A Disease of Chemical Not Character
By Alyssa Wooster
It started at thirteen, well at least my personal struggles did. I had always been a bit chubby in elementary school, or as people so endearingly referred to it having a “boot-a-belly.” In High School, I decided that I didn’t want to have this “cute little baby fat” anymore. It started with sports, I danced, I played rugby, I played softball, I trained, I ran 5 Ks almost daily -I was exercising for hours on end. With the training of course I had to “fuel” my body, so then came the salads, the mere apple, all the “good” foods. Then came the growth, being my full 5’6 it was normally to be skinny after a growth spurt right? First 100 pounds, then 90 pounds, then 80. At the time I was ranging around a BMI of 13.7, but I was just growing right? My family was worried, but I wasn’t. My friend approached me saying maybe I shouldn’t go for another run, being the first one to call me the big “A” word., I was just being healthy, right? I was skinny, I was “beautiful” in my own mind. I couldn’t control the acne, or the braces, or the bangs (another regrettable choice at that age), but my weight I could.
I didn’t realize that I had struggled from Anorexia until years later, alike many of my other struggles. Luckily, I had gotten better. I had put on (the minimal) amount of weight to be acceptable. My Aunt stopped worrying, my friends stopped commenting. Growing up in a dance studio and working at a restaurant known to hire people for their looks, I grew up hating my body, I hated myself, I hated my appearance, but most of all I hated my mind.
I wish I could say that that was the extent of my struggle with mental illness, but unfortunately it was just the first shovel full from the pit I would later fall into. If you asked anyone who knew me in High School, they would describe me as a good student, a girl who occasionally liked to party, an active individual, and a really nice, happy girl! Working, volunteering, dancing and having straight A’s was my way of distracting myself from myself. If I studied a bit longer for this test, I wouldn’t have to worry about lying in my bed until 4 in the morning thinking about all the horrible things I had done, and the horrible things I wish I could do.
The deep dark depression consumed me, I masked it with a smile and took part in hours upon and hours of activities. Grade 11 was the first diagnoses, Major Depressive Disorder, it felt like a stamp on my forehead that everyone could see. My therapist suggested medication, but I refused to admit that I couldn’t function like everyone else. I didn’t need it, going on medication seemed like me giving up on any hope of “being normal.” So I spent no time alone, leaving myself no time to think. Immersing myself in activities, before my depression drowned me.
Then began the anxiety, dancing in pair with depression. I had been asked to join the professional division of my studio for Hip Hop, amongst the best dancers at the studio whom I admired, but held on a pedestal. I did not feel worthy of being at this level. My feelings of inadequacy, in the one field I had always felt good at overwhelmed me and that was the year I started having my “asthma attacks.”They soon came more often than not; would I get accepted into the McGill? Queens? How did I only get a 90? The words failure failure failure, ate at me until I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think, I sat in a puddle of tears and anxiety, begging to catch my breath for even a second. It wasn’t until after being diagnosed with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder two years later–Panic subtype, that I realized they were not asthma attacks. I pushed myself through my depression and anxiety telling myself that university will be better, it’ll be better, I’ll be happy, it was the Holy Land to me. McGill, I had made it, the top university in Canada—life had to be better there. It was as if I could leave my mental illnesses back in Vancouver, apparently I believed that they wouldn’t be able to get through the security at YVR, unfortunately, I was wrong.
Residence seemed like it would be the best time of my life. A new start, new friends, away from the toxicity of my old life at home. But there were things I didn’t expect, the change in course load, being constantly surrounded by people. I went from having a 94% average to barely getting B’s in my classes. A 50 percent? I was never someone to get a 50%, but my anxiety would make my mind blank. I would sit in exams shaking, unable to concentrate, just trying to take a deep breath trying to not let myself go into a full-blown panic attack and “embarrass” myself in a field house full of people. I didn’t expect the partying, I didn’t think I would ever have a bad relationship with alcohol, having a family member who struggles with addiction, I was careful, diligent. But I found that harder to control with my nerves. I would drink until I no longer felt anxious and often would drink to the point of becoming unaware of my actions, or more commonly known as “blacking out.” This sent me into an horrible anxiety inducing cycle of waking up in the morning having no recollection of what had happened the night before, panicking as I had no idea how I had gotten home, who I had talked to, or where I had been. But that was university right? We all party a bit too hard. I thought it would stop in university, but the panic didn’t stop, it was all consuming. I would leave the library short of breath and full of panic, I was a failure, I was worthless, how can I not handle the course load? I used to be such a good student.
My anxiety got in the way of new friendships I had made, my friends thought I was upset with them as I would lock myself in my room, to keep the panic contained within my four small dorm room walls. And it kept getting worse, I would take the back stairs to avoid talking to anyone. But it was just school, or at least convinced that’s why I would hide from my friends, my emotions and myself. I struggled with not falling back into my ED tendencies, after the freshman 15 came (and went) and the stress consumed me. Then school stopped but the anxiety didn’t. I spent the first 18 years of my life trying to run away from the truth, giving myself set points, when you make it here you’ll be better, when you get here you’ll be happy, and it didn’t.
You’re smart, you’re strong, you can beat this. But I couldn’t and I can’t on my own, which is why I had to finally make the decision to go on medication. Anti-depressants were horrifying to me. Everyone has a bit of anxiety, but after my first month of medication, I realized I hadn’t been functioning at a normal level. I was overwhelmed by the ability to stay calm; it was jarring. I didn’t realize that my constant state of worrying and ruminating and panicking, was not what every 18-year-old felt.
Going on medication, was the best decision but one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made. Years of therapy have helped as well, but there’s a point in your life where you can no longer let other people help you, you need to help yourself. I remember sitting in my doctor’s office, the woman I had seen as a child, describing to her that I couldn’t be rational, I couldn’t be around people, I couldn’t feel normal. She was the second person to ever suggest I go on medication and this time I accepted. I finally admitted that I couldn’t do this alone, that it wasn’t simply an issue of willpower, it was a mental illness. When friend’s express worries about their mental health to me, I am quick to console, I tell them that anxiety and depression are diseases of chemicals not characters, but this is a phrase I struggle with daily. And chemicals can be regulated. A friend once said to me, medication doesn’t stop the waves, it just gives you a board and a paddle Sometimes it can be hard to admit you can’t swim.
My panic attacks have calmed down, it’s rare that my anxiety consumes me fully, well at least it’s less often than it used to be, and I feel like I (on the most part) have a better relationship with food now. That’s not to say that I’m a 100% happy, nor do I think I ever will be. I know that it is a constant struggle, that I can never eat anything without thinking twice and there’s rarely a day that goes by without some sadness. But that’s part of living with a mental illness, you may not ever be one hundred percent okay, but it’s also okay to not be okay. I struggle with not knowing when I will feel okay, but I am confident that I have the resources and strength to deal with my emotions until I do.
I now work in Mental Health at my university, and like this project, I’m trying to battle stigmas that surround mental health and mental illnesses, but I have to keep working on the stigmas I have about myself. I am blessed to have the amazing support network I do, and I’m lucky that I’ve had friends, my mom and my dog support me through it all. I honestly do not think I would be here for today if it was not for them, and sometimes their love and support is the only thing that keeps me going. I want to leave you with a quote which I feel summarizes my emotions towards the pain in my life, but also the overwhelming love I feel graced with everyday. As hard as everything gets and as hopeless as I can feel sometimes, I know that I want to be here at the end of the day and I’m going to fight everyday, and that is within my willpower, to keep “kicking it.”
“Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life... You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry... you will someday. "
American Beauty, 1999
About The Author:
Alyssa Wooster is a second year student at McGill University studying Psychology and Economics. Being born in Richmond, BC, she enjoys a good hike. Other things she likes to do to relax are reading, listening to music and yoga! Her ideal day would involve a big glass of cheap wine, a warm puppy, and some mac and cheese. She currently works as a peer health educator for mental health at “Healthy McGill”. After she graduates she hopes to pursue a career in social policy, working to make the public mental health sector more accessible.