mental health

The advantage of a digital trail

You know those Facebook memories? Lately, a lot of ppl in my dance community have been sharing memories. Several times in May, I was surprised to not remember the moments being shared –  sure enough: I didn’t know those people at that date. Kinda hard to remember something I never witnessed with a bunch of ppl I hadn’t yet met.

I forget that I’ve been dancing for less than a year. Thank goodness for this blog, which helps me keep track of the stories in my life.

Thanks to Teacher’s propensity to tape everything and share it on social media, I have concrete evidence of my learning curve. Behold, a choreography learned in beginning of January 2017.

Kuduro • AfroHouse | drkizomba.com

A post shared by 🅳🆁 🅺🅸🆉🅾🅼🅱🅰 (@drkizomba) on

 

We did not revisit that choreography until this past Tuesday. Behold, the same choreography, set to different music.

 

4.5 months makes a lot of difference.


Boxing taught me a lot of life lessons, at a time in my life where I was defenceless against my shadow. My depressions had me convinced I was worthless. Through boxing, I learned to fight – and there is no point of fighting for a worthless cause; to fight means I am worth fighting for. Key lesson.

Dancing is the next step. To dance is to accept one’s spot in space and to be seen as one is, imperfections and all, rather than as one would like to be perceived. To dance kizomba is to accept connection. It is an intimate, sensual, physical dance: chest and legs touching.  As a follower I must accept the leader’s lead: that requires giving up control, trusting him to guide me with clarity so that I can translate that into movement. It is a form of vulnerability. By accepting to follow, I must accept that I will sometimes get it wrong: I won’t understand, I’ll step on the leader’s toes & stumble, I’ll react too slowly, I’ll fuckup his intentions. I must accept that my imperfections will be seen and trust that the leader will treat them with kindness and patience and work through them so we can create something lovely together. My overriding need for perfectionism is one of the ways my shadow wears me down into depression, bc perfectionism is incompatible with compassion and vulnerability, the two cornerstones of human connection. By dancing, therefore, I am weakening my perfectionist tendencies, and strengthening my capacity for compassion and tolerance for vulnerability. By dancing, I am keeping my shadow at bay.

Accepting that vulnerability and connection hasn’t been easy: I still resist. The most common feedback I get from Teacher and his assistant is, “Try to follow, ‘Nilla, please? You are not the leader“. As I embrace the struggle of letting go of all the noise in my head, and opening myself up to the music and every partner’s unique energy, I am applying these lessons to my daily life. Setting aside one’s agenda to listen to another person, accepting that one’s imperfections will be seen and are just as worthy of compassion as those of others, are principles that apply just as much to verbal communication as to non-verbal communication. By dancing, I am learning kindness.

For months, I used to freeze up into a rigid unmoving blob on the dancefloor if a dance partner attempted such a move – I’d panic, convinced he’d drop me. My rejection of connection & vulnerability, physically manifested as an uncontrollable reaction.

​When I think of how much my life has changed since quitting boxing and taking up dancing, my confidence, my relationship with my body, my ever-expanding social circle, I can’t believe I crammed all that in such a short time period. I can’t wait to see what other lessons await me. There is so much to learn, technically and emotionally; so much happiness and joy to discover.

And I’ll have a digital trail to remind me of all these key lessons.

Killing two birds with one blog

Last week I got a message from an acquaintance. We’ve met a handful of times over the past 3 years, no more, because our social networks overlap extensively, but other than being Fbk friends with all the resulting “likes” and superficial familiarity with each other’s virtual life, we are not close.

Vanilla, I need a therapist and it sounds like you have a good one. Would you share his info with me please? It would give me a place to start, and I really need to start. I am not ok.

I forget, sometimes: I forget that people read my blog. Ironically, I do not talk about mental health struggles, or therapy, in my non-virtual life, other than with 2-3 extremely close friends, and even then, in limited dosages, so as to not burden/bore them. Everyone has shit they need to work through, I don’t presume that my problems are more significant or worthy of attention than my friends’. My blog is my space where I share my lessons, stories and struggles, and all my friends are free to read as much or as little of it as they please because that is how the interweb works. And while I periodically get messages/comments that my blog resonates with my readers, this was different. Asking for help is excruciating. Thank you. Thank you for trusting me with your vulnerability.

Friday: 2nd appointment with my therapist. I hadn’t finished taking off my jacket, he thanked me for the referral, nothing makes him happier than positive word-of-mouth from his patients. We got to work, a good productive session as always. As I was leaving, he thanked me again: I explained that really, it is because of my blog – my acquaintance is a long-time reader, almost from Day 1. His gratitude changed to wonderment: But that means that it is public. You’re willing to acknowledge my work on a public platform. That doesn’t happen in our line of work.

Yes, I am. Obvi. Sir, you’ve changed my life, you don’t think I would refer you to any and everybody?

It is jarring and lovely when I get reminded that these words, floating about in the infinite blogosphere, matter.


The power of simple conversations:

#oktosay

That time I smiled

On Thursday I went for drinks with some coworkers. It was the first time I’d socialized with anyone from work since the 2015 Xmas party. Apparently, it’s just a “fluke” that these things get organized when I am out of town for work – of course I shouldn’t take it personally. Hmph. The result of these flukes is that I’ve socialized with my Parisian coworkers 400% more often than with my Mtl coworkers. 

I arrived at the bar 30 mins after my crew. They were deep into their first round of drinks. I searched for a waitress. Waited, and waited. After too many minutes without alcohol, I went to the bar to order my beers from the bartender. As I turned to rejoin my coworkers, the bar manager chatted me up. He apologized for my long wait, and offered me a drink on the house. I smiled.

My beers arrived a few minutes later. Chatty chat chat with ze coworkers. And then, like Moses parting the sea, my (male) coworkers made space for the pretty, busty, blond waitress: she presented me with a tumbler of Jameson, and smiled saucily at my confused coworkers.

Vanilla, how? That’s not free, is it? It is? What did you do?

I smiled.

40 minutes later, that same waitress presented me with a 2nd tumbler. 

40 minutes later, she presented me with a 3rd tumbler. My male coworkers were incensed.

Vanilla, stop kidding around. How did this happen? What do you mean, you smiled?!?

I mean I smiled. The last time I smiled, I got treated to the most ridiculously generous/excessive multi-course meal in Dubai. What can I say? Happiness is contagious.

On Saturday, I attended a dance event by myself, totally different crowd from my usual one, didn’t know anyone, NBD; can we acknowledge how far I’ve come since my Dubai meltdowns?! As I walked into the ball room, I smiled. I was immediately accosted by a charming out of town professional dancer who danced several successive songs with me, praising my musicality. I then danced with the event organizer (from France!) and every guest instructor present. I found myself smiling while dancing, and once or twice, I even laughed from the sheer joy of the dance. (Oh, how Energizer would be proud/amazed!)


When came time for the inevitable Afrohouse animation, three of the instructors took turns leading the crowd. Then the organizer pushed me to the front, and I danced while everyone followed, before he ended the animation in style. I was the only non-instructor to lead the pack. I smiled.


On both Thursday and Saturday, I was stuck in one of those oh-so-female IhatemybodyIlooksogrossEwwwwImfaaaaaaaat moods. To the point I modified my outfits (loose clothing), convinced people would notice my protruding food baby of a belly and judge me. I considered bailing on both events because what’s the point of socializing if everyone will find me repulsive?

Clearly, I am no closer to achieving body acceptance. But at a minimum, I am refusing to let my poisonous brain modify my behaviour or distract me from my quest for happiness.

That’s worth smiling about.

My groupie status is confirmed

I’ve always been a fan of the Royal Family. Which Royal Family, you ask? Sigh, THE Royal Family. The family of the Queen of Canada – because yes, she remains our head of state. #commonwealthnotwithstanding. (P.S. Happy 91st bday, your Majesty!)

I possibly maybe day-dream that I am some far-flung distant relative of the Family. My grandmother was the Queen’s doppelgänger. And I have frequently been labelled a princess. Stranger things have happened. It is possible.

But now, with the Heads Together campaign overseen by Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Henry of Wales, I’m legit a groupie. They are doing SO MUCH to normalize the need to talk about mental health. Prince Harry’s interview where he admits he required therapy to cope with the unacknowledged grief of his mother’s death. The Duchess of Cambridge’s admission she struggled adapting to being a mother. The need for these simple conversations.

Look at this video of a convo between Lady Gaga (another one of my faves!) and Prince William:

(Lada Gaga’s open letter on her battle with PTSD can be found here.) Ground-breaking content? No. But relatable? Yes. I felt she was taking the words from my mouth.

Prince William: It’s time that everyone speaks up, and feels normal about mental health – it’s the same as physical health; everybody has mental health, and we shouldn’t feel ashamed of it and just having a conversation with a friend or family member can really make such a difference.

Lady Gaga: Even though it was hard, the best thing that could come out of my mental illness, was to share it with other ppl and let our generations as well as other generations know that if you are feeling not well in your mind, that you are not alone and that ppl that you think would never have a problem do.

For the rest of the videos that are part of the #OkToSay campaign, click here. A mix of celebrities and non, covering a wide variety of mental health topics – how help starts with a simple conversation.

YES.


How did I spend my friday night? At my therapist’s office. First time back in 51 weeks.

Y’all.

It was fantastic. We picked up where we left off. He was SO delighted to hear of all my progress and self-discovery in the past year, and agrees that I’ve done as much as could on my own. Unravelling why I am so easily angered and hurt, and learning to better regulate all of my emotions, both positive and negative, is the next logical step on my path from depression to happiness. We covered an astonishing amount in our hour session – the foundation of trust that had been built in our 20 months of work together still was strong. I’ve some hard work ahead of me, but I left his office feeling so relieved. Relieved because I had had a conversation about how I was stuck: I’d identified the problem, but was powerless to fix it on my own. And now I am no longer on my own. Even the greatest pro boxers need their coach in their corner during bouts. I’ve got him. I’m good now.

He is my 4th therapist in my lifetime. The first was meh, the 2nd was solid, the 3rd was a total waste of my money but I was in such a bad space I thought I was the problem. Not all therapists are made equal, and not all are a good fit. But when you find one that works for you? Game changer. He gave me my life back in 2015, and now he will teach me how to access happiness.

How did I find him? By having a simple conversation with a coworker in 2014, where I confided how anxious networking made me, how much I HATED small talk. She gently remarked that I seemed always anxious, unpleasantly so, and then gave me the name of my therapist, mentioning that she’d consulted him too in the past for something similar. She thought we’d be a good fit: he was competent, zero-bullshit, and funny. When my depression exploded a few weeks later, I called him up.

The power of simple conversations. My admission to my coworker led to an exchange which led me to my therapist, without whom I would not be where I am today, on the cusp of happiness for the first time in my life.

Sharing my recent struggles hasn’t been easy. The conversations that resulted from it however, were lovely. Bit by bit, the dialogue about mental health is becoming less stigmatized.

Tonight, I feel hopeful and grateful.

#OkToSay

 

Me & Prince Harry: same

Last week I wrote about my constant struggle with my mental health issues (ADD & depression – diagnosed; anxious personality) and my reluctant return to therapy.

Writing it was hard. Those aren’t easy, simple or pleasant emotions to unravel. Posting it to Facebook? Excruciating. I was ashamed, and I feared people’s reactions.

Feared their contempt for being:

  • Vulgar. Airing my dirty laundry in public. Ew.
  • Dramatic. Happiness is a choice, obviously. With my life, wtf is my problem thinking I have the right to be discontent. There are children being gassed in Syria, you know. THEY should be sad.
  • Lesser. Mental health is icky. Only weak people have mental problems.
  • Incompetent. The disappointment to my close friends and family that I still don’t have my shit together like I should, that I still underperform, that my inability to do regular adulting activities with consistency causes problems for others, professionally and personally.
  • Crazy. Any emotion, reaction, opinion that doesn’t coincide with theirs is obviously the result of my unregulated mind, and should therefore be discounted. Vanilla is crazy – don’t listen to her.

My coworkers, both above and below me on the corporate ladder, read my blog – would I lose their respect? “I’m not sure we should consider Vanilla for that promotion, her mental health is too fragile.” Boys I’ve dated, boys I have crushes on, boys who might one day date me, read my blog – would they find me less of a woman? “She’s cool and sexy, but I dunno man. All that mental health shit. No, thank you!”

Knowing that yes, it is quite possible I will suffer consequences for posting this, makes me mad. I refuse to let myself drown in self-imposed shame. I feel compelled to write about this, own it, and post it publicly. The ONLY way to get rid of the shame – so unnecessary, so poisonous, so destructive – surrounding mental health IS by talking about it. And if my approach is too brash, well… hopefully I’ll polish it over time, which can only happen if I take chances and try this open approach.


Record number of likes on Facebook. People reaching out to me privately, to commiserate with the incredible burden that is the shame associated with mental health struggles. To ask me more questions because having read my blog they wonder if they/their child/sibling/parent/best friend might have X health issue, they never considered that as a possibility, they’ll approach the struggles differently, with greater empathy and understanding. To say they too have Y mental health issue. To compare resources they’ve used. To thank me – they feel less alone in their struggles; they always thought I was one of those ppl, “so happy and smiling and friendly, fit, has her shit together”. They realize now that no, I just have (mostly) mastered the art of faking it, at huge personal cost.


A few days after my post, Prince Harry made the news for admitting he’d been in therapy for the long-standing, serious repercussions stemming from his inability to process his grief following his mother’s death. Anxiety, aggression, all had negative impacts on his royal duties, and professional and personal relationships, and culminated in him seeking professional help to work through his issues. (*)

Even at royal engagements, he said, he had found himself battling a “flight or fight” reaction without properly 
understanding why. Once he started opening up to friends, he added, he found those same friends felt able to “unravel their own issues”. (…)

“I know there is huge merit in talking about your issues and the only thing about keeping it quiet is that it’s only ever going to make it worse,” he said.

YES.


I told my CFO-boss. I wanted to warn him that I’d recognized the blips in my performance, and I was taking steps to rectify them before they further deteriorated. Was that the right thing to do? I dunno. It was risky. I’ll find out the next time I am up for a promotion if it paid off.

As for boys… I tell myself, the blog doesn’t really make a difference – they’d find out first-hand about my emotional messiness anyhow, live. Best they find out via the blog and move on, than find out gradually and make those hurtful comments to my face.

I don’t have the energy to pretend anymore. I don’t see the point. Life, adulting, is fucking hard enough without pretence.

None of us should feel ashamed for our struggles.

Sometimes, silence is overrated.

#OkToSay

 

(*) Check out their Royal Highnesses‘ work on mental health, through their charity Heads Together. I think it is brilliant.

 

I lied about my shadow

Ridiculous bureaucratic reasons resulted in me seeing my third GP in a year. I explore my rage about the Québec healthcare system here; that’s not the point of this post. Tuesday’s doctor was kind. He cared. Despite the two previous doctors at the same clinic prescribing medication for my ADD, he grilled me about me & my family’s medical and mental history.

“Your behaviour does not suggest ADD to me. You are un-medicated right now?” Sir, at the risk of sounding vain, I am extremely smart. I graduated with a 4.0 GPA; I ranked above average/excellent performer at all 3 multinationals I’ve worked at during my career. I am deemed quirky and “unusual”, but I can – I must – succeed with or without my drugs. I excel at appearing normal (or as normal as I’ll ever be). Nobody need ever know at what personal cost: the depressions, the failed relationships, the stunted dreams, the years of therapy. “I see. You are what we call a gifted, high-functioning patient. My son is in accounting. Bright kid, good attitude. No mental health issues that we know of. He struggles to maintain a 3.4 GPA.” I forget, sometimes, that what I view as a commonplace performance (of course I graduated with a 4.0/was an excellent employee at a Big 4: anything else would be beneath me) is not commonplace for others. Rather than appreciate my accomplishments, I’m aware of how much more I could’ve done, had I been more disciplined. Had I not had ADD.

“3 depressions in 5 years. Where any of these circumstantial? Diagnosed by a professional? You woke up crying one day, for no reason, and cried for 3 hours a day every day for 3 weeks straight? Ok, that’s a real depression.” Yes, my 2012 depression came on the heels of my serious knee injury, followed by my mother’s death a few weeks later. Circumstances in 2012 sucked. But I was already unwell, battling symptoms for months, when the “justifiable” depression started. How lucky I am to have experienced my scary 2014 depression, otherwise people would once again dismiss my story because I am too gifted, too high-functioning.

“So how would you rank your mental state right now, on a scale of 1-10? 1 being suicidal and 10 being perfect and blissful and without a cloud in sight?” Ummmm maybe 7-8: despite my recent struggles, overall I notice a distinct trend. 2014: a depression so bad I quit the job I loved, changed my lifestyle, reoriented my career so as to have the head-space to tackle my mental health issues. 2015: clawing my way out of depression, and therapy therapy therapy. 2016: remission from depression, dating and my first heartache in 6 years, career full throttle2017: I discover I have the capacity for happiness, and for the first time in my life,  I believe that I can build a life of happiness for myself. Surely that merits a B+ as a mark?

My doctor stopped me. “You didn’t know you had the capacity for happiness. You thought happiness didn’t apply to you. You didn’t have depressions. You are depressive. It’s always there, like a shadow, isn’t it?”

Yes, it is.


My shadow, my old friend. Always there, waiting, whispering, seductively trying to pull me back into the dark cloud. Always. Admitting that, out-loud, was hard.

I would love to wake up, put in my 9-5 productively. I would love to not work 60-80 hours a week to deliver 45-60 hours worth of work. I would love to be focused enough to have dreams, to not fritter away HOURS a day, to blink away 6-12 months again. I would love it, but I can’t imagine it. I know such people exist, like I know lactose-intolerant ppl exist. And as I can’t imagine a life without cheese, that analogy is particularly apt. It’s so frustrating feeling time slip through my fingers always, acutely aware of my inefficiency. I mourn the potential I will never reach, because of the time and effort spent managing my brain. I have the tools to do so. But it is exhausting. At any moment in time 25-50% of my brain’s bandwidth is taken up monitoring, managing, analyzing my shadow to ensure it stays a shadow, and doesn’t succeed in becoming an asphyxiating dark cloud. 25% of my bandwidth is dealing with the 16 simultaneous ping-pong matches in my ADD-head. That leaves me with 25%-50% (on a good day) to handle life, professionally and socially. Gifted, he said. Fed up, I say.


As my remission from depression continues, my capacity to take on more, handle more pressure, be alive grows. This is good – much better than existing in a half-dead depressed state: a life without feelings is no life at all. However I feel too much now. I had a breakthrough at the end of 2016, where I acknowledge my right to feel anger and give voice to it. But everything sets me off now. My anger fuels me to be productive, but it leaves me exhausted, with a long list of people that dislike me. My blow-ups range from snarky comments, to feeling hurt so deeply I lash out like Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Silver Linings Playbook – I’ve been told more than once that I remind people of her.

These daily meltdowns are awful. Mortifying. Uncontrollable. ADD & impulsivity! Yay! EXCELLENT RECIPE FOR SOCIAL DISASTER. My anger is always merited, my comments are fair, but they are not kind. I know the pattern, too. The less compassionate towards others I become, the less compassionate towards myself I will be, leaving myself open to my shadow’s pull. I’ve tried to find moments of happiness here in Montreal, post-Dubai. And I do. But these moments contrast too sharply against my negative emotions, and the roller-coaster leaves me spent, too tired to concentrate, and hours slip away from my life. Again.

I am a weather-vane, at the mercy of my emotions.

My shadow watches, ready.


After one meltdown too many yesterday (an offhand comment by a coworker filled me with so much rage, I considered punching him, but then remembered that would get me thrown out of the CPA Order, so I cried quietly at my desk for 15 minutes instead), I called up my beloved therapist, and asked for a tune-up. My last appointment was April 25, 2016. I didn’t last a year.

I feel shame at being so incompetent at adulting I need help, again. I feel shame at having so much wasted potential. But I refuse to let my shadow win. I have dreams for the first time in my life. I have lived greater happiness than I knew possible in Dubai. Over my dead body, I’m not gonna let my shadow steal that from me.

I always said I was a fighter – that is why I boxed.

Here we go for another round.

My street cred: I am so smrt

I woke up with a bad headache, which progressively worsened throughout the day. A hangover, really?! I didn’t drink THAT much last night. Some beer with supper, a glass of wine at my friend’s bday and a splash of delightful 15 year Guyanese rum. Must be the rum. Those bastards. I launched the emergency recovery procedures – a hangover on Monday is pretty shameful, gotta be productive, yo! I hydrated myself. Ate greasy, carby food. By 3pm, I’d maxed out my Advil consumption for the day.

I was really perplexed by this hangover sitch. Could it be old age? My bday is in 2 months and 10 days, one year closer to becoming a senior citizen. At one of my many bathroom breaks, the consequence of my diligent hydration policy, I noticed a smudge under my chin. Tried to rub it away, except it wouldn’t fade.

And that is when I understood. Not a hangover. No.

A mild concussion.


I went to the gym on Saturday. First time since March 2nd. Such a happy reunion with Coach and my crew. We skipped happily about in a circle, holding hands, in blissful companionship. Except really, we did burpees and bear walks, and Coach laughed at all our swearing and sweaty misery. Same thing.

During the warm-up set for our work-out of jerks (not the male variety; the lift), I boasted how 65lbs was too light a weight, “I’ve been gone for 5 weeks and look at that: no loss in strength. I’m AWESOME. I’m an AMAZON. BEAST MODE ON!!!!” And immediately rammed the barbell straight up into my chin, full-speed at max acceleration. I saw stars, felt my brain bounce back and forth in my skull and dropped the bar.

Coach, unperturbed, watched me and asked me kindly to refrain from killing myself on my first day back, “10 years I’ve owned this gym. Not one death. Please, Vanilla, brain-damage only, that’s to be expected in a boxing gym. But I’d rather not find out what my insurance policy covers with regards to client self-inflicted loss of life.”

I finished the workout, despite my swollen jaw, and the red bruise under my chin. Complained of a headache, like the ones I used to get after sparring.

I drank the whole weekend.

Spent all day today staring at a computer screen.

At no point did I connect the dots, and realize this was worse than getting a clean, brutal uppercut to the jaw, and with my history of (mild) boxing concussions, my grey matter is rather sensitive to getting bruised. Instead I did 100% of the things doctors tell you not to do when concussed. Woohoo!!! Brain damage for the win!!!!

Part of me is relieved that I am not allergic to delicious Guyanese rum. That would have been a real tragedy.


I tried to take a selfie, for the blog, to prove the extent of the jaw bruise (it has spread in size since Sat. In the next 48 hours, it will develop a charming yellow hue, sexy zombie-style). I failed. So I slapped on a filter to my pic, and behold, my artistic failed selfie:

Kim Kardashian would be so impressed with my selfie skills, I just know it. DUCK FACE!!!!

FYI – I’ve a history of breaking parts of my body: