Tuesday, 12 December 2017

"How to Not Lose Your Mind Over the Holidays"

Wait, what's that "festive holiday party" anxiety?

I have something to tell you, a tiny secret. Come closer. Here it is: not everyone loves Christmas. There. I said it.

If you were to believe everything that you read and watch on TV, you would think that December is four weeks of sheer happiness. For many people, it's four weeks of ridiculously high expectations, stress, low mood and high anxiety. In the weeks leading up to Christmas and Hanukkah we are inundated with reminders that we need to spend more money, buy that perfect gift, host the perfect holiday party, and on and on. Add to that poor weather and reduced sunlight and you can easily slip into depression. Even if you truly do love the holiday season and everything is going great in your world, stress is still there.

I used to be one of those people who LOVED Christmas - everything about it. I planned and hosted a big holiday party for my friends every year. I searched high and low for the absolute, most perfect gifts for my family and friends, and usually started shopping in September. Christmas would almost always be spent with my immediate family and my maternal grandparents; like something out of a Hallmark card - family gathered together to celebrate the season. On the surface, it all sounds wonderful. Look closer and you can spot some cracks in the veneer.

The holiday party that I hosted each year for many years was fun. It was also a lot of work, cost a lot of money and, always, I drank far too much and was left with a horrific hangover, sometimes for two days. I won't lie - I loved it for a long time but when I started to love it less and then, subsequently, stopped drinking alcohol, it was time to end that particular tradition.

As my work life has become busier and depression and anxiety have played a larger role in my life, I have had to become very conscious of what I commit to, whether it's at work or outside of work, and how that will impact my mental health. I don't do a lot of socializing anymore and that is by choice. Add introversion to anxiety and you will learn quickly how vital it is to guard your energy levels.

Start saying no. I am getting much better at this but it's a work in progress. Now, before I commit to something, I ask myself, what will this cost me in terms of my wellbeing? If the cost is too high, it's a no-go.

SHOPPING: What IS the perfect gift?
I have always loved shopping. I remember when I was a teenager taking the bus to the mall on Saturdays and wandering the stores for hours on end. I hated Sundays because the stores were all closed. As I became an adult and began living with a mood disorder, the shopping became something that I used to soothe my bruised spirit. It worked until I would get my credit card bill and then reality would hit me hard. My mood would sink and what was the answer to that? More shopping, of course. It was a cycle that I would live with for two decades and that really did a number on my credit rating. And, full disclosure, it's something that I am still working on.

I also equated the perfect gift with happiness. If I could present the two people in my life who seemed to be the hardest to please at Christmas, my dad and grandpa, with the perfect gift then they would be happy and everything would be perfect. There's that word again.

Stop aiming for an impossible goal - perfection is highly overrated anyway. Something else that I finally learned is this: spending time with someone you love is usually gift enough. Plan a breakfast date or coffee from a local coffee shop and a walk in a favorite park. How about plans to catch a movie together in January? Something to look forward to in the new year is a great idea. Just get off the financial roller coaster: set a budget, stick to it, and be creative.

FAMILY: Brady Bunch or Griswalds?
Our little family Christmases were often stressful and that is the simple truth. My dad has never liked Christmas. My grandpa was a man who was not diagnosed with depression until late in life. As a result, he spent much of his life in a 'bad mood', to put it lightly. He adored his children and grandchildren but he was not easy to be around. So my mom tried to make everyone happy at Christmas. And then as I got older, I tried.

Guess what? It is exhausting and just not possible. I am not responsible for anyone's happiness except my own and neither are you. Set some boundaries and make a plan - decide in advance how you will handle the cranky aunt or the drunk brother in law. Create some space to spend time during the holidays with those who make you happiest. Let go of your expectations and allow people to be who they are, as hard as that can be.

A MONTH OF ZEN: Creating moments of calm.
When January rolled around I always fell from my high and hit the ground pretty hard. It's only been in the last five years or so that I have really recognized how all of this - the search for perfection, the spending, the frenzied socializing - has negatively impacted my overall well being. I am sure it's no coincidence that around that time was when I started to come out of my deepest and most serious depression yet. An experience like that makes you look at everything in your life.

My new approach to Christmas is this: I am intentional about creating my own moments of zen. For me, zen is a variety of things. It's gifting my mom with tickets to an event that we can enjoy together. It's sitting each morning with my nephew, our dog and a cup of coffee - enjoying the peace & quiet before the hectic day begins. It's reading a really great book while snuggled under piles of blankets at night And, sometimes, it's as simple as enjoying the twinkling Christmas lights on the house in my neighborhood. Now that is perfect.

KB xo

P.S. Check out these mental health tips for managing the holiday season courtesy of the Mayo Clinic

Sunday, 3 December 2017

"Invisible Superpowers"

I will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. -Wonder Woman Movie Quote

It's easier to believe in something that we can see, isn't it? With the exception of Santa Claus, God and perhaps the Tooth Fairy, I think it's safe to say that if you can see it, touch it, taste it, it's much easier to believe in it. The same rule holds true when it comes to disability. We can see a person using a wheelchair; therefore, we know that they have a disability. Not so with mental illness.

Have you ever been asked this question, "If you could have any superpower what would it be?" Invisibility would be amazing, yes? You could go do great things - go to places that were normally off limits to you, eavesdrop on conversations and who knows what else. Superpowers are cool and amazing.

But is an invisible illness like a mental disorder amazing? Is it cool? Do we envy people with mental illness? Or do we judge and turn away, perhaps even consider a person with a mental illness to be weak?

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) reports some interesting findings about the stigma associated with mental illness:

In a 2008 study, "42% of Canadians were unsure whether they would socialize with a friend who has a mental illness" and 46% of Canadians "thought people use the term mental illness as an excuse for bad behavior."  Considering that, conservatively speaking, approximately 1 in 5 of us have either already had a mental illness or will have one in their lifetime, that's a significant part of the population to discount.

That was nine years ago and, in my own experience, I have found that perceptions have improved. Let's see what CMHA reported based on a 2015 survey:
  • 64% of Ontario workers would be concerned about how work would be affected if a colleague had a mental illness.
  • 39% of Ontario workers indicate that they would not tell their managers if they were experiencing a mental health problem.
Yikes! Not good enough. Not good enough at all.

Here is the reality: people with mental disorders are functioning and contributing to the workplace and society at large and they do it Every. Single. Day. You probably work next to a colleague who has an anxiety disorder and you don't even realize it. What many of us don't see is that people who have chronic illness or have experienced some sort of health challenge have developed skills - let's call them superpowers. Some of the superpowers that I have as a result of two decades living with depression and anxiety are:

Resiliency: There was a time in my twenties when a set back would take me out for the count for awhile. It wasn't always easy for me to bounce back from a breakup with a boyfriend or a disappointment in life; I took things hard. The ups and downs of a mood disorder have taught me how to go with the flow and to be able to dust myself off faster after disappointment.

Perspective: Quite frankly, when you have experienced the darkest depths of depression and been to a place where you question the point of your life, you gain the gift of perspective. I learned how to place things into perspective: will this thing that seems so important to me today be as important a week from now, a year from now or when I am 80 years old? If I can't answer yes to all three questions then it isn't worth my time or worry.

Positivity: I wasn't always positive. There were times when depression had me tightly in its grips that everything seemed bleak - the glass most definitely appeared almost completely empty. But for some reason I never lost sight of a tiny sliver of light, that little bit of hope was still there. I made a choice to view things from a positive perspective as a survival technique. It took practice but it was well worth it and I now view the majority of things in life positively.

Confidence: Knowing that I survived the worst and made it to where I am today (amazing friends, a loving family and a career that I truly love) has given me what might be the greatest superpower of all: confidence. It took me many years to claim this particular superpower and now that I have it, I am not giving it back. I know that I can come back from the brink of despair to achieve great things and I am far less likely to settle for that half empty glass these days.

It's time for Canadians to understand that mental illness is not a sign of weakness or an excuse. Those of us with mental health challenges have skills and the ability to contribute to society. We make amazing friends, employees, parents and partners. Together, let's remove that cloak of stigma that renders us invisible - it's well past time.

Now here's a secret that I want to share with you: YOU have superpowers, too. Together we can save the world! Or, at the very least, we can make it inclusive for all. And that's the kind of world that I want for us all.

KB xo

P.S. Did you know that December 3 is the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities? Learn more here. The theme for 2017 is Transformation towards sustainable and resilient society for all. A 'super' theme if you ask me.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

"Talk About it Already"

Telling Someone with a mental illness to Snap Out of it, is like telling someone who is deaf to listen harder #mentalhealth via International Bipolar Foundation

Raise your hand if you have ever had to go to your job and work while you were sick. I am going to guess that is all of us, minus the millionaires among us. It's hard, isn't it? Trying to concentrate in an important meeting while your head is stuffed up with a winter cold isn't easy. We tend to understand and feel sympathy when a colleague has the common cold. Guess what else is common? Depression and anxiety.

The number one category of disability worldwide is mental illness. Yes, worldwide. Not just at my workplace or your workplace of even just in Canada. Worldwide. And yes, we still don't talk about mental illnesses nearly enough. We put up posters in workplaces encouraging employees to get flu shots, to stop smoking and to lift boxes safely. Mental health awareness? Not so much. Still.

I often speak at conferences and at organizations about the importance of being proactive about mental health awareness in the workplace. I share facts and figures, I tell parts of my own personal story and I even partner with the big guns at the Mental Health Commission of Canada sometimes. I know that I have helped people see the toll that untreated mental illness has on our society. And yet, there are still those people in the audience who are holding onto the old way of thinking. It goes something like this, "I can't afford to have an employee go on a disability leave or even take a few days off to look after their mental health. I have a business to run and I can't be short staffed. And I don't have time to talk about this stuff - I need to talk about our customers and sales targets and whatever else is urgent."

I get it. I really do. 

And here is what I want to say to those people: unless you take the time to begin this conversation in your workplace you are closing your eyes to an epidemic, and one that will negatively impact your organization's financial bottom line. If the human argument doesn't reach you then I am hoping that the financial imperative will.

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), approximately $28.8B is spent annually in Canada in disability income support. Organizations are experiencing an increase in worker's compensation claims, high benefits utilization rates, an increase in grievances and workplace conflict. There is a financial price tag associated with each of these things.

And here are two of  the saddest statistics courtesy of the MHCC: up to 90% of Canadians living with severe mental illness are unemployed; unemployment is associated with a two to three times increased relative risk of suicide as compared to those who are employed.

And here is what this all comes down to: the belief that mental illnesses are not real illnesses. I have said it many times before and I will continue to say it; stigma kills. 

Depression is very real. So are anxiety, addiction and OCD. People who have these illnesses ARE able to work and contribute to society but they sometimes need a little help. They need to know that their employer will support them just as their colleagues with the flu or a broken leg or cancer are supported. Mental illnesses are just as real - you just can't always see them.

To the managers, leaders and executives out there I ask you this: is your workplace psychologically safe and healthy? Are you not just ignoring your employees' mental health but also, perhaps, negatively impacting it? And the most important question of all is can you afford NOT to start a conversation about mental health?


P.S. Want to learn more about the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety? Visit the Mental Health Commission of Canada's website.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

"Golden Repair"

the broken places

A person who has a mood disorder often feels broken, sometimes irreparably so. At times we know that what we are experiencing is fleeting and it will go away; the darkness will recede and we will once again feel whole. Sometimes it is more difficult to believe that the light will return at all.

This is on my mind a lot lately. In the last week alone I have had three anxiety attacks and my mood and anxiety have been very off for the last few weeks.

After two decades of living with recurring depression and anxiety I accept that what I have is a chronic illness - it is never far from my mind when I am well. I approach each day and week with this in mind and I always have a game plan. What is in my calendar at work? Do I have a few days with back to back meetings and little downtime to work quietly at my desk? Is my social calendar too full or just right? If I do this thing on Tuesday will I be exhausted on Wednesday? How will that impact the rest of my week? How will I ensure that I eat properly? 

Managing my mental health requires daily attention and I am constantly assessing things and measuring the impact on my life and health. Many people don't understand that. When someone says, "but it's just for one day" when they ask me to take something big on, they don't get that it's never just about one day for me. I am a little like that duck on the pond - I may look at peace but under the water I am paddling like mad.

I have gotten much better about recognizing what is good for me and what is not so good. But having an understanding of the negative impact that something might have on my mental health is one thing. I also need to advocate for myself and sometimes make some hard choices to safe guard my well-being.

Speaking up for myself is not always easy or comfortable. I used to fear it, especially in the workplace. Like anything, however, with practice it gets easier. And I know that when I voice a concern for myself, I am also doing it for others - friends and colleagues who don't feel safe or comfortable doing so themselves.

The lovely thing that I have discovered during my life with mental illness is this: I am not alone. I have come to see over the years that there are many of us who occasionally feel broken. But here's the secret - shh, don't tell anyone - none of us is actually broken. Our cracks and blemishes actually make us stronger and that is a really beautiful thing. 

The Japanese have an art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with gold, silver or platinum. It's a process called Kintsugi or Golden Repair. 

“When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something's suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.” ― Barbara Bloom

What a truly lovely idea. Perhaps we can learn something from this. Rather than feeling shame for illness that is often perceived as weakness, what if we actually brought attention to the beauty of our strength instead? And here's the other thing that I know for certain: that golden light of hope and happiness can and will come back.

KB xo

Sunday, 26 March 2017

"Words of Wisdom: Let it Be"

Let it be, stop controlling, motivational inspirational quote:

The world is full of helpers. I know this to be true because I see the beauty of it every day in the people around me: colleagues, friends, family, people on social media and in the news. The thing that most of humankind seem to have in common is a desire to help others and to reduce suffering. It's easy to become jaded in this world when we see something bad happen but, as Mr. Rogers said so famously, always look for the helpers. They are there.

This week I posted the following on Facebook and it generated a fair amount of discussion:

Image may contain: text
The conversation among my friends and I got me thinking. I was left asking myself this question, "Why such a reaction about this particular post?"

To be clear, I absolutely do not oppose a wide variety of treatment options when it comes to illness. In fact, a combination of things has been the key to my care plan over the years. And, it should be noted, I do not endorse one form of treatment over another - it's up to you and your health care practitioner to decide what is best for you.

But none of this has anything to do with treatment options and whether or not I think that yoga is a good idea. It's about the need for us to feel that we are helping. We care so when we learn that someone close to us is unwell, we often move quickly to suggesting solutions. We want to make it better. But is that the best thing than we do? Is offering solutions actually helpful? Does it only make the person offering the advice feel better?

Over the years as I have lived through difficult times with my depression, I have received a lot of advice from people. All well-meaning and the majority of it unsolicited. I'll tell you how it makes me feel when someone quickly offers advice: frustrated, annoyed and not very good about myself or the situation. Please don't assume that because I have an invisible illness that I am not actively working with my doctor (sometimes more than one) to treat my illness and that I have not considered many options.

As is often the case when I am working through an idea for a post, the universe sends me something to let me know if I am on the right path. Early this morning I came upon this article written by Parker J. Palmer entitled The Gift of Presence, The Perils of Advice. This is one of those article that I wish I had written because it captures exactly how I feel. One paragraph in particular touched me:

"Here's the deal. The human soul doesn't want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed - to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make the kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul's healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through."

I have provided advice to people when they haven't asked for it. I want to be a good helper, too; to make the pain of someone that I love go away. But the best way to help? It is to listen, to accept the situation for what it is. Sometimes the best thing that I can do is to let it be.

KB xo

Want to support someone with a chronic illness? Here are some resources:

10 Things You Should Say to Someone with a Chronic Illness

9 Best Ways to Support Someone with Depression

Sunday, 22 January 2017

"Hey, It's OK!"


I haven't felt like writing in a long time. The fall months and the Christmas season were hard on me - I struggled with my depression and anxiety on an almost daily basis. It was tiring. I just didn't have the energy to write nor did I have the inspiration. 

Sometimes life is like that. It can't always be constant sunshine and happiness, at least not when you live with a recurring mood disorder. It certainly didn't help that I found the U.S. election results deeply upsetting and the Christmas season just too much (too much of everything).

So how did I manage? What did I do to avoid free-fall into another depressive episode? I pulled out my mental health bag of tricks: I got lots of rest, I played with our dog, I took my medication every day at the same time, I read good books, I tried to eat as healthy as possible and I talked about my illness.

Yes, I talked about what I was feeling and experiencing. I talked to my carpool buddy & friend, Lindsay, who was a frequent support to me. I talked to my mom and my brother and my dad. And I talked to my manager and colleagues (who are really more like friends - yes, I am lucky). 

I am highlighting this particular tool because it helps. Cognitive behavioural therapy is a form of therapy that combines talking with exploring how your thoughts impact your mental health and well-being. It can be an important tool in the treatment of mental disorders and it has certainly helped me in the past. But CBT can be expensive if you don't have healthcare benefits that cover it. And if you are experiencing mild depression or anxiety, it can be very effective to just talk about your challenges with a friend, family member or your family doctor.

I recognize that it can be frightening to take that first step and tell someone how you are feeling. So here is what I want you to know: YOU are not alone. There are people who love you and want to help. In my early days of gingerly stepping out of the closet of mental illness I was surprised and comforted by the fact that so many people that I shared my story with have either experienced a mood disorder or they have someone close to them that has.

January 25th is once again Bell Let's Talk Day in Canada. It's an important opportunity to speak about a topic that still carries the weight of misunderstanding, stigma and silence. If you are a person who is experiencing a mental health challenge, please know that is is OK - it's OK to lighten your load and ask for help. And if someone chooses you to share their challenges with, it's OK to not have any answers. Simply listening in a non-judgemental manner is an act of friendship.

Finally, it's OK to not be perfect. Perfection is highly overrated, anyway. And guess what? I feel better for talking to YOU today. Thanks for being there.

KB xo

P.S. If you live in British Columbia and are seeking help for a mood disorder, please check out the Canadian mental Health Association B.C.'s Bounce Back Program. It is free with a doctor's referral and offers some great tools and resources.

"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...