When I first sat down to write this, I tried very hard to think of a clever title and a good way to start, but I couldn’t think of anything quite right, and so here we are. My mental health and struggles are something that I don’t often discuss with others, but seeing as how we are at the end of Mental Health Awareness Week, I felt that now was as good a time as any to share my story. (Even though this year’s topic is Body Image, this is not my story, so we’re going to take a side trip this time).
In September 2018, my doctor and I came to the realization that I was struggling with anxiety and depression, and the majority of it was caused by the toxins being produced by my gut bacteria. I had been getting steadily worse, but I hadn’t noticed it for a while. During nursing school (where I suspect a lot of my issues started) I was a nervous wreck, but to be honest, that was sort of expected, so I didn’t think much of it. I remember so many times where my parents would talk me out of an emotional meltdown at all hours of the night as I tried frantically to finish whatever care plans or assignments were due early the next morning. At those times I felt like everything was flying apart, and that I was drowning in the stress.
As I moved away from home and started working as a nurse, I felt the stress take more and more of a toll on my body and my mind. Starting school again (this time for my bachelor’s degree) didn’t help matters at all, and as the stress got worse, I slowly began to realize that I wasn’t coping with it well at all. Over time, I became uncomfortable and withdrawn from anything social (work and church, mainly, as I didn’t really have any friends or social life), and the near-constant apathy, poor sleep, lack of concentration, and spotty memory took a pretty heavy physical and mental toll. I would have mood swings/outbursts/meltdowns, frequently “zone out,” and I also became extremely nit-picky, sometimes having a full-on meltdown when I couldn’t get my hair just right when getting ready for work.
So many times I would worry myself sick over small interactions with others, wondering whether or not I made a fool of myself or if the other person was laughing at me behind my back. These intrusive thoughts caused me to second-guess what few friendships I still had, because I always thought that the other person was being nice to me out of pity, and that they didn’t really want to be friends with me.
What changed? What made me finally realize that something was wrong, and that I needed help?
The intervention of a co-worker I barely knew. I was getting report from her one day, and the entire time she was talking I was zoning out and fighting back tears, because the stress and anxiety were trying to drown me that day. At the end of report, this woman quietly took me aside and said, “Hannah, is everything okay? Lately I’ve noticed that you haven’t been yourself for a long time. You don’t smile anymore. What’s wrong?”
As I cried and told her everything that had been going on in my life, she listened quietly and then offered both emotional and practical support (she had done the same bachelor’s program I was doing, and gave me some very helpful advice for my projects). As she gave me a hug, she reminded me that I was not alone in any of this. Even though my parents have always been there for me and first suggested that something may be wrong, it took a near-stranger’s intervention for me to realize that I needed help.
When I went to my new doctor for the first time – a wonderful naturopath to whom much is owed – the original plan was to make sense of my laundry list of physical symptoms and suspected food intolerances. However, when I started to describe my anxiety (and only because she asked), she started to look a bit worried, and then became quite concerned. She confirmed my suspicions that I really did have anxiety and depression issues. I was given several meds/supplements to help with stress and anxiety, along with ones to heal my gut, and the hope was that by clearing up the gut issues, the depression and/or anxiety would lighten, too.
It felt oddly vindicating, having someone say that it wasn’t just me not being strong enough, that something was actually wrong. And like most things, bringing a problem out into the light meant that others could see and help. The hardest part was speaking up in the first place, since I had become so used to isolating myself. Most of the time I didn’t have the mental energy to reach out for help, so having someone reach out to me made all the difference in the world.
Things have gotten so much better since getting my gut problems under control. The depression seems to be gone, though the anxiety has proven a bit harder to manage. Some days I’m fine, other days I’m not, though my coping skills are steadily improving. I have a growing network of loved ones in my life that I can go to for help, and these dear people offer their support and speak truth into my life when anxiety’s lies try to drown me. For the most part, my mind is now at peace.
To those who have helped me in the past and continue to help me now, I offer my unending gratitude. My family, my few close friends (my sisters, really), my doctor, and my coworker who barely knew me yet spoke up when she saw something wrong – these people gave me home when I felt I had none, and they continue to be a voice of reason when I go to them with my anxiety and doubts.
I don’t tell this story to draw attention to myself (if only you knew how much I’d like to avoid that), but rather, to hopefully encourage someone else who may be going through some of the same issues.
It’s really amazing what just a little bit of hope can do.