my anxiety story
I spent years contemplating whether to write this or not, and how to deliver it, whether through writing or a video. In fact, I’ve made videos on it but deleted them because I couldn’t go through with it. I finally feel I’m at a good place where I can talk openly and honestly about my mental health, and I don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed. I wrote this to inspire, promote mental and emotional health, to change the stigma, and for everyone who struggles. Because we all deserve to feel better. I wrote this for you, the reader, and I hope it does you justice.
Anxiety In My Childhood
It was 2006, I was nine years old and just started grade four.
I struggled to go to school, I would cry the nights before and in the mornings. I couldn’t sleep at night and would still be up at midnight. I couldn’t sleepover at friend’s houses, I had mood swings and breakdowns. Lastly, I would literally pull out my eyelashes and eyebrows. Not joking.
In grade five, my parents contacted a psychiatrist to diagnose me and prescribe me an SSRI. I had Generalized Anxiety Disorder and a hair pulling disorder called Trichotillomania. The medication I took in liquid form every morning tasted like mint. Beyond those details, I sadly don’t remember what the name of it was as I was too young to know.
I asked to get off the medication around 13-14, when I started to become more conscious of myself, my body, and what I was putting into it. I also asked to stop seeing my physiatrist because despite all the things that were put in place to help me improve, none of it seemed to be effective enough.
Anxiety In School
To this day I still don’t fully understand why it was so hard for me to go to school and what was triggering my school anxiety. I think that’s the thing with GAD; it’s not one thing you’re worrying about, it’s various unspecified events and scenarios you’re worrying about. Hence the word: generalized.
At the end of grade eight, I really felt left out of the high school transitioning experience. This was a time my anxiety was increasingly being tested. My friends were excited about the upcoming high school year, and I was dreading it. When I received my grade nine courses, I had none of my friends in my classes, which only fuelled my anxiety. There was also a four-day program called High School, Here I Come! that helped new grade nine students adjust to high school. My best friend wanted me to partake, but I was too scared to even consider doing it. I was so scared for the upcoming grade nine year that the summer between grade eight and nine, I spent the entirety of worrying, rather than enjoying myself.
Once the grade nine year showed, I missed the first two weeks because I was so paralyzed to go. I didn’t even go to phys-ed class until the second month into the semester. For my high school transition to be more comfortable, my parents contacted the schools social worker to help me ease into the school. I had my classes rearranged so I’d know someone in each one, had my locker moved across from my sisters, and informed my teachers of my anxiety. Yet, disappointingly, these efforts didn’t last. They got me through grade nine, but when grade ten rolled around, it was a repeat of the previous summer; I was dreading to go and the breakdowns, insomnia, etc. continued. Only this time, what felt like my lifelines, my sister and cousin, were both leaving the school.
Thinking back to then, everything felt so chaotic and noisy. I never felt like I had a break to recuperate, and I didn’t know how to recuperate. I was a vulnerable child who was begging for help in an indirect way, and not receiving that help. I couldn’t help myself and the help I was receiving from others was never enough for me to get past my anxiety. I was completely trapped by my emotions. When you’re born into this world and given these unfamiliar ambiguous emotions, and they’re ragging, and the only people you feel you can turn to are your parents, but even your parents struggle to know what to do or say; you feel completely and utterly helpless. I do want to make it clear my parents did all they could, they went above and beyond for me, and I’m forever grateful for that.
I felt ashamed for having anxiety, for having a social worker tell my teachers to treat me differently because of something I couldn’t control. It made me feel like I stood out in a negative way. I wanted to be treated like every other person, to blend in, and not be defined by my mental health. In a way, I think that’s why so many people are “embarrassed” to talk about their mental health problems, because we don’t want to be labelled as something we’re not, we don’t want to be defined by it, and we don’t want people to judge us just because they may not understand it.
In the end, I made it three weeks into grade 10 before my parents agreed to homeschool me. I had spent the summer trying to persuade the idea, and even wrote them a letter. Thankfully, that letter granted me a ticket to a life of less suffering, and I began my journey of homeschooling the next month – October 2012.
Homeschool – Changing My Life
I think because my suffering hadn’t improved as the years passed, my parents figured it wouldn’t hurt to try homeschooling. I asked my Dad how my anxiety changed when I began homeschooling, and he said it was like I became an entirely different person
I went from this unhappy, life-dreading human, into someone with a new fiery zest for life – like a white light had washed over me and opened me to a new, better, happier phase of my life – which it had!
I don’t recommend homeschooling for everyone, but I can guarantee it most certainly can make an adolescents life easier, especially when they’re struggling mentally. I no longer had breakdowns the nights and mornings before school, no more insomnia, no more anxiety medication, psychiatry visits, self-help books, trichotillomania, fighting with my parents, judgments and pressures of a high school student, skipping classes, presentations, group work, the inner turmoil I would try to fight and control, low marks, locking myself in my bathroom before school. I began to feel “normal.”
It was such a freeing moment in my life and I thank my parents so much for making the decision because I wouldn’t be who I am today without it. I don’t regret not having “the high school experience,” nor will I ever regret it (as I was never interested in it in the first place!). God only knows who I would’ve become staying in high school, and I don’t really care to know.
Homeschooling provided me with an environment where I felt like I could learn and grow in my own time, and in a way that was comfortable for me. When I started homeschooling, I dyed and grew out my hair, began to workout five days a week, began wearing makeup, my eyelashes and eyebrows started growing back (I stopped picking them within two months.), changed my diet and ate surprisingly really healthy (cutting sugar, processed foods, and drinking lots of water. I think I lost 8 pounds in a month. Crazy!).
I was also able to discover who I was and what I wanted to be without the influence of peers and teachers around me. I was able to be independent, in solitude, free, comfortable, and ultimately my authentic self 24/7. Something I never knew I needed, but desperately did. I was like a sponge absorbing all this new wonderfulness in my life. Man I just needed solitude SO BAD and it came at the perfect time (Can you tell I’m introverted? Haha).
I was still dealing with anxiety though. Despite the pros I gained, I still got anxious occasionally, anxiety just wasn’t something I endured on a daily basis like I had when going to school. For example, when I had to meet up with my homeschool teacher to write my exams, it was a nightmare for me. But as the years progressed I began to grow more comfortable with going. And I eventually got to the point where meeting up with him bared no anxiety on me.
Discovering Who I Am Without the Label
Heading into my eleventh year, all these new better things were taking a front seat in my life, and my anxiety was quickly being pushed to a back seat.
In October 2013, I spontaneously bought my first concert ticket. I didn’t even know it would be a concert, I thought it would be a “sit-in” conference-style event, like comic con. When I first entered the venue, nothing about it was what I envisioned it to be. It was open floor, bar off to the side, very grunge-industrial looking.
In the end, I ended up getting lost in a crowd of more than three thousand people screaming all around me. My friend left to go outside, loathing the event. Meanwhile, I was starstruck in absolute glorious amazement standing with all these people, screaming in excitement. Something about it felt so moving and powerful.
This unexpected concert turned into a yearly occurrence. They became an outlet for my anxiety (ironically, considering I’m surrounded by so many people). It was freeing. They provided me with confidence, and a newfound energy I never had before. I no longer only felt comfortable at home, I was able to feel comfortable outside home, and sometimes while being in the same room as 50,000 people. I finally felt apart of something, and I wasn’t divided from people because of my anxiety. I went on to see concerts at Echo Beach, the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre, FirstOntario Centre, Budweiser Gardens, Air Canada Centre, and eventually the Rogers Centre.
I also learned, it’s not being around a ton of people that scares me, it’s being the main focus of all those people. If I can blend in the crowd, I’m fine. But if I have all these people focusing on me, that’s when the anxiety steps in.
Anxiety at my First Job
With my new passion, during summer of 2014, age seventeen, I decided to get a job. This job, I decided, was my final proof my anxiety really was done and over with for good; that I no longer had an anxiety disorder, and I was capable of doing normal human things just like everyone else. I had become an entirely new person, no longer defined by my anxiety, and this was the icing on the cake to seal that fact.
Little did I know, this would be the most debilitating following years of my life. I thought I knew what real anxiety was, until October 2014- summer 2016 happened.
I applied to work at a local Superstore, hoping to work in a quiet department, like cosmetics. Being a cashier was the last department I wanted to work in, so much so I didn’t even checkmark it on the application form. It was out of the question for me. When I got the call, I was offered none other than a cashier job. At the time, I wasn’t even thinking of the consequences. I was in the midst of living the high life (my definition of it at the time at least) and I was desperate for money to feed my some-what compulsive concert spending. So I took the job as cashier, in the busiest superstore in town.
Now when I look back, I wish I had recognized there was something wrong right off the bat. When my parents would drop me off at work, I’d sit in the vehicle for a moment and look at the front doors of the building having to brace myself. It was literally physically painful to step out of the vehicle and enter the building. That same paralyzing wall preventing me from going to class was between me and the front doors of Superstore. Once in, I was on edge all the time.
At the time, I lived in the country, so the drive to work was about fifteen minutes, and every drive I would sit, numb, petrified to enter the doors of that store by myself. I would just sit in the truck needing silence so I could focus on my thoughts and mentally prepare myself. And what made it hard was, I had no self control of my emotions, I still didn’t understand my emotions, and I didn’t know what actions I had to take to manage them. All I’d ever done was run from my them at this point.
Training at superstore went by fast, and I even made a couple friends during it. It was when I was put on the tills my anxiety began to get progressively worse. Four weeks in, I cried to my Mom about how I hated my job, the busy environment, having to be quick, trying to control yourself when you feel out of control, being under-pressure (me and high pressure environments don’t blend well).
I told myself, January 2015 is my goal date. Once I make it to January 2015, I can quit. And the mistake I was making was, I was completely ignoring and neglecting my emotional and mental health. I was so focused on constantly improving, pushing, and proving to myself I didn’t have anxiety anymore, so focused on trying to be comfortable around people and doing things other people were doing, that I didn’t realize I was absolutely destroying myself.
Experiencing Panic Attacks
November 2014 was when the first panic attack set in. I was the last cashier working, and I had a long line of people. I had to use the intercom to get a price deducted on a coat. I avoided it the whole time working there, and it was my first time having to use it, with no way of getting around it. I was so scared, but I figured that anxiousness would just pass once I finished. After hearing my voice echo throughout the store and setting the phone down, I got lost in my emotions.
Derealisation set in first, I began to physically shake, my breathing stopped, hot cold sweats, dizziness, vulnerability, wanting to run but you can’t, feeling like you’re going to cry, go crazy, and die (sounds extreme, but I’m serious. Panic attacks are real!) I didn’t get just two symptoms; I got the whole freaking lot… all at the same time. (One time I had even hyperventilated, thank God it was only once.) I was so lost in the emotion I hadn’t even realized the lady I called was standing behind me. The customer had to catch my attention to tell me she was there.
I knew it was a panic attack because I’d endured a small one previously at home. That night, the panic attack continued until closing time. I would pick up products and they would slip from my hands from the shaking. When I had to open a new roll of quarters, I unthinkingly opened them over the trashcan and had to pick them out. When I got home, I had a breakdown that lasted for hours. I’m talking three to four hours straight of not light weeping, but heavy uncontrollable sobbing.
This was when I had the sad reality check you don’t simply “get rid of” and “cure” anxiety and once you rid of it, it’s gone forever. Anxiety is like every other emotion; it comes and it goes.
This continued every shift until January 17th 2015. After every shift, as soon as I’d come home I’d spend every waking moment worrying about my next shift. Breakdowns became an outlet for the emotional stress the panic attacks put me under. So after every shift, I’d come home and cry. I began to loathe life. I felt miserable. If I wasn’t at work I was at home worrying. It was so hard.
The panic attacks were getting worse because I’d have to stop taking peoples orders, tell them I didn’t feel good, and that I needed a moment to breathe, which yes, was extremely embarrassing for me. I didn’t want to come across as rude, but thankfully the customers were sympathetic. I also started calling over my supervisors to ask to go to the washroom because I “wasn’t feeling good.”
The second week of January, I had off, Monday to Friday, until my next shift on Saturday. I stayed home every single one of these days, agonizing over my Saturday shift. I was so paralyzed I couldn’t do anything but sit at home and worry. I’d become completely consumed by my anxiety and panic attacks. Putting this into perspective, that week I was basically like a volcano, and with every day I worried, it only fuelled and built up within myself, and once Saturday came, that build up exploded.
In the end, I ended up having a panic attack before I even got on my till. I told my supervisor right away I was having a panic attack and rushed upstairs to be by myself. That was the first time I told someone at work about my anxiety. I didn’t want anyone to know about it like in high school. And it wasn’t the people I was scared of. I knew they wouldn’t hurt me. In fact, I’d get regular customers in there I looked forward to seeing.
It was a fear of myself. I was scared the panic attacks would show up during the worst time and I wouldn’t be able to control them. And the work environment and not being aloud to leave my till for hours just made it harder for me (or in other words, I couldn’t hide when my anxiety hit, I had to stay standing there). After being homeschooled, going to concerts, travelling to Toronto, making new friends, discovering a new version of myself and this newfound freedom; I didn’t want to go back to that old version of myself from grade nine. So I suppressed those past hurts, which didn’t help heal me. When I was homeschooled, I never sat down with myself and reflected, treated, and resolved the emotions I was feeling. I just tucked them away into a dark corner. So when I got my job at superstore, they began to resurface, but in the worst way possible.
When I went upstairs, I called my parents and told them everything. I said I needed to come home; I couldn’t go on with anymore shifts. I knew this was the end of my job. My supervisor came to talk to me and I cried in front of her, something I felt ashamed of for a while, but I now forgive myself for. I asked her if I could go home, to which she thankfully agreed. My emotions were too strong to hold in at this point.
I would often beat myself up for it, shamming myself that I cried at my first job, which I now know is so wrong. I didn’t want to be the employee who cries at work and bails without a couple weeks notice. But my mental health was literally on the line, so I had to do what I had to do.
What Resulted of my Mental Health
My parents had to leave a clients house to pick me up. Since they had to return to the clients, I had to sit in the back of the vehicle for the next forty-five minutes by myself, alone with my thoughts of what had just happened. And like I did with all panic attacks, I had a breakdown, but the worst one yet. I said the most horrible things to myself; how I was incapable of this and that, and couldn’t do this. It was horrible. Things I would never say to myself now.
What I learned from that night is, what you tell yourself you become. I’m not kidding; affirmations are legit. It’s something we hear so often it becomes a cliché, but it is SO true! If I could go back to that night and change one thing, it would be to not have had that breakdown and not have said those things I said to myself because within 2 hours I completely destroyed the next 2 years of my life. It only takes one second to destroy something that takes years to repair.
The next morning, I woke up feeling like I was hit by a truck. I felt so miserable. Something inside me had changed in the course of that night, one thing being I now found it incredibly hard to come face to face with people. An example of my misery, one day I slipped on the foot rail of our truck and landed stomach down on our icy and snowy driveway. I was so miserable I just laid there, cheek pressed to ice. I didn’t move, and I just cried lying on the ground till my brother and Dad helped me up (thinking I was knocked out).
After all of this, I was still apprehensive about quitting. Which is insane because I was in no condition to continue. I turned to my Father and asked him what to do. He pointed out the reality of the situation to me; that it was my first job, and I was only seventeen. He said, “if you don’t like it, don’t continue. It’s not worth it.” The next morning, I went in before my shift and quit. My brother came with me because my anxiety was so bad I felt like I couldn’t be on my own.
After quitting work, a lot of changes were happening. My family was in the process of moving from our 45-acre farm we’d lived on for 12 years. We had three buildings on that property we had to move out of (two houses and a shop), and the weekend we moved was the most frigid of the year, reaching -30 degree Celsius temperatures. As well, it was my high school graduating year, only I came to the realization I was done 16 out of 30 courses, and wasn’t close to graduating. I’d decline hanging out with friends because of the condition my mental health was in, and even distanced from a few people.
I had this left over anxiety and panic from work I was dealing with. One example, my family and I were heading out one day, and as soon as I put one foot out the door this feeling of hesitancy, apprehension fell on me. In a way, I was becoming agoraphobic because of my panic attacks. Everywhere I went I felt so sensitive and on edge over having a panic attack, that the only place I felt safe was home. Another time, my best friend asked me to go to the theatre to watch a movie with her, and I panicked in the line up, embarrassing myself once I got to cash because I was stuttering my words and skipping over questions the employee was asking me all to keep down a panic attack. I can remember numerous additional situations I was in the next couple years where I was fighting off panic attacks and extreme anxiety. It was every. single. time. I. went. out. I felt like I couldn’t do anything.
It was hard because a part of me wanted to go out and be around people, but my anxiety was trying to isolate me. Fall 2015, I told my Mom I needed to see a therapist. I was desperate for one because I felt like I couldn’t help myself. I was hanging off a cliff with no arms to pull me up. I couldn’t even imagine a light at the end of the tunnel, let alone see one.
2015 was by far the hardest year I had to endure in my then 18 years of life. An interesting trait of mine that’s still in me today, is I never seem to give up. Even in journal entries, I wrote: “I’ll never let the flames of my life turn me to ash,” and I strongly believe it’s good to be optimistic and determined. I wanted to find the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how dark it was, I wanted to find solutions to my mental health problems, and I wanted to come out victorious and tell my demons I told you so. And I want that for other people because no one deserves to feel this way or any destructive and painful way.
My Journey to Improve my Mental Health
We saw my family doctor in Fall 2015. When I went I could see how bad I had gotten. I couldn’t sit in the doctor’s room without physically shaking, my voice stuttering and shaking, and without acknowledging what physical symptoms were there. I reached a point where I became a pretty serious and overall quiet person. I didn’t know who I was anymore.
My doctor partially diagnosed me with a fear of panic attacks in social situations, which is essentially a cross between panic phobia and social anxiety (she called it “social panic”). I say “partially” because it’s not a definite diagnosis since she’s not a certified psychologist. But I still trust her words considering her over 30 almost 40 years of experience. She showed me a list of psychologists in the area. The only problem was, my Dad is self-employed meaning we’d have to pay out of pocket for each therapy session (and they were expensive!), which made me lose hope over ever getting therapy.
You’re probably wondering, why didn’t you just get medication? Trust me, there were times when I was so desperate I just thought, screw it, I need to go back on medication because there’s no way I can get through this without it. I mean, I could barely function while my parents were taking care of everything for me, let alone me having to be independent, make money, and pay bills myself. But I didn’t want to go back on medication because my emotions would still be out of my control. If it wasn’t my anxiety in control than it would be the meds and I didn’t want that. I wanted to get to the root of it, resolve it, be healthy, and be in the front seat of my life. I was sick and tired of my life being out of my hands.
When December 2015 came, I realized the therapy sessions weren’t gonna happen, and I needed to do something about my life. When January 2016 hit, I went full force into restoring and reinventing myself. After spending all of 2015 reading about anxiety, psychology, the brain structure, self-care, emotional health, etc., I felt I had the knowledge, now I needed to implement it.
I began saving quotes, and one that stuck with me is: “I’m trusting myself not to do an A+ job, but to survive,” by Cynthia Wall. This quote showed me I don’t have to force anything. It showed me I’m allowed to be who I am, make mistakes, and that if I have a panic attack during a social situation, it’s completely okay. This accepting of how things pan out and my emotions made everything in life easier to endure.
Every achievement I had no matter how small, I rewarded myself and gave myself a pat on the back. And that’s one thing I realized, as humans we’re too hard on ourselves, we don’t give ourselves enough credit. I was so busy beating myself up over the fact I had to quit superstore because of my mental health, over me crying at work and not give a two week advance, that I didn’t realize till a year later I achieved my goal of working there until the 1st of January. In fact, I worked there until the 17th. A goal that might seem insignificant to others, but is awesome to me.
Our negative emotions can be so prominent we skip over and completely miss the positives in our lives. You don’t know how many positives you’ve had in your life; they’ve just been blinded by fear or some other negative emotion that’s outshined it. And that’s why perspective can really shape the life around, and why mindfulness helps contribute to perspective. You decide what you want to focus on. It doesn’t always have to be the bad stuff, and if there isn’t any good stuff, make some, it doesn’t matter how small (I get excited just when I see the tomatoes on my tomato plants grow a deeper shade of red!). I think also, because I was at rock bottom, it made it easier for me to get better because I had nowhere else to go than up.
“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.” ~ Dr. Rick Hanson, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom.
The interesting thing about hitting such a low in your life is, you become grateful for the simple things. My anxiety kept me from a lot of things, so I appreciated the small things around me – the blue sky, my garden, home, my books, etc. I’m very grateful for my whole anxiety experience because it put me in an optimistic mentality where just feeling normal felt like the best miracle a person could have. It makes you more appreciative of simple things, like: “Yes! I can walk outside today without needing someone with me! Heck yeah today is so good!” It doesn’t take a lot to make me happy and I owe it to my anxiety for this.
2016 and 2017 were years I spent writing a lot in my journals and getting to know who I was, how I thought, how I felt, to gain trust and build a relationship with myself. I’d write so much, some days I would spend all day writing, from sunrise to sunset. I realized I had absolutely no trust in myself. I didn’t trust myself when I’d go out and whether I’d have a panic attack or not, and I didn’t trust that I could do anything about it if I did have one.
So I went on a personal journey to build a relationship with myself, nurture myself, love myself, and learn to trust myself. I would be brutally honest with myself to face the harsh realities of my life and feelings. I didn’t leave a single stone unturned when it came to my negative emotions from my past and present (I did a literal psychoanalysis of my life over the course of 2 years). I wanted to surface through every single last emotion I had suppressed and rid of all of them until the entirety of my mind and heart were cleaned out with nothing but empty space for me to fill with compassion, love, and positivity. So that’s what I did.
I had spent a lot of my life running from my anxiety wounds. I kept pushing and pushing, and that pushing only led me to knocking over the whole can of gasoline onto the fire. I now realize me trying to prove something is my ego. I realize now, I shouldn’t have to prove anything to myself, and instead I should embrace who I already am. When I quit and was homebound, I could no longer run from my anxiety, and I was being forced to sit in front of it and stare it in the eyes. And this is when I healed. We heal when we find the strength to open our wounds, reach inside, pull out the core of the pain that’s holding us in our pasts, and make peace with it. We need to forgive ourselves, we need to let go of the need to push and prove, and we need to surrender to the hurt, loss, resentment and disappointment. We need to accept the truth and stop running. When you forgive, accept, and surrender, you set yourself free.
My Life and Anxiety Today
After spending all of 2016 and 2017 on the journey of healing myself, it’s now 2018, and I can say I’m in a much better place. The best I’ve been in my life (I felt so much gratitude writing that). I consider myself healthier, happier, improved, and ultimately a better version of myself. I’ve spent so much time with myself, discovered who I am as a person, gained trust with myself. I’ve been on this incredible yet very hard and challenging self-discovery journey and despite the pain I endured, I have no regrets, and I wouldn’t change any part of my life past and present.
If I didn’t go through what I went through I wouldn’t know what I know now, I wouldn’t know what I know about myself, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with myself like I do, I wouldn’t have a strong relationship and trust with myself like I do, and I feel like I’d be someone I wouldn’t want to be. Because of it I know who I want to be, I know my values, and I know my morals. I’m not easily influenced by others to do things I don’t want to do and I’m not pressured to be anyone I know I’m not. I can say no when I feel like the situation won’t benefit me positively, I can say yes when I know it will, I can stand up for myself, and I can be here for myself and have my own back when I need to.
Right now I feel like my life is going in the right direction even though I still get scared, I still get nervous, and sometimes I want to hide away. I’m not gonna beat around the bush and say anxiety no longer gets to me because it does. I’m still human, that’s never gonna change. The help I needed all those years as a child was myself. I needed myself. I wasn’t there for myself, I didn’t know how to be there for myself. Now I do and it’s revolutionary!
So this is my anxiety story, this is what a part of my life has revolved around over the past 10-11 years out of my 20 years of life. Today, I tell myself I have nothing. I don’t put a label to it. When I feel anxious I just feel anxious that day, it doesn’t mean I have a disorder or phobia. You may have been able to relate to some of this, other bits maybe less so. But if I can provide you of any solace in this moment for your mental health, remember this: time heals and our lives are forever changing. Nothing is stagnant. If you don’t change your life, life will change you. Both can be positives, if you allow for them to be.
Lexi Shaw is the writer and editor for the Canadian wellness blog Sailing In The Sun. You can find her at home reading a good book, writing, or snooping in the pantry. Oh! And you can find her on Twitter using the link below. Happy reading! 🙂