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Dear daughter, know your worth: a letter I wish my mom had written

There are so many conversations I wish I had had with my mom but never got the chance to. I wish she had told me to know my worth and not settle for being undervalued or overlooked. I have struggled with feelings of low self esteem since I was young and unfortunately, as life takes it punches, that didn’t get better until a few years ago. My mom never told me to know my worth, perhaps because she never knew hers. She was a beautiful writer and for people who knew her, she had the most amazing penmanship. Here is the letter I wish she had written to me:

Dear Jan,

I want you to know you are worth so much despite what life may throw at you. People will reject you and you may take this personally – don’t. Remember at these times, that you are amazing and wonderful and strong. That people can be cruel but also loving and kind. You may suffer set backs and failures, these too are a part of life and shouldn’t be taken as some sort of reflection on your character. You may feel inadequate as a parent or spouse but this too is normal. Women are asked to do far more than their fair share, and we have to remember to take care of ourselves above all else. Women like you will have a lot of pressure put on them because you’re smart and capable. Don’t mistake this for needing to be perfect. No one is perfect nor should we try to be. Perfectionism is the enemy of greatness.

Daughter, I am so proud of who you are, not just what you’ve accomplished or will accomplish. Remember that what we do is not a substitute for being a healthy and whole person. Our achievements are always only a reflection of what really matters: our health, well-being, values and principles, family, friends but most of all, knowing that we are enough just as we are. I love you my daughter, my only girl. You are everything I knew you would become, wholly unique, always be yourself, ok? xo Mom

Dragging my ass

So when you have a mood disorder like me, there are good times of year and bad. Or good times of year and less good. Fall is less good for me. I’m slower, less focused, more worried, don’t sleep as well and generally have a hard time motivating myself to get out of bed. I knew when I started this blog that fall was really going to be a challenge – getting up at 5am to write is almost an impossibility at this point.

The problem for me is that even though this happens every year, like clockwork, I always beat myself up about it. I always feel crappy, like I’m not doing what I should or could because I’m more tired than usual. And despite my best efforts to remind myself that I’m doing my best and that this is what for me living with a mood disorder looks like, I still wind up feeling like I don’t measure up somehow. And I apologize for my lack of organization and try not to feel overwhelmed.

The thing is, I love writing this blog, and I love being connected to the people who read it. I just can’t do it the way I normally have. So I’ll write on my commute or take a break at lunch. Or write on the weekends and post later.

I know that by the time December rolls around and the days start getting longer again I’ll stop dragging my ass out of bed every morning and get some of my energy back. Until then, I’ll do my best, try to cut myself some slack and remember that even on the days I don’t feel great, I’m still doing pretty well. And so are you. Xo Janet

Getting (back) on the bike

Credit: @sham.it

I hit a 100 rides yesterday at Wheelhouse and that to me is a huge deal. It’s a special achievement for those of us who ride and I’ve been counting down the rides for awhile now. I was so lit up last night in that room, getting to the end, pushing myself to dig deeper, that it felt amazing to get that recognition from my instructor and peers who know how hard it is sometimes to keep showing up even when you’re tired or don’t feel like it or your body just hurts.

It’s an old adage about getting back in the saddle when you’ve been knocked down. But it’s a lot harder than it looks for some of us. I went through a really dark period in 2015 when nothing seemed possible. My brain chemistry was so out of balance that even getting out of bed seemed like a monumental task. Brushing my hair felt like a waste of time because I couldn’t sleep. Eating properly became secondary to not crying all day. This is the devastating power of depression over a person’s life. There is no miracle to turning things around – I taught myself how to fall asleep again with cognitive behavioural therapy and good sleep hygiene. I tried a new medication after several rounds of others stopped working. I saw my therapist every two weeks. I dug in. And I’d love to tell you it’s because I knew that it would get better, that something had to change. I didn’t. I did it because I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want my kids and Meg to be without me. So I didn’t do anything drastic, put one foot in front of the other each day, and tried to slowly get a little bit better. There’s no magic cure, no silver bullet. It’s about finding what helps you, what gives you care, what meets your needs. It’s not selfish, it’s self-preservation.

I recently learned the term mindful self-compassion and it resonating with me so much because when I’m stressed or anxious, I turn on myself almost immediately, it’s like I can’t help it. Mindfulness is a life-long struggle for me but I realized that when I was in that dark room 100 times over the last year, that’s what I was doing, enabling mindfulness, being self-aware about what I was telling myself about my own limits. Our instructors always tell us that our bodies will be the last thing to quit on the bike, it’s always our minds that tell us it’s too hard, I can’t do this, I can’t push harder. The same is true of depression. It is the stories we tell ourselves about what we’re capable of, what we’re not going to be able to do, that limits our self-expression. By showing up for ourselves and the people we love, we experiment with challenging those narratives of limitation and doubt. We prove the hypothesis wrong. And with time, the narrative disappears and is replaced with self-confidence and pride. And in my case, I kick ass water bottle that I will proudly use from now on. xo Janet

The seasons they are a changin’

Ontario’s fall colours are amazing, it’s one of the things that I love the best about living here.

I had a great summer, probably the best summer I’ve had in years. We had a wonderful family trip, I took an extra week off for back to school which was probably the best decision I’ve made in a long time and I got to do a photo shoot for Wheelhouse, a place I love. I had my picture taken in a sports bra which for me, with the number of body issues I have, is a big deal.

Fall, on the other hand, hasn’t historically been my friend. I have seasonal affect disorder, which if you live north of the 49th parallel, is definitely a thing for a lot of us. So with my normal brain chemistry being what it is, the change of season is even harder. Shorter days, less sunlight, colder temperatures all combine to make me feel a lot more sluggish than normal. I’ve noticed as well that my thoughts trend negative, and all the weak spots become really glaring.

But I think the difference this year is that I’m aware of the thoughts, I see them and I’m trying not to buy in. Not to take the bait. Not to dive down the rabbit hole. I see the perfectionism, see the insecurities floating and am trying to remember that it’s just my brain chemistry levels fluctuating in the same way they normally do at this time of year.

I don’t know what you do with your thoughts of I’m terrible at this, or I look so old, or I feel so tired, or maybe you never had these thoughts which in that case, bravo – but for me, I had a day yesterday where I felt like crap. And I realized half way through the day I was being really hard on myself. No one else was giving me feedback that sounded negative or told me I looked exhausted. So I put my thoughts in check and took mental note of what feedback I did have. I distracted myself with work, I dove into conversations as best I could given how tired I felt and it was overall ok. What makes these days tough is the thinking that I’m not “doing well enough”, that I’m not perfect enough, that I’m making mistakes. But the only thing I can try to do is go easy on myself, rest on my laurels a bit, remember that I invest a lot in my relationships with people so that they’ll cut me some slack when I’m not at my best. I have to cut me some slack too, that’s the hard part. What do you do when you’re not at your best? Do you make excuses? Do you avoid those thoughts? Do you lean into them and try to look at them objectively? If you suffer from SAD like me, how do you manage it? I’m here with you friends. xo Janet

Fight or flight?

I avoid feeling afraid, it’s what drives my anxiety, always has. As a kid, I had a lot of things to be afraid of but had no way of managing them. I had no outlet, I just shoved them as far down as I possibly could. And now my older daughter is the age I was when my fear and anxiety were probably their worst. It’s triggering a lot of difficult feelings for me and I’m not sure I’m managing them all that well.

I fear her fear. I fear her inability to cope with her fear. It triggers way too many feelings of insecurity and being out of control. I rarely do things that make me feel afraid, it’s an emotion that really stirs up very painful memories. And now that she is that age and struggling with her own transition from being a little girl to a pre-teen where independence is king, I feel for her so much. And yet, at the same time, I struggle with finding the empathy that’s required to get to patience.

I think this is where an inability to understand fear really damages us, both as children and as adults. Fear is the body’s response to external stimuli – fight or flight. It’s biological, instinctual, where the body reacts because we used to be chase by lions. But in 2019, fear can cripple. It can turn inwards, becoming anxiety or depression. If left unchecked, the inability to manage fear can turn into a lifetime of running from challenging situations. I lack some pretty fundamental skills for helping my daughter – I don’t understand how most people manage their fears, and by extension, help their children manage theirs.

This is something that’s going to require extra attention. Her fear makes me angry, upset, impatient. Some people pray on problems, others meditate. Some drink their fear, shop their fear, lash out, make excuses. I talk mine out. How do you manage fear? How do you help your children with theirs? xo Janet

Don’t we all just want to know what we’re worth?

So many of the conversations we’re having these days are really just about what we’re worth. Too often, those conversations centre around why others don’t value us the way we think we should we valued (bosses, spouses, friends, children, etc) but really, it is a conversation about how we feel about our own value. The truth is, many of us don’t value ourselves enough. We wait and hope for others to do it for us, to tell us what we’re worth. We look for our worth in our salaries, our work, our status, our homes, our children, our marriages, our stuff. None of this is going to do us any good.

The only thing I’ve learned in recovery is that our self worth belongs to only us. We may not have gotten any help from our parents with building our self worth but we’re the only ones who can dig in and figure out what we’re made of. The truth is, our worth isn’t contingent on external factors despite what our culture tells us. Our worth isn’t contingent on how good our children are, or how much we make. Our worth is our inner strength, our character, our resilience, our humanity. We are worthy because we exist. We’re worthy because we have thoughts, feelings, aspirations, goals, challenges, just for ourselves. This isn’t meant to sound narcissistic or ego driven. It’s a battle cry for self esteem, self love, self appreciation. So many of us put our worth into things we can’t control and when those things aren’t available anymore, we spiral down. Or accept less than what we want. Or make excuses for bad behaviour, ours and others. When we don’t love and accept ourselves for who we are, the good, bad and the ugly, how we will do that for others? For our children? For our partners or friends?

I stopped making excuses for myself only recently but I also stopped accepting the lie that I was somehow defective, broken, unsalvageable. I am broken and battered, physically worn down, sometimes unable to manage feelings of burnout. But that’s me. And I’m fine with that because I know what I’m worth, without the job or title or house or family. I’m just fine because I’m me. My self worth is a work in progress, it probably will be for the rest of my life. But I know that I’m on much more stable ground now that I was even two years ago because I don’t need the approval of others to know what I’m worth. And I hope you do too. xo Janet

Is there a higher power?

I had a really interesting conversation recently with someone who told me that they had found their spirituality through recovery. I admire the resolve, the belief that there are higher powers. I’m not a believer in a higher power, never have been. I just don’t get it. It’s a difficult thing to admit but I’ve been agnostic for so long that I’m not even sure what I believe anymore. Sometimes I think believing in a higher power would be helpful, particularly in the difficult times. But I just can’t get there, I’m not even sure if I’m motivated to.

I know people who have gone through recovery and found a higher power, a deeper meaning of life. I feel like this is a real challenge for me, a mystery. I wasn’t raised in a religious household and frankly for this, I’m grateful. I know that if I had been coming out would have been so much harder. I think being a spiritual person is a real gift for so many and I’m certainly envious. Maybe I’ll get there eventually; I’m more concerned with the here and now – my children, my family, my work.

I don’t dispute the faith of others, I don’t underestimate the value that belief in a higher power can have in their lives. I’ve just never had any reason to suspend my brain long enough to have a spiritual experience. Growing up, on Sunday, my family went to the church of the NFL and that was fine with me.

Maybe this is the point of meditation. But even in that I use it as a way of slowing down my thoughts, quieting the anxiousness I feel most days. I haven’t meditated in awhile, maybe it’s time to start again. xo Janet

Back to school

Me around age four or five.

Well it’s the first day of school for us and we’re all nerves. Our youngest is starting school this year and I’m a bit in shock that she’s school age. When people say that time flies when your children are young it’s true. I always loved going to back to school. It was my favourite time of year. I have the best memories of getting back to school supplies and clothes. I felt really special and full of possibility.

School was always my safe place, the place I went I went to feel the best about myself. That’s the problem with needing external validation, I put all of my self worth into getting the best grades. If I didn’t get the best grades I beat myself up about it and then lashed myself to try harder. It was a very self destructive cycle that culminated in a lot of burnout.

I was lucky, I had great teachers (except for one, I see you grade 4) and lived in neighbourhoods that had amazing schools. I had the opportunity to go to a private high school. I think we’ve covered how the social aspects of that high school weren’t great for me. But the academic life of that school was my life line, it kept me sane when everything else around me was crumbling. I used school and achievement as an emotional salve and intellectual buoy, keeping me afloat emotionally.

I think a lot of kids do this, use achievement to stave off anxiety or depression. The problem with this is that it ends up creating more anxiety, more fear. The hamster wheel gets going, achieve, work harder, achieve more, worker harder. The problem with this is that once that formula doesn’t work anymore and if the achievement isn’t possible anymore, the bottom falls out. When you have no sense of self outside of achievement, you have no sense of self. No identity. No compass. No direction. Without achievement, I had no idea who I was or what I was worth. It took me almost twenty years to disentangle my sense of self and worth from “getting ahead”. It was the most painful lesson I had to learn. I had to completely unlearn everything I thought I knew about myself and rebuild my sense of self worth from nothing. It was excruciating. This I hope is something I can share with parents as we send our kids back to school today. Striving to work hard is great, to apply oneself, to do well. But not at the expense of your kid’s sense of self, please. xo Janet