When did you realize that you were struggling with mental health?
Growing up I often felt very sad. I would feel down for no reason and bounce back up. When I left home to study for my undergrad, that feeling became chronic. I was sad way more than I was happy and that imbalance started making me feel that something was wrong. Even in moments when I was surrounded by friends and was seemingly having a good time, I was still inside my head, and not feeling happy.
When did you decide to get help? What was the trigger?
The trigger was my first panic attack which happened shortly after a break-up with my girlfriend of four years. That relationship was one of the things that made me happy at the time. As soon as I lost that, I had nothing else to be happy about. When I hit that rock bottom, my anxiety and my mind reached a peak that manifested itself as a panic attack.
How did that panic attack manifest itself?
I had a small incident when I was boarding a bus in Toronto and the bus driver was annoyed with something I did – I think I tried boarding not quite at the stop. His remark weirdly triggered a panic attack. I felt so down, that feeling translating to physical pain and realized that this was not a normal reaction. I thought…if this small incident triggered me, there must be something very hurt inside me. At that moment I realized that I need to get help. I can’t feel like I am dying every time an inconvenience happens.
What was the process to figure out what your options were?
First thing I did was I googled my symptoms. I started searching how to deal with panic attacks. Options seemed to include medication, but I was very scared of going down that route and decided to start by talking to a psychologist. I had my first appointment two weeks after that bus incident.
What did the first few visits feel like?
To be honest, I was very underwhelmed. I wanted him to help figure out what was wrong with me. That experience with that first psychologist was not the best; he was not asking me a lot of guiding questions. I had to talk a lot and was not being offered any substantial advice. I thought to myself “Why am I doing this?”, “What is the advantage to speaking to this professional?”. Over time I learned that psychotherapy is very underwhelming at first and that it’s a long term investment.
What made you continue even though therapy did not seem to work at first?
I didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to stick it out to see what benefit would come out of it. I thought that there must be a silver lining…there must be a reason others go to therapy trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I desperately wanted to see this through. I stayed with that psychologist for about 3 months. I kept doing research and realized that not every psychologist is a great fit for you. I decided that maybe I was not getting optimal results.
The next psychologist I tried, was one based in Lebanon where my family lived, and his way of treatment was a lot of tough love. He did not tell me what I wanted to hear… he told me what I did not want to hear. He started writing down a plan for me: when this thought comes up –> here is an alternative thought you need to replace it with. He taught me how to diffuse the intensity of my ruminant thoughts.
Was there a moment when you felt that you were getting better?
I knew it was paying off when I would be exposed to challenging situations (arguments with people or challenges at school) and their impact on me was way more manageable. I became resilient and less emotional. I could feel the emotions but they wouldn’t hurt me as much.
How long did it take to get there?
I started seeing improvements at the end of the first year and was able to control my thoughts and emotions after two years of extensive therapy.
Did you get an actual diagnosis?
I was told that I had anxiety disorder, major depression disorder and a little bit of obsession.
When you started therapy did you open up to your friends and family about it?
Not at first. I thought it was a weakness. I felt so ashamed that I kept it to myself. Shame was part of my dysfunction. I was ashamed of being vulnerable and of being different. I spoke about this to my psychologist who explained to me that everyone feels similar vulnerabilities. We all have our moments. I started to open up to my friends and family when I became convinced that others around me also suffered, just maybe in a different way or in lesser intensity. I started treatment at the age of 22, and began opening up to people about it closer to the age of 25.
At first I was not open about it and would only share if I got intimate with a person. At this point in my life it’s part of who I am. I bring it up on day 1. I am no longer hiding this big part of who I am.
Do you still go to therapy?
Yes, I still go every week. I want to make sure that as things come up I deal with them well. I want someone to be there to guide me, and be an objective observer to my thoughts. This still helps me in all aspects of my life – my work, my relationships, my friendships, social life. I don’t think there is a concluding point to therapy. I’d love to do therapy for as long as I can.
What other practices did you incorporate into your mental health journey?
The biggest impact was incorporating daily exercise into my routine. I do at least 30 minutes of exercise per day which gives me an amazing boost. Exercise is a natural antidepressant as it releases endorphins; happy hormones that last for hours.
The second thing is diet, I try to eat healthy most of the time but not to a point of obsession.
I also included guided meditation into my routine. I feel like meditation helps you become an observer of your thoughts. Sleeping enough is the other super important factor.
Do you have any advice for someone who is contemplating getting help?
I would say to take a leap of faith. You won’t get the returns right away- try to be patient. In the long term it will pay off. I would also remind them that they are not alone. It often feels that way, but so many people around them are also suffering. That’s why it’s so important that we talk about these things, and raise awareness about mental health, and collectively work to de-stigmatize talking about it, so more people can ask for help.