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My Struggle with Anxiety – by Adam

My name is Adam. I am 21 years old, and I am currently studying computer science at the University of Memphis. Honestly, I’m surprised I’ve made it this far.

Throughout my life, I have had to deal with intense anxiety especially when having to deal with people. Sometimes it gets to the point that I make up excuses to avoid certain social situations. I even have trouble eating in public and sometimes have to force myself to eat even when not in public. Sometimes, I don’t eat at all causing me to be underweight.

None of this was made better by the fact that, in middle school, I was one of the shortest people in the school and was made fun of constantly for it. I think there was maybe one person who was shorter. This made me extremely insecure about my height (or lack thereof). I felt weak and defenseless. I felt inadequate because I didn’t grow as much as other students. Thankfully, I’ve gotten more at peace with my height recently, but I still feel small when around my friends. Most of them are 6 feet or over and I’m only 5’4”.

Because of my anxiety, I always feel less than everyone else around me. I see them in groups talking and looking so happy, and I sit there was wish I could be that happy. These constant thoughts of inadequacy have led me to suicidal thoughts several times in my life. Sometimes I feel like I’m beyond help and feel that death is the only way to go. My rational side, however, is calling me an idiot for thinking something like that and so far, it’s winning the struggle.

I feel like it’s getting better, however, I still struggle with it sometimes. I almost skipped the first day of classes because I knew that at least some of the professors would make us introduce ourselves to the class, and I hate doing that. Even in the previous semester, meeting with my advisor was hard. I could barely email her to set up an appointment because I was afraid of saying the wrong thing. Even when I set it up, I nearly threw up on the day I was supposed to meet with her just thinking about it.

It doesn’t help much that I live in Mississippi. Most people around me are devoutly religious and some even believe that mental illness is a sign of demon possession. The fact that I’m an atheist probably doesn’t help them see that they’re wrong. Some likely believe that my atheism is the cause of my anxiety.

My parents haven’t been much help either. They refuse to believe that there’s a problem. Anytime I try and talk to them, they just blow it off and tell me to “snap out of it” as if I can just stop being nervous at will. Honestly, I don’t think they really listen to me.

I just hope to keep fighting and maybe one day to get over this completely. I know I have at least some support.

My Story – by “L”

In secondary school I went through a difficult time with bullying, I came down with abdominal pains which prevented me from going to school and made it difficult to eat. I saw several doctors and the pains always subsided for a while when I was reassured there wasn’t anything obviously wrong with me. I was told I most likely had Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and that anxiety could be a factor. I got some medication and the symptoms went away quite quickly. This was definitely not the last time I would have IBS. When I was at an open day at a university my friends and I were keen to attend, I recall becoming overwhelmed by panic and had to sit outside in the fresh air while my friends talked to the lecturers, finding out information about their courses. This panic, mostly about the idea for moving away from home, away from my parents for the first time was the main reason I changed my plans and went to a more local university so I could remain at home even though they did not have my preferred course.

I was referred to see a counsellor who specialised in young people. I was given Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to learn to prevent the panic taking hold of my body, but I don’t feel that it worked. It never felt right for me. I was referred to see another counsellor for adults after a while when I became older. This counsellor talked to the psychologist and formally diagnosed me with anxiety and suggested I may have depression too. I was prescribed a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) to treat the anxiety and depression, and talking to the counselling continued for a while.

I started taking the SSRI, half dosage at first for a week, then up to full dosage, when I was on the full dosage I started feeling sick. I spoke with my GP who suggested I go back on the half-dose and try increasing it more gradually. I tried this but continued feeling sick. I got fed up and stopped taking the SSRI abruptly, although the instructions advise against sudden discontinuation. Then, I spent years suffering from mysterious feeling known as SSRI Discontinuation Syndrome. SSRIs are not addictive and don’t leave you feeling any dependence on them, but if stopped abruptly they can in some cased leave patients with a non-painful but disturbing, electric-shock-like sensation in the head, sometimes referred to as “brain-zaps”, which for me happened every time I moved my eyes (probably hundreds of times a day, I once tried counting but lost track quickly). My GP did not think that this was associated with the SSRI as he had not heard of it before. I had to take along my own Internet research to show that others report the same thing with the same drug. I tried going back on a half-dose of the SSRI for a long time (which put away the brain-zaps) then coming down slowly over months (which brought them back). After trying this several times over a few years I eventually just put up with them until they went away (hopefully for good) after at least 3 months of brain-zaps, although I still get a slight tingle or discomfort in my scalp for a while occasionally which may or may not be related.

In more recent years my depression took over more than the anxiety. I went back in to counselling; this time at my university’s counselling services (when I was doing my masters degree). I had a job that I hated and spent most of my time talking about that even though I had other issues. I really wanted to also speak about my loneliness, now that I have moved out of my parents’ house and I so desperately was to start dating and find love, but have never been able to. I also felt too embarrassed to seek advice about this so only spoke about my work. My time with the counselling ran out. I lost my job due to recession (and being worthless, most of what I did at work was sit around feeling anxious) and spent a lot of time half-heartedly job seeking as a finished my masters.

Last year I had an anxiety attack and was referred by my GP to another counsellor. By the time the counselling started, my depression had taken over from my anxiety again. I never get a moments peace as they take turns on me. I have been seeing my counsellor for 3 months and haven’t gotten back around to what was making me panic. I’ve been more open and honest this time and talked about my feelings and relationships with friends, family, colleagues in a way that I did not in past counselling and feel I’ve benefited a bit from this. I could be proud of my ability to open up, but really it was killing me to the point I had to. Additionally, I often feel I’m wasting my counsellor’s time as I feel like a lost cause. Lately, I haven’t been able to do very much, even study (I’m now doing a PhD) without the anxiety or depression taking over. The IBS is still with me today and I’ve missed days and been late because of it. It can torture me alongside the anxiety all day long.

Usually I will spend Christmas at my parents’ house. I spent Christmas 2011 alone after falling out with my parents over trivial matters. I hate the holiday season. I’m just in my 20s, but I feel too old to enjoy it. I don’t get big presents anymore and I never get invited to parties (everyone who knows me either doesn’t think to invite me or know I’m too much of a misery to bother, I’d bring the mood down). It gets cold making the heating annoyingly expensive, and the distraction that is work or study stops, taking me away from people I can chat to, leaving me alone with my thoughts. New Year comes along with thoughts of planning the year ahead, and worrying about money, and of course the silly American tradition where you’re expected to kiss someone on New Year. I’ve never even had a date, so that won’t happen. The funny thing is I didn’t have too bad a time on Christmas Day. I made a deal with myself that although I was alone in my flat I’d keep smiling through Christmas Day and lying to myself, saying I’m happy, and in exchange I’d let myself be as miserable as I want on Boxing Day.

Now it’s 2012. As a skeptic, I doubt the end-of-the-world prophecies are right, but I’m not really looking forward to the future anyway. I’m back to my PhD, the anxiety and IBS is killing me again, I’m still alone, I have more expensive dental work soon, and I’ve recently lost two of my friends in separate fallings-out. I look at problems other people are having which seem objectively much worse, and they can cope just fine. I don’t understand how, and it doesn’t make me feel any better. I speak to friends who are sympathetic but after I time I feel they are probably dreading the next miserable, whiney, depressing email, text, or Facebook message from me, so I stop and hold it in, or talk to Samaritans instead.

As this is a skeptic blog, I feel like adding one final thought I may otherwise not bother with. People with mental health (MH) issues are told to remember that they are not their MH issues, they are more than that as a person, the MH issue just suppresses who they are to the world. This led me to some odd pointless philosophical ponderings. As skeptics, atheists, materialists, or whatever we tend to believe as Prof. Bruce Hood put it “you are your brain”. So how can there be more to me than this? I don’t have some kind of magical soul that’s healthy under here. I am damaged. My core personality has grown up and gained life-experience over the last 10 years at the same time I’ve had anxiety and depression. So how can they ever be disentangled? If my anxiety and depression went away tomorrow, what would my personality be like? Would I be me anymore? Low mood is a standard baseline feeling for me, if I feel happy, or content, it’s an exception, brought on by exceptional circumstances. When I act a certain way and screw up, can I blame it on the MH issues, or was that just my personality flaws? Where do I end and the MH issues begin? I don’t even know anymore or if the distinction even matters to anyone. I’m a miserable person, that’s part of my identity for anyone who’s known me for any length of time. I know I’m being overly melodramatic, but sometimes I feel like I am my depression.

Not Giving Up… by Alice

Our newest submission is from Alice. 

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So. My name is Alice, and I have depression. And anxiety. And ‘panic disorder’, apparently, though I’m still not entirely sure what the difference between that and anxiety is. I don’t know if you’ll want to use this for your blog, because nobody’s heard of me, and I’d rather you didn’t use my surname, so even if they had they wouldn’t know who I was. But I’m an atheist, and a scientist, and I have depression.

I was diagnosed four years ago, when I was seventeen. Over the period of a few months my self-esteem (always fragile) had finally given up the ghost and left me. I was crying at everything, I was sure I would fail my college courses and I felt utterly alone. One day things finally got too much, and I called my dad to come pick me up. I cried the whole way home, and told him I needed to go to the doctor, because I didn’t like the person I was becoming. Of course, back then, I had no idea of just how bad things would get. I could not possibly imagine the person my illness would force me to become.

Over the course of my illness I have become a different person. I became a complete recluse. I would lie curled up on my bed facing the wall and sobbing silently while I waited for my friends to go away because I could not face the idea of telling them I was having a bad day. Again. I had my first panic attack in public, and was utterly convinced I would die. Worse, I wasn’t sure that was the worst thing that could happen to me. I spent countless hours in toilet stalls, waiting to be able to breathe properly and not cry so I could rejoin the world. My life has changed irrevocably, and I can never go back to how I was before.

Being an atheist throughout this has not been easy. Sometimes I wish that I did believe in some kind of higher power. I’ve been told that God only sends people as much pain as they can take. I wish I had any belief in God because that would mean believing that I can take this pain. But I don’t. Sometimes that’s been incredibly isolating. Without a God, the only person I can have faith in is me. And all too often I doubt my own ability to survive my brain’s assault. Whenever I’ve found myself in a church over the past few years, I have begged God to take my illness the hell away. When I was suicidal, the thought of an afterlife was attractive, although ultimately I chose not to face it. And now I’m getting better, I find my atheism increasingly comforting. I chose to live. I believe more in my own strength, my own desire to fight and my own sheer bloody-minded stubbornness, even in the face of my brain trying its level best to kill me.

I don’t know if I’m through the worst yet, although I believe (and I desperately hope) I am. The fight has been long, and it has been hard, and it is not over yet. I have a lot to learn about being healthy. I am, however, learning. I will continue to fight. And, above all, I want anyone who reads this, while fighting their own fight, to know that I’m right beside them, and I’m not giving up yet.