Stories, skills, and positivity- to anxiety sufferers from anxiety sufferers.
Facing my mental illnesses has always been challenging and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I come from a culture where mental illness isn’t even considered “real” or maybe because facing it means admitting to certain things that I’d rather not. But that’s a whole different topic I could fill a book with. For now, I’m going to talk about my experience with anxiety.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an anxious person. Even as a kid, I had crippling anxiety when it came to talking to people, speaking in class, or having any sort of attention on me. Nobody ever picked up on it, and it went hidden. By the age of sixteen, I had moved across three countries, in two very different parts of the world. But it was this last migration that changed a lot of things for me. Was it because I was an emotional teenager this time? Maybe. At seventeen, I was diagnosed with depression. I had been dealing with it for about a year before I sat there at the doctor’s and heard her tell me I needed therapy and medication because what I was going through was an actual mental illness and not a phase that was going to pass without intervention. This part of my life isn’t something I will go into details about, mostly because it is emotionally exhausting and quite possibly one of the most difficult things for me to open up about. For the sake of simplicity and my own sanity, I will leave it at this: I went through therapy, and with the help of family and friends, I got better.
Fast forward five years, I’m no longer depressed. It’s been a year since I’ve been on any medication - something which I am very proud of - or needed any other interventions. I’m doing great in every aspect except for the fact that my lingering anxiety seems to be worsening each day. I don’t want to admit to myself it is happening, because that would mean seeking help, and I was strong now. I didn’t need help. Or so I thought. Over the course of the next few months, my anxiety progresses to the point where it keeps me up at night. Once again, I find myself in a place where I can’t sleep at night, I can’t focus on school or work, and worry about everything, all the time. When I try to study, my brain shuts down. I’m reading words but nothing makes sense. i’m in a constant state of panic. Yet, I refused to get help because I felt like I was managing, barely. Pretty soon the panic attacks start, something I hadn’t experienced in nearly two years. The first one was during a lecture in War Mem. I was surrounded by five hundred people, and though it was a goo idea to check the notifications on my phone. Spoiler alert: It is never a good idea to check your phone during class. One notification liked me to an article that triggered me, very badly. Suddenly, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I made a run for the bathrooms just in time to throw up. I spend the rest of the class sitting outside in the cold with a tear streaked face, head spinning, trying to breathe. I still think I can handle it. I grab my bags and go on to my next class. And the next one. And so on. I had been so worried about relapsing into depression, I hadn’t realized how bad anxiety could be.
One night, I lay awake as usual, my thoughts spiralling out of control, and something different happens. My chest hurts. It was the strangest sensation and I’m not sure how to describe it apart from the fact that there seemed to be physical pain emanating from my chest. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My mind began racing - I didn’t know what was happening to me, and I found myself crying, confused and terrified. The pain in my chest didn’t seem to be subsiding and I was beginning to get light headed, probably because I was hyperventilating. My heart was racing, and it seemed like I was running out of air. That night, I was more scared than I have been in a long time. When I eventually calmed down, I realized that was the breaking point for me, and I needed to get help.
Having a conversation with my doctor, talking about the symptoms I had been experiencing for the last few months, really put things in perspective. I should have asked for help earlier. Why do we wait until the condition is physical to put importance to it? She told me I had generalized anxiety disorder, and it likely went undiagnosed because of the depression I had experienced previously. At that point in my life, the depression was so overwhelming, the symptoms of anxiety were probably overshadowed, or assumed to be caused by the depression itself. The medication I was taking probably also kept the anxiety away, until I had stopped taking it.
A few weeks later, I was sitting across from a new therapist, this time, talking about how to deal with my anxiety. During this process, I also realized I struggled with another condition - trichotillomania, and it had gone undiagnosed for the last eight years. While it was validating to realize what I experienced was a condition other people struggled with too, I was left upset. Something else to add to the list of things wrong with me. This is where my counsellor really stepped in and helped me. Through our conversations, I came to recognize that acknowledging my problems doesn’t suddenly make them real - they’ve been real all along. Acknowledgement means, I can allow myself to get help, and get better. Part of this process was also taking medication, which is something I really struggled with. To me, taking meds was like admitting defeat. It meant that I wasn’t strong enough on my own. It meant admitting that I had a problem, and being reminded of it every single day. I had worked so hard to get off the meds and get back to being myself the last time, I couldn’t help but be disappointed in myself. Even now, I can’t say I am comfortable with it, but I’m working on it. I’m learning to recognize that medication is a means to an end, and if it helps me get to a better place, it’s probably not the worst thing in the world.
I’ve finally got the anxiety under control. It’s a struggle, but I’ve got healthy ways of coping. I write. I draw. I allow myself to put my fears and worries down on paper and I turn them into art. I still have bad days, when I feel like everything is out of control. There are still nights I can’t fall asleep because my anxiety keeps me up, but these don’t happen very often. The anxiety is here where I like it or not. I don’t know if this will be a life-long struggle, and I’m learning to be okay with that.
10/29/2022 03:53:56 pm
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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.