What to do When Facing Anxiety, Depression or Post-Tramatic Stress Disorder?
I was in a highway car crash on October 26, 2017.
It was one of my greatest fears. I was pulled over on the left shoulder of the highway, hazard lights blinking and ears ringing. In my rearview mirror, the hood of a white Honda is ripped back, exposing its smoking black engine. The driver’s head is plopped motionless on the airbag. She didn’t stop in time. In fact, she didn’t slow down at all. I tap the hazard lights off, then on, then off, on.
The whole experience was surreal to me, like walking through a dream. I’m very calm. And I’m very grateful the other driver is ok. She is walking and talking and crying now. I’m trying my best to comfort and reassure her that everything will be ok. With my adrenaline pumping full-blast, I wasn’t registering the sharp pain shooting up my left shoulder, neck, and head.
The following day, a doctor pointed out I have double vision in one eye. I hadn’t noticed. She says I most likely experienced a mild concussion. “The symptoms should go away on their own in a few days,” she says. This sounds non-serious to me, so I pop some pain-killers and shrug the whole thing off. I stay home on Friday and spend Halloween weekend as I normally would.
By Sunday my vision returns to normal-ish, and the pain seems to be subsiding. So I decided to go back to work on Monday. This is when things started going downhill fast.
On the drive in that morning, I almost vomit because I am terrified to be back on the highway. The sun hasn’t risen yet, it feels like midnight instead of 6 am. Headlights seem obnoxiously bright. Suddenly, the back of my skull begins painfully throbbing. I can actually hear the “thu-chk, thu-chk” thumping with each rush of blood. It’s an intense physical sensation that leaves me light headed. “Pull it together!” I tell myself, “This will all pass… Besides, a manager can’t just take time off out of the blue. Just get past today. Everything will be fine.”
By Thursday, it’s been exactly one week since the crash. All the physical symptoms have intensified. I’ve developed a daily ritual of crying for no reason, which is embarrassing to me. I hide it from my boyfriend, friends, and family. Gradually, the fear and anxiety consume me. My appetite disappears and my energy goes along with it. During a conference call at home, I rip my headphones off and suddenly start silently weeping into my hands. I’m confused and overwhelmed and very, very upset. “…I don’t understand why I’m sad. What’s wrong with me?” I scold myself over and over.
The new mantra I repeated to myself every half hour became: “Everything is fine. This will pass.”
Everything is Not Fine
It doesn’t matter how strong you think you are. Every single person in the world needs help at some point in their life.
To be transparent with you, I’m notoriously strong, driven and composed. Being anything less than that makes me feel really, really uncomfortable–and that in itself is extremely unhealthy. Unfortunately, it took me a lifetime to realize that. Living through trauma in my teens and early 20’s meant I had to develop strong survival skills. But in this moment, my stubborn instinct to “be strong, you’ll survive this too” was doing waayyyy more harm than good.
If I was being honest with myself, depression had crept into my life months before the car accident. I could feel its teeth in the back of my neck every night when I tried to sleep. Normally I’m a morning person. But simply willing myself out of bed each day became a massive struggle. I didn’t want to look at people. And certainly, I didn’t want them looking at me. The thought of filming and posting YouTube videos brought waves of dread and anxiety. I wasn’t eating and I wasn’t talking. When I got to work, I put all my energy into “performing.” I feared people asking questions or judging me for being weak. I’m young and female, and so, in my mind, the last thing I needed was for my coworkers to think there was something wrong with me.
Finding the Right Help
I needed help. Evening typing these words is hard for me because a part of me still feels like I’m admitting defeat. And it breaks my heart that there are other people out there who are fighting this same losing battle. How did it get to this point? How did I become so out of touch with myself?
I should have taken the car crash more seriously. When my body was screaming for me to slow down, I ignored it. I also purposely disregarded constant clenching pain in my chest and suicidal thoughts from August to November. I wanted to talk to people, I wanted it to go away, but I was too stubborn to admit something wasn’t right inside me. And as a result, my body revolted against me. It hit the panic button and shut me down.
Thankfully, I’ve been able to return to a somewhat more normal state. I still feel weak, my shoulder and skull still ache, but I feel like I have a plan now. I don’t feel lost anymore.
Here are the steps that I took to start recovering both physically and mentally.
1. It’s Okay to Not Be Okay!
Truly! Don’t beat yourself up if you’re feeling down. Own those feelings, they are there for a reason. Don’t bottle them up or you will implode at some point. Let yourself be sad. It’s critical to healing.
And certainly, don’t make the mistake I did of beating yourself up for not feeling 100%, 100% of the time. Nothing is more human than feeling intense emotion. Sometimes these emotions are uplifting, and other times they weigh us down. If you are experiencing a drive to self-harm or thoughts which are powerfully dark, take it as a sign of something serious.
2. Listen Carefully to Your Body and Your Thoughts.
Everyone has periods when they are down. Sometimes, life just sucks. I like to think of it as hills and valleys. You go down, but you eventually go back up again. However, if you’ve been in a very deep valley for a long period of time, that may be cause for concern.
The very few people I tried to talk to about my current mental state seemed as puzzled as I was. “It doesn’t make any sense,” I would say as I shook my head. “There is absolutely no reason for me to be feeling this way. I have a good life. I have a great job. My boyfriend is freakin’ amazing. So… none of this makes any sense. I don’t understand. I just don’t understand it.” Of course, they didn’t understand it either because I never disclosed the full story. It was too painful to tell people. I turn my hazard lights on, then off, on again, off. I want to let others know I’m in danger, but I don’t want them to get too close. What if they are horrified by what they see? What if they think less of me?
Every situation felt malicious or desolate, and my brain was heavy with negative thoughts. Each day I felt more and more inadequate. Even in the arms of my loving and extremely supportive boyfriend, I felt lost and unsafe. Looking into his eyes I would question, “What do you think of me? Am I a total fuck-up?” It all comes out at once: “What am I even doing with my life? I feel so ugly, are you sure you want to be with me? How could you love someone like me? I’m a monster. I am a horrible monster.” He was baffled.
These dark thoughts were an on-going sign that something wasn’t right. In fact, they were a flashing neon sign that something was very wrong. I was basically giving a voice to the sadistic feelings I carry towards myself; it was build up from years and years of being treated poorly by the men I dated and being bullied constantly when I was a kid.
3. Professional Help is There For You To Use, So Use it Now.
Pain and inflammation can be a result of physical injury. But it can also be due to psychological stress. Your body can, and will, manifest physical pain if you are under intense mental duress. If you have gripping pain in your chest, a sudden fear of people or making decisions, then you may be experiencing anxiety. If it becomes chronic, don’t ignore it. Talk to a professional about coping mechanisms. They will be able to provide you with options to help get you back on track.
The health coverage I get through my work covers psychotherapy, but I brushed it aside as unnecessary. It wasn’t until the car accident that I saw it for what it really was: a beacon of clarity. Sure, I went into therapy under the guise of “getting over my car accident.” But it also offered a safe space to finally talk about being beaten, strangled, raped and psychologically abused for years.
Be sure to check what sort of coverage you have available to you. If extensive rounds of physio and therapy are not in your budget, that’s not an excuse to downplay what you’re going through. Ignoring things won’t make them go away. So make sure you are pro-active when your body is talking to you! Try yoga, meditation, or cognitive-behavioural therapy techniques, there are plenty of videos on YouTube. Take a long bath or shower. Talk to people who care about your well being, let them know what you’re going through. All of those things are free and easily accessible, so don’t rule them out.
As for the gripping fear of other drivers and the traffic-related throbbing pain in my skull? That was diagnosed as PTSD. And that’s certainly not something to be beating myself up for. Currently, I’m taking steps to understand my triggers, and eventually overcome them instead of fighting them.
4. Be As Patient With Yourself as You Would a Loved One.
Imagine a family member or a close friend disclosed to you they were suffering. Would you turn them away? Would you tell them to “just get over it?” You wouldn’t, of course! So why do that to yourself? Sometimes, the way we treat ourselves doesn’t match the advise we give others.
Be kind to your body, you only have one.
Trench Coat: Michael Kors
If you’ve read this far, I want you to know you are not alone. Not now, not ever.
You are absolutely beautiful. Inside of you is an awe-inspiring collection of the very matter that comprises this universe. You have a thinking brain in your head and beating heart in your chest. You are loved and cared for. In this moment, you are safe. Don’t ever tell yourself you aren’t worth it. You are!
Take a deep breath in. And breathe out that ball of hurt inside the base of your throat. Every single fiber of your being is alight with potential.
“May we always find a sliver of light when we need it most. May we support each other in shamelessly sharing our inner worlds so that no one suffers alone. And may we give each other a little bit of our own light when we have some to spare. Surely there is enough light to go around.” – Jeff Brown.