I was in my fourth weekly session of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for mild to moderate anxiety and depression. CBT works on changing your distorted thinking patterns in order to change your behaviour by examining what causes our negative beliefs.
I do not have depression, although I do experience mild depressive days. I do not say that I have anxiety — I say I am often anxious. I have no diagnoses. I don’t want to claim a label that I do not feel entitled to. The manifestation of my anxiety is hidden and I work hard to keep it that way.
For this session I had to write down my number one goal for treatment, what it would look like if I achieved that goal, and, lastly, write down five smaller, concrete steps to bring me to my goal.
My therapist asked me what my goal was. I froze. I tried to hand her my notebook, asking her to read it instead of making me say it.
I knew that was a mistake as soon as I did it. I had waved a red flag. We talked about why I didn’t want to admit my goal — I am embarrassed; I am ashamed. Eventually, I managed to stumble through explaining my goal and its underlying negative core belief, something I had never fully admitted to a therapist before.
The type of therapy I am doing is part of a new two-year pilot program being offered by Ontario Shores at Trent. It is a CBT program specifically designed for people with mild to moderate anxiety and/or depression. It is just one of the stepped programs (a sliding scale of different therapy programs offered depending on the severity of your symptoms) offered here at Trent. To access these services, you can drop in for your first assessment session at Blackburn Hall 113. You don’t need an appointment for this; you would just need to wait until there is an available therapist. If you have used Trent’s Counselling Services before, you can stop in to make an appointment with your previous therapist in the same room, BH 113. From there, you and your therapist can decide which program would best suit your needs. These services are free for Trent students and are very easy to access.
For this CBT program, I can have up to 16 weekly sessions. I do scales to check up on my level of anxiety and depression over the last week and two weeks, tracking my overall mood. Seeing the changes each week allows me to see what affects my mental health. I work through parts of a workbook in and outside of session to better understand myself and my anxiety.
This is my third therapist here at Trent and my third year using Trent’s Counselling Services. Each year I talked about different things or the same things from a different angle; each year my therapy sessions offered me something different. This year, I am feeling more anxious and sadder than before.
Why? Because this time I’m getting at the sources of my anxiety, rather than dealing with the various recurring coping behaviours that it creates. I know my warning signs, my coping mechanisms, my faulty beliefs. I can’t hide, because I recognize that I am hiding, and I understand what I’m hiding from.
You’re probably feeling fairly clickbaited by now. I know I’ve skated around the ugly details like thin ice. But now I’m going to do my best to show you my experience with anxiety as explicitly as I can. I want to share this with you for two reasons: I think it could help you if you’ve ever felt similar things. And I also want to show that any aura of ‘perfection’— that dreaded word— is a façade. A façade that I cultivate deliberately while never being or feeling ‘perfect’… or even ‘enough’.
I can easily pinpoint the beginning. It was in the spring of Grade 11. I tried to read Stieg Larsson’s novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I got exactly halfway through before I had to shut the book. About two weeks later, I tried to rewatch the movie I Am Legend. Usually when I got scared, I would only get scared at night. I wouldn’t be able to sleep for a few nights before going back to normal. This was different.
I was scared during the day now.
I remember specifically this one day, sitting in the living room of my house, my mom across the room in the kitchen, in broad daylight, scared out of my mind. I sat in that chair, not saying anything. But inside my heart was racing and wouldn’t slow down, and my stomach was clenched like a steel fist. The fact that I couldn’t make it stop, that it was daylight, and it was still happening, made it so much worse.
In Grade 12, my anxiety came back in a different way. While having to make major life decisions with no clear right or wrong answer, I had a realization — I don’t know exactly how or why — that nothing could protect me from everything. That doing the right thing, making the right choices, being a good person, was no guarantee of happiness and safety. Somehow, in that year, I lost that unspoken protection of optimism and self-confidence that said that while bad things happen, they wouldn’t happen to me.
To exist in the world knowing that all those trusted protective barriers were not impermeable was excruciating. I described it to a teacher as feeling like all of my skin had been ripped off: my whole being, open, vulnerable, and fragile.
During my undergrad at Trent, this anxiety manifested as perfectionism, introversion, and the need to succeed, by any and all of society’s standards. I had to be right, all the time.
Notice how I used the past tense there. I had to be right. That is a lie. I have to be right. If I am right, I am safe. Simple enough.
Even if you ignore the fact that this ‘logical’ solution is, in fact, not actually true, it has other consequences.
The consequences of my anxiety aren’t that noticeable from the outside. I have a degree. I am well-behaved and law-abiding to the point of embarrassment (I still pay for my music). I have a job. By most societal markers of success, I am a success.
The truth is that I don’t let myself be anything less than what I think is adequate. Being good at school is safe. It also feeds my illusion that if I do good at school, then I will get a good job, make good money, and have a good life. It’s a calculation that I have done many times— get good grades, get good life, be safe. Avoid pain.
It’s taken me a thousand words to explain myself and I haven’t even said the things that really hurt. I circle around the point, around the pain, because weakness can’t be shown. My vulnerability is a myth, only spoken about in public theoretically or after the fact, because anything else is something less than perfect.
I haven’t told you what it looks like when you’re driven to be right and safe all the time. I haven’t showed you why it’s a problem.
My anxiety looks like this:
- I eat an entire box of cookies until my stomach hurts like I’m dying. Haha, eating your feelings, right? I have a lot of feelings.
- I call home crying every semester around midterms because I can’t handle the pressure of doing the work perfectly. I am the only one who cares about that.
- I can’t sleep because I am consumed by a dreaded certainty that I will be punished by God, by the Universe, by Something, because I watched TV for two days straight.
- I cry every month at least once because I am single and have always been so (I’m 23).
- I pretend that I don’t care about that because I would rather live as a pseudo-nun for the rest of my life than try to date and fail.
- I am risk averse; risks include: making decisions, going on dates, flirting, trying something new, doing something I’m not good at. Life is dishearteningly full of risks.
- I curl up in bed under a mountain of blankets because it feels safer.
- I am rejected. You knew this would happen; why even bother — you’re never good enough. Who would ever pick you?
- I find ‘evidence’ that I am not good enough and ignore anything contradictory. Because I must also be right.
- During a silent panic attack, I logically argue down my anxiety by proving that I am a successful student. I am unable to prove that I am a hard worker.
- I interrogate myself to find my ulterior motives. Do I really feel this way? Is my gut telling the truth? What is the right decision? Only the right decision is acceptable.
- I work hard to be nice and polite and accommodating because I must make people like me. They won’t dislike me if I’m nice.
- I try to do everything myself because to need someone is to be weak and to inconvenience them. If I inconvenience someone, they won’t like me anymore.
- I must provide value. I work to be useful, because I am not enough on my own. I must make them like me.
All of my self-interrogations and self-examinations have revealed a fundamental scar of crippled self-worth in myself as a woman and as a romantic/sexual partner.
It was, and still is, incredibly jarring to realize this. Even worse to admit it.
The fear and the shame are so raw that I instinctively deflect, deny, and avoid. I prefer to overanalyze other aspects of my behaviour to death, rather than admit that I want something I am convinced I am not good enough to have.
After years of circling around this issue, I am trying to deal with it head-on. I don’t want to ignore it anymore because it is simply too sad. I am in therapy because I want to get better: to sleep well at night, to be open to making mistakes, to take risks and not fear the results. I don’t know if or when I will be able to have faith in my own intrinsic value and in the world, but I have decided that the possibility is worth the risk.