This post is Part I of a two-part series on anxiety and depression, which came about as a result of requests for more about my story from listeners of a recent podcast where I described my experiences, and from my audience on Instagram, who requested more details.
When I was four years old, my parents sent me to summer day camp. I loved spending the day messing with finger paints, playing volleyball, singing campfire songs, or simply running around outside–all activities that I found exhilarating as a pre-kindergartner.
About halfway through the season, the counselors planned the Canada Day event (our “July 4th,” for those of you in the US): the idea was to hold a huge pageant with songs and dance numbers, with one keynote speaker chosen to kick off the festivities by marching across the huge stage at the front of the gymnasium, waving the Canadian flag as she regaled the audience with facts and ideas about the importance of patriotism.
That child was me.
Elated to be chosen and determined to do my best and make my favorite counselor, Kathy, proud, I practiced every day for the three weeks leading up to the event on July 1st. I memorized my lines and knew them perfectly. I could hoist the flag upright smoothly and gracefully, holding it aloft so it undulated delicately as I crossed the dais.
I left nothing to chance; I was ready.
On the big day, we prepared ourselves backstage. Five minutes before my debut, Kathy strode toward me with the flag under her arm, smiling broadly as she anticipated my exemplary performance. She proffered the flag pole and, as she pushed it toward me, I blurted out, “I can’t do it.“
I could feel the hot flush of blood first filling, then leaving, my cheeks. I thought I might pass out.
Kathy was puzzled. She knew I’d perfected the performance in rehearsals. She knew the audience would love me.
Before she could ask what was wrong, I continued, “I can’t. I can’t do it. I can’t DO IT,” my hands trembling, my face ghostly pallid.
With just a few seconds to spare, Kathy brandished the flag above her own head and marched onto the stage herself.
“I’m afraid our speaker has come down with a sudden case of larygitis,” she said, “So I’ll be delivering our opening speech today.”
I was not only devastated; I was humiliated.
And so began my lifelong affliction with high anxiety and depression, which persisted for almost 5 decades.
An Epidemic of Anxiety and Depression?
With modern-day stressors and worry increasing almost hourly, it’s no wonder levels of anxiety and depression around the world are on the rise as well.
According to the World Health Organization in 2018, over 300 million people worldwide suffered from depression, which, at its worst, can end with suicide. Along those same lines, suicide rates in the US have increased by 25% since 1999, and seem to still be on the rise. In fact, it’s one of the top 10 causes of death in the US (before liver disease, high blood pressure, Parkinson’s disease or homicides--that’s right, there are more suicides than murders each year).
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America tells us that over 40 million adults each year are afflicted by anxiety disorders (which often co-exist with depression–in fact, nearly half the people diagnosed with depression also suffer from anxiety).
Why are so many more people affected these days? Although many of the same reasons have existed for centuries, such as fear of violence, poverty, abuse, work stress, or relationship stress/divorce; more recently newer factors have also appeared, such as loneliness (despite being more digitally “connected” than ever before) or fear about our futures and uncertainty about where the world will be (or if it will be) in the next 100 years.
No wonder people are feeling more anxious.
In addition, certain internal factors also contribute to these conditions–we’ll look at those next time.
What are Anxiety and Depression? How To Recognize Them
While depression can occur with varying levels of severity and may exist alongside mania (ie, manic-depressive or bipolar disorder), in general, “clinical depression” (also referred to as “major depression”) is “marked by a depressed mood most of the day, sometimes particularly in the morning, and a loss of interest in normal activities and relationships — symptoms that are present every day for at least 2 weeks.”
It’s really important to note, however, that clinical depression is NOT the same as sadness or feeling blue when there’s a truly valid reason, such as the loss of a loved one or a devastating illness.
Looking back, I began to experience symptoms of depression around around age 13 (when puberty kicked in to accelerate things, just for fun). Around that time, I began to feel lethargic and complained almost daily of vague feelings of being unwell, particularly in the mornings before school.
Because I was a stellar student and because my mom was most likely depressed herself, she never argued with me when I asked to stay home from school (as long as my grades didn’t suffer, my parents were never too concerned about what I did).
The year I turned 13, I ended up staying home more days than I attended school. I spent the days in my pyjamas in front of the television feeling sad and lonely, reinforcing my belief that I was unlovable, a reject, a social outcast.
Similarly, most depressed individuals begin to feel that normal daily activities are too onerous to take on.
In addition, some of the other hallmarks of depression include:
- general feelings of sadness or just being “blue” for no apparent reason;
- feeling hopeless, as if your life is empty and there’s no hope for the future;
- anger, frustration or irritability (even over insignificant things)
- no or low interest in most activities, even ones that were pleasurable for you before (I used to refuse invitations from friends in order to sit at home and feel lonely);
- insomnia or other sleep disturbances;
- loss of appetite or, conversely, increased cravings for foods (and gaining weight)
- mental fixation on your flaws or past failures; feeling worthless;
- unexplained physical problems or symptoms;
- extreme fatigue or lack of energy;
- Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts or suicide
In my case, almost all of the common symptoms applied, except for suicidal thoughts; despite my disinterest in daily life, I never contemplated suicide or attempted to harm myself physically.
Anxiety, while different from depression, often appears alongside it. While we are all anxious when there’s a reason (such as a masked burgler brandishing a gun, running after you down a dark alleyway), modern anxiety disorders tend to occur when there’s no immediate or specific threat, or something that shouldn’t be threatening is perceived as such.
Although there are several different official types of anxiety (from phobias to social anxiety to panic attacks), they all share certain characteristics in common, according to CAMH (the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health). These include:
- irrational and excessive fear
- apprehensive and tense feelings
- difficulty managing daily tasks and/or distress related to these tasks.
In addition, most people with anxiety disorders are aware that their fears are irrational or unfounded. They may behave in ways to minimize the fears and feel “safe,” including rituals, avoidance of certain places/activities, repetitive fearful thoughts, or physical symptoms out of proportion with the event (ie, heart racing when watching a movie).
For me, anxiety appeared in the form of panic attacks.
Although I did exhibit some anxiety as a child (I’d worry we wouldn’t be able to find our way home when my uncle took us for drives in the country on weekends, for instance), my anxiety reached its apex in my mid-twenties.
Around that time, a confluence of several stressful events seemed to trigger my panic attacks: my father had disowned me (he disapproved of my boyfriend), and I was left not knowing how I’d support myself or where I’d live; I was in the middle of completing an 8-month masters’ degree on scholarship; and I had an accident that put me on crutches for about 6 weeks. (Looking back, I wonder: why didn’t I just ask to defer my degree? Or at least drop a couple of courses? No idea.).
Shortly after my accident, a friend took me to a movie one evening. For no apparent reason, I began to feel hot and sweaty, as if I were coming down with a flu (or, as my brain ricocheted from one idea to another, perhaps AIDS? Ebola? Poisoning?).
The blood drained from my face, my limbs went weak, I felt dizzy and like I might pass out. I could feel my heart pounding erratically and ferociously, like a metronome gone wild inside my chest.
I knew that if I didn’t get out of the theater right at that moment, I might faint on the floor–or die.
Once outside, breathing fresh air again, I slowly came back to myself. I attributed it to the stuffy air in the theater and put it out of my mind. . . until it happened again, only a few weeks later. Except that time, I was simply sitting at home quietly at my desk, trying to study. Once again, my heart began to pound like a drum in a marching band, and this time, I also felt as if a huge elastic band had been wound round my rib cage, crushing it inwardly and causing shooting pains through my chest.
I called a taxi and rushed to the hospital, afraid I was having a heart attack. I was 22 years old.
Over the years, these events began to recur regularly, increasing in intensity and frequency before they finally faded, years later (more on that next time).
At the peak of my anxiety and panic attacks, I was heading to the emergency room 3-4 times per week, afraid to stay home lest I die from a heart attack in my bed, alone. I remember thinking that if I were going to die, at least I’d be at the hospital, where I had a chance of survival if they treated me fast enough.
It got to the point where the doctors in Emerg all recognized me, even visibly rolling their eyes in my vicinity when I arrived yet again (don’t forget, this was the 1980s, when almost no one was familiar with anxiety or panic attacks).
One particularly insouciant medical resident, upon my arrival for the 3rd time that week, looked me up and down and pronounced, “Listen, Ricki. Twenty-three year olds DON’T HAVE HEART ATTACKS. There is nothing wrong with you.”
Of course, anyone who’s ever suffered from anxiety–or even been slightly stressed out, for that matter–knows how incredibly unhelpful such a comment would be in the midst of your turbulent emotions.
So what do you do when you’re plagued with these kinds of symptoms? And is there any hope that things will ever change?
At the time, I didn’t think so, but now, more than 3 decades later, I can tell you unequivocally that I don’t have those kinds of panic attacks any more; I don’t suffer from depression; and I never worry that they’ll return.
I’ll talk more about the reasons behind these symptoms, and what you can do about them, in the next post in this series (because this one is, definitely, long enough already!).
Have you dealt with depression or anxiety, or know someone who has? What has been most helpful, in your experience? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.