Stories, skills, and positivity- to anxiety sufferers from anxiety sufferers.
If there is one thing that I have learned during my fight against depression and anxiety, it is that there are things in life that will always outweigh the negative and help guide you through the tunnel.. There will always be things that can help rationalize, and contemplate, even when times are dark. I was raised in a family of six children, with a verbally abusive and a manipulative genius of a father who was also an alcoholic, and a mother who tried her best but was so beaten down emotionally and mentally that she was of little emotional support to her children. Growing up, there were fun times, and there were bad times.
Generally I like to focus on the good, where my father had the ambition to build a rope bridge in our house for us to enjoy, or participating in all kinds of water sports because I grew up on a lake, or finally being gifted with a horse and caring for him as I got older. There were some good things, but there were many bad, and after a while I, along with my brothers and sisters developed a condition towards verbal abuse, while also becoming unphased by all of the conflict as we grew older and it became more frequently.
I can remember watching my mother smash all of the dishes in the house during a fight with my father because it was the only release that she could manage to find, and I remember going to a women’s abuse shelter with my two brothers and sister and mother for three days to escape from my father’s abuse. However this seemed normal to me, so I never thought anything of it until high school when I finally began to form my own identity and be exposed to cases on verbal abuse, depression, anger management, and anxiety. We were currently living in Saint Thomas, Ontario with my grandparents at the time so I could go to high school, while my father and brother lived up north on the lake to work on cottages and make a living up there. It wasn’t until September of that year that I learned the bank was taking our house away on the lake because my parents could no longer afford to pay the mortgage. In a sense half of my family was homeless, but in my father’s “brilliant scheme” to get the house back somehow, he had decided that he and my brother were going to live in the marina building that we had on our property, as we would too when we went up each weekend. My horse, and new pony were up there at the time, so it was always exciting going up north to visit the one thing that kept me content and stable during this time period- and even still- however that was a poor cover up for what was actually happening in my life and to my family at the time.
We were transients, and homeless in all reality. Moving place to place between Saint Thomas and the Marina on the bank’s newly acquired property on the lake. This is when I became more and more conscious of who I was, and stopped talking to many people because I could no longer act cheerful and careless being in this transient stage. I was frequently visiting guidance counsellors and gaining opinions on how to cope with my new found reality, however not much was working it seemed because I was not open to help and felt that these things happened to everyone some how.
My father and brother lived in that Marina for a month and a half. My mother and I went up every weekend, and it was then during the first weekend of October that I was sexually assaulted. That is not something I will go into detail about, however after that time I became hostile to everyone in my family, and the only solace I found was through Simon (my horse) and music. I was not able to tell anyone that this had happened to me because I was embarrassed, and any time that someone in my family asked me why I was so miserable, I could feel anxiety attacks bubbling up and I would lose my hold on any sense of stability for days.
In February of that winter that followed, we found a way to sell the house on the lake and bought a farm up about twenty minutes away outside of Coehill, Ontario. It was with good intentions as we could all “be together as a family” and I could have Simon and Queenie (my other pony) on our property again, at our home. I was very frightened to move up and be in the same location as the rest of my family not only because of the assault, but also because of the fighting, the manipulation, and the violence. It was a weekly occurrence that my brother would strangle me, often in public places such as on the bus on our way home from school. I was terrified of allowing anyone to touch me, and would cry if I ever had to raise my voice, or ever got angry because it was so frightening to me.
Move forward two weeks to February 18th, my eldest brother’s birthday. At around 3:30 in the morning I can remember waking up because something smelt funny. I looked out the window and saw a dark sedan quickly pulling a U-turn in the municipality lot across the highway and speeding away. I realized why shortly after when I smelt the smell of burning fabric, and ran downstairs to find that someone had come into our house at 3:30 in the morning and lit our house on fire. We later found out that they had dumped lighter fluid across our living room couch and lit it on fire without leaving any finger prints, or evidence. The first thing I could think of was whether or not Simon was okay and whether or not this person had lit the barn on fire too. I could have cared less about my family’s lives or my own. I just needed to know that my own sanity in the form of that old fat horse was still alive and real. We had the swat team in that morning around 6 am and the entire time the police from Bancroft accused my father of lighting the house on fire (they were none too fond of him from past events). I went to school that day and was not able to talk to anyone because events of the night and the fear alongside it was VERY fresh in my mind. I still had soot in my nose that night when I came home, no matter how hard I tried to get it out. I don’t remember whether or not I went and spoke to any counsellors at the school for this issue as I was still in shock that it had actually happened. The worst part about it is that I was conditioned over my lifetime to believe that traumatic situations like this were normal, and even while writing this it feels like a mundane and ordinary thing that happens all over. After this point however I was not able to trust anyone with any information, with any feelings, and as such I had no one to talk to but my horse.
Over that summer, fighting became more violent as my father became more and more paranoid, and we were all involved. I can remember my mother going away to Saint Thomas for a week to care for my grandfather and my dad screaming at us, blaming us for her leaving him and cheating on him (which she did not). He began to treat us more and more like objects rather than his own children, and it was as though we were very easily expendable burdens on his life. We did have a family social worker that our family used to see, but unfortunately we were not able to see her because fear had taken over us. At this point, Simon was the only thing in my life keeping me afloat and sane. I can remember leaving the house for hours at a time to go to the back of the property with him, or by myself to just sit and distance myself from every aspect of my life that was hell. It worked, but only until I left, and then I was fully submerged again.
In the November of 2010, I can remember my mother and I running away from home with what little we had and renting a room at the local hotel, before informing my highschool that I would be dropping out and leaving the area as my mother and I tried our best to run away. Unfortunately when we reached Saint Thomas again, my first high school was unable to accept me back into the school until the next semester. And so we returned to the farm. Fighting got worse.
I became more distant, and in December, during Christmas break I decided to try and take my life because I could no longer deal with the abuse and misery. I had believed that there was nobody who was willing to listen to me without wanting to hurt me physically or emotionally, and that there was no point being in a world where hatred was so absorbed into every aspect of life. I remember making a noose and hanging it between the floor boards of the hay mow in our three stall barn, and figuring out how to tie it, with a reference to tying fishing line to hooks stuck in my head. While I was doing that, the run in door was open and Simon walked into the run in to see what the noise was. I looked over and saw him, the only solid and supportive, and non-judgemental, non abusive, non manipulative, and positive aspect of my life looking at me as curiously as he could apparently manage at the time (He had about three inches of fur on his body and he looked like a polar bear goat beast), and I remembered that I needed to be there for him, and that he was there for me. And so in my darkest time, the white steed – screw the prince on the white steed- came in to be the savior. I broke down and regretted every thought of trying to end being hopeless. I got up, took the device down, put it away and brought him in to groom him and feed him grain, and enjoy his physical and symbolic warmth for an hour.
After this experience, I decided to write a two page letter about everything that had happened to me in the last two years, and what I was experiencing and feeling to my parents. I was crying when I gave it to them and immediately ran to the bus to avoid their scrutiny. Two hours later I was called to the office and my mother was there. She told me that my dad refused to believe anything and was too uncomfortable to see me. We immediately went to the social worker and told her everything. I gave my mom that final push to get us both out of that environment, as I had later found that she and I were the same, and were going through the same situation. We left everything behind but the clothing on our backs in the middle of the night while my dad was in jail (he was in jail every weekend for driving with a suspended license). I had to leave the few friends I had, the school that I had worked hard to be accepted in, and finally, I had to leave Simon, the one thing that kept me sane.
When I returned to Saint Thomas, I didn’t go to see any counsellors until grade 11, and was not declared to be suffering from severe depression and social anxiety until that year. That first year and a half that we were in Saint Thomas was the most trying time that I can remember. We had left Simon behind, and had no money to bring him to Saint Thomas, nor was my mother willing to attempt to even try as he was just another expense, and not a savior in her eyes. I remember burning my hand on stove burners to relieve anger, and was constantly lashing out at everyone in my family. We had to hide from my father once or twice, and I remember my mother telling me that he was coming to St. Thomas and may try to kill us. I was terrified. At this time my mother had a new boyfriend who was also verbally abusive and manipulative and openly hostile to me and the rest of our family in Saint Thomas. Living with that was a different kind of hell because my mother turned into an 18 year old and abandoned me emotionally and almost physically. I tried to jump out of the car, I was almost admitted to the Psychological Institution located in the town after laying on the floor hyperventilating for three hours, and I remember grabbing her throat one night when she was yelling at me about something ridiculous that I had done to upset Leonard, her verbally abusive boyfriend. I did not hurt her, but I did run up to my room after that and shut down.
I believe after that point she wanted to send me away somewhere to get help, and has treated me that way for the last three years. It wasn’t until grade 11 againthen that I began to meet with my guidance counsellors on a weekly and biweekly basis, and I also joined a support group in the school run by a local social worker. It was nice to see that I wasn’t completely alone, but I was still uncomfortable to share my story and my issues because I felt that they were my fault. I was also terrified to trust people anymore, a fear that lasted until my first year of University. This was a rinse, wash, and repeat kind of cycle that didn’t work. My mother started taking me to a riding stable that I used to board Simon at, which was the one thoughtful thing she did do for me. It helped to an extent but I would have horrifying dreams every night of him which would send me back down in a dark hole every day.
My mom and I began to fight every day almost- some days we didn’t even talk. Our bond was completely broken. It wasn’t until June 23rd that she finally relented and arranged a way for Simon to be returned to Saint Thomas. I can remember her driving me to the barn with her boyfriend who was making fun of me and insulting me for owning an animal and relying on that animal for comfort. I couldn’t care less what they said because twenty minutes after arriving to the barn I saw an SUV pull up with a big white trailer, and Simon inside. I had only seen him once in the year and a half that we had left, when I snuck onto the property after visiting lawyers and real estate agents up in Bancroft. I have never felt so thankful than in that moment to have my other half back.
That summer was great. My mother and I fought less as I was out of the house and away from her, and I had Simon to keep me sane. I began hanging out with some friends that I had made that year and although I was still depressed and trying to rationalize with the last three years of my life, and although I had extreme anxiety in any situation that involved socializing with family and large groups of people, I was happy for the moment. I was able to gain a routine again, and I stopped burning my hands. The summer was great, but once I got into grade 12, the fighting picked up again, and not just the fighting but the bullying in high school. Because I was more comfortable in my surroundings with Simon back again and a sense of friendship, I began to express myself and form my own identity, but apparently that was not allowed in school because I was immediately bullied by just about everyone in my grade for the rest of the year. On top of that, my mother had begun to fight with me again. I was called in by the guidance counsellor again to see what was up because I had begun leaving school a lot in the afternoons to get away from society. This was just about the entire year of grade twelve. I was constantly being humiliated by girls and boys in school, constantly fighting with my mother, but I would always tell myself that I had Simon and that was all that mattered…or was it?
In October of grade 12 I had decided that I wanted to go to University for an Art History program, to do something I actually loved, and to bring Simon with me along the way. I was clinically depressed at this time, and constantly coping with social anxiety and panic attacks on the daily. I refused to take any medication because I had believed that Simon was all I needed- this wasn’t the case but a nice thought. Everything from the last two years were constantly pounding down on me like tidal waves; on top of that, my father had begun to e-mail me aggressively, as well as my brothers, which was terrifying. Alas, I focused hard on graduating from school with honors, and gaining entrance to University while finding a way to bring Simon with me. I was successful in my attempts as was admitted to school with a 2,000 dollar entry scholarship, and was able to find Simon a barn to be boarded at just outside of town. The first two months at school were interesting because I was extremely shy, timid, and finicky. I cried when someone tried to give me a hug because I was so uncomfortable with the idea of someone touching me, and did not participate in much of anything during orientation week other than the bare bone basics.
Simon was brought to my school on October 2nd, 2013. That was the day I began my new life. I was away from all of the negativity of my family, I left behind every bad thought and asked myself to move forward to sunnier pastures on that day. Amazingly, without much help it worked. The opportunities and never ending acceptance that came from the School, and the ability to go to my barn three times a week and wind down and go through therapeutic riding sessions with my horse helped me become stronger and stronger, and less anxious, and more stable. I still have my days where it feels as though I am at the bottom of a well that no one can hear me calling from, or that a crowd of people are coming at me with pitch forks and teeth made of knives, but I am able with the help of this wonderful school and its wonderfully supportive and inclusive people, and with the help of my horse to move on as an individual, even becoming a student leader in the residences, and elsewhere.
I have found when I think back on my life and series of events that I have been through that the only way I have been able to remain grounded in the world and life is to think of the most meaningful and caring and positive aspect of my life: Simon. I was terrible with the practice of speaking to counsellors and professionals because I was never open to it, which was a problem because it could have helped me in different ways, especially with my social anxiety. I look back to the actions that my family and other individuals in my life have taken towards me and against me, and although it is difficult to forgive and understand, I have found that the best outcome is to learn from these situations and move forward in life, avoiding making those mistakes and attempting to do better to the world. We are all here for a reason, whether we are human, animal, abiotic, biotic, whatever. I believe that reason is to take our experiences and make the world a better place by learning from them, and remembering that lasting value should be placed in constant positive and supportive aspects of life rather than the negative and trying, because the negative and trying are not ever lasting, and can be conquered as long as you try. In the end it is up to you.
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.