Isolation: I have never felt so alone

Cecile moved to Australia from the Philippines when she was 19 years old. As a young, driven international student, she saw a land of opportunity and greener pastures. But from the time her plane hit the tarmac at Sydney Airport, it didn’t take long before this idyllic vision clashed with some confronting realities.

As time passed, and her situation disintegrated, mental health issues began to rise to the surface. Cecile felt she had nobody to open up to. She found it difficult to make friends. To bond with her work colleagues. To connect with her new home.

But she didn’t want her family in the Philippines to worry. And she didn’t feel that opening up to them about her need to seek professional help would be something they understood.

Cecile felt truly alone.

Cecile’s story is an important perspective on isolation, loneliness and the cultural stigma that prevents so many of us from seeking help.

 
Not Alone. “When I felt like I didn't have to hide anymore, that's when I started feeling like this weight off your shoulders.”
 

Remember to subscribe to the series in Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts to be notified when the next episode is released.

Transcription

 

CONTENT WARNING

Just a heads up: this episode of Not Alone contains a personal story of mental health. If you or someone you know need support visit beyondblue.org.au, or call our Support Service on 1300 22 46 36. 

NARRATION 

Hey, I’m Marc Fennell and from Beyond Blue, this is Not Alone, remarkable stories from everyday Australians talking about their mental health journey, to help you with yours. 

And this episode is all about loneliness and isolation. 

(music - Sense of Home by Harrison Storm)

MONTAGE 

MALE VOICE 1 

I don’t know if I’m annoying, boring, or just a burden. 

MALE VOICE 2 

I can be surrounded by people and feel lonely. 

FEMALE VOICE 1 

Something must be wrong with me. 

MALE VOICE 3 

Four years without someone to laugh and have a good time with. 

FEMALE VOICE 2 

I can go weeks without seeing another human being. 

MALE VOICE 4 

No one talks to me or acknowledges me… 

MALE VOICE 5 

I’m almost 40 with four kids… 

FEMALE VOICE 3 

I am friendless. 

MALE VOICE 5 

…and I’ve never felt so alone and worthless in my life… 

MALE VOICE 4 

…how do you make friends as an adult? 

MALE VOICE 5 

…I’m just so lonely… 

MALE VOICE 1 

I really, really want a hug. 

MALE VOICE 5 

…It’s an actual, physical pain. 

CECILE 

And I remember having a very difficult conversation with my parents saying, “I just feel like my life is useless.” And my parents couldn't understand it. 

(music - high ambient drone)

NARRATION 

Now it may seem surprising that in a world of 7.7 billion people anyone could feel lonely. But it’s a really common experience. Rather perversely, loneliness is a thing that unites us, with research showing that just over half of Australians report feeling lonely for at least one day every week. 

And as you’re about to hear, loneliness and isolation can pretty negatively impact on your physical and you mental health. 

CECILE  

When I was growing up, I felt like there was a lot of pressure to perform academically.  

NARRATION 

This is Cecile, who was only 11 years old when her family moved her and her three siblings away from their home in the Phillipines provinces, to the capital, Manila. There, Cecile excelled at high school, and later at university. 

CECILE 

And you might have heard this from a lot of Asia communities… 

MARC 

Oh my mum's from Singapore. I get this. I get this. 

CECILE  

Yes, right! And even when I talk to other Asian communities, they say the same thing. You know, in Asia it's very competitive. So when you go to high school, you have to do really well. To get into the good uni. And you have to do well in uni as well to get into a good job. And so there's always this feeling of you have to perform at a certain level, because you have to prove yourself almost. 

Growing up, I felt like I had to be in the Honour Roll. I remember crying if I didn't make it to the Honour Roll. And my friends would be like, “why would you be crying I would kill for your grades.” And I'm like, “you don't understand, my parents would get disappointed.” 

(music - Cecile’s theme - hopeful solo piano)

NARRATION 

After spending a short time in the Philippines tv industry, Cecile decided to quit her job and head back to study. Now her parents were supportive of her decision, but they began by encouraging her in a particular direction. 

CECILE  

My parents had been wanting to, were kind of pushing me to move to Australia even before that. So even when I was uni, my sister had moved to Australia. I think she moved in 2000. And so she was already here. And so my parents had been trying to like move me here, to move me to Australia. 

MARC  

Wow. First they move you to Manila, then they move you to Australia. 

CECILE  

Yeah, my parents have big dreams, let’s just say. They wanted us to have the best chance in life, basically. And another thing, I think culturally, that people had in the Philippines is if you're living overseas, you have a good life.  

MARC 

Yeah.  

CECILE 

You have better chances. It’s the “green and greener pastures”, basically. And so my parents thought, “okay, if you're gonna quit this job, we're okay with that. We're going to support you, but you're going to move to Australia.” 

And so when I told my sister that I'm moving to Australia, or that's the plan, my sister immediately told me, “you shouldn't move to Australia.” And I said “why?” 

And she said, “you know, it's gonna be very hard, you’re going to have a hard time finding a job here and all that.” But I was thinking, “you know, I have a good qualifications.” I felt like, “okay, I'll be fine.” And she said, like, “no, no, you shouldn’t."  

But at the same time as well, at that time, I had a boyfriend in the Philippines. And so I was half hearted about going. I think we even had like a conversation of trying to end the relationship because I said to him, I remember saying to him, “I'm not planning to come back. If I go to Australia, my goal is to migrate eventually.” And so it was a very difficult conversation to have with him to be honest. 

But even though initially we're like, “okay, maybe we should end it now.” But we were young, you know? 

MARC  

How old were you at this point?  

CECILE 

I was 19. 

MARC  

Oh yeah, that's hard. 

CECILE  

And but we thought, “you know, we'll, we'll give it a try”, you know. “Long distance is going to be tough, but we're gonna try to make it work.” 

(music - solo guitar)

MARC  

So, you hop on the plane… 

CECILE 

Yes. 

MARC 

Do you remember what was going through your head? 

CECILE  

I was crying at the airport, before even leaving. So unsure. You know, like, when you’ve made a decision and you're having some regrets. I think, you know, when you buy something on an impulse? And you're having like buyer's remorse. It was almost like that. I was like, “am I doing the right thing? Am I making the right decision?” 

MARC  

So when you arrive in Australia, is there a culture shock? 

CECILE  

When it hit me that I wasn't going to go back, that's when it started dawning on me, that is not what I expected it to be.  

NARRATION 

Cecile had hoped to continue her studies in Australia as an international student. But the necessities of Sydney-living meant she had to find a job, and fast.  

CECILE 

I suppose when I started applying for jobs, and I felt like my sister said, “don't be picky.” They always say to me, people who migrate, and even though I say this to people when they come here, “don't be picky with job.” 

NARRATION 

That job, was in a call-centre. And it didn’t take long for that “greener pastures” ideal to come crashing down. 

MARC  

In that job, you experience some bullying. Can you tell me what happened? 

CECILE  

The first job, I remember like, difficult customers, quote-unquote, customers on the phone. So they would call back and they would just… you try to sell to them and all that, and they were just being very difficult. And then I found out later on, from other colleagues that he was actually some of the people I work with who were calling me. And I think maybe in a way, sabotaging me. 

NARRATION 

Soon, Cecile leaves that job for another at a different call-centre, where she encounters abuse, this time from those on the other end of the line. 

CECILE  

People would first say to me, “where are ya?” 

MARC  

Oh, they assumed you were somewhere else. 

CECILE  

They would assume I was in the Philippines. And then I would say “no no, I'm in Australia.” And they would say things like, “no, no, you're not.” And then if I tried to prove to them that I'm in Sydney by telling them like, “oh, I am…” whatever. 

MARC  

They’d be like “you were given a script to respond to.” 

CECILE

Yes! 

MARC 

Yeah, yeah. 

CECILE  

And, or worse I've had people say to me, I should “go back to where I came from.” I even had some persons say sexist things. I remember trying to learn the Aussie accent.  

MARC 

Really?  

CECILE 

Yes. Because of what I was getting on the phone, people were saying “you obviously you're not Aussie, or you're not Australian, or you’re not from around here.”  

And so I felt like at that time, just to save myself a lot of these conversations that I would try to speak like an Aussie. And also that time it was hard for me to understand Aussies when they're talking.  

Look, I'm not saying that calling you at seven o'clock in the evening while you're watching TV or having dinner is a pleasant experience. But I wish people would just respect people. You know, people's jobs. This was my job. And to be called things or for people to say things like that, to me, that made me really cry. 

MARC  

When you would pack up at the end of the shift and go home. How did you feel about yourself after being subjected to that? 

CECILE  

Not very good. Not very good, because I had a lot of I would say healthy pride in myself or self belief. I still felt that, you know, I'm a good person. I'm a qualified person. I'm a very ambitious person at the same time. And I thought “I have achieved a lot of things before, I can achieve more things.” So to feel like that, it was very demotivating. It really was.  

And because you're so far away from your support system. I mean, my sister was here, which was good. But I didn't have a lot of friends here. I didn’t… my boyfriend being back in the Philippines. My family was… they were there.  

It felt like I was alone, really. 

MARC  

Could you talk to anyone about? 

CECILE  

It was hard. Because having my friends back in the Philippines, I almost didn't want to say that all of these things were happening. You know, you're trying to show people that you're happy. I didn't want my parents to worry. And I think my sister did the same thing. We didn't want my family to worry about us. I don't want to be a burden.  

The second thing was I was ashamed that things were not working out for me. Or I had this, we were raised with tough love in a way. So you're like, you just soldier on and do your best, you don't quit. And I had a goal. My goal at that time was like, “I'm gonna make it. I'm gonna make it no matter what happens.”  

And so you… the only person that I was very honest with was my boyfriend at that time. He knew what was happening. And I think that was affecting the relationship as well, because I felt like he couldn't relate to it as much. Because I think in the culture, and the culture that we have in the Asian community, there's this stigma around going to counselling; about mental health in general. We don't talk about our problems. 

(music - reflective solo piano)

MARC  

If I was to ask you, the moment when you felt most alone, is there a single moment that stands out? 

CECILE  

I suppose when things didn't work out with my boyfriend. And then at that time, I was not, I wasn’t a permanent resident yet. So I'm still trying to figure things out, with my sister, as to how I'm going to, how I was going to become a permanent resident. So you’re worried about that, your future, your own future, you're worried about that. And then your relationship didn't work out. So that support, the support that I had at that time, the only support person that I had, aside from my sister; when I lost that support, it made me feel even worse. 

Being 19 at that time I was trying to figure out who I was, what I want to do in life, in a strange place. Not that Australia is very strange, but you know… 

MARC  

No, no. It's very strange, it’s very strange. 

CECILE 

(laughs) …in a strange foreign land. And so, that was not very easy. 

(music - reflective solo piano continues and fades)

MARC  

How are you sleeping? 

CECILE  

I was crying a lot. So it was very hard at that time to have a peaceful sleep. I was heartbroken, I should say, and confused. Because you're trying to map your life at the same time. And you're trying to encourage yourself. I remember like, crying a lot and crying myself to sleep at that time. 

I felt like I couldn't be fully happy with myself. I wasn't happy. And I would beat myself up over it. I would hide these sort of things from people. I felt like I was almost living a double life. In the outside people thought I was very strong, very confident, very cheerful. But deep inside, I felt really miserable. That I was almost like a fraud, like this person who was just… who's just showing the good side of herself. But deep inside, I was really struggling with myself. 

And I started getting distracted at work. I started breaking down. I started feeling like I couldn’t sleep, I was just thinking a lot. And the things that I normally like to do, I didn't want to do. And deep inside, I could feel that I've lost a part of myself, it’s not myself. Like that wasn't me anymore. 

MARC  

And how long did that go on for?  

CECILE 

Years.  

MARC 

Years? 

CECILE  

Yes. And when I was going through these sort of things in my head, I started questioning a lot of things. And I remember one day just feeling like, my life is useless and had no purpose. That's what I was telling myself and that's how I felt.  

MARC  

When we talk about isolation, in my mind I just think about physical isolation, you're in a different country. But I'm starting to get the impression that it was more than that. 

(music - reflective solo piano fades back in)

CECILE

Yeah, definitely. I think people think that, you know, you have to be physically alone to feel isolated. That's not the case at all. Sometimes it’s a case of, you’re going through something, but you can't say anything to other people. You can't open up. You want people to… you want to be heard, you want to be understood, you want someone to say it's okay. You know, but when you don't have the support network, or when you can't open up about certain issues, or certain struggles that you're going through, you feel even more isolated. 

(music - reflective solo piano concludes)

NARRATION 

No matter what your culture, seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist - it still comes with some degree of stigma. And it can be as shameful as saying to friends and family “hey things are not going well.” 

And that was the case for Cecile, things were not going well. Until she had a conversation with a trusted friend that changed everything.  

CECILE  

And she said that she was she was getting counselling. She basically told me that what helped her a lot was therapy. And so that kind of made me feel like, “okay, maybe it's not too bad.” 

MARC  

What was the help that you ended up getting? 

CECILE  

I think I was lucky at the time that the the work that I was… the company I was working for had EAP, the Employee Assistance Program. So I tried counselling through the EAP initially. And they started saying to me that “okay, I think you need some more sessions and you need to go to a psychologist.” And so at that time I went to a GP. And then the GP helped me get a mental health plan. 

NARRATION 

With her mental health care plan, Cecile sought out a psychologist she felt she could trust. And then, cautiously at first, she started to engage in therapy and began opening up. And what she learnt was she had mild depression, the result of all the pressure and stress to be successful and competent, and those feelings of isolation.  

The psychologist tried something called Cognitive Behaviour Therapy - or CBT - with Cecile, and it had an almost immediate positive impact. So she continued to see the psychologist, she continued to feel better in her strange adopted home.  

And then, she told her parents about her therapy. 

(music - hopeful ambient rhythms)

CECILE  

I remember when I first… because, you know, this whole recovery process of therapy is not just a one-time thing. You know, there's years after where I'm feeling all right, and then it happened again where there's a different problem now and you go to the therapy. But the first time I remember telling my family that I was going to go to counselling, they discouraged me to do it. They said, “no, you don't have to go to counselling. You don't need it.”  

And I think the reason why there's a misunderstanding is because in the culture, if you go to counselling it means there's something wrong with you. Mentally. And I think that's the hardest thing to admit. They think that you're not crazy. That's what they said, “you're not crazy. You're just lonely.” People say “you’re just lonely. You need to just talk to people.” And so I had to hide this from my family. 

And so I remember when they would call me and I was at therapy, and I could hear my phone buzzing, just buzzing. Like I just obviously ignore it. You know, it was on silent. And then I would pick up the phone after the session, I would call them back and say “hey.” And they'd be like, “where were you?” I said, “no, no, I was just out with friends.” That's what I would say: “I was having coffee with friends.” 

That's that's what it was like, that I had to lie to people. At this time I had friends already, but I didn't tell them that I was going through, because I was so embarrassed. I was just so ashamed. 

(music - hopeful harmonium) 

MARC  

Was there a moment when you stopped feeling isolated? 

CECILE  

I started doing things that I love, I started exploring. I started meeting people who are the same. I felt like I found my tribe in a way. But most importantly, I think, was when I started being more open about my own struggles. That's the key.  

When I felt like I didn't have to hide anymore, that's when I started feeling like this weight off your shoulders, you know. I started being more open to my family. So if I'm going through something, I tell them. I call them and say, “hey…” And then they would even check on me now. Like they would check up on me, or we would open up about even our own family. You know, family dramas or issues. We started sorting them out or dealing with them more openly. While back then you're like, just all these things that you can't talk about, but now even as a family we’re more open. They’re now very proud of what I’m doing now. They’re very supportive.  

I think it's almost like, that's the thing with mental health. We're always trying to prove the legitimacy of mental health, that it's a real thing. You know, and I think they started seeing experiences of other people. That is real. You know, people are going through these sort of things.  

And the main thing as well, is that now when we see family members struggling with something, whether that's mentally or emotionally and all that, I've seen the complete turnaround in terms of how we’d react to it. Back then it was more off. It was almost like a fear, confusion. It’s almost like, “what's wrong with you and why can't you fix it or, you know, you don't need to go to counselling.” But now there's a bit more of an open communication. Like, you know, my own brother, for example, he's the one who's now telling his friends saying, “you know, if you need counselling, there's nothing wrong with seeking counselling.” And hopefully, the friends listen to him, you know. 

But if you change one person's mind, or you affect one person, and this person then, you know, becomes a speaker for, or advocate for mental health, then that’s all I can ask for. And that’s why I’m doing this, so that the community, the Asian community, the Filipino community can become more open minded about it. And slowly I can see things changing in the community. And if my family could change their minds about it, then I'm sure and I'm hoping that other families would change as well. 

NARRATION 

One of the key things that drives Cecile is that she wants to share her story, in part to help those who are facing that same loneliness, that same isolation that she experienced. Especially the thousands of international students, and also multicultural communities, all around Australia.  

(music - Cecile’s theme - hopeful solo piano fades in)

MARC 

In Australia, people talking about immigration all the time. But I'd love to know, what is it you think people get wrong? When they talk about the experience of being a new arrival in Australia trying to build a life, very few friends, very little family, almost nil support structure, what is it you wish people knew about how isolating that experience can be? 

CECILE 

People don't realise how hard it is for us to even start a life here. And I wish that we had more support. No one tells you that until you come here. No one discovers that, until you experience it yourself, how difficult it is.  

I hope that these international students or even migrants realise that there are free services out there to help you when you're struggling. I didn’t know that, I didn't know Beyond Blue or any of these things when I came. I only discovered that eventually later on, but I wish people realise that there are some support out there that can help you navigate through these difficult times. 

(music - Cecile’s theme - hopeful solo piano continues to end)

NARRATION 

Cecile’s experience of loneliness and isolation, it’s remarkably common. And it’s certainly not confined to international students. And according to Beyond Blue’s Lead Clinical Adviser, Dr. Grant Blashki, the impacts of that loneliness and isolation can ripple throughout your life. 

MARC 

Dr. Grant, thank you for talking to me. I think a big part of Cecile’s story is just how damaging isolation, that loneliness of her story comes through. Draw a line for me how that can impact more broadly on your mental health. 

DR. GRANT 

So what we understand about mental health now is that there are multiple causes, but your levels of support, your connectedness in the community are really quite protective. So when you land in another country, no friends, no family, not really a good understanding of how to link up with other people, that isolation can be quite a driver of mental health problems. And when you think about it, and I say this to some of my patients, when you’re just stuck there with not much of a plan, caught in your own thoughts, that’s very destructive. You’d be much better off trying to link up with others. 

In a university context that might be community groups, there’s lots of sporting groups, religious groups, there’s lots of online options now for people to link up with others. There’s a particular website called ‘Gather My Crew’, which I quite like, which is about trying to meet others to support you during a hard time. So there’s definitely options there, it’s just people getting comfortable enough to be able to say “yeah, look I’m having a hard time, I need some help.” 

MARC 

It’s a lot harder to spiral, when you’ve got a group of people around you. 

DR. GRANT 

Yeah, for sure. 

MARC 

I think a lot of people hear terms like “anxiety” and “depression”, but I don’t know how aware people are of how common it is. 

DR. GRANT 

Yeah, it’s actually very common. So the research in Australia will tell us that in any one year 2 million people have an anxiety condition, 1 million have a depression condition. So it’s really common.  

And the litmus test for me is you think about your family barbecue. There’ll be definitely a couple of people who’ve been having a hard time or who have had a hard time. So this is sort of ‘every day’ stuff, very common, talked about very much in Australian culture. 

I guess it’s fair to say there’s still a lot of stigma, particularly in some other cultures where it really is seen as a weakness, or something shameful. And this is a real barrier, that we’re working hard to overcome. 

MARC 

Just lastly, what’s the number one take-away from Cecile’s story for you? You’ve heard the interview, what do you take away from it? 

DR. GRANT 

Yeah, what I really took away from it was actually how she resolved it eventually. That she came to terms with the fact that she had a mental health issue, became comfortable talking about a bit of vulnerability, and ultimately reached out to others to try and support her. 

MARC 

Dr. Grant, thanks so much for talking to me. 

DR. GRANT 

Thanks Marc. 

(music - Sense of Home by Harrison Storm)

CECILE  

What I learned from my experience is that my life started after that. When I got help, when I admitted to myself that I had some issues to deal with and got help, that's when things started falling into place for me. That you can tell people, you don't have to battle this alone, you don't have to suffer alone. And that if you do seek help, and hopefully seek help early, that there's a way to make things better. 

NARRATION 

And I do just want to say a huge thank you to Cecile for sharing her story. 

You can join the conversation any time you want, you can share your story at beyondblue.org.au/forums  

If you or anybody you know needs support, you can visit that website I just mentioned. There’s also a Support Service you can call on 1300 22 46 36. There’s also quite a few resources you can find, if you just flick over to the show notes. 

Not Alone is a Beyond Blue podcast, it’s hosted by me, I’m Marc Fennell, and it’s produced by Sam Loy, and executive produced by Darcy Sutton, Sarah Alexander, and Tom Ross. 

This podcast was recorded and produced on Wurundjeri, Boonwurrung and Gadigal Country, and we pay respect to the traditional owners of these lands. 

Thank you for listening to Not Alone. 

Not Alone is hosted by Marc Fennell, produced by Sam Loy, mixed by Saskia Black, and executive produced by Darcy Sutton, Sarah Alexander and Tom Ross.

Our theme song, Sense of Home, is by Australian artist Harrison Storm.


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