This is the fourth time I’ve started this post in 13 hours. Woke up twice last night trying to figure out what to say. I spent years trying to ignore it or deny it. When I was younger and my symptoms first popped up (9th grade, right after I started at a new high school in a new city where I knew no one), I was made to feel like certain people wanted me to be sick because it made me wrong, and then they could laugh at my family because they had the weird little freak in high school.
During my lunch break, I would get this strange feeling. My heart would start racing and pounding like it was going to jump out of my chest and run down the hall. My breathing would get fast like I couldn’t get enough air in a regular breath so I switched to tiny micro-breaths. Sometimes I’d break out in a sweat, or I’d get too dizzy to stand. On more than one occasion I threw up in the bathroom by my locker. I went home on my lunch maybe 10 times by the middle of the semester.
I can still remember the very last time I dared to call home and have mum come pick me up. There was a full office staff, a few teachers on their spare periods, and maybe half a dozen students in the office with me that day for whatever reason. Mum came into the office to pick me up, and one of the secretaries pulled us aside where no one could hear us talk quietly. She suggested my mother have me speak to the school counsellor, and maybe get recommended to a therapist for a short time, because I appeared to be having some sort of issues with anxiety.
Well, mum was having none of that. She fucking exploded on that poor secretary, in front of everyone in that office.
“What do you MEAN she should see a counsellor? She was perfectly fine before I sent her to this school! How dare you tell me my daughter is some sort of freak! A psycho! Don’t you know what happens to people who see a therapist? They’re branded FOR LIFE as a crazy psycho! You want my daughter locked up in some NUT HOUSE for the rest of her life? Is that it? Have you seen her grades? She’s getting A’s in all her afternoon classes, could some FREAK do that? How DARE you tell me my daughter is damaged, how DARE you tell me my daughter is some sort of psycho FREAK!”
It’s been like 20 years since then, so that’s not exactly word for word, but you get the gist of it. She ranted like that for a good 5 or 6 minutes, referred to me as a freak more than a dozen times in front of a few of my classmates. The car ride home was a total joy! She ranted on even more, telling me that there was nothing wrong with me, that she couldn’t believe someone would think I’m some sort of psycho, that if I ever let myself see a therapist or psychiatrist they would just put me on meds and then no one would ever hire me because the whole world would just know I’m crazy. The rant went on even more once we got home! I swear, that woman ranted on and on about this for a good two hours on and off that day.
After that day, I stopped telling my mother pretty much anything for many years. I made up some stupid story about a problem with the ventilation system in the hallway my locker was in, and that was why I got sick at school so much. It was the stupidest story, so totally obvious that I made it up on the spot, but she believed it. Hell, she still believes it. We saw an article about my old high school online, and she started telling people about the ‘ventilation problem’ and how it could’ve killed me. She was more willing to believe that the ventilation system in a newly built school was faulty in a way that only affected one student than helping me work through my issues.
So, for years I tried to ignore what was happening inside me. I beat myself up over things I couldn’t control. Instead of working to understand the racing heart and quick breaths, I locked myself away in my room so no one could see the panic. I did the same for the suicidal thoughts. The one time I did hurt myself and opened up to my mother, she flipped out on me again. She said that if I didn’t “cut it out and just act normal” no one would ever love me, I’d be shoved in an institution, and I’d die alone. Totally what you should say to a 16-year-old trying to deal with mental health issues, eh?
I tried to ignore all of this for years. I’d lock myself away from the world so they couldn’t see me struggle. I drank, I did a lot of drugs, I pushed myself to somehow be “normal” in the most fucked up ways. My parents were high school sweethearts who married and had three kids, for example. So, I thought if I found love early enough, I could be normal like them. But the forced isolation made it hard to meet people I could connect with, and I wound up engaged to a drumming ninja (he once put “ninja” on a job application as his current occupation), and got kicked out of my parents’ house to be with him. He treated me like shit, abused me, starved me, and burned the only copy of my first (and to date, only) novel I had written as punishment for something. But in my head, being with him made me “normal”, because…………. I don’t even know anymore.
It wasn’t until more than a decade after that first incident in the school office that I finally sought help. I had gone back to university, and the school had free counseling services. By that point, my anxiety and depressing were pretty bad, but I was still trying to cover them up. I wasn’t sleeping, I was eating like crap and chugging cheap malt liquor while I “studied”. Before a big panic attack, sometimes it feels like all my emotions drain into something deep inside my skin, where they can’t escape or be really felt. I feel this mix of heaviness and nothingness like I’m going to burst out of my skin and run ranting and screaming into the night. I stayed up for three days and finally passed out in our living room (I was living with friends near campus by that point), and rolled over on a pair of scissors in my sleep. The pain was some weird sort of release, and I started cutting myself right after that. It was the cutting that made me finally made me go to counseling services.
I wish I could tell you everything changed for me that day, that everything was magically fixed and I’m living a perfectly “normal” life like my mother wanted. That’s not how things go, though. I’m still fighting through this, learning how to handle both depression and anxiety. I’m learning the patterns they tend to follow (the depression gets bad right before or after a major panic attack usually) and am able to tell the people closest to me when I can feel my anxiety getting worse. I still don’t open up to my family about any of this, though. I tried to years ago, when I first sought help, and my mother denied everything I said. It’s healthier for me to just not tell them about any of this.
There is no magic cure for this. There is no one-way to deal with mental health issues. I’ve tried a lot of things over the years; some of them worked for me, others didn’t. That doesn’t mean those other things don’t work for other people, though. Going back to school brought out some huge stressors and triggers for my anxiety, and a lot of people I know who suffer through this have said the same thing. So, I just want to give you a little help, a little guidance. You don’t need to follow everything I say, or even try any of it. It’s just options, things to keep in mind when nothing else seems to work.
It’s not easy dealing with this shit. I still get panic attacks. The night I started posting about back-to-school help was because I was trying to work through a major panic attack that kept me up until almost 5 am, drained me of all my energy, and left me with a dark cloud over my head that made me wish I could just stop existing. I’m pulling through though, and I know you can too Sunshine.
Tip #1: Grounding
A friend recommended this to me years ago. It’s what she would do when she was living in a dorm and her anxiety would get bad around exam time. Basically, you’re distracting your brain from the inevitable overanalyzing of the ridiculousness of your panic. In my support group back in school, one thing we all agreed on was that our anxiety attacks made no sense to us. It’s like, there’s no reason for you to be panicking, but you still can’t seem to calm yourself down. You try to calm down, and you’re reminded that the fact that you’re panicking makes no sense, so there must be something wrong with you to be making you panic. And that makes you panic more. The more you try to calm yourself down, the more focused you wind up on the panic, and the worse it can get.
I know it says right in the little picture thingy there from Tumblr that it helps “when you feel like you have lost all control of your surroundings”. If you get that feeling in your more panicked times, then you can definitely give this a try. I don’t get that feeling, but this still works for me for other reasons. That kind of leads me into my next tip….
Tip #2: There Is No “Right” Way to Be Have a Mental Issue
Sometimes having anxiety can mean heart palpitations and sweat. Other times, it can mean completely blocking out the outside world, staring off into space, unable to process the things going on around you. Some feel frightened, some are jittery, people get tense or worried or can’t focus on anything else except that anxious feeling bubbling up inside them. Some of the happiest looking people suffer from depression. It’s not all locking yourself in a dark room and staring off into the nothingness around you. As a master of the Customer Service Persona, I can honestly tell you that it is entirely possible to feel hopeless and worthless like your entire life is one giant failure after another, like the world would be a much better place if you could just stop existing in it, and still slap a smile on your face and laugh about things. I mean, Robin fucking Williams suffered from depression. That man, to all outside appearances, was the exact opposite of depression.
There’s no right or wrong way to have anxiety, or a panic attack, or a depressive episode, or any form of depression in general. I check WebMD for a lot of things (even though somehow, no matter what’s wrong with me, it tells me I’m dying a slow and painful death). According to them, a panic attack should last like 10 minutes, and I should have fear of dying and a sense that I’m choking. I have NEVER had any of that. That panic, that feeling of terror, like my heart is going to burst out of my chest and the world is going to collapse around me, it can last for hours for me.
There is a tonne of different things associated with each and every mental issue out there. You don’t have to tick off every symptom or every box to have a “proper” mental disorder. You don’t have to take medication or see a therapist or psychiatrist long term to have a “proper” mental disorder. You can have the same issue as someone else, have different symptoms, handle it differently, and you can both STILL have that disorder. There is no one way to have an issue with your mental health.
Tip #3: Regularly Practice Self-Care
I have a list of things that I consider “comfort things”. They’re things that I somehow find soothing, for whatever reason, and I fall back on when my brain starts to feel all fucky. They’re things that comfort me, that bring me to a place where I feel safe and secure, even if that place is just in my head. And the list is all over the fucking place.
- Vine compilations on YouTube
- the movie Hackers
- the movie Tank Girl
- books about serial killers
- books about cults
- books about random facts
- hugging my snuggle pillow
- slipper boots
- throwing a blanket over my head while I watch random shit on my computer so it’s like I’m watching it in a tiny blanket fort
- painting my nails in dark colours
- 90’s grunge music
- 80’s new wave music
- indie music from the 80’s and 90’s
- Chilean red wine
- fuzzy socks and lots of lotion
Now I don’t use all of this at the same time. I’ll throw on my slipper boots, maybe a flannel shirt or sleep pants, throw a blanket over my head, and watch a few short Vine compilations while I hug my snuggle pillow. Or I’ll throw on a bunch of lotion and my fuzzy socks, paint my nails, and watch Tank Girl. I’ll throw on some Talk Talk and Psychedelic Furs in the background while I curl up with a good book about serial killers.
Everyone has their own little comfort things. You need to figure out what it is that is comforting to you. I doubt Charles Manson and Tank Girl will bring most of you much comfort, but it works for me.
Tip #4: Exercise, Get The Fuck Outside
I walk everywhere.
If I don’t get out of the house for a day, I make sure to at least open the blinds for a bit. The cat likes to sit in the window so I tell myself I’m doing it for him, when really just getting a little bit of sunlight can really help me some days. If it’s nice enough out, I’ll open the window and let in some fresh air.
When I’m in mid panic attack, I completely close myself off in my room as much as possible. But when I’m not, I try to get outside at least a bit each day. I really should be exercising more, but I don’t. It really helps some people manage their mental health issues, and I know it’s helped me in the past. I have too much going on around me right now to focus on that though.
#5: Don’t Eat Like Complete Shit
Again, this is something I’m complete shit at. I have my good weeks, where I’m packing celery and carrots with me at work, and sipping tea all day. Then I have my days (or weeks even) where it’s nothing but pizza, french fries, and red wine.
Usually, the more hours I work in a week, the better I eat. If I have to pack a lunch or dinner to bring to work, I wind up with shit like veggies and hummus, soup, and mushroom meat (I also eat less meat and eat shit like “mushroom meat”, which is faux meat made out of mushrooms and soy, which I can only find at the Multifoods a little ways from my house). If I’m stuck at home, working 4-hour closing shifts every fucking day, I wind up eating a lot of frozen pizza for dinner, a lot of leftover pizza for lunch, and a pot of coffee for breakfast. This is usually when my anxiety starts to flare up a bit too.
For a lot of pizza, there’s a strong correlation between what you eat and how you feel. Eat like shit, feel like shit, basically. If you find that eating certain foods, or eating a certain way, worsens your mental state, then don’t fucking eat like that if you can help it! I know, that’s pretty fucking hypocritical of me to say, considering how I eat usually. This isn’t the easiest advice to follow, and no one is going to be perfect at it. Give it a whirl and see if it helps you out at all, though. Keep a food diary or something for a few weeks or months. No need to count calories or any shit like that. Just keep track of what you eat, what you drink, and how you feel. If you see a pattern emerging, then fucking run with it.
#6: Stop Fucking Self-Medicating!
Again, fucking hypocritical of me to say this, considering how much wine I drink. I admit, there have been times when I could feel a panic attack coming on, and I reached for a drink. Working in a liquor store, I have constant easy access to alcohol and have to learn about it somehow. So, probably more often when I should when I feel the panic building, I grab a bottle of Chilean cabernet sauvignon, my book about wine (flavours, pairings, smart sounding shit), and curl up with a giant fucking glass or four. Sometimes it calms me down a bit. Other times, I wind up still awake and drinking wine at 4 am, mindlessly reading through Not Always Right posts and going through old notebooks from 2003.
I’ve had friends who swear by smoking pot as a means of controlling their anxiety. Others have had a hard time controling it, using the anxiety more as an excuse to smoke than anything. I’ve known people to buy medication off the street instead of getting it prescribed. Yes, it’s a great way to get it cheap when you can’t afford your meds sometimes. But you’re playing with doses, and brain chemicals, and all sorts of stuff that can royally fuck your day up.
Don’t use substances that aren’t prescribed to you as a means of controlling your mental health. Yes, a drink or smoke from time to time can be fine. It’s a social thing, a way to calm you, a way to feel normal. But you can really easily start becoming dependant on these things just to feel normal. It’s a short fall into addiction when you let something be the only things making you feel “normal””.
#7: Find Your Fucking Triggers
I know, triggers are a joke to a lot of people. “How are you going to make it through life? There are no trigger warnings in the real world!” Except there are, fucking everywhere. Movie ratings, video game ratings, music ratings, content warnings on TV, allergen warnings on food, warning signs on the road, warning signs on heavy equipment, warning labels on medication……… The only difference between these and a trigger for mental health is that mental health isn’t always taken seriously. You can take a sick day for the flu, or for a broken leg, but most jobs and schools don’t give you mental health days.
Are there certain things that trigger certain feelings in you? No, you can’t avoid them completely, you can’t yell at people for bringing them up (unless they’re really fucked up shit and that person knows how it affects you), and you can’t hide from them for the rest of your life. One of my biggest triggers is finance. I’ve got a metric shit-tonne of student loan debt, a bunch of credit card debt, and feel like I’m going to die in debt someday. The thought of not making my bill payments sends my heart racing, more than it does for the average person. I know that when my hours at work take a drastic cut, there’s a good chance I’ll get thrown into a full-out panic attack at some point. I can’t avoid that though.
Know your triggers can help you better prepare. Like I said, I KNOW that getting my hours cut can result in a massive-ass panic attack, which then leads to a depressive episode. I make sure I have some of my comfort items ready and waiting for me. I recently went from getting 40 hours a week at work to being scheduled for 15 hours. I know that by next pay day, I will most likely get thrown into a major case of anxiety. I have my soup stuff (powdered mix, noodles, and dried veggies from Bulk Barn), a 10 hour Vine compilation video, a new nail polish, some new murder books, a bunch of flannel ( I am Canadian after all), and a copy of Tank Girl ready for that. No, I won’t be able to stop a panic attack. But I can help ease my way through it, or through a major anxiety episode.
I wish I could say that following all of this has somehow cured my mental state magically, Sunshine. I wish I could say that I’m a happy, mentally healthy, productive member of society now. I’d be lying to you though. Just today, I got so overwhelmed with my current situation (so many roommates, showing the house to prospective other roommates, hours cut at work, things with the boyfriend) that it started really getting to me. I sat there wondering what the hell would happen to this place if I just ceased to exist. Where would my Bowser Kitten be? Who would take care of this house? What kind of shape would the boyfriend be in? Have I really made a difference, or would there always be someone else could’ve stepped in and taken my place for each of these things? What’s the point of being here?
So, I made soup. I threw on some old Vines, and then a bunch of Rage Against the Machine. I typed, I read random useless facts, I played with eyeliner. I can’t fix myself completely, but I have to leave for work in 35 minutes and need to be able to fake my way through my shift. Luckily, I have the Work Bestie with me tonight. She’s one of the few people I actually open up to at all about this, so I can let her know I can feel it building again.