The Holidays – It’s Complicated

Holiday Christmas lights with one bulb not lightingRelated Images:

Written at the request of the OHSW team of the Nova Scotia Health Authority for inclusion in their seasonal publication. I’m fortunate to be a member of an organization that recognizes mental health as an intrinsic part of overall wellness.


On an office door not far from mine, there’s a whiteboard counting down the number of days until Christmas. I’m sure this excited person simply wants to share their good cheer, but instead of bringing me joy, this perky daily update triggers a flutter of anxiety butterflies in my stomach. This is partly due to the shrinking window of time left to fulfill my family’s wish lists, something I haven’t even begun, but those flapping butterflies have a deeper origin than just my hatred of shopping.

Honestly, if Christmas and I were in a relationship, our Facebook status would be “It’s complicated”. I love it, I really do, it’s just that almost everything about it also messes with my head. In this, I know I am not alone.

Although it’s most often portrayed as an idyllic time of year when loving families come together and share bountiful meals, this isn’t true for many people. Unfortunately, when everyone expects you to have a “Merry Christmas”, it can be very difficult to tell them otherwise. And, when negative aspects of the holidays are discussed, the focus is on tangible things, such as increased debt, the unhealthy diet, or the difficulty of winter travel.

Over the past few years, however, I’ve become more aware of how the season affects my “intangibles”. How my insecurities and issues become magnified by the intensity that surrounds the holiday. Dressing up for parties makes my body image worse, and meeting new people increases my social awkwardness. I feel more pressure for everything to be perfect, like it’s my responsibility to ensure everyone has a great time. Instead of feeling rested with the break from work and a week spent with my family, I get fatigued by the lack of me-time, and then feel guilty I’m not enjoying every moment of our “togetherness”. Christmas knocks me off-balance.

Nevertheless, I’m being honest when I say I love Christmas, because this magnification also affects my positive “intangibles”. At the party I was anxious to attend, I laugh with friends and find joy. When family gathers for a meal, I feel intensely blessed by the comfort and prosperity which we enjoy. And, after my husband and children are in bed and it’s dark but for the lights on the tree, the love in our home feels larger and more pure. So yes, my relationship with Christmas is definitely complicated.

At this time of year, moods and emotions, both positive and negative, intensify. You only need to look at a child to see it; anticipation and excitement may be at peak levels, but so is impatience and disappointment. This is happening all around us. Just as love and happiness are being amplified, so are grief and loneliness, and any strain in relationships. This is why, even though it’s easy to get lost in the holiday frenzy, it’s important to have compassion for yourself and those around you.

Unfortunately, knowing all this doesn’t do much to quell my anxiety triggered by the whiteboard down the hall. It does, however, reinforce that I’m not alone. So, even with an increasing number of butterflies fluttering in my stomach, I’m going to try to embrace that countdown. As for our relationship status on Facebook… maybe it’s time for me and Christmas to try being “in a civil union”.

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Too tired to write…

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I’m the total opposite of brave!

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Hello to everyone who’s here from the Nova Scotia Health AuthorityThanks for taking the time to click that extra click!

(BTW – I’ve also been asked to give a short talk on Thursday over lunch. Location is now confirmed to be the VG Auditorium at the QEII. If you’re around, please come on by. It would be great to meet you all in person!)


I welcome every opportunity to break down the barriers that surround the subject of our mental health. So, when my organisation’s Workplace Health Promotion team asked if I’d write a post to be featured in this week’s internal communications as part of their Mental Illness Awareness Week campaign, it was an easy yes. (It’s just a bonus that I really like those peeps!)

Selecting a topic was also pretty simple. It’s something that always generates a lot of discussion when I talk about mental health in the workplace – Why I decided to disclose my illness.

When I went public with the fact that I live with a major depressive disorder, I was called “brave” and “strong” by a lot of people. This is giving me waaaay too much credit!

While it’s true that my current advocacy is primarily intended to benefit the greater good, the extent of positive impact that my initial disclosure on this blog would have on other people was COMPLETELY unanticipated. I certainly wasn’t burning with an altruistic desire to empower other people who lived with mental illness.

In reality, when I finally “came out” after living in the mental health closet for over 20 years, it no longer felt like a choice. My need to open up about my depression and suicidality was at such a critical point, it felt like it was my only option. It was just too f***ing hard to keep pretending to be healthy. I was spent and exhausted.

At the time, I couldn’t even conceive of how my disclosure would affect others. Honestly, I was far too worried about what impact it was going to have on me! Even though I knew I couldn’t keep living in secret shame, I was terrified I was making a huge mistake. Would I lose people’s respect at work? Would everyone be uncomfortable around me? Would anyone even want to still be friends with me?

You all know about stigma, right? Well, I was internalizing all of these negative attitudes about mental illness, whether they were actually real or just perceived. This is called self-stigma. It’s what kept me from seeking help when I desperately needed it, and why I was continuing to keep my diagnosis and need for medication a secret from everyone except my husband and sister.

I felt pathetic and weak, ashamed of what the depression had made me. My self-esteem was so low, the thought of someone knowing the “truth” about me made me want to vomit. Self-stigma took away every fibre of my confidence and strength, and when I did ultimately disclose my illness, the ABSOLUTE last thing I felt was brave.

As it turned out, much to my shock and knee-trembling relief, my big reveal was met with nothing but pure compassion and support. It’s not exaggerating to say that my disclosure saved my life.

Yes, I still live with depression. I still need to take multiple medications to feel well and I still have periods of time when things are pretty dark. Sometimes I still struggle with daily life. The difference is, I’m no longer going through it all alone. Now my friends and family know to listen if I need to talk, my supervisor allows me a flexible schedule, and my colleagues are quick to offer support if it looks like I’m getting overwhelmed.

I know this makes it sound like I’ve just shifted the burden of my illness onto others, but in reality, it’s the opposite.

Before I came out of the mental health closet, I spent most of my daily allotment of energy just trying to appear “okay”. Behind that facade, I was slowly sinking into a deep pit. Eventually, I wouldn’t even have enough energy to leave the house and my body and mind would want to shut down. Only time, and a lot of rest, could pull me out of the darkness enough for me to start into the cycle all over again.

Needless to say, I was accumulating a lot of sick time. And, when I did physically make it into work, I was inefficient and unproductive. Now, if I need to, I’m able to adjust my schedule and am comfortable asking for support. In terms of maintaining my health, this is as crucial to the balance as are my medications.

Also, my absenteeism has decreased dramatically because my workplace is now a “safe space”. I no longer feel like I have to avoid it at all costs if I’m feeling vulnerable or down. There are days that it may still take some extra effort to leave the house, but it no longer cripples me. Because I miss less work and am more effective when I’m there, my mental illness actually affects my coworkers significantly less (if at all) now that everyone knows about it.

So, if this is true, why doesn’t everyone choose to disclose? Unfortunately, it all comes back to stigma.

Even with all of the education initiatives and advocacy programs, there continues to be stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. Some experts feel that self-stigma is such a pervasive problem, it should be addressed as a clinical risk.

There are no patients who don’t have stigma. Stigma by itself has to be recognized as a symptom of mental disorder—not only an impact. – Amresh Shrivastava, MD (University of Western Ontario)

But here’s the ironic thing about about stigma… the only thing that has been proven to be effective at significantly reducing stigma is “contact”. This means, in order for someone to feel less negative about mental illness, they need to be aware that someone they know has it. But what person with a mental illness wants to disclose to the person that needs this important contact to feel less negative? Add to the mix the fact that WE ALL know someone with a mental illness (we just might not know that we know) and this paradox makes my brain hurt!

Mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time through a family member, friend or colleague. And in any given year, 1 in 5 people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness. – Canadian Mental Health Association

I guess this brings us right back to my friends in the Workplace Health Promotion team asking to include this post in this week’s internal communications… it’s all about contact. So, thanks for coming, but before you leave and get back to work, please allow me to share one more thing.

These days I drink alcohol only very occasionally, and if I do chose to have a beer or glass of wine, it’s pretty rare for me to have more than one. Often, when socializing with people who don’t know me very well, someone will ask why I’m not drinking, or if I have had a drink, why I’ve now switched to water.

The answer to that has the potential of being a real buzz-kill, but I don’t want to lie, so I often choose to be a little flippant and say something like, “The stability of my brain chemistry is hard enough to control without adding more fuel to that fire.”

Usually, this gets a laugh and the interest ends. However, sometimes my wit isn’t enough of a deterrent and I get hit with follow-up questions. At this point, I go with this unvarnished truth, “I live with a major depressive disorder and take three different medications to keep me well. I’ve learned not to mess around too much with that delicate chemical balance.”

This is the turning point. It’s pretty much 50/50 whether the person chuckles nervously and then turns to talk to the person sitting on their other side, or whether they’ll lean in, lower their voice, and tell me how mental illness has affected someone in their life. Inevitably, before the conversation is over, they’ll comment on my courage or strength.

Do you think it’s brave if a colleague tells you they’ve had to stop putting sugar in their coffee because their blood glucose is running high? Do you commend them for openly admitting to their body’s inability to produce enough insulin? Probably not.

Perhaps, if I just keep having these conversations, there will eventually come a time when people won’t think I’m brave either… they’ll just think I’m normal.

Until then, thanks for making contact!

Looking back while looking forward…

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October 1st is the start of Mental Illness Awareness Week.  This is an annual national public education campaign designed to help open the eyes of Canadians to the reality of mental illness.

There are a couple of projects that need my focus this weekend, but I didn’t want October to start without something new on this page. (And I’m just going to pretend I’m being cleverly ironic by using an old post as my something “new”!)

It’s been five years since I wrote the following post. It was the first time I publicly acknowledged that I had tried to kill myself in university. Despite all of the positive support the post garnered, I was still drowning in shame. It was almost six months before I was able to write about it again.

Yes, this post is old, but it may also be the most personal thing I’ve ever written on the stigma I felt about my mental illness… it was certainly the most difficult!

I think Mental Illness Awareness Week, a week our country has dedicated to starting conversations and dispelling myths, is a fitting time to revisit it. Please follow the link below and have a quick read (it’s very short), then tell me if you agree.

I should’ve talked about this a long time ago

“It’s okay to feel desperate, and it’s okay to talk about it.
Please, tell a friend or call a hotline. I wish I had.”

; My story isn’t over yet

sorry
Wow! It’s been almost a full year since I’ve posted anything here. I know time flies, yada yada… but that’s still very hard to believe. However, even though this neglect embarrasses me deeply, I’m not going to apologize. Here’s why:

1. The Husband says I apologize too much (usually for things that have absolutely nothing to do with me) and I’m working hard to change this behaviour.

2. This blogging drought was caused by positive circumstances in my life, and that’s not something for which to apologize. C’mon… even I know that!

In the past, when there was a significantly long lag between my posts, it was usually because I was having a rough go of it with my mental health. Unfortunately, my instinctive reaction to a depressive period has always been to distance myself, to retreat as far as I can inside myself instead of reaching out to seek much needed help. There have been many times over the years when this has nearly been the death of me… and I’m not speaking metaphorically!

Fortunately, THIS long absence was simply due to a lack of free time.

About a year ago (and totally unintentionally) I began doing things outside of the usual work and familial duties that used to take all of my effort. It was a such a gradual thing that I really didn’t even notice.

I got back into painting and revisited some long-neglected fiction projects. I started socializing more and began playing tennis a few times a week. I even stepped up my volunteering and became the chair of a non-profit board.

So… I guess what I’m saying is, I haven’t posted this year because I’ve been too busy living! Yay, me!

Now, while my absence may have been unintended, my return is very deliberate. This week, when I realized how long it had been since I’d posted (and then had the epiphany as to why that was) I knew that today was the perfect day to dive back in…

WSPD

World Suicide Prevention Day may not sound like a day to be celebrating, but it is to me!

Like many of you, I’ve lost friends to suicide, and today is a good day for me to remember that it wasn’t their fault… just like it wasn’t my fault those times that I came close to dying from suicide.

However, today also serves to remind me that it is my responsibility to SPEAK UP and REACH OUT. It’s my responsibility to #DoSomething.

Close to 80,000 people die due to suicide every year, that’s one person every 40 seconds. – World Health Organization, 2018

As much as I’ve missed this blog, it may take me a while to get back into the creative groove. I’ll try to brush off the rust as quickly as possible, but between now and October 10th, World Mental Health Day, I’ll also be recycling some of my previous posts on the topics of mental health and suicide prevention.

So, here’s the one that started it all… My fish are dead*

Yep, it’s good day to be back, and it’s a GREAT day to be alive!

P. S. I’ve missed you, too!

#MeToo…

Tarana Burke, wearing a ‘me too’ T-shirt, addresses the March to End Rape Culture in Philadelphia in 2014.

I haven’t posted to social media with a personal #MeToo message before now because I didn’t really see the point. I mean, c’mon! Is it still not obvious to everyone that women everywhere are routinely harassed and assaulted?

No? Really? Okay, let’s simplify things and not even talk about women… let’s just talk about girls.

Here are a few things I experienced before I even reached puberty:

  • A classmate jammed his hand under my skirt, past my panties and into my vagina.
  • I was scared to answer the phone because I received obscene calls a few times a week from an unknown male, who knew my name and what I had worn to school that day.
  • A stranger flashed me and offered me money if I would touch his penis.
  • I was regularly catcalled by adult men because my walk home from school was past the new construction sites in our subdivision.  

Let me reiterate… these things (and more) all happened before I even started to grow breasts. And I’m not an anomaly. This study looked at the average age women received their first catcalls.

(Hollaback!/ILR school at Cornell University 2015)

I can’t even begin to list the many and varied ways I’ve been violated since the elementary school years and into womanhood… comments that made me uncomfortable, kisses I didn’t want, gropes that were too intimate.

Of course, women aren’t the only victims of harassment and assault. But the fact is, as a group, we are more vulnerable. Out of necessity, as we grow into our bodies as women, we condition ourselves to be “thicker skinned” and we learn how to take extra precautions to protect ourselves. We learn to ignore the lewd comments, to hold our keys between our knuckles when we walk alone at night, to meet our first dates at busy coffee shops, and to check the back seats of our cars before we get in.

Margaret Atwood writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, “They are afraid women will laugh at them.” When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, “We’re afraid of being killed.”

All this is to say, I’m simply baffled that people still seem to be surprised by the prevalence of harassment and assault against women that this most recent social media trend has spotlighted. But, even though I know I’m just another drop in the bucket, here goes… 

#MeToo

Let’s keep talking…

Stephanie&Starr

At the end of the evening. Me with Starr Dobson, President & CEO, Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia

In honour of Mental Health Awareness week, please take the time to watch these four minutes of an incredible two hour conversation I had with my fellow award recipients. They are all amazing individuals who are working hard to advance the understanding of mental health issues.

As much as I’m cringing from seeing myself at such an incredibly unflattering angle (Yikes! I swear, my double chin isn’t THAT big) this video is too important not to share.

OUTSTANDING YOUTH: AMANDA HIGGINS
Amanda is a grade 12 honours student and varsity athlete at Halifax West High School. The 17-year-old student government executive recently spearheaded the very first Mental Health Awareness Conference at her school. Battling her own anxiety and depression, Amanda strives to let other young people know they are not struggling alone.

“I am truly thankful for Amanda because without her there is no saying where I would be today.” ~ Abby Haikings, Amanda’s classmate & friend

OUTSTANDING SENIOR: JIM MALONE
Jim facilitates the “Upstairs Kitchen Club” – a wellness and recovery peer support group for people living with depression and anxiety. The 62-year-old also shares his time and talents with the Clinical Pathways Project, the Healthy Minds Cooperative, Self-Help Connection and the Nova Scotia Bipolar Peer Support Alliance. Jim exemplifies the power of self-care by using healthy life practices to thrive while living with clinical depression and anxiety.

“Jim is a hope generator and a lighthouse in our self-help community.” ~Mickie Bowe, Self-Help Connection

OUTSTANDING HEALTHCARE PROVIDER: NICOLE ROBINSON
Nicole is a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst who works with the Dual Diagnosis Program through COAST and Emerald Hall at the Nova Scotia Hospital. As an advocate for the rights of individuals living with an intellectual challenge and mental illness, she inspires others through her words and actions. Nicole has played a crucial role in helping to transform health services and improve care practices for people living with Dual Diagnosis within the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

“Nicole is an exceptional healthcare provider who is a champion of best practice in providing care for individuals living with the double stigma of intellectual disability and a mental illness.” ~ Dr. Mutiat Sulyman, Dual Diagnosis Program

OUTSTANDING CAREGIVER: SHEILA MORRISON
Sheila is an author, retired teacher and physiotherapist, wife and mother to three. Her 43-year-old daughter lives with severe mental illness related to a syndrome known as 22q. For the past decade, Sheila has been her daughter’s full-time caregiver. Sheila was told her daughter should be institutionalized, but she chose to provide a loving and non-judgmental environment instead. Today, her daughter cooks and bakes on her own, enjoys creative arts, helping others and spending time outdoors.

“Despite being told to institutionalize her daughter many years ago, Sheila had the courage to leave her job to care for her daughter. Sheila is tenacious, kind, non-judgmental and unconditional in her support.” ~ Margaret Murray, CMHA Halifax-Dartmouth

Thank you for watching!

Please, share this video and keep the conversation going.