The Recovering Farmer

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

My Check Engine Light Is On

 Just before Christmas I went for a complete physical. As the doctor went through his routine, and I knew it was coming, he asked me to drop my pants and lay sideways on the examination gurney. The dreaded prostrate check. I apologized profusely that he had to do that, notice how I cared more for him than I did for myself. He just laughed and said I should think about it as an oil change. That actually made me laugh because, as some of you know, that is something I avoid as well.

Perhaps I should explain. It seems that whenever I take a vehicle in for an oil change, there are countless other issues that they seem to find. Sure, they advertise oil changes for a mere $79.99. So that’s all I will spend, right? Nope. I can never escape those places without shelling out at least $1,000. So no wonder I avoid oil changes. Is that my fear in seeking out help for my mental wellness? A fear that it will be something bad? Perhaps, but I digress.

The night before going for my follow-up appointment I told my wife that I was going to find out how long I had. When I told the doctor about that comment, he laughed and said I was good for another 100,000 miles, if I didn’t speed. Initially I was happy about that but now I wonder what that really means.

We all know that if we own any type of vehicle or equipment, regular maintenance is a good thing. In fact it’s not just a good thing, it is required if you want to ensure any kind of longevity in performance. Now a days, vehicles, tractors and sundry equipment come with any and all kinds of warning lights. My favorite is the “check engine” light that comes on frequently in the vehicles I drive. That warning light comes with its own challenges because it covers a variety of potential problems. It requires a visit to a garage where you now watch them hook up scanners and normally stand and scratch their heads because they are stumped.

When my kids started owning their cars I would often get phone calls. Dad, they would say, my car broke down. I would ask them what the problem was and they would say a warning light came on and based on their owner’s manual it was the “check engine” light. Usually I would just laugh and tell them I would be much more concerned if it wasn’t on. Obviously I had become somewhat cynical.

I have found that my mental health also needs maintenance. In essence my “check engine” light comes on. Unfortunately, just like I do with my vehicles, I tend to ignore it. Hope that I will wake up one day and it will have gone off.

This winter that “check engine” light has been on for a little too long so I decided to seek the help of my favorite “mechanic”, my naturopath. We chatted about how things had gone since our last appointment. As I told her about my ups and downs she informed me that I have an exquisite sensitivity to dopamine. That almost sounds exotic, like something I should cherish.  

In essence she was telling me, reminding me that there are tools I have that help in keeping the check engine light off. It requires an effort. It requires a certain dedication and a will to feel better even if it creates some discomfort. It also reiterates the fact that we need to occasionally seek help from a professional, someone who can help in keeping the “check engine” light off. Make it a good one.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Reaching Out

 Over the course of the last number of years, as I have shared stories about my journey, I have been approached by those who find it curious that I have the freedom to talk about mental illness and how it has impacted me. And then last week I had an ah ha moment. But first let me share how I got there.

In 2003 I was a hog producer. I was chairman of Manitoba Pork Marketing and I was an active mediator with the Manitoba Farm Mediation Board, dealing primarily with hog producers. The hog industry was in turmoil, creating financial stress for everyone. On a daily basis I was dealing with that stress on my own farm and also with the people I was dealing with in my other work.

As that stress started getting to me my behaviours changed. I could do nothing right and neither could anyone close to me. My coping skills were not good. Relationships began to suffer. And eventually that overwhelming stress pushed me into the labyrinth of mental illness, where I experienced significant anxiety and eventually slipped into depression.

At the time there was still a stigma attached to mental illness, there was little knowledge of resources I could use and the ones that I did use were lacking in knowledge of the intricacies of agriculture. It was difficult to find a path forward.

That is why I am so passionate about the Manitoba Farmer Wellness Program. Over the years the stigma has been reduced. Great strides have been made in building awareness. And the message, you are not alone, is loud and clear. Had I had the opportunity to participate in such a program my life could well have been different.

People have also suggested to me that they do not require counselling because they are not experiencing mental illness. Sure, they admit, stress can be overwhelming. My message to them is, be proactive. Through counselling you gain the tools necessary to cope better, to find ways of dealing with that stress before it manifests itself in something much more difficult to deal with.

Back to my ah ha moment. During that interview I came to the realization that “talking about it” has given me freedom. Sounds strange, I know. But there is a freedom in being able to come out of isolation, to be able to talk freely about those things that are dragging me down, to be able to articulate the darkness that can so easily overwhelm.

There is a new reality. That reality is that one out of three people suffer from mental illness. That reality is that as strong as we think we are there are issues that will kneecap the best of us. That reality is we need to find someone that we can talk to. That reality is we need support. That reality is that we live a secret life and want release. Booking an appointment with a Manitoba Farmer Wellness Program counsellor can help you in finding that freedom. Its okay not to be okay. Its okay to reach out. Talking about it is a freeing, life giving experience. Book an appointment today at www.manitobafarmerwellness.ca . Make it a good one.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Feeling Good About Self

 It seems that most anytime I go on social media there are reminders of some sort. I suppose along with most everything in my life these days I need reminders. And so it is with the CMHA mental health week. Its good to be reminded.

The focus this year is on empathy. I like that. I am always reminded of, and you have heard it before, when a neighbor dropped by and showed me empathy. It was a dark time in my life. I had been on meds for my mental health but thought I was doing okay so went off them. Then I experienced a traumatic event that pushed me towards the abyss.

A few days after that event, a neighbor dropped by to check on me. That, in itself, was encouraging. For some strange reason I took advantage of an opportunity. I began talking. And for close to an hour my neighbor sat and listened. He did not try to provide any type of advice, but showed understanding. He wasn’t judgemental, rather he normalized and validated what I was experiencing. That truly was empathy. That provided the encouragement for me to continue my journey.

Empathy simply means to have the ability to understand or be able to identify with others. When others share with me, I have a tendency to jump in and try to fix their issues. Often I may be judgemental and impatient. When I do these things, I am probably missing what that person needs, just a desire to be understood. To know they are not alone. I need to change that approach. I must focus on understanding how the person feels and why they feel that way. And take the time to reflect. Just like my neighbor did.

However, there is another important message in here. If you are struggling, if life overwhelms or there is just too much stress to face life, you also need to make sure you practice empathy for yourself. Sounds weird, right?

If you are anything like me, you spend an inordinate amount of time beating up on yourself. I have this uncontrollable way of letting my mind run rampant with negative and morbid thoughts. And because I know better than to allow those thoughts, I start bemoaning the fact that I have these negative thoughts and that I am such an idiot for thinking them and such a loser for thinking that I am an idiot and because I am an idiot there is no wonder I am useless at this thing called life. Notice how quickly I can get myself in trouble?

Try using self-empathy. The theory is quite simple. As mentioned above, we have an innate desire to be understood by others particularly during periods of distress. We never outgrow that. Our pain and anxiety reduces the more others understand and care. Our physical health improves when others show they care, when they show they understand, when they reach out to help. Using that same principle on ourselves is just as important.

Let this week be a reminder to show empathy not only for others but for yourself as well. Empathy promotes a feeling of emotional connection between individuals, groups, families and communities. Make an effort to tune in before you weigh in. Be there for others. And most importantly, be there for yourself. Make it a good one.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Is It Worth It?

 Back in 2005, a year and a half after I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, my wife and I decided that I needed to seek talk therapy. I had been on medication, decided to get off them, was walloped by a traumatic experience, and felt lost.

So I made an appointment with a psychologist. Yes, they were pricey even back then, but we felt it would be worthwhile. When we met for that first appointment, I poured out my soul. Our farm was experiencing financial challenges. It had been a struggle for a number of years. My anxiety and depression had deeply rooted. My coping methods only added to the misery and despair.

Unfortunately, that appointment was not helpful. After expressing his bewilderment that I would even be considering selling a family farm, the psychologist told me I needed to go back on medication because I could not afford him. I left that appointment feeling devastated. I had summoned the courage but didn’t get what I needed. What I had hoped for was the start of “getting” better. Rather I was pushed further into the abyss. I felt dismissed

Thankfully, with support and encouragement from my wife, I continued to seek help from mental health professionals. It wasn’t easy as it just seemed that there was a complete lack of understanding of agriculture and the various stressors faced by producers.

I know many farmers share that sentiment. Over time various surveys have revealed that farmers need someone with farm knowledge to talk to. Anecdotally I heard of a farmer that went to seek help during a stressful time and the doctor gave him a two-week sick note. That would actually be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Due to an ever-increasing awareness of stress and the impact of stress on our mental health, farmers are reaching out, but hesitancy persists. Logistically it has been a challenge seeking much needed help.

The Manitoba Farmer Wellness Program addresses much of what I just talked about. It provides for free counselling for farmers and their families. The counsellors have an intimate knowledge of the intricacies of stressors in farming. They can be accessed in person, virtually or by telephone. The service is confidential and only the counsellor knows who you are.

I often compare my journey to that of living in a labyrinth. A labyrinth is defined as “a place with a lot of crisscrossing or complicated passages, tunnels, or paths in which it would be easy to become lost”. And when we are hit by over whelming stress, when anxiety sets in, it is easy to feel lost. But in times like these it is important to reach out. Find someone that can lead you through the labyrinth.

I was asked recently whether a program such as the Manitoba Farmer Wellness program would have been helpful to me back in the day. I answer that with an unequivocal YES. Having a counsellor with knowledge of farming at no cost to me would have been helpful. And even with the knowledge that I am on a lifelong journey, my journey would have been better served had I had that type of counselling earlier. The bottom line is that there is hope and there is relief. So yes, it is worth it. Visit www.manitobafarmerwellness.ca and find out how you can take advantage of this program.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Talking About It

 There is a certain relief when the end of January rolls around. First of all, it means that we are supposedly over the worst of winter. I know, February and March can be brutal. As an older person I can tell you stories. But I suspect you, along with my kids, just groan when I say that so will leave it alone. But I do have to pay for my golf membership this week so that, at least in my dreams, gets me a little closer.

But more importantly, this week brings about the annual BellLetsTalk day. A really good reminder that we need to talk about it. Just to be clear, and I know most of you know this, when I say talk about it, I mean talk about our mental health.

So as much as I have tried putting on a brave face, things are getting to me. It’s been tough. Obviously, we have the ongoing pandemic. I remain, for all intents and purposes, working from home. And the opinions on all things pandemic are becoming more fractitious than ever. Apparently, that’s not a word but you all know what I mean. We have had copious amounts of snow which I know will be a benefit to anyone that grows crops and enjoys green grass. But it sure is a pain now. And then what about those cold temperatures.

My wife and I were chatting over the weekend. She told me about feeling down, not seeing the kids and grandkids, not getting together with family, and not socializing much. I have a notion she is getting tired of hanging out just with me. And, quite frankly, I am getting tired of hanging out with me too.

I told her that I was feeling down as well. And then I suggested to her that I had been putting on a brave face and trying to fool her into thinking I was doing okay. She gave me a strange look and told me I had not be fooling her at all.

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 if life is getting you down a bit, if life events have left you reeling, or if your mood is subdued, find someone to talk to. Its okay not to be okay. Its okay to need help. Be kind to yourself and find someone to talk to. It will make life better. Make it a good one.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Talking and Listening

 I ran into an interesting situation this week. I found out that people could not send me emails because my email box was full. In all my years of using emails I had never had that happen before. Turns out that I have been saving too many emails and thus needed to do some purging. As I scrolled through and deleted emails I came across emails I had exchanged two years ago. I noticed a sadness in a few of them. With a sense of dread I quickly understood why.

It was two years ago that two family friends died by suicide. Although I had often thought of the two families impacted by this it seemed to me that I had carried on with life with hardly missing a beat. Reading those emails and reflecting back was a stark reminder of those among us that have been suffering. Many suffering in silence, seeking a way out of those dark moments, moments when life itself is questioned, when the pain seems to overtake and overwhelm.

Ironically enough this stark reminder and reflection happened as we approach the Bell Let’s Talk day. It got me thinking. I thought back to a workshop I facilitated last fall where the topic of suicide was part of the discussion. I thought of the gentleman that got up to share at the end and thanked me for having broached the topic in a candid and forthright manner. He reiterated the importance of talking about suicide and the mental anguish that leads up to that final step. He was thankful because of his own journey but also suggested that the discussion had been helpful to better understand the deaths of some family and friends.

So again I need to stress the importance for talking. First of all it raises the awareness of depression and suicide. As we have all heard there is a stigma attached to mental health issues, a stigma that that needs to be removed so that we can live in a world where people who are fighting the fight have a way to find help, to find a way out from the pain they so often live with.

It is also important that people with mental health issues are reminded that they are not alone. A reminder that there is hope, there is relief. A reminder that talking helps. That talking is the first step for healing and recovery, a first step in the journey out from under the clouds.

For me it is also a reminder to listen. Perhaps you find it difficult to listen when someone else shares about their pain. Sometimes we are quick to jump in, be judgemental, diagnose the problem, or try to “fix” it. There is only one requirement. Listen. Listen. Listen. Through lending an ear you are being supportive, you are showing you care. Through being attentive you are normalizing and validating what the other is feeling. And by listening you are helping the other in their journey, the journey to recovery.

I know from experience that having the ability to verbalize my thoughts is helpful in dealing with the turmoil that often are just out of control thoughts. I have been very fortunate to have family and friends with whom I have been able to share, family and friends that took the time to listen and support me on my journey. So this January 25, as we remind ourselves about all things mental health, make it your goal to not just talk about it but also to listen. Make it a good one.

“The most important thing I found, is to let somebody’s voice be heard”.  Clara Hughes

Monday, January 3, 2022

Happy New Year, Maybe

 Happy new year to you. But is it? A mere ten hours in and I already wanted a restart. Woke up to no hot water. Instant headache and anger and helplessness. A quick flashback to my farming days when these kinds of things would happen at the barn on days when it was most inconvenient. Thank goodness I didn’t make any new year resolution because as sure as “you know what” I would already be done with them. What’s the use? So I just expressed my agitation about the hot water tank to my wife. In a matter of fact way, she just told me that these things never happened when its convenient. She continued by comparing it to people dying. She said that never happens when its convenient. Not sure that was helpful.

Our Christmas was ruined because one of the kids was sick. Went for a rapid test and tested positive. Isolated at home waiting for the results of a PCR test. His test came back negative, but our Christmas was over by then. So we wanted to try again over the new year. (In the future when someone reads what I just wrote they will scratch their heads and wonder what really went on in 2021)

Clearly this new year is no different than the old. I have said this before. We spend a lot of time reflecting on the past year. Social media is rife with people celebrating the coming of the new year. In this time of pandemic there is hope for an end in this new year. But when we wake up on January 1, the only thing that has changed is the date on the calendar. Everything else is the same.

Okay. I know. I sound defeated. Social media is rife with people talking about mental health and the negative effect the pandemic has had on pretty much everyone. Again, it doesn’t matter what your bias may be regarding everything pandemic, the effects on your mental health can be significant.

As these thoughts swirled through my head, I remembered an appointment I had numerous years ago. It too, was when I felt down. As I commiserated with the psychologist, he looked at me and said he was not surprised I was feeling the way I was. He suggested that the work I do, often dealing with negative energy, was having an impact on my mental health. He informed me that it was draining my emotional gas tank.

What exactly is an emotional gas tank? I have mentioned it before. Just like your car needs fuel your emotions need fuel. How about your body? What happens if you don’t eat or don’t eat properly? You get physically tired. You become run down. Your immunity goes down. You are more susceptible to sickness. So, too, your emotional health is directly linked to keeping gas in the tank. When the emotional gas tank runs dry you will find yourself becoming irritable, angry, low patience, no desire to socialize, lack of motivation, always feeling tired, among others. The challenge is to find ways to keep at the very least, some “gas in the tank”.

Clearly my question is, how can I get some gas in the emotional tank? Not easy these days. With the cold weather, working from home, not being able to socialize much, it is a challenge. The key is to find those things that do bring some pleasure. So I spent time together with my kids and grandkids for two days. It was busy, it got loud but for those two days I was able to forget about the cares and worries of life. It did put some gas in the tank. And now I will wait for spring. It is around the corner, right? Make it a good one.