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Opinions of Friday, 7 August 2020

Columnist: Dorcas Efe Mensah

Stories of our survival: Living with anxiety

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My name is Esi. I'm a medical doctor by profession and I am currently studying in the USA.

My first issue with mental health was when I was much younger. Twice, I had what I have now come to realize were panic attacks. Then, I did not know what they were so I said they were due to spiritual attacks.

Growing up, I also battled with migraines and lumbar spondylosis (from an injury to my back) which caused me to be in a lot of pain from time to time. I felt I was a string person and so these challenges did not affect me.

In level 200, I had just gotten admission into med school and was anxious about my grades. I was afraid to fail. One day, I came back from the reading room and suddenly I had a sharp pain in my chest. It felt tight, I couldn't breathe and I was dizzy. I think I may have passed out because I slumped against the bedpost. Thank God there was no one around.

As usual I called my parents and told them about it and we prayed etc.

All was well until the fourth year when my back issues began to resurface. One day I woke up and could not walk properly due to the pain. I was put on medication for 10 months and did some tests. I was alright, but now I noticed that I began to experience strange headaches.

They continued to bug me...meanwhile, I was also battling with financial and social issues at the time. Once I was prescribed Amitriptyline which could have helped. But honestly, things were so bad back then. I couldn't afford to buy the drug.

By the time I was writing my final exam, I had to be taking pain medications daily to be able to function...looking back, that is what actually made the condition worse...Imagine having a headache almost nonstop for months... It wasn't just the headache but the nausea that came with it was unbearable.

It was ironic that I was in one of the best hospitals in Ghana, but I couldn't get the help I needed because back then, even what to eat was problem...

I finally failed one subject and had to rewrite. Something that had never happened in my life before. I was devastated...I finally got the medication I needed and with time the symptoms subsided. I thought things would return to normal now.

I started work as a house officer. Even when I started I could tell I was not really myself. I did not have much pleasure doing anything. Most profound was the fact that I found it hard to remember anything.

Waking up was not difficult for me. But getting out of bed was a hustle...I just could not get out of bed. Every morning I found myself weeping for hours. Most days i went to work without a shower. I was always tired and no longer took care of myself. One day a colleague who knew me from med sch (I was in a different town now) commented. I just said "I am fine"... Then I began to hear voices in my head "You're stupid. You're worthless "etc . It became so bad that I could not concentrate very well at work.

Sometimes I had to stop and cry or close my eyes for a while...I also was told by a few friends that I had some mood changes. So I finally decided to see a psychologist. I saw her for a few weeks, we did CBT which really helped. From time to time I still hear those voices(my thoughts). But they are no longer intrusive.

I began to get much better from there...I did not realize how much I had changed through the things I had gone through (battling chronic illness etc.) It took a while for me to gain back confidence in myself. And even very small tasks made me afraid.

From time to time I have the panic attacks (mostly mild) During this pandemic I went through therapy due to two traumatic experiences in 2019. While speaking with the psychologist I realized I had begun to have previous issues such as palpitations, breathlessness and suicidality (did I mention thoughts of suicide was included in the intrusive thoughts?)

Through some of my experiences, I began to read a lot about mental health and how having to deal with chronic pain can impact your mental health and quality of life.

My hope is to help increase awareness about the fact that we all need to take care of our mental health. Issues with anxiety, depression, etc can affect anyone. I wrote a proposal to start a project where people with chronic illnesses, including mental illnesses can share their stories of courage in the midst of these.

It is currently on hold but I am blessed to be a part of this group and I hope that my story encourages others and my prayer is that I will be able to restart on that project soon.

Thank you.

The author of piece, Dorcas Efe Mensah, is a Mental Health advocate with lived experience and the founder of #Otherslikemegh. Contact her via