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Paramedic Nat

A Blog About a Paramedic's Mental Health Journey

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borderline personality disorder

Paramedic Nat’s Evening For Mental Health

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Hello again!

Just a reminder to get your tickets soon for the Paramedic Nat’s Evening for Mental Health

Special Guest: Vince Savoia from the Tema Conter Memorial Trust

Supported by:

Canadian Olympian and Mental Health Ambassador Clara Hughes

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The County of Simcoe

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Tornado Warning In Effect

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before (as this is my 79th blog!… topics are starting to blend together on me) but I have had tornado dreams all my life. These dreams would always involve me seeing a tornado in the distance approaching family members or friends. I would yell to warn them, but no one would listen; kids would keep playing in the yard, adults would just keep walking around. I would scream and try to get them to hurry as I would watch the tornado get closer and closer. In some dreams I would finally get everyone to go inside. But it was chaos trying to corral them all because they waited too long. I couldn’t understand how they didn’t see the urgency needed to save their lives (MY ultimate irony!). Inevitably the tornado would try to lift us away…then I would wake up. These dreams always felt so real! And I never understood why I had them so often. Enter todays ‘save my life grad school’ lesson…how important distress tolerance and facing life’s chaos is WHEN it occurs.

‘Rocket science’ didn’t bring me to the conclusion that my tornado dreams meant that there was some type of chaos in my life, and that they were so frequent because chaos seemed to be my life. Growing up I didn’t know how to process and heal from sad experiences through natural grief; which sadly is probably true for lots of kids. I didn’t realize that emotional pain would be temporary and was necessary to throughly heal; I would ignore any chaotic pain and try to hide from it because, well, pain is painful. This poor coping skill stayed with me for all the years of my life, and over time, the burden of these losses built up and caused even MORE pain and suffering. Over time the tornado just grew and grew…and in exponential proportions. What use to be an F-1 as a child became an F-5 by the time I was in my 20’s.

While taking care of my mom after her aneurism when I was 20, as well as my 1-year old daughter, and my 5 year old brother, I didn’t make time to grieve the loss of the mom I had known before her brain injury. Furthermore, I didn’t make time to grieve the heartache that occurred when I was sent away when pregnant, and the loss of important relationships it had caused. I didn’t make time because things needed to get done, mouths needed to be fed, doctor’s appointments needed to be made, laundry needed washing, and homework needed to get completed, kid’s needed baths, prescription’s needed to be filled, bills needed to get paid, all while trying to manage my mom who was battling side-effects from her brain injury so serious I can barely describe in words. My life was a tornado…and not only did I not have any clue how to stop it…I thought that I didn’t have any time to.

I would cry when I went to sleep at night (a lot) but that was the extent of my emotional healing; and I never truly felt better. I was stuck in a life I didn’t necessarily want to be in, and I was only 20 years old. Back then I didn’t know any different. I would just go day by day doing the things I had to do, never realizing how much not dealing with my tremendous losses was hurting me. I responded to the life I was given the best I thought I could, and tried to look away from the tornado. If I only had known what a mess it was leaving behind.

18 more years of tornadoes inevitably brought me almost to my death. I did everything I could to ignore any distress in my life, including the distress certain calls at work would cause me. I filled up many years with certificates, diplomas and degrees, but never graduated from distress tolerance kindergarden. I tried to avoid pain at all costs (I drank, I slept, etc.) and didn’t know how to accept that pain was a natural part of life, and that I could heal if I stopped avoiding it. Bitterness silently made me more mad year after year, loss after loss. I foolishly thought that my  efforts to avoid pain would make the pain go away! However, pain from original situations that were supposed to be temporary turned into long-term pain and suffering and that got harder and harder to ignore. No wonder my tornado dreams became more frequent as I got older…my psyche was trying to tell me to open my eyes to the chaos in my heart and mind. “But who has time to deal with tornadoes anyway?” would have been my statement less than a year ago. But now after all the emotional work I’ve done to date, I feel like I’m an emotional weather radar tracking system, tracking the smallest of storms…preparing for them…managing them as they come…and more importantly, staying away from tornado alley.

After my last overdose, with a lot of support and encouragement, I slowly came to ask myself, ‘when is enough, enough?’ Yes, it hasn’t always been a smooth transition from being the ‘queen of tornadoes’ to a ‘common citizen who carries around an umbrella just incase it rains’. I have A LOT of destruction to repair after attempting to avoid my pain through self-destruction. Thankfully I have come to realize that by mindfully confronting what’s going on in my life, and how my life is going, rather than hiding from every little storm cloud, I can get control of my life and experience relief, peace and joy.

Recovery doesn’t come easy when the amount of destruction seems impossible to repair, but I am slowly learning to be patient and wait for positive changes I’ve made to take root; like the seedlings planted after the storm. (The old impatient Natalie would have went to Lowe’s and purchased an expensive full-grown tree). Today ‘save my life grad school’ presented this amazing food-for-thought with regards to accepting pain and distress during ANY recovery filled with any amount of destruction:

“When we have an injury or are planning surgery, we usually ACCEPT that it will be painful…and it will take time to heal. We EXPECT and ACCEPT the TEMPORARY PAIN. We expect to EVENTUALLY feel better. We make LIFESTYLE CHANGES to get through this time. We MAKE THE BEST OF THINGS, GO ON WITH LIFE, and WAIT FOR THE RELIEF that comes from TIME and HEALING. (Gordon, M. Out-of-Control, 2009. page 302) So why should we expect to heal emotional pain any other way?

I haven’t had a tornado dream since being home from Homewood. Maybe I’ve finally moved from Kansas.

“Off With Their Heads!”

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I can definitely tell that I’ve been changing and growing over the past 5 months. I automatically recognize many negative emotions when they pop up and use mindfulness and patience to navigate through them rather than pushing them away. I take things one day at a time rather than ruminating about the unknown future. I’m learning so much about my addiction and how it controlled my life, and how recovery can be a life I had never imagined; a happy life. I have crisis plans and a network of friends who have ‘been where I have’ and whom I contact every day. BUT there’s still (and probably always will be) HUGE hit-me-in-the-gut, make me want to vomit, ‘what was I thinking?’, lessons almost daily. Today not being an exception!

The topic at save my life grad school was ‘Challenging Extreme Judgements’. Oh Lord…I can tell this chapter is going to sting. It spoke of how many of us ‘life students’ often use 100% emotional mind when in an argument, and don’t realize how much exaggeration is occurring on our part. When we feel hurt or upset we tell people that they NEVER do anything nice for us, or that they are ALWAYS being selfish, when in truth that is merely our emotional mind’s PERCEPTION in the moment. We feel like no one cares about us because they aren’t instantly remedying our insecurities or making us feel loved. But if we turned on our rational mind, we would see that the NEVER, and ALWAYS statements we throw out like daggers aren’t true, and that the people we are upset with feel very criticized. When we label people in extreme ways, they become defensive because our statements are unrealistic and one-sided. They then get upset that ALL of the positive things they’ve ever done for us are discounted and ignored. When we lash out with extreme judgements our loved ones don’t want to make us feel secure and loved, because they are hurt and end up pushing us away. When we accuse people of things they DON’T do, it slams the door shut on negotiation, causing hurt and misunderstanding for both parties involved.

This chapter hurts my heart to the core because I was the QUEEN of extreme judgements, and I hurt a lot of people in my life with them. I feel embarrassed that I wasn’t ‘intelligent’ enough to see how my behaviours were destructive and painful. I always felt so terribly sorry after these arguments occurred and eventually realized that I was definitely overreacting. But I had no idea why I couldn’t stop the emotional mind thoughts before it was too late. My inability to turn on rational mind until much later in the day slowly sabotaged the relationships I wanted to desperately keep. By the time I had said sorry, it was too late; the people who I loved so dearly were tired of hearing it.

I’ve learned that I created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not only by having false extreme judgements about others, but also by having them of myself. Whenever I disappointed myself by hurting someone I loved I felt unworthy and I told myself over and over that I was crazy and no one would ever love me forever. I was stuck in self-defeating ways. The labels I put on myself by my own minds doing had long-lasting effects on my self-esteem and in turn slowly crumbled any true loving foundation of a relationship I had because there’s only so long anyone could TRY to convince me otherwise. For their own well-being they needed to either walk away, or I pushed them away. I thought that relationships would NEVER work out, because they hadn’t before. But what I didn’t realize was that my extreme thoughts sabotaged them from the very start. I had no idea that words and thoughts driven by a self-defeating emotional mind should never be trusted. I thought I knew what was right, but I was very wrong.

Save my life grad school is teaching me to take a stand and RATIONALLY challenge extreme judgements/lies right when they occur! I’m learning to defend myself from these judgements which will in turn protect future relationships from them as well. Like all of this ‘life work’, changes don’t happen over night. Heck, I’ve been called the Queen of Hearts before because my all-or-nothing, emotional mind extreme judgements were equal to me yelling ‘off with their heads’ if anyone threatened my heart in anyway. How I could not see that this caused undue grief when I tried to sew their heads back on once I rationally woke up?…I don’t know.

I’m not a stupid person. I’ve just been living in a dysregulated out-of-contol mind. My mind (whether or not influenced by mental health, addiction, or past experiences…It doesn’t really matter) did and said mindless and impulsive things because I only acted on emotional mind…especially when I was in a desperate state. My all-or-nothing outlook on life and love wasn’t rational and made me believe that death was the only way to be free of the turmoil and darkness which consumed me. My suicide attempt is the ultimate example of an ALL and EXTREME decision I wouldn’t be able to apologize for when my rational mind kicked in. Thank God I have the opportunity to be a different Queen of Hearts now…the queen of my own.

What’s In That Toolbox of Yours Nat?

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After four weeks of ‘safe my life school’, I can definitively say that I have a mental health trick or two under my ‘tool’-belt, (lol..see what I did there? 😉 ) and I’ve used many of them along this unimaginable journey. I find some work better than others, but when I believe in their ability to help me, and actually practice them…they work. So I thought tonight I’d share a summary of my favourite tools in hopes of helping some of you. Of course I’m not trained in teaching these tools, and the best way to learn how to cope with these illnesses is through your doctor. But with that being said, I think a little extra experienced knowledge goes a long way.

1. The first tool may seem super simple, but to people who suffer from mental health illnesses such as depression, it can be a tricky one to apply. Tool #1 is, when possible, in order to alleviate stress, do simple exercises such as deep breathing, (I use this all the time to help me fall asleep), sing in the car, yoga, or walking a pet. Don’t always think of exercise as an activity that takes all day to do or plan, that can be too daunting of a task for anyone with anxiety or depression. Instead, exercise your brain by doing simple things such as closing your eyes and breathing deeply for a few minutes, and be proud of yourself…every small step leads to a healthier mind.

2. A tool I use for my anxiety (especially at the onset of my symptoms) is an easy distraction exercise that helps me forget that I feel anxious, thus often taking away the symptoms and preventing a panic attack. When I feel the butterflies or heaviness in my chest, and I know anxiety is looming, I focus on an object that is near me, (this could be anything…the other day I used store names and license plates) and I say any characteristic that comes to mind about the object out loud (if possible) for 5 minutes. This may sound funny, but humour me. For example: When I was anxious in AB’s car the other day, I looked at the store names in front of me and said things like, ‘Zehrs. Z-E-H-R-S. The sign is green and orange. It’s about 15 feet long. It’s above the Dollar store sign. They are both rectangles, not squares. They have four points’…etc. You can say anything at all! As long as you are taking your attention away from your anxiety. It sounds silly I know…but it honestly works for me if I commit to actually doing it properly. Then after 5 minutes of describing the objects, close your eyes and do deep breathing for 2 minutes and repeat as many times as needed until you feel better. I usually need about 10 minutes to get myself back to normal… but it’s well worth the effort!

3. Positive self-talk is another tool I have mentioned in several blogs. You would think this skill would be easy for everyone, but it’s not. For people with mental health illnesses, distorted thinking can block our ability to automatically implement positive self-talk during stressful situations, which leads us to believe that negative events, (which are ultimately out of our control) occur just to ruin our day. So if you’re sitting in traffic, livid that Hwy 400 is more of a parking lot than a highway, squeezing the steeling wheel so hard you could bend it, giving the finger to the guy who pulled in front of you, and tapping your foot to every headache ‘pound’ you feel in your head…stop! Easier said than done?…well not really. This one is pretty simple. NOTHING you do aside from getting a helicopter to land on the roof of your car and fly you to your Jays game in Toronto will get you there any faster. Say to your self, ‘well I may as well listen to some music and chill’, because thats ALL YOU CAN DO. Tell yourself that the guy who pulled in front of you won’t be getting there any faster. We all know he will change lanes again and you will crawl past him at the speed of a caterpillar in 5-10 minutes. There’s NO need to get upset about it AT ALL. The traffic wasn’t made to make you late for your game…so stop telling yourself that it was…it’s there just because it’s there. I was horrible for increasing my stress with unnecessary road-rage, and therefore increasing the use of my negative, consequence ridden coping skills. It so wasn’t worth it! Especially when all I needed was some positive self-talk and I could have been singing with the windows down, knowing I would make it there eventually.

4. Watch for negative automatic thoughts caused by ‘catastrophizing’. People with mental health illnesses tend to predict the worst case scenarios (the catastrophe) of an event and worry about this for no justifiable reason. Which leads me to tool #4: look for evidence before worrying. This was a bit tricky for me to manage because as a Paramedic I’ve been trained to imagine the worst case scenario in order to prepare for anything I may walk into. Heck, ‘worst case scenario Harris’ was the nickname my partner Ian gave me two years ago…and rightly so! 🙂 (Ian I can hear you laughing!) But when I’m not in Paramedic mode, this type of thinking is often pointless and stressful. So now whenever I’m thinking the worst, I ask myself, ‘what proof do I have that this will occur?’. And usually…I don’t find any proof at all! So why the heck am I going to waste my energy on such frivolous thinking? Sadly many mental health illness sufferers have experienced past events which did turn out to be their worst case scenarios. But these few past events still don’t make it practical to think the worst about everything in our future.

5. Another good tool to help alleviate stress is to set healthy boundaries. Give yourself permission to practice trusting yourself and seek to understand your issues rather than let others shape how you think, feel and act. Speak for yourself and stand behind your word. And remember, saying ‘no’ to things you can not do is normal and doesn’t make you a bad person. We ultimately ‘teach people how we want to be treated’. (Amanda Barrowcliffe, 2014)

6. Here’s a biggie that many of us overlook…learn from consequences. When you are about to numb or sooth yourself with destructive choices, say out loud what the consequences of that choice will be. My example would be: ‘If I drink too much I will not make rational decisions. I may take pills when I’m in that state which will send me to the hospital again or kill me. My kids may get taken away from me and I may lose my job. I will disappoint my family and friends. I know I don’t make good choices when I’m intoxicated, so I will stay away from the liquor store and go to the gym instead.’ It would be magnificent to not have any vices with serious consequences, but if you do, you need to own it! Or your consequences will be great.

7. Healthy minds are able to think and act rationally because when an unpleasant event occurs they allow intellect to dictate their reactions, rather than emotion. Furthermore healthy minds can manage the temporary feeling of distress, and don’t act impulsively to numb the feeling, because they know the emotion will eventually pass. Which leads me to tool #7, trust that distressful feelings will pass…you don’t have to numb them or lash out because of them. For example: A healthy person may get pulled over for speeding and feel very nervous. But their healthy mind rationalizes this feeling using intellect allowing them to get through their nervous emotions calmly, knowing they will feel better once the officer leaves. Now take a person with Borderline Personality Disorder who reacts to their emotion when they get pulled over. They leave no room for intellect until consequences are often being enforced…intellect and emotion are in reversed order. This person may yell at the officer right away because they don’t think to let themselves feel the nervous emotions, and when they get a second ticket for lashing out, they then use intellect to realize that their actions were purely fuelled by emotion. So taking the time to breathe and know that the distressful feeling WILL pass may help people with mental health illnesses avoid unnecessary consequences.

8. The most important tool of all is to remind yourself every day that you can only fix YOURSELF. Stop managing others. They don’t need you to tell them what is right or wrong (unless its your place to do so). People have to take responsibility for their own mistakes, unhappiness, future, and their own personal growth. Pay no attention to ill remarks made about you. Remember they cast doubt on the character of the speaker, not on yours.

The more you practice using these tools the better you will become at using them. I am already noticing that I am doing them automatically and it’s only been 4 weeks…pretty good turn around if you ask me. In summary, remember to make recovery your FIRST priority. Outline destructive behaviours, find alternative behaviours. and implement them…. and PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE 🙂

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