I didn’t understand mental illness until it affected me directly. Growing up, I never talked about it with anyone. The names of disorders sparked a simplistic game of word association in my mind: depression = sad; anxiety = worried; anorexia = skinny. That was the extent of my knowledge. When I was diagnosed with depression during university, I was confused because it wasn’t at all what I imagined. I was constantly skeptical of my own experience because it didn’t quite match up with the DSM symptoms and treatments I had memorized for Psych 101. How could I grasp the complexity of an illness from these “one size fits all” definitions? Even now, I learn new things about the experience of mental illness all the time – not from textbooks, but from real people sharing their stories about how it impacts their lives.
I’d like to create a space for open dialogue about mental illness so that we can understand it better. I think one of the best ways of learning about and understanding something is hearing directly from someone who has experienced it. However, I also recognize that not everyone can share safely or comfortably. Many people are still discriminated against and even jailed for their mental illness, though we are slowly moving away from this kind of ignorance and fear. I am privileged enough to be able to write about this in relative safety. I hope that someone else might read this and know they’re not alone. Hearing that someone else goes through the same thing as you can be really validating. If anyone reading this recognizes some of their own behaviours and feels comforted knowing that they’re not the only one, then I am happy to have shared.
Please note that my experiences here do not represent the only way to experience anxiety.
Living With Anxiety
You know when you’re going down the stairs and suddenly you miss a step, and your body goes into overdrive to make sure you don’t fall? Your muscles tense up to grab the railing or to brace yourself for impact. Your heart rate speeds up to bring oxygen to said muscles. Your breath quickens, your stomach plummets and your brain sounds the alarm – but it’s okay, your foot found the next step and you caught your balance. You take a deep breath, steady yourself, and keep walking, adrenaline fading away. For me, the peak of anxiety is like that moment over and over again, except I can never find the next step and my brain just keeps going in overdrive, telling every cell in my body to FREAK OUT NOW even if I’m just lying on the couch. It’s exhausting.
Anxiety is not just “worrying”. It is, but it’s so much more. Anxiety is being absolutely terrified that something awful is going to happen if you don’t do this one thing just right… but other people might get mad at you for taking too long or being too obsessive and then you’re afraid everyone hates you and it’s just another thing to be worried about.
I know that I’m very particular about some things and I know I have a lot of rules, but they are things that make me feel safe. I also know that if I try to follow all my rules or if I force other people to follow my rules, they can get exasperated with me. It’s not their fault because I know my rules are irrational, but they make me feel better.
Anxiety is being afraid that I’m going to get hit by a car when I’m crossing the street, which is a completely reasonable thing to be afraid of, except when it happens on every street that I cross on the same walk to work every morning. Anxiety is imagining the worst possible outcome more often than not. It’s wondering if that ringing phone means someone has died and you’re about to find out. It’s wondering if the boss called you into their office to fire you, when they actually just wanted to borrow your stapler. It’s wondering if the bump in the night is a burglar in your house, because it couldn’t possibly be a car door slamming down the street.
And then, anxiety is taking twenty minutes to visualize these worst case scenarios very carefully and deliberately in your head, just to make sure you’ve thought out every awful detail and lived every possible emotion associated with this hypothetical trauma.
They said I also had social anxiety, which totally makes sense because I’m paranoid about what people think of me. I fear that long-time friends and close family members secretly think I’m stupid. I worry that everyone I see on the street thinks I look ridiculous, and they are judging me for my clothes, my hair, my face, my walk, my voice. I worry that every time someone makes eye contact with me, it’s because they’re thinking something bad about me. I am sometimes afraid to speak because I somehow know that people will make fun of me for what I have to say, even if they don’t show it – I just feel it.
Anxiety is sensory overload. Anxiety is being afraid to go outside, because out there, there are things like cars, people, movement, wind, cold, walking, lights, and too many things to deal with. Anxiety is being nervous if there are loud noises or if someone touches my arm unexpectedly. It’s feeling like my ears and my skin are burning, I have to get away and be by myself and I can’t answer any more questions like “what’s wrong” and “are you okay”.
Anxiety is feeling like you’re going to throw up, faint, scream, fall down, or explode, all at the same time. Sometimes you’re completely alone when this happens and you’re afraid nobody will see you and nobody can help you. Sometimes you’re on a busy street when this happens and you’re afraid that people will see you.
I don’t feel anxious every minute of the day. I’m not anxious enough that I can’t do normal things like a normal person. But I’m anxious enough that it’s difficult. You can see why I don’t do well in crowds, why I don’t go to concerts anymore, why I don’t like the mall, why I take a lot of sick days, why I don’t go to parties, and why I sometimes wish I could curl into a ball, wrapped in thick blankets in a soundproof room. I need to take a lot of breaks, and I need a lot of reassurance that I’m not going crazy. It’s frustrating to feel so strongly when part of my brain knows my fears are irrational – but I am afraid of them nonetheless.
About Jasmin Yee
Jasmin Yee is an Ottawa-based young professional who has dealt with mental illness since the end of high school. Now 24, she has a passion for mental health advocacy and breaking down the barriers that make it so hard to talk publicly about mental illness. She writes about her experiences with depression and anxiety on her blog, as well as her thoughts on how to reduce stigma. Jasmin aims to develop a career in health promotion so that she can connect with at-risk communities and enable them to take care of their mental health.