I thought my anxiety and panic attacks were normal
When I was under the age of two, I was sexually assaulted as a young child by a caretaker. I did not have any recollection of this incident, but it weighed a heavy emotional toll on my parents’ relationship. Although I grew up without any memories of the incident, I always felt like I knew this had happened to me. There were fragments of scenes in my head that I couldn’t explain until it was shared with me again in my early 20s. Also, as it affected my parents so much, they frequently fought and during their quarrels, which I always overheard, their words seemed to revolve around me, or something I did. Therefore, I felt responsible for a lot of the strife at home.
On the surface, I am very far from how I am on the inside.
Despite my anxiety, I functioned well for many years. I did well in school. Although not an honour-roll student, I did sufficiently well to secure well-placed internships and connections.
My anxiety, funnily enough, felt normal to me. I don’t remember a time when I did not feel anxious. It just seemed to be my natural state. I even thought it was normal to feel so close to puking before examinations.
The first time I thought this might not be normal was when I had to rush out of the room in the middle of a lecture at university. Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I sat outside, trying to calm down, thinking that maybe I could go back in after a few minutes. But before I knew it, students came pouring out of the hall because the lecture was over. I had been outside for three hours without realising it.
These panic attacks became more frequent after I started working.
But still, I thought panic attacks were the norm. I thought that everyone experienced breathing difficulties when they felt anxious. Or chest pains, or dizziness, or excessive sweating. There were times when I became so anxious, I felt like I was outside of my body, just watching myself go through the motions or stressful situations. The duration of time between these ‘attacks’ or ‘blank-outs’ became shorter, and they themselves got longer. I stopped sleeping normally. My weight ballooned. I started experiencing gaps in my memory.
I had a boyfriend to whom I acknowledged some of this anxiety, and he recommended I see a therapist. This relationship ended abruptly when I discovered he had cheated on me. The breakup made things worse as I delved even deeper into my work, spending longer hours at the office, and subsequently less time with my friends and family.
Sexualisation at work
Although I loved my job, some of my experiences at work were less than savoury. A colleague made me very uncomfortable during our overseas assignments. On one occasion, he propositioned me while we were preparing for a flight home. He implied that if I did not respond favourably, my chances for future overseas assignments would be affected.
His advances led to further withdrawal within myself. I was firm with him and said no. But when we got back to the office, I clammed up and didn’t speak to anyone about it. I felt that no one would believe me because I wasn’t an attractive woman. I didn’t tell any of my bosses nor my project partner. That caused a rift between us. The colleague who had propositioned me was fired shortly after for an unrelated offence. It might have seemed like a good outcome, but somehow, it wasn’t for me. I was left without closure.
The zombie state
I stopped basic self-care.
Things like brushing my hair, washing my face, cleaning my teeth. I sometimes even slept in the clothes I would wear to the office the next day, just to avoid having one more thing to do in the morning (i.e. getting dressed).
One early morning, I was alone at the office, and I seriously thought about killing myself in the washroom. I was aware that I was the only one at work and would be for a few hours. I had enough time to do what I needed.
It shocked me that I was so calm about it.
This wasn’t the first time I had ever contemplated suicide. But it was the first time I felt so calm. For some reason, this triggered some kind of alarm in my head. Instead of going to the washroom to see how I could bring it about, I found myself dialing a helpline.
The operator spoke to me for about an hour, calming me down, and then persuaded me to see a doctor that very day.
My boss arrived at work after my call to the suicide helpline ended. I spoke to him. I shared that I had not been feeling ‘right’ for a long time, and he agreed that I should seek help. That day, I stepped into a mental health clinic. I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and insomnia. The doctor strongly recommended that I seek counselling. That was when I was referred to O’Joy.
Opening the can of worms
I did not find counselling easy. Opening up was messy.
There were too many things to talk about, and too little energy to detail them all. At the end of each session, I would feel so tired from reflecting and staying present that I would just go to sleep.
I retreated into my shell again. For a while, I stopped responding to Melissa – my counsellor’s texts and e-mails. Finally, she sent a text saying she would have to close my case very soon since she had not received any response from me for too long.
That woke me up. I didn’t exactly have an attachment to this counsellor yet. But I know for sure that this was part of the help that I needed at a ‘brain’ level. Even though it was uncomfortable, some part of me also knew that it was not hurting me.
I felt like I had too many issues to be handled by anyone. But Melissa was patient with me. She probed. She listened. And before I knew it, six months had passed, and we are still talking.
Through Melissa, I learnt about internal family relationships, and how to nurture a healthier, truer form of myself. I had long put other people’s feelings, needs, and wants before my own, so I didn’t have a good sense of what I really needed.
I sometimes hear voices in my head. Some of these voices were very self-critical and crippled my ability to move. Melissa taught me to sit with the different voices in my head and to hear them out fully to understand what each of them needed. Through exercises like this, I learnt how to spend time with myself. I gradually learnt more about myself and my own needs. How to create space to listen to myself. To be honest about my thoughts and feelings to the people around me. And to practise self-compassion at every step of the way.
I also learnt how to set boundaries between myself and my parents. As they were deeply affected by what had happened to me in my childhood and the trauma they believed they were partly responsible for, I had become a sort of crutch for them to lean on. But with Melissa’s guidance, I learnt to gently disengage and to say no to taking on more than I could handle. I learnt to handle the guilt that always resulted from saying no to someone other than myself.
I’ve now been journeying with Melissa and O’Joy for about a year and a half. At this point, I have not completely recovered from my mental illness, and I don’t think I have yet mastered all the techniques I need to live a life free of guilt, self-blame, fear and anxiety. But this is a point that I didn’t imagine I could have reached before I started this journey. I can now do what I love without hating myself, to struggle without feeling hopeless, and most importantly, to pick myself up after every fall without the fear of falling again.
This story has been adapted from the original testimonial written by the client.
O’Joy is deeply heartened by her transformation and applauds her courage for sharing her story so that others may find the inspiration to seek help. Don’t be afraid to reach out. We, at O’Joy, will journey with you through your challenges in life.