It Turns Out I Have Limits

It wasn’t that long ago that I was able to put in a full day at work. I was able to work 5 days a week, every week for a number of years. And after work and on weekends, I ran errands, hung out with friends, went shopping, went to the movies, and basically just went on with life. I’m not sure if life was moving forward or not but it was moving.

I struggled a lot outside of work in my personal life, but I chalked it up to anything and everything that wasn’t mental health or well-being. I gave excuses that it was something wrong or broken with me that I needed to somehow fix. I figured there was some flaw in how I was living life and only “righting” myself would I be able to fully function without issues.

For the most part I was silent about what I was struggling with, unless it got very bad, which it did once or twice. I even took a few months of leave of absence from work at one point. But overall I kept what was going on to myself. I didn’t want to burden anyone. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a freak or look at me differently. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was so bad at life I was struggling with even wanting to live. I assumed that no one could really help me and that no one would understand even if they wanted to help. Whatever was wrong with me, I would have to fix, and I would have to do it quickly and quietly.

Overall though, I kept functioning, and for the most part, I was able to cope. At least I told myself I was coping and that things were under control. My coping methods however were not at all healthy, and led to extremely destructive habits. I turned to eating, suppressing, avoiding, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and several suicide attempts. But I told myself I was coping. I believed I was handling everything.

I wasn’t stupid or blind. I knew that how I was coping was not the best way but it got me out of bed and to work and doing things that constituted “living life”, so as far as I was concerned things were handled. At first I just went about my day, doing the best that I could with what I knew. It took years, decades, for me to realize that I wasn’t really handling things at all. I was coping in ways that were slowly killing me, and if I kept it up, one way or another, I would end up dead.

I don’t remember when I realized things were not going well. I just know that over time I found myself in a very dark place more and more and more often. I was avoiding, suppressing, eating, and self-harming all the time. Suicidal thoughts were like a nagging memory that I couldn’t shake and kept playing over and over in my mind as an idea I should really look into. The darkness that enveloped me was keeping me down longer and longer with each passing year. Until finally I was only in darkness.

I no longer remembered what the light looked like or felt like. I wasn’t even sure if I could go back to the light. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to. The trajectory of my path was all over the place and most of the time I had no idea what was going to happen next. The only thing I clearly saw happening was that things were not getting better. They only got worse. And worse. And worse. And for every step forward I felt like I took ten steps back.

The last year or so has been challenging to say the least. After reaching out for help, and fortunately getting it, I have had some of the darkness peeled away. Things are looking towards getting better, and being more manageable. It’s been hard. Very, very hard. There are some days where I’m not sure things will really get better. Some days I feel like it will always suck and every day will just be a battle that I may or may not win. Some days I feel more optimistic about things, and am successful at keeping things relatively managed.

As time goes on and I learn how to manage my thoughts and emotions, I am also learning how to manage myself too. It may seem like a no-brainer that with one thing managed the others would follow suit and start to be managed as well, but not really. Not for me anyway.

I thought I could just go about things as I always had. I thought I could continue to function at almost full capacity. I thought I could work on myself and rebuild things on the inside and still go about my day like nothing had changed. I thought I could put all my mental capacity towards rebuilding things and also put all my mental capacity towards going about my day too without interruption. I thought I could put my efforts to myself and to the rest of life, including working, and everything would be fine. I assumed that I could handle it. I had no doubts that I could handle it. I had no reason to believe otherwise. After all, I had worked for years with keeping work and everything else separate.

Turns out, I was wrong.

I was very wrong, in fact. And I was genuinely shocked to discover that I was wrong.

Functioning at full capacity is hard. Functioning at half-capacity is hard. Going to work and trying to rebuild my life, at the same time, was so hard for me, that I failed at it. Actually, failed is the wrong word. I’m going to say that it was so hard for me it wasn’t effective. Going to work and trying to figure things out with my mental health at the same time was so hard that work slowly fell off the radar because I just couldn’t handle both. No matter how much I thought I could, and how much I expected myself to, I just couldn’t do it. Not both, and not at the same time.

With my mental capacity taken up by trying to sort things out, tease things apart, rethink, relearn, rebuild, recuperate, and retry, there really isn’t a lot left for almost anything else. Even living day-to-day stuff like cooking, eating, and showering, can feel like monumental tasks that don’t always make the cut on the to-do list for the day. Keeping up with myself and what needs to be done is a crap shoot every day. Some days I can take care of the basics and then work on other stuff too. Some days I have to trade off what basics I can handle and what can wait especially if I want to take care of other stuff too. And then there are days where there are no basics, it is only about taking care of things mentally, and the basics will just have to wait until tomorrow when they may be able to get taken care of then.

All of my efforts nowadays go towards my mental illness.

It has taken me a while to realize that there are limits to what I can handle. It has taken me a lot longer than I thought it would to realize this. I knew this before, sort of. I knew of having limits, and that others might need to recognize them, and to work within them. I was well aware that other people had limits and I respected that. It made total sense that others might need to recognize their own limits. I, however, was able to handle everything, and believed that I didn’t really have limits. And any limits I did have were high enough that I could work with and push past them if I needed to.

Despite evidence to the contrary, I believed I could handle things, and that I was handling things. No problem.

Every time I reached my limit I would try to push past it, conveniently forgetting or ignoring that it was a limit. I would lie to myself, that it wasn’t really a limit. I would lie to myself, that even if it was a limit it’s not set in stone and I can totally do this. I would tell myself I hadn’t reached my limit, I was just not trying hard enough. I wasn’t giving the effort that I should be giving to the situation. I was being lazy or I was going about it wrong. I was totally ignoring the signals, or I was attributing the signals to something else, instead of realizing that I was hitting my limit.

I was wrong.

There is only so much I can do each day. As much as I hate to admit it to myself, every day, I have limits to what I can accomplish, and no matter how hard I try to ignore them, they are there. They change as to how far I can go and how far I can push myself, but they are there, and they are limits. I need to realize that. I need to realize that do I have limits. I need to realize that whatever my limits are, they are there for a reason, and they serve a purpose. They help me to keep myself balanced and manageable. They help to take rest when I need to. They help me to recuperate when I need to. They help me to address when something is pushing against my best interests and I need to take action. I need to respect my limits. I need to honour myself and what I can and cannot do. I need to accept that I have limits.

There is a point at which I can no longer function. There is a limit. There is a point at which I will hit my limit and trying to push past it is probably not a good idea, if I am even able to push past it at all.

And those limits are typically not flexible. They are limits for a reason.

I may need a break. I may need an hour. I may need a day. Or four days. I may need to stop much earlier than I had originally planned. I may need to not even start what I had planned. I may need to ease up on what I want to accomplish and realize instead what I can accomplish. And what I can do today, may or may not be what I can do tomorrow.

Every day is different. The factors that come into play as to what I can and cannot do change every day too. The factors change, the limits change, the accomplishments vary, but the acknowledgement and adhering to remains the same. It’s a lot to track but it’s important to realize and take whatever action I need to, even if that means no action at all.

My limits before may have been higher, or maybe I always ignored them. Maybe I was able to push past them easier before. Who knows. All I know is that I do have limits and I need to respect that. As hard as it is for me to accept, I may do less because of my limits but that does not make me less. I have to remember that.

 

Advertisements

When Thoughts Become the Enemy

I have always been a thinker. Not in a philosophical, “let-me-contemplate-life” kind of way but more in a “I-don’t-want-to-sound-like-an-idiot-and-what-is-wrong-with-me” kind of way. At times this has been a blessing; fueling fantastic ideas, helping me better understand situations or emotions by thinking before I speak, and giving me better perspectives and patience for others as well as for myself. But sometimes it can be a curse. Sometimes it can be a life-threatening, violent curse.

And thinking is the last thing I should be doing. Thinking is the first step for me towards things spiraling out of control. Because sometimes my thoughts have turned against me, and have now become my enemy.

I understand that thoughts don’t necessarily mean anything. I understand that thoughts are usually not factual, and are most often influenced by the mood of the moment and/or the current environment I’m in. I understand that thoughts are not made of cement and are subject to change at a moment’s notice. I understand that just because a thought pops into my head doesn’t mean I have to entertain it, or believe it, and the thoughts don’t have to turn bad. I understand that I am not my thoughts.

I understand all of that, logically. But emotionally… emotionally, I’m not so on board with this theory. And as much as I know logically that my thoughts can be harmless and don’t have to make or break who I am, sometimes they do. Sometimes they really, really do.

In DBT, one of the things that is taught (I really should get back to my weekly progress on that here too by the way) is that our thoughts are not who we are. They are just thoughts. They don’t need to take over everything, and they don’t need to even be entertained for a moment. Because they are just thoughts.

A practice to help realize this is to think of our thoughts like they are leaves on a river. Each leaf on the river is one thought, and they just float on down the river as leaves, doing nothing, going wherever. They don’t have to be addressed or picked up. They don’t have to be noted or talked about. They just float down the river and away.

Now, I am actually a fan of this idea. I really like the leaf and river theory because first of all, I like watching leaves on a river and leaving them to just float, but the bigger reason I like this idea is because it allows me to see the thoughts as something separate from myself. It helps me to see that the thoughts are just thoughts, and don’t have to have any power. They kind of lose their power when they are made into something harmless and benign like a leaf can be.

There have been times where I am successful at doing this, but unfortunately not as often as I’d like, and not nearly as often as it would help me. A lot of the time my thoughts take me over and take me down so fast that I feel like I don’t even get the chance to turn them into something else, let alone to turn them into leaves on a river and just watch them float by.

A thought comes into my head and before I realize that my thinking has turned to a dark place, I am already caught up in the race of thoughts now taking place in my mind. Like a speeding roller coaster with a broken control lever, I am taken for a ride that picks me up and pulls me down, throws me all over the place, and is getting very close to making me feel sick.

My thoughts can determine whether I end up having a bad day or a good day. They can start out so innocent and passive and within moments they can keep me paralyzed to going anywhere or doing anything. My thoughts can come pretty close to killing me.

My thoughts can go from compassionate and kind to degrading and insulting in a heartbeat. I’ll think that I am okay, I’ll believe that I’m okay, and that I can handle things without resorting to more negative thinking and destructive coping methods. I’ll think that my thoughts are manageable and won’t hurt my feelings or leave me feeling suicidal. And then BOOM! just like that, I am thinking that I am the worst person in the world. I am a horrible person who no one likes and that I will always be hopeless and worthless. I am useless and don’t deserve to be alive. My thoughts will become harsh, mean, degrading, and abusive.

I’ll try to stop the negative thinking by challenging if the negative thoughts are true (another thing I learned from DBT and “Checking the Facts”). And I’ll ask myself if it’s really true that I am a horrible person, and if so, then where is the proof? I’ll challenge if I should really be dead, or if that’s just my thinking being a bully. And depending on whether I am able to divert the thoughts back to something positive, or at the very least, less negative and abusive, and change the thoughts, I will again fall prey to all the bad stuff I think of myself. This may or may not lead to anxiety, depression, and/or suicide, or all of the above. Sometimes I am able to change the tide and save myself from spinning into darkness. But a lot of the time, I can’t. A lot of the time the thoughts are more powerful than I am. A lot of the time I am able to find all the proof I need to show how horrible I am. I can find all the proof I need to prove that I should be dead. And I can prove with the best of them my worthlessness and the millions of reasons that no one likes me. And no one ever will.

I used to fall prey to these bad thoughts so easily that it could take weeks or months for me to come back from how much I would hurt and insult myself. And even then, it would take almost constant reinforcement from others for me to believe that what I think of myself is not true. It would take almost constant reassurance from others (because there’s no point in me saying it because it’s only true if others say it), that I am not worthless, that I am not hopeless, and that I am not unlikeable, and that I shouldn’t be dead.

If I have hurt myself deeply enough I may not even believe what others say. If I have insulted myself enough into a deep, dark, desperate, weeping puddle on the ground, then there are few people who could make things better, and even fewer people that I would believe if they try to make me feel better. If they try to tell me that I am worthwhile and likeable I would scoff and tell them that they have obviously missed the memo that I am a horrible, unlikeable person. They obviously are lying to me and to themselves, and they are wasting their time with me. And because people have jobs and families and lives, it is very rare for me to get the constant reassurance I need in order to turn the tide of negative thoughts in my mind. This a fraction of how powerful my thoughts can be.

I am working as hard as I can to challenge all of this, and keep my thoughts from taking me over. It’s hard. It’s not always successful. It’s a work in progress.

The power of our thoughts can be debilitating and hold enough force that we believe them to be true. Why would I think it, if it wasn’t true? How can it not be true, it’s such a frequent and powerful thought? All of my thoughts are telling me this, so why wouldn’t it be true? Would my thoughts lie to me? Why would my own thoughts lie to me?

Our thinking can lead us to personal beliefs, of ourselves, and others, that may or not be true. They can lead us to behaviours that can reinforce our thoughts and strengthen our beliefs. To the point that everywhere we look we find proof that what we thought was true. What we thought was a fact. Even when it isn’t.

Our thinking can spawn any number of scripts that run through our minds at any given moment, particularly when we need it the least, and despite knowledge that contradicts the information, can leave us a complete and total mess. Our self-esteem a puddle on the floor, and our beliefs stronger than ever of things that aren’t true.

The scripts tell us how everything we are is wrong, and everything we do is wrong. It tells us how much we deserve all of our flaws and tribulations because we are that awful. It tells us that we will never change and shouldn’t even try. It tells us that we will only have bad things happen to us, and proves it by providing the thoughts of all the bad things we have endured so far, conveniently omitting any of the positive things, because the script knows how to break us. The script knows what to say and what not to say. The script will run so often and so loud we feel we are forever stuck with it.

The scripts may change over the years, growing or shrinking as we add new thoughts and take away old ones, but the lies will remain the same. The lies become bigger and brighter with each run of the script. Until finally it is so ingrained in us that we lose sight that we even have the script, and we could possibly think any differently. We feel it becomes us because its automatic for us now. We barely need the prompt before the thoughts are up and running. It’s as close to automatic as breathing, and just as difficult to change. So we resign ourselves to our thoughts and the script it plays, and hope that maybe this time will be different.

For many, many years I have hated my thoughts. I have hated thinking and was convinced that it could only, ever be bad and mean. I was convinced that my thoughts would never be able to change and one day they would definitely kill me. I was convinced my thoughts were me. My thoughts were absolutely who I was. I was convinced that everyone and everything else outside me, contradicting or challenging my thoughts, were the ones who were wrong. All my thoughts were true and factual. Everyone and everything else was false. I was convinced that my thoughts would never lie to me. That they couldn’t.

The scripts that I run have been hard and I hate that, until recently, I have believed them so fiercely for so long. My scripts have reinforced my anxiety, depression, and several disorders. I considered them as gospel, to me and to my life. I considered them as everything I was.

It is only recently that I have finally realized that my thoughts are not me. And A LOT of the time, they are in fact, untrue and misleading. My scripts are not written in stone, and not only can they be changed, they can be removed. And they should be. I still sometimes forget that my thoughts are not me, and they don’t have to be my enemy. They might not necessarily be my friend either, and that’s okay. Thoughts are just thoughts. That’s all. Not bad. Not good. Just thoughts. If they are anything, they are either useful or not. They don’t have to be followed, entertained, believed, repeated, hated, liked, ignored, or accepted. They are just thoughts.

I hope of all the thoughts I have, that’s the one I remember.

What a Difference a Year Makes

It occurred to me yesterday that it had been exactly one year since I had been hospitalized. One year since I had felt the bottom drop out and sought help. And it got me thinking of how far I had come, how far I still had to go, and the journey thus far.

At first, I thought I haven’t come far enough. I’m still struggling. I still have some very bad days, and I still have some emotions and thoughts that overwhelm me.

And then I realized that I was being really unfair to myself, and negating what progress I have made. When I actually compare where I was and how I felt last year this time to where I am and how I feel this year, I couldn’t ignore that I had made way more progress than I gave myself credit for.

Last year I was teetering on the edge, and was thisclose to standing on a ledge. I was inconsolable and suicidal. I was self-harming and doing anything I could think of to ignore and suppress all the pain. I was sleeping fewer than four hours a night and eating everything in sight. My dreams were killing me, with images and ideas that left me disturbed and scared so bad that they would wake me almost every night. I was afraid, hopeless, helpless, and I felt more alone than ever. I couldn’t even imagine seeing the next day, let alone a year later.

So I asked for help. I took myself, in my pj’s, crying my eyes out, down to CAMH 24-hour emergency down at College, and I asked them for help. I told them that I was afraid for myself and that I wouldn’t make it if I was left alone any longer. And just like that, they took me in. They said they could help and they wanted to. That floored me. They wanted to help me?! Why? Well I still don’t know why, and frankly I don’t need to know anymore. All I know is they did.

I spent six weeks in their care, and the team that was built around me, saved my life.

To be clear, they had saved my life, but I still wasn’t totally sure that life was worth living. And I was pretty sure that I would end up right back where I had started. It was only a matter of time.

I had very few illusions about my prognosis. I had been low before and somehow managed to claw my way back. Several times. Granted it wasn’t really ever a recovery so to speak, it was more just getting to a point where I could function. Enough to work and pay bills and keep a home, but just enough.

My relationships were stressed, at best, my health was on a downward spiral that I’m still working to manage, my work was a joke with no purpose or enjoyment on any level, and my thoughts were slowly deteriorating my will and my sanity. I wholly assumed that this time would be no different.

But…it was.

I don’t know exactly why this time turned out differently. I just know that it did. Maybe it was the team I had behind me, maybe it was the medication, maybe it was me, or maybe all of the above. Whatever it was I had somehow found a path towards living a life worth living. I was able to get into, not one, but three different programs that would help me work through my destructive coping methods, address my overwhelming thoughts and emotions, and teach me how to build a life worth living.

Every day poses an obstacle that can still stump me, and there are days where I am filled with uncertainty and anxiety, but I am learning, and despite the uncertainty and anxiety, I am making changes that are positive. I am learning better ways to cope that are not destructive.

It is by no means, an easy journey, and there are no guarantees that everything will turn out okay, but it’s farther than I’ve ever come before. It’s far more progress than I’ve ever made before. And the changes, so far, have stuck around. I can only hope that this is a turn towards a better life that will last.

And hopefully, this time next year, things will have improved from today, and I can tell of all the latest progress I will have made. At least, that’s the hope.

Until next time… 🙂

There Is Nothing Wrong With Having Mental Health Issues

This past weekend brought up the conversation of mental health issues in a number of ways for me; from hearing about Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Roberto Osuna speaking publicly about struggling with anxiety, and not feeling himself, to conversations I’ve had with family and friends. I feel like it needs to be said again, and again, that there is nothing wrong with having mental health issues. I’m going to be repeating this often throughout this post, THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH HAVING MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES.

I think Roberto Osuna’s decision for opening up about what he is struggling with, which is no doubt much more common in baseball, and sports in general, than is reported, was exceptionally brave. It isn’t easy to open up about something so personal and something that can be subject to judgement, criticism, and misinterpretation.

Mental health is absolutely vital to our well-being. Without it, we are open to literally falling apart. Mental health is just as important to our being able to function and cope as physical health is. In fact, there are a number of situations where mental health may be even more important than physical health.

The dozens of disorders and diagnosis that encompass mental health are never something to be taken lightly, no matter how, where, when, or why, a person finds themselves struggling with them. Whether it’s a disorder that has been a part of your life since childhood, or whether it’s something that pops into your life in later years, it is always, repeat always, something to be taken seriously. And at no time is it ever a reflection on what kind of person you are, nor does it ever mean that something is wrong with you.

Admittedly, you may need treatment, you may even need medication, but that does not mean you are broken, or flawed, or weak, or a bad person. It doesn’t mean you should be treated differently nor does it mean you should be shunned, judged, ostracized, or criticized. It means that you need help and support, encouragement and compassion, and understanding and patience for a difficult situation or period in your life. That’s really all it means, that you need help. And there is nothing, NOTHING, wrong with that.

I can understand that there are people who have not struggled with mental health issues and may not be able to fully grasp what it means but that is no excuse to treat someone with mental health issues any differently than had they been struggling with something physical that can be seen or quantified. People struggling with mental health issues are still people.

You don’t have to have mental health issues to be compassionate.

I think it’s great that the conversation of mental health is fast becoming more mainstream, and less a “closeted” discussion, saved only for professionals. With places like CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), here in Canada, CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association), also here in Canada, the annual Bell Let’s Talk campaign, and several sports and television personalities opening up about their own mental health struggles has made a HUGE impact in people starting to realize and understand that mental health is something that can affect anyone, in any capacity, or social standing, and that it is NOT something to be ashamed of.

I firmly believe that places like CAMH and CMHA are leading the fight in bringing awareness to mental health, bringing the discussion to the masses, and especially with bringing help to those in need. Addressing mental health openly has come a long way in starting to lose the stigma that has been attached to it for so long. But there is still more work to do. And it starts with us, talking to someone when we need help, and not feeling ashamed about what we are going through.

I’m not saying that you need to speak about what you might be struggling with to everyone you know and everyone you meet. It may mean only sharing it with one person, it may mean sharing it with a group of strangers at a support group, it may mean sharing it only with a professional. It isn’t about who you choose to share it with, it’s about owning that you are struggling right now with mental health issues, and that is nothing to hide or be ashamed of. I’m going to repeat that, “struggling with mental health issues is NOTHING to be ashamed of.

Life is hard. Very hard. This is not new information for anyone. Sometimes trying to handle all that life throws at us, and coping with difficult situations, emotions, and difficult people can be more than just a challenge at times. It can be something that permeates your whole being, and for some, it may also mean using more destructive than constructive methods to cope. It can be something that filters down into your relationships, your work, your interests, your family and friends, and even your ability to function at a basic level. Mental illness can grip you like a vise and twist itself around you so that you feel like you can’t breathe. It doesn’t care if you have the time, or the space, or whether you’re ready or not, it can come on without warning and take you over, or take you down. Regardless of who you are, where you’re from, what you do, where you work etc, you could be someone who finds themselves struggling with mental health issues just as easily as anyone else.

Mental health isn’t selective in who it affects. No exemptions or discrimination here. Mental health is an equal opportunity assailant.

I don’t want to compare mental health to physical health because I don’t think they really can be compared. The each have their own struggles, symptoms, treatments, and perspectives. But I will say that with as many differences that lie between physical/medical issues and mental health issues, there are also a number of similarities between them too. There a lot of physical illnesses or disorders that can often strike at will to whomever, whenever, without warning or cause, and mental health issues can be just as arbitrary and random in who becomes affected too. There are a number of physical/medical issues that cannot be seen just by looking at someone, and that cannot be measured with a blood test or x-ray, just like not being able to tell just by looking that someone is struggling with mental health issues.

Someone struggling with a physical/medical issue is as important to address as someone struggling with a mental health issue. One issue is not necessarily any more urgent to address than the other. Of course I understand that there are some serious medical issues that can be life-threatening and are important to treat as soon as possible, and that there are some mental health issues that are not as urgent in the moment to treat, but they are still important enough to treat, regardless.

Someone struggling with mental health issues may be able to wait a few more days for help than someone requiring urgent medical assistance, but it doesn’t mean that the person struggling with mental health issues should be dismissed or indefinitely delayed in getting treatment.

All issues that can befall us, whether physical, emotional, or mental, each have their own urgencies or not, in how and when they are addressed, but the important thing to remember is that they ALL deserve addressing.

Repeat: THEY ALL DESERVE TO BE ADDRESSED.

I would like to close this by saying to all those struggling with mental health issues, please seek help if you need it, don’t wait. And please don’t be ashamed or feel less than because you need help. Talk to someone. Share with those you trust in your own time. You don’t have anything to be ashamed of, nor do you owe anyone an explanation. You are struggling and you need help. Please remember that. You are struggling and you need help.

For those who have a loved one struggling with mental health issues I would encourage and hope that you give as much time and space to your loved one as you can for them to deal with things as they need. Be compassionate and patient. You don’t need to understand someone to be kind to them. You don’t need to have experienced it to have patience for it.

Your loved one may be struggling to live at some point, and this is NOT a weakness, nor is this something to be taken lightly. Anyone feeling like life isn’t worth living anymore should ALWAYS be taken seriously and at their word. They need help. Please do what you can to help them get help.

Most importantly, for all, please remember that there is nothing wrong with having mental health issues.