The Pressure of Recovery (and tips to help!)

Some of closest people in my life have seen multiple versions of myself over the years. They knew me before mental illness was a part of my life, they knew me when I was in the thick of my depression and suicide attempts, and they know me now.  If you ask someone about me, they might say how I think I’m really funny (and if they’re in a good mood they’ll admit they think I’m funny too). They’ll probably think about my intelligence, or my love of craft beer, or other parts of myself that I choose to showcase more than others. And despite openly talking about my struggles with mental health, it’s probably not the first thing they see.

I’ve designed it this way. I wouldn’t want to be seen as my mental illness (even though I talk about it literally all the time, sorry pals, I don’t intend to shut up about it anytime soon 🙂 ) .

The issue is that when I talk a lot about the strides I’ve made to get better and recover, people forget about the harsh realities of my mental illness that pop up when I least expect it. They forget the bad days can strike at any time, and they do.  They still seem surprised that so many years later, I’m not “better.”

I’m not better. It doesn’t go away. Even when I’m laughing and smiling and having a good time, it hasn’t gone away completely. I may not be as bad as I once was, but that doesn’t mean I’m good. Just because you don’t need a hat and mitts when it’s not snowing anymore doesn’t mean you don’t need a jacket. We all bundle up after the blizzard too, because it’s still cold out. So I’m not freezing, but I’m still cold. We still see mental illness as something that gets better and goes away, like an infection or cold, and don’t accept that it could be something we live with every day like diabetes or arthritis. We always hope mental illness will go away, yet we never go to someone with diabetes and say “oh, I really hope you beat this soon! You’re so strong, you can do it.” Saying that makes it sounds like if it doesn’t go away, we weren’t strong enough to make it go away.

My friends and family are wonderful, and I love them dearly, but they’re often the ones building that pressure when they ask if I’m better, or tell me how happy they are that I am better. This type of pressure comes from people meaning well, but they actually make me feel guilty about my recovery being a non-linear process.

Now, as you’re reading this you’re probably thinking “shit. I’ve said that.” Don’t worry, I’ve said it too, but here are some shifts in language that I’ve found really supportive and helpful. Here’s a great trick on good days as well – celebrate the wins and accomplishments of the good day, rather than just the good day itself.

Language Shifts on Good Days

“I’m glad you’re better” –> “Sounds like you’ve had a few good days”

“Yay, you’re cured!” –> “I’m so happy you feel the worst is over, I’m here if it’s hard too though.”

“You’re finally better!” –> “I know it’s been a long process, but I’m here for the long haul.”

“Phew, glad that’s behind us.” –> “I know you’ll have ups and downs, and that’s okay.”

“I knew you’d get here if you tried hard enough!” –> “I know how hard you try to have good days, and I know how much harder you have to try on the bad days.”

Basically, you’re just trying to reassure the person that you’re excited for their good days and for the times that they’re better, but you’re also totally okay with sticking around for the bad ones. When I’m feeling better and having a good day, my biggest fear is that it’s not going to last, and that I know I’ll have another bad day again (as we all do, to varying degrees).

I also find it really helpful when my friends point out small wins – a friend and I often do this for each other when we’re having good OR bad days. We recognize accomplishments, regardless of how big or small, and celebrate them. On a bad day it’s something like “YAAASSS, YOU ATE A MEAL!”, and on the good days it might be “YAASS, HIT THE GYM!”. We’re proud of each other both times. When I get treated with the same amount of enthusiasm and respect for what I’m capable of on good days and bad days, I feel less ashamed of the bad days, and less pressure to hide them.

That being said, don’t be the annoying person who acts like the bad days are good, because they’re not. I need my support system to acknowledge how hard it is, and how it’s okay to be sad and scared and upset that I’m having a bad day because it’s really hard.

Language Shifts on Bad Days

“Tomorrow will be better” –> “I know today is really hard, how can I make it a bit better?”

“Just try going to the gym, you’ll feel much better” –> “You’re having a hard day, is there anything that you can think of that might help?”

“I know how you feel.” –> “I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you. I’m sorry you’re going through this.”

*When you don’t know what to say, so you say nothing* –> “I don’t know what I can say or do to help. Is there anything I can do that would be helpful?”

“it’s just a bad day, don’t worry about it.” –> “I know it doesn’t feel like it, but this will be temporary. You’ve gotten through it before and you will again. Until then, I’m here for you”

“Come out and have a good time! The distraction will help.” –> “Would you be up to coming out if you think a distraction would help? Or I can come over to distract you or talk about it? You’re not alone.”

“Let’s have some fun and get your mind off it.” –> “I’m here to sit with you in the darkness if that would help. If you’d prefer to have fun, we can do that too.”

“Did you forget your meds?” –> Just. Don’t.

“Call your therapist.” –> “Did you want to talk about anything? I know I’m not as good or qualified as your therapist, but I’m willing to listen until you can talk to them.”

“You have to eat” –> “Have you eaten anything? Can I bring something over? I can leave it outside and we don’t even have to see each other if you don’t want company.”

“I hate seeing you like this” or “I hate when you have bad days” –> “I’m sorry you’re having a bad day. I wish I could make it easier for you, but it’s totally okay to not be okay sometimes.”

Basically, by not making the person feel bad on their bad days, and showing up to listen, care, and just acknowledge their struggle, you’re removing the pressure for them to be okay all the time.

So here’s the point I want to make: I feel a ton of pressure to be better, and the fact that I’m not better makes me feel really guilty and ashamed sometimes. Actually, most of the time. Recovery (I hate that word) Progress is not linear, so extra good days don’t mean I won’t have extra bad days anymore. Dealing with mental illness doesn’t look like climbing a mountain – it looks a lot more like surfing. I’m working on accepting that being cured or better may not be a reality for me, and that’s okay. I’m becoming okay with it, and I need the people who love me to be okay with it too. It’s not something to be sad about, it’s just how it is. Some people will have depressive episodes and be okay later, and others won’t. Some people will have their anxiety virtually go away completely with the right therapy and meds and coping strategies, and others won’t. It’s okay. It’s okay to have a mental illness, it’s okay to have dealt with a mental illness at one point, it’s okay to struggle with your mental health before, now, or in the future. It’s okay, because we all struggle a bit, some of us more than others. Most of all, it’s okay because we can all love and support each other a bit more to ease that pain even just a tiny bit.

Keep Surviving by Living.

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Suicidal Ideation is a Sprained Ankle

CW/TW: Suicide, Suicidal Ideation

People are scared to talk about suicide because it’s a scary thing to think about. And because the only time we talk about suicide is after we’ve lost someone from it. Anthony Bourdain. Kate Spade. Chester Benningfield. Our suicide awareness and discussions come at the expense of being shocked enough to open our eyes.

We see suicide as a point-in-time event, like a strike of thunder or lightening, as opposed to considering it as a lengthy storm. We often hear people say that the attempt “came out of nowhere” and was completely unexpected, but that doesn’t make it true. Whether we could see the signs or not, suicide is often not an impulsive decision. People can be really careful to not show signs of what they’re thinking, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Therefore, if someone survives an attempt, we cannot treat it as a one-off.

When we talk about suicide when the person survives, IF we talk about it, we talk about how they made it through – how they survived and things will be better now. Surviving an attempt means life continues, but the hard work is after the attempt. Surviving an attempt doesn’t mean the pain that caused the attempt disappears. The hard work is rebuilding, or building from scratch, a life we can live. When we see people survive the suicide attempt in movies or TV, that’s the happy ending. It’s not. It’s just the beginning.  It’s what comes after the attempt that we need to lean in closer to, it’s how we all have to band around that person and make their experience a little better.

Now, I can’t speak for everyone, but this is how suicidal ideation is for me. Suicidal Ideation is like a sprained or broken ankle, or any big injury really. Have you ever broken a bone or had a bad fracture or sprain? And no matter how much physio you go to or how much you take care of it, it can still hurt sometimes? Maybe the weather changes and you feel that part ache a little more, or you work out too hard and the impact forces you to take a couple extra days of rest before working out again. Sometimes you have flare ups from sleeping funny or not resting enough, sometimes you get flare ups for no reason at all. For me, suicidal ideation is just that. It’s the sprained ankle that will never be the same. And you can still do all the things you did before, like run or play sports or do the things you love, but maybe you’re a little bit more careful. Maybe it’s the first thing to get triggered to indicate that you need a break. I have to be mindful of my “triggers” and take a bit of extra care to avoid flare ups, and avoid unnecessary pain.

What if we treated people who survive suicide attempts the way we treat people after an accident? What if instead of never talking about that “one dark time” that’s finally over, we talk to them about how rehab/therapy is going? What if we reassured them that it’s a process, and it takes time, and there are ups and downs to physio (or therapy)? If we normalized that and didn’t pressure them to be okay overnight? What if we accepted that they will need a brace or supports every now and again, maybe forever? And five or ten years down the road, when our friend complains of shoulder pain from that car accident they had that they were never quite the same after, we offer to hold their bag and slow down. Similarly, if our friend who survived a suicide attempt five or ten years ago mentions that they’ve been having some passive thoughts of suicide, what if after confirming they have no intent to act on it, you just offered to help take some of the weight off by listening?

People are so happy when they hear that I haven’t attempted in almost five years. It’s a great accomplishment, and I’m very grateful for my first, second, and third chances because life has been so worth it. But I can’t remember a time I didn’t have passive suicidal ideation. Passive, meaning I have no intent or plan to act on my thoughts, but they’re just floating around. Not strong thoughts of wanting to die, but fleeting thoughts of being okay with not being here. In my world, I can think about suicide, and not be suicidal. In Frank King’s TED Talks, he says “Let’s say my car breaks down. I have three choices: Get it fixed, get a new one, or I could just kill myself.” It’s so common for me, that I hardly notice it anymore, and of course in King’s example, it’s not the option he is going to go for (personally, I’m rooting for option 2 – new car), but as he says “it’s [suicide is] always on the menu.”

This is usually the part where people get scared and think this is very, very serious, and they’re not wrong because suicide is scary. It is scary. But the reason I’m telling you this is not to be scared, I’m telling you because we need to reframe the way we think of suicide as a single occurrence, and adjust to seeing it as a process. We need to make these conversations okay, because talking about it really, really helps. And if we respond to these conversations with rushing to a hospital or freaking out, we make it unsafe to talk about something big and scary.

Offer love. Offer compassion. Throw judgement out the window. Isn’t that what we should be doing when anyone talks to us about their mental health anyways?

As a caveat, I must add that if you or someone you love is experiencing ACTIVE suicidal thoughts, it’s important to help them get the help they need immediately. Remind them they are not alone.

  1. If it’s an emergency, call 911.
  2. For 24/7 phone support for you or a loved one, call 1-833-456-4566
  3. For youth (<20) texting support, text “TALK” for English and “TEXTO” for French to 686868

Suicide attempts occur in a fleeting moment, but the stuff that led to that moment, and the aftermath of it, is where we need to band together as a community and support each other. We can’t act like surviving an attempt gets rid of the problem, and that someone dying by suicide is always a complete shock.

Look out for your friends, check in with them, make sure they’re okay. And if you have a friend that has attempted, be on the lookout for warning signs, but also be there to listen to what got them there in the first place.

I’m not suicidal. But I experience suicidal ideation. Much more often than I wish I did, but I’m safe and I’m not going anywhere. And people like me shouldn’t have to feel this way alone because it’s scary or uncomfortable for others. It’s scary and uncomfortable for me too. It’s easier when we’re in it together. So just as you’d be there to support your friend with that pesky busted knee from hockey 6 years ago, be there to check in on the friend that “made it out of the woods”. Pause. Listen. Support.

Keep Surviving by Living.

 

 

IMPACT@Work: Working With A Mental Illness

Earlier this week I spoke at the Mood Disorders Society of Canada’s Transitions to Community Program, which helps people facing a variety of issues transition into the workforce and their communities. A key focus of the talk was how to thrive with a mental illness at work, and be successful despite any barriers I may face.

It was important for me to touch on the fact that thriving didn’t mean an absence of symptoms or barriers, but rather, thriving meant that I was able to find ways to function with the symptoms, and reduce the barriers. In order for this to happen, I have to make significant efforts and put in extra work to achieve the same goals as my colleagues. Another crucial element is keeping lines of communication open with my managers and coworkers so that we can all be on the same page about what I am capable of, and what my limits are.

MDSC Ameera

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IMPACT@Work: Employee Rights and Responsibilities

I’ve had countless conversations with people about their mental illness, and we often discuss the sticky situations surrounding disclosure, and managing mental illness at work. When I first started working, I didn’t understand how to navigate working with a mental illness, as well as disclosing it.

Here are the basics of what you need to know about your rights:

  1. You have the right to ask for accommodations. Mental Illness can fall under disability, and workplaces have an obligation to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities so that you can perform your job adequately.  Depression is the leading cause of disability in Canada, which is very costly to employers, so it really is in their best interest as well as yours to come up with a plan of action. These accommodations can include more flexible hours, a schedule that allows working from home, or altering the nature of the work itself if need be.
  2. You have the right to disclosure. This means that it is entirely up to you to decide how much or how little you want to tell your employer about the nature of your condition or disability. You have an obligation to express what limitations you have or accommodations you may need, as well as if your condition will prohibit you from doing your job the way someone else might. You do NOT have to give them details about your condition, and they are not allowed to ask for details. If you’re unsure about if your boss is acting accordingly, or you feel they are asking too many questions, contact your HR representative and they will be able to facilitate the process.
  3. Discrimination because of your mental illness is illegal, and you can make claims against your employer if you feel you have been discriminated against because of your mental illness. For example, it is illegal if your employer knows that you have a mental illness and purposely does not promote you because of it. As a result, many people choose not to disclose their mental illness because they are afraid of the repercussions. Unfortunately, by not disclosing, many people are not granted the accommodations they need to succeed in their position.

I’ve often found that different things work for different people when it comes to dealing with their mental illness at work, though there are many common struggles. I’ve come up with some tips on what works for me, but this doesn’t mean that these will work for everyone.

  1. Decide when (and how much) to disclose ahead of time. This can also depend on the position. If i know that the employer I am speaking with in an interview is more likely to be accommodating, I will share a bit more about my situation. Generally, I will always say the word “disability” during the interview process, because if I am afraid of getting rejected, I would rather it be in the interview process than when I am already working. Some people will argue that they will wait until they are working because then the employer definitely has an obligation to accommodate (as opposed to in the interview when you are simply not selected). Either way, knowing what you may or may not what to say in advance can help you articulate your needs.
  2. Explain your limitations clearly, but have an action plan to ensure your work will be okay. For example, if you have panic attacks and choose to disclose that you need accommodation for them, know what your accommodation should be. Saying something like “I occasionally have panic attacks, and having a secluded, quiet place to go to when this happens is important for me to get back to work sooner rather than later.” This way, the employer knows exactly what you need, and can help you access resources that may help. Another example is if you know you will be going to see a therapist once a week, but you’ll need to be away from work, try an alternative like “On Wednesdays, I need an extended lunch hour for an appointment, but can ensure that my deliverables are still met by the end of the day, even if I come in early or stay late.” By showing you’ve already found a way to work around your needs, you’re showing initiative and an understanding of the organization’s needs.
  3. Give yourself permission to have ups and downs. I know  that sometimes I have bad days, and I may not be as chipper or friendly on those days, and I need to be okay with that. Everyone has off days, and mine are sometimes worse than my colleagues. I’m learning to give myself permission to take a sick day to care for my mental health, and I’m also learning that one off day doesn’t negate the other great days I’ve had where I’m fantastic at my job. So if I’m really anxious one day, and I leave at 4pm instead of 5pm, I do my best to not beat myself up over it, because I know that another day when I’m feeling great I will stay until 6pm. I also know that the quality of my work can depend on my mental state, and I don’t want to produce sub par work.
  4. Your mental health comes first. Your work comes second. I’m definitely guilty of forgetting that I am more important than my work, but it’s crucial to work to remember that you’re actually much more important than your work. You need to take care of yourself first (not to mention that your work will suffer anyways if you don’t), and making yourself a priority is in everyone’s best interest. Recognize if work is getting too stressful, or if your hours are getting too long, and find a way to work around it. Perhaps you always take a day off after your busy season to just rest and relax, or maybe you find yourself always working too late so you set dinner plans to ensure you get out at a decent time. Finding ways to make sure you’re taken care of and in a great mental state ensures you can be healthy and productive – a win-win for everyone!
  5. Own it! I’m proud of what I have overcome, and I’m learning to let go of the shame and stigma I’ve experienced because of my mental illness. My mental illness doesn’t make me any less of an employee, and it doesn’t make me any less of a performer. I know I can be successful even with the issues I’ve faced, so don’t allow yourself to preclude yourself from bigger opportunities. A person with a mental health concern can still be a stellar employee, and drive excellent results. Just because I need some accommodations, or more flexibility in certain areas doesn’t mean I can’t do a good job and be the best version of myself more often than now. Believe in yourself, fight for the rights you deserve, and keep moving forward (even if you sometimes go backwards).

 

Keep Surviving by Living.

IMPACT@Work: Andrea Martineau – Wellness Retail Associate/Laser Technician

What happens when you work in an industry build on creating wellness and providing consumers with greater happiness, comfort, and services that give them a better life? We think of hospitality workers as people that are always happy and smiling, ready to provide stellar customer service, but what happens when an employee is struggling to be that upbeat, happy person? I’m so excited to share Andrea Martineau’s perspective on what it’s like being on the other side of the service desk. It’s well thought out, brings up important issues surrounding cultural appropriation and calls for greater action from employers, employees, and consumers.

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IMPACT@Work: Kinsey Powell – Commercial Account Manager

Kinsey Head ShotKinsey is an artist, activist, and businessperson living in Toronto. By focusing her business acumen in the arts and culture space, she has accelerated her career at a record-breaking pace at an impactful financial institution, while entrenching herself in an industry she loves and believes in. She holds three financial accreditations, a BCom from the Sauder School of Business (UBC), and currently sits on the Board of Directors of one of Toronto’s leading independent theatre companies. Her free time is spent cooking, at the gym, or dancing around her apartment. She is one of the most impressive, intelligent, and ambitious people I know, and I have been so lucky to witness her incredible journey over the past few years. I’m constantly inspired by what she does, and how she does it, and cannot wait to see her continue to change the world. 
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IMPACT@Work: Supportive Coworkers

Managing dynamics with co-workers can be complicated enough without the added influence of a mental illness on one of you. Are you friends? Are you just people who spend most of your day together but don’t really know each other? What boundaries are in place as far as discussing your personal life? All these questions are difficult to answer right away, and the answers can often change over time, depending on how closely you work together. Add a mental health issue for one party (or both), and the dynamics are further complicated.  (more…)

IMPACT@Work: Power Dynamics and Corporate Conduct (Anonymous)

What happens when your workplace touts itself as being mental-health friendly, and emphasizes the importance of empowerment, open communication, support and diversity, but misses the mark in reality? What happens when you’re the only one to realize this, and you’re forced to address power dynamics and unfair practices while dealing with your own mental health concerns?

This post is written anonymously, because we unfortunately still live in a world where there are consequences to speaking out against organizational injustices, and the repercussions of speaking publicly are too costly. That does not make this story any less important or valid; in fact, the opposite is true. 

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IMPACT@Work: Managers and Mental Health

When thinking about the changes that need to happen to make mental health a more acceptable topic at work, we often consider the high level changes that need to happen in company policies to make our workplaces more accepting. The idea is that the macrocosm of driving better corporate policies and laws will in turn have a trickle down effect and impact our day-to-day work lives. We are a long way from that happening, and there are great initiatives by larger mental health organizations spearheading this change. What I want to focus on today, is the reverse of this idea.

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IMPACT@Work: Sidney S. Billings – Certified Protection Officer

Sidney and I connected through LinkedIn a few months ago over one commonality: we are both passionate about being a Mental Health Advocate, and will have the tough conversations needed to drive change. When I approached him about IMPACT@Work, he was eager and open to share, and genuinely wants to make a change in the world. His story is one that many people share, and it is a story that we need to collectively work to change so that no one else is forced to feel like they have to hide. 


My first experience with negative remarks towards my mental health issues was in 1988 while I was working in Ottawa.
While in hospital to discover exactly the diagnosis of what I had, it was determined at that time I suffered from ADHD. This devastated me. I was scared to tell my employer and when I finally did, the response was less then acceptable.
The management labeled me crazy. Some of my co-workers called me dumb, stupid, and I felt like an outcast. 

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