On Anxiety, Brain Vacations & Changing My Story

Three years ago I wrote a blog post called I don’t want things to be like this anymore which chronicled some of my experiences with  anxiety. Three years seems like a lifetime ago and lots of things have changed since then. I’ve mentioned in passing that my issues with anxiety have improved a lot over the past 1.5 years, but I haven’t told the whole story of how I got from point A (crippling anxiety) to point B (feeling like I can function without losing my shit) So, today I’m going to re-tell the story I told you three years ago, only this time it has a different, much happier ending.

Let me start off by saying this: I have an anxiety disorder. There, I said it. The secret is out.

Although it’s easy to talk about now, it took me a long time to own up to the fact that I had anxiety issues and get properly diagnosed – 31 years to be exact. When I first wrote about my struggles with anxiety, the story I told myself was that it was a “bedtime thing” because that was the time of day when my anxiety often felt the strongest. However, looking back I now can see that my anxiety was really a “all the time thing” – one that I had been struggling with for most of my life. The funny thing is that when you feel anxious all the time, that becomes your “normal” and it’s only when things get really out of control that you’re like, “hey, something is going on here!” That was the exact point I was at when I wrote that initial post. I knew something was up with my body and I wanted it to stop.

To give you some background, I was a very energetic, creative kid – so much so, that I never wanted to sleep.  My Mom used to always tell me, “Simone, you just can’t seem to let the day go!” whenever I’d have a hard time settling down, which was almost always – bedtimes were never my forte. The idea of sleep – of losing control of my body, of slipping into an unconscious state – scared the shit out of me as a child. Many nights I would lie awake in bed fearing that moment of letting go. I’d figure out a million reasons to get up out of bed: another glass of water, another 5 trips to the bathroom, did I remember to brush my teeth?! However, what I didn’t mention before is how out of control the repetitive behaviour became sometimes. I wouldn’t get up to use the bathroom 5 times, I’d actually get up 30 times. As a child I spent many nights with my heart pounding, doing the same things over and over, feeling like I was unable to fully control my actions. Although I felt ashamed and like something was wrong with me, I was able to hide it well. It wasn’t until last year, when I  shared the things I’ve just described with my Mom, that she fully understood how bad things were for me at that time.

My anxiety continued on into my teenage years and my adult life. It would ebb and flow, sometimes more severe than others – however, when it was bad, it was really, really bad. There would be nights when I would just lie awake all night, not sleeping, feeling like my heart and mind were racing. Not being able to calm down and sleep is one of the most frustrating things ever. Sometimes it got so bad that it would feel like I couldn’t breathe and my then-boyfriend (bless his heart) would have to wrap his arms around me so I would stop shaking. When these anxiety attacks would happen, I would cry, so completely frustrated by the fact that no matter what I did, it still felt like every neurone in my body was firing all at the same time and like a tiny miniature football team was playing a never ending Superbowl game in my brain. It sucked.

At the time though, I tried to cope in the best way that I could. Usually this meant reaching for some Benadryl, NyQuil or muscle relaxants – anything that might produce drowsiness – at bed time. In extreme cases, I’d wash it down with a night-cap of Pinot Grigio – all habits I realize are not exactly healthy.

When I wrote that first blog post about my anxiety, I knew something had to give yet, part of me was scared – scared of what I might unearth if I went to therapy, scared of how medication might affect me, scared that I might do all of those things and nothing would change. As I mentioned before, we tell ourselves stories about our lives. For years I had been telling myself, “I’m just naturally anxious. I’ll always be the person who has trouble sleeping. This is just my personality. It sucks, but I’m just going to have to suffer through this for the rest of my life.” Repeat any story to yourself enough and you start to believe it. However, knowing what I know now, I’d love to go back and tell myself:

“Simone, you don’t want things to be like this anymore…and guess what they don’t have to be!”

Although I wrote that post in January of 2010, it wasn’t until November of 2011 that I finally decided to take action and seek help for my anxiety issues. I had just gone through a heartbreaking breakup and after 30+ years of feeling anxious all the time I was exhausted. When it came to dealing with my anxiety, it was either now or never. As I’ve mentioned before, when I came home to BC following the big breakup I started seeing a counsellor which helped tremendously. However, the piece of the story that I haven’t shared on the blog until now is that I also started taking medication for my anxiety. And you know what?! The combo of counselling + medication have changed my life for the better in ways that I could never imagined.

Initially I was really nervous to try any kind of medication because I was afraid they might somehow change my personality. When I expressed my concerns to a good friend of mine, she asked me: “Do I seem any different?! I take it for anxiety issues very similar to yours and it’s helped me so much.” This was all the reassurance I needed.

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From Pyjamas to Gladiator: On Willpower & Learning to Kick Ass

If you’ve ever struggled to break a bad habit, this post is for you.

2013 will always be remembered as the year that I staged my very own “pajama-vention” – otherwise known as “that time I realized I was getting gross and decided to do something about it, and learned to kick-ass in the process.”

In December and January I participated in the Stratejoy Holiday Council. I learned how to let go of 50 things, made vision boards and set goals – some which I’ve already accomplished (!) I enjoyed the experience so much that when it came to sign up for the Stratejoy Willpower Council a few months later, I jumped at the chance. With my schedule now busier than ever, I knew I’d need to tap into my willpower to really “get shit done.”

One of our first tasks was to choose a bad habit that we’d like to change, or a good habit that we’d like to create. I knew right away what mine would be:

THE PYJAMAS.

As I’ve mentioned before, being a freelance writer and/or working from home does come with it’s shares of perks: a flexible schedule and dress code with a commute that never is longer than the distance between your bed and your laptop. The downside is that when you’re not even required to wear pants on a daily basis, things have the tendency to get gross pretty fast.

After almost a decade of working in a corporate office environment, when I started freelancing I embraced the novelty of being able to work in my pyjamas. However, what began as a fun and comfortable way to give the middle finger to my former office attire, soon evolved to the point where I was wearing my pyjamas all day, everyday. Unless I was leaving the house, I wouldn’t even bother showering or putting on clothes until late afternoon. As someone who is naturally prone to anxiety, my pyjamas weren’t just a wardrobe choice, they were like a security blanket – one that covered my whole body.

I jokingly nicknamed my well loved leopard print pyjamas my “freelancer’s business suit” and when I wore out my first pair, my Mom and sister lovingly purchased me new ones for Christmas complete with matching booties. You can file the photo below under “reasons I might be single.”

 I hadn’t realized how bad the situation had become until my Mom and sister sat me down and told me I needed to start wearing real clothes around the house again. I agreed, but then told them I thought they were enablers.

“If you want me to stop wearing pyjamas, why do you keep buying me such awesome ones?! I mean, the matching booties: genius.”

My sister looked me in the eye and said, “Put on some real clothes Simone or I’ll burn those pyjamas in your sleep.”

The irony is, when I envisioned what my life would look like as a freelancer I didn’t imagine myself wearing flannel all day. Instead, I imagined myself wearing cute, casual basics as I wrote and worked on projects in my fun, colourful office. In other words, I wanted my day to day life to look more like my Internet Idol & Girl Entrepreneur Crush Jen Ramos (top left & bottom left.)

I could totally be the kind of person who spent the day working in funky striped dresses or a pair of leather leggings & a fun top. I already owned these kinds of clothes, so what was stopping me?! However, instead I settled for some approximation of this:

I knew I had hit rock bottom when I caught myself doing a phone interview with the head of marketing of a major Canadian bank wearing only a pink nightie, with a brown blanket wrapped around me.

That’s the thing I have learned about bad habits: they’re self sabotaging. We want one thing but we do another. I picked out clothes that embodied the vision I wanted for life, but stashed them away in the closet and instead, did exactly the opposite because it seemed easier somehow.

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Carrie Bradshaw vs. Reality

Ever since I started writing my column for Sun Media, I’ve had friends congratulate me, often adding:

“Simone, you’re like the real Carrie Bradshaw!”

After I thank them, I usually go into an extended explanation (rant) about how Carrie Bradshaw’s lifestyle is a completely unrealistic representation of what it’s like to be a freelance writer. Ten minutes later, my slightly stunned friends usually reply with something like:

“Wow, I never thought about any of that. You need to write about this. All of this. Right now.”

So, that’s what I thought I’d do today: drop some reality bombs and hopefully shed some light on how writers really spend their days (hint: it’s not shoe shopping.)

A few years ago I read this fabulous piece in Thought Catalog that explains Carrie Bradshaw’s Budget in Real Numbers. I love it because it gives a fairly accurate picture of what Carrie’s finances would look like in real life. I suggest you check it out. Carrie’s finances on the show aren’t the only thing that’s unrealistic. Although I will always have a soft spot for the show and it’s definitely had a huge impact on pop culture, Carrie’s general lifestyle just doesn’t jive with how most working creatives spend their workdays. Aside from a few very superficial similarities (curly hair, shoe collection, writer), Carrie’s lifestyle is nothing like mine. I think it’s important for people to know this – especially if they are considering a freelancing career.

Have you ever noticed that aside from the occasional scene featuring Carrie and her lap-top, everyone’s favourite fictional freelance writer doesn’t seem to spend that much time actually…working? Contrary to what the show depicts, the life of a freelancer involves more than just looking pensive in front of your lap top, leisurely contemplating modern dating rituals. In fact, to make a living as a freelancer, you have to bust your ass. Every. Single. Day. If you’re not working on something for a client or promoting your own brand, you’re networking like a beast with the intention of lining up future work.

Carrie writes one column per week and supports herself without any other apparent revenue sources. When she is forced to take on a second job writing for Vogue, it’s like a totally big deal.

NOT REALISTIC.

As a real life writer, I often write anywhere from 2-4 articles per weekday (and sometimes on the weekends too.) Although I write a nationally syndicated column for a major Canadian newspaper (which, pays me fairly), there’s no way I’d be able to support myself on that venture alone.  To pay my bills and set aside some savings each month, I typically write multiple articles per week for 5-6 different publications. Along with working with these clients, I also write this blog (which sometimes includes sponsored content and advertising) and spend 20+ hours per week managing social media for a small business. I also try and pick up extra work whenever I can.

The reality is that my work-week can get pretty insane.

Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays & Fridays I get up at 6am so I can on my way to the gym by 6:45. Monday and Tuesday are typically 12-hour work days. The rest of the week I work all day, with a break for the gym & meals. I often do some work in the evenings. Around 10pm, I’ll usually settle down to watch a TV show on my computer, read a book or catch up with my favourite music site (No dinner at Balthazar for me!) Friday afternoons I usually save for doing errands & something “fun” – this usually involves going for a walk, to Target, or to check out one of my favourite vintage shops. I love a good martini but I rarely drink during the week because it just slows me down too much.

However, I wish I could drink more because most of my workdays end looking more like this:

Than THIS: 

Although I dream of once again having a fabulous bachelorette pad like I did in Toronto, working for myself and trying to build up my business means I’ve had to make sacrifices. In my case, this means I’m temporarily living with my Mom again. Although I’m super grateful that I’m able to live at home, it’s far from glamorous.

carries-apartment

 (*Carrie’s NYC apartment isn’t even spatially realistic. Nor is Seinfeld’s, Ted Mosby’s or Monica & Rachel’s.)

I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about being a writer: that it’s super glamorous and lucrative. The truth is that writing actually doesn’t pay very well – at least not when you first start out. While Carrie shops her life away, I often lie awake worrying about whether I’ll ever make enough money to realize my dreams (travel, home ownership) AND still have enough to put a huge chunk into retirement savings. Going by the figures outlined in the Thought Catalog article, I make substantially more money than Carrie Bradshaw, and yet I still can’t afford to drop $600 on a pair of shoes. The only people I know who are able to make those kinds of purchases either have really high paying jobs in the financial sector or are in massive credit card debt, on the verge of bankruptcy.

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Forever Bad-Ass, a Tribute of Sorts

With the exception of my recent Vegas recap post, ever since the calendar changed from May to June I fell like I’ve just been calling it in when it comes to blogging and writing. I’m going through the motions and meeting my deadlines, but I feel like I’m running on auto-matic pilot. I have deadlines looming in the future, goals I want to tackle and a bunch of goodies I need to review, yet I feel like I can’t do any of that before I say this:

Two weeks ago my grandpa Frank passed away. He was 88.

Since I wasn’t able to attend his memorial service on Saturday, I thought I would say a few words here.

There’s two things I will always remember about my grandfather: he was a masterful storyteller and he wasn’t very fond of shirts in the summer time (photographic evidence supports this.)

My grandpa’s story began in 1925, in the small town of Aneroid, Saskatchewan, where he born to my great grandparents who had recently immigrated from Ternopil, Poland (a city which is now located in the Western part of the Ukraine.) He spent his childhood in Aneroid helping his family and playing hockey. When he reached his late teens, he enlisted in the service so that he join his brothers who were fighting in World War Two. When I asked my grandpa about his decision to join the army, he simply told me, “My brothers were going and I wanted to get away from the farm.” Sometime near the end of the war he met and fell in love with my grandma. He was 20, she was 17. They were married for 68 years.

After the war, my grandpa changed his Polish last name (which had more consonants than vowels), to something quintessentially Anglo-Canadian so that he could find work in the town where he and my grandmother settled. Soon after, he started a stucco and plastering business with his best friend. When the swimming pool and tiki culture craze hit in the 1950’s, my grandpa expanded his business and added building swimming pools to his resume. By the late 1960’s, my grandpa was running a wildly successful business building pools all over the Okanagan Valley.

My grandpa and grandma, circa the late 1940's.

The majority of my memories of my grandpa involve him sitting at the kitchen table, with a beer in hand, telling one of his infamous stories. What can I tell you about my grandpa’s stories other than they were epic? From growing up in rural Saskatchewan and his army adventures, to his tales about running his own business – my grandpa’s stories always involved a rotating cast of wacky characters, bizarre situations, interesting dialogue and sometimes, even a few unexpected dynamite explosions. People always tell me I have great stories, but it’s only because I learned from the best.

When my long-time (now ex) boyfriend met my extended family for the first time, my grandpa immediately recognized a captive audience. My ex spent the rest of the long weekend, sitting at that kitchen table, drinking beer, listening to my grandpa tell him every story in his repertoire.  They bonded immediately and by the time Monday rolled around, my ex knew my grandpa’s complete life history. When I went to visit the following summer, the first (and only) question my grandpa asked me was: “Where’s Mike?” When I told him he wouldn’t be coming this time, he looked seriously dejected.

Storytelling abilities aside, my grandpa was still part of a generation where boys went off to fight wars, and masculinity was defined by back-breaking labour and a stiff upper lip. When life didn’t go as planned (as it often does), my grandpa would brood. As was the norm for many men of his era, he could be a bit gruff at times. Because of this, (and also because I suspect he just didn’t quite know what to say to girls) I was never super close to my grandpa. My grandpa never held my hand, or took me to the zoo, or even had a real conversation with me until I was in my teens. However, from the time we spent together as a family around that kitchen table I learned other things. I learned about the makings of a good story and how to time a punchline. I also learned a lot about my grandfather’s life. My grandpa loved and connected with us in the best way he knew how – by sharing stories of who he was and where we came from. For this I’ll always be grateful.

My grandpa was a man of many juxtapositions. He was a man who understood both Polish and Ukrainian, but loved the bagpipes and played in the local pipe band. A man with Frank Sinatra style good-looks, who always seemed more comfortable in his “uniform” – a pair of moccasins and one of his beloved 1970’s tracksuits worn with no shirt underneath. A man whose life took him to California, Mexico and all over the Caribbean, but  who really seemed to light up when he was sitting in one place telling a story. An 88 year old man who still didn’t have a single grey hair when he died.

When I called my ex to tell him the news of my grandfather’s passing, he summed things up perfectly when he said the following:

“Your grandpa was a great guy and I loved meeting him. He had such great stories and I really admired his fearless entrepreneurial spirit. I feel like he passed a bit of both onto you.”

People who knew my grandpa have lovingly referred to him as a total “hard-ass” – which, wouldn’t be untrue. However, I prefer to remember him as a “bad-ass.” Decades before the words “start up” or “blog” were part of the popular lexicon, my grandpa forged his own path and built a very successful business from nothing other than his own blood, sweat and tears. If we are to believe the stories of my grandparent’s epic pool parties, the guy also knew how to party  (and apparently operate a handgun?!) He was a little bit mischievous and had a wicked sense of humour – one that allowed him to laugh at the absurdity of holding a baby and a beer in the same hand. He’s also the guy who after a night of partying, convinced his friend who was the town sheriff, to take these photos just for kicks –

These are without a doubt, my favourite photos of my grandparents.

My grandpa narrated his own life from that kitchen table, and while doing so inspired me to do the same. He also taught me that sometimes all you need is some good company and a good yarn.

I wish I could have shared all this with him in person before he passed away. Instead, I take comfort in the fact that he’s hopefully out there somewhere taking this all in, downloading it from the great big iPad in the sky.

Grandpa, if you’re listening – you are loved and missed.

Do More of What Makes You Awesome

In December I participated in the Stratejoy Holiday Council and loved it. One of the things I found extremely helpful about the workshop was it helped me break down my goals for the year into easy to manage pieces. I decided to set goals for two months at a time so that every 60 days I have a different theme and specific things that I’m working on. This has been my theme for March-April:

Why I chose this as a theme: I’ve realized that I’m the best version of myself when I make time to do the things I love: being creative, writing, dancing, pushing my body & getting in regular sweaty workouts, listening to my favourite music, engaging with the world and learning new things. I’ve learned that when I don’t make time for these things, I feel depressed and bogged down.

Have you ever had the feeling like you no longer recognize your own life? Where you think of the person you used to be when you were younger and think “Where did I go?”. Where you spend whole days feeling guilty and discouraged because it feels like you’re not living up to your potential? I’ve had many of these moments. Actually, I spent a huge chunk of my twenties feeling this way. These moments are sad and they’re hard, but they’re also sobering. I believe that if you can recognize something is wrong, you can change it.

When I was a child I had so many diverse interests and things I was totally nerdy about. I swam, ran track competitively, took pottery classes, competed in public speaking competitions, collected stamps, read voraciously, sketched, painted, sang in a choir, played the cello and spoke fluent French. I also danced ballet. I didn’t think so at the time but I was a classic overachiever. Although a lot of my other interests fell to the wayside (when was the last time I made pottery?!), ballet was the one that stuck. By the time I was in my pre-teens I was in the dance studio 4-5 times a week after school.

Although I loved ballet and had the right body type, I didn’t have the stomach for it: the long hours, the constant, never ending criticism, the impossible quest for perfection. Ballet is part art-form, part psychological warfare. It’s a lot to handle when you’re not a fully formed adult emotionally. At some point in my late teens, ballet  just stopped being fun. I wanted to feel like a normal teenager – go out on dates, join the drama club, have a life outside of dance – so, I cut back.

When I moved to Toronto as an 18 (soon to be 19) year old, I swapped the dance studios of my childhood for underground clubs, my pointe shoes for platforms, and piano solos for the bumping bass of house music. Compared to an hour and a half ballet class in pointe shoes, dancing all night in 5 inch heels seemed like a breeze. The upside is that I developed an abnormally high tolerance for foot pain. The downside is that I eventually reached a point in my mid 20’s, where I was working in an office job I hated, swilling vodka on the weekends and wondering “What have I become. Where did all my interests go?!”

Although I took dance classes sporadically while I lived in Toronto, I never made it a priority. Even though I missed ballet, I think I was afraid of feeling of how I used to feel when I took ballet classes as a teenager: picked on, criticized, imperfect, never good enough. Instead of facing my fears, I made excuses as to why I wasn’t taking ballet classes: work, stress, school, relationships, money etc. When I was in my late 20’s I suffered a really bad back injury. My excuse then became “I’ll go back to ballet when my back is better.” However, since being diagnosed with Degenerative Disc Disease and arthritis, I’ve realized that my back is never going to be fully “better” and it seems silly to not do something that I enjoy.

To really be in love with my life, I need to dance. Just like I need to write. As I was telling my Mom the other day, I’d really like to take a ballet class where nothing is on the line, where the only person I’m trying to impress is myself. So, that’s what I have decided to do! I got so excited about the prospect of dancing again, that I the other night I dug out my old pointe shoes and took them for a whirl around the kitchen…

Since I haven’t taken a ballet class in a really long time, I decided to ease back into it by taking Barre Method. The classes are a blend of yoga, pilates and ballet exercises. I love it! As I was explaining to my friend Kate, “It’s like X-treme Ballet.” We do typical ballet moves but with weights, balls and lots of reps, all set to fun music. And oh boy, do you feel it. Like actual ballet, it’s hard work but the hard is what makes it good. In case you were wondering, it also gives you glutes and abs that could crush cans.

{Photo via Barreworks, Toronto}

It feels really good to move my body in this way again. Just like when I visit Quebec or France and immerse myself in French, doing ballet exercises again makes me feel like my body is remembering a language it learned many years ago. I’m starting with Barre Method so that I’ll be ready to take an actual dance class in the summer. Who knows, after that I may even brush up on my French!

Sometimes I wonder if maybe we get it right the first time. If what we are passionate as children is a reflection of our true calling in life. I was a kid who loved dancing, telling stories and learning about the world – which, essentially describes who I am now. I don’t think our essential selves really change that much from when were children, it’s just that life piles on so much bullshit that sometimes they get buried under other people’s expectations of who we should be. I imagine if we all peeled back the layers, we’d find our beautiful, shiny, awesome cores. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Do more of what makes you awesome: my new life mantra.

What makes you awesome? 

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