[NOTE: It is very hard to talk so openly about mental health. I am very aware that there is a stigma surrounding mental health. I worry that people will judge me for my decisions regarding how I treat my mental health. I also worry that people will feel the need to force their help or opinion on me about treatment. I am extremely aware of my problems and any changes to my mental health. I have a very reliable support system in place including my doctor. I do not seek advice nor judgement nor pity. I am not here to educate. I am not a doctor or a psychologist. My experiences may not be the same as everyone else’s and should not be taken as an example of the norm. As always I am just conveying my experiences.]
At the very end of May last year my doctor in conjunction with my regular psychologist and a psychiatrist weaned me off of the medication I had been taking for two years. I have suffered from anxiety my whole life. I am a natural worrier. I stress about everything and everyone in my life until I am wound so tight I make myself sick. I have become a tiny bit better at managing this aspect of my personality over the years but it’s hard when I have always been this way. Sometimes it becomes unmanageable. Sometimes it goes beyond being just a quirky part of my personality and becomes seriously harmful and disruptive.
As early as I can remember I can remember having panic attacks and seeing counsellors. It really began when I started primary school at about four years old but I had some mild symptoms even before then. I vividly remember going to our family doctor often and discussing the traumatic nightmares I was having. This was when I was first taught some simple cognitive therapy methods. I was told to lock my nightmares into a box in my head. I would visualise a filing cabinet and a little man filing away all my distressing thoughts and feelings. Over the years this became a problem for me as I started to box up all my negative feelings and once triggered, all the boxes would open up one after the other like dominoes. However at the time it worked to ease my panic in regards to my nightmares.
For a few years in high-school I managed to get by without counselling. I had friends and I managed the stress of studying the best I could. When I was in my final year of high-school things changed. The social aspect of school was always a slightly turbulent experience for me, I struggled to make friends and was often picked on, but I still had some friends. Halfway through year 12 I had a falling out with most of my closest friends. I felt isolated and exposed. I felt so judged walking into that school. Most of the negativity occurred on social media where people felt they could say whatever they liked and I felt I couldn’t defend myself. I felt very unsafe and I couldn’t escape that feeling. I went back to seeing a counsellor.
I made it to the end of high-school with a lot of help and support from my counsellor and my extremely understanding teachers. I only attended my classes and spent a lot of my free periods at my then boyfriend’s house (technically his parents’) because they lived only a couple of blocks from the school. I felt as though my boyfriend at the time was the only friend I had left. I had all these adults around me supporting me but it felt as though all my peers had turned their backs on me. A couple of months after graduation we broke up and I broke down. Like with most break ups I felt so betrayed and when I discovered that he had been unfaithful my self esteem plummeted. I already felt so vulnerable having lost my friends. I began seeing a psychologist which was very different from the counsellors I had visited in the past. During this time I discovered who my true friends were and most of these gems are people who are still in my life today.
A few years later I had another break down. I cried a lot. I had always had anxiety but this was different. I was sad. Every day was hard. My self esteem was very low again. I was going through a lot of different personal matters. Things that were small or unrelated piled up and became so overwhelming. I wasn’t coping with life. I went back to seeing my doctor every two weeks and a psychologist on the alternating weeks. After a few months my self esteem was still pretty low, I was drained and unmotivated, and I avoided leaving the house. There was some discussion of medication but I was still pretty determined to avoid it. Eventually I gave in.
The push came when I got so tired of crying myself to exhaustion at night. I have always been very curious and concerned with my own death but there came a point when I was so fixated on these thoughts that I was losing sleep. I was triggering my own panic attacks with these thoughts of my mortality. This happened when I was a child but I managed to find consolation in my parents or in prayer. Now, however, I found myself unconsolable and exhausted.
When I tell people about my fear of death they usually assume that I mean that I am afraid I will die right now. They often assume I am losing sleep because I am worried I won’t wake up. This isn’t the case. When I am afraid of death it comes from a much deeper existential place. I fear the knowledge of my own existence and the knowledge that one day my life will end. It terrifies me and the worst part is that I can’t stop it. It’s not irrational because it’s guaranteed. I have been told we can’t fear death because we haven’t experienced it and therefore do not know what there is to be afraid of but that’s kind of the whole problem. It is genuinely both exhausting and horrific and I have never been so scared in my life as when I remember that one day I will die.
When I started on medication I cried for over an hour. As the first pill passed my lips I feared that somehow this would change me. I had spent my whole life feeling the way I do and being so afraid. I was worried that I would be numb from then on. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be afraid any more and that perhaps I should be, as though I was interfering with my natural fight or flight response. I can’t remember the active ingredient of what I was taking but I started on 25 mg once a day. By the time I finished two years later I was taking 200 mg over the course of a day.
The medication stopped the panic attacks. It stopped those awful gut wrenching feelings I had when I would remember my fate. It helped me to sleep and breathe and eat. But it made me frustrated. It stopped me crying and getting so excited that I wanted to scream and laugh. I still felt things but not in the same way I was accustomed to from decades of vivid, and sometimes intimidatingly extreme, emotions. The medication helped me go through with getting genetic testing and finding out I didn’t have Huntington’s Disease. However it did not help with my depression and I was consistently told that this was very weird as the medication I was on is primarily used as an antidepressant even though I was on it to help control my panic attacks.
The main side effect I experienced from my medication was feeling uncontrollably hot. All the time. I would walk around my house in my underwear in winter and still feel too hot. I had to sleep with a fan on or I couldn’t sleep. This made me irritable and was one of the main reasons I pushed to stop taking the pills. Another contributing factor was how much progress I was making in therapy. My psychologist had decided that those cognitive therapies, that I had been taught by every counsellor I had ever visited over the last two decades, wasn’t working for me. We began acceptance commitment therapy (ACT) and it made a huge difference. I was told I am impressively self aware. I felt like I was treated like an intelligent adult because this and am so grateful for it. I believe this helped me to make more progress than ever before.
The past nine months have been fine. It’s been slightly difficult to adjust to controlling my own emotions again. In the end though I have felt relieved to be myself again and to not be numb or hot. I have managed to use my skills acquired in therapy to calm myself down just shy of a panic attack every time so far. I have had a few close calls and before Christmas my psychologist moved away. It has been a rough few months adjusting but I’ve managed so far. Until this past week.
I feel as though I am going through an existential crisis as my extreme fear of death has returned. I am exhausted from a lack of sleep and from persistently fighting off a panic attack. The thoughts have been becoming more frequent and I find it more and more difficult to distract myself. I try watching videos, some of them suggest ways to combat anxiety, one of which recently compared death to falling asleep but then that just made me even more resistant to sleep. I have been considering talking to my doctor about going back onto medication. Obviously it would have to be a different type of medication in order to avoid those side effects I experienced last time. It’s very intimidating starting a new medication and I have all the same fears as I did last time. I don’t want to lose myself. I want to feel and even fear. But I am just so terrified and so exhausted I just have to give in to getting help. I know it will be alright this time round just as it was last time.