If you are born with short legs, or big feet or any other physical trait that you don’t particularly like or doesn’t fit with the current trends, you may complain about it and wish they were different but you likely not to spend too much time or energy on trying to change it. And if you did worry about it, the people that care about you would probably tell you it’s just the way you were born and they love you that way.
However, if you are born with a tendency towards being very introverted, anxious or melancholy then well-intentioned people often show concern and offer suggestions on ways to improve these aspects of your self. For the shy child, we try to get them to come out of their shell. Or the sad and teary child, we try to cheer up. Or even the loud or hyper child, we try to quiet them down.
So what can be learned from this? Is it that big feet are not your fault and don’t hinder your life, and therefore don’t need to be ‘fixed’? But a person born with personality traits that don’t fit in the spectrum of ‘preferable person’ (whatever that means to you), efforts should be made to improve the aspects seen as lacking? Of course, no one overtly says this, but I still believe that most of us hear it loud and clear.
As a child, I remember commenting to my mom that she would act differently when different people were around. She did not seem happy with me commenting on this observation as if it was some kind of secret that I shouldn’t speak of, and then she simply said I was making something out of nothing. I also remember from my high school and university days how I tried so hard to ‘fit in’ with the fun crowd; laugh at their jokes, or pretend to be interested in the latest gossip. I spent a lot of energy on trying to be more like other people because I believed that there was something wrong, or at least not desirable, about who I was (or the way I was born). I would wonder what was wrong with me and how can I fix it.
No one told me I should act differently or be like someone else. In fact, I had a very loving family growing up and I had more freedom than most to explore who I was. But somehow I still got the message (and I believed it) that what was going on in my mind and my natural tendency towards soul searching, meditation and emotionality, were not traits to be celebrated. Even now that I know this is not true, I can still occasionally find myself trying to ‘fit in’. It is not an easy lesson to unlearn especially since our society still seems to prefer certain types of behaviors in certain groups of people.
Sometimes I wonder if all this ‘acting’ didn’t contribute to my eventual breakdown and major depression five years ago. I could only sustain this appearance of good mom, wife, daughter, friend, employee/ manager for so long, especially when my husband was struggling with PTSD and I was struggling to care for him and our kids.
I also wonder if this isn’t part of what’s causing the increased rates of depression and anxiety that we are seeing in our communities today. If we are feeling the need to hide parts of ourselves only to bolster others or act one way with some people and another with others, this is not sustainable. It is confusing enough to figure out who we truly are and want to be in life without having to think about what everyone else expects from us.
First of all, I really do love poppies and the poppy campaign is a phenomenal fundraising initiative by the Canadian Legion. I trust that the money is truly used to help veterans and families in need and I will continue to support it. My pet peeve is that I feel like people wear the poppy believing they are doing their part to show support and that their government is doing the rest to support veterans and their families. Where in fact, just earlier today I had an unpleasant phone call from my husband’s Veterans Affairs caseworker explaining why we have been denied coverage for something we had previously been approved for. In short, Canadians are told there are all kinds of services and programs available. They are promoted on the Veterans Affairs website, in publications and interviews. However, this does not mean that the majority of veterans or families actually have access to them. Basically, what is said to be available and what is actually available are two very different things. This is my real pet peeve and I am reminded of it when I see all our politicians wearing the poppy this time of year.
I am not just complaining about my situation or the stories I hear. The Veterans Affairs Ombudsman maintains an ongoing report card of the current issues (and there are many). Just to put that into perspective, Canadian tax dollars (well over 5 million per year) go to managing a team to watch over and investigate how another government office is doing their job (whose budget is over 4 billion this year). I can’t even express my frustration knowing the amount of time and money wasted on this convoluted and broken system of delaying and denying access.
I am sharing this because I believe that Canadians do care about our veterans and their families and they deserve to know the whole story. The truth is that thousands of vets are constantly fighting with the very office that was created to help them. Many also give up this fight because it becomes to depleting.
So perhaps when you wear the poppy this year, you can also think about the current situation and consider writing to the Prime Minister’s office, or the Minister of Veterans Affairs (or both!) and let them know you want our veterans and their families to be treated as all Canadians want to be treated; with respect and honesty.
Since I was a kid I really liked ginger ale, however, since I try to minimize my sugar intake and it is full of sugar, it’s not something I usually have in the house. But while at the grocery store last week I saw it on sale and spontaneously bought it (thanks to good product placement). So when my teen saw it in the fridge she asked ‘what’s the special occasion?’ jokingly. I immediately said it was on a special, even though I don’t think she expected an answer. No big deal, right? But why did I have to explain why I bought such a simple thing? Would it have been somehow unacceptable had I bought it at full price? Certainly not to my daughter or anyone else I care about.
Unfortunately, no matter how many times I tell myself that I don’t care what other people think of me or my choices, I am apparently still stuck in this cycle of trying to predict people’s thoughts and planning an acceptable response.
I first had a clue this was an issue for me when our kids were little, about 15years ago when we decided to buy a minivan. We only had a small car and it could not fit a 3rd booster seats in the back seat, so I could never drive any of my kids’ friends anywhere (since they use booster seats till they’re almost in high school these days this was very frustrating). That was my justification for the minivan. But when we finally found one that met our needs, it had leather seats. Oh, and they were heated leather seats. How could I justify this? Well, it was a used van with low mileage, in good shape, in our price range and there weren’t many around. But leather? And heated? That seemed like a luxury that was beyond me (at the time I was a stay-at-home mom married to a corporal in the army). My husband convinced me that it was a good van for us so we did end up buying it. But I couldn’t justify it no matter how I tried. So although I didn’t recognize the feeling at the time, I never felt good about that vehicle and was relieved when we sold it several years later. Now that I look back, I can see that the feeling was shame. I had unconsciously decided it was an unnecessary luxury and one I did not deserve. No one ever said this to me, or even implied it, but somehow I did not feel deserving of such a vehicle and therefore could not feel good about having it.
I don’t expect to understand or agree with other peoples life choices nor do I expect them to explain their choices to me. I believe in a “live and let live” philosophy, and yet that’s not the end of the story. I still find myself trying to justify myself even when no one is expecting or asking me to. In fact, I wholeheartedly believe that most people really don’t care about what I’m doing or buying, they have their own lives to worry about after all. But knowing that is obviously not enough to end this pattern.
So why am I sharing this? Simply because I can no longer deny it’s impact my overall mental health and I am quite sure I am not alone. This pattern of thought implies that we do not feel worthy just for being ourselves. That we feel a need to justify why ‘we do what we do’ and that our personal feelings are not sufficient reasons. As if there is some imaginary board of examiners that will decide if our choices are acceptable (whatever that means to you) and if we get to keep our ‘good person’ status (or whatever your preferred status is). I know this sounds ridiculous and intellectually I know it’s absurd, but unfortunately, that doesn’t make it less real.
Have you found yourself wondering what people might think when making a decision? Or justifying your choices even if they do not affect anyone else?
PS. I am not looking to get your support or seeking reminders that I am worthy. This is just an old pattern I’m aware of and working towards changing.
After years of counseling, self-help books and workshops, and inspiring mantras, my mind is still not always on my side.
A few weeks ago I decided that it was time to get a few of my rings resized as they have not fit properly for years. I also had some other jewelry I’d inherited that needed cleaning. So I gathered everything together in a small cloth bag and headed off to the jewelers. I sat at a little desk across from a woman with beautiful makeup, perfectly manicured nails, elegant clothes, and high heels. I sat there in my leggings, t-shirt, and birks, so I was a little out of my comfort zone, to say the least. After putting everything out on a little tray, she took several pieces to the back to be cleaned and then made notes on what needed to be done to which ring. I left with my little bag of cleaned jewels and a receipt for the rings to be altered. As I sat in the car I checked the note. My engagement ring was not on the list, nor was it in the bag. Actually, I couldn’t remember if I even brought it with me. I assumed I must have left it at home. So as soon as I got home I scoured my jewelry box, checked under the dresser, the bed and everywhere I could think of. I started to fret that I would never find it again. Could it have fallen from the bag? Or dropped on the floor at the store? Or maybe it has been gone for weeks and I didn’t notice till now. I had no recollection of when I saw it last. Perhaps it was that morning, or perhaps it was weeks ago, I had no clue. How could I let this happen?
After a few hours of searching, I got the nerve to call the jewelers and ask if it could have dropped on the floor, or misplaced somewhere in the back if it went with the other pieces to be cleaned. They searched and confirmed it was not there.
I felt terrible, sick to my stomach for losing such a sentimental item, and since we’ve been married for almost 20 years, it’s almost an antique!
Ten days go by and I get a call from the jewelers that my rings are ready to be picked up. They looked great and I was happy to be able to wear them again, but I was also reminded of the one I had lost and a wave of self-loathing came over me. The clerk working was not the same one I had met on my previous visit and for some reason, I blurted out that I had recently lost my engagement ring and was feeling terrible about it. Her face lit up and she asked me what it looked like. Then she disappears to the back and returns with my ring. I had not lost it. It was not my fault!
The clerk explained that they had found my ring stuck in the corner of the counter near the cleaner. But I couldn’t even hear the rest of her explanation as I was so elated to have my ring back and to know I wasn’t my fault. I had, in fact, brought it that day and they had misplaced it.
Once again, I am reminded that things happen for all kinds of reasons, and usually, they have nothing to do with me doing something wrong.
It has been months since I shared anything new here and I finally figured out why. In the spring I received some supportive and thoughtful messages about how some of my posts had helped people feel less alone. It was validating and should have encouraged me to keep writing. Instead, my anxiety lied to me (which it likes to do) and my thoughts turned those comments into something they were never intended to be. I started to worry that what I was writing was not good enough, or was not well written, or might be misunderstood. I worried that I needed to make sure everything I shared was meaningful and worthwhile. That I had a responsibility to help people, and therefore if I didn’t help them, I could hurt them. As time went on, it became even harder to think of sharing my thoughts. I figured I had nothing really valuable or worthwhile to say. That there were better blogs and better writers.
However, something clicked in my mind when I was writing in my journal at 5am this morning (some mornings I can’t get up and other mornings I can’t stay in bed). I asked myself why I had started a blog and why I would want to continue writing it, or if in fact I did want to continue. The answer was clear. I write for the person I was 5 years ago. The woman who felt alone and misunderstood. The woman who wanted to talk about what she considered to be a mess in her mind but didn’t want to be a burden to anyone. The woman who feared that there was no way out, but at the same time knew she didn’t want to continue living this way. The woman who was ready to make changes if there was a possibility of improvement. The woman who wanted to be ok with not being like everyone else. She didn’t want her mental health issues preventing her from living a good, if not a great life, even if she had no idea what to do next. She was determined not to give up (even though it was very tempting at times).
The person I am writing to does not care about my grammar, or if I write about things that may be regarded as silly or strange to some people. This blog is not for those people. They also except that I am doing the best I can and that I am here to share my journey. I am not a teacher or leader or expert, rather just someone on a similar journey.
So if you think you are that person I am grateful you found your way here, and please stay tuned for more regular posts. If you know someone who might also appreciate reading my blog, please share it with them.
So simple and yet not so easy.
Why don’t we do more of what makes you happy and less of things that don’t? Now I know what you’re thinking, someone has got to put food on the table and pay the bills, but I am proposing that one should not be exclusive of the other. In fact, I think they may actually be dependent on each other for a truly full life.
What if we were taught as children and young adults to explore the world around us with a sense of curiosity so that we can discover the things that bring us joy, or give us energy and feeds our soul? Why not encourage kids to be creative when thinking of their futures and not just what is likely to be a secure career choice? I believe that one of the reasons that depression has been increasing at staggering rates is that we don’t know what makes us happy and we don’t make it a priority to find out.
I know when I was at the worst of my depression, I thought nothing I could do would make me happy. Not to say I never had fun or had good days, but I didn’t feel like it was something within my control. However, now that I am past that phase, I think it is worthwhile to figure out what makes us feel good so we can do those things intentionally. For example, if having a clean house feels good for you, make time to clean more, or recruit your family or hire someone to help. If feeling strong and healthy is a good feeling for you, make time to eat well and exercise. Sounds simple, but I know it is not always easy.
Most of us feel the need to be productive, useful, earning our way in the world. However, when we are coping with a mental health issue like depression, these goals can feel unattainable, or at least incredibly difficult. So we pour all our energy into survival and just trying to feel productive or useful again and that often means we have nothing left for all the things that make our lives enjoyable. But when we don’t have time or energy to do anything that feels like an extra, trying to recover from a deep depression becomes even more difficult and hence the slippery slope to hopelessness begins.
When I hear myself making excuses not to do things that I know I would make me feel good because I’m too tired, or I too many other things to do, or it probably wouldn’t be that fun anyway… These excuses are a signal for me now, a warning sign that something needs to change so I don’t find myself slipping further down the slope. Sometimes it is because I really am tired and I need to go to bed earlier. Other times it’s because I’ve let other peoples needs take priority over my own and I need to reorganize my time. Or maybe I need to see my doctor or therapist. The point is, by making time for things I enjoy, I can actually prevent myself from sliding too far down and even get myself back on level ground.
This is not to say that even if you feel like you can’t see your way out that you never will. I remember feeling like everything was impossible and I had every excuse and valid reason why, but I also knew I didn’t want to settle for a life like that. So I kept looking for solutions and one of those was to make time for things that made me feel good. It was challenging at the beginning as I didn’t think anything would, so I took baby steps and I tried new things.
Now I make time to paint, to take horseback riding lessons, to travel, to eat dinner with my family and many other things that bring me joy and give me energy. Ultimately I hope it will inspire my children to discover what makes them happy and to make sure they prioritize that because being productive is only a small part of living a full life.
Guest post by Barbara Brocken.
Barbara and I met in person at the Walk For Women’s Mental Health and as we walked the 5km, she told me this story. I could relate instantly and yet it is a situation I would not likely talk to my other friends or family about for fear of judgment (once again that stigma sneaks into my thoughts and tries to censor what I share). But Barbara said she would be happy to share, so here is her story:
I decided about a month ago that I needed an image change I thought the best way to do that was some highlights and a haircut. I was gung-ho at that moment so I called a salon. I booked an appointment and felt great! Then the day came. Anxiety set in. 3 hours with people I don’t know. So I canceled. Damn. I wanted to look good! So a few days passed. I called another great salon and booked an appointment. Excited again. The day comes and I can’t bring myself to go. I call. Make a ridiculous excuse and back to square one! Week three. …. I book my third hair appointment at the original salon I love. Yet again e cited. Would love a change. I’m trying to get myself hyped up. Yet again I miss the appointment. This time so ashamed I don’t even call. So now I’m on week 4 of trying to get my hair done. I booked under a fake name because I want to go there and don’t want my no-show to affect my visit. Feeling anxious. Is there anyone else out there that feels this way?
This is a topic that has bugged me for years. At first, I thought it was just because I didn’t have a positive experience trying to get support from a ‘peer’ who was trained to be a peer support person. But my pet peeve is much bigger than that. It is when peer support is offered or suggested instead of treatment. Whereas I believe it has a place in addition to treatment. I will try and explain my rationale in the following video. As always, I would love to hear what your experience with peer support.
This is a true story about how easy it is to overlook anxiety as a serious health issue.
While sitting at my desk, typing away on some project when my colleague noticed that I was shaking my hand, then my whole arm. She asked why but I didn’t know I was doing it. Then it felt it was tingly and weird. A few minutes later I realized I had a bad headache and my fingers were almost numb.
It was a long afternoon and I eventually found myself going to the ER (my colleague thought it could be a stroke). I sat there for hours being watched, poked at, asked question after question, and eventually sent home with Tylenol for the headache. Not one person mentioned anxiety that whole day. All kinds of other possibilities were discussed and then ruled out. But now that I’ve done my own research, years after this first episode, I know tingling in the extremities is a relatively common symptom of severe anxiety. No one asked how I was feeling other than these unusual symptoms, not even my family doctor when I went for a follow-up. It took another two years from that day while having changed doctors, to be properly assessed and treated for generalized anxiety.
But a lot of additional stress and other episodes like this one could have been avoided if the right questions were asked that day. If anxiety was known by the medical professionals I saw to cause very real physical symptoms as I was having, it could have been discussed as a possibility.
This is why we still need to raise awareness about the seriousness of mental health issues and how they can affect the whole person.