Hi guys! Today, I want to share something deeply personal in this post. I’ve written a little bit about my mental health struggle in Instagram posts over the past year, but I wanted to share a more complete look at my story. For me, one of the greatest comforts in this journey is hearing from others who have had similar experiences, because it makes me realize I am not alone. If my story helps just one person feel this way, then the purpose of me writing this will have been served a million times over. As a disclaimer, I am not a medical doctor or mental health practitioner, and this blog post is in no way meant to diagnose or formally treat any mental health issues. I’m just sharing my story, and I’ve included things that have worked for me personally.
My mental health struggle began long before I even recognized it for what it was. In September of 2017, I was entering my last semester of coursework in graduate school in New York. I was also about to take the RD exam, and my boyfriend, Ben, had moved from New York to Boston one month before. I felt myself drifting from close friends because of busy schedules. For the three years prior, my schedule was jam packed with a rigorous full time course load, a part time job, volunteering, studying like crazy, and dietetic internship rotations, all while maintaining some semblance of a social life. As a stark contrast, I was only taking two classes during my final semester. While this left me ample time to study and work on Instagram projects, it also meant I was spending a lot of time alone. There were definitely days when I didn’t speak a single word to another human. As an introvert, this sounds blissful on paper, but even introverts need human contact and conversation to feel whole.
During this time, I remember telling my boyfriend and mom that I was feeling lonely and down on multiple occasions. I started to be more proactive about making plans with friends, and set up some dinners, workout classes and lunch dates. Even still, I couldn’t shake that feeling of loneliness. I just brushed it off as a passing phase due to this transitional period in my life.
Towards the end of the semester, I applied for a few jobs in New York City. I took a hospital job, because I had enjoyed clinical nutrition much more than I expected during my internship. I started right after Thanksgiving of 2017, and was thrown right into working. It was overwhelming and challenging, but it felt good to be around people, and some of my friends who I worked with were super helpful. I started working on cardiac and psychiatric units, which were both rewarding, but I knew I didn’t want to be there forever.
In February, a position to be the RD on the Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT) unit opened up, and I volunteered because I had loved working with oncology patients during my internship. These patients are extremely sick with leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma or other cancers. Many of them were here after multiple relapses. While a transplant can absolutely save lives, the potential, and not uncommon, complications can be deadly. The RD on the BMT unit is highly involved. I was expected to attend rounds with the doctors as much as possible, which meant visiting with each patient on the unit, hearing their story, current status and complications from the doctors, and giving my input when needed. I changed my whole schedule around – I previously went in at 9 AM after a morning workout, but now got in at 7:30 to make rounds. This was not an issue for me though, as I was truly excited to help these patients. The first few weeks were a whirlwind. I learned so much, met the team, and started to work with these very sick people. It was extremely rewarding, and I wanted so much to help them.
I knew it was going to be difficult when I had a bad dream about a patient during one of my first weeks on the unit. I woke up sobbing in the morning, woke Ben up, and couldn’t stop crying. I felt so much pain, fear and sadness in that moment, as if I were taking on the feelings I perceived this patient was having. I felt hopeful, though, because I loved connecting with these patients. I considered my empathy a strength in this environment, and I would be able to handle it with a little adjustment in time.
My Breaking Point
I was able to maintain this hopeful mindset for a few months, but it became obvious to me in March that I was struggling. I couldn’t leave work at work – I was constantly worrying about the patients. As I learned more about the severity of these types of cancers, getting diagnosed with them myself became my worst nightmare. Slowly, then quite rapidly, things took a turn for the worse. Certain words and phrases I read in the medical charts began to trigger a deep anxiety. I started incessantly feeling my body for swollen lymph nodes and abnormalities, convincing myself that I had symptoms of these cancers. I even went to a doctor, who reassured me that nothing was wrong, but after one day of relief, I was back to completely believing I was sick. My friends and boyfriend would say, “You’re so healthy! You eat so well and exercise every day”, but this didn’t matter to me. The scariest part of these cancers is they can happen to any person, at any age. I started thinking, “Why not me?” I could not think of anything else from the moment I woke up each day.
Some of the other signs that something was wrong were; crying multiple times a day, inability to concentrate, loss of appetite, and waking up in the middle of every night with a heavy sense or worry, dread and/or panic. For about 2 weeks, I don’t even know how I got myself to work. My mind was completely filled with fears for my own health. I couldn’t finish my meals, had no interest or energy to grocery shop and meal prep and ate cereal for dinner. (Those who know me will tell you this is NOT ordinary for me – I never take home leftovers and a bowl of cereal is like a snack for me). I felt scared to be alone with my thoughts, so I would spend the workday on my friend’s unit writing notes with her, even spending one night at her apartment, and called my mom and boyfriend frequently. My parents came to New York for the weekend, postponing their trip down to Martha’s Vineyard. I will forever be grateful for all of this, and for my amazing support system at this time. When I had to be alone, I would just watch Friends and mindless television for hours, trying to numb my thoughts.
Making A Plan and Exploring Treatment
Relief started to come slowly when I talked out a plan with my parents, and I decided to leave New York and my job three weeks earlier than I had planned before moving to Boston. I also began seeing a therapist once a week. This provided a little temporary relief, but the therapist I was seeing just was not the right fit. The doctor I had seen had given me a prescription for an SSRI, but I was opposed to medication at that point, and wanted to heal naturally. In my own head, I felt that taking medication somehow was something I should be ashamed about, as if there was something wrong with me. I decided not to try the SSRI and convinced myself I would be able to heal without medication. Besides, I was leaving New York in a month and would be in a better environment, so I figured it was largely situational. I finished out another month or so at the hospital, where I was luckily able to be removed from BMT unit service and provide floating coverage for the remainder of my time there.
Healing Looks Different for Everybody
Before moving to Boston, I went to Martha’s Vineyard to be with my family and take some time to rest and work on my mental health. I thought that being in my favorite place with my support system would turn things around, but I was still struggling. I had difficulty falling asleep, couldn’t sleep through the night, couldn’t sit still, and just felt an overlying sense of fear, anxiety and lack of control. During this time, I had been speaking to Ben’s aunt, a psychiatrist, on the phone once a week. She was encouraging me to try an SSRI, and I finally decided it was the right thing to do. I now knew my anxiety/depression was not purely situational, because it continued to manifest itself while I was safe in my favorite place in the world. I finally gave up the thoughts that needing medication somehow makes me weak. There was nothing wrong with me, I just needed help to feel better. I started taking a low dose of my SSRI, knowing it can take several weeks to feel an effect.
Fast forward about 3 weeks – Ben and I had moved to Boston, and I felt like a veil had been lifted. My mood and my sleep were both improving. But, I still felt an overlying sense of panic about my health and general bad things happening to me. At the recommendation of my new doctor, I began taking the full dose of my SSRI. Within the next 3-4 weeks, I was finally feeling normal again. My irrational health fears significantly decreased, I was sleeping much better, and my mood was much improved. I even began experiencing some unexpected, yet welcome, “side effects” of taking an SSRI. I had a greater desire to be more social, felt more comfortable in social situations, and felt more easygoing. As I continued on my SSRI regimen, this all improved even more.
Letting Go of Stigma
From where I am today, having been taking my SSRI for more than 6 months, I can honestly say it was one of the best choices I have ever made for myself. Being considered an “influencer” in the wellness community, I got caught up in what I thought I should be doing to manage my anxiety/depression. I thought I should be healing the natural way, though therapy, meditation, deep breathing, proper diet and exercise. I feel sad for myself looking back to these thought processes. Anxiety/depression is a serious mental health disorder that cannot be taken lightly. I cannot stress enough how important it was to get the proper help I needed, and for me, that is in the form of medication. If you are in a similar position and non-medical remedies aren’t helping, I encourage you to explore medication options with your practitioner. There is no shame in needing medication to manage your mental health, and it truly can improve your quality of life.
My mental health journey and recovery from this period are far from over. Things are definitely not perfect, but they are consistently better. Right now, I am confident that medication is necessary for me to manage my mental health, but I’m not sure if one, five or ten years from now, that will be the case. Of course, I would love to reach a point where I no longer need it, but I will never push myself to go off without the proper consideration and guidance from my practitioners. Since last spring in the hospital, I have had a few periods of health anxiety. These periods really put me out of commission, because the fears take over my thoughts to the point where I can’t focus on anything else. This is something I want to work on through therapy, perhaps with a CBT specialist. I’ve been dragging my feet on finding a therapist since moving to Boston, but I’m using May as Mental Health Awareness month to motivate myself to do so.
I’ve been blessed to have an incredibly supportive group of people who help me every day, and I appreciate them so much more after experiencing this struggle. For anyone else reading today that struggles with mental health disorders, please know that you are not alone. There is help, you can feel better than this, and things will improve. Mental health disorders are so much more common than we think, and there needs to be more open discussion regarding mental health to get rid of the stigma attached. Thank you for listening to my story. If reading this helps just one person, I will feel like this post served its purpose.
If you are struggling, here are some resources to look at now. I encourage you to contact your doctor, tell somebody you trust, and voice your struggle. Help is available and it makes all the difference.