This is a fairly personal post for me to be sharing. It seems anxiety and depression is on the rise, particularly in women. I felt that a lot of people could relate to my story and perhaps find hope and some tools to recover. I’ll outline a bit of background as to what triggered my panic attacks in my youth just so you can get a picture of what my life looked like while suffering from mental illness.
When I was in the 8th grade I was diagnosed with having a Panic Disorder. It had come on fiercely, though not so suddenly. I had always suffered from anxiety as a child though was too young to understand what it was. I didn’t have the cognitive capacity to examine myself or how I was feeling because as a child, I was still busy being a kid and my thoughts and feelings seemed to change on a whim.
The day that I recall my anxiety coming on full force was when I was entered into a competition for playing piano. I felt off all day leading up to the event. I felt obligated to still compete even though I was nauseated, weak and unfocused. Though I was able to complete my piece (I still won a medal despite how I felt!), I didn’t make it out of my pew before projectile vomiting in front of everyone and all over myself. I felt trapped, like I couldn’t escape because it just kept coming. I felt like I had ruined everything for everyone by being sick like that. I still remember my mom’s, sigh of “Ohh Sandra…” as I was helplessly hunched over in the Church pew.
I continued to be sick for 24 hours. I have never before or since been that ill in my life. However, after this incident I couldn’t leave the house without feeling sick. Every time I had to go somewhere new, with new people and especially if I had to eat somewhere that wasn’t home I would begin to panic. I didn’t understand that I was feeling panic, I just thought that I had something physically wrong with me (the hypochondriac in me thought I had stomach cancer) and ended up going through multiple blood tests, ultra sounds and stomach x-rays to figure out why I was always nauseous. Eventually my doctor deduced that at the age of 12 I had developed an anxiety disorder.
I have been in therapy multiple times. I have seen many people in many different places, prompted by varying circumstances. I would go through months where I wouldn’t have panic attacks and other times it would seem that I would have multiple a day. It would come on fast, and I would be incapacitated. Over time, I socially began to withdraw as I couldn’t go to the movies, to dinner or to any other outing without feeling “off.” My friends invited me out less, and I isolated myself more. I had been shy, depressed and anxious as a child but now that I knew that I had this issue, my brain began going into over drive every time I had to leave the house. I ended up taking Gravol every day before I went to school, after lunch and if I had to work that evening I’d take another before work. It was all I could do to force myself through the school day and through my shifts without wanting to pass out or be sick. I always had to carry a huge purse filled with mints, gum, bottled water, gravol, pepto bismol and anything else that might help or distract me from how awful I felt at all times.
My interest in school had never been strong but had been taken to a new low by the time I was in my senior year of high school. The more anxious I became, the more depressed I was. The more depressed I was, the less I showed up for school. I ended up quitting the job I had been at for several years and barely skimmed by my high school courses. While all of my peers were preparing to apply to university and college, I was preparing for my own death. I began to feel that I was incapable of functioning in the regular world like everyone else and that my state of existence was a burden to everyone and so decided it was better for the people in my life and myself to disappear. It was during this time that I learned that mental illness ran in my family. My grandfather had been hospitalized for months due to an emotional breakdown and an aunt was bi-polar, both on my mother’s side. I moved back in with my parents and resigned to socializing almost exclusively on the internet.
Jumping ahead a few years, I had moved cross country three times due to a very toxic relationship. I ended up in the Okanagan first. While there were a lot of issues with my first move, I felt that I had found some friends who I connected with. They were much younger than me, and I felt that by spending time with them that I was able to catch up on a lot of fun and experiences that I had passed up or missed out on because of the extent of my anxiety disorder. While living in the Okanagan from 2006 – 2008 my mental illness was tame with the exception of one emotional breakdown that landed me in the emergency room. Otherwise, I was physically very active and healthy (at least compared to what I had been). I was in the aforementioned toxic relationship but I was going to university finally at the age of 21, I had a wide group of friends, I walked everywhere and I felt a certain sort of freedom that I didn’t have during elementary or high school. When school didn’t work out and money was running low, I moved back home in February of 2008 only to move back West to Vancouver 10 months after moving home. I had hoped to recapture my experience in the Okanagan. It ended up leading my anxiety to transform into agoraphobia.
Things with my roommates didn’t work out and we went our separate ways. I ended up living with someone who was never home and who was stressful to deal with as a living partner. I had a single friend in the city who had moved to the downtown core. I could not bring myself to drive there as “big cities” were terrifying for me. The only social interaction I had was with people on the internet and my co-workers. I became afraid to go to the bank. I could not bring myself to go to the grocery store. I resorted to eating only what I could buy through a drive-thru or pick up quickly from the 24hr Shoppers Drug Mart on the way home from work. Putting gas in my car became a chore. Eventually it came to a point where I couldn’t bring myself to walk around my own neighbourhood and the only time I ever went outside was to walk to my car and back. The only reason I was ever able to leave the house outside of work was because I owned 2 cats and my sense of duty over took my fear and I was able to talk myself into going to the store to get them food. I would have to repeat to myself over and over: “If I can just get a bag of cat food it will be OK… If I happen to see some fruit and veggies that I can grab quickly on my way to the register, then I will get those too.” Often times I couldn’t handle standing in line long enough for the cashier to even scan through fruits of vegetables so would not buy them. I would always select the cashier I knew to be fastest to prevent myself from being in store any longer than necessary. I would be shaking the entire time, heart pounding out of my chest, scanning constantly for the exit, for a washroom, for somewhere safe that I could run to in case it go too bad. It always felt like it was “too bad,” so I often avoided going anywhere what so ever.
In my isolation I had realized that if something ever happened to me, some accident or tragedy, no one would know for days, maybe weeks. It was the loneliest point of my life when it hit me that I had no one. I had made one new friend in the city at this point who I talked to regularly but couldn’t go out and do things with because of my fear. I toyed again with the idea of disappearing, truly believing that my life was no longer worth living. I never followed through only because I was concerned for the well being of my pets should I die. So I forced myself to the walk in clinic. I sat in my car for what felt like 30 minutes, windows rolled up in the summer heat, trying to slow my breathing, my heart beat and to stop myself from feeling like I was going to freeze to death. From then, as I had to do with work, I talked myself into driving to the first stop sign, then the first intersection, then to the parking lot. I stayed there for as long as I could stand it, knowing that if I didn’t go NOW that the clinic would close and I’d have to suffer through another day like this which I just could not do.
The doctor I saw was very good. He talked to me patiently and slowly. I sat, staring at my shaking hands which were clutching my water bottle, chewing wildly on a piece of gum, shaking my knees and trying to keep upright. Over time, I began to relax in his office and understood that if anything bad was going to happen, at least I was in the right place for it. He told me that no matter what I do, never miss work because I was anxious or depressed. He wrote me a small subscription for Ativan for times when my anxiety felt like an emergency and referred me to a therapist.
Danielle, my therapist, was wonderful. By the time I ended up seeing her I had tried every coping mechanism in the book. I had read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, investigated different methods of meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, supplements, vitamins, etc. I had tried anti-depressants (which lead to the first suicidal episode) and I extensive diary writing. I ended up under eating trying to keep the nausea away that came from anxiety. I tried Z-Point strategies, binaural beats and I tried sleeping with different kinds of stones under my pillow to get their “calming energy.” Danielle was surprised at the amount of coping mechanisms I employed to get through my day to day life. She was surprised that, overall, I didn’t use the Ativan, that I still showed up for work and for the most part (as far as agoraphobes go) I was able to function. Because there was not much she could teach me to cope with the anxiety, it naturally followed that we ended up discussing my inability to distinguish my emotions, the fact that I stuffed all of my feelings down and that I had never had an opportunity to talk to anyone about being Catfished (what lead me to move to BC in the first place). She, and the doctors I had previously seen chalked my anxiety up to genetics and that I’d always have it on some level, and somehow that was a relief to me. So I set it aside.
Through my sessions with Danielle I was able to unload a lot that had been on my mind but that I felt no one could really understand. I was able to sort out my emotions about the abusive relationship I had been in while living in BC. I was able to start pouring out things that I had kept to myself for many years and was able to feel a lot more freedom. She constantly praised my strength and ability to cope and through these events and this gave me a great deal of confidence. I began to reclaim a lot of emotional strength that I had lost and was able to form new relationships and overall be more social.
While teaching me how to identify my emotions Danielle also gave me a booklet about Eating for Anxiety. It explained how insulin spikes could cause panic attacks in some individuals and that some foods were better for maintaining blood sugar levels than others. It outlined very basic meals that I should focus on eating and in what quantity so as to keep my body in a physical state of calm. While I had tried so many other strategies it never occurred to me to look at my nutrition. The only time I considered my food was during my various yo-yo dieting phases where I simply tried to eat less and less and less as opposed to eating enough of the right kinds of foods, and I succeeded at eating less until some days I was consuming as little as 700 calories for an entire day.
I ended up doing some research and stumbled upon The Paleo Diet.
Stay Tuned for Part 2 where I discuss Nutrition and how it relates to mental illness as well as what I ate to cure my anxiety and depression.