Stories, skills, and positivity- to anxiety sufferers from anxiety sufferers.
At 12:01am on June 16th, 2011 I shotgunned a beer to celebrate my new legality in Alberta. My first legal drink… sort of. I shotgunned the beer, and almost immediately threw it up onto our lawn. I went to bed, and woke up ready to celebrate a day I had been waiting for for most of my teenage years. But it didn’t pan out the way I had hoped… I felt nauseous throughout the day and blamed it on puking the night before. I went out to dinner with my family and my best friend at the time, and barely ate. I had my first legal drink at a restaurant (a peach Bellini, for the record) but even later in the night wasn’t feeling much better.
That night, I went out to a club called Roadhouse and had my first panic attack.
At the time, I didn’t realize what was going on. I just continued to feel sick, and my friend told me I should have brought TUMS. I immediately panicked because I SHOULD have done that. I should have worn an outfit that wasn’t so tight. I should have drank more water earlier. I shouldn’t have shotgunned that beer. Later I would realize it wasn’t about the beer (but perhaps this is the root of my discomfort with alcohol now…)
I had another attack during my grade 12 math exam just a week or so later. My thoughts were racing and I felt like I wanted to call an ambulance. I kept telling myself that it was okay because we had a fire fighter as a substitute teacher and he could help me if I needed it. I finished the exam, and again didn’t realize that I had had a panic attack. Another came as I was pulling up to the door of my friend’s party. I didn’t know what to do, and sat in the car outside her house with my dad for what felt like forever. It was then, that my dad suggested that maybe I was having some issues with anxiety.
For months, I suffered almost constant panic attacks. I was working in a pharmacy at the time, and in the beginning I had to take a few days off work. I was luckier than most, since I recognized the problem early and seeked help right away. I saw a counselor at the college I had attended through high school and I realized that I was a little more stressed about moving across the country for school than I had cared to admit.
I had also been hired to work at a club in my home town. Considering my first panic attack was at a club, and I had avoided them for the weeks after that, working here became a huge source of anxiety for me. BUT here is where I finally triumphed. At least, for a little while. I worked the job, and had an attack the first night. I was sitting in the medics area in the grandstand with my head between my knees. They gave me water, but wanted nothing to do with me. I felt alone, and completely terrified. After that, it got better… Somehow I did the rest of of the contract without having an attack. I had told my bosses the situation, and discovered that there were several other employees with the same problem. I finally felt like I wasn’t alone.
Fast-forward a few months: my first day of university. I had been a nervous wreck for the weeks leading up to it. The first day, in comparison to many days I had in the summer was actually not as bad as anticipated. I decided that the best approach was to tell everyone upfront about my anxiety, so they would know if something happened. The strategy worked, as it led me to find out one of the girls in my suite had also struggled through anxiety in her teenage years, and my anxiety instantly subsided.
Though my anxiety continued through first year, it was much better than it had been in the summer. Though it continues today, it is much better than it has been in the past. Though it is much better, it is not gone, and it likely never will be. This is one of the hardest things to come to terms with. I can’t just stop worrying. I can’t just tell myself things are okay. The anxiety is pervasive. It can ruin the happiest of occasions. It can make something that most people look forward to a nightmare for me. It makes holidays, birthdays, and special events something I dread for months prior.
BUT anxiety does not change who I am. I always say that I just have a little too much energy inside me, and it manifests itself negatively sometimes. But I can also love just as deep. I can also appreciate others more than you’d imagine. I can build connections with people at such an amazing level when I open up and they show me their heart.
One thing I want my family and friends to know: I love you. I love when you ask me if I am okay when you notice me being quieter than usual. I love when you offer to talk, or even to just sit with me. I love when you want to make sure I am okay. But sometimes, you’re not able to help. And I want you to know that that is 100% okay. Because sometimes it is hard to help. Sometimes it is SO hard, and I never want you to feel bad about that. I never want you to feel helpless, or like you have failed me. Because knowing you care means more than you know.
One thing I want the public to know: Mental illness is just that: an illness. It is not a choice, it is not a weakness, and it is not the fault of the person afflicted. Just like someone with a scraped knee, it can be healed over time. But scars may show, and you can get cut again. Do your part to reduce stigma. Most people would never assume I have a mental illness, and I’m actually terrified to post this for fear of rejection, or being put in a box. I am no different than you once assumed.
One thing I want other people with mental health struggles to know: You are not alone. You are braver than you think. You are strong beyond belief, even more so on the days you feel weak. Every moment you push through is a success, and though not every day is good, there is good in every day.
This summary just skims the surface of my story. My story is ongoing, like anyone’s, and all I can hope is that the future is happy and healthy.
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.