This past weekend was Canadian Thanksgiving, so I’ve been thinking about what I’m thankful for.
Over the past year, I’ve achieved some professional success, leaving a great development team for another great team in an customer facing role. This included taking on a remote position based out of San Francisco and truly feeling like I’ve become a tech worker. I’ve had the chance to travel to new and interesting places — for work and for fun. I’ve also been able to see my son grow into a toddler, really seeing him grow into a child with personality and growing as a parent. Overall, I’m feeling generally more confident about myself, my relationships, and my whole family life.
And I’ve been able to do this in large part because of anti-depressants that I’ve taken to help with my anxiety.
I’m honestly very thankful and grateful for this.
Last year was a difficult year for me personally. A career change that wasn’t working out (and in hindsight wasn’t a great idea in the first place) coincided with the death of my ailing grandmother and some surprisingly hard parenting and relationship woes in February. On top of this, I was struggling with some personal issues on and off, and they were on again. It was difficult for me, and even having over a year to digest and process it all I’m only now seeing the whole picture. I saw a therapist to help with both these specific personal issues and dealing with my (perceived) personal failings around this. I had seen this therapist before for this particular issue, and saw some success dealing with it. I returned to him again for help, but some of the same themes popped up again.
One thing that came up in sessions time and again was the idea of worry, of feeling anxious. We discussed at length at length strategies for overcoming anxiety, the idea that people often overestimate their problems and underestimate their ability to deal with them, and various related things. I always thought it was strange we came back to these themes so often, since I really wanted to talk about particular problems I had (my professional success, my big elephant-in-the-room personal issue) and not the topic of worry. The approaches we discussed for handling worry and anxiety
The sessions did help again, but only temporarily. After two “failed” rounds of therapy my issue that turned off was turned on again (note: this is extremely common with mental and psychological health issues) and I was struggling. Work had picked up, and I was able to get back into the field I had known and loved for years before that dreadful February. My work and my team were looking great but I still struggled.
One night, I was preparing dinner for my wife and kid. We were having a roasted chicken and I was cutting up pieces to prepare for each plate. Something had happened that day to stress me out, but I don’t remember what. What I do remember was feeling almost overwhelmed at putting these dishes together and getting everything just right. I felt so under pressure about this, and it was causing me so much anxiety. Later, after some discussions with my wife, I realized: “It’s just chicken! It’s just dinner! Why am I feeling so anxious?”
It was a hopeless feeling. Like I was down a path that I would never come out of, a tunnel that would never have light at the end. Thinking about therapy again give me any hope, just more of the same feeling of being stuck. I felt, for a short period of time, totally lost.
So I did what my undergrad multivariate calculus teacher taught us: “If you don’t know what do to, do something.”
After consulting with my family doctor, I started taking a low dosage of Escitalopram (part of the SSRI class of drugs) for anxiety (note: I am not a doctor and do not recommend this approach for everyone). I was very nervous about taking anti-anxiety or anti-depression medications since I always felt a stigma around them. I actually had a panic attack the first night I took these new meds, mostly caused by the anxiety they were causing. I needed to do something, something that would bring about a change in me. I was slowly starting to see the pattern, seeing that changing my behaviour was good but wasn’t enough: I needed to change something in my brain chemistry.
After about two weeks I started to feel better about, well, everything. I finally realized, at 33, how much anxiety I had been carrying around in my life. How much feeling anxious caused disruption in my daily routine. How nervous I felt about even mundane activities. How I finally understood my therapist’s advice that people underestimate how well they can handle particular situations. This anxiety has been around for as long as I could remember (being an “nervous wimpy kid”, being a “wimpy teenager”, specifically avoiding situations that I felt were “risky” that really weren’t in retrospect, etc) and now — now — I understood my issues so clearly. Suddenly, I could handle everything that already felt I could handle. Like some weight I had on my shoulders that I’ve never seen or thought about before was lifted. It gave me the strength to successfully feel like I can handle situations that I never thought I could, even though those situations would come up in my life.
For this feeling, I am truly thankful.
Like many mental health issues and stories, this one had ups and downs: some approaches worked for me, then didn’t. Some problems only became apparent after I sought solutions. I always knew something was wrong, but I could never put my finger on it. Until I could.