Behind My Mind
Turning the Game Around: My Mental Health Became My Super Power
To paint a quick background, I come from an incredibly loving family. Growing up in a big family, I was taught the value of family from a very young age, and always spent time with my dozens of cousins every month in Toronto. Raised around so many older cousins who were boys, I learned to toughen up quickly so that they couldn’t pick on me. I was incredibly fond of my family and the support network I constantly had around me. My parents recognized that I wasn’t a typical kid growing up; I had too much energy and drive for my age. As a way to deal with this high energy and drive, I was put into multiple sports at the age of 4. But the one that stuck with me throughout the course of my life, and to this day, was Taekwondo. I started Taekwondo at the age of 4 and for the next 14 years of my life, it became one of my biggest passions in life. As I matured, I learned how much of a role it played in my life because it was my coping mechanism whenever my mental health went South.
Around the time of grade 8, I started to struggle with chronic indecisiveness and intrusive thoughts. I began to experience constant ruminating thoughts and disturbing images, and it caused me to have a lot of self-doubt and helplessness. Once it started reaching its peak severity to the point where I spent more than 5 hours a day obsessively having intrusive thoughts, my family took me to emergency. After a psychological assessment, I was diagnosed with OCD.
When I first heard that I was diagnosed with OCD, it caught my family and I by surprise. Growing up in a very traditional Sri Lankan family, mental health was already very stigmatized and hard to understand. Immediately, I was hit with the feelings of self-shame and worthlessness because of this diagnosis placed upon me. I thought that there was a title associated with me, and realizing and accepting that OCD does not define who I am took a long time for me and my family to process. Intrusive thoughts were probably the hardest aspect of OCD for me. To sum it up, an intrusive thought is an unwelcome/involuntary thought, image, or unpleasant idea that becomes an obsession. These thoughts were upsetting, distressing, and were hard to manage. Often when I was younger and I had intrusive thoughts, I would complain to my parents, asking them why I couldn’t just pick these thoughts out of my brain and throw them out. My way of coping with anxiety was always to stay busy. As a high-achieving student in high school, I kept myself busy with so many sports, extracurriculars, and was virtually unable to relax. The idea of relaxing did not sit well with me, and I found comfort in doing 5000 things at once as it gave me an escape from my very own intrusive thoughts. Learning to relax, and not having to stick to a tight and loaded day-to-day schedule became one of my biggest challenges. Living with OCD was a big challenge for me, but soon through cognitive behavioural therapy I was able to overcome it.
I had to confront my fears and discontinue my escape responses. Every week I would work on exposure-response therapy, where I would expose myself to my own compulsions that scared me, and telling myself that what I was doing was irrational. It all came down to practicing these exposure-response therapy techniques for me, and staying confident that I would be able to overcome the compulsions that took up so much of my time. Once more and more items started getting ticked off the list of compulsions that caused me anxiety, I started to get my life back in control. I had to learn to not get caught up in my thoughts by telling myself that these thoughts were not me, but they were my OCD. I would write down all the intrusive thoughts down in a journal, and rank them in order of severity. I would then look at these thoughts that caused me so much severity, think about how irrational they were, and how my OCD was trying to play games with me. I would keep an elastic band on my wrist, and flick the elastic band every time I found myself getting caught up in my intrusive thoughts in order to get out of the negative cycle. I scheduled in periods of relaxation within my schedule, and would find peace and comfort in playing guitar, listening to good music, and reading books. My mental health improved towards the end of high school, and it was all because of my exposure prevention therapy, and believing in myself. To this day, I still struggle with OCD, but I have owned up to it being part of my life. I have control over my OCD, because now I have the toolkit to deal with my unwanted compulsions and thoughts to fight it. In addition to this, I found a passion for volunteering with younger children who suffer from mental health, as it gave me a way to channel my experiences into something positive.
Towards the end of high school, I was treated for undiagnosed symptoms of ADHD as well. I found myself easily getting distracted, and was unable to focus while doing simple tasks. Knowing how to deal with my challenges from OCD, I found a way to channel my energy and ADHD into things I loved. ADHD gave me a super power to thrive in high paced environments where I was able to do many things at once. I channeled this energy towards creating my own mobile app startup in high school, competing on a National Taekwondo team, planning fundraisers for the Canadian Cancer Society, and placing in international business competitions. I learned to look at mental health from a different angle. Now currently in University, I still find myself struggling with mental health. But the way I overcame challenging periods in my life was by giving back to the community and being involved. I volunteer with Ottawa's pediatric team to prioritize which gaps in mental health education to address; I led the first mental health programming at CHEO’s Teddy‐Bear’s Picnic™, attended by 300+ families. I found great strengths in my OCD and ADHD, I was a good leader, I could think on the spot, and most importantly I could connect with others and share my story with them. I had a lot of empathy, and it's what led me to devote my time to working with mental health and go down the teaching route.
Throughout this process, I had incredibly helpful doctors, friends, and family, and I couldn't have done it without them. I cannot stress the importance of having a strong support circle who will stick with you throughout your hardest moments. It is very easy to get caught up in the negatives of life, but it's important to remember how many people love you and are rooting for your success because that is what kept me going. Doctors, family, friends, teammates, coaches; it was a team of people who helped me get through this. I will forever thank them for helping me get through my struggles, helping by believing in me, and all future successes I have will always be attributed to their influence on my life. Today I am confident in myself even with my mental health struggles because I know how strong I have become, and I know I will thrive to create impact wherever I go. Living with mental health challenges truly ended up becoming my super power.