Mental health awareness has gradually become destigmatized, but for Mahevash Shaikh, the destigmatisation came too late.
CW: generalised anxiety disorder, body-focused repetitive behaviour.
[Image: a Brown woman wearing a black jumper has her hands on her head and she is looking frustrated. She is diffused in a pale pink light.]
by Mahevash Shaikh
We are in an era of increased mental health awareness, and depression and anxiety are more destigmatized than any other conditions today. However, the insidious nature of anxiety disorders is unexplored in the online mental health space. Oh, I am not preaching. Even I, a mental health advocate, played it down for decades. Here’s my story…
I was only 11 when I first experienced anxiety.
While I cannot pinpoint my first brush with anxiety, I remember an episode that lasted for weeks at a stretch. The year was 2002, and I was a sixth-grader who had steadily begun to dread the entire schooling experience.
One day, I burst into tears in the middle of science class. I continued to sob for a long time, unable to stop myself. From that day on, I cried publicly at my desk every day for about a month. Crying felt like the only way to calm my pounding heart. Sadly, because my teacher did not take any action to help me, I learned to act normal at school. Anxiety never left my side, and because an adult responsible for me had treated it as a non-issue, I felt ashamed for being weak. So I buried it within and never spoke about it with anybody.
But ignoring my “little problem” only made it worse.
The way my teacher blatantly ignored my pain changed something in me. Even my friends seemed insincere when they asked me how I was doing. I felt they were ashamed of me. Virtually overnight, my personality changed. I transformed from a happy girl who believed that people were inherently good, into an angry, cynical loner with serious trust issues.
They say you should be careful what you look for because you might find it. I was looking for flaws, and I found tons of them. I whittled down my long friend list to one person. I became quiet, moody, and misanthropic; I grew up too soon. As a student at an all-girls school, girl-on-girl-hate reigned, I became more distrustful as the days went by.
Even the one friend I had was not really supportive, and no one at home knew of my mental health struggles. At age 13, when I had my first depressive episode, life spiralled out of control. I focused on living with and surviving my depression as I was under the assumption that my constantly worried mind was just a part of my personality.
To cope, I turned to body-focused repetitive behaviour (BFRB) for comfort.
At the age of 14, I had grown thick, bushy eyebrows and an enviable moustache — and my lovely friend lost no time pointing it out. My always-on-edge mind immediately went into overdrive to fix it. Since I wasn’t permitted to visit the beauty parlour, I had to find a hack of my own. So I began ripping off tufts of my eyebrows with sellotape to make them appear lighter. To my surprise, I didn’t mind the pain; in fact, I felt relieved I was bettering myself.
After much hunting, I found an old pair of tweezers at home and used them to obsessively pluck my upper lip. Lucky for me, my mother noticed my changed appearance, and she took me to the beauty parlour. I had got a taste of BFRB — and I still did it every now and then, in secret, when I was stressed.
Anxious thoughts and behaviours peaked in my second year of engineering.
The weight on my chest became chronic, and my BFRB worsened with a vengeance. Again, academic stress and not fitting in were the primary causes. I regularly spent hours in front of the mirror, removing stray hairs from my eyebrows, upper lip, and neck. I even drew blood by picking at hairs too short to pluck. No one knew because my concealer allowed me to cover up scars. I wore eyeliner and always looked presentable because, in my mind, I had no other option. I wore contact lenses all day in college even though my eyes stung. Wearing glasses was out of the question. I also watched what I ate to an unhealthy degree, often under-eating to prevent my curvy, prone to putting on weight body from going into the fat territory.
If I couldn’t excel in academics, the least I could do was look my best.
I only had one friend because my peers seemed fake, insincere, and untrustworthy. And a lot of them were, but that was because I hadn’t connected with the good kind. My guard was so high that I didn’t give any person a chance.
Cut to my mid-late twenties, and I had hit rock bottom.
Anxiety is why I put immense pressure on myself to achieve the conventional definition of beauty. And I never achieved it because I was too busy fixating on my flaws instead of my strengths. After graduation, perfectionism infiltrated my professional life as well. Despite pursuing and honing my passion for writing, I always felt I was not good enough. I felt like a fraud even after my first book did reasonably well and got good reviews.
A few years later, going through a sudden divorce made my self-judgment worse. I went from being a harsh critic to actively hating myself. I had failed to stay married, and I blamed myself for not being smart and pretty enough. Maybe I should have tried to fit into the cool girl trope, something I despised with all my heart. Consciously and subconsciously, I spent hours overthinking. Disturbing intrusive thoughts became so frequent that I lost my peace of mind. I lost my appetite and often got severe acidity. I pinned most of this on depression. I was so wrong!
Again, I paid attention to my depression and barely acknowledged my anxious brain. I had become used to ignoring it, and well, I was not entirely to blame. Even in my adult life, people trivialised it. My physician--a capable and kind doctor--literally laughed off my concerns when I tried to get an official diagnosis. She was far from the only one — friends did it, and the man I was married to invalidated me too. In the middle of the excruciating divorce process, I had had enough and wanted answers. I was certain I had an anxiety disorder, and I wanted to get treated for it. So in 2018, I consulted a psychologist and a psychiatrist to get an official mental health diagnosis. Both of them verified that I have a generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) in addition to clinical depression.
At long last, my suspicions were confirmed when I learned that anxiety is not merely responsible for poor sleep, overthinking, and a pounding heart. These all are terrible things, but it is far more insidious. I had been underestimating it, to my detriment. Of course, I had high-functioning anxiety, but I still needed professional help to improve my quality of life.
Therapy helped me understand my anxiety and figure out coping mechanisms.
Being in therapy since 2018 is why I finally have a shot at self-love. I knew I was anxious since 11, and I only got help for it at the age of 27. That is simply unacceptable. I am doing alright now, but I would be much healthier if I had a therapist years ago.
If you are in a similar situation or know someone who is suffering in silence, know this: it is dangerous to trivialise anxiety, especially as anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. Ignoring one can worsen the other. Seek treatment for both. If your gut instinct tells you to seek professional help, ignore others’ opinions, and get it. Without therapy, I wouldn't be where I am today.
And here’s the silver lining: today I dress up because I want to, not because I have to. I have more confidence in my work. I no longer crave perfection in any aspect of my life. My appetite is back, I don’t feel guilty about what I eat, and my acidity is manageable. What’s more, seeking treatment for my anxious mind has also helped me handle depression. I am now closer to loving myself than I have ever been.
Mahevash (pronounced Ma-hey-vash) is a disabled writer from India. She talks about culture, society, and mental health. You can connect with Mahevash at https://www.mahevashmuses.com/.