Currently an undergraduate student and mental health advocate, and looking at my life now, it’s hard to believe that during my first year at university, I failed my entire first semester, unable to pass a single class. The reason? At the time, I couldn’t tell you, I felt “off,” “not right,” like “I didn’t care about anything.” The last one was a deal breaker, when I stopped caring, I didn’t care that I was failing, I didn’t care that I hadn’t eaten or come out of my dorm room for days, I didn’t care that I was “disappointing” my family or myself anymore.
From a young age, I remember being loud, slightly obnoxious but also incredibly self-conscious about what others thought about me. I spent years building up a persona in which I was confident, bright and intelligent, so much so that I dismissed any red flags I felt throughout my childhood.
Then, there’s the cultural barrier. Raised by relatively traditional Chinese parents, harsh remarks about how I looked, acted and performed in school relative to my siblings and other kids were normal. To many Chinese parents, kids were smart or stupid. good or bad, pretty or ugly… and you did not want to be the latter in any of those dyads. There was no complexity to human behaviour or reasoning for less than perfect performance, “bad”=bad and “crazy=crazy”. Imagine, a child with an inability to focus in school (perhaps due to ADD/ADHD), trying to explain internal or behavioural struggles as a child to my parents meant you were likely scolded for being bad and/or crazy, simple as that.
Sometime around 7th or 8th grade I started to notice things that I couldn’t ignore but pretended I could. I developed some level of an eating disorder. I’m sensitive about calling it this out of respect for those who have been professionally diagnosed this however, my everyday routine for 2.5 years consisted of eating strictly 800 calories or less and 2 hours of cardio every day. I was obsessed, I tried to lose more weight but it wouldn’t budge, and I actually slowly began to gain weight. As I entered high school I started drinking and engaged in some really unhealthy experimenting that enabled me to keep my weight down. It is around this time that I started experiencing severe panic attacks.
The Big Drop
At the height of my episodes, I sometimes experience severe auditory hallucinations. These started happening around 12th grade and still occasionally occur today during episodes. Most “dialogue” I hear reflect internal thoughts that I have about myself but projected in a manner in which I think that people are speaking to me, behind my back, but oddly, loud enough for me to hear.
Not knowing how to handle any of this, I was hell bent on a path of self-destruction. I hated myself, my life, and the situation I was in. My social anxiety worsened substantially, and I started in engaging in activities that allowed me to pretend to be someone else or forget who I was.
Finally, after one horribly horrifyingly bad incident, I sought treatment for the hallucinations I was periodically experiencing. (I had actually underwent treatment previously for something seemingly unrelated). My first appointment at the end of my first semester at university was short, I had a really shitty psychiatrist who dismissed my claims and related them to being related to being under the influence (even though I wasn’t). He prescribed me Lorazepam which acted like a bandaid to my issues. The drug was great, it calmed me down, it made me fall asleep, but I grew tolerant of it and my internal issues were never addressed.
I started drinking again. One day I realized that the claims of mixing alcohol and Lorazepam were true, a combination for a blackout effect, which I loved. I was clearly not alright, all he had prescribed me was something that made it seem like I was. Once again I was living a lie, however I did come to believe it. When the next semester rolled around, I fooled myself into believing I was okay, I was still getting these panic attacks but now I had these magic little pills that made everything all right again. A mindset not too different from my previous one. I wasn’t scared of “bad thoughts,” tests, exams, or failing, because I wasn’t scared of taking as many of these things as possible to make the bad thoughts go away.
At my next visit, I had come to get a refill of my magic pills but my shitty psychiatrist wasn’t there. They scheduled me with someone who changed my life. My new doctor seriously advised against Lorazepam, or any band-aid effect medications for that matter. She started digging. Deep. Within 20 minutes I was hysterically balling my eyes out. She also mentioned something interesting, that my file contained nothing about my self destructive behaviour, facts that would have had any half decent psychiatrist deterrent of Lorazepam. She listened, she cared and most importantly she made me care and worried about myself. From that point on, we devised a treatment plan together, a combination of medications, one on one therapy, group therapy and self care resources. It was a lot of back and forth between feeling worse and better. There were times where I fell into bad habits again, but now I have the knowledge to put myself back on track and a physician who is there when I need her.
There will be good days, months, even years where you think everything is perfect and you’ll never have another episode ever again, and then suddenly there’ll be bad days, month, and years, but that’s just a part of coping. Understanding and learning how to deal with the rollercoaster and sudden twists is part of the life I have to live.
Anyone who knew me during this time would question my words. I hid everything incredibly well. Even to this day, I talk in circles and avoid direct references about what happened to me during these tough times, but learning to become transparent about what happened to me has served as my own type of therapy. I’ve also learned that society’s scoughing at someone’s mental health claims just because they don’t match what they’ve read online, what they see in the media, or what they’ve experienced personally is precisely the stigma that we must tackle. It is no longer the distaste for someone who has a mental illness but rather the black and white understanding of mental illnesses that keep people from becoming accepting and comfortable with the topic.
Understand this when I say, mental illness is a spectrum. It is different for everyone (yes, even within the same diagnoses). And you do not need to have a formal diagnoses. If you feel any type of anything, you shouldn’t feel that you should ignore them or that they are not that serious just because your symptoms don’t match what another person says. If you feel something is wrong, that is more than enough reason to talk to someone about it.