Wednesday, 29 May 2013

"Tomorrow"

“Tomorrow will be better.”
“But what if it’s not?” I asked.
“Then you say it again tomorrow. Because it might be. You never know, right? At some point, tomorrow will be better.”
 
~ Morgan Matson, Amy and Roger's Epic Detour
 
It seems to be tomorrow already. Funny how it can sneak up on you. Time flies and all that. In truth, it took about a month of darkness to get to tomorrow, to get to the light.
 
Yes, I am "back" -  I feel like me again. What a wonderful feeling to do normal, mundane, everyday things like go to work, walk down a sidewalk, and have conversation with people that doesn't centre around how I am feeling. Phew! Who knew boring could be so wonderful.
 
My biggest lesson after all these years fighting my nemesis is this: things always get better. Sometimes it takes longer than other times. Sometimes there is more pain. Sometimes hope seems to be more fleeting. But the end result is that I always seem to find my way back. The gift in having gone through more than one major depressive episode in my life (did I really just use the word 'gift'?!), is that I have proven myself stronger and more resilient than I ever knew.
 
If I could boil it down to one message to share with anyone fighting this dark battle it would be this: never give up hope. Never.
 
But I didn't do this alone, not this time and not any of the times before. I had support, love, and understanding from many areas of my life: family, medical professionals, friends, and my employers. As the saying goes, "It takes a village to raise a child." It also takes a village to support a person afflicted with mental illness.
 
I became affiliated with Partners for Mental Health, a Canadian not for profit organization, about a year ago. I had been searching for a mental health organization to volunteer with for awhile and they fit the bill in terms of what I was looking for. In addition to the wonderful feeling that I get from helping them raise awareness of our joint cause, I have been able to connect with a community of like-minded volunteers also working with PFMH. I have been able to expand my village, so to speak. I have a new family who support me in my struggles and who I can also support. It's wonderful!
 
I can't emphasize enough how important a sense of community is for those suffering from mental illness. A classic hallmark of depression is the fact that it's a disease that encourages isolation and withdrawal from relationships. The very thing that you need, ironically, almost feels like it's out of reach. Becoming part of a community that understands your symptoms and the challenges that they bring can play a huge role in your recovery. We all want to feel understood, don't we?
 
Another organization that does a fabulous job of creating community, and has done for the past 35 years in Vancouver, is the Kettle Society. Now, how I am only learning about this wonderful organization I don't know. But today I was invited to attend the Making a Difference luncheon, billed as a "friend-raiser", at the Four Seasons Hotel. The company that I work for is a supporter of the Kettle Society, I am very proud to say, and had a table at the event.
 
As part of the event we listened as people read excerpts from a book called Hidden Lives - Coming out of Mental Illness. Touching and inspiring stories that illustrate why we need to bring the topic of mental illness out of the shadows.
 
One of the speakers was Lenore Rowntree, an editor of the book. She said that the title was inspired by the story of Harvey Milk, the openly gay politician in San Francisco at a time when those who lived their lives openly as gay people were marginalised and discriminated against. Rowntree compared the fight against the stigma of mental illness with that of the fight for gay rights 30 years ago (and still today, to an extent).
 
I couldn't agree more with her comparison. This is a civil rights issue. There are far too many of us who are still in the closet on this topic. Why is it still shameful to say that you have been diagnosed with depression or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder? Why is that? I hope for more people to open the door and step out. I think when you do that, you are a step closer to the light and finding a community of support.
 
I also understand why people choose to stay firmly behind the door and in that dark closet. Although we are making headway in reducing misunderstanding and discrimination, it still happens. I have experienced it and I know too many others who have also.
 
But that is why organizations such as Partners for Mental Health and the Kettle Society are so important. They, along with many other "villages" across Canada, are creating a sense of community and spreading the word that tomorrow will come. It will come and things will be better again. So don't give up. Never give up!
 
KB xo

P.S. Thank you very much to Ken who gave up his ticket to this event for me!
 


Friday, 24 May 2013

"Making a Molehill out of a Mountain"


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 
~ Margaret Mead

When you think about a work environment that is healthy and safe, what first comes to mind? Do you think about the first aid kit in the office lunch room? Maybe it's the annual fire drill. What about those steel-toed boots that are required for construction workers? You would be correct - these are examples of things that are covered under occupational health and safety legislation.

Did you know that Canada has recently introduced a similar voluntary standard for psychologically healthy workplaces?

I know what you are probably thinking: Wow. Um, that sounds like kind of a big thing. A lot of responsibility on Canadian employers. Hmm. What does this mean and how the heck are we going to even approach this? And what is a psychologically healthy work environment anyway?!

I am certain that workplaces across this country are asking the same thing. You (and they) may be thinking that this is just another touchy-feely human resources initiative. Well, it's not that at all. In fact, many human resources professionals aren't even quite sure about this yet either.

The concept of a psychologically healthy work environment is a relatively new one. Work environments have evolved and changed over the years. Remember when it was just the "Dad" who worked? He worked at the same company for his entire career and knew not to question his boss. Show up, do your job, keep your personal life private, and go home at the end of the day. Work environments today are more diverse and have added responsibilities and stressors - do more with less is a familiar mantra for many of us.

We now understand what motivates and engages employees to do their best work. We know what rewards employees value, what can attract a person to a job and what can keep them in that job. But   how often do we as employers actually follow what we know to be true? How often do managers forget these things when deadlines need to be met or there are sales targets to be achieved? They feel the pressure, too. We are just starting to understand the impact of stress and mismanagement on employees and how that translates to the Canadian economy and our communities.

Traditionally, workplaces have invested lots of time and money in so-called wellness initiatives. Maybe a few lunch time yoga classes or a place to store your bike so you can ride to and from work. If  an employer has an EFAP (employee and family assistance program) then they are all good, right? When an employee needs help with "personal issues", Mr or Ms Manager can refer them to the EFAP for help and then wash their hands of the whole matter. Done! All looked after. Now back to work.

That's not good enough. And the $51billion impact to the Canadian economy tells us this. Actually, it's screaming this message. Are we listening?

“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”
~ Wayne Dwyer

Maybe it's time to change how we view mental health issues in the workplace. Maybe we should try a new approach. No, not maybe. It's time.

Many employers look at the topic of mental illness as intimidating, treacherous, and complicated. They build it up into this big thing that becomes so overwhelming that they choose to avoid it. I don't think it's insurmountable. In fact, I know it's not. Instead of focusing on the possible cost of workplace accommodation and disability leaves for people with mental illness, let's start looking at prevention. And that's what the voluntary standard on psychologically healthy workplaces is all about.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” 
~ Nelson Mandela 

If we focus on creating respectful, trusting, mentally healthy workplaces then we will reduce and eliminate many stress induced mental illnesses. How do we do this? Through education and strong leadership.

Leadership: Our leaders (the CEOs, directors, business owners) need to be clear about the importance of this and say that this is a non-negotiable part of the workplace, just like occupational health and safety standards. Then they need to hold their management team accountable.

Skills Building: Our managers need to be given the skills to lead people. Too many managers are promoted into their leadership roles because they were really good at their last job. Just because you were fabulous at making widgets doesn't mean that you have the skills and abilities to now lead a team of people making widgets. It's a whole new skill set. So let's set these people up for success and give them the training that they require.

Education & Discussion: Without a trusting environment there will be no discussion. If an employee knows that he or she will be ridiculed or discriminated against, there is no way that they will divulge that they have a mental illness. Zero chance. It's the employer's accountability to educate managers and employees about mental health issues: how to recognize them in yourself and in your colleagues and how to support someone with mental illness.

Programs: I would wager that almost every organization with an HR department has a policy or process in place to handle disability leaves, return to work plans, and accommodation requests. How many have robust preventative programs in place so that those other policies aren't as necessary? Significantly fewer, I am certain. Invest in prevention to mitigate the risk of bigger problems down the road.

Yes, this topic is a big deal. It's a big deal and a big problem because we let it get this way, slowly but surely. As I said earlier, the mountain is not insurmountable. In fact, I think we can reduce that mountain to a molehill.

KB xo








Sunday, 19 May 2013

"This is Not Me"

"My heart is like a broken cup
I only feel right on my knees...
Who are you
Who are you
Who who who who"
Who Are You lyrics by The Who
 
This is not me. The sadness, the listlessness, the bland personality, the moments of almost uncontrollable irritability. It's just not me. I have to keep reminding myself of this.
 
It's hard to keep sight of the person that you really are when mental illness has you in it's grip.
 
My friend Ashley recently posted a picture on facebook. The photo was one she took of a tabloid magazine at a store checkout. It grabbed her attention, as a fellow mental health advocate, because it said, 'Carrie Fisher: Coping With Being Bipolar.'
 
BEING bipolar. Hmm. How do you "be" an illness?

We don't say someone is coping with being cancer or being emphysema or being the flu. We don't because you cannot be an illness. You can be yourself and you can have an illness. But you can't BE an illness. Simple, right? Apparently not. The line is much fuzzier when it comes to a mental health issues.

So why is this the case? Why are we so quick to equate who a person is with mental illness? Because it's easy to, first of all. So many of the symptoms of these illnesses are similar to personality traits. When we experience a person acting in a certain way, we tend to believe that is who they are. Sometimes that's true. Sometimes it isn't. Sometimes you need to scratch the surface a bit and look past temperament.

"You used to be much more...muchier. You have lost your muchness." ~ the Mad Hatter

I have struggled with recognizing and understanding who I really am versus how depression and anxiety make me feel. And I am pretty sure that my friends have struggled with this over the years as well. The really great ones, the ones who are still in my life, were able to figure that out. Over time they, and I, were able to understand that if I retreated for a bit, that wasn't really me - it was the depression and anxiety that were showing their true colours. If I snapped, was impatient, lost my sense of humour, or broke into tears, it was not a commentary on the state of our friendship.  These were symptoms of illness.

There is another reason that we confuse personality and symptoms of mental illness: stigma. There is still so much misunderstanding out there. Those of us who suffer don't always understand the impact - how it affects the relationships in our lives, both personal and professional. If we struggle with understanding then imagine how those who don't must struggle. It's one of the reasons why I chose long ago to be open about my illness. I want to help people understand what it took me years to figure out.

Here's why this is an important topic, why it matters so much. At the end of the day, all we really have is who we are. The dangerous thing about depression is that it infects you with self doubt and feelings of worthlessness. It pulls you away from things that have made you happy or content in the past - hobbies, activities, relationships. As it breaks you down, you begin to forget who you really are. You can't remember what it felt like to really laugh. When that happens it's easy to lose hope. Without hope is a place where no one should ever be.

What I know after many years fighting depression is that I am an aunt whose niece and nephew love very much. I am a good and generous friend. I am a lover of pretty shoes, a silly comedy, a great book, and a delicious meal. I am a hard worker. I am creative. I am a loving daughter and loyal sister. I am someone who has learnt a lot about myself through my struggles. I am not depression.

Who am I? I am me.

And I will be muchier again, soon.

KB xo

P.S. Visit the Not Myself Today page to learn more about Partners for Mental Health and join the fight against stigma!
 



Monday, 13 May 2013

"Oysters and Life"

"The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of all." from Mulan, Walt Disney Corporation
 
In my last post I wrote that the recovery from mental illness is rarely a straight line. You don't wake up one day and everything is all better. Done. Finished. Chapter closed. Moving on.

Yes, some days you wake up and you feel much better. Some days, perhaps just a little bit better. Then, sometimes, you feel like you are back where you started. I have had a few days of the latter recently.
 
Yes, I have been reminded of the very words that I wrote just last week. It feels frustrating, infuriating, maddening, tear-inducing - all of that. But that is the reality of depression. It doesn't mean that I am not getting better, it just means that I have to remember a few things. Like how I need to put less pressure on myself to "hurry up and get better, already!" (my own words to myself in my low moments) and just take things one day at a time. Somehow, I seem to have temporarily forgotten my own best advice.
 
Despite what I am feeling, I know that I am not back at square one - far from it. I also know that this feeling and this stage of my illness is temporary. I know that because I am a hopeless (or hopeful?) optimist and I have been here before - I know how this story ends. But I also know that because the signs are all around me.
 
Signs, signs
Everywhere are signs
~ Signs by Tesla
 
As I have said and written many times, there is inspiration all around us, you just need to be open to it. On Saturday I treated myself to a trip to one of my favourite stores: Chapters. A book store is a slice of heaven and it is difficult for me to feel sad when I am in one.

As I entered the store I was offered a coupon - buy a greeting card and receive from 10% to 40% off your purchase. I didn't need a card so I declined the coupon. When I got to the cashier to pay for my book and magazines, he said to me, "I am just going to see if I can save you some money." Nice, right? He grabbed a card, scanned it, then scanned the coupon. If I purchased the card, I would end up saving about sixty cents in total and get a free card.

I looked at the card that he had grabbed. Written in bold letters: The world is your oyster. Um, yes, please - I'll take that card!

On my walk this morning I encountered another sign. Literally, a sign in front of a restaurant read "maybe things didn't happen the way you wanted them to in the past because something better is meant to be." It was a message that I needed to see in big, bold, black letters right in front of me. There it was, a sign if I ever needed one, to let go of something from my past.

Letting go of hopes or things that happened in the past can be incredibly hard. It's something that I have worked very hard to do before - successfully, thankfully. Now I am giving it another go because I know that I need to. How will I ever open myself up to that better thing that is around the corner, that oyster that probably (undoubtedly) has a giant pearl in it, if I don't let go?

For some people depression is a chronic brain illness and for some people it's the result of a stressful life event. The common theme on the road to recovery in both cases is taking ownership of what you can: eat well, exercise, build strong social connections, seek treatment from a professional, and, not the least of all, try to eliminate the negativity from your life and your brain.
 
So what is the next step for me? Onwards and upwards, as my mom would say. Stay in the moment, my former psychologist would say. You've gotten through this before and you will again, my dad would say. I love you and I am always here for you, my best friend would say. Maybe I'll listen to these wise people and persevere, as I always have.

One foot in front of the other, as I would say. The world is your oyster, as the card would say.

KB xo
 

 
 
 


Thursday, 9 May 2013

"You Can Change the World"

"Change your thoughts and you change your world." ~ Norman Vincent Peale

Today is the day. It's the start of Partners for Mental Health's new campaign, Not Myself Today. It's also the week that I returned to work after a very short leave due to a recurrence of depression and anxiety. Oh, and it's National Mental Health Awareness Month.Timing, as they say, is everything.

This week has been interesting, to say the least. I was welcomed back with open arms and encouraging words by so many wonderful colleagues (and friends) - it was a bit emotional at times, in a really good way, to feel the support. I was reminded how lucky I am to work for such a great employer and with good people. This is not the case, unfortunately, for so many others who fight mental illness.

But, as always, there is the other side of the story - the people who still don't really understand my battle, and the reality of mental illness, how it manifests itself, how it's not like having a bad bout of the flu. They say they understand but I know that they don't.

Has anyone ever said to you, "you look so tired today." How did that make you feel? Maybe not so great, huh? Perhaps annoyed? I kind of feel the same way when someone says to me that I don't look happy. Happy. What is happy, anyway? And when I am at work I am not necessarily always smiling, laughing and joking. I'm at work. I am working. That doesn't mean that I am not happy to be there. Yes, I encountered this this week and it was a bit of pressure that I didn't need. It's that lack of understanding once again. I get it but it still upsets me at times.

Returning to work can be an entirely new challenge for someone who has been on a disability leave, whether long or short. Luckily, my recent leave was just under three weeks so the return was not as daunting as it could have been. However, I was still anxious about it. I was nervous about what assignments might be waiting for me and how my colleagues might receive me. I knew, in the intellectual part of my brain, that I had nothing to worry about - I have an amazingly supportive boss whom I knew would have already planned my re-entry so that it would be smooth. But the part of my brain where the depression and anxiety live, whispered their lies to me. Just whispers at this point, no longer a roar, but they were there, nonetheless.

The fact is that although depression is an illness, it does not have a predictable life span. My doctor can't write me a prescription for two aspirin and a week's rest and then tell me I'll be all better. It just doesn't work that way. I am very lucky this time around that it was a relatively short bout but the fact remains that it's still tapering off. And that is one of the reasons why I have returned to work on a gradual basis.

In human resources speak, I have returned to work on a "graduated return to work" (GRTW) basis which means that over this week and next, I am gradually working back up to my full hours. As both someone who has returned from disability leave before and as an HR professional, I recommend considering a GRTW if you are returning from a disability leave, whether short or long. In many cases, it can set up the returning employee for success which is win win for the both the employee and the employer. Everyone is different, however, and anyone suffering from mental illness should discuss treatment plans and a return to work strategy with their doctor.

So, back to me. Did I mention that I was in a national newspaper this week also? Yes, I was featured in the National Post as part of a story about Partners For Mental Health's Not Myself Today campaign and the necessity of raising awareness of mental health issues in the workplace. No, I am not mentioning it to brag (although, full disclosure, I am kinda proud!). I bring it up because it also illustrates the values that are important to my employer. My manager shared the story with the VP of HR and he shared it with the Director of Operations (she oversees Human Resources, the division that I work in) who proudly shared the story with our company's leadership team and CEO. That sort of thing speaks volumes not only to me personally but also to all the other employees who fight against mental illness, mostly silently. Maybe some of them will decide not to be silent anymore. I am hopeful.

I was also encouraged to see some fabulous work progressing within another area of our human resources division around creating a managers' tool kit for mental health issues in the workplace. It is so wonderful to see my employer walking the walk! We still have a long way to go but it all starts with one step at a time, and this is a pretty fabulous first step. Sadly, many employers aren't at this stage which is why I am so pleased to see the organization that I work for pave the way for others to follow.

My hope since the day that I started writing this blog has been to eliminate stigma. We will do that by starting discussion and creating understanding. And that is why I am so proud to be affiliated with Partners for Mental Health. Please visit their site and read about how we can create psychologically healthy workplaces. You can also take the Pledge to support mental health initiatives. As I write this, 30, 677 people have taken the pledge. Please help us get to 35,000 - it takes one second and by doing so you will be committing to helping make our world just a bit better! Together, we will change the world - I promise.

KB xo


Sunday, 5 May 2013

"Brand New Day"

When all the dark clouds roll away
And the sun begins to shine
I see my freedom from across the way
And it comes right in on time
Well it shines so bright and it gives so much light
And it comes from the sky above
Makes me feel so free makes me feel like me
And lights my life with love

 
Brand New Day by Van Morrison (lyrics by Annie Lennox & Dave Stewart)

Do you ever feel like things are going your way, things just feel right in your life, even if just for a moment or two? Do you feel content just by looking up at the blue sky or hearing the gravel crunch under your feet as you walk a forest trail? I kinda feel like that right now. The clouds have parted. The darkness has lifted.

Why is that? Well, I don't think it's luck. In fact, I know it's not luck. I have been working hard for the last month or so at getting my depression and anxiety to a manageable state. What is a manageable state? Thankfully, right now it means that it's not all encompassing. It has receded to the background once again. No more tears, back pain, insomnia, or that heavy dark cloud that seemed to follow me around. I can breathe again.

With the help of a medication adjustment (through consultation with my doctor) I have been able to rejoin my life - I have been getting exercise and connecting with friends and family. And, I am happy to be going back to work tomorrow after almost three weeks off. But the common denominators in my recovery have been perseverance, taking things one day at a time, and refusing to give in.

One of my biggest lessons in life is that things always get better. If you give them a chance, they always do. And when better comes, with it is a chance at a new beginning. Right now new beginnings are all around me.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and it's my birthday in a few days (another synchronicity in my life - not a coincidence, I don't think). I feel like I have so many opportunities to grow and be happy and I am going to grab them while I can.

I know that the dark will come again - it's been a consistent part of my life for the past twenty years and I am certain that it will remain so. But I can handle what comes. That is what chronic illness has taught me. And, I hope that is what this blog teaches others. Don't give up - never give up. Because tomorrow is a brand new day.

KB xo







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