As I mentioned in the intro of Shannon's post, it's been really neat to check back in with my Life is Sweet writers from last year and see how contributing to the series impacted their lives. Alexandra is no different and it's been incredible to watch (and cheer on!) her journey of growth and acceptance over the last year.
When I look back to last February, I see a very different person- someone who was racked with anxiety, fear and general uneasiness. I’m still not sure why my panic disorder presented itself to me two years ago, when I was happy and healthy and seemingly in control of my anxiety. But it did. The past two years I have experienced the highest highs and also the lowest lows as I’ve sought to accept a difficult part of who I am.
I’ve been anxious all my life. I have distinct memories of waking up as a child from knots of worry in my stomach; I used to wonder what it would be like to not have anything bothering me. I was diagnosed with clinic anxiety when I was seventeen, and then a panic disorder when I was twenty. Anxiety changes the way you think and is based on perceived stress; the brain thinks there is something wrong even when there isn’t. Similarly, a panic attack occurs when the brain senses danger that doesn’t exist. Sometimes panic attacks occur once. Other times panic disorders develop, in fear of having another attack. It becomes routine to avoid certain situations or public spaces in fear that they will trigger an attack, or not offer an escape if an attack occurs.
Last year when I was working through my anxiety, it was sometimes a challenge to even leave my house and go to school. Public transit terrified me (the thought of being trapped inside a train with absolutely no escape meant I was constantly counting stops and avoided taking long journeys whenever I could). Life became difficult and not enjoyable, even when I knew it shouldn’t be. I cried a lot for no reason. I was upset, uneasy and desperately didn’t want to feel the way I did.
There was a specific moment last year during Ashley’s Life is Sweet show when things started changing. Something shifted in me. When Ashley began talking about how mental health isn’t talked about enough, and how those who are suffering are not alone, I completely lost it because I realized that I was included in that category. For the first time ever I let myself feel sad about a part of my being that will never change. I have a mental health issue, and that’s okay.
2013 was a year of insurmountable growth for me. I learned to stop fearfully anticipating having a panic attack and learned how to accept them (they both go hand-in-hand). Whenever I feel my throat close and my heart start to beat quickly, I say hello to my anxiety and remind myself that it will pass; that I won’t faint, or stop breathing, or die and that my adrenaline will soon run out. I began to simply do things without thinking about how dreadful they could turn out, until I almost forgot about the things that scared me the most. I went to having difficulty leaving my house in February, to taking a three month backpacking trip across Europe with my best friend in June. All of these things made me feel empowered and even more accepting of my disorder. I turned to women who were experiencing what I was, and suddenly didn’t feel alone anymore. I spoke to teachers about how I was feeling, especially if I felt myself getting too stressed. It often surprises me how understanding people are when you’re open with them- in many cases, they want to know and learn more.
|Alexandra sitting the cafe Hemingway frequented in Paris - Les Deux Magots- this summer during her trip, and loving life|
One thing I have learned on this journey is that I would not be where I am toady without professional help. I am grateful to have a family that supports my well-being, and do not take that for granted because I know there are thousands of people in Toronto waiting on lists to get help too. When I read all of the wonderful posts for Life is Sweet Month, I am reminded that there needs to be more discussion surrounding mental health, more access to resources and a better understanding so that we can all learn to accept ourselves, and each other.
Alexandra is a journalism and photography student at the University of Toronto. She’s 22, doesn’t know where her life is going to take her when she graduates and would really like to quote the Taylor Swift song “22” in this bio but she’ll spare you. Follow her on twitter @alexandragater or www.219daysoflondon.com