Updated: Aug 13, 2021
For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with anxiety. It began long before I even knew what it was—when my hand would tingle and sweat the second I raised it to answer a question in grade three, the nauseous swirl in my stomach whenever I found myself in an unfamiliar situation, the heart palpitations that would come up seemingly out of nowhere on my daily bus rides to university. I thought it was normal to be so apprehensive and nervous, and when I realized that it wasn't, I was equally as relieved as I was ashamed. Relieved, because that meant I didn't have to spend my whole life this way, that I could get help and make my mind a peaceful place to be. Ashamed, because I thought that meant there was something wrong with me, that I couldn’t function in the world the way I was supposed to.
My anxiety comes in waves as I go through different phases of life. Naturally, everyone gets a little nervous at the start of a new school year or on the first day of a new job, but there would be weeks, even months, when I would wake up every single morning with a pit in my stomach. When the moment I opened my eyes, this feeling of unease twirled inside me in anticipation of the day ahead. When I couldn’t even drink my morning coffee—and this was always the highlight of my day—because the caffeine turned my manageable anxiety into an all-consuming monster. It was awful, but I didn’t know any different. I got so used to it that I thought that was just the way I was; some people get to be happy and relaxed all the time, and I was just wired to be sad and on edge.
The fun thing about mental health issues is they can come in bundles. It’s such a treat that you can have so many problems at once! From my anxiety stemmed a handful of OCD tendencies. I’ve never been diagnosed with OCD, but I’m pretty sure it's not normal to knock on wood every time you think about something bad happening to a loved one or to repetitively check around your room before you can go to sleep.
In my third year of university, I finally went to the free on-campus therapy services, thanks to some wonderful friends who gently informed me that compulsively checking and re-checking every corner of my room every night was hindering my wellbeing. (It didn’t help that the Ted Bundy documentary had just come out and my usual fear of being abducted in my sleep had accelerated exponentially). Unfortunately, I didn’t have the greatest experience with the school counselling services, and after two not-so-helpful sessions, I didn’t go back. Instead, I went back to pretending like my issues were normal, until last summer, when I came to a breaking point.
After an exhausting string of weeks of waking up in an unexplainable anxious nausea, and many evenings spent crying at the thought of my sure-to-be-doomed future, I knew I needed to seek help. What I really wanted was someone to talk to. Not a friend or family member, but a therapist who wouldn’t judge me and could maybe actually help. I went to my doctor, hoping that if I could get a referral therapy wouldn’t be so expensive. It turns out medication is cheaper than counselling, so I went the route that was best for my bank account. My doctor explained that paying for therapy would probably be the best money I ever spent, but for a new grad with a low-paying part-time job and a bucketful of student loans, I couldn’t fathom spending thousands of dollars to talk to someone about my feelings. (I mean, my boyfriend does it for free!) I think that’s a flaw in our healthcare system, but that’s a can of worms for another day.
Long story short, I started on a low-dose anti-depressant meant to ease my anxious brain. I only lasted on it for about three months before deciding that it wasn’t for me. To be fair, I was also in a much better place in my life at that three-month mark. I had decided to go back to school to get my teaching degree, and for once I felt like my life was on track towards a future that I could actually imagine. As an anxious person who lives in the future, that was where most of my worries lay. What was I doing with my life? Would I ever get a real job? (COVID obviously didn’t make the stress of being a new grad any easier.) Would I ever pay off my student debt and afford to move out? There were a million worrying thoughts brewing in my mind at all times, and it had taken its toll. But as September rolled around and I started my education degree, my mind had come to peace with the fact that my whole entire life might not, in fact, be completely doomed. Shocker!
I wish I could tie this up with a bright, shiny bow and tell you that I figured it out all out and that my anxiety has completely subsided, but that would be a lie. I’ve definitely come a long way and can now recognize when I’m catastophizing and letting my anxious thoughts run wild. I’m also aware that my obsessive compulsions interfere with my life and make my anxieties fester. I still need to speak to a therapist and work on myself, and maybe that will be a lifelong process. I don’t expect a pill or a shrink to cure my issues once and for all, but I know it can help. I guess the purpose of this post isn't to share some hope-restoring success story but rather to be open and vulnerable about my own struggles with mental health so it’s not such a taboo topic. It’s just to say that everyone has their battles. Everyone has something they struggle with and most times we don’t see it.
I would often compare myself to other people--the version of themselves that they choose to show the world--and think that they were all happy and didn’t worry about any of the things I worried about. I told my boyfriend this one night and his response, so simple and seemingly obvious, took me aback. He said, “Tal, don’t you realize that’s how other people see you too?”. It had never occurred to me that people around me, who only saw what I let them see, would have no reason to think I was an anxious mess. They would have no reason to think I woke up that morning with a pit in my stomach, that I cried on my way home from work, or that I couldn’t stop myself from knocking on wood every time I had a perturbing thought about someone I love. I’ll be the first to admit that last one sounds kind of hilarious, and I’ll laugh at myself knowing, logically, that my knocking or not knocking will have absolutely no effect on the safety and health of the people I love. But my mind makes me do it anyway. It’s not supposed to make sense; it’s an illness. So when people see me at a party (throwback to being unmasked less than two feet apart from strangers), they don’t see what I’m struggling with. They don’t see the days leading up to that moment. All they see is a happy girl who is always laughing and always smiling. So when I see someone who seems so confident, so secure, so unconcerned with dreadful thoughts about their future... I’m making that all up in my head. I’m comparing the happy, laughing, smiling version of her to the anxious, crying, worrying version of me. We have no idea what other people are going through, and comparing our worst days to someone’s best days is the least productive thing we can do.
Writing this out makes me realize how much I deserve healing. How much I deserve to be free from this anxious pattern that I’ve spent countless years of my life suffering through. We all deserve to live in healthy minds. Whatever it is you are going through, you are not alone. I mean, look at me! I check under my bed like three times before I can go to sleep and take the phrase “knock on wood” so literally that I am convinced I have the power to hurt someone. Y’ALL. That’s whack. But it’s so real for me. And it’s hard. It's so damn hard. I don’t think we should take talking about mental health so seriously. We should talk about it openly, like you would about breaking a bone or having a heart condition. I can joke about it, I can see how ridiculous most of my worries are, but at the end of the day, they’re still my worries, and they still have a power over me that I’ve yet to master. But I know now that there are so many resources out there and people who care. And this road may be long, but it’s certainly not one I have to walk alone. None of us do. This road is crowded, but most of us are hiding in the shadow, afraid of what would happen if we opened up. Afraid of looking weak or being told to just "cheer up." So let's break the stigma — talk to people you trust, talk to your doctor, talk to a therapist (I need to take my own advice), and don’t feel any shame about it. I don’t have to live like this. You don’t have to live like this. We’re going to be okay. And I’m going to keep laughing along the way, even if I’m laughing at my own damn self.