In one hour’s time in Grade 7 at the age of 12, something happened. I didn’t know it at the time but it would shape my entire existence, influence my every decision, and affect the rest of my life…
I had been sick with the flu for a few days at home prior to the day that began it all. I was in music class and was not feeling well so I asked to go to the bathroom. The teacher told me to sit back down and wait the 5 minutes until the film was over, so I did as I was told. I remember sitting there thinking about how embarrassed I would be if I got sick in front of all these people but dismissed it and tried to watch the film. Not more than 2-3 minutes later I felt a wave of sickness come over me, which prompted me to get up to ask for a bathroom, break a second time. I was, once again, denied and asked to remain seated in my desk. I think I knew what was going on as it was happening but I was so unable to process anything logically that all I could do was watch as my life was sucked away before my eyes. I did get sick. Everyone saw. People laughed. I cried.
It’s still difficult for me to open up completely about that day, what happened and how it made me feel, but I can say that I experienced my first real heart racing, palm sweating, tunnel vision, body shaking, breath stealing panic attack and I was never the same. By the time high school came around I was eating one meal a day at dinner, and taking whatever I could to avoid feeling sick – Gravol, Imodium, Pepto, Tums etc. I became a slave to my own negative thoughts and they had convinced me that if I didn’t eat anything, then I wouldn’t have any reason to throw up or be sick in any way. That didn’t always prove to be a good solution though and as time went on I came to realize it actually made it even more possible to feel sick. That’s when I decided I would just start taking whatever I could to avoid the possibility. You can’t throw up if you take Gravol, right? And if that didn’t settle my stomach then obviously 3 shots of Pepto would. I hated the thought of even having to go to the bathroom so I solved that with Imodium. Then when I would eat I would feel even worse – but that’s okay, because 3 or 4 tums helped. That was my daily cycle for 4 straight years. I would take 2 Gravol in the morning right when I woke up (I needed ample time for it to kick in before I had to go to classes), then an hour before school I took 3 Imodium. I took my bottle of Pepto to school with me so that if the first two barricades didn’t suffice, I had a backup. I had to get to school 15 minutes early to avoid anxiety sweeping over me and taking control of my day. The problem with frequenting those types of “medicines” is that, like a lot of drugs, they become less effective the longer you take them and you need to up the dosage. At one point I was taking 2 Gravol, 5 Imodium and 3 shots of Pepto before 10 am daily and yes, I was high (I didn’t realize that’s what was happening nor was it my intention – I just knew it assisted in my feeling numb which was a welcome feeling to me compared to the alternative). I weighed 95 lbs, my grades had gone from high 80’s to low 70’s, and I rarely left the house aside from school (even at that there were many missed days). I didn’t party like high school kids did. I couldn’t go shopping or to the grocery store. The most basic tasks in life felt like 40-foot walls that needed to be climbed and I had NO equipment.
I live each day feeling so extremely grateful to have the parents that I do. I don’t know where I would be without them but I know it wouldn’t be close to where I am. My dad recently retired after working as a Psychosocial Rehabilitation Practitioner for over 30 years and without his educated based advice mixed with the compassion of a father, I would have be overcome with anxiety. They showed compassion and understanding. They never judged me and I never felt uncomfortable being honest with them about not feeling like I could go somewhere or having to leave a place even if we’d only been there 15 minutes. That understanding was what saved me because it allowed me to open up without feeling like I was the weirdest person in the world (anxiety often causes one to feel alone and like nobody could possibly understand what you’re going through, feeling or thinking). Eighteen years later I still have the presence of anxiety and panic attacks in my life but I’m thankful they’re fewer and less intense than those of the past. I don’t think one can really “understand” what mental health barriers like these feel like unless they’re afflicted by them. But I do truly believe that everyone can show compassion toward others and whatever it is they’re struggling with. And once that compassion/understanding becomes more widespread, the less hold mental health barriers will have on people. Shame then dissipates, acceptance grows and people open themselves up. It’s pretty simple isn’t it?
That’s what this is about. Suspend judgment. Be open-minded. Show compassion.