Author: Chris Barber, 1/11/2018
Sometimes, we’ll fall into ruts and feel as if we can’t choose our attitudes. We’ll feel inadequate and maybe let our emotions get the best of us. But ruts aren’t immune to the power of choice. We usually can learn to get over ruts and move on with our lives. But then there are ruts that, unfortunately, become something more. They become diseases that infect your mind and change it completely. You feel as if whoever you once were no longer existed; you feel as if your ability and freedom to choose your attitude in any given circumstance has vanished.
I lost this freedom once; I thought I would never get it back. It was a normal summer night in Irvine, CA and I was wired in with my best bud and college roommate playing an intense round of Battlefield Bad Company 2. It was a common scene for the two of us as we were more inclined to spend our free time during the long days of summer in college killing virtual players from all over the world instead of going out and meeting new people. As I was playing, going through the game’s motions and (not surprisingly) doing well, something happened that I will never forget.
A nervousness unlike anything I’ve felt before suddenly overcame me. It was an uncontrollable nervousness, one that gradually got worse as my mind raced in circles to think of ways I could stop it. I’ve been anxious before, but this was something different. My heart was beating furiously, my breaths were short and constricted, my sense of all things outside of my body evaporated. The game I was playing didn’t matter anymore; nothing else mattered anymore. I was focused only on my fear and what it was doing to my body. I was so stricken by panic that I felt as if I was facing death itself. The panic had so consumed me that I vomited in the kitchen sink. I didn’t know what to do. All I knew at that moment was that this was the worst feeling I’ve ever experienced in my life.
I can’t even remember how I was able to go to sleep that night. But I did. The next day, just when my anxiety seemed to finally calm down a bit, a new feeling invaded my body. It was a dark feeling, an unbridled belief that my life had changed and nothing was ever going to be the same again. The reservoir of simple pleasures in my life that supplied my happiness seemed sucked dry by some unknown yet powerful source.
This is the part of my life that I call depression. Unsure of where my mind would take me, I remember at this point feeling a constant fear that I would once again lose control. My fear was so prolific that I convinced myself that normalcy could never return. Fear became the center of my life; it was my adversary, yet it had become a deep seeded part of who I was. At a young 20 years old, I was depressed. My big birthday that all young adults looked forward to was only a month away. But it didn’t matter anymore. Every day felt like a battle for my life and I was focused on staying afloat. A celebration was the least of my concern.
To some, these may sound like words that stigmatize those who struggle with mental illness. To me, these words aptly define a crucial part of my life. They were uttered by my closest friend after we had lunch at a local Vietnamese restaurant. Just moments earlier, I had barely eaten half my meal as anxiety once again clawed its way back into my body. I was only a couple of weeks removed from the fateful night that panic struck. Things hadn’t changed much and I was at the height of my depression. Sleepless, anxious nights and a low appetite plagued the end of my summer break.
I took these words lightly, if not in complete negligence. My friend was trying to cheer me up (bless his soul) but his words were of no use to me. I thought to myself, “easy for you to say; you have no idea what is going on in my head right now.”
But he was right, ultimately. At least, looking back now, I can comfortably say this.
For in the midst of what seemed to be complete darkness, there were small rays of light. And I would take advantage of these and eventually reclaim the freedom I had lost.
Now, I didn’t just one day decide that I was going to pull myself together. Like I said before, there are two types of ruts: ones you can control and ones you can’t (or nearly can’t). My path to recovery came rather inadvertently, in the form of a critical mental shift developed through perseverance and some much-needed guidance.
There were moments where I could break through the walls of depression, brief as they were. Moments like challenging myself to take on my anxiety during simple social outings.
For the past several weeks, my anxiety and depression had hindered my social life. I avoided going out with friends or family for fear that I would have an episode. It was so bad that I even threw up during a dinner outing with my family.
Despite these struggles in seemingly normal social settings, I still tried to live normally. After all, I was determined to go back to school in the fall regardless of how I felt. I remember willing myself to sit through another dinner outing with my family. Though anxiety attempted to creep in, I was able to fend it off and finish my dinner. I can’t imagine how crazy my sister thought I was for celebrating the fact that I sat through dinner without feeling like the world was ending. But to me, it was a much needed small victory.
The most beneficial decision I made during this troubling time was to simply take my time. I decided that taking an extra year at college would probably be in my best interest, and I wisely walked into UCI’s counseling/clinical services building to seek therapy. The thought of therapy never really crossed my mind before, but at this point, I was genuinely looking for help in any way.
I remember the day I walked into the counseling office, frankly shocked that so many other students were in the waiting room for similar reasons. I realized, rather naively, that I wasn’t alone in this, that mental health issues indeed affect many. As my name was called, I walked into one of the therapy offices, anxious and still depressed. The therapist asked me a number of questions to assess the severity of my mental health issue. I gave her everything I had – truthfully – knowing that this was the only way I could help myself. The therapist made notes and advised that I come for weekly sessions spanning the full quarter, which I accepted without hesitation.
The following week, I began my therapy sessions, which I should add were free of charge and included with enrollment at UCI. When I met the doctor who would oversee my sessions, she made me at once feel at ease – a feeling I hadn’t had for a while. She made me feel that I was not being judged for my issues, that I was entrusted instead with a partner in my trek to find some semblance of a calming balance in my life. Throughout the next 10 weeks, with the help of my therapist who worked through my jumbled thoughts and various insecurities, I learned an incredible amount about myself. Perhaps more importantly, I began to feel something I hadn’t felt for the past few months. I was looking forward to things, excited to begin anew; I had a purpose. It was my first quarter back on campus since my breakdown, and I felt normalcy returning to my life.
There was one session that impacted me more than others; what my therapist said to me that morning I hold onto to this day. I remember telling her at the beginning of the session that I had experienced what I thought were “relapses” into anxiety and depression. Even though I was able to navigate myself out of these bouts of misery, I was concerned about the fact that I was still “weak.” My therapist urged me to think differently about it. She said it was absolutely okay to find yourself in these situations. In fact, it’s okay to be anxious. That’s part of who you are. You’re Chris Barber, and you live with anxiety.
That was it. For months, I had been fighting against myself and let the fear of anxiety drive me into depression. My therapist offered me a gateway into a different way of thinking, and when she said those words, I could feel it for the first time in 3 months: relief, resolution, peace. What I had realized that day was that the only path to my healing was acceptance. And even though I still have to battle my demons to this day, I know that everything is going to be okay. Because anxiety is just a part of who I am.