In light of World Mental Health Day, and how vocal I’ve been lately about my struggle with anxiety, I wanted to shed some more light on mental health through a blog post today.
If you’ve been following me for a while, or you’re a family or friend reading this blog post, you’ve most likely read the article I wrote for Student Life Network back in 2017 called Why I Wanted to Drop Out In My Last Year Of University.
The truth is, since I was a kid, I felt a particular sense of worry follow me around like a second set of skin. The real trouble didn’t escalate until I was in high school and had my first panic attack where I promptly demanded I be taken to the hospital since I was convinced I was having a heart attack.
High school was also the stage in my life where my anxiety convinced me that at every turn I was dying. A bump on my arm? A deathly growth. A sore throat? Cancer. A ball to the face during a soccer match? Brain haemorrhage. Looking back, it’s hard to believe I was in a doctor’s office at least once or twice a month with a new, crippling concern. Even in emergency rooms a few times here and there.
Grade twelve is where I felt a certain sense of doom as I thought about university and what the next logical step in my life was going to be. I was never one of those people who was certain about being a “teacher” or a “doctor.” All I knew was that I enjoyed writing, and I didn’t really know how to turn that into a career.
University is where I have struggled the most in my life to date. I dropped around 15 pounds before starting my first year, and consistently set impossible standards around my work. I already possessed a slim build, periodically teased over the course of my life for being “too skinny,” and “too tall,”and dropping that ever-so important 15 pounds was no help to that at all.
“Womanly” was something I felt like I was on the opposite spectrum of. As a kid I was teased for being “too much of a boy” for liking sports and being quite flat chested. I’m not sure if stuff like that ever really leaves you, but this next stage was really not helping my case. I already felt like I looked unattractive, and the extra weight loss was like a nail in my coffin.
There was no harder critic than myself, and I can now admit that the amount of energy I put into my schoolwork back than was not a particularly health choice.
I had a lot of panic attacks back then, hiding in bathroom stalls trying to calm my breathing, leaving class early to go back home and re-group. My stomach would toss and turn with acid for days on end, robbing me of my appetite. I hardly ate back then.
It’s interesting to think that the cost of university most of the time really is so much more than a monetary value. I suppose it’s important to note that throughout the time that I was in university, I, along with my entire family, was navigating my grandmother’s diagnosis of ALS. Another add-on to my mental state.
As I progressed into my third and fourth years, my anxiety (and honestly, maybe even OCD?) got worse and I would read, and re-read and re-read again any assignment or essay I crafted, my heart pounding the whole time as I scanned the pages for any form of error. Did I miss a comma? Is that sentence indented incorrectly? Did I even do this correctly? I’m going to fail. They’re going to fail me. I’m never going to graduate. I’m a failure. I’m dumb.
I would wait until the last possible minute to print off an assignment to ensure I caught every single error before handing it over to my professor.
I would be nothing less than perfection.
Seriously, let’s just think about all of this for a minute, because that is how crazy your mind can be when it starts to play mental tricks on you like that. I graduated with distinction in the top 15% of my class, and for about 90% of my whole university career I was convinced I was inadequate and doing things incorrectly.
I wasn’t eating properly at all, and I would honestly wear the same clothes days in a row. As I began to disintegrate, my grades and academic standing only got better and better.
I secured an internship at the marketing agency where I now currently work full-time and in everyone else’s eyes I was a shining star. I was doing everything right! Look at how smart and able I was! That girl has her shit together!
At that time, it actually angered me when people would say they were envious of me or that my life seemed really perfect. Don’t they know? I thought. Isn’t it obvious that I’m a mess? I worked for all of this, so hard even that physically and mentally I’m a mess?
I cried a lot back then. I picked my skin off my fingers until I bled and had to bandage them up to stop myself from digging any deeper. I lived off of coffee and Advil to get my through the day. The smallest thing would set me off. One off comment from my boyfriend and I would wither away into a heaping, sobbing mess. The panic attacks would engulf me as regularly as once a week in my fourth year of university. That meant I was on the floor, hyperventailing and sobbing, stuck there until my body decided to stop due to exhaustion, and then I would finally sleep only to bolt awake off of my bed most nights, screaming at the top of my lungs from another horrific nightmare.
I think we get it – it was a pretty bad situation.
It was when I found myself in the midst of a panic attack during my fourth year of university that I had a bit of a breakthrough. I can’t live like this anymore, I thought to myself.
That’s when I called a hotline.
You have to understand that before this, I had not reached out for any kind of help to really any person, especially not a stranger over the phone. This was a major shift for me because it meant that I had reached a different kind of breaking point.
The lady on the phone was calm and alert as I talked through why I called. I didn’t speak too much. Most of the call was me sitting there in silence, slowly answering any questions that she asked me.
After I hung up the phone I felt slightly liberated, and I knew what my next step was going to be.
Within the next few days, I went to my university’s psychological resources centre and signed up for an evaluation. I was given a form to fill out, and was guided into a bright room to talk with a coordinator. There he asked me some questions, and for the first time in my life I was honest about everything that was going on with me.
I was surprised because I wasn’t met with any kind of judgement or disapproval. He didn’t gasp at me in disgust or shame me. He listened, nodded and responded with answers that gave me a bit of clarity.
I was eventually paired with a therapist named Julia who seriously changed my life. I disliked her at first. She was blunt and to-the-point. I was shocked at her candour.
Why was she asking me these types of questions? My short explanation about how an event or situation made me feel was instantly met with her asking “why?” Again and again until somehow we got to the root. She pushed me. I learned tactics and strategies to manage my stress and anxiety. I faced my worst fears, no matter how irrational they were. She induced panic attacks so I could learn how to manage them. She literally pulled up my grades on the school database and forced me to see that I actually wasn’t a failure.
It helped me in more ways than I can ever explain, and it made me feel like I wasn’t some weird outcast. Mental health is very uncomfortable to talk about, but it’s something that HAS to be talked about.
For people like me, anxiety doesn’t ever just “go away.” It is something I will have to deal with for the rest of my life, but the good news is it is manageable. It really is, as long as you take the steps to start. My biggest regret is waiting so long to try therapy. I realize I could have been a lot better, and a lot healthier if I had started that process earlier.
I still have panic attacks. I still have bad, worrying thoughts. But, it does get better.
I now do a number of things to keep my anxiety in check like yoga, self-care days, and being extremely honest with those closest to me about my feelings and thoughts. I encourage you, if you are going through some sort of mental health struggle, to please seek help. It gets a ton better if you do. Here are some other resources to check out as well:
- Momentum Walk-In Clinic: This is a mental health resource centre in Edmonton, Alberta. They are a non-profit on a “pay as you go” method, so you can walk in and talk to therapists at the cost you can pay them at.
- 24-hour distress line: 780-482-HELP (4357)
- Online crisis chat
- Canadian Mental Health Association
- Your university: universities often have free psychological resources from therapy to much more. Please check them out at your local school.
And some articles to read today: