Month: December 2020

What We Can Learn From Life’s Disappointments

I have been facing a lot of setbacks and disappointments lately. One of the more recent ones that really stuck a knife in my gut was missing out on getting a $15,000.00 writer’s Grant. The truth of that disappointment though runs deeper than me just not crossing the t’s or dotting the i’s on the application. Where things probably hit a wall was the fact that I have yet to publish a book with a recognized publisher.

Thinking about this sets off thoughts of a half a million more disappointments, which is all the times I have tried to get work published and simply had no luck. But the truth is, compared to what a lot of writers go through, I hadn’t done all that much to get published. I had tried, I had at one time a literary agent and a fancy editor. But I gave up trying way too soon and put a lot of money into self-publishing. I did well with that too, finding places to sell books and selling quite a few of them. What amazes me is that there are now likely more than 1,000 copies of my books out there and all of them have been marketed just in my home city of Edmonton.

My big thing right now is to try and publish a collection of short stories. A couple of years back, I was sent a rejection letter from a publisher that told me my work showed promise and gave suggestions. I showed it to a professional writer and he literally said, “They don’t ever do this, you need to keep trying.”

Anyhow, what I really wanted to talk about today was setbacks as far as mental health goes. Those of us who deal with mental illness all may have a list of a dozen such occurrences. In early 2019, I succumbed to the side effects of antipsychotic medication. Though I had been well for about 18 years, it didn’t matter to the demon that was in my head. Slowly, gradually, I became extremely ill after having my medications switched. I had a lot of false ideas and paranoia in my head, and I was hearing things and imagining things for example I thought I smelled really bad when I didn’t, I thought people were on the ward I was on with a gun come to kill me. One of the incidents that really was disturbing was when I was outside walking and I swore there was someone behind me, I could hear their steps just as clearly as I could hear mine. But I looked back and I was completely alone.

Though there were some very tough times in the hospital that month, when I left I felt a sense of renewal, of recharging. There were many positive things about my stay. The food was good, the staff was very nice and helpful, and I had an excellent doctor who really helped me. At the end of that month-long stay, (despite embarrassments from when I was ill that people reminded me of), I feel I left a better person.

I joked with a friend recently that whenever something bad happens, I always seem to find something positive about it. I told him if someone said I was to die tomorrow, I would think, ‘Great! Now I don’t have to do my laundry this Sunday’. What it all comes down to is where your focus is, and I believe we can all train ourselves to think this way not just about things that happen, but also with regard to how we feel about people around us.

The most important first step is to realize when you think negatively about something. It might be good to write down when you find yourself getting upset or overstressed by someone or something. Do you get mad in parking lots? (This makes me think of how easy it is to drop off anyone with limited mobility near an entrance, then drive to a far-off space and walk the small extra distance without struggling to find the best spot and wasting gas and effort). When you get home, make a note of it and note down how angry you felt.

Once you start to notice when you get very upset, start to find ways to either calm yourself (meditation here can work miracles). First, if it is a person that made you angry, step out of your comfort zone and try and think of why they did it, if they really had the intention of making you angry, and what extenuating circumstances may have led them to take your parking spot or advance out of turn on a 4-way stop. Maybe they needed a quick parking spot because their child was about to be sick or they desperately needed to make it to the bathroom. You really don’t know why they may have done it, and 99.9% of the time, their reasons had nothing to do with you.

Try and do this with your whole list, and then start to try and train yourself to look not only for ways to avoid getting upset, but also to try and get something positive out of what happened.

Of course, all of this is just a small way of dealing with toxic situations. If you find your negative emotions are controlling you, consider finding a therapist. If you are broke, look for one that works on a sliding scale and tell them to keep sliding until you can afford it. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is known to help people with Schizophrenia just as much as psychiatric medication does. It can give you or your loved one with the illness a second chance at life, but like anything you have to work at it.

My last statement I wanted to cover is physical health. So many of us who read this blog worry about getting medications right, about not sleeping too much or hearing voices. I really feel some of us could benefit from a long walk, a jog, a round of lifting weights, or a game of tennis, racquetball, squash or other sports. Keep yourself toned, trim that gut, and build your ability to face stress as much as you can, your body will thank you and you will be in much better shape to deal with any mental health issues. In the meantime, take care!


Holiday Season Depression

Well, here I am in my fantastic new car looking at downtown. I can’t help but think a lot about how this has been a pretty bad holiday season. There are things I need to be thankful for. One of them is that my dad, who I used to fight with all the time has turned into just about my best friend, and he bends over backwards for me. He always has actually, it was just hard for me to see it. We used to fight a lot, and I thought that the pressure he put on me just before I had my first serious breakdown was a big factor in me being sick. That was simply not the truth. He did put pressure on me, we did fight tooth and nail, but my illness was something that runs in my family all of the people on my moms side have some form of severe mental illness. It hasn’t stopped us from being successful though, my sister is a public school teacher, my cousin used to teach at Cambridge in England. And my Uncle (his dad) raised two pretty amazing kids. My other cousin, Dan is also among my closest friends.

I don’t know if I want to get into too much detail about how I got sick and what happened, but the important thing is that not only have I put all those stories into my books, but also that with the help of a non-profit corporation here in Edmonton that helps house me and partly employs me, and the health care system here in Canada, I have been able to overcome a lot of that. Right now, there are actually a few people who have run across my work and approached me for help with their family members who have mental illnesses. This feels pretty rewarding.

So, to be true to my title, I should talk a little about holiday season depression. When I think of this, I often think of my departed mother who never liked Christmas. There was so much pressure on her to cook a massive feast and to put on a smile. My brother and sister and I loved it, we were almost always showered with gifts but for my mom it was strain and anxiety around others, and depression.

I think I should talk a little here about depression and my life. When I was even around 7-8 years old, I had anxiety and depression. I was always feeling bad, walking around looking down at the ground because I was too shy to look people in the eyes. As things went on, in junior high, I started to overcome my shyness through doing things like taking Air Cadet classes in public speaking and doing some teaching at camps but I started to slip into becoming a manic depressive. The weekend Cadet camps were the worst for this, I would stay awake for a whole weekend and just go ballistic being around friends and playing army games and running the obstacle course and all that. I often wonder what the other cadets thought of me. A lot of times, I earned the nickname Psycho, and later on in life I had the committal papers to back up their insinuations.

There was a time when I was 14 just after my mom’s doctor had me spend 2 weeks on the psychiatric ward that I tried to make a change in my life. I stopped making ‘firecracker’ bombs, carrying pocket knives and all that. I think the biggest influence on me was that I was becoming very interested in girls and some of the ones I really liked were appalled at my behaviour, the dirty jokes I would tell, and the stunts I would pull in class. Then booze came along. Flash forward 6 years and I was living in Vancouver, working on my pilot’s license and having a lot of fun, carefree adventures like a trip to California and another to Vancouver Island in a rented plane. I thought I had somehow geographically cured my mental illness. I thought I just had to get away from bullies and my dad and people that put me down, and for a time, things were amazing. But in the end, I fell back into psychosis, at Christmas time no less. I don’t know all the facts, but I do know Christmas is a very difficult time for many people. For me, I can recall crying my eyes out watching sad movies on my first Christmas away from home when I was alone. To say nothing of the severe, crippling depressions I went through all through high school.

But what can we do? I think the answer comes from one of my favourtite astronauts, Chris Hadfield (who was actually once also an Air Cadet like me) you need to look into the future and prepare yourself for life events. Make a phone list, get the phone numbers of 6-10 people since you may have to isolate, and call them now and then and chat–use them as support, but don’t put too much social pressure on any one of them. Look into regular counselling, some counsellors will see you on a sliding scale, others will see a person short-term for free. Keep a list of supporti hotlines ready and don’t be afraid to call those people either. Never miss a Doctor’s appointment, and when you know you will be having a difficult time, ask your doctor for more frequent appointments.

Something I did when I had severe depression, was living alone and had suicidal thoughts and thoughts about self harm was to not keep anything sharper than a butterknife around, to get just one week of medication so I didn’t have enough to overdose. But it helps too to distract yourself. I personally think reading is the best way to distract yourself, but you can watch TV, learn something new off Youtube, and many more things. You can even embrace your loneliness and put on a Beatles record and stand up and sing to it. Why not? Life should be fun.

Last thing I want to say is that I apologize for not writing a lot of blogs lately. I would really like to write more, but when it seems I am just writing to no one, it gets difficult. Please, send me a comment or a quick note or anything you like. I will even accept poems and post them if I like them. Until next blog, stay well and know that you are loved.

Sick and Tired of Covid Stories? Let’s Talk Depression!!

There is so many horrible things going on in the world, I think the picture above will help remind us that even though it is the darkest day of the year, we can see the bright side, like how each day from here on in (for us in the Northern Climes) is going to get sunnier and longer, and that summer is just a heartbeat away.

I sat down yesterday and tried to talk a little about depression and what it is doing to me and likely talked more about the pandemic than even I wanted to. I did that because it seems that the isolation and boredom I face daily in our situation seems to be causing my depression. I think a large part of that has to do with the amount of sunlight I have been getting. We get really short days here where I live this time of year and it has often been overcast, not to mention that I have been unable to get out much.

Getting sunlight is essential to good health and wellbeing, anyone that doesn’t know it already should be taking vitamin D to replace what you aren’t getting. They are cheap enough, and come in very small pills. Three or four thousand IU’s (international units) per day in three or four little pills can go a long way.

Then of course there is the question of exercise. Since I was a young kid, I have loved the water, and recently a full fitness facility was built near where I live. I enjoy nothing more than taking my snorkel and swimming for hours if I can, listening to nothing but the sound of my own breathing. It is so invigorating and relaxing, and I kind of like sitting in the hot tub as well. I knew a psychologist as a friend who told me that exercise is such an important part of who we are as human beings. Feeling like my muscles were disappearing and getting weak and sore with just basic household duties, I have been starting to do more with my upper body. I wasn’t doing too bad with my legs, I like to walk long distance, which can be the perfect thing to do when everything is shut down, for lease, boarded up and abandoned. Walking is amazing, it is my personal form of meditation but as I have advanced in distances walked, I have often slacked off a bit on my upper body. Being too weak and overweight to do push-ups or chin-ups of any significant amount, I have been using what used to be called ‘dynamic tension’. What I do is tense my muscles, and instead of using weight to offer resistance, I use other muscles. Part of it I knew for a while, part of it I learned from a friend who knew of a famous bodybuilder who did no abdominal workout, he just tensed his abdominal muscles while doing all of his weight training. It is so important to find ways to exercise, and if you could somehow do it outside, all the better. Are there outdoor rinks where you live? Can you join a local soccer team (I mention this because soccer is a very low-cost sport compared to say, football.) There is more to exercising than just looking better, there are a lot of bonuses, like better balance, better cognitive functioning, and making new friends.

Making friends can be hard, but the best place for most people to start when they are dealing with a mental illness is an organization that either serves people with general mental illnesses, or specific ones that relate to your diagnosis, such as the Schizophrenia Society or a Bipolar support organization.

One of the ways I have found to stretch my meagre grocery budget and get out is to get up early, take my meds, and instead of going back to sleep, three times a week I put on a backpack and walk to the discount store 4km away.

But, all that aside, I am still pretty down. A year ago things really seemed to be going well with a close female friend and I, and then it all fell out from under me. It is so hard to meet new people or interact with old friends when you have to wear masks and worry about a horrible disease. I have been trying to compensate by using the phone a lot, but there are other things, like using zoom to call family in other countries or taking online skills training so when covid ends (if it ever does!) you can look at going back to a better type of volunteer or paid job.

I hope this blog helps someone out there, please comment or like if you feel it was relevant.

Leif Gregersen

Covid-19 and the Delicate Balance of My Medications

It seems like only seconds have gone by since a year ago when all seemed normal.

Some time back, I met with a friend who is retired and we spoke over coffee. He had other things in mind to talk about, but the focus of the conversation was an illness. A new type of flu or bug, a virus that had started in China. He told me some amazing things like how the Chinese were welding people who were infected into their apartments, and how this illness was going to spread. Later, one of the first things I did was cancel a vacation I had planned to London, England. My friend (I hope he doesn’t mind that I put his name here) Rick was telling me that we had to keep six feet of distance from each other, that people were hoarding toilet paper and that I had to avoid touching my face and wash my hands often. Telling someone like me to not touch their face is like telling them to stop breathing. I think about it and I have to do it. So many other bizarre things went on in the course of the next few weeks. I have a neighbour who is a real stickler for rules, because she had worked for some high security companies in her day. I ran into her in the hallway and she said I should watch the Premier’s address. She said he was putting out a lockdown order that was just one step below martial law. Still, this all seemed to be a joke. Then I joined a staff meeting for work over the computer and I was told all shifts were cancelled indefinitely. Only the grace of them honouring my contract kept me from going broke and likely even homeless, along with my disability pension.

I will never forget those first few weeks. No masks could be gotten anywhere, busses stopped charging for rides and the streets were deserted even during weekday busy times. For perhaps the first time since I had volunteered to join the fight in the Persian Gulf (which I was turned down for) I saw the reality of the news and of far-off countries drop right in my lap, up here in Edmonton where nothing ever happens and even crime is rare.

One of the worst things I had to deal with was the isolation. I have always been prone to it, but in recent times I had become good friends with a wonderful and intelligent young woman who was working hard to help me with my writing and other projects. I also had a best friend who is a writer. Both of them, for the safety of their families, had to greatly limit our interactions. This made things difficult, but I tried to make the best of it all.

As many may know, from reading “Alert and Oriented x3” I recently had a bad reaction to a medication change that put me in the hospital for a month. I didn’t realize it, but the isolation and lack of exercise and friendship really began to wear me down. At the end of summer though, I was able to resume some of my work and do other things online. I even attended some online church services and a few online comic book auctions. Everything but groceries was coming to me through a screen. Soon, wearing masks in all public spaces became mandatory as they were more available. That was the end of the first wave. Now we are moving through a second and into a third, and the third could be the worst of all.

Once again, I am reminded by the effects of Covid-19 that my mental health has to be my priority, just barely behind physical health (I need to eat and breathe, then I need my medications and supervision with them). There is such a disparity even in Edmonton as to what needs to be done. There are anti-maskers and anti-vaccination people, both of them defended their right to choose to infect others and be infected themselves in large public gatherings. I cringe when I think of actual deaths occurring due to covid parties. I myself have become paranoid. Just a short time ago, I used to be offended when I saw someone walking down a street with a breathing mask on. I often would ask myself if they felt themselves too good to breathe the same air as I did. Soon after that, as covid began, I went out of my way to get a mask, even made myself some and I found myself being taunted walking down the street by grown adults. There are many lessons to be learned here, one is that when you find yourself ready to judge someone, you should take into account what situations they are under before you try to lay a blame on them. I used to look down on people who had mental illnesses, until I found out I was exactly the same as them, and in trying to befriend these people, help them in any way I could, I was banking karma for the time when I got sick.

I recall one time I was in an airport and I heard someone say, “man that guy smells!” and then his friend said, “shut your mouth. maybe he has cancer”. There is always a way to diffuse personal anger and judgement with some imagination and a little compassion. I recently was listening to one of my favourite astronauts Chris Hadfield say that he found his whole life changed when he realized that everyone he knew, everyone he sees, is struggling in one way or another. He was struggling to balance family and the incredible stress of training for spaceflight. A woman he saw was struggling to raise her grandchild after the death of her daughter. The list can go on forever.

I don’t want to type so much that no one gets a chance to read to the bottom, but I did want to apologize to my readers for not blogging in a long time. What it boils down to is that I have been struggling with medications and depression and sleep disorder and a lot of very small things that have added up to make my life extremely difficult. This blog means a lot to me, and I am always encouraged when others read it and compliment me or friends such as Christine and Rick tell me to get my butt in the chair and write more blogs. In this freaked out situation, we all need each other more than ever, so as a favour to me, hug the person next to you (only if they are either family or you are both wearing masks) and remind them that you care. You care no matter what.