The Answer

I’ve been in a place in my life lately where I have been seeking and feeling very unsettled. It seems to be going around. I have a few friends who have been struggling with some significant decisions as well. Lots of questioning and soul searching has been happening.

With some, it’s a matter of choices. There are clear and laid out options. This or that, or maybe a few this and thats but essentially, the options are known. The talks and texts…the coffee dates and the walks… all connecting and trying to come to some sort of place of knowing, really knowing what is the “right” decision to make. Weighing all the pros and cons and talking it over for hours. Calculating out and projecting and trying to make rational and logical decisions over matters of the heart and spirit. What it inevitably comes down to is what “feels” right. What does your gut say? What sits right in your heart?

At the end of it all, when you take the chatter and the lists and the scales of option a or b away… you’re left with the truth. The scary truth that we avoid with a vengeance.

The truth is, we each know the answers we are searching for. We know the answer even before we’ve let ourselves pose the question; because, by the time we start to question, the answer has been found inside already. The question is our mind and hearts way of bringing us to that answer. Sometimes it takes a little longer and sometimes we have false starts and we pick the other option that we know, deep down, isn’t “right”. But the fact is that even then, it is right. For that time. Because it wasn’t the right time yet to make the choice we need to make. But we find our way eventually. We always will, if we look inside and listen. That’s where the answer is. Always has been, always will be.

The place I have found myself in is a bit different. There’s no way to listen to the answer because I’m stuck with my Self not being able to bring through the question yet. Just unsettled and knowing that there’s a maelstrom brewing underneath. A change needed, a time of growth is here and a direction needs to be seen. Some answers have already been discovered and they feel right. But there’s more. Not sure exactly what or how or where but a calmness is inside, knowing that the answers I look for are waiting for me to find them. And I will.

“And he turned out just fine…”

It strikes me sometimes how far-reaching and entangled mental health issues can be and how it impacts me in so many ways.
How it alters so many aspects of life. How Willie, and his life and his death are enmeshed in even simple interactions that seemingly wouldn’t have any connection.

I was talking with a colleague today who is in the process of working out details of coming back to work after a maternity leave. As it happens with a couple of people who have the common bond of having had children, talk turns to commiserating on sleepless nights and teething and general craziness of infancy and toddler behaviour.

She is the new mother of her first child, a son. Her and I have a good work relationship with a friendship bond as well. She is one of the very few people at work that know that I have lost a child, and that it was to mental illness ending in his suicide.
Amongst the laughter and the sharing of frustrations and story telling of common moments shared of parenting, I offered the simple encouragement that it does get easier. That while the nights of no sleep and the endless-feeling days of wondering if you made the right decision are taxing, it’s all so worth it – and that even the hardest and most challenging kidlets turn out just fine. A simple and heart-felt – and sincere – shared thought.

There was a moment when she said that she wasn’t sure he would ever sleep through the night… I started to say that Willie was the worst sleeper I had, he was awake every night for hours and it went on for months but that eventually he settled out his rhythm and became a great sleeper… I started, then stopped…. and purposely changed it from “Willie” to another sons name. Why? Because the stigma still sits heavy. Because I am too scared of what her reaction will be when I tell her that Willie had the same behaviour as her son has. Because I’m too scared that I will put that thought in her head of “what if?”. Because the I don’t want to risk the look on her face that will say “but he DIDN’T turn out ok, did he?” So I changed the name… and she didn’t notice, why would she?

It strikes me that maybe I shouldn’t have changed the story. Maybe I should have spoken up and taken that moment to help force the acknowledgment that how Willie was as a baby wasn’t indicative of what was to come. Being a rough sleeper is not at all uncommon and not something to think of as a herald of mental illness. But the fact remains that I couldn’t utter the words “and he turned out just fine” now could I? Because he didn’t.

So another encounter that has no apparent relation to mental health or suicide plays connect the dots again for me. Leaving me wondering how and when and if it will ever be different. Or easier. Or better.

The Seeking Spirit

I came across a term today that struck me and inspired me to put to words something that has been on my mind for the last year or so.
“The asking animal”, a term used to describe the human animal. What it is that makes us different from the other animals that we share nature with. Got me thinking though… are we all “asking”, or as I phrase it, seeking?

There are those of us who are seekers. Those who hunger and thirst for the “why” and for so much more that the status quo in life. Those who aren’t content with just accepting. Those who see where they are, not as the destination, but as just part of the journey. Not to say that this is the same as being always looking for the next best thing or the greener grass just on the other side of the fence. I’m talking about seeking and journeying towards more intangible gains. The striving to understand, to grow and become “more”. To desire to expand and experience rather than to be complacent. The wanting to be a better Self, a more aware Self, a more realized and actualized Self.

There are those who simply exist and bumble along in their lives. Like someone who simply drifts in the canoe down the river while the oars rest in the bottom of the boat. Maybe enjoying the ride and even looking around and appreciating the view. Happy with the direction of travel but not in control of where they go or how they get there even. They never wonder if there is a different stream to travel; one that might offer an alternate environment. They never think to take time to rest in a nook, to get out of the current for a bit. They never pick up the oars. They never even think to, never mind act on the thought. They never think of the even more radical idea of getting out of the boat altogether and striking out on foot for the mountain in the distance. The live aimlessly and complacently with whatever comes their way.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the option of simply drifting isn’t for me. Seeking and growing is who I am and how I live my life. It goes beyond just acknowledging that I am in control of my reactions to what comes my way. It’s an awareness that , in most ways, I can orchestrate how my life is lived and experienced. I may not always have control over what comes my way, but the reality is that I, we, have more input than we think we do.

To seek, to yearn and be in a constant state of growth. This is who I am. Life took a bit of a veer off for me in my twenties as I stumbled through a bad marriage and trying to live as I “should” but about 15 years ago, I made a choice to change the way I was living. I embraced who and how I am. Embraced that the striving and constant yearning to seek is me…and that it’s how I need the people who I keep close to me to be as well.

This past couple of years, living with grief and pain and finally seeing that I am the builder of my life, again. Putting it back together again after it had been torn apart by loss. Part of that entailed rediscovering that my Self craves holding the rudder and oars of my vessel. That it’s who I am. That I am happiest when the people I hold dear to me not only accept but share this embodiment of living. Choosing to cultivate relationships with the people in my life as purposely as I need to craft the rest of my environment for my Self to live. Making choices in drawing closer to those who grow and feed my spirit through friendship, chosen family and loves. Persons who support me and nurture me and accept me, as I do for them. The joy of being with those who lift me up and who I delight in seeing thrive in their travels through life. Hard choices also being made to release from my life those who merely drift and whose path encumbers mine in an unhealthy and suffocating manner. Understanding that for some, the oars will never be used and it’s time to wish them well and watch them drift away.

It means being happy and content with what and where I am but knowing that to stagnate here and to stop yearning and growing and opening my mind and my heart is to die.

No, not kitten scratches

Kitten scratches? That’s how my therapist/colleague addressed the scars on my arms today. I had to change into a gown at work today to have some work done on my neck and the gown had short sleeves, exposing my arms.

I’ve been pretty open on this blog that cutting has been something that I have done over the past couple of years. This, has some explanation, but to summarize; I have cut. Cut enough that there are scars and the scars are very visible.

I was alone in the room with the Physiotherapist and the concept that the scars on my arms had been caused by kitten scratches was ridiculous and I knew he knew that. So I was honest and I said they were caused by self-cutting. And every bit of fortitude that I had went out the window. As his manager, I am in a position of being seen as competent and strong and in control. Cutting doesn’t exactly exude those qualities and I found myself feeling like crawling under the bed instead of the usual sense of strength that I have at work as I tried to give him an understanding of the issue. He was understanding and we had a brief conversation but I could sense that he was somewhat uncomfortable so the discussion was short. It isn’t any different from it ever has been; discussions surrounding mental illness makes people not all that comfy.

I was brought face to face with the fact that there is no way to explain or describe the “why” of cutting without sounding like it, and you, are pretty much “crazy”. No matter how much I know that it is a safer outlet for dealing with the emotional pain of loss, grief and depression…safer than a more permanent option to get away from the pain…when you try to offhandedly explain it to someone you are suddenly very aware of just how not “normal” it appears.

My psychiatrist worked very hard with me about not feeling shame or embarrassment about the cutting. He took so much time to explain that sane, healthy, “normal” and rational people cut. That cutting is a coping and processing mechanism. That yes, how I described the need to transform the emotional pain to a palpable, tangible form of pain to process is valid and is not “crazy”. That’s all well and good but the truth is that society and our culture and the vast majority of people I will ever run across will look at the scars and hear my attempt to explain and they will see it for what it is perceived; a physical representation of weakness, instability, unreliability and mental illness. The truth is that mental illness is still equated with all those attributes and that doesn’t bode well for those of us who know that we aren’t any of those things.

Yes, I live with mental health issues. The majority of people do at some point or another in life. Does that make me unstable or weak? No. Do the scars scream that to people. Yes, sadly. What’s even worse though is that, regardless of my journey and my education in these matters and my work within myself, there are times that I see them for that. And I feel the embarrassment and the shame. I feel the weakness that they proclaim to everyone else. I feel that deeply and intimately, and it hurts. Today is one of those days.

Holiday Traditions

Dinner this evening marks something for me that’s both good and hard.

This will be the first turkey dinner, or any holiday dinner, that I’ve cooked since December 2011. December 2011 was the last family dinner that I cooked. It was the last holiday that I was together with all of my children. Willie died less than 2 months later and life has gone sideways in so many ways since then.

Between Willie dying and me moving and the other boys feeling scattered to the winds, family dinners and holidays in general have just been too much hurt to even want to try to get through. I also had the great excuse that my oven in my rental unit was unpredictable and hence, no turkeys. A new oven and now that excuse is gone and I’ve had to face the real reasons.

I readily admit that I have always been someone who loves holidays. Christmas was a great one because the kids were off school for so long and my work would wind down so there was tons of time to just hang out together and have fun and relax. Being not religiously inclined and not materialistic, it wasn’t about the “traditional” aspects for me (and I tried to make it as non-commercial as I could muster for the boys). Presents were second fiddle to the breakfast on Christmas morning and the dinner and the simple laying around watching movies or going for walks and seeing the neighbourhood covered in snow and quiet from all the usual business. Loved it. Since Willie died, Christmas has been as non-existent as I can make it. The new normal is so far removed from what it was and what made it great that I haven’t even wanted to try to make new traditions. That’s slowly changing I think. The hurt isn’t as acute now and I see that, while it’ll never be the same, it can be great still, just different.

Thanksgiving this weekend has hit me surprisingly hard though. It has always been a small and pretty easily whipped through holiday. I’ve loved it because it always heralded the oncoming fall slow down and wrap up to the big “ahhh” of Christmas holidays. A starter pistol so to speak. Not to mention that I love to cook a big dinner and Thanksgiving was just another reason to pull out the morning cinnamon buns and get the house steamed up with turkey smells.

This year I have my second oldest son living with me and the seemed a reason to maybe toss out the idea of doing a dinner. He loved the idea and I jumped on board. Momentarily excited and loving the idea. Don’t get me wrong here, I DO love the idea. But I hadn’t realized what emotions it would stir up. A very much needed shopping trip last night and the snowball of emotions is under way…

Shopping first for a turkey and, after wandering to the monster sized birds, realizing that for just myself and Son 2, I wouldn’t need 25lbs. Over to the smaller birds and realizing again that it seems so altered. What in the world do I do with a 10 lb bird? It looks just simply wrong. Oh well, on to the fixings to make the rest of it happen. A reality hit that I have no spices in the house, more things to purchase. Aisle after aisle and a strange feeling of familiarity and oddness mixed. It’s all the same – the potatoes, the gravy, the seasonings, bakery bread for stuffing, onions… – all the same but so fundamentally NOT the same now. As I wander to get butter I see the pressure canned cinnamon buns and tears pop up. Twice a year those would be breakfast (rarely more than that). Thanksgiving and Christmas morning, Pillsbury cinnamon rolls. Resplendent in their chemical and manufactured yumminess. A tradition from when the boys were tiny little kidlets that has become a sense of must-have for them on these dates. I picked it up and it was coming home with me.

So I sit here this morning, smelling the cinnamon rolls that just came out of the oven. Listening to the shower of Son 2 as he putters and gets ready. The dichotomy of loss and what I still have spins me from the inside out and I wonder when will it get easier to just enjoy what is here and not feel, so profoundly, the pain of what’s not anymore.

How far we’ve come? I think not.

I’ve had this blog bouncing about in my head for the last week or so and have been so emotional and upset that It’s been “stuck”. Let’s see if I can shake it loose… settle in, this is a long read …

Mental health and how we handle it in the workplace is something that I have lived with for a while now. Personally, it started back when Willie became ill and I found that I had no idea what to say when people asked how things were going. So I didn’t say anything. I went through months of hell while we struggled privately as a family to try to get Willie help and later, to try to keep him here and stop him from the suicidal thoughts that plagued him.

No one knew except for my very close colleagues who were also my friends. I shuffled my schedule around and had the blessings to have understanding people who supported me and helped me to be where I needed to be. They accepted that there were days that I was in the bathroom crying more than I was at the desk… and I am grateful for them.

When Willie died, it was many weeks before I went back to work. When I did, it was beyond what I could face. The silence and the looks. The hesitancy of anyone to even acknowledge because no one knew what to say. I finally elected to leave my job that I loved. I felt unable to explain what happened if someone did ask.

Flip to a year later and I am in a new city with a new job that I love and I find myself spiralling down quickly. Grief has turned into a depression that had me barely able to make it to work every day before getting home to fall onto the couch and not move until the next morning. Day after day of struggling to not make the same choice that Willie did. The pain more than I wanted to feel. The cutting started to try to stem the thoughts that I was having to do worse and more final things to myself. Eating and sleeping were almost non-existent. I finally went to my doctor and shared how I was feeling and what I was doing. I was terrified and ashamed and the only reason I did that was because of how scared I was of what I might do to myself. There was still a part of me that was not wanting to be gone.
I was lucky, my doctor saw the crisis and before I got home that day I had an appointment made with an urgent intervention center.

What followed was a year of counselling and eventually medication for a short-term to help with severe depression. Throughout it all, I functioned at my job. Barely. Looking back, I don’t know how really. My psychiatrist suggested and strongly encouraged me to take time off, that he felt I needed to for my own safety and to be able to focus on getting well. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I would explain again and again that, as the manager at my office, I would be jeopardizing my job to go in and explain and admit that I wasn’t “ok”. Why? Because the admittance that I’m not well – mentally and emotionally – still carries a very real and large potential to threaten job security. I’m not stupid, I know that we have laws now that say you can’t be fired for that reason. I’m also not stupid and know that companies have ways around labour laws. A drop in job performance, an unacceptable increase in sick days… there are many ways that depression and mental illness can affect you that you can be fired for. My psychiatrist finally convinced me to talk to my supervisor and explain that I was under care for depression and that I was getting help. His reasoning was that if there was a record that I had been open about it, then it was better than trying to hide it and ending up being fired for performance issues and then trying to save my job by divulging the depression.
My company was understanding and supportive but certainly not overly so. I was told that I had holiday days and could use them as needed for days when I wasn’t well enough to come in. And that was that. I regretted immediately saying anything as the “feel” was different from the words of support.
Time went on and I slogged through. Months have passed now and I function. I still have bad days and days that I just can’t make it in. Days that I have a “migraine” or am “just under the weather”. Wonderful euphemisms.

Which brings me to where I am now with a work situation.

A practitioner at work has been slipping in performance for many months now. Without going into details, it has been apparent that job duties have been lacking and it has seriously affected her performance to the point that it was impacting other practitioners and something had to be done. Repeated meetings and deadline for improvement were met with seeming disregard and a lack of respect. Deadline after deadline passed and finally I set up a meeting to discuss termination. It was at that meeting that she finally told me, in sobs so hard I couldn’t understand her even, that she was struggling with a depression so bad she was seeing medical help and had been advised to take a leave of absence. She explained that this had happened years before and she had pushed through and ended up being hospitalized for her own safety and that this time, she was trying to avoid that. She was apologetic… she was exhausted and she couldn’t hide it anymore. I assured her that her job was safe, she could take a medical leave of absence and when ready to return, we would work that out. Her relief was amazing and I left that meeting drained and emotional, feeling both glad that she finally came to me and told me but also sad that she held it in for so long out of fear of not wanting to admit that she “wasn’t strong enough to be ok” (her words).

So here’s where the issues come up. I have been stunned and shocked by the reactions and responses to this situation at work. I had really thought that we, as a society and as compassionate people, had come farther… but apparently not.

One staff member in particular who is privy to the fact that it is a medical leave due to mental health issues shared this info with just about everyone in the office. I had explained it as a “personal medical leave of absence” but office gossip travels faster than wildfire and by the time I talked to the last person I had to, they already had heard.

Here are some of the reactions;
“You know what her problem is, she’s single. Too much time to think. She needs a social life then she’d be fine”
“What she really needs to do is just hunker down and focus and stop dwelling on being sad. What does she have to be sad about anyways?”
“It’s not like there’s anything actually wrong with her. She’s not sick, she’s depressed. Nothing a walk around the block and some change in attitude won’t fix”

These are well-educated people who work in the paramedical field. People who are nice and caring and considerate people. Yet the prevailing sense is that with mental health, it’s not a “real” medical issue. It is, quite simply, all in her head and she should be able to get over it.

The matter worsened for me when I went to advise my supervisor of the development. What I thought would be a simple act of me reporting and letting her know that the other practitioners would cover her hours and that it was all taken care of turned into a nightmare meeting.
I was advised to terminate her contract. Immediately and to replace her. When I explained that wasn’t appropriate I was given clear direction that she had given us just cause by not fulfilling her job duties (she’s a contractor, not an employee) and that we could, at any time, for no cause even, chose to terminate her contract. Again, I reiterated that letting her go because she is taking a leave for mental health issues is morally and ethically wrong.
I was advised that she was a liability now. That she has shown herself to be unreliable and that we can’t be sure this won’t happen again.
I argued that if she had come to us and said that she needed a leave of absence for a physical medical reason like cancer that we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. The response was that was true, but mental illness affects her ability to perform her job in a way that a physical ailment wouldn’t. That we can’t risk someone who is “unstable”.

I am mad and I am more sad than anything else in some ways because the truth is that we, as a society, haven’t come anywhere near as far as we celebrate. Even myself today, working from home because I couldn’t bounce back from the night of tears and depression last night… I didn’t feel that I could say I was having an emotional day and needed self-care. Why? For all the reasons already shown to me. It would make me appear unstable and unreliable and a liability. That my ability to do my job would be questioned. All because it’s mental health and not a physical ailment that afflicts.

So let’s stop patting our collective selves on the back for all the gains and see things for how they really are.
As a note, the practitioner still has her contract and is not being replaced. I am, after all, the manager and I’m sticking to the fact that it hasn’t to start somewhere if we’re going to change this. She’s taking time off to heal and will be welcome when she is ready to return.

Always reliving

Sitting on the beach last night and wondering when it’s not going to hurt so much on the first of every month. Add in that the first this time fell on a Wednesday, just how it was the day that Willie died, and it’s a double hit.

There are some first days of the months lately that I go along and am aware but not acutely so…but then there are days like yesterday. Days that, no matter how busy I am, the time is with me all day. This was what time he got up that day, this is when he did this, or that, this was when he was found… this was what time it was when I crested the hill coming home and my heart stopped when I saw the police cruiser in my driveway… this was when I was driving to tell my other boys that their brother was dead… this was when I was on the phone with the coroner, asking repeated and stupid questions as my mind tried to grasp what I was being told… this is when..

It went on all day. I found myself sitting on the beach last night ripped apart with remembering. Not because I was bringing them up or wallowing as I have been accused of doing… they come, they just don’t stop, can’t be stopped, sometimes. I relive that day every moment and feel it again, just as painful as that day it seems some times.

Then I wake up on the second and the same feeling that I had on that other second of the month hits me… that it wasn’t a nightmare… that it’s real and nothing can change it.