Waves of Shame

 I wish I could honestly say that I no longer any wasted energy on worrying about what other people think of me, but it would be a lie.  Sometimes I feel carefree and I think I’m beyond caring. But if I’m honest, that only happens when everything is going well, so its easy. When there’s a bump in the road (or a deep dark hole that I get lost in) the shame flows over me like a wave that knocks me off my feet and can feel like I’m drowning in it. Then I realize the shame was never really gone.

If I had cancer they would say that I had been in remission and then the cancer came back. But with depression, what do you say: “Ive been feeling really good for months and then for no apparent reason I feel like Ive been hit by a bus”?  There are no words that adequate explain how I’m feeling physically or mentally in those moments. So if I can’t explain it, how can I expect others to understand and how can it be ‘normal’?  This is another example of where shame creeps in.  This was obvious to me one day when I went to a new dentist and I had to fill out the form on my medical history.  I paused at the question about medications. Did I really want to list the medications I’m on?

So you may be wondering why I am even writing this blog, why would I share this part of my life if I feel ashamed of it? Quite simply it’s because I’m learning about how our mind can play tricks on us (depression/anxiety/PTSD will do that). I’m realizing that just because I may feel something does not make it real. I may feel ashamed, but I also know that I have no reason to be ashamed.  I am also learning that I am not alone, other people feel ashamed but have no reason to. However if we feel the need to whisper about it, or hide it altogether, then the shame is going to thrive.  My hope is by talking about it in a honest and open way, it will remind us all that this is just another symptom that we need to cope with, but it does not need to be accepted as ‘real’.

There is also so much hype in the media these days about ‘staying positive’ and ‘choosing happiness’, which are in themselves positive messages.  But they can also inadvertently add to the shame and guilt for people who are clinically depressed.  I remember feeling like society in general was judging me for not being able to take better care of myself whenever I heard these kinds of comments.  As if I could just read a certain book, or meditate, or eat better, or exercise more, my depression would disappear…But of course it is never that simple, if it were no one would be depressed.  No one would choose to be depressed if there was a formula or strategy to avoid it.  Just like no one would choose to have cancer.

So I will keep writing about depression, and the various feelings that can accompany it and hopefully the shame will subside. Besides, people with mental health challenges are some of the strongest, bravest people I know. IMG_1445.jpg

Are You Blinded By Appearances?

How people LOOK from our perspective is usually NOT how they really ARE. And yet we live in a world where feel the need to see something before we believe it to be real. Unfortunately this causes significant barriers for people who have invisible conditions, especially if they are good at managing them (lets face it, in order to survive in this world we have all created various coping strategies, some healthier than others).

So how do we deal with this phenomenon without putting the onus on those who suffering to ‘prove’ their mental health conditions?
First of all we must acknowledge that anyone at any stage of life and any socio-economic status can suffer from mental health conditions. It is not a disorder for overly sensitive or emotional people, its not only when people are experiencing significant challenges or trauma, and it is certainly not a sign of weakness.
Secondly, we must trust people and what they are telling us. Of course there may be the odd person who claims to be depressed to get out of doing something, but I certainly don’t believe that is the norm. This reminds me of when someone attempts suicide and people around them say he was just doing it to get attention. Well, if someone is that desperate for attention, they NEED the attention!
Lastly, if we can create a safe environment for people to talk about mental health without judgement or fear of reprisal, we would quickly realize how many people are in fact suffering in silence (which of course compounds the problem). This would normalize these conditions and many people would likely access help sooner and recover more easily. Just like someone who thinks they may have broken their leg, they don’t wait a few weeks or months to see if it go away by itself and if they did, the healing process would likely be much longer once they finally did get medical attention. We need to reach this level of acceptance if we hope to change the time it takes for people to access help.

Its not only mental health conditions that have to deal with this. Recently my husband experienced debilitating but unexplained pain in his hip for over 3 weeks. He was on pain meds to keep him from screaming out it pain, but otherwise he ‘looked’ fine. So when a friend heard I’d taken him to the ER, their response was “but I just saw him and he looked fine, what happened?”. They were not trying to be insensitive, but the automatic response was ‘but he looked fine so some event must have occurred to explain the severity of the pain’. It was then up to me to validate why a trip to the ER was necessary and that was not a comfortable feeling for me.

I believe that anyone reading this would likely not disagree with any of these suggestions. But the fact remains that even the most well intentioned people can get blinded by appearances. So perhaps next time someone tells you that they have emotional or physical pain that cannot be seen, believe them and offer support in whatever way you are comfortable. This will start to shift the conversation from having to prove that there is a problem to how can we support the person.

 (originally shared on Facebook May 17, 2017)IMG_0656

Who am I to talk about depression, anxiety and PTSD?

I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist or doctor of any sort.

Although I did get a Bachelor of Arts in Applied Social Science in the 90s, my real education was when I got married to my husband and inadvertently to the Canadian military.
Although I never felt I fit in as a military spouse (I saved every penny I could to buy our first home and move off base). I was nonetheless married to an infantryman who went on 3 overseas missions in our first 6 years together.  We had a son after his 2nd mission, and then our daughter shortly after he was home from the last (well, about 10 months after).  During this pregnancy, I knew he was not himself and I knew it had to do with what had happened on his last tour. He was involved in an IED (improvised explosive device) explosion that killed 2 of his peers and injured 3 others.  He walked away without a mark on his body, but his heart and spirit would never be the same.
In 2004 he was diagnosed with PTSD. For the following 10 years, he managed to continue his career in the military and changed trades from infantry to military intelligence. When he had supportive superiors, he thrived, when he did not, he went into crisis.   Eventually, tiring of this nauseating roller coaster, he retired with a medical release in the fall of 2016.
Over these last 20 years, I had a variety of jobs, as most military spouses can relate to.  I first worked at a military base social work office;  then at a shelter for abused women and children; then I worked for a group that counselled abusive men. My last and longest job was for the Director of Military Family Services, which is basically HQ for all military family services in Canada.  I worked as a counsellor,  and eventually as a manager of a team of counsellors that provided nationwide support to military families looking for referrals, supportive counselling or crisis intervention.
Now backing up a few years before my husband’s retirement, while I was working at Director of Military Family Services, I started to show signs of burnout.  Although I had no idea what was happening, I had been in survival mode for so long that was all I really knew and it had served me very well. However, when I went to my doctor one day, she was able to see behind the facade. Luckily for me, she was very persistent and insistent I see a psychologist and I eventually (painfully) let down my guard and accepted the fact that I could no longer carry on the way I was.  I was on extended sick leave from work and after trying a gradual return to work after almost 6 months off, I eventually accepted that I could not work in that environment AND stay healthy. I reluctantly decided my health was more important than the job and I eventually resigned.  It may sound like a rather simple and straightforward process, but was anything but simple or easy.  I was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety and although I am in a much better place now, which is why I can even write about it, staying healthy is an ongoing challenge.
So who am I to talk about depression, anxiety or PTSD?  I am someone who has personally and professionally experienced them from various vantage points, at various stages and various levels of care. It is from this experience that I draw from to share in my blog.
My goal is simple; I want to change the conversation about mental health issues and ultimately end the shame and secrecy that hold so many of us back from living the life we want and deserve.   Family06Web

Why am I doing this?

Some people may be wondering why I’m doing this. Why share my challenges so publicly?  And honestly, sometimes I wonder why I want to do this too. But then I talk to someone and realize how little information there is and how much shame and secrecy still surround mental health issues.  Here is example of a recent conversation:

A few weeks ago a very well educated, kind and knowledgeable person asked to pick my brain.

I don’t know her particularly well, but I was curious. So I said yes.
She started off by saying a good friend of her family’s had a nervous breakdown 3 months ago and was even hospitalized briefly.  This person had been dealing with a lot of family issues, including medical challenges, plus young children in the home and of course, normal work related stress.  But now, 3 months later, he doesnt seem to be getting better and even showing signs of regressing.  She said they met up recently and she found herself feeling very uncomfortable and concerned.
I was a little concerned as to what this had to do with me, or what she was hoping I would say.
But eventually she just said, she just didnt know what to do, how to help or even what to say to him or his family,  and in my mind, all I could think was ‘why don’t you ask him?’.
But of course it wasn’t that easy. Basically she wanted help in trying to understand what was going on for this person and how she could be more supportive.  She was concerned about offending that person by asking the wrong thing, or seeming judgemental or unsupportive by bringing something up that they may not be ready to discuss.   And she came to me because she knew I was open about talking about my own depression and anxiety, as well as the fact that my husband has been living with PTSD for over a decade.
So once again I was reminded, if this woman is feeling lost and she is educated and well connected socially, I bet there are a lot of other people feeling lost too.  But it doesnt need to be this way.  We have the ability to change how we talk about it,  to stop the whispers and secrets. If we just talk about it like we would any other medical condition. No one feels the need to hide the fact that someone in the family broke their leg, or has asthma, so why do we need to hide if someone is clinically depressed or diagnosed with PTSD? Once we can do this I believe we will see a significant shift in people getting the appropriate support much sooner and it will ultimately lesson the devastating impact it can have on families and communities.
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Depression Is Not Feeling Sad

Depression is not feeling sad, its not being overtired, or overworked or fed up or stressed. Those are all difficult in their own way, but they are not the same as depression.
Depression is not something that can be explained like a broken leg or high blood pressure. Its a combination of physical and mental symptoms and it can be different for different people at different times.
For me, I feel like Im weighted down, everything is heavy, every movement becomes more work, more tiring.
My mind starts to play tricks on me. I don’t think clearly, I’m not able to focus or problem solve. I can’t find my words, or I don’t even feel like talking, even that feels like too much effort (which is really not like me to not have something to say).
Often my mind lies to me. It tells me people are talking about me (and not in a nice way). It tells me I’ll fail anyway, or it’s not worth the effort, or I’m just not capable.
Things become black and white, all or nothing.
But at least I now know these things, and I can sometimes stand back and see those things for what they are. I’m also getting very good at navigating through them. Not stopping mid-route and getting stuck like I used to.
But it is not easy and I still want to scream at anyone who says it’s the same as being tired, or feeling blue, or going through a rough time. Because it’s none of those things, or maybe all those things times 100.

Time to Change the Conversation

On October 2, 2003 my life changed forever. My husband was on tour in Afghanistan and an improvised explosive device (IED) blew up in front of him. He survived without a scratch on his body, but his heart and mind would never be the same, and by association nether would mine. He was eventually diagnosed with PTSD and jumping forward over a decade, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety to the extent that I was no longer able to work (ironically I worked for military family services).

I feel to compelled to share our story because I know we are not alone. The circumstances are different for everyone but there are many common threads.

Mental health conditions often prevent us from being able to speak up effectively when we may need to the most. It’s not because we don’t have something important to say, but we may not have the ability to say it at that moment. I know in the midst of my depression my mind would lie to me. It would say that I was a failure and that no one would wanted to listen to me anyway. So now that I am in a healthier place, I am able to say what I could not before.

Another common thread is the shame and secrecy that often surround a mental health diagnosis. This needs to end if we are going to make positive and lasting change. I believe we will all benefit from an open and honest conversation about conditions like PTSD, depression, and anxiety because their effects reach far beyond the individual. They effect our families, our workplaces, and our communities.

My dream is to change the conversation about mental health; to be able to talk about it as we would any other condition. We will then will we be able to focus our energy on healing and thriving.

We live in a world filled with contradictions and turmoil so I’m sharing my journey from depression and anxiety to thriving in a crazy world.

Thanks for joining me, Robin

Veterans Matter…And So Their Caregivers

Why should taxpayers dollars go directly to a spouse for doing what she/he likely agreed to when committing to that person “through sickness and in health”?
Well, just like when people tell my husband he is a hero for doing what he did in Afghanistan, he says he was just doing his job. Spouses are doing the same.
But does that mean he doesn’t deserve to be compensated for a job that put his life at risk doing things our government (with the support of most Canadians) asked him to? Of course he does, and so do the spouses. They are often putting their lives on hold to do what the government has not been able to do effectively.

Please hear me out. Caring for and supporting a person with PTSD can be a full time responsibility, one that has life and death consequences. Although it may not actually take full-time hours that a ‘normal’ job, it is a full time energy sucking and emotionally draining job that no one would ever choose nor are there any real training or support for, and it is NOT the fault of the member. I can wholeheartedly say that for most injured vets that I have met that are suffering from PTSD, many would not be alive if it weren’t for the caring people in their lives. People that did not give up, give in, burn out, or have to get away to save themselves and/or their children. Some caregivers are spouses, others are parents, others just really amazing friends and family.
*Notice that this does not include any military programs, supports or services (although I hope they have been helpful for some, it has not been my experience). Caregivers become counsellors, housekeepers, financial advisors, etc.
But it must also be mentioned that part of this caregivers ‘job’ is the never ending amount of forms to complete, appointments to attend, letters/memos to read/write (and attempt to understand). Not to forget all the doubling up of paperwork as nearly all of it gets lost the first time around. This is enough to drive any mentally healthy person over the edge in frustration, but yet it is expected of our mental ill soldiers (which is why it eventually ends up as part of the caregiving role).

I feel the need to add that although many people understand the symptoms of PTSD to include depression, anger, anxiety, nightmares, sleeplessness and of course those are a huge part for most people with PTSD. But there are many other equally problematic symptoms like severe short or long term memory loss, the inability to concentrate for any length of time, and the inability to problem solving when stressed. These can be debilitating when you are expected to navigate a very complex, ever changing network of government programs and services with which you have little to no experience or support. It would be like asking a person in a wheelchair to go up a flight of stairs and then wonder why it is taking them so long or they are complaining about it. The government asks members with PTSD to complete 20+ pages of documents written in ‘legal-ease’, then re-do it in 6 months as it somehow got lost in transit, and then blame them for missing a question or not providing yet another copy to another office.

So yes, caregivers keep many of our injured Vets alive and many vets are now thriving again despite their injuries and despite the crippling roadblocks that are placed in their way by the very programs that are supposed to help them (which cost millions of $ to manage!).

So in a world where we value effort made with financial compensation, then yes, caregivers deserve this recognition (unfortunately I suspect it will take a lot of paperwork before any caregiver sees any money!)

Until we can fix the system, I am grateful that there are baby steps like this to give us hope that future caregivers.