Monday, 30 July 2012

"Optimisim 101"

"Have fun storming the castle!" ~ Miracle Max in The Princess Bride

Three unlikely heroes, one princess, and all that stood between them was an evil king and his army of brutes. How do you like those odds? Is the glass half full or half empty - or, should I say, what's the water level in the moat?

Last night I did a very cool thing. My niece and our friend and I went to the Fresh Air Cinema in the park and watched The Princess Bride. We spread our blankets on the grass to save our spot and then wandered around the park, visiting the booths of a number of great local organizations. My niece planted a seedling that, along with the hundreds of others planted that evening by other kids, will be replanted in gardens at local elementary schools. We tasted delicious gluten free coconut and chocolate chip cookies and learnt how to make organic fertiliser for the garden. We also chatted with friends that we ran into and even talked with strangers sitting on their blankets next to us. It was a real sense of fun and community.

Oh, but did I mention the cranky, rude people in line for popcorn?

Yes, the line was long. Yes, there was only one small popcorn machine. However, the event itself was free, the popcorn was by donation, and the people working there were amazingly friendly volunteers. And yet people still complained amongst themselves in line, muttering under their breath but still loud enough to be heard.

Guess what, people? You have a choice. We all have choices in life. The biggest and most important choice, in my estimation, is whether your want to be unhappy or happy. Simple as that. But is it really simple?

In my well days, days when the darkness of mental illness isn't overwhelming to me, I am a very optimistic person. I generally see the best in people first and only change my mind if they do something to prove me wrong. I try to cut people some slack in life. I do this for a few reasons. First, I know all too well that often people are fighting their own private battles. It could be depression, my own personal dragon, or it could be something else: addiction, family problems, abuse, health issues. So I like to smile at the cashier in the grocery store or say good morning to someone in the elevator. Life is easier for me that way. My days are more pleasant and it creates a feeling of positivity in me. And that's important to bank for the times that I need to make a withdrawal, the times when the happiness and optimism don't always come so easily.

It's also habit forming. I have many days when, although not officially depressed, I do feel down. On those days it is a struggle for me to remain up. I had a day recently at work when I felt like crying. The feeling lasted about half an hour and then it was gone. It was gone because I recognized the bad feeling and chose to change my mind. I knew that the rest of the day would, to put it simply, suck if I stayed overwhelmed and sad. By telling a friend how I felt, getting a pep talk from her, and realizing that the choice was all mine, I was able to turn it around. The end result is that I had a better day and I was able to contribute to a positive environment at work. The more that I catch myself and change my mind about things, the easier it gets. Although, let's be honest, there is no turning around some days!

I think we forget a lot of the time the impact that we have on those around us. It's something that I am very conscious of as a result of my own battles with mood disorders. It's OK to not feel yourself (one in five Canadians is actually suffering from mental illness). But let's just try as a society to show some understanding, patience, and love to one another.

Come to think of it, even in my toughest days and hardest fought battles against my illness, I must have held onto a shred of optimisim. If it hadn't been there, deep down, maybe I wouldn't be here. Maybe I wouldn't be having fabulous summer evenings with loved ones.

So if you have to storm a castle or fight whatever daily battles you are up against, maybe take Miracle Max's advice and try to have fun. I promise, it makes it easier.

KB xo

P.S. This is dedicated to Emma, "as you wish"

Sunday, 22 July 2012

"Growing Pains"

One of my favourite movies is called Same Time, Next Year. It's the story of two lovers who meet at a quaint inn on the California Coast. The catch? They are both happily married to other people. They decided to continue to see each other but only once a year: "Same time, next year." The story spans the next 25 years as they both grow, change, and evolve in the face of life's challenges. I love it because it stars one of my favourite actors, Alan Alda, but it's also just a great story. Occasionally I will stumble upon it on TV, one of those simple, unexpected pleasures in life. I enjoy it as much as I did around 30 years ago when I saw it for the first time. Some things don't change.

But most things do change. Thank goodness for that.

I just spent a really wonderful weekend with my entire immediate family at my parent's house. We had a (profitable!) garage sale, an impromptu family BBQ with our awesome neighbours who are more like family than friends, and shared lots of laughter and love. As I lay in my bed in "my room" on Saturday night, awaiting sleep, I reflected on the refuge that that very room, bed, and home, had provided me only a year before.

Twelve months ago I was in the fight of my life. Quite literally. My parents and their home were my refuge. They saved me from the ultimate darkness, death. For that I am forever grateful. While I can never truly know how devastating it must have been for them to have a child walking such a fine line between choosing life and death, I am so grateful that they didn't shy away from the challenge. A painful challenge it was.

"Growing Pains" - It's a phrase that we are all familiar with. When kids grow up we often refer to many of the awkward phases that they go through as growing pains. But I think it's one of those sayings that just makes sense. My experience with mental illness is similar to those of you who have fought battles against disease, disability, or suffered tragedy. It hurts, simply put. Sometimes it's physical and sometimes it's mental but it's pain all the same. One of the great things (yes, there has been the odd  thing) that has come out of my experience with depression is that it has forced change in my life and it has forced me to grow. When you grow, sometimes it hurts.

As I sat on the back deck at my parents' home this morning I looked out over my mom's garden. The pretty butterfly bushes are so much taller and stronger this year. My mom has watered, pruned, and loved them over the past year. My dad staked them so that they would have that extra bit of fight and resilience to them when the rains and winds come. They have flourished. You know what? Come to think of it, so have I.

KB xo

P.S. This is dedicated to the most amazing mom & dad that anyone could ask for. A gift to me from the universe. Thank you, universe!

Thursday, 5 July 2012

"Get Over It"

"Get over it. Get over it. All this whinin' and cryin' and pltchin' a fit. Get over it, get over it." ~ the Eagles

It's not that bad. Things could be worse. Don't be so sensitive. Don't take things so personally. And my personal favourite, Smile! I have heard them all. Comments from well meaning people who simply don't understand or who buy into the stigma attached to mental illness.

I was recently reminded of why I made a choice to not remain silent about my own battles with depression, why it's so important to me to tear to shreds every last bit of that awful stigma. A friend disclosed to his employer that he has been struggling with mental health issues. It didn't go great. His illness was minimised by a manager who just doesn't understand. It's hard for us to show our weaknesses, especially for men in our society. So just imagine how difficult it was for my friend to actually take that step to share something so personal. Such a shame. A negative response is the very reason that employees are so hesitant to self identify as suffering from a mental illness. But I hardly blame them.

One in four or five Canadians who are suffering from mental illness will go untreated. Why? Quite simply it's because of discrimination based on their illness. Its far from uncommon, sadly, for those suffering from mental illness to face inequity in many areas that others take for granted. A person suffering often faces disadvantages in employment, housing, and educational opportunities. I have been lucky because I work for an employer who has handled my illness in a supportive manner overall. But I am an exception to many of my comrades in this battle against a dark illness.

Stigma is not just faced in the workplace. It also bleeds into other areas of our lives. It can have a dramatic and detrimental effect on our relationships and social network, something that we desperately need to survive mental illness. As I have said in past posts, I did lose some friends in the early days of my illness who didn't understand what was happening to me and my personality. Frankly, I barely understood what was happening to my brain myself so I can hardly hold them to account for walking away. But I do believe that the more that we as a society talk about mental health issues, the higher our level of consciousness and awareness in general. And that can only be good.

Here's another fact from the Canadian Mental Health Commission that I find interesting: 70% of adults who suffer from mental illness began to show signs as a teenager. Studies have shown that if we can catch mental illness in the early years there is a higher success rate for treatment. But we have to make it easy for kids to talk about how they are feeling. And as adults, we have to get so much better at listening and watching for the signs. How do we know what to watch for? We educate ourselves. When we educate ourselves, we will reduce and eventually eliminate stigma.

When I see a homeless person or someone drunk or high, stumbling down East Hastings Street in Vancouver, I think, "there but for the grace of God go I." Most of these souls suffer from mental illness and society let them down. If I didn't have good health care benefits from my employer and the support and love from my family and friends, that could be me. That is the cold, hard truth.

We have a responsibility in this life to look out for each other. I urge you to challenge misconceptions and stigma about mental illness. Dig deeper than the surface and seek the truth. And the next time someone opens up to you, treat that respectfully.

This is dedicated to all my kindred spirits out there who have suffered or are suffering but who refuse to live in shame. You are my heroes!

KB xo

P.S. check out the Mental Health Commission for more information - education is power!

Sunday, 1 July 2012

"Strength in Family"

"You never know how strong you are ...until being strong is the only choice you have."

I recently took a few days off from work and hopped in the car with my mom, dad, and 11 year old niece for a quick summer roadtrip from Vancouver to Alberta. The journey was full of fun and, pun intended, certainly a trip down memory lane. But I am not sure that I quite expected to go on a trip that would lead me so far from home and yet bring me so close. Confused? Let me explain.

The purpose of the trip was for my great grandfather, Andrew David Bower whom neither my father nor I ever met. He was a special man, and I really didn't realize quite how special until a weekend this past June.

Andrew Bower was the first warden in Canada to die in the line of duty. On June 6, 1925 he was thrown from his horse in Waterton Lakes National Park and later succumbed to his injuries. The runour is that poachers were somehow involved but nothing was ever proven. He died at the age of 39, leaving a pregnant widow and four children. But he wasn't just a warden. He had also been a member of the North West Mounted Police and later an enlisted soldier who fought on the front lines of the Great War in France. He was wounded in his left arm and returned home where doctors wanted to amputate. He refused.

Andrew was a man who didn't shy away from challenges in his life. He fought for his country and what he believed to be right. In short, he seemed to do a lot more living in his short life than many of us. Obviously, he also faced great adversity. The Canadian government agreed that Andrew Bower earned the right to be honoured so that's what they did - they honoured him on June 15, 2012 by laying a plaque in his name across from the location where he was injured.

The ceremony honouring my great grandfather was impressive and emotional. There were representatives of the RCMP, Canadian veterans, and Parks Canada Wardens, and about 40 Bower family members. My great aunt, Joyce Setters was also there. She  is Andrew's only living child - the child he never met. One of Andrew's grandchildren, who had helped organize the event, Jamie, spoke about Andrew - his life and his legacy. The part that touched me in particular was when he spoke about Andrew's wife, Mary Bower. What strength my great grandmother must have had to raise a family of five without her husband. Thinking about the difficult times she surely faced and lived through touched me deeply. A cousin who knew her told me that she was a sweet lady but was tough as steel when she needed to be. Not surprising, really.

The weekend was an opportunity to reflect on my family history and my place within it. I found great comfort in the strength and tenacity of my great grandmother and the character of my great grandfather. But it was also a time to connect with my family whom I don't see often - my cousins and the next generation in Alberta, to build on those relationships and seek comfort in my family. We are so alike, despite having grown up in different provinces. It's wonderful for me to know that, although far away in miles, they will always be there for me in my dark times.

This trip was a reminder to me that we all face adversity in life but if we draw on that secret reserve of inner strength (and I know in my heart that we all have it!) we will make it through, even stronger than we were before. My great grandmother faced life as a mother and young widow. She survived and I can survive mental illness.

So how far did that trip take me? From the lush coastal mountains, through the glorious Canadian Rockies, to the rolling foothills of Alberta. And about 80 years back through family history and back. Quite a trip, indeed!

KB xo

P.S. This is dedicated with love and respect to Andrew and Mary Bower.

Here's a link to the Calgary Herald story about Andrew Bower:

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