On Love, Catastrophe and Brexit

Letter to someone who tells me not to catastrophize because my life has been turned upside down


We do not know each other but we have both been writing on X’s Facebook wall following a retweet of the following: “When was last time hundreds of thousands in Europe were threatened with losing their right of abode? Bosnia? Beneš decrees? ‪#‎Brexit Britain. “

You then commented:“This kind of comment is what those of us who work in mental health would call “catastrophizing” ie “to present something as considerably worse that it actually is”. There’s been a lot of that recently…. particularly from the offended liberal intelligentsia, who appear to totally disregard the immense suffering caused by the EU — eg increased suicide rates in Greece, people eating out of bins in Spain etc… because of EU mismanagement”.

Your comment has had me up all night — sadly not the first sleepless night since 23 June - thinking to myself that maybe I am one of those catastrophizers. You say that you are a mental health professional. Perhaps you can help me see the bright side then.

The current government has put the status of EU nationals in the UK up for discussion, and by consequence this will affect the status of Brits living in EU.

I am British, and I recently married a Canadian. As a writer and artist, who voluntarily gave up full time employment to be able to pursue a writing career, I do no earn the 18’600 pounds p.a. necessary to be able to bring my non-EU spouse into the UK (or at least I do not have a regular income. Some years I earn a lot more — but I do not have a nice clean paycheck every month which is what the home office insists upon). Since no other EU country has this rule we realised that we could live in any EU country of our choice, and that my husband could join me under the principle of the right to family life, which is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For reasons that are not relevant to this message, we chose the Czech Republic and moved here in January.

It has been hard — one of the hardest winters of my life: language barrier, cultural barrier, my husband is of Indian origin and we have encountered our fair share of racism, I have been lonelier than I have ever been, I have missed my family and friends. But I want to live with my husband and chose this life of exile for love. Also Prague is a 90 minute flight from London so I can pop over easily on the many cheap flights.

As the winter turned into spring, so did our life here. Hours spent learning Czech have begun to bear fruit, we are meeting people, my husband is beginning to integrate, we are beginning to build a life.

Now, just as I had begun to feel safe, I feel that the rug is being pulled from under our feet. I have a one year residence permit which under current rules is automatically renewed every year for 5 years until I get my permanent residence. I have no idea what will happen if the rules change, and each time I read one of Theresa May’s pronouncements I get a horrible knot in my stomach and feel that I want to cry. You see, coming back to the UK is not an option for me if we lose our right to live here, unless I decide to live apart from my husband. Perhaps I should get a proper job in the UK. I have a good cv and speak a number of languages. I could muster a lot more than the required minimum even though I am over 50. But in the best case scenario I would have to be separated from my husband for about 18 months while the papers go through (a senior contact at the Home Office gave me some friendly advice: don’t even bother trying to come back, they will make life hell for both of you).

Until a year ago, Canada had the same rules on minimum income as the UK but fortunately that has changed so we could always go there (my husband is a photographer, a rather successful one as well, but like me he does not have a regular income). Before this change of rule came in, we used to joke that if the UK left the EU we could always go and live in India as my husband has permanent residency rights there. Today this is no longer a joke.

Have you been to India? It’s a great place to visit, but not to live. I have spent a lot of time there over the past 4 years. I nearly died twice: once of meningitis, once of a multi drug resistant bacterial infection that had me in an isolation ward for 3 weeks. I also contracted an Indian version of swine flu. On a more mundane day to day level, I have been groped so many times that I cannot even count. One becomes hardened though and I no longer notice when a stranger grabs my tits in a crowd. Sure we could go back there as well.

I accept that no one is talking of sending me to Aleppo, Kabul, Baghdad, or even sending me to starve in a concentration camp. I will not be condemned to a Calais like jungle. I know that compared to the tens of thousands of Brits who like me live in other EU countries because they have non-EU spouses I have many choices, both because of my education and job prospects, and the nationality of my spouse. I dread to think what those less fortunate than me feel.

But in spite of all my options, and what in the grand scheme of things is a very privileged position, I still feel pretty crap. Actually crap is not the word. I can’t stop crying. I can’t sleep. I have no appetite. I no longer allow myself to plan further than a few weeks down the line, and every time one of my new friends in Prague takes me to a lovely place I refuse to allow myself to enjoy it because I feel that I may not be able to enjoy it for much longer. The future has become a big black hole that I cannot see through.

Because I know that deep down I am far more fortunate than many in similar situations, I am telling myself that this is not catastrophic. I am simply curling up into a ball and I want to left alone, in silence, until things are clearer. I have lost all control over my life and I feel helpless. I am afraid that I will not be able to shake off this feeling for a very long time, while people like me get thrown across the board like pawns in a game of chess that is only just beginning.

So, in the light of all of the above, if I am not catastrophizing, how would you, as a mental health professional, describe my state of mind?