From the Archives – Ready for the Holidays?

Bringing this one back from the archives – with the cold weather that’s blasted through Ontario recently, we’ve all gotten a reminder that the holidays are coming.  The holidays can be a time of joy as well as a time of stress. Do you have a plan for your own holidays?


As I write this, the weather has become colder, decorations are in store windows and the local grocery store has been playing carols since the day after Halloween.  Whatever your tradition:  Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Festivus, it’s becoming impossible to ignore the fact that the holidays are fast approaching.

While main-stream media perpetuates the idea of the holidays as a time of gift-giving, spending time with family and friends and eating beautifully prepared food; this is not the reality for many people.  For some people, financial difficulties may prevent them from buying the same number or type of gifts they were able to give in previous years.  For others, 2017 may have brought a change in family/relationship structures either through death, divorce or family members and/or friends moving away.  Even happy events such as the birth of a child or the addition of a new adult member into the family can lead to changes in previous holiday traditions.

Instead of anticipating the holidays with a sense of dread, how can we make the ‘season’ as peaceful as possible?

Consult and Plan Ahead

Once we recognize that not only is the festive season coming, but that it will be ‘different’ this year; having a plan for the holidays goes a long way to working through any potential rough spots.

Contrary to popular belief, traditions can adapt to deal with new circumstances.  However, consultation is key. If these traditions involve others, a sound idea is to have ‘the conversation’ before the event is looming. That way everyone is agreed on the new plan and has time to make necessary changes.   For example, Aunt Shirley may not be open to limiting the price of gifts to $10, if you tell her the week before Christmas, and she has already spent $100 on your gift.

Do Something Completely Different

Sometimes it can be fun to take a break from our traditions and do something completely different.  Rather than missing what isn’t there, we focus on doing something new.  Often families may choose to travel over the holiday season rather than be reminded of a loss–whether it’s loved one, relationship, job, pet, etc.  Once they are through the ‘year of firsts’ they may return to their regular plans, but in the short-term creating a new plan is a way of getting through the ‘first holiday’.

If You Are Going To Be Alone, Take Advantage of the Holiday Buildup

In most traditions, the celebrations last for more than one day.  Let’s take Christmas for example.  While the main focus is usually on December 25th, many events start to happen anytime from mid-November onward.  If you know that you are going to be alone on “the day” (and this isn’t your first choice), get your fill of pre-December 25th events, and then plan a special day for yourself filled with activities that have special meaning for you.

Give Back

No matter your holiday tradition, one common factor is love for each other. This time of year provides many opportunities to give back to your community.  Volunteer at a shelter, visit seniors in retirement homes whose family members are unable to visit, offer to take care of a friend’s pet (who wasn’t invited to holiday celebrations)…the list is endless.

By lifting our eyes from our own situations, we have a wider view of the world and places where we can be helpful.

“Festivas for the Rest of Us!”

And now…Festivas!  Enjoy!  Warning…Seinfeld’s humour may not appeal to everyone.

 

The Importance of Gratitude

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!   Since gratitude never goes out of style, I’m re-posting this message from last year.  May you enjoy time spent with loved ones and great food!

For Canadians, this weekend is Thanksgiving–a time to get together with family and friends, eat copious amounts of food and think about what/who we are thankful for. While as a culture we have set aside Thanksgiving to be a time of gratitude, I suggest that gratitude is something we should be aware of daily.

What is Gratitude?

One of my recent, favourite books is The Book of Joy:  Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, written by Douglas Abrams.  In April 2015, Archbishop Tutu and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama spent five days together in Dharamsala, India, to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday and to discuss, in detail, their thoughts on joy (it’s nature, components, and the obstacles to experiencing it).  The details of these conversations were chronicled by Abrams and compiled into this book.

How do these esteemed spiritual leaders define gratitude?

“Gratitude is the recognition of all that holds us in the web of life and all that has made it possible to have the life that we have and the moment we are experiencing.  Thanksgiving is a natural response to life and may be the only way to savour it.”

While gratitude may be a natural response to life, our experiences aren’t always positive.  What about thankfulness when life is difficult?

Gratitude When The Going Gets Rough

The opening sentences in M. Scott Peck’s classic book The Road Less Traveled is:  “Life is difficult.  This is a great truth.  One of the greatest truths.”  We know this.  As humans, we experience grief, loss, stress, sickness, anger, anxiety. Our fellow humans disappoint us, or we disappoint ourselves.  “Life is difficult.”

However, what if there are seams of light, threaded throughout the difficulty? If we can trust that they are there, thankfulness helps us to recognize these glimmers in the dark.

Why Practice Gratitude?

As human beings it’s easy to get stuck in the “full catastrophe”of our lives–the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s often hard to look up from our challenges, and it’s easy to take our good fortune for granted.  As Joni Mitchell famously sang in Big Yellow Taxi, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone”.  That’s why it’s important that we focus and be grateful for what is in our lives in this moment.

Abrams writes:

“Both Christian and Buddhist traditions, perhaps all spiritual traditions, recognize the importance of gratefulness.  It allows us to shift our perspective, as the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop counseled, toward all we have been given and all that we have.  It moves us away from the narrow-minded focus on fault and lack and to the wider perspective of benefit and abundance.”

The magic of gratitude comes from this shift in perspective.  When we are grateful, the glass is no longer half empty, but half full.

When I work with individuals who are coping with challenges, we often explore their history for times when they have survived and grown from past difficulties.  As we look at what they learned and the resiliency gained from this experiences, they may feel thankful.  While they wouldn’t want to re-live the rough times, in hindsight, they also wouldn’t ask to have them taken away–the benefits are too great.  This new perspective helps them to see the opportunities for growth in their current situation.

A Way to Practice Gratitude

One of the easiest ways to practice gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal. At the end of the day, take some time to reflect on the day and what gave you joy.  What helped you to learn or grow? Did an interaction with someone give you a lift?  Were you able to help someone else? Perhaps, not all the events were positive, and look for the benefits in those as well. Maybe your flat tire gave you a chance to relax while you waited for CAA. Maybe you kept your cool during a conflict. Think about the seams of light in the darkness.

Once you have thought about the day, pick a few to write about.

The benefits of this practice are a change of perspective (as discussed above), as well as an increasing sense of awareness.  When we commit to this daily exercise, we start to be mindful of things we can be thankful for. As we practice, our gratitude grows.

Gratitude is an enhancement to life.

Now, one of the best gratitude songs of all time…Enjoy!  And Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

 

The Ground Beneath Our Feet

Fault Line
By Robert R. Walsh, from Noisy Stones: A Meditation Manual
Skinner House Books, 1992

Did you ever think there might be a fault line
passing underneath your living room:
A place in which your life is lived in meeting
and in separating, wondering
and telling, unaware that just beneath
you is the unseen seam of great plates
that strain through time? And that your life, already
spilling over the brim, could be invaded,
sent off in a new direction, turned
aside by forces you were warned about
but not prepared for? Shelves could be spilled out,
the level floor set at an angle in
some seconds’ shaking. You would have to take
your losses, do whatever must be done next.

When the great plates slip
and the earth shivers and the flaw is seen
to lie in what you trusted most, look not
to more solidity, to weighty slabs
of concrete poured or strength of cantilevered
beam to save the fractured order. Trust
more the tensile strands of love that bend
and stretch to hold you in the web of life
that’s often torn but always healing. There’s
your strength. The shifting plates, the restive earth,
your room, your precious life, they all proceed
from love, the ground on which we walk together.

One of the great illusions that we hang on to as humans is that the earth beneath our feet is solid.   However, science, and our awareness of earth quakes, and erupting volcanoes, tells us that this isn’t true.  Yet, we trust in the illusion because of personal experience–we can’t feel the ground moving, so it must be stable.

A second illusion that we cling to is that the circumstances of our lives are as solid as the ground under our feet.  We may nod our heads in agreement when someone says “change is the only constant”, but what we cling to is the comfort of the phrase “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.  Change that isn’t self-initiated is frightening!

Loss:  The Earthquake That Comes to Us All

When I heard Walsh’s poem for the first time, I needed to sit with his words and let them sink in.  As I pictured his images, I was reminded of the experience of loss and grief.

According to Walsh, we’re living our lives–unaware of the earth moving beneath us.  We assume that ‘what is’, will continue ‘to be’.  Even when know that a job loss may be coming, a relationship is in trouble, or the death of a loved one is immanent; we don’t really know.  Then the pink slip arrives, the suitcases are waiting at the door, or the late-night call comes from the hospital; and we knowIn our gut, we know.  As Walsh describes, our shelves and floors are never the same.

The Grief Journey

When we experience a loss, our world is turned upside down.  Much of what we depended upon no longer feels trustworthy.  For a while, the world stops feeling safe.  We actively know that bad things do happen–even to good people.

In Walsh’s words, “You would have to take your losses, do whatever must be done next.”  This is often what we do when loss occurs–we plan the funeral, we edit our resume, we divide assets.  Because of the natural shock that our bodies and minds experience at the beginning of the journey, we are able to take the next necessary steps.

While details of the grief journey are beyond the scope of this particular post, video content about the journey is available here on the Blaikie Psychotherapy FB page.

My Wish for You…

While grief and loss come to us all,  Walsh’s imagery of the “tensile strands of love that bend and stretch to hold you in the web of life” describe the circle of care that ideally surround us during those times.

My wish for you is that you are enveloped in the love that takes away the precariousness of the ground.

And now…an amazing video of Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert talking about their grief experiences.  Please note that during their discussion Stephen Colbert does share about his personal religious beliefs.  Enjoy!

 

Becoming a Wild Human

Who doesn’t love fairy tales?  These stories have been a mainstay of many a child’s bedtime routine–introducing us to mythic characters while teaching  life lessons from the safety of our pillows.  Think of the grandfather/grandson from the Princess Bride!

There’s something about hearing the words “Once upon a time…” that makes us settle into our seats and listen…

A Story…

Once upon a time a human was born into a ‘good’ family.  The parents had looked forward to the birth of their child and they planned to do all they could to raise her to the best of their abilities.  Their child would be protected from harm, sheltered from sadness, and provided with everything she needed.

The small human thrived in this stable environment, and as children do, started to become curious about the world outside of his family unit.  When he was three years old, he wanted to climb the slide at the park.  “Oh no!  You may fall and be hurt.”, said one parent.  So, the child reluctantly left the slide and sat on the bench beside his parent.

Once this small human started school, she wanted to walk down the street to visit her friend.  “Oh no!  You may not make it there safely; besides, how will I know that you arrived?”, said the other parent.  So the child was accompanied to her friend’s house by her parent, with strict instructions not to walk home on her own.

As the child grew, he continued to be cosseted and protected by his parents.  While he loved them, he was feeling trapped.  He knew that there was a bigger world beyond his parents’ and he wanted to explore.  Unfortunately, he was unable to fight against the cocoon woven by his family.  Every time he struggled, his family was there to provide solutions–money, things, contacts…

Eventually, not trusting in his own abilities, he stopped struggling and stayed in his safe world, taken care of for the rest of his days.

Another Story…

This story attributed to Henry Miller, the writer, about a little boy in India who went up to a guru who was sitting and looking at something in his hand. The little boy went up and looked at it. He didn’t quite understand what it was, so he asked the guru, “What is that?”

“It’s a cocoon,” answered the guru, “Inside the cocoon is a butterfly. Soon the cocoon is going to split, and the butterfly will come out.”

“Could I have it?” asked the little boy.

“Yes,” said the guru, “but you must promise me that when the cocoon splits and the butterfly starts to come out and is beating it’s wings to get out of the cocoon, you won’t help it. It is important not to help the butterfly by breaking the cocoon apart. It must do it on it’s own.”

The little boy promised, took the cocoon, and went home with it. He then sat and watched it. He saw it begin to vibrate and move and quiver, and finally the cocoon split in half. Inside was a beautiful damp butterfly, frantically beating its wings against the cocoon, trying to get out and not seeming to be able to do it. The little boy desperately wanted to help. Finally, he gave in, and pushed the two halves of the cocoon apart. The butterfly sprang out, but as soon as it got out, it fell to the ground and was dead. The little boy picked up the dead butterfly and in tears went back to the guru and showed it to him.

“Little boy,” said the guru, “You pushed open the cocoon, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said the little boy, “I did.”

The guru spoke to him gravely, “You don’t understand. You didn’t understand what you were doing. When the butterfly comes out of the cocoon, the only way he can strengthen it’s wings is by beating them against the cocoon. It beats against the cocoon so it’s muscles will grow strong. When you helped it, you prevented it from developing the muscles it would need to survive.”

Becoming a Wild Human

Each of these tales is a cautionary tale about what happens when life is made too easy for us, and we don’t have the opportunity to gain strength and wisdom by learning lessons through adversity.  Neither the parents or the boy were bad people, only over protective of what/who they loved.  All were unaware that there are lessons to be learned at each stage of development.

Recently, I was given the book Women Who Run With the Wolves:  Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, PhD.  I had read (and lost) this book years ago, and was thrilled to have it come back into my life.  It’s one of those classics that shares new wisdom at each reading and at each life stage.

In her book, Estés analyses myths, fairy tales, folk tales and stories from different cultures to uncover the Wild Woman archetype of the feminine psyche.  (Note:  The author is talking about an archetype as defined by Jungian psychology, which applies to all genders.)

What does it mean to be “wild”?  The author equates being wild with moving from society’s strict rules of conduct–i.e. being “nice” to being able to live authentically from a place of wisdom.  Wild isn’t always nice.

How Do We Get There?

The main premise of the book is that there are a set of skills that must be learned in order to become “wild”.  Being “wild” takes courage, as well as the ability to have patience when sitting with discomfort.

Each chapter/story of the book outlines a particular skill that must be mastered in order to progress throughout life.  These skills include:

  • Living through a loss of innocence (marking the end of childhood)
  • Developing the ability to discern one thing from another
  • Developing and trusting our intuition
  • Recognizing our family (and these are not necessarily the people we’re related to biologically)
  • Being able to judge who will be a good romantic partner
  • Knowing when it’s time for things to die (such as relationships).
Why is Wild Important?

Besides being an Jungian analyst and cantadora (story teller), Estés also studies wolves.  She marries her vision of a wild human with the idea of a wolf–able to take care of itself, form strong relationships with others, ability to discern what is healthy for itself and the pack…basically an innate level of confidence in it’s abilities to thrive–even when things get tough.

Being in touch with the “wild” part of our nature stops us from being used by others because we are able to smell out when something isn’t quite right.  When “wild”, we don’t put up with things that are harmful to us in order not  to make waves.  “Wild” humans care about others and can be fiercely loyal to their “tribe”, while at the same time knowing when it’s time to let go of people, places, things or ideas.  I think of “wild” humans as being sure-footed.

As illustrated by the stories above, when we don’t develop this side of ourselves, we don’t live our fullest lives.  In a worst-case scenario, we can become prey for others because we don’t have fully developed senses to route out danger.

So here’s to being “Wild”!  Not in a “you better have bail money” kind of way, but by being able to confidently stand on our own two feet and smell which way the wind is blowing kind of way.

And now…thinking of the Princess Bride…here’s one of my favourite scenes.  Enjoy!

 

 

Anxiety Disorders and Ankles

When I told a friend the topic for this post, she was understandably confused…if you feel the same, please stay with me, it will make sense!

It’s About the Ankles

Living in a land that is often covered by ice and snow for a number of months during the year, many of us (who are not fans of winter) take advantage of being able to get out during the warmer months.  For me, this means walking to most places that I want to go.  There’s nothing like striding down neighbourhood streets–running errands or just going for a tour to see what’s happening outside.  Unfortunately, I’m not the most graceful sheep in the herd and can easily be distracted by the sights and sounds around me.  This means that at some point during the ‘walking season’ I end up tripping over something and going over on my ankle.

Now for anyone who has suffered a twisted ankle, you know how acutely aware you become of its tenderness.  You baby it for awhile, ever vigilant for the possibility of another sprain.  Being careful is a good idea because once an ankle has been injured, there is a greater chance of it being hurt again.

Ankle injuries can get in the way of life.  Depending on how severe the injury, we have to cope with difficulties ranging from hobbling around with a tensor bandage to a full-on cast if we are recovering from surgery.   Maybe we miss time from work, need help with chores or errands.  Due to pain and mobility challenges, we may not feel like getting together with friends or family.  Basically, the injury is not something we want to repeat–possibility making us hyper-vigilant about any bump in the road (or sidewalk).

Now for the Anxiety Piece…

When people are recovering from an anxiety disorder, one of the most common fears is that it will reoccur.  Because mental illness is identified as a chronic illness (Government of Canada website), this isn’t an unrealistic fear.   Just like an injured ankle is more susceptible to further injury, so are our brains.

As we discover the triggers for the bouts of anxiety and how to cope with them, another trigger can become that we will become anxious/depressed again and travel back to when it felt like anxiety was in control.  However, it doesn’t have to be this way…

Chronic versus Acute Illness

The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines “chronic” as “continuing or occurring again and again for a long time”.  The opposite of “chronic” is “acute” (meaning of short duration, rapidly progressive, and in need of urgent care).  Think “depression” (chronic) and a 24-hour stomach flu (acute).

We’re more comfortable dealing with an illness that we know will be over in a short period of time.  When we have the flu, we know how to take care of ourselves (or a loved one)–rest, fluids, medicine.  We see the results of our efforts fairly quickly, and know that the illness will pass on its own.

Chronic illness is another story.  Taking care of ourselves requires a longer-term commitment (perhaps for the rest of our lives) and can change how we see ourselves in relationship to others.  There is a big difference in letting a friend know that we can’t attend their party because of a bad cold, versus we’re stuck at home because of a bout of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Working with Anxiety Disorders

When I start working with someone who is suffering with an anxiety disorder, after learning about how anxiety is affecting their life and key information about their history with anxiety; one of the first things we do is look at the anxiety from the perspective of a science experiment.

We start to gather data.  Something as simple as tracking their mood on a daily basis (between 1(low) and 10 (high) gives an idea of any mood cycles.  As we start to add self-care activities (diet, exercise, mindfulness practice, etc.) we can see how these affect mood.  Additions of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help to find anxiety triggers and ways to cope when anxiety attacks hit.  We work on tools.  Maybe medication is needed.

Treating Anxiety Disorders as a Chronic Illness

Acceptance is key to being able to treat anxiety disorders as a chronic illness.  When a person is diagnosed with diabetes, they need to learn to “manage” their illness through diet, exercise, decreased stress levels, etc.  Anxiety is no different.  But how can we manage anxiety when it seems to come out of nowhere?

This is where all the information we gathered during treatment is useful.  The person knows what self-care activities help to keep them feeling mentally healthy.  They know what their usual mood range is, and are more aware of when they start to feel “off”.  This knowledge gives them the opportunity to catch symptoms before they get out of control–and take back their control.  Go back to basics…tools and coping strategies.

  • Go back to tracking your mood to see if things are as bad as you may think they are in the moment.
  • Improve your diet, exercise, sleep hygiene.  We tend to let these things slip when we’re feeling better.
  • Go back to the daily breathing exercises.  If you don’t know about them, you can download one from this website.
  • If your anxiety doesn’t appear to be improving, visit your doctor.  Maybe your medication needs to be adjusted or starting medication may be helpful.
  • Relax…being anxious about being anxious is a vicious circle.

Anxiety and ankles…in my mind they do go together…especially since I’m not the most graceful sheep in the herd!

And now…a piece of pure silliness (which is perfect for our brain health)…Shaun the Sheep!  Enjoy!

 

When Life Throws You a Curve Ball.

Sometimes life throws us a curve ball.  Maybe we have been diagnosed with a serious illness.  Our partner has ended the relationship or died.  Something else happens, and we suddenly we find ourselves living alone and struggling to cope.

It is at the curve ball points in life that people often seek out a therapist.  When I’m working with people who are at this point, one of the common challenges they are encountering isn’t emotional, but involves the regular tasks of life.  They are stressed about home maintenance, groceries, laundry, auto repairs, cutting the grass/snow shoveling…all the ‘bricks and mortar’ things that need to be done, no matter what else is going on in life.

It is these seemingly ‘simple’ items that can make our situation appear to be even worse that it already is.  Everything is overwhelming.

A Story…

Edith is a 40 year-old, parent of 10 year-old twins.  She was diagnosed two years ago with fibromyalgia.  By working with her doctor and making lifestyle changes, her symptoms had decreased significantly.  Just as Edith thought that life was beginning to feel manageable, her long-term partner said that they wanted to end their relationship and was moving across the country.

Edith was devastated!  Suddenly she became a single parent of twins as well as in charge of running the household on her own.  The increase in stress led to an increase in her symptoms.  Any one of these changes in life situations would be enough to make someone feel overwhelmed.  Unfortunately, Edith was handed both–with one exacerbating the other.  Edith was having trouble coping.

The Power of Habit

One thing that is true about humans, is that we are ‘creatures of habit’.  If we’ve done something for a while, we feel that we should continue to do it…and in the same way.  On some level this mode of being serves us well. We don’t have to keep rethinking how to do routine tasks…we go on autopilot, leaving brain space to think about others things.  However, sometimes this habit isn’t in our best interest.  We need to make alterations.  Habits are difficult to overcome when our lives are on a even keel, and when we are stressed we don’t usually have the mental space to make changes.

When I suggest to people that they may want to try something different, I’m often met with the response “but I’ve always done it that way” or “so and so will be so disappointed if I stop doing this” or “If I don’t do it, I’m failing as a …..”.

These comments especially come out at curve ball times, when we trying to cope with a new reality.

We Don’t Have To Do It All!

It often comes as a surprise to people that they don’t have to do it all.  They are allowed to ask for help or ‘outsource’ tasks.

One of the best resources that I’ve found is the book CEO of Everything:  Flying Solo and Soaring by Gail Vaz-Oxlade and Victoria Ryce.  While the title is aimed at ‘newly single’ people (either through death or divorce), the book is valuable in many situations.

Both the authors speak from experience (Gail through multiple divorces; Victoria because of the death of a spouse).  Between the two of them, they cover everything from coping during the early stages of change to childcare to dating to housing.  They share their thoughts and experience on what to look for as you make decisions on whether to outsource or not.

The thing that I appreciate most about this book is that it gives the reader permission not to have to do everything.  In fact, the authors logically explain why it’s impossible–especially if you’re trying to cover the work of a missing person when life has been turned upside down.

Story Continues…

After a while, Edith realized that she needed help with her ‘to do’ list.  She figured out what she could manage based on her health and time commitments.  Talking with her therapist she was able see how the difficult emotions of grief and guilt were getting in the way of making choices about what tasks she could let go of.  Edith knew that, after her own self-care, her main priority was supporting her children through this change.

Once Edith became clear about where she wanted to focus her energy, she created the list of what else needed to be done and who could help.  Even though Edith didn’t feel comfortable asking for help, she began to accept offers from friends and family.  Thankfully, she could afford to pay someone for any other help she needed.

The road ahead for Edith and her children wasn’t going to be easy, and at least she had less on her plate taking up her time and energy.

But What if can’t afford to hire someone?

Not everyone is as fortunate as Edith in being able to hire help.  This is where your support system can come in–those friends and family members who help each other when the going gets tough.  With an established support system, we’re less likely to feel uncomfortable asking for help.

However, not everyone has been able to create such a system, either due to being new to an area, work pressures, etc.  So where can we look for help?

  • Talk to the people you know and explain what you’re looking for.  You may not be able to get help for free, but there are often people who are willing to do work at a lower rate.
  • If you belong to a church group or other organization let people know that you need support.  You don’t need to go into a lot of detail, and most organizations (especially religious groups) has committees or ministry staff set up to help.
  • Check with local high schools for students looking for volunteer hours.  In Ontario, secondary students are required to complete 40 volunteer hours before graduation.  Volunteering for household chores does count towards these hours–since they’re not being paid.

And now if you decide to get help for household repairs or chores, watch out for this guy!  It’s some classic British comedy for the series Some Mothers Do Av Em.  Enjoy!

 

Being Gone and Coming Back

The following is a very special guest post regarding one person’s experience with depression.  It was written by the client of a colleague as a way to make sense of their time with depression.  These are their words…unedited.

For anyone who is currently in depression’s grasp, you may be able to relate to this person’s story and take hope that ‘coming back’ is possible.  For those who have never had to cope with a mental illness, this first-hand account provides amazing insight into what it is like.

I would like to thank the author of this piece for their courage in sharing their story…

I wake up, and immediately wish that I hadn’t. The overwhelming feeling of despair isn’t the first thought I have, it is just there from the day before. It’s like I never slept at all.

There is a constant darkness pushing down on me, it surrounds and invades me. It’s the most oppressive feeling I’ve ever had. I feel trapped.

I’m in a deep, narrow hole like a well. I’m standing on a small, slippery rock with thick mud up to my waist. If I slip off the rock, I will sink in the mud. The top of the hole is covered, there is very little light. I’m desperately clinging to a small strand of hope that I’ll get
out, but I have no idea how.

I am thinking and moving very slowly.

I endure living for the sake of my family. I tolerate living because I want to see them all again. I miss them horribly.

Every thought I have is sad, anxiety-provoking or both. I try to push everything out of my head, and I will do anything to avoid being alone with my thoughts.

I spend the day waiting to be able to go back to sleep. While I’m awake, I constantly crave distraction from what’s going on in my brain – TV & movies give me a distraction for 5-10 minutes at a time. I have no emotional reaction to the stories, and only vaguely
care what happens to the characters. I have a lot of trouble following a plotline and remember few details about what happened afterwards. A game on my phone will give me distraction for 10 minutes at a time.

People are not a distraction, basic interaction seems impossible and scary.
I sit alone in the basement for hours at a time watching TV, frozen in place with no interest in moving. When I hear my family upstairs, some deeply buried part of me wants to join them, but most of the time I just can’t do it.

Just getting through a day is mentally and physically exhausting. I can’t nap because that means being alone with my thoughts, and I’m terrified of not being able to sleep at night.

I desperately want to talk to my family, but also just want to be alone. I have things to say, but at the same time I have no idea what I would say if I did talk.

It can take days to figure out how to say something. When I do talk, I usually regret what I say or how I said it. I’m often irritated and harsh with my family and hate myself for it. When they talk to me, I struggle to show that I hear them and that I care, and I hate
myself for that too.

I hate the effect I am having on my family. I don’t know if I really comprehend how I affect them, I just know it’s not good.

I hate the fact that I am absent and missing a big and important chunk of my daughters’ lives. I hate being an absent husband and father.

I go to watch them in sports or performances, but I’m not really there. I desperately want to find enjoyment, but the emotional response is buried far inside and that makes me sad. I know I’m proud, but can’t really feel it, or communicate it. Afterwards I have a poor memory of what happened.

I’m proud of who my daughters have become, but don’t know how to tell them. I’m disconnected from the positive feeling of that pride, more just sad that I’m absent. I hate that I’m not the Dad I want to be, and hate myself for not being able to help them with their
challenges. I’m vaguely aware and thankful that they are being unbelievably patient with me.

I am enormously grateful for my wife’s support and patience, and that she somehow picks up the huge amount of slack I create. The gratitude doesn’t feel good, I hate myself for what I’m putting her through and I don’t know how she puts up with it. I’m aware though,
that her support makes things easier. I’m scared she’s going to leave, and really wouldn’t blame her.

At the beginning I used to be able to cry, but I can’t anymore. Although I feel intense sadness, I’m somehow disconnected from it.

I think it’s possible or even likely I will die of a heart attack or blood clot from being so immobile, which seems sad in an abstract way, but I don’t seem to really care.
I’m so lonely, but have no idea how to change that. I feel completely isolated. I don’t like myself, and can’t see why anyone would feel any differently about me.

I’m constantly fearful that someone will talk to me, but disappointed when they don’t. I fear being alone with another person, any silence is deafening. Eye contact is terrifying.

The smallest things seem impossible to do. I delay everything until it becomes absolutely necessary, even the basics like going to the bathroom. The only reason I do anything is to try to avoid disappointing my family or people at work.

I have limited interest in basic personal hygiene, and am only sometimes embarrassed by it. I just want it to happen without having to do it, showering seems like a huge, difficult effort. When I do shower, I don’t feel refreshed.

I have no interest in food, except to fill a void. I’ll eat until I feel sick trying to fill the void.
My brain isn’t functioning. It does the basics like keeping me breathing and my heart beating, and I’m somewhat surprised it can. My brain is encased in wet concrete that is hardening, any thought processes with the slightest complexity or need for problem solving seem impossible. My thoughts are very slow, like fighting my way through heavy sludge.

I’m paralyzed by uncertainty and fear; I have no confidence in my judgement, even for simple decisions.

I can hear what people are saying, but usually don’t really understand what they are telling me. I can understand simple statements, but have a hard time piecing together more than one simple concept or understanding the implications of what is being said. More
often than not, I don’t remember what people tell me, or that we had a conversation.

Somehow I desperately want to understand and figure things out, while at the same time I have absolutely no interest.

When at work, I spend most of the time staring at the computer and trying to figure out how to get out of there as soon as possible. I focus on small, simple, necessary tasks. I don’t know what else to do, or if I do know of something I could or should do, I can’t
picture the steps that are needed and can’t figure out how to start. I can’t remember the details of repeated tasks, and need to relearn them each time. I’m fearful and embarrassed that others know how little I am able to do.

I generally don’t remember what happened the day before, or even earlier in the day, everything is in a deep fog.

Irritation with commotion or noise around me is all-consuming. Any noise is too noisy. I feel like I’m made of ice and the noise will shatter the ice.

Outdoors is too bright, too cold or too hot, and always too noisy.
I can’t listen to music, it just sounds like noise and is irritating. I can hear the music, but have no emotional response other than irritation and a sadness that I can’t connect to it.

Hearing people laugh irritates me and makes me sad. People talking around me, and most of their actions, are deeply irritating.

I can’t imagine talking to people or being in social situations. I have no interest and have all-consuming anxiety they’ll see through me and quickly become disinterested or disapproving. It’s exhausting to have basic conversations. I’m embarrassed to be who I am.

I occasionally go to things like family gatherings, but only because I know it’s important to my wife and to prove to her that I am trying and care about what is important to her. I have no interest in being there other than that, and am consumed by painful anxiety. All I
can think about is how to get out of there.

I believe I am weak for not being able to lift myself out of this. I feel shame and guilt that I’m not doing enough to fix the problem.

None of these are things that I can just shake off, they are deeply rooted and they just are who I am.

I feel intense sadness, despair, fear and desperation. Not much else. If I smile, I’m faking it.

I’m terrified of the future.
…………………………………………………………………………………………………….

That was my life.  More than 5 years ago, it started with an anxiety that quickly grew to be severe and constant. Over time, life spiraled into the depressive state that I’ve tried to describe. It’s bleak, but doesn’t quite capture how horrible life was, or the intensity of the
desperation. I don’t have the words for an adequate description.

But I’m back now.

I’m back after being very far gone for a long time. The oppressive weight has lifted, and somehow, I’ve emerged from a dark and desperate state of being.

My brain is working again. I can think, I can feel, and I smile for real. I can see the humour in things, I make jokes, and unbelievably, I can laugh a real laugh.

I can talk to my family. Instead of feeling like I’m on the outside looking in, I know I’m part of the family. I’m capable of engagement, and no longer absent.

I don’t push everything away anymore, I take things in, and it feels good.

I can see things that need to be done, and I can think through the steps that need to be taken. I actually want to do things, and I don’t question my every thought and move.
Music is deeply meaningful to me again. The first time I chose to listen to music in a very long time I cried, overcome by the enormity of having access to real emotions back.

In quiet times, I can feel a sense of calm and peace.

I still have worries, concerns and irritations but they are no longer all-consuming, and are manageable. They feel normal.

I feel a bit fragile and cautious, but that is slowly getting better every week. I know I will be alright. I’m saddened by the tragedy of what I’ve missed, but it’s ok.

I have my life back.

Getting better involved prolonged periods of trial and error with pharmaceuticals and their side effects, talk therapy and naturopathic treatments – all endured with some form of seemingly impossible patience.

If you think you should be able to do it alone, you’re wrong. Anyone who implies that you should be able to just ‘get your act together’, ‘pick yourself up’, and ‘snap out of it’ doesn’t know what they are talking about.

While I was gone, with my wife’s encouragement I somehow managed to reach out for help. Help from healthcare professionals, and compassion from friends and family. Asking for help was not a sign of weakness, it was a sign of strength and courage.

Wary of the cliché, but without exaggeration, reaching out for help probably saved my life. And I can see now it is a life worth saving.

So What?

As humans, we have a tendency to think of the worst case scenario.  A boss looks grumpy and we fantasize about losing our job.  We get a call from our child’s school and we imagine a playground accident or possible suspension.  A bad headache arrives, and we’re picking out our funeral clothes.

However, the catastrophes that we imagine, often never happen.  The boss is smiling an hour later, the teacher is calling to let us know that our child is being considered for an award, and the headache is only a headache.  We return to a sense of perspective.

Unfortunately, when we are dealing with mental health challenges, our sense of perspective can be illusive.  Everything feels like an overwhelming crisis.

A Story…

Natalie (age 40) and her wife (Jane) recently separated after being together for 15 years.  The decision to end the relationship was mutual, and they are now in the process of working with lawyers on a separation agreement.  There are no children involved, making the creation of the agreement fairly straightforward.

Natalie has struggled with anxiety and depression throughout her adult life, and been able to manage her symptoms with a combination of self-care and medication.  However, even though the decision to separate was amicable, Natalie experienced an increase in her anxiety as she and Jane worked though the process of dividing possessions, deciding on how to tell their friends and family, and many of the other life ripples that come after making a big decision.

Shortly after Jane moved out of their house (pending it’s sale), Natalie started to feel as if her body was ‘revving’ all the time–she couldn’t relax or settle to anything.  As she felt more overwhelmed, her sleep patterns changed–sleepless nights spent listening to house noises and ruminating on past and future decisions.  As time passed, the ‘revving’ morphed into a general fear of the future.

It was after experiencing a panic attack (first one in 10 years) while looking at paint colours for her new apartment, that Natalie decided to talk to a therapist.

The Anxiety Path

When we pay attention, we can notice that anxiety arrives slowly.  It may feel as if we wake up one day ANXIOUS, but looking back we can follow the trail.  Even though Natalie had history with anxiety and depression, it’s return wasn’t immediately visible.  Instead, her symptoms were lost in the situational stress she was experiencing.

When working with clients experiencing anxiety one of the first things we do is start looking for triggers–becoming anxiety scientists.   Keeping track of the body sensations, thoughts and emotions that lead to feelings of anxiety.  For Natalie, she and her therapist would be exploring the thoughts that proceeded her body “revving”, or the messages that were keeping her up at night.

The Story Continues…

As Natalie worked with her therapist, it became clear that while Natalie’s increased level of anxiety was centred on two areas.  The first was situational:  her recent separation from Jane, and the resulting major life transitions.  The second was Natalie’s fear of her unknown future.  What would her life look like now that she was single?  She was happy with her decision not to have children when she thought that she and Jane would be together “till death did them part”, but now the idea of being alone for the rest of her life was terrifying!

The “So What” Game

The “So What” game is quite simple in theory, and takes some work.  It involves taking the thoughts and worries that are leading to anxiety and basically following their path to their conclusion.  As we follow where the path leads, we check to determine how reasonable the thoughts are and if necessary, what is the plan to deal with them.

Natalie’s anxiety path looked like this:

Ruminating about fears of the future…specific fear that she has made the wrong decision in agreeing to end her relationship with Jane…why she is afraid that she made a mistake…if she’s not in a relationship, she will grow old alone.

Once we have some content of the fear (it isn’t also so easy to determine), then we can decide on it’s likeliness of happening, and look at a plan.  Growing old alone is a normal fear, but in Natalie’s case is it reasonable?  There is no reason to assume that Natalie won’t re-partner at some point (if she chooses to).  However, if she doesn’t, what’s her plan?

Natalie realized that, during her relationship with Jane, she had lost contact with many of her friends and family members.  Also, their “couple” friends had originally been Jane’s friends and we now rallying around Jane.  Natalie’s feelings of isolation were contributing to her anxiety.  Her immediate plan was to reach out to old friends and check in with family members.

Natalie also decided that she needed to create a new life for herself.  Her future plan is to think about interests she would like to pursue and find communities that support those interests.

The Benefits of “So What”

Anxiety can be related to the fear of the unknown.  When we look at what is making us afraid and come up with a plan, we take some control over the situation.  We also gain a sense of perspective as we discover that perhaps our worst fears aren’t as likely as we think that are.  When we decide that we can live with the worst, we’re no longer as afraid.

Natalie Carries On…

Because Natalie had a history of anxiety and depression, her recovery included checking in with her doctor to see if her medication was still appropriate.  She also restarted her self-care practice of exercise, breathing exercises and healthy diet.

Natalie used the “So What” game every time that she encountered new fears and used the results to add to her plan.  Getting over the grief of a  lost relationship and doing the work of moving on is difficult, so she was adding self-compassion into her plan.

And now….”So What?” from the Great Miles Davis…Enjoy!

 

At Blaikie Psychtherapy, Online Therapy is an Option

When we think of taking part in counselling, we might imagine sitting in an office and speaking in-person with a therapist.  Unfortunately, this often meant that mental health support was only available to those who had a care-provider in their area (rural areas are often under-resourced), and were able to make it into the office.  If transportation was a problem, or a critical/chronic illness prevented someone from leaving home, therapy wasn’t a viable option.

Thanks to the internet, and the advent of online therapy programs, mental health support is now available to more people.  I’ve been offering on-line counselling sessions since September 2018, through a program offered by OnCall Health, and it’s proving to be a good option for people who cannot make it into the office.  

Due to CRPO regulations, I can only provide on-line therapy to Ontario residents.

How Does it Work?

It’s easy!  As long as you have a device that is able to download the OnCall Health application, you’re good to go.  Here’s the process:

  • Contact Blaikie Psychotherapy in the usual way: my website, Psychology Today or Theravive.
  • When we have our initial phone or email conversation, let me know that you are interested in on-line therapy.
  • Once you have decided that you would like to me with me, I book the session through OnCall Health, and email you the Service Agreement and consent documentation that is usually completed in person at the first session. You will also receive payment instructions.
  • You will get the information from OnCall Health about downloading the app.  I’ve found their technical support to be amazing.  If you have any problems with the computer end of things, you only have to get in touch with them and they’ll walk you through it.
  • Email reminders of your sessions is part of the app.
  • At the agreed time, we both log onto OnCall Health, and the session begins.
Specifics About OnCall Health

After a lot of research, I specifically chose to use the OnCall Health platform for the  following reasons:

  • Confidentiality is a huge component and concern in any therapeutic relationship.  OnCall Health ensures confidentiality by having encrypted communications, and locating their servers in Canada vs the US.
  • Ease of use for both me and my clients.  I spoke to colleagues who use OnCall Health and they had very positive things to say.  The technical support is strong–which is especially helpful for someone like me who is not computer-savvy!
  • The quality of the on-line therapy experience.  So far, my experience and those of my clients and colleagues who are using the platform, is that the transmission between client/therapist has been clear and in real-time.  No lagging or weird voice delays.

Mental health support should be available to anyone who wants it, and online therapy is a step in that direction.  If you are interested in exploring this option for therapy, please contact me at laurie@laurieblaikie.com.

 

Let’s Be Kind to Ourselves

Recently, I had dinner with two close friends.  As the evening progressed, we talked about how sometimes we struggle with negative voices in our head. These are not the kind of voices that tell us to do harm to ourselves or others, but the ones that undermine our confidence and leading us to feel negatively about who we are and what we do.

If we’re completely honest, I think that all of us could have the same conversation.  Sometimes this voice tells us that we’re not good enough. That it’s only a matter of time before everyone else notices how we’re faking it, and the image of ourselves that we’ve built comes crashing down.  Maybe the voice tells us that we’re too thin, or not thin enough.  If we were only a better partner or friend, or did thus and so, then our life would be perfect.  Once we learn how to (fill in your own words here), then all will be well.  We will have made it!  We believe that our life isn’t perfect, because we are ‘lesser’ than others.

Sometimes we know where ‘the voice’ came from.  We recognize the tone or words.  In some cases, it belongs to a critical parent or teacher.  In others, the voice belongs to a ‘friend’ who really wasn’t a friend.  The owner of ‘the voice’ may no longer be in our life, but their messages persist.  However, what if they lied?  What if we’re good enough the way we are?

Why are we so mean to ourselves?

We’ve talked about some of the places where our negative messages come from, but why do we continue to believe them?  On a basic level, it’s because we continue the behaviours (even negative ones) that serve us in some way.

At a recent workshop (Mindful Self-Compassion presented by Diane Frederick), Diane showed this clip of an interview with Dr. Paul Gilbert.  Dr. Gilbert is a British clinical psychologist, author, and the founder of compassion focused therapy/compassionate mind training.

Gilbert suggests that one of the reasons we don’t give ourselves the benefit of the doubt is because of society’s current fascination with ‘winners’.  Dr. Gilbert cites the increase in reality programs where, instead of focusing on the winner—in which there was usually only one or two—we negatively focus on the ‘loser’.  Because we’re human, we’re programmed to want to be part of a group.  In fact, until fairly recently in our evolution, being excluded from the group meant certain death.  No one wants to ‘be voted off the island’!

Another reason that we beat ourselves up is that we want to know where we fit in hierarchy.  As humans we compare ourselves to others.  However, not so long ago, we only compared what we did or had to our close neighbours.  Now, through the magic of social media, we can compare to everyone—even if the comparisons aren’t realistic or true.  Not only do we get the negative messages from past people in our lives, but now also from mainstream media; and our self-worth suffers in the process.

A third reason we continue to be mean to ourselves is that we think it helps us to succeed.  If we didn’t have that negative inner voice, we might give in to our baser instincts—eat whatever we want, spend every night devouring the latest Netflix series, or not giving 110% at work.  How are we to get ahead in life if we don’t keep trying to improve ourselves?  We don’t want to fail.

Why Should We Care?

Simply put, when we’re mean to ourselves, we are hurting ourselves.  We are both the perpetrator and victim.  Our mental health suffers.

Anxiety, depression, stress, rumination (negative, repeating thoughts), perfectionism, fear of failure and shame are the outcomes of a habit of ‘beating ourselves up’…and we can choose to do something different!

How Do We Stop?

Be mindful of your inner life.  We do this by checking in with ourselves throughout the day…especially if you notice physical symptoms (headache, tense muscles or stomach issues).  Our bodies are a wonderful barometer of what our mind is doing.

Argue with that inner voice.  Through mindfulness, once you become aware of how you are being mean to yourself, argue with that voice.  One Cognitive Behavioural Therapy method is to question the validity of our negative thoughts.  A good way to do this is in writing.  Write down the negative statement, then beside or underneath it, list a rebuttal.  Keep going until ‘you’ win the argument.  At the same time, rather than using an “I” statement, move the statement into the third person (i.e. using your first name).  This provides distance and makes it less personal.

Imagine that the voice is talking to your best friend or other loved one.  Would you say those things to them? You can also imagine yourself as a small child that you are taking care of.

Download and use “Ditty”.  This app lets you record a negative statement and then pick a funny way to play it back.  It’s hard to take a mean message seriously when it’s being said to the soundtrack for “the chicken dance”!

Focus on the positive. Some people love to use affirmations, others not so much.  If positive affirmations work for you, go for it.

Invite the voice in for tea.  If arguing with your inner critic doesn’t work, try looking at it with compassion.  Sometimes we spend a lot of energy fighting against something.  However, once we accept what we don’t like it loses its power.

Life is sometimes difficult and the world can be a scary place.  We need to be kind to others, and to ourselves….

And now, this beautiful song has become one of my new favourites…Enjoy!