Trigger warning: mentions of suicide, anxiety

I’ve heard someone say that the only difference between undiagnosed and diagnosed mental illness is that the other is undiagnosed. Recently, I got diagnosed with illness anxiety disorder with depressive symptoms, and was advised to take meds alongside psychotherapy.

The thing is, I’ve always had a hunch there’s something wrong with me. From the way I panic over the color of my lips, a bruise on my knee that hasn’t faded for three weeks, striking pain in my lungs when I breathe, or a series of boils popping up anywhere on my body, to the number of times I’ve had crying spells while telling my parents that I badly needed to go to the hospital because I believe my heartbeat exceeds the normal bpm, or because of a cough that comes and goes, or the sweet taste on my tongue after drinking iced tea.

I remember twice in senior high school when we were told to have a mandatory health checkup because we needed it to join the field trip, and one time I was left waiting in the hallway of the hospital because my blood pressure was above the normal range and I needed to calm down. I could vividly recall how the nurse caressed my back, telling me “kalma ka lang” again and again. I knew she meant no harm, but it only caused me to panic more.

The other time, the doctor wouldn’t let me go with my classmates because he was afraid I’d suddenly have a stroke since my blood pressure, again, was above the normal range. He asked me if I knew someone in my family who had hypertension, and then advised me to talk to the cardiologist who told me I had white coat hypertension.

But all those times I thought it was nothing but “kaartehan” on my part, because that was what I was made to believe by the people around me. Every time I tried to open up that I was afraid, I always got the infamous “nasa utak mo lang ‘yan” and the never-ending question “baliw ka ba?”, which I got during anxiety attacks when my hands felt numb from crying and it was getting harder and harder to breathe.

I’ve gone through going to a psycho-trauma clinic, asking the guidance counselor, and calling the suicide hotline because my anxiety attacks were getting worse, but during those times I had no idea what to say properly. Because, really, what should you tell a mental health professional when even talking about mental health in the household was considered taboo, a topic never to be talked about over dinner?

It came to a point where every day was a challenge to strive for some peace of mind, though it felt like a mountain was dwindling farther away from my vision whenever I tried to reach for it. So I asked myself: Where do I go from here?

“How are you feeling and when did this start?” These were the icebreakers that mental health professionals I’d gone to asked me—the same questions I asked myself when I figured out that I needed to do a self-assessment for my mental health’s sake. I opened my notes and started jotting down.

I went back to when I believed this fear began, this sense of always needing to protect myself through frequent hospital visits and swimming through dozens of peer-reviewed journals just to calm myself down began. I didn’t realize it had been years already. It had been so long, but all I’d ever done was to keep a hunch at the back of my mind and overlook what I’d been feeling, because I believed it was all in my head and nothing was really wrong.

It’s safe to say that I almost self-diagnosed. But I realized that self-diagnosing would never give me the proper answer I had been craving for. So I started searching for mental health care facilities that offered consultations.

The day I got diagnosed with anxiety disorder, it felt as if a huge boulder that had been sitting on my chest vanished in an instant. I could have screamed that afternoon, shouted “I’m not crazy like they tend to say!”, but instead I breathed deeply, as if it was the only time I had been able to. Now there was a valid reason why I acted and thought of things the way I did.

I realized that seeking professional help is one way of becoming okay. I know it’s a process, a series of baby steps, and I’ve just had my first. I bet it’s going to be a long ride, but I’m on my way.

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I LEFT Manila to live and pursue graduate studies in London until the end of 2009, when I joined the over three million Filipinos in the United States. Last year, I watched Manny Pacquiao knock out British boxer Ricky Hatton, at a casino in London amidst a throng of pissed-off British boxing fans.