Trigger Warning: discussion of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, medication
Disclaimer: I am in no way qualified to provide advice as a mental health professional, therapist or counsellor. I am simply speaking from my own lived experience on my mental health journey. If you are struggling with your mental health, please connect with a licensed mental health professional. See further resources at the end of this post.
Well, the past year has been quite the roller coaster ride for my mental health journey. I know I have mentioned it in bits and pieces throughout the past year, particularly as it related to the pandemic. But as I think back on this year, and just how far I’ve come, I feel inspired to share my full journey. 2020 truly was a wake up call for me to pay more attention to my mental health, which I thought I had been doing but hadn’t really to the extent that I needed to be. The year put a lot of things into perspective for me and the importance of health in general, both mental and physical, has been a big realization of mine. I am hoping to share my story with you all today so that you know you are not alone if you are struggling, and if you have faced similar struggles, maybe you will identify at some point along the way.
To Get Things Started…
I want to start by clarifying that 2020 did not *cause* my mental health issues. I have been dealing with mental health concerns for a few years, they simply reached new heights in 2020 for multiple reasons which I will discuss shortly. I am going to briefly describe the mental health issues I have dealt with previously, and will then discuss the past year in more detail. For the past five years, I have been struggling with depression in one way or another. There have been a few moments where it’s been really bad, including late 2015, mid-2017 and the beginning of 2018, and most recently in 2020. I also started having issues with anxiety as well, which I didn’t really name as anxiety until recently. Things were particularly bad in 2018, when I was having a panic attack every month and experiencing pretty significant depression in early-mid 2018. This was when I decided that I needed to start seeing someone for professional help. I finally began counselling in late 2018, which I definitely should have started years prior to that, but it took me a long time to get to the point where I felt like it was okay for me to seek help – mostly due to the stigma surrounding mental health. My counsellor was great, and it’s a good thing I started seeing her because this was around the time where my anxiety and some other health issues began to spike.
As you may know, in 2019 after I graduated from university, I had a significant health issue occur. I would say my anxiety was quite high at this point, but it still wasn’t something I would have really identified as anxiety at the time. Regardless, my health started to slowly improve and I landed my first position post-graduation and began working again. The first couple of months were a bit rocky but my health continued to improve from there, and I really thought I was going to be okay. I had graduated university, which I had thought was a pretty big stressor for me and causing a lot of my mental health concerns, and I was working in a field that I loved and getting settled into a new life. I hadn’t had a panic attack in a long time, likely due to the positive impact of regular counselling, and I was feeling pretty good and on track.
When Things Started to Go Awry
Things really took a turn at the end of 2019. In late December, a couple days before Christmas, my cat who we had for nearly twenty years passed away. It was not something I had expected at all and I had a full-blown panic attack. It was slightly concerning, as it had been a long time since I’d had a panic attack, but considering the circumstances I thought it was understandable. The real concern came less than a month later, when I had another panic attack. I mentioned in the past I was having panic attacks once a month in 2018, and that was the most often I had them; so for me, having two major panic attacks in less than a month was a major red flag. Particularly because this one was unlike anything I had ever felt before: I had this panic attack when I was on a plane heading from Vancouver to the Okanagan in mid-January 2020. What a way to start the year.
I have never been that terrified in my life and legitimately thought that I was having a heart attack. I didn’t really know what to do and couldn’t go anywhere because I was on a freaking plane. Luckily, the flight was very short and we had already started descending so it was almost over, but in the moment, I was losing my shit. The only thing I could think of was talking to the person next to me to distract myself until the plane landed. The man next to me was an absolute angel and thankfully didn’t think I was totally nuts and talked to me until we landed. He even stayed with me to make sure I got off the plane okay, which was incredible. I was in shock when we landed and honestly did not know if I was going to pass out, vomit, start crying, or a combination of all three. Thankfully, my sister and a friend of mine were picking me up at the airport, so I made them come inside to get me since I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. They brought me back to their place and I finally began to calm down. It took me some time to realize that what I had just experienced was a panic attack (I truly thought it was a heart attack and I was going to die, I had never heard or felt my heart beat that fast). I was extremely stressed about work at the time and obviously was not handling it well at all. As I mentioned, having two major panic attacks in less than a month was a big red flag for me, and I knew something had to be done about it.
As soon as I got back to Vancouver, I connected with my counsellor as soon as possible and we tried to come up with a plan to get myself back on track. My counsellor told me I really needed to focus on boundaries, priorities and practicing self care. I agreed and tried to start the month of February with more balance in mind. It was going well at first, I was trying not to work as much and spend more time doing other things such as fitness classes and spending time with my roommates. I thought I was doing okay, taking the right steps and that everything would be alright. But pretty soon, everything got worse – much worse. At the end of February 2020, I had another near-fainting incident (I have struggled with fainting in the past) and a few days later was feeling very unwell. I discovered I had a viral infection and had to stay home from work for a week until I started to feel better. Also at the beginning of March, we had a theft in our home which was an extremely traumatic incident with prolonged consequences afterwards.
Needless to say, my anxiety was extremely high. I’m not exactly sure at what point I identified myself as having anxiety, and named it as such, but at this point I was definitely aware of it and knew it was at an all-time high. The situation at my house was not pleasant and causing a lot of distress in my life, making it difficult to focus on work – though I was still happy to be going to work and getting out of the house because it was a good distraction for me. COVID-19 cases were also beginning to rise in BC at this time. All of a sudden, we hit mid-March 2020 and we found out we would all be working from home for the next three weeks as the pandemic played out. You all know what happened with that one (aka we have worked from home since then which was nearly a year ago now), and this was where shit really hit the fan. COVID-19 was simply the icing on the cake for an already shitty year for me, and that’s when I really broke down.
Shit Hit the Fan and I Broke Down
I knew that there was no way I could stay in my current situation if I was going to be working from home for a long period of time. The environment in the house was not great and fueling my anxiety, the opposite of what your home should do. I decided I needed to get a new place and began looking right away. I was very lucky and found a place quite quickly, which coincidently was only a few blocks away from my current house, where I would be living on my own until I found a roommate. Before I knew it, I was moving out and doing my best to settle into a new place, as best as could be in the middle of a global pandemic. I really thought that getting out of the environment in my past house was going to solve all my problems. It would be less anxiety-inducing and I would be able to focus on working from home with less distractions. That was true, for the first couple of weeks… but then, things started to go sideways again. The pandemic was arguably at its height at this time (April 2020) and since I was working from home, living on my own and quarantining quite heavily, loneliness began to take over. As our busiest time at work began to wind down and I was beginning to process everything that had happened in March, I began to slide into depression pretty badly.
By the time we hit May 2020, things were really not going well and I started having more serious conversations with my counsellor and doctor about what we could do. It was at this time that I started contemplating medication, but I just didn’t know if I was ready for that or if it would even help me. My counsellor suggested that what I needed was to be around people, something particularly difficult to do when in the middle of a global pandemic and living on your own. After talking with my family, we decided my sister would come to Vancouver and stay with me for a few days, anywhere up to a couple weeks, to see if having another person around would help. As you may have gathered, I was having a hard time finding a roommate during this time of the pandemic, and having never lived alone before was a big adjustment. So, my sister came to visit in the middle of May (she and I both hadn’t really seen anyone else so it felt relatively safe for us) and we spent a few days together, until she realized she needed to go back to the Okanagan sooner than anticipated. I really did not feel like it was a good idea for me to be by myself given my current state, so I decided to go with her. I packed a few things and we were on our way back to the Okanagan on May long weekend.
I wasn’t really sure how long I was going to stay in the Okanagan. I had initially planned for maybe two weeks, and thought that I could try and get a roommate for the beginning of June and head back to Vancouver then. Instead, I wound up staying for a month and a half. During this time, I was still dealing with a lot of mental health concerns and had a lot of negative coping mechanisms. I was glad to be around family and not by myself, but I still wasn’t really feeling “better”. Thankfully, I had found a roommate who was going to start paying rent but wouldn’t be moving in until mid-August. Given this timeline and the fact that I hadn’t started to feel like myself yet, I made the decision to stay in the Okanagan for the rest of the summer and sublet my room for July and August. I went to Vancouver at the beginning of July to get some more of my things (I had literally only packed as if I was staying for two weeks so I needed to get more of my stuff) and prep the house for a subletter, and a couple weeks later, I went back to give my subletter the keys. I was grateful to have someone in the house so I didn’t have to worry about it, and could instead focus on trying to better myself in the Okanagan, which was taking a considerable amount of energy. I was really working on trying to cultivate healthy habits with the help of my counsellor and doctor. We had considered medication, but I decided I wanted to try changing some other things in my lifestyle first.
Previously, I had thought that I was “taking time for self-care”, but I wasn’t really. Even at this time, things that seemed relatively simple such as waking up, going for a walk, taking a shower and having breakfast took a considerable amount of effort. I was focusing on trying to stick with these habits each day, while trying to limit negative coping mechanisms such as binge-watching Netflix throughout the day and excessive social media use. (The social media use was easier to limit, the Netflix was a lot harder as I built this habit during quarantine when I was living on my own). Then, my mom and I decided we would do something different: take a trip. I was pretty anxious about travelling somewhere in the middle of a pandemic, but I really felt like I needed to take a break and go somewhere new. We decided as long as we travelled locally and were safe (using masks, eating takeout whenever possible, camping as much as possible to limit high-traffic hotel areas, etc.) that we could make it work. We planned a road trip from the Okanagan up through the Kootenays, over into Alberta in Banff and Jasper, and back through the Kootenays. I had never been to these parts of Alberta before, and it had been many years since I’d been to the Kootenays, so I was really excited, albeit a bit anxious. Pretty soon, our bags were packed and we were heading off on our adventure at the end of July and into the beginning of August.
This trip really changed everything for me. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: travelling is so special because it allows you to see things from a different perspective. That is definitely what happened on this trip. It also made me realize I don’t need to fear travelling during COVID-19: as long as I am doing my part to stay safe, I have to trust that others are doing their part as well. The trip itself was pretty spectacular, we spent a lot of time exploring outdoors, going hiking, kayaking, swimming, eating food and drinking, and more. It was great to relax and road trip through such beautiful areas of BC and Alberta. Not only was spending time with my mom and getting some time off work really incredible, but I also had the chance to spend the last few days on my own while my mom jetted off on another trip. This was a very significant part of the trip for me as well, as just a few months earlier, I was struggling to even survive in a house on my own – and now, I was able to go exploring on my own in places I hadn’t been to before. It made me realize that though I hadn’t felt like I was making a ton of progress in the past two and a half months since I had been in the Okanagan, and I had been doing only very small things each day, it had added up to something. I was starting to feel more hopeful and confident in myself, which I hadn’t felt for a long time. Travelling on my own and navigating these things by myself, only having myself to count on in those moments, really gave me a feeling of empowerment and made me realize that I could do it.
These realizations made me start thinking about what I wanted my life to look like when I got back from the trip, and I started doing a lot of reflecting about things that were important to me and things that I wanted to have in my life. This started a chain reaction of a lot of positive improvements. When I got back from the trip, I really felt rejuvenated and so much better than I had felt a few months ago. It truly took all of that time since March, all of those small improvements each day and then a big trip pushing me outside of my comfort zone, to get to the point where I *started* to feel better and like myself again. I didn’t want to lose this feeling so as soon as I got back, I got to work on continuing to build things up and create new routines that incorporated all of the aspects that I identified were important to me. It was going well and I kept reminding myself just to take things day by day and that the small steps added up to big improvements. In addition, I was living on my own in the Okanagan for a couple of weeks while my mom was away, and proving that I could do that as well was also very empowering.
By the time summer was drawing to a close at the end of August, I was finally feeling like things were getting back on track. But, the prospect of going back to Vancouver was beginning to creep up and it was starting to make me feel uncertain. Since I had just started to feel better, and I was still going to be working from home for the near future, I decided it was not a good idea to go back to Vancouver and decided to remain in the Okanagan until the new year. It was a big decision for me but really felt like the right decision at the time, and I felt if I had more time to continue working on the routines and positive habits I had already been building, they would be even stronger in the new year. My roommate and I mutually decided to give up our place in Vancouver, I put the rest of my things in storage, and I was settled back in the Okanagan at the beginning of September for the next four months.
Growing Stronger & Exploring New Tactics
As we headed into fall, things were going well in September and October. I was confident that I had made the right decision giving up my place in Vancouver and felt like I was getting stronger everyday. Focusing on my routine, setting boundaries with work, connecting with my family more, and maintaining my appointments with my counsellor and doctor were all important and so so helpful. I definitely felt like I was on the right track, but I kept coming back to the idea of medication which we had previously considered in April and May. Now that I was confident I was *actually* incorporating self care and health-focused activities into my daily routine, and it was clear that it was working, I still felt like I could have a bit more improvement. I spent some time debating whether or not I should give it a try, and I wound up deciding that it was worth it to try medication and see if it could be beneficial for me. My doctor and counsellor were both on board after having multiple discussions about it, and in mid-October after Thanksgiving, I started my medication.
I will be completely honest, the first three days were absolutely brutal. I honestly almost gave up because I had pretty much every side effect imaginable. But, on the fourth and fifth day it was *slightly* more manageable than the previous three days, and when I hit day six and seven, I was starting to feel a bit better. I noticed slight improvements, slowly, each day in the second week. The third week was when I slowly felt like I was getting back to normal, if you will, and by the first month, I felt I had adjusted to the medication and the only side effect I was still experiencing was tiredness. Of course, everyone has a different experience with medication and there are so many different types out there as well. For me, the first month was definitely challenging but it was worth it. By the end of the first month, I was already noticing my anxiety levels had decreased and I was feeling more level-headed. Things continued to improve and I was very glad I had decided to give medication a try. All of this to say – do not let the stigma associated with taking medication for mental health concerns dissuade you from trying it!! In many cases it can be extremely beneficial and make a big difference!! If you are considering trying medication, I would highly recommend discussing it with your doctor and a mental health professional beforehand to determine the best fit for you.
To Stay or Not To Stay?
By the end of November, I was feeling a lot better and was starting to re-consider moving back to Vancouver in the new year. Having so much time in the Okanagan to really focus and prioritize my mental health had been so beneficial, and those extra few months when I decided to stay past September were definitely necessary. At this point, I felt I would be okay on my own due to the skills and priorities I had built up, so I started looking into places again to potentially move for January. However, COVID cases were continuing to increase and we entered into what I’ll call a regional lockdown, where we were not allowed to travel in between regions in BC apart from essential travel. These restrictions combined with COVID cases on the rise and the timing of the beginning of January made me contemplate pushing it back to February, when the cases hopefully would have gone down. This was also when I started to consider relocating to another area of the Okanagan as a potential option if I could not go back to Vancouver. Unfortunately, cases continued to climb throughout December, and we also got some unsettling family news that suddenly made the potential to stay in the Okanagan longer seem a lot more attractive. Since this family news was still a bit uncertain, and who knew what was going to happen with the pandemic over the holidays, I decided to put it out of my mind and come back to it in January when we would hopefully have some more information on all fronts.
December went well, as I wrote in one of my recent posts. I had some time off from work and got to celebrate safely with my family, though it was a bit different than usual, but it was still a really good holiday. Taking this time to connect is something I have identified as very important to me, and I definitely got the chance to do so over the relaxing holidays, which I really enjoyed. January felt like it was off to a good start, with my routines in place and having been on medication for nearly three months. I had also been taking part in multiple wellbeing-focused workshops and courses, through work and externally, that had generated a positive impact. Unfortunately, COVID cases continued to climb, and the unsettling family news we had received in December that had the potential to go sideways did just that. We received worse news than we had hoped for with an illness of one of my family members, which pushed me further to contemplate staying in the Okanagan. As of right now, the province is still in a regional lockdown, so I will be continuing to stay where I am for the near future.
Reflecting and Moving Forward
Though my housing situation for the future remains uncertain, I surprisingly feel more settled and content than I have in a really long time, especially in comparison to how I felt a year ago after suffering a panic attack on a plane. It has been quite the journey but that is one thing I am so grateful to the pandemic for: giving me the time to find it. I have a tendency to run away, to avoid, to be a busy body that is always on the go. The pandemic really forced me to slow down, stop, crash and burn for a second – and then to listen. Really listen. There was nowhere else to go so I was forced to listen to my body and so many things I had been ignoring for years, but desperately needed. Actually focusing on my mental and physical health without being distracted by everything else in life was absolutely necessary. Being able to truly listen to what had been going on put a lot of things into perspective for me and helped me realize what was really important. Mental health, physical health, connection, relationships, spending time with loved ones, doing the things you enjoy in life, not allowing space for those who are not serving you – all of these things I have identified as being fundamentally important to me moving forward. If you had asked me a year ago, I highly doubt I would have given you this list. It is a bit insane to me to see how big of a shift has happened within me over the past year. It definitely wasn’t something that happened overnight; as you saw, it took over six months for me to even *start* feeling better from my major break down in March, and another four months after that to really feel like I was on the right track. Now, I feel like I have the tools to move forward. It doesn’t mean my mental health is perfect, and I definitely still have bad days sometimes, but it is moving in a good direction.
One of the biggest realizations I’ve had as well is that I am going to be okay either way, no matter where I end up, because I have the skills and strategies to help me cope with my mental health and challenges that come my way. Perhaps I will share some more of these strategies in the future, but as this post has been quite lengthy (!!) I think I will end it here for now. To put a long story short, that has been my mental health journey over the past year, and as I said, why I can’t fully hate on 2020 because I am so grateful for how it brought me to where I am now. I hope sharing my story has made you feel a little less alone if you are struggling right now. Know that there is support for you and even if it feels like where you want to be is so far away and you think you might never get there (as I did), know that you will. It might take a long time and probably a lot of work, but you can do it, I believe in you and I hope you can access the resources you need to make it happen! Please check out the list of resources below. And if you have your own stories to share about how this past year has been for you, or mental health tips that have been helpful for you, I would love to hear them – drop them in the comments below <3 sending love to you ALL!!
Canadian Mental Health Resources – visit this website for a list of various organizations
Visit the Canadian government’s website for an additional list of mental health services
The Canadian Mental Health Association in particular is a great one and they have a phone number to call if you are in crisis listed at the top of their website
BC Mental Health Resources – visit this website for a list of various organizations
Mind your Mind has various resources that are Ontario specific, Canadian specific, for those who live in the US and other areas internationally, and they highlight some social media resources as well
If you are seeking some ideas of kindness to inspire you and help you re-connect with yourself, others, and the world, Random Acts of Kindness is a great spot to check out too
You matter! You are loved! <3