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

Make room for the hard stuff

Credit: Pete Souza

We do a lot of avoiding hard stuff. There are genuine reasons for this. As Obama’s sign on his desk in the Oval Office tells us that hard things are hard. I think we covered this before, right? Well let’s keep talking about what it means when we face the hard stuff and when we don’t. Yesterday, I talked about what we learn as kids if we’re shamed for having normal emotions and trying to express them. As adults, if we continue to run from those genuine emotions, our health, both mental and physical takes a toll.

Let’s stroll down memory lane back to 2015 when my midlife crisis really hit. I was completed burnt out at work and yet continued to go every day. I had a huge herniation in my spine and couldn’t walk. Still went to work every day. Stopped sleeping due to anxiety and severe low back and leg pain, still went to work. Until I couldn’t anymore. I stopped being able to go to work, my only coping mechanism. I couldn’t admit that I had serious health issues. I had severe pain in my back. I had insomnia. I still couldn’t tell anyone at work the truth. I still felt huge amounts of guilt about not being able to work. That’s what I felt bad about, not being able to work, which is really messed up. And no one at work asked me if I was ok. No one at work asked me if I needed to take time off. No one at work asked me if I needed help. What I learned through therapy was that I had a lot more healing to do. Many, many hard truths to face.

Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. The bottom dropped out several months later, after the depression and insomnia really set in. And that’s when I finally went to get help. I learned how to help myself. But the truth is, the only way I learned how to help myself was to face the hard stuff. To do the hard work, to lean into the toughest stuff I have. To unlearn the hardest parts, cry my eyes out with grief, feel the anger and be ok with it. I learned to let the feelings out in the safety of her office. That’s where I learned that it was ok to feel my feelings. But I’m still learning how to feel my feelings outside of Jill’s office. This is the really painful part. I don’t really know how to be in my feelings, in the moment. But I’m learning. I’m getting there, but it’s still hard. So if you want to unlearn the stuff in your life that doesn’t work anymore, lean in to the hard stuff. But my advice is don’t do it alone. xo Janet

Pain is your gps

Things don’t really get solved. They come together and fall apart. Then they come together and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

Pema Chödrön

Normally when I’m in pain I don’t pay much attention to it. I have a really high pain tolerance, it’s not a good thing. It’s made me reckless and make bad choices, it’s pushed me way past my limit. My high pain tolerance and complete lack of self care skill made it possible for me to go to work almost every day for a year with so much back pain I could barley walk. But I had to be at work. Because that was the priority.

So, when I started therapy in late 2015 because I was falling apart, literally and figuratively, I didn’t know that pain is a warning system of sorts. Pain, both physical and psychological, is the body’s way of saying, please slow down. Or, in my case, please stop. My body had been giving me warning signs for almost a year and I wasn’t listening. The amount of pressure and stress I am able to withstand without cracking is a lot. This is not a good thing. It is, in fact, very much a bad thing. Ok, good and bad are judgements. Let’s say that it’s not ideal. It’s not functional as my therapist would say.

So dysfunctional me with a basically broken back and an incredibly high ability to withstand pressure and stress goes to work everyday and pushes herself to do more, better things. And then, in July of 2015, I stopped sleeping. Just overnight, stopped. This was my body telling me, enough Janet, you’re done. And I STILL DID NOT LISTEN. I kept going to work, on no sleep. I kept pushing through the pain, making myself believe that I had to, that my worth depended on my ability to cope with pain, no matter how great. Eventually, I stopped being able to go to work because I was so exhausted I couldn’t see straight.

So that’s what pain is, a gps. Or like a tornado warning system that sounds the blare in the midwest and tells folks to head for the cellar. I didn’t listen to what my body needed or what my brain needed me to do. I didn’t heed the warnings. I didn’t slow down, or take a break or hit pause on my life and the choices I was making (e.g. the dysfunctional ones). I have learned a lot about myself in the last three years. I’m a recovering perfectionist. Being super good at my job is really important to me. But when the warning bells start to fly, I pay closer attention now, I try very hard to listen. There are days when I do this well and days when I don’t. But more and more I’m trying to separate myself from this fallacy that I am what I do. I’m only good enough when I’m productive, when I’m not “resting on my laurels” as my father liked to say.

I have plenty of unproductive moments and even some days when I just don’t want to get anything done. But still, I push myself too hard. I’m working on it, I’m imperfect and that’s ok. And so are you, and that’s ok too. Just heed the warning bells in your life that are ringing, follow your gps. xo Janet

i found my wheelhouse

Wheelhouse Cycle’s Instagram account is fire.  Special shout out to Managing Partner Laura Moran!

I have had a very hard week and part of why it has been so hard is that I haven’t been able to go to one of my happy places Wheelhouse Cycle. I have been spinning at WH since last July and I’m at almost 80 rides. I’m super proud of this for a whole bunch of reasons, mostly because when I started, I was so overweight and out of shape I could barely complete a 45 minute class.

Now, when I miss my Wednesday night class with Christine like I did this week, I’m not myself. I love going, it’s my safe space, and I really like that I feel like I’m a member of a community. It’s hard to describe it if you haven’t been to a class, but it’s like Soul Cycle, only better. These folks really care about being inclusive and kind, treating everybody and every body with respect and appreciation. I missed my Centretown people this week but I’ll see you Sunday morning. I’ve found my Wheelhouse. What’s yours? xo Janet

“And now the attic is right here”

I watched David Letterman’s episode with Kanye West on Netflix recently and while Kanye’s politics are not totally clear to me, I love his music, always have. When I watched the episode, I was really intrigued by some of the very self reflective things he had to say about his bipolar diagnosis and his experience with psychiatric medications. I have a long history with meds as well so I was really wondering what he was going to say about why he isn’t taking any right now. I won’t give away the ending but surprise, he’s rich enough to have a doctor come to his house every week to monitor his mental health. This does really make a difference.

So when Kanye experienced “ramping up”, as he describes being manic in the show, he was rushed to hospital. His retelling of what happened next is heartbreaking, I encourage you all to watch the episode and listen to what he has to say. What I want to remark on is his exchange with Letterman on how we used to treat people with “those problems” and how we are treated now. Letterman remarks that we all had that “one crazy Uncle Al” who used to, “live in the attic”. And Kanye responds, “and now the attic is right here”. It’s a great moment between the two of them.

I want you to think about the stereotypes and biases we have about “those people”, the ones with mental health issues or a diagnosis of mental illness. We don’t live in attics anymore, or at least if we do, I hope it’s a really nice penthouse or loft. The truth it, some of us are lucky and have access to great doctors and decent medications. Some of us live in nice homes and have good jobs. Some of us can afford really good therapists. Some of us can afford gym memberships and fresh, healthy food. You get the picture.

So, the next time you think about your “crazy Uncle Al” or Aunt Sue who “can’t cope” or Mom who is super high maintenance because she has an anxiety but doesn’t know that or doesn’t want you to know, think about me. Think about Kanye West or Robert Downey Jr (yes, the guy who plays Iron Man has mental health issues). We’re “those people”, we just happen to be a lot more visible these days. xo Janet