Who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?
Well it's you girl, and you should know it.
With each glance and every little movement you show it." ~ Paul Williams
Recognize that cheerful little ditty? Chances are that if you were born and raised in North America any time before the 1980's you'll remember this as the opening of the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song. When I hear the song in my mind I also picture Mary twirling in the opening sequence and throwing her beret into the air. It made me smile then and it makes me smile now.
One of the most popular sitcoms not only of the '70's but, well, ever, it was also fairly groundbreaking for it's day. A single woman living on her own in the big city and a career woman too? Shocking! But Mary Richards was so much more than a one dimensional female sitcom character. She was smart, funny, attractive, and imperfect. She was someone "real" whom you could aspire to be. But the thing I loved most about Mary was her fairly unwavering optimism. When life knocked her down she brushed herself off and got back up. And life knocked her down a bit - she was working in a male-dominated field, fighting against societal norms, and let's not forget when she decided to throw a party and nobody came (perhaps the most tragic of all!). She took chances, she put herself out there, and she grew. Oh, and she made us laugh along the way.
You know what else Mary Richards did? She made a choice. She chose to be positive.
Yes, it's a choice and sometimes it's a hard one. It was nearly impossible for me to choose positivity when I was at the worst of my depression. The illness and the all-encompassing darkness that accompanied it was suffocating at times. It was beyond my comprehension to see the positive in the situation or embrace it as an "opportunity for growth" (please try and imagine me saying those last three words in a sarcastic tone). So instead of biting off a concept far too big to chew, I broke off small, palatable pieces. I decided to recognize the tiniest moments of joy - a hug from my niece, an encouraging email from a friend, sitting in the sun in my parents' backyard, a bubble bath. Once I had re-trained my brain to recognize what was good, I began to feel grateful and ever so slowly, more positive. It was a very tedious, intentional journey back to wellness but it was worth the work.
Today I am generally pretty positive overall. My glass if definitely half full - actually, maybe more like three quarters full. But I am still a human being and things still get me. Sometimes as I walk to work I will be annoyed by something - maybe it's raining (In Vancouver? Impossible.) or I have a headache. I'll have an automatic thought, "I am so cranky right now!" But then I stop. I think to myself, will it be more fun to be happy and positive all day or will it be more fun to be cranky all day? Hmm, tough call. I have spent far too much time in the last ten years battling depression to take the happy days for granted.
Tomorrow is Monday. It's a new day, a new week, a new opportunity. So why not choose to make it awesome? Tomorrow I choose to twirl in the street and throw my beret in the sky.
"Destiny is for losers. It's just a stupid excuse to wait for things to happen instead of making them happen." ~ Blair Waldorf
I have never actually seen Gossip Girl, the television show from which the line above is taken, but I like the sentiment. Take the bull by the horns, jump and the net will appear, dwell in the possibility...
In life most of us like to be comfortable. We like routine and the expected. The unknown and unexpected is scary. There are so many "what ifs" so maybe it's just better to stay in this ho-hum relationship or keep the boring job or whatever. One of the things that you learn about when you are ill is perspective. Going through two major depressive episodes in my life taught me that sweating the small stuff is usually a waste of time and energy. That doesn't mean that I don't worry about things anymore but it does mean that I try to pick and choose what I will worry about.
Tonight I watched one of my favourite shows: House Hunters International. I love the show because it shows me how people live in different parts of the world and how people adapt (or don't) to new environments. Tonight's episode was a bit more than that. It featured a single mother of two who had recently survived a bout of stage three breast cancer. Pretty serious stuff. Her dream had always been to live in Paris so as she emerged on the other side of a major life and near death experience she made a choice - she could either keep her dream up on the shelf or she could take it down, brush it off, and try it on. She chose the latter and has since happily adopted the life of a Parisian, enjoying ballet lessons and wandering the streets of Paris with her two kids. What resonated with me was when she said that she just didn't worry about what might go wrong anymore. Her experience with breast cancer gave her a gift: perspective.
I have always believed that life is about learning as you go. We are here by the grace of God, Buddha, or whatever higher spirit you may believe in, to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be. Sometimes the lessons are hard, let's be honest. But there's always a lesson. So here's another one that I learnt: life is short (no matter how long you live) and it's valuable.
I didn't always believe this, especially during the worst of my depression. There were a few occasions when I believed quite the opposite, in fact. But somehow I was able to make it through a dark journey and come out into the light again. Part of what helped me was recognizing the things that make me happy in life and the things that are unhealthy for me, and making some changes accordingly.
Now that I am well, I hold onto that hard earned knowledge like it's the Hope Diamond - I don't want to lose sight of what's truly important. I find joy in some pretty simple pleasures. Sitting in the rare springtime-in-Vancouver-sunshine watching my nephew play baseball and cheering him and his team on. Looking at the pride in his face that his family was all there rooting for him. That's what it's all about for me.
But what about you? What are your most simple pleasures? Do you make time for them? How about your dreams? Have you always wanted to learn to play guitar, scuba dive, take salsa lessons, or travel through Asia? And here's the big question: what is holding you back?
Oddly enough, until recently if you asked me what my dreams in life were I wouldn't have known what to answer. I think I was going through the motions of everyday life and forgot what made me happy.
Here are some tips to help you choose authenticity in your life from the book "Unclutter Your Mind - 500 Ways to Focus on What's Important" by Donna Smallin.
* Live with no regrets. If you were to die tomorrow, what would you regret not having done? How can you live your life today (and every day) so that you will have no regrets?
* Be gentle with yourself. If you find yourself slipping back into old patters, congratulate yourself for recognizing that! Then reclaim your will and move on.
* Schedule time for fun. At the beginning of each month, put "fun stuff to do" on your calendar to balance the demands and responsibilities of home and career. include family events as well as things that will give you private time.
Clearing away a lot of mental clutter has helped me get back in touch with what's important to me. I have some dreams now, some things that I want to achieve and I am going to make them happen. You know what, Blair Waldorf? You might be on to something...
"I've always thought anyone can make money. Making a life worth living, that's the real test." ~ Robert Fulghum, American essayist
I am a bit obsessed these days - I feel a little like I have found religion. My obsession isn't with the latest celebrity couple or designer handbag. My obsession is with my community.
After the better part of 20 plus years of living in downtown Vancouver, I have discovered a new love for my city and my community. No, not trendy, happening Yaletown or the bustling shopping district of Robson Street with it's multiple shoe stores (be still my heart!). My new love is Vancouver's Downtown East Side. For those of you who know the Downtown East Side as Canada's poorest neighbourhood, you might think I have lost my mind. Actually, I think almost losing my mind and my grip on it helped me appreciate this neighbourhood and it's sense of community. Let me explain...
Life in the depths of depression is a pretty self-centred experience. It's difficult to shift the emphasis away from yourself and your misery and redirect it to something positive, something outside of your head. It's kind of like trying to push a boulder up a hill. When you are suffering, it's hard not to think about the mental & physical pain. You know, logically, that you will feel better if you laugh with friends or go for a walk but it's a slow, tedious process pushing that boulder.
As you start to feel a bit better, you start to come out of your own head, so to speak - the focus begins to shift a bit. You are still thinking about yourself and your illness but the thoughts shift from the negative and hopeless - you begin to concentrate on how you can help your recovery and, once well, maintain it. The boulder starts to feel lighter and you gain some momentum.
For me, my momentum was "encouraged" by my desire to learn as much as I could about my illness and to try to avoid relapse at all cost. So I began reading - reading anything about mental health and wellness that I could. One of my favourite books on the topics of wellness is "Well Being: The Five Essential Elements" by Tom Rath and Jim Harter. In the book, Rath and Harter identify the following five areas as key, and closely interconnected, to overall wellness:
1. Career Wellbeing
2. Social Wellbeing
3. Financial Wellbeing
4. Physical Wellbeing
5. Community Wellbeing
Did I mention that the authors are Gallup researchers? They, and their Gallup colleagues, have prepared literally thousands of research papers and conducted numerous surveys on this topic. In short, they kinda know their stuff.
One of the ways that a person with depression can shift focus is by doing things for others. I feel strongly that we are all here for a reason - to make a positive impact (big or small) and to leave the world a better place. Some of us are pretty awesome at this - Kofi Anan, Terry Fox, Ashley Judd, my 11 year old niece with the developing social-consciousness. And some us just need a bit of encouragement. Ironically, when I was at my lowest point in my depression I almost believed that there was no point. Almost. To say that that feeling was scary is an understatement. I never want to feel that way again.
In their book, Rath and Harter define thriving community wellbeing as being about what we do to give back to our community, "Throughout the course of our lives, well-doing promotes deeper social interaction, enhanced meaning and purpose, and a more active lifestyle - while keeping us from being too preoccupied with ourselves or getting into harmful emotional states." Uh, what now? That's right - less preoccupation with ourselves and harmful emotional states. They go on to say, "Several studies have shown a link between altruistic behaviour and increases in overall longevity, and researchers have speculated that this might be due in part to how well-doing inoculates us against stress and negative emotions." I'll take a prescription for that, please!
So how am I helping to cultivate a thriving sense of community wellbeing for myself and the community around me? Well, starting this blog was step one. I hope that I help someone who reads this to understand a bit better what mental illness is like or to feel less alone - even just one person.
I also work for a company that truly feeds my soul - Vancity Savings Credit Union. This is a company that is truly committed to taking the definition of wealth and turning it upside down. Vancity is very focused on community and giving back and it has helped me focus on what is important to me, too. I will never work for another company that doesn't reflect my own values. And no, this is not a sales pitch for Vancity (although, we do kinda rock...).
But back to my newly adopted neighbourhood - Vancouver's Downtown East Side. There were years when I viewed it as a scary, dirty place with one dimensional characters. But now I see a bit deeper. I see people who have lived hard lives - people who have escaped abuse, who battle addictions, who suffer from mental illness. Everyone of us has a story. What's that saying? "There but for the grace of Godgo I." So here's another thing that depression has given me: compassion. I am committing myself to supporting businesses in this community such as Save On Meats - a butcher shop and diner that truly understands what a thriving community is and can be. And what about Union Gospel Mission? A fabulous organization that is a pillar in the community, providing support, comfort and warm meals to society's forgotten. Then there's Potluck Cafe, a fabulous catering company which employs residents of the Downtown East Side. And on and on and on...
But this is me and my thing. What about you? How can you cultivate a thriving sense of community for yourself? Maybe it's as simple as buying your next gift from a local artist rather than a big chain store. Or maybe you want to volunteer? Find something that works for you and reap the benefits of longevity and wellness!
P.S. Check out Gastown Gamble on the Oprah Winfrey Network if you want to see what Mark Brand and Save On Meats are doing to cultivate a thriving community.
P.P.S To my "community" of blog supporters - thank you! Your comments and encouragement have been inspirational to me.
"Her ego wrote cheques incredibly fast but her personality didn't have the cash. She ain't pretty she just looks that way." ~ She Ain't Pretty by the Northern Pikes
I did something bad. Really bad. So bad that I feel compelled to confess, to attempt to cleanse my soul. Are you sitting down? OK, (deep breath) here it is: I watched The Real Housewives of Vancouver. Two back to back episodes. That's two shame filled hours that I will never get back. I feel dirty.
OK, so I didn't kick a puppy. But I don't feel good about it. I mean, I REALLY don't feel good about it. Now I love my share of reality TV - Survivor, The Amazing Race, Dancing With The Stars. Mostly just fun and escapist. Bubble gum at the end of a work day. But when I turned off the TV after The Real Housewives I noticed something - I kinda started to think that I needed to be prettier, more tan, have better clothes, more money...In short, I didn't feel so good. Which is a very strange thing because as I was watching I was fascinated by how incredibly unlikeable these women actually are, despite the pretty hair and perfect skin.
I caught myself and stopped those thoughts dead in their tracks. Hell no! I have survived very nearly 43 years in this body and I refuse to feel bad about it. That's 43 years of laughter, tears, frustration, celebration, illness and strength! In fact, I kinda like me and this body that carries my spirit within. But this experience reminded me of some things.
#1: Stop being so hard on yourself.
The first lesson is that I seem to be getting better and quicker at catching those ANTs (Remember from an earlier post? Automatic Negative Thoughts from the book Change Your Brain Change Your Life by Daniel Amen). It's OK that those thoughts creep in, we're only human after all. But it's important to catch them, recognize them for what they are, banish them, and then tell yourself a new story. No, I don't need Botox even though the 30 year old "housewife" got some for her 30th birthday (yes - simply awful). So my new story is that I'm pretty great as I am and if my niece and nephew love me then everything is pretty perfect!
#2: Careful what you feed your mind.
This lesson was a big reminder to me. When I was in the depths of my depression and my mood was very delicate I became very protective about what I would read, listen to, or watch on television. I learnt the hard way that a Gwyneth Paltrow movie where her character kills herself in the end is probably not the best viewing choice for someone deeply depressed (one time when I could have used a spoiler alert). So time to get back on track. Kind of like eating healthy and getting exercise, it's vital that you practice good mental hygiene. I know, it sounds funny - like dental floss for your brain. But the next time you pick up a book, flip on the TV or even engage in a conversation, think about what it might do to your spirit.
#3: Time to reclaim the word feminism and redefine beauty.
It's 2012 and we have television shows masquerading as reality that celebrate the truly lowest common denominator of female culture. These women are the worst kind of consumers - they consume things and each other at an equally rapid pace. So sad. And here's where I feel bad again. I have never wanted to be the kind of woman who judges other women and I can't help but judge the Housewives, and judge them harshly. Unfortunately, the media seems to feed our insecurities about ourselves and holds up these false ideals of beauty and independence. I don't know for sure but I think the Gloria Steinem, Marlo Thomas, et al did not have The Real Housewives franchise in mind when they fought, not so long ago, for women's rights.
So here's my challenge to myself and to you. For the next week or so, stop yourself whenever you think that you aren't pretty enough, smart enough, thin enough, rich enough. Just stop. Remind yourself that you are fabulous in your own, perfect way. And if you hear a friend or colleague start in about how they need to lose weight or that they look old or whatever, just stop them. Don't encourage it because they are also fabulous in their own perfect way!
And you know what my antidote was to feeling less than perfect after my awful television experience? Tina Fey's Bossypants. She has a chapter called "All Girls Must Be Everything" where she talks about the ideals of beauty and how we all discover this at a young age. Here's what she said:
Every girl is expected to have caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes. Everyone else is struggling. - Tina Fey
Arguably, Tina Fey is one of today's most attractive women. She has a sharp sense of humour, she's smart, she's strong & successful, and yes, she's pretty too. But all of these things together create the complete package: an interesting woman. And shouldn't that really be what we aspire to in life?
"A crisis is a terrible thing to waste." ~ Paul Romer, Stanford Economist
"If it scares me I'm doing it." ~ Laura
If you have been following my blog for awhile you have probably picked up this: I look for inspiration everywhere. Music that touches me and makes me feel or quotes that resonate with me. The experiences that I have or that my friends share with me are particularly powerful.
This week I had an energizing and inspiring experience disguised as "work" (yes, inspiration really is everywhere). I forced myself out of bed early on Wednesday morning, wiped the sleep from my eyes, grabbed a very large coffee, and headed into work for a webinar about building resilience. Ostensibly the webinar, presented by Tara Cree of Knightsbridge here in Vancouver, was about being resilient at work but it was so much more than that. Cree spoke about three "Big Ideas" and I would like to share those along with some of my own thoughts.
1.Resilience emerges if tested.
There are two types of us - "maintainers" and "fallers". Maintainers are really good at keeping their cool outwardly and never seem to lose it. Fallers do the opposite - fall. The fall can be long and hard or slow and drawn out. Which one do you think you are? Well, I fully admit that I am a faller. And I am pretty good about beating myself up about it, too - I have years of practice. But what I have discovered is that when you fall you learn. You learn about yourself and you learn about other people.
My most notable fall is definitely the severe depression that I experienced last year. But when I put aside the painful memories I am left with strength and resilience that I never knew that I had. Turns out that falling can be pretty good for you. It builds comfort with taking risks, you learn from your mistakes, you discover what you are capable of, and it leads you to a transformational moment. In short, falling builds resilience. So if you classify yourself as a maintainer, ask yourself this. Are you more resilient or just self-protective?
2. Do not live in fear of falling.
It's OK to fall. As I have outlined above, there are benefits from falling. Just don't forget to climb back up. Here are some of Cree's keys to bouncing back from your fall:
- Recognize when you are falling.
- Seek help (have your support network in place and call on them when you need to).
- Flex your "muscles" - take some relatively safe risks in order to build your resiliency.
3. The story that we tell ourselves in key.
We all have our own inner dialogue. When something goes wrong our default settings kick in - I am totally going to get fired for that mistake! My friend is going to hate me! I am the worst mother ever! And on and on and on. It's OK to have a negative thought - we are human, after all. Just be aware of the story that you are telling yourself so that you can catch yourself and turn the negative into something positive and useful. The transformational moment is when you catch yourself, take ownership for what is truly yours, and then let go of what isn't. Learn from it and move forward. Is your glass half full or half empty?
The hour that I spent listening to Tara Cree speak about resilience was truly energizing for me. I began to see examples around me of how others were building strength by challenging their comfort zones. A friend opened up over dinner about her insecurities at work and how her singing classes are encouraging her to sing with true feeling and to make a connection with the lyrics. Signing up for a singing class turned out to be a bit more than she bargained for but it seems to be helping her grow. I felt truly blessed that she opened up and shared her experience and happy to see her learning, growing, and spreading her wings.
Another person has been a long time friend who left my life briefly, we simply drifted apart. Happily, we reconnected after a few years and she has been an inspiration to me ever since. Laura is a mom, a chiropractor, and a triathlete (in addition to many other cool things!). Laura has a blog also and I always get something when I read her posts. Today when I opened her blog what should I see but the following quote from her, "If it scares me I am doing it." Along with a 38 year friendship, Laura and I share the same belief - life is meant to be lived and experienced.
So here is my question to you: how do you want to live your life? Do you want to simply maintain? Or do you want to take on a few challenges, maybe fall down a few times, and grow at the same time? I think I want to be a faller. A faller who knows when she is falling but who picks herself up, brushes herself off, and tries again.