Friday, 9 January 2015

Close call

Well, I guess after running more than 3,000K it was bound to happen -- I got clipped by a car this evening.

First off, I'm fine. Really.

Second, it had nothing to do with me running in the snow, running in the winter or running in the late afternoon. There was very little snow falling and it was still light out. I'll get back to this in a bit.

I was running on the sidewalk towards traffic on the south side of Yonge Street near Big Bay Point. I was just starting to cross the entrance/exit of the new Meridian bank when I saw a car leaving the parking lot. The driver was signalling to turn right on to Yonge and was looking left to see if there was any traffic coming from that direction. There wasn't so she started to pull out to make her right turn.

One problem -- she hadn't looked right to see if anyone was approaching from that direction on the sidewalk.

As her bumper started to make contact with my left leg I jumped on her hood, TJ Hooker-style, pounding on it with my fists yelling 'Stop!! Stop!!'

She stopped and I slid off the hood.

She gave me the obligatory hands-up-I'm-sorry gesture but I was in no mood to let her off with an it's-okay wave. 

"This is a sidewalk!" I yelled. "Open your eyes and look both ways!" (And, yes, there were some expletives included.)

That sidewalk is usually busy with students from the high school, residents from the co-op housing down the street and plenty of mothers pushing strollers.

Thankfully all she hit was someone who was able to jump just high enough to avoid being dragged under the car.

Now I know some of you may be shaking your head, saying to yourself, 'What did you expect when you took up running?'

I know that because I used to be the same. I would see those "crazy" runners out there and shake my head.

Not anymore. You know why? Because I have as much right to be out there as anyone else, whether they are running, walking, pushing a stroller or hauling groceries home.

And I am anything but crazy when it comes to safety. I only run on sidewalks, wait at all lights and only cross at crosswalks. I wear reflective clothing and flashing LEDs if I'm out at twilight or later.

I am extremely conservative and overly cautious.

Despite that, I've still had many close calls and only recently had some jackass yell at me to "get moving %%$@^@^!" when I was crossing with a green light and white walk sign. He didn't like that I was holding him up from making a right turn. (I let loose one choice expletive at him. Paula expressed concern at that to which I replied, "I'm running. What's he going to do, get out and chase me?")

So why the strong reaction tonight? Because I'm sick and tired of drivers who are so careless, so clueless, so obviously oblivious to what's going on around them they are a danger to others, especially those of us on foot.

Hopefully at least one of them will now check both ways before pulling out into traffic.

I'm hoping the dent in her hood from my fist will serve as a reminder.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Hard truth

I used to think we'd come a long way in reducing the stigma associated with mental illness.

I made a very personal choice to be open about my condition, in the hopes it would help others understand that those who have a mental illness can still love, laugh, live and contribute like any other person.

I've been kidding myself.

And I'm afraid being open about my condition has actually made things worse for me and, by extension, my family.

Oh, for sure there is a lot more talk about mental illness these days.

Bell trots out its 'Let's Talk' campaign every year and we congratulate ourselves for how tolerant, how progressive, how down-right civilized we all are when it comes to mental illness.

But in the end, I've come to believe people are willing to be tolerant of those with mental illness -- just as long as they don't have to work with them.

Which means all the talk about tolerance and understanding is nothing more than window dressing.

A former employer asked me -- after I had been off work on short-term disability with depression -- how I could guarantee him I wouldn't relapse again.

I asked him if he asked that of a co-worker who was off with cancer, went into remission and was welcomed back with open arms.

"But that's different," he said.

And there you have it.

I've interviewed at five different organizations over the last six months, making it to the final round at two of them.

I'm still unemployed.

Of course I can't prove my public disclosure has given pause to any potential employer. There may have been other candidates more qualified or a better fit than myself.

But one thing became crystal clear to me today when I received my latest rejection.

If my illness was cancer and my blog was my story of overcoming it I would no doubt be more attractive to an employer doing research on me when considering hiring me.

In fact, it could be almost anything other than mental illness (and possibly addiction).

"He lost his leg to flesh-eating disease but came back to run a half-marathon. What courage! We need people like him!" they would say.

"He had a rare form of cancer but battled it and won the battle! We need people with strength like that!" they would say.

But I don't have cancer or flesh-eating disease.

I have major depressive disorder.

And until I can say that in an interview and not have it held against me, we aren't any further along than in the days when you didn't talk about it at all.

Because if you can only disclose it in situations that really don't matter, the stigma is still as strong as it's ever been.

And that makes me sad and discouraged beyond words.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Cloudy with a chance of showers

*DISCLAIMER* 
As bleak as this one may read, I've written it out of frustration, not because I'm giving up. Tomorrow's another day.

"Those long, long days of no escaping." 
-- If Only, Queens of the Stone Age

I have been alive for 15,597 days.

If I had to guess how many of those days I have been completely symptom free, it would be a very small number.

There have been hours I have been symptom free.

But never a day.

I can honestly never remember a day when I woke up, made it through the day and went to bed without experiencing at least one symptom.

Each and every day I experience at least some negative self-talk, low self-esteem, low energy, feelings of guilt, hopelessness and despair, anxiety or depression.

Sometimes a combination of these, sometimes all of them.

Contrary to what many may think about depression and anxiety, they do not start and stop like a cold or a broken limb.

They are always there, sometimes raging through mind and body, sometimes fading into the background so as to be almost silent and invisible.

Almost.

Tonight has been a difficult night because of the frustration I am feeling knowing I will never be cured, never made whole.

I started thinking about this after hearing former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk on the radio this week. For those who don't know, he played most of his career in the 1980s and came within a hair of dying on the ice during a game when a skate cut his throat.

Quick action by the training staff saved his life that night. However, he ended up becoming seriously mentally ill, attempting suicide later on.

He has just released a book on his career and subsequent mental illness.

During the interview he repeatedly spoke about how there is no cure for his condition and that he has experienced serious relapses.

I'm not fond of using the term relapse because it implies the person is symptom-free before becoming ill again.

That's never been my experience. For my entire adult life -- and as far back as I can remember of my childhood -- I don't think I've had a symptom-free day.

Each and every day I experience some aspect of my illness, some days more strongly than others.

Today, for example, was the first time since Sept. 7 I've run 10K. Rather than be happy with my result, I immediately started to beat myself up for going so long between 10K runs (never-minding that I've done three 100K bike rides and several short runs in that time).

This leads me to thinking things like, "Big deal. So you ran 10K. How about getting a job? How's that going?"

That leads me to thinking about how I haven't been in an office for three years and the fear I'll break down under the pressure of a new job.

And all of this happens in less time than it took you to read about it.

So then I have to start the process of positive self-talk to try to redirect my thoughts.

It's exhausting.

I wish just one day my brain would work like it should.

Just one day.

I've tried everything -- medication, one-on-one therapy, group therapy, in-patient treatment, out-patient treatment, cognitive behaviour therapy, dialectic behaviour therapy, endurance training. Just about everything short of electroshock therapy.

Most days I feel like Sisyphus, rolling that rock to the top of the hill only to watch it roll back again.

So what keeps me pushing it up that hill day after day?


Claire.

Paula.

My family.

My friends.

A good book, a long run, a snowstorm, a day by the water.


Life.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The wall

I'm in a slump.

I've been so down the last three weeks I've only been out for two runs and two rides in that time. It's like I've hit the proverbial wall.

I used to look forward to my runs and rides but lately I have no motivation at all. I've put five pounds back on and I'm wallowing in self pity.

I keep telling myself, tomorrow's Day 1 and then I come up with excuses to not run/ride. I feel like I'm sliding back into my old ways.

It's so frustrating because I had kept up with it for 16 months. It's like a switch went off in me somewhere.

The runs themselves are getting more difficult too -- not so much physically but mentally. I used to consider anything less than 10K a waste of time and now the thought of running further than 5K seems overwhelming.

I think looking for work for the last six months is starting to take its toll. I've got an interview Monday but it would entail relocating which I'm not sure I want to do for a bunch of reasons.

I just want to get back to loving running.

Maybe I need to find some new routes and put some new music on my ipod. I think I may have negative associations with them now -- I hit the wall mentally at the same spots on my standard route.

I don't think this is my depression getting worse. I'm still getting up, getting dressed, looking for work, spending time with Paula and Claire, eating (too much lately!) and generally trying to get on with my life.

But damn that wall seems high these days.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

A hard gift

There's been a new challenge trend spreading through Facebook lately, passed from friend to friend like one of those old-fashioned chain letters.

A friend challenges you to list three things per day for one week that you are grateful for.

I managed to whip through 21 things in one go since I have a lot to be grateful for.

However, it got me to thinking about my major depressive and generalized anxiety disorders.

Is there anything in them I should be grateful for?

I know there is a lot I hate about them.

I hate how they make me feel and how they distort the way I view the world so severely that they make living so very difficult on my worst of days.

I hate them for taking so much from me -- joy, happiness, continued success -- and derailing my life over and over again.

I hate that they cause my family and friends so much worry and anguish when I am really ill.

I hate the fact that, statistically speaking, I will continue to suffer bouts for the rest of my life and that there may never be a cure in my lifetime.

With so much to hate about them, there seems to be no reason to be grateful for them.

But when I looked hard at them, I found there were a few things to be grateful for.

My depression is a part of me, entwined with my DNA. It is just as much a facet of my personality as my sense of humour, my intelligence, my empathy, my capacity to love. Without it, I wouldn't be the person I am. Sometimes I wonder who that person would be, but then I realize it's taken me almost three decades to come to grips with my disorder and to, while not actually loving myself, not hate who I am.

My depression, when not in full bloom, makes me see the serious side of life. I truly believe my ability to be empathetic comes from being so finely attuned to things like social injustice and suffering in others. I found out Santa Claus didn't exist when I was 5. I had seen one of those infomercials that used to run in the '70s showing the incredible starvation in Africa, including pictures of young children with swollen bellies in the final stages of atrophy. Why, I asked my mother, was Santa bringing me toys and not bringing them food? What could my mother tell me but the truth?

My depression has strengthened my bonds with my family, including my wife and daughter. In group therapy I've met dozens of people whose families did not support them, usually through ignorance of the disorder. I, on the other hand, have been fortunate to have a family who, while they might not completely understand what I'm going through, offer me unconditional love and support.

My depression has allowed to me to see how many other people care about me and love me. When I'm feeling my worst, my self-esteem is low and my self-loathing is off the charts. But over the course of the years I've had a core group of friends who have stayed friends, no matter how sick I've become. And they accept me for who I am. 

My depression has led me to express myself through my writing and my music. I don't think I'd be nearly the writer I am today had it not been for my disorder. For reasons not yet totally understood, there is a disproportionate percentage of artists (of all different mediums) who suffer with major depressive disorder. The list is long from Hemingway to Van Gogh to Sylvia Plath to Jackson Pollock. One theory is that people with depression see the world more deeply than others and can tap into their moods more easily in order to create. I know my writing is better when I am more emotional, more raw, more ready to draw on my deepest feelings.

Finally, my most recent bout of depression has forced me to be off work for an extended time. Although I am eager to get back to work, it allowed me to spend more time with Paula and Claire. I also got to spend much more time with mom before she died, time I will be forever grateful for.

So there is some blue sky peeking through the boiling grey clouds.

I just have to remember to focus on the blue.






Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The elephant in the room


There will be a lot of talk in the coming days in the media about depression's version of the elephant in the room -- suicide.

As most of you already know, Robin Williams, the immensely funny comic and gifted actor, took his own life yesterday at the age of 63.

I've enjoyed his work since he shot to fame in the late '70s playing a manic alien in the sit-com Mork and Mindy.

Although he was initially known for his comedic work -- his stand-up routine once being referred to as Dostoevsky on acid -- he moved seamlessly into serious acting. I still find his role as the boarding school teacher Mr. Keating as one of the best performances I've ever seen.

After one of his students commits suicide, Williams sits at the student's desk and opens one of his books before crumpling with grief.

It turns out the grief he displayed in that scene was not far off from his real grief that lay inside, mostly invisible to the general public. (It starts at 2:30 of this clip)


 

Williams struggled with substance abuse (mostly alcohol but also cocaine in the 1980s) and depression for more than three decades. He recently spent time in rehab, once again for alcohol.

And for reasons that would only make sense to his shattered brain, Williams decided enough was enough. He hanged himself with a belt after making what appears to be an unsuccessful attempt to slit his wrist with a pocketknife.

Williams' riches, fame and talent were not enough to keep his depression at bay. And this should serve as a sharp reminder of how insidious mental illness is -- it can destroy someone inside while the person on the outside seems relatively normal.

So let's talk about the elephant. 

This may not be easy for some of you to read, but it's important we talk about it, mostly because it is hardly talked about at all. For example, when was the last time you saw an obituary list suicide as the cause of death? It happens all the time but the stigma and shame attached to it are so strong, it's usually not listed as a cause of death in obituaries but you can usually figure it out if the family requests donations for mental health agencies like the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

I've been told point-blank by some people when I've broached the subject, I shouldn't talk about it. They think it's fine and good to talk about my depression but if I admit publicly to thinking about suicide, that would damage my reputation permanently and make people think differently of me.

To that I say I've been open about my illness to try to reduce the stigma attached to it. To ignore suicide would only serve to paint a partial picture and it would also be a disservice to everyone who has lost their battle with depression. Those who survive have to tell the stories of those who don't.

Statistically, there are about 3,500 suicides in Canada each year, and it is the 10th leading cause of death for both sexes and seventh for Canadian men. It falls just below colon and breast cancer in terms of overall causes of death.

That means that depression and/or substance abuse-related depression kills 3,500 people each year. If these deaths were caused by, for example, a new type of virus, you can bet there would be screaming headlines and a concerted effort to find a cure or at least try to treat the symptoms in an effort to save lives.

However, the stigma attached to depression -- let alone suicide -- is so strong, many (if not most) people don't want to talk about it.

I have had recurrent major depressive and generalized anxiety disorders for most of my life, accentuated by four major breakdowns at the ages of 18, 22, 29 and 39. The first one lasted several weeks, the second and third ones for several months and the third one for more than two years.

Despite that I have never attempted suicide. 

But I have thought about it, thousands of times over the years, going so far as to plan how I was going to do it. This is referred to in psychiatry as "suicidal ideation." In fact, it was the overwhelming desire I had to kill myself as an 18 year old that lead me to finally admitting to my parents how sick I was. It was the first time I asked for help.

Luckily, I was still thinking just clearly enough to know I was a danger to myself and that I needed immediate crisis intervention.

The same scenario played out in October of 2011, leading to my first hospitalization for depression.

You will no doubt hear in the coming days from those who don't understand that Williams committed a selfish act.

How could he be so selfish, the old refrain goes, and do that to the ones he loves?

For those of you looking for some sort of complex reason, I'm here to tell you there isn't.

People with mental illness kill themselves for very simple reasons.

The main one is to stop the pain they feel to the very core of their being.

Because, you see, depression is not just about mental suffering, it is also accompanied by physical suffering. At my lowest point, a week after being released from hospital, I looked like I had aged 20 years. I walked with a stooped shuffle, drawn in on myself, the lines of pain etched on my face.

When my brother saw me then for the first time in months, he burst into tears, my transformation was so dramatic.

Those of us seeing the world through the prism of depression see death as the only release from our pain. 

'I've tried medication, therapy, exercise, everything,' we think. 'I'm never going to get better. I'm tired of putting my family and friends through this.'

These thoughts are easily counter-balanced when we're feeling better (You won't always feel this way. It will lessen, just as it has in the past. You would hurt the ones you love, not relieve them of any burden.) but when depression has us in its jaws, these more realistic thoughts don't come easily, if at all.

Then there are the times a person with a mental illness will pass through a crisis in which they have talked about suicide and then rapidly improve and seem normal to others. They may even seem happy. 

This is a very dangerous and deadly sign. It can mean the person, in a moment of clarity, has decided they can't go back to feeling depressed.
British author Virginia Woolf touched on both of these reasons -- ending the pain and avoiding yet another relapse -- in the note she left for her husband.

Dearest, I feel certain that I'm going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems to be the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier until this terrible disease came. I can't fight it any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness in my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.


After writing this note, she went outside, filled her pockets with stones, and waded into the River Ouse.

She was 59.

******************

If someone you know has talked about suicide, take it seriously. They are not looking for attention, nor are they trying to be overly dramatic. Talk to them about it and, if you feel the person is a danger to themselves, call your local mental health crisis line or 911.




Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Sunrise

It was 365 days ago today that I dragged my sorry arse off the couch, put on a pair of old running shoes and headed out for a "run."

Although I was only able to run for 60 seconds before having to walk, little did I know how far those first plodding, gasping steps would take me.

I was at a very low point. Not my lowest, but pretty close. I was still severely depressed, wracked with anxiety and overweight. I was eating for comfort, gaining weight because of it and then feeling bad about the weight gain. So I'd eat for comfort. And so on.

After a physical and a mild scolding from my doctor, I looked up a Couch to 5K program and started running.

It wasn't easy. In fact, for the first several weeks I was miserable. I'd also adjusted my diet, cutting way back on junk food and journaling every single morsel I ate.

Slowly I started seeing results, both physically and mentally.

The weight started to fall off and I had more energy.

I began looking forward to my runs as a way to reduce the stress I was feeling being on disability. I liked it so much, I ran hundreds of kilometres straight through the winter, in snowstorms and temperatures as low as -30. I think that's one of the things I'm most proud of.

Over the last 12 months I've also:
  • Lost 30 pounds (and kept it off)
  • Run more than 1,500K
  • Run a half-marathon
  • Run a distance of 15+K 32 times
  • Run a distance of 21.1K+ 15 times
  • Run a distance of 30K+ 3 times
Yesterday I ran my first sub-30 minute 5K.

Plus I've completed close to 1,000K of mostly trail cycling, including three 100K rides.

Losing my mom last December was earth-shattering but I have no doubt I've been able to manage it due to my family's support, my medication and therapy, my new-found love of endurance training and the support of many of you.

I also have no doubt it was my new-found appreciation of fitness that helped me crawl out of the mental pit I had been stuck in for more than two years.

Did it cure me? No. There is no cure for recurrent major depressive disorder. But it did -- in part -- push the darkness back enough for me to turn my face to the sun again.

I'll be running my second official race this Saturday in the Barrie half-marathon. Claire will join me by running in the kids fun run.

It's nice to feel the sun again.