Tips to survive the holidays when your parents are divorced

Surv 01 BAN

This week, I have taken on the task of writing a post on a very painful and personal topic.

This topic is one that I’m sure you’ve all heard of, and if you haven’t gone through it, I’m sure you know someone who has.

The topic I’m talking about is Divorce.

A divorce is when two people, for any number of reasons, decide they no longer want to be married. For some people, a divorce can be a good thing, but for me and my family, it was the most traumatizing experience I’ve ever gone through.  

My once loving family that had been building and growing together suddenly got torn apart, and my life was changed forever. Fighting and hate had taken the place of where love and kindness once was.

I’ve had to grow up with the divorce; it’s surrounded my entire life. From aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, and worst of all, my own parents.

I was nine when my parents split; it was the worst thing to ever happen to me. To this day, it still affects me.

One moment, I was living in a nice house with two loving parents, and the next minute I was being dragged from everything I had known and loved, and only allowed to see one parent at a time.

I felt like I was in enemy territory whenever I visited one of parents, because they hated each other so much. No child should ever have to feel like this with their parents.

Everyone involved in a nasty divorce suffers.

When a divorce happens, it impacts everyone, like a ripple in a pond.

My parents had to begin their lives over again. Once separated, their income dropped drastically. This was due to constantly taking each other to court, and having to pay outrages amounts in child support (that one mostly affected my Dad). And because of this, we couldn’t afford to live anywhere for very long, we were constantly moving, at least once a year. This caused my mother to fall into a bit of depression, and my father started drinking. 

Surrounding friends and family became support to us. I remember for a little while, we had to live with my aunt because my mom couldn’t afford a house yet. I thought it was fun, until I realized that my Dad wouldn’t be joining us. It was in this moment that I realized how much hatred my family had towards my Dad. 

Everyone treated him like he was Voldemort. Whenever I would ask about my Dad, no one would answer me. My mother started telling me lies about him like, “he doesn’t want to see you” or “he doesn’t care” in an effort to get me to hate him too. I could never understand why. No one would tell me what was happening, and worst of all, no one ever gave me any comfort that things were going to be okay.

I believe that children suffer the most, especially around the holidays. 

Although the divorce was painful on all of us, I believe that me and my brother suffered the most.  As children grow, it’s important for them to have a sturdy foundation, so they can begin to spread their roots; when a divorce occurs, their entire world becomes flipped upside down, and the foundation becomes torn.

Holidays were the worst, sometimes we could only be with one parent, but most of my holidays consisted of waking up at one parents house opening gifts, and then being rushed to the other parents house. I wasn’t able to relax and enjoy my holiday.

How to survive the holidays when you have divorced parents

  • First off, try talking to your parents about who you want to spend the holiday with, sometimes they may be willing to work with you.
  • If you can only spend the holiday with one parent, try planning a day that you and your other parent can spend together. Go to a movie or to dinner, or celebrate the holiday early with them.
  • If you celebrate Christmas, make two different Christmas lists, and give each parent one. That way they won’t have to fight with each other about what to get you.
  • Try starting new holiday traditions with each parent. This will help make your time with each parent special.

Although it may be hard to see your parents fight with each other, especially this time of year, please remember they both love you, they are angry with each other, not you.

 I think my parents’ divorce will always impact me. With the holidays upon us, its hard knowing that I can only spend them with one parent.

I envy the kids whose parents are still together or the ones whose parents may be split up, but can still get along with each other. Every time I’m out in public and I see children with both of their parents, I feel a little sad. Even today, my parents cannot be in the same room with each other, we would be transported into a Hunger Games arena.

Growing up, my parents always told me to forgive people, to let things go, to love people even if they make you mad. But even after 12 years, they still don’t practice these things on each other. What kind of an example are they setting?

I hope one day they can forgive each other.

How to survive the holidays through recent grief or loss

surviving the holidays BAN

As December falls upon us, Ugly Ducklings Inc wanted to kick off the holiday season with a series called “Surviving the Holidays”. We are going to cover a variety of topics in this series.  As co-founders of Ugly Ducklings, we’ve had the amazing opportunity to interact with, build relationships with and read the stories of so many amazing individuals. We notice a common theme of loss and trauma through many of these stories and interactions.

Loss and trauma can be perpetuated by the holiday season; people who are struggling with that might need a haven to keep themselves from becoming overwhelmed. Megan Devine, the founder of Refuge in Grief, is a blogger and inspiration I’ve (Erin) followed for quite some time. I knew she would have great advice for anyone who might be struggling through grief, loss and/or trauma this holiday season.

  • Megan, thank you so much for agreeing to offer your expertise to Ugly Ducklings Inc. Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and Refuge in Grief?

Sure. The surface details are that I’m a traumatic grief therapist, teach creative writing with a focus on grief and loss, and host retreats and workshops for grieving folks. I never wanted to be or do these things. In 2009, I witnessed the accidental death by drowning of my partner, Matt. He was strong, fit, healthy – three months from his 40th birthday. It was a beautiful and ordinary morning: the first sunny day after three solid weeks of rain. Refuge in Grief grew out of my experience in the vast wasteland of grief support that existed when I was first widowed. It was, and is, important to me that others coming into such intense grief find love and support, rather than platitudes and encouragement to “move on.”

  • We have many young readers and through our interactions with them, we’ve found that many of them are struggling with their first encounter with sudden-death or the loss of a loved one. What is the biggest myth you’ve found in traditional grief resources that might hinder these individuals and what can you say to shed some light on the truth?

Traditional grief resources are riddled with myth. The whole idea that grief is an aberration, or one of the “negative” emotions, that you should work hard to get yourself out of grief as quickly as possible – it’s all such a dis-service to a newly broken heart. Grief is part of love; we grieve because we love. Grief is not sign that you’re unwell or unhealthy – it’s a sign that you’ve connected deeply with someone, and you feel their absence to your core.

  • It seems that holidays can be extremely overwhelming and triggering for people who aren’t even struggling with grief or trauma, but in your experience, how are the struggles different for someone walking through recent or historical grief/loss?

The holiday season is full of grief landmines. The first holiday season without that person there, the subsequent seasons when they still aren’t there: that empty place at the table is such a visceral reminder of what you’ve lost. That is true any time of year – they are missing every day, in every season – but the holidays are such a call to family and friends, it can seem even more brutal during that time. Seeing intact families enjoying each other, knowing you are now on the outside looking in – it can feel like repeated blows to your heart and mind.

  • Can you similarly speak to the struggles that someone with historical or recent trauma may experience?

Sure. In a lot of ways, grief related to trauma is similar to grief from a sudden or out-of-order death: there’s the same sense of the world being irreparably changed, your sense of safety or control is shaken. Nothing is as it should be, and more importantly, no one else seems to notice. While the world is rejoicing and celebrating, connecting and giving, you’re on your own, inside a whole different reality. That sense of wearing a mask, your true self being invisible – it can really feel strong at this time of year, in the face of the at least pretending-to-be-happy world.

  • Kindness-to-self is a really conflicting thing in our society today, I find; it sometimes seems that people are accused of being selfish if they do take time for themselves, while there is a whole other pressure to always take care of yourself first. Do you find this discourse coming into play when talking about grief/loss/trauma?

Yeah, it’s confusing, isn’t it. On one hand, we have all these self-help and self-discovery books on self-care, valuing yourself, putting yourself first – but in practice, you get called selfish when you do these things. Like, how dare you care for yourself when I need you to do something for me? Self-care is great, and I support it unless I need you to over-ride it for me. Ugh.

Grieving people are often accused of being selfish. Of course they are. And they should be. When loss or trauma erupts into your life, your main concern is for yourself and your immediate family (if you have kids). There is simply no energy left over to take care of anyone else, or worry about their hurt feelings. This is not a usual time, and the usual rules do not apply. I’m not saying you have license to be a jerk, just that putting yourself first is not only important, it’s necessary.

I think if we imagined a physical correlate for your emotional wound – translating your pain into something others could physically see – there would be less talk of how selfish you’re being, and more focus on how to love and support you through this time. And I mean that both from the perspective of your friends, and from your own internal voice.

  • What tips can you give to someone who might feel torn or overwhelmed about their participation in traditions and activities related to the holiday season?

There’s a whole post on this very topic, but the biggest take-away is that you should do whatever feels right and true for you. Other people will be hurt or upset if you choose not to participate, but your own truth is what’s important. I don’t mean you should be rude or mean, just that saying “no” when no is what’s true – that’s self-care. That’s kindness. And you deserve that.

Continue reading

Stories of girls who have done volunteer work

Stories of volunteering

December 5 is International Volunteer Day. A day to tell the world about the impact of volunteering by showing all of the wonderful actions of volunteers all around the world. We, at Ugly Ducklings Inc, want to contribute to this by sharing the stories of two big-hearted volunteers with you.

Laura

Volunteering workLaura is a 20-year-old twin and psychology student from Australia. Not that long ago, Laura was in the same position as many of you are now, wanting to volunteer but not sure how to go about it.

Via an organization she supports called Sanctuary for Kids, she heard about Volunteer Nepal. This organization is involved with Nepal Orphan’s Home that aims to improve the lives of children in Nepal and provide them with a quality of life that so many people take for granted. Laura has arrived in Kathmandu not more than 1,5 weeks ago, and when I talked to her she was busy settling in and finding her way in the foreign country.

Volunteering in NepalShe had just made a visit to the houses that are part of Nepal Orphan’s Home and to another local orphanage: “the children were all so happy and really liked to see the volunteers!”

Laura tells me that she has always wanted to volunteer:

“I like the idea of maybe being able to give something back to people that aren’t as lucky as me.”

For Laura, the volunteering experience is about giving something back, as well as a unique chance to see more of the world:

During my stay I’ll be helping children with homework, teaching at a local school and I will also be doing some sightseeing.”

Laura will be staying in Nepal for four weeks. We wish her all the best and can’t wait to hear her stories when she gets back home!

Alison

Alison-in-GuatemalaWhen I asked Alison to answer some questions about her volunteering experiences in Guatemala, she didn’t hesitate and immediately said yes!

Alison is a 20-year-old Bachelor’s Degree student and day care employee from Illinois, USA. She grew up with volunteering as it is something that is passed on to her by her family. Via her church, she came into contact with CALMS, an American-based organization working to spread the gospel in Central America.

The organization works alongside the community members and together with them they set up Bible studies and youth groups, provide necessary school supplies, medical and dental care, and construct new schools and other facilities that the community needs. Alison stresses the importance of working alongside a community:

“We don’t step in to do all the work. We work alongside the community members to show them how to do these things, so the community can be self-sustained. If we show them how it’s done, then they can continue the work after we leave.”

Alison in GuatemalaDuring the eight weeks Alison partook in the volunteer project, she taught English to elementary and secondary students at a Lutheran school, set up a high school/college Bible study and organized all kinds of outings and events for the students there. Some other work she did was in nearby communities where she would bring food and water, and spent time with the people there.

“Most of the things that stand out to me about this trip aren’t specific instances. Instead, I remember a LOT of warm hugs, so many crazy tickle fights, kids’ faces lighting up with excitement about learning, and the lasting connections I made with people there. Guatemala became my second home, and the people there feel like my family. My heart is there with them, and I need to return as soon as I can.”

Alison highly recommends becoming a volunteer:

“whether it’s giving back locally, nationally, or internationally, you really do have the ability to help people. You can change the world for one person at a time. Volunteering is the most fulfilling thing I do, and you will come away with a full heart.”

 

A bit of advice to people who want to volunteer in another country

Alison volunteering in GuatemalaFinally, Alison has some good advice for people who are planning on applying for a voluntary job abroad:

“Living in Guatemala for those 8 weeks was a challenge, honestly. I didn’t speak the language very well, and I didn’t know very much about the culture. The most important thing I learned was to put myself out there and not be afraid to look stupid.

There are things you won’t know, and you need to accept that. Make a real effort to learn the language and interact with people as much as you can. If you don’t know a word or even if you say the wrong word, the people there will help you. They may laugh at you (they’ll probably laugh at you), but they’ll help you, and they will appreciate the fact that you’re trying to connect with them.

Don’t be afraid to be yourself and be goofy. Make people laugh. Make them smile. Show them that you are just like them. We are all humans. We all have feelings, thoughts, emotions, and opinions. We are so much more alike than we think, and by connecting with people and forming new friendships, that will become extremely clear.”

We would like to thank both Laura and Alison so much for sharing their stories with us. It inspired us, and we hope it inspires you too!

As you can see, there’s a lot to think about when you consider volunteering. On the other hand, it can be such a rewarding experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life. We would love to hear about your volunteering experiences in the comments below!

- Maaike
Ugly Ducklings Inc’s Research Assistant

Do you want to do volunteer work? Find out here

International Volunteer Day

Ever considered applying for volunteer work, but not sure yet about the what, how and where? Hopefully this guide to volunteering can answer some of the burning questions you might have as we, at Ugly Ducklings Inc, celebrate International Volunteer Day.

Read on to find out more about volunteering and find out how two volunteers experience(d) their volunteer work abroad

Volunteering, what is it exactly?

Simply said, volunteering is giving your time to help out without expecting a payment in return.

Volunteer work can take on many forms and can take place in your own community or even abroad. Volunteering opportunities really vary from being a dog walker, to building schools in developing countries, and everything in between, and beyond.

Why would I want to become a volunteer?

It might sound like an overly utilized cliché, but as a volunteer you can really contribute to society. Even the smallest involvement can have a huge impact on someone’s life. Other aspects to realize is that it can help you forward as well, as you are able to develop new skills, practice your talents, improve your self-esteem and self-confidence, make new friends, and even increase your employability chances (yes, volunteering really does look good on your CV!).

Yes, I apply for a volunteering project!

There are millions of volunteering activities to choose from. It’s therefore good to think about what you’re interested in and what your skills are before applying.

  • Are you a people-person?
  • An animal lover?
  • A sporty type?
  • Do you want to help out in your local community?
  • Or would you rather go abroad?

All of these are questions you have to ask yourself before applying for volunteering work.

What’s the next step?

The next step will be to search online for more information about the projects you’re interested in. Maybe you know someone who did volunteering work before? Ask him or her about their experiences, and you’ll be surprised how happy they are to share their stories with you.

Another important thing to take into account is how you will manage your time.

  • How long would you like to commit to volunteer work?
  • A week, one month, a year?
  • Would you like to volunteer part- or fulltime?

Never try to over-commit yourself. Remember that you probably have other commitments too, like friends and family, work, hobbies…

Other questions to think about are for example what skills are needed for a specific project. Do you already have these skills or are you willing to obtain them during your time as a volunteer? Would you need any training? How much will the trip cost, as well as health insurance, and living?

Of course, you’re not alone in this. There are many organizations that can help you sort out all the things you need. Therefore, I’ve set out some resources that can help you to find volunteering work that is right for you:

List of volunteering organizations and websites

National volunteering work

- America’s Natural and Cultural Resources Volunteer Portal (USA)

- Corporation for National & Community Service (USA)

USA.gov (USA)

- Volunteering England (UK)

- Do-it (UK)

- Volunteer/bénévoles Canada (Canada)

- Get Volunteering (Canada)

- Volunteering Australia (Australia)

- Go Volunteer (Australia)

International volunteering work

- UN Volunteers

- International Volunteer Programs Association

- Global Volunteers

- Catholic Volunteer Network

- International Student Volunteers

And there’s more!

I have two inspiring volunteering stories to share with you ugly ducklings. One of them is Laura’s experience. She is currently volunteering in Nepal. And did you see the picture at the top? That’s my friend Allison, who did some work in Guatemala.

Come back and check our next blog post to get even more motivated about this wonderful work.

- Maaike
Ugly Ducklings Inc’s Research Assistant

How could we not celebrate TV? – World Television day

World Television Day

How important is TV in your life?

On 30 October 1925, John Logie Baird made the first transmission of a moving image (a human face) on a television.

Nowadays, can we imagine a world without TV?

I mean… seriously. Can you!?

I for one, can’t. Television is a medium that informs, entertains, provokes, discusses. Television opened up the world and, to this day, it provides us with the chance to take a peek beyond our own backyards and national borders.

We probably don’t even realize how much television influences our lives

On a small scale, imagine for example, that you’re doing groceries at a supermarket and you overhear people discussing the events that happened on their favorite soap opera last night.

“Robert married Laura. How could he? She cheated on him!”

And I’m sure many of you have laughed, cried and shouted together with your favorite Once Upon A Time characters, like Emma, and Regina; or with the six goofballs in Friends!

I also know for sure that there were moments throughout your life that you will always remember, simply because you’ve witnessed them on television.

For the Baby Boomers and their parents, the words…

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”

one-small-step-mankindwill probably be imprinted in their memory forever, because they saw the first moon landing happening live on TV. Our imagination was sparked and the world would never be the same again.

Or that moment in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was taken down.

The whole world was watching.

Not only the major events that are shown on TV have an influence on the world and how we perceive it. Did you know that a study showed that “ER” was responsible for Americans adopting a healthier way of life?

Or have you ever heard about the “CSI effect”? Jurors apparently have unrealistic expectations of forensic science and investigation techniques because of television crime shows.

Isn’t it crazy how much of an influence TV has on us?!

Of course, Television can’t fall behind on everything else in the world and needs its own day.

World Television Day

It is celebrated each year on the 21st November, and on this day we recognize the increasing impact television has on our lives.

More specifically, we celebrate television “as a symbol for communication and globalization in the contemporary world” (United Nations). Very formal, I know.

That’s why I am taking the poetic license to list down my favorite top 10 fictional TV shows to start this celebration in a lighter way. (Fangirls and boys out there, apologies in advance for any confronting gifs you are about to see. Sorry if I spoil you!)

Top 10 of my favorite TV shows

1. The Doctor and his companions - Doctor Who

The Tenth Doctor and Rose - Doomsday

2. Fairytales like you’ve never seen before - Once Upon A Time

Emma and Neal - Once Upon a Time

3. One of my first fangirl experiences - Charmed

Charmed - TV show
Forevercharmed.tumblr

4. Mother and daughter and their entourage - Gilmore Girls

Gilmore Girls - TV show

5. I plead for a new series of - Gavin & Stacey

Gavin and Stacey

6. The famous British detective and his partner in crime - Sherlock

Sherlock - Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman

7. That group… - Friends

Friends - TV show

8. The show that introduced me to crime series - Crime Scene Investigation

CSI - TV show

9. The partly improvised show - Outnumbered

Outnumbered - TV show

10. The crazy Catherine Tate and her sketches - The Catherine Tate Show

The Catherine Tate Show - Lauren Cooper

Now we want to see your favorite TV show! Look for a gif image, and post it here below in the comments or send it to us via Twitter (@UDucklingsInc), using the hashtag #WeLoveTV and #WorldTVDay. We’re looking forward to receiving your entries!

- Maaike
Ugly Ducklings Inc’s Research Assistant
PS: If you see any of your gif images above and would like us to remove it or properly credit you, please email us at [email protected]

It’s Movember… but, what is it?

Movember awareness, moustache

Remember, remember

The month of November

Facial hair season for men

I know of no reason

The facial hair season

Should be left solely to them

… which is at least, in part, why you’ve got a girl writing about the annual moustache growing, men’s health awareness campaign known as Movember.

The premise is simple.

Chaps (known as Mo Bros) start the month of November with a clean-shaven face and for the next 30 days grow a moustache. No beards, goatees or other facial hair allowed!

The aim is to start conversations about men’s health issues, in particular prostate and testicular cancer, and mental health.

  • The movement started in Australia in 2003 with 30 men growing moustaches to raise money for prostate cancer.
  • It has grown exponentially from there, to over four million participants from 21 official countries last year.

It’s particularly important to raise awareness for men’s health issues because statistically men are far less likely to discuss or take action when they feel mentally or physically unwell than women are, and because of this, there is an overall lack of awareness and understanding of the health issues men face.

talk about cancer, menIn the UK, life expectancy is nearly four years lower for men than for women. They have a 14% higher risk of developing cancer, and 37% higher risk of dying from it.

Movember decided to add mental health to their remit this year because there is still such a strong stigma surrounding it and men are less likely to look after themselves until it is too late. Research by the UK mental health charity Mind indicates that nearly a third would be embarrassed to seek help for a mental health issue and what is particularly worrying is that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 35 in the UK.

In fact 77% of suicides here are male. So, ensuring that they not only feel comfortable discussing these issues, but also that they have places to go is incredibly important.

Their aim for the funds raised this year in the UK is for at least 2.5 million to go to projects that help break down the stigma of discussing the issues of mental health, and provide resources for men to talk and share their experiences and help, and advice when it is needed.

And for my fellow ladies out there, remember that you can still support these issues in your community by becoming a Mo Sista! And also, don’t forget to discuss this with your brothers, uncles, dads, granddads…

For more information on what Movember is doing in your country please visit Movember.com

- Catherine

On November 19, send us your moustache photo :)

movember twitter campaign

What does Mental Fitness mean?

mental health ED

Many of you know that Ugly Ducklings Inc works closely with a nonprofit organization called Mental Fitness Inc. This is work that we are very proud of and very passionate about. But… what is “mental fitness”?

We’ve asked Robyn Hussa Farrell to guest-interview with us this week to discuss Mental Fitness Inc, and building resiliency in children, youth and adults, among other things.

Welcome, Robyn. Thank you so much for being here with us!

Thank you Erin and Marie and all!

We’ve interviewed Robyn before, but for any new readers, could you tell us who you are and what you do for Mental Fitness Inc?

I’m the Founder and CEO of Mental Fitness. I created the organization almost 9 years ago when I produced a rock musical in New York City that led to many of my friends and loved ones entering treatment for eating disorders. Mental Fitness brings evidence-based arts and media programs into schools to build resiliency in kids of all ages.

How do you define ‘mental fitness’? What is so important about it when it comes to Mental Health?

We are so obsessed with physical fitness, that we wanted to create a way to look at health that includes mental wellness, too. Interestingly we are one of the only wealthy nations in the world who DOESN’T have measures that include social, emotional and psychological well being for our kids. It is time to change that!

The website talks a lot about the “Seven Pillars of Mental Fitness”… can you tell us more about what they are?

pillarsWe have been collaborating with researchers for the last decade and found several protective factors that increase resiliency and help to build mental fitness. These include mindfulness, stress-management, nourishing the body and mind, media literacy, community connections, body image and self-esteem. We’ve written about them on the new b:resilient website here.

We brought together all of the prevention-focused research in one place and created a mental fitness map which helps kids and adults improve seven key areas of fitness. We know that if a person focuses on each of these areas, they will improve overall health measures! The seven categories include:

  • self-esteem and internal validation
  • body image
  • media literacy and critical thinking
  • stress management
  • connecting with community through volunteering and role models
  • nourishing body and mind by understanding facts about Intuitive Eating and other evidence based prevention models
  • mindfulness

The way we teach about mental fitness is through evidence-based programs. So, for example, for the Body Image category, we help schools connect with the evidence-based programs that exist in that area including Dr. Becker and Stice’s “Body Project” or Kathy Kater’s “Healthy Bodies” programs.

Where can we find more information about Mental Fitness Inc and each protective category?

There is a handout here with lots of information. 

What is next for Mental Fitness Inc?

Online learning tools at b:resilient so that more educators and professionals have access to this amazing prevention research!

Thank you so much for being here with us today! We’ll post your bio below, but what is the best way for our readers to support MFI and find you?

Our website has more information about our mission and programs. You can ‘like’ us on facebook and follow us on twitter. I am also on twitter!

Robyn Hussa Farrell, Mental Fitness IncRobyn Hussa Farrell is the Founder and CEO of Mental Fitness, Inc., the non-profit we support here at UglyDucklings Inc. Marie and I have been in touch with her for almost two years now, and she is a constant inspiration to us. Robyn works incredibly hard to ensure that children grow up with a healthy mental fitness; something that is very important and inspiring work. We are so happy and proud to be a part of such an amazing organization that really is changing the lives of children in America. You can check out our other pieces about Mental Fitness Inc and our interview with Robyn to learn more… additionally, be sure to check back in the new year as we will be having a HUGE charity raffle to raise support for Mental Fitness Inc.

Mental Health & Diabetes – An Interesting Connection

diabetesBan

Today is World Diabetes Day and this week is Mental Health Awareness Week. We are excited to have an incredible blog here by Heather Gomez; when we asked Heather to write a blog for us about her struggles with diabetes, we had no idea how much it would tie into our series on Mental Health Awareness week in addition to bringing awareness to diabetes.  I am very excited to share this with you – check out Heather’s bio and website below as well!

By Heather Gomez

I spent the majority of Christmas holidays of 2005 curled up in a ball on the living room couch, tears streaming down my face. I felt empty, purposeless, isolated, and hopeless. My parents, concerned that I might be depressed, took me to my family doctor who ran a series of blood tests to first rule out anything physical. It was only days later we got the news that something physical was indeed wrong; I was diagnosed as a Type 1 Diabetic at 16 years old. The doctors I spoke to were of the opinion that, with the correct dosage of insulin, I should be feeling better in no time.

Six years later, I sat numb and partially sedated in front of a psychiatrist in the mental health ward of my local PHOT0014.JPGhospital, detailing the crushing crescendo that had evolved from those same feelings that began back in high school. I spent three weeks in the psychiatric ward, heavily medicated and glassy-eyed. When I emerged I had five new medications and a formal diagnosis – Major Depressive Disorder.  I was referred to a 12-week outpatient therapy program through the hospital, where I was followed by a psychiatrist. Medications were tweaked and weekly dialogues with a therapist ensued. Depression and diabetes were becoming a reality.

Eventually I was referred to an eating disorders clinic, where I attended group therapy sessions twice a week, and regularly saw a counselor, psychiatrist, and dietitian. My time at the eating disorders clinic was extremely enlightening, and I developed a keen sense of self-awareness through candid discussions. As I shared my frustrations, anxieties, and stressors week-to-week with the group, I noticed my diabetes would frequently take center stage. I had never thought of my diabetes as a particularly “bad” part of my life – it was just who I was. Yet when I openly and honestly shared, I found myself referencing my defunct pancreas and its related demands on not just my body, but also my mind, heart, and soul.

As I began to piece together my experiences with mental illness, I discovered other anatomical parts of my body – not just the organ floating in my skull – were part of the bigger picture. Yet for so long I had quarantined the two issues – body and mind – from each other. If my blood sugar was high, I would take more insulin. If I was feeling suicidal, I would practice positive self-talk. Of course, neither of these are bad things, but they were only addressing one fraction of the puzzle in each case.

Unfortunately, this partiality was, and is, common practice among my healthcare providers. When I visit the endocrinologist, I am treated as a diabetic. During my time in the psychiatric ward and during appointments with therapists, I was treated as a mentally-ill patient. Rarely have I been treated as both simultaneously, and this is where the problem lies. In my specific case, diabetes and mental health are not mutually exclusive.

The depressive symptoms I encountered throughout high school and university had been augmented by my diabetes. Likewise, the challenges of self-care for a chronic illness had been exacerbated by my depression and eating disorder. If I am not managing one sphere of my health well, the other will also suffer. Likewise, if I am making healthy choices to manage one illness, the other will almost certainly reap benefits as a result. It was in understanding this that I was, and am, able to achieve the greatest level of care for both illnesses that I live with.

freedomWordsChronic illness is not merely a physical battle, nor are the effects of mental illness strictly resigned to the mind. If I have learned anything over the past eight years living with both diabetes and mental illness, it is that I can’t manage one without managing the other. Periods of depression will always negatively exert themselves on my will to properly self-care, just as the daily grind of blood testing and carbohydrate-counting will mentally exhaust and discourage me at times. I can’t undo either condition, but I can consciously choose to do my best to manage the deficits of both body and mind. As I do, I am striving to raise awareness among healthcare workers and fellow patients about the link between mental health and chronic illness. It is my hope that our healthcare system will get to a point where both body and mind, the physical and the mental, the seen and the unseen, are delicately considered despite the nature of a diagnosis.

Thank you so much, Heather, for your contribution to Ugly Ducklings!  You can find out more about Heather and her journey by visiting her blog Bigger Than My Body.

A family secret: I suffered a mental health problem

Mental health awareness

I diagnosed myself when I was fifteen;
seven years later, a psychiatrist did it.

In February 2012, I was confronted with a family secret: My grandfather had been a patient in a psychiatric hospital for six months when my Dad was a teenager due to a mental breakdown and psychosis. While my grandfather was there, he was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Whether that was type I or type II, I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does.

I confronted my Dad about why I was never told of this, especially because of my continuous depressions through my life. He tried to play it off, like it was no big deal. (I’m not looking to make my Dad seem like a bad guy because he certainly is not; he just doesn’t seem to be proud of his – my – family’s history – except for the good things of course.)

mental-health-story-quote-1Well, that night I made a decision to go to my doctor and demand to get a referral for a psych evaluation. I’d been going to him at least once a year since I was 15, telling him that I needed help and he’d just kept sending me to psychologists who failed to recognize any signs. But this time, I wasn’t going to listen to him; this time he was going to listen to me!

Three weeks later, I went and told my doctor to give me that referral… He finally did. After seven years, I was finally going to get the help that I knew I needed. Since my first serious depression, I’d known that it wasn’t “just” a depression. I knew it was more than that, but no one would listen to a “hormonal” 15 year old.

Six months later I went to the psychiatrist and filled out a questionnaire that would determine if I had an actual mental illness and if so, which one. After I’d filled it out, I went in for the consult and I told him why I’d sought for psychiatric help as opposed to psychological and we made an appointment for another consult a month later.

August ended and September 21st came; I finally got there and sat down in the waiting room. Of course, the doctor was late. Typical, isn’t it? When you’re about to be late and you rush to get there, whoever you’re meeting is late. It didn’t take long for him to pull me in and give me my diagnosis. “Hi Camilla. So… There’s no doubt about it. You have Bipolar Disorder type II.”

No doubt. No doubt? After seven years, at least seven depression consults with my doctor, three psychologists and countless counsellors, it took one test and one conversation with a psychiatrist to get a diagnosis. A diagnosis that I had known I would receive. For seven years I had dealt with the downside of this illness and no one had been there to really help me.

mental-health-story-quote-2Less two months after I got my diagnosis, I went through another downward spiral, with the snap of two fingers. All I remember is waking up one morning and not being able to get up. I, physically, couldn’t. I lied there, listening to my alarm going off until my Mom came in half an hour later and asked me why I wasn’t up yet. I just looked into the air and said, “It’s gone bad again.” And so, another battle started, but this time we knew why and how to help it.

I ended up dropping out of school –third try on getting an education– to concentrate on getting better and staying better. With a diagnosis it wasn’t hard to have the system work with me instead of against me. They set me up in a mindfulness-ish class that had a couple of painting hours a week, which were the only reason I went. I wasted seven months there until I could get into a program for people who aren’t fit for work or school.

During those months, I did my best to experience as many things that would give me joy as possible. I went to Paris to meet one of my two best friends for the first time. Two months later I went to the Monte Carlo TV Festival with my other best friend – my best friend for longer than forever, as her and I say. And that same Summer I was lucky enough to not get renewed at that mindfulness-ish class, so that I could have a month vacation before starting the program. This break gave me two weeks in Skagen; this annual trip was exactly what I needed! A week of having fun with a friend and the next with my Dad and sister – later joined by my sister’s mother – where I spent most days relaxing in the sun. Perfect.

And finally August came and the program started.

This program has three subjects: music, art and theatre. And since August 2013, I have been an amateur actress. This place is safe. If you’re energized and overjoyed, you use that energy to do theatre work. If you’re tired or sad – or both – there’s a place upstairs with a couch, where you can lie down if you need to. It’s a place where you have support your co-workers, the guidance counsellors and the ones who are in charge of each subject. There’s room for you there. Continue reading

In honour of Remembrance Day

Poppies Vintage

Some of my friends have entire poems memorized. I’ve never really been one for poetry at all (though Mary Oliver’s endless wisdom has definitely been growing on me lately). I do have two poems memorized. And I am very happy that the two poems I have memorized are the ones my brain has decided to retain.

One is a poem about our heroes (A Hero Is…), something close to my heart that I’ve shared about before in this blog. But the first poem I ever remember learning is In Flanders Fields by John McCrae. This beautiful poem is read every year in our schools on November 11th – our Remembrance Day here in Canada (The USA’s Veteran’s Day).SoldiersVintage

Today is November 11th and we want to use this date to honour all those who have given their lives and made sacrifices for the freedoms of others. Ultimately, we want to honour these individuals every day; I keep my poppy on display year-round with a Canadian flag pin stuck in it to remind me of what it means to be Canadian; to remind me of the blood spilled so I have the privilege of waking up each morning and doing whatever I want to do and being whoever I want to be.

Please take the time today to honour our Veterans in your heart and in your life. And I will leave you with this poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
- John McCrae

GravesVintage