I never understood what my sister was on about any time she talked to me about depression and anxiety. I used to think those problems could just be solved by getting out of the house, having a hobby or a social life. She used to tell me that she suspected I was a sufferer of one or the other, long before I connected those dots myself.
I just realized anxiety has been a part of my life since I was about 9 years old, and although we’ve been companions for the last 22 years, I just figured this out about 5 minutes ago. It started with an obsessive fear of death, the inability to understand it or know for sure what happened after. I don’t know where that fear came from, but it came on very suddenly. I do remember many nights lying awake in bed in tears, trying to console myself. I used to have to climb in to bed with my mom on those nights. My family recognized it as an issue and my aunt ended up coming over to talk to me and give me a book called, “What happens when we die?” I soon got past that, and then I went to visit my dad that summer and I was getting sick to my stomach every day. I remember Dad coming in to my room to give me gingerale; he’d rub my stomach and ask if I was ok, but it just made me feel ill again. Then he’d go out to the living room to watch TV and I’d lay, curled up in the bed in the dark, trying to fend off the stomach pain and calm myself down.
I didn’t have many attacks until I was in my early 20s… other than mild symptoms, like getting overly upset with fallings out I’d have with friends, or feeling things in negative ways 10x worse than an average person. And I realize now that I always sort of felt alone in my own head, isolated from everyone else who seemed to handle things normally. I was always the one who worried all the time, about very irrational things… And I felt things more intensely than they were often intended, like well-meaning advice from a teacher would translate to failure and a reason to self-deprecate. Or a simple look could be a judgment that I would take to heart… silently. Always silently. And I felt these pains for years, carrying them with me all the time.
I had my first serious boyfriend when I was 17-21. Every time we’d have a fight I’d work myself up to the point of nausea, sometimes even vomiting. I was out in Edmonton visiting my sister one summer when Chris and I had a fight, and I got so upset I ended up throwing up. I’d obsessively check MSN messenger to see if he’d written me, and finding out that he hadn’t would just send me spinning again. That’s about the time my sister was like, “Chantelle, do you think maybe you suffer from depression and anxiety?”
Me: No, that’s crazy. I don’t have a problem.
Meanwhile, I didn’t know of a single girl my age who worked herself in to a constant frenzy the way I did. If their boyfriends were being douchey, they’d go out for DQ with the girls and say, “screw him”. I, on the other hand, wasn’t physically able to do that without feeling nausea and stomach aches from the stress. I’d only be able to think of him and obsess about our issues and what he was doing, and then my friends would think I was a drag. But none of us knew that I actually had a problem.
So it’s probably not a surprise that Chris and I split haha. My anxiety manifested itself in so many other ways – like neediness, needing reassurance and reminders. After he broke up with me, I would send message after message, phone call after phone call… Because anything negative that was hurting me like this just couldn’t be. I was desperate to find something to take the anxiety away, and I felt the only medicine was his attention. That habit had tapered off over time, but I can’t believe I made it through that with no help whatsoever – no wonder it was torture.
And then in the coming months after that, I had major anxiety episodes, hysterical crying fits, loss of appetite, not wanting to leave the house, repeating details and conversations, constantly seeking interpretation. A lot of these things would be momentary satisfactions, never lasting longer than an hour. If I was reassured by friends or family, it’d make me feel better for a little bit, and then I’d slip back in to a depression and seek out reassurance again. I drove everyone, particularly my mother, insane. She dragged me to the hospital to talk to a crisis counsellor when it got to be too upsetting for her, and even the counsellor was like… You really have to get yourself in check. That woman was actually a gigantic help. So was my doctor, who basically told me to knock it off. Mom had told him of a time when she picked me up from the train station in Sarnia, just after the break-up, and found me crying in a ball on the sidewalk. The doc just kind of went, “Don’t you be doing that in public. That’s not appropriate.” And it was a good jolt of reality, but I felt so totally helpless. How do you just pull yourself out of that state? Like, if I could and if it was just that easy, I never would have done it in the first place.
Since then I’ve struggled with anxiety many times… Over jobs, school, money, boys, friends, family, enemies… all kinds of things. But the worst anxiety attacks I’ve ever had are around medical issues. You wouldn’t believe what I put myself through once I get an idea in my head.
For someone like me, the internet can be my worst enemy. At the age of 23 I made some irresponsible and poor decisions. Luckily, I did not develop anything serious, but I did develop a serious case of hypochondria. Learning about STIs had me ultra-focused on sexual health… and of course I decided I’d hyper-focus on HIV. I remember driving myself close to insanity thinking I had it. I went for a test at the health unit and had to wait an excruciating 2 weeks for results. I could have had a heart attack from all the stress. Did I have any symptoms? Not one. Did I have any real reason to think I’d been exposed to it? No.
Then, a few years later, I had a short relationship with a man who I fell for completely. He stopped talking to me and I got into one of those Facebook-stalking modes that kept me occupied for about a year, punishing myself in every possible way. And because it didn’t work out, I started working myself up with thoughts like, “Well how do I know where he’s been or what he’s done?” Here we go, back to HIV. I wound up in the E/R in Sarnia after convincing myself for a second time that I was positive. That night was a blur to me, because all I remember was going in and hysterically crying to the doctor, scared and wanting to know if I could have peace of mind NOW. At that time, health experts were recommending that people getting tested wait 3 months from the time of contact before getting tested, to ensure accurate results. And then you have to be left hanging, wondering if you’d get a call. I never did, and life went on. But after I left the E/R that night, I felt so mortified… so much of me exposed and raw to a total stranger and a room full of nurses. My sister was with me and again she asked, “So, do you think you have anxiety?” And still I was like, nah.
In 2010 my fear of death came back, out of nowhere. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t focus. I became consumed by this irrational fear. I called my parents one night from the ship, crying and afraid. And as if I was a child, they cooed me back to normal blood-pressure range and talked me out of my hysterics.
In September of last year I went for a work medical and the doctor heard a murmur. I launched all kinds of questions at him, he explained the mechanics behind murmurs, told me it could be completely innocent and suggested I see my doctor to check it out. I left there in tears, cried all the way home, cried when I got home and stayed in bed for about 2 weeks thinking I had congenital heart disease. My quality of life was gone, I thought I was going to die and was sickly afraid of consulting my doctor in case, well… bad news. But I did. And not without hysterically crying to my parents, looking for constant reassurance and support. As it turned out… I had an innocent murmur. I went for a chest x-ray and everything turned up fine.
That other doctor put it on his report to Health Canada though, and then I got a letter from them wanting all kinds of stuff from me… including a liver functions test because of what I declared as my weekly alcohol consumption, which wasn’t even accurate. That had me thinking I was a serious alcoholic, so then I went on this drastic lifestyle change, but was afraid to get the test done in case something came up in it that would mean certain death.
While on the ship last month I had this persistent kink in my neck that seemed to flare up and then calm down, in cycles. Then I started getting pressure in the back on my head, and then a heat in the back of my head. So now, naturally, I had a brain tumour. I had been crying off and on at work, worrying about this. Then I sought out my boss at 8 pm to drive me to the hospital. Back to the E/R, red tear-stained face, bloodshot eyes and absolutely exhausted from the crying. This is how the doctor and the nurses saw me. Again I looked like the crazy person.
Within the last month, I have decided I have a brain tumour, skin cancer and liver cancer. And now I’m back on the heart disease obsession. I go to the doctor tomorrow to get checked, and I’ve had this fear that writing about it would mean I’m jinxing myself and will end up getting an unfavourable diagnosis. I drove all the way down here because that’s how worried I am. So hopefully that doesn’t happen, but writing about this has already lifted the anxiety and made me sleepy enough to get some rest. I know how nuts I sound, but most of this is hidden from everyone, except those closest to me. People like Len, my parents and my sister have all seen the worst of it.
It’s a condition that is scary to live with, hard on the body and really painful to the ego. Imagine being afraid of everything and having all your vulnerabilities exposed, all the time. I have endured so much humiliation from it, you know? For those of you who have seen the Twilight series, do you remember the scene in Breaking Dawn Part II where Bella is running through the forest just after she changes, and everything is seen in such detail, as if it was under a microscope? That’s how I feel about this disorder. Everything I go through is hyper-analyzed and in mega zoom… things I don’t want to see or focus on, and they take over my life. It’s hard on the people around you because trying to be supportive is often exhausting. It sucks the life out of you and leaves you with fear, with no will to do anything and you become a prisoner of your own brain. And I guess this is why it’s tied to mental illness. We don’t like to think of anxiety as a mental disorder, but it truly is… and it’s serious because of the harm it can do.
Because of this, I have a mild annoyance with people who nonchalantly refer to themselves as hypochondriacs, because most of the ones I’ve met don’t lay in bed waiting for bad news. Their lives don’t get put on hold any time they see a rash, feel a bump or have a cramp… not like I do.
In all these years I’ve been suffering from it, I’ve never once asked for help… because I never thought it was a problem, until I couldn’t get out of bed in the last two weeks. Is that any way for my partner to have a healthy relationship with me? Is that any way to live my life? My reactions to the outcomes has always been a flood of relief and a promise of, “Ok, next time I’ll know not to get so worked up.” It never works. I feel so bad for Len, because I so often lock him out and try to endure it alone… but being scared like I am causes these emotional flare-ups, and I don’t blame him for not knowing what to do. There are times when I don’t even recognize myself when I’m at my most anxious… when all I want to do is rage, or cry… and sometimes not know why. He works through a lot of abuse that’s a result of my anxiety, and he must be one of the best people on earth for having a will to work through it with me. So, it’s time that I accept it and deal with it, and move forward… and live my life.
The first thing I think I’ll say to my doctor is, “My sister thinks I suffer from anxiety. It took me 16 years to agree with her, so is there something you can give me for that?”