Monday, December 12, 2011

NOT the answer...So what is?

First, thanks to the readers who commented on my Uncle Michael post. I'm glad his story resonated with you as it did with me.

So, now on to putting Uncle Michael's words to work. As you will recall, he said he had to calm down or he would die. And I feel the same way.

The best way to start explaining how I'm going about this hugely important task is to use Sally's words as my springboard. This is what she said (and I heartily agree):

"Antidepressants and tranquilizers are NOT the answer! "

Now, I don't want to tell anyone else how to handle their anxiety. Truly, far be it from me! We all have to find our own way, and if pharmacology is right for you, I won't stand in your way.

However, I know myself well enough to realize that taking pills is not something that really works for me. After my first, disastrous hip surgery, I got really, really depressed and with good reason. I started having a lot of trouble eating enough to simply nourish my body. Food was the last thing on my mind, even when my stomach was screaming with hunger. By the time my surgeon had confirmed that something was really wrong and that he was going to perform a revision, my GP had already put me on an anti-depressant. I knew that the best anti-depressant was having confirmation that I wasn't imagining things and that I really needed another surgery, but it was too late. My GP wanted to keep me on the medication until after the second surgery and I complied. What did it get me? Nothing but some extra poundage I really didn't need!

So, when I recently found myself in a deep, thyroid-induced depression, I knew that neither anxiety nor anti-depressant medication was not the answer.

In the past, right here on this blog, I talked about meditation and more specifically, breathing meditation to help keep me on a more even keel in a very stress filled life. But, to be absolutely honest, I didn't do anything.

This time was different.

As you know, I was in a very deep hole. I had a serious falling out with my work associates and left our group. My reasons, under different circumstances, could have been quite justified. I work in an extremely tense environment. But this has been the only work life I've known for almost twenty-five years and to a great extent, it's just the nature of the beast. You have to have nerves of steel to do what I do, and nerves of steel to deal with the prima donnas who make up a high percentage of people in my profession.

It was being hyperthyroid that took me over the edge, but as I tumbled, I realized that I had a lot of personal, long-standing baggage that made the tumble all the worse. I had to do something more than just take my thyroid medication and mentally paper over the hurt and the anxiety. I was NOT going to go on anti-depressants.

So what have I been doing?

Quite a while ago, I heard about Jon Kabat-Zinn, a well-known practitioner and proponent of "mindfulness" and I finally began to read one of his books on mindfulness, which focuses specifically on people suffering from illness and stress. There's so much and so little to say about mindfulness, being in the moment, not letting yourself be buffeted about by the world around you, ....I really don't know where to start nor what to say, so I'll be brief (after this very long introduction):

Read Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

This book is having a profound effect on me. I'm still quite recognizable, both in body and in spirit, but sometimes it's the little, yet deep changes that make all the difference. I'm keeping these changes for myself. They may mean nothing to you. However, your changes, no matter how small, can have a huge effect on who you are as a human being and how you move through life.

So, if you're looking for something--not something to make you lose weight, or help you burn more calories or rev up your metabolism or tone your abs--something to help you live your life with more calm and personal understanding, and less anxiety, read this book. It may not touch you, but if it does, and you find that it's made a positive change in your life, well, that will make my heart sing.

Read the book!!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Uncle Michael's Lesson to Me

My late uncle Michael had very high blood pressure. Dangerously high.

Lest you jump to conclusions, Uncle M. was neither fat nor did he eat junk food. Throughout his life, he was extremely slim. Born in Poland at the turn of the 20th century, junk food did not exist. Even though he lived in Canada from the end of the 1960s to his death in 2006, he never changed his spartan eating habits: he ate no junk food (I don't think he even knew what the term meant) and subsisted on extremely plain, sometime bordering on horribly bland, food.

Uncle Michael did not drive and until he became too weak to walk at the end of his life, he took public transit or walked everywhere.

In many ways, Uncle Michael was a paragon of "healthy living" and indeed, he lived to a venerable age, dying just short of his 93rd birthday.

Yet, Uncle Michael had high blood pressure. Why?

Years before his death, this is what Uncle Michael told me:

"I realized," said he, "that if I didn't calm down, I would die."

Uncle Michael did not live an easy life. He was born in a small village in Poland just before World War 1. There was a great deal of upheaval during his first years of life. In fact, the family almost ended up in Siberia due to the political activities of the oldest son (there were 8 children in the family and Michael was the youngest).

Michael was also severely short-sighted but no one thought to fit him with glasses. He actually had a terrible run-in with a barbed wire fence as a child since he didn't see it early enough to avoid running into it.

A quiet, artistic soul, he nevertheless followed his family's wishes and went to study engineering in France in 1939. He did not speak a word of French, but learned the language through dogged determination and did become an engineer. Of course, his studies were interrupted by the Second World War. As a Jew, he spent the war years travelling around France, sleeping in different rooming houses almost every night and often less than one step ahead of the Gestapo and certain death. He owed his life to several righteous Gentiles he met along the way.

After the war, Michael continued to live and work in France. He thought he had lost his entire family during the Holocaust. My father found him in the late sixties and they were re-united in Canada. Two other sisters (one who had come to Canada, the other in Israel) also survived.

Despite his education and professional qualifications, Michael never managed to find work as an engineer in Canada. He did various things to earn a living and finally went back to his true love, art, in his retirement. He painted, drew and sculpted for many years. He also went back to learning Russian when already in his seventies. In all, he spoke six languages. I always spoke to him in French.

So, in sum, Uncle Michael did not have an easy life. He had good reason to suffer from the anxiety that was no doubt at the root of his high blood pressure. He needed outside help (aka medication) to deal with his blood pressure, but he also realized that he had to work with himself to keep his mind from killing his body. This is the lesson Uncle Michael taught me, although I have only come to realize it all too recently.

Over the past few weeks, I have come to understand the power of the mind-body connection and its relationship to my thyroid issues.

First, please be disabused of the idea that the thyroid is a benign little gland usually blamed for difficulties in losing weight. No! It's a powerhouse and when it goes out of balance (in my case, making me hyper) it can wreak havoc and sometimes kill.

There are a host of symptoms associated with being hyperthyroid (Graves disease) but the one that I did not know about threw my whole life into turmoil: extreme anxiety. Like Uncle Michael and like my older son (who has an uncanny resemblance to Uncle Michael), I have a strong tendency to catastrophize. I think back on things I have done (or not done) and go into paroxysms of regret. I think ahead to potential disasters and fixate on them, whether or not there is any possibility that they may occur and whether or not I have any control over whether they come to pass. Put this aspect of my character together with a thyroid that is hereditarily prone to becoming hyper and you have a recipe for disaster.

In short, I worried my thyroid over the edge, catastrophizing events that had occurred and events that I feared would occur, and then I became psychologically unhinged. All the comments I made on my work and my colleagues were true. It is a difficult environment and many of the people I work with are divas who fly off the handle at the drop of a hat. However, my generally anxious nature, which helped to bring on the relapse of Graves disease and which then fed the flames of the Graves disease to the nth degree led me to the brink of a professional crisis that did not have to happen.

Recently, Uncle Michael's words about calming down suddenly resounded again in my brain.

Yes, I most certainly did need medication (and I'm still on it, BTW). I was physically in a dangerous situation. But I also realized that it was time to go within and confront my anxious mind and my catastrophizing ways. That is what I have started doing.

Stay tuned for the next instalment of the saga!

BIG P.S. I have heard from two readers who can't leave comments on this blog. If this is the case for you too, please leave me a message at ima.canuck at hotmail dot com. I'm looking into the problem.