Tuesday, May 31, 2016

My Anxiety. My Mental Health. My Story.

Not having a laptop for one month has been tough to say the least but it has given me time to think. I have always been open about my anxiety and have shared parts of my journey but never the whole lot in one go. I have wanted to share it for a long time but was always worried about what people would think and the judgement that would go along with it. I then realised that this is MY story and no one has any right to judge it, no one has lived through it and experienced what I have. Looking back on it of course I wish that some things had been handled differently and things not said but we all have those regrets in our lives and we can only keep moving forward. This is a long post so get a cup of coffee (or tea or whatever) and some chocolate and enjoy.

In the beginning my parents wrote my anxiety off as something to do with my Dyspraxia and they hoped I would grow out of it, unfortunately that didn't happen so they began to seek some answers and find a treatment that would help me live a normal life and not hold theirs to ransom. The earliest treatment they seeked for me was when I was around 7 they had heard of a naturopath through a couple at the church we were going to at the time who had done wonders for their daughter and figured it was worth a shot. I remember getting asked questions about my diet and having to list my favourite foods. We left there with some small supplements that looked like a single white hundred and thousand sprinkle which I would have to put under my tongue at various times of the day. I have no idea if we ever went back there but it mustn't have made much of a difference as the supplements stopped. I was also a bit of a control freak when I was younger and various things would set me off folk dancing at school, sports carnivals, school swimming lessons, relief teachers pretty much anything out of the ordinary. I liked to know what was going on and I would freak out if something didn't go as planned. My parents even made the decision not to tell me about my second surgery for Dyspraxia until the morning off as I had to fast as when they had given me warning for the first surgery I had freaked out and made myself sick with anxiety. My parents having experienced all of the above by now had a decent indication that something with off with my mental health.
I was officially diagnosed with anxiety when I was 12, I was diagnosed by a child psychologist whom my parents dragged me to see (much to my annoyance), my life felt like it was spiralling out of control and I just wanted to cry all the time. I was told that I liked being in control, which was why anything out of routine would set my anxiety off. I really hated going to see him and there is nothing like sitting in a room with a strange man for an hour while he asks you questions about your life. I was pretty much put off seeing a psych after that.

I remember during that time a guy came to talk to us about mental health I have no idea what it was about only that he touched on being nervous and anxiety then handed us ReachOut stickers telling us to check them out on the web. I recall looking up the site briefly, never realising the impact ReachOut would have on me further down the track.

I lasted one day on my year 7 camp because it was so bad and went home feeling like a failure because I just couldn't handle it. I returned to an emergency appointment with that psych who did little help and it was then that my parents realised it wasn't the right kind of treatment for me. Mental health wasn't something that people spoke about back then (10 years ago) and for a children to go through it wasn't something to talk openly about. 

When I started high school my anxiety decided to let loose and despite surviving the first day I had an anxiety attack at the end of the next day, I stayed home on the Friday (after threatening to run away) and the next week it happened all over again! I remember having an anxiety attack during my Maths period and my teacher told me I was being naughty and making me sit outside for the lesson and lecturing me on getting over it. My Indonesian teacher saw this and asked if I wanted to go for a walk with her (using the art of distraction) and he came out of the class room telling her that I was naughty and it wasn't a good idea she then went into the office to get the school psych and I was lead into student services by the Indonesian teacher while the Maths teacher got a lecture regarding mental illness. It was then decided that I would spend 15 minutes in class to start off with, this then moved up to 30 minutes just so I could get used to it.

My parents deep down knew that I needed medication and even told the psych during the first appointment that they were open to it. After the start of high school incidents they took me to a doctor who referred to a different doctor who prescribed with medication. I remember sitting in a doctor’s office and being told that like diabetics need insulin to live that I would need these pills to help me cope due to a chemical imbalance in my brain (*my anxiety is linked to having low sertonin levels unlike some cases where its environmental. Both types do go hand in hand but at this stage I am looking at always being on some form of medication to correct the imbalance*)
I remember that afterwards my Mum took me to the outlet shopping centre near the office and she made it a fun day. I know deep down that she was relieved with the diagnosis and treatment that she had gotten the answers she needed. I remember taking half the tablet not knowing how it would affect me and being worried of the side affects the most even though I had no idea what they were. My parents could see the changes almost immediately and I eventually felt them.
I survived that year barely and hated school because though we had solved one problem we couldn't solve the consistent bullying. Having Dyspraxia I was somewhat used to getting picked on due to my speech and coordination, I was always picked last for sports teams and was the worst at sport in general. But high school students take it to a whole new level I had paper and bits of eraser thrown at my head and was bullied over every little thing. Only a few teachers took it seriously but the rest didn't care or couldn't be bothered dealing with it. 

We made the decision to leave the school and I went to a different school.
Starting that school was a challenge in itself and I remember packing a suitcase and wanting to run away (again!) because I couldn't handle it. Thankfully the principal was amazing and I was matched with a great counsellor who I saw regularly until I finished high school (and still keep in contact with now). It was realised that my dosage needed to be upped to the full amount because I had gone through a growth spurt and I ended up switching doctors to the one I see now. I was also prescribed some anti anxiety attack meds that did nothing but make me dizzy, over the years I would try many until I found one that would work.
I survived one night of the year 9 camp and was proud of myself that I had made it that far in a new school and environment.

The rest of high school was a blur of good times, bullying times (which were promptly got on top of) and anxiety attacks/downs. There was an expectation though that come the second day at the start of each term or school year I would dip and have a full on anxiety attack that would leave me a mess for that day, thankfully (finally!) by year 12 that had stopped so I was able to start my final year without a hitch. During my lowest point I wanted to kill myself and one night I was convinced that I saw this spirit try to convince me to do it. Whether it was actually a spirit or just my over active imagination I will never know but I made a promise to myself and to God that night that as long as he helped me survive it I would continue to live. Though there have been times when I have wanted to end it all I just go back to that night and know that I have to keep living.
I survived my year 11 camp which was nothing short of a miracle and began to talk openly about my anxiety and taking medication for it when I realised that it was nothing to be ashamed about. I graduated with early acceptance into TAFE and all that mattered was that I had survived the experience battered and bruised but still alive. My doctor would later confess to me that he didn't think I would survive beyond Year 10 as my anxiety was so bad.

I started TAFE feeling like an adult but only lasted 2 days in my chosen course before switching to a similar less intense course. I moved churches as my Dad has resigned from the one we had called home for 8 years. This was a lot of changes in such a short span of time so I feel that I handled it well considering how much I struggle with change.
Then on ANZAC day I got a virus that wiped my serotonin levels (so I am told as that was the only possible explantion for what happened and its not unheard of) I felt like I was back to square one and my dosage was promptly doubled with the view that it would eventually go back down (I am still waiting for that to happen!). I was also prescribed the only anti anxiety attack med that would help but with some major side effects mainly managing to knock me out for multiple hours, thankfully half a tablet helps but I feel like I am drunk so I hate having to take it unless I have to! I finished the course with the help of mostly understanding lecturers despite dealing with some side effects (of my dosage being doubled) that caused me splitting headaches and dizzy spells. 

I survived a few job interviews before landing a job just before turning 18 which I thought was the one but I only managed to last two days due to anxiety attacks. I got referred to a psychologist (despite my prior experiences with one) and was diagnosed with severe anxiety attacks - a diagnosis that explained so much. I received treatment and felt like I was back on top of things. During the sessions I also learned just how badly the bullying had affected me long term and how because of it I now suffer with low self confidence (which I am working on slowly building up). I recall running into a guy who I went to primary school with on the bus and when asked what I was doing on the bus confessing that I had been diagnosed with anxiety and was on my way to see my psych,  it was one of those situations that I was bracing for the worst but he didn't care. His reaction made me realise that there's nothing wrong with going to see a psych and there shouldn't be any taboo surrounding it. The sessions ended when she went on maternity leave and I knew I could handle it. 

I did some work experience at a local university in the student support building which helped me get some of my confidence back after only lasting 2 days in a prior job.
I eventually got a job where I lasted 12 weeks, I ended up leaving as the boss who had initially hired me was leaving and I didn't want to stay during such a period of transitions. I worked on getting my license and failed multiple tests including enduring an anxiety attack during one until I eventually passed. During this time I got temp work for 4 weeks and also switched churches as Dad had received an associate pastor job and I felt I needed to be at the church to support them. 

I got my license (finally) a couple of months after turning 20 and I loved the freedom it gave me. I also realised that I needed to do something with my life other than just applying for jobs so I started studying for my Diploma in Business Admin online so I could do it at my own pace. I began to apply for more jobs further afield and got one in a law firm of all places. I knew it was a disaster bound to happen but I still felt I needed to give it a shot, I lasted 3 hours due to the stress of it and went back to my psych. I knew that I needed more help and it was time for a 'tune up' (I would later be told by multiple people that law firms are stressful regardless if you suffer with anxiety or not).
After a couple of sessions she told me that I needed to challenge myself, I had no idea how this would happen but an advert from ReachOut popped up saying they needed Youth Ambassadors for my state, I took a deep breath and a huge leap of faith and applied. A couple of weeks later I got an email saying that I had been accepted and was I free to do a two day intensive workshop with them. I remember feeling so nervous as I drove in that day and wondering what on earth I had agreed to do as soon as I walked into that room I knew that I was meant to be there. It was an amazing weekend and one that will always stand out as the weekend I showed my anxiety who was boss. ReachOut gave me confidence that my school day bullies had taken from me and I found myself wanting to challenge myself and see what I could do for ReachOut.

I was able to get some casual caring work with one of Megan's friends once a week and on the advice of her mum who is a naturopath was told to lower my caffeine intake, eat a high protein low carb diet and take fish oil daily. This took a while for me to do but I eventually but I managed to give up my Diet Coke addiction and slowly switch up my diet. Long term this has been a great decision and I have never felt better, I aim to eat well 80% of the time and know that it’s not the worst thing if I eat badly at times as long as I get back on the good eating wagon!

I eventually got a job that I liked in a place I knew after doing work experience in Year 12 there but half way through my probation I lost my license and my confidence took a battering, I kept going but I was struggling to keep up and felt like I was drowning, so many times I would dream of packing it all in and running away (noticing a pattern?). I would fill my psych sessions feeling emotional and just spilling everything out and wondering how on earth I could stop feeling this way. I then slowly realised that deep down that maybe this job wasn't for me. It took me a while to come to this conclusion and I felt like I was giving up but on the advice of my psych, doctor and after much prayer I knew I had to leave. 
During that period a miracle happened, I was told when I lost my license that I would have to re-sit my practical test again as I was on my P Plates, this added to my anxiety as I had failed it four times just trying to get it in the first place! I walked into the licensing centre ready to face the music and sit the theory test so I could book the practical test and walked out of there with my license back. I honestly have no idea how it happened but it was such a God thing and I wanted to shout it from the roof tops. 
I left that job with my head held high and knowing that I gave it my best it just wasn't the right job for me.

Since then I have been embracing unemployment while the job market is non existant, getting back into my studies, continuing to be a ReachOut youth ambassador which meant I gave up my laptop for the month of May and have since signed up to do a 5km walk and doing some casual caring work 3 hours a week with another of Megan's friends.
My anxiety is under control with the help of psych appointments every 3 weeks, diet, medication, regular doctor’s appointments, prayer, regular exercise (which at the moment is walking) and just taking time to breathe. I know that I will always struggle with it and that's ok, I just need to keep on top of it and be aware of my mental health. 
I have good days, days where I feel like I can face anything, bad days, days where I kick my car and just want to scream and days in-between, days where things are ok and I am just going along at my own pace. All of the days are ok and when I look back on my life I know that I will remember the good days far more than I will remember the bad days. I refuse to let my anxiety or my Dyspraxia get in the way of my dreams and living my life, because I know that God has planned every detail of my life out and it’s a just a matter of trusting in him and knowing that he is in control.
Having anxiety sucks but compared to where I was and where I am now my anxiety sucks a lot less and that is a huge accomplishment. 

Many things that have helped me throughout this journey, there is (unfortunately!) no easy fix for anxiety so throughout the years I have done a variety of things to help survive it:
  • Me Time - I neither an introvert or an extrovert it all depends on how I am feeling and the types of people I am around. That being said I need my space so at least once a week I take some time and just relax. This varies depending on what I have on and what I can do. I love going to sit in cafes with a good book and just read, I have a couple of cafes I like to go to but I also love discovering new places. I also love doing some retail therapy ( either window shopping or actually shopping when I have some extra cash) and treating myself. I also bake a lot and find that its a great to see something change before my eyes and then watch other people enjoy it. Baking isn't a chore to me so I never mind volunteering to bake for bible study or any other event.
  • Breathe - my main treatment for my anxiety attacks was learning how to breathe properly and slow my heart rate down. I do this often and have found its a great way to refocus myself when I get distracted as well. I used to just ride out my anxiety attacks but since learning this technique I am able to stop them before they get major. ReachOut has this great (free) app called Breathe which talks you through the exercise, I have this downloaded just incase I get overwhelmed and need something physical to focus on.
  • Escape (virtually!) - I read a heap of books and watch a lot of shows as I find they give me an escape from the world around me. Even if its just for a short period of time I have something other than myself and my thoughts to focus on.
  • Diet - I mentioned before that I (try to) eat a high protein diet and limit my caffiene intake. This has made a major difference despite it taking me 6 months to notice it. I don't restrict myself in anyway I just stick to healthy choices and make switches when required. I also don't drink caffiene just for the sake of it and instead drink mineral water or other low sugar alternatives when I need something fizzy. I also take fish oil as studies have shown that helps with your mental health.
  • Journal - it often helps to write something down and go back and read it when I am not in the thick of anxiety! I have a few journals that I write in when I need to get something out. Having this blog helps as well - its probably the only regular journal I write in! 
  • Sleep - I aim to get around 9-10 hours of sleep a night and it really helps me cope. I know there will be nights when I sleep badly and thats ok but by aiming to sleep for 10 hours it means when I do get 7 or 8 hours sleep it doesn't matter.
 If you know someone who is struggling with mental health there are few things that you can do to help them without being too invasive:
  • Take them out - when I was 18 and had only lasted 2 days in my new job one of my friends told me to look presentable and that she was coming to pick me up in 30 minutes and take me out for coffee. This really helped as I got a change of environments and we could talk. Many of my friends have done this for me since then and each trip has really helped me.
  • Listen - just ask if they need someone to talk to you and only offer up advice when they seek it. There is no need to tell them about you friends cousins boyfriend who also dealt with what they are going through as everyones journey is different. Sure meantion your own experiences if its relevant but don't feel like you have to fill the spaces in conversation.
  • Send them a text or call them - just to let them that they are loved and you have been thinking about them. So many times when you are struggling with mental illness its easy to fall into the trap of "I'm not good enough. I'm useless... etc" so sending them a message is a nice to remind them that you value their friendship.
Please don't judge someone from their mental illness because you will never know their story unless you have lived it.


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