Three years ago I wrote a blog post called I don’t want things to be like this anymore which chronicled some of my experiences with anxiety. Three years seems like a lifetime ago and lots of things have changed since then. I’ve mentioned in passing that my issues with anxiety have improved a lot over the past 1.5 years, but I haven’t told the whole story of how I got from point A (crippling anxiety) to point B (feeling like I can function without losing my shit) So, today I’m going to re-tell the story I told you three years ago, only this time it has a different, much happier ending.
Let me start off by saying this: I have an anxiety disorder. There, I said it. The secret is out.
Although it’s easy to talk about now, it took me a long time to own up to the fact that I had anxiety issues and get properly diagnosed – 31 years to be exact. When I first wrote about my struggles with anxiety, the story I told myself was that it was a “bedtime thing” because that was the time of day when my anxiety often felt the strongest. However, looking back I now can see that my anxiety was really a “all the time thing” – one that I had been struggling with for most of my life. The funny thing is that when you feel anxious all the time, that becomes your “normal” and it’s only when things get really out of control that you’re like, “hey, something is going on here!” That was the exact point I was at when I wrote that initial post. I knew something was up with my body and I wanted it to stop.
To give you some background, I was a very energetic, creative kid – so much so, that I never wanted to sleep. My Mom used to always tell me, “Simone, you just can’t seem to let the day go!” whenever I’d have a hard time settling down, which was almost always – bedtimes were never my forte. The idea of sleep – of losing control of my body, of slipping into an unconscious state – scared the shit out of me as a child. Many nights I would lie awake in bed fearing that moment of letting go. I’d figure out a million reasons to get up out of bed: another glass of water, another 5 trips to the bathroom, did I remember to brush my teeth?! However, what I didn’t mention before is how out of control the repetitive behaviour became sometimes. I wouldn’t get up to use the bathroom 5 times, I’d actually get up 30 times. As a child I spent many nights with my heart pounding, doing the same things over and over, feeling like I was unable to fully control my actions. Although I felt ashamed and like something was wrong with me, I was able to hide it well. It wasn’t until last year, when I shared the things I’ve just described with my Mom, that she fully understood how bad things were for me at that time.
My anxiety continued on into my teenage years and my adult life. It would ebb and flow, sometimes more severe than others – however, when it was bad, it was really, really bad. There would be nights when I would just lie awake all night, not sleeping, feeling like my heart and mind were racing. Not being able to calm down and sleep is one of the most frustrating things ever. Sometimes it got so bad that it would feel like I couldn’t breathe and my then-boyfriend (bless his heart) would have to wrap his arms around me so I would stop shaking. When these anxiety attacks would happen, I would cry, so completely frustrated by the fact that no matter what I did, it still felt like every neurone in my body was firing all at the same time and like a tiny miniature football team was playing a never ending Superbowl game in my brain. It sucked.
At the time though, I tried to cope in the best way that I could. Usually this meant reaching for some Benadryl, NyQuil or muscle relaxants – anything that might produce drowsiness – at bed time. In extreme cases, I’d wash it down with a night-cap of Pinot Grigio – all habits I realize are not exactly healthy.
When I wrote that first blog post about my anxiety, I knew something had to give yet, part of me was scared – scared of what I might unearth if I went to therapy, scared of how medication might affect me, scared that I might do all of those things and nothing would change. As I mentioned before, we tell ourselves stories about our lives. For years I had been telling myself, “I’m just naturally anxious. I’ll always be the person who has trouble sleeping. This is just my personality. It sucks, but I’m just going to have to suffer through this for the rest of my life.” Repeat any story to yourself enough and you start to believe it. However, knowing what I know now, I’d love to go back and tell myself:
“Simone, you don’t want things to be like this anymore…and guess what they don’t have to be!”
Although I wrote that post in January of 2010, it wasn’t until November of 2011 that I finally decided to take action and seek help for my anxiety issues. I had just gone through a heartbreaking breakup and after 30+ years of feeling anxious all the time I was exhausted. When it came to dealing with my anxiety, it was either now or never. As I’ve mentioned before, when I came home to BC following the big breakup I started seeing a counsellor which helped tremendously. However, the piece of the story that I haven’t shared on the blog until now is that I also started taking medication for my anxiety. And you know what?! The combo of counselling + medication have changed my life for the better in ways that I could never imagined.
Initially I was really nervous to try any kind of medication because I was afraid they might somehow change my personality. When I expressed my concerns to a good friend of mine, she asked me: “Do I seem any different?! I take it for anxiety issues very similar to yours and it’s helped me so much.” This was all the reassurance I needed.
I was really lucky that I found a medication that works great for me on the first try. I know this isn’t always the case, nor is taking medication for everyone. All I can really comment on is how it has helped me personally. Within a week or so of starting to take brain drugs, I noticed some pretty startling changes: I felt a lot less anxious, I was sleeping normally and I could actually concentrate on my work. As for those repetitive OCD behaviours, as time went on, I just forgot to do them anymore. As much as I thought my anxiety was just a night-time thing, once it started to go away I realized how much it had affected all areas of my life. My anxiety had been impeding my concentration and ability to get things done, leaving me feeling “stuck” and depressed. The funny thing is, I didn’t even realize I was depressed until I wasn’t anymore.
However, keep in mind that medication is not a bandaid solution. I needed the brain drugs to slow my mind down enough so I could actually sit down with a counsellor, work through my issues & figure out why I was so anxious in the first place. I don’t think one would have worked for me without the other. Working out regularly and trying to eat a healthy, gluten free diet has also helped a lot too.
Your mental health should be prioritized. However, unfortunately the tools we have to help ourselves – medication, therapy – still hold their share of stigma in society. This makes me sad, because I look at the decision to get help as one of the best gifts I’ve ever given myself. I’m not happy all the time, I still have things I need to work on, but medication has helped clear the static in my head, allowing me to breathe a little easier and get shit done.
I remember one particularly awesome day this past winter when I was really starting to feel better (“I can concentrate! I don’t feel like crying! The sky is a really, really pretty shade of blue!”), I said to my Mom:
“Mom, it feels like my brain is finally getting the vacation it deserves”
“That’s good dear. You needed that”
We all need that. Whether you’re dealing with anxiety, depression or something else entirely – we all deserve to feel better. For anyone who has ever said “I don’t want things to be like this anymore” I’m here to tell you that they don’t have to be. Whatever route you decide to take, your story is yours to change.
It’s all about taking that first step.