“I felt out of control. I felt like there was no escaping it, that this was something that was going to be my life, everyday for the rest of my life.”
In the late 80s/early 90s, Ruth started suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. At that time, she didn’t know what was happening. Nobody talked about mental health the way we do now, so she went to her family doctor to make sure she wasn’t dying – she was experiencing feelings of breathlessness, after all. Ruth doesn’t remember receiving a “formal” diagnosis like most of us do now but, thinking back, she’s sure her doctor must have used those words. She walked away with instructions to read a couple of books and a small prescription of Ativan. She remembers that even just knowing she had that prescription was a relief.
Ruth also remembers being a “nervous kid,” starting with episodes of lying in bed and calling out to her mom in the night, feeling scared or like she was going to die. Despite excelling in school and appearing as a confident student, she’d experience moments where she’d begin to feel nervous in front of a group, especially if she felt like she was being challenged. As she got older, she felt as if her confidence started to wane and one of the most memorable incidents occurred for her in the eighth grade regarding a big math test. Ruth remembers the test being a big deal and feeling a lot of pressure to do well, coupled with a difficult teacher she just couldn’t please (despite being a star student). She remembers completely blanking and feeling like she had to get out of the room as fast as she could. She did something she never did and left school “sick.” To be fair, her anxiety was manifesting itself physically, making her nauseated and flush with sweat.
Later in life, after landing a full-time job in her chosen career and moving into an apartment with her partner, the anxiety began surfacing again. Ruth remembers being alone at night while her partner was on shift work and driving with the windows down to her mom’s house, trying to get fresh air and steady her breathing. When I asked her mom, my grandma (Marie, from her own story!), if she remembers this she said she might remember my mom driving over but she thought it would have been because Ruth wasn’t used to being alone – she didn’t know about the anxiety. Ruth could have talked to my grandma – Marie would have more than understood – but, as Ruth says about that time, “God forbid you say things out loud because you were frightened of the stigma attached to it… and then you think you’re a bit of a freak. People just didn’t really talk about it.”
Despite these struggles, it would be another couple of years before Ruth saw her doctor. By then, the pressure had mounted. Her partner (my dad) was out of work and back in school, she had my sister and I, money was tight, and she was working a very stressful job. “There was just a lot going on and that’s when I started to lose… my shit. I remember, again, thinking, oh my god. Here comes this thing again. I feel like I’m going to stop breathing.” In addition to medication and reading, Ruth was told to make lifestyle changes (such as cutting back on caffeine), and she even found a counselor through a program at work. She remembers her therapist practiced out of her apartment and Ruth would sit at the kitchen table, talking through issues that were causing her anxiety, working on coping strategies, and even hearing her counselor’s own mental health struggles which normalized anxiety for her. “She seemed very normal … At the time it was just good to go talk to somebody.”
Ruth still struggles with her anxiety. Throughout the year she occasionally has to attend conferences and training sessions, including group interactions that force her to talk about herself. She remembers a time last fall when she was in a group of peers and higher-profile managers, counting down the line of people, dreading when the spotlight would be put on her. Luckily, the fire alarm went off and she was able to step outside and cool down before continuing. However, since she can’t always count on being saved by a fire alarm, Ruth sometimes takes the time to step into the bathroom, take a few breaths, wash her hands, and maybe dab some cool water on her neck. Simple but effective.
She has other methods of coping, too. During a difficult and traumatic time in her life she made the decision to go back to therapy, but upon the recommendation of her long-time RMT she decided to try an alternative to traditional talk therapy. Ruth saw a counselor that introduced her to EFT Tapping. “It might seem weird but there’s something about tapping on certain points of your face. You can hear the tap, feel the tap, and it pulls your mind off of what you’re obsessing about.”
While breathing has always been important it seems to have taken on a renewed role for Ruth. She has now been practicing yoga for over a year and sometimes she’ll find herself unconsciously taking “deep, cleansing breaths” like those she practices on her mat. Mantras are also important, from the Serenity Prayer, “you love and accept yourself,” and, my personal favourite, “you are the honey badger. The honey badger can do anything.”
For Ruth, the worst part about living with anxiety is worrying that, even through the good moments, it’s going to happen when you least expect it. “Your life is going well and everything is good, and it’s just going to rear its ugly head.” She no longer carries Ativan with her so she no longer has the comfort of knowing she has an “emergency pill” as a safety net, but she does try to be more aware of what’s happening in her life. Ruth knows when her thoughts aren’t clear, she’s juggling multiple thoughts that have no cohesive flow, or when that breathlessness starts to creep up, that she needs to take care of herself. She’ll still crack a window for air during her commute if she needs to, but she also knows that stepping away from her desk to take a walk does her good. She knows that she needs to eat well but eating something simple like yogurt and fruit is better for her stress levels than cooking an elaborate meal. She takes the time to go for a run to tire her body and quiet her mind. Even her bedtime routine brings her calm – she’s lets the dogs out one last time, she brushes her teeth, she puts on facial moisturizer, she puts on pajamas, and then climbs into bed where she tries to pick up a book rather than turn on the TV. “… I have to be conscious about it because every now and again if I’ve not slept well enough, eaten well enough, taken care of myself well enough, and there’s stress at work or stress at home, I can feel it starting. I’m starting to feel off.”
I tend to forget my mom has anxiety. I don’t know if it’s because she’s quiet in her struggles, or if it’s because she’s the type of person that pushes through every situation, anxiety be damned, or if it’s because she’s the one who takes care of everyone else in her life. Whatever the reason is, it’s a reminder for me to keep in mind what she says she wishes more people knew about mental health: we shouldn’t be so quick to pass judgement because everybody has a story and we don’t know what others have gone through. My mom’s story, Ruth’s story, has been just one more to add to my lesson in how diverse mental health is.