Stories, skills, and positivity- to anxiety sufferers from anxiety sufferers.
On December 6th, 2015, the popular website BuzzFeed posted a video entitled "Diagnosed". As a part of the website's mental health awareness campaign, this video details the narrator's experience with trying different kinds of medication to treat their anxiety, and subsequent other disorders. One line of this fantastically done video stands out to me in particular:
"The threat of unpredictability is the scariest part when something depressing happens to someone with depression."
Unpredictability is a fact of life. When the bad things hit suddenly, it can mean that despite the progress that somebody with mental illness may be making towards their recovery, that they can be easily set back an insurmountable degree when life rears its many-faced head. This is, of course, what happened to me. Allow me to go off on an anecdotal tangent while I explain how this individual with mental illness copes with tragedy, trauma, and the lemons life doles out that you can never really expect.
I'll provide the disclaimer now: the way I healed will not be identical to everyone's healing. However, I hope it will provide an example of how life goes on, even when it seems impossibly difficult to live.
I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Depression in the winter of 2013- though two-thirds of that diagnosis had been hanging around for quite some time before that. My version of "recovery" involved drop-in counselling, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, subsequently ditching therapy, going on medication, starting therapy again, and having my medication doses adjusted periodically. In that order.
When I started my final year of my undergraduate degree, I was on track to being a basically functional human being. I had spent the summer living with friends that taught me the art of self-love and how to embrace myself the way I was. I had become comfortable with telling people what the small, white pills were that I took at the same time every day. I accepted the outstretched hands offered to pull me up when I was down, instead of pushing them away. I started a great new job, with a great group of people, doing work that I found the perfect balance of challenging and rewarding.
And then, life happened. At the end of September 2015, I experienced a trauma that later led to a diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
Once the physical and emotional state of shock wore off, I felt like I was back at square one. One of the incredibly inconvenient things about trauma is that it messes with your memory; a symptom of which I was not immune to. I am not exaggerating when I say that I barely remember my first semester of my last year of university after September 25th- let alone the important details of the trauma itself. I was in a haze of being unable to get, or stay out of bed, hardly eating, not sleeping, and not crying- until the first time I finally DID cry, and then I was unable to stop. Ironically, I was getting the best grades I had received since high school, while simultaneously avoiding anywhere I might see the person related to my trauma. I had flashbacks, nightmares, and more frequent panic attacks. I began withdrawing from the people around me when I couldn't find a reason to be loved, while simultaneously throwing myself at guys at bars or parties for validation- which continued until I inevitably lost a friend after a night we both ended up regretting. Overall, I had been acting recklessly. Because in my eyes, the worst thing that could have happened to me had already happened- could it really get worse?
Of course, being no stranger to mental illness meant I could see exactly what was happening to me, and that I was spiralling. So, I mustered up all the fight I had left in me to claw myself back to where I had been. This is a situation in which already being in therapy was a godsend, because my therapist and I already had the trust and rapport necessary to have productive sessions. When it became clear that I wasn't shaking the potentially-PTSD symptoms anytime soon, I was given a referral to join a ten-week long Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) group in January 2016. Ran by two psychiatrists employed by my school, the group was made up of several other individuals with similar, if not the exact same diagnosis as myself. This form of therapy taught specific skills and coping mechanisms for crisis management, challenging negative thought patterns, labelling emotions, and embracing the concept of radical acceptance. This final point was the most difficult for me to wrap my head around: how was I supposed to simply accept what had happened to me and move on?
One week, I expressed my infuriation with radically accepting my trauma, which was (arguably) the most I had talked about it with the group aside from stating it as the reason why I was in the group in the first place. One of the psychiatrists then asked me something that led to my first massive step to recovery:
"when you realized what had happened, what did you do?" she asked me.
I then gave brief details of the immediate emergency action I had taken, which had been aided by a couple good friends.
"well," she said, "there you go: the next day came. You got out of the situation. This happened, and you're still alive."
While i'm trying to keep my personal anecdote short here, the point is that the doctor was right: I was still alive. Perhaps not always as present as I wanted to be, but I was breathing, just as much as anybody else in the room was. This is the point i'm trying to make, in answering what to do when something depressing happens to someone with depression (as well as various branches of the anxiety tree): you reach out to the resources you are already so familiar with, and you ask for help. This, of course, can be easier said than done, but believe me when I say you are worth and deserving of the compassion and care of other people. You deserve to get out of bed, to give your body exercise and nutrition, and to feel the sun warm your skin. Be conscious of when your default reaction may be to push your loved ones away, and allow them to help you instead.
My road was not smoothly paved after this first epiphany, but things did get gradually easier. I got to the doctor and got a formal diagnosis of PTSD after scoring unsurprisingly high on the DSM-5's diagnostic test. I then had my medications changed to an SSRI that was better suited to treat PTSD, practiced techniques for preventing, and calming myself down from panic attacks, and said "f*ck you" to the concept of allowing something to run my life as much as I had let my anxiety do in the past.
I am by no means "healed"- but over time, I have become substantially better than I was. My mental illness journey is just that- a journey. As my life continues day by day, the journey does, as well. The difference now is that I know that I can overcome just about anything, because I have learned how to cope and manage.
Even in the most horrendous of times: keep on keepin' on, friends. I promise you that life is beautiful.
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.