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.