Anxiety, Medical school, Mental Health, Relationships, Sexual abuse

Am I Overreacting?

Suffering from anxiety, I often have to take a step back and assess whether I am overreacting to a situation or if my worries are justified. And taking that step back is difficult because I usually don’t know if I am simply ‘reacting’ to a situation or if it would be classified as potentially overreacting. It’s a thin line, and not an easy one to distinguish. What makes it all the more difficult is that the act of overreacting is very subjective. What’s normal for one person, may not be so normal for another person. For me, I hate to be perceived as having overreacted to something, so I usually have to check in with the people around me.

It was a lot easier when I had the opportunity to discuss issues on a regular basis with my counsellor. She usually put things into perspective for me from a more objective viewpoint and that made it easier for me to know if I was overreacting or not.

Since having finished my counselling sessions, things are a lot more difficult as there isn’t just the one person I can check in with. Now, I usually have to ask my family and friends about their opinions on the situation, and I usually gather a range of different viewpoints and make my assessment. If the majority says that I am justified to react in a certain way, then I usually go with the majority and vice versa.

However, my fear of overreacting has led to situations where I possibly haven’t reacted enough. These situations normally involve reacting to behaviour that makes me uncomfortable. As you can read on a previous post, I had trouble dealing with sexual abuse as a child and my fear of falsely raising an alarm overrode my instinct to seek help. Similarly now, I have come across a few individuals over my time at medical school who have made me feel uncomfortable but I wasn’t sure if it was significant enough to raise an alarm. The last thing I want to be is ‘the boy who cried wolf’.

One of these individuals was an older medical student who made me feel uncomfortable within minutes of meeting him by displaying quite controlling and intense behaviour towards me. I felt uncomfortable as he summoned me with a beckoning gesture, after which he expressed his desire to marry soon; a desperate bachelor. The closeness with which he was standing next to me also made me very anxious, almost as if I was trapped. In my head, alarm bells were ringing but when I mentioned this individual with a few friends, some told me that there was no reason for me to be scared of him, whilst others asked me, “Why didn’t you just slap him around the face?” It’s in situations like these when I still struggle.

Another similar situation which occurred more recently involved somebody from my year who I met on my medical placement at hospital. He showed an interest in me, and we started joking with each other within a few hours of knowing each other. He ended up asking for my Facebook details, and after we parted that day, he immediately started messaging me on Facebook. A few messages in, he asked for my Snapchat, which I gave, but I got the feeling that he was moving a little fast, considering I had only met him that day. The messages then continued on Snapchat all the way until a good night message. The next time I met him, he ended up divulging very private details about himself and his family, which I would personally only divulge to someone when I trusted them implicitly, e.g. a very close friend. He started to make jokes that made me uncomfortable like saying he’d steal my duvet from my room when he felt cold at night, and so on. The messages continued and I felt quite overwhelmed at this point. I received a phone call from a relative and he was still messaging me but I didn’t reply. After I finished the phone call, I saw that he’d already started apologising to me for unintentionally doing something wrong as I hadn’t been replying. I was a bit surprised, but still unsure whether this was all normal. I talked about this to a few friends. Some of my friends joked about it, saying he was clearly seeking more than friendship, but my best friend got worried and told me to be careful in case he was a stalker. This definitely made me anxious. I contacted another friend, telling him about the situation and that I was starting to feel creeped out, and when I told him who it was, my friend laughed it off and said I didn’t need to worry as he was pretty sure the boy was gay. I felt a bit stupid at that point for making such a big fuss, but I don’t feel as if it was completely unjustified for me to have felt overwhelmed and scared.

So what have I learnt from all of this? It is definitely worth taking a step back to assess if you’re overreacting but at the same time, there’s nothing more reliable than our instincts. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, so the best thing to do is to react when your alarm bells are ringing. If you overreact, then you look stupid of course. But if you don’t overreact and things are as bad as they seem, the consequences may be even more grave unfortunately.

 

Anxiety, Medical school, Mental Health, Sexual abuse, Stress

The Nightmares that Won’t Leave

For the past couple of years, I have been struggling with daily, vivid nightmares which have significantly reduced the quality of my life. Being a natural vivid dreamer, I am accustomed to seeing the odd nightmare once in a while, but I have been continuously battling my fears every night. For most people, nightmares are a thing of the past, something that they associate with childhood. Other people I’ve talked to tell me that when they do have the odd nightmare, it’s something like “falling down” from a height for example. That’s how it used to be for me, and life was a lot easier too that way.

Surprisingly enough, my nightmares have a lot of impact on my daily life. Especially because I remember every single one, and they are so life-like, that they could easily get confused for being memories instead. Some of my nightmares are situations that occur between myself and those close to me – ranging from an emotional and abusive argument to losing someone. Other nightmares involve really intense and frightening situations, for example watching a serial killer kill the people around me in the most disturbing ways (the images are very graphic and detailed in my head to add to the horrific gore) and me trying to escape being killed; I’ve dreamt several times of me being forced into marriages to unknown men by my parents; and just last night, I dreamt of being raped by two men who I didn’t know and being traumatised in the aftermath of the situation.

The thing is, I don’t really think about any of these things consciously during the day. Whilst they may be a reflection of my inner fears, to me they seem quite random. Almost every nightmare I have wakes me up drenched in sweat in the middle of the night and I find it difficult to fall asleep again because I end up remaining traumatised right after.

Recently, I’ve found a coping mechanism which has been to sleep with my Mum. I never thought it would work, but my Mum insisted so I tried it out, and I think that just having the reassurance that I have someone with me when I’m sleeping helps me to recover from any dreams, and sometimes even prevents me from having my nightmares. I’ve also now been told that I talk in my sleep, and it is usually a reflection of whatever nightmare I’m having.

The reason why I feel these nightmares affect the quality of my life is not only because of the content of these nightmares, but also because of the poor quality of sleep I get. My sleep is usually very broken and I often actually get very little as I am unable to fall asleep again. This adds to my fatigue during the day and triggers my migraines. Low energy also negatively affects my depression which worsens and brings on the suicidal thoughts again.

I have tried various sleeping pills which are fabulous for making me sleep (despite making me incredibly drowsy the next day), but I still see the nightmares. My doctors have told me that the cause is most probably my high anxiety levels, and this is something I am to be talking about during my CBT sessions in future.

For now, it’s a relief knowing that my nightmares are only dreams after all. When they’re not real, what’s the worst that can happen?

Mental Health, Reality, Sexual abuse, Stigma

“Boys don’t cry”

It is a well-known stereotype that ‘masculinity’ encompasses the criterion of being ‘emotionally resilient’, and thus it is misconceived that seeing a man crying is effeminate. Society has an expectation of men to be ‘strong’, funny and void of low moods. We also use phrases like, ‘stop crying like a girl’, which is frankly demeaning to both sexes. But until we stop feeding these stereotypes, a safe space for men’s mental health cannot be created.

My youngest sister is three years old and a few days ago, she came back from nursery and said to me, “boys don’t cry”. I was quite shocked. If anything, at home, my middle sister and I try our best to negate any societal stereotypes and challenge them – we never automatically opted for pink clothes for her just because she is a girl, we never stopped taking her to the car and robots section of ToysRus simply because they were boys’ toys. In fact, we encouraged her to play with a football and her cars, alongside her dolls and toy kitchen set. So to hear something like that from her took me aback.

That day, I realised how much this stereotype is really ingrained in our society. I presumed that this was an idea that she picked up from her peers at school, and children always learn from adults. Clearly, if we don’t change the way we think and act, children will only follow in our footsteps and reinforce the stereotypes, albeit subconsciously. It took me a lot of convincing to persuade my sister to believe that boys can cry too. She insisted that it was a ‘girly’ thing to cry.

Unfortunately, the large majority of men feel ashamed to open up about their mental health because of the expectation of them to be so ‘resilient’. Some of my closest male friends have divulged that it’s embarrassing to talk about it, so they often keep quiet and that leads to not being able to seek help. According to statistics, males are 3.5 times more likely then females to commit suicide. There is a shocking number of domestic violence incidents against men by women, but this is very hardly advertised. It is estimated that depression rates are much higher amongst the male population than the statistics suggest because most of them never talk about it or seek help. Sexual abuse is another topic that we never really much about from men – not because the incidence of sexual abuse amongst men is very little, but because of the strong stigma attached to it. We instinctively think of women as the victims when we think of sexual abuse, but I have personally heard some disturbing stories from men regarding their experiences of sexual abuse.

Whatever sex a person may be, it should never be shameful to talk about mental health issues. We need to stop indulging in the roles set by society for men and women and start accepting that everyone is human, and it is only human to cry, to be depressed or have any other mental health issues. Violence and abuse are not exclusively carried out by men, and we need to stop generalising behaviours and assigning them to a certain sex. There is no shame in talking about these difficult issues, for men or women, and we can overcome the taboo by opening up and opening the eyes of everyone else around us.

Anxiety, Mental Health, Sexual abuse, Stigma

#MeToo

Sexual abuse and rape are difficult topics to talk about even today. Over the past few weeks we’ve heard some inspirational stories of celebrities who have suffered some form of sexual abuse, and the #metoo hashtag has helped many other victims all over the world to open up about their experiences too. For me, it highlighted just how many people had kept quiet about their ordeals, owing to the huge stigma associated with opening up. Infuriatingly, it is often more difficult for the victims to deal with the aftermath of disclosing their stories than the perpetrators themselves. And this is what fuels the horrendous stigma, and it becomes a vicious cycle.

I thought I would also take this opportunity to tell everyone my story. I too, like many others, have always feared opening up in case I am judged or treated differently. But I don’t think that matters to me anymore. 

I was sexually abused for about 2 years by a distant family member from the age of 9. He was a much elderly individual – I saw him as someone who would be my grandfather’s age at least. It started from the first time my family and I went to his house. I was wearing a cute blue T-shirt with pictures of ice-cream all over it, and of course I was wearing my faded blue jeans with gems at the pocket seams because they were my favourite. I was a bit of a chubby 9-year-old but was not yet pubescent. I was also extremely naive and innocent – I didn’t know anything about sex – I was more preoccupied with making pretty friendship bracelets and getting myself ahead in advanced algebra. 

We all had some tea in the living room after which everyone but myself and this relative left the room to help prepare food in the kitchen. He called me to sit on his lap and asked me to sing a song for him. I wasn’t really comfortable doing that but I’d always been taught to be obedient so I did as he said. After I finished the song, he praised me and started squeezing and kissing my cheeks. He proceeded to start biting my cheeks which hurt and I wanted to shout for help but I was so scared that I couldn’t speak. Whilst biting me, he started groping my breasts and I was silently crying and trying to escape but he was too strong. This continued for a few minutes until we could hear footsteps coming towards the room, which is when he finally let go of me. I was still crying and felt traumatised, and when my mum came in the room asking me what happened, I just didn’t know how to answer. He was laughing and smiling, prentending as if nothing happened. 

For the next two years, he kept finding opportunities where he could get me alone and abused me. A lot of people will ask – well, why didn’t you just tell someone? And believe me, I hated myself for a long time because I asked myself that. It’s a lot harder than you think. Especially when you’re a 9-year-old and you’re taught to always listen to your elders and that your elders are always right so you should never question them. I was really confused about what was happening. I knew what he was doing was not right and I was traumatised from the inside out. From that first time he abused me, I felt as if my childhood had been snatched away. I had trouble sleeping at night, I was always paranoid and scared that he would find me during the day. If I did get some sleep at night, it would be filled with nightmares. And my bad sleep started affecting my health to the point that I started getting severe migraines. I lost a lot of weight because I’d lost my appetite, and soon I started fainting due to severe low blood pressure owing to not eating. 

When my parents eventually found out about this, they were devastated and they stopped going to his house and stopped him from coming to ours. My dad spoke to him in private, and I’m guessing some strong words were exchanged, but I still don’t know what he said. However, my parents never reported him to the police. Although we stopped meeting him for a while, about 5 years later everyone acted as if nothing had happened and we resumed going back to his house. By this point, I was mature enough to stand my ground and thankfully, he didn’t have the courage to abuse me again. But what no one realised was that the damage had been done.

A lot of people think that victims of abuse can completely get over their experiences with time, but unfortunately that is not true. We get better at coping, but it’s something that ends up staying with us. As of a couple of years ago, I thought I’d recovered from the trauma of the abuse, but apparently I still haven’t. Since then, I have found it very difficult to make physical contact with people, and often when I’m hugged by others, I experience a feeling of suffocation and acute anxiety. I always need people around me to be at a certain distance and if they get any closer, I start panicking. I have mild claustrophobia too, and whenever I am in a situation I don’t like (e.g. in a boring teaching session) I get panic attacks. 

I am now receiving therapy to help me cope with my anxiety and I really think that it’s helping me. The point I wanted to raise by sharing my story is that it’s ok to talk and there is no shame in it. It is too often the case that victims are shamed more so than their perpetrators which discourages people from speaking out. But we can overcome this by raising awareness and telling people that it is NOT ok to shame us. We may be wounded but we are anything but weak.