Hello, Nourished Life

I’m in the process of saying goodbye to somebody. Unlike most goodbyes, that we want to avoid because they are sad, this is a goodbye I happily walk toward. I’m saying goodbye to this girl:


She looks happy right? She seems nice, confident, smiling. This is where she fools you.

Although I was 20-years old when this photo was taken, when I look at this, all I see now is a sick little girl with her collarbones and neck tendons jutting out, thinning hair, and no boobs to hold her dress up. A girl who ate only salads, who tried to literally outrun self-esteem issues at a rate of 15km per day. A girl who was scared of food and scared to miss a workout. A girl who lost her period for months due to restrictive eating and over-exercise. A girl whose problematic body behaviours went unnoticed because her BMI was still “within range,” even when her body was screaming that this weight wasn’t sustainable. A girl who regularly received reinforcement in the form of compliments that she looked great and to “keep it up.”

Imagine how much I could have accomplished had I directed even a quarter of the brain power I had put toward taking up less space in the world, towards my schooling and future career… I like to think I’d be backing up the Brinks truck into the driveway of my summer home.

I won’t say it’s not hard to look back on these photos and know that I was much thinner then than I am now. When these images pop up unexpectedly (Facebook, you’re the worst), I give myself a moment to float around in those feelings of inadequacy – if only I had appreciated my body then, and had not been so self-conscious with it, etc, etc, ad nauseam. There is a part of me who still looks for this girl when I see photos of myself now, and when I don’t see her, the same part of me wants to look away and avoid acknowledging the reality of my actual, real, nourished body.

Soon enough however, in my back of my brain I hear the voice of my best friend Kim chanting, “No! More! Skeletor!” and I’m rushed back to the truth: That girl had a lot to learn. I’m smarter than that girl. I’m kinder. I’m a better listener, a better friend. I love myself more. My hair doesn’t fall out, but grows in long and shiny. I have a butt and boobs (both of which took a notable leave of absence during the time this photo was taken). I have hobbies other than obsessing over food labels and tracking burned calories.

I don’t miss her. Being obsessed with controlling my body and what went into it left little room to think about other people, and for the life of me, I can’t recall many instances during this time where I helped someone or threw myself into a project that wasn’t all about me. Disordered eating and exercise habits are an isolating and all-consuming endeavour in themselves, in addition to the effort put forth to avoid detection from others. This was a lonely, lonely life.

My life now nourishes me. I make a concerted effort to fill my world with good things – good people, good food, good movement, good thoughts – instead of trying to deprive my body and mind of what it wants. I consciously include things in my life that make me feel whole and allow autonomy over my life, something I was always pursuing but never achieved while restricting.

Of course there are moments where I wish I didn’t worry about what my body looks like, and I fool myself into thinking that women thinner than me could not begin to understand how I feel. Of course I deflate a little inside if someone makes a comment about how thin (and blond) I was back then. But I know these feelings are leftover from when I truly believed that my body size determined my worth, and I know better now. Media and society tell us that thinner is better, more attractive, the only kind of beautiful that matters, and we must have either reached that ideal or be punishing ourselves towards it. But at what cost? I will tell you for free that it is not worth everything I gave up in the pursuit of making myself smaller.

Along with a few LBs, I’ve gained self-awareness, true friendship, a passionate career, and a lifetime worth of belly-laughs. If gaining all this means adjusting my ideals of thinness and worthiness and saying goodbye to the sick little person featured above, then girl, bye.

Love Need Not End

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The last month or so has been a period of transition and unsteadiness, as I have moved to a new city to take on a new employment contract. I have laid my weary bones to rest on couches and air mattresses of both friends and friendly strangers with whom I have corresponded on the Internet.

I recognize that, 6 months ago, not having a private escape to call my own would have chipped away at my mental well-being and caused me sincere discomfort. I’m grateful to be in a place where I’m adaptive and open to my life being somewhat unpredictable.

I will write more about this, and discuss how my new city is a challenging but productive place for me, but in light of the recent loss of a special man who means a great deal to friends of mine, I’m compelled to talk about what happens when we lose someone to mental illness. It can be difficult to understand how someone we love could come to a permanent decision about their life, especially when we feel so much love and appreciation towards them. We might ask, don’t they know how loved they are?

Our minds are a powerful force. The mind can heal us and it can hurt us and it can make us believe things that may not be true. When the mind is not healthy, we are vulnerable to influential thoughts about our worth and consider ways to escape what feels like permanent pain. I’ve been in that place and felt absolutely sure that this was as good as my life would ever get. I wasn’t healthy enough to challenge the constant barrage of negativity, and despite their best efforts, the support and encouragement from my loved ones remained muted and unconvincing. Nothing they could have said or done would have persuaded me otherwise because, at that time, I couldn’t be reached.

Knowing that it was not me but my depression calling the shots did little to assuage my friends and family that they were doing “enough”. It hurt my heart when, during moments of lucidity, I witnessed how much it pained my mom to see me that way. I knew she loved me and I felt her love, and she was absolutely doing enough, but I couldn’t bring myself to reach out to her to pull me out. I had so much more work to do and changes to make.

When we lose someone in any way, through their passing or a break-up, we will undoubtedly look back and wish and wonder about what we could have done differently. If you had only reached out more, had banged down her door to see her, had demanded his attention, shown “more” love, maybe things would be different. Your mind may try to hurt you, using guilt and regret during the grieving process to try to convince you there was more you could have done.

Please know your love was enough. It was always enough.

A beautiful person was lost this week, and the world is different now. For the ones that loved you closely and from a distance, let’s remember that, sometimes, for many reasons, life has to end.

But love does not.

ACoA Report Card: Part 1

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Once we become aware of the effects that trauma has had our lives, at what point do we progress from being victims of our circumstances to being accountable for our choices? This is a question I ask myself a lot, particularly identifying as an ACoA (adult child of alcoholic). This two part article series will focus on how being a ACoA has influenced my personality and thinking patterns, and the steps I take to challenge some of the traits common with this group in order to be a happier person. In reflecting upon if and how much I still identify today as an ACoA, I write this piece as a progress report of sorts. So let’s see how I’ve been doing…

Even splashing around in the shallow waters of the research online, I found that most resources agree that ACoAs share common characteristics because of the circumstances of their upbringing and household. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, the following are traits that I certainly identify with, which I have divided into two categories, Relationship with Self and Relationship with Others. Some ACoAs find that they identify with at least some of the following traits:

Relationship with Others:

  • People-pleasing: sometimes at the expense of one’s personal comfort or dignity
  • Emotional regulation difficulties: struggles with having an appropriate emotional reaction to circumstances – can be an over-or-under-reactive to life events.
  • Hypervigilance: very sensitive fight or flight stress response
  • Seek unavailable people (emotionally or otherwise) in relationships
  • Fear of abandonment/rejection
  • Little understanding of how trust works: can be overly trusting or distrusting

Relationship with Self:

  • Guilt and shame associated with perceived flaws
  • Both overly responsible and irresponsible at the same time
  • Self-medicating: with food, alcohol, drugs, sleep

Relationship with Self

Guilt and shame associated with perceived flaws

Growing up in a household with an alcoholic parent, it became very important to maintain the appearance of normalcy, not only to preserve the secret of the ill person from people outside the family, but to avoid adding fuel to the fire in an already stressful environment. When a child or teenager is unable to express their worry or feelings in an effort to avoid rocking the boat, much of that negative energy gets turned inward and manifests as personal shame. I remember feeling like I couldn’t ever make a mistake because I was fearful that any mistake could incite another conflict, and any criticism, no matter how constructive or well-intentioned, felt like a personal attack.

And now? Grade: B

As I continue to learn more about myself, appreciating my strengths, accepting my weaknesses and seeking to uncover the blind spots in my skill set, mistakes and personal deficits feel more neutral to me. Maturity and confidence help me accept that more and more of my mistakes and fumbles can be chalked up as yet another learning opportunity instead of an indictment of my character.

Both overly responsible and irresponsible at the same time

Many children in alcoholic families find themselves taking on much more responsibility and worry than their childhood peers, because they’re exposed to very adult problems, like the safety of their parent or the state of their parents’ relationship. I felt responsible for the wellbeing of my family and shouldered that worry in my day-to-day. At the same time, I could be wildly irresponsible with my money and my time, and to illustrate, my dignity has still not completely recovered from having my car towed on more than one occasion by ignoring parking tickets and signs.

And now? Grade: B+

I’m still prone to feeling overly responsible for other peoples’ feelings, and will sometimes still wonder if I am the cause of someone’s poor behaviour or bad mood, however, I have become much more responsible for myself – taking more ownership over my finances, commitments, and chores – a facet of adulthood I was slow to adopt. I have become more aware that other people are struggling through their days too, and their bad moods and behaviour could be caused by a hundred different things that have nothing to do with me.

Self-medicating: with food, alcohol, drugs, sleep

It should come as no surprise that ACoAs can turn to substances as a way to escape feelings- we are talking basic social learning theory and role modelling. I’ve certainly been known to manage my feelings by diluting their sting with cocktails, binge eating, or taking what I like to call a “depression nap” – can’t feel bad when you’re asleep!

And now? Grade: A-

I’ve become more aware of when my body needs actual nourishment and when I require emotional nourishment or attention. If I’m suddenly craving a drink or a carnitas burrito out of the blue, I now know to ask the right questions – am I upset? Am I avoiding something? Am I looking for comfort? These questions help me avoid misusing substances or becoming reliant on this kind of comfort and support.

As far as this progress report goes, I feel like I’ve done fairly well so far. Stay tuned for my next piece where I discuss how ACoA traits have influenced my relationships, and how I’ve tried to counterbalance these effects.

Seeking: Woman with Mental Illness

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Dating is difficult enough with its uncertainties and vulnerabilities, without throwing the challenges of mental health into the mix, however, trying to build a relationship when one or both parties has a mental illness requires, I would argue, even more care and consideration.

Dating in this modern day is, in a word, uninspiring.

With dating apps promoting “drive-thru” dating that promises another potential mate with the next swipe of a finger if you don’t like the one in front of you, it’s no surprise that we have grown accustomed to a “grass is greener” mentality towards relationship-building. If we are underwhelmed by our newest match at first impression, there are five more equally attractive folks within a 2km radius. And while many may find the casual culture of dating fun and free from pressure, this environment can become a confusing game for an individual with a mental illness.

As always, I speak only from my experience, but considering I’ve passed the crest of a decade of membership in the romantic dating realm, I feel confident that I’ve collected at least some nuggets of wisdom.

The biggest struggle I’ve found is how to incorporate a conversation about mental health into the dating equation with someone you’re interested in. While this can come up more organically when meeting people through friends and connections, broaching the subject of my mental illness remains one of the biggest hesitations in my dating life, regardless of how we meet. I’ve become more comfortable with identifying with depression in recent years, however, it is not necessarily a topic that comes up authentically and comfortably on a first date at East Side Marios.

Does a person I’ve just met require or want this information? Is sharing this part of myself contributing or detracting from my otherwise charming first impression? I guess if I decide to bring it up with someone, their positive or negative reaction would certainly help form my opinion about whether or not they are someone I want in my life. But I also don’t want to misrepresent myself by sharing my mental health struggles when this other person only knows a few things about me, like my cat’s name and where I went to school. With such little information about me, someone else may assume my depression may seem like a much larger part of my identity than it probably is.

However, I’ve certainly made the mistake of hiding my mental illness behind the “cool girl” façade (and if you’ve read or seen the movie Gone Girl, you will know of what I speak) where I found myself initially allowing myself to be strung along going with the flow, and “down for anything” because I was so cool like that. I should have known, being the farthest thing from cool, that my mental illness would eventually rub up uncomfortably against the cool girl disguise, and the discrepancy between how I felt and how I acted would make me miserable. I never felt like I could explain to someone that I liked why I needed to pull away, or how uncertainty made me spiral out, because I wasn’t certain the truth would be accepted. After all, this other person didn’t know me very well.

I also found it difficult to determine how I myself felt about someone else because my anxiety causes me to be very concerned with how I am perceived and accepted by others. I was more worried about being liked than taking the time and energy to decide if I actually liked him – was he kind, patient, mature, funny, and generally my kind of person. Was I 100% myself around him? If not now, could I be?

I’ve taken away a number of lessons and endured a few romantic fumbles that, if I haven’t been able to laugh at by now, I will one day. In the meantime, I’ve left drive-thru dating behind and I’m focusing on relationships that add both comfort and novelty to my life, where I feel at ease being myself.

What to Give a Fuck About

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This winter was brutal. After a long and sunless couple of months, I feel like I am finally waking up. As much as I wish my spirit animal is an enthusiastic teacup pig, I know I embody many more of the qualities of a hibernating brown bear.

I feel better. Between the improved weather, bedtime routine adjustments, and yet another change in medication, I am feeling more myself and better able to adapt to life’s inconveniences. Don’t forget the “soft” changes I’ve made in adding more creative and mindful outlets to my day-to-day, which you may have read about here.

I think the most important adjustment I’ve made involves a change in mindset that I’ve adopted from Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, a book that supports understanding what you value, discovering what is really important and not letting everything else bother you so much.

The book doesn’t pretend that life can exist without problems – life will have problems and that’s all but guaranteed. But Manson asks the reader to determine what problems we wouldn’t mind having. If someone wants to make a ton of money and be highly successful in their career, they may have to deal with the problem of working late and spending most of your time at the office. For one person, working late is a problem they wouldn’t mind having – they love what they do and want to spend lots of time doing it. For someone else, working late means time away from home, which would be a problem they could not happily live with.

Someone who wants kids and who values raising a family will have their own problems – sleepless nights, less free time, hundreds of loads of laundry, and the parents’ own needs and wants taking a back seat initially. These are problems that many parents would gladly choose as they raise their kids.

As I surface from a depressive episode that took me out at the knees, I’ve started identifying what I give a fuck about and what kind of problems I don’t mind having. I give a fuck about showing up for my family and friends, recognizing the big and small wins with them. This means hustling across this great province to do so, which costs money. I don’t mind having money problems in exchange for healthy relationships because my people make me happy. For someone else, they couldn’t live with money problems and would choose to have another problem instead.

Taking the pressure off to care about everything has significantly improved my mental well-being. Being more selective about what I give a fuck about has made room for the things that are really important, and also recognizing that life is not designed to be comfortable at all times. If my expectation is that my life is supposed to be free of hardship, perfectly organized and with gorgeous filtered lighting, I am setting myself up to be sorely disappointed. Instead, I give myself permission to be less than perfectly put together, to choose a few things to care about and work on those, and cut myself a little slack for the rest.

 

A Case of Self-Care

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With the ever-increasing awareness of mental health issues, we’ve likely come across the concept of self-care as it pertains to reducing stress and managing mental illness. If you’ve been encouraged to take a bath on occasion, exercise, or unwind with a glass of wine the evening, it might have been in the name of self-care.

Having worked in a university setting as a student and professional staff, I have been encouraged to engage in self-care practices since I was a teenager. Perhaps in its overuse, self-care has lost its meaning for me, or I’ve convinced myself I don’t have time for it. Either way, until recently, I had considered self-care and its practice to be a touch “froufrou”. Of course taking time for oneself would be nice, however, things need to get done, and quite frankly, I’m tired.

In the past month, however, my therapist and I discussed reframing self-care into a concerted effort to engage in a relationship with self. Another frilly thought, at first glance. But then I thought about the relationships in my life and the effort it takes to maintain and nurture them, and realized that if I was dating myself, I would dump me.

Looking at healthy relationships around me, I see people making an effort to listen and understand their partners, taking on an equal of household responsibilities, cooking healthy meals together, trying new things, and occasionally unplugging from electronics and social media. In short, making their relationships/friends a priority and behaving as such. When is the last time I made my relationship with myself a priority? As my own oldest friend, I admit, I have neglected myself shamefully.

So this past month I have focused on jumping two feet into a relationship with self, reminding myself to take it slow and not rush into things. Wouldn’t want to scare myself off, after all.

This month, I rekindled a creative outlet in crafting and even entertained the idea of learning to crochet. I have had a quiet night in binge-watching Glee. I have taken myself to a movie. I have gone on long bike rides. I got my hair cut and made time to put make-up on in the morning. I unplugged from social media when I maxed out my cell phone data (not my choice). I did my dishes right away, because if I would do that for someone else, why wouldn’t I do that for myself?

I tried to take the pressure off myself in terms of attempting to remove all the negative symptoms associated with my illness, but instead worked to add things to my life that bring me closer to my most authentic self. Why? Because all of the loved ones in my life are in receipt of my generosity, my thoughtfulness and my time, and I need to devote just as much of that energy into my oldest and greatest relationship: the one with myself.

I’m stuck with me for life, so if that relationship is suffering, it’s no one’s responsibility but my own.

In this case, it’s not you, or anyone else.

It’s me.

Helpful, and not so much.

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Up to this point, I haven’t fully engaged with a group of people who are so essential to the recovery and wellness of people who are mentally ill: the loved ones of the mentally ill.

If you don’t think you have experienced mental illness yourself, aside from the occasional highs and lows to be expected from life, you likely know and love someone who suffers from mental illness and wonder what you can do to help. Hopefully I can help with that. I’ve given some thought as to what has been helpful to me – and maybe not so much – when it comes to supporting my mental health.

Maybe Not So Helpful: 

“Get well soon!”

Said with undoubtedly the best of intentions, and I recognize that. The trouble with responding to a “Get Well” or “Feel better soon” is that I’m managing what is anything but a linear illness, and I might not get “well” soon at all. There seems to be an added pressure with mental illness to feel better quickly and “snap out of it”, that doesn’t exist with other illnesses, in part because depression is uncomfortable and we don’t have a social script for it. Because it is an illness of the mind and there are often no physical symptoms to focus upon and treat, I sometimes feel pressure to bully myself out of my depression through sheer willpower. Certainly difficult to do when my brain is on the injured reserve list. The only thing I know for sure is that there are good days and bad days in my future, like with many other chronic illnesses.

Maybe Try: “Take care of yourself.”

“I know exactly how you feel”

A violation of one of the most important rules of interpersonal support is assuming you know EXACTLY how someone feels. Everyone is coming to the table with their own set of genetics, psychology, biological and social factors that influence their every perception. There is no possible way for you know exactly how someone feels. Using this phrase expresses the opposite of what you likely intended: that you want to relate and help your loved one feel less alone. In practice, however, you may have dismissed their feelings as trivial and invalidated their individual struggle.

Maybe try: “I can understand how that could be exhausting. Tell me more about how you’re feeling.”

“Have you tried…?”

Another expression where I recognize the effort and desire to help, however, could come across as dismissive and condescending. Have I tried…yoga? Meditation? Have I tried NOT being sad? Chances are if I’m sharing with you how things are not going well, I’ve exhausted many of the suggestions I’ve gleaned from friends, doctors, the internet, and I’m still struggling. Treatment for mental illness is very individualized, where the right combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes will be unique for every person. This is not to say that you shouldn’t share your success stories – just keep in mind that your mentally ill loved one is still fighting to uncover what works for them.

Maybe try: “What have you tried so far and how has it helped?”

Definitely Helpful:

Do something

When someone is hurting, it can be difficult to know what to do to help. We are compelled to say things like, “let me know if there’s anything I can do” because it sounds nice and feels like the right thing to say. A person experiencing mental illness may struggle to recognize what they need, never mind finding the words and the courage to ask for it. My favourite example of this in action was when my best friend recognized that I was paralyzed by everything I needed to do and didn’t have time to clean my untidy apartment. While I was at work, she came by armed with her cleaning supplies and scrubbed the place clean. I hadn’t asked her to do this, but the gesture was so thoughtful and welcome.

Be a generous listener

Being a generous listener means being present and engaged with the conversation, asking thoughtful questions and allowing the person to speak on the subject as long as they want. The greatest gift you can give another person is your time and your undivided attention, so look for those opportunities to entirely focus on your loved one.

“I will be with you”

There are times where I am fearful that the symptoms of mental illness push people away and that the longer my condition doesn’t improve, the more likely my loved ones will pull back from me. The most comforting thing I could hear in those moments of doubt is that you will be there. As a loved one of someone with mental illness, you are essential to creating a safety net in which someone can recover and knowing you will be with me reminds me that I’m not fighting this alone.

 

Living Tired

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Somehow, between pursuing a career and keeping up with our social commitments, being tired has become more than a feeling, but a state of being that our society has submitted to. If you ask anyone how they’re doing, odds are you will hear some variation of “tired”, and how else will you commiserate with them without discussing how your life is tiring too?

Because saying that you’re tired is so commonplace and overused, it can be easy for signs of deteriorating mental health to go unnoticed by loved ones and friends. Mental Health on the Mighty released an article that asks what people with mental illness really mean when they say they are tired, and I thought it was a great exercise to verbalize how my depression feels, and what I mean when I say “I’m tired”.

I feel heavy: This is a commonly used descriptor of depression, where people feel physically and emotionally heavy from their illness that has little to do with body weight. Not only does my body drag, but my face droops with the weight of how I feel. I find myself heavier on my feet, slower to carry out the tasks of living and end up injuring myself if I try to rush something (my hands are constantly covered in nicks and cuts from not being careful with utensils or dishes). My thoughts are heavy and solid somehow, and they seep into my body, burdening my movement.

I feel overcast: If someone (qualified) were to open my cranium and look at my brain, I’m convinced it would appear to be a dull and colourless concrete slab because that’s how it feels sitting in my head. Truth be told, the image of a cartoon person with a storm cloud tracking their every moment is not far off the mark. Sometimes I will have sparks of vitality – I like to call them champagne bubbles – where I feel lucid and remember how being bright feels. Usually I’m with loved ones, or trying something new, or having a really good conversation with someone and I forget that I’m trying to be happy and I just am.

I’m always missing the bus: There is nothing that describes my depression more accurately than the feeling of just missing the bus. In almost all aspects of my life, I feel like I’m chasing something down that is just out of reach, all the while beating myself up for putting myself in a position where I have to run. In my life, depression and anxiety are BFFs, in that when one shows up to the party, it will always extend the invite to the other, so even when I have barely enough energy to shoulder the day, I somehow have enough energy to be panicked about what I’m not doing well or getting done.

Sleep is peace: I’ve been given a lot of suggestions of how to quiet my mind and find peace in the moment, including yoga, meditation, thought-stopping techniques – you name it. It can be difficult to try to learn these strategies when my mental illness is running on a hamster wheel of negativity from which I get little reprieve. So while I’m trying to concentrate on the day, take in information, and be productive, anxious thoughts and self-doubt are on loop in the background. By the end of the day, I’m completely depleted from all the self-management and redirecting it takes to do what I need to do. Sleep is the only time I feel at ease in my mind and so the adorable napping habit that I’m so well-known for comes to serve a much more important purpose.

I’m waiting for my life to start: Perhaps the most painful of all and most uncomfortable to admit, but my illness will sometimes make me feel like I’m waiting for my life to start. My illness tells me I need to wait until I feel better, have a better apartment, have more money, meet someone who changes the game, and then – finally – my real life can start. Until then, I’m not quite enough to attract goodness my way. Now that I know that depression is feeding me false information, I’m learning to challenge my inner critic on this one. Logically, I know that my life is full and rich and worthy of appreciation today, but it takes monumental effort to resist the pull of “someday”.

When anyone tells you they are tired, they could certainly be tired. Or they could be feeling emotionally heavy, overcast, restless, impatient, and yearning for life to start. They could be feeling lost at sea, drowning, or feel nothing at all. Let’s listen generously to our tired friends, and explore what their tired really means. You could be the first person for them who has listened to understand.

When Helpers Need Help

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It makes a lot of sense to me that people who have lived experience with mental health issues, either personally or by way of their loved ones, are drawn to helping professions: teachers, social workers, public service workers, therapists, nurses, counselors, probation officers – the list goes on. Our experience has shaped our lives and the impact persists, and we either want to begin to give back in some way, or we want to be a support for someone that we ourselves did not have when we needed it.

Helping professions are not designed to make someone financially wealthy, and that is not why we pursue them. There is a richness to a career devoted to helping others and we are compensated through our sense of purpose and those tiny moments of clarity where we realize we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

We can find so many common skills and qualities that we use every day in our helping professions: patience, listening, empathy, tough love, respectful communication. We are expected to be strong and sturdy in the process of helping others up, and we pride ourselves on having answers and passing along that knowledge to others. We want to be a stable and reliable presence in others’ lives.

But what happens during the times we cannot be those things? What happens when being strong is not possible, or we don’t have the answer or when we need to lean on someone.

I think it can be especially difficult for those in helping professions to admit or acknowledge when they need help of their own because of the very nature of our profession. I think there is a small part of us that believes that in order to help others, we need to have things figured out. Our sharp edges must be all smoothed down and we must be completely transcendent of all human affliction.

This expectation is unrealistic.

I understand the reasons behind our reluctance to admit we need help, and it’s mostly optics. We are in positions of trust and we are looked to as role models, so it makes sense that we strive to present the best version of ourselves for impressionable people to learn from, but much of the time, this presentation does not leave a lot of room for authenticity.

Is it fair for me to expect that if I am to work with individuals with mental health issues, or relationship problems, or learning challenges, or what have you – that I must be free of all life’s difficulties myself?

I’m not convinced.

I believe there is value in struggle and that there is something to be gained from confronting something difficult, not because it “makes us stronger” but because we can appreciate the difference between where we were and where we are when we finally come out the other side – with a sense of gratitude for knowing the difference between hardship and well-being.

We can help our clients, patients, students, by teaching them that challenges are to be expected and they can be fought. We can offer real empathy because we have been there and we know how absolutely punishing that place can be. We can teach self-awareness in knowing when we need to step back and heal ourselves in order to continue on. We can be a reminder that real courage can be found in asking for help.

The Perks of Depression

Generally speaking, mental illness is not something people are thrilled to identify with or experience. I can’t say I’m often jazzed about chronic fatigue, self-doubt, and the emotional imbalance that accompany my illness. Things I could live without, am I right? However, a life without depression would not be life as I know it. Despite my struggles, I am grateful for the life I have built, and part of that includes an understanding of an evolving identity that includes mental illness. For the purposes of discussion, I say “perks” mostly with tongue-in-cheek, however, along my journey I’ve noted several ways my depression has enhanced my life rather than detracted from it.

Better insight into moods and feelings: Being vulnerable to unpredictable changes in mood and well-being, I’ve become adept at identifying my feelings quickly and accurately. Most times, I can sense the signs of an oncoming depressive low, for example, when I find myself derailed by a seemingly unimportant event, such as routine blunder in my dating life. When I’m healthy, something like this wouldn’t faze me (I’m basically Mary J. Blige) but a disproportionate emotional reaction is often indicative that I’m spiralling. I’ve had to learn to stop, evaluate, and put a label on my feelings (shame, embarrassment, anger, etc) so I can do something productive about them – share with a friend, discuss with my therapist, or sit with them and allow them to run their course.

Grateful for contentment: In my late teens and early 20s, I was always chasing the next source of excitement in my life. More often than not, I overdid it in pursuit of bigger and better thrills – too much drinking, partying, unhealthy lifestyle choices, blowing my budget. All of the excess would leave me with an emotional hangover that could last for days. I realize now, it was the depressive lows that I was trying to outrun. Maturity helped – I eventually lost the stamina for thrill-seeking, but I also came to value the stability of contentment and happiness over whirlwind excitement. As someone who is always pursuing emotional equilibrium, being content is the new goal.

Empathy and Understanding of others: The obvious one: having a lived experience with mental illness personally and within my family, I’m well equipped to be compassion with people sharing similar experiences. While I would never suggest that I know exactly how someone feels, as everyone experiences their feelings within their personal context, I can certainly relate to how frustrating and exhausting mental illness can be. This understanding makes me a better friend and family member, and gives me a strong skill set to support my clients in my line of work.

Quality Relationships: Friends that love you even when you’re feeling about as fun as a bag of bugs are treasures to your life. I’ve been absolutely #blessed to have friends who not only tolerate my illness, but wade around in the muck of it with me when I need them to. These are the friends that notice small changes in my behaviours and regularly engage in meaningful dialogue with me. These are the people who love me and see my value. I have had to let go of people along the way when I sensed I could only be one version of myself – the happy, positive, over-the-top energetic version – and I wasn’t confident my depression would be accepted or understood. If mental illness gives you anything, it tells you who your people are.

Permission to be Honest: Being honest about mental illness can be very freeing.  There is an unmistakeable sense of relief in verbalizing that, “sometimes I’m not okay”. I hid behind a convincing semblance of “being okay” for a long time, and it was ultimately detrimental to my well-being because- surprise! Depression eventually surfaced to greet me anyway in spectacular fashion. Now, I can talk about it without fear of being discovered because I’m no longer pretending I’m okay when I’m not. In being honest about the problem, I now have a better sense of what I need to take care of myself and I’m always pursuing avenues to improve my well-being through research, therapy, medication, self-care and reaching out to my people.

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So, sure. Mental illness has a pull on me that can cause difficulties in my day-to-day. And there are certainly symptoms I’d be pleased to live without. As a result of my challenges, however, I have gained insight, self-awareness, empathy and gratitude, and these are qualities I can’t imagine living without.