Learning to breathe again

By: Jessica Garabon

Every so often I have to learn to breathe again…

It sounds like such a silly statement.  Breathing is something that we are innately programmed to do. But when I was asked to describe my experience with depression and generalized anxiety disorder, this was the only phrase that began to describe it. It is like learning to breathe over and over again.

My struggles with mental health have been present for most of my life. However, it wasn’t until three years ago that I could put a name to what I was experiencing – when I was diagnosed with both generalized anxiety and major depressive disorders. I had experienced many of the symptoms encompassed in these two conditions since I was a child. But because there was nothing medically “wrong” with me, I was labelled as moody, overly emotional, or disruptive. For the next several years of my life, I internalized the thoughts and feelings that I was experiencing as myself just overreacting or getting worked up over nothing. I placed an inordinate amount of blame on myself and resolved to move past these scenarios and just “be better”.

Throughout high school and university, the anxiety and emptiness that I experienced were magnified. The funny thing was, if you asked anyone in my life from my close friends to casual acquaintances, they would describe me as being incredibly happy all of the time. Sure, I knew that away from the gaze of others I would have bad days or weeks, but I would also have periods of unequivocal happiness where I couldn’t wait to see what the future would hold for me, so how could I possibly be depressed? Over time, the periods of depression and crushing anxiety began to grow longer and the moments of happiness became increasingly less frequent. Even when you need it the most, reaching out for help is an incredibly difficult feat. I found this to be especially true because I didn’t know how to define what I was experiencing yet. Was I over-reacting? Was this something that everyone goes through in university? How could I ask for help when I didn’t even know what I needed help with? With time, I finally made the decision to reach out to my doctor. Being formally diagnosed gave me a strange sense of closure. I could finally put a name to my illness. A name that made me feel even the slightest bit that my struggles were validated. I felt excited and hopeful about my future. I knew what was wrong with me and now I could go out and fix it. Like I have found time and time again, life just isn’t that simple.

When I started medical school, it was meant to be the happiest time in my life. I had worked for it for years and dreamed of it for even longer. I had always believed that my depression and anxiety were centered around my unhappiness with where I was at in life. If I could accomplish more, do better, be better then I wouldn’t have this weight hanging over me. In a one-year period I married my high school boyfriend, completed my master’s degree, and was accepted into medical school- everything I had dreamed of was finally at my fingertips. At this time, I thought that I would finally be free of the depression and anxiety that had haunted me since I was a child. I was exactly where I wanted to be in life. But as I sat there during my medical school orientation, I felt the familiar pain of not being able to breathe.

From that moment on, I fell into a depression deeper than I had ever experienced. Depression and anxiety have become colloquial terms that are thrown around to superficially talk about mental health but being suicidal isn’t something that is often spoken of. Suicide is an uncomfortable topic that is often shied away from in conversations about mental illness, but it is a very real and prevalent issue, especially within the medical community. Because of the prevalent stigma that comes along with speaking of being suicidal, I was afraid to reach out and ask for the supports that I needed. How could the girl who was always smiling and supportive, the person that classmates would go to for advice, the student body president be suicidal or suffering from depression? How could I ever be the doctor when I was also the patient?

In starting medical school, I had endeavored to keep my illness a secret. I believed that if my new peers discovered what I was hiding, the imposter syndrome that I so often experienced would be validated by all of those around me. I began to worry about how dealing with mental illness would affect my future career as a physician. But I have decided that I refuse to be part of a healthcare system where I will be stigmatized for being both a physician and patient.

My story is not special, and it is not unique. There are an endless number of people like me, who have experienced this kind of hardship and still persevere every single day. I’m still sick, and I believe that these are issues that I will continue to manage for the rest of my life. But my perspective on my illness has changed. I’ve started talking more openly about my mental health with those in my life. Normalizing my illness has given me the strength that I need to learn how to breathe again one day at a time. I’m slowly learning to trust others and that I don’t need to carry the weight of my illness all on my own. I have built the most incredible support system, and I could not be more thankful for the endless number of people that have demonstrated kindness and compassion and friendship throughout my journey. I take the medications that I need to allow my brain to function normally, and I continue to work on myself every day with the help of an incredible psychiatrist who is well-versed in physician and trainee mental health. I’m not okay today, but I know that I will be one day. I know that I have a future with love and hope and happiness. I know that my experiences with depression and anxiety will help me to be a more compassionate and empathetic doctor. I know that one day I will breathe freely again.

As I continue to move forward in my journey, there are a number of realizations that I’ve made that have contributed to my recovery. First, I have spent most of my life searching for my purpose; seeking out greater meaning in the world and the one ultimate source of happiness to light a spark inside me and show me why I’m here. This is something that I have spent years searching for but have never found because life is just not that simple. One of my closest friends has helped me to realize that life is not black or white. Good or bad. Pure or evil. Just as happiness isn’t one grand event or nothing at all. She has shown me that happiness isn’t a destination or one occurrence in life that we get to experience. Happiness, as cliché as it may sound, is a collection of tiny moments in everyday life than can bring joy and appreciation and love. These moments can be as simple as having coffee with a friend in the middle of a hectic day, spending an hour at the park with my dog, sleeping in without an alarm, or hearing the purest and most magnificent belly-laugh of my husband. Any of these moments alone are not momentous or overly significant, but together they form a life filled with purpose and meaning and value and hope.

Now, during difficult days, there is a quote that I like to remind myself of by one of my favourite authors Jamie Tworkowski:

“Your questions deserve answers, but just as much, you deserve people who will meet you in your questions. Some answers will take years. Some answers will take a lifetime. The questions often weigh so much. The good news is you don’t have to carry them on your own. This life, our healing, our recovery, it is certainly a journey. What a miracle that we don’t have to do it alone.”

Despite the difficulties and uphill battles that I still continue to face. Despite the struggle of facing a world that continues to stigmatize and cower away from my illness. Despite the beautiful and wonderful days that can be interrupted unexpectedly by a familiar sense of being unable to breathe, I am not alone. What a miracle that I don’t have to do this alone.

Author: Jessica Garabon

Jessica completed her B.Sc. in Behaviour, Cognition, and Neuroscience at the University of Windsor and her M.Sc. in Neuroscience at Western University. She is the incoming Hippocratic Council President and a proud co-founder of Proaction on Mental Health (PRO-MH). Jessica is passionate about narrative medicine and being an advocate for physician and trainee mental health. She loves travelling and coffee and is a fierce supporter of the Oxford comma.
This post was inspired by Proaction Mental Health, a new social 
movement created by Schulich medical students to tackle the stigma
of mental health, and to provide a strong supportive community among
future healthcare professionals. Follow them at @proactiononmh on
Instagram and Twitter!
Photo Credits: Breathe, Creative Commons 

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