When You Can’t Trust Your Body

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This will now be my third Bell Let’s Talk Day posting. The first one, “When My Body Is My Worst Fear” was my honest admission that I have anxiety and have been dealing with some form of mental health issue since my teen years. Last year, I wrote “What Talking Taught Me” as a way to express my gratitude, as well as share lessons learned in my journey to good mental health. One thing is certain – the best decision I have ever made about my own mental wellness is speaking up. Last year with my article, I hoped to show others suffering in silence that things can change.

This year, I wanted to go back and talk about what it’s actually like to suffer from health anxiety in particular, and the way my mind works when it comes to my body. I find what helps most to break the stigma around mental illness is talking through our experiences. Through this, we can find common ground with people, and find common solutions. Supporting each other is key to recovery, and what better way to do that than through understanding.

One of the things I continue to struggle with most is trust. I don’t really know when to believe the “signals” my body is sending me. I’ve spent so many years terrified of every sneeze, ache, twinge, spasm, and headache, that it sometimes is impossible for me to tell the difference between a real symptom and a fake one brought on by my anxiety. How vigilant do you consider yourself of your own aches and pains? Do you know how many times a day you feel a pain in your side? How about a spasm somewhere? Do you regularly check your heart beat? Do you remember the last time you had a headache? Do you know exactly how many times you sneezed this morning? Usually, I know the exact answers to all of these questions. This over-monitoring has led me to be incredibly sensitive about any little thing that happens with my body.

It might seem that being acutely aware of your body is a GOOD thing, but anxiety takes advantage of this. Just Google a phrase like “anxiety causing fake symptoms” and see what comes up. Pages and pages of studies, patient questions, etc, of people dealing with symptoms brought on solely because of anxiety. YES – Your body is actually capable of tricking you into thinking you are truly experiencing something! The flip side is, of course, that when my body produces real symptoms – back pain, sore knee, fever, my brain begins to work in overdrive thinking of the WORST.POSSIBLE.OUTCOMES.

Speaking of Google – fellow health anxiety sufferers please STOP asking the internet to diagnose your symptoms. Take it from me – I have convinced myself I have everything from MS to a brain tumour just based on what some sites tells me. It’s a habit that took years to break, but I am so thankful I have (to an extent…). Also – know when to stop reading an article if it’s going to trigger you. I have lost count of how many stories I’ve read about people dying of cancer that have led me on furious Internet searches looking for what symptoms the person had, how they had it diagnosed, etc. I sometimes now have to force myself to stop reading, so I don’t get caught in the cycle.

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But getting back to trusting in my own body, I want to walk through an example and in this case it’s something I have dealt with since being a teenager – heart palpitations. I still remember the first time I ever had one. I was in the movie theatre, eating nachos with gooey cheese when suddenly I had this bizarre flutter in my chest. It scared the hell out of me. It felt like my heart had stopped beating for a split second and then suddenly kick-started itself. I actually stopped eating my nachos entirely because I was scared THE NACHOS were causing my heart to beat irregularly (because you know… somehow nachos can instantly impact my organs like that). I told my parents about it when I got home, and my mom told me that is what her palpitations felt like. Years later, in 2013, I had them tested. That was when I was in a very hypersensitive state, and I was having a lot of severe anxiety symptoms. My palpitations were increasing in frequency and I was terrified that I was on the verge of a heart attack.

The doctor sent me home with a monitor, and anytime I felt a palpitation I was to hit a button, and the monitor would record the event. I had to wear electrode pads on two places on my chest, and somehow had to disguise all the wires every day because I was so embarrassed that I was walking around hooked up to a machine. The results all eventually came back clear – my palpitations are benign. Both my family doctor and therapist at the time explained to me that palpitations are often caused by stress and anxiety. Even just THINKING about palpitations can trigger them. If I calmed down, they would start to become less and less frequent. Easier said than done when at the time I was spending most of my day paying close attention to my pulse, heart beat, and any sensations that could possibly be a palpitation. Breathing exercises to calm myself down rarely worked because I actually got SCARED as I performed them. I became so focused on what my breathing sounded like, and how hard my heart was pumping that I actually was getting MORE anxious as I tried them.

But your heart is important – quite literally without it, you die. So when it has fooled you in the past, how do you really know when it needs real attention? And then begins the next struggle – deciding when to go to the doctor. It’s a real fine line for people with health anxiety. Some, and this once included myself, go to the doctor for every symptom they feel. But you eventually wear out your welcome and the doctor can begin to tune you out and dismiss your fears. Which of course, only fuels your unrelenting suspicions that something is SERIOUSLY wrong with you. So, I set “standards” for going to the doctor (outside of obvious emergencies, like a possibly broken limb or a high fever).

  • Have my symptoms been going on for more than a week? 
  • Are they getting progressively worse and worse as the days/hours go by?
  • Have I had this before? What did the doctor say then? 
  • Can this be explained by anything I have recently done? 
  • Do I have this symptom even when I am not thinking about it? 

See that last question – how often have you had to ask yourself that? For many of you, the answer is probably never. That’s the luxury of trusting your body. You KNOW it isn’t tricking you, because it’s never done it before. For me – I have to be certain “it’s not just all in my head” before going to the doctor. Because I’m always afraid that when I do go to the doctor, I’ll be dismissed because I can’t actually prove the symptom is real.

And getting dismissed is the hardest part. Because at the end of the day – all of this boils down to a fear of dying. More specifically – dying at the result of something I could have stopped. I always think – well what if this stomach ache is actually the beginning of stomach cancer, and if I catch it now I will survive? Or – what if this headache is actually a stroke and if I don’t get to the hospital in the next hour I will die? And even – if I don’t ask the doctor about my heart TODAY, what if I die in my sleep tonight? As I’ve said over and over, anxiety is a control freak. Anxiety makes you think you need to control EVERYTHING so you can stop worrying about EVERYTHING. By controlling my health, I will control what kills me.

So while I have improved over the years, it is still an ongoing battle with myself about when to raise alarm bells and questions about various symptoms and experiences I have with my body. I wish I knew definitively when my body was lying. I wish there was an app I could open that would say “Just your anxiety. You’re 100% fine today” or “You’ve just got a slight cold. You’re operating at about 75% today”. But until then, I’ll stick to my plans of regular physicals, working on calming my anxiety, and avoiding asking the Internet what my symptoms mean. I also have to work on forgiveness – because if I do get really sick, I have to be able to remind myself that it isn’t my fault. As badly as I want to, I can’t control everything – especially  how I’ll die. And then, I just have to hold onto the hope that things will slowly get better, and I’ll slowly stop being afraid.

Thank you for reading! If you are just reading my blog for the first time – welcome! I hope you will all join me on Twitter today to raise money, and awareness, for Mental Health. Remember to use #BellLetsTalk so Bell will donate money towards initiatives in this country to help those in need. 

 

 

Epic Nerves, Hopes, and Fears

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In the days leading up to The Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer benefiting Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, I have been a mixed bag of emotions. I am sad, anxious, scared, excited, and everything in between. My adrenaline was kicking in as early as Monday as I started to fret and worry about what I needed to pack. My anxiety was off and running (or shall I say pedaling? …. I’ll just see myself out…). “Do I have a sleeping bag? Why did I think that was provided? Where are the flashlights? Should I start asking around now for a spare sleeping bag if we don’t have one? When will I have time to buy one if no one can let me borrow one? Have I trained enough? How much should I train this week?  What if I injure myself? What if I slow my team down? What if they don’t like me? What if I am not ready for this? What if I do the Ride, and then find out at my physical next month that I have cancer? Is this some sort of sign that I am destined to get bad news right after I do this event? Am I going to become one of those tragic stories immediately following the Ride? Should I wait to sign up for 2017 in case I get sick?”

The last few should really stick out to you. Only someone with a pretty good anxiety disorder can start to have disastrous thoughts like that. I’ve been doing a decent job of managing my health anxiety as of late. I’ve had a few moments where I’ve thought “UH OH. SOMETHING IS REALLY WRONG.” But I’ve usually talked it out, or solved the problem, and been able to move on with my life. I haven’t Googled any symptoms for at least a month (a VERY long time for me). However, lately, it’s started to creep in. My follow-up colposcopy is coming up in July, and I am terrified that things have gotten worse on my cervix, or that I still have abnormal cells and will need another round of scraping, lasering, and all the rest of it. I’ve been thinking of running another half marathon. However I worry that if I am stuck with another laser treatment it may mean I won’t have enough time to train for the race. But again, this is my anxiety getting ahead of itself. For all I know the tests will come back clear, and I’ll be free to plan my training. But until then, the thoughts continue until I can do something to distract myself.

Those fears aside, I also felt a number of different emotions around all the support I am receiving. It was so inspiring having so many people donate their money to the cause. Money is tight for everyone these days, and I know that feeling of wanting to donate to someone’s cause and thinking “I really can’t afford this” or “I already donated to someone else’s event, so I wish I could donate to this one.” I’ve been there. We all have. So I was very touched that so many people thought to themselves “this is the one I want to support”.

I also know that nowadays, there’s even more awareness about just how much of your money actually makes a difference. I know people who only donate to smaller charities, or local ones. And there is by no means anything wrong with that. So I was also equally happy that so many believed in this cause, and supporting Princess Margaret. I am also happy people didn’t seem to get too annoyed with my postings, fundraising, etc. I don’t like to ask for money, or even ask for help, so it hasn’t been easy for me to be so vocal about fundraising. I am so happy that so many helped me achieve my goal and didn’t just shut me out.

Above all, it was the incredibly kind words that people said to me either when they donated, or after I thanked them. People called me brave, strong, told me what an amazing thing I was doing, and one person even told me “there needs to be more people like you”. Wow. I’ve never felt so empowered, yet humbled, all at the same time. Who am I to be called these things? I’m just saddling up on my bike. To me, the real heroes are the ones doing the scientific research, the ones fighting the good fight every day to beat cancer. I’m not getting chemo. I have my health (as much as I fear it). I feel I am just doing the best I can to help end this disease. I felt like saying, “don’t say these things to me. I don’t deserve them!!” But there again is my anxiety and depression trying to tell me what my self worth should be. I can already hear so many of you getting ready to type “Tesla! You ARE those things because  very few people wouldn’t do this challenge!!!” Don’t worry. I think once I cross the Finish Line I will truly believe all of those words.

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Cheesy selfie I took when it was exactly one month until The Ride

Tying in to that, perhaps the greatest thing I’ve gained in the lead up the Ride is some of my confidence. I feel so incredibly strong when I am on my bike. There’s also an incredible freedom. The city is suddenly my playground. I don’t have my license, so I imagine what I am feeling is what most 16 year old kids experience when they get to finally drive a car. But I have a sense that this is different. Riding a bike is all because of me. My legs get me there. It’s much the same as running. A car didn’t take me 21 km, I did. I’ve found that since getting back on my bike, my body issues have slowly started to fade. Climbing up hills, riding alongside cars, (don’t worry mom, I am being careful on the roads), discovering new parts of my neighbourhood, all of that reminds me to be thankful and be proud. And it gives me a sense of empowerment! I don’t need the TTC! I don’t need a car! I can do it myself!

And remember how I was talking about fixing my spiritual side? Being outside does wonders for that with me. I’ve always felt very strongly connected to nature. Living in a concrete jungle can often take that feeling away. And being stuck indoors all winter can really take its toll on me (this is one reason I try to keep running all winter long). But thankfully, Toronto is a surprisingly green city and you can easily escape the noise, and find tranquility. (Don’t believe me? Head into Sunnybrook Park, or the wetlands behind The Evergeen Brickworks, or down to The Beaches). Whether it’s a run or bike ride, getting to see those sides of the city, smelling the flowers, hearing the birds, meeting new animal friends, and seeing a beautiful sunset, that does wonders for reminding me of all the beauty that’s around us, and that just maybe, something else is out there beyond us.

So all this, all of those thoughts and feelings, will be with me as I hit the Starting Line Saturday morning. My legs will be shaking, butterflies in my stomach, I may be crying, and or might even be laughing (maybe both at the same time!). More than anything, I hope I will be a stronger person when I finish on the other side of the Golden Horseshoe.

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Thank you to everyone who has supported my journey to The Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer benefiting Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. As you can tell, it truly has made an impact.

Thank you also, to Team Tealpower for letting me join the ranks, and embark on this adventure with some amazing people. 

What Talking Taught Me

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It was nearly a year ago today that I opened up about my struggles with depression and anxiety. Today has been on my mind a lot. I’ve thought a lot about what to write, how I want to move forward, and how to encourage others to use this day as the beginning of their road to good mental health.

So, here are the top lessons I have learned from opening my mouth on #BellLetsTalk Day.

Opening Up is the Hardest Part

Admitting you need support is difficult. I waited until I was 29 to tell the world what I was going through. Before then, it was reserved only for partners and maybe a couple friends. Even then, no one knew the true depth of my pain. It’s easy to come up with conversations and scenarios in your mind of how you will tell people. The worst part of having anxiety, though, is that your mind will then come up with 100 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut: “Everyone will think you’re lying”, “no one will want to be your friend anymore”, “you won’t be loved anymore”, “you’ll be made fun of behind your back”, “people at work will think less of you and you won’t get promoted”, “nothing will change anyways, you’ll always be like this”, “your problems are stupid, there are people out there with REAL problems”, and it goes on and on. Before you know it, you’re crying into a bag of chips and feel a lot worse about yourself than when you started. I even know that feeling where you desperately want to say the words “I need help” but your lips feel like they’re sealed shut. I know it feels like you’d rather jump out of your skin and run away forever than have to actually verbalize those words. It’s horrible. It’s hard. But it’s worth it. Once you get over that hurdle, you will find your journey will begin, and you will be so happy to have the weight of the world off your shoulders.

(Side note, those “reasons” your mind comes up with are all why it’s so important for us to change the conversation around mental illness. Stigma kills and hurts in so many ways. By speaking up, and being supportive, you may not change the entire world, but you will change a small part of it.)

You Will Stumble, and Fall

No one is perfect, and no one is cured immediately. Sadly, getting to a place of good mental health takes a lot of work and dedication. I wish it were easy. I’d give anything to just snap my fingers and have all of my obsessive thoughts disappear. But remember, this is why you are strong for getting help, and not weak. The most important thing, though, I have really begun to learn is to not be too hard on myself. The key, for me, when I fall down is to have a plan for getting back up. For example, I am now keeping an Exercise Journal to hold myself accountable for getting back into shape. I mark off days in the calendar with a giant X so I can look back at the month and go “YEAH – Look at what I’ve achieved!”. That sense of accomplishment will help erase your feelings of failure. Will I miss a workout some days? Of course. Will I eat a cupcake instead of fruit? You bet. Just remember to step back, and forgive yourself. You’re not the only one to stumble.

Keep Busy

Find hobbies, and things to help calm your mind. I love my colouring books for example. I can’t meditate – my brain is always in overdrive and I can’t turn it off long enough to meditate properly. But colouring does force me to focus and not think about anything else except which marker to use next. I have also bought some knitting needles and plan to start giving that a try! I like being creative, so those options work best for me. Maybe you will find comfort in something else. You will find that the more you find joy in a small hobby, the less time you find wrapped in pain. And keep a journal! Write down your fears and challenge them when they don’t come true. Write down what made you happy each day. Write down something new you did, or learned. Write, write, write. Remind yourself each and everyday that it isn’t always bad. That even on the darkest days you can find a small bit of light. Even writing “I didn’t cry today” should be remembered as a big moment for a lot of us with depression and anxiety. Write it down so you don’t forget the good.

Turn Off Your Phone

This year, I am making a conscious effort to be checking my phone less and less after I get home from work. Instead of wasting time on social media, I am now researching new recipes, ideas for a balcony garden, or colouring. Now that I am spending less time comparing my life to others, I find myself much happier with who I am. And also, you can’t freak out and get upset over some random Instagram post when you never saw it to begin with. Social media is like gasoline to mental illness’ fire. Turn it off, and you’ll immediately notice a benefit.

Be Mindful 

If you ever find yourself in those never-ending thought cycles, the best way to break it is to instantly focus on exactly what you are doing in that moment. I used to find I would start to have anxious thoughts when doing the dishes. I would mull over moments from the day, and start to get worried about the next day. So I started forcing myself to stop those thoughts and instead think “Now I am washing this butter knife. Now I am rinsing it. It goes into the utensil holder on the drying rack”. It sounds tedious. It sounds boring. And it is, but it works. Do that for the remainder of the activity and you will forget about what was bothering you in the first place. And if it comes back, start it all over again. It also means re-engaging yourself in conversations with friends, loved ones, and co-workers. Start to make memories again. I know that when I spend so much time absorbed in my own thoughts, I find I barely remember where the days go.

Get Sweaty

Exercise in any shape or form can do wonders for depression and anxiety. There’s endless studies about the science behind why, and I’ll leave you to Google, but you really can’t beat a good workout to help calm your brain and unleash a lot of pent up energy. I know for depression, it’s often hard enough to get out of bed let alone go for a run, but maybe start small and promise yourself you’ll go for a walk each day, or do some yoga in the living room. Whatever you do, I’ve always found that it makes the biggest difference in my life.

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Remind Yourself You are Valuable 

I used to write myself really intense motivational messages like “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. YOU ARE STRONG. YOU ARE HEALTHY” and read them over and over again before bed. You might laugh, but it works. Repeating those mantras that YOU have value as a person and that YOU deserve happiness will help you see that you are worth fighting for. For a long time I didn’t think I was any of those things. I thought I was a worthless loser. But here I am, stronger than ever before with a purpose in life. Write down what you need to tell yourself to kick yourself into gear and find your confidence. And read it until you believe it deep into your core.

And finally, and this one is the most important: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. 

The moment I started talking, people starting sharing their struggles with me. It was incredible. And also very sad to know how many people I knew were also hurting. But there’s a strange comfort in numbers. It means you have people in your corner. It means that someone else can understand. It means someone else can help. There’s nothing defective about YOU. We’ve all comes across some form of mental illness in our lifetime. YOU are not broken beyond repair. WE are all here for you.

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So in a year, I’ve turned things around little by little. I still have my down days, and I still have those nagging thoughts that sometimes rear their ugly heads. But I battle through and move forward. I find happiness. I find purpose. You can to. Just take everything one step at a time.

Please don’t be afraid to talk, and also don’t be afraid to listen. We all need to change the way we view mental illness. It’s time we all find the love, comfort, and happiness we deserve.

Thank you for reading, and please share and spread the word to help those suffering in silence. Show them you care.

I’ll be tweeting about #BellLetsTalk all day today, join me and let’s raise some money for mental health initiatives in Canada. 

 

I Can Feel It In My Bones

Stars @ Danforth Music Hall Feb 2015

This past week was a big one for me. I had a scope on my stomach last Thursday afternoon. When I first asked my doctor to refer me to a specialist I was convinced I’d be told I had cancer. I’ve had stomach pain since last Spring, and stomach acid pills haven’t given me much relief. I’ve had ultrasounds, x-rays, everything all come back clear. But my anxiety told me the scope would find something BAD. Then that would be it – no more being in my cousin’s wedding, no more trip to Montreal to see Sam Roberts, no more enjoying my thirtieth birthday party in March. It was all going to come tumbling down in dramatic fashion.

But I held strong. I had some minor anxiety when I was first given my appointment. But I worked through it. I reminded myself about all the benign conditions that are associated with the pain I’ve been having. I refocused my attention on work. Slowly, the anxiety faded. Even when the day came I was managing my anxiety quite well. I expected to be crying, and be a total mess. Usually I walk into tests with this horrible sense of dread. I can’t sit still. I can’t stop thinking about all the things I will miss out on. I feel like running, screaming and staying put all at the same time. But this time was different. This time I was just nervous about the procedure itself, which felt normal. Most people get scared of medical procedures, even people who don’t normally suffer from any health anxiety. Instead of fretting, I was joking with the nurses, I even tolerated multiple needles as they struggled to find a vein to put my IV into. I was more worried I’d say something stupid while drugged up! (According to the doctor, I only muttered something about the TTC). I actually felt pretty positive about the whole thing.

When I came to I was given the good news – my stomach pain is nothing serious. No cancer. No tumours. Just gastritis. I was given a different prescription and sent on my way. There is literally nothing left for me to fear in my body. In the last several years I’ve had just about everything checked, except my brain. I now have every reason to reassure myself that I am OK. That is going to be a big help going forward in my fight against my disorder. (And please note, I do think you should always go to the doctor if you have a symptom that is concerning you, even though sometimes going to the doctor can be just as scary as not knowing the answer.)

I want to go back to how I felt before the procedure though. This new sense of strength was a different experience for me. I think a number of factors came into play, and all of them extend to the importance of seeking help. Number one, I had so many people supporting me and reassuring me. Everyone knows my symptoms are real, and we were all looking forward to getting an answer. Being public about my anxiety has helped me so much. I don’t feel alone in these battles anymore. Second, the anti-depressants are working their magic. I truly feel they helped keep me level headed, and helped quiet those obsessive thoughts. I almost found myself getting bored of worrying about the procedure, or thinking about it. I still looked up the procedure, but I didn’t get scared about what I saw. It didn’t make me feel worse. I can’t deny the medication played a role in any of this. And again, the first two support systems wouldn’t have happened if I continued to keep my disorder to myself. But by speaking up, I have created this incredible strength. The more people you have in your army, the easier the battle becomes. Third, I have spent the last week getting back in touch with music and finding new bands to listen to.

Finding something you can be passionate about is key to breaking down your anxiety. Music for me is one of those things. It’s an incredibly important aspect of my life. Just scroll back through my old posts and you’ll see that last year I saw over 30 bands. I listen to an immense amount of music. Music is a fantastic way to distract your brain from those “what if” thoughts. Instead of brooding in my apartment, I’ll throw on some upbeat music and dance around like a maniac. By the time I am done I have forgotten what I was worrying about. Or I spend hours looking up new bands online, sampling their music and looking to see when they’ll be on tour. Doing that sure beats looking up horrible illnesses I could possibly have. I love discovering new artists. I also love to rediscover older albums that I haven’t listened to in years. It’s hard to describe in full detail just how much I love music. It breathes life into me. That is really the simplest way to put it.

So this past week I was diving into new music, but also digging into the past. My parents were holding one of their trademark “Countdown” parties this past weekend. It’s a night where they get as many of their friends as possible to fill out a ballot ranking their favourite artists, albums, songs, etc and after compiling the votes they throw a huge party. This was the first time since 2003 they’ve held it, so they decided to allow people to vote on their favourite music since that year. I decided to fill out a ballot and found myself completely overwhelmed. How was I ever going to decide on 30 songs that have spoken to me since I started university?! Deciding on albums was actually easy, but songs was tough. But if anything, this exercise reminded how important music is in my recovery. I was reminded of songs I love to sing along to, dance to, rock out to, relax to, and even cry to. Sometimes you can’t always express what you’re feeling, but a song will. Music is often my best form of therapy. You need to get in touch with those things in your life that help give it purpose, and give yourself something to look forward to. Something that gets your creativity flowing. Something that distracts you from the “what if” scenarios in your life.

For me it’s music, but for you it might be something else. In that vein, my next entry will be focused on my Winter 2015 selections. I am going to lay out what bands have been filling my ears lately, who I’ve seen in concert already, and just other musings on the state of music during this dreary time of year.

Thanks again for reading, and as always feel free to follow me on Twitter for more random musings.

It’s the Little Things

Sugar cookies covered in sprinkles (baked by me)
Sprinkles = happiness

One of the most common questions I had following my original blog post was “can you talk more about the journals?” I want to focus on my happiness journal a little more because I think it’s a fantastic way for people with anxiety to help calm themselves down, especially before bed.

First off – some backstory on the journal itself. I came across the idea on Lifehacker and immediately loved it. It’s a simple daily task where you stop at the end of each day and write down three positive things. This can be anything that made you smile, laugh or boosted your mood. I’ve written down everything from “eating chocolates on the couch” to “completing my first Half Marathon”. It can be the big moments in your day, or the little moments. Often times I have trouble deciding which three things I want to write about! And yes, I do have days where I struggle to think of three things that made me happy. Sometimes, bad days just happen. But what it does help teach you is you should take time each day to actually think about your experiences, and think about the good things in your day. I also love going back and reading good things that happened to me months ago. This comes in handy for those bad days I referenced earlier. It helps remind you that despite today being crap, tomorrow could be amazing. It sounds so cliche but it’s true.

I also highly recommend doing this at night because as many anxiety sufferers will tell you, your mind can often race the most when you’re just about to close your eyes. You’re totally exhausted physically, but your mind wants to run a marathon. And it’s awful. It’s also not productive, because I don’t know about you but often the stuff I think about before falling asleep is long forgotten by the time I wake up. Or I sit there and imagine horrible scenarios that could happen (often, it’s thinking about whether tonight is the night I die in my sleep). Of course I wake up and feel stupid for even thinking something bad would happen to me while I slept. So keeping the journal changes your focus, and gets your brain in a better place before crawling into bed. It’s easier to shut out the anxiety when you can counter it with “but yeah, remember how much fun I had at work today… it was so funny when…” and before you know it, you’re asleep.

So, those little moments. Doesn’t anxiety love to steal those little moments? Anxiety, to me, is all about focusing on the little things and blowing them out of proportion. If you’re like me, it’s getting a headache and believing it to be THAT headache that lands you in the ER. You often aren’t sitting there worrying about big problems. I rarely sit and ponder the plight of poverty in this country, but it should consume me more often because quite frankly it is a subject worth caring about. Wondering whether I’ve annoyed my boyfriend because I sent three texts in a row, isn’t worth my time. But anxiety doesn’t think that way. It wants you to sit there and torture yourself over the tiniest details. The journal is your way to take that and throw it back in anxiety’s face.

I’ve always been someone who gets excited about the smallest things. Literally. I follow a hedgehog on Instagram because he is ridiculously cute and always makes me smile. If I were a cat, I’d be more excited for the box than the toy. This journal is the perfect way to remind myself to keep that part of me alive and vibrant. That should be the part of my personality that shines through on a regular basis. I found myself appreciating those little moments this weekend. I had a bad day on Friday but found happiness in sitting on my boyfriend’s couch, sipping a chai tea latte, and listening to some good music. On Sunday we gathered our friends together to watch the Super Bowl, but one of my favourite parts of the day was baking my sugar cookies (pictured above). I love to bake, and I love sprinkles, so getting to combine those two things was a fantastic way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

For those of us stuck in the anxiety trap, we need to hold onto those little moments that make us smile. Too often our illness robs of us enjoying those times. You miss laughing at someone’s joke, because your mind was a thousand miles away obsessing over something someone said to you in passing five hours ago. You burn your batch of cookies because you aren’t paying attention to the timer on the oven, instead you’re staring at your closet trying to decide what to wear for work tomorrow that will make you feel like you fit in. We deserve better than that. We deserve to enjoy every bite of those sugar cookies. So that’s why no matter how busy my life gets, I do my best to sit down and write down those three happy things. (And yes, sometimes it means sitting down and going over the past week because I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to do it for 6 days…)

Trust me, before you know it you’ll be enjoying those moments in your day and thinking “I am going to write this down tonight.”

As always you can follow me on Twitter for more info or write in the comments.

My Heart is Full Today

It’s strange. On a day where talking is so important, I am speechless. Earlier today I wrote about my struggles with anxiety. As of writing this, over 700 of you have taken the time to read my words. Some of you sent me incredible messages about your own battles. I had strangers Tweeting at me, thanking me for sharing. I am beyond humbled. I feel incredibly loved.

I wanted to take the time to say thank you to each and every one of you for reading. Never did I think so many people would do so. I am finding it hard to think of myself as being an inspiration to others. I simply wrote up a blog post, and hit “publish”. But I guess that’s how we can all lose sight of how powerful our words really are, whether they are positive or negative. It’s easy to dismiss our own opinions and thoughts as “not that important”. I thought my Tweet would get lost in the sea of others being posted today. I really didn’t think I would be looking at raising so much money by again, simply hitting “publish”. But I did.

Because of the strong reaction I have had today I am vowing right now to continue blogging as I seek recovery. I will detail my ups, and downs. I will need your help sometimes. And hey, sometimes you might need mine. And that’s OK. I have found today very therapeutic, and my dad did tell me that maybe I need a new hobby in order to help curb my anxiety. Maybe this is it.

I am proud of myself today. I am proud of my friends that have also come forward with their own battles. I am proud of all those who have spoken up today, all across the globe. I am hopeful that we will continue talking even after the clock strikes midnight tonight. Because in the end, today isn’t the end of our conversation. It’s only the beginning.

When My Body is My Worst Fear.

Bell Let's Talk featuring Michael Landsberg. (c) Bell Media
Bell Let’s Talk featuring Michael Landsberg. (c) Bell Canada

“I feel a migraine coming on… is today the day it turns into a stroke… can I make a frown… can I raise both arms… can I speak properly… Yes… OK… not a stroke… but what if it’s actually a blood clot… is this the worst headache pain I’ve ever experienced…no…OK I don’t need to go to the E.R…yet…how’s my vision…will this aura ever go away…what if it’s permanent and I never see properly ever again…what type of damage is this doing to my brain…what if I have long term problems because of these migraines…do I feel any tingling sensations anywhere…what if this is just a symptom of something else…maybe I should Google this…oh no this site says possible brain tumour…what are the other symptoms of brain tumours… do I have these symptoms…what does this mean…am I dying?”

That for me is a typical thought cycle when I feel a real physical symptom. At the end of the day it always comes back to the same thought “Am I Dying?” This is my struggle with anxiety. I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, which primarily manifests as health anxiety. Many of you have probably heard of “hypochondriacs” a term that carries a lot of negative stigma around it. Health anxiety is somewhat different than hypochondriasis but it often has the same fear at the heart of it – missing the correct diagnosis and dying as a result. Regardless of its differences, both of them carry a lot of judgement and stereotypes. With this blog post I hope to start the conversation about breaking those stereotypes. It seemed only fitting to start this on Bell Let’s Talk Day.

I’ve dealt with anxiety at varying degrees since I was about 12 years old. It started as an irrational fear of tornadoes. I constantly checked the weather forecast, high winds made me nervous, and every time there was a storm I’d run in tears down into the basement awaiting my impending doom. Then things shifted more towards depression. I had no confidence, didn’t believe in myself, and stayed withdrawn. I had trouble making deep friendships. I went through high school and most of university with this feeling that I wasn’t good enough. My anxiety was more socially related. I didn’t think people would want to be my friend. I didn’t think I could wear fashionable clothes. No one cared about what I had to say.

But things started to change for me after university. I got a job as an usher at the ACC which forced me to come out of my social shell. Nothing forces you to face social anxiety quite like having to tell someone who is smoking pot that they’re about to be ejected from a concert. I met great people through my job at the ACC, and started to make better friendships. But I still wasn’t myself. I still struggled with anxiety and depression. I still stayed withdrawn and made little effort to maintain friendships outside of work. Then came the biggest turning point in my life, my job at TSN. It was a huge boost to my ego. I finally could afford better clothes, a better haircut, and could justify going out more with friends.  I became a dedicated runner and started to get in shape, becoming more comfortable in my own skin. Through my job I learned a lot about myself, especially when on the road with the Kraft Celebration Tour. I figured out who I was, and what I wanted out of life. I felt great.

I had gone through some emotional setbacks during this time however. I ended a very serious relationship that took a heavy toll on my emotional state. I agonized over that decision for the better part of a year. I drained my best friends by constantly going to them with my concerns and my fears. In hindsight, I was obsessing and it was my anxiety manifesting again. However, after the breakup in the summer of 2012 I started to re-charge. Moving into my own apartment was empowering. Dating was empowering (albeit scary). I had everything ahead of me, and was starting over.

Then, in January 2013 I was hit with some terrible news. A girl I had briefly known through my ex had died of liver cancer. She was diagnosed in September and dead before the end of the year. Her story is my fear. She was married in the spring of 2012, had gone on her honeymoon in September and when they returned she found out the awful news. I am terrified of dying too soon, and too young. I am terrified I will be that person who finds total happiness and then has it taken away. I started to have panic attacks. I started thinking “what if I have cancer”. I would go home and cry, and overanalyze every ache & twinge in my body. I endlessly Googled liver cancer and its symptoms. I started to drive myself insane. Finally, after breaking down again one night in my apartment I went to my family doctor and asked for a full physical. Everything came back normal except it was discovered I wasn’t taking enough Iron & B12 supplements. That was it. I decided it was finally time to see a psychologist.

This was my first confrontation with the stigma around mental illness. I felt weak by admitting I needed professional help. I was terrified the psychologist was going to commit me. I was scared to talk about my fears. I was also scared therapy wouldn’t work for me. I was so upset that I couldn’t fix this on my own. But I am not weak for seeking professional help. It took a lot of strength for me to walk into the clinic and book my first appointment. It took even more strength to go to my appointment. Each time I went to see my doctor I was getting stronger, and helping myself get stronger. Despite knowing this, it is still difficult to admit to people that I see a therapist. But I know each time I tell someone it helps break a small barrier. Maybe it will mean that someone I know will seek help, and heal. Or maybe it will at least get them to think twice about judging people who seek treatment. I know I can’t change everyone’s opinion, but I always hope it at least brings a little bit of understanding.

I also own two books on helping yourself overcome anxiety. And you know what? I am embarrassed to read these books on the TTC because I don’t want people judging me. Instead, I wait for those rare moments where I am home alone. I hide them when people come over. I keep a number of journals on the go – one which acts as my “worry log” where I track worries, then go back weeks later and answer my questions to prove to myself I was worrying about nothing. I also keep a daily record of three things that made me happy, to show myself that each day is filled with something good. I also track what medical procedures I have had done, to prove to myself that I am healthy and likely not dying. But those stay hidden. It feels immature to keep a journal. Like “adults” aren’t supposed to do such things and only thirteen year old girls who write about their latest crush are supposed to do this. And it’s unfortunate I feel the need to hide this because these books & these journals can be great aids to my recovery. I should be reading these books more often because they contain valuable tools. My journals should be kept in the open so I remember to write in them. Or maybe someone will visit, see them, and think “maybe I should try that”.

Therapy was the best decision I have ever made about my mental health. I went two full years before my next panic attack. Anxiety is notoriously difficult to treat and requires a lot of work. Another reason we need to think of people working on their illness as strong. But often my fears remained. I still had trouble shaking that “sense of doom” every now and then that something was wrong with my body. Every now and then a new physical sensation would crop up, and I would begin the cycle of fear. Or I would read an article about cancer, or someone dying young and I would start to believe that would be me.

Flash forward to this past holiday season. I had my first bladder infection and it started me down a dark path. I convinced myself I was dying of a kidney infection. Even after it was successfully treated, I couldn’t shake this feeling that something was really wrong with me. I was crying a lot. I wasn’t sleeping properly. It was all I thought about. It was again during another breakdown that my boyfriend and I started to discuss medications.

Medication scared me. I am the type of person who follows instructions on medications to the letter. If it says “do not take again for four hours”, I wait exactly four hours. I am always scared to try new medications in case they cause a bad reaction and I die from it. I was particularly scared of anti-depressants because I was afraid they would change me as a person. I was afraid I would lose control. I didn’t want to have a bad reaction and die. I also hated the thought that I needed it. It again felt like a sign of weakness. I was embarrassed that I would need medication. I thought people would think I was just “crazy” or “taking the easy way out by relying on a pill”. I cried at the doctor’s office when I went to ask for the prescription. I cried at therapy because I was so angry with myself for letting my anxiety take such a tight grip on my life. I felt so defeated. I felt so ashamed that I needed a pill. But I went to people for advice, people that I knew had taken these pills in the past, and they all helped assure me that it isn’t giving up. It takes a lot of strength to realize you need more help, and yes that sometimes you need a pill. They all helped me realized that it would be safe.

I’ve only been on the medication for three weeks and I already have noticed a difference in my anxiety. My compulsions have eased. I am finding it easier to quiet my brain and just concentre on being present in the moment. I can more rationally counter my thoughts in my brain. I have even made it through the initial side effects without thinking I was dying. I know this won’t fix the true root of my problems, but I feel more confident in being able to tackle them. Medication has just become another tool in my fight against my illness.

What made me the most nervous about publicizing part of my journey was that people would think less of me. Questions crossed my mind like “what if someone at work reads this and then I won’t get treated the same?”, “what if this hampers my career?” or “what if people just accuse me of seeking attention?” It is so unfortunate that people can be afraid to talk. I don’t want the attention. But I do want people to stop being afraid of mental illness. I do want people who suffer to seek help. I want people to change their lives for the better. For me, it’s a continuing journey. My anxiety is very complex and I know it’s going to be a long time before I finally beat it. But I am thankful for days like today that remind us all that we all know someone suffering and that we need to be there for these people. Please don’t let them suffer in silence because they are too ashamed to seek your help. You never know who is battling these illnesses and your actions may be causing them to avoid talking to you, or others.

For those suffering with anxiety, my friends and family especially, I am always here to talk. For people I don’t even know, leave me a comment and we can learn from each other. We can share our stories and grow stronger together. Just drop me a text/call/message, whatever and we’ll get the conversation going.

Find me: @TeslaMay on Twitter. I will be tweeting all day about #BellLetsTalk