This afternoon’s visit to my GP inadvertently sparked a series of epiphanies. I’m trying to capture as much as I can while they are still fresh in my mind so that I can revisit them long after their invigorating warmth have left my veins.
I have been really struggling lately, in terms of stress, anxiety and depression, as well as existentially. The stress came from several months of over-commitment and the internal pressure I was exerting on myself to not only balance everything, but also to do everything perfectly. I was working for too many hours out of habitual fear of struggling financially and I was volunteering for too many hours in order to gain additional work experience and references for better future job prospects. Furthermore, I was pushing myself to gym four days a week and going on social outings several times a week in an attempt to achieve the healthy lifestyle balance my GP has patiently been reminding me for over a year. Consequently, I did not have much time for my studies and even though I had attended all my lectures and labs, I still steadily fell behind.
Looking back at it, I was too foolish. I was on a high from getting that A+ for my summer course and everything seemed to be a bit brighter. In that euphoric state, I became too optimistic and too ambitious, thus took on more and more things without thinking about the practical time and energy constraints that would inevitably grind everything to a halt. During these past few weeks, I have been severely punished for that oversight. With each and every assignment, I struggled more and more as I became increasingly behind with the course material. As the frustrations mounted, my resilience and coping mechanisms started to get worn out. Anxiety began to creep in and depression joined soon after. Instead of taking this as a warning sign, stubbornness and determination pushed me to see through my commitments. By the time midterm tests were around the corner, my unpreparedness sent my anxiety skyrocketing. At that point I was already exhausted from weeks of spreading myself too thin; my defences crumbled and depression had well and truly dug in. With a toxic cocktail of anxiety and depression, as well as the terrible thoughts, memories and emotions they dredged up, it was impossible to concentrate on studying for the tests despite my best efforts. Too little, too late. This then became a vicious self-fulfilling cycle, where my inability to concentrate caused me to get even more behind, thus fuelling more anxiety and depression and thus further impairing my concentration.
For the past two weeks, I have been unable to eat or sleep, I’ve felt nervous, nauseous and tense and I have even thrown up before the tests. The frequency and seriousness of suicidal thoughts have increased and I’ve been left thinking what is all this for? This then sparked a whole series of questions. How did my life come to this? Why do I always find myself back in this cycle? Where did I go wrong this time? Am I so damaged that I can’t sit a simple test? Will I have to live with this for the rest of my life? Will it ever get better? Soon after, these questions transformed into daunting statements. This is all for nothing. This is what my life has been reduced to. I will always find my way back to this cycle. I did everything wrong again. I am so damaged I can’t sit a simple test. I will live with this for the rest of my life. It will never get better. Not long after that, everything began to feel meaningless, I began to feel hopeless, and I began wondering when I would find the resolve to end it all.
This led me to agree to see my GP this afternoon in desperation. A small part of me was still holding onto the hope that this semester was salvageable – that part of me wanted to obtain an aegrotat for the test. The main reason, though, was because I desperately needed – and wanted – help. I did not want to keep sliding, I was afraid that it will get to the point of suicide, but, most of all, I just wanted a reprieve from all the internal turmoil.
Initially, we discussed topics I had been expecting. My symptoms, my impaired performance in the test, checking in on my diet and exercise and a reminder of their importance. Inevitably, we ventured onto the possibility of me going back on medication. She knew that I was against it, especially because my family is so against it, but she told me what I had feared: there isn’t much else that could be done, we had nearly exhausted all available options. From the healthcare point of view, depression is combated by maintaining good diet, exercise, sleep and socialisation, otherwise medication would be the next step. As I was so obviously struggling with the first four, I knew she was hoping that I would accept medication. She offered to talk to someone from my family, to help them understand the need, but I told her it would fall on deaf ears. And I did not want to involved them. Aside from medication, the only other possibility was to reduce my workload: either reduce my hours at work/volunteer or withdraw from one of my courses. At this point, she reminded me that she had written a letter of support for me to get into my current courses because we believed that I would be able to manage. That really hurt and I felt a lot of guilt even though that probably wasn’t her intention. In the end, I decided on reducing my hours at work/volunteer and that I would seriously give medication another thought.
Somewhere during our discussion, she mentioned that the university is all about helping people graduate. That her, the lecturers, the tutors and the disability services were all there to help me. Furthermore, I have been receiving counselling externally as well. However, I need to do some work too. That despite my past trauma, which I’m working through, there are still positive things in my life. Instead of focusing on all the bad things, I should focus on the good things. She encouraged me to keep a gratitude journal, which, despite some opposition, has a large body of supporting evidence. Every day, I should write down at least three things I’m grateful for, which could be things like have Toby in my life, having clean water to drink, having a brother that loves me despite his flaws, or having people like the disability services so committed to helping me.
Even though I could see the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal, I’m ashamed to admit that my initial reactions were feelings of hurt and anger. I took her comments to mean that she was judging me, that she thought I wasn’t trying hard enough, that my problems were self-created due to my negative outlook and that she was minimising the impacts of my trauma. In hindsight, that serves to prove her point about me focusing on the negatives. Deep down, I know that she did not mean any of these things. Those words came from a place of encouragement, not criticism. Knowing this only deepens my shame regarding my initial reaction and my initial thought that she was just like everyone else, passing judgement without truly understanding what it was like.
I have been thinking about this all night and realisation after realisation have hit me. When I swallow my pride and past hurt, I can see things more clearly. Those words had hurt because deep down I know that I have stagnated for some time now, that I have grown complacent and that I have not been putting enough effort into bettering my life. That is not easy to admit. In the past few years, I have dramatically shifted from stubbornly only depending on myself and refusing all outside help to becoming completely dependent on outside help for my recovery. After spending years of struggling alone, the initial relief and comfort from others taking care of me slowly became an addiction. I can’t even begin to articulate how good it feels, from the explosion of warmth to the much-needed validation, when someone genuinely cares and shows it through their actions. In order to hold onto that feeling, I began to let them carry my weight and slowly shirked responsibility.
That is dangerous, it is toxic, and it will ultimately stunt my growth. Although at the time I had needed a lot of assistance, I should have focused on gaining the skills I need to get back on my feet so that one day I can do it independently. Their assistance has only ever been intended as temporary crutches or training wheels but I had foolishly clung onto them to prop up my self-worth. Although this realisation was a major breakthrough, it is only the first step. The onus is on me to work out how to wean myself off and find healthy sources to support my self-worth so that I can function independently. And thrive.
Although I need much more thought into this, I have the first inklings of how I should proceed. First, to shift my mentality: instead of asking what can they do to help me, I should be asking what can I do with their help? Despite seemingly subtle, there is a fundamental difference. Instead of relying on other people to help me achieve my goals, I need to have more confidence in my own abilities and only tap into other resources when necessary. Secondly, I need to let go of my unrealistic expectation that if I do x, y or z, then my life will immediately get better. Just because I exercised or ate well for a week, it doesn’t mean my depression will vanish. It is a lifelong journey, one that requires continual effort and input, not something that can be cured immediately. Thirdly, I need to accept that there are setbacks. That setbacks are normal, they are part of life and they are things I need to work through, not become defeated by. Fourthly, I need to understand and accept that love comes in many different forms, not always in the form I expect. The quote, “just because someone doesn’t love you the way you want them to, doesn’t mean they don’t love you with all they have” is very fitting. Although my brother can be abrasive and confrontational, that’s just his way of showing me that he cares. Although my dad has never told me that he loves he, he shows it by giving me a ride to uni everyday on the way to work, doing the dishes and laundry for weeks when I’m not functioning and feeding Toby every morning because I always sleep in too late. Although mum always nags and criticises me, it’s because she loves me, sees my potential, and wants me to develop into the person I’m capable of being. Fifthly, I need to make a conscious effort to incorporate gratitude into my life. In the process of becoming so heavily reliant on others, I have also unintentionally began taking them for granted. I am so ashamed of this. It is not okay to take people for granted, especially not after they have given me so much and still continue to support me. So, as my first entry in my gratitude journal, I am grateful for having a wonderfully supportive team behind me: family, friends, Toby, GP, counsellor, disability services, lecturers and tutors.