Buckle up folks. In honour of #BellLetsTalk day today, I thought I give you the history of my life with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Depression. I sometimes think that we see images of people with mental illness, where they say to “reach out” and “ask for help” but we don’t see how they got to that moment. We see a person who tells us they were ill, and now they seem fine, or at least they are functioning. I think it’s hard for those who are suffering and at the beginning of the journey to get the help they are looking for, and to know just how long recovery takes and how messy that recovery is. This post is going to be long so if you have the time, say while you’re sitting in your car around the corner from your house after a long day at work, just looking for a little piece and quiet, that’s perfect. Or if you’re on the toilet, or waiting at the doctor’s office, or in line to renew your driver’s license picture, I hope I can fill your time with some useful entertainment.
How Did I get Sick?
I have asked myself this question a lot. My therapist tells me it doesn’t matter how I got here but that we get me out of it. I agree, but as a person with anxiety, you know I can’t just let that go. I need to analyze it and figure it out to protect myself from future attacks. This coping mechanism for survival is annoying a lot of the time, though I know it’s just my nature trying to keep me alive.
Here are a few contributing factors that I can think of, with the most serious ones near the end of the list. That’s when I really began to unravel and need help.
1. I didn’t like the career I’d chosen. I went to culinary school and hospitality school. I dreamt of opening my own restaurant one day. Then I started working and discovered that I hated it. I hated the hours. I hated the macho environment of working as a chef. There is no crying in kitchens. You burnt yourself? Suck it up. Your feet hurt? Suck it up. You’re being sexually harassed? Suck it up. You haven’t been home for a holiday or weekend in forever? Suck it up. I decided to change careers (a wonderful decision) but suddenly I was a student again after years of full time employment. I was poor, just starting a relationship, my father was sick. This was stressful.
2. My father died. As you can imagine, this contributed to my depression. He was sick for a long time.
3. I got married. We planned our wedding while I went to school full time and had a part time tutoring job. A happy occasion, but super stressful.
4. My father- in- law died. Unexpectedly.
5. My husband hated his job. I was going to school full time. We were broke. Then we moved. I left behind the house my grandparents built, where I last lived with my father, and a place I dearly loved.
6. I graduated with my BA in Creative Writing and English. I couldn’t find a job and ended up delivering pizzas.
7. I got into grad school! While this was amazing and positive, it was so super stressful. Impostor syndrome is real friends. I felt I didn’t belong. I worried I’d flunk out. I worried I wouldn’t keep up. (none of this turned out to be true. I kicked butt in grad school btw. Straight A’s and came up with a defense that no one had seen before. Boom! Honestly, I have no idea how I managed to get through those two years.)
8. Two weeks into grand school, my husband got sick. In spectacular fashion, he had an impressively terrifying grand mal seizure and subsequently developed epilepsy. I thought he would die. Thus we embarked on the crazy adventure of trying to figure out what was wrong. He was no longer allowed to drive, so I drove him everywhere. On days I didn’t have classes, this meant two hours of commuting, half an hour to drive him to work, half an hour to to pick him up, plus return trips. Switching gears between responsibilities became incredibly difficult for me mentally. I was chauffeur, student, and also had a part time job on campus as a research assistant one year and then a T.A. the next. I was also wife, caregiver, and daughter. Too many hats to try on. Maybe none of them fit?
9. I got sick. I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. I suffered a traumatic event at the hands of a gynecologist. I was put on birth control pills to stop me from bleeding to death due to my PCOS. They changed my personality and made me into a totally different person for almost a year. I was boiling with anger that didn’t belong to me. I felt out of control of my body. I also have IBS, as I have mentioned before. Side effects of both PCOS and IBS include, you guessed it! Depression and Anxiety.
10. 2 traumatic events involving dog attacks.
11. A family history of depression.
12. We moved again.
13. My mom got sick. My mother-in-law got sick. My husband was sick. I was the glue. I held it down, I paid the bills, I cooked, and cleaned. This is what love is about. This is what family is about. This is why life is hard sometimes.
14. Two long time friendships ended.
15. I graduated with my MA in Communications and Culture. Now what? The stress of being a 9-5 type of person was getting to me. My soul was dying at the thought of a “normal” job. I am a self starter, I knew what I wanted (a big ol’ writing career folks). But how could I tell those depending on me I was choosing the past of least financial stability?
My list could probably go on, but you get the point. I was overwhelmed. Many times over the days, months, weeks, years of the happenings of that list, my husband would say to me “you’re depressed”. I’d sometimes say, “no, I’m fine”. Later, he’d say it again, and I’d agree, “probably”. Sometimes I’d say, “yes, I am”. I wasn’t prepared to do anything about it, however. I kept going. Because that is what I did. I had to get through life, get through the day. No stopping, no thinking. Survival. Survival. Survival.
It wasn’t until I developed a racing heart and tremor that things started to truly concern me. I couldn’t stay awake. I was on edge, easily frightened and startled. I panicked a lot. I yelled and was an awful person. I visited my doctor and did LOTS of tests. My heart was healthy, my adrenal glands top notch, my thyroid, never better. “You’re a healthy young person”, my doctor told me. “So why do I feel so bad?” I wondered.
A year passed. My tremor got worse, my racing heart, which had subsided, returned. I stopped using knives, for fear I’d slice off my fingers. I stopped driving, for fear of killing someone. “Could this be in my head?” I asked my doctor. “Yes.” was his answer. I decided it was time to see a therapist. This decision was hard. Truly difficult. I did not want to face what was making me feel this way. I thought I could cope. I had been getting through life just fine. (This is patently untrue, but my mind told me otherwise.)
I did some research and found a therapist who I thought seemed good. For those looking for someone to talk to, I Googled, “Therapist in ‘name of town'”. I found a list of profiles. It was super helpful. Now, what I’m about to tell you might make me seem silly, but it was an important step in getting help. My doctor’s office offers a therapist service through their group of physicians. You get eight free sessions with whomever becomes available first. Free is a great thing to hear. However, I chose not to go this route, because, I suspected I needed to see someone on a more regular basis. These free sessions, as you’d imagine, are booked up quickly. I knew I needed more help than once a month or longer. Also, I wanted to choose someone to talk to with whom I felt I shared a connection. I was about to divulge some tough, personal, stuff. It was important I felt comfortable.
The therapist I found, is my age. They also have IBS. They also have mental health struggles. They also have a family member with epilepsy. Ding Ding Ding, we have a winner! Did the therapist have all this info on their profile? No. But somehow I managed to listen to my instincts and choose someone who turned out to be a great fit for me. My sessions were not expensive, however, we couldn’t really afford them. To date, I’ve spend somewhere in the neighbourhood of $1500 on visits. Complications with insurance meant I have paid this money out of pocket. Did I cry a lot knowing I was spending money we couldn’t afford. You bet your ass I did. Did my husband tell me it was all worth it? Yes. We sacrificed so I could get well. It was worth it. Also, we can put those visits on our income tax and hopefully get some of it back.
Taking Medication and Other Leaps of Faith
After I started seeing my therapist, I got worse. I had talked to my doctor, I had talked to my therapist and it was like I had to let go. I had to let go of holding it together and trust they would save me. I had insomnia, where I probably didn’t sleep at night for approximately a month. I slept during the day, or not at all. My tremors were out of control. Every little thing scared me so much I’d sob like a small child. I had panic attacks. I couldn’t eat. I had constant migraines. When I went in for another appointment with my therapist I told them about the way I felt. They hooked me up with an appointment with a psychiatrist, and I went back to my doctor’s office to ask for medication.
My doctor started me on a medication. I will tell you, I felt truly awful. I was sick to my stomach all the time, bloated to the point of not being able to wear most of my clothes. I had terrible headaches and I swear I could feel the frontal lobe of my brain throbbing as it absorbed the serotonin it craved. My appointment with the psychiatrist was pretty cool. In my area of the world, wait times to see someone in person are almost 2 years long. Through my therapists office, I was able to connect with a doctor virtually. We sat in my therapists office and Skyped through a secure program. The doctor asked me questions, diagnosed me with GAD and Depression. She suggested a change in medication. I agreed. Then we discussed something to tackle my tremors. Here was the part where I took a leap of faith. I was given two choices. A medication, Adivan, that can be addictive. I had taken it once before to ease anxiety for an MRI. It made me drunk, and unable to speak other than in the letter M. While hilarious at the time, that was not how I wanted to live my days. The other option was a beta blocker. I didn’t know what to choose. A funny side effect of all of this was I had lost the ability to trust myself. I looked to my therapist and trusted that they, along with the psychiatrist, would make the right choice for me. Beta blockers it was. (They slow down your heart rate and help to calm the tremors, in case you were wondering,)
The journey through adjusting to the anti-depressants was hellish. It took 13 weeks, with taking the first med, coming off that one, then starting the new one, to get to my ideal dose. I felt terrible. I felt sick. I didn’t fit in my clothes. I couldn’t eat. I felt like my body wasn’t mine. I stuck it out. Then one day, I felt better. I had gradually been feeling changed, better, but it was hard to see. But one day, like magic, I woke up and was ME. I had energy, I had vim. I finished writing my novel that week. I know it doesn’t work that way for everyone, but for me, it did. I was lucky.
Lasting effects on my body, due to the bloating, included my ribs being shoved out of place. They hurt a lot and were uncomfortable for months afterward. I’m happy to say, they are mostly back to normal now. My body also hurts a lot, just in general. This is probably due to depression and the battle I have with myself every day to just move.
Now, for the Zucchini
Once I started to feel better, I began participating in life again. I had mostly stopped talking to friends. Texting was bearable (almost) but phone conversations were a no go. I didn’t go to events, I didn’t even go to the grocery store. Deciding to do anything was a days long process. But now, that I was starting to be me again, I could go out. I did however, notice something curious.
The anti-depressants, also acted as anti-anxiety medication. Once my anxiety started to ease off, I noticed that I was maybe not making the best decisions all the time. For instance, I recall walking the dog through a lightning storm. Meh, this is fine, we’re safe. I thought to myself. Um… no. My husband quickly told me to get back into the car. Thank goodness he had some sense.
The funniest thing that happened with this lack of good decision making skills involved going grocery shopping. We were out of vegetables. I decided I’d look after my fam and head to the store and stock up. Off I went. I grabbed a cart, and went for a tour down the aisles. I filled it with all my fave gluten free snacks and treats I hadn’t been able to eat while my appetite was so poor. I felt free. The last place I went to was the produce section, choosing a variety of delectable items (it was nearing the fall harvest season). With a smile on my face I checked out and headed home.
Upon arrival, I began to unpack my loot, only to discover I had not brought home the bounty I believed I had selected. Instead, I had one bag of green beans and six zucchini (3 yellow, 3 green). “What the hell?” I asked myself. “Why did I buy so much zucchini?” Zucchini is one of my favourite veggies. But my husband doesn’t really like it cooked all that much, so I would normally try to get a variety of items. But in my ‘lack of decision making skill’ stupor, I just bought all the zucchini I could carry.
This problem eventually resolved itself, but the point of telling this story is that, recovery is a journey. It isn’t going to go smoothly.
Doing the Work is a Pain in the Ass
So, I kept taking my meds. I kept going to therapy. Did I want to do it every day. Absolutely not. But I knew I was getting better, that I had to keep trying.
I wrote in my journals, which helped immensely, but I hated Every. Single. Moment. Of. Doing. It.
I went for walks.
I did breathing exercises.
I meditated. (not my fave)
I petted my dog.
I leaned on my loved ones. (My mother was also a huge support during all of this. Don’t want to forget to mention her.)
I took baths.
I knitted a huge amount of hats.
I bought myself presents.
I wrote positive notes to myself and stuck them to the wall.
I had epiphanies.
I was proud of myself.
I talked. And talked. And talked.
I learned to say no.
I hated myself.
I learned to ask for what I needed.
I tried to vegetables.
I doubted myself.
I took so many vitamins.
I drank water. And tea.
I failed. I had to start over.
I confronted hard things that I hurt my heart.
I listened to the professionals who were trying to help me.
Did I do everything they said? No. I did most of it. I did what felt right for me and what I knew would help.
I can say that I am much better. I am able to function more reasonably through life. I can make better, safer, decisions. I see friends. I talk on the phone.
I still don’t like leaving the house much. If I go out with you, please know, I have planned to use my energy that way on that day. I most likely go home and sleep for hours after I’ve seen you. I like quiet. I like my hermit hole.
I have been able to make strides in my career, holding a workshop, sending my work out to try and get published. I even made a cold call appointment for a job I wanted, a job I invented. I put myself out there. My doctor was surprised and excited for me. That felt good.
But, every day is a decision. I am extremely tired most of the time. I must choose to get out of bed every morning. Some nights, I still have insomnia. I try not to get upset if this happens, and readjust my day so I feel rested. I take listening to my body much more seriously than I did in the past. It’s not perfect. I still am trying to eat my veggies. I need more exercise. But through this, I have discovered I can only tackle one thing at a time. I am better, but not best. According to my therapist, early recovery for depression and anxiety is a year. I am coming up on that mark soon. I wonder how I’ll feel then? For now, I know I have made great strides. I still see my therapist, though I am not going as often. I still take my medication, every day. Even when it’s hard and I don’t want to.
Getting better is work. It doesn’t happen on its own. You must earn it. It is HARD. I hope my story sheds some light for you. A before and after doesn’t really exist. It’s just a before and progress. Up and down. Backward and forward. Imperfect.
Until next time this fat woman is…. battling mental illness and gradually winning.