My Roaring 20s: How my first heartbreak taught me to embrace my anxiety and depression

In this continuation of the My Roaring 20s series, Vivian Dang takes us on the journey of how learning to navigate her first heartbreak taught her how to understand and embrace being diagnosed with generalized anxiety and depression.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article reflect the personal experiences of the writer and are not substitutes for professional help. If you are struggling with anxiety or depression, please consult a medical professional.

“How do you get over heartbreak?” 

It was 4 a.m. in the morning and I was struggling to fall asleep. Unsatisfied by the search results, I googled another question, ”is there medication for heartbreak?” 

During the final months of 2018, I found myself still reeling from a messy break-up that had left me blind-sided, confused, and heartbroken. I hadn’t really slept for six months by this point, which probably explained my nocturnal obsession of asking Google desperate questions. 

These habits were largely due to my anxiety and depression—cruel villains that caught me off guard with surprise attacks and left me feeling defenceless every time. It became a domino effect that triggered the gut-wrenching pain I continued to feel in the aftershock of my break-up. 

I began suppressing my emotions—lying to my counsellor, friends, and family about how I was really doing. I mapped out unrealistic timelines for how long I was allowed to grieve, providing me with a sense of control that I was desperate to regain.

It didn’t work, of course.

Being diagnosed with generalized anxiety and depression

Two weeks after my break-up, I started to experience regular panic attacks. I felt like I was dying as invisible walls started to close in on me. As scared as I was, I couldn’t even cry. The panic attacks rendered me completely immobile. 

Photo credit: Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash

One day, I asked my counsellor if it was normal to feel like I’m dying. After detailing my panic attacks, she told me they were a result of my suppressed emotions. It’s possible, she added, that the break-up triggered similar, unresolved emotions that I felt as a result of childhood traumas. In other words, my break-up was exacerbated by past life events, which added to my distress and turmoil.

I didn’t think much of what my counsellor said until a routine check-up with my doctor led to a mental health assessment. I knew something was wrong when the first few questions resulted in a breakdown in front of my doctor. She gently explained that I have generalized anxiety and depression. Totally normal, she reassured me, given current circumstances.

I feared my diagnosis. How could I possibly navigate my grief and manage this new condition at the same time?

Daily cycles of negative self-talk became a habit. At its worst, my depression made me feel like I was slowly drowning every day. No matter how hard I tried to swim to the surface or pull my body above water, my depression dragged me down like an anchor. 

If I was happy for a full week, it felt like an accomplishment. But when the waves of grief suddenly attacked, I felt like a failure. This toxic, black and white thinking became a sliding scale that I critiqued myself against. I began to resist my emotions.

This denial and inability to accept my diagnosis worsened my anxiety and my depression deepened.

Photo credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

After a year of struggling with my anxiety and depression, I grew weary and despondent. I gave up trying to navigate the tools and techniques required to manage my mental health. This dark moment also became a pivotal turning point in my healing process. 

For the first time in a year, I stopped resisting my diagnosis. Rather than fight my anxiety and depression, I fully accepted it and moved towards trusting someone that I feared the most: myself.

See also: Finding and creating sanctuary in meditation: Anita Cheung’s story

How writing saved me 

In the month leading up to our one-year break-up anniversary, I simply existed. I moved through the monotony of life—working, eating, and sleeping—merely to survive. 

Painful flashbacks of all the events leading up to the break-up plagued me, like a twisted version of groundhog day. I dissociated myself from the world, feeling numb and disconnected to everyone around me. Happiness felt impossible. 

I stopped trying to proactively manage my depression and allowed my mental health to spiral out of control. At a time when people were rushing to enjoy the last few weeks of summer, I confined myself to my apartment.

I immersed myself in melancholy by repeating the country ballad “Every Little Thing”—my only source of therapy—for endless hours. Somehow, the poetry behind the singer’s pain slowly pulled me from my depression. There was something validating about a song capturing exactly how I felt.

The more I listened to the ballad, the more I became inspired by the prose and storytelling. It reinvigorated my forgotten passion for writing, and I thought about ways I could share my own experience, without feeling judged or misunderstood by my friends or family.

I began contributing to Medium’s “P.S. I Love You,” and shared my stories publicly on social media. A small part of me worried about being judged by my peers for being so open about my struggles. Was I oversharing my personal experiences? Would people think I was pathetic for still being upset, one year after my break-up?

That anxiety nagged me every time I shared my stories, but I refused to let it intimidate me.

Putting a name to it

Through writing, I realized there was strength in discomfort. By putting words to paper, I was able to lean into my emotions in a healthy way. 

Labelling my emotions (also known as affect labelling) allowed me to identify what I was feeling without judgment. It forced me to confront my feelings and understand that it stemmed from my dark fear of being stuck in a permanent state of heartbreak.

“I feel hopeless,” was what I’d write anytime I felt triggered by memories of the break-up. It was often followed by “I’ll never get over this.” 

Catastrophizing and fortune telling were my worst Achilles heel. Avoid the thought traps, I reminded myself over and over again, remembering the mindfulness techniques my counsellor taught me. 

I began naming every uncomfortable emotion I felt. The anxious part of me felt the urge to resist these painful emotions. But with time, it became easier and the aftershocks didn’t leave me feeling powerless or overwhelmed anymore.

I started to have fun with my writing, brainstorming creative analogies and metaphors that allowed me to verbalize my complex emotions. It allowed for introspective moments where I didn’t criticize my feelings. 

Photo credit: Content Pixie on Unsplash

After publishing a few stories, I received comments from readers that my stories resonated with them. It made me feel connected, like I wasn’t alone in my experiences anymore and I was instilled with a sense of purpose and empowerment that I hadn’t felt in a year. 

As the months progressed, I slowly found myself in a better place. I became more willing to try new things and discovered a newfound sense of confidence that filtered down to my interpersonal relationships. 

I began trusting other people again, which allowed me to trust myself. 

Then, Cold Tea Collective came along, and I became part of a community of like-minded creatives who understood me. Rather than having to explain the multi-layered complexity that often comes with being Asian, my unspoken experiences became a source of shared connection. 

My healing journey was only just starting.

See also: I am a writer, you are a writer, and we are not alone

Redefining my strength through kintsugi

I used to think that my break-up would create a permanent state of agony and grief.

In the years that passed, I slowly picked up fragments of myself that shattered during my break-up and mended myself back together.

Heartbreak didn’t destroy me. It transformed my pain into strength, something far more beautiful and extraordinary that continues to shine through the darkness of my anxiety and depression.

I think about the Japanese practice of kintsugi, a centuries-old technique for restoring broken things with lacquer and decorating the cracks with gold. Kintsugi is a powerful reminder that I wasn’t ever really broken. Similar to a restored ceramic, my first heartbreak, is “a symbol of [my] fragility, strength, and beauty.”

Photo credit: The Younique Foundation

By sharing my story, writing became the lacquer that repaired my broken heart. When I stopped hiding behind my anxiety and depression, it sparkled like the glints of gold that decorated the cracks of my heartbreak. 

Together, these elements add beauty and breathe new life to the stories that I write. It teaches me to embrace every obstacle and pain that I’ll continue to face throughout my life. 

As Hiroki Kiyokawa, a Kintsugi restorer notes, “all of us develop scars throughout our lives. But these scars should never be hidden. Our imperfections can be the birth of something new.”

See also: Mental health support for the Asian Canadian community and beyond

This article is part of a monthly column.

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