(Originally published on January 31, 2018)
It’s Bell Let’s Talk Day today in Canada and, although I’ve struggled with anxiety for over 25 years, I’m finally feeling like it’s okay to talk about my journey. Bringing attention to mental illness is not something that comes easily for me because I’ve often worried about being judged by my anxiety. It’s probably a function of my age (I went to school in the 1900s, as my daughter likes to say) and a function of how others around me have told me to behave and (not) talk about my anxiety. I can’t blame my parents for telling me to keep quiet about my feelings when I was a young adult, when the real effects of having anxiety began to surface for me. It just wasn’t talked about if you wanted people to think you were normal.
So, I talked about my anxiety to my close friends, who were there for me as I dealt with a specific problem. Outside of the situation, we didn’t talk about what was happening in my mind, for two reasons. One, I didn’t really know there was a term for it because I tended to have mainly trigger-based anxiety and, when I wasn’t anxious, I was generally fine. Two, I was too busy to sit down and think a lot about anxiety as a topic and as a treatable illness – I had to finish school, get a job, move on with my life. My friends and I didn’t talk about mental illness as a subject or what I was going to do about my anxiety. We dealt with the current crisis and symptoms, and moved on. As long as I was busy, I could keep my anxiety at bay.
The first memory of my suffering from anxiety happened when I was 10 or 11 and I was engaging in some Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) behavior, mainly around religious icons and learned behaviors related to cultural religious beliefs. One day my dad and brother noticed this and asked me about it. It was one of the first moments I realized what I was doing wasn’t normal. I’ve since learned that OCD behavior linked to religious items can be common and hard to stop because of the guilt associated with religious beliefs. I experienced normal anxiety around school-based activities like papers and exams, but nothing more than that. Social anxiety wasn’t my issue because I love people and I love to talk. When I immigrated to Montreal after university, my anxiety surfaced more strongly because I didn’t know anyone and I had moved to a new city and started a new job in a new language. I missed my family and friends and that was hard. I was depressed for a long time, but not clinically so. I went back to school, met my husband, and the anxiety went away for a bit. Then, I had kids, and the anxiety came back full force.
Becoming a mother sent me into the longest journey I have been on in terms of anxiety, and I’m still on that journey. My anxiety is no longer directly caused by the worry over my kids, although that’s how it started. I felt responsible for two little people in the world and the anxiety manifested itself in trying to control as many situations as I could. Of course, that’s an impossible task. I was constantly avoiding, controlling, detecting, and catastrophizing every single situation. It was exhausting and it took a toll on my family: we didn’t travel before my youngest was 6 because I worried about her getting sick; I wouldn’t want to get on the highway in case we got stuck in a traffic jam and I couldn’t help my kids in the back seat; I didn’t want to get on a plane with or without my kids in case something happened; and, I didn’t like to stay home when my husband traveled because what if I had a panic attack and couldn’t look after my kids.
I needed help. I was lucky enough to find a family doctor at a walk-in clinic that I clicked with. He understood me and helped me feel that a lot of what I was going through was normal and that thinking about situations differently could be key. He sent me to get some help using Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). Our pediatrician, who also saw how anxiety was affecting my kids, referred me to a family practice that treated patients both physically and mentally. My family doctor has been so supportive and understanding of my struggle and we’ve been through a lot together. I got more CBT help and benefitted from talks with a mental health nurse. I found several psychotherapists that understood me. I became open to new ways of looking at my anxiety. I have a toolbox full of different ways to think about my anxiety, the most helpful of which has been the following statement: just because I’m feeling anxious, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong or dangerous about my surroundings. Understanding this is so important, especially when I travel. I learned exercises about how to focus and listen to the physical changes that my body goes through when I’m anxious. Those have been especially helpful because I can focus attention away from my thoughts, even if for a few minutes. I read a ton of books and articles, and I work on my anxiety every day. I’m not going to lie. It’s still there on a daily basis, but the more I learn about anxiety and myself, the better the quality of my life is. There’s a lot of self-talk going on.
In the past five to ten years, the conversation around mental health has really opened up. Schools are talking about it (in Canada, jack.org has worked hard to raise awareness through school-specific chapters), statistics are making headlines, celebrities are sharing their struggles, and corporations are trying to understand how to make sure their employees have the support systems they need. There’s so much to talk about because each story is different. There’s so much to be done and shared, like educating employers, parents, teachers, friends, and family. When you suffer from anxiety, it’s all you’re thinking about. When you don’t suffer from it and don’t have someone close to you suffering from it, it’s so hard to understand what someone else is going through. You can’t see inside someone’s mind to see the mental anguish. Even if you could, every person’s struggle is so different, every person talks about it differently, and every person deals with it differently.
Over the years, though, I’ve noticed three things about my anxiety that haven’t changed. The first is that no two stories are the same, ever. They’re as unique as we are as individuals. I can share my story with someone else, but I can’t tell someone what to do. I can talk about what causes my anxiety and what works for me, if someone’s interested in hearing my experience; otherwise, listening is best. The second is that my anxiety has changed over time. I used to be more anxious about some things that don’t bother me anymore, and that gives me hope. And, the final thing I’ve noticed is that it’s okay to talk about mental health and what others are doing to be healthy. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. With one in five people in Canada experiencing mental health issues in any given year, it’s becoming increasingly acceptable to share our individual journeys, without judgment.
With time, I’ve matured and become more comfortable with who I am as a person. I’ve accepted that being anxious is only a small part of who I am. It doesn’t have to define my whole existence. The closest people to me clearly accepted this long before I did. This includes my husband and kids, my parents and brothers, my cousin, and my closest friends, all of whom are my biggest supporters. I’m so grateful. Having a public conversation around anxiety has helped make it less of a stigma. People understand a bit more. Or, at least, they understand that they don’t understand, and that’s a big a-ha moment for both the sufferer and those around her. It’s not always about empathy. It’s about sympathy and understanding that someone is unwell. And, I think more people are getting that. When we understand more about each other’s struggles and accept that they exist, then we can support each other and move forward as a healthier, productive, and more united community. That’s what makes us human.
Please let me know if you’d like to hear more about my anxiety journey because there’s a lot for me to say!
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