My Mental Fitness Journey

By Clive Hanuschak, guest blogger

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Picture c 2015 Clive HanuschakSome days, mental health—or mental fitness, as I now prefer to call it—feels like an unobtainable goal. It’s been a lifelong journey for me, sometimes feeling as overwhelming as reaching and climbing a distant mountain range, alone, like the rider in the picture.

Some of my earliest memories include feeling sad, overwhelmed, depressed and having thoughts about wishing to not be here anymore. No wonder those emotional patterns are so entrenched when they started so early in life from circumstances beyond my control.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a great life in many ways, but mental fitness—or the lack thereof—has been a constant companion. I’ve been blessed with physical health, but emotionally and mentally, life continues to be challenging.

I’m still trying to find my place in the world, something that most people my age (51) seem to have already accomplished. I look at those with steady and successful careers, financial stability, happy relationships and circles of friends…and wonder where I went wrong and why I’m so different.

I’ve had steady jobs, really well paying ones, and close relationships with men I thought I would spend the rest of my life with. I’ve lived and schooled in Winnipeg, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Vancouver. Yet the sceptre of mental unfitness keeps showing up in my life, no matter where I’ve lived, how much money I’ve had, whether or not I was with a significant other, and whether or not I was employed. I have periods, even years, of functioning very well…followed by the inevitable crash and burn of being an emotional train wreck, unable to hold a steady job or keep a relationship going. And each time is like starting over again, and it’s harder to get back up as the years have gone by.

Even Stephen Hawking says to never give up. But when I get into one of those really dark periods, all I can think of is giving up. It feels inhumane to have to suffer with this emotional torture, losing all hope for the future and wondering how the hell I got to this point in my life with little to show for all my efforts over the years. No, I don’t have a job right now. Yes, I’ve been living in my parents’ basement on and off for the last five years. No, they don’t understand why I’m not working like most “normal” men my age and don’t have a steady income or my own home.

Trying to explain, or at least describe, what severe depression is like to someone who’s never experienced it is practically impossible. It’s like trying to explain calculus to your cat. They’re not going to get it. If you’re lucky, they may be sensitive and compassionate, even though they really have no idea what it really feels like to be so stuck you can’t see any way out except to leave the planet. It’s hard for others to grasp because they can’t see anything physically wrong with you. It’s all inside my head, and since I can’t mind-meld with anyone else, I can’t convey the utter and absolute despair that defines one of these periods.

If I could weaponize depression, I’d be a very rich man. Imagine being able to debilitate others with a sudden onset of depression so intense that all they want to do is kill themselves. Yet those of us unfortunate enough to have this condition go through this repeatedly, in my case for as long as I can remember. I’m grateful and even amazed to have accomplished as much as I have, like graduating from Engineering, despite having to deal with this.

I’m not looking for sympathy, pity or rescuing from anyone. I know that the best way to deal with this is self-help and being my own case manager and my own doctor. There are no easy treatments, no magic cures for mental illness; physical fitness doesn’t just happen either. We just don’t have the treatments and technology yet to treat these conditions as quickly and effectively as we’d like to. It’s been a slow and painful process of trying different medications and combinations of medications, talk therapy, alternative therapies, diet, nutrition and exercise. Yet like other chronic conditions, despite my best efforts, sometimes it’s just going to be bad for a while no matter what I do. The trick is to keep living with it in spite of everything else and how rotten I feel.

I think it’s harder being male. Men are supposed to be strong, resilient, self-sufficient and able to withstand just about anything. Disclosing mental illness and asking for help feels like admitting I’m a criminal in need of rehabilitation. There’s a pervasive sense of shame around this we need to get rid of. I cry a little bit every time I hear of the suicide of another beautiful soul who could no longer stand their pain.

People don’t die from suicide because they didn’t ask for help; I assert that, like myself, they’ve been seeking help—sometimes for years—but what they got just wasn’t enough. Advocating for yourself, insisting on referrals, new meds or treatments, is a monumental task when I’m well, nevermind when I’m at my worst, trying to regain balance in my life.

Small things keep me going: a smile from a stranger; my beloved cat sleeping beside me at night; singing in choirs; having energy to exercise, bike or swim; the thought of being in love again someday. I want the same things as anyone else…to love and be loved, to have meaningful work and contribute to society. Simple life goals, not so simply attained without mental fitness.

A close friend, now retired, remarked how grateful he was to be at a point in his life where he isn’t struggling with the pain of finding his way and his place in the world, and is well aware of how his younger friends are struggling and fighting to find themselves and their place in the world. In my dark periods, it feels as if there’s no place for me in the world and that I can’t find my way or find a place for myself, and it would be better to just curl up and die.

Yet I have not succumbed to suicide. Life isn’t all bad and I have many, many happy memories. But when the dark periods come, all those memories and accomplishments fade and become distorted in their meaninglessness. The fact that I’ve kept on going means something, even if others don’t, can’t or won’t understand.

I’m on yet another new trial of medications that will take weeks to take effect. I tend to have productive periods, being employed or doing contract work, followed by crash-and-burn dark periods where I just want to lay in bed. Thoughts of suicide become almost obsessive; luckily exercise, if I can drag myself to the gym, is usually successful in temporarily abating my negative thinking. Yay for endorphins!

It’s easy to find books and writing from people who have recovered from mental illness, and reflect back on their experiences. I’m not “recovered,” I’m “recovering.” I hate the terms “mental illness,” “recovery” and worst of all, “mental health consumer.” They all have such negative connotations and stereotypes. I prefer to think of myself as pursuing mental fitness, not unlike my start-and-stop pursuit of physical fitness. I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got. Ask me again in a month where I am, and hopefully I’ll have progress to report.

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Clive Hanuschak divides his time between Winnipeg and Vancouver, working as a WordPress web developer and mental health peer support worker. In his spare time he blogs on mentalfitness.zone and tries to go to the gym often. He can be reached at clivewpg@gmail.com.

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My Mental Fitness Journey

We All Need a Little Help Sometimes

by Shelly Ireland, guest blogger

This entry was originally posted  on September 5, 2013.

guestpostToday,  I learned something that I hadn’t known. When I was a child,  my parents legally named my sister as my Guardian in case something happened to them. That made perfect sense.  My sister was a lot older than me,very responsible, and certainly would know how my parents would raise me.  I learned this during a very long emotional day for us. We started emailing,  then texting,  then a number of phone calls. We got it all out today and went through a lot of kleenex!  At one point I told her to butt out of my life and learn to respect my choices, good and bad. (I am paraphrasing because I wasn’t that polite). And she said,  “but you have to listen to me, I am your guardian”. I said,  “Gerry -Mae, I am 47, I think that no longer applies.”

At the end of the day, my sister is still my hero and I love her deeply. This is a little bump in our relationship and we will likely have some more. Today,  though, we both let our emotions get the best of us.  We would have better served if we had a trained counsellor to help us. Both of us have to change and we could have used someone with the courage to point us on the path of personal growth.

Bonnie is an amazing listener who has strong insight. She creates an environment for risk -taking and personal growth.

Life doesn’t happen to us,  it responds to us. When our emotions overwhelm us, it is like we are standing up against a wall. We need someone to help us take a few steps back so that we are able to see the whole picture.  A counsellor can help examine our own personal areas of responsibility, explore options, and create a road map for change.

Shelley Ireland is a work in progress and professionally has been working in the mental health field for almost 25 years.  She is also an engaging public speaker who focuses on helping health care professionals dealing with difficult people. Her life has been progressively better since 2007 when Bonnie Bieganski came into her life.
We All Need a Little Help Sometimes

The Miserable Experience That’s Not

This entry was originally posted on August 16, 2013.

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People with disabilities are often seen as pitiful, helpless, deformed, “broken” or the biggest societal stereotype, asexual. No wonder people assume we are angry, bitter and depressed! Sounds like a miserable existence, doesn’t it? If all that were true, that is.

The real problem is that we, people with disabilities, came to believe this, turning these stereotypes into our own collective reality. We may not be viewed as intelligent, capable, masculine/feminine or as a sexual being. We may have the assumptions put on us that we are not interested in or able to date, drive a car, start a family or have a career. Guess what? We do not have to wear the labels handed to us.

Just like anyone, disabled or not, we teach others how to treat us. And like most people, we have stereotypes to tear down and barriers to remove. Preconceptions follow every race, body size and income bracket, and we all must cope with judgements and attitudes on a daily basis. Everyone has dealt with these societal and personal barriers and we all have a responsibility to try and challenge some of these assumptions. Teaching is not just up to those with disabilities, it is everyone’s duty to be kind, compassionate and helpful to each other. Though your challenges may go ignored by some, and this may make you sad, angry and even indignant, you must not let those experiences stop you from living the life you want. Don’t let anyone put up barriers for you.

The biggest barrier of all, of course, is your attitude. I’m talking about the attitudes of everyone, able-bodied or not. I was born with Larsen Syndrome, a rare genetic condition where the body lacks cartilage, which affects all the major joints, spine and trachea, and necessitates the use of an power wheelchair and respirator. At 12 years old, I became further disabled when scoliosis advanced to paralysis from the armpits down. At a difficult age, this drastic body change shook my foundation to the core. All of the negative perceptions of disability took hold in my mind; “I’m no longer worth being around anyone”, “I have nothing to offer”, “I’m not pretty and no one will want me”. It took me ten years to crawl out of that dark place, to start using the supports around me and to start talking openly about it. My negative attitude delayed me big time from getting to where I am today.

Now, I am at a place in my life that was completely inconceivable to me back then. I never imagined that I would hold the qualities of a strong and free woman — living independently, making my own choices, standing by my decisions and speaking out for what I believe in. Until I started doing things that made me happy, living out my dreams and following my heart, I felt trapped within labels, stereotypes and expectations. Today, I am 31 years old, am the founder and counsellor of my own practice and have an amazing full-time position where I help individuals with physical disabilities learn to live independently in the community. Having spent a good chunk of my years obtaining a counselling certificate, and education for a writing career to fall back on, I had no choice but to believe it would pay off by leading to a career that I am passionate about while obtaining a financial position to one day purchase a house. As unimaginable as these dreams once were, they are happening. With self assurance, willingness and motivation to bring about positive change in my life, I would not know personal happiness and fulfillment.

The transition to positive acceptance does not need to take that long. Though I feel I’ve reached a great place in my life, in reality the transition to positive acceptance never really ends. There are always lessons to learn and room to grow. Even after 30 years of having a disability, I still make new discoveries and gain perspective.

Case in point: a fellow Facebooker recently added to my perspective on disability by sharing her helpful tactic, which I believe applicable to most life situations. The approach she shared with me is to separate the actual “living with a disability” from the “attitudes people have towards disability.” By compartmentalizing it this way, one can deal with each of them strategically.

I deal with pain, low energy and an increase in loss in capacity. Those things will always be a part of me; I have to acknowledge that and integrate it into my reality. It is ok to admit that you got a shitty deal. But after that, face your current reality, ask for help when you need it, but politely decline assistance when you are capable of achieving whatever it is that you want to do. Be open to the fact that you can do the things that other people do, like have that dream career, a loving partner, a family and whatever fulfills you desire; just know that you may have to achieve those things in non-traditional and creative ways.

The second aspect is the attitudes towards disability. Being a person with a disability gives opportunity to witness the insensitivity and ignorance of people, but also their compassion and understanding. What counts is your response. No matter what particular situation, whether it be disability, or some other societal or personal barrier, a positive attitude encourages curiosity, understanding, compassion and, eventually, acceptance. Teaching is done by example, by helping others that are going through similar situations, advocating and sharing your personal experiences and adding to the perspectives of others.

Like it or not, people with disabilities are involuntarily designated to a position of educating others by example about equal opportunity in the world of work, school, family and relationships. How will stereotypes ever be deconstructed if we don’t create and reconstruct new realities for ourselves? So those of you with disabilities, it’s time to use your mind to share your intelligence, express yourself, dress hot, discover sexuality within you, and take no shame, guilt or embarrassment while strolling in your wheelchair (or whatever mobility aid you need to get around). When you make that change to positive acceptance, the rest of the world does too.

The Miserable Experience That’s Not