The Recovering Farmer

Friday, November 30, 2018

My Story

(Presentation to Farm Management Canada's AgEx conference)

Some time ago my sister heard an interview I had done on radio. She phoned me and asked what it meant to be a recovering farmer. Although I had been referring to myself as that, I really didn’t have a clear answer for her. It got me thinking. So I checked the definition of recovering and the Encarta dictionary defines it as “returning to a previous state of health, prosperity, and equanimity”. Equanimity is a big word so I checked that as well. It means to “have an evenness of temper even when under stress”. That explains why I am still in recovery mode.

My task today is to tell you about my journey through the labyrinth of stress, depression and anxiety. In 2003 together with my brother Bob I was operating a family farm in western Manitoba, I was president of Manitoba Pork Marketing, Chairman of Dynamic Pork, and an active mediator with the Manitoba Farm Mediation Board. The hog industry was in a continuous downward spiral so my farm, the organizations I was involved in, and its members were experiencing significant challenges.

During a mediation meeting in the fall of 2003 I suddenly felt my heart do some interesting palpitations, felt a shortness of breath and thought I would pass out. It passed relatively quickly. It started happening on a more frequent basis to the point where early in 2004 I did seek help from a doctor. The doctor explained that I was experiencing anxiety and depression and needed to go on medication. With little to no thought about the intricacies of mental illness I went on meds. That was the beginning of my recovery, discovery not so much.

Combined with my mental health issues and ongoing and increasing stress my behaviours started changing. Of particular note was an increase in expectations for myself and for others. I could do nothing right and neither could anyone else in my life. Internally my self-esteem reached new lows and externally my relationships with others, particularly those close to me, suffered.

My coping mechanisms were not particularly helpful. I found out that alcohol does an amazing job easing anxiety. Unfortunately as alcohol leaves the body it increases anxiety. So the only way to combat that is to drink more, which I did. And if it wasn’t a self-medicated fog it was finding other means of escaping. I found the hog barn to be a sanctuary. Away from people, away from my phone, away from my family, and perhaps, even an attempt to escape from myself.

Was I suicidal at any time? No, but I certainly had thoughts of dying because in my twisted way of thinking there would be some benefit. I could escape my mental pain, my wife and kids would be better off financially, and the world would be better off without me. It makes sense to me when someone says; “I am not afraid of dying, I am afraid of living”.

Suicide is no stranger to most of us. In August of 2015 I received a call that shook me to the core. Someone I knew had died by suicide. I grew up and was friends with her husband. She was a wife and a mother. The family shared how in that short week following her death they had gained a much better understanding of mental illness. The family was very clear that their mother had fought a courageous fight with mental illness and had lost, similar to someone that had fought a fight against cancer and lost. When I left that funeral I had a number of emotions run through me. I felt encouraged to understand that I along with many others were fighting courageous fights and not experiencing something to be ashamed and embarrassed about. I felt a tinge of envy that Heather had escaped the pain. But I also felt an incredible fear, afraid that some morning I might wake up and just not be able to face another day.

In 2005 I was on a motorcycle trip with my brother. I had been off of my meds for a few months and was functioning quite well or so I thought. On the last day of the trip as we were nearing home I witnessed him crash his bike. Ironically that morning before we hit the road (no pun intended) we made the decision to sell the farm. Unfortunately the relief that decision brought was short-lived. When he had his accident my responsibilities increased significantly. As he lay in the hospital in a coma I needed to take over his portion of the work and life overwhelmed me. As an aside he did make a full recovery although I sometimes suggest to him that he did not hit his head quite hard enough.

As the stresses of life consumed me I knew I needed help. Rose and I decided that instead of going on meds I should try talk therapy. I had a session with a psychologist who was not impressed that I would sell the family farm and at the end of the appointment said I needed to go back on meds because I could not afford him. I tried a community mental health worker who really tried but after 2 sessions let me know that she didn’t think she could help me any further. I went back on meds.

I was always convinced that should we be able to sell the farm my depression and anxiety would also end. In 2007 when we were able to sell the farm and move on I discovered rather quickly that that was not the end of my journey.

As part of the farm wind down and an opportunity to enhance my conflict management work I applied to the MFRSL as a volunteer. In retrospect and entirely unintentional, that was the beginning of the discovery part of my journey. First and foremost, through the training I learned so much about mental health and how that related to my situation. Secondly I was contracted to facilitate workshops on Men and Depression which provided another source of discovery, through research and through meeting and talking to others.

As part of my preparation I felt that I needed to talk to Rose and my kids to gain a perspective of their thoughts and feelings regarding my issues with depression. I had always thought that I was hiding my illness but found out rather different. Rose related how I had changed into a different person, a far cry from the person she had married. My kids talked about crying themselves to sleep because of their concern over their father and our financial issues. I had no idea and perhaps it was better at the time because I suspect had I known the guilt might well have pushed me over the edge.

The kickoff to the workshops happened to be a call in show on a local radio station. Now understand that as part of the workshops I had agreed to tell my story but had never really considered the implications of opening up. Two minutes in the host looked at me and suggested I start telling my story. The moment of truth hit. You know that feeling where your life flashes before your eyes? Talk about a WTF moment. I knew I could either shut up and look totally idiotic or begin talking. I began talking. I cannot emphasize enough how much talking about it has helped me, whether with my family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and others. Unfortunately just talking about it is not always enough.

There still are periods where I do become lost in the labyrinth and finding my way back can be challenging. Earlier this year my family noticed that I was headed off the rails again and made it clear that I needed to seek help again.

At this point you need to understand that since 2003 I had countless doctor appointments, seen 1 psychiatrist, 2 psychologists, a community mental health worker, a counsellor, and a therapist. Please do not take this the wrong way. Aside from the psychologist I mentioned earlier the others really tried but as with many other things in life we sometimes have to seek out the second, third, or even fourth opinion. The point being, NEVER GIVE UP.

This last June I found myself going to a naturopath appointment not holding out much hope. Just thought it would be more of the same but hey, I wanted to placate the family right. Sounds like I may have had the wrong attitude. That appointment was a game changer. For the first time ever someone connected dots for me. And maybe it wasn’t the first time someone connected dots for me, but it certainly was the first time it all made sense to me. There was no instant fix that day. Rather it was just the clear understanding of the intricacies of my mental health that gave me the extra push I needed to continue my journey in a new way.

My recovery has been far from linear. At the outset I used the word labyrinth. The Encarta dictionary defines labyrinth as “a place with a lot of crisscrossing or complicated passages, tunnels, or paths in which it would be easy to become lost”.

So I am not sitting here today to tell you that I became sick and have been healed. Rather I am telling you that I still live in that labyrinth. But I am also telling you that because of a deeper understanding and utilizing what I have learned it is much easier to travel that journey and not become lost.

Yesterday morning as I drank my coffee and caught up with news I read an article forewarning of wacky weather this winter. I need to quote this here as it actually provided a chuckle. The article said that; "For Brandon specifically. . . . We’re probably going to have some cold periods; maybe even a few outbreaks of bitter cold at some points during the winter, but also some milder periods as well." Sounds more normal than wacky to me.

That is the analogy I like to use with my mental health. There are times, whether for an hour or a day, when anxiety pays a visit or my mood is subdued. But I know like the weather in Manitoba it won’t last. I also know that these ups and downs will happen in the future. But like the forecast previously mentioned that is normal.

So through awareness, acceptance, and an effort to be more intentional I can weather those fluctuations. Utilizing and sticking with the things that help when I do experience a bad spell I can rest assured it isn’t forever. That gives me the ability to experience life as best possible. That lets me be who I am because if I am not who I am then who am I.

Back to my attempt at returning to a previous state of health, prosperity and equanimity. I have just told you about my mental health. Physically I will never be able to run a marathon but that’s okay, I never could before either. I blew my retirement in the 90’s so my wife tells me I have to work till noon the day of my funeral. I am okay with that as well. Early in life I started with nothing and I have most of it left. Equanimity? Therein lies my next project. You see, all my stress in life manifests itself in road rage and with the amount of time I spend on the road I best deal with that or I may need the help of a good mediator. The recovery continues.

John Greenleaf Whittier was an advocate for the abolition of slavery back in the mid 1800’s. He experienced significant mental health issues and wrote the following poem which I would like to leave with you today.

Don't Quit

When things go wrong as they sometimes will,
When the road you're trudging seems all up hill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest if you must, but don't you quit.

Success is failure turned inside out—
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell just how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far;
So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit—
It's when things seem worst that you must not quit.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Making Room

We seem to be living in a chaotic world and as such life has this way of throwing challenges at us that can be difficult to understand and deal with. It begs the question; is the world actually more chaotic or has our world shrunk and through various means, in particular digital media, we have a firsthand glimpse of what is happening around the globe? Perhaps it does not matter.

Aside from news we have a plethora of choices when it comes to what’s on TV. Back in the days of farmer TV we had a choice of two and a half channels. Some of you younger folks are scratching your heads about that one. You see, we had a TV with antennas sticking up, commonly known as rabbit ears, and if we pointed them in just the right direction we could pick up 2 channels. For those that were innovative some tinfoil on those antennas would actually give us a fuzzy version of a third channel. My apologies, I digress.

With hundreds of channels now available combined with Netflix and Cravetv the choices are endless. Crime shows, cooking shows, music channels, 24 hour news, series, and documentaries to name but a few. So you choose a series and you binge watch. You can easily lose yourself in some of these shows. My wife and I have talked about how some shows with high intensity have the ability to increase anxieties. Not sure that is healthy.

Over the last two weeks I have spent significant time with someone that is experiencing debilitating anxiety. Although she has experienced anxiety in the past this last go around is new for her and left her reeling. She does not understand why this is happening. It is concerning and, of course, those concerns just add to her anxiety.

We talked about what anxiety feels like. When I mentioned to her that a client once compared anxiety to a squirrel she was curious. I challenged her to imagine a squirrel. Very active. Quite noisy. Flits from place to place. Never runs in a straight line. Hops from tree to tree. Quite agile. Can be intrusive. Always on the lookout. Never a dull moment. I wonder, do they ever sleep? I asked her how that compared to her thoughts when she experienced anxiety at its worst. She got it. It made sense to her.

We then talked about the workings of anxiety. She told me how a naturopath had told her that an actual wave of anxiety only lasts 90 seconds. The doctor had told her if it lasted longer it was only because she was “throwing gasoline on the fire”. I thought back to when I started having panic attacks, but didn’t know it, and the explanation made sense.

So the challenge becomes to control our thoughts. We need to tame the squirrel. But how? I have some ideas. It is virtually impossible to push anxious thoughts out of your head. What is much easier is trying really hard to think of happy thoughts. So we have to make room in our heads to store some good thoughts that we quickly use when needed. Take the time to write down a few of the things in life that really make you happy. Then refer back to that list regularly till they are ingrained in your brain. That way they are easily accessible. Perhaps this is easier said than done. But with practice it can work. Trust me. I know. It works for me. Make it a good one.

“Anxiety’s like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far.” Jodi Picoult

Friday, November 9, 2018

If Only

Technology is a marvelous thing. When I look back to when I worked on the fields as a teenager and compare equipment and technology to today’s it, quite frankly, is mind boggling. What we had back then would be considered archaic in today’s world.

These technological advances have the potential to come with a cost. Financial costs obviously, but it can also take a toll on our mental health. Why? We live with the assumption that having a choice gives us freedom. It does but also comes with some added stress. With the technology available today the onus is on each one of us to make choices that work, that provide for efficiencies, and that add to the bottom line.

As I reflected on the equipment we used on our farm I was also reminded of other choices that producers now have which were not available back in the day. For example there is marketing choice. Farmers can deliver their product to a buyer of their choice. Along with that there are also a myriad of pricing options available. The choices can be overwhelming and yet have had a positive impact on farming. As the numerous and complex options are contemplated various factors play into making decisions. And at times better decisions could have been made and then one becomes spooked and it becomes more difficult to make a decision. Just in case.

Perhaps I have put too much of a negative spin on choices we have. We love choice, right? Yes we do, till we make a wrong choice. Then we are left with thoughts of; if only I had chosen different, if only I had listened, if only I would have known, if only. . . . ! Before the days of choices, if something went wrong, we could blame the world. With multiple and numerous choices, when a wrong choice is made, we blame ourselves.

So it needs to be a learning process, to educate and get better. We must be willing to dust ourselves off, stand up, and try again. Use the understanding and knowledge of the failure to build a foundation from which you can grow and flourish and maintain perspective. The key is not to be spooked by failure but rather to have a willingness to fail again, because if we don’t take risks, if we don’t step outside of our comfort zone, we will not become better. And, most important of all, we must forgive ourselves for the wrong decisions we will invariably make. Without forgiveness we will continue to beat ourselves up which inevitably will lead to more failures.

As we blame ourselves for mistakes a change happens to our thinking and our actions. Our expectations change, not just for ourselves but for others as well. When that happens relationships suffer, stress increases, and conflict ensues.

Take comfort in the fact that we make decisions on the best available information at the time. Very few of the most successful people throughout history did so without making mistakes. When a wrong choice is made we must live with those decisions and learn from them. That way we can keep our focus on the future, a future bright with potential and promise. Make it a good one.

“Give yourself a break. Stop beating yourself up! Everyone makes mistakes, has setbacks and failures. You don’t come with a book on how to get it right all the time. You will fail sometimes, not because you planned to, but simply because you’re human. Failure is a part of creating a great life.” Les Brown