Being sixteen is hard; as an eleventh grader I was no exception to that rule. Aside from the normal struggles of school, awkward body transformations and the angsty "who am I" phase all teens endure, I had a number of other struggles during that period of my life.
As a teenager I was constantly obsessing over what the people around me were thinking. Did they notice that I had accidentally made a wrong turn on my way to class? Why did it feel like everyone was staring at me? I’m sure that group of girls was definitely whispering about me. Being in a building flooded with peers was incredibly stressful, and my heart would race for what felt like full hours while I drove myself crazy throughout the day.
As this thought pattern continued (and worsened) I quickly began to isolated myself from my peers. At the time it had felt easier than facing the stress of human interaction. During my lunch hours I got in my car and drove around by myself. I wouldn't make plans with anyone, and I quickly became very lonely. All that "me-time" really did was give me more opportunities to destroy my own self-esteem, and I quickly became an incredibly sad person.
I would come home from school and lie in bed, blasting heavy metal music that I hated, just to try and drown out the awful thoughts that I couldn't seem to escape. I never slept, and the lack of rest eventually took the greatest toll of all. Some days I felt like I couldn't function, and when I did manage to sleep, I was plagued by nightmares. To boot, sleep paralysis entered my life, and I started my days by screaming and crying at the top of my lungs, unable to move my limbs, frozen in bed staring at the ceiling.
As you may have guessed by now, what I was experiencing were the effects of an anxiety disorder.
And then I found therapy. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to be exact, and it changed everything.
I had been to counselling as a child and had expected therapy to be the same type of thing. Endlessly talking about my problems and having someone sit there, listen, nod a little and hand me tissues when necessary. Nope. Therapy is work. Sometimes hard work, but that work pays off.
My therapist helped me set goals and develop strategies to beat my anxiety. In some ways it felt like she helped me hit reset on my brain. We did worksheets and projects, she gave me apps to try and resources to use. More than anything she helped me understand and unravel the intricacies of my mental wellness challenges by helping me connect my thoughts, feelings and actions so that I could spot patterns.
Understanding the things your brain is doing (and the things you don’t even realize your brain is doing) is key in overcoming challenges like this. Therapy didn’t make me feel “less sad” or “less lonely”. It wasn’t about fixing damage that had been done, it was about completely rebuilding so that I had a new, strong foundation to move forward with.
Before therapy my grades had slipped from A’s to barely passing. The idea of university petrified me, and I didn’t even want to apply to schools. I didn’t really care about graduating high school at all. But as I learned new coping techniques things improved. By the time I was in grade twelve I wasn’t just doing well, I was studying to take my ACT’s and applying to schools in New York. I ended up graduating as an Ontario Scholar with my bilingual certificate and getting into my first pick school.
When my anxiety peaked, I had been fired from my part time job because I was completely unreliable. Panic attacks would grip me at random moments, leaving me useless. I had even blacked out from forgetting to breathe for too long. CBT taught me to recognize my triggers, stop anxious thoughts in their tracks and talk myself down from panic attacks when they did sneak up on me.
I got a new job, and even though I was still in high school working only part time, my manager recognized me for my strong work ethic and enthusiasm. She invested in me and helped build my resume and expand my skill set by letting me lead projects and test out different leadership roles.
In the years to come she would eventually move on to work for a speaking agency who specialized in mental health programming for students and young adults. When asked to scout new hires she remembered me, and in my second year of university I was given the opportunity to interview with the Director. I got the job.
Since that torturous time in high school I’ve travelled alone to New Zealand for five months, developed meaningful relationships with people I love, and have turned into someone who wakes up well-rested (most days) and happy.
I work for a company I love, where I get to facilitate wellness workshops, send brilliant mental health programs to high schools and universities all over the continent and help connect people with the help they need.
I am still hit with bouts of anxiety, and panic attacks are still something I cope with, but none of that controls my life anymore. And I owe it all to therapy.