“I feel a migraine coming on… is today the day it turns into a stroke… can I make a frown… can I raise both arms… can I speak properly… Yes… OK… not a stroke… but what if it’s actually a blood clot… is this the worst headache pain I’ve ever experienced…no…OK I don’t need to go to the E.R…yet…how’s my vision…will this aura ever go away…what if it’s permanent and I never see properly ever again…what type of damage is this doing to my brain…what if I have long term problems because of these migraines…do I feel any tingling sensations anywhere…what if this is just a symptom of something else…maybe I should Google this…oh no this site says possible brain tumour…what are the other symptoms of brain tumours… do I have these symptoms…what does this mean…am I dying?”
That for me is a typical thought cycle when I feel a real physical symptom. At the end of the day it always comes back to the same thought “Am I Dying?” This is my struggle with anxiety. I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, which primarily manifests as health anxiety. Many of you have probably heard of “hypochondriacs” a term that carries a lot of negative stigma around it. Health anxiety is somewhat different than hypochondriasis but it often has the same fear at the heart of it – missing the correct diagnosis and dying as a result. Regardless of its differences, both of them carry a lot of judgement and stereotypes. With this blog post I hope to start the conversation about breaking those stereotypes. It seemed only fitting to start this on Bell Let’s Talk Day.
I’ve dealt with anxiety at varying degrees since I was about 12 years old. It started as an irrational fear of tornadoes. I constantly checked the weather forecast, high winds made me nervous, and every time there was a storm I’d run in tears down into the basement awaiting my impending doom. Then things shifted more towards depression. I had no confidence, didn’t believe in myself, and stayed withdrawn. I had trouble making deep friendships. I went through high school and most of university with this feeling that I wasn’t good enough. My anxiety was more socially related. I didn’t think people would want to be my friend. I didn’t think I could wear fashionable clothes. No one cared about what I had to say.
But things started to change for me after university. I got a job as an usher at the ACC which forced me to come out of my social shell. Nothing forces you to face social anxiety quite like having to tell someone who is smoking pot that they’re about to be ejected from a concert. I met great people through my job at the ACC, and started to make better friendships. But I still wasn’t myself. I still struggled with anxiety and depression. I still stayed withdrawn and made little effort to maintain friendships outside of work. Then came the biggest turning point in my life, my job at TSN. It was a huge boost to my ego. I finally could afford better clothes, a better haircut, and could justify going out more with friends. I became a dedicated runner and started to get in shape, becoming more comfortable in my own skin. Through my job I learned a lot about myself, especially when on the road with the Kraft Celebration Tour. I figured out who I was, and what I wanted out of life. I felt great.
I had gone through some emotional setbacks during this time however. I ended a very serious relationship that took a heavy toll on my emotional state. I agonized over that decision for the better part of a year. I drained my best friends by constantly going to them with my concerns and my fears. In hindsight, I was obsessing and it was my anxiety manifesting again. However, after the breakup in the summer of 2012 I started to re-charge. Moving into my own apartment was empowering. Dating was empowering (albeit scary). I had everything ahead of me, and was starting over.
Then, in January 2013 I was hit with some terrible news. A girl I had briefly known through my ex had died of liver cancer. She was diagnosed in September and dead before the end of the year. Her story is my fear. She was married in the spring of 2012, had gone on her honeymoon in September and when they returned she found out the awful news. I am terrified of dying too soon, and too young. I am terrified I will be that person who finds total happiness and then has it taken away. I started to have panic attacks. I started thinking “what if I have cancer”. I would go home and cry, and overanalyze every ache & twinge in my body. I endlessly Googled liver cancer and its symptoms. I started to drive myself insane. Finally, after breaking down again one night in my apartment I went to my family doctor and asked for a full physical. Everything came back normal except it was discovered I wasn’t taking enough Iron & B12 supplements. That was it. I decided it was finally time to see a psychologist.
This was my first confrontation with the stigma around mental illness. I felt weak by admitting I needed professional help. I was terrified the psychologist was going to commit me. I was scared to talk about my fears. I was also scared therapy wouldn’t work for me. I was so upset that I couldn’t fix this on my own. But I am not weak for seeking professional help. It took a lot of strength for me to walk into the clinic and book my first appointment. It took even more strength to go to my appointment. Each time I went to see my doctor I was getting stronger, and helping myself get stronger. Despite knowing this, it is still difficult to admit to people that I see a therapist. But I know each time I tell someone it helps break a small barrier. Maybe it will mean that someone I know will seek help, and heal. Or maybe it will at least get them to think twice about judging people who seek treatment. I know I can’t change everyone’s opinion, but I always hope it at least brings a little bit of understanding.
I also own two books on helping yourself overcome anxiety. And you know what? I am embarrassed to read these books on the TTC because I don’t want people judging me. Instead, I wait for those rare moments where I am home alone. I hide them when people come over. I keep a number of journals on the go – one which acts as my “worry log” where I track worries, then go back weeks later and answer my questions to prove to myself I was worrying about nothing. I also keep a daily record of three things that made me happy, to show myself that each day is filled with something good. I also track what medical procedures I have had done, to prove to myself that I am healthy and likely not dying. But those stay hidden. It feels immature to keep a journal. Like “adults” aren’t supposed to do such things and only thirteen year old girls who write about their latest crush are supposed to do this. And it’s unfortunate I feel the need to hide this because these books & these journals can be great aids to my recovery. I should be reading these books more often because they contain valuable tools. My journals should be kept in the open so I remember to write in them. Or maybe someone will visit, see them, and think “maybe I should try that”.
Therapy was the best decision I have ever made about my mental health. I went two full years before my next panic attack. Anxiety is notoriously difficult to treat and requires a lot of work. Another reason we need to think of people working on their illness as strong. But often my fears remained. I still had trouble shaking that “sense of doom” every now and then that something was wrong with my body. Every now and then a new physical sensation would crop up, and I would begin the cycle of fear. Or I would read an article about cancer, or someone dying young and I would start to believe that would be me.
Flash forward to this past holiday season. I had my first bladder infection and it started me down a dark path. I convinced myself I was dying of a kidney infection. Even after it was successfully treated, I couldn’t shake this feeling that something was really wrong with me. I was crying a lot. I wasn’t sleeping properly. It was all I thought about. It was again during another breakdown that my boyfriend and I started to discuss medications.
Medication scared me. I am the type of person who follows instructions on medications to the letter. If it says “do not take again for four hours”, I wait exactly four hours. I am always scared to try new medications in case they cause a bad reaction and I die from it. I was particularly scared of anti-depressants because I was afraid they would change me as a person. I was afraid I would lose control. I didn’t want to have a bad reaction and die. I also hated the thought that I needed it. It again felt like a sign of weakness. I was embarrassed that I would need medication. I thought people would think I was just “crazy” or “taking the easy way out by relying on a pill”. I cried at the doctor’s office when I went to ask for the prescription. I cried at therapy because I was so angry with myself for letting my anxiety take such a tight grip on my life. I felt so defeated. I felt so ashamed that I needed a pill. But I went to people for advice, people that I knew had taken these pills in the past, and they all helped assure me that it isn’t giving up. It takes a lot of strength to realize you need more help, and yes that sometimes you need a pill. They all helped me realized that it would be safe.
I’ve only been on the medication for three weeks and I already have noticed a difference in my anxiety. My compulsions have eased. I am finding it easier to quiet my brain and just concentre on being present in the moment. I can more rationally counter my thoughts in my brain. I have even made it through the initial side effects without thinking I was dying. I know this won’t fix the true root of my problems, but I feel more confident in being able to tackle them. Medication has just become another tool in my fight against my illness.
What made me the most nervous about publicizing part of my journey was that people would think less of me. Questions crossed my mind like “what if someone at work reads this and then I won’t get treated the same?”, “what if this hampers my career?” or “what if people just accuse me of seeking attention?” It is so unfortunate that people can be afraid to talk. I don’t want the attention. But I do want people to stop being afraid of mental illness. I do want people who suffer to seek help. I want people to change their lives for the better. For me, it’s a continuing journey. My anxiety is very complex and I know it’s going to be a long time before I finally beat it. But I am thankful for days like today that remind us all that we all know someone suffering and that we need to be there for these people. Please don’t let them suffer in silence because they are too ashamed to seek your help. You never know who is battling these illnesses and your actions may be causing them to avoid talking to you, or others.
For those suffering with anxiety, my friends and family especially, I am always here to talk. For people I don’t even know, leave me a comment and we can learn from each other. We can share our stories and grow stronger together. Just drop me a text/call/message, whatever and we’ll get the conversation going.
Find me: @TeslaMay on Twitter. I will be tweeting all day about #BellLetsTalk