When I was a child, I remember one occasion where I was at the pool playing with some other children who were much better swimmers than I was. I started out playing in the shallow end where I could stand and slowly ventured further and further away from the safety of the pool walls. I kept going until I suddenly realised that I was too far out and I was being overwhelmed by the water. This story and my journey with my mental health have many similarities.Throughout my life, what I considered to be my “normal” was really just me in the shallow end of my conditions until I suddenly realised that I was being overwhelmed by the weight of the water. Until a few months ago, I had never considered myself as a person who suffered from mental illness, but as luck would have it, I experienced two very severe panic attacks seemingly out of the blue, which then triggered an asthma attack. After being treated for the asthma attack I was given referrals to my local health centre to treat the underlying causes of the panic attacks. It was during that process I was told that I suffered from anxiety, panic disorder and clinical depression.
Suddenly, the years of constantly feeling tired, weak and achy, my fluctuating weight, persistent acne, nail biting, picking at my face, scratching my skin raw, depersonalisation, sleeping all the time or not sleeping at all and cycles of binge eating or not eating at all finally had an explanation. In retrospect, my body had been trying to tell me all along but I either outright ignored the signs or just explained them away.
Getting a diagnosis didn’t mean the end of all my issues. I had to start the process of management and attempting to make progress. I started by spending days upon days researching what each of the conditions actually meant and how they affected different people. Not only did I need to learn the medical terminology, I also spent a lot of time reading blogs from other people who are currently managing their conditions. For someone with panic attacks, which at that point were very easy to come by, it was pretty tough. Stories from other people about how badly their conditions had gotten and how much their lives deteriorated made me anxious and then triggered a panic attack of my own—so it was slow going. Once I had done all of the research I started on the medication. According to the doctors, therapy is generally recommended before starting on medication but my case was fairly special. Unbeknownst to me, I had been living with these conditions for a minimum of two years. When I started seeking treatment for the conditions my panic attacks were severe. The panic attacks were considered potentially life-threatening because of my asthma. Given these factors, I was given a prescription for paroxetine.
Paroxetine (most commonly known by its trade name Paxil) is an antidepressant within the SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) class. It was prescribed for treating my depression as well as my anxiety and panic disorder. According to my doctors, medications like these generally take about 6 weeks to normalize in your body. The hope was that by starting the medication early I would be able to reduce my anxiety to a manageable level and have a better chance at finding therapy successful.
Starting the medication was nothing short of a nightmare. In the first week, I experienced horrible side effects. I was constantly nauseous; I felt dizzy, lightheaded and faint; my arms and legs felt too long for my body; my entire body ached; and my skin burned all the time. I could barely stand to wear clothes, much less to be touched. I was sensitive to light and sound, and my throat was dry and scratchy. All of that was a drop in the ocean compared to the worst side effects I faced. My anxiety was 100 times worse than before I started the medication and I was unable to sleep. Now, I had been warned about the side effects. The doctors told me that the first few weeks would be pretty bad, but I just had to stay the course and it would eventually resolve itself. Looking back, describing what I dealt with as pretty bad was just laughable.
The second week was only slightly better because the sore throat went away. Slowly most of the side effects went away. Somewhere in the third week, the nausea and burning skin faded along with the aches. My baseline anxiety went back down to where it was before I started the medication. In the fourth week and fifth weeks the anxiety lessened to a manageable point. I have been taking the medication for about 3 or 4 months now and it’s still not an easy thing. I still experience extreme light sensitivity because one of the more rare side effects of paroxetine is pupilary dilation. This means my pupils don’t react to light the way they would normally so my pupils stay open and excess light falls on my retina. I work in front of my computer all day, everyday, which means I have almost constant headaches. This gives me the choice of managing this side effect or changing medications which may come with its own new side effects.
The medication is just one aspect of coping with my conditions, though. These days I have been learning to listen to what my body is telling me. I have been learning to feel what I’m feeling and be more aware of the signs my body is giving me. Throughout my life, I have never been close to someone who has suffered openly with a mental illness, so when I was diagnosed it was all very new to me. I recognized that I carried this internalised stigma about mental illness. I would have a panic attack over the most trivial thing and once I had gotten over the panic, I would feel so embarrassed. I would spend hours thinking about how absurd it is to have such an intense reaction to something so miniscule. I would feel ashamed that I couldn’t control my body and my emotions and I would judge myself harshly. It’s taken me a bit of time to be able validate these feelings, these human emotions to myself. That skill has been extremely important in facing the people who do not seem to understand the importance of tending to mental health.
In my personal experience, the tide is turning when it comes to public opinion on mental health and invisible illnesses in general. Prior to learning that I suffered from mental health conditions I remember there being a certain stigma around mental illness. Many people I interacted with in the past seemed to have this ingrained belief that anyone who wasn’t “normal” was crazy. I could never pinpoint exactly where those ideas came from but nonetheless they existed. Now that I am closer to the issue, I’ve found that more people I interact with are more open-minded and accept the importance of mental health care.
Trying to manage my physical health, my mental health, my relationships and my work has been an intense journey. I chose to work with WOMANTRA because as a young feminist I wanted to see changes made in the current social climate. I wanted my younger sister to grow up in an environment where she did not have to learn about some of the hardships that women face on a daily basis and I believe WOMANTRA to be doing important work in making that a reality. I count myself lucky to be able to maintain my independence in my personal work. Being involved in an organisation that is both understanding and accepting of the real-life implications of living with mental health concerns has been instrumental in my journey so far. It allows me to work productively, while still being in control of my life and my conditions—and that is significant. But there is still a long way to go before this is the norm across workplaces. The power of creating a workspace like this is that it normalises these experiences, which only positively contributes to the overall work environment. The goal, now, is to get other places to adopt these ideals until they become the norm. Hopefully, my own contributions, be they big or small, can help add momentum to this change process.
WOMANTRA Intern, Sydney Joseph is a self professed Disruptive Thinker. She was raised in a household where her voice was heard and her opinions considered. In primary school she would regularly get in trouble for ‘disrupting’ classes by asking the important question “Why?’ After completing her secondary education, Sydney moved away from the linear education path and now studies online, while also running her businesses in photography and social media management. In her free time, Sydney uses her voice to champion causes close to her heart including feminism, racism, entrepreneurship and radical self expression. Sydney hopes that through her work, she can actively transform the negative connotation associated with the word disrupt.