How I Became the Person I Am Today
Over the last few years, I’ve written countless versions of this post in my head, but whenever I tried to put them onto paper, I’ve failed. Nothing seemed capable of expressing what I meant to say, and I will be the first to admit that that was enough to scare me away from trying harder every time. So forgive me if this reads a little weird or disjointed in places.
Whenever people ask me why I quit my first attempt at a university degree–Asian/African Studies–, I tell them that it wasn’t the right degree for me, that it was “too much Asia and not enough Africa”, that the university was too big and anonymous, that it simply didn’t fit.
That’s a lie.
Now, mind you, all those arguments are valid ones and were true in and of themselves, but they weren’t the real reason why I dropped out. The truth is that I never got to figure out if it was the right degree for me because by that point, my illness had struck.
There are few things worse than wanting to do something, but not being able to. I wanted to learn, I wanted to participate, I wanted to be successful. And yet, more often than not, I found myself unable to even make it to class, let alone stick around or show anyone what I had to offer. There were days where I dragged myself into the train, only to have to get out at the next stop and take the train back home immediately. I simply couldn’t breathe, I was shaking and sweating and nearly catatonic. I didn’t know what was happening to me, either, and that was even scarier than the symptoms themselves. Back at home, I would lie down and sleep for a while, or distract myself with something, and be alright again.
This went on for several months, until I decided to give up altogether. There was no way I’d ever be able to pass any of the exams considering how many classes I’d missed, after all. I spent the next semester sitting at home, for the most part, and just relaxing, reading, doing stuff I enjoyed, and I felt good, for the most part. Until I gave university another try the following October, as an English major with a minor in Politics and Administration. In the months since my first attempt, I’d spent a lot of time by myself, never going out with friends, but I hadn’t really noticed and wouldn’t for a while yet.
My second attempt was more successful in so far as I didn’t need to make as much of an effort. First of all, English was something I’d always been good at, there wasn’t much that was new to me in terms of how to go about studying for exams or preparing for class. And second of all, when I went into my first class, expecting to be alone and not know anyone, I instead found myself sitting next to a friend from secondary school who had also picked English as her major, but with a minor in Biology. I was so relieved I instantly perked up and enjoyed that first class (Intro to Linguistics) so much that, eventually, linguistics became my favourite part of the whole degree. My politics classes, however, were a whole different story: I didn’t feel comfortable there at all, and the symptoms reappeared. I still didn’t know what to make of them, so I ploughed on, hoping they’d go away eventually.
I finished my first term successfully, and even my grades in the politics classes were better than expected. Term two, however, continued in the same vein. There would be days when I wouldn’t be able to make it to class, days when I did but almost threw up, and other days when I would be absolutely fine—thriving, even. There seemed to be no logic to it, no rhyme or reason, until it started happening outside of university, too. A friend would invite me to their birthday, or my group of friends from school would meet up, and I would suddenly find myself short of breath, trembling so much I couldn’t hold on to anything for fear I’d let it fall. I started making excuses to friends about why I couldn’t be there, or simply ignored messages, until they stopped inviting me to things altogether. That should have made me feel better, and in a way, it did, because I didn’t have to fight my body as often as I did before, but it also made me feel worse because I was suddenly more alone than ever.
In other parts of my life, I started noticing similar symptoms, too. I would have awful stomach aches every time I had to make a call, even if it was only to make a doctor’s appointment. I would feel like throwing up whenever I had to go somewhere by myself and interact with strangers.
It took me far longer than it should have, but I eventually figured it out: I was having panic attacks. And looking at the circumstances of each panic attack, a picture began to form, and it was not a pretty one: Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). I remember being incredibly relieved once I’d found a diagnosis, though that did not last long because, well… Having a diagnosis is a long way from being cured, and I had no idea where to even start. It took me months to work up the courage to make an appointment with a therapist, and then I was on the waiting list for so long that I thought I would never get a spot, so I had to call again. At that point, I was a nervous wreck. I still went to a few uni classes here and there, but my performance had deteriorated dramatically.
Therapy changed my life in unexpected ways. I had hoped I’d go out of the first year of it being cured. Oh, was I wrong. Everything we tried was unsuccessful, none of the standard treatments did anything to help. On the contrary, even. One of the main things you try with SAD patients is to get them to practise interactions with strangers and friends until they realise nothing bad actually happens. Some of the practice interactions were a little too far “out there” for me, though, stuff that just wasn’t realistic, like buying an apple, eating half of it, and then trying to return it because it didn’t taste good. That’s just not something I would have done even before my SAD. And I was getting practice in my life, anyway, because I was still attending classes, even if not as many as in the beginning, and I had somehow managed to make a handful of friends at university that I was spending some time with. And that’s when something weird happened: Instead of that practice helping me, it made my anxieties worse. I still don’t understand why, and my therapist could never get behind the reason, either. So we tried other things.
One thing therapy taught me, though, was self-awareness. I’d always been fairly good at understanding my body and mind, and why they did what they did, at least until my SAD started, but therapy helped me bring that understanding to a whole new level. It also took us a surprisingly short amount of time to get to the reason behind my anxieties. How it all came about is a complicated story, but the short version boils down to this: Traumatic childhood abuse led to PTSD which led to Social Anxiety Disorder. Now you may ask “childhood abuse?” Yes. I was psychologically and emotionally abused for more than seven years by my father’s girlfriend at the time, while he looked on and pretended nothing was happening (and still denies it to this day). At its worst, hardly a day went by when I wasn’t terrified to come home. I regularly heard phrases such as “your ID might say you’re 14 years old, but mentally, you’re 5” and was even told I was to blame for my mother getting sick when I was a child. I lost count of the number of times I planned on running away, and to this day occasionally come across an old list of things I would need to pack, but I didn’t have anywhere to run to. Nothing I ever did was good enough. I’d get screamed at for the tiniest things, until eventually, I believed it. I believed I wasn’t worth anything, I believed that I would never feel safe, be safe again. I very nearly killed myself just so I’d be able to get out of there.
Once we figured that out, my therapy changed. I identified the key phrase that had been my life motto ever since they abuse had first started, namely “No matter what I do, it will be wrong anyway”. I had unknowingly carried that around with me since I was twelve years old, and it stuck with me even after I had finally moved out of that hellhole, stuck with me so much that it had altered my entire personality. Strangely enough, it took moving out and finally feeling safe again for the anxieties to really come out and strike, though I’m sure that’s normal, too. Instead of trying to practise situations I was (more or less) handling on a daily basis anyway, we tried to get to the root of the problem, tried to get that sentence out of my head. Sadly, that approach didn’t work for me, either. Why not? I blame my brain. I’m an intensely logical and rational person. Things we tried in therapy included “locking away” negative thoughts into an imaginary vault, or finding a “happy place” that no one could go to but me. I’m sure this works for a lot of people, but I’m incapable of visualising (which means that, when I close my eyes and try to imagine, to “see”, anything from a tropical beach to the faces of my loved ones, I don’t see a thing), and just thinking the words “I’m in my happy place, I’m safe here” or “my bad thoughts are now locked into a vault they can’t get out of” did exactly nothing for me. My rational mind didn’t help matters, either, because I kept thinking that the vault or the happy place weren’t real, anyway.
Eventually, I gave up on therapy. It had taught me valuable skills, but it hadn’t helped my anxiety any. Instead, I considered meds for the first time. I don’t know why I was so reluctant to try them, other than the fact that I don’t like taking meds in general, but whenever I was physically sick in some form, and a doctor prescribed something, I took it without question. I guess I was bound by the same stigma around mental health as most people are. It simply never occurred to me that I could get treatment that way. I found a neurologist who put me on a very mild drug called Opipramol. I tried that for a while, but found it made absolutely no difference to how I was feeling. My neurologist told me that was entirely normal, though, that it often took patients a few tries to find a drug that would help. The second one we attempted was the winner: Citalopram, an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) used to treat a variety of panic disorders. I was told it would take about three months to really take effect, and that I would be suffering from side effects for about three weeks, such as vomiting and increased anxiety–all the fun stuff, basically. I ended up feeling worse for three days instead, and the meds had taken effect within three weeks. Perfect timing, too, because I had an important job interview right that week when the Citalopram kicked in, and I did so well that I got the job immediately. I wasn’t nervous at all before the interview, either, which is extreme, I know, but I guess I was just flying that high of no longer being anxious all the time.
That was nearly three years ago now. Since then, I spent two years working in a job I loved, with only four panic attacks at work (two of which were triggered by too many people in the same room during farewell or birthday parties; situations that I could extract myself from easily by going to my desk for a while and then coming back). Unfortunately, my contract didn’t get renewed a second time, so I’ve been without a job for nearly a year, but I plan on finding work again soon. Until then, though, I still have a degree to finish. You might wonder why I still haven’t, why I don’t just finish it now that I’m cured. The thing is that I’m not. I’m not “cured”, I might never be. I might have to take these meds for the rest of my life, I might have to live with my anxieties for the rest of my life.
I still have panic attacks. I still have moments of being unable to breathe. Wrongly-worded criticism can still send me into a tailspin of anxiety and panic, can still make me think “no matter what I do, it will be wrong anyway”. I feel the effects of my SAD every single day, and there are days and weeks when it’s an effort just to crawl out of bed, especially when I know I have to meet with someone or make a phone call. Phone calls in particular are still nearly impossible for me. I prefer to do things via e-mail, not least of all because it means I get to plan out exactly what I want to say and how to say it, and re-read the e-mail obsessively before I send it—an action that still makes me tremble every time. And it doesn’t even matter if it’s an e-mail to a friend, a professor, or a complete stranger. That’s what makes finishing my degree so difficult, too. It’s not that I lack motivation, far from it. It’s that the mere idea of contacting professors so I can write and hand in my last remaining term papers that scares me shitless. But I’m trying. I’m fighting that fight every day.
My meds haven’t “cured” me. They have, however, made it possible for me to live a fairly normal life, to be a fairly functional human being most of the time, and I’m grateful for that every minute. As I am grateful for the friends that have stuck by me during this time, even when I didn’t have the strength to contact them for months on end. So if you’re reading this now and I’ve ever ignored you or behaved oddly towards you, chances are my anxiety was—or still is—to blame, and I would like to apologise to you for being the awful friend I know I was and am at times. I don’t do any of this with malice, I’m just not able to do better, to be better sometimes.
Further reading, if you’re interested:
• “11 Things People Don’t Realize You Are Doing Because of Your Anxiety” by Lauren Jarvis-Gibson
• “Anxiety Is an Invalid Excuse” by Kelly Wynne
• “If you don’t have it, chronic anxiety can be hard to understand. These comics can help.” by Sarah Schuster, and the corresponding “Anxiety” tag on introvertdoodles.com
I might add more links as I find articles and interviews I deem relevant. Feel free to add your own, too, or anything else you might want to say, including questions. Nothing’s off limits for the time being.