Battle of the Blues

Sad-SnowmanIt’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.

Baby on a Budget

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.

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Breakdown of my bills and expenses during a healthy 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.

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The yellow reflects reckless spending under “Shopping”, “Uncategorized” and “Food &  Dining” in the months prior to having an organized budget

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.

Secrets Are Bad For You

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At some point in life, secrets are not always so fun. I already know what I’m getting for my birthday, that Santa Claus isn’t real, and I told all my childhood crushes that I was the secret admirer long ago. Sometimes I think there are no more good secrets, because as I reflect on the purpose and consequences of keeping secrets, I see how this can create more harm than joy.

In the wake of the #MeToo Harvey Weinstein explosion, it has become abundantly clear that the combination of power and secrecy have been fuelling abusive and harmful treatment of women for decades. And Hollywood has just taken the spotlight in this moment. To believe that the same dynamics are not at play in corporate settings, technology, labour industries, and government, is evidence of the pervasiveness of secrecy. The power of secrets can be found everywhere.

At its worst, my eating disorder was my best-kept secret. I would lie and sneak around in order to preserve that intoxicating sense of control I felt I had earned by restricting my intake. I felt empowered and superior in exerting willpower over my body, all the while, denying I was actively dieting and chasing the feeling of control. The lying, the secrecy, fuelled the ED because I had nothing to challenge the perspective of the hungry, sick voice in my head. Only when I was finally confronted by my family and my doctor about the obsession with eating (or not eating) and food, did my secret finally spill out and I felt embarrassed and weak. I wasn’t in control at all – my illness had been dictating my every mouthful, social event, and passing thought. It had been controlling me. This secret had imprisoned my mind and harmed my body.

Working as a Probation and Parole Officer, I see countless clients who have endured some form of trauma or abuse that has deeply affected their lives, and without a doubt has contributed to the reasons they are seated across from me in my office. Whether they experienced abuse as children, or experience it present day in a toxic domestic relationship, clients disclose that their abuse was founded upon secrecy. To protect a loved one, an abuser, families and children, fear or threat of life or livelihood– I’ve heard every combination of reasons why a victim would keep their abuse a secret. And therein lies the power, and permits the harm to continue.

While I generally try to navigate my life being as forthcoming as possible (this blog being one of a number of exercises in honesty) at one time, I allowed myself to be swept up in secrecy in my personal life. The effect of keeping the secret was poisonous, and took its toll on my sense of self. I was lying to my friends, my family, and myself– and while I did not have the mental toughness to punish my physical body like I did when I was a teenager, I was in a near-constant state of emotional self-harm. All that negativity had to be directed somewhere, and my self-esteem and confidence were easy targets. Keeping secrets created a toxic discrepancy within me that I could not live comfortably with. I wanted to be a good person, but I was not acting like one.

Freeing myself from secrets felt like shedding a snakeskin, and I felt immediate relief from it’s hold on me. I could honestly believe others when they reminded me that I’m a good friend, that I’m thoughtful and a good listener. I remembered that I can expect from others everything I’m willing to give in relationships, that I don’t have to settle. I had forgotten that being honest with myself and being happy can be achieved at the same time. Who I want to be and who I am are back in alignment, and I can feel good about that. Growing up may mean there are fewer fun secrets left, but that’s okay with me.

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.