It was August 2017. I was diagnosed with anxiety with adjustment disorder.
Admittedly, going to see a psychiatrist was my own decision. I had kept everything to myself. I never told anybody about what I was going through with my mental health, not even my parents or my friends. I wasn’t willing to accept that there were flaws within me to begin with, let alone opening up about it to the others despite the fact that it was my mom who broke the dreaded news to me.
Usually, it is my dad who checks our mailbox. Apparently, one day he found this letter with the name of a health center printed on top of the envelope; he reckoned it was important, so he passed it to my mom to read it.
“What’s this?” Pointing at the letter insouciantly, my mom handed it over to me. Written on it was the date of my visit, the name of the psychiatrist, as well as diagnosis. That, my dearest readers, was how I found out I suffered from mental disorder.
When I Realized Things Were Going Wrong
While there had been some underlying symptoms that hinted at anxiety disorder, it wasn’t until this diagnosis that I really admitted that yes, there is something wrong with me.
One of them was nervous sweating. And let me tell you, having sweaty palms 24/7 causes a great deal of awkwardness and annoyance in your daily life. You almost always need to be prepared to be met with side eyes and engage in awkward small talks when you are being greeted with a handshake. You have to think on your feet and come up with a brilliant excuse to remove yourself from whatever circumstances in order to avoid any physical contact.
Fun fact: I had this scale to measure how bad (or sweaty, if you will) my palms are at different locations, a level 10 being the worst. Subway would always be a level 10, no doubt. It was just the worst. I mean, c’mon, it’s the NYC subway. What could possibly go wrong? Apparently, everything.
I felt incredibly uncomfortable being in a crowded place. My mind would go at a million miles per hour, and my heart would pound so loud that I could almost hear it, much to my chagrin. The mere presence of a lot of people intimidated and overwhelmed me. Subway’s crowdedness suffocated me, literally and mentally. I would have images and scenarios of all kinds of things going inundate my mind – what if the man standing in front of me falls on me? I just made eye contact with the woman standing across from me, why did she look at me? When will the ride be over?
Not to mention, there were street performers who would occasionally do stunts with handrails and poles. I do appreciate their talent, but definitely not that they had to do it on an already crowded train. I would stand frozen on the spot, holding per hour, and my heart would pound so loud that I could almost hear it, much to my chagrin.
My first ever breakdown experience was back in high school when I was just 16. It was in front of 30ish people. If I could erase that mortifying experience from my memory, I would do it without giving it a second thought.
It was July 2016, and I had joined this summer immersive program with about 10 people. (It’s the maximum number of people I could tolerate being around with.) One day, the moment I entered the room, I was met by double the amount of people that should be in the room. As it turned out, the program put two sessions together into one. I thought the day couldn’t get worse. But I was wrong and it did. They made us sit in a circle. Everyone needed to go around, walk up to the middle, and introduce ourselves.
When it was my turn, I stood up from my seat. Every step taken forward was a battle between my mind and my body. I tried to move my feet but my anxiousness kept stymieing my efforts as my muscles tightened and my body froze. I got so overwhelmed and anxious that I panicked and started crying uncontrollably. Standing in the middle of the circle, I was just sobbing under everyone’s gaze. The more I tried to stifle myself, the less control I had over my emotions. People started mumbling, with disgusted and disapproved stares. Thankfully, the program mentor quickly ran up to me and escorted me to a seat. I diverted my attention by inflicting pain in order to stop myself from crying – I kept scratching and pinching my finger. I pinched it so hard that I later realized a deep reddish mark was left on my thumb. For the next hour or so, I was so intimidated that I didn’t dare to look up or move, due to the fear of drawing more attention.
It was a feeling of anxiety, mixed with frustration, anger, and guilt. I was mad at myself for letting my emotions overwhelm me and embarrassing myself in front of everyone. I felt guilty for scaring the mentors and the others. But the thing was, everything seemed to be out of my control, against my will. I just couldn’t make it stop.
Eventually, I gave my mentor a very hard time as she spent two hours trying all kinds of methods to persuade me to open up. But I was so emotionally unstable that I wasn’t able to utter a single word in the entirety of those two hours; she couldn’t get anything out of me. In the end though, she did persuade me to agree to see a psychiatrist.
What Led Up to Where I Was
In retrospect, this anxiety actually fed on my insecurity and self-hatred, partly in wake of my past experiences with being bullied. I had become so affected by how the outside world perceived me that this insecurity of mine had gradually catapulted into hatred toward myself.
Back when I was in primary school in Hong Kong, there was this group of girls led by this b*tchy queen bee from my grade whom I had no interactions with whatsoever. Yet, she still picked on me for no apparent reason. I was never the pretty one, the talented one, or the popular one. Maybe that made me an easy, defenseless target.
I used to have frizzy, coarse hair and a mole on my face that got me unwanted attention and name-callings. They would make disparaging comments about the way I look. They would also pass me scrunched-up notes during class, with mocking and hateful words scribbled on them. At first, I shrugged it off, thinking that they would stop sooner or later. But it lasted for almost half a year. So I decided to do something about it.
One day after school, I decided to report to my teacher with a bunch of the paper notes that I’d collected over the course of a few months. Noticing what I was about to do, the girls immediately gathered into a group and surrounded me, trying to block me from going forward. Despite being extremely scared inside, I stood upright with my head held high. I kept telling myself, “If you back down on this one, you will lose not just this one.” As they moved toward me as a group, I was honestly freaking out. After all, it was one against, what, like six? However, I still mightily held onto the crumpled papers, and dodged them from seizing the paper notes from my hands. I shouted at them to back off as I strived hard to hold back my tears. Apparently, they had never seen me this angry, so they acquiesced. I eventually broke through their “human wall” and strode my way to my teacher with my fist held tight and their frightened looks behind.
That was the first time I spoke up for myself. Yes, it was that dramatic.
Just when I started becoming more comfortable with my surroundings, my family and I moved to New York. Things went downhill again.
I had trouble coming to terms with who I was because it was no longer just the physical appearance that people made comments on about me, it had actually become more about my identity – my race, gender, social class etc., which is even worse because they’re not something I can easily change, if possible in the first place. I’ve dealt with ignorant assumptions, judgmental stares, and rude comments because of who I am.
My security and confidence gradually became dependent on the comments made by other people. Compliments flattered me; critiques crushed me. Over time, I realized that my mood could easily affected by how the outside world perceived me.
An example would be my clothing style. I’ve received comments and egregious assumptions regarding my fashion style. “Your style makes you look too independent, maybe that’s why you’re still single. You know, guys like girls that need to be protected,” or “Why are you not in a relationship? Are you gay?” I find these comments funny, and ridiculous at times. There are so many expectations on clothing style, relationships, and gender roles that those who don’t or are unable to meet those need to justify themselves on a regular basis.
I tried to navigate the two different versions of me – the one that others expected of me and the one I perceived myself as. Inexorably, the two always seem to be in conflict with each other. I could only satisfy either side at a time, thus disappointing the other. I didn’t know what it means to be me anymore.
Things Hadn’t Been The Worst, They Only Got Worse
I started to experience self-questioning, and self-doubt. Only this time, my anxiety made a great comeback. Insecurity. Anxiety. Identity crisis. I plunged into a deeper abyss of hatred and isolation.
I struggled with overthinking and excessive worry for over a year. It started to affect my health. I had trouble sleeping well. Every night I would overthink a lot about what I had done or what I should have done that day. I would get angry with myself for making the wrong gesture, saying the wrong thing, or just not doing anything at all. I would always drift off from extreme exhaustion. The mental and physical exhaustion was so severe that I wasn’t able to concentrate in school. I also had a major overeating problem for over half a year, which is also one of the symptoms of anxiety disorder, as I later found out. I would only stop eating when I felt like throwing up. After each episode of binge eating, I would feel ashamed and guilty. But the next day, everything reset again. It was a cycle of seemingly never-ending torment.
I couldn’t get through what seemed like a normal daily task without having this constant anxiety lurking deep within me ready to jump out and haunt me. For example, back in high school, it was a 20-minute walk from home. However, I dreaded it so much that it felt nothing less than a trek every day. I would always walk with my eyes staring down in order to avoid making eye contact with anyone on the street.
Home. School. These were the only two places I would go. I didn’t hang out with my friends. I rarely went out. In fact, I tried to avoid human interactions at any cost. That lasted for about a year.
Bad First Impression on Therapy Treatment Is No Good
After bombarding you with some snippets of my life, let’s come back to a little more recent time-frame.
Let me spare you all the details of me breaking down in front of the therapist of my first ever therapy session in New York. While I was sobbing uncontrollably, tightly holding the tissue papers that were filled with my tears and mucus in my palm (wow, I’ve just elucidated the very thing I said I wasn’t going to tell), the therapist was ferociously typing on her computer, as if trying to transcribe every single word that I uttered. Once in a while, she would confront me with looks of pity and concern, frown, and then continue to shoot a barrage of questions about my past emotional experience – one after another.
Me breaking down in front of the therapist, for her to assess me with a diagnosis and tell me to follow up with appointments in a nonchalant manner –and then that’s a wrap. It’s f@#king useless, I thought, it’s basically paying to break down in front of a stranger. Quite frankly, I didn’t have a good first impression on psychotherapy.
So I missed the appointment that I had scheduled. And the health center called me, something that was not unexpected, to be honest.
On the other side of the phone was a voice filled with affection and a bit of concern, probably from a middle-aged lady, “Would you like to make an appointment again?”
My heart was beating so fast, with millions of excuses running through my head: what should I say… “Umm… No, thank you.”
“Why? I strongly recommend you continuing the therapy sessions to help what you are going through.” It sounded like she was a little taken aback from my response.
“Uhh… It’s fine; I’m doing fine. I would like to drop out of the therapy session please, thank you.”
So yeah, I refused to take further treatment.
To be continued…