When I had my first job as a nurse in pediatrics, I often pondered whether I can survive the job. I was scared of making mistakes especially that I will be handling the lives of people, most especially children, who needs a more specialized kind of care. Luckily, I had senior nurses who patiently guided me with my learning curve. Being a nurse is a tough job, and I really looked up to my senior nurses because despite the plentiful demands of the job, they still manage to provide high quality care for their patients. One of them is Aw and I will be featuring his inspiring story today.
My anxiety and depression started when I went to Saudi. I went there in 2010. I worked night shifts from 11 pm to 7 am. After the duty, I would play basketball at 9am and come home around 12 noon. Then I watch a movie and video call my wife.
My symptoms started after 8 months upon arriving there. I noticed a change in my sleeping habits. There just came a time where I can’t sleep and then go back to work at night shift with no sleep which led me to take naps at work. I know it’s wrong but sometimes, I took extra medications from the ward to make myself sleep. Yet, even if I had taken the medications, the symptoms of palpitations, cold sweats and nausea still persisted. I couldn’t sleep or if I could, it would just be a shallow sleep because thoughts of my family occupied my mind.
Congenital heart disease
Being a nurse is such a noble job but there’s no good opportunities in the Philippines that I needed to go abroad and be far from my family. That time, I wasn’t aware of the concept of anxiety and depression. I know I felt sad, I do, but I was still able to withstand it by playing basketball.
One day, I went knocking on the door of my flatmate because I was already hyperventilating, palpitating and about to faint. I told him to bring me to the ER. Luckily that time, my roommate, who’s almost like a brother to me, was the nurse on duty in the ER. They ran an ECG reading where they discovered a congenital heart disease, a right bundle branch block. I was admitted in our own unit in ICU. Everyday, my co-workers would take turns to take care of me. I was hospitalized for 3 days.
Persistence of symptoms
However, each time I lacked sleep, I experienced palpitations and felt like fainting. That time, I was still unaware but little did I know, I was already experiencing panic attacks. I have been there for just 8 months and my contract was for 3 years.
While I was on duty, I experienced the symptoms — palpitations, lightheadedness and my co-workers told me to fight it because if I won’t, I will be forced to go home. It aggravated my anxiety further. What’s distressing about it is that I felt alone, wanting help and because the people didn’t consider the psychiatric side of my condition, they couldn’t help.
Time went by and I fought the symptoms I’ve experienced. I still took the extra medications from my unit just so I am able to sleep. If I wasn’t able to take medications, I had panic attacks 4 times a week. I needed to exercise to combat the symptoms. My duty was from 3pm to 11pm, and if ever my roommate and I was on the same shift, I invited him to play basketball with me at around 2am in the morning so when we came home, we were already tired and able to sleep. There are times we got yelled at, “Brother, it’s time to sleep! It’s 2am! Why are you playing basketball?”
Going back home
I went back to the Philippines because I missed my family and there was an old man in Saudi who told me, “As much as you can, give your time to your family, especially your children.”
I relied on exercise for relief from my panic attacks. There were also instances where I just rode my bike towards my brother’s house or wherever it took me until I had relief. However, from time to time, when I was too tired, thought too much or felt pressured in life, it can trigger another attack.
Nonetheless, I’m glad that my family and friends didn’t give up on me. What’s disappointing about the Philippines now is once you have anxiety and depression, they will already label you as someone crazy. One instance was when I was riding a jeepney, I had a panic attack and I asked another passenger, “Manong, can you accompany me to walk just until the hospital? I don’t think I can walk there alone.” and he uttered, “Are you crazy?” So I just decided to run towards the hospital.
What I learned about my neuropsychiatrist now is that anxiety and depression is like diabetes. If for diabetes, you don’t have insulin, in anxiety and depression, you don’t have serotonin which is why we are given SSRI antidepressants, to recycle serotonin. That’s what people don’t understand.
Challenging the worst thing that could happen
One of the ways I combat my panic attack is to challenge my thoughts about what’s the worst thing that could happen. If I’m hyperventilating, the feeling is like having SVT (Supraventricular tachycardia) where my heart rate would go up to 170 to 180 beats per minute. Nonetheless, I would still challenge that. I will run really fast and thought that if I faint here, there will still be people who will see me and bring me to the hospital, or if I die, they will bring my corpse to the morgue. That’s when I realized my anxiety couldn’t get the best of me. I challenged even the worst panic attacks that I had.
However, what we don’t understand is that we also need help from a professional. People won’t understand your condition. That’s why there’s a lot of cases of alcoholism and suicide, because those are the ways they tried to handle their illness and it makes me sad.
Changes at home
While I was already working in Manila, my wife didn’t understand and was pressuring me, asking me what’s my plan. You know in the Philippines, nurses are underpaid and I already have a child to support.
I didn’t like the changes when I came home. I was irritable. From the time I woke up, I didn’t want people to talk to me. My son didn’t want to come near me, he doesn’t know me. I also felt like my family didn’t understand me. I felt so much pressure, I frequently made a scene at night.
My family decided to have me checked by a psychiatrist. That was the time I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and depression. They started me on a lot of medications like Seroquel and Clonazepam. The medications that I took always made me fall sleep so I wasn’t able to exercise. I will play basketball in the morning and I literally would fall asleep once I sit down. They will just wake me up when the game is finished. And when I come home, I will sleep again. I will wake up to eat then sleep again.
My mom said it’s not normal to be like that. We came back to the psychiatrist and my mom said, “Doc, I noticed his routine became different. He’s not able to do the things he usually do. Even taking care of his son is not possible because he’s always falling asleep.” and the doctor just said, “There were a lot of times where he didn’t sleep in Saudi that’s why he’s like that.”
My mom suggested we just find another doctor. I felt some improvement taking the medications and my panic attacks lessened. I thought I could handle myself so I stopped taking my medications and didn’t go back to my psychiatrist; However, how I dealt with my family didn’t change. I was still irritable. There was even a time I fought with my father. I hit and broke the cabinet at home.
I was already having suicidal thoughts before but I wasn’t entertaining it. It worsened when I felt pressured and had arguments with my wife. I almost jumped from the rooftop at home. Good thing my brother-in-law hugged me and told me, “Don’t do this, let talk about it.”
There was also a time where I intentionally tried having myself run over a jeepney. The driver just cursed and yelled at me.
New job as a supervisor
I was still fighting my attacks even working as a nurse in Manila. I was beating myself up to go abroad. Good thing I was offered a job in another hospital as a supervisory role in their eye center. I went there without knowing what a supervisory role would entail.
I am a nurse and I’m used to having our performance measured by the quality of our service to our patients. Isn’t it such a nice feeling when you get a commendation from a patient? I was shocked in the new hospital. The vice president is an industrial engineer and my performance was measured based on the revenue of the eye center. I told him repeatedly, as a nurse, the focus should be on the quality of the service of the unit given to the patients.
One time, I was doing a procedure on a patient and the vice president had me called to a meeting. I told him, “I will go after I finish the procedure.” He wasn’t willing to wait so I had no choice but to go. The patient responded in dismay, “Don’t be like that. You didn’t even finish the procedure and you will leave me.”
Due to the expectations, I became hard on myself. The symptoms came back. Once again, my sleeping habits changed and I wasn’t able to sleep. I had an opportunity to go abroad back then and also about to have my second child. I was perplexed and a mixture of stress accumulated. That’s when symptoms of depersonalization appeared. Like an RPG game, where you are a third person observing yourself.
I was attending to a patient when I was called by my boss. I told him, “Sir, I’ll go there, I am just attending to a patient.” Then I heard my name being paged in the hospital. I felt my ears heat up. Out of my irritation and anger, I got water from a water dispenser then suddenly, I saw myself being in third person, detached from myself. I tried to ignore it and went to my boss and told him, “Sir, I really don’t like being paged when I’m with a patient because I feel ashamed in front of my patient.”
He didn’t respond so I just went out and drank more water to calm down. I felt I couldn’t handle it anymore and brought myself to the ER. My boss still paged me even if I was already in the ER. I was in depersonalized state until I was given an anxiolytic in the ER and fell asleep. When I woke up, I was back to normal. That’s when I realized I really needed help.
I was attending to a patient and went out when I felt I was about to have a panic attack. I asked myself, “Why not find a psychiatrist here?” so I checked the doctor’s directory and immediately had myself scheduled for an appointment.
I asked my new psychiatrist whether to resign from my job or not. He said that it seems that the cause of my anxiety is my boss. He advised, “You can let it go since there’s another opportunity waiting for you. But while waiting for opportunities, you can still apply for other jobs.”
That time, I had an opportunity and was pondering going abroad to the UK. So even if I was anxious where to get money for our daily needs, I thought my parents could to support me for the meantime. I let go of my job and luckily, a new job offer came.
How often do you get therapy?
I am continuously getting therapy now from my psychiatrist and taking medications. So far, my panic attacks hasn’t come back. Now I can function well in my roles as a father, husband, brother and son. My next session is after 3 months and my psychiatrist decreased my dose already. I was prescribed an anxiolytic medication to be taken as necessary since I was about to have my third baby.
What do you think is the main cause of your condition?
Overthinking and when I feel too pressured. Impending stress that I already have 3 children. Life is hard in the Philippines. It happens when I think about my problems too much.
I am curious about your childhood. Were you a happy child?
I was happy but I have inferiority complex when it comes to others. I am doubtful whenever someone says I’m good at something. Like in basketball, they say I’m already good but I feel I am not.
So can you say you suffered from low self-esteem?
Yes. I did have low self-esteem when I was young. I can’t speak in front of a lot of people.
What was the cause of the low self-esteem? Were you bullied?
When I was in elementary school, I was frequently bullied. I was small and skinny when I was young. Growing up, life was also hard for our family. My siblings and I went to private schools and money was tight. Other kids were able to get what they wanted and they will abrasively make you feel that they’re much more well-off than you.
My life in school was different from my life at home. When I’m at home, I’m very happy. I played basketball with our neighbors and they would tell me I’m ahead of my age. They told me I’m good at playing basketball; However, I didn’t understand that. I didn’t believe in their compliments since I suffered from inferiority complex. They just think I’m so humble. All I knew is that I wanted to play basketball.
But at school, I remember hoping that each time I go to school, I won’t be bullied. Especially when my brother graduated and I was left in elementary school.
In high school, I found my true friends and I got better at playing basketball, so my previous bullies took me to their team. It was the first time they needed me. Afterwards, I didn’t mind if they teased me, since I already had newfound friends who accepted me.
So you can say you already had a predisposition in developing a mental illness.
Yes, a predisposition. And honestly, my parents also both have anxiety. I believe my mom has undiagnosed anxiety. My father also had anxiety but was only treated by a GP (general practicioner).
What would you consider the biggest factors towards your recovery?
My friends and family. Fortunately, when I was depressed, some of my close friends were also unemployed so I would just text them and they would come here and talk.
Other factors would be playing basketball, sports and exercise. My friends were fun to be with and we would play basketball and exercise together. Then upon coming home, I’m welcomed by my family and we eat dinner together. Everyday, I’m feeling grateful for that.
When you’re depressed, you truly feel alone. I almost gave up on myself but my support system never gave up on me. One of the biggest factors of my recovery is my wife. She’s always there for me. Occasionally, if I’m not in the mood to talk, she would just hug me. My brother has also been a big help. I look up to him and ask for advice whenever I have a problem and his advice are always spot on.
Do you think you can overcome your mental illness?
I think I will withdraw my medication before 2018. But like what I’m saying to my doctor, if I have to take this medicine for the rest of my life to fulfill my roles, I am willing do it. What is 50 pesos a day for medications if that helps me achieve a quality life? Anxiety attacks can make you miss out on happy moments with your loved ones. You’ll be there fighting yourself. Isn’t that sad?
What is your advice towards other people who are also struggling from a mental illness?
Seek professional help; However, finding a doctor is hit and miss. If you don’t like your doctor, find another one which is more compatible with you. Find someone who is passionate in helping you. Someone who will treat you like their child, or family what when you open up about your problems, they respond with care and compassion.
Like for example, some people who have anxiety and depression turn to alcohol and drugs. That’s why there’s plenty of alcoholics. They don’t recognize they need professional help. But we shouldn’t rely solely on medications. You also need support and someone to talk to. It also helps not to dwell on the past too much and focus more on the present moment.
If you feel like you are alone, you can reach out to your support group and there will be people to listen. I know it’s hard, but talking to another person is the first step in recovery.
Share Your Story is a project aiming to provide mental health awareness by featuring stories of people who are courageously willing to share their experiences in struggling with a mental illness.