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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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

Justification for ‘Good Person’ Status

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.

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Photo by Aaditya Arora on Pexels.com

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

 

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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Anxiety Can Be Really Shitty!

If you are eating or feeling squeamish, you may not want to read this now.  Anxiety sucks for many reasons, but one of them is that it can give you the runs.  Yup, I’m talking about diarrhea.  It is one of those subjects that no one wants to talk about and yet we all do it.  And for those of us with anxiety issues, it can be really debilitating.  It is one of those chicken or the egg scenarios: I’m nervous so I get diarrhea or I have diarrhea and that makes me nervous. Either way, it’s a real problem.  And even for people who have specific medical reasons that cause issues with their bowels,  the stress (or shame and embarrassment of it) can also cause them severe anxiety.

There are very few people that I have talked to about their anxiety that have not also confided that they have days with frequent trips to the bathroom and have an emergency stash of Immodium on them at all times.

So why do I choose to write about it? It’s simple, if we are going to eliminate the shame and secrecy of mental health issues, we have to talk about the symptoms.  There’s nothing worse than intense stomach cramps and need to find a bathroom asap when you’re at the grocery store with your kids. Or when you’re trying leave for work to make it in time for that early meeting, but you can’t even leave your own bathroom. It’s simply not something that you can pretend is not happening, or ‘push through it’ like you might do with other symptoms.

Even those times when I’m getting ready to get out to an event that I am really looking forward to, I often find myself running back to the bathroom one more time (and maybe one more time) before leaving the house.   I have also felt incredible guilt while my family is all ready to leave for a special day out and I have to cancel because I’m not up to it (I’m not sick, I just can’t trust my bowels to cooperate with my desire to out).

Unfortunately, I have no solutions.  Good eating habits, learning to manage our stress levels and practicing positive coping strategies for our anxiety can help alleviate the problem, but I don’t know of a cure.   My hope is that by talking about it, we may feel less embarrassed the next time we have to explain to a friend why we’re running late, or our desire to know where the closest washroom at any new place (or why we have a stash of Immodium in the secret pocket of my purse).

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Anxiety Can Be Invisible To The Naked Eye

Since I worked as a counsellor for years, I thought knew what anxiety looked like. I had seen it many times. A person would get a certain look in their eyes, their breathing would get faster and strained, they might get blotches of red on their neck, they basically would look unwell and I thought this was anxiety.  But this is only one example of how anxiety can be seen and I had no idea how invisible it could actually be until it happened to me.

One day I went to work feeling quite normal, or as my kids would say, as normal as I get. But as I sat down in my cubicle I thought I was losing my mind. I literally felt like I was floating above my body and wondering how to get back inside. Or worse, I wondered if I even wanted to go back.  I watched my body sitting in the chair, staring at the computer screen, wondering what to do. How do I turn it on? What was my password? What would I do once I got it working if I could even get it to work?  I remember feeling like my whole body was made of stone and I couldn’t move my limbs.  I have no idea how long this lasted, maybe 2 minutes, maybe 30, but it was terrifying.  How could this happen? Could anyone tell? Was anyone watching?

A few weeks later I thought to tell my therapist what had happened, worried that this might be the final straw that proved I was crazy.  I was shocked when she just nodded and said it sounded like a rather typical anxiety attack.  I was relieved and terrified at the same time. Would it happen again?  Well, yes, it has happened again and I survived.

A few years after this first attack, I was chatting with someone who said they too had anxiety and so I asked what it was like for her.  I was shocked when she described feeling like a statue, frozen in time (why these things still shock me I don’t know, but they do). So just in case you think you’re the only one who has moments in time that you cannot explain, you are not alone.  You may not understand what is happening, and there may be no rational explanation at the time, but it helps me to think that I am not the first or the last to experience moments like this. pexels-photo-951005.jpeg

Am I Not Enough?

I am the only one who feels like they aren’t quite enough?  Somedays I feel like I’m not brave enough, or hardworking enough, or tough enough, or gentle enough, or smart enough or generous enough, or disciplined enough… I could go on and on!

Although everywhere we look,  our culture appears to promote prioritizing self-care, self-love, self-worth… and yet at the same time, we are bombarded with messages to inspire us to try harder, dream bigger and get more done in less time.  How can I prioritize self-love while at the same time feeling that I should be trying to improve myself and my life in so many different areas? It is really enough to make me feel crazy.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why can’t I just ‘be’ and be ok with that?

For example,  I am so proud of the fact that I started my blog after years of thinking about it, that I post regularly, and best of all, that people are reading it (thank you, readers!). I have reached the goal that I set. Why can’t that be good enough?  Why do I now feel pressure to ‘expand my audience’ and ‘spread my message’?  I can’t even tell if it’s my internal voice wanting to do more, or have I been conditioned to always strive for more?

My facebook feed is full of inspiring messages about ‘just be you’ and ‘never giving up’ and ‘dream big’.  And I am totally guilty of sharing these posts as they remind me that things will get better when I’m stuck in a rut.  But what if we have a small dream that is just the right size for us? What if we attain that dream and want to enjoy it just the way it is? Why can’t that be enough?

I love learning and so I attend a lot of workshops, whether is about art,  small business or personal growth. I enjoy learning and try new things. But lately, I am wondering if they have caused some unwanted side effects. Are they making me feel like I need to do more? Or I am not doing enough of the right things?  Maybe I am not clear enough?

So on this Sunday evening, I am practicing feeling that I am enough, just the way I am at this very moment (with a little Netflix and my knitting).

I’d love to know if others can relate to feeling enough, or rather not enough? Have you moved beyond it and have ideas to share? IMG_2339

 

Pain & Suicide

Wanting pain to stop is not the same as wanting to die.  One may lead to the other, but if there are other options to stop the pain, I believe most people would choose them over dying.  Other than giving birth to my two 9lb+ babies and passing kidney stones, my head has caused me the most pain.

I get migraines, well, they are not the typical migraines, but they are very bad headaches that can last for days. They started when I was eleven, I was in grade 5 and I remember thinking there must be something dreadfully wrong with me. They can be so painful and exhausting, that when I have one I want to cut my head off. I used to say this and people would laugh, or pat me on the back and say something like ‘just take an aspirin and lay down for while’  or ‘take a bath’ or ‘have you tried_______ (trust me, I have tried everything)?’  So now I try not to talk about them. Actually, I try to avoid them if at all possible. And if I do say something, it is usually a few days into it, and I can’t hide it anymore.

I know a lot of people suffer from pain that is more debilitating than my headaches, and maybe I even have a low threshold for pain, but that doesn’t make them any more bearable for me.  Sometimes it feels like there is a vice around my head that is slowly being tightened. Other times the pain radiates from the base of my skull where I feel like someone just whacked me with a cast iron pan. Everything from my jaw and teeth to my throat and even to my stomach, begin to ache under the pressure, eventually leaving me nauseous and weak. And if one lasts long enough, it feels like my eyes are being forced out of their sockets under the pressure. When I lay in bed, I imagine how I could sever my head from my neck. Would I do it at the base of my skull or at the level of the shoulders?  What kind of force would be required?  I never want to actually do this,  but I never want a headache either.

As I have said before, pain is pain. Emotional or physical, they both hurt. They are both unmeasurable. They are exhausting and can be all consuming. What helps one person may not help the next.  What is tolerable to one is excruciating to the next.

So I imagine that when a person is in so much pain and they are not able to see an end to it,  dying begins to look like a solution.  I imagine this is the kind of pain that someone is in when they commit suicide. Pain that no one seems to understand.  No one knows how hard they tried to stop it, but nothing helped or it didn’t last.  There is no pill or therapy or magic potion that has sufficiently taken away their pain. So they don’t want to die, but they need the pain to stop.

I wonder if we change the conversation around suicide, by helping people

***If you or someone you know is in pain, please take it seriously.   There are crisis lines, therapists, doctors and support networks of all kinds, look for them, reach out.  If the first place you look doesn’t have what you need, try the next until you find what’s right for you. In my experience, when we are able to reach out, we are often pleasantly surprised at how quickly a situation can change.   

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What I need, I will learn today

*This is a guest post written by my longtime friend Kimberley Eland.

The truth about being truthful and the power to carry it out.

I love to write. Period. I love stationery and paper, pens and markers. I love the smell of bounded journals and books and the weight of them. I love the way letters, fonts and words fit together like pieces of a puzzle on a board. For a very long time, I’ve wanted to write. A poem, a song or just something of meaning, I’ve wanted to leave “a mark” as they say.

I also love photography and art. I love how the light can play tricks on the eye and I love how it changes over the course of an hour, a day, a season. I love that in the summer, the colour green abounds. In the winter, I love how the light can reflect off of the snow and create prisms of colour that sparkle like diamonds. I love how the sky can change from gray to purple to blue to white and back again in minutes. I especially love it when I catch the moment and can capture it in a photograph or a drawing. When I do this, I feel like I’ve caught a wrinkle in time! Sometimes, when I need inspiration, I can go back to that wrinkle, even if it doesn’t exist in real time and come back to the start. Begin again if you will. Once again, leaving a trace or a mark as if to appease my huge ego by fanciful ideas of greatness.

So why haven’t I done anything about this? Why haven’t I just sat down and considered doing something? I’ve taken notes, jotted a few lines here and there. I’ve even penned out a couple of rudimentary poems but never considered them “good” enough to share or to learn by heart. Why is that? Why do I procrastinate?

Fear made me frozen and I was knee deep in denial and blame.

On November 30th, 2017 I received a diagnosis: “You have a tumour in your right eye and it is cancerous”. All the time I thought I was doing everything right, what I ate, how I exercised, my sleep patterns were regular, I had a house, a family a good job, good friends…. all of this came to a halt in one afternoon at a hospital in Montreal. To clarify, these things didn’t actually stop existing, they simply stopped being “a part of my life as I knew it” and had to become “a part of my life with a life-threatening diagnosis”.

When I found out that there was something in my eye, doom and gloom moved in and created a frenzy inside. It sat with me, it sang me to sleep, it woke me in the middle of the night and it haunted my waking hours. I am ashamed to admit that I told myself that I “had it coming”. Why would a person do this to themselves? I figured that because I wasn’t satisfied with my life, thinking that I never had enough time to do the things I truly wanted to do, like write or paint or play music or take great pictures then I deserved the wake-up call that the Universe was offering me. Here’s the strange part, compassion came to visit and it was telling me I was sleeping through my life, just coasting at a speed that was fast enough to get from A to B but slow enough to not upset my apple cart. Looking back to the time before my diagnosis, I realize that I was headed for a crash, even though I was following traffic and obeying the rules, I did not realize that by making excuses and blaming others for my lack time was the equivalent of driving in the middle of the autoroute all the while going in the wrong direction. A crash was imminent, it seems obvious to me now, I wasn’t going to listen to any other way. My self-loathing and lack of self-compassion attracted an event that was the necessary evil to make me STOP and look at my life from an entirely new perspective.

I had to welcome the demon and acknowledge its presence before I could focus on my truth.

I have been fortunate enough to allow for my demons. I have been a self-loathing person faced with the reality that I too am worthy of love. This brought me to my knees. I was overwhelmed and caught off guard by the influx of love and support I was receiving. Someone said to me: “You have been there for your family, your husband, your children, your friends. You gave them your hand when they needed it, now it is your turn to accept the hand they offer you. You deserve it”. I had never really taken stock of it, yet it is now my understanding that without love, hope and faith are impossible dreams. I have it all it doesn’t have to be impossible. Why can’t I write? Why can’t I sing? Why can’t I take photos and enjoy the light? I can. I will. I am. The truth is that I was blaming my lack of motivation on fatigue and too much time spent at work. What I am now noticing is that I was miserable at work because I was telling myself that it is what I have to do in order to eventually have time to do all the other stuff. That is just a boatload of crazy. I do not need to work 40 hours in 4 days to have a day off just so that I can get the house cleaned up and the laundry caught up. I can figure this out. The truth is that I have to actually DO something about it for it to work. I know I have discipline, I just need to refocus and direct it in the other direction. I also have to embrace the reality of failure and that it doesn’t need to define me. Just like cancer, you can get a diagnosis and it is very real, but it doesn’t have to define you.

 

If I practice being more true and authentic, I can acknowledge that I needed to make a change and that I’ve been out of alignment for years. I’ve failed at jobs and tasks that I was asked to do. It doesn’t have to define me unless I allow it. I can let go and allow my prognosis to be different. Just. Like. Me. The demon inside my heart showed its ugly head, its shame, its truth and I captured it in a photograph, in a wrinkle. It’s not as malignant as I thought it was. It’s unique and kind of beautiful and it deserves recognition. I know in my heart that I will have to practice my truth every day. Authenticity cannot be mastered. There are no diplomas. I will never graduate. But I will live my life as it is meant to be. Not by telling myself to push through and bear it but rather to lean in and allow it to take me where I need to go. On many occasions I have asked the question: “ What should I do?” and the answer has come from many different teachers: “The answer is in you.” OK. I heard. Now, I’m listening. I’m afraid because I’m human. I’ve been numb because I’m human. I have not been practicing for long. I know that fear of failure and disappointment has kept me frozen for a long time. I want to live this life, my life within the collective universe. I am choosing to get off the autoroute that goes smooth and fast and take the back roads. It isn’t an easy route. But it can be simple. I just have to practice more at being OK with it. Another friend once sent me a photo with the caption: “Climbing mountains is hard work, but my legs are so very strong because of my willingness to ascent”, or at least that is the message that I understood in the caption. My legs are strong. My heart is full. There will be darkness but there will be light. Life it seems is a paradox and I’m willing to be one too. One day at a time.

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Photo by Kimberley Eland