Let me begin by wishing all those who decide to read this particular post a Happy New Year. A new decade to look forward to and get excited about. For myself, I begin the first few weeks of every year standing in front of a white board pondering and contemplating dreams, goals, targets, changes, wants, needs, achievements, failures, highs and lows. I have been doing this for over two decades and it has become something of a ritual for me. It did not always involve a white board and my colored dry erase markers; but instead a tiny hand-crafted book with some Chinese symbols on the front. Today, I still do not know the meaning of those symbols. Looking through this book I can find many goals that I accomplished over the years as well as many crazy dreams that I did not. It also reveals changes I have gone through that shifted my dreams, allowing new goals to be set, and others to be crossed off. Many of us hate to set goals, or as some call them New Years Resolutions because it sets the stage for potential failure and disappointment. Believe me when I say that I have experienced my share of disappointments over the years because I failed to achieve a goal, or create changes I set out to make as a New Years resolution. However, it has also taught me a great deal about myself, my capabilities, and the path I want to journey on.
The Journey now…
Today will mark my first post of 2020, and being that last Monday was supposedly the most depressing day of the year, conveniently labelled as, “Blue Monday”. I thought that this would be a great place to begin my year of blogging. After all, the purpose of me starting this blog was to find balance in an imbalanced world. Having said that, we are on the doorstep of Bell Canada’s very successful mental illness campaign “Let’s Talk!”. This is why I want to begin 2020 with my first post focusing around what I can share about mental illness. Of course these are strictly my opinions, and I am by no means a psychiatrist or psychologist claiming to be an expert on the subject. However, I do have some experiences, theories and practices that I find beneficial. They have been tried, tested and proven to work. The Bell Let’s Talk campaign’s objective is to create awareness, reduce the stigma, and move society to being more open about what is a very real and serious issue. It is a more difficult post, and is a lot more serious than I like to be, but is such an important topic that it should not be ignored. Although I tend to live my life with my heart on my sleeve, this post will expose some truths I have never talked about, therefor opening myself up to judgement and possible misinterpretation by whomever decides to read it.
To begin, it is important to understand that I have many “Type A” personality traits with a mild case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In today’s society this is nothing really surprising, as everyone has some sort of disorder or personality characteristic that potentially can affect them negatively. I simply refer to them as imbalances as most can be controlled, maintained and improved through a variety of things which we will discuss later. I have learned over the years that even simple understanding, education, or awareness of ones “self” can help you achieve a more balanced outcome. I like to think of the whole picture as a flowing multi-directional continuum that can fall towards any one direction at any time, based on actions, decisions, thoughts or behavior. Recognizing and practicing awareness of the direction your balance is flowing, you can work to bring it back to center. Knowing this, it is not hard to believe that earlier in my life, before knowing what I know now, failing to achieve my goals or accomplishing what I set out to, spiraled me down a very dark path. Feelings of guilt, failure, worthlessness, uncertainty, and hopelessness lead me into a very dark world. I became so withdrawn and depressed that I began to ask questions like: What really am I doing here? Is there a point to anything? Would anyone really care if I wasn’t here? I began to make statements like: The people I know would probably be better off without me. My life really has no purpose or point to it. I’m useless, a complete failure, and I’ve done nothing worth anything. I can go on and on with phrases like the ones above, and I pray that anyone reading this are not saying, or feeling the same things. If you are, please reach out to someone as there are many resources out there that can help. Also, let me tell you that you are not alone, and you do not have to walk through life like this.
2001 photos of me struggling with depression. I love photos and am fascinated with capturing moments in time, which is why I take many photos wherever I go. Ironically, during the year I was struggling with depression, I only have 16 photos of me. In 15 of the 16 photos of me I am smiling and appear to be full of life. To the onlooker, you would never know I was struggling with depression.
My battle with depression began in the year 2000 after returning from Montreal to my hometown of Macklin, Saskatchewan. It was one more failure for me as I vowed that I would never return to Macklin to live as a resident. Nothing against the town of Macklin, as it has nothing to do with it, only that I had many goals and dreams that could not be achieved by residing in Macklin. For example, if you wanted to attend theater school you would not find one in Macklin. For me, it was another symbol that I would not achieve many of the goals I had written inside that book. Looking back now, it really was more of stepping stone and opportunity to grow. It was a chance to prepare for the next step and learn what was needed to tackle what was to come. Unfortunately I missed that, and in a weakened state of mind I focused on my failure instead. I remember that October very well, and it will occasionally still occupy my mind today. There was nothing I could do, or anything anybody could say that would help bring me out of the dark place I was in. I remember a particular evening sitting down for dinner with my parents over one of my favorite meals, when I placed my fork aside and left the table because I broke down into tears and did not want them to see. I recall my father coming down to the basement telling me that he did not know how to help me, but that I had all the power to change what I was going through. I appreciated my fathers concern, but felt I really did not possess any power to do anything. I kept telling myself to get up and go to work, go to hockey practice, go out and be with people, but the entire time I was a walking zombie with no real attachment to anything. No one knew the blackness that surrounded me every day, and I became very good at pretending all was well. The truth was, I was lost and desperately searching for a purpose to live for.
The beginning to the end of my nightmare came when I began contemplating ways to remove myself from the world. I remember leaning upon an old civil war type of sword I acquired in a garage sale, letting more and more of my weight fall upon its point, wondering when the sword would penetrate through my stomach. What would that feel like? Would it actually end my life or just leave me with a serious injury? Today, I think back to that night and thank God my feet did not slip out on the carpet. The next few weeks became very scary as I began to contemplate all the different ways to take my life, and what it would be like afterwards. What I could not understand and answer, was how someone like myself who was a competitor, a fighter, a guy who appeared to excel at everything he put his mind to, could not bring himself to believe he had anything of worth to live for. How was this possible? I had done so much in my life already and was surrounded by some beautiful people, and yet, so unhappy. Ultimately, it was these contradictory thoughts that actually saved me, as they prevented me from doing something very regretful. I could not find an answer to the above questions, so it pushed me to read and learn, seeking an answer. There has always been one very strong character trait about me, which is to find solutions and answers to what I do not know. I am not embarrassed about what I went through, but today I still feel upset that I let myself spiral that far before reaching out. It still scares me a little to put so much of myself out there for fear of judgement, and I also struggle with feeling guilty and foolish for ever having thoughts like I had.
After that, I sought out the only two individuals in the town that I thought might be able to help or understand what I was going through. Again, in hindsight, there are others, but at 23 years old and where I was in life, I could only come up with two. The first was the local priest. I thought that perhaps I lost my faith, or that my path was not clear, and the church could help me find my way back. The second was the town’s doctor. A gentleman who was from South Africa and had a much more objective eye of what I might have been dealing with. Both of these individuals helped me in an indirect kind of way. The doctor prescribed me an anti-depressant drug called Paxil. I will not provide the details and medical terminology of each type of drug, their side-effects or what they are doing. I have linked them here for you to begin your research if you wish. To begin, the doctor started with a six month prescription which I began immediately. The priest on the other hand acted like a therapist for me. He later became more of a friend than a therapist, but he was a sounding board who allowed me to talk openly without facing judgement. Ironically, I found out that he also was prescribed an anti-depressant called Prozac, and was taking it for quite some time. In retrospect, we both acted as therapists for each other, sharing stories and working through many of life’s questions together. This helped a great deal, and I began to feel better. I began to see light at the end of my tunnel, and I began to realize that I was only 24 years old, with a lot of life in front of me. I began to start asking myself why I would want to stop living when there is so much left that I can do. This is when I was hit with an epiphany. I remember that moment vividly, and did what all doctors advise against. I was in the basement staring at myself in the mirror, and remember telling myself that I do not need a drug to make me feel better. I realized that I control my feelings, and therefor, only I can make myself feel better. In that moment I took my medication and dumped it into the toilet and said “bye”.
“Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most. -Budha-
Phewww! Okay, that was an awful lot to get out and edit down into the shortest version I feel possible. Since saying goodbye to that medication in 2002 I have had many high’s and low’s throughout the last two decades. I am very happy to say that I have never fallen into as deep as hole as I was then. I am not naive and think I am bulletproof like I used to. I remain very aware that it is a very slippery slope when you begin feeling or seeing those signs. I no longer think I am invincible, and I am certainly very attentive to my frame of mind. I spent the last two decades finding, trying and discovering ways to cope, help or keep me from ever returning to that place. However, we are all human, and being that, we are all susceptible to illnesses of any kind. On that note, I want to write about some things that have worked for me and others over the years, and leave you feeling empowered enough to reach out if you are struggling. For those that do not struggle with any sort of mental illness, then join me in helping to remove the stigma that surrounds it.
First off, if you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness then you must see a doctor. Medical doctors are up to date with the most recent research, and are a wealth of knowledge when it comes to symptoms and medication. Talk to them, and if you do not feel satisfied with your visit, then talk to another. If they prescribe a form of medication to you, then follow it through. I have never taken any medication for anxiety, as I have never suffered from this, but know that anti-depressants can take a few weeks to take full effect, so try to be patient and utilize other resources in the meantime. Do not, and I can not emphasize this enough, DO NOT quit the medication “cold turkey”. I know I did, and that I am very lucky that I did not suffer any serious consequences. I have spoken with too many individuals who have had very bad relapses and side effects from doing this. I also must say that unfortunately, some doctors, although very knowledgeable, lack empathy and can prescribe medication quickly and say, “give this a few weeks to take full effect and then come see me.” I am not trying to call out our doctors as I am sure some have compassion burnout. Our doctors are incredibly taxed nowadays within Canada’s medical system and simply do not have the time to talk for hours with you. However, they can point you in the direction of someone who can. This leads me to another great resource that has worked for a few people I know. Therapists are sometimes all that you need to feel normal. They can leave you feeling informed, in control and at peace with where you are, and what you are doing. I have spoken with one gentleman who looks forward to the talks he has with his therapist. Each time he leaves the office he feels like a new person. A therapist does not always have to be a psychologist either, it is sometimes a very gifted, educated, or informed individual who understands what you are going through. He or she might know what to say, ask the right questions, and point you in the right direction. This was the case with myself as I have always had my mentor who always seems to know the right things to say or do.
Picture of my mentor and I in 2002, when I considered myself to be no longer struggling with depression.
A person never really is void of depression. If you recall earlier I said that it is a multi-directional continuum; therefor, one of the best defenses you have against something like depression is awareness and education. If you consistently learn and discover things that increase your knowledge of depression, you can equip yourself with the tools that build your resiliency against it. I cannot stress enough how important this is, and how it will become your greatest weapon against mental illness. It has led me to do many things that fight against depression when I find my mind is wondering to places that do not support the journey I want to be on. There are some great books on mental illnesses, and more specifically depression and anxiety. As well there are incredible campaigns and companies that are making great strides in creating awareness; like Bell’s “Lets Talk” campaign. There are also companies like Headversity that have developed programs for workplaces to help people become mentally stronger and resilient to mental struggles. Check with your workplace as often they are associated with Shepell or other companies to help educate and supply resources to help with work/life balance. Our world is moving at such an incredible pace that life can sometimes just become too overwhelming, and without the necessary strategies in place, a person can easily lose themselves for short or long periods of time.
Everyone struggles differently with something like depression and anxiety, and I have spoken with a dozen or so individuals about their specific battles with mental illness. What I have discovered is that there is no one thing that works the best to help slide your meter closer to balanced. There are things that help, and there are things that make it worse. How much these things help or worsen are really dependent upon each individual. Some things work better for some people than others. So without turning this into a book, I thought I would leave a list of good things and cautionary things that you can play with to see what works best for you. The list is not exhaustive by any means and I would encourage you to add items to both sides of the list below. The greatest strength you can do to arm yourself against depression and anxiety is to educate yourself continuously about it, and then become consistent about doing the things that help. I placed the three that worked best for me at the top of the strengthen list.
- Exercise & setting attainable goals.
- DIET – food can be your most powerful drug.
- Meditation and self-analysis. Going through series of questions that build peace.
- Surround yourself with good people. People that enable good practices and discourage bad ones.
- Rest and relaxation (alternative health)
- Constructive Hobbies (instrument, reading, yoga etc…)
- Therapist – Have discussions, but remember that there are times when explanations no matter how reasonable, just do not seem to help.
- Expressing Gratitude – if you are not thankful for what you have, you will have a hard time ever being happy.
- Cultivating Optimism
- Practice Spirituality – life is bigger than us. We are not the mightiest thing ever.
- Procrastination – for me this can work negatively on my mind. Awareness is critical here.
- Being your worst critic – careful how hard you are on yourself. Life is for making mistakes and growing from them.
- Comparison: Do not compare to others and give up caring on what other people think of you.
- People Please: Stop trying to please everyone.
- Lethargy and gluttony
- Job Satisfaction – this is a tough one because if you can not change this right away, you need to find ways to cope. Again, keeping awareness is critical.
- Social Media – refer to comparing, and set limits on your time looking at your accounts. Remember, your awareness is your strongest weapon.
January 29th will mark another year of Bell’s “Lets Talk” awareness campaign targeting the stigma that surrounds people suffering from mental health issues. As a society it is important to be able to openly discuss mental health. We should ask why it has become such an epidemic in the modern world and not turn a blind eye to the possible causes. People suffering from anxiety, depression, and any other illness related to their mental well-being should not feel ashamed or embarrassed to reach out and ask for help. Sometimes a shoulder to lean on or an open ear is all it takes for an individual suffering to get through the day. After-all, as human beings we should take pride in our ability to support, comfort and care for others, as this is a large component of reaching our full potential while being alive on this great planet.