How I accidentally started going to therapy

So this one’s a bit personal.

Writing has always been cathartic for me. Sorting my thoughts out and writing them down helps me process things, and putting stuff out there – even if no one’s gonna read it – is a release for me. I got it out, I can maybe start to move past it.

So. This is for me, for other people who might not think their problems are bad enough to warrant therapy. I always used to say “well, someone has it worse than me.” Guess what – there’ll always be someone who has it worse. Doesn’t invalidate your pain.

For a long time now, I’ve prided myself on my independence and my chill demeanor. My ability to sit back and weather any storm without so much batting an eye. I’m close friends with people who have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders. There were often jokes – that I would encourage or participate in – that I was the only “sane” one, that I was so calm and laid back and chill compared to most other people. Those descriptors became a cornerstone of my identity and fed into my worship of independence. It played into the mantra I kept telling myself:

You can deal. You can handle this on your own. You have to be okay.

But there’s always a breaking point, and eventually something came along that I couldn’t handle.

It was early Spring in 2016. I’d been feeling a little off for a few weeks – nothing major, but I’d noticed that I tired out faster than I normally did and every so often it felt like I’d get a couple second burst of vertigo. I never fainted, never passed out, so I figured maybe I just hadn’t eaten enough that day or maybe I hadn’t had a good sleep the previous night.

But then one night in mid-March, the night before I was supposed to help some people move, I suddenly felt a lot worse.

I was drifting off to sleep when I suddenly felt a wave of dizziness that was way more intense than anything I’d felt before. My heart started to race and it felt like there was a weight on my chest – not like it was hard to breathe, but I had to take deeper breaths to get what felt like enough air. My heart arrhythmia started acting up. When I closed my eyes, I would see white flashes of light. I started to freak out and in my panic it felt like my heart wasn’t beating at all.

This was not normal. This was not exhaustion or not having had enough food.

I did what nobody should ever do when it’s after midnight: I started Googling my symptoms.

Now, I’d taken a class on the rhetoric of science and medicine at UBC and I knew that you are far more likely to come to the worst-case scenario than what’s actually wrong with you when you visit diagnostic sites like WebMD. (You have a mild headache? It’s brain cancer.) But it was late and I was panicking, not thinking straight. I wanted reassurance that it wasn’t anything serious but boy did I go looking in the wrong place.

I came to the conclusion pretty quickly that I was probably having a heart attack.

The logical part of me kicked in, trying to reason that if I was actually having a heart attack, I wouldn’t be wondering; I’d know. But the panicked part of me had a counter to every argument: heart attacks looked different in women than men, it wasn’t like on TV when people clutched their chests and immediately collapsed, look at what this article says about how many women don’t know how to recognize a heart attack when it’s happening to them, YOU NEED TO CALL AN AMBULANCE NOW.

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The fact that I had 3 of these symptoms was not comforting

In the end, what stopped me from dialing 9-1-1 or driving myself to the emergency room was that I didn’t want to be a nuisance.

The next morning I skipped on helping with the move and went to a walk-in clinic. The doctor there was nice but not overly helpful. He thought it might be a thyroid issue or a vitamin B deficiency or low iron, so how about I get a blood test and an ECG done? I left the clinic feeling a weird mix between disheartened and relieved. Obviously it hadn’t been a heart attack, but I still didn’t know what was wrong. I got the blood test and had the results sent to my family doctor and the walk-in clinic but I never heard anything back so I assumed nothing was wrong.

When I told my parents and roommates the story of what happened that night, I was chided for not waking any of them up. They said they’d rather be woken up for no reason than to find me dead the next morning. Still, the thought of potentially bothering people when I wasn’t sure that anything serious was wrong was absolutely mortifying to me.

I hoped that would be the end of it, that it was just a one-off experience that happened for some weird, unknown reason that would never repeat itself.

It wasn’t.

If you’ve read my previous post, you know that I started watching Critical Role at night to try and distract myself from the panic. It worked to a certain extent, and I discovered a new show in the process, but it could only stave off the worry for so long. I still wanted to know what was wrong with me, and as the days turned in to weeks the dread grew.

I saw my family doctor. He asked if I was feeling anxious about anything – other than the current health situation, of course. I said no, I didn’t have anxiety, these weren’t panic attacks. My mom has a thyroid disorder so he sent me for another blood test to see if maybe that was the issue. Again, I never heard anything back.

I made rapid progress in Critical Role. I started sleeping with my fingers on my jugular so I could check my pulse and feel the blood pumping in my veins when I was convinced my heart had stopped. I was exhausted at work, finding it hard to focus and be motivated when all I wanted to do was put my head down on my desk and sleep. And I didn’t tell anybody.

You can deal. You can handle this on your own. You have to be okay.

Eventually there came another night where the antics of Vox Machina couldn’t distract me. The room was spinning, my pulse was racing, it was hard to breathe, and was that a shooting pain down my left arm? It was finally enough panic to override my desire not to be a bother. I called my mom, choking back tears, and told her that I thought I needed to go to emergency. She agreed to come get me, and I woke Christina up to sit with me until my mom arrived.

My mom didn’t take me to the hospital. Instead, she took me back to her condo and told me that my dad would take me to a walk-in clinic in the morning. I spent the night cuddling my cat and trying not to cry. I felt embarrassed that I’d caused a fuss but that my mom hadn’t deemed it a big enough deal to take me to the hospital, and I was starting to wonder if I’d ever find out what was wrong with me.

I went to another walk-in clinic the next morning with my dad. While we sat in the waiting room, I remember thinking – sleep-deprived and slightly hysterical – that if I died before I got to see Captain America: Civil War, I was going to be pissed. There would be words with God when I got to Heaven, believe you me.

I was taken back to a room and met the new doctor. He’d reviewed my most recent blood work and asked me how I thought my iron levels were doing. I assumed they were pretty high, as they always were, and told him so. He gave me a look and said that I actually barely had any iron at all – to the point where not only did he prescribe me supplements, but he also wanted me to get iron injections.

I insisted that I had hemochromatosis; he didn’t believe me, given how low my iron was. He could see that I’d had the genetic test done when I was 18 but couldn’t access the results, and told me to ask my family doctor about it. Confused, I filled my prescription for the iron pills – there was no way I was taking a needle in my ass until I talked to my family doctor – and my dad took me grocery shopping and loaded me up with spinach, raisins, and iron-fortified cereal.

My emotions rapidly changed. The next morning, what little relief I’d felt about potentially having an answer dissipated. It seemed like nonsense; how could I have low iron if I had an iron loading disorder? Surely my family doctor’s clinic would have called me if my iron was so low as to warrant injections – they had my blood work, after all. But I took an iron pill anyway and went to work.

I hadn’t been at work long when I started to feel sick to my stomach. I knew that iron pills were supposed to be pretty rough on your stomach, but I honestly felt like I was going to throw up. The nausea and the second-guessing my potential diagnosis were too much to handle after nearly six weeks of very little sleep and constant levels of panic. That was finally the breaking point. I went into the bathroom at work, locked the door, sat on the floor and called my mom, sobbing. I just wanted to know what was wrong with me so I could fix it and stop feeling this way. I wanted to go back to the old me – calm, chill, laid back, unaffected. I wanted to no longer be afraid of trying to sleep.

When I saw my family doctor again, he said that yes, my iron levels were pretty low, but I still had hemochromatosis. It meant that my body held on to too much iron when I ingested it, but I’d been losing more iron than I was taking in with the frequency of my blood donations. He told me to stop giving blood for six months and “to eat a steak once in a while.” I left feeling relieved, but also angry that I’d had 3 blood tests done and no one at the clinic had ever thought to mention to me that my iron levels were super low. But whatever.

I did slowly start to feel better after eating an iron-heavy diet for a few weeks. And then I started to feel like an idiot. All that panic and anguish and angst, just because of low iron levels? Really? How stupid to get worked up like that when it was nothing life-threatening. Oh well. At least in time maybe it would be a funny story: “Remember that time when I genuinely thought I was dying LOL

But the consequences of that health scare were more far-reaching than I could have anticipated.

I started noticing that I was feeling more nervous. Little things would freak me out, I defaulted to worst-case scenarios, I felt jittery and scared when normally I would be flippant and unaffected. And then when it came time to move out of the house I’d been living in and find an apartment, I started to realize my reactions were not normal.

I would obsessively check RentFaster every day for new listings in the neighborhoods we were looking at. If a landlord hadn’t emailed me back within an hour, I’d get flustered and assume the property was unavailable. After a few days of apartment hunting, I’d decided that the only logical decision was to buy a place and I started researching what kind of mortgage I could afford.

(Spoiler alert: we did eventually find a lovely apartment and I did not take on an impractical mortgage at the age of 23)

I stressed out so much about my upcoming trip to Japan with Jenica that I started giving poor Christina secondhand anxiety. I was convinced something would go wrong – that we’d booked the wrong flights, that the hostels wouldn’t have our names down, that we wouldn’t be able to figure out the train or how to take out money or a hundred other tiny little details. But the trip ended up being amazing and a success.

I was aware on some level that this wasn’t normal, not for me, but I assumed it would eventually pass. In the end, I only started going to therapy because of a deal with my best friend – not because I was willing to admit that I couldn’t “get over” this on my own. My best friend and I were both not in great places towards the end of 2016, but we were both too stubborn to admit that we needed more help than we could give each other. So eventually in a bid to try and get the other person help, we made a deal: “I’ll go see a therapist only if you do.”

When I asked Christina if she knew of a good therapist for me, I honestly expected her to say something like “Why? You don’t need to go to therapy. You’re fine!” Instead, she said: “Oh thank god, I’ve been waiting to send you to Carol for like a year.”

Oh. Well then.

During my first session, I honestly thought it was a waste of time and money. Yes, let’s analyze the less-than-ideal family environment I grew up in, the emotional damage of shitty friends in junior high – all stuff I should have gotten over by now, in my opinion. But Carol zeroed in pretty quickly on the fact that my “getting over” things only involved me shoving them in a box, pretending they didn’t exist or bother me, and then letting things fester for years and years and when those unpleasant feelings got triggered again I’d have to numb myself so I could continue to not deal with them.

The agreements I’d been making with myself for years – you can deal, you can handle this on your own, you have to be okay – were slowing suffocating me. Independence had become my idol. If I was independent, I was mature and successful, and I was worth something as a human being. Being independent meant not leaning on other people for support – after all, they had their own problems that were much worse than mine – and relying only on myself because I was the only person I could count on not to let me down.

But I had let myself down. I wasn’t independent anymore because I couldn’t handle it on my own. I couldn’t deal. I wasn’t okay. The pressure of trying to hold everything together had finally exploded in a bursting forth of anxiety and depression. Coming to grips with that was hard. It was like everything I’d built my identity on – being the fun, laid back person who wasn’t bothered by anything – was being ripped away from me piece by piece. I didn’t know who I was anymore.

This whole situation was the catalyst for a fairly severe crisis of faith. I grew up going to church and became a Christian when I was nine or ten, but I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve ever felt God’s presence. For about a decade I’ve known that my relationship with God isn’t what it’s supposed to be: it’s distant, indifferent, aloof. Sure, I volunteer regularly at church and attend a community group weekly and do reading plans on YouVersion, but I’ve never felt the intimacy with God that I so desperately crave.

Books like Crazy Love and Captivating and The Return of the Prodigal Son have convicted me that I’m missing out on something; so has the faith that my pastors and my friends display and talk about. But somehow I can never quite get there myself. I can’t force myself to care and be passionate when I’ve never truly experienced God’s love the way these people have. They can tell me about it until they run out of breath, I could read every book written on the subject, but I can’t logic my way to believing it with my heart.

Honestly, it’s been a frustrating few years. Asking for God to reveal his love and never feeling any differently. Am I not praying hard enough or using the right words? If that’s the case, then why does God ignore the prayers of my friends who are much closer to him? What more am I supposed to do? I feel very like Jeremiah: “Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer.” – Lamentations 3:8

Going to Carol, I’ve realized the full extent of the walls I’ve put up to protect myself. Walls that keep God out, evidently. Part of the reason those walls are up in the first place is to see who cares enough to break them down. I realize that’s not a fair attitude to have, but it is what it is. Surely if God loves me, he could tear those walls down in an instant.

It’s a constant battle between my feelings (which I know are unreliable – sometimes my emotions change with the slightest breeze) and what I know (or at least what I’ve been told) to be true. And Carol has said that the very fact that I’m seeing her and trying to sort this all out is proof that God loves me and cares about me. I want to believe that this sudden onset of anxiety is that process of breaking down those walls, showing me that my coping mechanisms aren’t healthy and that pretending I’m okay and don’t need anyone else isn’t a viable long-term plan. It’s part of the reason I finally bit the bullet and got the tattoo I’d been thinking about for four years – to have a permanent reminder of something I want to believe, despite whatever circumstances I find myself in. Some days it helps. Some days it’s just black, meaningless script on my arm.

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El Roi – “The God Who Sees”

Part of the problem is that I’m impatient. I want solutions that work almost immediately. I have very little interest or patience in walking through difficult seasons in my life for periods of time longer than a week. I’m also a perfectionist and I take failure (even perceived failure) hard. So given that I’ve been feeling this way about God for almost a decade – and even more keenly since about 2014 – and I’m still in the thick of it, part of me is tempted to through up my hands and say “what’s the point?” Maybe I’m just deluding myself. Maybe it will always be like this and that’s just something I have to accept.

It’s frustrating that I’ve been seeing Carol for eight months and, despite all the progress I’ve made and the greater self-awareness, there are still weeks and months where I struggle with moderate anxiety and mild depression, where I just can’t get away from myself. I go back to old coping mechanisms of not dealing with negative emotions and pretending everything is fine because that worked for 24 years – even though I know now that it really didn’t.

Progress isn’t a straight line. I try to tell myself that. Progress is learning about and practicing self care – and not just the pretty bath with candles and soft music self care. It’s realizing that self care is knowing when to let yourself take a break and recover; giving yourself a pep talk so you can drag your ass to the grocery store and cook real food; going to the gym even though you’d rather just crawl into bed; or allowing yourself a moment of weakness and a quick cry in the bathroom at church and then getting back out there to run lights anyway, instead of just emotionally shutting down.

Just because I’m not always moving forward doesn’t mean that I’ve failed and should just call it quits. To borrow some lyrics from a song that seems to get exactly how I feel:

I won’t come back to you broken
I won’t stay away too long
Even if words I’ve spoken seem to still come out wrong
I’ll get my shit back together
Get right where I belong

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