Fireside Chat Podcast with Ben Dionne – Episode 28
Fireside Chat Podcast with Ben Dionne – Episode 28
It’s been a minute since my last article. As is the cyclical nature of mental health, December brought a dip that zapped my motivation to write, but more accurately, a dip that made me feel too self-conscious and vulnerable to share with “the world”. Adding to the mental health conversation is normally a source of confidence for me, however, when I don’t have a firm grasp on my symptoms or a plan of attack, my voice falters. Which makes it all the more important to keep sharing when I’m able to again.
The winter blues, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a special brand of depression that will often coincide with the change in seasons, particularly as it related to drops in serotonin levels (a mood regulating hormone) and melatonin levels (your sleep hormone) and decreased exposure to sunlight in the winter months. This can be a common, yearly condition for the average person, and an especially bitter cocktail of symptoms to add to someone with existing mental health diagnoses.
I’ve been tracking the symptoms since November. Maybe you’ve noticed them too – The chronic fatigue, the irritability, the mental fogginess, the scant motivation, the sudden cravings for potato-based foods…
I’ve compiled a list of things I’ve tried to combat the winter blues, and I continue to add to it as the winter continues to stretch out before me.
Leaning into Winter: Perhaps I’m more of an indoor girl when it comes down to it, but I have always been a staunch “winter denier”, never fully facing the reality of the temperature outside or being prepared with the appropriate attire and can-do attitude. Winter will prevail. Acquiring hats, scarves, boots etc that I like and will wear has reduced my discomfort and improved my attitude. Not revolutionary, I get it. But for someone who always used to claim that I “always lose my gloves”, I now utilize mittens-on-a-string.
A contributing reason to my disdain for cold temperatures was that it eliminated some of my favourite fair weather activities like walking, hiking, and general outdoor hang-abouts. Realizing that being prepared for the cold means I could still go for a walk and get that all-important regular physical activity.
Vitamins: Studies suggest that a lack of vitamin D could contribute to SAD symptoms, so, with a why-not disposition, I incorporated a Vitamin D spray into my morning and evening routine.
I’ve been educating myself on the practice of juicing, that is, pulverizing pounds of fruits and vegetables into green juice, which claims to deliver essential vitamins and minerals to your cells in the most efficient way possible. While juicing studies has its critics, I’m open to including more fruits and vegetables into my diet in a way that doesn’t require tucking into an entire head of red cabbage in a one sitting.
Light Therapy: My ever-woke best friend gifted me a HappyLight this Christmas, a light therapy box that claims to provide the natural spectrum light missing from our lives in the winter months. I’ve only just started using it at work and have been making my early observations about its effectiveness, and will report back. Another “why not try it” in the war against SAD.
Hobbying: I used consider hobbying as limited to something creative, such as crafting or knitting or building model airplanes. Things that required a certain amount of skill that I just didn’t have. I didn’t consider that I had plenty of hobbies, as in interests and activities outside of work that bring me pleasure or that I glean value or knowledge from. I’ve come to recognize my passion for mental health as a personal hobby, and I consistently look to increase my knowledge and add to the conversation around this subject matter. My reading habits, podcast interests, even my Netflix queue, very much speak to my desire to absorb and learn more about mental health. If cooking is your thing, educate yourself – read more about it, try new recipes, watch the videos, and talk about it with like-minded individuals. Take an interest in your own interests! It concerns me that social media and mindless television has become a pseudo-hobby of sorts – something we do a lot that seems to give us pleasure. But what and where is the value? A conversation for another day.
Make butterflies: Simply put, it helps to have something to look forward to. If life does not seem to be throwing exciting events and opportunities your way, find a way to create those feel-good “looking forward” butterflies for yourself. Even while on a budget, when trips to sunny destinations are all but off the table, I try to have one or two little things to look forward to – a weekend with girlfriends, a date, a new book, a day of sporting, trying a new recipe – things that evoke what my precious friend calls “excited stomach” – to keep me motivated.
If you are so inclined, let me know what SAD symptoms you’ve noticed in yourself, and things that you might add to this list.
It all started with a letter in September from my auto insurance company that they would not be renewing my coverage for the next year at the current rate I was paying. I hadn’t had to adjust my insurance for several years, and had all but put this expense out of my mind. I’ve never claimed to be good with finances, after all. But as I asked my mom how I should go about finding another provider as a “high-risk driver” (yikes) I have never felt more like a plastic bag blowing in the wind when it came to money.
I started asking people how they kept track of their spending. I think I half-hoped that budgeting required some rare, innate skill that I simply didn’t have, so I could continue to bury my head in the sand about my spending habits. Then, my best friend showed me how her banking app categorized and tracked her spending so that she could make conscious decisions about when she could afford to eat out at a restaurant that week or buy new winter boots this month.
“Sometimes looking at my bank account feels gross,” she said, “but I’d rather know than not know.” The magic words I needed to hear. I needed to face the damage. It was no longer acceptable to make a habit of accumulating ever-more consumer debt. I’m supposed to be a grown-ass woman!
So, I started doing some research. My mom had been encouraging me to use an Excel spreadsheet to budget my spending, however, it felt clunky and unrealistic to type in expenses retroactively and hold on to receipts to ensure accurate numbers. I have enough clutter – there had to be an app for that. And then I found Mint. After connecting my bank accounts to the app, I saw the state of my finances in all its colourful glory, and it was…gross. My spending exploded wildly from month to month, on things I could barely remember buying. I could literally trace the peaks and valleys of my depression by tracking increases in spending on things like take-out, delivery, and fast food, and decreases in gas and travel purchases. Clearly times where I was not leaving the house and seeking comfort. And by the end of every month, I was putting more and more things on my credit card, because I simply had no cash left. The whole exercise was horrifying. But now I knew. I had developed some self-indulgent habits that were extremely costly and I was overspending every single month.
Mint made it easy to plug in my bills and arrange for pre-authorized payments so that all my bills were paid in cash. (Do I sound like an advertisement yet?) The app categorized my past spending and made suggestions for monthly budgets for what I regularly spent money on – groceries, gas, restaurants, coffee, pharmacy, cat food, etc. It became clear that spending $150 monthly on coffee like I was Beyonce, was living beyond my means, to put it mildly. Starbucks, and its wildly successful Gold Star customer reward program that made me a loyal minion, had no place in my new budget.
The knowledge of the boundaries and limits of my budget has allowed me to create habits that have a positive spillover effect into other parts of my life. Making my own coffee at home in the morning cuts financial costs as well as calories, yet I don’t feel deprived of taste and have created more time for myself in the morning. Meal planning requires a level of preparation and organization, so staying within budget promotes a cleaner kitchen space, something that has always felt elusive to me in the past.
You might be asking what working within a budget has to do with mental health, and before writing this post, I couldn’t put my finger on why managing my finances properly made me feel better. But, like I discussed in my previous post about the burden of keeping secrets, my unaddressed debt and poor financial hygiene weighed heavily on me because I didn’t own it. It was a sore spot that I didn’t want to face, and on some level of my subconscious mind, it bothered me.
The cycle of good habits I’m creating will serve me well when the next depressive low rolls around, because the routine is already in place. This is particularly crucial as winter descends, a season that traditionally does not treat me kindly. In learning to accept my financial reality and face consequences, I’m shedding light on one of my biggest blind spots. There is a sense of peace in lifting the lid on my shortcomings and living transparently.
I have a problematic relationship with my phone. Not only are the monthly data overage charges a cause for stress (sorry Mom), but my reliance on the device for personal comfort is downright shameful.
My 2011 MacBook Pro has essentially become an oversized paperweight while I use my smartphone for all of my activities within cyberspace: to connect with my friends and family, to check and update social media, to listen to music and podcasts, to take pictures of my life. I watch (listen) to Netflix to fall asleep, I send email, I make appointments, I pay for my coffee, all through one App or function or another. When I don’t want to be bothered in public, I’ll stick my nose in my phone. Have to stand in line? Check the phone. Wait for any amount of time beyond 10 seconds? I’m scrolling. Awkward moment in a group setting? Ah, a notification.
I am hardly ever alone with my thoughts, and the constant stimulation from screen time contributes to the noise already in my head. How many times have I turned to my phone for connection instead of engaging with the human beings around me?
Instead of reaching out to someone who cares about me either in person or through voice call (old school, I get it), I find myself turning to Google in search of answers and opinions, asking questions that I’m embarrassed to ask aloud. Often, the answers I find are not wholly comforting and I don’t feel much better after browsing through articles and discussion forums containing the key words I typed. The whole practice turns me more inward, invites more questions than answers, and I continue to feel alone in my worry.
Apparently, I’m not alone as I might think, as articles like this one from The Atlantic describe how Google has been tracking the search for mental health related keywords, noting that questions like, “Why am I sad?” or “What are the symptoms of depression” seem to spike in colder weather months across the world. Whether or not Google searches could reveal the actual prevalence of mental health issues, including unreported cases, it remains to be seen. What observing this information tells us is that people are interested in the topic, want to know if their symptoms are legitimate, and feel the need to be anonymous in the search for information and support.
Smartphones make us passive, and lazy. We don’t have to remember things, directions, phone numbers, birthdays, because all of that information lives in the cloud somewhere, or something. They say it saves us time but what exactly are we doing with our new-found time – other than filling it with celebrity gossip and videos of swimming pigs (omg).
It’s not always easy to verbalize what’s bothering you, but the act of expressing the troubling thoughts or ideas can neutralize them. When negative thoughts are swirling around your head unchecked and unchallenged, they can feel very real and true. Allowing another person to share the burden with you, even for a moment, can be a relief.
If you are apprehensive about engaging in conversations around your mental health or well-being, here are a few things that have worked for me, both when I am sharing my own thoughts and listening to others:
Preface: Starting a conversation by sharing how it is hard for you to talk about this, or expressing that it may be difficult to hear, can be a way to prepare the other person for sensitive subject matter and encourage a thoughtful response. It gives the other person the opportunity to recognize that you are looking to be heard and have trusted them for this role.
Sitting side-by-side: I can’t tell you how many difficult conversations I’ve had in the front seat of a car, and it works because this seating arrangement takes the pressure off constant eye-contact, particularly if you’re concerned about having the “right reaction” when someone is crying or upset. Sitting side-by-side in the car also allows you to make physical contact, like holding their hand, that doesn’t feel overly intrusive.
Get active: Similar to sitting side-by-side, doing an activity, like shooting hoops (who am I) or going on a hike, can again take the pressure off constant eye contact, but can also facilitate honest conversation, as you may be less likely to overthink what you say as you continue with your hike or game.
Embrace silence: We’ve heard it before – silence is not the enemy to good conversation. Silence offers time for the person to give a thoughtful response, can allow the person to collect themselves if they are upset and crying, and can allow space for other forms of support, like a hug.
It may be daunting to reach out when we are feeling down, and turning to our phones, Google, or other isolating sources may seem easier than involving another person in your troubles. We don’t want to be a burden, after all. But trust me when I say that other people want to be there for you – it’s up to you to let them.
P.S In an effort to practice what I preach, my very own $52 basic flip phone is on route to me as I write this. I’m sure I’ll be hit with waves of nostalgia as I relearn how to text using T9 and end phone calls with a satisfying snap of the lid. My iPhone will live on in semi-retirement, reserved for when and where I can hop on the wifi.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.