insomnia, physical pain and despair. I started having frequent, daily panic attacks.
My mood matched the desolate desert that surrounded me. Living in a hotel for the first few months, my days consisted of sitting with the curtains drawn, crying all day, and living in fear of housekeeping knocking on the door. This is the same person who has been traveling solo since 19. Now, at 29, I couldn’t even leave my hotel room.
I felt pathetic.
I began to dread going outside in the car, because every time my partner put the car radio on, I would break down. By this time crying was painful, as my muscles were so sore. I had developed back pain from hours of sobbing and constant trembling. It affected my ability to play music. I tried iron supplements, vitamin supplements, and all kinds of supplements in the hope that the drawn woman staring back at me in the mirror would disappear.
Eventually I forced myself to leave the hotel room on my own. I went up to the rooftop pool to sit in the sunshine. I thought swimming might be good for my body, which felt like it was falling to bits. I imagined myself to be dying a lot of the time.
I began to dread going in the car, because every time my partner put the radio on, I would break down. By this time, crying was painful, as my muscles were so sore
A heavy sense of doom and guilt sat on my shoulders. The sky felt so low it was pressing down on my head, and there were constant clouds in my peripheral vision.
That’s when my sunflower superstition started. Somehow my brain latched on to sunflowers. A common theme for cafes and shops in Abu Dhabi, they became a symbol of doom. Of course, when your brain is looking for something it becomes a bloodhound, and I would see sunflowers wherever I went.
Keeping friends when you are fighting depression is hard enough; making new ones is almost impossible. The usually extroverted woman that I am turned into a silent, grey person who couldn’t keep one thought long enough to finish a sentence. Besides, who would want to know me anyway? I was worthless.
My sense of isolation became real isolation. I wanted to get better, to get back to feeling like myself. When I could handle it, I went to a group fitness session.
That’s when I met Jayme.
Jayme didn’t expect me to be full of jokes or smiles or impress her with my sparkling personality. We became friends. Sometimes we went for ice cream or sometimes she would just come to the hotel after she had finished teaching. The immense kindness and patience Jayme showed me during that time still makes my heart ache today. I didn’t get any medical help for my breakdown and, looking back, I probably should have. I’ve been left with muscular pain that might have been prevented had I been on the right medication or got help earlier.
The thing that helped me was time, and the patience of those around me. Slowly but surely, I pieced my life back together. Friends and sometimes wise strangers would say things that would click a little bit of me back into place. I got some cats. I started playing and working in music again. My relationship with my ex didn’t work out but we remained friends.
I still had random outbursts of tears and my confidence took the slow approach home. I began to read books and write dark, pretty terrible poetry.
About a year later, I woke up one day and realised I was OK. I didn’t feel quite happy, but I felt OK and that is an epic victory for someone emerging from the dark. I didn’t feel anxious or panicked or guilty. I felt at peace. I was grateful for every day without a sense of dread, for the simplest pleasures like going for a walk with a smile on my face, waking up with a sense of purpose, or even just a sitting on a bus in the rain.
Three years on, and I am actually happy.
I am better than back to normal. I am getting married soon and Jayme is one of my bridesmaids. I look after my mental health as much as I can, and I seek support when life throws me too many curveballs to cope with on my own.
Nina’s story highlights how any of us can be overwhelmed by circumstances when a number of difficult things happen in short succession. It also shows how cumulative the effects of life experiences can be if we do not have outlets to keep ourselves well. It is heartening to hear how much connection with someone else helped her recovery. It really is good to talk about what is happening to you, however difficult it may initially seem.