life, Uncategorized

I’ll sit with you

Failure is one of those things that is easy to write about when you have overcome it. Sharing a story of how we persevered through life’s challenges and came out the other side is not only cathartic, it is inspirational. Everyone loves a story of triumph.

But what about when you are in the thick of it? What do you do when you are mid-collapse, or feel like you’re drowning? How or what do you write about then?

As a writer, I have spent much of my career sharing my personal stories. From battles fought and won, to lessons learned and relearned, I have always tried to be honest with my audience. I believe in vulnerability and in authenticity and sharing my life’s challenges and imperfections has been a big part of my writing. But lately I have been struggling. A year that started out with the launch of a book and goals to begin coaching, quickly turned into one of the biggest mental health crises that I have had in years.

Everything became a struggle. My anxiety became unmanageable, my self-care plummeted, my work and relationships suffered, and my interest in anything, even my beloved writing, became non-existent.

But it wasn’t just the lack of interest that held me back from writing (although that was a big part of it), it was the fear around speaking vulnerably, while being at my most vulnerable.

Although I have built my career on honesty, it has always been in more of an ‘after the fact‘, ‘let’s add some humour in and laugh at how hard life can be‘ kind of way. I have always kept it light-hearted, and I have always kept from talking about my battles until I was out of the trenches.

One of the biggest hang-ups that ‘helpers’ face in moments of crisis is asking themselves, ‘How can I help/inspire others when I can’t even help or inspire myself?!

But what if the greatest help you can give someone is not to offer ‘after the fact’ advice or light-hearted humour … what if the greatest help you can offer someone is just to let them know that they are not alone? What if the biggest gift you can give someone is the knowledge that there is someone else in the trenches too, fighting alongside them?

This too, shall pass. Of that much, I am sure. And in the meantime, I am going to keep fighting, and I am going to keep sharing my story, whether I have found triumph or not.

If you are in the trenches right now, know that you aren’t alone. And I can promise you this … I am not going to say ‘We’ve got this!“, because even though we likely do ‘got this’, hearing that right now is not helpful.

I’ll just be there, sitting alongside you.

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Let’s talk about meds

Well, the title of this blog certainly doesn’t leave much to the imagination but sometimes you have to cut through the fluff and get straight to the point. I have shared a bit about my struggle with anxiety before but have yet to really dive into the medication end of things. Maybe I haven’t shared much because I still hold some embarrassment or shame around it. After all, despite all of the work we have done, there is still a huge stigma around mental health issues. Or maybe I haven’t shared as it just didn’t seem relevant until recently. Either way, I’m doing it now. Because the reality is, that tiny pill that I take every day enables me to function in a more effective way, be a more present parent and partner, and live beyond the panic that consumed me for so long. And if that doesn’t warrant a little spotlight, I don’t know what does.

Despite the fact that anxiety has plagued me for as long as I can remember, I haven’t always treated it with medication. In fact, most of my life, I have ‘toughed it out’, white-knuckling my way through, riding the waves on my own, without the help of a serotonin reuptake inhibitor. There were periods that my ‘white-knuckle’ approach was effective and I managed to cope quite well, and there have been times where I have not been so successful in managing. Times such as during my pregnancies when I was struck with crippling perinatal anxiety, or after the loss of my parents when everything seemed too much. Or times like two years ago when there was no momentous occasion or trauma, but anxiety brought me to my knees anyway. In spite of what we are led to believe, mental health issues do not need a ‘reason’ to pop up.

These periods of my life seem to come in peaks and valleys and are marked by symptoms such as irritability/anger, sleep disturbances, fatigue, difficulty concentrating/brain fog, uncontrollable worry, feelings of dread, and the most disruptive … dissociation and intrusive thoughts. Anxiety has gotten in my way of being a connected and present parent, it has affected my career, and it has taken a toll on my physical health.

I remember when I viewed my refusal to take medication as a badge of honour. A testimony of my strength and determination. I was eager to try anything but – from positive thinking and exercise, to essential oils and dietary supplements, but I saw medication as weakness, as giving up. I was also scared of side effects, and of judgement. I can see the irony now. In refusing to take meds during pregnancy or breastfeeding in order to ‘protect my kids from chemicals’, I ended up subjecting them to a very anxious and disengaged mother. And in avoiding pharmaceuticals in the name of health, I caused years of undue stress on my body. I write this now with nothing but a tonne of empathy for this younger version of myself, I was only doing what I thought was right. I was coping the best that I could at the time. And, I share this story now not because I think I have all the answers, but because we need to talk about it. We need to make saying, “I think I am struggling with depression.” as normal as, “I think I did something to my back, it hurts.

We need to share our stories.

I don’t know how long I will need to be on medication. It might be a year, it might be a lifelong thing. I do know that right now it is a part of my treatment plan, a small but crucial piece of the puzzle at this time. Among the other pieces – exercise, diet, sleep, social support, meditation, and, at times, therapy. Similarly to if I were on medication for high blood pressure, I need to make sure I am caring for myself in all areas of my life. One cannot just throw a pill at it and keep eating McDonalds.

I also know that medication makes me no less a good writer, a successful marketing exec, a loving mother, or a sarcastic, fun-loving friend with flawless dance moves. In fact, right now, medication makes me better in all of those areas because when my anxiety is under control, I am more present, more engaged, more focused and more patient. And all areas of my life deserve my very best. I deserve that too.

If I am being honest, I do hope that one day in the not too distant future, I will be able to go off of my medication and manage my symptoms with diet, exercise, sleep, etc. Time will tell but in the meantime, I am going to stay the course. Just as I wouldn’t deny myself medical treatment for a physical ailment, I won’t deny myself this either. I deserve to be well. And although life will always have ups and downs, peaks and valleys, I am committed to never white-knuckling it again.

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A is for anger. And also anxiety.

**Disclaimer: The below blog is probably one of my most vulnerable ones to date. But, I think it is worth it. Perhaps someone reading this will feel a little less alone or find the courage to reach out for help. When we share our stories and silence our shame, we encourage others to do the same and if there is one thing I wish for you all, it is that you carry less shame.**

I remember the first time I really lost it on my kids. I’m not talking about getting a bit snappy with them, yelling a little, or having a ‘mommy meltdown’, I’m talking about full blown RAGE. The kind of anger that overtakes you like a tsunami, taking your breath away and leaving you gasping, sobbing, and absolutely exhausted. It was, of course, completely undeserved and although I tried to repair the damage I had done through apologies and gentle hugs, the guilt and shame I felt that day rocked me to my core. I chalked it up to a bad day and tried to carry on but then, it happened again.

Although thankfully not common, these anger outbursts occurred sporadically over the years and each time, I was left feeling more guilty, more exhausted, and more confused than the time before. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I mean, yes, each time there was some sort of trigger or stressor but they were always minor, nothing warranting a blowup of that magnitude. And stranger yet, it always seemed to come out of nowhere. Just like a tsunami, the wave would strike out of the blue and we (myself included) all just had to hold on to whatever we could and wait for it to pass. In those moments, I felt completely out of control.

Jekyll and Hyde.

It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that I finally began to gain some insight into these bursts of rage and was able to start to heal things a little bit. I was sitting in my counselor’s office, unpacking my shame around having put my children through yet another outburst when my counselor gently interrupted me, “Christine, when this happens, you aren’t a monster or a terrible mother. You are having a panic attack.”

I burst into tears.

As she went on to explain the correlation between anger, anxiety, and trauma, I found myself relieved, scared, and confused all at once. I knew that I had struggled with anxiety for much of my life and I considered myself fairly well-versed in mental illness. I had plenty of friends in the field, had access to lots of resources and mental health professionals, and had even taken psychology courses in college, yet I had been completely oblivious to the fact that bouts of rage could be a symptom of unmanaged anxiety and trauma. In fact, prior to that appointment, I would have told you that although I struggled with anxiety, I was lucky enough to have never experienced a panic attack. I thought that panic attacks were the classic heart-racing, clammy, hyperventilating that you see portrayed in movies and on tv. I had no idea anger could be present.

Realizing that I was not just a terrible mother allowed me to let go of some of the shame I had been carrying. But it also empowered me. Through therapy, meditation, and at some points, medication, I have learned the cues my body gives me to let me know I am on edge (turns out, there are a lot of signs). I have learned what is happening in my brain in those moments of panic (fight, flight, freeze), and the steps I can take to try to intercept it. I have learned the importance of decompressing, knowing my limits, and taking space when I need it. I have learned to tune in, even when it is uncomfortable, and to communicate with my family when I am struggling. I am now able to offer myself some grace and compassion while also holding myself accountable for managing my anxiety disorder.

If I were to guess, I would bet that anxiety will always be a part of my story. But now, I get to choose how it gets written. And I want my story to be one of vulnerability, healing, and hope. I can’t take back any of the mistakes I made in the past but if my kids learn anything from me, I want it to be that we are not defined by our mistakes … we are defined by what we choose to do with them. I want them to know that we may not be able to choose all that afflicts us, but we can choose how we manage it.

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Running in the sand while being chased by a bear? Nahh, just anxiety

I said I wasn’t going to write about the virus again. Mostly because I am just tired of hearing about it. The death toll, the fears, the protesters, and now the conspiracy theories that ‘Big Pharma’ is trying to control us all … I am just over it.

But as the province prepares for the gradual re-open starting next week and everyone, albeit apprehensively, looks forward to a shift back towards normalcy, I have noticed that my anxiety is worse than ever. I have been fairly open with my anxiety in my social circle but have yet to really touch on it in my blog so I will give the coles notes version.

I have struggled with anxiety for most of my life. Like many mental illnesses, it gets better at times and worse at others. For the most part, I am able to manage it well, but there are times (such as last spring) when it gets unmanageable and I have to take medication.

** For some reason, even though I know better, I have always felt some shame around needing medication … which, quite frankly, I am DONE with. When you speak to shame (or in this case, write), you take away it’s power so there you have it. #medicated #noshame #endthestigma

Anyway, when Covid-19 initially hit, everyone braced themselves. There was talk of how we were experiencing a trauma response, of how we were thrust into flight, fright, or freeze as we grappled with the panic, uncertainty, and sudden restrictions. Even my doctor cautiously called me, “Christine, how are you doing? I just wanted to check up on you and make sure you were coping okay”.

Oddly, and much to my surprise, I was okay. Generally speaking, my anxiety level was very manageable. Yes, it could be argued that I seemed to do well due to the fact that I was proactive with my mental health. Or that I was not in a demographic that was highly affected by the virus (ie: I am not living in a high-risk area, a small business owner, immunocompromised, a frontline worker, etc) but still, when there is a pandemic sweeping the globe causing mass panic and economic crisis, it would certainly not be surprising to find ones anxiety a little higher than normal.

I mean, of course, I went a bit stir-crazy. I definitely had my days. But for the most part, and particularly as things went on, my mental health actually seemed to improve. In fact, I almost felt guilty about it. Seriously, Christine. You get anxious about going into a department store to get shoes but a global pandemic has you feeling all “I got this”. It didn’t make sense.

Then again, mental illness rarely does.

But, a few days ago, things shifted. As the community and my social circle started to buzz excitedly about the glimmer of hope that we might see a ‘normal’ summer, as workplaces started to get ready to ramp up for business again, as my kids expressed their hope that even schools might re-open, the only thing I felt was dread.

Okay, seriously. You have got to be kidding me.

I felt even more ashamed.

I reached out to a friend. “Of course, you are feeling anxious Christine. There is still so much uncertainty. We don’t know what is going to happen. Just be gentle with yourself.”

Although excellent advice, that wasn’t it. At least that wasn’t all of it. These past 6 weeks have been filled with uncertainty, nothing has changed on that front. I think the thing that has been causing my angst is the inevitable increase in speed that we are all going to experience. Back to the hustle.

I have realized that the reason my anxiety seemed more manageable during these last few weeks is due to the slower pace of life. I realize that I thrive in a slow, predictable routine. And the very thought of things speeding up again, has my stomach in knots.

Don’t get me wrong, I cannot wait to sit on a restaurant patio again, sipping a drink with my friends. I miss my people and I can’t wait to hug them ALL. But the idea of the work grind, the rushing, and the weekends jam packed with socializing and plans makes it feel like I can’t breathe.

We live in a world where ‘the hustle’ is not only glorified, but celebrated. And rest is considered ‘for the weak’. (Another bullshit stigma.) But one of the many things this pandemic has taught me is how badly I need downtime.

One of the things about anxiety is it always has you feeling like you are running in sand. Rush, rush, rush. Panic, panic, panic. Not getting anywhere.

The ability to slow down and convince my nervous system that we are not, in fact, being chased by a grizzly bear has been an absolute blessing.

Things are going to speed up again, there is no doubt about that. And in all reality, it would be terrible if they didn’t. After all, we need an economy. But I don’t want them to go back to full-tilt again. Not for me.

These next few months are going to be filled with a lot of learning, change, and of course, more uncertainty. But I think my main focus needs to be balance. I’ve learned what I need, and now I need to learn how to incorporate that into this new normal. How to give myself time to reset and recharge. How to recognize that when it feels like I am being chased by a bear, I need to rest, not run.