If anxiety were a person, it would be Putin. It desperately tries to convince us that they are always right and powerful. It constantly fights to gain control and goes to war with the good joyous parts of us. And if it manages to shut out the rest of the world, the world that gives us perspective and acknowledges us, it holds the greatest threat of succeeding.
Looking back on my life, I was constantly looking for answers from friends, family, and doctors on why I felt negative butterflies every morning. No one ever had an answer, except that maybe it was the normal stress of life that we are all taught we are meant to feel.
While working and living in Prague, I went to my gynecologist and told her my symptoms. We decided to test for food allergies and I did find out I was allergic to eggs. So I figured that was the issue and for a while my evil butterflies took a break. But they resurfaced months later. I went back to my doctor, who told me she 100% believed it was stress related and she and her colleagues treat many executives for this.
Back then, mental health was not discussed often, even in medical settings. Few of us were even aware that experiencing anxiety was any different than just being worried about a single outcome.
My doctor asked what my vices were for relaxing. I did not drink, smoke cigarettes or marijuana, binge TV, or have much of a social life at the time, so all I could think of was exercising. I exercised every morning before work for 90 minutes six times a week with a trainer. But that never seemed to cure these killer butterfly feelings.
We decided to try a light dose of antidepressants. That was a rollercoaster ride in itself, as many times I got sick from the side effects from one and then was simply prescribed another. I finally settled on one and It seemed to fix things. This was my start into learning about mental health and the start to understanding how many people were in my same boat but never discussed it.
I believe my anxiety during my career was due to feelings of inadequacy: not being smart enough and feeling unworthy of my position. It was an extreme form of imposter’s syndrome. During my earlier years, I took it out on my team and husband. The more I felt like an imposter, the more anxious I would feel and in turn I would bark demands. I often think of these times and wish I was wiser and more open with my colleagues. But for being just 27 years old, in some ways I was mature beyond my years. In other ways, I was just a 27-year-old with a lot still left to learn.
My surviving grace was I was smart enough to surround myself with wiser, older, skilled team members who had the maturity to manage me and coach me along. I will forever be grateful to these individuals. I also had three amazing bosses who believed in me enough to give me the opportunities: Al Tolstoy (my now husband of 22 years), Bruno Ducharme (president of TIW, our main shareholder), and our chairman Charles Sirois, who interviewed and hired me at 25 years old.
A funny story is that Charles interviewed me in French and I pretended to understand everything he was saying, and agreed to the job position without knowing I had. Anyway, as long as I surpassed our goals I had a job I could keep. I like the simplicity of this formula, as it is entirely based on work ethic and results, without taking into account many of the barriers and privileged hierarchies that have kept the most capable and smartest out of the room. If only all bosses could put it so simply.
Our goals were big ones. Some said they were impossible and so my anxiety became a norm for me. I assumed we all felt like this and that it was not something to complain about or seek help over. I already felt embarrassed that I was secretly taking antidepressants. Now I wonder how many members of my team might have been going through something similar and how much easier it might have been if we had all talked about it.
Fast forward to the summer of 2020, where l had been living with my cancer for over a year, was still recovering from my back surgery, and was on pain meds that sometimes still left me with unmanageable pain. My doctors decided to do radiation to my neck and right arm to further kill the cancerous tumors to try to reduce the pain. My radiation doctor told me I had so many tumors (still do) in my neck that he couldn’t even count them, so he would try his best but there were no guarantees anything would change.
Radiation is scary stuff and a body can only take so much. I had radiation over a year earlier and had a few side effects. But he said I would probably experience more this time around, due to how strong he would radiate my neck.
Post radiation I threw up which I had never done before and felt horribly nauseated for a few weeks afterwards. After that, the pain started to decrease and I was feeling back to my happy self. I should let you know that up to this point I had not felt much depression or anxiety about my cancer, but that was all about to change.
One day I woke up sad, so sad and anxious I did not know what to do or how to move forward in my day. I just wanted to stay in bed and cry. Weeks went by like this and it sent me back to how I felt after I suffered my stroke in 1999 caused by a genetic hormone deficiency. My sadness was unrelenting and I went into a full blown depression, with anxiety so bad I could not focus or relax.
We contacted my doctors, including my radiologist who said that radiating my neck and lower skull could have affected serotonin release and the brain area for emotions. We also contacted my family doctor who reviewed my medications, made some changes to my antidepressants, and gave me a prescription for Ativan (an anti-anxiety drug). However, she mentioned that I might need to start talk therapy with a professional and think about looking into the programs offered at Wellspring Cancer Community Support Centre.
Even with the new meds, I spent the next few months going slowly insane. I was having nightmares of my previous assault, which was trauma I had never dealt with or even told anyone about. I was seeing black everywhere I went.
Though I had experienced anxiety and depression at different times in my life, there was a level of fear that came with it getting to this stage that I had rarely felt before in my life. Like with my cancer, there is the feeling of helplessness – like you are just living in a state of darkness and sadness that you cannot walk yourself out of, no matter how much you want to, how much you try, or even how much you recognize that it is mostly in your head.
It causes a daily loop that can become exhausting and demoralizing. You wake up most days determined this is going to be the day you will get past it. You convince yourself that staying on a schedule, getting some sun, or seeing a loved one will make all the difference and you will finally be out of the darkness. But then it feels like walking through an immense fog trying to get there. And eventually you’re back in the same state again.
After months of living like this, where some days would be great and some terrible and I had no control over which would happen, I realized this was not something that could be helped with willpower or a positive attitude. Like with cancer, this was something that needed me to surrender to asking for help wherever it was available to me.
And so I signed up for two programs at Wellspring. Next time, I will talk about how therapy has impacted me over the past year. As a little spoiler, I will say that I do not live in so much of the darkness anymore.
~ Karla xoxo
Karla Stephens-Tolstoy has stage 4 chronic cancer, diagnosed in 2018. She is Her2 negative, IDC. She takes 50 pills daily, including Ibrance and letrozole, her cancer fighting pills. Karla is the co-owner of the online store StandUpSpeakUp.ca with her son, Zach. Through this venture, they are proud donors to various charities. All proceeds of their limited edition Healing and Empowerment Scarves are donated to Wellspring Cancer Support Centre.