Monday, 26 August 2013

"There are Always Cupcakes"

Ohhh... that's good

Advice. According to the Oxford dictionary, the word advice is defined as: noun; guidance or recommendations concerning prudent future action, typically given by someone regarded as knowledgeable or authoritative.

Have you noticed that the world is full of people who love to give unsolicited advice? And I would wager that 99.9% of the time, the 'advice' provided is neither prudent nor given by someone regarded as knowledgeable. Sorry, Oxford dictionary.

When it comes to mental illness there is an endless supply of this so-called advice. It's almost always well meaning. Most of the time it comes from wanting to say something reassuring but there is almost always a lack of understanding that mental illnesses are just that - illnesses. Real illnesses.

In the two decades since my first diagnosis of depression, sometimes living with full blown major depressive episodes and sometimes in remission, I have pretty much heard it all and read it all. I accept and understand that my illness has to do with my brain circuitry and a hereditary disposition. Yes, there have also been situational stressors that have aggravated the illness at times, but that has not been the root cause of it for me.

I also understand that there are many things that I can do to try and maintain a healthy lifestyle: eat well, practice good sleep hygiene (yes, it's a thing), get regular exercise, manage stress, and surround myself with positive, supportive people.

But here's the kicker, people. These things will not always prevent a relapse. I cannot control my illness any more than someone with cancer can. Yes, I can (and do) treat my illness with both a scientific approach (with the professional guidance of my doctor) as well as holistically in the ways that I outlined above. Quite simply, I do everything that I can to mitigate risk of relapse.

And here, again, is a big difference between those of us who have been diagnosed with mental illness versus someone who has an illness or disease that shows up in a more physical manner: we get a lot of ridiculous, often annoying and sometimes hurtful, so-called advice. My favourites over the years have been "Just smile and think about all the good things in your life" and "Go for a walk and get some fresh air."

Granted, this is solid advice if you are sad or angry. That's because sad and angry are feelings - not illnesses. Focusing on the good or a bit of exercise can change your feelings fairly quickly, and that's a great thing. It doesn't work so quickly and effectively for someone battling a disease such as depression. These things alone will not make the black dog of depression go away.

I know it is really hard to understand this if you haven't experienced it yourself so I will compare depression to cancer, again. Would you tell someone fighting cancer to just go for a walk or think happy thoughts and expect that to be solid advice in which to battle that particular disease? Perhaps not.

Why is this well-meaning advice hurtful at times? Because it can be delivered in a way that can come across as dismissive and condescending. And sometimes, it's given with an undertone of 'you just aren't trying hard enough." A person experiencing a major depressive episode is already dealing with the feeling of being alone and overwhelmed, with feelings of inadequacy and guilt; the last thing they need to feel is misunderstood or that people lack empathy and caring.

Please don't let any of the above stop you from sharing some supportive words of hope, however. Hope is literally a lifeline to a person experiencing mental illness. While 'advice' is everywhere, kind gestures can be rare. Just take a moment to consider that the pain is real and all they really want to hear is that you are there for them. And if you still really want to provide a moment of comfort why not choose from this list, all of which are solid suggestions in my opinion:

Knowing that there are always cupcakes is a good thing.
KB xo

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

"No Casseroles"

 You are not #alone. #Friends #Family #SupportBoard #DisabilityNinjas #Support #Understand #SupportGroup #Forum #Bond #Disability #ChronicIllness #ChronicPain #InvisibleIllness #MentalIllness #MentalHealth
A friend posted a really interesting article from the LA Times on facebook today. It was about what not to say to people with a serious illness such as cancer. The author, who had fought breast cancer, had heard everything from "This illness isn't just about you. It's about me, too." to "I am not sure I can handle this diagnosis." Remember, these are things that friends and colleagues said to her, not the other way around. I was struck by how personal the reactions were. I couldn't help but compare this to my own experiences with severe depression.
There is a stark contrast between how people with a physical disease are perceived and treated and those who are diagnosed with a brain illness. Society still gives more weight to physical illness. Make no mistake, depression is a disease. It's a deadly disease. But it's one that people find it difficult to wrap their head around (no pun intended). Instead of feeling it personally and deeply when a friend is diagnosed with depression, many people withdraw and pull away. It's the opposite reaction to what the author experienced during cancer and described in her story.
We think we know what to do if someone dies or if a loved one is seriously ill. We bake cookies, we make casseroles, we send a card or flowers, we call to check in and see how they are doing. Another blog about mental illness that I once read said that mental illness is not a 'casserole' illness - don't expect anyone to show up at your door with a home-cooked casserole. How true.
I have never received that homemade casserole and only once received flowers during any of the three major depressive episodes that I have endured. Let me be clear - I am absolutely not complaining about lack of said casserole. I just think it's important to highlight the reality, the loneliness and feeling of alienation that people who are fighting depression go through. How many of those around you will withdraw and slowly disappear.

I have been incredibly lucky to have the love and unwavering support from my family and a small group of close friends. But many colleagues and friends just didn't know what to do or say so they chose not to do anything. That was just sad to me and, in some cases, heartbreaking.

Someone said a really honest thing to me the other day. This person, who is going through some challenging times personally, said, "You know, I just didn't have any empathy for what you were going through until now. Now I understand better." I kind of appreciate that honesty. But here's the thing. I may have never experienced cancer or diabetes or a broken leg but I am still able to feel and show empathy towards someone who has. Why is it different for people with mental illness?

Yes, I have felt let down by people at times. But I also understand that it's difficult to really support someone through something if you just don't understand it. And why don't we understand mental illnesses? Because we still don't talk about them enough. Broken record, I know.
“We are not primarily on earth to see through one another, but to see one another through” ~ Anonymous
So what do you do or say if you just aren't sure what will help someone diagnosed with a mental illness? I would say start with that. A simple, "I don't know exactly what you are feeling but I know that you are going through something difficult and I will be here for you" speaks volumes.

So what helped me? What would I recommend that you do if you have someone whom you care about who is depressed? Here are some of the things, the gestures and kind words, that have helped me along the way:

* The friends who told me that I could call them at any time, night or day, were invaluable to me. I never made any middle of the night calls but just knowing that I could was huge. And, believe it or not, only a couple of people actually said this to me.

* My best friend made sure that I knew that I was welcome for family dinner with her, her hubby, and two small boys every Monday night. Knowing that I had a standing date with my second family was incredibly comforting. And all I had to do was sit at the table and be loved.

* A few wonderful friends and colleagues would send me texts and emails with silly knock knock jokes or simple notes to say that they missed me and were thinking of me. That never failed to make me smile, even on days when my smile was loathe to make an appearance.

* Some people told me that they were praying for me or sent me spiritual words of support. Now, I am absolutely not religious. But I respect those who have made the choice to have religion in their lives and I feel very honoured when I have been told that I am in someone's prayers. I consider that a huge gift.

* Perhaps most importantly, my family has given me exactly what I have needed and when I have needed it. My dad slept on my couch one night because he didn't want me to be alone. My brother listened to me. And my mom has held me through my tears.

Even after all my years living with the disease of depression I still never presume to know exactly what another person with the illness is going through - we are all unique and have different experiences. But I try to show empathy in ways that I hope will provide some sort of support and comfort. It's not always easy and sometimes I don't get it right, either. But I still try. You know that old saying? Treat others as you would like them to treat you. It still rings true.

I may not have received a casserole or been inundated with flowers but I must share one final thing. A dear colleague sent me perhaps the most thoughtful gift that I have ever received. I was on short term disability leave and staying with my parents, experiencing one of my darkest days. My dad returned from getting the mail and handed me a small package. In it was a lovely bracelet with a note that read, "Something beautiful on the outside for someone beautiful on the inside." I'll take that over a casserole any day!

KB xo

P.S. Random acts of kindness? Nah! Watch Jamie D. Grant's TedX talk and be specific with your kindness!

Sunday, 4 August 2013

"Bakery Air"

When I have kids will put this on their wall... Reading is the key to getting ahead in life...
A good book. For me, there is nothing quite like it. Back in the early seasons of the television show Survivor, contestants were allowed to bring one luxury item with them. My luxury item would have been a book. Pretty sure I would have been voted off the island early on but at least I would have been happy.
An engrossing book has been so many things to me throughout my life. It's been escape, adventure, travelogue, comfort, education, humour. On my journey through mental illness it has certainly been all these things and more. Soldiers don't go into war unarmed and I decided early on that I wouldn't go into my battle against depression without an arsenal of weapons of my own. Educating myself as to what I was (am) up against was never a question for me.
There are really three types of books in the category of mental illness and wellness that have been useful to me over the years: 1) self-help (workbooks, medical/scientific); 2) memoir; and 3) a category that I will call "break in case of smile emergency". This is just a small sampling of my favourites:
A book that has been super helpful to me over the years is one that I seem to keep going back to. It's a workbook called "Your Depression Map" by Randy J. Paterson, PhD. I love this book because it breaks down the illness of depression in a way that is easy to understand and digest. Paterson doesn't overwhelm (or bore) the reader with too much science-speak. The book is well laid out with wonderful suggestions for personalized treatment plans. If you can only read one book on depression this is the one.
The second book in this category is "Well Being: The Five Essential Elements" by Tom Rath and Jim Harter. Although not a book about depression, the explanation of the elements required to live a full, balanced, and "well" life are useful to anyone fighting depression. Rath and Harter are two Gallup scientists who have solid scientific information to back up their claims. Feel like your life is out of balance? Read this book.
I love this category and I think it's so important for anyone fighting mental illness. As I have said so many times before, depression (and many brain illnesses) is an illness that makes you feel very alone. Part of the reason for that is because so many people don't speak of it. This is why memoirs are so valuable. There is always comfort in knowing that you really aren't "the only one."
The first memoir on my list is "Changing My Mind" by Margaret Trudeau. For those of you of a certain age you will remember Trudeau as the young, free-spirited, "crazy" wife of Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau. For those of you who don't recall those days, she's Justin Trudeau's mom! I love her book because she tells a tale that is familiar to many: she spent years without a correct, accurate diagnosis of her mental illness. As a result, she didn't always receive the treatment that she needed, when she needed it. Oh, and she had to go on this journey in a very public way, bearing the brunt of the world's criticism and misunderstanding. Certainly not an easy task. Today Trudeau is an advocate on the topic of mental illness and wellness.
The second memoir on my list is a rarity - it addresses the topic of mental illness and the workplace. "Out of the Blue" by Canadian journalist and writer Jan Wong describes Wong's descent into deep depression after suffering trauma on the job and the subsequent very poor treatment of her by her employer, The Globe and Mail. I found Wong's account of her experiences riveting and appalling and her bravery inspiring. A must read for employers and human resources professionals.
Break in Case of Smile Emergency
This is the category that is simply fun. It's all about finding the smile that can be so elusive when you are in the dark depths of depression. The book that tops my list in this category is "The Book of Awesome" by Neil Pasricha. It's basically a compilation of things that Pasricha considers awesome. An example? How about 'bakery air'? "Bakery air is that steaming hot front of thick, buttery fumes waiting for you just inside the door of a bakery. And I am just going to tell you something straight up: that is some fine air."
In my last post I shared some insights from my fellow Partners for Mental Health community correspondents about their top tips for dealing with mental illness. I went back to the well a second time for a list of the books that they feel helped them along their own journeys. Here are their top picks:
* "Mindsight" by Dr. Dan Siegel
* "Mind Over Mood" by Dennis Greenberger, PhD and Christine A. Padesky, PhD
* "The Buddha and the Borderline" by Kiera Van Gelder
* "Writing Through the Darkness: Easing Your Depression with Paper and Pen" by Elizabeth Maynard Schaefer
* "Speaking of Sadness: Depression, Disconnection, and the Meanings of Illness" by David A. Karp
* "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression" by Andrew Solomon
* "Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness" by Darryl Cunningham
* "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Finkel
The next time you are lacking inspiration or that smile, head to your library or local book store. Then maybe stop by a bakery and breathe in some of that fine bakery air. Bet you'll find your smile, even if just for a moment.
KB xo
P.S. I want to hear from you! Do you have any suggestions to add to our list? If so, please share them!
P.P.S. Thank you to Kathleen, Casey, Paige, Allison, Aidan!

"To New Beginnings"

Christmas and Hanukkah are over. The new year is just around the corner. Most of us are considering how we are going to get back on track...