World Mental Health Day: Me and My Mental Illness

What I’m going to be writing about today is a bit of a heavy topic, something that I haven’t really publicly written about in four years since I was in Form 5. Today is World Mental Health Day, and I want to talk about my journey and experiences with anxiety.

As I am writing this, I can already feel the tendrils of anxiety start to reel in; “this post isn’t going to be good or informative enough” “what will other people think of me now” “am I even in a position to write a whole blogpost about this”. But among all these doubts and insecurities, one thing that I do know for sure is that four years ago, if it hadn’t been for a blogpost that someone on the Internet had written about which I’d accidentally but fortunately stumbled upon, I probably wouldn’t have grown and learned to overcome so many hurdles related to my mental illness along the way to become the person that I am today, someone who is in a far better position than my 17-year-old self. And so despite having already procrastinated on this post for the whole day (can you believe my sheer luck for having classes-less Mondays), I managed to convince myself that writing this is a good thing, because if this helps even only one of my readers in their battle against mental illness, it would be worth it. At the same time, I also hope writing something like this will encourage more people to talk about mental illness, which is not an easy feat considering the strong taboos and stigmas surrounding MI, so if someone as fearful as me can do it, so can you.

This is going to be difficult, but I want to be as honest and myself as best I can when writing this, without isolating my own personal individuality from this post because I don’t want this to be an essay, but a conversation.

The first time I experienced a full-fledged panic attack was when I was at Biology tuition class in 2012, a month before SPM. I was sat in the middle of a quiet class of around 100 people with only the teacher talking in front, when I suddenly felt this numbing feeling in my chest. I started to get worried, already phasing out of what the teacher was talking about, wondering what was going on. And so it was this fear, coupled with the sight of everyone around me being so calm and quiet and me being the exact opposite that launched me into a full state of panic. I had to raise my hand in the middle of class (adding to the already mountainous level of fear I was feeling because now everyone’s eyes were on me and shit, would they think I’m weird), shakily tell my teacher that I wasn’t feeling well, and then call my dad to ask him to pick me up but not really being able to tell the reason why. I was still panicking when I got home and to this day, I remember the intense feeling of pure, unadulterated fear I’d felt, feeling like something bad was happening or was going to happen and not knowing what to do about it at all. It wasn’t my first time having a panic attack, as I could recognise these symptoms and subconsciously feed the information of “oh, you’re panicking” to my brain in that state of frenzy, but it was my first time feeling “oh no, oh my god, oh shit what’s going on something’s going to happen am I gonna die” and then having these unhelpful thoughts further push me down a spiral of worse panic. It was horrible. Even writing this now makes my palms sweat a little.

I managed to calm down eventually with the help of my parents, and that night I slept in my parents’ room. I slept rather well actually, because I felt so exhausted. It felt like I’d just run a marathon when it was really probably just 15 minutes of a panic attack.

The next morning, I woke up with a deathly fear of the same thing happening again. And this time, unlike the previous times I’d panicked before, the fear stayed.

During that period of time and especially of that leading up to the weeks of SPM, I was in a perpetual state of fear that I would get a panic attack at any moment without warning. After all, that was what happened the previous time, what’s to stop it from happening again? Even worse, what if the same thing happened in the middle of an SPM exam? And that, I think, was how I gradually developed the fear of enclosed spaces (both literally and metaphorically), spaces where I can’t escape easily if things get too much for me to cope with. This fear of panic attacks was the cause of most of my attacks, creating a vicious cycle that I would later on learn to be a panic disorder. I started to avoid places and situations where I’d panicked at before. It got to the point where I’d avoid wearing the same clothes I’d worn during a panic attack, a form of superstitious paranoia that history would repeat itself under the same conditions.

I wasn’t a very confident and carefree person to begin with, so my anxiety was basically a flared-up version of everything that I was flawed at. I couldn’t eat well. I couldn’t sleep well. I spent majority of my time wondering what the hell was wrong with me. I ended up panicking in the middle of my English paper during SPM and had to tell the invigilator that I had to puke, though after she walked away I was even more afraid of the prospect of leaving the exam hall in the middle of an exam so I forced myself to focus my undivided attention on the paper instead of on my anxiety. It was difficult, but ironically enough, you sort of get the hang of it after enough practices with the number of papers you have to take in SPM. Although those weeks do feel really far away to me now, I can still remember the helplessness and hopelessness of this panic-trodden fear, and to the 17-year-old me who had been receiving these bouts of fear in full blasts sporadically unannounced, it only made sense that 2012 wasn’t exactly the most cheerful year I’d had.

Anxiety is a cheeky little thing. It takes everything you see, hear and think, and twists it towards blatant paranoia that things are actually worse than they seem, or that other people actually have a different negative meaning behind it. It can go from “she looks at everyone except me in the eye when talking, is it because I said/did something wrong” to hours of ruminating over a list of Potential Things I Might Have Said Or Done to Make Her Angry at Me which eventually leads to actually believing that she is actually mad at me and thus affecting my social attitude when it might actually and realistically be nothing at all. And this went for most things besides social interactions; I had a headache? Might be an aneurysm. Couldn’t reach my dad on the phone? Something bad must’ve happened. Sudden feeling of apprehension that appeared out of nowhere? There must be a logical reason to justify this sudden feeling of dread and that logical reason is something bad happening or about to happen. And thus, that was how most of my days spent, believing that things x, y and z were all turning to shit and oh god, suddenly it’s too hot but I’m getting cold sweat and my surroundings are too loud and the lights are too bright and it’s a bit hard to breathe. Rinse, lather, repeat.

I was never clinically diagnosed, and the reason for that involves the stigma of mental illness. Especially in the small town of Alor Setar that I am from, it’s not a thing that most people think is “normal”, I would reckon. And truly, that is a very scary thing if not the scariest, even more so than the actual symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks. Nothing, I feel, is more terrifying than feeling alienated and alone when you’re already slowly losing bits of your confidence and self-esteem. Because great! Now not only do you yourself feel that something is wrong with you, you have the concrete evidence of so many people of the same opinion agreeing with you! Does wonders for your self-worth.

So I did the one thing that would make me feel less lonely: go on the Internet. They always say to never google your symptoms because 70% of the time the results will likely be worse than it actually is, and to some extent I agree with the notion behind that, but at the time, feeling my absolute lowest, I needed to find a logical reason for my despair. I felt like that was the only way I could get my life back on track again. Identifying what my problem was was my first step to gaining a footing on the main pathway again instead of straying through muddy plains. Strangely enough, it’s very, very comforting when you have people tell you that what you’re going through is normal, it’s a common thing and it happens to a lot of people, and sometimes it doesn’t even have to happen for any reason at all. Because suddenly, you’re not alone. You’re not this abnormal specimen that feels bad for existing and being like this. Despite knowing that this knowledge wasn’t going to cure me instantaneously, the job was pretty much already I’d say 20% done when I realised that, in my case, having anxiety didn’t make me an alien; it made me, ironically, human. Despite not receiving an official diagnosis, I found comfort in being able to relate to other people’s experiences of anxiety and being able to put a name to what I’d been feeling horrible about for weeks.

The main things that got me through that dark period of my life were: talking to my parents, Aunty Amelia and my friends, as well as (don’t laugh) watching videos of Youtubers on Youtube. For once in my life, I tried to ingrain the habit of talking about my feelings, problems and just anything that I needed to talk about to people, instead of furiously scribbling them down in an angsty journal and then pretending everything was fine. Because that was my main problem I think, not talking to people. That, and also the accumulated stress and pressure from everyone around me to do the best in SPM after years of being a top scorer. I honestly don’t think I could’ve emerged from that funk if it weren’t for the constant reassurances from my parents that they didn’t see me any less as their daughter, despite the way I was.

And then there were times when I had to seek distractions, so Youtube became an addictive platform for me. At that point in my life when I was feeling incredibly alone, having someone figuratively talk to me through a computer screen helped, surprisingly.

My anxiety didn’t go away after SPM ended, something I’d intensely prayed and wished for in the middle of exams, but of course this isn’t something that just goes away when you want it to. And now with school over for good, I found that staying at home and doing nothing only intensified the overthinking and worrying. I was at my wits end. Wasn’t this anxiety caused by exam stress? But now that SPM was already over, why wasn’t this as well? At that point I was starting to have serious concerns about attending college and subsequently, university. All along, it’d been a naturally default plan in the blueprint of my life that I would do these things without qualms, because that was what everyone expected of me. But now, I didn’t know anymore.

I rarely left the house that month, until I realised that this wasn’t the path I wanted to take. I didn’t want to allow my anxiety to stop me from doing things that I wanted to do. But of course, that was easier said than done. When faced with the choice between doing something and risk being afraid and thus panicking, and staying at home in comfort and safety, it was only natural to gravitate towards the latter.

Which was why I forced myself to get a job. It was my parents’ idea, and I saw this as a chance to actively do something. Plus, I knew how effective routines can be to establish a sense of comfort and calmness.

It turned out getting a job for three months instead of idly waiting for my exam results to come out was one of the best decisions I have made. It was a busy part-time cashier job at Popular, nine hours a day and six days a week with unpaid overtime hours late into the night. On weekends, it got so busy that I wouldn’t even be able to leave the counter to take a toilet break for the whole day, and then I’d come home every night exhausted beyond belief. But I was doing something. I was meeting new people and interacting with customers and using my brain to think while on the job, and it was precisely the busyness of it all that left me little room to ruminate much of anything else. And then of course this is a thing rarely explicitly observed but no matter what you do, as long as you’re doing something productive, you’ll always be able to derive satisfaction from it at the end of the day. Plus, days when I weren’t very anxious served as encouragements that, if there is one day when I can be okay, there can be many more days like that in the future. These were small steps, and I was contented with achieving small goals without overwhelming myself too much.

And then I quit my job in March, after SPM results came out, giving the reason that I wanted to focus on college applications. And then I impulsively bought tickets to fly to the UK and stay there for a month. Alone. I knew I said I was taking small steps but this was a giant one, even by my own standards. And I did it! This, to this day, still remains a pretty big milestone in my life, and I’m really happy that I saw the opportunity and seized it. It has helped me a lot in the long run.

Getting a job and flying to the UK had set up a pretty solid foundation for what was to be a good year for 2013. I entered college in July and was the best version of myself that I could ever be. Funny, sociable and confident. I don’t know if it was genuine or a facade because I’m too distanced from that person I was in sem 1 of A Levels to recall the mindset I was in, but that was a peak moment in my life, which further boosted my self-confidence. I didn’t have any major panic attacks that year.

Come 2014, I had to miss a week of classes due to my grandfather’s funeral in January and when I went back to Sunway, I panicked in the middle of Physics class from all the lessons I’d missed and had to leave the classroom to call my parents, who managed to help me calm down. After that, I got afraid again. I panicked once on the canopy walk and wasn’t able to go on it alone anymore ever again. I couldn’t go anywhere alone because I was convinced if I did that and panicked, no one would be able to help me calm down because I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to calm myself down. Worse still, I was alone in Subang without my parents, so this was a whole new territory I was stepping into.

But I was lucky. I honestly lucked out, to have met the people I met in Sunway who I now call my closest friends. After my panic attack episode, despite feeling like I was being pushed into a corner yet again, I found an easier outlet to breathe through by telling my friends about my problem with anxiety. Maybe this was also prompted by the fact that I was in a college in Subang, and was of the opinion that people here would be more exposed to mental illness issues than back in Alor Setar. It was standard of me to expect negative responses, but I’d received none. All my friends and housemates were so accepting of my struggles, and this time, I felt less of the alienation I did back in 2012. This time, I felt more reassured that this was something I could deal with and overcome to not let it get in the way of me living my life. This wasn’t to say I got rid of my anxiety entirely (in the first place, anxiety is not really something you can get rid of). My anxiety started to creatively manifest itself in multiple different ways besides panic attacks, like avoidance behaviour and social anxiety, equally pain-in-the-ass as panic attacks. But having family and friends who knew what was going on with me and was still willing to accept me and help me get back up whenever I fell down made the falling down part easier to cope with. There eventually came a time when my insecurities and inadequacies kept being proven wrong time and time again with the reassurances of the people around me that I was capable of looking my anxiety in the (metaphorical) eyes and discern what was real and what was not. It still remains a blurred line to me nowadays in certain aspects, but I’ve learned a lot since then to be able to differentiate worries that are substantial from those that aren’t.

Now, I am in university and sometimes I still get habitually afraid of going to places alone for fear of panicking and not being able to be “rescued”. My social anxiety is also probably at its peak form in this environment that expects you to meet all the people and make all the new friends and do all the yolo stuff together, but I am still learning to go about life without allowing anxiety to be a hindrance to things I want to do, people I want to know and the person I want to be. Last year, I was regretful of many things that I was too afraid to try, and after spending the whole summer back at home lamenting and deliberating, I came back to Manchester this year with multiple resolutions to make a change for myself. I am in a far better place currently, and it’s always comforting and reassuring to know that if I have managed to overcome the things I’ve overcome, I can do it again. If I can take a 13-hour flight all the way to UK by myself and start a new life afresh in a foreign country surrounded by a massive amount of people from different cultures and backgrounds, I can invincibly do almost anything.

Ultimately, this post is to reach out to those who have felt/are feeling similarly and feel isolated because of that. I know what it feels like, and I want to help. You are never alone in this, and you are not abnormal or strange or any of the doubts you constantly think of. You are merely human, and your mental illness does not define who you are. And remember, always ask for help if you need it, whether it be medical help, therapy and counselling, or even just telling your family and friends. Talking about it makes a huge difference. Everyone deals with their mental illness differently; I didn’t want to take medication, but I learned the concept of CBT and sought counselling from people I trusted whenever I needed it. This doesn’t make my anxiety any better or worse than anyone else’s. It doesn’t make me a better or worse person than anyone else. Mental illness isn’t a competition, and everyone deserves the right to help themselves in any way they can, as well as the right to be helped in any way they can be.

World Mental Health Day was initiated to combat the taboos and stigmas surrounding mental illness, which is the main cause of MI sufferers refusing to seek help in the first place. It’s strange that when you say the word “illness” it carries no ulterior connotation but when you attach the word “mental” before it, suddenly all the associated adjectives like “crazy” “deluded” “insane” pop up. I feel it in the apprehension I felt when I chose the title for this post, and I feel it in the casual “oh, you’re just overthinking again” comment I often receive and also often make to myself, to be honest. In any event, it is most likely that the anxiety sufferer themselves have already told themselves that a million times over and what they seek is validation rather than a rejection of what they have been experiencing for a very long time.

With time and the help of the people around me, I’ve gathered more courage to be able to speak about this with other people, and also on a public platform like this. It lessens the burden so much more when you let others in and grant them your perspective on things when you’ve been in your own head for too long. It reinforces the belief that you, despite your anxiety, are worthy of other people’s affection and care just as much as anyone else. And suddenly, living with a mental illness like anxiety doesn’t feel too overbearing anymore when you’ve got people around you who are willing to help you. I am not cured, and I am not confident enough to say one can be 100% cured of a mental illness, but I’d say one can learn how to cope and live with it. Back when I was 17 and was imparted with this new knowledge that I was suffering from anxiety, I thought I could never feel like a normal person again and that I would always have to carry this sickness around with me like a ten-tonne deadweight tied to my ankles. I thought that there was where my life would end, and that I had no hope of ever having a worry-less future anymore. I thought that everything I touched would be tainted by my anxious mind, and that I would turn everything into a giant anxious mess just by existing. I thought and thought and thought, but at that moment in life, I never would’ve thought that all those things weren’t true and would not turn out to be so. Some of my best memories in life happened even though I suffer from anxiety. Some of the best people I’ve met in my life wanted to be my friends even though I suffer from anxiety. It’s amazing, almost absurd, to think that these can be possible, but they are, and they are valid and real, and none of my paranoid thoughts can possibly dispute situations that have physically manifested in front of my eyes. And that was when I started to genuinely believe that I was capable of living a good and fulfilling life with my anxiety, despite my anxiety. I wasn’t going to let it stop me from experiencing the world as it truly is.

I also hope this post helps those who have people who are suffering from anxiety in their lives, to give insight on what an anxiety sufferer is actually going through and how one can understand them better and offer the help that they need. Like I said, the way everyone deals with their anxiety is different, but I would think that being there for them and not treating them like a lesser human being would generally be a good step in an effort to appreciate them for who they are, mental illness and all.

I am so grateful to all the people in my life who have helped me in this ceaseless battle against anxiety, without whom I wouldn’t be the stronger person that I am today. Thank you for always picking me up whenever I fall and constantly reminding me that there are more good things in life than there are bad. Lastly, I hope conversations like this will aid to lift the taboo of speaking about mental illness, especially since it is something that can be alleviated, however little, by talking about it.

Some useful links:

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Author: Michelle Teoh

21-year-old cynical Asian, book enthusiast and purveyor of fine sarcasm.

4 thoughts on “World Mental Health Day: Me and My Mental Illness”

  1. Hey Michelle, I dont know what to say but, I really got inspired and motivated by this post and your personal story. You are such a brave girl to post this in public! And I really admire your ways of dealing with anxiety. You’ve never given up and stayed strong throughout this battle. You showed me that we people have to strive for a good life no matter how hard life is. You also motivated me to become a better me. Thank you ❤ Like you said, u posted this because you want to help people. And u did it! All the best in everything! Believe in yourself and you can do it!

    1. Hi there! Thank you so much for this lovely comment! I’m so happy that writing this has inspired you in some sort of way and really, that’s the thing I wanted most when I wrote this post, so thank YOU 🙂 All the best to you too!

  2. Hi Michelle. You might not know me, but I’m Aqilah. I’m from Alor Setar and I studied in SMK Sultanah Bahiyah. I hear your name a lot because of your reputation in academic I guess and I came upon your blog long time ago.

    I know we haven’t meet in real life but I don’t know somehow I feel connected maybe because we came from the same city. I know some people from your school and they know me. Hahahahahaha.

    Right now at the moment, I’m currently studying Psychology. Reading and knowing someone who is actually far but yet close (if you get my point) experiencing this made me feel, we need to do something. And you wrote it. Damn you wrote it, girl.

    It’s good and it’s really good. Keep on writing.

    I know I can’t do much plus I’ve very little knowledge and experience in handling these cases. I’m still learning. I always will. But if you need help or input regarding mental illness in Malaysia, I’ll try the out most possible to help.

    Last but not least, I want your permission to share this post on my Facebook wall. If it will violate your privacy, I won’t do it. *pinky promise*

    Again, thank you for writing this 🙂

    1. Hi! I am honestly so so sooooo flattered by this comment and also really glad that my post has had this impact?! Thank you so, so much for this comment and YES your attitude to want to know more about mental illnesses and how to help is exactly what we need in Malaysia, and I thank you so much for that!! Malaysia still has a long way to go in dealing with mental health cases well and it’s people like you who will help to make a change, so thank you too. 🙂

      And yes of course you can share it! I would be very honoured. ^_^

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