One of my goals with The Great Maternity Leave, from the get-go, was to step into a place of total openness, transparency, and authenticity. Something I think is so badly needed in our world – and that is happening in leaps and bounds thanks to the internet 🙂 and of course, really brave people.
It’s f*cking terrifying opening up on a blog because it’s such a personal thing to do, and you live in fear of being flamed, or somebody poking you right in that really vulnerable space with a comment on the blog. It takes huge steps to open up in the blogosphere, and I applaud every single one of you, especially you mamas who do it, openly, knowing that others will apply their assessments and judgements in ways that may not be helpful to you in your journey.
Today I want to talk about the peaks and valleys of your mental health. I’m really damn happy most of the time, but sometimes,
once every few years, things get shitty.
Let’s talk about that today. Because I’m there.
I’m 6 weeks back in at work now, and we’ve dealt with a few major things.
Wildfire natural disaster: Extended family were evacuated and my husband flew to the fire to fight it as a firefighter while I helped evacuees at the University (my work place.)
Family Tragedy: As husband arrived home, his dad was medevaced home from his South American cruise, straight to our local trauma hospital’s intensive care unit.
He was removed from life support 3 weeks ago.
Childcare Scrambling & Training Courses: In the aftermath of a major loss, my husband was put onto a major 3 week course, which left him having to work his but off and remain totally focused, and us scrambling for childcare.
First, the ICU part. Visiting the hospital was an interesting experience for me. It bought back many, many memories from only 3 years before – when the cancer / special services building became our second home as caregivers of a terminal cancer patient. Walking over on my lunch breaks from campus, the halls of Foothills hospital seemed eerie some days. It was a strange case of de ja vu.
On a few occassions, I caught myself getting out of breath and panicky seeing oxygen tanks and hearing someone struggling to breathe. For a long time, this was a trigger for me. I knew going into the ICU again, it would probably happen. Each time, I’d U-Turn and head straight back outside for a gulp or two of fresh air before summoning up courage and heading back in, my step triggering the sliding doors. I’d get through the door then that rush of hospital air, with its chemical smell, bought back crystal-clear memories.
Amidst trips to the ICU, stressed family, childcare logistics (and the difficulty of leaving your sobbing baby at childcare when you already feel crappy) and barely enough time to cook a meal, I was trying to get back into work after mat leave.
It’s difficult when you go through major life events, because they do eclipse your job. Photocopying or printing a report at work pales in comparison to consulting with a Doctor over rescucitation orders. I have to be honest about that. When you are dealing with major family medical emergencies, there are days where you stand at the printer, or type out and email and thing this is so meaningless. How does this matter? It’s a natural process in your brain, but at the same time it’s a totally unfair benchmark / comparison to make. You’re constantly struggling with your point of view and perception.
Yet you can’t just give up. You have to walk from the ICU, to your office, and show up with a smile on your face, with the same dedication and commitment.
I was feeling incredibly proud of how my husband and I came out of this insane 6 weeks, how we handled our stress levels and came together as a supportive team. I was pumped about how we entered mid-June totally exhausted but emotionally, pretty intact. Maybe a bit discombobulated – but intact.
But two weeks ago, at the conclusion of all of this, I started experiencing some interesting things that made me sit up and take notice.
I’m going to be very open, honest and transparent here, because it is my wish that one day, anyone can be themselves without fear – without reservation – It is my wish that we can and talk openly about these totally normal, totally human challenges.
On a camping trip two weekends ago, I had a FULL blown melt down in our camping trailer. It was a rain downpour and a tears downpour. I had a full emotional blow out. It’s been a long time since one of those. Me, two crying kids, and a very small space. I felt like the walls were closing in on me inside our small trailer. I couldn’t catch my breath or think clearly. Rather than gallop away, my brain melted into a puddle. It literally shut down. Went offline.
All I needed to do was pick up a bottle, feed it to my baby and corral my toddler so I could get the crib assembled. Oh, and put a jacket on my daughter. That’s it. I.Just.Couldn’t.Even. I could not think clearly enough to remember those simple tasks were what I needed to do. I was standing there crying, saying “where’s the bottle!” when the bottle was right in front of me on the counter top. My brain had flatlined and I was so confused. Bursting out of the trailer, I sat on the park bench, in the middle of our campground and sobbed my heart out, alternating with gasps and ranting about a multitude of things while my poor husband looked on, nervously glancing between me and our crying kids with genuine concern on his face, which in itself felt heartbreaking. The last thing you want to do is stress someone out, right? That’s why it is so damn difficult to admit you are doing crappy. After getting my composure back, I entered a careful practice of avoiding eye contact with all of our campground neighbours. We wound up conceding defeat and driving home 3 hours that night with two crying kids, rolling into our driveway at 1 in the morning.
I also started making a lot of minor mistakes at work; of no concern to anyone, but of big concern to me, because it was unusual; I was double booking my appointments in my calendar and having to constantly correct this; forgetting about meetings until the last moment, and having a really, really hard time cutting through brain fog to think clearly about what I had to get done each day. Post it notes became absolutely essential to check off and execute tasks, and I wasn’t able to think about or remember what I had on the go for the next hour, until I consulted my outlook calendar. I couldn’t even look at the iCal on my phone without getting thoroughly confused between my personal and childcare calendars.
This strange confusion also occurred in my car. I’d avoid a back log of traffic with a different route home from work, but then find myself debating my new route back and forth in my head. Stuck in such indecision, I’d wind up missing a turn off and then really putting myself on the wrong route home. This indecision hit at other times in my car. At the weekend I was ridiculously excited to have an hour to myself in the mountains to paddleboard, but the grating indecision between paddle boarding two lakes, led me to drive up and down the highway back and forth between them feeling incredibly anxious. I almost didn’t get out of my car and paddleboard because of it.
Slowly, my excitement to be back at work and social side faded away. I started closing my office door, and needing quiet time to gather enough mental clarity to focus on a big list of tasks. My self talk went from “wooohoo work!” to “holy shit, I just overcame SO MUCH just to be here this morning, I wish I could just pin on my door what it took to be here right now.”
My running, on a high point after a personal best 10k in May, dropped off. My legs on runs are currently feeling like concrete blocks. Running is usually a meditation of sorts, but that clear-headedness, presence and grattitude has been replaced with angst, pain in my foot, worrying, and negative self-talk.
Getting a 3k in has been a challenge. I just stopped going. Today, I managed a nice 10k but rather than delirious happiness (the usual result of a good trail run) I just felt. Well… “Meh.”
There’s a fog. I often hear people with depression talk about how you are walking around in a fog, and you feel strangely detached from everything. This is the one description I “get” – many of the others I don’t. It’s like everything is muted. Have you ever had a dream where everything is fuzzy, or you are being “blocked” by some invisible force from what you want to do – like when you run away in a nightmare and you run in slow motion? – my reality feels like that. Strangely blocked. Things that bring me ridiculous joy and enthusiasm are blunted. I have zero desire to get out of bed. I’m not singing my heart out on my drive to work like I usually am. But nobody knows that you’ve gone from technicolour to black and white, because this experience is an internal experience.
I was extremely careful with enough rest, as I knew my body was under extra stress, yet exercise, healthy eating, 8 hours of sleep most nights, and some lunchtime naps wasn’t helping what I can only describe as crushing fatigue. In the past week, I’ve been waking up with a start after nightmares, mostly around the 3am mark, and feeling really “amped up” in the morning. I cut back on coffee and started taking advil to release some of the squeezing pressure I feel in my head.
This morning, running, I felt like my heart was going to explode, yet I was doing a regular pace / distance for my runs.
Self doubt sneaks in too. Out of nowhere I am doubting myself, whether people like me, whether I am annoying to people. It’s so ridiculous to say this. But it’s real. I went from happy go lucky, couldn’t give a shit, living my life, being inspired and inspiring others to, worrying about all of my least attractive and most annoying traits, and noticing only those.
All of a sudden, I notice myself just being me, and then lump on negative assessments, thinking “ugh, you probably shouldn’t do that.” You get a bit paranoid. I started wondering if our friends were super disappointed in us and thought we were flaky for bailing on our camping trip after my meltdown. Of course not, they’re best buddies of ours and totally understand. But in my mind, it balls into a totally inaccurate and unhelpful self-assessment. Then I withdraw from spending time with friends because I think “they must find me so annoying.” This is precisely the thinking I worked hard to escape in my teens. Why is it back? Ugh.
Four years ago, I went through what I prefer to call a “slump” that mostly presented itself as backslide in sleep hygeine, resulting in brutal insomnia and crushing sadness – I sought out a good psychologist and with medication and counselling, managed to get my sleep hygeine back on track which slowly led to physical and mental improvements and a great bounce back to my usual happy self. From that point on, I was incredibly careful with self care, advocacy, sleep quality and quantity, knowing that it was the key to my health.
So in the past two weeks, I couldn’t help but think, holy shit, am I going through a slump again? But then I’d say to myself,
No! That’s impossible. You eat healthy, you exercise, you LOVE your job, you have a good life – there’s nothing to be in a slump about!
This is the struggle with mental health. Our human brains just want to explain everything with cause-and-effect.
But mental health is much more complex than that.
There’s good practices, but that’s only one thing. There’s your brain chemistry, your biology, your genetics and if you are into that kind of thang, energy dynamics.
There’s so much more to it than eat healthy and sleep / exercise. Some of it is out of our hands, yet we get caught up in the thinking that all of our mental health can be controlled with a nice checklist of good practices. Nope. Sometimes, shitty life events happen, sometimes your brain chemistry is off. And you just need to roll with it and adjust accordingly.
I’m very guilty of cause-and-effect thinking:
Carina, you shouldn’t be feeling this crappy. Just go for a run and drink your green smoothies.
You know what else is tricky? How do you know the difference between a “funk” and a “slump” ? When should you consider going to a counsellor and checking in with your doctor? These are questions that are SO tough to answer because the human experience itself, in all its wonder and glory, is a mix of ups and downs. That is the very beauty and gift of being human. So when do you bring in the extra reinforcements? When is a down, a down that needs you to come out of the closet and get help?
I hate that google searches usually returns a few depression questionnaires, or extreme case studies – because my experience with mental health slumps haven’t necessarily check off the boxes in a neat fashion. There’s lots of days I am happy. I practice great self care. I always have an inner pilot light that says “it will be ok.”
I don’t think anyone’s experience with mental health lines up with clinical questionnaires. Every person’s life, lifestyle, brain, personality is just so unique.
I whole heartedly believe the biggest stride anyone can make in mental health is committing to understanding oneself.
Checklists, questionnaires and professionals are good, but before you get there, work on self-awareness so you know when things are not normal for you.
My normal, is not your normal, is not your best friends’ normal.
Mental health is about picking up subtle changes and saying “ah-hah, let’s pay attention to this.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts, and experiences. Let’s chat in the comments below.
Sometimes the Depression Self-Screening Tests are just too clinical, and the symptoms don’t really “click” with you. Some of the criteria are general, and if you’re suffering from depression, specifics are easier to understand.