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

Recovery takes time

When I think about taking time to recover from depression/anxiety, I realize that the feeling of wanting to rush through it was so powerful. I wanted the whole thing to be over. I wanted to be well. I wanted to stop feeling like a major inconvenience. I wanted to stop feeling ashamed of being broken. But there was no way of hurrying the process up because everytime I thought about going back to work, I would get heart palpitations and break out in a cold sweat.

The thing about recovery is that there is no timetable, no rule book or manual. It depends on the supports you have in place, how skilled your therapist is, whether you have a therapist in the first place, and your family system. The best thing about being away from work on parental leave was that I had lots of time to think about other things than work. The not worrying about work stopped after about eight weeks, by month three, I didn’t care about work at all. I had completely disconnected myself and that felt amazing.

Unburdening myself from work was so freeing and allowed me to focus on other things like exercise, therapy and being with my children. We had a newborn and I was trying to sort out my terrible mental health, my broken back and be a good mom. I was barely functioning emotionally but wanted to be present for my family and it took me several months. At least four or five. By the time I went back to work after my parental leave it had been eight solid, blissful months of being at home, taking care of myself full-time and I felt better. But I still wasn’t ready to go to back to work. As soon as I went back, the insomnia kicked up again, my anxiety spiked and it was hard. I realized in retrospect that I should have gone back part-time, progressively. But I didn’t even give myself the space to think that would be an acceptable solution. I thought I was better and threw myself back in full time.

Eventually, the return to work became a new normal but that took time too. So if you’re in this space or thinking you need a break and have the ability to take one, I encourage you to think about it. If it’s possible to give yourself any space, even a day or two, take it. You’ll feel better as long as you give yourself permission to not feel guilty. 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

Being shamed for emotional reactions is a powerful motivator

Credit: @frizzkidart

Kids grow up with a view of the how emotional responses are suppose to work just by watching their parent or parents or primary caregiver(s) respond to the world around them. They also understand how to emotional responses are supposed to work by how their caregivers respond to them. Children want to know if their emotional responses are a) acceptable and b) normal. Being shamed for having emotional responses as a kid is a sure fire way to teach children not to: show emotions, connect with their emotions, and/or that they are a freak for having a normal emotional response to something stressful, sad or upsetting.

So, if we take this logic into adulthood, what do we get? Disconnection, lack of empathy for self and others, a fundamental belief that we are somehow different or inherently flawed/unfixable. We suppress or repress our emotion, we bury them in food or alcohol or other quick hits, we have difficulty being vulnerable or connected to others, even those we love the most. It’s a shame cycle that isn’t pretty – I have difficulty expressing my emotions because I have an built-in shame response about doing this, people view me as lacking the ability to connect or be vulnerable, I feel more shame for being defective or broken in some way. Rinse and repeat.

What do we do then as adults when this is happening? Can I think my way out of this? Yes and no in my experience. The first thing I did was learn about the range of human emotions and that these are totally normal for me to express. Sounds weird but it’s true. Second, I learned from my therapist that we’re all flawed and fallible, that’s being human, and that this is, also, totally normal and ok. Third, I learned that when I default to an emotional response that isn’t functional or rationale (extreme worry, anger, frustration, etc), that I can write down the story I have in my head about what is going on and work it through. What does that mean? In cognitive behavioural therapy, therapists use things called “thought records”. It sounds weird at first but once you do them on paper a couple of times it gets pretty easy to start doing it in your head. I do these in my head a lot when I have anxiety or when I’m really frustrated by something. I’m not an expert on CBT, a therapist or a source of advice on thought records but if you want to learn more, go here.

I have found that there are tools and resources that help me when I’m in a shame spiral, particularly when it comes to feeling guilty, anxious or getting angry/frustrated about something. Shame is something we learn as a kid in so many different ways and all of it comes with trauma. But we can unlearn the shame we feel and respond differently. We can work through the trauma and the thoughts or mental scaffolding we have built up around it. This is a way through, not away from, tough stuff emotionally. Keep leaning into the fear of being emotional exposed and you’ll find it’s not so scary after all. 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

Anatomy of a nervous breakdown

So let’s go back to the summer of 2015. This is when the wheels really started coming off the train that was my life. I was not dealing with anything well. Work was insanely busy. I was working at 150% per usual, not taking breaks, not coping well. I couldn’t slow down. So my poor, tired, overworked brain decided to do it for me. I stopped being able to sleep. I developed insomnia so quickly that I didn’t understand what was happening. I would lay awake for hours thinking I was going insane. This went on every night for six months.

There’s a reason that sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. It is hell on earth. You think you’re going insane or at least that the world has ceased to make any sense. My brain was so overwhelmed, so anxious, so undone by my thoughts, that it stopped being able to sleep. This was a sign that things had really gotten bad. Then my mood plummeted. I couldn’t stave off the depression that had been lingering in the shadow the entire time just waiting to come on. I couldn’t stop crying. I spent most days in bed in tears desperately hoping for sleep. It got so bad that by November, I almost ended up in the hospital. I’m lucky I didn’t end up in hospital. Not sure if you’ve ever been to an emergency room with a mental health or psychiatric condition? It’s not a fun place to be. They don’t treat you well. They don’t take good care of you and ensure that you feel like you’re going to get help. They don’t treat you like you’re actually a human being with rights and choices and feelings.

So there I was almost needing to be hospitalized, not sleeping, barely eating and crying all the time. Sounds fun right? I found a clinic in Ottawa that did cognitive behavioural therapy and made an appointment for an intake. The clinical director heard my story of crisis (both on that day and historical) and got me in almost immediately to see the woman who is still my therapist, Dr. Jill Firestone. I could write several posts dedicated to how amazing Jill is but I’ll save that for another day. I’ll just put it this way: Jill saved my life. In no uncertain terms. Without her expert care and guidance, I would not be here today. So, I’m very grateful to have had access to her care, to have a job and medical benefits that allowed me to pay for it because it was not cheap. Good help costs money and many people in Canada struggling with mental health issues can’t afford to see someone. I am so fortunate and grateful to have found Jill and to continue to work with her. She is the most skilled psychologist I’ve ever met. When you find someone who really works for you, who really shows you that improvement is possible and doable, hold on to that helper until that you feel you don’t need them anymore.

I am doing much better after four years of seeing Jill, regularly exercising (ref: yesterday’s post about Wheelhouse Cycle), eating healthy foods, trying to limit my alcohol (some weeks I do better than others), trying to sleep at least 7 hours a night and taking breaks from work. I have an amazingly loving partner, wonderful children and a supportive boss. I take my medication and vitamins. I do self care stuff. I work at it. Every. Single. Day. It is not easy recovering from your life bottoming out. But it is possible. xo Janet