For as long as I can remember, I have always been a worrier. It haunts my earliest memories. I am two years old at the playground, and worry is there. I am five years old and learning to ride a bike, and worry is there. I am seven years old in art class, and I’ve just cut my finger, and worry is definitely there and I am spiraling swiftly to the point where I ask the closest adult to me, a teacher, for reassurance that I will be okay. Her response? “You’ll live.” The irritation behind her curt reaction is not lost on a young me.
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In her defense, it is exhausting to look after a worrier. Chances are it was not the first time that I had asked for consolation that day. How was she to know that in my mind, I was dying. To her credit, it was the ’90s, and anxiety and mental illness was probably not even on her radar. However, on days that I am looking back, I can’t help but wish that there was somebody who had noticed my chronic uneasiness for what it was. It would be nearly 20 years before I would have a name for it myself.
A Life-Changing Diagnosis
In Quebec, where I have lived since I was 18 years old, it is hard to find a family doctor. This is a struggle for many people in most provinces, but judging off of anecdotal evidence alone, it is particularly acute here. My physician, a young woman with a no-nonsense but friendly demeanor, took me in one day when I was visiting a clinic for some blood work. “Don’t tell anyone,” she had said, as she passed the new patient registration form across her desk.
I didn’t realize then how much her decision to accept me as a patient would change my life. A few months after my registration, I went in to see her for my first physical. The subject of chronic problems came up, and I mentioned to her that I feel a lot of worry. She pulled up a page on her computer and started rattling off some questions.
“Do you have thoughts of worry on more days than not?”
Yes, of course. What is a day without worry? “Yes.”
“Once you start worrying, do you find it hard to stop?
Um, duh. “Yes.”
“Do you feel tired, even if you get an adequate amount of sleep?”
“Do you experience any of the following symptoms: shortness of breath, accelerated heart rate, a feeling of choking, or numbness in extremities?”
Yes yes yes yes yes yes. Every single day. “Yes.”
I hadn’t heard of Generalized Anxiety Disorder before, but as soon as my doctor said it, I knew it was true to me. When you are used to carrying worry around, you build a relationship with it. In many ways, its omnipresence is comforting. To worry is to indulge in the only behaviour you’ve ever known – it feels like home. I never realized that I could move away. While anything with “disorder” in its name could understandably cause panic, in her office I felt an overwhelming rush of relief. What I had believed my entire life to just be chronic worry, actually had a medical name. I felt extremely validated.
Taking Charge of Anxiety
On the day of the diagnosis, my doctor and I made the decision together to start me on a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI, medication called Cipralex. Mostly because they are commonly called antidepressants, but partially also because I had heard bad things about the medication, I was skeptical that it would have any positive effect on me. I was very wrong. Within a week of taking my medication, my numbness and tingling in my hands was gone. I believe I was fortunate — I have heard it can take a lot longer for some people to find a medication that works for them and my experience is by no means a universal one — but there is no denying the liberation I felt to have feeling in my fingers.
Part of getting a diagnosis meant that I was able to commit myself to the fact that my anxiety was a lifelong struggle. It felt good to no longer have to fight against a part of who I am. Thanks to an extremely fortunate combination of a good family doctor, a medication that works for me, a fantastic therapist, and supportive family and friends, I was able to move forward.
What to do when your anxiety feels overwhelming
Although my anxiety and worry have always felt very personal to me, I am by no means unique. There are many, many people who suffer in similar ways – and many of them on their own. Getting help is complicated and hard. However, I think we are making progress as a society to remove the stigma from mental health and to normalize it as a part of the human experience.
If I had known that what I was experiencing had a name in medical textbooks and wasn’t just made up in my head, I would have had an easier time growing up. Things would have been different for me in my childhood, my adolescence, and my early adulthood. However, as much as I could sit here and lament over the wasted time, I have to accept the trajectory that my coping has taken.
I still struggle with anxiety in many ways. In my adult life, my anxiety has held me back from achieving goals, ruined romantic relationships, and prevented me from being the best friend that I could be. But I still consider myself to be very fortunate because I am coping.
If you are someone who feels you’re in my same worried shoes, I recommend you reach out to someone in any way you can. I know it feels impossible, but taking control is so empowering that I can assure you it is worth it. Hearing a diagnosis from a medical professional may feel better than you think, and it may help you start on a path of management, whether that means medication, therapy, learning new coping strategies or a combination of the three – whatever is right for you.
An optimistic future
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Since taking control of my anxiety, the past two years of my life have been the most productive, creative, and fulfilling. I try to enjoy it while keeping in mind that this steady feeling may not always last. However, I am feeling more optimistic about a future where I may be unwell. My expectations of myself have shifted to a place that is more reasonable and is geared towards a life of management, not cure.
Because I do not need fixing. I have a medical disorder, and I need care.
It’s time we started talking openly about our mental health. Join the conversation on Bell Let’s Talk Day, January 30, and help end the stigma around mental illness. For every text message (not iMessage) sent and mobile or long-distance call made by Bell Canada, Bell Aliant and Bell MTS customers, Bell will donate five cents to Canadian mental health initiatives. The same goes for anyone sending a tweet using #BellLetsTalk, watching the Bell Let’s Talk Day video on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat, or using the Bell Let’s Talk Facebook frame or Snapchat filter. But talking about it is just the first step: Visit letstalk.bell.ca for more ways you can effect change and build awareness around mental health.