Bits and bobs

Random thoughts about random things by a random person


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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! 😉 )

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. 🙂

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. 🙂

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I have regrets – and I’m glad

I used to buy into the whole “regrets are bad” thing. It sounds good and it makes sense: Regret is a bad feeling, so not having regrets would be a good thing, right?

When I sat and really thought about it, though, asking myself if I have regrets, I realized that I do – many, in fact. Most are small – things like wishing I hadn’t said something to someone or said it in a particular way. But there are a few big, life-impacting decisions, too. And I genuinely regret them.

At first I felt badly about that. It seemed like I was doing something wrong, given the pervasiveness of the “no regrets” movement.

For example, when I just Googled “live without regret”, the following three items were the top results:

  • How to Live Your Life Without Regret
  • 40 Ways to Live Life Without Regrets
  • How to Start Living Life Without Regret Right Now

There are also a kajillion memes and quotes about it, in case you are interested.

So, I tried to convince myself that I shouldn’t regret those things. “Regret is bad” seemed to be everywhere and so many people I knew were adherents. Many people, in fact, talked about it as thought it were a badge of honour. “I regret nothing I’ve ever done!”

But I couldn’t quite convince myself to really get on board.

Maybe it’s a matter of semantics. For me, regret is about wishing I hadn’t done something (or in some cases, wishing I had). A couple of definitions I found online says pretty much the same thing:

  • Merriam-Webster: to be very sorry for
  • Cambridge Dictionary : a feeling of sadness about something sad or wrong or about a mistake that you have made, and a wish that it could have been different and better

From what I’ve read and heard, though, regret seems to have been equated with dwelling on things. If that’s where you’re coming from, then I agree: We shouldn’t dwell on things to a negative degree.

For me, though, regret and dwelling on things are totally separate items.

The things I regret, I regret for very specific reasons: they either hurt other people or myself.

As such, I’m glad I regret them because the regret reminds me why I don’t want to repeat those actions (or inactions).

I still wish that in those moments I had made other choices and I’m glad I feel that way. They weren’t OK choices to make. Honestly, to me, I should regret them.

Yes, I learned lessons from them, but me having an opportunity to learn a lesson isn’t a valid reason to excuse those decisions – decisions that caused hurt and pain.

Learning the lesson, rather, is the way to turn a bad thing into a not-so-bad thing. It still doesn’t turn it into a “good” thing (to me), but it kind of makes the best out of a bad situation.

The important thing is that I don’t dwell on those things. I don’t use them to torture* myself or to paralyze myself from moving forward. And I have forgiven myself for them.

I could be wrong, but (going by the “I wish I hadn’t done that” definition) I don’t think it’s truly possible to have absolutely no regrets about anything ever.

Setting an expectation of “no regret” seems, then, to be setting ourselves up for failure. (If you are one to beat yourself up about poor choices, you probably don’t need another “failure” to add to your list. 😉 )

I think it’s just another one of those things where the pendulum seems to swing entirely to one direction or another.

Generally, we land, I think, somewhere in the middle.

We recognize we shouldn’t have done something, we learn from it, we take that learning with us and move on, with the regret in the perspective in which it was perhaps intended:

“Hey – that wasn’t so fun. Let’s not do that again, K?”

Want to learn more?

In finishing up this post, I thought I’d go back to the ol’ Google machine and see just how off-base I am with this whole “embrace your regrets” thing, and found an interesting article in the Huffington Post. It contains some comments from Brené Brown, if you are interested.


*There are times, yes, when my anxiety is on overdrive and my brain decides to replay every poor decision I’ve ever made (from decades ago even) and every unkind thing I’ve ever said. It even throws in several moments that weren’t poor decisions or unkind moments – it twists normal, everyday interactions and interprets them negatively. But that’s not about regret. That’s about brain chemistry. When I’m not in the throes of anxiety, I know the difference. But that can be a whole series of posts in and of itself. 🙂


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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!