Expanding Horizons for this Blog and for Me

I started this blog to share my experience with mental health issues with the hope that  I could help others feel less alone. To change the conversation about depression and anxiety and PTSD to a more honest and accepting. I still hope it does that, but it is much harder than I thought. Getting my thoughts clear enough to share in writing is a challenge for me, one I don’t always feel up for.  I get overwhelmed with ideas and possible topics that even narrowing them down to start writing feels impossible.  And feeling overwhelmed often leads to feeling inept and it just goes downhill from there.

I am told that to have a successful blog I should narrow my focus, find my niche and create a plan. I know this is good advice, but it simply doesn’t work for me, at least not now. So I have decided to expand my focus of what I share with my “Thriving in a Crazy World”  community as I believe it is all part of my journey to improved mental and physical health.  I am not going to assume I know what you (the reader) wants from me, but simply offer what I can and you can take from it what you like.  Specifically, I am going to share more about my creative passions and my adventures. Because as I have allowed these two areas of my life to expand, my sense of wellbeing and belonging has also expanded.

*Since I am such a visual person, I love sharing photos and brief thoughts on Facebook and Instagram, so please follow me there if you’d like to stay connected on a more regular basis.

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Cultivating Hope

Optimistic people believe that no matter how bad things may be at the moment, things will work out somehow and they will get through it. Pessimistic people can feel like the world is out to get them and they do not have any hope that their lives will improve. Most of us find ourselves fluctuating somewhere between these two states. When life is going relatively smoothly, our ability to be hopeful increases as we have obvious proof that life can be good. However, when we are facing multiple challenges and we feel like our ability to cope with them is insufficient, it is only natural that it eats away at our ability to be hopeful.  The good news is that the fact that our level of hopefulness can change over time based on how we are feeling proves that we have some power in increasing our own sense of hopefulness.

Since I have found myself at both ends of the spectrum at various points of my life, I have had the opportunity to recognize that the more hopeful I am, the better I am able to cope and ultimately improve my situation and how I feel about it.  I am able to problem solve better, to look and ask for the right supports, to trust in my own abilities and to take the steps needed to get to where I want to go. So I have come to the conclusion that finding ways to cultivate more hope in my life,  directly impacts my ability to cope with life’s challenges which ultimately allows me to thrive. And isn’t that what we all want?

I believe that we all have the ability to increase our sense of hopefulness if we choose to. Just like working out our bodies to stay healthy and be stronger, we can work out our minds for our mental health.  It does require a sincere desire to make some mental shifts and a commitment to staying open to new possibilities, but it is not as difficult as we may sometimes believe.

If you would like to explore this topic further and how you can add more hope to your life, I am co-hosting a workshop near Ottawa, Ontario on March 24th, 1-3:30, with Jackie Leduc at her Yoga Studio in Cumberland.  The cost is $35 and is limited to 8 participants.

For more info or reserve your spot, email me at RobinLWhitford@gmail.com

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‘Doing’ Verses ‘Being’ and Other Irrational Thoughts

About 10 days ago my lower back began to ache, then the ache turned into sharp pains and overall agony. Now hurts to the point that getting out of bed is a challenge and getting showered and dressed is a feat in itself, nevermind actually ‘doing’ anything.  I’ve done everything people normally recommend: rest, massage, heating pad, visited my doctor and I am also now seeing an osteopath. But I still have pain and every time I go to get up, sit down, or basically move at all, I am hurting. I thought I was pretty good at dealing with pain; I can get through headaches that last for days and still get my laundry done and make dinner. I used to have stomach aches and cramps almost every morning but I still get to work on time.  But this pain is different. No matter how hard I try to distract myself from it, I seem to have no control over my reflexes and my reflexes apparently react very strongly to shooting pain.  The only thing I can really do is rest.

But isn’t rest is supposed to come after doing something? I earn my rest for accomplishing things. When I worked 9-5, I earned my lazy evenings and weekends, it was never an issue. When I could no longer work, I found myself focusing on laundry, dishes, groceries or baking. Once I did something on my list,  I could rest without guilt. I rationalized this so that I could maintain my sense of order.  I now see that I have this ingrained, irrational belief that people need to do ‘their part’ to earn they place (impossible for me to define for others, but it is very clear to me when I don’t do mine). I don’t know if it is nurture or nature, but regardless it is very real in my mind. This started to be clear to me when I had to give up my career, I felt immense shame from no longer contributing to my community or feeling productive as I had done for years. I came up with a new system of doing small tasks throughout the day so I could feel productive, albeit in a different way. I eventually accepted this as my new norm. But this backache has taken it to a whole new level.

I think this time it wouldn’t be such a problem if I knew it was only going to last a few days or even weeks. I could just let things go and know I’ll get back on my feet quickly. But as it gets close to 2 weeks, things are starting to pile up, literally.  Even though everyone is my house contributes to the maintenance of it, I take on my share of chores. This has worked out as it fulfills my need to feel productive. But now that I can’t even do those things, I realize how attached I still am to the belief that I need to ‘do my part’ to earn my downtime.

This belief is so powerful that I find myself sliding down a slippery slope of negative self-talk. “What good am I if I can’t ‘do’ anything?”  “I will become a burden if this continues?”  And then the dreaded “what will people think?” mantra starts repeating in my mind.

I feel like I need a quick ‘productivity’ fix to stop these pointless thoughts from whirling around and making me feel worse than I already do.

Even as I write this I secretly hope (or not so secretly) that I will get a sense of accomplishment by writing. However, I also feel my eyelids are getting heavy and that I could likely nap if I allowed myself to close my eyes. But how can I rest when I haven’t done anything today?   So do I try to push through in the hope that I come up with some inspiring conclusion of how I will get over this slump?  Well, I don’t. So perhaps I should just nap and hope my back feels better tomorrow.

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Stop Trying to Change Who You Are

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. IMG_0588

My Mind is not Always on my Side

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.

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Are You The Person I’m Writing To?

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. 2CynbRoPTACXp2%0Igftrw

 

Do What Makes You Happy

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.IMG_2845

 

Mental Health Week -Day 1

I had big plans for promoting Mental Health Week, but then today happened. Nothing horrible happened, but I woke up with a terrible headache and a very heavy heart and I just couldn’t get my act together. So here it is, almost my bedtime, and I am frustrated with myself for not following through on my plans to help raise awareness for mental health.

However, it was suggested to me recently that I should be more compassionate towards myself.  What a simple concept; just be nice to yourself. But it really isn’t simple to do, at least not for me.  I find myself having a one-sided internal battle where I beat myself up and yet can’t defend myself.  So I will try to be gentler, try to be ok with the fact that not all days are ‘productive’ days in the ways I had envisioned.

So this is isn’t what I planned, or hoped to do. But it is all I can do today and I’m going to be happy with that.  #mentalhealthweek

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Mental Health; A Whole Body Experience

Just like depression is so much more than feeling sad, our mental health affects so much more than our mind. Sometimes I feel like it every movement requires superhuman strength; like I’m moving through pea soup and not just air.  Sometimes I am not able to coordinate my limbs and find myself tripping over nothing. Sometimes there is a disconnect between my brain and my mouth, so what I say is not always what I intended, or what I hear is not what has been said.  So although it all stems from my mind, my whole body is affected.

This morning, while at my weekly riding lesson this became very evident to me.  While I was riding, I could not stay in proper position, when I tried to fix one issue, another one would immediately appear.  In the past, I would probably have thought I’m just not a good rider and I’ll never get better.  But today, after leaving the barn, I could see the connection to my mood. The last few months have been really challenging for me. With my mom passing away in February, and my uncle in March, and today my daughter left for France.  Although I am excited for her to have this opportunity, it does bring up a lot of my own anxiety issues.  Being close to my kids has always been very grounding for me, and knowing they are growing up is something that I struggle with (even though I am so proud of them and their independence).  All of this combined has left me feeling drained this week.

So today, my horse probably felt that my mind was all over the place, as were my limbs, luckily he is always very patient with me, I just need to be more patient with myself. IMG_0860

Possibility Versus Probability

The default setting for the human brain is usually set to imagining the worst case scenario.  For people with anxiety, this can be debilitating.  Our brains play tricks on us by providing an overload of options of horrible things that could happen, and it is not a simple switch; ‘to worry’ or ‘not to worry’ (that is a whole other topic for another day).  There is a very real grey zone for people like me who are optimists at heart, but when our anxiety is acute, the optimism can eventually get over-ridden by the fear.

My therapist recently suggested I try looking at things differently. What if I examined the worry, aka the worst case scenario and questioned it not only for being possible, which is a common suggestion, but rather I should also ask, how probable is it?   When I only ask myself if it is possible, the answer is almost always yes. It is possible I will fall down the stairs and hurt myself, however, considering the hundreds of thousands of times I’ve gone downstairs,  it is not very probable.  So I can feel safe to keep using the stairs.  Similarly, it is possible to witness a terrorist attack in your hometown, however, it is still, thankfully, highly unlikely.

I find this is so much more helpful than trying to ignore the thought, which is like trying to hold a ball underwater; it’s bound to pop up at any moment. So perhaps next time your worrying about something, acknowledge the worst case scenario, then ask yourself if it is possible, and if the answer is yes, ask how probable is it.  You may find yourself feeling a little bit more optimistic once again.

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