It started when I was 12. For five long years I barely had control over my emotions. The doctors said it was a ‘phase’. Finally, at 17, a doctor diagnosed me with this strange thing called clinical depression (dysthymia). She told me that I would live with it for the rest of my life.
Fast forward 20 plus years, and by all outward appearances, I was a success story. Raised in northern Manitoba, I went on to receive an MBA from Queen’s, had an Oil & Gas career with great prospects, a house in the suburbs, I could afford to go on great vacations – I had it going on! Then one Monday in September 2011, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t leave my house to go to work.
Denial catches up to you.
My medication had slowly stopped working and I hadn’t noticed. Sheer force of will was no longer enough. After decades of medication, I was ‘treatment resistant’ and the next 2 ½ years proved to be some of the most difficult years of my life.
My career was such a huge part of my identity that I felt lost without it. For years, I had pushed personal insecurity and cognitive distortions aside and relegated ‘them’ to a dark corner of my mind. That worked for a long time, until suddenly I found myself sitting in that dark corner – just me and ‘them’.
I went back to work in 2013, but it wasn’t the same. Work had been my place of solace and pride, now I felt shame for being gone so long and for only working an 80% week. I feared my career had peaked and that there would always be a question mark next to my name.
Time for change.
In 2014, I started the work I’d been avoiding for over 20 years. I began to build my personal strength and resiliency skills to manage my chronic health condition. It’s just two simple words – strength and resiliency – but the work, tears and struggle that it took me to develop these skills (an ongoing task) is an accomplishment up there with my MBA.
Here’s what I’ve learned to do:
- Ask for help. I used to think I’d be considered weak or an imposition by admitting I didn’t know something or couldn’t manage. I now know the ability to be vulnerable and express what you need is strength.
- Build a strong support system. Mine consists of medical professionals, friends and family that I trust implicitly and can contact at any time. It’s a cruel irony that you often need to advocate for yourself when you are least capable of doing so. When my voice falters, my support system will advocate for me.
- Don’t run from yourself. Objectively get to know and accept yourself, both the best and the worst of you. I found Cognitive Behavioral Therapy had great tools for identifying and addressing unhealthy thought patterns. Brene Brown’s ‘I Thought It Was Just Me’ also resonated.
- Figure out what makes you feel better. Then do it. Let’s be honest, everyone that has been to a buffet knows that making the good healthy choice is difficult. I know my depression gets worse when I don’t eat healthy, exercise or get regular sleep, which has required a BIG lifestyle shift.
- Don’t let fear rule your choices. Moving past the fear can be freeing. I used to be afraid of what I looked like on the dance floor, so even though I absolutely love music, I didn’t dance. Earlier this year I danced at a club and after a few minutes, I only felt joy.
After being laid off in 2015, Shelly took a year to continue building her strength and resiliency. This year, she raised funds and rode 10 km in the Calgary CMHA ‘Ride Don’t Hide’ and plans to ride 50 km in next year’s event. She continues to move past fear to try new things including karaoke, organizing meetups starting her own consulting business and writing this post.