Playing Hide and Seek with a Demon: My Struggle with Anxiety
I don’t know when it started. It was not as though I suddenly woke up with a raging heartbeat and butterflies in my stomach, wishing I could run away from myself. It came in tiny bits of worry. I felt confused by this new set of emotions, but I thought it would go away. Of course, the feelings did not end and I knew I wasn’t supposed to feel this way. I wanted to understand where the feelings were coming from but I didn’t I couldn’t bring myself to investigate them. Thus, I experienced many years of wrestling with an unknown demon: anxiety.
Sometimes, during dinner with family, a simple thought crossing my mind would send my heart on a crazy ride; this was before my anxiety started to have direct triggers. Eventually, I recognized that my anxiety was attached to specific situations, like socializing. My energy was consumed by trying to stop my anxiety. I’d hold my breath and give myself a pep-talk inside my mind, “You are worried about something that no one else is worried about, worrying isn’t going to help you; you will be just fine. Breathe, say a prayer and it will all go away.” I thought I could fix my problems by just snapping out of these modes of thinking. In reality this just made the attacks worse.
I couldn’t sleep. I thought it was insomnia. Doctors asked me what I thought about while lying awake at night, and I said, “Nothing.” Truthfully, I was worried for my life, but I could not put these fears to words. I lay awake thinking that, one day, I would not be able to wake up and face the day. I lay awake thinking about how strange it was that I couldn’t sleep while everyone else could. I thought, “I am failing, I don’t have what it takes to be here, on Earth.” But I couldn’t speak these thoughts aloud to the doctors.
My anxiety made it so that I could not even close my eyes and rest. I tossed and turned and wished to see the morning come so the scary sounds of the night would be replaced by people. Social situations made me anxious, yes, but when I could get myself to go to class or chat with a neighbor, it was such a relief to exist for a little while, in a world that had more characters, other than me, and where I wasn’t alone with my demons.
My whole life became worry. I felt scared to talk to people, scared to go to church, scared to go to parties, scared of visitors showing up at the house—things that used to bring me solace. I didn’t want to be part of any aspect of my life, it all felt so unsafe. I anticipated worst case scenarios. Embarrassing myself at a party. Falling in front of everyone. In the morning on a Sunday I would tell myself that I would go to church in the evening. I said to myself that I would go no matter what and, as the clock neared four p.m., I was consumed by thoughts that there was something out there, even though I couldn’t name it.
And then, just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, I started medical school and my anxiety progressed to new heights. I remember my alarm going off around at four p.m., I had set it to wake up and study for my test. When it went off I felt as though I had been paralysed in my bed, my anxiety told me I could never pass my test. I couldn’t even bring myself to study because my anxiety told me I would fail, no matter what. My fears became so firm that I believed them as concrete facts. The days were long and full of tasks to accomplish. I was so tired. Yet when I tried to sleep my heart would beat like a drum that wanted to rip my chest in two.
Worry brought more worry and I was getting scared of my emotional state. I was a stranger in my body. I had no coping methods. I couldn’t talk to anyone about what happened. When I told the doctor that it felt as though my heart was racing, he did a test but found that nothing was wrong. He told me to go home and relax.
I couldn’t bring myself to confide in anyone. I was afraid of being judged. I was afraid no one would be able to understand what I was going through. It all felt too complicated and impossible to explain to anyone else. I was convinced there was no way that I could be helped.
When I finally let go, I learned to listen to another voice, other than the voice of my anxiety. This was the voice of a friend. I had reached out to her online and, though I didn’t know it at the time, she happened to be a therapist. I confided in her and, surprisingly, she didn’t tell me to “get over it.” She told me that it wasn’t my fault, that I didn’t deserve to feel this way. She said there was a way to make things get better. I kept talking with her and tried to do some of the things she suggested, like being kinder to myself, exercising and writing. Her ideas helped some, but she urged me to find a therapist in Rwanda to talk to.
Mental health resources are very limited in my country. After a long search, I found a therapist with whom I felt comfortable. In Rwanda, we don’t talk about mental health; it’s taboo. Our culture condemns those who dare to feel, or to say what they feel. When I started going to the hospital to meet with my therapist, I was certain that, if I ran into anyone I knew, they would think I had lost my mind, that I had become the illness and that there was no me after that. I couldn’t tell anyone that I was speaking with someone to help fix my mind. Being a person with mental illness is incredibly shameful in my community. It isn’t recognized as a health issue and doesn’t get the same acknowledgement that a disease like malaria receives, no matter how debilitating mental illness can be. Our traditions and culture teach strength and resilience, and mental illness is seen as a contradiction to this—a flaw or defect, something shameful to be hidden. Mental illness is a reality the African culture repeatedly rejects.
Thus, going to meet with my therapist was incredibly difficult. However, I recognized I had to find help or I may lose my life completely. Something inside of me chose life, no matter what it would take. Where that strength came from I don’t know.
My first days of therapy were more traumatic than healing. I knew that my therapist was there to help me and wasn’t going to judge me but,,in talking with her, I felt like there was a spotlight on my shame and the mess my life was. Therapy made me visit ugly places I had checked out of and intentionally disconnected from. I was terrified to replay scenes of an abusive childhood, and several toxic relationships. It took a few sessions for me to feel as though I was healing instead of moving towards self-destruction. I was reminded that it wasn’t my fault, that I felt the way that I did, and that I was strong to choose to fight. My therapist approached therapy from a cognitive behavioral therapy point of view, something I had never heard of before. This meant that I had to be aware of my thoughts, and write them in a notebook. My therapist explained that anxiety was always a result of thoughts, the thoughts acted as triggers, the consequences were fear. I was beginning to train my brain to be aware of this; I would challenge myself to look at the thoughts from a different perspective and decide if they were rational or not. It helps to take a rational mode and not let my anxiety dictate the way I processed things.
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Entrusting someone with my past, with my shame and anxiety, with the childhood traumas I had suppressed, was something I longed for but never expected to receive. My therapist helped me to find this.
The idea of medication was something I wanted to avoid. I thought it was going to change me—that I may lose track of myself. Through much convincing, my therapist started to work with the neuropsychiatric hospital to choose the right course of medication for me. I was warned that it would take about six weeks for me to adjust to my medication, and that it would get worse before it got better.
And it did get worse. So much worse. It was a complete nightmare. For six weeks, I could hardly function. I would jump at any sound. I dreaded the night time with the fear that people would break into my house, rob and rape me. I was frozen in fear and helplessness. I wanted to die.
I had to fight through the worst of my anxiety to get to the other side. My friend, whose idea it was for me to start treatment, was my main support system. My therapist also listened to my concerns. She talked to the hospital about adjusting my doses until my body was ready. They both promised over and over when I wanted to give up that it was going to get better.
And then, after rain came sunshine. My body got used to my SSRI medication, and suddenly life felt like life again. A few weeks into the medication helping to bring me strength, I signed up for a youth conference, and for once it wasn’t difficult for me to get out of bed and attend something. I was able to show up, be myself and participate. I talked to a lot of strangers, and reconnected with parts of myself I thought I had forever lost to anxiety. I didn’t have to question my speech a thousand times before saying something, it felt incredibly easy to be myself. I became confident. I looked forward to each day when I woke up, ready to take risks and be myself. I reconnected with the me that I knew was deep inside, I could hardly believe I was still there!
It’s been two years after that high, and that moment of extreme positivity. The medication I was taking, that had been working so well for me, became unavailable in my country, and I tried alternatives, experiencing many highs and lows of other medications, dealing with side effects and resistance, and trying to handle the cost of medication and therapy. Eventually, I exhausted the alternatives which were available for me and tried the healing process without medication. While I am not living the high and the beautiful sunshine of when my body got used to my old medication, I am far from the girl I used to be. Yes, I still have days when I am overwhelmed and frozen in fear. Sometimes I feel again that a stranger is living inside of me. But I also have days when I talk to my fears and they listen.
Just last week, I was trying to get my head around the fact that the hectic part of my semester is approaching. My anxiety hit as I was packing to go. I felt so far out of touch with my studies. Anxiety yelled that I wasn’t like the others, that I was sick, and weak and sleep deprived. I firmly said to myself “I have done this for four years now, and I can do this. I am sick but I’ve got this and all you ever tell me is lies.”
I no longer let anxiety stop me from living the experiences of this life. I take chances, and I dream. I know I am never going to go back to where I used to live.
There is no easy or instant fix for mental illnesses, including anxiety. Healing is a journey, and a choice one makes every day. Sometimes you are going to try a million different things before something works for you. Sometimes something is going to help you at first try. The most important thing is don’t give up. Reach out. You cannot make it on your own and letting yourself be helped is not shameful—it is strength; a powerful way to fight.