This is what anxiety feels like

I started a job two weeks ago.  I woke up a bit late for my second day.  I panicked because I didn’t want to be late.  I started thinking about how embarrassing it would be to come into work half an hour late on my second day.

So, instead of coming in a bit late, I called in sick.  And then, because I was embarrassed about having called in sick on my second day, I quit the job.

This is what anxiety feels like.

In a matter of seconds, my mind is able to turn a small issue into a catastrophic one.  I woke up with the intent of going to work.  I saw the clock, and I froze.  My mind started racing, and the thought process went something like this:

7:45 – first alarm.  Snooze.
7:50 – second alarm.  Snooze.
7:55 – third alarm.  Fine, I’m awake.  Turn the alarm off.
8:30 – I wasn’t awake. Fuck. I’m late. I can’t be late.  It’s my second day.  Fuck!  I can’t believe I would do this.  How am I so stupid?  Why did I turn the alarm off?!  I can’t go in.  I can’t.  They’ll be mad at me.  Everyone will talk about me.  It’s my second day and everyone will already be talking about me and how I’m always late.  I’m not going in.  I’ll call in sick.
8:31 – scramble around the house, looking for the phone and the number to call.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.
“It’s Becca – I just started yesterday – this is really embarrassing but I can’t come in.  I’m… sick.”  Seriously, Becca?  You paused?  As if they’re gonna believe you’re sick now.  They’re not stupid.  You can’t go back there.
“Okay, no problem, hope you feel better!”  no, she doesn’t hope you feel better, because she doesn’t believe you.  Why would she?
8:33 – back to bed.  It’s over.  Go to sleep.  Dream about something better.  Don’t get back out of bed.  It doesn’t lead to good things.

I slept until about 3pm.  When I woke up I felt so stupid and embarrassed. I got up, I went to my computer and I wrote an email.  I quit the job.  I felt extremely relieved, which made me extremely confused.  How was I relieved about quitting a job when I so desperately needed the income?

Everything overwhelms me and I just can’t seem to focus on a solution.  I shut down.

I was off to a great start: I found a job within a few days of being home from my backpacking trip.  That’s amazing!  But, I had a bad moment.  I slept in a bit, and the fear of being reprimanded for being late (which, at the end of the day, is not that big a deal!) resulted in me giving up entirely.  Of course it would have made much more sense to face the fact that I was a bit late – own it, apologise for it, and carry on with the day.  Unfortunately I can’t always think this clearly.

When you’re overcome with anxiety, you just want to run away from it.  You want to make that feeling go away, and you’ll do whatever you can to make that happen – you won’t even consider the consequences.  You just need that instant relief.  Or, you might consider the consequences, but you won’t care enough in the moment.  You’ll do whatever it takes to release your problem right then and there, even if it causes a worse issue later on.

You’ll deal with that one when you come to it.  Probably, you’ll “deal with it” by running away and thereby chasing the next problem that will undoubtedly present itself.  It’s a rather vicious cycle.

So, how do you overcome anxiety?

I typically have the ability to think rationally.  I’m very self-aware and I know and understand my thought processes quite well.  But there are so many versions of me.  The anxious Becca can’t think rationally; she jumps to conclusions and gets crippled by fear.  The paranoid, delusional Becca can find something negative wherever she looks.  The depressed Becca just doesn’t give a fuck – about anything.  The manic Becca is pretty similar – just much more energetic.

It’s only the calm Becca that can view a situation objectively.  Unfortunately I haven’t figured out yet how to make her stick around for long.

What I really need to do is breathe.  I need to breathe and I need to learn to talk myself out of these irrational thoughts.  I need to learn how to communicate with myself.  I have the knowledge in one state of mind, but it won’t transfer over to the next state of mind.  I need to learn how to make that happen.

That’s much easier said than done.

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What the f#$% is schizo-affective disorder?

Schizo-affective disorder and I have gotten to know each other pretty well in the recent years, but not many other people know what it is.

I remember when I first heard of it. My GP and I were sat in his office. We were discussing my downfall, and finally working on a referral to a psychiatrist. He needed to give them a preliminary diagnosis. He heard me out – he listened to my symptoms, looked back on notes from previous visits. He told me not to flinch at the words, and then he said them: “Sounds like schizo-affective disorder. I can’t diagnose and treat you for it, so we need to scare the psychiatrist into seeing you as soon as possible.”

Apparently schizo-affective disorder was enough to push me to the front of the line. I had an appointment within two days.

It sounded so intimidating. The ‘schizo’ part just screams out ‘you’re crazy!’ I didn’t know what to think of it. Mainly because I didn’t really know what it was. There isn’t exactly a way to describe it clearly. In fact, it’s not very well understood at all – not even by the doctors – which is why it took so long for me to be properly diagnosed.

Schizo-affective disorder, at the end of the day, is a mix-match of schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. It’s a hybrid of two very well-known mental illnesses, but it means something different for everyone with the diagnosis.

Some people with schizo-affective disorder may only have very mild schizophrenic symptoms. Some may have very severe ones. Some may have seemingly none at all.

Schizo-affective disorder can disguise itself unintentionally. Since it embodies characteristics of other better-known, more common disorders, it can be extremely difficult to recognize.

So difficult, in fact, that it took over a year for my doctors to finally agree that I might indeed have the disorder.

The problem with diagnosing a mental illness is that there is usually nothing physical to examine. Doctors rely greatly on a patient’s own description of their symptoms. The problem with this is that many people suffering from mental illness are unable to articulate what’s happening in their mind, and therefore can’t always provide the information the psychiatrist needs. I was no different.

My doctor asked me if I had any close friends who would volunteer their time to speak with him.

About me.

That made me feel uneasy. One of my main concerns was people talking about me. It’s the last thing I wanted. At first I refused. I used the excuse that no one knew what was in my mind anyway, so they’d be useless. He assured me my behavior was just as important as my thoughts.

Nick came with me to my next appointment.

We sat there all together, the three of us. I remember feeling really nervous. I never knew what to say at these appointments. What was I supposed to tell the doctor? He’d ask me how I felt, I’d say I felt bad. He’d ask me why, I’d say I didn’t know. Isn’t that why I was there in the first place? Because I didn’t know? Surely, if I knew why I felt so horrible, I would do something about it that didn’t involve sitting in an uncomfortable office.

I started to cry. He asked me why I was crying. I didn’t really know why – I just felt overwhelmed. He told me to relax, Nick told me to relax; everything was fine. They started to talk about my moods, my behaviour, my sleeping patterns. I don’t remember any specifics. I was in the room but I was in another zone.

He talked with Nick for a while, then he talked with me for a while, and then Nick and I went home… with another few surveys to fill out.

Eventually, many appointments and surveys later, my psychiatrist came up with a final diagnosis: schizo-affective disorder. Surprise, surprise, my GP had been right all along!

In order to decide which medications to use, we had to really discuss my symptoms in depth. As with any mental illness, schizo-affective disorder needs to be treated differently depending on how it is manifesting itself in the patient. There is no magic medicine designed specifically to fix up a person suffering from the disorder.

For example: schizophrenic symptoms come in many forms. Auditory hallucinations, visual hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, disorganised thought and speech. The list goes on.

The affective (mood) symptoms also vary greatly. Some patients might suffer only slightly – others, nearly exclusively – from mania. One person’s manic symptoms may differ from another person’s. Some people may experience depressive episodes more strongly. Some, like me, may have a nice mix of the two.

For me, the ‘affective’ aspect of the disorder was always quite clear. That’s probably why I was misdiagnosed as having bipolar disorder. I had week- or month-long episodes of depression, followed by episodes of mania lasting a similar amount of time. This had already been going on for years.

My schizophrenic symptoms, however, were harder to pinpoint.

I had hallucinations, but I was always able to recognise that they were simply that: hallucinations. Typically, they’d be visual (but I did have auditory ones as well): I’d see a person out of the corner of my eye. If I kept them in my peripheral vision, they were very much there, but as soon as I’d turn to them, they’d disappear. This is how I was able to distinguish between real people and fabrications of my mind. Since I was aware I was hallucinating in the moment, my psychiatrist figured it didn’t really count, and more or less dismissed the hallucinations entirely.

One symptom he definitely focused on was my delusional thinking; I would create wild stories in my mind and believe them. I was convinced everyone in the subway was staring at me and talking about me. I thought people were watching me all the time. At one point, I genuinely believed Nick was an alien. He has a vein in his forehead that sometimes buldges out, and my mind came up with an explanation for it: he’s an alien, obviously.

Despite having these crazy thoughts on a regular basis, I would also have spouts of clarity where I realised how ridiculous I was being. Did I really think that Nick was from another planet? At some moments, yes; at others, no, of course not. I was always sane enough to hold back from sharing my ideas with people, because I didn’t want them to get the wrong impression and think I was a whack job. I definitely did have some crazy thoughts, but the crazy never took over my mind for too long.

I always snapped out of it.

But the reality of the situation was that, although I wasn’t suffering 100% of the time, I was still suffering. I was still delusional and paranoid. Although I could distinguish between hallucinations and reality, the hallucinations were still very distracting. These things were having a big impact on my every day life, and something needed to be done about it.

So, we started to experiment. We stuck with the quetiapine, a drug I had been on for months to help me sleep, and tried a few different medications before we reached a cocktail that was suitable. Finally the tunnel was getting a little brighter.

My treatment doesn’t rid me completely of the effects of my disorder; I still suffer from all things listed above – just on a much, much milder level. I can live like a regular person 75% of the time, but I still have days where I can’t get out of bed.

Schizo-affective disorder is probably going to affect me for the rest of my life but, it isn’t going to dictate my life. That’s my job. I’m still in charge here.

The beginning of schizo-affective disorder

Looking back, I realise I was 21 when schizo-affective disorder decided to make itself known. This is around the time it strikes most of its victims – I was no different. I wasn’t familiar with the disorder back then, but we’ve become pretty well-acquainted over the last couple of years.

I didn’t just wake up one day and recognize it – I think I always knew I was a little off. But, I guess things just gradually got more and more ‘off’. Eventually there was no denying that my mind was no longer stable.

I’d been on anti-depressants regularly since I was 19. I had never seen a psychiatrist; I never felt like I needed one. My GP and I decided together that my condition wasn’t severe enough to warrant the long wait it would take to get me into a specialist. He prescribed me some Sertraline and sent me on my way.

It helped. Until it didn’t.

After being on varying doses of Sertraline for over a year, my symptoms started to worsen. It went from bad to ugly. Quick. I later found out that while Sertraline can help depression, it can actually have negative effects on those with schizo-affective disorder.

First, it started with the sadness. That overwhelming feeling of worthlessness. That stereotypical depression everyone talks about. I felt useless. I felt alone. I felt tired. I cried. All. The. Time.
It didn’t matter where I was, or who I was with. Those feelings were constantly nagging at me, and I couldn’t silence them no matter how hard I tried.

Then came the madness. I went berserk. I would flip out over nothing. I was incredibly jealous. I was constantly angry – irrationally angry. I created these ideas in my mind – these scenarios where people were secretly plotting against me. Everyone was an enemy. Everyone hated me – I knew it. No one actually cared about me. They didn’t want me around.

That would loop around again, and after a few weeks of being angry all the time, I’d snap back to reality. For a minute. I’d realise how insane I had been – I’d look back at all the things I had said to people, the thoughts I had had about people, and I’d hate myself for it. I’d be embarrassed by it. And then, I’d get depressed again. I’d tumble back down the sadness tunnel and I wouldn’t have the energy – or the desire – to climb back out.

One day in particular stands out to me.

I finished my day at work, and walked outside. It was always like this: an almost immediate change in my state of mind. At work, I could pretend. Because I had to. Outside of work, the break was over.

I knew I didn’t trust myself that day. I knew that if I was left alone, I was going to do something. So I called Nick. I asked him if he would hang out with me when he got home from work. It was a Friday night, and he had plans. Obviously. Expected. It’s Friday. People go out on Friday. It’s the end of the work week. We live in the beer capital of the world: Friday is beer day!

But it wasn’t okay for me, and I knew it. But, I cared more about what people thought of me than I cared about my actual self. I didn’t want to be the ‘nagging girlfriend’ I already feared his friends thought me to be. So I pretended it was fine.

“Okay, so I’ll be alone tonight.” I thought about it, and all I could do was cry. It was one night. One night I was going to be alone. Just one night, and I couldn’t handle it. I can’t begin to explain what was happening in my mind, because I’ll never understand it. It isn’t me. I just knew I couldn’t be left alone.

So I sent him a picture of the train tracks, and then I turned off my phone.

Why did I send him a picture of the train tracks? A number of reasons, I’m sure.

I think the number one reason though, is because at this time, I still struggled with actually asking for help. I hadn’t admitted to myself out loud yet that I needed it.

I took the first step by calling him and asking him to stay with me. He said no, but only because he had other plans. And because I never told him I needed help. I was really struggling. But how was he supposed to know that? Having him reject my well-disguised offer to save my life left me feeling even more hopeless.

But I still didn’t want to give up just yet. So I sent him those train tracks. Then, I turned off my phone, and I went home. I ran a bath. I had a few drinks. I got in the tub.

Unbeknownst to me, Nick is in a panic. He probably realized, thanks to those train tracks, what that phone call really meant. He probably remembered my unsteady voice on the phone, and pieced it together. After trying and failing to phone me, he left work early and rushed home. He got there just as I was falling asleep in the bathtub.

This was only the first of several near-suicide attempts. Thankfully, I never even came close to accomplishing what my confused mind was telling me to do.

After that day, Nick never even hesitated about staying home. I’d get angry at him for it. I’d blame him for his friends hating me. After all, they ‘hated me’ because I was the ‘nagging girlfriend’, right? What do nagging girlfriends do? They prevent their boyfriends from going out and having fun. Ultimately, yes, I was preventing him from going out and having fun. But I wasn’t doing it on purpose, and he was never resentful to me. It was always his decision to stay home. That’s all that should have mattered to me (but of course I didn’t see it that way then).

This was only the beginning of what turned into over a year of serious struggle. Not only for me, but for everyone around me.

My doctor decided it would be best to get me into a clinic to diagnose me properly. I agreed to go for two weeks.

While I was in the psychiatric hospital, I had to fill out a number of surveys. I had regular meetings with psychiatrists. I had brain scans. I went in for electrocardiography. I had to have blood and urine tests done. They encouraged me to attend group therapy sessions, but I never went. I left the hospital after one week, with a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder type 2.

After my experience in the hospital, I didn’t want to see any doctors for a long time. I avoided my psychiatrist like the plague. I didn’t go to my appointments, and I never called to reschedule them. I took the medicine they gave me at the hospital until it ran out. Then I didn’t take anything at all. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that I started to fall back down the tunnel within a few days.

Even then I was still stubborn. It had been so long by this point that I was embarrassed to go back. I thought about getting a new doctor altogether, just to avoid telling mine why I disappeared. Then one day, something took over me. I was in town, and almost on auto-pilot, I walked to my psychiatrist’s building, went up the four flights of stairs to his office, went straight in, and asked for an appointment ASAP.

They hadn’t seen me in months. I never checked in after leaving the hospital – somewhere my psychiatrist had actually sent me himself. They weren’t bothered at all. They were just glad to see me again, and booked me in for the following week. Breathe. Relax. Relief.

When I finally went in for my long-awaited appointment, my doctor wasn’t happy with the diagnosis I had been given at the hospital. He wasn’t happy with the medication I had been on, and he wasn’t happy with the fact that I only stayed for one week.

He wanted me to go back. I refused. He said it was for the best – that way I could be constantly observed during all courses of whatever illness I was suffering. I could get a proper diagnosis and treatment could start right away. I still refused. He couldn’t admit me against my will, so he had to accept my choice and treat me outside of the hospital.

He gave me more surveys to fill out, and started me out slowly on some new medication. The first problem he wanted to tackle was my sleeping patterns. Or, lack thereof. He figured if I could get some well-needed sleep, my head would be more stable overall, and it would be easier to diagnose me. He was right. He prescribed Quetiapine, a god-sent. It’s an anti-psychotic which can be used to treat insomnia in low doses. Perfect for me. It worked, and it still works to this day. But it only fixes half the problem.

We still didn’t know what the other half of the problem was at this point.

23, broke and happy

So let’s just start out with the main points: I’m 23 years old.  I have zero money to my name (in fact I owe some!) and yet I’m completely happy and do not feel threatened in any way.

What?

If, at 18, someone had asked me how I pictured myself at 23, I would not have imagined this.

I would have pictured someone more ‘responsible’.  I would have pictured someone who had a good job, with savings in her bank account to fall back on, should anything happen.  A decent place to live – with or without roommates.  I might have pictured someone with a degree under her belt.  I probably would have pictured someone who, despite all things pointing in the right direction, might not have been happy.  At the end of the day though, that would be the most important factor.  I’d want to be happy.

So at this point, I’m definitely winning.

Let me just sum up the past 5 years of my life for you:

At 18 years old, I had been out of highschool for nearly a year, working my ass off to save for something (I didn’t know what I was saving for).
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life – so obviously I didn’t know what I wanted to study.  I felt this way straight out of highschool, which is why I took the first year off to work.  After that first year, I was still clueless.

So I decided to travel.

I started to look into cheaper ways of traveling – possibly not even traveling, but rather living in a new place.  This sounded pretty ideal – set up a homebase somewhere central in europe, and use it as a port to travel to other places nearby.  It sounded perfect.  I’d get a job as an aupair – a kind of nanny – and I’d use my vacation time, my days off and my ideal location as a way to travel cheaply and efficiently.  I had planned to also use the time to reflect, and ultimately decide what I wanted to study.

That didn’t exactly work out.

I had only been in Germany for about 5 months when I started looking into staying longer.  It just felt like the place I needed to be at that time.  So, I got a job at a kindergarten, to begin two months after my au pair contract ended.  Unforseen circumstances brought me to live in Jakarta, Indonesia for four months, with my host family.  I ultimately went back and stayed in Germany.

That second year turned into a third, then a fourth, then a fifth – I never left Germany. I never felt like I wanted to.  I was so content in my life – things were just easy.  I learned quickly how to live my adult life in another country.  In fact, it’s the only place I’ve ever done it – back in Canada, I lived with my parents.  Sure, I had my own car and I was independent, but I still lived at home.  I never had to completely take care of myself until I moved thousands of kilometres away.  But I did it, and I did it well.

I learned the language.  I paid my taxes.  I had my friends.  About a year into working at the kindergarten, I started dating Nick.  Soon after we met, we had moved in together.  Everything happened really quickly but it worked.  My best friend and roommate, Sarah, also had a boyfriend, Rob.  Our best friend, Charlynn, lived nearby and spent loads of time at our place.  We’d all hang out together like a big happy family. It was a lovely time in our lives.

Eventually, Nick and I got our own place, Sarah decided to move home to California. Charlynn stuck around.

I still don’t know if it’s related to everything or not, but soon after all the changes, I fell into a really bad depression.

I was in a terrible state.  I was paranoid, I was sad, I was exhausted all the time.  I still pushed myself hard enough to go to work – it was hard, but I did it.  I could fake it for the 7 hours a day I was there, and then I’d go home, cry, and sleep for 15 hours straight.  I didn’t have a life and I didn’t want one either.

If it weren’t for Nick, I probably wouldn’t be here.  He was my fucking life line.

I started seeing a psychiatrist, spent a week in the hospital to get a diagnosis. I was overwhelmed with support.  Charlynn and Nick came to visit me in the hospital whenever they could.  Charlynn would always let me know she was there and she loved me.  Anthea, someone I had known for years but never been close with, reached out to me with her own story.
I was finally diagnosed as schizo-affective about one year into ‘treatment’. I started taking the correct medicines, and eventually things got better.  Of course when I was doing really well, I’d think I was cured, and I’d stop taking my medicine. I’d fall back into a state: sometimes I’d be depressed, sometimes I’d be irrationally angry for days, and sometimes I’d be overly happy and reckless – those were the manic days.

One of my worst symptoms was paranoia.  This one went across all boards – it didn’t matter if I was depressed or happy, I’d still be constantly worried about what people thought of me.  I was convinced everyone talked about me – about how much they hated me.  As I’m sure you can imagine, that was exhausting for Nick to deal with day in and day out.  He is a saint because he never blamed me.

One day I literally woke up and thought, “fuck this. If they want to talk about me and hate me, whatever.”
I just didn’t care anymore.  I somehow had a moment of clarity that stuck.  I wasn’t being like this on purpose.  Nick would tell me all the time that this wasn’t me – Becca isn’t like this.  This is just Becca when she’s in a state.

Finally I understood what he meant.

After that realisation, my entire life changed.  I started to go out.  I met an incredible group of people who quickly became amazing, close friends.  I had a family again in the place I’d adopted as home.
The problem with schizo-affective disorder is that it’s selfish.  It doesn’t care if you’re having a great time – it can decide how you’re going to feel regardless of your environment.

This is true.  To a point.  I learned that I could distract myself.   I realised that when things were constantly new and changing, I could keep myself busy enough to get past the numbness.

Picture it like running.  You know when you’re running, and you reach a point where you feel so drained and like you can’t go on any longer.  But, if you push yourself just a little further, you get past it and you gain your second wind.

That’s kind of how it was for me with mental health.

I know this is controversial.  I’m not saying you can cure yourself with attitude alone.  I’m doing this while also being diligent about taking my medicine.  I have other weapons, but I’m using my will power as well.  I’m helping myself, but I’m not doing it alone.  I still don’t think I’m strong enough to do it alone.

So, when I felt myself dropping again, I knew I had to dive in again.  I had to throw myself into the deep end to prove to myself that I could swim.

So what did I do?  I booked a flight to Thailand.

I had been wanting to go for a long time.  I wanted to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary.  That was my plan in the making that I had never actually planned.  It was an idea.

One night, after hanging out with Jen, another wonderful person who stuck by me, I went home, opened Chrome up, and booked a flight to Bangkok.

Just like that.

Then, I went and quit my job, spent as little as possible in the coming weeks, and got on a plane. I was on my own for nearly 3 months.

I just got home four days ago.  I have no job.  I have negative money (I borrowed some to fund my trip).

But I am so excited for what’s coming next.

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