Stories, skills, and positivity- to anxiety sufferers from anxiety sufferers.
In the winter of 2012, my family got the news that we were granted immigration to Canada after more than 8 years of waiting. Incidentally, I was to graduate high school the same year, and would have to start researching post-secondary schools in Canada.
After taking my chemistry teacher’s advice, I decided to apply to the University of Waterloo, in hopes of getting into pharmacy school, which is something I was genuinely interested in, and requires 2 years of a Bachelor of Science. Due to delays in processing of paperwork, we arrived to Canada towards the end of September, and I had to go to my classes the very next day. While I did miss orientation and a month of classes, I still managed to keep satisfactory grades. We eventually settled in Mississauga, so I had to take the bus pretty much every day (that’s more than 3 hours in total on the road). Trying to keep up with schoolwork, and getting used to commuting, somehow I managed to make only one acquaintance (not even a friend). After 3 years of having 15 friends in high school, this was the most difficult to handle as far as the transition was concerned. I would spend a full day not speaking to anyone, and this is where it all started to go downhill.
The first semester went by fine, and I decided to move to Waterloo. It was the first time I ever lived away from my family, which caused me to feel completely alone. Juggling the feeling of loneliness, while also having difficult classes, and no friends, eventually caused me to start losing motivation bit by bit. Every passing day was just more weight on my back trying to force me to stay in the safety of my bed. A month in, and that weight was too heavy for me to handle on a regular basis, so I decided to only go to important classes, which at the time were classes I could bear going to.
I would lie to my family and myself that everything was fine, but deep inside I knew this weight will eventually come crashing down on my head. I couldn’t make friends, because I was afraid they would somehow know I was struggling, so I never tried. After 4 months, I failed some of my classes that semester, and did not do anything during the summer except spend time with my family. I convinced myself that the last 4 months was just a phase due to living alone, so I went back to commuting the next fall. And again, I had less and less motivation to attend classes as time passed. I was not getting enough sleep, so naturally I skipped classes to sleep in the library, or I just wouldn't go. Half-way through the semester, I found myself skipping most of my classes, so there was no point in me going all the way to Waterloo. Most days, I would spend hours in the Mississauga public library reading a novel, until it was my regular time to be back from Waterloo, just so my family would not know I was skipping. I disappointed myself every time I lied to my family.
I hadn’t realized how depressed I was, because I was so out of touch with my feelings, and being born in a culture that stigmatizes mental illness certainly did not help, since I did not know what depression was at the time. It was not until I noticed my thoughts that I realized I might have a problem with mental illness. Every day I left my home, I wanted my life to end. Every passing car felt like a window of escape out of my misery, but I did not give much attention to those thoughts even when I knew they were there, since ever since birth we were also taught suicide was the greatest sin you could do, thus making me feel even more worthless.
That Fall, I failed 2 out of the 3 courses I was taking, and lied to my family about it again. I still gave myself excuses for my poor performance, and thought I could do better. But, the same cycle continued. In the winter term, I avoided leaving my home entirely. I knew everyone left the apartment at around 11 am, so I would hide in our storage room, which was full of upright luggage bags. I would lie down on those bags for hours in that room in the most uncomfortable sleeping position I ever put myself through until they left our home.
Anyway, you can only run away so far from your problems. At the end of January, on one of the coldest nights of that winter, I received an Email from the University of Waterloo regarding my academic status saying “Failed, Required to withdraw”. My choices had consequences, and they caught up to me. I knew I had to let my family know, but how do I tell them after lying to them for almost a year? how do I tell them I could not pass 3 courses? “Required to Withdraw” felt like a death sentence to all my academic hopes. Those three words made me unable to sleep the night I received the email. Every time I closed my eyes I saw my parents’ disappointed faces. After hours of tossing and turning I looked at my window. I stood up, walked towards my window and just stared at the ground from the 17th floor. One leap could end all the suffering and loneliness. I felt weak for finding rationality in committing suicide. I cried and felt my tears turn cold on my cheeks from being so close to the window.
As sad as it was, fortunately (and somewhat comically), my hatred for the cold surpassed my hatred of myself at that point. I lay down and read that email again hoping to find a glimpse of light. The email mentioned counselling and that it could help me with the impact of this academic decision, and knowing I needed help after such a close encounter with suicidal thoughts, I decided to go the next day. I spent an hour speaking with the counsellor, and it felt pleasant (to say the least) finding someone who seemed like they genuinely cared without the fear of being judged. In that session, I was told that not all hope is gone, and that I could petition to withdraw from the Fall and Winter semesters without academic penalty and start almost afresh. The counsellor then referred me to one of the campus’s cognitive behavioural therapists, who told me I was dealing with depression and low self-esteem, and helped me change my outlook to a more positive one.
I thought I had wasted 2 years of my life, when really we only grow up when we learn from our mistakes, and I came around to value one of the darkest times in my life. After I filed my petition, which was approved, I decided to better myself, starting with my family. I disclosed what had happened to my brothers first, and later I told my parents, who were, to me, unexpectedly supportive. I picked courses for Fall 2014 that I was interested in, and as I started classes, I found myself completely invested in learning. I had forgotten how it felt to be motivated and interested, and I gotta say it felt amazing. To bounce back from grades of 50s and 60s to 80s and 90s was a great accomplishment. I also started exercising that Fall term, and I still do to this day. At the end of winter 2015, I decided to transfer to a new university and continue pursuing a BSc.
At least now I feel significantly more confident in myself, and can speak freely with people some of the time. While being aware of one's feelings is a good thing, knowing what I could be but am unable to be is extremely frustrating. I live every day I spend alone (basically most of my week) in constant fear that I will become depressed again; I fear what I might be capable of doing if put in the same situation again, will I leap?
I wish I had a happy ending for this long story, but I have not yet reached that happy ending. While I continue to thrive academically, socially I am still about the same. I do feel significantly more confident, but I still feel anxious in social settings. Every time I think of starting a conversation, I get the same feeling I always had of being stared at by everyone around me, and unrealistic negative narrative conclusions (to the conversation I’m thinking of sparking up) and memories of awkward social situations I’d had before flood my mind and completely drown me. There is always that voice in my head telling me I will fail at making a friendship, I will not be liked or loved by strangers, I will make a joke out of myself, and that I will always be different because of any reason that ‘voice’ decides to bring up: my ethnicity, my past experiences with depression, or my unreasonable fear that I will be judged by strangers around me, especially women. I know the voice is wrong, but at times it can be so loud that no matter how far I shove it to the back of my head I can still hear it. And it is that voice that tenses me up sometimes, and makes my heart race. It is that voice that keeps me captive in my tight comfort zone, and gives me an illusion of safety from what might be.
Even as I’m sending this, I am terrified that you as readers might judge my struggles as completely unjustifiable and that I’m indeed a loser, but knowing that some might find comfort in knowing we share similar struggles is motivation enough for me to share my story. We all wish we did not have to deal with a mental illness, but I believe I am stronger and more resilient now than ever, and reading about some of your stories gives me hope that one day I will find happiness and peace.
Katie McLean holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, and bases her anxiety aid in personal experience, as well as techniques that have been passed on to her by counsellors, friends, and fellow anxiety sufferers.