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

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

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

anatomy of a panic attack

Credit: Prescott Counseling

Panic attacks, if you’ve ever had one, are not fun. You may feel like you’re going to pass out or that you’re dying. You may feel your arms or hands go numb. You may cry or shake. I’m a crier and my hands shake. This happened to me four weeks ago when I was traveling for a work event. It was very scary, I felt completely out of control of my own emotions. I had to sit down for fear of passing out.

I haven’t had many panic attacks recently but I used to have them all the time. Anxiety is a real pain like that. It will creep up on you sometimes, if you’re in a grocery store or in a mall. Or at the dentist. The triggers are different for everybody. Fear, guilt, shame and avoidance of certain situations or people can all trigger a panic attack. My therapist is really good at explaining what “flooding” means. Flooding is a concept in psychology, as Gottman describes it: “the difference between flooding and more manageable experiences of our emotions is one of magnitude. You reach the point when your thinking brain — the part that can take in gray areas, consider other sides, stay aware of the real state of affairs — is shut out. This emotional hijacking is the hallmark of our nervous system in overdrive”. 

I was in a professional capacity at a work event and it wasn’t going well. I had been overwhelmed for two days. A lot of trauma had been triggered for me. Fortunately I was mostly able to keep it together until I was away from the other participants before the real panic attack kicked in. But I went into serious emotional distress in a hotel and I was alone and afraid. All I could do was call Meg. Eventually, I was able to calm my central nervous system down. But I was still feeling shaky when I got on the plane three hours later.

This the thing I have learned about having anxiety and depression – for me they’ll never go away completely. The signs and symptoms of my mental health condition are always there, under the surface. The challenge for me, is to watch them and tune in so that when I’m in a situation like that again, and I will be at some point, that I know that I can leave. Or excuse myself for a bit, or if possible, not go at all. This would have been preferable a month ago, to just not go at all, but hindsight is 20/20.

So, if you have anxiety and you can identify your triggers, pay attention to them. Give them their due weight. Don’t underestimate, like I did a few weeks ago, how much you can take. I am not judging myself for having a panic attack whereas 5 years ago I might have really beat myself up about it. Now I’m trying to learn what the antecedents or triggers are for me, how to manage them in the moment and how to build resilience going forward. I can do it and so can you. xo Janet

hard things are hard

Credit: Pete Souza

This is one my favourite Pete Souza photos. I have it saved on my Instagram as an important reminder that hard things are, indeed, hard. My dad used to say, “if it was easy, everyone would do it”. And he was right. If getting a graduate degree was easy, lots of people would have one. If being married was easy, fewer people would get divorced or separated. If raising children were easy, more kids would be well adjusted. Hard things are hard. Even President Obama knew it when he was in the White House and I have to remind myself of this when I have those days when I feel like stuff should be easier.

Should is a shitty word. Should is a word that I wish I hadn’t used so much in my life. My mom should still be alive. My childhood should have been easier. My work should be less stressful. My parenting should be perfect. I should be perfect. Life should be fair for everyone. You get the picture. It’s a word that causes enormous pain, albeit I think, for many people, in ways that are less obvious. On days when I use have those thoughts that have should in them, I get so upset. I get angry and resentful and anxious. I start to look around for ways to right-size my anxiety. I want the upsetness to go away. News flash: it normally doesn’t work unless I use the tools I’ve learned in therapy.

We hear so much about how to manage anxiety or worry or negative thoughts through a variety of means and let me tell you, I’m sure I’ve tried them all: medication, positive self talk, therapy, journaling, inspirational quotes hanging on my office wall, you name it. Much of it is crap. Junk science. Junk non-science. So when I started cognitive behavioural therapy in 2015, I was skeptical. After about six months, when I started to feel less anxious and have fewer negative thoughts each day, I started to believe it was something that could work for me longer term.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have those days, like yesterday for example. Lots of anxiety and negative thoughts. But I’m learning to breathe and calm my central nervous system. I’m learning to be less hard on myself. I remember that life is meant to be challenging. When you get into that space when you’re “shoulding” on yourself, remember: even President Obama needed a reminder from David Axelrod that hard things are hard. xo Janet

sleepless in Ottawa

Sleepless in Seattle was a great movie but not as great as When Harry Met Sally

In the summer of 2015 I stopped sleeping. It happened almost overnight, literally. I went to bed one night and slept. Probably not well, but I slept. The next night, I couldn’t fall asleep. I tossed and turned and lay away until the sun rose. I got up and remembered thinking, “wow that was a bad night. Hope that doesn’t happen again tonight”. And then it did. And so on for next six months.

When you develop insomnia, the world feels impossible and on fire, like nothing makes sense anymore. Your brain has turned against you, refusing to do the most basic of bodily functions – stop thinking. Stop working. Stop the neurons from firing. When you have insomnia, you seemingly can’t make it rest, you just lie there night after night thinking, this is how I’m going to die. Wide awake.

So, when I was about four months into my insomnia nightmare, pun intended, I started to do some reading about cognitive behavioural therapy and its applicability to sleep. There is actually a lot of great research being done out there on CBT for sleep and sleep hygiene in general. A lot of what you’re going to read on the internet about how to help you sleep is total crap. And can be dangerous. Sleep “medications” are the worst. They are highly addictive and don’t help. They create dependence and an inability to sleep properly. They have been peddled by the pharmaceutical industry like oxy – it sounds tempting when your doctor suggests it, but please don’t fall for it. Trust me, been there, done that, doesn’t work.

So, if you or someone you know, is suffering from insomnia or disordered sleeping (yes these two things are different, here’s a primer to help) then I have a few suggestions for you:

  1. There is an amazing researcher from Toronto doing CBT for sleep work and her book saved my sleep. I sleep amazingly well now.
  2. Find a good therapist who is trained to do CBT for sleep, that can really help.
  3. Don’t worry about it. Literally, stop thinking about not sleeping. This is THE hardest thing to do when you’re not sleeping. But, I can tell you, that those thoughts of worry about not being able to sleep are probably what’s keeping you from falling asleep.
  4. Exercise
  5. Use a mindfulness app like Headspace to do fully body relaxation exercises. These really helped me when I was struggling and have used the sleep meditation with my 8 year old daughter for 2 years to help her relax into sleep and it has really helped her at nighttime.

You’ll be fine, I promise. If you put some basic sleep hygiene in place and work on your thoughts about sleep and then about other things that may be keeping you awake (see post on anxiety and what I did to deal with it from yesterday), you’ll sleep again. xo Janet