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Depression/Anxiety

out of the dark

 

I admitted something this week: I’ve been stable for about two months.

Two months of relative calm and peace.

I think I’m coming out of the dark.

I don’t trust it all of the time, but it’s getting easier.

Now it’s time to start remodeling my life again.  I say remodeling because while each episode results in some sort of shift, I’m still me.  I don’t know what that shift is yet, but it’ll reveal itself in time.

The title of this post is a song by Audrey Assad, whose album “Heart” contains some of my favourite songs.  “Even the Winter” is more of a relationship song, but I think it also works as a song about hope – how:

Even the winter won’t last forever
We’ll see the morning, we’ll feel the sun
We’ll wake up in April, ready and able
Holding the seeds in the soil…

I’m grateful that I seem to be waking up again.

 

 

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It’s no secret that I have had my struggles with depression and anxiety.  I wrote about my experiences a few years ago.  Hitting ‘publish’ on that post was one of the most frightening yet freeing moments of my life.

Unfortunately, the stigma against mental health remains, and I feel somewhat called to help reduce that stigma.  One of the ways I can best do that is through writing about my experiences, normalizing them for others and putting a face to what most people is a faceless problem.

I am successful.  I am a young professional with a well-paying job and lots of responsibility.  Academically, everything I’ve touched has basically turned into straight As.  I am musical.  I am articulate (I think).  I am fun, have a great sense of humor and can talk your ear off if given the chance.

And I am one of the last people that you would ever think would struggle with depression and anxiety.

When we think of mental illness, we tend to think of people that live in poverty, people that have addictions, people from abusive backgrounds, and people who use it as an excuse.  We rarely think of those ‘normal’ people like me that desperately try to keep mental illness from overtaking their life and dimming their hopes and dreams.

Mental illness has coloured a lot of my decisions over the past couple of years.  As I get older, I get a bit smarter about how I manage it, and I’m learning what my triggers are and how to deal with the inevitable ups and downs.  I had a relatively minor down period this past spring, and while I was frustrated, I finally felt like I had the tools and support systems in place to deal with it; I finally felt like I had a bit of control over the depression and anxiety, rather than feeling like I was letting them lead me around on a leash.  After a decade of fighting tooth and nail against them, I felt like we came to a bit of a truce, albeit an uneasy one.

I’ve come to realize that I need to work with my mental health, rather than against it.  This is difficult when you’re a driven, Type “A” personality with control issues and a constant need for validation.  Whereas in years past I would be involved in countless activities from morning ’til night, I’m now very selective about what I do, and I ensure that I have lots of down time.  A few years ago, I would have thought I was lazy; now, I realize that rest is an essential means of self-preservation.

However, I still have a lot of work to do and a lot to learn.  Sometimes I do the exact opposite of what I know I should be doing out of sheer spite and defiance, kind of like how a diabetic thumbs her nose at her disease when she scarfs down a bunch of sugary foods that she knows she shouldn’t. The fact that I have a chronic illness doesn’t always compute, especially at times like now when I feel rather normal.

But ‘normal’ is relative, as I’ll never be the ‘normal’ person I was before that first panic attack.  While my body doesn’t bear any physical scars from my struggles, there are many emotional scars and wounds that, while healing, are susceptible to tearing open at any given time.  I sometimes wonder if I will ever again have the freedom that I used to feel, when the only thing standing between me and the world was my own willingness to step outside the door.

I don’t know.  What I do know, though, is that so far, whenever depression and anxiety have tried or even kept me from walking out that figurative door, I’ve somehow always managed to eventually go back and step out on to the doorstep.  And that perseverance gives me some comfort that I can face whatever comes next, and that I’ll always be able to find my way back outside.

I am tired.

I am tired of winter.

I am tired of snow.

I am tired of cloud.

I am tired of cold.

I am tired of school.

I am tired of being poor.

I am tired of never feeling full.

I am tired of struggling.

I am tired of trying.

I am tired of being told that I shouldn’t feel what I feel.

I am tired of being kind and thoughtful.

I am tired of being quiet.

I am tired of being anonymous.

I am tired of being ignored.

I am tired of living with inconsiderate people.

I am tired of being told to be patient, that good things come to those who wait, because it’s a lie.

I’m tired of being told to accept circumstances by people who would never accept the same.

I am tired of being different.

I am tired of being the oldest.

I am tired of watching the lazy and undeserving get whatever they desire.

I am tired of buses.

I am tired of relying on others to get from Point A to Point B.

I am tired of being single.

I am tired of feeling ugly and undesirable.

I am tired of seeing others luck out.

I am tired of not earning what I am worth.

I am tired of feeling fulfilled only when my calendar is full.

I am tired of trying to be grateful.

I am tired of looking for the silver lining.

I am tired of relying on little pink pills.

I am tired of everything being so f**king hard.

I am tired of second-guessing everything I feel.

I am tired of holding on to old hurts.

I am tired of never being heard.

I am tired of being strong.

I am tired of everyone’s expectations and my own unattainable ones.

I am tired of feeling anxious.

I am tired of being afraid.

I am tired of crying alone in the dark.

I am tired of others assuming that everything comes easy to me.

I am tired of younger people getting ahead of me.

I am tired of people thinking I don’t work hard when I work harder than most.

I am tired of not believing that I am enough.

I am tired of people completely dismissing my feelings.

I am tired of explaining who I am.

I am tired of a Facebook full of weddings and babies, new cars and new houses.

I am getting tired of hoping and dreaming.

But mostly, I am tired of giving so much to everyone and everything yet getting next to nothing in return.

I am really tired of walking into the wind.

Goodness, that vocal STILL takes my breath away.

There are two types of changes in our lives: changes we choose to make and changes that are forced upon us.

Both can be devastatingly hard to deal with.

I’ve lost 60 pounds not once, but twice.  That was hard.  But I chose to change.

I’ve been anxious and depressed, illnesses which changed me whether I liked it or not.

I used to think I was averse to change, but now I realize that I like change.

Well, most of the time.

I’m not afraid to change.  I’ve change my hair a million times because it’s just hair.  It’ll grow back.  And there are always hats.

My style also changes frequently, as do my reading habits, my interests, my nail polish and a million other things.

But there’s one upcoming change that is terrifying me.

In less than two months, I will graduate from university and head into articling.

I am terrified. Scared. Frightened. Afraid.

Honestly, I’m scared sh**less.

As excited as I am to finally leave behind my life of low-paying jobs and no vehicle, I am worried that I won’t be able to hack it out in the real world.

Here’s a sample of one thought process I had this week:

So, I’ll quit work at the end of March and give myself a couple of months to rejuvenate before articling.  That sounds excellent.

But then I won’t have a lot of money to play around with.

That’s okay.  I’ve got my income tax money.  I’ll be okay.  Plus, there’s the bonus I get the week I start working.

But I need to buy a car sometime before I start working.

It’s okay.  Remember: income tax and bonus.

Right.

Then in six months my student loans will come due.  And I’ll probably be paying double the rent I am now, plus the car payments.

That’s okay.  I’ll just have to budget carefully.

What if I have another breakdown?  What if I can’t work?  Then what’ll happen? I’ll have no money, all of these bills and they’ll repossess my car, I’ll lose my job and I’ll be a Masters/Law graduate with no job and no money.  And then I won’t be able to finish my articling and I won’t be a lawyer and then what?

Wasn’t that fun?  Welcome to my brain.

At this point, my biggest fear about the impending major change in my life is that I won’t be able to handle it.  That I’m going to break down again.

Unless you’ve been through it, it’s difficult to understand how paralyzing this fear can be.  The memories are so strong, and the pain is still so fresh that sometimes it’s hard to see the good, positive things that are happening, the baby steps that are leading you back to wholeness.

Lately, I’ve been stuck in the fog.

While I am desperately ready for change, to begin my life as a certified ‘adult,’ I am also frightened that I’m going to fail.

So what do I do?

I try to remember all of the times I thought I would fail and didn’t.

I’m in the process of learning to trust myself again.  That’s the most frustrating part of depression and anxiety; they rob you of what little self-confidence you had.  Regaining that trust is a long, slow process with a lot of ups and downs.  And right now, I fear I won’t regain it in time.

Regardless, change is coming.

I hope I’m ready for it.

This is spot on.  And yeah, a card or two or some flowers would have been nice, although I haven’t seen any that say ‘Get Well from Your Depression and Anxiety.’  Actually, healthy, complete meals would have been good.  Eating well is essential during these episodes but you often don’t have the energy to make that happen consistently.

The most unhelpful things I had people say to me were ‘Don’t worry,’ ‘Relax,’ ‘You should be getting more sleep,’ ‘Just think positive,’ and ‘Maybe you should stop thinking and talking about it so much.’  Like Ruby says: Gee, I never thought of that.  And because people tend not to understand unless they’ve been there, sometimes you feel like you’re supporting them more than they’re supporting you because you’re try to help them understand.

I’m glad more people are talking about their experiences. We need to do all we can to reduce the stigma and shame of mental illness.

Visit MyNewHead.com for more information and resources.

I was all set to post something completely different this morning when I came across “Jesus or Zoloft?” and I thought, “It’s time.” Then I came across this Annie Dillard quote from The Writing Life:

“Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

So here goes.

_____________________________

I am lucky enough to have a loving, supportive network of people who have been thinking of me and praying for me the past couple of months. I have not had to make the metaphorical choice between ‘Jesus and Zoloft’ (Effexor in my case). In fact, I had one of my favourite people come up to me during the midst of a crying spell in church and tell me point blank that if I needed medication then I had damn well better take it (paraphrasing and emphasis mine). The next week when I returned to church once again in a broken shattered mess, she took me aside and prayed with me.

So I don’t have issues with how I was treated at church. But I do have issues with how I am treated and viewed by society.

A couple of months ago, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente wrote a column entitled “University’s not meant to be easy.” While some of it was truthful, a lot of it was conjecture. The worst of it was this:

Stress is a fact of life at university. If you’re not stressed out from time to time, then you’re not paying attention. But now, many universities report that stress has reached epidemic levels. Counselling services are overwhelmed with students who can’t cope. What to do? There’s no shortage of ideas. Offer yoga classes and pet therapy. Get the faculty to “redesign” (lighten) the courses. Provide more accommodation for weak students. Reschedule exams so they aren’t bunched up, and make sure students have lots of breaks between classes. How about late-night snack tables in the library at exam time? Please don’t get me wrong. I’m extremely sympathetic to the issue of students’ mental health. The transition from adolescence to early adulthood can be really tough. Few students get through university without some encounter with depression, anxiety, panic, hysteria, anorexia, bulimia, loneliness, heartbreak, acute crises of identity or even suicidal thoughts. Some students are more fragile than others. It’s cruel to tell them to just suck it up.

That sentence, “Some students are more fragile than others,” reverberated through my head for days. I was angry. More like furious. That sentence has been a catalyst for me over the last month, because you know what? I am not fragile.

I am one of the most courageous people you know.

I am a SURVIVOR.

I am a motherf**king Amazonian queen (thanks, Cheryl Strayed).

And here’s why.

I have a mental illness called Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). It basically means that I worry and stress a lot more than normal people, and I worry and stress about everything. Some think anxiety disorders are the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, while some think they’re purely behavioural in nature. I think it’s probably a little of both. While medicine can’t cure me, it alleviates a lot of the symptoms and gives me the resilience and strength to be able to put into place the physical and behavioural strategies that can help me manage it. Regardless of its causes, excessive stress and worrying can lead to panic attacks, a state of constant, debilitating high anxiety and clinical depression. I also get a bit agoraphobic – I fear being in places where it’s hard to escape, or where help might not be available; I fear being trapped. So right now I like aisle seats and I need my cell phone with me at all times. Looking back, I can see the signs of all of this when I was a kid. I was terrified of storms. I had to have all of the windows and doors closed and locked before I went to bed, even in stifling summer heat. If my toys were strewn about my room before I went to sleep, I always made sure I made a path made through them so that if there was a fire, I could get out. I had stomach aches for seemingly no reason that the doctor couldn’t diagnose – but I was just anxious. I was overweight throughout my childhood, was mercilessly teased, and never really fit in with the kids in my school ‘cause not very many 9 year olds wanted to talk about politics and current events and history and the girls didn’t like or know anything about sports, so my self-esteem wasn’t all that great, either.

So my predisposition to worry, coupled with family histories of anxiety and depression on both sides of my family, then add in some perfectionist tendencies and low self-esteem, and voila – you’ve got a rather perfect recipe for an anxiety disorder.

My first encounter with serious anxiety was when I was in my 3rd year of university in Regina. I was 20 years old. I didn’t have a big panic attack, just a general sense of uneasiness. That grew and developed into heart palpitations and chest pain and blossomed into a constant fear that I was going to die. Or go nuts. Take your pick. I went to five doctors within a few months that fall, but nothing was wrong. I was quite overweight at that time, so I started dieting in hopes that maybe that was part of the problem. For months I hardly slept – I was absolutely terrified that I wouldn’t wake up. I’d phone home and pester my Mom with all kinds of questions about my symptoms – once even in the middle of the night. I actually went to the emergency room after that phone call and finally left four or five hours later when I hadn’t been seen, was still alive and finally felt sleepy.

The anxiety went away by itself the following summer and I had a great 4th year – probably the best year of my life.

I moved to Vancouver and it all fell apart again. This time it wasn’t just heart palpitations and chest pain. I was constantly nauseous. I was utterly exhausted yet I woke up very early every day. I could hardly eat. I could barely function. Each morning I woke up I wanted it to be nighttime again so I could escape my constant despair by going to sleep. I became so depressed that on Easter Sunday, April 18, 2006, which was my brother’s birthday, for one split second ending it all seemed like the best idea. Another day later that summer I remember going for a walk alone one afternoon and coming as close as I’ve ever been to being out of my mind with emotional pain, just hoping that I’d disappear.  I was terrified of taking medication, but eventually relented because I could not go on. I’m glad I finally did.

It was a terrible, terrible time, the worst I’ve ever felt – a feeling of being so lost and so broken that you can’t see things ever being okay ever again. Plus, you can’t figure out what’s wrong with you – you think you should be able to fix it yourself, and when you can’t, you feel even worse. You feel ashamed. You feel worthless. I felt incredibly lonely and isolated – people didn’t know what to say or do because they didn’t understand, and when they tried, I pushed them away. I felt guilty for being such a burden with my need to talk about what was happening to me and for worrying others. And I was so, so angry – why was this happening to me?

After that, I had two brief anxiety episodes: one in my first year of law school which lasted about two weeks, and one in my second when some OCD (obsessive compulsive order) tendencies manifested themselves and for a month I feared harming myself or those I loved. While brief, they were still tortuous.

In the past couple of months, many of these feelings, thoughts and memories have resurfaced; old wounds have reopened. I was walking home from volunteering at the inner city legal clinic in Saskatoon, down 2nd Avenue on Thursday, July 5, 2012 (funny how I always remember the dates), eating an ice cream cone, when my heart seemed to stop for a few seconds and then heavily thudded two or three times. In those few seconds I remember thinking to myself, “I think this is the end this time.” I quickly scanned the crowd, which was pretty big because it was the 2nd Avenue Sidewalk Sale. I was near a hot dog vendor and I just about went to him for help when the panic subsided. I managed to walk home, but I was unnerved, restless and couldn’t sit still. When I woke up the next day, I knew the panic was back. I went from sleeping far too much to hardly sleeping at all and became exhausted. I was quite convinced I was going to die because my heart wouldn’t stop skipping. Every muscle in my body was tensed. I could not sit still – I was constantly fidgeting. My brain would not shut off no matter what I did, and the simplest tasks, like showering, became laborious. I constantly cried – it was like a running tap that wouldn’t shut off. I went to a counsellor at the university who told me I should embrace the anxiety and accept it, not fear it and distract myself from it. I tried. By the time September came, I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t concentrate. Going from the farm to town made me anxious the night before to the point where I couldn’t sleep. I needed silence – I couldn’t listen to music, watch TV or be in loud places – I had sensory overload. I couldn’t go to school. I went to my night class and left the room after 15 minutes because I felt I was going to start having a panic attack. My sister tried to calm me down via text message and I tried to go back into the classroom, but I was too frightened and overwhelmed. For the next hour and 45 minutes I paced outside of the room, trying to will myself to go back in, but I couldn’t. It was only after class when I’d finally managed to wander farther away to some chairs and sit still for a few minutes that someone finally came to check on me. I came to church and I sat out in the foyer and cried. I was a shadow of myself. Eventually I didn’t want to get out of my bed at the farm and I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I wondered how I was ever going to cope with school, and my thoughts turned to future worries – I wondered if anyone could ever love me like this and decided I couldn’t have children – I didn’t want to pass on my illness, plus how would I take care of them when I couldn’t take care of myself? My body became my own mental and physical prison. All I wanted was to fall asleep and wake up in a few months when I felt like me again.

I am better now, largely due to medication and some lifestyle changes, but I’m not ‘all better’ or ‘fixed.’  Instead, I am changed.

When I write out my story and read it and think about all I’ve gone through, I realize why I am a motherf**king Amazonian queen: it is because I have confronted and struggled with the deepest, darkest, most frightening places of myself and come out of it a better person.

I did not get to this place easily, and I don’t always believe it, but after each battle I become more of the person I want to be.  

During the summer I found an article called “The Gift of Anxiety.”  At the time I read it, I scoffed at it.  But while I wouldn’t call it a gift, it is a teacher, because little by little, my experiences have taught me that I am amazing, courageous, beautiful and loved.

I am amazing because I have survived.

I am courageous because I continue to move forward.

I am beautiful:

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.  These people have an appreciation, a sensitivity  and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern.

And I am loved by a wonderful family, supportive friends and a church family that cherishes me.

I share my story because mine is one of millions, and possibly billions, that needs to be told.  I share it because people are literally dying due to the stigma surrounding mental illness.  I share so others might feel like they’re not alone.  And I share my story to tell you that despite what you and world might think, I am not fragile.  I am amazing, courageous, beautiful and loved.

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