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10 Ways To Take Care Of Your Mental Health

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1. Put yourself first from time to time. I’m not saying you should abandon your children in a deserted warehouse while you go off on a Mediterranean cruise. I’m just saying that sometimes it’s OK to take yourself out for coffee or go for a run – whatever it is that you like – even if it means <gasp> making your kids wait for whatever they want.

2. Stop and smell the roses. I mean that literally – if you see something beautiful, slow down and give yourself time to appreciate it. There is a small patch of tulips about three minutes’ walk from my house. Every Spring, my heart is lifted by the sight of them starting to bloom. Even on my worst days, when I feel horribly depressed, looking at the tulips has the power to uplift me.

3. Exercise, even if it just means going for a walk around the block. When you are in the depths of desperation, exercising might be the last thing you want to do, but it is almost certain to help. There are physiological reasons why physical motion helps people who struggle with mental illness.

4. Start your day with an accomplishment. For me, this means going for a run. For someone else, it might be finding a recipe for dinner or putting on a load of laundry. It doesn’t have to be big: for a period of time last summer, the simple act of brushing my teeth counted as an accomplishment.

5. See a therapist. Many people see this as a sign of shame or weakness, but honestly, it’s fine. Life sometimes throws things at us that we cannot and should not cope with alone. I’ve been seeing my therapist for almost four years now, and my only complaint is that I took so long to take that step.

6. Be aware of your self-talk. People who struggle with depression or anxiety have very strong powers of persuasion, and they persuade themselves to believe all of the wrong things. Negative self-talk can send a person into a downward spiral faster than the speed of light.

7. Recognize that sometimes it’s OK to fall apart. You don’t have to be strong and composed at all times. If life is overwhelming you, take yourself to a safe place and cry big, fat ugly tears.

8. Get enough sleep. This can be a tall order, since depression and anxiety seem to go hand-in-hand with insomnia. There are various strategies that can be used to help you relax. My therapist taught me the technique of tensing and relaxing all of my muscles, one body part at a time. That works quite well for me. Someone else might prefer visualization techniques, reading or listening to relaxing music. The point is that if you struggle with sleep, you need to try and find something that will work for you. The world is a frightening place: it’s even scarier when seen through the fog of sleeplessness.

9. Eat properly. Again, this means different things to different people, but you need to fuel yourself properly to function well both physically and mentally.

10. Know that mental illness is not a source of shame. It’s not something that you can just snap out of, it’s not your fault and it’s not something you should feel bad about. It’s an illness, just like any other illness, and it should be treated with the same respect. Recognizing that can help you come to a greater sense of acceptance for yourself.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle, written for Mental Health Blog Day.

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10 Things I Have Learned About Mental Illness

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1. It’s not my fault. As much as we humans like to be in control of our lives, the likes of depression, anxiety and PTSD are not things we can control. They happen to us, and we deal with them as best we can.

2. It has absolutely no bearing on whether I am a good or a bad person. The fact that I made some bad decisions twenty years ago that triggered a whole mess of crap does not mean I don’t deserve to be happy and well.

3. The fact that an illness exists inside a person’s mind rather than in another part of their body does not make it any less of an illness. Mental illness should be given the same respect as physical illness.

4. Mental illness can, if left untreated, be fatal. Suicide and suicidal ideations are not selfish, as many people believe. They are manifestations of an illness. People contemplating suicide do not necessarily want to die, they simply feel that there is no other course of action available to them.

5. Depression is not the same as sadness. Being depressed is like being in a black pit of despair from which there seems to be no escape.

6. There is not always a reason for depression. If someone tells you that they are experiencing depression, please, please, please don’t say things like, “But you have so many great things in your life to be grateful for.”

7. I am not alone. Although my specific circumstances may be unique to me, I don’t have to look far to find someone who more or less understands what it’s like.

8. Far too many people either die or spend their lives in a state of absolute anguish because they fear the stigma of mental illness, so they choose not to talk about it.

9. Mental illness is the same as physical illness in terms of treatment: what works for one person won’t necessarily work for everyone. You have the right to make choices about your treatment, just as you do for a physical illness.

10. People with mental illnesses can, for the most part and with the right support, function well in society. They can be successful in their careers, make valuable social and economic contributions, and maintain healthy relationships with the people around them.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Bell Let’s Talk.

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Getting Through The Wipeout Zone

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As I sit down to write this post, I am feeling emotionally bruised and mentally exhausted. The last few months have been rough. There has been a lot of life going on, and that life has included death and other forms of loss. I’ve been responding to it all in the way I usually do when things go wrong: by launching myself into frantic motion, partly in a quest to move forward, and partly because I’m afraid of inactivity.

What it means, though, is that I often don’t give myself enough time to process the stuff that’s happening in my life. Four months ago I lost my job. Within 24 hours I had an appointment to see a career coach, and the very next week I was knee-deep in résumé consultations and job-search workshops. Every time a life event has came along and knocked me off-kilter, I’ve just gotten up and kept going until the next thing has thrown me off-balance. It’s like being on an emotional version of Wipeout.

Eventually, of course, everything kind of caught up to me and I was forced to come to a screeching halt for my own safety. I had to give myself time to evaluate and plan, to have and resolve conflicts that had been waiting in the wings, and to go through the angst and the crying and the sadness that I had been trying so hard to fight. It’s made the last two weeks or so particularly brutal.

Of course, the world hasn’t come to a standstill while I’ve been going through all of this. I’ve still had laundry to do, meals to cook and a house to keep in some kind of order. Kids have gone back to school, IEP information forms have been submitted, a 10th birthday has been celebrated.

Life has gone on. And so, in spite of all the loss and gut-wrenching stress of the last few months, have I. I don’t believe in that line that “God only gives us as much as we can handle”, but I do believe that in general, human beings are resilient creatures. I’ve been through a lot worse than this in the past, and I’ve survived.

As much as it sometimes feels as if this rough patch will go on forever, I know that this too shall pass, and my life will return to a state in which I can wake up each morning and know that everything is OK.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Pengannel. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.

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Tidal Waves of Anxiety

A few nights ago I had an anxiety attack. I have these attacks from time to time and they vary in their intensity, and this one was a real doozie. I woke up abruptly in the dead of night with my heart pounding. I sat bolt upright with a gasp of horror, clutching my chest just like they do in movies. Then I was clawing at the bedsheets, trying desperately to free myself. I got myself out of bed and threw on a bathrobe, ran out of the room, launched myself at the stairs and flung open the back door to let myself onto the deck.

It was some ungodly hour – two or three in the morning – and it was cold and I wasn’t wearing any shoes. But the only thing I could think about was getting air into my lungs to get rid of the feeling of suffocation. I gulped in one lungful after another, and gradually, I came back into focus. I stayed out there for a while to clear my head, and by the time I went back inside and crept into bed, I was kind-of sort-of OK again.

The whole thing was more than a little scary, but not entirely unexpected. There has been so much going on lately. I’ve been working  crazy hours and sacrificing desperately needed sleep just to go for my training runs. Things have been busy with my husband’s business and there has been a lot of family-related stuff going on.

To put it simply, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed, and when I get overwhelmed, I invariably reach a point of critical mass – that point at which I just cannot take anymore. I have some kind of meltdown that, while being terrifying to live through, does seem to press a kind of reset button in my head. I feel emotionally bruised for a couple of days, hit a point of exhaustion where I sleep for twelve hours straight (this is not voluntary – it’s kind of forced on me by my body), and then wake up feeling strong again, and ready to tackle whatever needs to be tackled.

Sometimes I can go for months without having a single anxiety attack. Other times, the cycle is continuous, with a new attack starting before I’ve even recovered from the previous one.

Imagine being in the ocean and getting hit by a wave. You get knocked down, and you may accidentally inhale some water. Before you’ve managed to right yourself, while you’re still coughing up that lungful of water, another wave hits – an even bigger one that you didn’t see coming. Too many waves coming at you too quickly, and you feel as if you’re drowning.

It’s the same with the anxiety attacks. I can get hit with one after another after another, in quick succession. There’s the same sense of suffocation, of being in over your head.

The solution, of course, is to make sure you know how to swim and to check the tides before you go into the water. But that only works with the ocean, and even then, the most seasoned swimmers sometimes get caught off-guard.

With the anxiety attacks, it’s not so simple. There may not be a ripple in sight, and before you know it, you’re trying to dodge a tsunami. I cannot always predict how and when they are going to happen, so I’ve figured out that a better course of action is to find ways of dealing with the aftermath.

In the end, though, I am a survivor. There’s no way I’m letting a bit of anxiety beat me down.

Do you suffer from anxiety/panic attacks? Do you live with someone who does? What coping mechanisms do you have?

(Photo credit: the bridge. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

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The Truth About Postpartum Depression

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

I am also part of a Mental Health Month blog party that’s happening today.

When I landed in Canada almost twelve years ago, the news waves were buzzing with an unfolding tragedy. A young woman, caught in the grip of postpartum depression, had launched herself into the path of an oncoming subway train while holding her weeks-old baby daughter. The baby had died instantly, while the mother hung on in hospital, never regaining consciousness, before she died several weeks later.

The public, including, I confess, myself, practically fell over themselves in their haste to judge this woman for killing an innocent child. Like many people, I was operating under the smug self-righteousness of someone who’s “never been there”. I didn’t have children at that time, therefore I had never experienced postpartum depression. Although I was very familiar with regular depression, and had frequently thought self-destructive thoughts, it had never stretched to me being at risk of hurting another person.

As much as people wanted to be judgmental, there was one particular element of this story that bothered me a great deal. The woman had sought help for postpartum depression and not received it. She had reached out, hoping someone would grab her hand and save her from drowning. In the aftermath of the tragedy, no-one was saying, “If only I had known,” but a number of people were saying, “If only I had helped.”

Back then, postpartum depression was not really taken seriously. People associated it with mothers who killed their children, mothers who were dubbed as “monsters”.

I got hit with a hefty dose of reality when postpartum depression settled over me like a heavy, oppressive blanket after the birth of my second child. I realized that I had been so wrong about this condition, and that its manifestations are as unique and varied as the individuals who suffer from it.

The media, being the media, tends to sensationalize tragedy, and tragedy resulting from postpartum depression is no exception. In the absence of other information, other sources of awareness, is it any wonder that the unknowing public would associate postpartum depression with the killing of babies? That’s what the media has taught society, and it’s not exactly a subject that the average person is going to go and Google.

Media treatment of postpartum depression, along with the resulting generalizations that people make about it, are largely responsible for the fact that many women are too ashamed and scared to seek the help they need. I myself did not seek help, and in fact I would never have been treated had my doctor not noticed that something was way off during a visit for a foot complaint.

There is a great deal of stigma surrounding mental illness in general, and postpartum depression in particular takes a big hit of it. The women who fall victim to it are dealing with so much more than depression. They are also feeling intense guilt and the sense of being “abnormal”. I mean, you have this gorgeous new baby who is supposed be a source of great joy and immeasurable love, and the whole thing has turned into a pear-shaped nightmare. The moms also feel fear that is beyond words. They are terrified that during some moment of insanity, they will hurt their children. They want to die just to save their babies from being raised by terrible mothers.

I could quote numbers at you. I could tell you how many women suffer from postpartum depression in Canada, the United States, and internationally. But whatever numbers I gave you would be completely meaningless. They would not include the scores of women who do not seek help, receive a diagnosis, or get treated.

If I was in charge, postpartum depression information would be included in the education packages that are given to new mothers, whether they are having their first, second or tenth child. When the hospitals handed out their leaflets about breastfeeding and developmental milestones, they would also be handing out information sheets about postpartum depression, along with fridge magnets printed with the telephone number of a crisis line.

The new mother’s partner, or some other designated support person, would be educated on the signs of postpartum depression. They would be taught what warning signs to look for, and what to do if they saw them.

If I was in charge, mothers would be regularly screened for postpartum depression for up to two years following the births of their babies – because it can take that long to strike.

There would be public awareness campaigns. The media would devote more attention to postpartum depression as a genuine medical issue to be handled with caring and compassion. They would stop the practice of only giving this condition the time of day in the wake of tragedies.

In my perfect world, women are not blamed for having this debilitating and often life-threatening condition.

They are helped through their times of terrible darkness, and they emerge bright and beautiful, like butterflies from a cocoon, and they enjoy rich, fulfilling lives filled with the laughter of their children.

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Mental Illness: Don’t Be Ashamed

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

Today’s post is written in observance of Mental Health Awareness Month, which runs through May.

Several years ago, as I sat nursing my newborn baby, I watched a talk show in which Tom Cruise said something to the effect of post-partum depression not being a real condition. All these moms needed, he said, was to follow good exercise and nutrition plans, and they wouldn’t have a problem. He was convinced, he said, because he had done research.

The timing of this talk show, with its rantings by someone who by definition will never know what post-partum depression is like, could not have been worse. I was in the thick of post-partum depression myself at the time, and although my particular brand of it never included a desire to hurt my child, fantasies of my own death were a very real part of my life.

I did not seek help for my condition, and in fact I would never have been treated for it had my family doctor not noticed that something was amiss during a visit for something completely unrelated. I had a whole set of issues with that particular doctor, but I fully credit him for saving my life. That’s how close I was to the edge of the cliff.

The fact that I suffered from post-partum depression at all was no surprise to me. If anything, I had been surprised when it hadn’t struck after the birth of my first son.

Even as a teenager, I was prone to bouts of depression. My parents were not really aware of it, and on the few occasions when someone actually noticed that I was not OK, it was always put down to adolescent hormones.

“You’ll grow out of it,” people told me.

Except I didn’t. My depression continued into adulthood, coming in waves that sometimes threatened to drown me completely. It would hit completely without warning, hang around for weeks or months or even years, and then disappear just as suddenly.

During my teens I blamed hormones. For two decades after that, I blamed myself. I blamed the fact that some unwise choices I made during my college years led to trauma that had a lasting effect.

I didn’t seek help. Of course I didn’t. My depression and everything that went with it was my own fault, right? I didn’t deserve to be helped.

When it came down to it, the mental health issues that I have experienced throughout most of my life – be it post-partum depression, good old garden-variety depression, anxiety, and everything else – have been a source of shame to me.

And that, my friends, is a big problem in our society. Too many lives are destroyed and lost because people suffering from mental illnesses feel too ashamed or embarrassed to seek help. Feelings of unworthiness and self-blame act as barriers to the pursuit of inner peace and happiness.

Tom Cruise sitting on his high horse effectively blaming mothers for a debilitating and often life-threatening condition did not help the cause of the mental health community one little bit.

Eventually, just over a year ago, I finally made the very difficult decision to seek professional help. The road since then has not been smooth. With the guidance of my therapist, I am reliving past traumas and undergoing oft-uncomfortable introspection in search of the roots of the conditions that plague me. But I at least know that I am heading somewhere other than a dead end.

My quest for mental health is by far the hardest thing for me to write about.  Because in spite of the steps that I have taken to get help, I have not quite managed to shake the decades-old conviction that this is something for me to be ashamed and embarrassed about.

If I stay silent, though, I remain a part of the problem of the stigma associated with mental illness.

In starting to speak out, however tentatively, I hope to become a part of the solution.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/militaryhealth/3485865665/. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

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Goodbye WEGO Health Challenge, Hello Blogathon

In April I participated in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I published a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

I am now participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

When I first started Running For Autism a little over two years ago, my blogging was an airy-fairy kind of affair. My original intent was for this to primarily be a running blog, but it morphed very quickly into far more than that. Running is such an important part of who I am, and it is frequently difficult to squeeze it in with all of the other responsibilities I have, and I found impossible to write about it without adding the context of my life. For example, how could I write about running to raise funds for autism without trying to raise some awareness about the impact of autism on my life?

And so my subject matter started expanding to include posts about parenting and autism. As my wedding day approached and I started feeling the typical angst of a bride-to-be, my blog became a place for me to vent about my stress and toss around ideas for how to plan a wedding that both of my children could be fully involved in. At some point I started to try my hand at fiction in the Indie Ink writing challenges. A little while after that, I felt a little glimmer of bravery that allowed me to tentatively start discussing my struggles with depression.

Even as I cast my net of topics wider and grew my audience, I found it difficult to prioritize my blogging. I have a lot on my plate. I am a wife and mother. I have a child with autism. I have a full-time job outside of the home that involves two hours of commuting each day. I help my husband with his business and take care of making sure bills are paid and taxes are filed. I run. I have a commitment to write three articles a week for an ezine.

Inevitably, blogging took a back seat to all of this, and I was posting once or twice a week if I was lucky.

When WEGO Health sent me an email inviting me to participate in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to see it through to completion. I mean, we were talking about a blog post every day for a month. In the end I signed up, spurred on by the fact that the challenge coincided with Autism Awareness Month. This seemed like a great opportunity not only to give my writing a boost, but to spread the word about autism and offer some hope and encouragement to parents feeling overwhelmed by a newly acquired diagnosis.

We have now reached the end of what turned out to be a very successful challenge. The prompts that were provided offered new ways for me to think about the health focuses that matter most to me – autism, mental health and running. I had to really dig deep and be honest with myself and with the world – or at least, the corner of the world that reads my blog. I had some moments of soul-searching, and I found myself addressing questions that I’ve never had the courage to ask before.

There were two days on which the prompts just couldn’t work for me. Try as I might, I could not get past the writer’s block. The challenge rules allowed two “get out of post free” days, but I was loathe to use them. Instead, I turned to the list of bonus prompts that were provided just for occasions like that. As a result, I published a post every day in April.

Through this challenge, I gained some new readers, and some great new blogs to follow. I read some incredible stories of courage and perseverance. So many aspects of health were covered in this challenge: diabetes, cancer, mental illness, special needs parenting, and so many others.

When you read so many stories of people fighting to survive, going to the ends of the earth for their children, and using their own painful experiences to help their fellow man, it really gives you renewed faith in the awesomeness of humankind.

Thank you to WEGO Health for putting this challenge out there. Thank you to my fellow bloggers for taking me on journeys that I could never have otherwise imagined. And thank you to everyone who reads my blog, who leaves comments or clicks the “like” button, or who shares my posts on Facebook or Twitter. It means a lot to me to know that my voice is being heard.

I am compiling a list of fellow bloggers who took the challenge, and when my new website is launched, they will be on the blogroll.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mariareyesmcdavis/2890706354/. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

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The Good And The Bad

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 27 – 5 challenges, 5 small victories: Make a list of the 5 most difficult parts of your health focus. Make another top 5 list for the little, good things (small victories) that keep you going.

Autism can be a very complicated thing to live with. Its manifestations change from day to day. One day, my son will be able to tolerate loud noises but a small change in routine will send him into meltdown. The next, we’ll be able to turn his entire routine upside down but anything louder  than a whisper will set him off. Different strategies work for different kids on different days, and everyone you might see guidance from is convinced that their opinion is the right one.

The things I find most challenging about being an autism mom don’t really have to do with the autism itself. Whatever might be going on with my child on any particular day, I just deal with it. Sometimes it’s hard, but I always know that I’m doing my best, my son is doing his best, and at the end of the day we’ll all survive.

My challenges tend to come from sources other than my son and his autism. I list them in no particular order.

  1. The judgmental critics. It’s a moment every autism parent has lived through at least once. You and your child are in a grocery store, which let’s face it, is a mecca for sensory overload, and your child is getting more agitated by the second. You throw things into your cart at quickly as you can, but just as you get to the checkout, your child reaches his breaking point and explodes. As you are trying to calm him down, some snarky stranger loudly proclaims, “What that child needs is a good hiding.” I once heard someone say (referring to me), “If that mother was doing her job properly, this wouldn’t be happening.” Like I’m not already carrying around enough angst with me. With my social anxiety, I’m not great at the quick comeback, although I’m definitely better than I used to be.
  2. The third-person talker. These are the people who will talk about someone who is present as if that person were not in the room. The chances of this happening increase exponentially if the subject of conversation happens to have autism. I get it all the time. “Would George like a hamburger?” they will ask. My answer always seems to throw them a little: “Ask him,” I say. Yes, it is true that George is not the world’s greatest talker, and may not respond to everything that is said to him. But, you know. At least give the kid a chance to try. If he struggles to answer, I will help him.
  3. Guilt. I was educated at a girls-only Catholic school run by nuns, and I am married to an Irish Catholic man. I can therefore say with some authority that the Catholics turn guilt into an art form. And some of the guilt that I feel as a special needs parent (hell, forget special needs – just as a plain old parent) almost makes me think I should just convert. I feel guilty about everything. Did the Taco Bell I ate during pregnancy cause George’s autism? Did I give him enough affection as a baby? Am I paying enough attention to my other son? Did I get too mad at George when he tipped over the laundry basket?  The list goes on and on, and my guilt makes me constantly second-guess myself when I should just be following my parental instincts.
  4. Time. Time very often seems to be my enemy, so much so that I sometimes regard it as a person. Time with a capital T. No matter how much I try, Time seems to run away from me. At the end of each day, there is always something that remains undone. Parenting is my absolute number 1 priority, so my kids’ needs are always taken care of. But I tend to let other areas of my life slip occasionally, and that is detrimental to my physical and mental health.
  5. The Internet. When George was diagnosed with autism five years ago, the first thing I did when I got home was Google autism. I obsessively read web page after web page. Every link that I clicked on seemed to have some information that flatly contradicted something I’d read somewhere else, and in the end my brain was hurting from information overload. I was overwhelmed by not knowing what information to trust. Since then, I am wiser in my use of the Internet and I have learned, for the most part, how to tell the good information from the noise. But the Internet, with all of its gazillion theories about the causes of autism, can still hinder more than it helps a lot of the time.

In my house, there is no such thing as a “small victory”. Every single accomplishment, all of the positive things in our lives – are massive, big things. That’s the way it often is in special needs families. We tend to place extra stock in things that other families take for granted. And as hard as it can be to live with autism, there are many things that I am grateful for, that enable me to keep chugging along even at times when I just want to cry.

  1. Love. Love really does make the world go around. Out of all the challenges my son has, lack of affection is definitely not one of them. Both of my sons give the best hugs that I can carry around with me all day. My favourite moments are when my boys somehow manage to squeeze onto my lap together to give me a hug. I sit there, with my arms full of squirmy, giggling kid, and never want the moment to end.
  2. Running. Yes, running keeps me sane, and when something stops me from doing it – like illness or injury – depression starts to creep in. The fact that it keeps me in good physical health is almost a by-product of running. My prime reason for doing it, along with raising funds for autism, is to keep my mental health on an even keel. I struggle with mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, and there’s no better way to combat my darker moments than a good long run. I am stubbornly resistant to using medication to deal with my issues, and running acts as a decent substitute for chemicals most of the time.
  3. Therapy. It has been said that running is cheaper than therapy, and while that is certainly true, I actually do need both. The therapist/client relationship is a very strange one. It involves the client placing complete trust in someone they actually know nothing about. I have been going to my therapist for a little over a year now, and it has taken me almost all of this time to build up my trust to a level where I can really open up during my sessions. Sometimes the sessions are very hard and they make me feel all weirded out for a while, but the truth is that once a week, I get the opportunity to talk without reservation in the sanctuary of my therapist’s office. I can say whatever I like and there will be no judgment or anger.
  4. Writing. I am somewhat inept as a verbal communicator, and I experience high levels of anxiety in social situations. When I am talking to other people, I hold back a lot, not only because of my natural shyness, but because my brain actually doesn’t work well during conversation. I can formulate a completely coherent thought in my mind, and even mentally phrase how I want to say it, but when it comes time for me to speak, my words get lost somewhere between my brain and my mouth. With writing, that doesn’t happen. I truly have a voice, and I treasure the opportunities to speak my mind on things that are important to me.
  5. The Internet. The Internet is both a blessing and a curse. Despite the evils described in my “bad” list, the Internet is a haven of sorts. I belong to two Internet support groups – one for moms who have suffered pregnancy or infant loss, and one for parents of children with autism. Both of these groups are places where I can vent my concerns, ask for advice, or celebrate good news. Some of my best friends are people who I have known online for a long time, but have never met in person. Here’s the wonderful thing about the Internet: no matter what I am going through on any particular day, I will always be able to find someone who knows, at least to some extent, how I feel.
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Finding The Path Of Healing

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 18 – Open a book: Choose a book and open it to a random page and point to a phrase. Use that phrase to get you writing today. Free write for 15-20 minutes without stopping.

My random phrase comes from a book called Watermelon, written my Marian Keyes – one of my favourite chick-lit authors. The sentence I pointed to with my eyes closed was strangely appropriate. “I was no longer carrying my humiliation like a weapon.”

I am a natural-born late bloomer. I have done many things in life after most people: I was 24 before I selected a career, my first child was born when I was 33, and I finally got married at the ripe old age of 41.

Now that I am old and wise, it doesn’t bother me that I tend to lag behind other people in some respects, but when I was in high school it was a great source of embarrassment for me. Socially speaking, I was streets behind most of my classmates. I was not exactly ostracized by my peers, but I was definitely not one of the “cool kids” either.

I got invited to parties from time to time, but I always felt so awkward when I got there. While my peers were laughing and chatting effortlessly, or retreating to private corners to snog their boyfriends, I was sitting by myself trying, and failing, to look as if I belonged. I could only really enjoy social gatherings if my best friend was there too. My best friend was the one who stopped me from drowning completely, and bless her heart, she is still my best friend today.

I had a couple of half-hearted boyfriends as a teenager, but compared to my classmates, I was geeky and socially inept. At an age where people are desperate to fit in and be accepted by their peers, it was painful. I was an unhappy teenager, although I never really admitted that to anyone.

When I graduated from high school, I went to a university 1400km away from my hometown. I figured that being among people I didn’t know would allow me to turn myself into the person I thought I wanted to be. I had always felt slightly inadequate and I didn’t like myself very much, and I wanted more than anything to reinvent myself.

Even though I made friends at university and had some kind of reasonable social life, the truth was that I was lonely. Never really a party girl, I tried to shoehorn myself into a party lifestyle because that’s what college students did, and I wanted so badly to fit in. And so I found myself immersed in a social group who were a laugh to be around, but I yearned meaningful contact. In those days before the Internet made the world a smaller place, I was not able to confide in my best friend. When waves of depression hit me, I had to get through them alone, with no-one to talk to.

And so, when a man started paying attention to me in my second year, I was flattered enough to fall for him. I do not want to share the details, but I will say that the whole thing was an absolute disaster from beginning to end. I was immersed in a situation that I had no ability to deal with.

The effect on my life was catastrophic. It was as if my future had been mapped out for me, and then a tsunami had come along and wiped everything away, changing the landscape of my life.

I floundered in the wake of this personal disaster. I completely lost all sense of who I was and what I wanted. I vacillated between depression and anger, and I blamed myself for having allowed my life to veer so far off the course I had planned. I drifted for a while, literally and metaphorically, and eventually washed up in a career, albeit one far away from what I had originally wanted.

One day, after having carried around the baggage of my past experiences for twenty years, I looked around me at all I have today. I have a solid job and my dream to be a paid writer is starting, in small but definite increments, to come true. I can run half-marathons in spite of not having a “typical” runner’s body. I managed to move halfway across the world and establish myself in a place I had never been to. I have a husband and two miraculous children. Although I make my mistakes, I think I’m doing well as the parent of a child with autism.

That tsunami that had swept so much away also created a new landscape with new paths for me to follow and new goals to shoot for.

This realization, when it hit me, was like a breath of fresh air. Although some scarred remained, I was no longer carrying the humiliation like a weapon.

For the first time, I felt that I owed it to myself to try to heal.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kudumomo/3140538425/. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

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A Letter To My Younger Self

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 10 – Dear 16-year-old me: Write a letter to yourself at age 16. What would you tell yourself? What would you make your younger self aware of?


Dear 16-year-old me,

I am writing to you from 26 years in the future. I am 42 years old, and a lot has happened in the last two and a half decades. The world is a different place now, and I have grown up a lot since I was – well, you.

I don’t want to tell you too much about the next few years of your life, because as painful as some of it will be, it wouldn’t be right for me to change it. I am who I am today because of some of that stuff. You have to live through it, knowing that you will survive your worst times and come out stronger for it.

However, there are a few things you should know, that will make it a bit easier for you to navigate the next 26 years.

1) You are not fat, no matter what anyone tries to tell you. You are a beautiful young woman, and this body image problem that you have is just going to cause problems for you later in life.

2) When you go to that birthday party that’s coming up and drink a truckload of beers, Mom will smell your boozy breath from a mile away when she picks you up. Especially when you open your mouth to make lame excuses for why you’re tripping over your own big toes.

3) When they bring in the school’s first computer later this year, pay attention to it and learn how to use it. Computers will become a massive part of your life so you may as well start now.

4) That hairdresser appointment you have next week? For the love of God, cancel it. Believe me, you do not want a perm. It will take the phrase “big hair” to a whole new level.

5) If you meet a good-looking guy in the hallway of the medical centre, don’t talk to him. He’ll just cause trouble for you. Don’t fall for his flattery.

6) You’re allergic to mangoes. Like, seriously allergic. If you avoid mangoes, you will avoid anaphylaxis and a trip to an Israeli hospital where they’re very nice but don’t speak good English.

7) Things will happen during your University years that will be very hard on you. You will not be as alone as you will feel, and if you ask for help, you will get it. Don’t try to go through it alone.

8 ) Just because one therapist is mean and judgmental, that doesn’t mean they will all be like that. Don’t try to deal with depression alone for twenty years before you get help.

9) Find out as much as you can about autism and take your first child for screening as soon as you see the signs. The doctor will try to get you to wait for another year. Don’t listen to him. Threaten to sit in his office gathering dust until you get a referral.

10) Post-partum depression is a terrible, scary thing, especially when it goes undiagnosed for over a year.

11) Take care of your feet. You’re going to be getting plenty of use out of them. When you really get into the running, your feet will not be your most attractive feature. Wear your callouses and blackened toenails with pride.

12) You don’t realize yet that you are a runner. When your inner runner emerges, go running with Dad every opportunity you get. Later in life, you will hold onto the memories of those runs like treasures.

13) You deserve happiness, and you deserve to be treated with true respect. Don’t settle for anything less.

14) Enjoy your sleep while you can. When you become a mother, you will yearn for it.

15) In a few years’ time you will go to Israel. It will be one of the best times of your life and you will meet some people who will become lifelong friends. Enjoy it and store as many memories of it as you can.

16) The degree you do at University will have no relation to your eventual career. That does not matter. The degree will be useful to you in other ways.

17) Spaghetti mixed with ketchup does not make a gourmet meal, and you will get some very strange looks if you make it for your parents as a special treat.

18) Don’t try going on antidepressants without the guidance of a therapist. As the depression lifts, some other feelings will emerge that will seem scarier. You will need help managing those feelings.

19) The person who has been your best friend since you were ten will still be your best friend when you are 42. Your friendship will survive a rift and you will be there for each other through many major life events. Treasure this friend, because she really is a gem.

20) Life is too short for bullshit. Don’t bear grudges, don’t procrastinate, and make the most of every opportunity you have.

21) Take care of your teeth. When Mom lectures you about flossing, she’s right.

Enjoy your youth, Younger Me. It will be gone all too quickly, and you want to have some good memories of it to carry you through the darker patches of your life.

I’ll see you in 26 years’ time. Enjoy the ride!

Regards,

Older You