I have written, in the past, about depression, touching on my personal struggle, but mainly trying to raise awareness of mental health issues. I still don’t have the words to write about hitting rock bottom. However, I can share what I’ve learned in my latest struggle with this insidious nemesis.
Depression and Multiple Sclerosis
In the twenty-six years since I was diagnosed with MS, I have come to learn that depression can be an actual symptom of the condition rather than simply a reaction to dealing with a life-altering, incurable disease. Though how I, or my doctor, distinguish ‘MS depression’ from ‘regular depression’ I am not sure. Nor am I sure it matters. However, the idea is a comfort--to believe that, like my other symptoms, this one will go away (or at least diminish) when I feel better.
It’s Not Always Unhappiness
In the past, when depressed, I certainly did feel unhappy, as well as hopeless and desperate; just plain miserable. And I cried—a lot! This time around, there have been (almost) no tears, because I’m not sad. What I am is frustrated, anxious and overwhelmed. Combine this with physical fatigue and it becomes a recipe for inertia.
I feel anxious about time slipping away, wasted; and overwhelmed by the increasing number of things left undone, not all of which are optional. I’m losing ground on the things I want to do--all those fun dreams and hopes. Writing, travelling, just getting out and socializing have all gone by the board at some point in the past year. This takes a toll on family and relationships, including the one with yourself.
Recognizing the Warning Signs
I am always hard on myself for not getting as much done as I would like. It’s one aspect of living with MS that I have a hard time with, and I’m my own worst enemy. My self-worth regularly takes a beating. In the throes of depression though, I have learned that this becomes paranoia. When I started to tell myself that I was completely worthless and that people hated me, I knew that was a warning sign. (As a note, these are my personal red flags and I’m not a doctor so the signs may be different for others. Though, if you feel this way, I would definitely seek out someone, to talk to). So, it was back to the doctor’s office, where after a year of visits, he had come to the same conclusion.
I Have a Medication Bias
He prescribed medication, explained the side effects, and that the drug might take several weeks to show any benefit, and asked to see me after a month. At the follow-up, I was happy to tell him that I was sleeping better, able to focus, and getting some stuff done! Success!
My first question, however, after detailing this improved outlook, was to ask how long I would need to take the pills for. Perhaps forever, came the response. At least for a year. A year I could live with. Forever I wasn’t so sure about.
The idea of taking something ‘artificial’ to keep my body functioning ‘normally’ is one I’ve always had a hard time with. But, when I was prescribed thyroid medication and was told the same news, I accepted it—not completely without question, but accepted it nonetheless. And as my doctor gently and tactfully reminded me, health is health, and help is help. Why wouldn’t I want something that obviously made me feel better?
Because I had ‘cured’ my depression in the past, and that I might not be able to do so again felt like a failure. I realized that, despite being honest about my past depression and the therapy that helped me deal with it, I was still making myself a victim of the stigma around mental health issues with my own bias. I talked a bit about this the last time I wrote about depression. Seems, I still a work-in-progress!
This post was written for Bell Let’s Talk Day (https://letstalk.bell.ca) here in Canada. Please check out their website; there is obviously still work to do, to overcome the stigma. It also has resources if you or someone one you love is dealing with a mental health issue, including crisis line information (in Canada). If you need help elsewhere in the world, please (please!) try one of these numbers.
June of last year was the twentieth anniversary of probably the biggest achievement of my life—certainly in terms of physical challenges—hiking the West Coast Trail. I wanted to write a blog post at the time, commemorating the anniversary, as I feel it relates to a lot of what I’m still going through at midlife; striving to achieve new goals and accept greater challenges while undergoing profound change.
However, the sheer scope of the trail, and my experience as I hiked it overwhelmed me. I started several posts, only to find myself lost in the details. That is, until a writing exercise I did for a course last Fall focused me in on one particular photograph, taken at the end of the hike. It’s a favourite, and this explains why.
Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t like having my picture taken. Photographs always seem to catch me at an odd angle or pulling a strange face. I am quite critical of most of them, which leads me to the conclusion that I am also quite vain. So most would be surprised to know that one of my favourite photos of myself, is also one of the least flattering.
In this picture, I am dirty. It has been nine days since I last showered. I have managed to wash my face and clean my teeth each day. My only other ablutions are a glorious, hot sponge bath, on day five, for which I begged precious food-cooking fuel to heat the water, as well as a frigid dip in the ocean. I smell rancid, my nails are dirty and broken and my hair is sticky.
In this picture, I am in pain. A blister on the ball of my left foot, formed on day two and tended to fanatically each night, is throbbing. My right knee is swollen and braced, having borne the brunt of forty extra pounds of backpack. I am covered in bruises, most of which I cannot see because I am so filthy, and most of which I cannot recall getting. I am exhausted from days filled with physical activity and nights sleeping on the ground.
In this picture, I am hungry. I have subsisted on reconstituted mush for eight straight days--mush that acquired the noxious taste of emergency fire-starters around day four, after nestling together in our packs. I fantasize about fresh, cool lettuce, crisp cucumbers and apples, or a juicy tomato. We dine at Chez Monique, not a fancy French restaurant, rather a collection of tarps and a tent, set up on First Nations land. The enterprising proprietor barbeques burgers, served with potato chips and a Coke, for an outrageous price to those starved for ‘real’ food. It still ranks as one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
In this picture, I am victorious. I lean against a sign that says ‘km 75’. I started at ‘km 1’ eight days prior, and through that time and distance, I become permanently changed. I am thirty-six years old, overweight, a mere five feet tall, I have Multiple Sclerosis, and I have just completed my greatest physical challenge—hiking the West Coast Trail. My face shows the gamut of emotions, from relief to joy, to an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and pride. I am laughing and I am crying, a twisted combination of grin and grimace. And therein lies the reason I love this photo. Because even now, twenty years later that expression transports me back, I feel those same emotions, and I laugh and cry again.
I will only add that, although I had a personal sense of victory and accomplishment, I would not have been able to complete the hike without the help of my husband, Dan or the friends with whom I hiked—Tom, Linda, Julie and Bob. Many thanks go to them for their understanding, patience and sometimes just hauling me over the giant boulders!
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On a more positive note than last week, I’m still tackling the subjects of change and reinvention that inevitably come up at the start of a new year. This week, I am reviewing the book Design Your Next Chapter by Debbie Travis. It came out in November and seemed like a good choice, not only to kick off 2019 but also to help me get back into a regular weekly blog post.
I’ve been a fan of Debbie’s TV shows and design books for years. She has a relatable, engaging style, though maybe some of that, for me, comes from being of a similar age and background (born in northern England and immigrated to Canada). Regardless, it always translated well on TV, and does so again, in the pages of this book.
Design Your Next Chapter seems born of a question we all ask ourselves at some point—though especially so at midlife—‘Am I happy?’ (Or some variation thereof). The book starts with Debbie describing this moment for her. It’s easy to forget that those who ‘seem to have it all’ face the same human questions and doubts as everyone, so her confession may well give you a flash of recognition.
There is homework to do. Debbie offers us the tools she used to make her own change—questions, exercises, lists and notes—and encourages us to write down in the book the ideas that spark us as we go along (though not if you borrowed it from the library, ‘kay?). Starter questions, such as the ‘what’—what is the dream, what stirs our soul and generates passion? Also, the ‘what if…’ of what life might look like if we followed that dream; what risks, what payoffs would we face?
I know what my next chapter will be. I want to be a writer. It’s not the most original dream, but I am working on it. This is why the ‘Do It’ section of the book was my favourite and the most pertinent for me. The commandments to ‘lose the fear’ and ‘dump the excuses’ are two that I’ve already gone back to, as these are my biggest obstacles. Also in this section, the commandment to ‘keep a sense of humour’ is hilarious—almost worth the price of the book by itself—in a lovely, self-deprecating, endearing way.
Then there are the practical tips, the nitty-gritty of working toward change. There’s groundwork to do, to assess, plan, research and budget (blech!) for our dreams. Often, this is the first time cherished dreams will touch reality, and the advice here will help avoid things that many of us don’t think about until we’re hit in the face, things that might stop us in our tracks.
This book is an enjoyable, readable, useful common-sense guide. The advice it contains has all been given before in a variety of ways. But, Debbie’s charm, passion for life, determination to succeed and her real-life experiences all shine through. She is pragmatic, funny, honest, and genuine. Even if you’ve already read other books about change and reinvention, I would recommend adding this one!
Finally, I will say this; after reading about Debbie’s new life in Italy (and seeing the gorgeous photos—seriously, check out her Instagram!) I am putting a stay at Villa Reniella on my travel bucket-list… perhaps to celebrate turning the page on my own new chapter!
Given some of the themes on this blog—of reinvention and change—the movie Second Act seemed like it would be a good fit, fun to watch and review here.
So… let me start by saying that I didn’t hate the movie, which stars Jennifer Lopez as Maya, a loyal assistant store manager. This isn’t a resounding endorsement and obviously implies that I didn’t love it either! There were bits to love, some funny, some poignant, in what is, essentially, a formulaic romantic comedy.
The story starts out with Maya being passed over for a promotion, which she has obviously earned, for someone with more qualifications. Cut to her birthday party—a glimpse at the rest of her life (which doesn’t seem so bad), and an opportunity for some reflection and soul-searching (life isn’t fair, oh poor me!). We learn that she has a great guy, from whom she is keeping an important secret.
From here the plot stretches its credibility, with Maya’s godson creating a phony resume, complete with fabricated social media presence, which he sends out, to get her the job she ‘deserves’. True to what we would expect, she lands an interview for a high-powered consultancy and using her quick thinking and street smarts goes on to get the gig. Great! You go, girl!
But, just when the movie is shaping up to be a Working Girl for the 21st Century, it changes gear with a major twist, not just of the plot, but of the whole vibe of the film. I won’t give anything away; suffice to say that I doubt it will come as a surprise (I saw it coming), though there might be an element of disbelief that the writers actually went down that road.
Of the many problems with this film, the biggest is that it can’t make up its mind what it wants to be. There are too many plot lines, none of which are covered well. Perhaps because of this, the writers resorted to ‘easy’—clichéd characters and devices, low-hanging laughs and schmaltzy sentimentality. Even when it does hit the right notes, whether comedic or dramatic, these are often lost among the more unsubtle elements.
Jennifer Lopez brings the luminous star quality that we’ve come to expect. Seriously… the woman is gorgeous. Though I would prefer that, instead of having her play younger, they would have ditched one of the stupid plot lines and have her play what she is—a woman on the cusp of fifty. (Just sayin’…)
As for the supporting cast, Leah Remini has a few funny moments, and the chemistry of her and JLo’s real-life friendship comes through in the film. Too often though, it seems as if she is trying too hard for the easy laughs.
Charlene Yi, Annaleigh Ashford, and Alan Aisenberg play the misfit team assigned to help Maya meet her objectives, a quirky bunch who could have added so much more to the comedic elements of this movie. Vanessa Hudgens, who plays Zoe, the boss’s daughter and Maya’s ersatz nemesis, equally could have added more drama or sensitivity.
However, it’s Milo Ventimiglia who comes off worst of all. I don’t watch This Is Us, but I loved him in Gilmore Girls. However, in Second Act, he’s left with the dubious honour of delivering such lines as “the only thing stopping you is you” and “you were always good enough. You were the only one who doubted it” to the ballsy (but apparently incredibly insecure) Maya. There was a third such pearl of wisdom toward the end, but at that point, my brain screamed WTF and I didn’t write it down. After a promising, shirtless first scene, he doesn’t even get to be the eye candy that might have helped!
This movie is predictable and un-nuanced—whether in the comedy, plot or themes—but as I said, I didn’t hate it. I was more disappointed than anything because as someone (hopefully) in the throes of living their own second act, I think it could have been so much more. So don’t waste your money seeing it at the theatre, wait until it comes to Netflix or W Network. It’d be perfect with a glass of wine after a crappy week at work when you don’t want to have to think too hard.
It was my birthday a few weeks ago, and I wanted to give myself a little treat, but nothing too expensive. I also wanted to make sure it was in line with my new health goals (so no cake or cocktails!!). I’d been thinking about it for a while, so decided to try a Nordic pole walking lesson.
Nordic pole walking is walking using poles that resemble those used in cross-country (Nordic) skiing. It originated in Finland where it was designed as an off-season exercise for those skiers to maintain their training.
By all accounts, it has several benefits over regular walking. Nordic walking uses 90% of the body’s muscles, as opposed to 40% walking without poles. This makes for a better cardio exercise and helps to burn up to 46% more calories. It is lower impact, so puts less stress on leg joints, and by engaging upper body muscles, helps to develop core strength.
I decided to give it a try because I am walking most days anyway. However, now that the weather is nice and I’m back to walking outside, I have lost the advantage to add in some strength training that the gym afforded me. This seemed like a good option to add ‘oomph’ to my walks.
For all of the above reasons, and more, Nordic pole walking is an excellent exercise for midlife and beyond (for any age, really). At a point in life where we are being told to protect our joints and our hearts, as well as watch out for weight creep and rising cholesterol and blood sugar, it may be one of the best solutions. And, although I can find little research on this, from a personal perspective, the poles also help my balance, and keep me walking a straight line.
There is little equipment needed—only the poles and some comfy shoes, making it relatively inexpensive to get into. I would however, also recommend at least one lesson. Nordic walking is not difficult, but it is not completely intuitive either. I even purchased extra lessons to get some practice under an instructor’s eye.
In my area, another bonus to Nordic walking is a social one. Many clubs in different locations, walking at different times, give people to option to join a group. Although I am not going this route at present, preferring to continue my walks as personal reflection time, it is a great way to meet people and stay motivated. A quick search of Google shows that most areas and major centres across the country have groups and lessons easily accessible.
(A note about my own instructor: If you are in the Victoria, BC area and are thinking about trying this out, I would highly recommend Linda Schaumleffel as an instructor. She is extremely passionate and knowledgeable about all things Nordic walking-related. In addition, she is an accomplished public speaker. As an Olympic rower, car accident (brain injury) survivor and now advocate for Nordic walking, she brings a wealth of experience and humour to her presentations. If you have an event planned that needs someone to motivate or inspire, consider contacting Linda atLinda4success@shaw.caor through herwebsite)
Have you tried Nordic pole walking? Would you recommend it to others? If you haven’t tried it, would you consider giving it a go, at midlife (or anytime)? It could be fun!