Thursday, June 7, 2018

Serious Talk: My Struggles with Mental Health

I was shocked and saddened on Tuesday to hear that Kate Spade had apparently taken her own life at age 55. Her name was synonymous with fun yet accessible luxury. Like so many other women of my generation, my very first designer handbag was from her brand. I still remember how much I loved and treasured that red satchel I had found in the clearance section for $80. It's unfortunate that the life of such a warm and creative woman ended this way. Perhaps if our society was more open to discussing mental health issues and providing support for people who need help, this tragedy could have been prevented.

In light of this event, today I want to talk about a serious topic that is very important to me: mental health, specifically my own struggles with it. I debated whether I should share this information on the blog, because after all, it is an extremely personal subject. I ultimately decided in favor of it, because I want to help dispel some of the stigma surrounding discussions of mental health by sharing my own experience, and if doing so helps even one person reading this post, it would be worthwhile.

I have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). In this post as well as older posts, I alluded to it in passing, but I feel like I've always danced around the subject, intentionally minimizing the impact it's had on my life. What is generalized anxiety disorder, you ask? Everyone feels anxious sometimes. Maybe you're worried about not having enough money to pay an unexpected bill, or you have a performance review coming up, or you're waiting on some test results from the doctor, or you're nervous before a big exam or presentation. These are examples of normal everyday anxiety, which are mostly rational and transient in nature. Generalized anxiety disorder is when you experience irrational anxiety that is persistent and overwhelming to the point where it interferes with your daily life. It means constantly worrying about things that shouldn't matter, irrationally avoiding activities or situations, and having out-of-the-blue panic attacks. Almost 20% of Americans suffer from it, and yet I rarely hear anyone discuss it.

I mentioned in this post that nowadays I lead a pretty active and adventurous life. That may not seem like a big deal, but for me, it was impossible to even imagine a few years ago. Circa 2010, I developed crippling anxiety while I was working. At the time I wasn't in a great place mentally. I was socially isolated, I didn't like my job, I was in a stressful long-distance relationship, and I had gained 10 pounds from living a sedentary lifestyle. All I ever did was work, eat, sleep, repeat. It was during this period that I had my first panic attack, which I didn't recognize as a panic attack at the time. (If you've never had one personally, let me just say that it is truly a terrifying experience. Some people have described it as feeling like they're going to die. Sometimes people even end up in the ER, because they think they're having a heart attack when it's actually a panic attack.)  It happened at work. I remember sitting at my desk and suddenly feeling very weak and dizzy. My heart was racing, I couldn't breathe, and I felt extremely nauseous. I was sure I would faint or throw up or both. I emailed my manager to say I wasn't feeling well, and I called my dad to come pick me up from the office. At the time, I thought maybe I had food poisoning and that it would pass. It didn't. This happened many more times, always striking seemingly out of the blue. I was terrified and became convinced I had a terrible mysterious illness. I frequented the doctor's office, hoping to find an answer. I went to a cardiologist, a neurologist, a pulmonologist, an ENT, and a gastroenterologist. I even had an MRI done of my brain. Everything came back normal, but I was still convinced there was something wrong with me. I obsessed endlessly about my health (hypochondria), because I felt like I needed to hunt down this "illness" and started to avoid social settings in case I "felt sick."

By 2014, the situation had turned desperate. At the time, I was already in grad school, which was super stressful. I still didn't recognize my "illness" as panic attacks. I was constantly drained and on edge. Because I was worried about "losing control" in front of other people when I "felt sick," I developed agoraphobia and started to avoid leaving the house. (Not coincidentally, I started blogging in 2014 as an escape.)  On the rare occasions we attended social gatherings, I had to be accompanied by my then-fiancĂ© in order to not feel panicky, and there were still times I felt so anxious we had to leave early with a hasty excuse.  My anxiety was exacerbated by my shame, my need to keep up appearances and not let anyone know that I was struggling (an irrational but common fear for people with GAD). I felt trapped and hopeless.

Finally, after months of encouragement from my then-fiancé, I entered therapy. That decision completely transformed my life. For two years, I worked with my therapist as well as in group therapy on the problem. Finally, in 2016, I was able to make a major breakthrough. I am proud to say that I have not had a panic attack since then. What worked for me was a number of things. First, I told the important people in my life my big, dark secret. Most of my friends were supportive, which actually helped dispel my fear of people seeing me feel "sick." They were also surprised, because they had never suspected; I was that good at hiding it. Some of them even confided in me about their own mental health struggles, and I successfully encouraged three of them to seek therapy too. Unfortunately, my parents have been slow to come around, because mental health issues are really stigmatized in immigrant Asian communities. I'm still glad I told them. Also I learned some coping strategies to help ease me through a panic attack. Most importantly, I try to moderate my overall stress levels by working out, eating right, getting enough sleep, seeing friends, meditating, journaling, and of course going to therapy.

Where the earth meets the sky (view from an outdoor rock climbing trip)

Today I am in a much better place mentally, which has given me the strength and energy to pursue the life I want to live. I travel, rock climb, cycle, ski, hike, spend time regularly with friends, etc. If you had told me a few years ago that I would be where I am now, I wouldn't have believed you. That's not to say there isn't more room for improvement. There are still times when I am irrationally anxious, but I try to not let it limit who I am or what I do. I am extremely grateful for the progress that I have made in therapy, and I hope I can continue to do so in the future. I also hope to continue being a mental health advocate for other people in my life.

If you are suffering from anxiety and/or depression, I want you to know THERE IS HOPE. Anxiety and depression are both liars. They feed off your loneliness, hopelessness, and despair, so they try to trap you into believing that you're powerless to change your situation. You can't trust the thoughts they put in your head. Please seek professional help as soon as possible. I promise you things will get better.

If you know someone who is or who you think might be struggling with anxiety and/or depression, please reach out to them. Let them know that you care and they're not alone. If you can, nudge them to seek professional help. We all need to do our part in saving lives. 

Do you or someone you know struggle with anxiety or depression? How do you/they cope with it? Do you think there's still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health issues? If you don't feel comfortable leaving a public comment, please email me at dresslikeanengineer{at}gmail{dot}com.


  1. It's wonderful you have taken the time to discuss this on your blog. A very personal story, but you have shown how you have coped with the situation and that gives hope and comfort to many people, I'm sure. I find it inspirational. Thank you for writing this.

    My best friend suffers with ADHD and certainly has a lot of ups and downs, and they are very unpredictable. It's not as if medication will work forever either. She has had to change it every once in awhile and it's not easy. I worry about her when she's in her dark space, hoping nothing tragic happens as it did to Kate Spade. I feel so sorry for Kate Spade's husband and young daughter. It's unimaginable.............

    1. Vava, thank you so much for your support! Your kind words really mean a lot to me.

      I'm sorry to hear about your best friend's ups and downs. From personal experience, I know it can be really hard to watch someone you love struggle. It sounds like you're a good friend, and hopefully your continued support will have a stabilizing influence on her. I also feel that medicine alone isn't enough to treat most people; they need that along with a combination of therapy, self-care, and support.