Learning to Ride the Wave

A very personal story behind my tattoo…

This post is a long one and deeply personal. It is hard for me to put my heart out there like this. It is scary putting this out there publicly because you never know who will read it and what they will think of me in the long run. But I also know that if I’m not able to share, then I’m just contributing to the ongoing stigma of mental illness. We as a society need to not be ashamed of this. I need to to not be ashamed of this. It does not make me any less of a parent, partner, friend or person. Let’s start talking.

 

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Not that long ago, I decided to get a tattoo on my forearm. I’d considered getting another tattoo for years, to join the small one on my right ankle bone I’d gotten impulsively while at university, but didn’t have a good enough image to put permanently on my body. I didn’t regret that first four leaf clover (as a good luck symbol) but I was happier with my body the way it was, than I would be with any other image I considered. Plus that first tattoo really hurt! I wasn’t anxious to relive the pain!

But then, 25 years after the first tattoo, something shifted in my life.

Last fall I went to my doctor because I was increasingly experiencing extreme PMS and radical mood swings on a monthly basis. She prescribed me something to take short term and I had a strong adverse reaction to it. I was barely aware that it was the medication causing the side effects but essentially it pushed me into a deep and debilitating depression. I barely left my bed and, when I did, I was not functional. My partner took over for a few weeks until we figured out it was the medication and I stopped taking it and returned to normal.

But then, a few months later, I started to experience some of the same symptoms but on a smaller scale. I had difficulty getting up in the morning. I had a hard time focusing on work and planning ahead. My feet felt heavy, my heart heavier. The smallest little things would irritate me and I’d explode in anger at myself. I tried to hold it all in, as I’d been raised to do, because good girls don’t show tears or anger or strong emotions of any kind. But last January, it started to boil over the surface until I couldn’t hold it in anymore.

And so began my journey towards wellness. It started with visits to doctors and medications and counselling. It started with many months away from work and my days were filled with the work of focusing on wellness of my mental health. I saw specialists and changed medications and waited for them to work. I went to new doctors and tried other new medications and waited for them to work. I learned deep breathing and waited for it to work. I tried yoga and, in between falling over and self-conscious attempts to recreate the poses of the instructor in front of me, I waited for it to work. (I don’t think my body was made for yoga!) I connected to my faith through online services since leaving the house became too difficult for me to do, and I waited for faith to inspire and heal. I drank the water, I ate the healthy food, I slept the required hours, I kept the suggested waking & sleeping schedule… and still I waited for it to work.

And I’ll be honest, none of it really worked.

One day I went for a walk in the woods. I’d been re-introduced to hiking the previous year while on parental leave with Miss D through a local “Hike it Baby” group, and the newest doctor had recommended me to increase my physical activity so I was trying to go for a walk or hike every day. Sometimes with HIB friends, but often alone. On this day, I went alone for a 10km walk around a local lake. It was spring time now and the sun was shining. I considered the latest medication that I’d been prescribed and my heart felt heavy just thinking about taking it, and dealing with the side effects that were unknown but so far, experience told me that they were likely as debilitating as the mental illness itself.

As I walked, I listened to my heart. And my heart said, “you’ve got this… this too shall pass… ride the wave and it will pass…” My heart told me that nature and being outside is what I needed, more so than medication and doctors.

(Note of caution: It wasn’t a decision made lightly but it was a decision made without consulting anyone but my heart and for that, I have regrets. I was lucky that stopping medication didn’t result in any problems. I didn’t tell my partner, I just stopped taking medication. I do not recommend this to anyone! For me the story ends well, but it could just as easily come out with a very different and very bad ending!)

What seemed to make the biggest difference was getting outdoors, walking, connecting with the earth and nature, and learning to listen to my soul again.

It was at this time that I decided to get a tattoo. It was a tattoo to remind me of this dark period because I knew it would likely come again. It was a tattoo that I could look at and see every day and it would remind me to let go and just ride it, that change would come, and it would be okay if I just let go and ride the wave.

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Designed by the great Darci Love (http://www.sacredhearttattoo.ca/DARCI-LOVE)

It is a deeply personal tattoo and one that I’m incredibly proud of.

Because it is so visible, people have asked me about it and my standard answer is that there is one mountain for each of my children, and they are being held together in a big wave full of strength & power… the waves are a reminder to me to “let go and ride.” I lived in BC for 27 years and my heart and soul connected to the province’s mountains and oceans, so there is symbolism in including both of these in this tattoo. This is the answer I give to people I don’t know well, like the barista at Starbucks that asked about it!

But more than that… a wave is unstoppable, it washes over everything in its path, and leaves behind an altered landscape. Whether it is the deep power contained in gale storm winds, a quick rising squall on a lake that will fill a small sailboats sails, or the quiet constant ripples and small waves lapping onto a sandy beach enjoyed by children on the shoreline, waves are controlled by forces above and beyond us, are unpredictable in their size & strength, and we cannot stop them anymore than we can make them yield to our wishes. Sailors will tell you stories of being stuck on a lake when the wind dies and being left to float aimlessly until, finally, something shifts and ripples start to be seen again, filling the sails and giving power to move the boat. Likewise, if you are swimming in the ocean with big swells and crashing waves, and are trying to fight that power, all you will do is tire yourself out. However, if you have a surfboard and learn to ride those waves? Not only will you experience adrenaline and joy in the surf, as you let the power carry you along its crest, but you will not tire yourself in a pointless battle with this power that is beyond you.

In the crashing of the wave on the shoreline, is the beginning of the next wave, and so the action’s you take today will cause ripples in future actions. Everything is connected and every end is a new beginning.

Yet even in the fury of the storm, there is calm between each wave. And there is always an end to every storm. In every wave, you have a decision to make: to fight the higher power or to ride with it. My tattoo reminds me to ride the wave.

Waves will change the landscape, usually slowly but sometimes in one swift motion like a tsunami, but there is a constant erosion of the bumps and rocks and imperfections along the shoreline which the waves work upon to smooth out.

I can only hope that the waves of my life are working to smooth out my rough edges and help to make me a better person.

I have always loved the ocean, playing in the waves and jumping in the surf. I have very fond memories of playing in the ocean on Vancouver Island with my sister! Still today I find it very soothing to let my body relax and give in to the movement of the ocean, to give in to the power of the waves.

And this is the meaning of my tattoo and why I wear it on my arm, where I can see it every day. It is a constant reminder of the storms I’ve already passed through, the ones yet to come, and what is at stake for me to learn to let go and learn to surf the waves, instead of fighting them.

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We don’t talk enough about mental illness in our world. We that suffer from it carry shame around in the suffering from it. I hate when I am weak and ‘give in’ to the illness. I hate when the voices in my head telling me I’m just not good enough for anything are winning out over my brain that knows I’m smart enough, strong enough, good enough. (And no, I don’t mean actual voices… ) And then I hate myself even more for hearing the voices and giving credence to them. I’m learning that the anxiety I feel on an almost constant basis is truly what drives me and my difficulties. I have such a drive inside me to be “perfect” and that is impossible to attain, so I constantly don’t measure up.

When I was packing up our house in Vancouver, I found a plastic bracelet in amongst the kids things. One side of it says “I am enough” and the other side says “I have enough.” I have worn it every day since finding it. I have no idea where it came from! Originally I put it on because I thought the message of “I have enough” was fitting as we worked to get rid of our belongings to lighten our cross-Canada load. It wasn’t until a few days later that I even saw the second message. But I need the reminder, constantly, daily and sometimes hourly.

And I’ll wear it every day until I believe it in my heart because right now, I struggle to believe it. I don’t believe that I am enough of a mother, a friend, a wife, a woman… I don’t believe that I’m good enough.

But until then, I will work with the waves, and look at my tattoo, and try to believe that “I am enough” and that what I am doing is enough, every day, for those I love.

Thank you for reading and thank you for understanding.

 

As an aside note, a little related:

Recently Sinead O’Connor posted a YouTube video about her own mental health struggles. I haven’t watched the video, but did read this commentary on it and encourage others to read it as well. Let’s not just memorialize people after they’ve died from mental health afflictions, let’s change the system and provide better supports for people while they are living.

The time in between

Funny thing, this in between time.

I’ve arrived in Ontario… I’ve been here since Sunday… but our new home is not yet ready. Moving trucks arrive June 19 and we take possession that same day.

But that’s a week away.

In the meantime, we are living at our family cottage on the Ottawa river, an hour outside of the city itself. My parents live next door which comes with advantages and disadvantages (sorry Mom.) 

And by “we”, I mean Mr. T, Mr. H, and me. Momma T has started her job in Ottawa and we have lined up daycare for Miss D so they have returned to Ottawa after a weekend at the cottage and are living with her parents. We aren’t all there because well, it’s a condo and 5 house guests is just too many for that small space!

So we are living separately and this is hard. We may have saved rent for a month, but the living separately and in limbo is hard.

I haven’t really been to visit the cottage in 25 years and much has changed in that time. It’s got 25 more years of wear and tear on it and it is looking decidedly tired and run down. It was probably run down 25 years ago! But there is a wonderful deck built onto it now, a great fire pit area, and a dock that extends into the water for diving off. And it is a roof over our heads, with recreation and relaxation and respite.

I have appreciated living by the water greatly in the past week, as Ottawa experienced its first heat wave of the season and temperatures soared into the mid-30s. I cannot imagine living in Ottawa in that heat. I’m sure i’ll experience it soon enough… the summer has just begun! The heat has broken now and today we have prepared for the incoming stormy weather expected overnight. I have to admit that I’m loving the windy weather and cooler temperatures… it feels almost like autumn, my favourite time of year to be at the cottage.

But we are all living in limbo in the meantime, and it is wearing us down. The kids are quick to argue, I’m quick to respond with anger. Our tempers and fuses are short. Today’s weather kept us inside for much of the day and we are all feeling a little bored as a result.

I haven’t had a permanent home in a month now. I don’t know how people do this on a more permanent basis? I think of my outdoor rec friend Jason who seems to live on the road with his wife and brood of 3 young kids, and wonder how he does it, day in and day out? Maybe its the mindset going into it, knowing that it will be for 6 months or 6 years or whatever length of time you decide on. Or maybe it just takes a different type of person?

But I’m finding it hard, this living in between realities. I don’t have the comfort of a permanent base, of a routine, or of all my ‘people’ around me. I miss friends and familiar faces in my every day living and moving about. I even miss my Starbucks baristas, who knew my drink and prepared it properly without me reciting the recipe to them. I love my kids, but I’m tired of them, their idiosyncrasies, their conversations, and their constant demands for attention or food or refereeing! Soon enough they will be back in BC for 6 long weeks without me, and I know that I will miss their every move and every whine and every demand! I will regret being annoyed by them today.

But I was. It is days like today that reinforce the fact that there is no way that I could ever home school my children. I’m not sure we’d live to tell the tale!

June 19. We take possession of our new home on June 19. And then we can start to build our life in Ottawa.

Unfortunately there is still some uncertainty as to future paths of our family, and that will not be determined until the end of the summer at the earliest. This weighs heavily on my mind but I have had faith thus far in my journey and believe that I must maintain that trust into the future. We waver, but still hold steadfast and believe, together, that this was the correct path for our family, now and into the future.

There was a poem I used to love:

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I used to yearn to know the future and what lay in store for me. And then one day, someone said to me, “but that would take the adventure out of it!” This is true.

But I think I’ve had sufficient adventure to last me for awhile. I’m ready to settle down and have some quiet for a bit. And I’d like to know where our family will be in a year, or even 6 months from now!

And while she was gone…

This has been a difficult post to write and perhaps that is because it is mostly not about me, but about my child. I struggle with balancing his right to privacy, my desire to remove the stigma of mental health, and my need to seek support as a parent to children with challenges.

And so I will share some but not all of what happened while Momma T was away.

 

 

As I’d said here, we had a lot going on here at home in the past 6-8 weeks… before and after she left on her journey!

It was a difficult time for me while she was gone and I learned a lot about me and my family. I can’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t learn a lot in a 19 day journey such as we undertook! It was our own “camino”… our own journey to walk.

While Momma T was away, here are some of the things that were going on:

  • Mr. H had his final 3 weeks (of a 4 week program) at BC Children’s Hospital in the Child & Youth Mental Health program called P1
  • Results of private Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) assessment came through, confirming our suspicions that Mr. H has high functioning ASD (previously called “Asperger’s Sundrome”); There is also a 90% chance that Mr. T is also on the spectrum as they are identical twins. We will pursue private ASD testing once we are in Ottawa.
  • Mr. T was deep into box lacrosse season with weekly practices and competitions all over the lower mainland
  • Miss D came down with a cold and fever which resulted in several sleepless nights! She also is very generous and we all came down with the cold!
  • We were preparing and purging and packing for a cross country move
  • I received the results and offer of a settlement to a complaint we had made a year earlier against our investment company for mistakes they had made with our investments which resulted in a large fine by CRA. I had to make a decision on that settlement offer within 30 days.
  • I was required to attend provincial court hearing, and I cannot comment on this as the matter is still pending but it was deeply emotional and difficult
  • I was still attempting to work 6 hours per day at my regular job while also trying to fulfill the obligations of a contract with my new employment

 

There was a lot going on. And I was overwhelmed.

I struggled.

I believe that every thing that we go through in life has a purpose, a lesson which we are obligated to seek out and learn in order to grow.

The biggest lesson I think I learned in this time, is not about the medical diagnoses or assessments or strategies to help my child(ren), but rather that it is okay to ask for and accept help. I’m not really good at this yet but I’m getting there.

Step by step.

Mental health… it is a taboo subject that no one talks about. But I’ve learned that once we start talking about it, people open up privately about their own struggles, their own difficulties, their own weaknesses. So many of my friends, colleagues, relatives and acquaintances have all struggled at one time or another with mental health.

Why are we so ashamed of our struggles with mental health but open up to the world about our struggles with weight, or work, or relationships? What is so shameful about struggles with mental health?

Yes, my child was admitted for 4 weeks to a mental health and psychiatric assessment unit. I am proud that we sought help and were able to get him the help and support that he needed. I am grateful that we live in a part of the world that has these world class experts that can help with these things and make life better for children and their families.

Mr. H may have a new label, but he is still the same child I have always known and loved. That will never change. I love him today, as I loved him yesterday, and I’ll love him tomorrow…

The new ASD label only serves to help us get him the help he needs on a daily basis, and helps us to understand him and his struggles better.

And me? I also have a new label as someone dealing with high stress and anxiety… I experienced my first panic attack during this time that momma T was away, quickly followed by many more! And am now taking a daily medication to help alleviate these and help me cope in the short term. I am not ashamed of this and again, I am grateful to those who saw my struggle and encouraged (some would say “demanded”…lol) that I seek medical support. And I’m glad that I followed their advice and got the help.

It’s okay to ask for and accept help when it is offered. 

This is my lesson to learn.