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 · Healing

Journey off medication

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I have been trying to write for ages but I can never seem to steal the time.  Between my new job and house-hunting, I’m exhausted at the end of the day.

I have been trying to go off my anti-anxiety medication for good now.  Partly because my worries have subsided somewhat since I moved, partly because I’m on a waiting list to get a new doctor so I have no idea how long it will take to get a refill.

The process has been really frustrating because there is just so little information on what to expect going off the medication.  I went to a half dose for awhile and then a half-dose every other day, then (mostly) cold turkey the last week or so.  Some of the side effects are annoying but expected, like brain fog, irritation, dizziness, some anxiety, etc.

The biggest difference I’ve noticed is a huge weight gain.  This is what makes it so frustrating, because I can’t find anything online about if this is a side effect of going off medication.  I just know I’ve had a huge appetite the last month or so, like nothing I eat is satisfying me.  I’m trying to get more nutritious food and I’m actually exercising more than ever, but I can’t seem to curb my appetite.  I am trying not to cry every time I can’t fit into clothes I’ve worn for years or see the extra layers of fat in the mirror.  But I’m a small person and every extra bit of weight shows on me.

As a perfectionist this is so hard on me.  I’ve been doing so well fighting my negative thoughts and adjusting to my huge cross-country move and my new job.  But if one thing is off, like my weight, I obsess about it and feel like a failure.  I usually start the day with good intentions, but after a long day of work I inevitably crash and just want to gorge.  I’m not in my own house so I don’t feel like I have any control over the kitchen.  I am still settling into a whole new daily routine so it does through one’s food habits off, so I shouldn’t be surprised.  Still, it’s one more thing to deal with emotionally that I wish I didn’t have to.

Healing

Peace

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Friday was my last day of work at my old job, and I can’t say the day went well.  I started crying before I left and didn’t stop all the way home.  I bawled all through supper, and it didn’t end until I went swimming with my husband.  Even on Saturday, I felt extremely anxious and depressed.  I honestly had no idea how I was going to hold it together with not working and the stress of moving on top of it.

On Monday we had my good-bye lunch with my co-workers, and afterward my husband and I went for a walk in the woods.  The temperature was perfect, breezy and sunny, and the woods were so peaceful without a soul around.

As we started walking I could feel my thoughts start to race again.  Fear, self-doubt, and negative thoughts crowded around.  But the day was so pretty and lovely, I told my mind to stop talking.  I forced myself to pay attention to my surroundings and only my surroundings, and let my thoughts be carried away on the wind without holding onto them.

It was perfect.  It was lovely.  We saw birds, and chipmunks, and frogs.  I breathed in the scent of pines (trees are known to help reduce stress).  My husband just stood and held me for awhile.

It wasn’t everything.  It wasn’t forever.  But just for that afternoon, I felt peace.  More than I’d felt in a very long time.

Healing · Sensitivity

Journeys

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Cruise ship, California, April 2017

I have been away for most of this month.  I took a much-needed vacation on a cruise ship that traveled the California coast.  Something that would have been impossible for me to do six months ago was suddenly attainable.  I survived.

Here are things I enjoyed about the journey, and helped me heal:  being away from stress and responsibility.  Spending time with people I cared about.  Being around others (more difficult to think dark thoughts).  Eating lots of delicious food.  Swimming and going on long walks every single day.  The feeling of the ship’s engine and the swaying of the boat lulling me gently to sleep every night.  Warm, dry, sunny weather. Getting to see places that I have only ever dreamed about seeing.  Listening to classical concerts on the ship and letting the music sweep me away.

Here are things that stressed me out: Feeling bored and restless during the late afternoons on the ship.  The constant crowds: oh my lord were there crowds, everywhere.  Having to wait in line all the dang time.  Really boring rich old people on the ship.  Worrying that I wasn’t enjoying myself “enough.”

But I made it.  I came back a bit tired, mostly relaxed, and more confident in my ability to navigate the world and survive outside of my routine (something I find very stressful).  I did enjoy being spoiled a bit, and having everyone wait on me hand and foot, although not without a lot of guilt over my first world privilege. (I at least treated the staff with courtesy, unlike a lot of my fellow passengers).

I didn’t feel a lot of creative energy on the ship and I couldn’t muster up too many daydreams.  The closest I got was having a cocktail  in one of the lounges while listening to classical music and pretending I was in an Agatha Christie mystery.   But I did form memories that will provide inspiration for the future.  Plus, I got to see dolphins playing one morning alongside the ship!

Before my husband and I left, we got our house ready for sale.  It was an extremely anxiety and depression-inducing week before the trip, as travel always makes me anxious and selling one’s house is no picnic.  This week has been stressful, too. I’m still jet-lagged and haven’t been able to spend time in the house because of all the viewings.

There is also the anticipatory anxiety of moving, which has been plaguing me ever since the start of my mental health episode.  Part of the reason I am moving is to get away from my current work/life situation and return to my hometown after ten years of being away.  I already have a job lined up (which happened for me on my trip) so that at least is a weight off my shoulders.

I am also slowly weaning myself off my medication.  I was initially hesitant to get off it at all, thinking I was better off just taking it forever.  But at my doctor’s advice I am going off it at a glacial pace.  I am currently at 5 mgs every other day, down from 10 every day this winter, and I plan on spacing them out to every three days soon.  At first going to a half dose was horrible.  I felt a similar level of anxiety to what I felt in the fall, with racing thoughts, nightmares, flu-like symptoms, etc.   Now at least I know what is going on and am able to account for it.  The transitioning gets easier every day.

I will be glad when my house sells and I don’t have to worry about strangers traipsing through my house all the time.  I have to keep trying to carve out relax time for myself, but it is difficult.  Sometimes all I get is a quick nighttime bath or ten minutes with the bunnies.

Anxiety · Depression · Healing

The slowly changing seasons

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Artwork by my mom

As this is the second time in my life I’ve been seriously affected by anxiety, I have noticed a pattern in the progression.  I am attempting to chronicle it here, not just for my own future reference, but in the hopes that it might help someone else too.

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It approaches in stealth mode.  I don’t feel it coming.  Once in a while I’ll feel a tightness in my chest, or feel down for no reason.  It builds in a way that I don’t really notice, slowly over weeks and months.  As time goes by, I feel more and more a shortness of breath and a growing sense of unreality.  My normal mode starts to become angry and helpless.  My body becomes affected with everything from nausea to uncontrollable twitching.  However, in this stage I am still able to enjoy things when I am relaxed.  Up until the tipping point.

Once the tipping point is reached, the dark thoughts begin to enter my head.  I lose all sense of reality.  My body is completely possessed, with panic attacks, racing heart and nightmares all the time.  I cling desperately to everything that is familiar, unable to leave my narrow comfort zone.  The thought of getting better again feels impossible.

In this dark place, there is no pleasure, there is only survival.  There are days when it feels easier to end it all rather than continue in this hideous state.  Somehow, though, I manage to hang on by my fingernails, dangling over the edge of the cliff.  This is the absolute bottom, when all I can do is cry for help.  I take medication, I go to therapy, I reach out to everyone I know and trust to help me through.

Then, slowly, a change begins to happen.  From somewhere deep inside a crack of hope begins to appear.  Just a single crack, one day.  Maybe the next day it’s gone.  Maybe it’s even gone for a week.  Then later on, it appears again, perhaps for an hour.  Then a few days later, for half a day.  A few months pass, and you have one amazing day where everything works out right and the hope is blooming.

After that you have more bad days.  Then another good one.  Then a bad week, and two good days.  You’re whipping back and forth between hope and despair.  But the hope is winning out.  It starts bleeding into the bad days.

Months have gone by.  The crack is now a wide opening of sun.  Most days are good now, but during some you walk in the shadow.  The shadows are growing smaller, though, and it’s easier to see the sun beyond them.  They are like snow melting in the spring.  You nervously walk around them.  Sometimes you have to go through them.  It sucks but it’s getting easier.

Eventually, you notice the season has changed completely.  You no longer tremble in fear of the shadow.  This is the point where you say, Life is Good.   Every so often you encounter the shadows again.  There are always clouds moving across your sky, even on the best days.  But now you know what they are.  You look at them and say, bring it on, shadow.  I survived worse.