Maybe you can relate. I was always a high-strung, worry wart kind of child, but the first clue should have been the chest pain that started when I was 12. It would come out of nowhere – the sharp scalpel ripping through my lungs, making it harder and harder to inhale. I always felt like I was going to run out of air, like I was drowning on land.
I’ve had tests done. All the tests; tests on my lungs in small glass rooms, tests on my heart with cold goo, and all the X-rays I could dream of. My doctor kept ordering these tests to figure out what was wrong with me physically. Of course she asked if I felt stressed or anxious, but no – no I was normal. I didn’t have anxiety. I was a young teen and I just had normal young teen problems: my crush liked the prettiest girl in my class, I just wanted to be kissed and I was constantly running out of black eyeliner.
When I started dating Jeffery and the episodes would happen, it always seemed to help when he rubbed my back or gently wrapped his arms around me. I had gone through 5 years already of these chest pains and finally something made going through them a lot easier. Even still, no one clued in. I had gone to emergency several times, short of breath and feeling like this time was it, I’d be finished. Each time I had a new suggestion of where the pain was coming from. The muscles in my chest were spasming and I should just take ibuprofen. I slouch too much and I’m overextending my muscles. It’s a symptom related to my Asthma. They always made Jeff sit in the waiting room, a precaution in case he was abusing me. That was the worst of it, though. Hospitals and I are not the best of friends and my person was separated from me.
I started doing poorly in university. I began my academic journey strong, a student of Psychology, with high hopes of becoming a child psychologist. That soon changed to an elementary school teacher. But then my grades began to slip. I felt like there was an elephant sitting on my chest most of the time. Sometimes he would make my chest hurt and make it hard to breathe, but most of the time he just made it difficult to get up. My grades fell dramatically, mostly because I wasn’t attending classes. Finally I just gave up and quit.
I really don’t remember much of that year. I do remember my friends graduating. Photos were shared across Facebook of proud young students holding their shiny new degrees, excited for the promise of what was in store for them in the next few months. Many of them were entering the professional world, moving out and starting to figure out who they were as adults. Many were taking their end of university trip around the world. I was stuck in bed. Social media was like another elephant that sat on my chest and weighed me down, reminding me how much I had failed.
Jeff and I fought a lot. He accused me of being distant and lazy – which to a great extent I was. I was jealous, I felt like he was going to leave me at any second. I was stuck in a loop of worst-case scenario all the time. I started to try to make more of an effort, but it was hard. It was like trying to run underwater. We decided to get a dog together and we adopted a rescue mini Aussie that we named Loki.
Loki began to make a difference in my life. He was extremely aware of my emotional state and often came over to me with kisses or asked to play when he knew I was upset. I went everywhere with him and enjoyed every second I was with him. He followed me around like a lost puppy and we seemed to be inseparable.
I started to feel a little better. I signed up for classes again and was determined to finish my degree. I had changed my degree so many times, each time going to easier and easier programs. I was now in a communication and culture arts degree with no direction, but it was something and I would work to get back into psychology. I met up with an academic advisor with high hopes and bright determination. I knew that the requirements to get into psychology were higher now, but I was determined that after this semester, I’d be able to get back into it because I was going to go back to my A-student, gold-star ways.
The academic advisor told me that I’d have to get an A in every class in order to even think about getting into psychology. I started to panic. That was a lot of pressure. I was still hopeful and I lifted my chin and took on the challenge. But then I got my first test mark back in Brain and Behaviour. It was a B. The advisor told me I had to get an A in every class and all I could look at was that mark – it was a B. That wasn’t good enough. I thought I was panicking before, but nothing could have prepared me for the spiral of panic I was about to go down.
I started freaking out at every mistake. My anxiety began to develop in ways that I hadn’t recognized to be anxiety. I lashed out easily, irritated and angry. My brain didn’t have enough space for anything but the constant snowball I was in – If I don’t get an A on this test, I will fail this class. If I fail this class, I will fail this semester. If I fail this semester, I won’t get into psychology. If I don’t get into psychology, I won’t amount to anything. If I don’t amount to anything, I’ll die alone in a hole with rats because no one will love me.
I decided to see a counsellor at the wellness centre. It wasn’t working. I was panicking right now, but he was focusing on my life history. He focused on my family issues: living with a sick mother, who later became bound to a wheelchair for the foreseeable future. My issues with my father and all the fights we had. This wasn’t helping the now, though. I was panicking right now and my grades were failing and I was snowballing all the time. I left my psych midterm half blank because I was so caught up in the snowball. I gave up and went to my family doctor. Maybe she could help me.
Immediately, she put me on an antidepressant, got me registered with my student accessibility services for anxiety, and referred me to a psychiatrist. Officially, I was diagnosed with panic disorder, social anxiety and OCD. And it was scary. I grew up with mental illness in my family and knew how quickly they were ostracized. “She did well despite her issues“. “— isn’t doing well today, Erin. Be extra kind”. It was a disease to tiptoe around and make excuses for. And all I thought about was that I was going to become my diagnosis, and I would stop being me.
Jeff really stepped up to the plate. He became my rock and learned how to help me calm down from my cycle of panic. It was a work in progress, but it was helping. Loki also picked up on my struggling and he began to help me as well. We started to teach him to also help me come down from a panic attack, and it was like he already knew what to do. He would come over to me, give me kisses, nudge me, and eventually come up for a hug. Often he would try to get me to lay down and he’d lay on my chest, which offered a release from the anxiety loop I was stuck in.
Although this beginning has been long, it was a real testament to how easy it is to shove aside mental health as the root of the issue. Now 24, I spent nearly 12 years trying to figure out the cause of my pain and the reason why I wasn’t keeping up with my peers. Though my journey isn’t finished yet – as it has been over a year since I was diagnosed and I’ve been on a whirlwind of trying out new medications, therapy and figuring out what works, I can at least put a name to it. I hope anyone out there in internetland who managed to stay with me through this long-winded tale and is struggling as well can feel a little better knowing that they aren’t alone. I hope to use this blog to offer my opinions, resources and be real about my anxiety, even if no one else reads it. I tried to write things down in a journal, but I feel more at home with my laptop where I can write as quickly as my brain is going – which let me tell you, it goes a mile a minute.