The Recovering Farmer

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

What Really Helps

Over the course of the winter I have had the privilege of presenting to various groups. I find it fascinating how people come forward and ask questions. I used to tell organizers that I would be more than happy to entertain questions but that normally people are quite hesitant to ask. I see a significant shift in attitudes now where people are curious and do ask. I suspect that is due to the increasing awareness of mental health concerns particularly in agriculture.

Questions are good and I always enjoy answering to the best of my ability. As I hear these questions and reflect on them one thing becomes increasingly clear. There have been numerous people involved in my journey and to answer some of the questions I need to get input from those that walk with me. Sometimes that is not the easiest as I still, at times, feel regret with what I have put them through. Much more importantly is how thankful I am for the help and support they have been through thick and thin.

Some time ago someone asked me what my wife could have said or done that would have made me “sit up” and take note of where I was headed. That is a difficult question and here is why. I saw a tweet from Michael Landsberg recently where he said, and I quote; “I realized it happened so gradually over 6 months, I had no clue”. I think that really says it well for me as well. I suspect because of the torrid pace I was keeping in 2003 people around me did not realize or understand the change I was going through either. And neither did I.

Perhaps my wife and I never really had the conversation that needed to happen. Prior to my first doctor visit I am not sure that I would have responded favorably to her should she have suggested I needed help. However as the recovery began we did have more conversations and when I had, what I call a relapse, in 2005 we did discuss what type of help I should be looking for. Since then we have had many conversations, particularly when she noticed me headed off the rails again.

As well, when I was first diagnosed, my kids were quite young. At the time they did not understand what was happening. How could they when I really did not know either. However in later years they have had a much better understanding and have shown an incredible support. I will say it again, without their support I could not be where I am today. They are ready and willing to talk to me and do whatever they can to help.

I have also been asked what the turning point was when I started talking about it. As weird as it may sound I am not sure there was a turning point. It kind of came about unintentionally. Sure, I had a couple of friends who I shared with just as they shared with me. But at the time it was not really coming out and addressing the issue. Rather it was just chatting about stress and how that stress lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms. The actual in depth conversations came about later when I started talking about it publicly.

I still smile when I think about how that came about. When I took the training to become a volunteer for the farm line I had been rather open about my own struggles. Furthermore I had been contracted to facilitate workshops dealing with men and depression. As part of that I was asked to share my story. Without any thoughts of the implications of that I consented. The rest as they say is history. That was in 2010 and I have never stopped talking about. I can still say talking about it was a turning point in my life. I have tried various methods to overcome my depression. I have been on various meds and I have seen countless medical professionals. Although I should not be too definitive about this I feel today that talking about has been one of the best tools I have had over the years. Not only have I been able to verbalize what is going on in my brain, I have also learned so much from all those people that have shared with me. That has made my journey much easier. So the bottom line is I need to keep talking. And, quite frankly, we all do. Make it a good one.

Instead of my usual quote I would like to leave you with a quote from someone who asked me to call them to talk. As that person talked to me I felt so helpless as I was not sure how I could help with what was being said to me. However I was sent the following note that reiterates what I mean about “talking about it”.

“Thank you very much for taking the time to call me last week. I feel sooo much better! It's like this big weight has lifted off my shoulders! Blessings .”

Monday, January 28, 2019

We Need to Listen

As we approach January 30 and the annual Bell Lets Talk day it is important that we do get reminded to talk about it. I have written and talked often about the importance of talking when you feel down, when you are feeling lonely, when you feel forgotten, when you feel that no one understands, when you feel pain, and when you feel forsaken. It is easy to slip into a shell and hope that these feelings will eventually go away.

Last week I presented to a group of farmers in Alberta. After the presentation someone approached me, thanked me for telling my story, and then went on to say that he did not struggle with mental health concerns. I challenged him to take what I talked about with him so that he could be there for someone else when they felt the need to talk.

Very often it is difficult to find someone that will listen. What happens when someone wants to talk to me? How do I react? Do I know how to listen? Do I respond in such a way that the other person comes away from the conversation feeling better?

Dr. Ralph Roughten has written some good thoughts on listening. Let me share a few of them.

“When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving advice
you have not done what I have asked.”

“When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me
why I shouldn’t feel that way, you are trampling on
my feelings.”

“When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to
do something to solve my problem you have failed me,
strange as that may seem.”

“Listen! All I asked was that you listen – not talk or do.
Just hear me.”

Interesting how those thoughts reflect exactly my feelings when I feel the need to talk. Even more interesting is how I fail so miserably when others want to share with me. It is difficult not to jump in with advice or the age old “I know exactly how you feel”. Not so. I may understand how you feel. I may have had similar experiences but it is really difficult to “know” how someone feels. I know for myself, I always want to try to fix the problem. However, I need to stand back, listen and support. Be a source of strength. With my daughter who is experiencing incredible antenatal anxiety. With the young couple, excited about being parents, losing the pregnancy in a miscarriage. The colleague who relates to my issues, hears me out, but is seldom given the opportunity to share her story. A long suffering spouse, who has to deal with a husband who is trying to find his way but spends far too much time immersed in negative thinking and rumination.

Dr. Roughten has a further thought that I think can be important as we learn to listen to others.

“. . . when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what
I feel, no matter how irrational, then I can quit trying to
convince you and get about the business of
understanding what’s behind this irrational feeling.”

That reminds me so much of a neighbor who dropped by a number of years ago when I had reached new lows in my journey. A simple question from him got me talking and for as long as it took he listened, he validated and he normalized what I was experiencing. There was no judgement, just a listening ear. So as we become more aware of those around us that are struggling lets also do our part in being there for them. Listen more, understand more, love more. Make it a good one.

“People don’t always need advice. Sometimes all they really need is a hand to hold, an ear to listen, and a heart to understand them.” Unknown

Thursday, January 17, 2019

A Tale of Two Containers

It seems we are in the time of year where emotional gas tanks are starting to run empty. Just as the Christmas and New Year hangovers are dissipating, figuratively speaking, the meetings and trade shows start with a vengeance. Along with that comes frigid weather and all the challenges that come with that. There is also the planning and uncertainty that comes with a new year.

Some time ago I participated in some training where we talked about the stressors all of us have experienced in life. Whether we have experienced trauma, deal with people that have been traumatized, or simply live a life that has over whelming stress. The trainer used the example of a container. She had us visualize the container inside of us where we store the stressful or traumatic events of our life. As long as these events stay in the container we have the ability to cope. We have the ability to function. To live life as it was meant to be lived.

However there may come a time when that container overflows. That can happen for numerous reasons. Perhaps a container is smaller than most. (I suspect mine is) Perhaps some people experience an inordinate amount of stress. Perhaps it is a single traumatic event in life that is unbearable and difficult to deal with that causes the contents of the container to overflow. And when that happens a person goes into crisis. Recovering from that crisis can be an arduous task, something that takes time and effort, and has the ability to overwhelm. It has the potential to literally push us over the edge.

As I sat there and reflected on this analogy I thought of another container we have within us. Our emotional gas tank. A car needs to have gas in the tank to operate. Our bodies need fuel (nutrition) to operate effectively. Our minds need to be rejuvenated to think clearly. The point being that when our emotional gas tank runs dry we invariably cease to function. So we need to keep gas in the tank. This can be done through a variety of ways. Through involvement in support groups, participating in sports, becoming socially active, spending time with friends and family, taking a vacation.

As I contemplated this further I realized that these two containers are directly related to each other. Bear with me. Picture two containers side by side, the emotional gas tank and the stress tank. For discussion purposes let’s assume we were born with each container being half full. This may differ for different people. As we experience life the stress tank level goes up while the emotional tank goes down. As we utilize various tools we find the emotional tank filling up and the stress tank going down. (I suspect the concept of liquids in two containers connected like that was covered in grade 9 science. I didn’t listen back then either.) The danger we run into is when the stress tank starts overflowing and the emotional tank runs dry.

In a roundabout way, through an over simplified analogy, I am talking about creating balance in life. What does that look like? For many of us it becomes a matter of being self-aware. Know what is going on in your body and in your mind. Take the steps necessary to maintain balance in your life. For others whose stress tank is overflowing take the time to seek help. It is out there. As I have often said, there is hope and there is relief. Make it a good one.

“Life is all about balance. You don’t always need to be getting stuff done. Sometimes it’s perfectly okay, and absolutely necessary, to shut down, kick back, and do nothing.” Lori Deschene

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Building a Bridge

How many times have you heard the phrase “get over it”? Certainly if you have had anything to do with kids, whether your own or someone else’s, you will have heard that. Often times, I am sure, you have felt like using it yourself. And I would bet there are times when you did use it. As many of you know by now, I often slip into a state of rumination. I stew about things. I have, on occasion, wallowed in self-pity. Some time ago I was worked up about something. Can’t remember what anymore. Perhaps that in itself is a sign that it happens to often. My wife finally had enough and told me to get over it.

Just recently one of my kids said to one of their siblings, “get over it”. In the background I heard someone else say; “build a bridge”. Excuse me. Build a bridge? Sure they explained. When you are told to get over it what do you need? You need a bridge. That simple.

You know me. I started applying the concept to life. Instead of muddling our way through, fighting everything we are trying to avoid, we need to build a bridge. In my mind I conjured up this picture of a crisis being like a river. A river with a swift and turbulent current. As you start across the river the water gets deeper. Mud is sucking at your feet. The current is throwing you off balance. An alligator or two are nipping at your heels. The water gets colder. Then when the water gets too deep for walking you start swimming. The current takes you down stream and you end up in places you had not wanted to go. In a worst case scenario you can drown.

Now picture crossing that same river on a bridge. Sure, having to build a bridge will take some time and some effort. But when it is built it becomes a way to circumvent a lot of problems. You stay dry. You stay on course. You stay safe. Now you can observe the river from above. There are no threats to life or limb. And once that bridge has been built it can be used time and time again.

There is another side to this. Very often we find it difficult to respond to friends or family members who are hurting. Perhaps it is because we feel that to respond means we take responsibility for their problems. Maybe we are unsure of what to say. Trust me. I know from experience that people experiencing mental pain wish they were not. They would like to be part of a normal world, whatever that means. So by simply being there, normalizing and validating as you listen, you are in fact helping to build a bridge from your side.

As awareness grows more people are talking about it. More and more people are reaching out for help. And for many there is a better level of comfort in helping those that are hurting. The challenge is to become more proactive in building bridges regardless of which side of the river you find yourself.

The tools are available. And the best part of this is you don’t need to do this on your own. Find your supports. Friends, family, neighbors, professionals, they are all prepared to be on the “construction” crew. They are your supports. So let’s build more bridges and together "get over it". Make it a good one.

“When it hurts to look back and you are worried about the future look beside you and you will find your friends.” unknown

Friday, January 4, 2019

Keep Talking

It is the annual Bell Let’s Talk time. And we all need to be reminded. I find it interesting when I discover how many people have been touched by mental health issues. Just check Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. There is a relative whose son has suffered from depression. There is a friend and colleague that knows all about it. There is a complete stranger that acknowledges the devastation of mental health problems. You turn on the radio. Even a talk show host, who I have very little respect for, has guests that talk about the ongoing issues of depression and anxiety
.
I have preached it from the pulpit. Okay, that really is an overstatement. My parents could only wish it was from a pulpit. But in presentations, in media interviews, in one on one conversations, and in my weekly ramblings, I talk about “talking” about it. I am a strong believer. It helped me. It helped me lots. It continues to help me.

Sometimes I wonder how tired people must be about hearing this ongoing issue of mental health and talking. I get really tired of it myself, to the point of getting quite angry. Why the hell can’t we just be happy? Why do we need to continuously remind people to talk? And then I sit back, look at my own life, look at my own struggles and I understand. I get it.

Over the years I have talked on many occasions. I have come to the realization that there are so many out there that listen. So many people that do understand. So many that welcome the opportunity to help. From the neighbor who took the time to ask when I was in my darkest moment. From the friend who listened without judgement. From a wife and partner who never gave up on me. From kids who did care even when I thought I was protecting them from the demons of my inner self. To the countless people who approached me when they realized that I, too, was experiencing what they had felt for years.

There is a certain camaraderie out there. As long as we hide behind a fa├žade of happiness, of contentment, of peace, we never find it. But it is there. And it is so helpful. Thank you to all those that have taken the time to listen to me in the past. Thank you to all who have encouraged without judgement. Thank you to all those that stuck with me even when I stumbled and fell. Thank you to all who continue to care. You have no idea how helpful you have been in my journey. A journey that continues and will continue to the day I die.

So, again, the challenge is to talk about it. Although many people experience mental health issues there are many who do not. For those people I can only throw out one challenge. Take the time to listen. The beauty of that is you don’t need to provide any answers. All you need to do is show some interest, be curious, normalize, validate and understand in whatever way you can. That is all many of us need. That is all we ask for. And the more we are able to talk, the more we can be on that road to recovery. A road filled with a true peace and contentment. A road that can provide for a better tomorrow.

Again, thank you to all who have listened to me in the past. Thank you to all who have shared with me. Together we can find a new enjoyment in life. A life we were meant to live. Make it a good one.

“People don’t always need advice. Sometimes all they really need is a hand to hold, an ear to listen, and a heart to understand them.” Unknown

Friday, December 21, 2018

Christmas 2018

Wow. Here we are again. Is it me or is time flying by at too rapid a pace. It feels like only yesterday I was sitting here thinking about the same stuff. Christmas seems to be about reflecting on days gone by. That may be a good thing for some but for others brings about a certain sadness. I am often puzzled when a feeling of melancholy covers me like a blanket during Christmas festivities. I have shared this story before but I remember as a child being at a get together with uncles and aunts and cousins. Singing carols was always a part of the day’s festivities. During the singing I noticed a particular uncle would often have tears in his eyes. It often made me wonder. I now get that. Seems to have the same effect on me, not that I spend a lot of time with people singing carols, but even a song on the radio can elicit a similar response.

It has been said before that music provides a pathway to reflection. Maybe that’s it. Or it may be the short days, a reminder of loved ones who have passed, the hype and increase in expectations or just a feeling of loneliness exacerbated by others around us who seem particularly joyous. I suppose I could have just said “Bah Humbug” and left it at that. However, that is not my intent. Rather it is just a recognition that there are things that make us nostalgic or sad. The good news is there are also other things that provide comfort and joy. I think there is a song there.

The following poem is one I like posting this time of year. Perhaps I like it so much because it talks about the three areas I work with a lot. Stress management, conflict, and family relationships. Enjoy. Make it a good one.

Put your problems on probation
Run your troubles off the track,
Throw your worries out the window
Get the monkeys off your back.
Silence all your inner critics
With your conscience make amends,
And allow yourself some happiness
It's Christmas time again!

Call a truce with those who bother you
Let all the fighting cease,
Give your differences a breather
And declare a time of peace,
Don't let angry feelings taint
The precious time you have to spend,
And allow yourself some happiness
It's Christmas time again!

Like some cool refreshing water
Or a gentle summer breeze,
Like a fresh bouquet of flowers
Or the smell of autumn leaves,
It's a banquet for the spirit
Filled with family, food and friends,
So allow yourself some happiness
It's Christmas time again!
Bob Lazzar-Atwood

Monday, December 17, 2018

A New Chapter

Recently I made the comment that I need to accept who I am because if I am not who I am then who am I. That’s a mouthful and, quite frankly, gives me a headache if I think about it too much. But I think I maybe on to something new. Keep reading.

I am trying to become Twitter agile and in that vein have been on Twitter quite often. In fact I tweeted but please don’t tell anyone. That is way outside of my comfort zone. And not only did I tweet, I shared something personal. And now it is out there. Scary thought.

I did see an interesting quote as I traversed Twitter. It went like this. “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” That sounds like a novel idea to me. It seems we spend an inordinate amount of time looking for ourselves, at least I do, and when I do look I normally just get lost even worse, or when I do find myself, I don’t like what I find.

Further to that I read an interesting piece this morning. A therapist, who deals with couples struggling with infidelity in their relationship, has a novel suggestion for these couples. She suggests that there are two approaches to the problem. One is explore obvious hurts and betrayal but the other is the growth and self-discovery that can rise to the surface. She will tell these couples that their first marriage is over and that they have the opportunity to start a second marriage.

That got me to thinking more of my own story of recovery and discovery. Through my journey I have spent significant time ruminating about the past, regretting some of the decisions I made, wishing my choices had been better. It actually reminds me of a conversation I had with a feed sales person. He asked about the farm and I told him we were winding down the farm and that I had come to the conclusion that I was no longer a farmer. He looked at me and suggested that perhaps I never had been. My initial response to that was one of “how dare you”. I felt diminished and embarrassed. For a fleeting moment it felt like I was not who I am. But those feelings left quickly when I understood what he meant. It wasn’t that I was a bad farmer, although that probably would have been true, but rather he was validating and confirming the work I was doing in my mediation business and that I was good at it. It was actually encouraging. That suggested to me that some of my choices could have been better but at the same time many of my experiences have shaped who I am today.

Back to my journey. As you will have noticed in the story that I recently posted, I have learned a lot about mental health and how that pertains to me. As insidious as the illness is there are ways and means to deal with it. Having said that perhaps I need to change my approach based on some of what I talked about previously. Instead of looking for myself I need to create myself. Instead of looking back at some bad decisions in my life I need to look ahead and make good decisions for my future.

The way I see this is that if I close the chapter on the past I can begin writing a new chapter starting with the present, in essence starting a new life. It would seem to me that that could provide for a brighter future. I think this may work. So if you see me in the future and I am not who you think I am you will know I am who I am; working on a new me. And then I can say I am me and nobody else and nobody else is me. Might take a while to figure this out but I think it may be worth it. Make it a good one.

“Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way, ask if you want to be a prisoner of the past or a pioneer of the future.” Deepak Chopra