Wednesday, 28 January 2015

When a Smile is Just Something You Do with Your Mouth

With today being Bell Let’s Talk day, I have allowed myself to indulge in a little self-reflection. As a rule, I try not to spend too much time any more obsessing about my own mental illness mainly because I think I have done that enough over the years. My quest, of late, has been to accept what is and manage what I can’t change. It’s been a decent policy.

From earlier posts, you have likely gathered that humour is my management tool of choice. I do get such a kick out of myself and it’s helped me weather some pretty major emotional storms. I look back over the years and I think about how lucky I am to be living in the time I am living. I’m thinking about all those who have come before me who have struggled with their own mental illnesses. Those who were brave enough to speak up in a time of more open misunderstanding and lack of support and those who couldn’t bring themselves to ask for help and buried their demons so deep, they were eaten up inside.

It’s terrifying to think about. My own father suffered severe clinical depression from the time he was 17 years old up until his passing from cancer in 2005. Imagine being that kid in 1957 who can’t get out of bed or cries continuously and doesn’t know why? Who did he talk to? How did he manage? Thankfully, even in those early days, he already had my mother. She was 16 and decided at that time, this was it for her and she loved and supported him for nearly 50 years. With her support and understanding, he was able to seek treatments, as scarce or as narrow as they were at the time. He tried all kinds of medications and even had to resort to shock treatments in the 80s to help stabilize his moods.

All through it, he managed to be a dad my brother and I could be proud of and someone we could count on even when he felt like he wasn’t doing a very good job by us. We never felt that way. He and my mom can be credited for that. Still, with what I know now with my own experiences, how scared he must have been at times when he felt at his lowest and most vulnerable. I know those feelings. I know how lonely it is to be depressed and anxious and unable to lift yourself up to be the person you know that you are underneath the layers of sadness, confusion and exhaustion. I know how it feels to wonder constantly if your child(ren) will know this kind of sadness and how guilt can stop you in your tracks. I know what it feels like and how tiring it is to keep yourself “up” when you know that you are not really smiling. A smile is just something you do with your mouth to make everyone else feel better.

It is these shared experiences that I believe that it is more important than ever to crush the stigma that is attached to mental illness and to better understand what people go through when they are simply trying to live their lives as fully and richly as anyone deserves.

I look at my son and see all of his amazing qualities that are right there in front of us and the fact that he has a diagnosis, does not alter what we or anyone else sees. I hope that he will live in a world that will see him as the whole person that he is, creative, sensitive, hilarious and annoying as hell!

Crush stigma. Don’t be afraid to start the conversation. You never know what you’ll be missing out on if you don’t.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015


“May I join you, ladies?”

“I don’t know, you got a Platinum Card?”

“Hey baby, where you been all my life?”

“In diapers.”

I can’t zing. Dammit. Never could. The above are examples of zings from the past from one of my best friends, Kim. The girl can zing. I love that quality in men and women. I love it more because I can’t do it. Being able to zing makes a person that much more attractive. For Kim, she has to beat men off with a stick because they love it when she puts them down! She’s awesome. She does it in such a way that it can only be taken with love and a good hearted, self-deprecating chuckle.

I’ve asked her about it in the past. I’ve tried to probe her and learn her secret. But, like most of my friends, my constant inane prattling and questioning often bores them into submission and they’re left wondering what we were talking about in the first place.

I can’t think fast enough in the moment to zing a well-deserving recipient. It’s a gift. I’m in awe of people who can. Sometimes I panic. Sometimes I laugh before I can get the words out. Oh, who am I kidding? I can’t get formulate a good zing whether I’m laughing or not. My zings usually happen in the car on the way home.  I am at my most clever when I am by myself.

What’s worse, if, on the off chance I DO come up with a credible zing, one of two things will happen, guaranteed.

One: I will not be able to get the zing out because I am too excited about how this amazing retort is going to land and that I will instantly be crowned the funniest person in the room thus ruining the zing by stumbling over my own over-excited words.


Two: I actually get to deliver my zing. Oh joy. It lands beautifully. I get the response I hoped to get. Everyone is remarking on how clever I am, but then it happens. I repeat the zing. I. Repeat. The. Zing.

The first and only mark of an amateur. Even as I am repeating I am telling myself to stop to just let it lay and step away. I should just bask in the enjoyment of being smarter than everyone else for that moment in time. No. I ruin it, not only by repeating the actual zing, but by also poking everyone around me and asking, “See what I did there? See? God, I’m funny. Did you see that? I just thought of that, did you realize that?” And so goes more inane prattling which again, leads to boring my audience into submission and then sleep.

My husband, Paul is also a master zinger. He’s so good at it that people are really careful to not say too much around him for fear of giving him the slightest ammunition. He has coached me countless times on the art of delivering the zing and as such, has deemed me unteachable in this area.

He believes (and he has said this with love), I may just be a tad high strung to pull off the cool, this-is-just-off-the-top of my head, kind of remarks. I was slightly offended at first, but then I realized, hey, I can’t be great at everything. I have to have some intellectual flaws so that it highlights how great I am in other areas. Right? Am I right?

Yeah, that’s it, great in other areas.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Anxiety and the Zombie Apocolypse

Flappable is often a word I would use to describe myself in a few situations that others may consider “no big deal.” I would never peg myself as someone you would want to lead you through a zombie apocalypse, however there have been quite few difficult situations in my life that I have, in fact, handled with aplomb.

It’s the smaller things. Those are the things that can cause a flap; running late, bad hair days or forgetting to PVR the Mindy Project, that kind of thing. In fact ask my closest friends how insufferable I could be years ago trying to everyone to be as punctual as I am.

All through my 20s one of my closest friends, Maria would try to get me to just go limp and accept that the Shaw sisters have their own time zone. Just deal with it, she would recommend. Ooohhhh, I start vibrating with anxiety thinking about it now.

More recently my son experienced one of his many nosebleeds. No big deal, right? However, my 12 year old, just like his mom (you’re welcome, son) suffers from terrible anxiety so both us flap fairly easily.

I’ll set the stage. He ran up the stairs, blood spurting, Monty Python-Holy Grail style, rushed into the bathroom while screaming at me the whole time. We spent the first 10 seconds dancing around each other in our panic dance before I snapped out of it. I start pulling reams of toilet paper off the roll while he is standing at the sink trying to remember if he should pinch or not. “Do I pinch or not, Mom? PINCH OR NOT? HELP ME!!”

While he is trying to figure this out, of course my immediate action was to scramble for a face cloth, push him out of the way on my way to the soap, then while he was still spurting and dancing, I proceed to start wiping the blood off of his hands. This low priority activity makes perfect sense to me and gives me purpose.

It’s at moments like these that I can depend on my child to be the adult. As I am frantically scrubbing, he pulls back and calmly points out, “Mother, the thing you are doing right now? It’s REALLY the least of my concerns right now. GET AWAY from me!”

Message received.

Sure my bathroom looked like a crime scene, but I was calm. My kid was calm even though he looked like he’d been shot in the face. We managed. We handled it.

Who says anxious people aren’t any good in a crisis? Call me when the zombies approach. I’ll be ready with the face cloths and soap.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Death, no big deal, right?

The best way to die is quickly. Being shot by a sniper in a parking lot while enjoying an ice cream cone would be both painless (if the killer was an excellent shot, critical) and ensure that my last moments on earth were spent happy. For the record, these are the kinds of conversation topics we bring up during lunch at work. I have the best work friends, because no topic is too racy or too controversial.

I don’t want a lingering death. I’ve thought a lot about it. A. LOT. I remember being so young that I might even have only been in kindergarten when I blurted out “I don’t want to die! Please I don’t want to die!” I’ve asked for clarification many times over the years from my mother, but she always just shrugs and says stuff like, “you always said silly, dramatic stuff. How am I supposed to know?” How did I come from this clearly unfeeling robot?

Even though I may not remember my exact age that I made that panicked declaration, I do know that it was while watching the Wonderful World of Disney (Sunday nights on CHCH TV 11). I don’t remember the movie, but I remember a terrifyingly sad scene where an old hobo (read: sanitized Disney version of a scary, toothless homeless dude who refuses shelter) who falls asleep with some sort of bottle in a brown bag and next to his scruffy dog/loyal companion. Give me a second, this was really traumatic for me. Ok. Anyway, morning comes and the dog is nuzzling the guy’s hand and whining. He keeps nuzzling and keeps whining and the guy doesn’t wake up. I’m starting to get concerned. I look over at my mom, but I don’t think she was tearing up (unfeeling robot), but she did look a bit sad.

“What’s happening, Mommy? Why isn’t that man waking up? Doesn’t he know that his dog is trying to wake him up?”

It was at that moment, my mom mumbled something about him not being able to wake up because he was dead. What?? I was horrified. She just told her five (maybe 6, but still inappropriately young) year old innocent child that a Disney guy was dead! I hadn’t even experienced Bambi in the theatre yet so I had no point of reference. Dead? What the hell did that mean?

Suddenly my world made no sense. I felt a cold sweat develop all over my body, making my onesie uncomfortable against my skin. I think it was then that I blurted out my “not wanting to die declaration.’

The rest of the memory is gone. I don’t know if my mother comforted me or not (my guess is not, given the aforementioned description of her being an unfeeling robot), but maybe she did, if for no other reason to stem off my theatrics before they got out of control resulting in another sleepless night for her spent assuring me that Dracula wasn’t real and Frankenstein walked too slow to catch me even if he wanted to.

Death was a biggie for me and I’ve never gotten over the terror I feel when I think about it. The premise of Final Destination about did me in and I didn’t even see the movies. I know I’m far from alone when I say I think about death, my own in particular, quite a bit. The only way I can seem to put some perspective on the whole thing is to try and focus on the here and now. Doesn’t sound too terribly challenging, right? It’s just that when you spend the better part of your life sharing the stage with your anxious alter ego, battling over brain space and what to obsess over next, it’s trickier than it sounds.

Somehow though, the older I get, I find ways to master this particular fear. Sometimes it involves worrying about the kids, thinking about work, or freaking out over a sagging jawline. Most often though, it involves reminding myself to get out of my own head and self-obsessed thoughts. I remind myself that I have so many other things, in the moment, that require my attention and my enjoyment.

Death may be inevitable, but so is living in the moment. The moment is here whether I’m anxious or not, so it’s best not to let it slip away.

Also, Frankenstein doesn’t know where I live anymore.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

I'd Rather be Funny than Pretty (but you still think I'm pretty, right?)

I love to laugh.

Don’t you hate it when people say that? It’s the same as when people declare “Watch out for me, I am craaazyyy!”. You know that neither of those people are funny nor crazy. In fact, a person who puts it out there, I mean actually has to verbalize that they “love to laugh”, lacks the ability to physically laugh. If they don’t necessarily lack the ability, they watch the crowd for someone else to start the laughter and then join in so as not to appear out of place and to show that in fact, they do get the joke and in fact, do love to laugh.

Thankfully, I have never had to declare such as thing since I have been making myself laugh since 1968. I laugh at everything. Every situation, person, sound, sight, everything. It is a coping mechanism that I always default to even when I have nothing to cope with. I don’t subscribe to nervous laughter. In fact, some of the funniest moments are those awkward, I wish I could just disappear, moments. I never want to disappear. I want to embrace the awkward and laugh the loudest at anyone’s expense within a 100 ft. radius.

The friends that have known me forever can vouch for that fact and if they can’t, then they are not among my inner circle. I like to think I have an inner circle and that I am the elusive celebrity member that people turn to in times of trial and when they need sage advice. Wait. Did I just say sage advice? I meant when they need to laugh at someone else’s (mine) foolishness to take their minds of their own stupid problems.

And all problems are stupid. I may not turn to science to make such a claim, but I can say that I have spent an inordinate (and some may say unhealthy) amount of time analyzing my own problems so I think I am somewhat of an authority. I’m not saying that some problems aren’t tragic and challenging, but I believe that one’s ability to work through said problems is what separates the boys from the men (to clarify, I am NOT being sexist here, I just really like that saying).

The point of this, I believe, is to allow yourself permission to find humour in whatever situation is causing your angst in the moment. It may not always be appropriate at the time, but trust me, somewhere deep inside whatever is troubling you, there is something even a little bit amusing. If you don’t believe me, let me weave you a tale about the time I was being prepped for my breast cancer lumpectomy.

The year was 2006 and I was laying on a gurney with a lovely doctor marking my breast and then inserting what appeared to be a metal rod into my tumor. I suppose this was to show the way to the surgeon, but I’m not sure and was too scared to ask. As I lay on my back contemplating the bleakness and uncertainty of my future, this same lovely doctor quietly asked, “Do you want me to insert metal in the other breast too?” Confused, since I didn’t have cancer in the other breast, I needed clarification. “Pardon?”

He smiled gently and answered, “If I do, you’ll get great cell reception.” Pause. He smiles and snickers. This causes me to smile and snicker and soon, my future didn’t look so bleak (especially since moments later I was hit with the best knock out medicine a patient could ask for.)

No matter what ails you, find a way to be ready for the joke, because in life, there is always a punchline.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

My Frenemy is not a person, but gets on my nerves like one

To say that my anxiety is a friend would likely be stretching the truth somewhat. I think of it more as a relative that you don’t see very often, but when you do, they really make an impact. This can be a positive experience, but it is rarely drama free.

My anxiety pushes me to remember how to stay in the here and now and not spiral into the abyss of the future unknown. In the middle of my anxious thoughts, I am forced to remember what is real in my life and how strong I actually am.

I forget these qualities when I am busy living my life. I forget that there is this “friend” I try to keep in touch with, but am just as happy when they can’t find the time to fit me into their schedule. The trouble with that is, like all strong relationships, if you neglect them, they have a way of appearing in your life, stronger and more intense than ever.

It has taken me a lot of years to even consider making peace with my anxious alter ego. I’m fairly certain that I’m not all the way there yet. I may never be. For a person who suffers from depression as well as panic and anxiety disorders, finding peace is much like chasing unicorns. Some days it feels like I am chasing a legend and others, I can ride on the faith that it is out there somewhere and there is peace in knowing that.

I have a difficult time shutting my brain down. If you ask anyone with these kind of disorders, you will likely hear similar stories. My thoughts are often like a tangled mess of Christmas lights that you don’t have the energy to untangle. That can make it difficult to focus and difficult to remain rational and realistic. It is a paralyzing place to be especially when you realize what is going on and you feel powerless to stop it.

This blog is an attempt to share and to continue on my own quest of understanding my own experience with mental illness. In order to do that, I have to use humour. It may seem dark at times or even on the tasteless side, but trust me, it is the one sure way I have in the cohabitating with and managing of my frenemy that just can’t seem to take a hint.