10 Ways To Take Care Of Your Mental Health


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.


Autism Awareness Without Aggravation


Today is World Autism Awareness Day. All over the world, people, governments and companies are participating in the “Light It Up Blue” campaign, which involves burning blue light bulbs in solidarity with individuals and families affected by autism. What this means is that my social media feeds are being bombarded with posts and messages from autism parents explaining why World Autism Awareness Day should not be observed.

I am always baffled by how controversial autism awareness campaigns are. We don’t see this level of animosity and division with other causes. I have never seen or heard a cancer survivor say that they don’t want cancer awareness to be promoted. Epilepsy, mental illness and many other illnesses and disabilities have their awareness days, and those days are embraced by those suffering from the afflictions and the families who support them.

I mean, since when is autism awareness a bad thing? Yes, I know that awareness without acceptance and action means nothing. But acceptance and action cannot happen if the awareness does not come first. Awareness is not this empty concept that many people claim it is.

noun: awareness; plural noun: awarenesses
1. knowledge or perception of a situation or fact.
2. concern about and well-informed interest in a particular situation or development.

Awareness is when someone cares about a certain issue and wants to learn more about it. As far as I’m concerned, the more people who care about autism and want to learn more about it, the better. With awareness comes a greater level of acceptance and education, as a result of which my son and other kids like him have a happier life with more opportunities.

Am I supposed to blow that off just because the Light It Up Blue campaign supports Autism Speaks? Am I supposed to hate Autism Speaks because they don’t direct funds to the families of people who are affected by autism?

Well, for a start, Autism Speaks is an organization that exists for the purposes of supporting research, and they have never claimed otherwise. They have never pretended to be a charity that gives money to families.

More importantly, though, the Light It Up Blue campaign does a lot more than fill the bank accounts of the charity that some in the autism community love to hate. Because of the campaign, TV stations and newspapers run special features about autism. Some stores offer discounts on educational toys and books. Schools have dialogues about autism. They encourage students to ask questions, to have discussions, to learn ways to talk to and be with the kids in their schools who live on the spectrum.

All of this, to me, is a good thing.

I am not out to convince people to buy blue light bulbs, or to support Autism Speaks or anyone else. We all have our own views and we’re all entitled to them. All I really want is for World Autism Awareness Day to be just that: a day for individuals, organizations, governments and the media to actively promote awareness of autism.

It should not be a day for people within the autism community to fight with anyone who doesn’t share their views. It should not be a day for controversy and divisiveness. It should be a day for the autism community as a whole to band together in support of what we all really want: a better world for people with autism.

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


Autism Parenting: The End Of An Era

2012-09-24 23.02.15

Three nights ago, I made the excruciating decision to kick my children out of bed. My bed, that is.

To give a bit of background, my kids have always had full and free access to me, at any time of the day or night. When they have woken up in the middle of the night having had a bad dream, or feeling sick or lonely, they have been allowed to get into bed with me and snuggle up. It’s not always comfortable, being squished on both sides by children, but I have always loved it. Because what is better than hugs from your children?

As much as I love it, though, there are downsides. For one thing, my children take up an inordinate amount of space in the bed for such small people. It’s like they morph into starfish at night, and there are arms and legs everywhere, squashing my face and poking into my spine. For another thing, these little people are getting less little. George, who is ten, has reached the same height as my mother-in-law (OK, so she’s a little old lady, but still), and eight-year-old James is getting there as well.

What this means is that these nocturnal cuddles are costing me an enormous amount of sleep, and that makes it difficult for me to both function and be a human being that other people want to be around. In addition to that, George has started showing signs of puberty, and my husband and I have been feeling the need to carve out more time with each other.

We have reluctantly agreed that it is time for the kids to stay in their own beds at night.

James has accepted this with ease, but for George it is a massive change. Kids with autism do not appreciate it when the boat is rocked, and this particular change represents a tidal wave for him. It has been difficult for him, and by extension, difficult for us.

For the first two nights, James was the only person who got any sleep. My husband and I would lie helplessly in our bed, listening to George’s plaintive pleadings. He kept wandering into our room, and I kept taking him back to his own bed. I would get him settled, tuck him in and give him a kiss, and then go back to bed. And then I would do it again. And again, and again, and again.

While all of this was going on, George was whimpering, “I want Mommy. Lie down with Mommy in the bed.” And then, as he got sadder and sadder, he was simply calling my name.

I so badly wanted to cave. I so badly wanted to go to him, lie down with him and wrap my arms around him. But I knew that I couldn’t. In order to make this change, we would have to be persistent and patient, gentle and firm. We would have to just lie in bed and listen to our child being sad.


Last night – the third night – we caught a break. George went to sleep in his own bed, and he stayed there for the whole night. There was not so much as a whimper, not the slightest bit of movement. As much as I like to think that this represented an acceptance of the changes, I am realistic enough to know that the poor child was probably just too exhausted to protest. We may be in for another few nights of sleeplessness, and we will deal with it for as long as we need to.

As parents, it is our responsibility to guide our children towards independence, and this is an important step in that direction, even if, at the end of the day, it is harder for me than it is for them.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit to the author.



Disabled or Differently Abled?

Today is Day 2 of the National Health Blog Posting Month challenge, and one of the suggested prompts invites writers to address the weirdest aspect of their health. As a health advocate for my son George, who has autism, I am often struck by how odd this condition is compared with many other developmental disabilities.

One of the things that makes it different is the reluctance of many people, both within and outside of the autism community, to use the word “disabled”. Parents of children with Down Syndrome or cerebral palsy are allowed to refer to their kids as “disabled”, but I always have people trying to force me to use the term “differently abled”.

Yes, there are many things that George can do. He can read fluently, he was doing multiplication in his head long before anyone formally taught it to him, he has superb problem solving skills, and he knows his way around a computer better than I do. But when he comes home from school, he cannot tell me what his day was like. I have to keep a firm hold of him when we are out on family walks because he does not understand the danger of running out into the traffic. He does not know how to play with other kids. He will only take a shower if someone is in the shower with him, and at nine, he still needs hand-on-hand assistance and extensive prompting to accomplish the task of brushing his teeth.

To me, the term “differently abled” implies that George can do anything other kids his age can do, but in different ways. But that is not the case. There are things that George simply cannot do for himself – basic daily living skills that other kids master by the time they’re six. In my book, George is developmentally disabled.

And so what if he is? I am immensely proud of George. I adore his sweet, loving nature and I admire his absolute determination to accomplish his goals. Even though he is still so young, he shows a steel core of tenacity. This is not a kid who gives up. I feel absolutely no shame or embarrassment about the fact that he has a disability.

So why not tell it like it is? Why should there be a need to couch it in pretty language? Are these well-meaning attempts to avoid use of the word “disabled” not undermining our attempts to ensure acceptance and inclusion for people with all kinds of disabilities?

What are your thoughts? Are we heading into territory where the word “disability” cannot be used? Would you or do you use that word with reference to your own special needs child?



What Autism Parents Have Patched Together, Let No Media Man Put Asunder

I am angry.

I’m not talking about mild aggravation here. I am scream-in-frustration spit-in-someone’s-eye angry. I would like to take the object of my anger, lock him into a room with me, and give him a stern what-the-bleep-are-you-thinking talking to.

Deep breath… soothing thoughts…

Allow me to explain.

As an autism parent, I spend the better part of my life fighting for stuff. Six years ago, I fought for the assessment that led to George’s diagnosis. Then I fought for services. Every year I fight for funding to pay for respite workers. I fight for educational accommodations and opportunities for my son.

I fight for awareness.

Most of all, because I want my son to have the opportunity to live a happy, healthy, productive life, I fight for acceptance. I try to encourage people to look past the more challenging aspects of autism to see my child for who he is: a beautiful human being, full of love and bursting with potential.

From time to time I see baby steps of progress. Someone might leave a comment on my blog saying that they have a greater understanding because of my writing. Or I might see comprehension dawn in someone’s eyes when I offer an explanation for a grocery store meltdown. Those moments of progress are so gratifying, because they give me hope for my son’s future.

And then, along comes MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, stating that the man responsible for the Colorado movie theatre shooting was “probably on the autism scale.”

Thanks, Joe. Way to promote acceptance for people with autism. Telling the world that a kid with autism could potentially grow up to be a mass murderer really helps our cause.

What astounds me is that Joe Scarborough is the father of a child with Aspergers. Having parented a child on the spectrum, hasn’t he had to have the same fights as other autism parents? Has he not had to beg for funding, or services, or the rewording of a point in an IEP? Has he not dealt with the stares of unsympathetic strangers or the ostracism of his child?

Has he not worried about whether his son will be accepted by the society in which he has to live?

Joe Scarborough’s statement about the Aurora shooter is not based on anything but dangerous speculation. It is my hope that most people will have the sense to dismiss what he said as groundless nonsense. It is my fear that he has planted new seeds of baseless stereotyping that will serve to further isolate the kids we are trying so hard to integrate.

People really need to think before they speak. Especially people with any kind of public voice.

(Photo credit: Fifth World Art. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


Remembering Dad – Seven Years On

I was watching The Apprentice when I got the news that my Dad had died. I should have known as soon as I looked on the phone display that something was wrong. Although it was a reasonable enough hour in my own time zone, it was three in the morning in South Africa. Be that as it may, when I answered the phone, I had no idea that I had lost a parent. Even though Dad had been gravely ill in hospital, the news came as a terrible shock.

The story of Dad’s illness and death is all too common these days. He had been sick on and off for a couple of years, but despite numerous visits to the doctor, cancer had only been diagnosed six weeks prior to his death. By then, the tumour in his bladder was too big to remove, and Dad’s only shot at survival was aggressive chemotherapy followed by surgical removal of the entire bladder. He survived the chemotherapy – only just – and he made it through the twelve-hour operation. In the end, though, his body was just too weak to survive all that it had been put through, and a few days after the surgery, he winged his way from this world to the next.

It was December 6th, 2004. Seven years ago today.

When we lose someone close to us, we are supposed to go through the stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.

I had heard of this theory, of course, but I had never really found it to be of any use. It suggests that these stages happen sequentially, that you cannot ever get to acceptance until you have passed through the other four stages. According to this theory, once you are in the Acceptance stage, you’re done with your grieving.

The reality is that grieving is such a personal, individual process, and everyone does it differently. Denial has definitely been a big part of my own experience, and although I am mostly over that, I still have moments of thinking, “Gone??? What do you mean, gone? That’s impossible!” By contrast, I have not spent a single moment in the Bargaining phase, although that could still be coming.

What about this one, though? Guilt. Where does that fit in with this whole stages of grieving thing? I’m sure I’m not the only one to experience it with the death of a loved one. What could I have done? Why didn’t I travel home to see him before he died? Why am I remembering every argument we ever had, when I should be focusing on the many good times we shared?

The stage of grief that I have the biggest problem with, though, is acceptance. This is supposed to be the pinnacle, the reward we can all look forward to if we can just get through all of the other stuff that comes before it. But is it really truly attainable? Yes, we can get to a point where we can lead our lives without the person we have lost, but can we ever fully accept it? Can my Mom, who was married to Dad for forty years, be reasonably expected to completely reconcile herself with the fact that her husband – her best friend, the man she lived with, travelled with, and raised children with – is no longer by her side?

Here’s the bigger question: what does acceptance really mean? It seems to me that once someone reaches that magical stage, they are expected to be OK. They are not allowed to be sad anymore because their grieving is done. And honestly, there is a part of me that doesn’t really want to reach that stage. Because doesn’t acceptance imply that you are OK with the person not being around anymore? And isn’t that a form of betrayal to them? Like you’re prepared to finally let go of what little you have left of them?

To some people, the stages of grief can be a useful roadmap, a guide to let them know what’s coming next. For me, it’s frustrating. I loop back and forth between the stages too much, and I’m ambivalent about the prize. I mean, how likely am I to strive for acceptance if it’s not what I really want?

So today, seven years after Dad left us, I don’t really know where I am with this whole grieving process.

What I do know is that Dad was many things to many people. He was a great marathoner in his youth and he fuelled my own love of running. He was an astute businessman who gave me countless tidbits of financial advice and did my taxes every year in exchange for a bag of sugar-coated almonds. He was both reader and storyteller, dramatist and comedian. He had an appreciation for the simple pleasures in life, and would take his time washing the dishes just so he could watch the sunset through the kitchen window while he was doing it. He adored his dogs and cats, and spent many Sundays polishing his car surrounded by family pets. Along with my Mom, he gave me and my brother the opportunity to grow up witnessing what a loving, supportive partnership should look like. To me and my brother, he was Dad – the best one we could have asked for. And during the brief period of time for which he shared a planet with my son George, he was the most loving, doting Granddad any kid could wish for.

I don’t know what happens to us when we die. I choose to believe that Dad is around somewhere, watching fondly over his grandsons, cheering me on when I run races, clicking his tongue impatiently when I make stupid decisions, and having a good old giggle when I get caught in the rain and wind up with a bad hair day.

Rest in peace, Dad. Someday, I’ll see you on the other side.