Letting Go of Shame 

I grew up in an environment where emotions were often invalidated. At least the “negative” ones like fear, sadness and anger. I was often told to “toughen up”, “shut up or I’ll give you something to cry about”, or teased about my fears. Because of this, I felt a great deal of shame when I experienced emotions and this carried over into my adult life. I learned the unhealthy ways of dealing with emotions by stuffing them, or finding ways to not feel them like substance use. And when I did those things, I felt even more shame. It became a vicious cycle of shame and disgust with myself that I felt trapped in. 

Through my therapy work, I’ve come to realize that I don’t need anyone else to validate my emotions anymore. Instead, I’m using the skills I’ve learned from cognitive behavioural therapy to validate myself. Here’s how it works for me: 

When I first begin to feel an emotion, I first name it. This takes me using the skill of getting in touch with my emotion, even when it feels uncomfortable. By labelling the emotion, I can then look at the reasons I might be feeling that emotion. For example, we often feel angry because something is unfair, or we have been taken advantage of. Or we may feel sad because we have suffered a loss. Our emotions are our body and mind’s way of communicating to us that something has happened to us.

Once I have labelled the emotion, I ask myself “Is it reasonable to expect that you would feel this emotion?” And I look for the evidence. If it’s anger that I’m feeling, I look to see if someone or something did do something that was wrong or an injustice to me? Did they do something that was against my values? By asking these questions, I’m VALIDATING my feeling. In doing this, I’m justifying to myself that this feeling is normal and healthy and I deserve to feel this way, despite my inner voice shouting at me to not feel it. 

The next step involves me assessing how I am going to express that emotion. This has always proven to be a challenge for me, as I was taught to not express what I was really feeling. History had taught me that when I did, people didn’t like me and would punish me. It was during this process that I would remind myself that I have an inherent right to feel and express my emotions. What I have to consider is how much I value the relationship of the person who I feel at conflict with. 

For example, if I am feeling upset with how I was treated by a store employee, I’m more likely to be able to express my anger in a direct way because I’m not worried if that person is going to like me at the end of the day. But if I’m angry with my husband, I struggle because I’m scared that he will abandon me or not love me anymore. I have to work really hard to come up with a plan to address my anger with him and still maintain our relationship because I place so much value on that relationship. 

When I am able to express my anger in a healthy way and the person accepts my expression without judgement or laying shame on me, it helps break the cycle for me. I no longer feel ashamed that I feel emotions or for expressing them. The more I practice this, the more I am able to let go of the shame. 

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Recovery Doesn’t Happen in Isolation 

I’ve spent the last four weeks attending a pretty intense group therapy program, designed to enhance my emotional regulation skills, distress tolerance strategies and improve my interpersonal relationships and today, in a moment of reflection, I believe it’s been time well invested. I’m seeing a huge improvement in my self-awareness, as mindfulness is a key component of this particular program. I feel so much more in touch with myself and my feelings, and more capable of dealing with the intense emotions that come up. 

It helps that I’m really throwing myself into the group sessions. Allowing myself to be vulnerable and brutally honest. Practicing the difficult interactions that I struggle with in the “outside world” that create conflict in my life, and accepting the feedback from the other members. And being able to sit through the discomfort and anxiety that this experience invokes. There’s moments when I just want to be invisible, but I remind myself of why I’m there and instead choose to challenge my fears. 

I am incredibly grateful for the amazing team of psychiatrists, therapists, and fellow group members that are helping to make this such a rewarding experience. Recovery doesn’t happen in isolation. 

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The Journey 

Since September 28 of this year, I’ve been attending a group therapy program every Monday and Wednesday all day to help me better manage my Emotional Regulation Disorder. It’s run by Mental Health therapists and psychiatrists and while the work is challenging, it’s making a difference for me. I’ve had a few “A-ha” moments already and I’m thoroughly taking advantage of having access to the psychiatrists and their insight and wisdom. 
One such moment for me was coming to the understanding of my fear of feeling emotions fully. I have such difficulty with dealing with “negative” emotions such as fear, anger, and even sadness that I have a tendency to stuff all these emotions inside of me and turn them into shame. To put this in perspective, here’s a simple example of how easily I turn the emotion of anger into fear: 
I’ve asked someone to perform an important task for a project and they didn’t do it. This affects the whole team now and the person doesn’t seem to be bothered by this. I’m angry but instead of expressing my anger, I stuff it inside. 
Later, I sit with thoughts of “I should have explained to the person more of how important this work was”, or “I should have done the work myself”. 
I was so afraid of expressing the anger to the person who failed to meet the expectations because I didn’t want them to stop liking me. Instead, I found ways to shame myself for their shortcomings. 
I see the above example repeated in many areas of my life and am now recognizing that I carry around a lot of shame. Most of it is unjustified, kind of like lugging around someone else’s heavy luggage. Here’s how I could have handled the situation instead, and left myself without their shame. 
When they failed to meet the expectation, I could have expressed to them that I was disappointed. And let them know the impact this was having on the team. By doing this, I put the responsibility for their actions back on them. 
I could have asked what they planned to do to rectify the situation and how they would avoid this in the future. An honest conversation could have happened about their ability to meet the needs of the team and the program. 
I then would not have had to take on the shame of saying “I should have done it myself”, as I could accept that it was the fault of someone else that it didn’t get done. 
Being able to have these conversations takes courage and skill. This group is teaching us assertive communication skills and how to maintain interpersonal relationships. I’m learning that I need to set boundaries and that in doing that, there will be some people that may not like or respect that, and that’s OK. My self-worth doesn’t depend on someone liking me. That’s huge to get to that point. 
I always believed that I had to be the “nice” girl and please everyone. That conflict was a thing to be avoided at all costs. But if I’m to have conviction in my beliefs, and someone disagrees with my beliefs, there will be conflict. In order to maintain who I am, I must be prepared to defend my beliefs and boundaries, even if that means conflict with those around me. 
I grew up believing that nice girls don’t get angry. When I feel anger approaching, I’m uncomfortable and immediately tell myself that I shouldn’t be angry because it’s wrong. But I’m learning that anger is a normal and healthy emotion that is there to tell us when we have been wronged or had an injustice done to us. Once again, when this would happen in the past, I would turn this into blame and shame and tell myself that I deserved the things that happened to me. I must have done something for people to treat me this way. 
Unraveling these complicated knots of emotions is a challenging task, but with support and hard work I believe I can do it. It’s just another part of the journey to discovering the real me. 

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Merry Go Round Depression 

Remember this bad boy from your days as a child? Holding on for dear life as that one mean kid spun it madly out of control, hoping that a body would come flying off it and land ungraciously in the dirt? It would usually start off innocently enough, but quickly spiral out of control. This merry-go-round is like a metaphor for my mental illness. Especially my depression. 

I’ve stepped back onto this ride, with the recent onset of a deepening depression that past few weeks. I didn’t do it knowingly or willingly, I just ended up there. Depression has a way of just showing up. I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on possible triggers for this latest episode, but even that process is becoming difficult as I find myself getting frustrated with not being able to pinpoint “THE CAUSE”. Sometimes, there’s not a cause and other times, there’s multiple causes. The fact is, it’s happening and now, I need to figure out how to survive the ride. 

The times that the ride is quiet and nobody is there to spin me round, I’ll use this time to show myself compassion and love. I’ll practice self care and be gentle and remind myself of the times I survived the ride before and that I’m strong, and surrounded by people who believe in me. I’ll try to find pleasure in the small things and enjoy the quiet of my solitude. 

Depression isn’t always about sadness for me. I fight this demon using opposite action so when the ride starts to speed up, I will embrace the adrenalin and use it to motivate me to pursue my passions and push myself to work hard during this time. Just as I need to brace myself to not stumble and fall on the ride, I need to plant my feet in the sand and withstand the blows that depression will lay upon me. 

The ride will inevitably speed up to the point that I will only be able to just hold on for dear life. This is the scary part. Not knowing, not believing, not caring sometimes. Just begging for it to stop. During this time, I will remind myself that this will end. The ride will stop and I will be ok. I am strong and I am a survivor. Depression might bring me to this point every time, but I always make it off the ride to see another day. 

This episode will subside and the darkness will fade. 

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Kill The Mole

Yesterday, I decided to give my husband a peek inside my brain and took him along a trip of my distorted thinking, all in hopes of enlightening him on the differences between the way our minds work. He was open to going down into the tunnel with me and afterwards, our discussion went something like this: 

“Your mind is full of tunnels”, he said to me, with a bewildered look upon his face. He looked dishevelled and confused after we had taken the long journey of following MY train of thought on a subject and all the feelings and emotions that I was experiences with those thoughts and he was shocked when I asked him to imagine having multiple thoughts like that all at the same time. He couldn’t fathom it and for the first time, I could see a genuine empathy for what it must be like for me. 

I went on to explain to him that I feel like I have a mole that lives in my brain, constantly digging holes for me to fall into. I keep working hard at therapy and self care to fill the holes, but this mole is persistent at digging new ones. And I am exhausted at feeling like I just can’t keep up with this tenacious little creature in my mind. 

We laughed and said he had to refer to me as “Holy Moly” from now on, but there was a sadness mixed in with that humour. I even joked that I needed Bill Murray from Caddyshack to blow up the mole holes but then he’d probably blow up my brain too and the collateral damage would be too much. You have to laugh at yourself sometimes to get through. 

I talked about my mole today at group therapy. And when I did, I came to realize that I need to kill the mole. No mole, no holes. I must become an assassin. So now, I plot. 

I think the best strategy to killing the mole is to starve it. If I stop feeding it all the negative self-hate talk that it thrives on, it’ll start to get sick. Combine that with compassion and self-love and that mole is gonna be toast. 

Now that I have a mission, I feel a purpose in my therapy. I can visualize an outcome for my mind. It sounds crazy but HOLY MOLY, I think it might be the trick! 

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Happy Birthday 

It’s been one year since my last birthday (ha ha – isn’t it for everyone!) and as I reflect at the year gone by, I’m both saddened at the losses I experienced and amazed at the growth I’ve gone through. When you’re going through those times, in those moments, you don’t even realize that time is also passing, until a day like your birthday comes up and you pause to take inventory of where your life is at. 

To gain strength in my own personal recovery, I’ve had to discover how to set boundaries that were healthy for me. In the process, I lost people that I thought cared about me, but who couldn’t accept my boundaries. For the majority of my life, I would remove those boundaries, simply because I couldn’t tolerate the idea of hurting someone else or being abandoned. But I paid a dear price with my heart and my mental health all those years. 

My biggest challenge was trying to reconcile my relationship with my oldest child. I put all efforts that I had been pouring into my own recovery aside, all in hopes of being able to help him with his own demons. What I failed to realize is that he was not in a place of being ready for recovery, and I fell back into a deep spiral of my own. Many months were spent on edge and in a constant heightened state of anxiety and panic and my life had become a whirlwind of chaos and crisis. 

As my birthday began to inch closer, I began to feel a sense of urgency to take better care of myself. Not only was I suffering mentally, but physically I was also having some issues that pushed me to take stock of where im at in life. For most of my life, I had put myself 3rd or 4th on the list of priorities and I made a commitment to put myself at the front of the list. 

1. I quit drinking. I’m 21 weeks sober now and while I still struggle with the odd craving now and again, I must admit that removing alcohol has been beneficial in reducing my mood swings and helping my medication work properly. Drinking had always been my escape plan for dealing with pain and loneliness so I had to come up with other coping skills and I found the most effective one for me was exercise. 

2. I began to exercise and work out regularly. Initially, it was because I was on a return to work plan that I began working out, but it is morphing into becoming a lifestyle choice for myself now and I’m finding myself pushing harder to achieve more. Again, I’ve noticed a change in my mood for the better and am finally noticing a change in my body. I’m learning to love myself and appreciate the physical strength I have. 

3. I’m adopting the mantra of “Take no shit”. I’m no longer willing to be anyone’s emotional punching bag or to bear the burden of someone else’s guilt or shame. I know the person I am, and that’s good, kind, compassionate and loving and those are the types of people I want to surround myself with. Toxic people have no room at my table. 

4. I’m finding my purpose. I was meant to help others and to show compassion. I am recognizing and appreciating the skills I have to offer the world and using them to make changes that will make a difference. I’m finding the thing that brings me satisfaction at the end of the day and gives me a reason to jump into my day each morning. 

5. I’m setting goals and reaching them. They’re small goals that are attainable so I can feel success. I know that in the past I would set vague and unrealistic goals and then beat myself up when I couldn’t meet them, and I would stay stuck in this vicious cycle. Eventually, after building on my small successes, I plan to set larger, long term goals with concrete actions and rewards along the way. 

6. I’m practicing self-care and self-love. These ones have been hard to incorporate into my life. I never understood the concept of self care because I spent all my time nurturing others. But when I finally decided to show myself the love that I show others, it’s making a difference. I am a powerful nurturer and my battered soul is soaking it up. From telling myself to remember to eat and shower regularly, to being that voice that whispers in my ear when I want to give up “you can make it”, I have come to appreciate the compassionate me even more. I don’t look for love and appreciation from others anymore for approval – I seek it from myself. This has increased my self-confidence and I feel much more prepared to cope with life’s adversities. 

So happy birthday girl. You’ve come a long way in this year of growth. Time to grab that brass ring and make this year another stellar year. Keep moving towards the path that is yours to walk and hold that head high. 

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Navigating Mental Health in Edmonton

You may be at a point in life where you know that it’s time to seek help for your anxiety, depression, or other mental health concern that is creating distress in your life, but have no idea where to begin. There’s no clear road map of where to access services, what’s available, and who may be eligible to take certain programs. We often hear that there’s no help available for people wanting services, and while I fully agree that mental health services are poorly lacking, and we need a much more comprehensive plan to tackle this growing epidemic, I thought I would provide some of my insights and experiences of the mental health system that I have gained over the last 10 years. My hope is that this may help some of you. 

1. Family Doctor – The best place to start a conversation around mental health can be with your family doctor. It’s useful to compose a list of what you have been feeling and experiencing for the last couple of months (sleep patterns, change in eating habits, irritability, weight fluctuations, thoughts of suicide, etc). In the beginning of my journey, I often would be so worked up going to the doctor, that I would present my list to him and let him ask me the probing questions. 

Your family doctor may be quick to want to start you on medication, but he should also be discussing with you other treatments, such as therapy that will be beneficial. You have the right to ask to see a psychiatrist regarding your condition, much like you would want to see a heart specialist if you were experiencing problems with your heart. 

Family doctors can do a referral to a psychiatrist for you, but the wait times can often be months. If you feel that you need to see someone sooner, speak to your doctor about the possibility of doing what’s called a rapid referral , which usually gets you in within a couple of weeks. 

It’s important to be an advocate for yourself at this stage and recognize that a family doctor is not an expert in mental illness. He is a conduit to the professionals that are the experts and he should respect your desire to want to see a psychiatrist and red flags should be going off if he dismisses your concerns. 

2. The Psychiatrists – Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have taken specialized training in studies of the mind and mental health disorders. They are able to prescribe drugs, request program treatments and hospitalize patients if needed. They have offices in hospitals and in clinics. Their services are covered by AHS and a referral from a doctor is usually required to see them. There are some exceptions that I know of: 

  1. The U of A has an outpatient psychiatry program that runs Monday to Friday – you must be there at 8:00 am or 1:00 pm to see someone and it’s first come first serve. You will be seen by a psychiatrist that day with recommendations to your family doctor for follow up. 
  2. The Children’s Mental Health Clinic at Northgate Mall has a walk in clinic for children needing to see a psychiatrist. Children are assessed and followed up if necessary and it’s done by self-referral. 
  3. Edmonton Mental Health and Addiction at the 108 Street Building allows you to complete an intake application and be put on a wait list to see a psychiatrist at their clinic. 

Most psychiatrists will do an assessment of your history and begin working with you to develop a treatment plan to manage your condition. This may include drug therapy, programs like group counselling or DBT/CBT, or referrals for individual counselling. 

3. The Psychologists – Psychologists are trained professionals that help people work through the emotions, feelings, behaviours and thoughts that are often associated with having a mental illness. Some are doctors themselves, working out of the various hospital settings. Your psychiatrist may refer you to see a “clinical psychologist” for treatment and this cost is covered by AHS. These treatments are generally for a shorter term and are usually to address a specific and urgent crisis. Most psychologists have private practices. Many offer sliding fee schedules based on your income. If you have private medical insurance such as Blue Cross, you can claim a portion of your expenses back for therapy. 

Psychology or counselling are wonderful tools to help you work through deep-rooted issues that may be impacting your present mental health. To find a good psychologists, ask for referrals from friends and family and from your psychiatrist.

You can research the Alberta College of Psychologists to see if there have been complaints and it’s also a good idea to search the Better Business Bureau for any bad reports. Don’t be afraid to “interview” a psychologist – after all, they are working for you! And if they don’t fit your criteria, move along. Trust me, there’s plenty of them to choose from. 

4. Group Therapy – Group therapy is a great way (and affordable) to access therapy that allows you to meet others going through similar struggles and reduce the feelings of isolation. There are some formalized programs that require a referral from a psychiatrist, but there are also many informal programs being run throughout the city that offer many benefits. Finding them takes some diligence and creativity, but so does living with a mental illness and look how far you’ve come so far! 

Momentum Walk in Counselling, located on Whyte Ave, offers a great deal of group therapy at no cost to those attending on a variety of topics. Groups such as PRIDE, City of Edmonton, The Wellness Network, CMHA Edmonton and Boyle Street Community Services may also be resources to investigate. 

5. Peer Support – Reaching out to peers who have been walking the journey will be of great help to you. There’s a wonderful group called Anxiety and Depression on Facebook based in Edmonton that is comprised solely of peers supporting peers. Mental Health Matters Edmonton and EMHAC are also two organizations striving to promote peer support and bring people together to help reduce isolation and create stronger networks. The Wellness Network has peer navigators that will help guide you through systems as well. 

6. The Programs 

  • Day Programs – The U of A, Royal Alex, Grey Nuns, and Misercordia all offer mental health day programs – referral from psychiatrist required 
  • Hospitalization – each hospital has the capacity for mental health beds. As a former patient, I’ve spent time at the Grey Nuns, U of A and Royal Alex. Each time I was admitted as an emergency patient and my average length of stay was 10-12 days. Hospitalization offered me the chance to stabilize and be safe, while feeling nurtured and free from outside pressures. 
  • Community Programs – There are some great community programs out there such as WRAP, CBT, Anger Management, Stress Management, Anger Management, etc. A word of caution – with the surge in mental health being in the public eye, there are a lot of “life coaches” out there now wanting to take your money. There are many great programs that are free of charge – it just takes a little digging and googling. If you come across someone offering you promises of “curing” your illness at a cost, I urge you to really research their credentials and background. Mental health isn’t something to be handled lightly and some people can cause more harm than good. 

7. Financial – Being diagnosed with a mental illness can be devastating to a person’s financial wellbeing. Oftentimes we are left in a position of being unable to work while we are seeking treatment for our illness but there is help. 

  • Disability from your employer. If you have paid into short term or long term disability, mental illness is an illness like any other and a medical note deeming you unfit for work should meet the criteria for this program 
  • Medical EI – if you have accumulated enough weeks, you should be able to collect EI for up to 15 weeks while unable to work for medical reasons 
  • Alberta Supports – if you are unable to work for medical reasons and have no other source of income, you can apply to Alberta Works – Sickness benefits. You will need a medical note. You also will be eligible for a benefits card that will assist with prescription drugs, dental and ambulance if required. 
  • Canada Disability Tax Credit – you can apply for this credit and go back to when your symptoms first appeared or 10 years. You will need to have a doctor complete the application and most doctors charge a minimum of $50 to complete the form. Decisions can take up to 4 months and most are denied on first application. Appeals are recommended. 
  • AISH – if your illness is considered lifelong and chronic, you may want to begin the process of applying for AISH with the government of Alberta. This is a lengthy process and again, first applications are usually denied. Your condition must be considered lifelong, chronic and you have tried all the treatments available to you. 
  • Canada Disability Pension – if you have worked in the past, you may be eligible for your Canada Disability Pension. Applications are available online and you will need a doctor to complete his portion. Decisions take months and there may be requests for more information.

8. Supports  – isolation is a big factor in living with mental illness. Often we feel ashamed of our illness, and that we are alone in our suffering. 1 in 5 Canadians will encounter a mental illness in their lifetime. Surround yourself with supports including: 

  • Family that empathize with your pain and suffering
  • Friends that show compassion
  • Professionals that help you to work towards recovery
  • Peer support that will help sustain recovery 

It can be overwhelming when you first realize that you are living with an illness of the mind. First know that you are not alone. There is hope and you will find others along the path that will help guide you. 

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