Turning Off, Turning Out

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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.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

What Depression Looks Like on Me

There are days I wish mental illness presented like any other physical illness in that its effects could be seen, validated, and hopefully understood by other people, because living with an invisible illness can be an exhausting experience, particularly for people whose depression and anxiety symptoms fall outside of how we often categorize “mentally ill” people.

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I identify as an extrovert – I receive my energy from interacting with people, being social and connecting with others. More than loving a good party (although I most certainly do) I feel energized, alive and spirited when I am with friends, meeting new people and having good conversation. Having high social needs means that the symptoms of my mental illness don’t often align with traits people normally associate with depression or anxiety. When I share with people that I have clinical depression, they are often surprised: “But you are so outgoing! You don’t seem depressed at all.” Thank…you. Does not displaying the stereotypical depressive characteristics (whatever those are…) make my illness less legitimate?

What does depression look like on this particular extrovert? In an effort to avoid generalizations, I speak only to my experience in describing how I wear my particular illness.

I prioritize my relationships and social life, making sure I am being an attentive friend, remembering important dates in the lives of people I care about, making the long drives to see loved ones and showing up for events and gatherings even when it takes every last ounce of my energy. Perhaps people assume that social events would be the first things to drop during a depressive episode, but that’s not the best thing for me. As an extrovert, I am pulled in two directions, 1) needing to spend energy pulling myself out of my funk, and 2) desperately craving a social energy hit.

In short, you likely won’t see my relationships suffer too much when I am feeling depressed because while my personal internal and external environment may suffer, my remaining energy goes into my friends and family, who will only notice I am not doing well if they know what to look for.

My particular brand of depression looks like:

Unwashed dishes: My friends know that I can laugh at myself about this not-so-cute-at-27 quirk. I am tagged in all the dirty dishes memes and before I invite anyone into my apartment, they should know I’ve likely spent over an hour washing every dish in my house. Why? Because I’ve used every dish in my house. Why? Because I couldn’t be bothered to wash them right away, and they’ve become a pile that will take me an hour to wash, and that’s an hour I could spend sleeping so I have energy later to hang out with friends.

Untidy house: Self-proclaimed “clean freaks” have always fascinated me. Why clean every day when you could, I don’t know, be sleeping. I never understood how people didn’t spend an entire day cleaning their house, until I finally came to the realization that part of my depression means I don’t make time (read: don’t care) to clean a little every day. This leaves me with a 4- hour cleaning frenzy to manage because I agreed to host the girls’ fondue night. I don’t clean for me, I clean for the benefit of other people.

Eating take-out:  Subway, Panera Bread, Pita Pit…you name a sandwich place during a depressive low, and the employees working there know my order. I don’t care enough to cook or prepare something at home because 1) I don’t have the energy to cook for just me 2) there’s no food in the house to prepare and 3) there’s no clean plate to put it on anyway. Logically I know that my health and my wallet would benefit from eating at home, but I can’t be bothered to take care of myself in that way when I’m feeling down.

Three-hour naps on the daily: Another adorable trait that I make jokes about but speaks to how much sleep I require to recover and heal during a low. I also use sleep as an avoidance tool – can’t overthink things while you’re snoozing!

Attention deficits: My friend and I have discussed how nice it would be to sit down with a book and read the whole thing without getting bored or distracted or feeling compelled to check our phones. Imagine being that at peace! My downtime is spent drowning out thoughts that make me feel bad by watching comforting, mind-numbing TV shows that I know every line of dialogue to. My depression looks like distraction so that I don’t have to directly listen my thoughts, and then can run quietly in the background instead.

Self-deprecating humour: Ahhh…the quintessential coping mechanism for so many depressives! Why make other people feel uncomfortable by your illness when you can make light of personality quirks like being sleepy, untidy and hyperactive? Don’t get me wrong – joking about my illness is helpful to me too, but it’s one way I know how to reach out when I need help that makes people feel a little less uneasy.

So, much like online clothes shopping, even depression may look different on you and me than it does on the model. What I hope to work towards in sharing my stories is to help more people feel validated that their feelings are important, they deserve help, and most importantly, they are not alone in this.