I have been sitting on this blog post for a while now – a few years in fact – and I think now is a great time to finally write it out. Tomorrow is Bell Let’s Talk Day, a day started by Bell Canada in 2010 to raise awareness and acceptance regarding mental health and illness. Through donations and conversations, Bell Canada promotes mental health awareness through 4 key strategies: by attempting to tackle stigma against mental illness, supporting organizations that provide care and access to mental health services, investing in mental health related research, and supporting workplace mental health through training.
Thinking back to 2010, that was when I started my undergrad at UTSC. If I think about my times during school, I can definitely see the need for the creation of Bell Let’s Talk Day, and I appreciate the progress that has been made since then. It validates that my own struggles with mental health are not due to the false consensus effect, otherwise Bell would not be motivated to create a national effort to combat similar issues!
I’m hoping that if I share my story this year that readers (especially students) will feel that it’s ok. What I mean by this is not only that things will be ok, but that you are ok. One thing I initially found difficult about accepting my situation was that it was a part of me that might never go away. However, this does not mean that I cannot work to make things ok, and it definitely does not mean that I am any less than another person. In other words – I am ok!
If I think about my anxiety, I can definitely see anxious tendencies that stretch back to my childhood, including possible inheritance from my father’s and maybe even mother’s side. However, it really didn’t start to affect me until I was in university. Until then, I was able to manage due to what I think was the strict schedule of high school and living at home with parents. When many things are managed for you, you hardly have time to worry or ruminate. But, when I entered university, although I still lived at home, I was now responsible for a whole host of things I had not had to manage before. It was the independence and decision making that were stifling to me.
I used to feel as if one decision would define me. And if that decision lead to an event that went awry, then it would be a disaster. The day of course selection on ACORN (then ROSI) left me paralyzed until the last minute. Although program majors were not to be defined on ROSI until second year, I could not decide whether I should pursue neuroscience in addition to psychology. If I wanted to major in neuroscience later on, I had to take chemistry in first year which was a subject I did not perform well on in high school. I felt that if I couldn’t decide right at that moment then I would be closing off a whole chapter of my life. Later, I learned that this type of thinking is called catastrophizing – thinking the worst of a situation without taking note of the facts and allowing them to balance your thoughts and decisions instead.
I remember my hands trembling and shakily phoning my mom to ask her what I should do. Of course, as all moms are greatly wise, she simply told me that it was ok to take chemistry now and if it didn’t work out I could choose another program later. The amount of relief upon hearing that was monumental. Why couldn’t I think of that at the time? Why did my options feel so limited?? An unfortunate part of anxiety is this narrowing of your thoughts and an inability to think in a balanced way – something I would not learn until I participated in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) years later.
Life during school was a struggle for me, although I didn’t really know why. I performed fairly well in classes and I really enjoyed learning (still do!). There were many electives I took from across a variety of disciplines – Asian studies, classics, English, biology, and along with my core courses in psychology and neuroscience I greatly enjoyed practically all of them. However, the moment I stepped outside of lectures and textbooks, I tended to feel a crushing sense of dread. The best way I can describe it was as if I was a prisoner who was awaiting death row and was allowed to take undergrad classes for four years, but once those four years were up I would be executed.
As the days crept by I couldn’t help but worry. I worried about what I would do after I finished my undergrad, would I ever get into grad school? Would I find a fulfilling job if I couldn’t get in? I worried about finding a partner, would anyone even care to date me or show interest in me? What about even finding friends? Would I find and keep true friends or was I to be alone with only my family for solace? Even if I found all of those things, would I be satisfied with my life??
It didn’t help that UofT constantly pushed their standards onto us. Whether this was propagated by the school, my classmates or even just hearsay that I believed, I constantly worried that I wouldn’t be good enough. Professors would harp on our grades and tell us we were letting down ‘one of the top universities in the world’ (‘if you want an easy time you should transfer to York or Ryerson’ – my prof from second year), and classmates would go on and on about how they were suffering in calculus and it was affecting their chances at med school. How was I to find life satisfaction if I could not meet the standards of my peers and the school itself?!
Eventually I started worrying about worrying. I would sometimes lay in bed paralyzed, thinking that if I got up something very bad would happen, but also feeling guilty that if I just lay there then nothing else would happen either! I realized I had a problem, these worrisome thoughts were occupying my waking hours and it was becoming very tiresome.
By nature I am a tired person (I will write about my sleep apnea someday!), but the anxiety was making me extra tired. I felt like a dead body dragging itself through school only to an uncertain fate. There were many times I wished things would just go away, or that I could just go away. How much simpler life would be if I just ‘felt normal’. That was my daydream. To be a ‘normal’ person who doesn’t worry and drag themselves to do everyday tasks.
I endured this for four years, thinking that this was something I was going to have to live with. However, anxiety is not very motivating, and in fact the cycle of avoidance was very addictive to me. Although I knew I could do something about it, I would avoid getting help because it would cause me discomfort and this avoidance would be rewarding for me to continue the same behaviour. I walked down the hallway on campus to where the mental health counselling center was a few times but always just continued walking out the door to the outside telling myself ‘next time I feel really bad then I’ll go, I’ll research about them online instead’. Of course just even opening email was hard for me so I never did research online for resources. Eventually I graduated without ever going into the center, and that was a really bad decision because I was not prepared for what was going to happen to me next.
In my fourth year I applied to grad schools and didn’t get in to anything. I don’t want to dwell on this topic because it’s still highly distressing, but in any case I had a year off to apply again. It might sound cliché but this year off was really the best thing for me. However, in order to realize that I had to get through some hard times. The triggering moment was when my mom saw me break down in tears and promised to get me help. I was studying the GRE or something in the living room and when I saw her I just cried. It was like things were too tough for me to go on and I didn’t know what to do, I couldn’t keep it contained anymore.
I was actually very shocked (and relieved) by her response. The whole time I had expected her to just tell me to fix myself or to ‘just get up and do something else’ as she had said to me before. She is an engineer and quite prone to finding the most practical solution to things, and also being raised in a Chinese family doesn’t lend much to ‘appreciating emotions’. But in that moment she really gave me the best thing possible – her support. I knew that I would be the one working on my anxiety, but she would be there for me, to believe me and back me throughout the process. Someone finally reached out and handed me a life ring when I couldn’t do it myself. I’m forever grateful – thanks mom 🙂
From then, I went to the doctor and they prescribed me some antidepressants to take everyday along with attending CBT and a course on self-esteem. The drugs work as a ‘baseline’ for me, they do not remove all symptoms but keep me from feeling extremes of emotion or worry. Sometimes I lament that I do not get the ‘highs and lows’ like I used to – there is something quite powerful in feeling intense emotion (although crying at the sound of violins playing in an insurance commercial on tv is not very normal), but the benefits of feeling ‘stable’ far outweigh the extremes in feeling. After taking medication I was able to tackle therapy.
In some ways it was ironic, I had studied extensively about psychological disorders and treatments, and now I was a participant in one of the types of therapy. If anything, by completing the program it was further proof of the efficacy of that therapy. I was able to work with a social worker who helped me to find techniques that worked to tackle my current issues (and not all techniques worked so this took time), and also to gain insight into underlying causes. Mostly, it worked on an everyday scale – I had to practice and apply the techniques (which was a lot of work but like anything worth doing, it requires effort), and it worked on a deeper scale. Over years, and even until this day, I am still working on understanding the thought patterns I have, how they affect or are affected by my emotions and behaviours, and what this says about me as a person.
As I’ve said before, it all leads to me realizing that I am ok. Through the lens of anxiety I was unable to see the things that were good about me. I didn’t see that I was a hard working student who was curious and thoughtful, and I didn’t see that I was a loving person who was honest and kind. It took me too long to see that I was the same person then as I am now, anxiety is and was just another issue to combat.
Thinking of all the things we are capable of, especially as students, we are definitely strong enough to work on our mental health. Like how we have some subjects that are more difficult for us than others at school, we are more than capable of bolstering our mental health when times are difficult. This to me is quite encouraging – if our mind has the ability to perceive things negatively, then why the hell not when it comes to perceiving things positively!? We are capable of so much (why else would we study psychology :)), so then we should be able to use our capabilities for good and to respect ourselves. At least that’s what I’ll be doing, I’m too tired to worry about worrying anymore.
I hope seeing this perspective and story can help to quell some worries in others. When I was studying, I was very blind to any resources out there due to fear and avoidance. After I was able to find support however, I realized the wealth of information that we can use for our benefit. What’s wrong with taking care of yourself? Nothing! Here’s a link to some general resources from Bell Let’s Talk, maybe you can find something in there that’s helpful. And of course, since I have gone through the process and I’m still learning new things all the time, I’m more than willing to have a chat. You can find my email on the people page.
Alright, until next time, let’s work hard on our mental health! 加油!