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Moona Vilen

What's Rowing on in Your Head?

My Journey with Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Hi all, my name is Moona. I’m currently on my 3rd year of Geography & Environmental Science degree and I have been part of DUBC almost my whole university time. I joined the club to learn coxing as a complete newbie to rowing, but also ended up as the unofficial club photographer. When I heard about this mental health feature Thomas was putting together I knew immediately that I would like to share my story. By doing so, I hope someone out there finds it comforting and inspiring to know that they are not the only one fighting.

A little background first: I was born and raised in Finland, from where I moved to Dundee in the autumn of 2018. It was bold of me to move across Europe to attend university when I had only visited Scotland a handful of times before that. I got my first glimpse of Dundee the day I moved into my student accommodation. This whole “move to another country for university”-thing was completely unnatural to me (the small-town girl I am), but back home it was seen as brave and ambitious which made me feel really good about it.

Only my closest friends knew how much I struggled with my mental health in high school, and even they barely knew the true extent of it. Before my final year I had done really well in school and life altogether - I was, generally speaking, always happy and content. I cannot say the exact moment when it all started going downhill, but only weeks before the start of my final year I got my first panic attack. It was a result of extremely stressful and emotionally draining time of my life, during which I experienced lots of self-doubt and anxiety. From that day onwards, I started getting more and more panic attacks – sometimes even multiple a day. I was scared, to say the least, because I had never had to deal with such devastating feelings before. The panic attacks quickly took control of my daily life, and I started avoiding situations, places and even people who I knew triggered the attacks.

A picture of me

It took every inch of me to go see psychologist when school started. First I didn’t think talking to a stranger would help me, but I was pleasantly surprised after few sessions. My psychologist didn’t judge me for feeling the way I was feeling after the trauma I had and was still going through. Little by little I was able to release the heavy burden I had been carrying with me for months at this point. I was diagnosed with panic disorder and generalised anxiety disorder, and for the rest of my final year I had medication to keep them under control. Because of that, I managed to do well academically and get the final grades I needed for my conditional offer.

Scotland was supposed to be my new start away from everything and everyone making me feel even slightly unwell. I didn’t know anyone from Dundee when I moved here. That was perfect because it meant no one knew me either. Back home I felt stigmatized because of my panic attacks. I was expected to panic in certain situations, which is probably why I always ended up panicking. In Dundee there wasn’t a single soul who knew about my struggles. I was able to conceal my anxiety and I made a conscious choice to deal with it alone. For a while that actually helped. I was enjoying my course, parties and even meeting new people – when I was all out there I was able to be happy. I was never fond of drinking when I was still in high school, but now it was my way of escaping stress and the anxious thoughts. Little did I know that I was just delaying the inevitable.

It took me a while to realise, that no matter how hard I tried to forget the past trauma, I was still carrying it with me. I was nowhere near healed from it, but rather trying to forget it existed in the first place. When I moved to Scotland I kept telling myself that I would get better if I just got away from the things that made me sick. Now after a few years I can assure whoever is reading this that healing doesn’t work like that. It has been quite a journey from my first year of university to this day and talking about everything that has happened is still not easy, yet it is the most effective way to deal with it.

Myself with friends I made through boat club

Even though I still cope with my anxiety through panic attacks and shutting myself down, it’s not as overwhelming anymore as it used to be. Sure, there are days when I can’t get out of bed and everything is just too much, but there are also days when I enjoy life as it is. One of the most important turning points on my journey was joining the boat club. Through that I found a second family, new hobby and a fun way of challenging myself. When I’m coxing, I only have to focus on the next 60 minutes or so ahead of me. In a way that’s very therapeutic for someone who tends to overthink 24/7 – in the boat it’s just me and my rowers and there’s no space for personal problems. Rowing has given me a healthy way to deal with my anxiety, and it has truly helped to improve my overall wellbeing. Sadly, the global pandemic has prevented all water training for a year now, but that just means I have something in the future to look forward to.

The message I wanted to get out there with sharing my story (in a nutshell) is that your past experiences don’t define you or the paths you choose to follow. I am not just full of panic and anxiety, most of the time I’m actually very happy with my life and how things have turned out to be. I have learned to grow through what I go through, as cliché as it sounds, but it makes a huge difference whether you deal with the actual problems or just pretend they don’t exist. It’s also good to remember that no one is always “okay” or “fine”, even if they seem to be. Everyone has bad days, weeks, or months every now and then, and that’s totally okay.

Myself with other members of the ladies squad at the fundraising celidh

Finally, I want to leave you with a quote from my favourite book The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: “So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad, and I am still trying to figure out how that could be.”