My Year with "Clinical" Depression, How I Fought Back and Still Fight Every Day

Thank you to everyone who contributed, read, shared and discussed the Life is Sweet series this year. This isn't about a day or a month of posts though, we need to keep the conversation going every single day. With 1 in 5 people being directly impacted by a mental health concern and the other 4 knowing someone who is impacted directly, it really is up to all of us to talk, share, support, help & hug. 

My friend Esther shared this post on her Facebook for Bell Let's Talk Day and I'm happy to round out our month of posts with it here. 

I always knew I was depressed, from the time I was about 13 years old. Last year, which was 15 years later, I decided to finally seek a Doctor's help.

2014 was the year I was diagnosed as depressed with high anxiety. I cried tears of relief and sadness when I was told. What I'd known for years was confirmed and validated by a medical professional. It was a relief to know I wasn't just feeling this way for years, for no reason. It was also really scary. You think "Now that this is "real", what now? Will it get better? How will my life change?"

I was put on an anti-depressant known as Effexor (Venlafaxine), a drug for treating severe depression and anxiety. I did not know then that I was being introduced to the devil.

Let me say right now that my Nurse at the Artists' Health Centre (an AMAZING resource by the way for any professional artists) gave me fair warning about Effexor. She told me that going on Effexor is one thing, but if I ever no longer wanted the meds, I would have an uncomfortable time getting off of them. How I wish I'd taken her words to heart. Or at least Googled or something to see what she meant. More about my hell time getting off the meds in a minute.

First, let's chat about Effexor. It causes a whole school of side effects (as do most anti-depressants), and I don't even think they are really "side effects". These things happen. Period. Last year I gained about 20 pounds, even though I was eating healthier than ever and exercising. The weight gain made me even more depressed, and shot what little self-esteem I had left. So what was the Doctor's answer? MORE MEDS! My dosage was upped. Eventually I started losing interest in everything, and feeling very numb. Nothing made me genuinely excited anymore. And guess what? Those are some of the very symptoms of depression. So it seemed the anti-depressants weren't really so... anti, after all. There had to be a better way. Maybe even a less expensive way (Oh that's right, not only were the anti-depressants turning me numb, my wallet was sobbing too).

Last summer, I started looking to natural alternatives, and high doses of good quality vitamins. I started reading about the link between serotonin and depression. Many research studies suggest serotonin imbalance in the body as a root cause of depression. So, how then does one boost serotonin naturally without pharmaceuticals? Through diet and exercise.

I despise exercising. I really do. I've hated it since Grade school when everyone else got their golden 'Kilometre Club' popsicle sticks while I could barely get a blue one because I sucked at running. However - many people have said it, and I now agree, that the best medication for depression is exercise. I work out every day now. Even if it's just half an hour. I still do not like it. But I do it. And I'm trying to get better at it.

As for diet, the bad news is, there are no foods that directly boost serotonin production. The good news is, another natural chemical in the body known as tryptophan, which is the amino acid from which serotonin is made, is found in lots of good foods! Fun fact, taking a really good quality B-6 Vitamin increases the rate at which tryptophan is converted into serotonin. And the best part is - no gaining 20 pounds, or other nasty side effects that come from the "do not want" chemicals in my Effexor.

Speaking of the Effexor - flash forward to December 2014. I decided it was time to end my relationship with this drug. Oh, but it certainly wasn't ready to release its hold on me. I'd gotten down to the lowest possible dose, 37.5mg, and tried 'cold turkey' at first, then tried gradually decreasing the dosage by removing 'granules' inside the capsules. Day 1 was the worst thing I've possibly ever experienced, and I thought, "Well, at least it can't get any worse, right?" WRONG. The withdrawal symptoms just kept getting more severe. Let's go over a a few, shall we?

 - "Brain Zaps": This is the biggest one when coming off Effexor. It basically feels like someone is coming along and jolting your brain repeatedly for about 10 seconds until you nearly faint. That happened approximately every three minutes.
- Nausea, cramping, and vomiting: All three. It was great! (Said no one ever.)
- Unstoppable crying at any given time: Oh so THERE'S where all my tears went in the last year. I was in rehearsals for a show at the time, and every time the stage manager called break or lunch I would run to the bathroom and sob. Why? No reason. At all.
- Night Terrors: Basically extreme nightmares every night.
- Night Sweats: The only reprieve from the night terrors was waking up. But covered in night sweats. So that wasn't too great either.
- Dizziness: All the damn time.

Those were honestly a small fraction of the withdrawal symptoms. Effexor had effectively kicked my ass and I had zero fight left in me. I had no choice but to go back on the meds, at least until my show closed. It was devastating. I continued throughout the run of my show to read other people's stories on Effexor, and how they beat it. It was heartbreaking to read other people's battles with trying to free themselves from the clutch of this awful drug. Then I came across one woman's story of how she got off Effexor by doing something called 'Prozac bridging", a method where you gradually decrease the Effexor, then take a very low dose of Prozac, until you are left with just Prozac. Then, you take the Prozac one day on, one day off, then one day on, two days off, and so on and so forth.

I wasn't too sure about mixing the medications, or if it would work, so once I returned home from Ottawa from my show contract, I went back to the Artists Health Centre and chatted with my nurse about the Prozac bridging article I'd read. She admitted she wasn't sure about it herself, and consulted a couple colleagues who had heard of this process, and said it was safe to do, so long as I was on the lowest dose of Effexor. Green light. The first couple days were tough, but I certainly wasn't having any severe side effects like I was having the first time I tried to go off of it. It got easier every day.


I am so incredibly proud to say that today, January 28th 2015, is Day 5 for me of being totally medication free. 


So - am I still 'depressed'? Yes. It's a medical condition and unfortunately that will not go away. But I've learned and adapted to better ways of treating my depression, like exercising every day. Also, eating foods that contain high amounts of tryptophan that'll boost serotonin production, and taking really good quality vitamins... in particular, liquid Vitamin D (absorbed much faster in the bloodstream, therefore works quicker!), B-6, Niacin (B-3), and a solid multi vitamin. I'm also taking natural supplements called 5-HTP which produces tryptophan to move along that serotonin boosting, and Ashwaghanda which helps anxiety and stress disorders. Know what else I love? Essential orange oil. A couple drops in my hands, then breathing it in for about 10 seconds. Immediate mood booster. 

Am I happier treating my depression this way? You bet. I'm not there yet and it's going to take awhile, but I can find little bits of myself returning. I'm starting to feel like a better version of myself every day, and a more present version of myself. I am so, so incredibly grateful for that.

Esther is a Toronto native and works as a musical theatre performer. She is a lover of all things pink, Disney, girly, and frilly. You can usually find her around Toronto riding on her pink bicycle while belting out a showtune or five. Esther is also currently pursuing her side passion - learning about holistic nutrition.

Yesterday was Fine, Wasn't It?

I received this post this week and then received an almost identical message following my post on my mom's death anniversary on Tuesday. This is why the Life is Sweet series and sharing my story alongside so many others is so important to me. We are not alone. 

There are often times I don’t know how to deal with my feelings. Many days I feel fine, but then all of sudden, like from out of nowhere, BOOM, I feel every awful feeling at once. Sadness, hatred, anger, unappreciated, overwhelmed; as if I’m drowning in my own feelings. I can’t control myself in those moments, I’m 30 and still can’t figure out a way to control my feelings like a fully functioning adult should. I run to the bathroom or anywhere I can lock myself from everyone else and cry and scream and think all sorts of horrible thoughts.

In that moment I think of how much better my family would be without me. Or would they be?

They wouldn’t have to witness my breakdowns; my children might have a better chance at self-control, since I am certainly not a great teacher of that particular skill. Then as I think of how I would do it, how I could end my life, I stop, breathe and think of how my friend has felt ever since losing her mother while we were in grade school. Her mom unfortunately succumbed to these types feelings.

I think of the wonderful things I would miss with my children, and how hurt my family would be. How would my husband raise our kids on his own? Even though it might put an immediate end to my internal fight, what would happen to everyone else? Then I cry harder, wishing so much that I could control myself, my feelings, and my thoughts. I think, "what just happened in that moment to push me over the edge? Yesterday was fine, wasn’t it?"

Many times I’ve attempted to get help. Seeing many different counselors, taking classes, trying to start exercising regularly (which for one reason or another never happens). I feel I have not yet found someone who is able to properly assist me. I am trying very hard not take meds yet as I want to try all the natural methods I can first. It’s not have I think there is anything wrong with medication, but I’ve watched my mom take it since I was in elementary school and I just always hoped I could find an alternative. However, I also am more aware that it might end up being the only thing that will help. 

Since depression and anxiety run in my family I knew it was something that I needed to be mindful of, though I often try to deny these feelings. I’m still searching for help, and know that I want to feel better for myself, my children and my family. I want to be the mom, daughter, sister, wife and friend that people deserve for me to be. I just am still unsure of how to get there. I hope I will find someone who is able to help me soon so that I could at least have the tools to take control of my feelings.

Though it’s bittersweet, I think the thought of my friend and her mom helps keep me from doing the unthinkable. I was lucky to have known her and she raised a beautiful human being in her short time here.

Fire Within

I feel very lucky that in hosting the Life is Sweet series that people feel comfortable enough to share their stories with me, and anyone who reads this blog. The feedback I've gotten from the series this year has been an incredible reminder that we are not alone. Thank you to Ashley for joining the writers this year and sharing her story. 

Rage.

Everywhere, in all things, and of course, sadness.  For as long as I can remember, my world has always been tinged with an underlying layer of anger.  Whether the anger was the catalyst for the sadness or the other way around, I’ll never be quite sure.  One thing I do know is that my view of reality has always been a little skewed. 

Despite the trouble it’s caused me, I’m convinced that this rage is what got me through my younger years.  There were a whole host of issues I was dealing with.  I’m part albino and I was classified as legally blind until the end of high-school with no help to be found from glasses or contacts.  I was also diagnosed at the age of 10 with something called Tactile Defensiveness, a sensory disorder that caused me to be bothered by things that no one else would notice.  I had a hard time making and keeping friends and became an easy target for bullies.  I couldn’t wait to grow up and have a better life away from all my problems.  Too bad I didn’t know that things wouldn’t necessarily get better just because I got older. 

Over the years I slowly learned more about the various disorders that I was dealing with and that knowledge did help me but I was still sad and most of all underneath everything was the anger, the rage. 

A little over a year ago I made the decision to try medication.  This was a really hard decision for me.  I’ve tried other things in the past, talking to a therapist, doing mental “exercises”, nothing seemed to help, in fact, they just seemed to make things worse.  The biggest thing that held me back from taking medication was the fear that I would become a different person.  Would I even still be “me”?   That rageful undercurrent that accompanied everything I did was what propelled me through all the difficult time in my life.  Who would I be without it?

It might not be for everyone and I must admit, the beginning was not easy but the overall effects have been more than worth it.  Something I’ve come to realize is that you don’t know how bad you’re feeling until you don’t have to feel that way anymore. 

The story doesn’t end there.  I still have my low points, but before it was only down and lower down.  A large part of this journey has been accepting that depression is a part of who I am but it doesn’t have to own me anymore.

Something else that held me back in my decision was knowing how some people perceive people with depression.  It is my sincere hope that outlets like this blog and other initiatives will assist others to feel more comfortable with themselves and safe enough to seek the help that they need.  As much as I am ok with the fact that I need medication there are still times that I find myself hesitating to admit the truth.  “Are you taking any medications we should know about?”..Ummm….  I hope that very soon I can say yes without hesitating and wondering what that person will think.


Ashley is a 34 year old country loving girl trying to making a living in the city.  She is an avid crafter, artist and writer who believes that the best is still yet to come.

Why My Mum Would Rather Have Cancer Than Bipolar Disorder

This post was sent to me to be shared anonymously. As someone who has family members who deny the existence of mental illness in our family, I can sadly relate to this idea of her mum's "accident". Even though mental illness is so prevalent in our society, people are still afraid to talk about it and there remains an enormous stigma around it. I hope to see a shift in this thinking in my lifetime.

When I was a kid my mum told me that she would rather have cancer than to be “crazy” because at least if she had cancer no one would blame her, or mock her, or tell her to ‘just snap out of it’; people would have sympathy for her, and would care for her¹.


Then when I was a teenager my mum quietly rode a bus to a bridge. When she got to the bridge she took off her jacket, folded it and set it down at the side of the road. She took off her purse and her shoes and placed them on top of her neatly folded jacket, and jumped feet first off the bridge.


My mum survived the fall. She was even conscious and lucid enough laying on the concrete below the bridge to be embarrassed when a passerby asked if she needed help, and so she said no, she was fine.


In my family my mum’s last suicide attempt is referred to as her “accident.” People in my family say things like, “before your mum’s accident” and “since your mum’s accident” as though it were the most accurate and natural description of what happened. But it isn’t. My mum didn’t have an accident. She was ill, and she tried to end her life intentionally, not accidentally. The word “accident” is a cover, a screen, a way to avoid the shame and disgrace that mental illness carries. It’s also a slap in my mum’s face because it denies her illness, obfuscating the pain and duress at the root of her jump.

My mum has found a level of normality and comfort since her last suicide attempt but she will always be medicated, she will always be fighting depression, her feet will always hurt from the moment she wakes up until the moment she falls asleep, and everyday is a journey.


----

¹This is not meant to minimize the enormous challenge, pain and heartbreak that people who have cancer (and their families) experience. It is only meant to illustrate the added layer that the stigma surrounding mental illness adds to the experience of sickness.

Suicide, God and Comments on the Internet

A few months ago, someone that I admire wrote a post about Brittany Maynard, the woman who had moved to a new state with her family so that she could die with compassion. She was terminally ill with brain cancer and her health was deteriorating and she wanted to live the end of her life with dignity and have control over a disease that had taken control of her life.

This person that I admire is openly religious and often posts about his faith. He wrote a post about this woman, asking "what if Brittany choosing to die was not in God's plan" and went on to wonder whether God had great things planned for this woman that she would miss out on because she was choosing to end her own life. I read the post and realized that he and I shared a very different view on Brittany's decision, but then I made the mistake of reading the comments.

People were ripping the woman apart. Some said she should burn in hell for choosing to end her own life. Harsh opinions of suicide ensued. Others criticized her immensely for her "selfish" decision. Comments on the Internet can be a really horrific thing, but I couldn't believe the lack of compassion that these people were showing this woman who had made such a tough decision and shared it publicly. And while Brittany's situation is very different than anything I've experienced in my lifetime, with their criticism of her choice and suicide in general, I felt like they were also attacking my mom.

Since my mom's death in 1998, I've had some very difficult conversations / debates / arguments with people about suicide. It's a heated subject, and I've had my fair share of people express their opinions about it to me.

About how selfish it is.
How awful it is for the people who need to "clean it up".
Shouldn't I be angry at my mom?
And now reading the opinions of these people who believed that those who commit suicide should burn in hell.

Just, wow.

In 17 years I've certainly wondered what had to be happening in my mom's head in order for her to end her life. She had 2 children, family and friends who loved her immensely and she left that behind. I've felt sad for the time I lost with her and all the things she'll never be a part of in my life. It hurts to think about the time we've missed out on together and the moments in my life that she will never experience. The important people in my life that she'll never get to meet. And while suicide is a selfish act, I recognize that those who commit suicide really see no other way to keep living. It's not a feeling that I have personally experienced, but I have felt the bleakness that comes with depression and can only imagine that suicide is a further extension of that. And in Brittany's case, it was a choice to die with dignity. Not an easy one, but a decision that she and her family decided was the right one for her.

I can't imagine condemning anyone to "burn in hell", especially not someone who was hurting immensely and going through their own version of hell; A person who was experiencing a lot of pain and sadness, who through their own actions would leave family and loved ones and a whole life behind. I'm not a religious person, but I understand that the bible says to "love thy neighbour", right?

And like I felt the day I read those comments, I feel the need to write this and defend my mom, because she isn't here to do it herself.

Because in my experience, when people get upset about suicide or the idea of suicide, they forget that there was a person attached to the concept. They dismiss the people that were left behind. They get caught up in being against the idea and view it as a concept that they are against. When really, there's so much more to it than that.

Each year I host this Life is Sweet series for people to share their stories and to remind others of the humanity behind the ideas of mental health, mental illness, suicide and loss. It's easy to get caught up in a concept, but let's remember that there are people behind them.

Seventeen years ago, my beautiful mother Debbie chose to end her life by committing suicide. I can't claim to understand exactly why, but I know that she dealt with a lot of pain and sadness in her lifetime.

I'm not angry at her.

I don't feel resentful of her "selfish" act.

I feel sad for all that we both missed out on.

And I miss her every day.


How to Lose Someone

Teresa has contributed to the Life is Sweet series for the last 2 years (you can read her previous pieces here and here), and sent me this post even before I had officially decided if I was going to be doing the series again. This piece resonates deeply with me, as I'm sure it will for anyone who has experienced the loss of someone that they love. 

If you weren’t expecting the news that someone you loved has died, feel the air audibly be sucked out of your chest in what feels like one long breath. If you were expecting this news, even if you are sitting beside them when it happens, feel the air be sucked out of your chest all the same.  Immediately cry, or stand in shock. Either is fine. Look around and marvel at your surroundings, wonder how people can be walking and talking, how your refrigerator can still drone on humming and your neighbours can still be chatting over the fence when the whole world has been turned upside down. 

Poke the pain of death like you would a cavity: Tongue it occasionally, remember the person you just lost in detail and then immediately regress and think of nothing when it starts to make you feel like you are swallowing a lump of cotton.  Don’t think too deeply of the person yet; do not let yourself think of how their hair smelled, or how their crooked smile would make you laugh no matter what or how they hated pickles.  Don’t think of how when you called he used to say ‘Hello, my little love’, because you knew he thought of you as the definition of the word, you were love. Don’t think of how your fathers face would light up when his favorite Beatles song came on the radio, or how your mothers hands always smelled like basil or how salty your lovers lips tasted the last time you kissed them goodbye. Don’t think of any of those things now or you will not make it through.

Haphazardly pick out clothing and pack a suitcase composed of every black garment you own, spend no time picking out anything of significance, anything you wear will be associated with this day, you will forever look at your sweater and think ‘I was wearing this when I found out you died’. Go to a funeral home; shake hands with someone you immediately hate for the need of their presence alone. When the funeral director says ‘I’m sorry for your loss’, wonder how someone can use such a common place word to describe what is happening right now. This is not a loss, this is a bomb. You lose your keys, your parking ticket, your shoes and you may think you are going to lose your mind if this man refers to your loved one in past tense one more time. This is all okay.

Turn on your autopilot. Be with your family and try to awkwardly comfort one another. My family calls this bonding time ‘fighting’. Say thank you for fruit trays, add their name to the inventory of people you must later thank in card form for bringing sustenance that will inevitably go to waste. Dress up in your black clothes and somehow make it through the services we put ourselves through. Ask yourself questions like ‘if I wear makeup and look good, will people think I didn’t really love him/her’? The answer is no, by the way. 

If there is a open casket wake, you should practice learning to swallow the vomit in your throat before the first time you see your loved one. Wonder in your head if this is the artists interpretation of what they think your beloved should look like. Then stand next to the body in the line of your wounded family and present yourselves like you are on the firing range. Present the dead to the mourners like a circus attraction and be disgusted with yourself when you say ‘well here he is, yes he looks very good considering’.

Watch the funeral from an out-of-body standpoint. Distance yourself if needed. If you can’t stop crying, berate yourself for not being strong for others. If you can’t seem to cry, berate yourself for not being emotional enough. Listen to people say the stupidest things. Many people will come up to you and tell you where they were when they heard, as though the person you loved was an assassinated president. They will ask without an ounce of subtlety what happened in excruciating detail, and you will be forced to recount it over and over and over and over until you are gripping the side of the sink in a funeral home bathroom.  Look yourself in the eye and tell yourself that this is it, this is hell and you are living through it. These first few days will be a mixture of devastation and love and sadness and you will not find a way to balance it all. 

Become immediately horrified at yourself the first time you laugh or find yourself happy afterwards.  Become disgusted with happiness in general, even its smallest measure. Find yourself immediately hating people who say things to you like ‘they are in a better place now’ or ‘only the good die young’ as though these thoughtless placations are going to cushion the gaping hole left in your life. 

After the services, begin the task of actual grief, the one that happens for the next few months after everyone is gone and thinks that you should have that whole sadness thing wrapped up by now. Obsess over what your loved one would think of everything you are doing. Have a good day and then watch it go to smithereens the first time you pick up the phone to call them and tell them a funny joke, only to be met with a disconnected line. Or pay the bill for a year so you can listen to the voicemail recording over and over, because you cannot bear the thought of this little piece of your universe going away.  The first time you find yourself in the middle of the grocery store putting your loved ones favorite items in the cart, just leave. Walk away. Give your self permission to lose your marbles a little. The world is your grief oyster and you can do whatever you want. Try and get through the distribution of their possessions without driving yourself mad. Keep what you want, for as long as you want. Don’t let anyone tell you that you need to move on, tell them to go away. Eventually, when you feel like it, keep their favorite sweater and coffee mug and only things that will make you smile and give the rest away. Positively go mad trying to decide what to do with intimate items, because throwing away your loved ones undershirts and socks seems rude and insulting to them. Donate it to somewhere that can use it. Spend a week in your bathrobe. Or get up everyday and walk out of your house fresh as a daisy, whatever makes you feel better. Do nothing because you think you’re supposed to or because some grief book told you to.

Eventually one day, wake up and not feel an immediate sense of dread. I don’t say that like a platitude meant for the grieving, some one size fits all piece of advice that will wash away your sorrows. I say that with all the love in the world and with the experience of losing both parents, a fiancee and several family members and friends before the age of 25. I say that because it’s the only piece of advice that ever helped me. I wish I could remember who said it to me. My fiancees funeral was a blur, a play I was in, one where people said varying levels of disgusting things to me: you will meet someone else, you are young, he did not suffer. He wasn’t even in the ground yet and I had people telling me to get over it, to not cry because he ‘wouldn’t want me to’ (what he would have wanted was to BE ALIVE you old bat, I remember screaming in my head). Then finally either someone recognized my tight smile or took pity on me or maybe (as I like to think) she passed on this sentence because someone once gave it to her when she needed it. I don’t remember her face or her voice, just a hand on my shoulder and a woman saying ‘Time ain’t gonna fix this for you sweetheart. Neither will moving on or meeting someone else, this right here is gonna hurt for the rest of your life. I’m not gonna sell you promises and assurances that probably won’t come true, but I will promise you this: One day in the not-so-distant future, you will wake up and this will not be the first thing you think about’.

I clung to that sentence like a life raft, clung to the idea of that day when I would wake up and not have to remember what happened to my life all over again. I clung to it until it was true and if you’re reading this and recognizing yourself in these words then I’m here to pass them onto you and promise you that one day it will be true for you too.


Hold on. 

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. You can find her on twitter @thebandiswithme 

Something Sweet From Nothing

One of the reasons I initially started the Life is Sweet series in 2013, was to give me something to be excited for in February. It's such a bleak time of year, and the project gave me something positive to look forward to. Thank you to Jess for being a part of this year's series and sharing her thoughts on how she manages to get through our tough winter months.

In the midst of a typical emotionally- and mentally-challenging January, I felt stuck for what to write in response to Ashley’s open call for friends interested in participating in her annual Life Is Sweet project. January tends to be a tough month for me, although nothing especially bad had happened last month (besides a long-running cold and an injury, which both interfered with my running!). Yet, I was feeling pretty down from a combination of stress, SAD, and what I perceived as a series of negative circumstances. So what to say?

Running is my usual head-clearing, heart-filling activity – I’ve seldom been able to clear my head and stop the nagging thoughts in my head in any other physical activity, like yoga, in the same way I can with running. However, I feel somewhat helpless to dig myself out when I can’t run due to injury, sickness, or long work hours. And after the relatively lackluster month of running I’d been having, it didn’t feel like the main thing I wanted to contribute here.
Perhaps coincidentally, given the name of this project, what’s always been able to give me a boost is baking. I had free reign of the oven by age 8. My parents have long said that if they came home from work and smelled something delicious, they knew I’d be in a good mood. But I didn’t always begin baking in a good mood. I struggled with anxiety and depressive symptoms from a young age (my parents even gave me a pre-teen self-help book called “Fighting Invisible Tigers.”). Although I didn’t think of it this way until years later, I had discovered baking as a way for me to change some incredibly negative emotions into something positive in a short period of time (albeit with consequences for my physical state!).
I can think of few activities that are as transformative for me as baking. You combine some basic ingredients that aren’t really that remarkable individually, and within about 30-60 minutes, you’ve produced something that smells and tastes good. Plus, you can share with others to bring them some small bit of joy as well. How awesome is that?
But the process itself, I think, is what’s most invaluable to me. I truly have to focus; if I miss a step, it may turn out inedible. I can’t really use my phone, or do any other concurrent activities besides listening to music (an integral part of my baking process, to the point that I used to include “listening notes” on my baking-focused Tumblr). I can’t be anxious while baking, or if I am, the process forces me to slow down, take one thing at a time, and get a handle on what I’m doing. It’s an idiosyncratic form of therapy, but it’s one that consistently calms me down.

For me, baking is similar to running insofar as I have to disconnect from others for awhile, but it feels slightly less selfish because the end result is something I can share. If I’m honest with myself, though, a great deal of my baking is utterly self-serving, because I just want to create. I need the focus that baking affords me. Making something from nothing gives me a total sense of control, at times when I may feel like I lack any control over my life.

March Challenge Group

I finished Insanity Max:30 this week and will be posting my full thoughts and results on the blog next week. Corbin took some progress photos on Monday and it was awesome to see the changes I've been able to make in my body over the last 6 months.

Ashley Gibson - Beachbody Coach progress


There's been no gimmicks or magic here. Just hard work, consistency and incredible support from my coach, team and challengers. It hasn't been easy, but it's been totally worth it!

Last month, I talked about my monthly Challenge Groups, and why they've made such a big impact on my journey. I am constantly reminded of this when I check in with my challengers each day. Our February group (Fired Up in February!) is rockin' and it's just incredible to see the commitment these gals have to their health and fitness journeys! I love the discussion that ensues with our daily assignments and the support that everyone offers to one another is generous and sincere. While we may all be meal prepping, planning and exercising on our own at home, it's awesome to know that there's a group of people doing the exact same thing!

Are YOU looking to make a change?
Do you need some extra motivation and accountability?
Would it be helpful to have other people there to cheer you on?
Do you need to be pushed outside your comfort zone?

I'm currently looking for 5 new challengers to join our March group beginning March 2nd, and would love for you to be one of them!

You'll be all set up for success with a stellar fitness program (that can be completed in a short amount of time, in the comfort of your own home with minimal/no equipment necessary), a nutrition plan, stellar nutritional support with Shakeology, an incredible group to keep you accountable and motivated and me as your Coach. There are programs designed for people at all different levels of fitness, with different goals, aspirations and preferences.

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Awful Sweet, to be a Little Butterfly

The statistics say that 1 in 5 Canadians will deal with a mental health concern in their lifetime. The other 4 out of 5 will know someone with mental illness. While it may not be something we deal with directly, we will most certainly encounter at least one person in our lifetime who has a mental health concern. I appreciate Lacey sharing the story of her friend, Nel for the Life is Sweet series.

When I was eighteen years old I moved into my dorm at university and met the quiet and pretty girl that lived across the hall from me.
 

Her name was Nel.

Well, her name was actually "Ellen" but everyone called her Nel.

She was nice and also into theatre. Her study music was showtunes. 

She would post pictures and quotes on her dorm room door. It's been ten years, but I still remember two of them because they resonated with me. One said: "If you are not enraged, you are not paying attention!" and the other said: "I want to live in a world where schools are fully funded and the army needs to hold bake sales." I thought she possessed an unusually high level of social awareness for an eighteen year old. I followed her example.

Nel and I had acting class together. I thought she was brilliant. I felt like she could see colours no one else could. Like a butterfly.

During our time at school together, I learned that Nel was a talented writer. She was working on a manuscript and asked some of her friends to read it for the first time. The manuscript was a story about her time in an eating disorder treatment facility. Nel was good at conveying what it was like to have anorexia, and the difficult road to recovery. 

After school Nel went travelling. It was one of her favourite things to do. I followed her Facebook pictures closely, and since our time at university, we ran into each other at Hart House, Pride and here and there. Our text messages always consisted of plans to meet up that never came to fruition.

Despite this, mine and Nel's friendship was very active on Facebook. Nel posted statuses and memes about issues very close to my heart. It was also apparent that Nel was suffering from severe depression by this time, as she was very open about it online. She would post memes every other day that would attempt to describe what it was like to live with a mental illness. I admired her so much, she was so desperately trying to get people to understand. It is important for people to try and understand what living with depression is like. She was so brave to rail against the stigma. 
 And I thought Nel would win. I thought that she would go on to help end the stigma against mental illness and be a voice of strength for other people who were suffering. I thought for sure the darkness wouldn't take her.

This is why I was surprised, taken aback, devastated that on January 5th, 2015, Nel took her own life. I wasn't doing anything important that day. Just work and the gym. I would give everything I have to go back and be with her on that day. Beg her not to leave. Convince her that she had made enough of an impact in my life that if she was gone, I would care. Oh God, I would care.  

This threw into sharp contrast just how serious depressions is. Like cancer, like heart disease, it takes people. It affects those suffering from it, and it affects those around the people who suffer from it.

This is my hope for the future, that these facts become widely acknowledged. That depression is a real illness, that is can be life threatening, and that doesn't only affect those suffering from it, but the friends, families, coworkers, lovers of those who suffer from it as well.

Now Nel is no longer here to keep fighting. So I will. For her. 

I'll start by going here:

--

Lacey is a freelance Stage Manager who studied at York University. She enjoys biking, singing and playing guitar. Coffee and wine are her favourite potions and poisons.

The Other Side of the Story

Welcome to the third annual Life is Sweet month on Dancing Through Life. Over the month of February, I'll be sharing posts from a variety of guests who have offered to share their stories of mental health, mental illness, suicide and loss. The last 2 years of posts have provided an outlet for people to share their stories and continue the conversation about mental health. You can read the posts from previous years, here and here

I hope that you're visit the blog this month to read the stories of my guest bloggers and continue to open up the dialogue about mental health by sharing their stories via social media with the hashtag, #lifeissweet. 


Life is Sweet on the Dancing Through Life blog, sharing stories of mental health, mental illness, suicide and loss

I had connected with Justin last year about contributing to the series, but my message was lost in Facebook's 'Other' inbox. I'm thankful that we were able to connect and appreciate that he was willing to share his story. 

=== WARNING: TRIGGER ALERT. ===

I don't like February. It's never been a favourite month of mine. The cold. The dreary weather. The constant grey.

While February has been dubbed "the dead of winter", the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Health Statistics have both reported that suicide rates in the United States are lowest during the winter months and highest in the summer and spring. Despite this, popular belief tends to promote the line of thinking that most suicides peak during the winter months. (Source)

I've been very public about my struggle with depression, and with the recent passing of well-known public figures such as Robin Williams and many others who have struggled with mental health issues, as well as the recent #BellLetsTalk day, this topic has only become more important to me.

However, there's a side of this story that I haven't shared publicly. A side people haven't heard before. It's the dark side of this story, one that deserves to be told.

To begin explaining this story is to go way back into time. All the way back to the beginning, some 30 years ago.

I grew up in a violent environment where fear and intimidation were omnipresent. Where the threat of violence was always around the corner - and in many instances, it appeared out of nowhere. An environment where the act of violence was carried out without understanding what the end result might be. The bruises, the blood and the inevitable tears were not the final outcomes.

Those final outcomes were a lack of self-esteem. A crippling lack of confidence. A loss of trust. The feeling that I would never be the same. That safety and security would always be elusive.

The feeling that I would never be worthy of being loved, that I would never be capable of loving something or someone else and that I would never be accepted were always there, lurking just below a blistered, bruised and battered surface.

But most of all, I was left with feelings of betrayal, confusion and anger. How could this happen to me? How could anyone willingly do this to another person, despite the obvious signs of fear, suffering and sadness?

I believed that I could never love myself and that I would forever be an empty shell of a person who couldn’t offer something to the world - someone who, despite their best efforts, would never be good enough.

For many years, I struggled with these feelings. I blamed myself. I began to believe that it was somehow my fault, that I had done something terrible to do deserve this. These feelings began to manifest themselves in some pretty terrible ways.

I began to shutdown. I started filing away the feelings and emotions, resolute in my desire to never let anyone see the side of me that had eroded at every aspect of my being.

On October 14th 2014, I came dangerously close to committing suicide.

To seriously consider suicide is the unlike any feeling I've ever had. It was a feeling of utter emptiness. I felt nothing except incredible disappointment, overwhelming sadness and that ending it all was the only way to make it go away.

I remember standing on the subway platform and thinking that jumping in front of the train would be easy, quick and painless. While I teetered on the edge of life and death, I began to think about all the things that could go wrong. Would I live and be horribly incapacitated? Who would see this happen? What would my family think? Would they understand? Would this make them understand that the gravity of my situation warranted such a decision?

I saw their faces, their disappointment, and realized the finality of it all. I broke down in tears and collapsed on the platform. The utter disappointment I felt was nothing what they would experience in the years to come as they would have to explain what happened, why I did it, and the hole it would leave in their lives.

I called a friend, and while I don't remember exactly what I said, I remember feeling as though I could never claw my way back to a sense of belonging. A sense of being needed. A sense of being loved and being wanted. A place where I'd be loved and cared for - and cared about.

What followed this were a few weeks of living in a robot-like trance where I felt nothing. I was tired most of the time, yet I couldn't sleep. I displayed no emotion, yet I cried numerous times a week. I couldn't think straight, yet my mind raced and was thinking a million different thoughts at once.

It came to a head in December, when I finally broke down and told someone what I was going through. This was the first time I openly cried and explained what had happened. I felt lost, and until then, it was as though I was wandering through a desolate place where there was no-one to talk to and nothing I could do to escape what I was feeling.

In short, I was an emotional wreck. Having that conversation, and the many that have followed since, have been both revelatory and exhausting.

Since then, I've learned a few things about how I deal with my mental health issues.

I've learned how to rewrite my history. For many years, I let the actions of an angry individual define my future, dictate who I am and determine what I'm capable of. I've come to realize that my past doesn't define who I am. Realizing this has been the most freeing moment of certainty I've had in quite some time.

The world is a gift shop. There are so many beautiful things to be seen, if only we open our eyes. I've made a conscientious choice to ignore the negatives, the things that affect my mood, the behaviours that have contributed to my feeling of frustration. Instead, I choose to see the positives in this world and focus on those things.

I am safe. I am loved. I have people who love and care for me. Realizing this seems easy to most, but I am not most people. For a long time, I certainly didn't feel like "most people". In some aspects, I still don't. But as the days go by, pieces of the old me disappear, and are replaced with understanding, awareness and a resolve to be mindful, be open, and be receptive.

Do I still harbor feelings of disappointment? Yes. Do I still have feelings of confusion? Sure. These feelings won’t disappear overnight, and I’m fairly certain I will probably always have these feelings, but through therapy, I've come to learn they're manageable. With a bit of work, I have developed a strategy for dealing with the triggers that have historically been associated with these feelings. Having a strategy to recognize the triggers and manage their outcomes has been at times difficult to learn, but one that was necessary in better understanding the effects mental health has on me and my behaviour.

I can't say my struggle with mental health is over. I think it will be with me for the rest of my life. But starting this month, and every month, I choose to be happy. I choose to be open, be receptive and mindful of the beautiful things this world has to offer.

I choose to not let my past define me. Instead, I choose to use my past as as a series of stepping stones along the path to doing great things.

I choose not to suffer alone. Because while it can feel as though we suffer alone, let me say this: You're not alone. I know that it feels that way sometime, but this couldn't be further from the truth. If you ever feel that way, I want you to remember these three very important words: You're not alone.

We can support each other. We can laugh together, cry together, and learn together. We're all in this together, and when we support one another - in the good times and the bad - we can come back into the light and see the world for how it really is: A beautiful place full of even more beautiful things.

All we need to do is open our eyes.

Justin Kozuch is a Toronto-based technology reporter covering startups, mobile and marketing. When not staring into his computer screen, he can be found exploring the Ontario backcountry, reading a book or enjoying a glass of scotch.