Ever since I can remember I have struggled with some type of anxiety. Not just common every day fears and worries, but worries that made it hard to focus on my day-to-day life- worries that left me with stomachaches and headaches. Although when I was young these worries never occurred to me as being a true “mental health disorder”, in most part because I had no idea what a mental health problem was, they were there, and they sucked.
I vividly remember sitting home on Friday nights; waiting for my dad to get home from his pigeon club meetings (yes, my dad races pigeons, Google it). He was almost always later than he said he was going to be, usually by at least an hour. Had I been able to think rationally, I suppose I would have noticed this pattern and realized my dad is not the best at punctuality. Instead I would sit up, waiting, way past my bedtime, for my dad to come home. I was not just a young girl missing her father; I physically could not sleep without assuring he was home safe. I remember the horrible possibilities my brain would jump to, that he’d been in a car accident, that he was dead, such morbid, scary thoughts for a young girl of nine or ten. I remember the upset tummies I would get and how I’d crawl into bed with my mom, explaining how I couldn’t sleep. It was only when I heard my dad walk in the front doors that it would feel as though a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I could finally sleep.
As frightening and emotionally upsetting as those Friday nights were, this very thing would happen pretty much daily. It happened as I waited for my dad to return from work or when my mom was working late night shifts at work. I could not shake those feelings of unease; I needed to know they were safe. Eventually my worries began to take on new forms, I began to become a bit of a hypochondriac, worrying I would contract just about any life threatening disease. I would hardly consider myself to have been a “germa-phobe” but I recall being absolutely terrified of contracting any disease I learned about. These fears haven’t exactly gone away, they are much less prominent now, but once again, my fears began to take on other forms.
In about grade seven I began to develop a fear of not being able to breath. This fear is a little tricky to explain, but the best I can do is that as I’m trying to fall asleep my brain tries to tell me that I have to remember to breath, that I must make myself breath. Once I get this idea in my head I remain up for hours forcing myself to yawn in order to get the air I think I need. Naturally when I told my parents about this feeling they took me to the doctors. Around grade eight was the first time I was truly introduced to the word “anxiety”. As I explained this breathing issue to my doctor and as she questioned me about my nail biting and my constant “picking at myself” she suggested that perhaps I might be experience some for of an anxiety disorder. At this point in time I was referred to a psychiatrist. I believe it took about a year for me to finally get an appointment with said therapist.
When I did finally meet with my first psychiatrist he explained to me what anxiety was as an illness. He informed me I was showing a lot of the symptoms. This at least shed some light as to what I was going through. However, he then proceeded to inform me that my fears were irrational and “all in my head”. I never once remember him telling me that it wasn’t my fault I was feeling the way I was, or that this was a disease I couldn’t control. The message I got from him was that I needed to just stop thinking the way I was. That or I needed to go on medication. My mother advocated against medication- a decision that I feel was best for me at the time- and instead I was referred to the child and adolescent youth mental health outpatient program at the hospital. Once again, this took some months for me to be seen. At this point I had just started grade 10. I began to take part in a weekly group for children with anxiety.
The group helped me in some ways. It helped me to understand more about why anxiety made me feel the way that it did, and it taught me some positive coping strategies to deal with it. One thing I did struggle with though was the other kids. They were all very nice, and I looked forward to seeing them each week, but being that my anxiety always showed itself most in my worry for others, listening to the others stories made me want to help them more than myself. The group ended after a few months and at that time I began some one on one therapy. I absolutely loved my therapist and it was nice to have someone to talk to. At that time I was involved in my first serious relationship, which unfortunately, was filled with a lot of ups and downs. For the first time my anxiety was concerning itself with losing somebody not related to me. I had horrible fears of him leaving me, to the point where I was having trouble eating. The relationship did eventually end and I don’t remember exactly why, but I eventually stopped attending the therapy sessions.
For about a year and a half period after I stopped attending therapy there was not a significant amount of upset in my life. I continued to have the occasional sleepless night worrying about my breathing abilities, but other than that life was pretty good. This went on until the start of grade 12. I had just returned from a summer school program in Quebec, which was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and yet for some reason I fell into a pretty bad depression. For the first time in my life there was almost no anxiety, no worry at all. I didn’t want to get up in the morning, I didn’t do my homework, I started skipping class. This was all very new to me, because even in my worse stages of anxiety I had never felt this sad. I cannot explain with certainty why I began feeling this way, it may have been me missing Quebec, the stresses of senior year, or simply that the chemical balances in my brain decided to get all out of whack. It got to a point where I would cry, for absolutely no apparent reason. Where I would have to force myself to go out with friends and would immediately want to go home once I was there.
One night after about 2 months of living like this I finally broke down. I was lying in bed and I just started crying uncontrollably. I called for my mom to come see me. She was very confused, and naturally worried. All I really remember saying to her was repeating over and over that “I can’t do this, I’m sad all the time”. My mom sat with me, and my dad joined. They talked to me and tried their best to console me. The next day my mom called my therapist and set up an appointment. At my meeting with my therapist we established that I was evidently experiencing an episode of depression. We discussed the possibility of medication and given my state my mother, therapist, and I decided it might be beneficial. I have now been on my medication for almost a year. I am in my first year of university pursuing my bachelor of science in biochemistry. I am doing well, not perfect, but well. Over the years I have learned that there is no overnight fix for a mental illness. I will continue to have ups and downs, but that is all a part of the journey. I am slowly beginning to be comfortable with sharing this story and realizing that my mental illnesses do not define me and they are not my fault. I would love to be able to just turn off my worries and the sometimes debilitating sadness I experience, but I know it is something I have to work towards. I am so very grateful for the wonderful support team I have, and I know they will always be there. I wrote this post in hopes of giving people a glimpse at what growing up with mental illness is like. I want to make it seem more relatable, not something “other people” have, but something that one of your friends, or even yourself, may encounter. Mental illnesses are scary, they are serious, but there is help and there is hope. If you or someone you know is going through a tough time, do not be afraid to ask for help.