All I Know

The last day of February marks the last Life is Sweet post. How fitting that it come as a result of the show and the blog series. Andrew contacted me after seeing The Life is Sweet Project and after sharing a bit of his story with me, I asked if he would consider being one of my guest bloggers. Here he is to close out an incredible month of candor, bravery and sharing. 

I wish I knew how to begin.

I know—that’s not exactly the best way to begin, is it? Usually, when I’m writing a story or a paper or a poem, I would start by laying the basis of a scene: establish the setting, the characters, the theme, and the conflict. But this isn’t a piece of fiction; it isn’t an abstract concept that I can reason through; and it sure as hell isn’t poetic. This is my life. This is all I know.

In a certain light, I’m almost grateful that I have no memories of a time before darkness. Now, this isn’t to say that I have no happy memories at all… There have been, at times, the odd flashes of lightning through the storm. These momentary reprieves bring my world into a sharp focus; they show me the people around me; they show me how vast and magnificent my surroundings are. But, they also serve to terrify me. Nothing else shows you just quite how far the storm stretches in every direction.

I was eight when my family moved back to Canada. I’d been born in Toronto but, shortly thereafter, moved to Barbados until I was five, at which point I moved again, this time to an island in the English Channel called Jersey. Before we moved back to Canada I was already prone to bad days (I’ve since learned that there is a strong genetic tradition of mental illness in my family); but here everything became so much more magnified. My parents placed me in the local school’s French Immersion program and decided to let me skip Grade Three and go directly into Grade Four; given the fact that I already had an unusual accent and no friends, this combination of negative popularity checkmarks made me an instant favourite for bullies. School, once a source of tremendous joy for me, became instead a source of anger and anxiety. I grew to hate the other kids and the teachers who did nothing. This hatred came to tint everything I experienced, even the rare gestures of compassion from those that cared about me. Most of all, I hated the circumstances I was in—circumstances that were shaping who I was—I came to hate myself.

I won’t bore you with the details to the story of my life, in part because many of them have been blocked out of my memory, or because they’re not appropriate for civilized conversation. Suffice to say, I’ve seen a vast array of tacky art hung on doctors’ walls; I’ve seen the bottom of many a bottle of pills, both prescription and otherwise; I’ve blackened my lungs, burnt holes in my brain, bloodied my nose, and covered my body in scars—all in a vain attempt to somehow purify myself: I figured that, if the depression is part of ‘me,’ the solution is simple…change ‘me.’

That didn’t—and doesn’t—work.

This is the part where I wish I could give you a quick-fix bit of advice. Unfortunately, I can’t. I never had a ‘life is sweet’ moment of realization; no epiphanies for me, I’m sad to say. All I can really offer by way of suggestion to fellow sufferers is to seek out help. Looking back on how long I spent stewing away in my own mind, that’s the thing I regret most—that I didn’t ask for assistance. I didn’t think I needed it; I just didn’t know that what I was experiencing was unusual: that not everybody fantasizes about taking his or her final steps. I spent so much time looking at myself through a lens that only shows flaws that I couldn’t have told you what I really looked like. I could describe to you, in detail, every bad thing I’ve ever done, every bad habit I have, every time I ever failed at anything, which is why what other people had to tell me came as such a shock when I finally tried talking to them. They told me the story of my life that I couldn’t see.

Depression has an amazing ability to distort your memories. You forget pretty quickly that you just aced a test, or started a new relationship, or any number of other, positive points in your life. Instead, your mind assaults you with endless arrays of bad memories—like freezing during a final exam, or falling out of love. What you have to appreciate in all of this is that everyone experiences setbacks: life is not a linear occurrence, which would be pretty dull anyways. The sooner you speak to other people, the sooner you realize this—and that is the best way to overcome feeling alone, feeling sub-standard, and being at the mercy of your own mind.

Every day will still be tough—and there are no guarantees that you won’t get hurt by doing dangerous stuff (like living)—but, by looking at yourself through another person’s lens, at least you’ll know that you would be missed by skipping your story to get to the end.


Andrew Brobyn is a young writer and editor living in Toronto. Much of his personal body of work involves mental health issues, about which he knows far, far too much.  

Thoughts on a Life Worth Living

This post originally appeared on my friend Jad's Facebook and he's since turned it into a blog post on his new blog. The timing couldn't have been better and I thought it was a great reminder that mental illness "isn't something to toss around" and that in order to erase the negative stigma associated with mental illness, we need to work towards educating ourselves, change our vocabularies and show increased compassion for our fellow humans. 

I realized today that the fact that I've been able to break some pretty crazy sounding OCD habits effortlessly myself on numerous occasions is proof enough that I am not in fact OCD and should show more respect to those who's lives it actually affects daily in severe ways. Mental illness isn't something to toss around like a human ego ball. It affects people's lives in ways you can only understand if you are inflicted yourself or have family/friends who are, that you've taken the time to educate yourself about and show compassion to. 

If your life seems to include little hiccups of behaviour that mimic any number of conditions like ADD, OCD, bipolarity etc...and someone you know has been diagnosed in one or all of those categories....take a minute and ask yourself if these conditions you believe you also have are in any way debilitating and life altering. If you're able to get by alone and without anyone's guidance and professional help, then you're more than likely fishing for a little attention. The expression "well, everyone's a little ADD or OCD" said to someone who in fact IS and being treated or needs treatment, is like saying "I've got it too and I'm dealing with life, what's wrong with you, you must just be weak, lazy, stupid"......which is what people with the condition have been saying to themselves since they can remember and all you're doing is enforcing their shame. ADD for example, isn't a bunch of funny little tendencies we happen to all have. It isn't a funny little term like the one we choose to throw around when we're forgetful. That's not the definition, sorry. And is certainly not the true weight it possesses. It's not a bunch of light, little anythings!! It's one of the things that destroys and many times, ends lives. 

Most of us are only beginning to scrape the surface of learning about mental illness and even more slowly, peeling away the layers of shame involved. I ask you to take a minute and think of the human brain like any other organ in the human body. I'd even be pressed to say that it's more fragile than any. Why is it then that we're able to have more sympathy as a human race for someone with a broken leg that will heal, than we do for someone with a broken brain and most times a broken spirit and a broken life...or one, for that matter, that is wired in ways we can't understand...or quite simply, differently than our own!? 

Long overdue is the day we stand up and take responsibility within all our developing societies (not limited to developing countries) for our brother and sisters who just need the veil of shame to lighten and lift so that they can begin to heal. Remember, not everyone wears their mental illness on their sleeve. Society has made sure we learn (not everyone is capable of this) how to conceal it and put on an acceptable face that caters ever so carefully to our surroundings. I believe as human beings our job is to live the best inner life we can possibly live in this short life we're given and that can only happen if we make it safe for our brothers and sisters to live their best life too. Love.

Celebrating Days

Today we're back with another post from Teresa where she talks about something that I've thought about a lot - when is the right time to talk to someone new in your life about a difficult thing you've experienced in your life? 

When you go through a bad experience, when is the right time to share it with someone new in your life? 3 months? The 4th date? After they ask you specifically where your parents are/if you've ever been depressed/if you have any skeletons in the closet?

2 years ago this January I went through one of the lowest points of my life. It was 6 months after being critically ill. I had just spent the better part of a year learning how to walk, talk and live again. I had lost all my hair earlier in the year and had gained about 30lbs from hormone therapy and was trying to find a way to be comfortable in my new body and new life. The guy I had been seeing casually before my illness had met someone new 
when I was in a coma, and while I wasn't devastated over the loss of him as an actual person, it made me feel disposable. All of this plus a major falling out with a close friend had me stepping precariously close to the edge of depression. 

Then I met Lucas. He stared at me across the bar for several minutes one night and my self esteem was so low at the time that I actually glanced behind me when I caught him looking, I was sure he was looking at someone behind me. After one of those great 'Really, me too!' conversations that lasted until the bar closed, I gave him my number and he gave me a long hug goodbye that left me with honest-to-goodness 8th grade butterflies. We went out a week later and it was as wonderful as I expected. He said all the right things, thought I was hilarious, called when he said he would and was a genuinely great person to talk to. I wasn't a smitten kitten writing his last name next to my first name in my diary, but I was…...hopeful. Meeting someone like him, someone who finally seemed decent, enjoyed my company and really 'got me' made me think I wasn't so fat and hairless and fucked up after all. 

After 3 blissful weeks of nearly constant contact, we went out for dinner one night and he finally opened the door to my so-called skeletons. We were talking about Christmas plans, and when I mentioned I was going up north to my hometown for the holidays he asked if I stayed with my parents. I tried to dodge it, replied 'no, I stay with my grandmother actually'. He didn't take the bait though, and followed it up with 'oh, do your parents not live there, too?'. It was too direct to not answer.

'Actually, both my parents are deceased', I said, and then waited for the awkward reaction. 

There's a few choices here that I expected:

There’s the 'oh my god, I'm so sorry', sometimes delivered with zero empathy resulting in a flat effect or with enough gusto that you would think they were the ones that killed them.
 
There's the ballsy: 'How did it happen, were you there?'
 
The curious/prying: 'How old were you, how old were they?'

There’s also a host of other reactions that are really shitty of me to make fun of because the truth is 
there's nothing really great to say.
He handled it pretty well though; I think he actually complimented me on handling tough situations and being strong. He asked if there was anything else in my life on that scale, anything else big he should know. I figured he would find out eventually so I took a deep breath and said 'Yeah actually. When I was 21 my fiance died in an accident and last year I got so sick that I almost did, too”.

I have to give him credit, he showed no poor reaction, took it in total stride. We left the restaurant with me feeling so good about opening up to someone about these horrific things, someone who didn't view it as a negative in my life, someone who cared enough to compliment me during my most vulnerable time. The next day was New Year's Eve. We had separate plans that night, but made plans to have dinner on New Years Day. We napped on the couch all afternoon and he kissed me goodbye before I went out with my friends to celebrate a new year. A new year that I was excited about, one I was feeling really hopeful about starting with someone new.

I'd like to tell you that the next day we had a wonderful dinner and opening up to him was a great decision and we spent a couple
 wonderful months getting to know each other, but the truth is that he stood me up for dinner and I never heard from him again. I spent the next few weeks plunging into a deep pool of depression, figuring that my life story was just far too much for someone to handle. I was beginning to think I was officially damaged goods. I’d like to tell you that was the only bad reaction I’ve ever received when recounting my life story, but it’s not. Once on a third date after mentioning both my parents were deceased my date said ‘Sweet! No in-laws if we get hitched!’

I used to always dream of being seen as this carefree person, this girl who didn’t have any baggage. Whether you’ve dealt with something like the suicide of a parent, a childhood trauma or a personal episode of mental illness, when is the right time to reveal these things to someone new in your life? This quandary doesn’t apply only to the dating world. When it comes to making new friends, co-workers or new family members, it can be difficult bringing up these sensitive topics to people. I’ve always grappled with the right time to reveal these events to others. They’re considered ‘dark’ topics that can instantly change the tone of any interaction. I understand there’s no light-hearted way to say ‘Check it out- my mother died, my father became an addict, then died, then my fiancĂ© died, and oh yeah, I almost did too and now I’m a busted 28 year old with a ton of residual health issues.” I get it- it’s heavy. They automatically paint a picture of someone who has a lot of issues. But for me, these events are such a huge part of who I am that to not tell someone always felt like I was hiding something, but to reveal it was becoming a risk that I was becoming more and more unwilling to take.

The truth is there’s probably no great time to tell someone that part of your life has been terrible.  There’s always going to be people out there in the world that can’t handle real life, and if that’s who this person is then you don’t want anything to do with them anyways.

So just tell them. Tell people even if you are scared, because being vulnerable and real is a trait that deserves admiration and respect, not fear. Everyone has baggage and while mine or yours may be a viewed as worse than the average person, it doesn’t mean that it should be hidden away. Eventually someone will come along that doesn’t care what happened to you, someone will look at all your scars and scary stories and know they made you the person you are, the person they have been waiting for. When my wonderful current boyfriend is forced to recount my story to a family member or friend, he tells it with pride, as though he is so certain I will always be able to handle anything life throws my way. Be proud of whatever it is that you went through. Don’t disguise your struggle, this tells the world that there is something to be ashamed of and going through hell and coming out on the other side deserves nothing but admiration. Do not let anyone ever make you feel that you terrible experiences define you as a terrible person. So the next time you meet someone you want to share your story with, do it. Tell them plainly and honestly and candidly and no matter how they lament over how sad your story is, smile and look them in the eye and say:


Yes, it is a sad story, but I am not a sad person”.

Teresa is a writer, traveler, nutritionist, tour manager and hula hoop champion.  She likes bukowski, the ocean, holding hands, Roswell reruns, and long, romantic walks down the organic produce aisle. Her blog (www.dancesinthedark.com) is currently under construction, but until then you can find her on twitter @thebandiswithme 

It's Still For You, Mom

I had a weird feeling pass over me about a month before my show, The Life is Sweet Project. It didn't feel right anymore.

After more than a year of working on the initial version of the show and then the "new" version, it didn't feel like me and I felt as though it had lost its focus. I realized that I had gotten lost in "ohmygosh a show that I've written is being produced by a theatre company and it's gonna be at the Toronto Centre for the Arts" instead of the "I'm doing this show to pay tribute to my mom because I miss her every day". The intention to get people talking about mental health was always there, but I got blindsided by the "thing" rather than the motivation. I had immersed myself in a process that I thought was the right way to go, but somehow managed to lose sight of the original objective which resulted in a major disconnect.

Thankfully I realized this about 3 weeks before the show and brought it back to its roots again. After our next rehearsal, the show felt settled and my intention was clear. I felt so connected to my mom on the day of the show. On Rogers Daytime and CBC's Here and Now, I talked about our relationship and what it was like to lose my mom to suicide at age 13. I felt confident during soundcheck and in the closing chorus of 'Mama' I felt grounded and close to her.

It's been 16 years since her death and I'm holding on for dear life to anything that will help me feel connected to her.

I wish I could tell you about the last conversation we had.
Or remember the exact sound of her voice.
Or the best piece of advice she ever gave me.
Or what it felt like when she hugged me.
But a lot of it is fading and it's terrifying.

One of the (very) few photos where my mom is smiling
On February 10th I got up in front of a packed audience to talk about how my mom's death made me the person that I am and how the tragedy of her death helps me to more intensely appreciate the happiness and the sweetness in my life. And while that's all very honest and truthful, I still lay in my bed sobbing this weekend thinking about the fact that she'll never meet my boyfriend or that I'll never be able to call her up and take her out for lunch.

She's been gone for 16 years and her life and death both impact me so greatly each and every day still. Days like today make me miss her more intensely and I remain thankful for the time we had together. I am reminded to embrace the sadness and find joy in the memories I do have of her. I'm still trying to figure it all out.

As I did last year, the show has helped me to feel an intense closeness to my mom through sharing her life with a whole set of new people. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to perform my show to honour her memory once again, and that through this series of blog posts, her death cultivates something great and genuinely helps other people.

I will forever be missing my mom and attempting to hold onto the pieces of her memory. I will remind myself of all that I've learned and gained as a result of her death. I will allow myself to feel sadness when thoughts and memories arise. But mostly I will remember that what I do is for her and that the show and the blog series have taken a lot of the sadness and grey out of a month that I normally despise. And that the whole Life is Sweet movement has brought me closer to my mom than ever before.

It's still for you, Mom.

Memory Lane

Memories can be such a wonderful thing, but for those who have experienced loss, they can also be a trigger for sadness. I look back at memories of my mom and worry that as time goes on they will continue to fade. For now, I hold onto them as hard as I can and let whatever emotions I may feel play out. Today's post is from a gal experiencing difficulty as she and her partner have worked to start a family together. 

I caught myself watching one of my own memories today as if it were a movie.  The memory was so clear, I could feel it, touch it and smell it. It was a memory of a time shortly before everything went wrong.

I was almost two months pregnant.  It was my first pregnancy.  My husband and I were both glowing with excitement.  My husband was on board with starting a family but it wasn’t until I was actually pregnant that we both realized how much it really meant to him.

We were at a barbecue at a friend’s rooftop pool.  It was a beautiful warm day. The sunlight was bouncing off the water. I didn’t swim, but I put my toes in the water.  The view was amazing.  Everything felt perfect.  When our friends were all swimming, my husband and I had some time alone poolside.  We sat on a beach towel on the deck.  He looked so happy.  He was actually tearing up.  He put his hand on my belly.

“I was thinking”, he said, “that after we have this little chicken, we could adopt a sibling for that chicken”.

For him to say that meant so much to both of us.  It meant that we could have more than one child. It meant that we hadn’t abandoned the idea of adoption even though I was pregnant.  It meant  that his ideal family was based on the model of his own family.  Our life was really beginning.  We had so much to look forward to.  Both of our dreams were coming true.

It was hard for me to “watch” this memory.  This is the part of my life that I now have to file under “before”.  It seems so long ago.  I feel like we were different people. I have since lost three babies.  I have cut friends out of my lives who have had babies since.  I have watched the world move on as my world seems to stand still.  I have been living in pain. My life has revolved around fertility treatments.  Adoption has evolved from a way to grow our family to quite possibly the only way we’ll be able to grow our family.  Our sex life has been scheduled to the minute and full of the fear of a miss-timed broken pregnancies.  I miss my life.  I wish I could go back to the pool and dip my toes in the water and not worry about anything but a sunburn.


Remembering My Mom and her Love of Theatre

I'm always interested to hear the perspectives of other motherless daughters. It's like being a part of a strange club (that none of us really like belonging to) but I find comfort in knowing I'm not alone in the things that I think and tough questions I ask myself. I found this post on Kelly's site and asked if she would be willing to share it for Life is Sweet month and I'm so happy to have her here. 


I lost my Mom to pancreatic cancer twelve years ago today, and with each passing year I find it getting more and more surreal to think that she’s not here and hasn’t been able to see all that I’ve done and all that I’ve accomplished.  I was only 19 when she passed away, and at the time I was on a bit of a collision course with disaster, making a number of questionable choices and I’m sure worrying her more than she needed (or deserved).

Those ‘questionable choices’ led to a rough engagement, an even rougher break up, and an early twenties littered with financial difficulty, job struggles and not nearly enough of my first love – the theatre.

Thankfully, I got my act together and learned to embrace the things that are truly important in my life and celebrate the love and the joy that is in every single day, which is the way I remember my Mom.  The woman was full of joy for the smallest things, and it’s hard to remember a time when she wasn’t smiling (people say I look like her – and I like to think I’m smiling with her).

That said, one of her ‘bigger’ joys was always the theatre, and it’s something that she helped cultivate in me at a very young age.

My earliest theatre related memory of my Mom was of her driving me to and from my daycare playing the London Cast Recording of Les Miserables.  I remember begging and pleading with her to turn it off whenever ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ (or worse, ‘Fantine’s Death’) came on and wailing that it was ‘too depressing’.  At the tender age of 4 and a half, I preferred Amy Grant and the Mini-Pops.  Needless to say, she never turned it off, instead she began slowly explaining to me what was happening in each and every song (to which I would say ‘why would ANYONE want to watch this, it’s so sad').

Finally it won me over, and before my parents could realize the monster they had created, I was in my bedroom belting out various Mis songs (usually alternating between playing Eponine or Gavroche, which I’m sure caused a whole host of other unnecessary worries).


When it was announced that there would be a Canadian Production of Les Miserables at The Royal Alexandra Theatre, I begged my parents to take me (they were long-time Mirvish subscribers).  I was five years old when the show opened in Toronto, and I can vividly remember sitting third row in the Alex, completely engrossed in the show.  Hard to believe that anything got me to sit still for that long.  Needless to say, the rest is theatre history?

I would never have wanted to see the show had Mom not played that recording for me every morning and night on those daycare rides, and had I never seen it, I’m not sure I would have learned to love theatre with the deep passion and respect that my Mom clearly possessed.  For that I’m unbelievably thankful, but theatre has given me my life.  It’s the source of my deepest joys, and has resulted in me meeting the most incredible people who never would have entered my life had I not found a place in this community.


Interestingly enough, the ‘new’ production of Les Miserables had it’s very first performance last night in Toronto.  The timing is not lost on me as I look back on the past twelve years without my Mom, and think about how much she would have loved to see this new version, and how cool it would be to tell her that about all the people I ‘know’ within the cast.

Instead, I will attend opening night in two weeks wearing the necklace that she wore when she took me to the Alex twenty five years ago, and I will think of her fondly as I do my ‘theatre thing’.  It’s a bittersweet moment when you realize that you’ve been able to achieve dreams you never even realized you had, but dreams that someone else may have had for you, and they can’t be there to see it.


So during that poignant final scene where Fantine reappears I will think fondly of my Mom, and think that maybe, she’s looking down on me just as Fantine watched over Valjean.  And if she is, I hope she’s smiling.

Kelly is a financier by day and theatre writer by night. Find her on Twitter or her newly launched site, BroadwaybabyTO

Accepting the Sadness

Another insightful (and anonymous) post on dealing with depression along with some ideas for those dealing with depression or any sort of mental illness, as well as for those trying to support someone going through a difficult time. 

I have dealt with deep sadness since I went through treatment for an illness as a teenager. I grew up very fast, and started to ask big questions at a young age like, "Is life meaningless? Do I matter at all?" The illness I had is a story in and of itself, but was the kickstart to a much harder journey, that of my depression and anxiety. It's weird how I often look back and think that the time during treatment was not as hard as afterwards. After I left the hospital, I was dropped back into school after missing an entire year amongst my peers. I didn't know the latest gossip, didn't realize who had changed over the year, and most of all didn't know how to interact like a girl my age. I didn't know how to chit-chat. The doctors and nurses were my friends, the hospital my home. And so, after constantly being brushed off in the hall after saying hi to my friends, after consistently being excluded to gatherings and parties, and after realizing that my friends had counted their hours visiting me as community service, I sunk into a deep sadness. I didn't think it was depression. I didn't know what it was. I had suicidal thoughts. I wanted to end my life after a year of doing everything to save my life. I didn't know who I was anymore.

Luckily, I got through high school and the rest of my teenage years because I had gone to a camp specifically for kids with my illness and reconnected with myself and kids my age at just the right time. I thought maybe this sadness was behind me. But something started to happen again in second year university. I had two groups of friends leave my life, one after the other, pretty much overnight, and not really with any rhyme or reason. The fear of people leaving me, the fear of being hated and talked about and excluded started to consume me. I cried uncontrollably to sleep every night. I was in physical pain from being so sad and not leaving my bed. I became irritable and angry at everyone and everything. This would subside and come back throughout the year. If I kept myself busier things were better, but this deep feeling of being hated and alone was always there. By third year university I had to go home for the summer because my suicidal thoughts and sadness was at an all time high. I kept a lot of how severe it was from my parents because I felt they had endured enough during my time in the hospital. But I did confide in my mom that something is wrong because I even think that people on the street are staring at me and laughing at me. That I knew it made no sense, but it consumes my thoughts and often makes it impossible to go out. I think my parents may have taken it in...I'm not sure. I think they may have been in a bit of denial that I was going through depression and anxiety.

I was formally diagnosed with depression and social anxiety in 2010. I refused to go on antidepressants for a long time, partly because I felt weak if I did go on them, that maybe I could muscle through or look on the "bright side of things" more, and partly because I knew my parents would disapprove. My parents and I fought a lot during this time. I felt like they didn't understand me, they were fed up with my sadness and irritability and inability to see beyond my emotions, and they didn't want me to go on medication. Now when I look back, I think they were just coming to terms with the idea that after everything, their daughter was not healthy - after all the treatment, I was still struggling and going to struggle with my health and they couldn't fix it as much as they wanted to.

My first suicide attempt forced me to go on medication. I have been through three types, all with varying degrees of side effects and success. The first was good at first and stopped working, the second didn't work at all and my depression and anxiety was the worst it had ever been and was accompanied with constant suicidal thoughts, cutting, and many suicide attempts. I would stand in the subway station and think that jumping in front would be easy and best for everyone. That no one would show up to my funeral anyway and life would go on as if nothing happened. On my commute home from work I would press my head against the window and cry uncontrollably in public - for no reason but that I felt I was meaningless and a waste of space. Often strangers stopped me on the street concerned and wondering if I was ok - I would usually force a smile and say yes when I desperately wasn't.

Finally, in the spring of 2012, my best friend at the time up and left me in an email. Out of the blue. And blocked all communication with me. I still don't really know why. All I know is that this person promised he would be there and that he wouldn't leave like others had did and now he had done it in the most heartless and cruel way. This was the worst of my depression. I spent some time in the hospital as an outpatient, was put on a new medication, found a therapist (after many failed ones before), and had to take a sick leave work. I couldn't leave my bed. I couldn't clean my apartment. Any flowers or plants my friends brought died (if they were even put into a vase at all). I couldn't move or eat and sometimes felt that I was going to die from feeling so sad. I would sit on my bed and cry until I hyperventilated or felt nauseous or pass out. I had a group of friends who were helping me, but I still felt completely alone. The thought of even having a shower was an incredibly daunting task. Every minute was a painful struggle.

I could go through the entire healing process - but the fact is, I'm writing this right now, in a much better place. I turned down the offer to write for this blog last year because I felt I was still going through it. And not to say I have beaten depression and anxiety now - I haven't. I will always struggle with it. But it doesn't control my life anymore. And very often I actually feel that elusive emotion I never thought I would feel - happy. 2013 was a great year for me - I had some huge successes in my career, moved to a new apartment that I love, met some amazing people, started getting back into shape, and met my wonderful and loving boyfriend who treats me so well and is a constant source of joy and support. 

Not to generalize and say "this is the way to get better", but looking back, these are the things that helped me get better that may help someone who is struggling or help a friend know how to help someone who is depressed.

1. I started to make sure my day was filled with things and people that made me happy and got rid of the rest. 
It got to a point where I felt I was wasting my life if I was feeling sad in a situation. Not to say that things like folding laundry (I hate folding laundry) need to be cut out of your life. But I'm talking about the bigger picture. I quit my day job that was an enormous source of unhappiness and was with a boss who could not understand my situation. I freelance full-time now. It's more stressful, but I am doing what I love to do. And as for people, I only spend my free time with people who I respect and admire and make me feel good about myself and appreciate me for who I am, the good and bad. A good sign for me is that they still like me if I am crying and are ok with silence. I don't spend time with people who only like me when I'm happy or make me feel like I'm a burden if I am sad.

2. I started standing up for myself.
One horrible feeling that comes with depression that is unfortunately propagated by the stigma of mental illness is that my feelings weren't valid. First I had to believe that my feelings were worth acknowledging and then I started to communicate clearer to people and show that my feelings are always valid. Depression and anxiety at least for me is always caused by a trigger, no matter how small, but it isn't completely irrational. The moment you hear someone say that your sadness isn't valid or you are making things up in your brain, this is a clue that this person should not be in your life. That former best friend of mine used to always say "it's just in your head". No. It wasn't. He was doing things to cause them and I should have left him a lot sooner.

3. I started exercising and eating healthy (or try to) for ME.
I wanted to start feeling good about myself inside and out. Not to impress anyone or to start going on dates. I wanted to feel good for me. It was interesting that even if there was no physical change after a workout, I still felt better about myself and less anxious to go outside. My thoughts also started to slow down and my reaction to things were more logical. It's almost like my body saying "Hey! Thanks for taking care of me! To thank you, I'm going to make you feel ok today!"

4. Music, music, music.
Music is incredibly healing. Playing, listening, singing....it was all really helpful and felt like someone out there understood me, even if it wasn't verbalized. And actually, sad music made me feel better.

5. A really awesome therapist. 
I really love my therapist. She is incredibly validating, a good listener, and we have developed a very trusting relationship. I have been through five that didn't work for me and finally hit one that did. Seek the right fit out. It's worth the extra time (and sometimes money). 

6. Breathing
Yup. Something so simple does tremendous work. 

7. Sex and the City (I'm serious.)
Ok - this will be different for everyone. But for me, Sex and the City made me start to see things differently. I think this is different for everyone. But anything can be a source of help - a movie, a tv show, a book, a song, a picture to shift your perspective just a little bit. (Man, that episode with the post-it note break-up. Carrie. I feel you.)

And as for the things people did, this is certainly what works for me.

1. Validation
Saying that whatever I'm feeling must hurt a lot or that they are sorry I feel that way.

2. Listening
Sometimes I don't need advice or to see a silver lining (which comes across as very dismissive to me). I just need a listening ear. A TRUE listener. I need to feel heard and felt and empathized with. If I am going over the same problem over and over with a friend, it's likely that I haven't felt heard yet. Re-evaluate if you are truly being attentive during a moment of need, and if you aren't or can't, simply communicate that.

3. Accepting the sadness
Sadness is a part of life. I think I have realized it is needed to be balanced - sort of like a yin and yang. I think in Western culture we dismiss sadness instead of embrace it. And this can often mean that people who are depressed feel like they must hide this or that they are viewed as a lower class. I think I realized that it's important to embrace my sadness. To see the "empty" holes in my spirit not as a void, but a part of my whole. Sadness can be beautiful. It can fuel creativity. It shouldn't be shunned or labelled as a weakness. If your friend is depressed or sad, don't feel as it is your duty to change them. You are there for a support. But when people started to shun my depression, it felt like they were shunning me or that I had to put on a happy face all the time. I feel a lot better with friends who are fine with my sadness and don't try to change me. One thing that is great about my boyfriend is early on when I told him about my depression, he said he likes me just the way I am. Not that he enjoys seeing me sad, but I don't fear (or at least can talk my brain out of the fear) that he will leave me for it, because he has verbalized he is ok with it. If you have a friend going through it, maybe verbalize that to them.

4. Honour the relationship
Depression can be frustrating for any relationship on both sides. But one thing that sent me over the edge was my best friend leaving me in such an impersonal way. I think it's always important to evaluate how much your friendship has been through and how much you value this person in your life. I know sometimes we do need to part ways as friends or in relationships or if you cannot be a support any longer for whatever reason, but I think it's important to do so in a way that honours the relationship you had. It's important to always remember there is a person behind the mental illness. 

5. Just always tell people you love them
Everyone feels good when you tell them you love them, that you matter, and that they are proud of you. Make sure you do it often to the people you care about in your life. 

time capsule

This made its way into my inbox with a note that perhaps the writer would feel comfortable sharing something with his name in the future, but for now wanted to leave it anonymous. For me it's most important to be sharing these stories, name included or not, and helping others to recognize that they're not alone in what they're feeling. 

Some context: I’m someone who suffers from both clinical depression and anxiety disorder. I wrote this piece for myself at a specific place and time. It was an attempt to capture the emotion I felt on one day, but also recorded to help me figure out what I was feeling at the time. While I’m still uncomfortable sharing this under my own name, I wanted to do something, however small, to help people like me.

- sometime last year
i had a frightening thought the other day. while i'm oft-telling other people (in person, never online) that the fight for your own mental health is a daily battle, i thought i had my own sanity in check. i had a breakdown - a real, honest-to-goodness life-shattering breakdown. i thought i was on track and that my days of losing myself to substance abuse (and not substance indulgence; a difference of intent) and panic attacks were behind me. and then we had thursday.

i broke. my brain broke. i started hyperventilating, my meds lost their ability to bring me up to zero¹ and the only thing i ate all day were the five shots of tequila i downed before texting a friend of mine to drag me back from the brink.

and i'm the picture of health. the reformed. i've been to therapy. i'm on daily anti-depressants and infrequent anti-anxiety meds². i eat well and i’m in reasonably good shape. i've told many a soul (always in person and never online) how that breakdown³ was one of the hardest things i ever forded in my life and also one of the most character defining moments i will ever have.

well, it turns out you're never truly over mental illness and depression is always lurking near you like a two-bit bully, both pushing you relentlessly to give in to your demons and on its knees behind you for the eventual shove.

i may not have taken that final step, the one i don't like to talk about but that comes to mind the minute life becomes over-fucking-whelming, but i certainly made lists in my head. dark lists. lists of people who'd miss me, or be disappointed, or glad even if i weren't there to handle my own problems anymore.

and why was i so desperate you ask? fucking life.

debt and career angst. probably the two most common stressers in anyone's life, no matter your age. but for me, the fact that i sunk five years into a career that didn't love me4, forcing myself to apply for job after job - that never called back - or go in for three different sets of interviews at summer's end - only to get none of the three jobs i was overqualified for and interviewed amazingly at - and then three months into a new career that can't pay my current bills in their entirety, let alone chip away at the monumental debt hole i've somehow sunk myself into, that i broke.

my usual upbeat attitude was replaced with the suicidal look of a desperate man pushed back to the edge of a cliff.

you might notice a pattern. i'm crazy open-book in person. most people that i'm even remotely friends with, or good work chums, or meet at a party, know that i'm on meds. they know i have already been married and divorced. they know that where i’m working, what i’ve done before and a lot more.

but for some reason, online, i can never bring myself to share. and this coming from the guy who values honesty in all its disgusting, grimy details from everyone else. i want it real and i want it rough when i'm bothering to read online.

i can't figure out if my problem stems from not wanting people to see me differently than the persona i tried to maintain for years (never shit-talked anyone, never begged for sympathy) or if i just didn't want anyone i loved to worry about me. or at least not anymore than they already do. i figured that if i aired any of this truly personal shit online, i'd never hear the end of it. all i could think was that it seemed like a cry for help, or for attention or for someone i don't even know to shed a tear on my behalf.

but maybe it's all the bottling i did, after my wife cheated on me and left, after i had a breakdown where i severed ties with everything i'd known and believed, after i changed my life overnight, gave up drinking, red meat, weed and coffee overnight and for the next six months afterwards. through therapy, finding anti-depressants, i kept this journey private but slowly began to share the less grimy parts with my friends. but online, online i was still a straight professional. i was the dude that always held his shit together. the dude that didn't ask for help.

the more i needed help, the more i needed everyone to know i didn't need it. it's probably the hardest part of my insecurity for me to understand so i really get if no one else does. i needed to be strong as everyone else. because in my head, no one else is as weak as the giant man5 who's sad all the time. the man who holds his crutches close and can't bring up the now 2-year nose-dive course his life has been on. since my failed marriage (over in less than a year from its start), i've been fired, laid off and consequently unemployed for three months. after that i got a minimum wage job but, due to my unique brain chemistry, i tried to make it into the career i'd never considered but always wanted. i guess i was protecting myself.

i was happy for a bit. or i convinced myself i was. i was working hard and making callouses on my art school hands. i felt good because i was working with my hands and was making some money but after having a couple of disappointments over the next five months, i couldn’t take it.

and breaking down never happens in a predictable way. at least not for me. it's this monumental swell. a wave that cascades over your body and each time you try to get a handle on one particularly nasty sensation, another shows up to remind you you aren't the man you thought you were. every insecurity about being strong, or being smart or being good looking just jumps up, slaps you in the face and then settles down on the couch next to you to tell you what an awful shit you are. to tell you that you are lazy, and dumb and ugly and hopeless and that the world wouldn't just be better if you weren't here, it would be unchanged. your impact is nil. your pursuits, fruitless. your efforts, in vain.

and that brings us up to now. only, in trying to figure out how to dig my way out of this hole, i usually push and pull people simultaneously. exercise control over what little i have (personal relationships) and basically make myself a very hard to like person. a person whose intents might always be good but whose actions can be reprehensible.

"i'm really a nice guy" i tell myself, "when i'm not going crazy".

but crazy is forever man. it's not one breakdown, even if it was the culmination of over a decade of denial. no, that breakdown is just a sign that you can never let your guard down against your own brain. you can never be complacent with your life, your love or anything that might one day look at you the wrong way on the wrong day. and that you hope won't one day lose you all your friends forever. when people get tired. or bored. or are just over the amount of effort and patience it takes to keep winching you back to calm.

i'm sure i'll be fine. because there are people i know who haven't given up yet. and because, even in this state of despair, i have more tools than i've ever had before to deal with it. both chemical and emotional. it's just the nasty shock that you're not "better" once you have a plan for mental health that isn't a fun revelation. it's not a cold. you can't get over it. it's an ongoing struggle that pitches and wanes in volume every day. sometimes you feel like a real boy. sometimes you're a hollow puppet. sometimes you're right in the middle, searing with emotion but knowing you can't succumb. the journey continues

---

¹ if you don’t take antidepressants, it’s hard to understand this but my medication doesn’t make me happy. in general, unmedicated, I feel awful most of the time and can sometimes feel ok. the meds just level off my poor chemistry so that I start at zero instead of minus five. And that’s the ideal. If your meds don’t work, it can be even harder.
² Cipralex for the ADs (an SSRI) and Clonazepam for my anxiety. During less stressful times, I won’t take an anti-anxiety pill for three months. They’re only for emergencies, like an asthma inhaler but for panic attacks.
³ An incident where my wife cheated on me, ending the marriage and I was stuck in a dead-end job; all of which lead me to the doctor in the first place. It was the worst day of my life but also the start of working towards understanding why I didn’t feel like everyone else.
The field I got my degree in and the one where I had zero job satisfaction during those five years.
5 I’m tall but no giant, although I feel like I’ve somehow tied that to some societal pressure to be tough. But I digress. It’s too easy to diagnose yourself with nearly everything.

Life Isn't Always Easy

Over the last two and a half weeks, my Life is Sweet bloggers have been sharing their stories of the difficult times they've faced and the losses they've overcome. For many of them, the things they've faced have been the most challenging things in their lives to date, but seem to come out stronger and more resilient on the other side. While today's post is entitled 'Life isn't Always Easy', today's blogger Trish has demonstrated this strength and resilience following the challenges that she has faced with mental illness and I am inspired by her bravery in telling her story. 

Depression and I have history.

To say it's been a bumpy road is a bit of an understatement. My first concrete brush with depression came at 15. Life for a 15 year old isn't always easy. Suffice it to say, my life situation definitely wasn't typical or easy but, my first major depression came as a result of something that happens to most of us. My first love left me for one of my very best friends. It broke my heart. The details are a little blurry for me now but after the conversation with him I went home and took an overdose. There were plenty of prescription drugs available in my home. It sounds dramatic but I felt like my life was over. I had no idea how I could go on. The heartbreak, the betrayal, the humiliation. I had zero coping skills for this kind of intense emotion. It was my first of three serious suicide attempts.

All three of the attempts have overdose in common. However, each time I did something a little different afterwards. The first time when I woke up I told my mom. She completely under-reacted and I wonder to this day if she'd taken it more seriously and given me access to mental health professionals, maybe I wouldn’t have attempted a second and third time. I didn't get any professional help after the first attempt but I did manage to work my way out of that terrible dark place. The friendship, was over but I still had to deal with the two of them in my social circle. It wasn't easy. I made up my mind to separate myself from "those people" as soon as I could. I left home the week I finished high school and moved far away and saw very little of the people I'd grown up with.

Attempt two, I was 19. I'd lost my first "real" job and it was my fault. I'd been warned about being late, three times. I was young. I was working in an environment that was difficult. I was dealing with exposure to some pretty terrible experiences. I was in the dictation pool of a psychiatric hospital. The pay was great and I was really good at typing but the daily exposure to the horror of the things we human beings do to each other took a toll. I'd been self-medicating but it got harder and harder to get to work on time. I was in a relationship with a sweet guy. A sweet guy who had some addiction issues. I had a great roommate. A roommate who had access to lots of drugs. It was a bad combination.

When I woke up I knew I had to do something differently. I went to the emergency room and confessed. Again... things are kinda blurry, my brain does a pretty good job of protecting me from the worst of it. They admitted me and when they released me I broke up with the boy and moved out of the townhouse. I continued in an out patient treatment program for a while. It seemed to help.

Life continued. I had a kid, got married, had another kid, got divorced. The divorce wasn't easy but I was busy and surrounded by good people. I got through it and I was doing well. Really well. I went back to school, got a great job, met a great guy and fell madly in love. Yay me, but things started to unravel. I got married, a beautiful wedding surrounded by wonderful friends and family but things continued to unravel. I would cry for nothing. The tears would start and I couldn't stop them. I knew what this was and I wasn't going to ignore it. I asked for help. I went to therapy. My doctor tried me on an antidepressant and then another and then another. She added something, she took something away. She finally admitted she didn't know what else to do and sent me to a pharmacologist. He adjusted the meds. I still didn't feel better.

The smallest thing would set me off and the night of the last attempt I can't even remember what that "thing" was. I do remember the thought I had as I took the handful of pills - "I just can't do this anymore. They'll be better off without me." I completely believed it. My husband found me, figured out pretty quickly what was going on and called an ambulance. I woke up and I was angry. Angry that I'd failed. Angry that it wasn't over. I spent a short time in the hospital but it really felt more like a holding place. The attempt had bumped up my priority and I was on a list for inpatient treatment at Homewood in Guelph.

Homewood had an amazing major depression unit and I was there for an entire summer. It was a back to basics program. Basics meaning, sleep, eat, and exercise. I hadn't been doing any of those things very well. Being forced to get up at a certain time everyday, to eat (or you and your group didn't leave the dining room) and to walk outside everyday. Routine. So important at this point. They nudged me out of my dark spot. For the first time I participated in group therapy, it was scary. I learned one of the most important things in group - I was not alone. I was not the only one feeling these things. Sounds simple but it was such a relief. I formed some amazing relationships there, including a new one with myself. Art therapy, music therapy, individual therapy, couples therapy, family therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy. I was given techniques to deal with the stress. I was taught how to recognize the early signs of danger and what to do. I was taught how to change the negative internal dialogue in my head.

Life still isn't easy but I'm in a better place. Today my life includes keeping an eye on my sleep, being aware of what I'm eating or more importantly for me, when I'm not eating, not isolating myself and exercise, regular exercise. I need to be proactive against depression every day. I made a promise to my children after the last attempt. I promised that there wouldn't be a fourth attempt. Some days are harder than others. Life can be bumpy, that’s what keeps things interesting. But I know, it's a promise I won't break. 



Trish is a mother of two boys, a friend to many, an avid dragon boater, a beekeeper, a Community Manager and a survivor of depression and EDNOS. She writes about her love of flowers, social media, music and photography on her blog: The Adventures of an Urban Flower Girl. She can hardly wait for winter to end so she can hang out at the beach.

Stranded

If you've never experienced depression or any sort of mental illness, it can be really difficult to describe what it feels like. Many people can't comprehend what it feels like in your body or your brain because it's not something they've ever gone through. This is part of the reason why the Life is Sweet series is so important for me to share: It's not only an opportunity for people dealing with mental illness or loss to share their stories, but a way for those who have never experienced it to begin to understand and empathize with what it would be like. In today's post, Marie starts to shed some light on what it feels like for her. 

Standing on a deserted island, you spend months and even years building this raft. Finally it's done. It's not much of a raft, but you made it and you're proud of it and happy about it. So you push it into the ocean and set sails on your new raft.

The first few days are wonderful. The water is clear, there are tonnes of fishes and even dolphins. The sky is blue and the breeze is soft. Hey, you are even starting to get a nice tan!

After a few months sailing, the water gets darker. Once in a while you will see a seabird or the fin of a fish. If you're really lucky, you'll see flying fishes go by. But most of the time, you are pretty much just sailing on without many things to see.


That's when you realize that the water is as dark as the sky. You look around and all you see it water, for miles away. No land, no birds, no fishes, just dark cold water. You try not to panic, as you brave a few days of rain and waves. You hold on tight to your raft, because it's what you worked on for so long and you know this is the right place and if you just keep holding on, the storm will pass and everything will be clear sky again.


But now it's been weeks, months that you are stuck in the storm. Some days it's just a little drizzle, others, it's just fog making it hard to navigate, but the worst are the thunder and lightnings and waves as high as a mountain. You keep pushing through every day, but now you start wondering why. Wouldn't it just be easier to just let go and let the waves carry you. Who knows, maybe the waves will bring you back to the island, or maybe they will drown you. Whatever it does, you're starting to convince yourself that either ways would be better than just hanging on your shitty raft, not knowing where you are, where you are going and why you even built this raft in the first place. It's doubt and fear settling in.


One morning, the one after a big storm, you wake up and you see that your foot is caught on the rope, which is tied to the beam. You try to get it off, but the knot is just too strong. You should take this as a sign that something bad will come out of this but whatever, the sky is blue, and you may even think you heard a bird call. Things will be ok.


But that's when you realize you were wrong. Right when you think everything is fine and the water is calm, you are suddenly woken up by a big crashing wave. It is so big that the beam breaks and rolls into the water...dragging you in at the same time.


The beam slowly starts sinking into the deep water. You try to pry your foot off the rope, but you can't. Not by yourself. The beam sinks just a bit deeper. You struggle to bring yourself to the surface, just so you have enough time to take a breath of air. But each time, the beam pulls you down. Each time, you swim back up with all your might, take a breath, and sink back in. You do this for a while. You know that if you don't get that rope untie, you will sink to the bottom of the Ocean. You swim back, using all your strength to keep your head above water. Sometimes, a wave comes through and instead of breathing air, you swallow some bitter sea salt water. It's at those moments where you think this is it. But somehow, you always come back to the surface.


Then out of nowhere, a giant turtle comes along. It places itself under you, so you can sit on its shell and take a break from all that struggling. The sky is even getting clearer, but the waves are still strong and high. You ask the turtle for help and somehow it understands. Slowly, very slowly, it starts nagging at the rope around your foot. But you know turtles, they aren't very quick...sometimes you get impatient, and start calling it names, or yelling at it to hurry up. Sometimes you just think screw this! it's not gonna work. But you just keep on coasting on top your turtle, at least you aren't swallowing sea salt water anymore. But once in a while you slip off the turtle, because the beam is just too heavy. But you fight to climb back on because you don't want to end up at the bottom of the ocean with the beam. If you do, you won't come back up for air.
So you wait for the turtle to set you free.


You don't know when will that be, or if when it happens, that things will be better. I mean, you are still stuck in the middle of the ocean. Even if you are surfing on top of a turtle, you are still in the middle of the ocean; you don't know if there is an island in front of you or if you gonna slip and fall back in the water. You just don't know. And to be honest it's exhausting.


So you rest your head on the back of the turtle and you wait. And you remember the days when you were on the island and how it was so much better and safer. You wish you could go back there, but you know it is just way too far behind you, there's no way you can go back. Melancholy sets in as you wait for the turtle to do it's job. I mean, come on, how thick can this rope be? Some days you just want to let go, some days you just want to hold on. It's exhausting. It's a struggle. It's a battle of the wits and you are the only person who can make the right decision. You know that if you let go, the waves will carry you deeper, and you know if you hold on, the turtle will carry you to a safe zone for a while. but you also know that no matter what, your life will just never be normal anymore. Not after all this.


You will get back on land, and you will enjoy that land for a while. You will even come to convince yourself that this is where you want to stay, build your hut and raise butler monkeys. But you know that after a while you will get bored of it and you are gonna want to build another raft and set sails to see if the next island will be better, more fun! But you know you'll just end up getting stranded in the middle of the ocean again.


How do you know? Because this is not the first time you have been stranded in the middle of an ocean. 
You just can't be normal and have a normal life. 

Or be happy with what you have. 
You have to accept that, but most of all, the people around you have to accept it as well. You can try and have a normal life, for a while you will... But let's face it, this is a cycle that will come and go for the rest of your life.

This is what depression feels like.


And right now, I'm still waiting for my turtle to set me free. 



My name is Marie and I am a 29 year old French-Canadian girl in Barrie ON. I work as a Funeral Director, and suffer from Depression and Anxiety so I am no stranger to this disease. Most of my childhood, I was able to channel my social anxiety via humour and acting. Being a class clown, I made my way into the performing arts. At 15, I lost my father to a car accident and came face to face with depression. With the support of my family (and the meds I take) I am capable of living a normal life, but only recently I have came to accept my condition and I hope one day, people will stop to be scare of this condition and be willing to talk about it. This is my first step.

Jigsaw Satisfaction

Today's Life is Sweet blogger is our most International one. I met Nicole when she was living in Canada many moons ago and I'm glad we stayed in touch once she went back to her home in Australia. I'm so glad that she wanted to participate in the series and I'm really looking forward to reading her upcoming book about healing from mental illness. 

I have just allowed myself the luxury of a week of guilt-free idleness. I often reflect that in our busy, hyper-connected culture we have lost perspective on the benefits of doing nothing. Rest, relaxation, healing, creativity, all these arise from space – space that in our normal lives gets filled with seemingly inevitable obligations and demands. If you haven’t yet read How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson put it on your summer reading list! Mr Hodgkinson, the august editor of the Ildler magazine gives an hour-by-hour description of how best to be idle in each hour of the day. He’s far more convincing than me on the benefits of idleness but I’m convinced it’s a discussion worth initiating among friends and family.

So what did I actually do in my week of idleness? I was house-sitting in Hobart and so was removed a healthy distance from any impending home-based chores. I was mostly, though not always alone and I reveled in it. Lots of sleeping, daydreaming, lazy mornings and gentle afternoon naps, eating simple meals and shopping locally without a car. Apart from that I divided my time between three of my favorite holiday pursuits, reading, knitting and completing a complex 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle 

Image - http://www.mcescher.com/gallery/most-popular/other-world/

Serendipity brought M.C. Escher (the artist of the original painting) and I together in the form of 1000 brown, green, white and black pieces rattling around in a box someone had picked up at the op shop. For my part it wasn’t planned, in fact, I’d forgotten that for me, having the time to complete a jigsaw signals that it is time to relax. It’s a process rather than a goal, akin to making a mandala that you then sweep up and pour back into the box. What the process gave me this time was a chance to observe myself in the process of jigsawing (if I may invent a new verb…)

Firstly let me say that this was the most satisfying jigsaw I have ever done. In fact at one point in the process I began describing the “jigsaw orgasm,” to name the intense sense of satisfaction I felt when I was able to smoothly unite a lonely jigsaw piece with a void in the design. Because this picture is so geometrical and fantastical there were none of the typically tedious parts that occur in most jigsaws. The variety of tasks to complete the jigsaw kept me engaged as I switched between searching for common colored pieces in the box and putting together the various elements bit-by-bit, hour-by-hour.

The danger, and the very thing that can make jigsawing less fun is becoming obsessive over it. The urge to keep slotting pieces in blind pursuit of the final goal is not that far removed from the compulsion that stalks other kinds of slots! When I noticed this feeling arising I brought consciousness to the situation and tested my ability to make choices. When my back began to tense and my self-talk turned from pleasure to frustration I took it as a sign that it was time to walk away for a while, or a night. Inevitably I would return to the puzzle after a hiatus and easily place pieces I had been struggling with. The balance between perseverance and refreshment of the mind can equally apply to writing or any other sustained task!

As the end of the process drew near I was working on the layer of brown and white tiles that form the inner edge of the outer part of the puzzle. As the number of pieces and the spaces to accommodate them dwindled I noticed doubt arising in my mind again and again.

“Perhaps they’ve put in a whole lot of extra pieces, just to fool me” or
“This piece doesn’t fit in any of the spots left, it must be faulty.”

Despite these internal doubting voices shouting at me, another part of me knew this was the time for perseverance and trust. The bigger part of me understood that the ultimate nature of a jigsaw puzzle is to fit together as a unified whole. As I watched doubt arising in my mind I was struck by an insight. A huge part of my healing has been to flip my belief about the way the world works from my old unconsciously formed fear that the universe is chaotic and something I need to control to a conscious choice to believe that the universe, in a huge and cosmic way which we can never fully perceive from our limited human mind, is a giant spiritual jigsaw. I can tell when I am aligning myself with the ultimate nature of things because, like the jigsaw piece that clicks in I find myself in a place that looks right and feels right – even when it’s pushing me beyond my comfort zone. Especially when it’s pushing me (just) beyond my comfort zone.


Nicole Simone Alexander is a musician, teacher and writer who lives among the trees in the Dandenong Ranges on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia.  After ten years of medical treatment for depression and anxiety she has found healing by learning to respond to the messages of her body, mind and soul and is grateful to all her teachers, especially depression.  She is writing a book about her experiences of mental illness and healing from it, called Feel Real, Heal and has ablog by the same name. 

Search of the Spirit

One of the most gratifying things is to check in with last year's Life is Sweet bloggers to see how things can change in a year. So lovely to have Marilyn back once again after last year's post on Discovering Her True Self to talk about what's been working for her in her journey to healing. 

Last year for the Life Is Sweet project, I wrote about the problems I encountered with treatment options when I was misdiagnosed. I was very confused and because of my “label”, so were all the alternative folks I sought help from. I had lost all sense of my identity and became an over medicated, middle-aged woman, forced into early retirement. So, I embarked on the search to discover my “true self”.

A new family doctor who helped me reduce my meds in order that I might think clearly was the first step. As I was a recovering alcoholic, part of my program was to find a “power greater than myself” who could restore me to sanity (Direct quote from 12-Step literature) Recovery Meetings helped for awhile but there was always the stigma of mental illness and I was not readily accepted.

I stopped going to Meetings and also stopped going to psychotherapy, after the Counsellor indicated that God would only help…”if you buy into that crap”. His time with me was also interrupting his nap as he fell asleep on a number of occasions during our sessions.

I had read a book by a well known female tele-evangelist on the spiritual approach to weight loss (made necessary by the side effects of the meds) and in it she suggested a loving church family for support and encouragement. While I considered that I started to read the Bible. From that it became apparent that my biggest problem was FEAR…..unwarranted FEAR.

Each time I traveled the bus from my home, I passed a church of the denomination of my childhood. One day I noticed the sign said the service was at 11a.m. on Sundays. So, the next week…there I was.Here were 200 or so of the most caring people I had ever come across and I was welcomed at once!

There were many difficult moments as I set out to “grow-up” in their midst but when I tried to push them away because of old fears, they hugged me closer. They spent time talking to me, they included me in all the social gatherings and some things that were being held that I couldn’t afford ended up being paid for me. Was I spoiled? A little but was I busy working on church committees to give back? You bet I was !!

Today I have turned a life-time of rejection and disappointment into compassion and care for our most vulnerable folks. I help out at Sunday School and volunteer at the local nursing home on day a week. My confidence and esteem are all growing and I don’t need to hide my feelings with alcohol, food, shopping or whatever.I know my limits and how to pace myself. I learned how to draw close and when to let go. I learned not to be so serious and to stop pushing and pulling myself around to please others. Best of all, I learned to laugh. My inner critic is now also silent.


HEY…….I think I’m getting well !!! 

A Gift Nonetheless

Sometimes gifts don't come wrapped in sparkly little bows, it's true. So glad Laura decided to participate in Life is Sweet month. 

I studied my surroundings: beige walls and old, ugly 80s chairs with green and blue faded floral fabric. I fidgeted in my seat. The drapes were dusty and the TV played Sponge Bob Square Pants. I fidgeted with the forms in my hand. No one made eye contact and my coffee was finished.

I didn’t want to be here. Why was I?

My mind flashed back to that Wednesday night.

I lifted my head from the pillow, now soaked from tears. The clock flashed 8:03 p.m.; I had been crying for somewhere close to two hours. As I cleaned my Kleenex-covered bed, slowing picking up each damp tissue and inspecting it before piling it in the waste bin, I couldn’t remember what started the sobbing. That wasn’t new. Why did I ever cry lately? It was rarely ever an event that set me off, more of a blanket - a large, heavy, suffocating blanket – of emotion.

This evening may have been about loneliness. A type of loneliness that could only be filled by love, but not people. I missed my friends, but did not want to see them. More than anything I missed my family back in Ontario. Sister, dad, and mom. Oh, my funny, little, beautiful mom. I inherited her large forehead, and eyes that change colour like a mood ring. I inherited her crooked nose, and affinity for blonde hair dye. It also seems I inherited her depression and anxiety.

And, as odd as you may think this statement to be, I see it as a gift.

Yes, a gift that you can’t quite wrap in sparkly little bows, no matter how hard you try to put that spin on it, but a gift nonetheless.

My mother’s gift allowed me to understand her.

The times sister and I jumped on her bed and played in her room because she didn’t get out from under the covers; the times she was quick to temper; the times she isolated herself: I understand them all.

The pyramid of Kleenex in the garbage made me think. My impulses and reactions no longer felt “normal”. Maybe it wasn’t just a bad day. Maybe it wasn’t PMS, or that thing that person said at work, or the latest guy I was no longer dating. Maybe it was me.

I spent so much time hiding my feelings of inadequacy, sadness, anxiety, and self-hate, and the tears came because I had no idea how to deal with this inner voice. I couldn’t fess up to the weakness and fear that had a firm grasp on me. If I said it out loud would I be less of a person?

I couldn’t keep at it alone, I needed help. I feared going to a doctor because I didn’t want to live in a medicated haze, and I didn’t think I belonged at a psychiatrist’s office because I wasn’t “crazy”. Crazy. A word I was terrified would haunt me for the rest of my life. My sad, lonely, crazy life. With cats. At least two cats, because they needed a companion, and…

“Laura?”

I snapped out of my downward spiral, and was transported straight back into that beige waiting room. I stood and handed her my forms: intake, contact information, mood indicator. She was young with a nose ring and a tattoo on her right foot. Her name was Sheena, she was my councilor and I already knew she would help me.



Laura is the writer behind scribbles&sass, a blog dedicated to her sassy little life, currently set in Calgary, Alberta. It was talking to strangers in her hometown of Toronto that sparked her passion of meeting new people and telling their stories.

Life is Sweet, and Full of Acceptance

As I mentioned in the intro of Shannon's post, it's been really neat to check back in with my Life is Sweet writers from last year and see how contributing to the series impacted their lives. Alexandra is no different and it's been incredible to watch (and cheer on!) her journey of growth and acceptance over the last year. 

When I look back to last February, I see a very different person- someone who was racked with anxiety, fear and general uneasiness. I’m still not sure why my panic disorder presented itself to me two years ago, when I was happy and healthy and seemingly in control of my anxiety. But it did. The past two years I have experienced the highest highs and also the lowest lows as I’ve sought to accept a difficult part of who I am.

I’ve been anxious all my life. I have distinct memories of waking up as a child from knots of worry in my stomach; I used to wonder what it would be like to not have anything bothering me. I was diagnosed with clinic anxiety when I was seventeen, and then a panic disorder when I was twenty. Anxiety changes the way you think and is based on perceived stress; the brain thinks there is something wrong even when there isn’t. Similarly, a panic attack occurs when the brain senses danger that doesn’t exist. Sometimes panic attacks occur once. Other times panic disorders develop, in fear of having another attack. It becomes routine to avoid certain situations or public spaces in fear that they will trigger an attack, or not offer an escape if an attack occurs.

Last year when I was working through my anxiety, it was sometimes a challenge to even leave my house and go to school. Public transit terrified me (the thought of being trapped inside a train with absolutely no escape meant I was constantly counting stops and avoided taking long journeys whenever I could). Life became difficult and not enjoyable, even when I knew it shouldn’t be. I cried a lot for no reason. I was upset, uneasy and desperately didn’t want to feel the way I did.

There was a specific moment last year during Ashley’s Life is Sweet show when things started changing. Something shifted in me. When Ashley began talking about how mental health isn’t talked about enough, and how those who are suffering are not alone, I completely lost it because I realized that I was included in that category. For the first time ever I let myself feel sad about a part of my being that will never change. I have a mental health issue, and that’s okay.

2013 was a year of insurmountable growth for me. I learned to stop fearfully anticipating having a panic attack and learned how to accept them (they both go hand-in-hand). Whenever I feel my throat close and my heart start to beat quickly, I say hello to my anxiety and remind myself that it will pass; that I won’t faint, or stop breathing, or die and that my adrenaline will soon run out. I began to simply do things without thinking about how dreadful they could turn out, until I almost forgot about the things that scared me the most. I went to having difficulty leaving my house in February, to taking a three month backpacking trip across Europe with my best friend in June. All of these things made me feel empowered and even more accepting of my disorder. I turned to women who were experiencing what I was, and suddenly didn’t feel alone anymore. I spoke to teachers about how I was feeling, especially if I felt myself getting too stressed. It often surprises me how understanding people are when you’re open with them- in many cases, they want to know and learn more.

Alexandra sitting the cafe Hemingway frequented in Paris - Les Deux Magots- this summer during her trip, and loving life
One thing I have learned on this journey is that I would not be where I am toady without professional help. I am grateful to have a family that supports my well-being, and do not take that for granted because I know there are thousands of people in Toronto waiting on lists to get help too. When I read all of the wonderful posts for Life is Sweet Month, I am reminded that there needs to be more discussion surrounding mental health, more access to resources and a better understanding so that we can all learn to accept ourselves, and each other.

Alexandra is a journalism and photography student at the University of Toronto. She’s 22, doesn’t know where her life is going to take her when she graduates and would really like to quote the Taylor Swift song “22” in this bio but she’ll spare you. Follow her on twitter @alexandragater or www.219daysoflondon.com