“Yes, and” not “Yes, but”

The concept I want to describe is one that I’ve never quite been able to put into words, so bear with me here. Luckily, I have a couple of very insightful and thoughtful friends who understood the concept when I tried explaining it to them, so I’m borrowing their words.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to separate my depression from me. I demonized it and made it this big villain that wasn’t a part of me – it was a battle I had to fight, an enemy I had to destroy. Time and time again, I hear myself saying “I am not my depression” and how I’m not really myself when I’m anxious and depressed. I still stand by those statements…sort of.

I am not my mental illness, I am not exclusively my mental illness, but it is a massive part of me. It influences the way I act, the way I speak, the people I associate with. It’s in every deep breathing exercise I do, in every therapy session I pay for, in each conversation I have. It does not (always) consume me, but it plays an integral role in my life. As much as I would like to believe I am not defined by my mental illness, it defines a part of me. And that’s not to say that my mental illness has to dictate my life and I just have to accept that, but rather, it means acknowledging how this part of me is not a demon to destroy, but a wound that needs healing. It means acknowledging that though my mental illnesses have made life really hard, they’ve also allowed me to become a better listener, they’ve guided me towards people who have better intentions, they’ve taught me valuable lessons about the universe that some people may never learn. They’ve made me more fearless in knowing what I want and going after it.

I’m learning that because my mental illness is part of me, I have to learn to love it somehow before I can truly love myself. I have to love the beautiful bits, and the parts I think are ugly, and I have to try and see the beauty in the ugly. I can’t accept myself wholly or give myself love if I’m constantly vilifying a part of me that can’t be silenced or ignored.

Part of that process of loving all of me, is being loved by the people around me. Letting them love the good, the bad, the ugly. Being loved simply because of me, and not in spite of something else.

Let me make this part crystal clear: my mental illness is not something to be “looked over” or loved in spite of. I don’t need you to look past my struggles and mental illness in order to love me. I need you to see that there is ugliness in me, but that ugliness is just as worthy of love as the most beautiful parts.

I’m tired of the rhetoric that exists around being loved even though you have pain or baggage or struggles. I deserve better than “I love Ameera, but she has anxiety and depression”. It’s not something that diminishes how deserving I am of love.

I was really frustrated with this one day, and tried explaining it to a close friend. She understood what I meant immediately, and described it as needing people to say “Yes, and”, not “Yes, but”. It was a simple concept I learned in improv class – that when someone offers something in a scene, you accept it. Whether it makes sense or not, whether it makes the scene harder or easier, you accept it, and you work through the scene together.

Moving from language of “Ameera has depression and anxiety, but I still love her” to messaging of “Ameera has depression and anxiety, and I love her.” It’s reaffirming that I can be loved with what I have, rather than mental illness being something that should detract from the amount of love I am worthy of.  It’s a mixed bag, and you don’t get to pick and choose which parts you get.

Another example is when I have a bad day or I’m going through a rough patch and feel bad about it, and people (with only the best intentions) respond with how they know how I really am, and they don’t judge me for this part. They see that I’m actually this happy, funny, lively person and it’s “just the depression talking.” I really, really appreciate the sentiment that I am not my illness, and sometimes my depression and anxiety make me act differently. However, that depression and anxiety is a part of me too. They may be a part I try to hide a lot more, but they’re a part of my journey and my experience. They are not just something to be overlooked or ignored.

When we make our mental illnesses something to be loved in spite of, or we allow them to be ignored so we can be loved, we create the perfect breeding ground for shame. Shame that makes us hide who we are, shame that makes us hide our pain and our struggles, and shame that makes us feel unworthy of the love we need and deserve. It fosters guilt that we can’t be “enough” because we deal with these issues. And it’s not right. No one should be made to feel more isolated and guilty and ashamed because of their mental illnesses. There’s already enough of those feelings because of the mental illness alone, we don’t need the problem exacerbated because it’s easy to love the “good” and hard to love the “bad”.

I realize I’m basically contradicting myself by saying my mental illnesses don’t define me but also they totally do, and I also recognize that it’s difficult to be a positive support when you have to navigate a paradox as complex as this one. This journey isn’t an easy one, but it’s easier when we’re in it together. Even if the people around me don’t know what to say, just knowing that they can love me with or without my mental illnesses, because it has no bearing on how they feel about me, is enough. Reminding me that depression and anxiety don’t have to be looked over and brushed under the rug in order for them to still think I’m great speaks volumes.

Regardless of if you deal with mental health issues or not, think about who you love. Do you love all of them? Do you love them through the messier parts? Do you show up when not showing up is easier? If the answer is no, think about how you can make that move from “yes, but”, to “yes, and”.

If you’re struggling with mental health issues, and you feel like people have to love you in spite of what you deal with, or you feel you have to hide the hard parts so that you don’t lose that love, you’re not alone. That fear is totally valid. I hope we can learn to love the beautiful bits and the ugly bits of one another, and see the ugly bits as beautiful in their own way, so that we can break down the walls and boundaries built by bricks of shame and guilt. I hope you remember that you have pain and struggles, and you are loved. Not despite it. Not in spite of it. Not when it’s ignored. You are simply loved. I see your pain and your struggle, and I love you.

“Yes, and”, not “Yes, but”.

Keep Surviving by Living.


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.

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. 

One Year.

One year. It’s been just over one year since my first suicide attempt. People always say a lot can change in a year, and I don’t think I quite realized how much can change in a year until I looked back on this past one. It’s been a year of countless ups and downs – more downs than ups – but some ups nonetheless. As I think back to my first attempt, my heart immediately hurts. Not for myself, but for those around me that I hurt. My depression was not only hard on me, but I know it’s been quite taxing for my friends and family as well. I’m grateful for my incredible support system, and more specifically, I am grateful that I can recognize them as supports, which is something I couldn’t do a year ago.

I don’t like thinking about August and September of 2013; they were the darkest months of my life, yet I know without those struggles I wouldn’t be where I am today. Sometimes I have dreams about the time I spent in the hospital and wake up feeling terrible, because it is something I’m always afraid of happening again. Even a year later there are days where I think of the hospital, or something reminds me of it and I feel physically ill. If I ever have to enter a hospital, for whatever reason, I hesitate and feel more shaky than usual. I absolutely hate hospitals, ambulances, sirens, or anything that reminds me of my experiences, yet they are a huge part of who I am today. I don’t want to think about what happened to me, or what I almost did, but it’s an unavoidable fact, and I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not ashamed that I have a mental illness and I’m not ashamed to admit that I desperately needed help, and that sometimes I still need help. (more…)

“No” Is My Biggest Motivator

Some people may describe me as stubborn.

I disagree with them. Calling me stubborn is calling a blizzard light flurries – a gross understatement. I’m stubborn, strong-willed, and swaying my decisions is not an easy feat.

Over the past three years, with the various health issues I’ve faced, from my IBS to conversion disorder to depression, my inability to give into the advice of others, and my determination to stick to my guns got me to where I am today. How?

I’ll start with my senior year of high school, when I missed two months of school, was on the verge of not graduating, and was so behind that attending class was not only a struggle, but seemed entirely futile. At that point, my family and friends, who of course wanted nothing but the best for me, began to look at other options – local university, community college, high school upgrading, summer school, work programs, a year off, and other wonderful options I refused to consider. It sounded ridiculous to say I was going to attend a rigorous university program in a different city, in a different province, where I would be completely on my own in less than 3 months, when I could barely get out of bed every morning. Still, I forged on and planned to attend university as I had planned since I was in junior high. Would it be fair to call me crazy? Absolutely. It would be crazy NOT to call me crazy.

I truly believe that we are never given more than we can handle. I learned that from a friend once, and I am by no means very religious, but I have a strong belief in the idea that God, or whatever higher power there may be, will always put enough on your plate to push you to your limits (it’s the only way you can grow), but it will never be more than you are capable of handling if you have confidence in your abilities. Continuing on with the annoying clichés, I also operate on the assumption that everything happens for a reason. And I can say with complete confidence that I would not have been able to handle my battle with depression without first having to face the smaller issues I combated in high school.

Fast forward to entering university, when I had got my IBS under control and was ready to begin a semester full of hard work, new experiences and lifelong friendships. I got all three – just not in any of the ways I had anticipated. When I began to get seizures, I had an immense amount of support, from parents, friends and even university services (student health, student counselling and disability services). BUT…the main thing that came along with all that support was variations of the word “no”. It was in a number of forms, telling me I should become a part time student, drop out entirely, take time off, request a medical leave, move back home, take community college courses, you get the idea. Sound familiar? If not, see above, because it was the same stuff I had heard in high school. Granted, unexplainable seizures, 6 ambulance rides, a couple concussions and dissociative states were clearly more serious than my earlier stomach aches, but I figured, I had done it once, I could do it again. Plus, the idea of proving everyone wrong, and showing that I was capable of being like anyone else despite my extenuating circumstances was once again my main motivator. So I maintained a full course load, went to as many classes as I could, and passed every single class. There was a catch though; I did not achieve the minimum average required to stay in business school. Needless to say, I was devastated, and was provided with plenty of alternatives; switch faculties, attend SFU, return to Calgary for business school, take a year off and reapply. What did I say to those suggestions? Thanks, but no thanks. I filed an appeal and prepared to take summer school – my medical problems had taken away enough from me, I wasn’t about to let it take away my dream school either. You can probably guess how the appeal went based on the fact that I found myself back at Sauder the next year.

Speaking of the next year, it was this year and it was when I returned to school to an extremely intense course load – while battling severe depression. At this point, you’re probably thinking, “this girl is definitely insane for STILL pushing after yet another medical obstacle”. Before returning to school, those who knew about my depression were skeptical about my return to school, an incredibly stressful and difficult school nonetheless. It was the same few options, with a stress on me NOT returning to school at all, because I needed to be around family and a strong support system. As usual, I refused and began school. Needless to say, I wound up in the hospital for a significant amount of time in the life of a university student, and found myself under a lot of pressure to give into others’ suggestions. Return home. Drop courses. Take time off. All I heard was “Quit, quit, quit”. Let me be very clear here; I do not think that people who have to alter their lives and make changes to make life easier due to extenuating medical circumstances are quitters, I just knew I would always think of myself as a quitter, or someone who gave up if I did it.

Was it difficult to attempt to maintain a full courseload after missing so much content while in the hospital? It was close to impossible. Was it a struggle and disheartening when I missed even more class because I was too depressed to get out of bed? Of course it was. Did that make me change my stubborn mind? Not even for a second.

You see, all those other options, of altering my life course, made me more committed to sticking to the decisions I made. Depression takes such a strong hold on a person’s life, that I couldn’t let it take away my future too, when it was already dominating my present. Many people don’t understand that depression isn’t a temporary thing like a broken foot, where if you’re on crutches and you rest you’ll be fine later. Yes, depression needs to be managed and can be treated to the point that it is no longer a main issue in people’s lives, but for the most part, depression is a life-long thing. Just as conversion disorder and IBS are. I could never learn to properly live my life if I kept taking time off to focus on trying to deal with my depression, because I wouldn’t actually be dealing with the real world. I wanted to face it head on, and continue a normal life to the best of my ability, even if it was virtually impossible some days, if not most days.

So to those of you who think it’s ridiculous, or dangerous, or unwise, or were frustrated with the fact,  that I didn’t slow down my life, thank you. Because not only does it mean you’re concerned but you’re also part of the reason I can be here today, facing my life and the difficulties associated with it head on. The more I hear “no”, the more I want to work to prove it can be a “yes”. Like I said, whatever life throws at me, it’s never more than I can handle, and just when it seems like I really can’t handle it, it just means I’m getting ready for a growth spurt, and Lord knows I could use a couple more of those, standing at just under 5 feet.

Keep Surviving by Living.