Shot by Daniela for Bonefire Magazine styled by Jessi Frederick
In the last few weeks I've found myself talking with my friends and not even close friends about anxiety and depression. This topic has started coming up more naturally within friend groups and in passing conversation, allowing me to share with those in my life. And sharing is not something I'm great at - some of you may have noticed that already.
It's taken me years to fully realize and acknowledge that I suffer from anxiety and depression, and for me personally, being vulnerable enough to share that has been a huge struggle. Until a few friends opened up to me about what they were feeling or experiencing I was shy around opening up myself. Lately though, I've pushed past my fears of vulnerability and opened up to more about what my anxiety and depression has looked like.
My first experience with anxiety was when I was twelve years old - too young to really understand what anxiety was. I was paralyzed in anxiety for almost two weeks, unable to sleep, eat or function like the normal me. I remember my mom struggling with what to do, what to say and really, to understand what was happening. Then one day I woke up and I was no longer under the weight of anxiety. Just like it came, it left without a whisper. Years passed until I felt that weight again.
Later in life anxiety and depression came in waves. Often it was triggered by stress, physical illnesses in my life or heavy things I was facing. When I was nineteen my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and the week following her mastectomy my father passed away from a life long illness. I went into shock, my rational brain kicked into fight of flight, and I fought. I fought hard to stay strong for my mom, to support her while she was battling cancer. I fought to maintain a normal life at that age, to still go out with friends and laugh even when I felt like I couldn't breathe. For months following my fathers death I found crying near impossible, though I would wake up to a tear soaked pillow; I could only cry in my sleep. The eighteen months following my fathers death I felt chained up in anxiety and depression. Most days I felt like I couldn't breathe, that I couldn't live and that I couldn't imagine the pain I felt ever fading. I spent a lot of time studying and researching different coping mechanisms; I focused on getting through one hour, just to keep myself moving forward, one hour at a time. I still look back on that time in my life and shiver remembering the indescribable weight and hopelessness I felt every hour of every day.
The last photo I have with my parents, four days before my father passed away.
If any of you are struggling with anxiety or depression first and foremost, know you are not alone. Second, acknowledging that what you're feeling and going through is anxiety or depression is the first step. For me it took me a while to admit what I was going through for a few reasons, mainly lack of knowledge and fear of admitting weakness. Admitting you are dealing with either is not weak, in fact it is one of the strongest things you can do. Now I take note of my emotions, I watch to see if I'm getting upset over little things or getting into fights with people I love without being able to say why. One way I can often determine I'm suffering more is when someone asks what's wrong and I can't find the answer - I can't pinpoint what is wrong to make me upset and yet I'm still upset. My advice to recognizing how you're feeling and/or determining if you're struggling is to have an honest conversation with those that love you; friends, family, whomever. Ask them to hold you accountable, to mention when you seem 'off' or more anxious and to challenge you to actually pay attention to your emotions.
Aside from researching and trying to find coping mechanisms I also visited a therapist, and in all honesty if I could afford one I would still see one now. My therapist helped me a lot, not only in finding the words to say what I'm feeling and going through, but also in learning how to live and move through waves of anxiety and depression. There are so many resources for finding a therapist, the greatest starting point is a hotline. Ask for help, ask for guidance and make that first step.
Such huge life events can easily trigger anxiety or depression, even if you have never dealt with them before. If you've never experienced either, it can be really hard to understand, trust me, even as I experienced it I didn't understand it. I recently listened to a really powerful TED Talk about how to start a conversation around suicide that I highly recommend each and every one of you listen to. In light of the loss we saw last week with the passing of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, we all need to start opening up, sharing our experiences, giving space for others to share and most importantly, be vulnerable with one another. For those in Toronto the distress hot line is 416 408-4357.
Aside from reaching out to others for support, guidance and help I take daily steps to help and prevent anxiety from taking over. Below are a few of my tips that I've found success with over the past few years and especially when hard times come.
Compartmentalize - write things down into lists or sections, allowing yourself to see only one step at a time
Self affirmation - I find repeating certain phrases over and over centre my mind during anxious times. A few of my favourites are 'this too shall pass' and 'today is a gift'. I suggest finding ones that work for you and allow you to refocus
Write out what you're feeling. One of the best things about seeing a therapist is sharing your feelings without judgement and unfortunately therapists aren't as accessible as they should be so journaling can help during times you can't see one. Write out what you're anxious about, why you're anxious and even what you think can go wrong. Putting those fears and anxieties on paper removes them from your mind and often opens up space for more peace
Build a routine. I find my anxiety start to spike when I loose control over things in my life. By controlling my routine I'm able to regain a sense of control when it feels like everything is out of my hands.
Have a friend or family member, someone, that you can share where you're at mentally. Even if just to check in, to have someone know what's going on with you and someone you can turn to if things start to get worse.
Whether you personally struggle with anxiety or depression or know someone that does, I challenge you to push outside of your comfort zone and start a conversation. Ask for help, offer help. We are all in this life together and we can make it a better place for everyone, so let's do just that. A friend of mine recently shared on twitter his experience with depression and left it on a powerful note, life is beautiful if you live it. And that is my new mantra, something I will hold on to on the good and bad days.