Anxiety · Depression

The Mind/Body Connection

IMG_0745Jellyfish, Vancouver Aquarium, April 2017

It’s now been nearly two years since this great anxiety train rolled into the station and almost derailed me for good. And I really do wonder what life would be like if it hadn’t happened to me, and I wasn’t this way.

One thing that has definitely changed is I am so much more aware of how my body reacts to things. I have been thinking a lot these past few weeks about how much of depression/anxiety is physical, and how much is thoughts. A lot of times we treat mental illness as if it’s something we can think our way out of. If we were just nicer to ourselves, we’d feel a lot better. Etc.

But lately I have been wondering, how much are the thoughts swayed by what the body is feeling? And if anxiety and depression are inherited, how much do life circumstances actually play in triggering anxiety and depression?  Or is it that the physical strains of stress on the body triggers the mind to produce anxious and depressed thoughts?

I have wondered this because I’ve noticed profound changes in my mood whenever I do certain things. For instance, when I exercise, go for a swim, or take a cold shower, my negative thoughts turn off and I become calm, relaxed, and hopeful. It’s like I’m actually incapable of thinking bad things. In contrast, the other day I was feeling really hormonal. My chest was tight, I had a throbbing headache, and my muscles were sore and painful. All I could think were dark, despairing thoughts.  Then I took a painkiller, and it was like the clouds parted and I felt all would be well again. I felt much more hopeful and optimistic.

I’m no scientist. I don’t know for sure. I only know the experience of my own body. But I’m thinking, the brain is a physical part of the body. It’s connected to what’s going on everywhere in it. It wouldn’t surprise me if our thoughts were influenced by the stimuli experienced by our bodies.

Anxiety · Healing

It gets better

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Hello friend,

I’m so glad you’ve stumbled on my website. I’m not a therapist or a counselor, but I am someone who has gone through what you are going through. And I want to tell you something that you won’t believe, but you need to hear anyway: it gets better.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, how can it possibly get better? Believe me, I know what you’re feeling right now, and how impossible that seems. A year and a half ago, I thought my world was ending. But here’s something I learned: your brain tricks you. It tells you all sorts of things that aren’t true: that you’re worthless, that it’s hopeless, that there’s no escape. Your mind is a goddamn liar. Your brain is like the Wizard of Oz, and it’s using smoke and mirrors to trick you. It’s blinding you to the truth, that you’re okay and things absolutely will get better.

Maybe you don’t believe me. Maybe you have the gun of despair pressed up against your head, and you’re thinking about suicide. And I want you to know: that’s okay.

Thousands, maybe millions of people over the centuries have considered suicide as a way of ending their pain. You are in no way alone in this. I’ve thought about it many, many times in my life. But I want you to consider two things before you go any further.

The first is this:

Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem

Think for a minute about all the good things that have ever happened to you. I know it’s hard right now, so try this: imagine you don’t have anxiety and depression. Now, picture: what would that me list as happy memories? Maybe it was a smile, or shared laughter, or snuggling with a pet. Maybe it was digging your feet in warm sand, or someone thanking you for something kind you did for them. Maybe it was feeling proud about something you created, whether it was a meal or a bench or a piece of art.

Now picture telling the healthy you that you won’t get to experience those things, because you’re dead. That would be totally devastating to that person, right? They would immediately feel pain, so much pain, more than you’re feeling on your worst day now. They would beg and plead to not let that happen. You would do anything in your power to make that scared, upset person happy again.

Imagine that it’s you in the future, coming back and telling all this to your healthy self now. Imagine your future self explaining all the wonderful and amazing and incredible things you will get to experience in your future. They would tell you to do anything, anything at all, just to stay alive so you get to experience those things.

Suicide doesn’t end the pain. It transfers it.

Maybe you still think that it’s the only way to end the pain you have now, because you can’t be guaranteed that you’ll ever have that better future. It’s true that there are no guarantees in life. But there are hundreds of thousands of people who thought about, and never went ahead with suicide. And they recovered and went on to experience happy lives. What makes you so special? Why would it be any different for you?

Even if you do go through with it, the pain won’t end. It will be over for you, but it will be the beginning of the nightmare for everyone you care about.

Over eighteen years ago, a friend of my family, a young woman in her twenties, committed suicide. It sent shock waves throughout her family and friends and community. It caused a huge amount of pain for everyone she knew. I wasn’t all that close to her, but it still haunts me, and there’s not a week that goes by that I don’t think with horror about the pain she must have felt. As for her family, they have never recovered. The hole she left is so profound, the wound so painful, that they will never be the same again. Even though her older sister is married with grown-up children of her own, she still grieves deeply and constantly. Instead of seeking help for her short-term, temporary problem, this dead young woman’s pain is now spread across dozens of people and along decades of time. Thinking back, I realize how she must not, could not, have known about the effect she would have on those around her. She had no idea how many people loved her and would have helped her.

And I am going to tell you that the same is true for you.

You don’t have to be a hero right now. You don’t have to do everything you used to be able to do. You have one mission, and one mission only right now: to feel better. I want you to do anything and everything it takes to get better. If your job or your spouse is causing you pain, leave them. Don’t bear this alone. Tell everyone and anyone you can trust about it. Ask them for help, even if it’s the last thing you want to do. Go to the doctor. Go to the counselor. Take medication if you need to, or switch medication if it’s not working. Do what makes you feel good, even if it feels self-indulgent. Fight like you’ve never fought before. Have someone stay with you if you don’t want to be alone. If you feel like you can’t even bear your own body, put on a pair of shoes, and run, even if you think you look crazy. Now is the time to not care what other people think.

And whatever else you think or believe, know this: it gets better. I am a real person, who went through what you’re going through, and I made it to the other side. I thought I was dying, or going crazy. I thought every day about killing myself for weeks on end. Now I am, dare I say it, happy. As good or even happier than I was before.

You will be too.

Love,

Your friend

Anxiety · Healing

Thoughts on 2017 and being overwhelmed

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Toronto Zoo, New Year’s Eve 2016

Any way you look at it, 2017 was a year of incredible change. Some of it was positive, and a lot of it was negative. The climate is getting worse, our neighbour the United States is ideologically tearing itself apart, powerful men are getting called out on their sexual privilege, people are withdrawing more and more into technology, and everyone everywhere is bemoaning the state of the world.

For me personally it has also been a watershed year. Not only did I make a brave and life-altering decision to move back to my hometown, I also turned 35 and in many ways said goodbye to my youth. For me this has been a year of confusion, uncertainty and instability. It feels like the foundations on which I once built my life are crumbling.

When I was growing up in the 1990s, in an era before the Internet changed everyone’s lives, there were certain things I understood to be universally true based on the model set by the Baby Boomer parents raising me and my peers. You grew up, went to university, and found a 9-5, Monday-to-Friday office job. You married and had kids by the time you were 30. Weekends revolved around housework, shopping, and going to the occasional party or movie. You spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with your extended family. In the summer you would travel, take picnics, go camping. In the winter you might skate or go sledding for recreation (I live in Canada). Travel to exotic places took a lot of saving and planning. That was the way things were, and always would be.

Fast-forward to 2017, and nothing I took for granted has remained. I am at a strange age. On the one hand, I live in the shadow of the Baby Boomers who were my role models growing up, the narcissistic, environment-destroying, racist, “you can skip work when you’re dying,” folks who have largely left the workplace in order to be incredibly self-indulgent and unproductive.  On the other side of me are the Millennials, the people who were screwed over by the thoughtlessness of the older generation, and now have decided the best way to cope with their situation is to work from home, bury themselves in their smartphones, and not acknowledge the fact that their lives are giving them serious mental health issues.

So where does that leave the people my age, the people in between these two generational juggernauts?  For the most part, I feel like the rug has been pulled out from under my feet. I was raised to believe that life was going to be a certain way when I was 35, and now that I’m here, I’m being told, “sorry, everything you trained for is wrong, the world is shit, you got nothing.”

And I’m not saying it’s all bad. The suburbs, the nuclear family, the 9-5 job, the racists, the sexists, and the xenophobes can all suck it as far as I’m concerned. Breaking down those expectations is great. But I’m feeling like I don’t know where I stand on anything right now. I feel like I’m living in a constant flood of information telling me all kinds of contradictory things, confusing me.  Everything I do is fraught with worry over whether I’m even allowed to be enjoying it or not. Is Christmas still okay?  Is this movie problematic? Is this book perpetuating stereotypes? Am I living my best life?

At the best of times, I am overwhelmed by change. But this year has felt like a personal tsunami. It’s so much, so fast, and as a sensitive person I am completely and entirely overwhelmed by it all. It’s like being dropped down a well and not knowing if I can even remember how to swim.

How to cope

So here is my plan for how to cope with it all.

First of all, I am going to listen to my inner voice. I have to let go of my fear of missing out and just follow the path that I think is right for me. I don’t give a shit about what’s popular on Netflix, or the latest food fad, or jumping on the new Twitter bandwagon, or whether I’m “just like everyone else.” The world has enough “everyone else’s.” It only has one me.

I am going to make a conscious effort to unplug more. Study after study has shown that people are happier the less time they spend online, and it’s true. Humans are meant to be connected in person, they’re meant to be moving, they’re meant to be living in the physical world and creating things.

I’m going to read more, because reading makes me see the world in a better light, and relaxes me, and it just makes me happy, damnit!

And last but not least, I am going to create. So often I feel like I have no voice in this world. Creating gives me the opportunity to speak through what I write and paint and draw. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Healing

Fighting to stay afloat

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Catalina Island, taken by me, April 2017

Looking back on all I’ve done this last year, I can say with a certain amount of pride I’ve done very well. I’ve worked very, very hard to stay on top of my anxiety. This summer I bit the bullet and accepted I needed to continue my medication. I exercised as often as I could, and took up swimming again after almost twenty years. I joined a French class at my local community college. I made a huge move so I could have a better life and a better job, and it has made a huge difference. I challenged myself to be more creative, and I’ve far and away exceeded my expectations: I took up creative journaling, learned how to knit, started painting, and even created a weekly sketching class at my library.
I’ve also made it my mission to learn more about myself and follow the examples of people who are happier.

In response to that, I’ve made some changes in my life and routine. I’ve tried to cut back on unproductive screen time. I’ve tried to get up at the same time every day. I’ve followed the suggestions from a book about highly sensitive people, and have incorporated more gentle activities, like petting my bunnies and sitting by the fire. I’ve forced myself to get out and socialize more. I’ve taken two trips by plane this year. I’ve worked to be more productive at my job.

And it hasn’t always been easy. I have been far from perfect. I know my eating habits could really stand to be improved, because I stress-eat and I’ve gained some weight this year. I still probably spend too much time online.

The thing is, even though they’ve been rewarding, doing all the good things has been hard. I place a huge amount of pressure on myself to not fall into the same old habits that got me where I was last year. This is why I have been fighting so much. Because every time I want to get cranky or find myself becoming stressed or anxious, I remind myself of where I was this time last year. And I now have it permanently tattooed in my brain, to scare me from ever getting that way again. Never again. Never again. Never again.

Twice in a lifetime is enough to experience those kind of horrors.

Healing

A light in the dark

IMG_0490Royal Ontario Museum, taken by me, January 2017

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve probably noticed the long interval since the last time I posted.  We moved into our new house on Labour Day weekend and as much as I wanted to write, so many other commitments tied me up.

I have been doing better mentally since we moved.  The chaos of being in transition is over, and the future seems much more tangible. I love my new house.  It is everything I’ve always wanted.  I love my new neighbourhood and living in the city.  I love my new job (well, most of the time).  It allows me to be creative and direct my time.  I have met a lot of new people, and I have been doing a lot more art.  I have also started reviewing books for a professional journal and I even joined a knitting group (even though I’ve never knit before in my life).

Am I deliriously happy? No. There are pockets of joy, and times when I feel content. But then there are times when I wake up in the middle of the night, freaking out and convinced I made a huge mistake. There are times when I think about my old house and my old job and my old friends and I feel a huge wave of sadness. Even though my life has improved in so many ways, it’s like my mind hasn’t adjusted yet.

The spectre of last year hangs over me, always.  When I think of where I was a year ago, I know I’ve come a long way.  But I also know I have a long way to go.  Looking back on my teenage nervous breakdown, I think it was a full three or four years before I stopped having anxiety/depression relapses. I suspect it won’t be any different this time.  They won’t be “gone” forever but hopefully I can get them fewer and farther between.

The difference between then and now is that I am much more aware of my emotions and the need to take care of myself. So I want to keep writing about the things I’m learning and the things I’m discovering about anxiety, depression and sensitivity.  I hope this blog continues to be a resource for people who need it. A light in the dark.

Anxiety

Birthday pity party

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Tomorrow I turn 35, and I just don’t want to deal with it.  I usually like my birthdays, but I am greeting this one without a lot of enthusiasm and quite a lot of dread.  I don’t know how growing older doesn’t bother so many people.  It bothers me.  I can’t embrace aging.  I’m not happy about it.

I don’t like feeling that my best years are behind me, and there’s nothing to look forward to.  I have been through so much in the past year, and I hate thinking that might be all there is.  I hate thinking that I won’t look as good, and that my body will start to hurt in all sorts of ways I haven’t imagined.

It makes me angry that I have swallowed this whole “women aren’t valuable after 35.”  That I’ve internalized it to such a degree that I have been depressed about it for the last few days.  It infuriates me that men are just considered to be reaching their prime at this age while women are seemingly thrown out with the trash.

It’s maddening, in so many ways, that it should be this way.  Because I really have come so far, and accomplished and learned so much.  I should be celebrating.  I should be happy.  I should be saying, “fuck it, I don’t even care any more.  I’m the best!”  But all I can do is look back on my twenties with jealous envy.

I don’t even know what 35 is supposed to be like anymore.  Half the people I know have families and kids, the other half live alone in an apartment.  Some people are world leaders, some of them just play video games all day.  Everyone older than me can’t be bothered with technology and everyone younger can’t live without it.  This is 2017 and the world is super confusing.  I don’t even know what’s supposed to be what.  All the old rules are gone.

I’ve never been happy about growing older.  Ever.  The night before I turned 10 years old, I went into the bathroom and cried all evening.  When I was 16, I used to complain to everyone about how old I felt.  On my 21st birthday, I started having panic attacks and had to spend the day in bed.

I’ll probably be fine tomorrow.  I’ll have a good time.  But tonight I just want to curl up and feel sorry for myself.

Anxiety · Depression

Back on the meds

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Daisies, June 2017

Just a short update today.  I finally got in to see a doctor last week.  He said that given my family history and the fact that my mood has been so up and down, I should stay on the escitalopram indefinitely.

I am both relieved and devastated at the same time.  Who knew it was possible to feel both?