Bits and bobs

Random thoughts about random things by a random person


Productivity and mental health – A personal story

A few days ago I read a post by Wil Wheaton called i exist. It reminded me of a session I had last year with an EAP counselor.

About half-way through the session, the counselor said, “When I’m working with someone who is off work for a while, I ask them to commit to a 30-minute walk every day. Is that something you could commit to?”

The expression on her face told me that she fully expected my answer to be yes. Perhaps even with an “Of course I can” thrown in for good measure.

Her expression changed very quickly when, instead, I responded with a very definite “No.”

It was as though nobody had ever told her no before. She didn’t seem to even know how to respond to it. (Had I been in better spirits, I’d have found it funny…) I’m pretty sure at least some people who went to see her, who were in the same mental state I was then in, must have lied to her – probably because they felt they were “supposed” to say yes, so they did. And then they went home, didn’t go for their daily walks, and felt even worse about themselves for not having done it.

Well, I wasn’t going to do that. I definitely didn’t need more things to add to the “All the ways you suck and are a horrible person” list that my brain at that time was having a hey-day reminding me of.

Since she was so obviously not expecting my answer, I went on to explain that I was, at that point, struggling to even do things that I enjoyed doing, that I wanted to do. I don’t enjoy going for walks, and certainly not for 30 minutes, so there was no point in me telling her that I would do something that I knew very well that I would not.

I explained further that me just getting to that appointment that day was something to celebrate.

I was off work at the time because I had hit a limit that, for the previous couple of years, I knew was coming. Depression and anxiety (things I have struggled with for most, if not all, of my life since puberty) had been mounting gradually over time and I knew was going to hit critical mass on it before too long.

The week before I saw her, that moment had come. I still clearly remember sitting at my desk, looking at my monitor, reading an email when it happened – quite innocuously, it turned out. Nothing of any consequence brought it on. I was just…done.

I knew in that moment that I needed to leave, to go home, and that I wouldn’t be back for a while. I thought, “Huh…I knew this was coming and I wondered when it would happen. I guess this is it. This is what did it.” I remember being surprised that it wasn’t anything big or momentous that had tipped me over the edge. It was just a slightly annoying email that in any other context would have resulted in a “Tut tut…seriously?” and that would be have been it. But nope. It did me in.

I emailed my boss that I was sick and needed to leave and headed out.

The next about 10 days were absolutely awful. Horrible. Part of me wished I lived with someone who could take care of me and make sure I was fed, as I huddled under blankets like a pile of goo, while another part of me was very glad to have nobody around to tell me I needed to get up, get dressed, get showered, etc. I could be as much of a pile of goo as I wanted.

The only thing of any practical benefit that I did in the very first few days was find the number to our Employee Assistance Program and get an appointment with a counselor. Then I made another, last-ditch effort to get a new doctor. I’m amazed, actually, that I was even able to accomplish that much.

The day of the appointment – about seven days after “it” happened – I was still pretty much a wreck. I really didn’t want to go, but I knew I needed to.

Part of my apprehension was from a previous experience I had had with EAP. It was in 2008 – the year that both of my parents passed away. The counselor’s advice at that time (which she delivered as though it were some grand new revelation she had come up with on her own) was: “Keep your work stress at work and your home stress at home.” Really? And what if the problem is that you aren’t able to do that right now?? She had nothing.

Never mind the fact that her office was a mess and she looked like she had come to work in what she had slept in…She didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Needless to say I didn’t go back. (I did, however, get some handouts from her with helpful information about insomnia.)

With that experience in the front of my mind and the fact that I really only wanted to crawl into bed and stay there until sometime around the turn of the next century, I really was not keen on getting to that appointment.

So, I resorted to playing mind games with myself. “We aren’t going to an appointment. We’re just going to get in the car. We aren’t going to an appointment. We’re just going to get in the car.” That got me showered, dressed and in the car.

Once in the car, I repeated, “We’re not going to an appointment, we’re just going to drive to Fallowfield Rd.” Once I got that far, it became, “We’re just going as far as the 417”, and so on until I found myself in the parking lot of the counselor’s building.

Even then, I had to do some convincing to get myself out of the car and into the building, and then the office.

I couldn’t have done it otherwise. I know…it sounds dumb, especially if such feelings are completely foreign to you. But that’s where I was at that time. To be honest, I still have to do it occasionally, and I will likely have to for the rest of my life. But that’s OK. The anxiety isn’t going to go away, so that’s why there are tricks to deal with it. Sometimes it still wins, but most times I do. (Yay!)

Anyway…back to the 30-minute walk request.

I explained to the counselor the whole process of how I had even made it to the appointment and she finally clued in: “Ohhhhh….you really are in a bad way!” (No…she didn’t say that… but she may well have thought it and who could blame her! ūüėČ )

After we talked for a little while longer, she circled back to the walk. She explained:

“The walking isn’t about exercise. It isn’t about breaking a sweat and doing cardio. It’s just about doing something. Getting yourself off the couch and putting your mind on something else. So, really, it doesn’t even have to be a walk. If you have a closet or cupboard you’ve been wanting to clean out, do that. If there’s some spring cleaning you need to do, do that. And it doesn’t have to be 30 minutes in a row. You can break it up throughout the day. The point is to just get up and move.”

That I was able to commit to. In fact, not only did I commit to it, I actually did it! Every day! They weren’t fancy, important things that I did, but I did them. Usually I had to talk myself into it, like I did to get to the appointment, but that wasn’t the point. The point was I did it.

I was also very blessed to have a good circle of friends who kept in touch with me and even got me out a few times for actual walks. ūüôā

During that dark and difficult period, making sure I had 30 minutes of some sort of activity every day was critical to my healing.

And so I echo Wil’s statement:

“The single most consistent factor in how I feel about myself and my day, on the 5-point scale, is how productive I am.”

I’m not someone who needs to be constantly busy, busy, busy. I regularly enjoy heaving off on the couch to watch TV. But I have learned that being productive every day, in some fashion or another, is vital to me and my mental health.

AND…extra bonus! As I’ve thought about Wil’s post, I’ve realized that I’m actually way more productive than I give myself credit for. I need to remind myself of that more often. ūüôā


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The Phone Scam in my Head

If you read the¬†Dairy Queen Discoveries¬†post from a few days ago, you may recall that I talked about the negative thought cycles that frequently take over when I’m experiencing anxiety and/or depression.

As mentioned in that post, those thoughts have little to nothing to do with reality or logic. But they feel very much like they do.

It’s like if I had planted a garden and it turned out beautifully – all sorts of flowers with their vibrant colours intermixed with greenery of various sorts. (I don’t have a green thumb, by the way, so this is definitely a metaphor!)

Mackenzie King Estate, Gatineau Park

Garden in front of the tea house on the Mackenzie King Estate in Gatineau Park, Quebec. Taken in Sept 2007.

Some days all I see in that garden are the beautiful plants – they are a feast for the senses – and I love it. Most days I enjoy it for the most part, but I notice that a couple of the plants could have been placed more optimally visually. While I’m aware of that and it bothers me a little, I can push that thought aside and still enjoy the overall appeal and am mostly happy with it. Then there are the days when the beauty is completely quashed. My brain only points out those out-of-place plants and I’m convinced that that’s all anyone else sees, too. There are no vibrant colours. It’s all a big, blah mess. In fact, I shouldn’t have even bothered with the garden at all. I should just tear the whole thing up because it’s all ruined and blah blah blah.

That’s ridiculous, right? Tear up a whole, beautiful garden because of a minor “error” in placement?

When I was writing that post, and thinking about those negative thoughts and how ridiculous they are (from the outside), phone scams popped into my head.

As you must be aware (and if you aren’t, please tell me your secret!), phone scams of various sorts have become a more and more common annoyance the past few years. The “Microsoft” guys who want access to your computer to fix problems. The tax department that says the police are all but on their way to lock you up and the only way out is to rush out and buy a bazillion iTunes cards and give them the numbers on the back of the cards. The vacations we’ve all won. And so on.

I called them an annoyance and for most of us, that’s all they are. But for those who fall for them, they can be quite devastating.

When they first started, I felt so badly for the victims. Some of them lost tens of thousands of dollars. But, over time, there was more education about the scams – warnings everywhere – and, well, my sympathy diminished. I still felt badly for the victims, but I mostly wondered how they could fall for what seems so obviously to be a scam.¬†I couldn’t help but wonder… What on earth were they thinking? How, in the name of all that is green on this planet, could they fall for it nowadays? iTunes cards to pay your tax bill?? Seriously? Come on.

Yet here I am. An intelligent, successful woman and I, on a regular basis, and despite multitudinous evidence to the contrary, fall for the phone scams in my own brain. I am all too often ready to trash that metaphorical garden because of any number of internal phone scams. That is ridiculous.

That comparative thought did two things:

  1.  It made me go back to feeling super badly for the victims of actual phone (and other) scams. Who am I to judge those folks?
  2. It made me realize how ridiculous my own thoughts were, in the literal sense of that word.

The Cambridge dictionary defines ridiculous as “stupid or unreasonable and deserving to be laughed at”.

I had already realized the thoughts were negative, harmful, untrue and so on. But I hadn’t thought of them as truly ridiculous.

Thinking of them from that perspective – particularly the “deserving to be laughed at” bit – takes their power away. How can you be afraid of something that makes you laugh?

Now, that is not to say that I will always remember that they are¬† unreasonable and laughable. But, it is another tool in my arsenal and if I can remember it while I’m at the start of a negative thought cycle, it will likely help to keep it from really spiralling to the point where nothing is laughable. And I call that a win!

Tear up the garden because of two “misplaced” plants? Ridiculous!







Dairy Queen Discoveries: A Mental Health Me, Too

Our annual general meeting for our condo corporation was this evening and afterwards, since it was a pretty toasty and humid evening, a friend an I decided to go to DQ for a treat before heading home.

Whenever we go out, we have the best conversations, ranging from totally banal topics (such as dipping French fries in your ice cream Рwhich is great, btw, especially if the fries are salted) to various state-of-the-world topics (we have yet to solve world hunger and world peace, though, I regret to admit). Those are my favourite types of conversations Рwe giggle and we think. This evening was no different and I came away edified, as usual, and even with a new term in my vocabulary: imposter syndrome.

If you’d like to go into more detail on it, you can read up on it here.

Essentially, per Wikipedia, it refers to:

…high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to¬†internalize¬†their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‚Äúfraud‚Ä̂ĶDespite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent¬†and competent than they believe themselves to be.

Now, I don’t think that I truly suffer from this, but¬†parts of what it is¬†definitely resonated with me, particularly¬†right now.

Almost three weeks ago I had a medical emergency that required immediate treatment and I have been off work since then. (Nothing life-threatening…)

Having to take this much time off work¬†(about three and a half weeks by the time I go back next Tuesday)¬†has definitely thrown me for a loop, particularly because I had only been on the team just over two months at the time it happened. I can’t help feeling that everyone now thinks I’m unreliable and a terrible member of the team. I’ve left them in the lurch and¬†that is what is foremost in their minds, especially since I haven’t been on the team long enough for them to have developed any real sense of any of my positive traits.

I should add at this point that I have had recurring issues with anxiety and depression, at varying levels, throughout my adult life (and likely before). So when I say those are the things I’ve been thinking and feeling as a result of being off, I don’t just mean that I feel kind of badly and guilty about it. I mean it’s really been playing havoc with my anxiety in a very disruptive, life-impacting kind of way.

Despite the “logical” side of my brain telling me, “You had to take this time off. It couldn’t be postponed and you didn’t have a choice” and “Nobody thinks you’re a horrible person for doing this,” my anxiety found fertile soil to flourish, so I’ve been dealing with that, as well.

If you’ve ever struggled with anxiety, you likely know it feeds quite well on itself when left unchecked. In my experience, one negative thought leads to another negative thought, which supports the first one and leads to others – kind of like¬†a creeping vine. Similar to imposter syndrome, anxiety takes little to no notice of facts or reality. In full swing, in fact, otherwise completely unrealistic thoughts seem¬†absolutely real and plausible, which, I suppose, is where they get their power.

Somewhere in the past week or so, I read a post by Wil Wheaton where he talks quite frankly about the panic attacks he was suffering through at the time. I was impressed by his openness and honesty in sharing his experience.

I don’t know Wil Wheaton outside of Star Trek and The Big Bang Theory, but somehow reading about his experience (which lead me to some of his other posts on the mental health issues he deals with) made me feel better. Not just because he’s a famous person –¬†but because¬†he’s, well, a person and he seems to be functioning fairly well in his life.

I am also quite fortunate to have a few friends who struggle with anxiety and/or depression. It’s easy to find people who are OK with hearing about your physical ailment (you break a bone, you need a surgery, etc.), but having people with whom you can talk about mental health issues is truly a treasure!

There’s something…liberating… when you can see, in someone else,¬†parts of yourself that you think are “less-than” and even “crazy” – someone who you’d never dream of putting those labels on, even though you’re more than willing to put them on yourself. It’s amazing what happens when you are able to normalize it somewhat – it’s not a weird, freakish, abnormal thing and I’m not a weird, freakish, abnormal person for having it, either. It doesn’t totally make it better, but it definitely helps.

I guess this post is my bit in trying to do the same – to maybe normalize it just a bit more. Of course, my reach is a touch smaller than¬†Wil Wheaton’s¬†(my 45 to his however-many-thousands ūüėČ ), but every little bit helps, right?

So… Hello. My name is Lucy and I have anxiety and depression.