I have always been a type A, fairly anxious person, even as a child. I think that is a big part of the reason I was able to deny how unwell I was for such a long time. That, and the shame and guilt I felt. Even as well-educated individuals we have so much stigma towards mental health in medicine, and the last thing I wanted was to admit to people (or myself) that I was suffering. I felt like it would be an admission of weakness.
By the time I admitted to myself that I was struggling I was having daily panic attack. The panic attacks are still the worst thing I have ever felt, my whole body would be paralysed and I felt like I was suffocating. It was the opposite of the stereotypical, hyperventilating and dramatic type panic attack; mine were completely silent. I had several in crowded lecture theatres surrounded by people, none of them with any idea of how I was feeling.
When I finally went to my GP just before I started my fourth year of medicine I was still too ashamed to admit to her how badly I had been suffering. If I had to estimate I would say that I probably only shared about half, or even less, of what I was going through. Despite being diagnosed with anxiety/depression and being put on medication, I was still largely in denial until at least a year later. I was still feeling so much shame about how ‘weak’ I was, and was constantly looking at my colleagues who were in my mind ‘holding it together’ and criticising myself internally for not being able to do the same.
It’s really only in the last 6 months, over a year after being diagnosed and many, many years after first experiencing the symptoms of anxiety, that I have finally come to terms with it and stopped feeling so ashamed. Previously every time I had an anxious feeling I would say the most awful things to myself in my head, telling myself that I was pathetic and weak, that I couldn’t handle medicine, that I needed to just pull it together. I didn’t even recognise how unhealthy it was to think that way until someone else pointed it out to me, which I find really sad! It becomes so normalised, particularly in high achieving groups like in medicine, to be hard on yourself that I genuinely thought these were normal thoughts. Since having this realisation I have been trying to be more kind and compassionate to myself, and it has made me feel so much better than I have in a long time.
If anyone is reading this and can relate at all, please don’t feel ashamed of how you’re feeling and don’t be so hard on yourself. If you can’t relate, you can still help to reduce the stigma around mental health by encouraging people to have honest and open conversations about their struggles.