My Struggle with Anxiety and Depression Has Been My Greatest Gift
Listen to Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan read this story:
I liked to believe, growing up, that I was well prepared for my inevitable struggle with anxiety and depression. These conditions run rampant in my family, with members getting hit the hardest in their twenties and thirties, most having to resort to medication and/or therapy.
A quick spell of deep depression hit me at fifteen years old, somewhat throwing me off guard. I mean, genetically, this wasn’t supposed to happen until I was older. I stayed in my room, feeling hopeless about nothing and everything, nauseous at the thought of food and helpless amidst the depth of this black hole. Fortunately, an impromptu trip helped me realize everything I had to be grateful for back home and, just like that, I was back to normal. If only all spells were broken that easily.
Six years later, my life seemed to be going according to plan, with no sign of anxiety or depression. I had successfully purchased my own home at nineteen and a second at twenty with a man I thought would be in my life forever until he changed, taking his toll on me, just a few months after moving in together.
So, here I was at the age of twenty-two, unbeknownst to me, signs of early anxiety starting with frequent flutters of my heart at the base of my throat, feeling as though the muscle that kept me alive was having second thoughts, skipping a few beats here and there, only to start back up with a noticeable thump.
I had just emerged from the toxic relationship I entered into a few years prior, one filled with mental abuse, invisible to an onlooker until the physical symptoms began to appear. By the time my once confident presence shriveled up into an apologetic shell of what I once was, the damage had been done. My self-confidence was stripped. I no longer felt I deserved anything good from life, having constantly been told I was inconsiderate and shameful.
It wasn’t until I became pregnant did the courage I needed to leave present itself. Even though I felt I didn’t deserve any better, I knew intrinsically that my unborn child did. I was not about to predetermine their life with a childhood steeped in unhealthy behaviours; I needed to be strong enough to try and surround them with examples of healthy relationships.
For a long time, I struggled, fighting for my child while knowing that my ex was using my love for my son as a bargaining chip to achieve a financial win. I stayed calm, calculating every move weeks before I made it, eventually giving him the house we shared and giving up the life I built, for sole custody and all the debt from the relationship.
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Emerging in financial ruin, I finally felt relief. True to character, I never heard from my ex again, since taking the debt from him. Through the struggle, I happened to meet the man who would become my husband. He adopted my first-born and gave me another son to complete the picture of a perfect family.
I thought that was it; that, if I made it through a legal battle and all the stress of possibly losing my son, I had escaped the shadow of imminent depression looming over me.
Unfortunately, that was not the case. Following maternity leave, after my second child, going back to work reminded me of the fear I felt after having my first. The feelings I embodied from the mental abuse resurfacing, as I never truly dealt with them. I did not deserve anything good; something bad was going to happen.
This was when the anxiety attacks began. At first, I mistook what was happening to me for food poisoning, an intense wave of nausea would flow through my body, my stomach feeling as though it were twisting in the iron grip of a vice, tightening in pain no matter my efforts for relief. Sticking with my time-tested tactic of ignoring the problem, I took to barely eating, as a way to ease my mind with the knowledge there was nothing in my body to cause such symptoms.
Eventually, the panic attacks evolved. Out of nowhere, I would feel a rush of fear race through my veins. Every hair on my body stood on end as the simplest brush of clothing over my skin would make me shudder, a fleeting memory of an unwanted caress from the past. A cold heat crawled up my arms and neck, the feeling of damp sweat, nonexistent to the touch, sticking to my shirt.
I felt manic, everything around me looked brighter, sounds were louder and touch overwhelming. Acutely aware of every detail surrounding me, I could explain everything that was happening with the simultaneous inability to understand it myself. I choked on the air I breathed, struggling for a deep breath in an effort to calm my nerves.
I needed to run, not from my environment, but from my body. My mind was separated from my being, unable to comprehend my next move or understand what I needed to do. I felt as though I had to save myself, and everyone around me, but from what?
As the attacks continued more frequently, eventually, my whole world became a series of calculated risks, determining what I could and could not do for fear of another episode. I could no longer go out for a simple dinner with my husband, or take my children to a movie. My life had changed drastically; leaving the house became a trigger, ultimately evolving me into a master at shirking social obligations.
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Upon events I could not avoid, I would find myself immediately creating contingency plans in the event of an anxiety attack. Instead of enjoying my time in public, I would evaluate my position, pinpointing the nearest bathroom, exit, and types of people surrounding me. Would anyone notice if I just left?
Through my limitations from anxiety, my depression became apparent. I would feel hopeless, motivated for change but unsure what change was needed. I found myself questioning my choices in life. Did I marry the right man? Should I have had children? Do I hate my life or am I just a stranger in it?
These thoughts, sparking guilt, were simply a way to cope with this unexplainable darkness I felt inside. Days passed in this coma of regret and despair, my children were growing up, their mother absent from the world around her. I knew I needed to seek help, my father being the starting point.
Depression, stemming from my father’s side, was something my dad has lived with his entire life, while witnessing other family members experience the same. Growing up, we frequently spoke about what anxiety and depression was like, how it affected people and who in the family was going through the struggle for the first time. It was such a common occurrence, I knew he would have the best insight to help me start my recovery.
I remember sitting with him in the basement of my parents’ home, the leather couch cold on my skin, my body uncontrollably shaking, not from the cold, but from the anticipation of what I was about to say. I was nervous about what would come next, I wanted to be able to work through this time in my life without medication, if possible, but I wasn’t sure if that was realistic as most of the affected in my family had to take that route.
Upon opening up to him about my struggle, his advice was simple. “Just accept it, this is a part of you and always will be. Let yourself feel it, but don’t feel sorry for yourself or blame it for your misfortunes. Instead, use it to your advantage, as a motivator to do things many people wouldn’t and you will open up a world of possibilities for yourself that most miss out on.”
This was an awakening for me, I became a victim of my condition and that only helped to keep me in this empty void that had become my existence. I was determined to embrace my reality and learn to live with it. With the support of my parents and bi-weekly discussions on my progress with my father, I had the foundation I needed to begin my journey to a life of controlling my anxiety and depression.
Slowly, I began doing things that sparked my anxiety, going into every situation with the realization those around me could not tell whether I had anxiety or not. What seemed like a storm of destruction going on in my mind was invisible to anyone else. Even if it weren’t, even if I embarrassed myself, I had to stop caring. Anything that happened could be fixed, and if not, chances are I wouldn’t see these strangers again.
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I learned to ride the waves of anxiety, knowing I had already experienced this many times before and survived. The less I feared what it may cause, the more I began to look at my anxiety as a silent companion. Whenever I would start to feel it, I accepted it and let it happen. Unafraid of what I would feel, I started to do more, with less anxiety.
Alongside the control of my anxiety, came the dissipation of my depression. Having achieved my goal of avoiding medication, I was able to work hard to discover my cure was to do more, always strive for better and never accept defeat from an unexpected relapse. I began to set goals for myself, constantly on the move, as to be idle, was to invite those unwanted feelings back in.
Although I never went to a doctor about my struggle, I was always open to that option if my stubborn approach to finding a way to train my mind on my own did not turn out well. Under the watch of my father checking in, I knew he would tell me if it were time to go the route of medical intervention.
Now, at twenty-six years old, I have opened that world of possibilities my father spoke of, running at it head on to achieve great things with an air of confidence I have never felt before. My condition has become a gift, a motivator. Whenever I feel a hint of relapse, I take it as a sign to start something new. Sometimes, I know what I need to do, other times I don’t, regardless, just simply moving and doing something each day that makes me feel good has always led me to an answer, eventually.
My relationship with my father has since grown over the years due to the honesty we have shared with each other about our individual struggles, always supporting one another toward a better existence while living with the threat of anxiety and depression. My husband, aware of my struggle, pushes me to keep busy if he ever notices changes in my behaviour, such as a lack of motivation or unremitting sadness, as he recognizes them as signs of me falling back into my past struggles.
I plan to be open with my children about my past with anxiety and depression, as well as the family history that may affect them in the future. At three and five, they are too young to understand it at the moment, however, growing up with the knowledge that it may happen to them and is nothing to be ashamed of gives me hope they will seek help, just as I did, if they ever needed it.
Meeting goals halfway and thinking my life was “good enough” is no longer an option for me. I now possess something that illuminates my life and all the potential within it, something that pushes me towards a path designed for me, opening up opportunities that would never have existed if it weren’t for my struggle with mental health; and I have never been happier.