Paramedic Nat

A Blog About a Paramedic's Mental Health Journey



I Went To A Sparkle Party Last Night!

In my drinking days, I use to have what I called a ‘Sparkle Party’ around Christmas. It was a night where people could come over wearing something sparkly (just because it’s fun) and enjoy an evening of laughs …and a lot of alcohol! This year was the first time I didn’t have one, and that made me really sad. I had so many good times with my friends at those parties, and I wasn’t sure if I would ever have one again. 60867_10151288997893605_467983879_n382856_10151039113330624_1803921747_n Well last night, unexpectedly, I attended the biggest and best sparkle party I could’ve ever imagined! I was very fortunate to attend Homewood’s 25th Annual Spiritual Renewal Service, which is an event celebrating the gift of recovery, and the creation of 400 pairs of healthy, sparkling eyes, filled with hope, happiness and gratitude. Allow me to share my experience…

I hadn’t been back to Homewood, or even Guelph for that matter, since I was discharged in January of this year, and I was very nervous about the emotions I was confident would bubble-up throughout the night. Buckle up Natalie! This may be a bumpy ride! My first emotion was good ol’ anxiety on the ride there. It wasn’t anything over-the-top, but I could definitely feel it rumbling through my whole body. Luckily, I drove with two friends who’s chatting distracted the anxiety, and allowed me to quietly reflect on what it felt like to drive the route to Homewood again. It has only been 6 months since my life-changing stay there, but as we drove it felt more like 6 years. At one point I started to regret attending the event, as now being mindful of my emotions so well, pretty much guaranteed a lengthy ‘self-analysis night’. Sigh. Nevertheless, I told myself that I would survive. I was going to kick my anxiety’s butt, like the anxiety-pro I am, and soak in every moment of the evening.

When we got to the event centre, my anxiety had lessened, and began to mix with excitement as the memories of the difficult times, as well as the life-changing times at Homewood, came rushing back… vividly. I felt like I had suddenly jumped back on the Homewood emotional roller coaster; the one that scared me, twisted me in so many directions, made me sick, and made me cry, but also made me laugh and feel relief when the ride was finally over. I had no desire of riding that roller coaster again, but there I was, with another ticket for the ride, and my proverbial vomit bag tightly in hand. I wish this ride was out of order.

The Centre was beautifully decorated, and displayed obvious months of preparation. We were all given a pin that said, “Recovery Means Freedom”, and as I was examining it, I immediately bumped into my first wonderful staff member. She said I looked great (which I’m sure she would be saying to everyone, but I still accepted the compliment ), and asked about my family and how we were doing. My family!OK, hold on tight Natalie, the roller coaster is clicking up the hill! I told her that we were all doing great and immediately I felt my old friends ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ flood my body. Rather than feeling gratitude, I felt sick as the memories of what I had put my family through were at the forefront of my mind, and they stung really bad. I knew that I should have only been feeling happiness when speaking about my family now, but it quickly became apparent to me that ‘guilt-ridden Natalie’, was still alive and kicking. Damn-it. After chatting a bit longer, I took a quick bathroom break and tried to tuck any negative emotions into my back pocket to be dealt with later. Then, one foot in front of the other, I continued to mingle amongst staff and friends with what I’m sure was a timid look on my face.

Since leaving Homewood, many people have told me that I have a ‘sparkle in my eyes’, and you know what, I can confidently say that I probably do with the amount of happiness and love I feel for life now. And amazingly, last night I got to see first hand what that ‘sparkle’ looked like, because I saw it in so many of my friend’s eyes. It was truly amazing! I could barely even recognize some people, but that sparkle was impossible to miss! Positive physical transformations made my jaw drop, and the happiness in their eyes made me smile from my soul! “THAT must be the ‘sparkle’ people are talking about”, I thought to myself. And WOW, was it a blessing to see!

The night was filled with speeches of gratitude and wellness. And at one point we did what’s called a ‘recovery countdown’. This is where a year, or month, or day is called out, and people stand up and receive a round of applause when their correlating recovery day is announced. As the days of recovery got shorter and shorter, “3 weeks”, “2 weeks”, “1 week”, I could see that the ‘sparkle’ was not so prevalent in people’s eyes. And as they continued to count, I could also increasingly see the physical demons of addiction which were still tightly grasping onto so many new-comer’s lives. All I could think was, “WOW! that was me only six months ago!” I was the one who felt and looked hopeless and scared. I was the one who simply ‘existed’ and nothing more. I was the one who had so much doubt in the program or any chance of fully recovering. And I was the one who still so desperately wanted to die as I saw death as the only way in which I could end my suffering. When a very sick lady with 5 days of recovery, who had difficulty walking was assisted onto the stage to receive a 12 step book, I could physically feel her pain. I could so clearly remember how every step felt like a mile in early recovery. I imagined how difficult it most likely was for her to even stay awake, as it was for me. I could imagine the ‘shakes’ she probably battled, and the memory ‘fog’ that would make it difficult for her to speak properly. And I imagined the darkness that I can guarantee filled her entire body and soul, and the hopelessness that she was feeling with every…single…breath. I so badly wanted to tell her that her sparkle could come back too… But she would have to learn that for herself.

Who knew that I would be attending a sparkle party again!? Certainly not me. And who knew that I didn’t need a fancy dress or shirt to have that sparkle radiating from me? Once again, certainly not me! I know that some days my sparkle won’t be as bright as the next, but what a gift to know that it’s there!

“I put my hand in yours and together we can do what we never could do alone. No longer is there a sense of hopelessness. No longer must we depend upon our own unsteady willpower. We are all together now, reaching out our hands for power and strength greater than ours, and as we join hands, we find love and understanding beyond our wildest dreams”.~ Closing Prayer

Happy Sparkling!


Hey Nat! Where Are You At?


As my recovery progresses, I’ve realized that many people have the same interesting questions for me. So I thought I’d dedicate a blog to answering some of them as I love to educate 😉

Do you still crave alcohol every day? No, not at all actually. In the early days of my recovery from my alcohol addiction I craved it quite often. But as I have completed the 12 steps, my obsession of mind has been removed. As it has been taught to me, alcoholism is but a symptom of a greater malady. In short, alcoholics use alcohol to numb and hide from deep rooted issues, and by honestly progressing through the steps which tackle root causes of our alcoholism such as resentments and fears, we recover from our malady and joyfully do not need alcohol any more. I do still have dreams of drinking, which I’ve been told is quite normal, but the actual desire to drink is gone.

I remember thinking that people in 12 step programs must be miserable and constantly trying to avoid their cravings and battle their inner demons…but it’s not like that at all. At meetings we discuss our new found happiness and purpose for life. We rejoice in having our families back, and the opportunity to live in a world that we actually love. At meetings we enjoy a fellowship that is based on courage and mutual support, not negativity and sad stories. We go to fun events and celebrate on a regular basis. I actually look forward to going to meetings to laugh with my new-found family. Meetings are nothing close to what I had imagined (or what many movies portray), and probably nothing close to what you have imagined either.

Are you a Buddhist now? I always giggle at this question. No, I am not. However, I have definitely enjoyed learning about the gifts of love and compassion in which the Buddhist culture thrive on. Attending classes at the Buddhist Centre has also taught me how to meditate more effectively; a healing tool I originally learned at Homewood. Furthermore, classes have definitely taught me to live mindfully in the moment and have allowed me to experience deep spiritual healing through guided mediation. And icing on the cake, is that I attend the classes with my sister-in-law.

Have 12 step programs made you religious? Once again, the answer is no. 12 step programs are not a religious, but they are spiritual. A life-saving component to a 12-step program is that we (the addict) accept that we could not manage our own lives, that probably no human power could have relived our alcoholism, and that a God of our understanding could and would if He were sought. ‘God’ can be anything to us. We individually develop our own understanding of a power greater than ourselves. My concept of God may be vastly different than any other person’s in the program, and that’s ok! The purpose is to realize that we couldn’t recover from our life-threatening disease by any human means, and by turning our will surrounding our disease over to ‘God’, we take the burden off of our own shoulders, and trust that faith and rigorous honesty can allow us to recover from a ‘seemingly hopeless state of mind and body’. For millions of alcoholics this acceptance of spiritual strength, not religion, has worked. And I am testament to such a powerful, life-saving component.

Do you ever regret being a paramedic? Absolutely not! I LOVE my career and the opportunities it has provided me. I still have the urge to jump in and help every time an ambulance drives by me, or every time I see ORNGE fly over my house. Being a paramedic is a gift! The lives we impact on such a positive and monumental level is profound! And the power of the relationships we develop with our colleagues is beyond words. Yes, being a paramedic made me sick. But being sick has now opened doors I never could have imagined otherwise! I have been able to educate and connect with first-responders and their families from all over the world, and have also been able to learn so many valuable tools regarding how to heal from PTSD and have been able to share them with thousands of people. I miss being on the road every day, but I cherish the time I have been blessed with to fully-recover, and hope to become an even stronger paramedic one day soon.

Do you still talk to AB? At the present time AB and I have parted ways. I love her dearly and always will, but our views on what I could manage on a personal relationship level through my recovery became different, and I needed to go my separate way for my own personal health (and probably for hers as well). My recovery is a life and death matter, and there is NO DOUBT that AB firstly saved my life, and secondly was a profoundly loving part of a major portion of my journey, but opinions change, as do people, and we respectfully have given each other space for both of our own benefit. I do believe that there is a season for everything, and maybe AB and I will reunite one day. But in the meantime I wish her happiness every day! And will NEVER discount or not cherish the gifts she has given me.

Where do you see yourself in the next year? For now I am still taking things day-by-day. I am enjoying life for the first time in my life, and making concrete plans for the future doesn’t sit well with me yet. However, I can say that I am working alongside a friend, developing a presentation I am excited to share with all of you soon. My recovery work will never end, and I look forward to seeing where this new, healthy path may lead me. Happily, I now trust in whatever the future holds, and I look forward to sharing it with you. 🙂

Selfish? or Self-care?


Selfish; a word which has evoked so many emotions in my life. Emotions such as anger, sadness, guilt, shame and most often confusion. I was told I was selfish a lot as a kid. Depending on the day, and the mood of the house, I have been told I was selfish when I wanted to show my achievements in school, such as my report card. I was told I was selfish when I needed a break from all of the responsibilities in my life. I was often told I was selfish whenever I wanted to better myself…and I didn’t understand why. This confusing emotion kept me questioning my own personal-growth motives for years. If I was told I was selfish for so long, I must be, right?

While moving through my 12-step program, I have come to realize how much my misconception of the word selfish has affected me. Deep down I knew that the word should be linked to a negative action, and not to taking care of myself. But because my feelings surrounding this word were so volatile and confusing, I moved through life on my tippy-toes, careful not to be selfish in anyone’s eyes ever again. I learned through trial and error who I could share my accomplishments with and who would be proud of me. For example, I learned months after I ‘lost’ my college report card that my brother Ross had had it in his wallet all along, and had been showing it to his friends because he was so proud of me. I learned that my colleagues were genuinely happy with my career advancements and didn’t see me as selfish at all. I learned that my kids were so proud of me when I walked across the stage and accepted my Advanced Care Paramedic Diploma, and when they both helped me press ‘enter’ to send the last research paper I had written to Victoria University in order to obtain my BHSc degree. But all of these examples of love and pride in my achievements still couldn’t erase my misconception of the word selfish. In fact, any personal accomplishment left me feeling that ‘selfish’ just masqueraded as pride.

The shame-based messages I received growing up also affected my ability to set healthy boundaries. I would often ‘go with the flow’ and not voice my personal opinion for fear that it would appear selfish or hurt someone’s feelings. In a crowd, I never ‘rocked the boat’. I wanted to be honest and direct with people, but outside of work the line between selfishness and self-care was as clear as a puddle of mud. I had confidence in my skills at work and knew my roll and responsibilities well, so I rarely had a problem saying what I needed to there. But in my personal life, if someone seemed to be helping me, I went with it, because I was too afraid of them leaving or appearing selfish if I questioned any of their motives.

Through this amazing journey, and more specifically through completing Step’s 4&5 (completing and sharing my moral inventory) I have come to learn the unselfish importance of self-care. Doing what is best for me, regardless of anyone else’s opinion is what I should do! Who knew?! I don’t need to justify my choices to anyone, and I definitely don’t need to feel selfish for developing boundaries I need for my recovery. My recovery is number 1! I’m so grateful for every time my sponsor corrected me during my 5th step when I thought a resentment I had stemmed from some root of my selfishness. She reminded me throughout my steps that what I was finally doing was self-care!…and she also reminded me how far I’ve come with this!

After completing my moral inventory, in the interest of self-care, I stopped drinking the poison of resentment. And I again wished anyone who had hurt me, wellness and happiness…genuinely. I’m a different person than I was 8 months ago. And this new person deserves every ounce of love and care I can receive. My greatest accomplishment has been my recovery! And as you can see, I don’t tippy-toe around about that. I’ve been shouting out my accomplishments in this blog and will continue to do so for who knows how long?

It’s not to say that I never received the encouragement or praise a child needs while growing up. Just like most parents, mine did the very best they could with the tools they had. Love was there, but so was struggle and words which were mindlessly spoken…I am guilty of the same. But moving forward I am all too happy to express my knowledge of the difference between selfishness and self-care in hope that someone out there afraid to set healthy boundaries may do so, and feel the freedom of smiling whenever they want to.

Happiness and Possibility


Happiness to many is a very simple emotion to grasp. You want it. It feels good. You get it. Right? Well, it’s not that way for everyone. Crazy as this may sound, happiness can also be a very scary emotion for some people. But why? Why is it easier for many of us to stay content with emotions that block happiness? Why are we often more comfortable having emotions like anger sewn into the fabric of our personalities? It certainly doesn’t feel good to be angry. But at the end of the day, when it’s all we’ve ever worn, it feels…comfortable.

I think many people are afraid of things that feel different…even if that ‘thing’ is suppose to feel good. I bring up this topic because at times I notice that when I am not mindful, happiness seems to hide in a corner, even completely separate from my depression and anxiety. After all of the healing I’ve done, I at times find myself subconsciously content with an undertone of anger in my gut. It’s like an old friend who shows up unexpectedly, convincing me that I should let them in. I’m comfortable with that friend…we’ve been together for a very long time. So I sit all ‘cuddled-up’ with my friend ‘anger’ and let it slowly convince me why my dreams are impossible to fulfill, or that I don’t deserve to be happy. It can convince me that happiness just isn’t my forte. In fact, lots of negative emotions can and will convince me that answered prayers or granted wishes only lead to responsibility…and who wants that?

Equally threatening can be the concept of possibility. Many of us don’t like not knowing what ‘possibilities’ may lead to? In fact, we often lock possibility’s proverbial ‘open door’ before we even take a look outside. We shy away from a road which may lead to fulfilled dreams and joy because the road is so unfamiliar. When the saying, “the possibilities are endless!”, falls upon the ears of a happy person it’s like, well…music to their ears. But when those four words land on angry ears, the promise of anything ‘endless’ can be far too intimidating.

If your dreams were scheduled to come true tomorrow, would you say you’re ready for that? Or when the time came to act upon your dreams, would you rather retract the dream for fear of the unknown? Finish this sentence; I’m afraid that if I start dreaming…  What is your answer? And if you do have this fear, how can you overcome it? I personally think that a lot of our fear of happiness and possibilities comes from the fact that in order to truly appreciate them, you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Take the happiness of ‘love’ for example. It takes courage to love. The emotional stakes are high when the possibilities of the heart are exposed. When we are in love, it’s like our hearts are beating behind a cellophane wall…so easy to see, and so easy to break. Therefore, rather than possibly experiencing the magical happiness that only love can provide, we hide behind our armour of anger, which in turn protects our hearts from damage…or does it?

Will I always have a difficult time clearing my mind from my cunning ‘friend’ anger? Or will I continue to feel the peace possible if I practice mindfulness enough? I hope for the latter. But if there is one thing I do know, it’s that this girl is ready for her happiness to continue to grow each day. I’m good with making vulnerability my new ‘friend’, and seeing where the possibilities of this journey continue to take me.

Shedding The Armour on Our Hearts

As I grow along this journey of enlightenment in which I’ve clumsily stumbled upon, I continue to possess this deep desire to continue sharing with you. I liken the desire to how I felt as a child when it was show-and-tell day…do you remember that feeling? Excited and nervous…not knowing exactly what to say so that everyone watching ‘gets’ how important the object is to you. Sad when time ran out and your turn got postponed to the next-day because you just couldn’t wait to share. So connected to the belief that once you shared, others would ‘feel’ the same level of appreciation as you did for the object. And also proud when someone came up to you afterwards and expressed how much they liked the object too. Well that’s how felt anyway 🙂 Ok, moving along, I would like to attempt to ‘show’ and ‘tell’ you about the importance of acceptance, and how I am learning about its healing qualities in a forum I am grateful to have been exposed to.

A few mornings ago, my sister-in-law and I bundled ourselves up on a damp, dreary day (coffee in hand) and excitedly travelled to a yoga studio about 30 mins away from home for a seminar on ‘taking and giving’ delivered by a brilliant Buddhist teacher. As mentioned in a previous blog, we have become quite fascinated by these mindful teachings and can’t seem to get enough of them. When we arrived, we nestled in for the 3 hour class, which included 3 guided meditations, and proceeded to open our minds to enlightened possibilities.

During the beginning portion of the class we were introduced to acceptance which reminded me of the ‘distress tolerance’ I have learned in save my life grad school, but on a much more vast and spiritual level. Early on I could feel myself get nervous when we were encouraged to meditate on a recent upsetting emotion and rather than closing our minds and hearts to it, like so many of us do as a human reflex to limit or even completely avoid pain, we were to open our minds and hearts and allow it in. SUCH a foreign idea to me less than a year ago! So I went all in and did my very best to recall the feeling I felt when Ian moved out. It was a scary task because I’ve done a really good job to date moving on from this emotion, so feeling it again was extremely uncomfortable. Through the meditation we were guided to slowly shed the armour on our hearts heavy piece by piece, and let the emotion move in. Once we welcomed it in, we were reminded that we could still survive without any cold and uncomfortable protection on our fragile hearts. Who knew? We then imagined the emotion flowing through us, and moving on into the universe in which it came from. How interesting to see that we didn’t need to keep it in our hearts forever.

Moving on through the afternoon, we were taught how ALL painful human emotions are universal. We ALL feel guilt, sadness, fear etc, at some point in our lives. And not only do we block many of these painful emotions from ourselves, our egos also contain them so tightly behind our armoured heart that even the human beings closest to us (who could help and support us) have no idea of the pain we are experiencing. We don’t want to admit that we may be depressed, or sad, because so much of western society has taught us that these emotions equal weakness.  So we lock-up our hearts and throw away the key…sometimes forever…and how tragic is that?

The teacher shared how giving any emotion permission to exist as it does, moves our minds away from constrictive ‘protection’, to an open acceptance which can lead to peace…if we allow it to. What a mind-blowing concept. But to me it makes sense! For example, take the emotion guilt…a relatively common emotion which can bring about immense personal pain; unless you’re a sociopath, we’ve all felt it. Personally, this emotion makes me feel ashamed, and for lack of a better word, gross; not a sensation I would choose to have and experience. But none-the-less it exists and has consumed me for years because I buried it so tightly in my heart. It was never something I wanted to talk about because it made me feel weak. But according to the teacher, if I would have accepted the presence of this emotion, dealt with it rather than hiding it, and let it move on, I would have been free from it a lot more quickly. I thought hiding it took strength, but accepting it was actually the strong knock-out left-hook.

Acceptance of our emotions doesn’t mean we necessarily agree with the events they result from. For example, if we are in an abusive relationship it’s not ok to stay and ‘accept’ the abuse. But regardless of where they originated from, our emotions are delivering us powerful messages filled with the possibility of self-growth and inner-peace.

Maybe try to remove one layer of your armour today? See where it takes you and what it teaches you. Maybe try to accept that whatever you find shielded inside your heart is a universal emotion…and that no matter what you tell yourself, you are NOT alone in feeling it.

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.

Taking Time on the Pathway to Recovery


Save my life Grad school has been amazing! I am truly shocked at how much I am still learning about myself and my emotions. When I finished 7 weeks of normal save my life school, I thought I had learned almost everything I needed to know to survive in this confusing messed-up world. But then HU came along and presented me with even more valuable mind-chaos to grow through by untangling each thought and emotion. It’s hard to believe that over 4 months has gone by since I became a ‘life’ student…recess is still my favourite class.

Yesterday’s topic in class was ‘The Pathways of Recovery’. Its lesson revolved around the feeling of hopelessness, which is incredibly common in people with mental health illnesses. Have you ever told yourself, “Why try, everything goes wrong anyway?” Or what about, “Things that are going good today, won’t last.” Well I sure have! These phrases fuelled my pessimistic outlook on the world, and if still used, will force me to have trouble believing recovery will make a real difference in my life. All-in-all, these self-defeating beliefs are NOT ok to live with.

Now you may be thinking, “But Natalie, SO MANY bad things have happened to me! It seems like just when I get my head out of water something pulls me down again.” And you know what, sometimes this is true. But all kinds of things can and do happen in people’s lives; some good, some bad. Hard times don’t discriminate. We ALL have terrible losses that hurt us to the core. We all have experienced sadness that we thought was never even possible. Some people get diagnosed with cancer, go bankrupt, get divorced, and some have even experienced the loss of a child. Life just sucks sometimes! It’s pretty cut and dry. But what I am learning is that choosing to cope with these terrible circumstances in a healthy way, rather than numbing instantly and hiding from our emotions, is possible. Yes that is correct, the way we cope with the atrocities of life are a choice. I never thought those words would come out of my mouth!

Before learning any coping skills over the past 4 months, when something bad happened to me I numbed it right away, usually with alcohol. Furthermore, I would hide from situations in my life which may cause conflict, thus causing me pain. This avoidance of pain is an unhealthy way to behave as well, and often lead me slowly into a horrible depression. Rather than tackling a problem head on and getting it sorted out right away, I would ignore, ignore, ignore! I thought it would disappear! What was I thinking? It only grew into a bigger problem every day.

The bottom line is, I didn’t like to feel. But if I want to stay on the recovery path I have to start trusting in my ability to get through hard times, no matter how gross they make me feel. I can’t just run to a bottle of wine or down a jar of pills at the first glimpse of sadness. Clearly those choices made everything worse. Adopting the ability to choose to accept the normal pain life brings us is going to be tough at first. Thinking with a rational mind when all I’m use to thinking with is an emotional mind, will take time and practice.

What I’ve learned in school is that we have to give ourselves TIME and permission to process a painful event. We need to allow ourselves to experience ALL the normal human emotions which may come with the situation. That’s when thing get scary for me. Then we need TIME to develop a game plan, and TIME to implement it. Healthy people do these things instinctively. Buggers. But with practice this can be second nature for anyone with mental health illnesses too. I usually want the pain and discomfort to go away fast! But oddly enough, the sooner I accept that it will take TIME to get through a loss, the sooner I will heal from the loss.

Recently I have experienced this ability to get through pain with time and it’s quite empowering. My heart break with Ian has hurt me A LOT. And at first I definitely didn’t cope with it in a healthy way. I wanted to rip my heart out of my chest rather than feel the pain of losing someone I love. But as time has gone on, it’s getting better. I’ve tolerated the distress adequately and allowed time to go by. I still have bad days and need to talk it out with a friend, (healing isn’t progress every day) but overall I am able to tell myself that what I’m feeling is normal and that it won’t last forever. Even through the biggest heart break of my life I still haven’t picked up a drink; that’s cause for some pride 🙂

Shit is going to happen. At times life sucks. And especially for people with mental health illnesses, the fight to get through tragedy can also be a fight for their lives. I am by far NO expert in this ‘give yourself time to heal’ world; I’m a freshman at best! But through the effort and determination to stay on the pathway to recovery, we can gain life stability and improved life outcomes.

What’s In That Toolbox of Yours Nat?


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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