“I thought I’d be like this forever”
I am 25 years old and I have a Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety, and Panic Disorder. At least, that’s what it says on paper.. However, after a long journey of searching for answers, guidance and help… I can happily say those do not define me.
For a long time, and sparingly still, those mental hurdles did control me though. And it was SCARY, let me tell you. There’s a reason suicide rates are so high, because living with those mental illnesses at their severity are so terrifying & unsettling. Everything in life loses meaning and feels pointless. You feel worthless and disconnected. If it weren’t for the open doors around me that encouraged help, and did NOT shame me for anything going on in my head, I don’t know where’d I’d be.
When I tell people about the journey my family and I have gone through, they are taken aback. It was not just one major life altering event that triggered my health concerns; there were many, piled on continuously, that forced me to grow up a little too fast.
To name a few...
My oldest brother Eric started having seizures at the early age of 1, just a few weeks after his first-year immunizations. When he was 4 (and my mom was now pregnant with me), one of the seizures led to a massive stroke that left him with permanent brain damage. Eric, who was considered very bright and advanced even at that age, can no longer talk. Although he is now 30 years old, he still has the mental capacity of an infant.
This crushed my parents, especially my Mom - who spiraled into a heavy, heavy depression. She always told me I saved her life though, since she had to be healthy and strong during the stroke to keep me alive and well in her belly. My parents also had my brother Zak (2 years older than me), who was just a baby then, to also take care of during Eric’s tragedy.
When I was just 9 years old in elementary school, I woke up to EMT’s in our home because my Dad had just broke his neck and severed his spine. He was completely paralyzed from the neck down. After many emergencies surgeries, he still never was able to gain all of his mobility back. We spent years in rehabilitation facilities with him, but he only was able to recover part of the movement on his left side. He was an outstanding entrepreneur, a pro athlete, my best friend, my idol, and everything to my Mom. And now there’s not much he can do on his own. The added pressure and struggle on my Mom continued to break down all of us.
Zak and I started working as early/young as possible to help contribute whenever and wherever we could. We kept ourselves active, social, and busy through filling all of our free time with high-level sports. My Mom continued to work long hours as well. But the pressure I put on myself to keep everyone afloat constantly, along with the raw emotions and stress I buried deep down, caused me to develop chronic Psoriasis at the fragile age of 16. No one in my bloodline had a history of psoriasis; it was just something else I had to learn to deal with. There’s no cure; it’s not contagious; AND Psoriasis is heavily linked to Depression. Unfortunately, with my stress level, when it flared up for the first time, it took over almost my entire body. When you’re drowning at home, and then you add on red, patchy, itchy, burning skin taking your self esteem in high school… it definitely doesn’t help you cope. It really does never leave either. It becomes more manageable, but I have yet to go a year without any psoriasis flaring up painfully somewhere.
As soon as I started college and needed space to grow on my own & start taking care of myself, my Mom was injured and had to have a knee replacement and a hip replacement, both on the same side. She got both done within about a year, leaving her pretty much bedridden for that year and in constant need. It was a challenging time when I also needed to stay in college, find time to study, work nights to pay for college and cover my mom while she couldn't work.
Once she finally started to recover from her surgeries and was able to drive herself to physical therapy, she was soon diagnosed with aggressive colon cancer. She had to have almost her entire colon removed. My poor mother could not catch a break between her first born child, her husband, her own health, finances, and so much more. Everyone turned to me; everyone expected me to be there and save the day; everyone put their emotions and needs and pressure on me. Taking care of myself wasn’t even a thought, let alone an option those days. I continued burying it all deeper & deeper down.
Soon enough, I learned that you can’t only take care of others, you have to take care of yourself first, you have to set boundaries and find balance. You can’t hide from your mental battles through distraction in sports, work or whatever your go-to is. It will come to the surface in disturbing and unhealthy ways.
Anxiety and Depression started impacting my life around the time I was finishing high school. Out of nowhere I started getting these horrific panic attacks. Not for any specific reason and they always happened at different times. It was so overwhelming. My heart would start racing. I was weak, nauseous, shaky, and actually feeling like I was dying or having a heart attack. I thought it was just a freak thing and tried to power through the few I was having as they came. It worked... until it didn’t anymore.
One day I was driving home from a morning of playing hockey (my favorite hobby in the world), and I felt the panic attack sensations creeping up on me… for no reason.. I was having such a great morning and weekend for that matter. I tried to breathe and calm down, but it just caused me to hyperventilate. Intensifying by the second, parts of my body started to go numb and tingling. I even lost all muscle control in my hands and face. Literally, paralyzed, in panic / anxiety. I was 5 minutes from home and had to stop my car on the side of the road and call 911, barely able to get words out since I couldn't move my face. I got everything checked out at the hospital, took my first dose of a much needed sedative, and after hours of conscious breathing,.. finally started feeling a sense of normalcy again. The doctor concluded that it was ‘just’ another panic attack (obviously not like the small ones I had been trying to ignore for years).
As traumatizing as it was, it was the wake-up call I needed. I couldn’t just avoid or push away this anxiety inside me anymore. I fell straight into my first real taste of depression. I thought I’d be like this (whatever this was) forever- never feeling comfortable going anywhere or doing anything again. I didn’t understand it or know what triggered it, so I didn’t even know how to ask for help or what kind of help I actually needed. The sheer thought of a panic attack arising in any place or situation trapped me in this mental box. I felt like I had no control and everything was closing in - weak and powerless.
I had to drop my Sales Program at UTD (the most important thing in my life and career at the time), couldn’t make it through a hockey game, couldn’t even get myself out the door to go to a Dallas Stars game with free suite tickets on opening night… I broke down hysterically and begged someone else to take my ticket. I wasn’t living life at all anymore. I couldn’t wait to sleep every night. I didn’t care if I woke up or not the next morning anymore either. My darkest moments were when I had reached the point of no longer fearing death.
I embarked on my journey of recovery and have summarized some of the steps I’ve taken below:
Therapy- Therapy certainly isn’t cheap and health insurance didn’t offer much support. I started off going once a week with medication management every two weeks. Finding the right therapist is a little like dating, I needed to spend time finding the right therapist and psychiatrist that I felt safe with and could actually talk to. We spent a lot of time working on establishing boundaries. My parents had been very dependent on me. I considered myself to be very dependable and expected this from others but got constantly let down. Now it’s hard for me to trust people and I keep them at a distance, but I will always continue to work on that.
Openness / Vulnerability- I try to be as open as possible with anyone in sharing my story. My experiences have made me a much stronger person and enable me to build much stronger connections with others. Therapy really helped me to focus on my relationship with myself and be more in tune with my emotions. I’ve been able to gain a lot of love, belief and reliance within myself. My relationship with my family is on a whole new level and we are all progressing together.
Medication- I started a long term medication plan that is regularly managed by my psychiatrist. It played a HUGE part in saving my life. There should be no shame in medication for mental health treatments, just as you wouldn't shame any other illness.
Meditation- I started using meditation to pause & reflect, particularly in times of high stress. My favorite app is Headspace. I love the capability to connect with other people in the app and hold each other accountable.
Hobbies / Exercise- Hockey and art have always been my two biggest passions. Re-inserting those into my life keeps my mind active and excited. As soon as I got back on my feet, I got back in a hockey league with my buddies. I also took my love of art and tried something a little different with it; I started coloring intricate Mandalas and nature-esk coloring books. I absolutely love it. Love it. It lets me be creative and really counteracts my anxiety at the same time.
Work- I decided not to keep my challenges a secret from my employer (a decision I thoroughly considered), which I started working part time as an intern whilst I was at school. It’s a small company which increases the intimacy and awareness between employees. My management have been extremely supportive, giving me the time I needed to recover, as well as ongoing support/flexibility when things come up, such as a panic attack or family emergencies. I can’t tell you how thankful I am for the way I was treated, even as early on as an Intern. I have worked at this company for over 3 years now and the amount of loyalty is impeccable. Thank you GTN Technical Staffing!
All of these require dedication and discipline. I know I will always have these challenges, but can continue to increase my toolset to handle them.
I truly believe that there are so many ways of getting help, you just have to find the ways that work for you. I’m a firm believer that people that have seen their ‘rock bottom’ can reach their way to the top, only if they allow others to help and support them.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite metaphors I heard recently…