Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Anxiety Sucks...But It Always Ends...And It Ends With A Party.

Anxiety sucks. 

I hate every second of it. 

It engulfs you.  It kidnaps your body and mind.  It controls you.

It tightens its grip around your chest and abdomen, but then pulls roughly on your arms and legs.  It creates a deep hunger in the pit of your stomach, all while making you want to vomit.  It sends chills up your arms and legs, and then sends sweat rolling down your back.  It stops your breath, but then makes you pant like a dog.  It makes time stand still, all while spinning the world around you.  It pumps your heart at an unnaturally fast pace while making your body slow down to a halt.  It makes you want to cry and scream, but please, preferably in a quiet and completely still room.  It makes it impossible to sleep while it drains you of all your energy.  It creates urgency, but it won't let you move.  It makes your toes curl while your back straightens.  It makes you want to reach out for others while holding you back from doing so. 

It plays with your mind in every possible way like a sick joke - but you learn to strengthen and grow from each episode or attack. 

It wants to control every inch of you - and all you can say is, "I accept you.  I don't like you.  You are unpleasant (putting it mildly).  But I'm going to roll with you for now until you get bored and leave." 

It frightens you to death, even though you know very well it's not real.

Dealing with anxiety off and on for 20+ years has not been an easy task, but I continue to see the positives that come from it.  Sure, no one cheers for you at the end of an eventful day when you thought it would be impossible to leave your home (but instead took a train and spent the day in a big, busy city, then took the train home, and SURVIVED).  Only YOU know how difficult every single second of it was.  Only YOU know the amount of time that was spent doing positive self talk that day.  But there is satisfaction in completing each obstacle.  You quietly pat yourself on the back.  You give a sigh of relief and for a moment you feel like yelling out a, "woo hoo!", or fist-pumping the first person you see.    

On one hand, it can create a certain kind of tend to sit and watch other people and wonder, "are they really as relaxed as they look?", because guaranteed, most people I pass on the street have no clue when I'm anxious.  On the other hand it makes you feel like a warrior of sorts.  If I didn't go through this, then who would I be?  More relaxed and chilled out of course...but maybe less empathetic?  There are pluses to every little quirk we own.  And fortunately I do have MANY "chilled out" moments and days that I get to fully enjoy. 

Anxiety is something that is so difficult to explain to others who rarely experience it themselves.  People like to throw out the all-too-commonly-used-phrase, "shake it off!", but we all know it is NEVER that easy.  The adrenaline that accompanies anxiety can take minutes to dissipate, but it can also take hours - many, MANY hours.  And after hours spent being hyper-aware of your surroundings - including sounds, scents and sights - you can be left feeling like a puddle of emotional nothingness.  You just want to curl up with a blanket and a pillow and let out the remainder of the emotions with a short cry, followed by a long and peaceful nap. 

The best part of anxiety and panic attacks - aside from the empathy that you gain with it - is the rush of happiness and appreciation for just about everything in life once it's all over.  I can literally feel it leave my body, and once that last little bit has made its final "adieu", the most overwhelming feeling of exhilaration takes over my body and mind.  A big, goofy grin comes over my face, and I become overly chatty.  I feel a level of "lightness" that is almost indescribable.  It is euphoric.  It is the best, and I believe I wouldn't understand that degree of happiness and calmness if I didn't go through issues with anxiety.    

Anxiety sucks. 

I hate every second of it. 

It engulfs me and it controls me while kidnapping my body and mind. 

But it's only there momentarily.   

It never lasts "forever". 

It's a terrible - even bordering on horrific - experience, but it also creates so many wonderful emotions I don't think I'd get to feel otherwise.  It's made me an "empath" of sorts - who is so in tune with not only my own emotions, but just about every single soul around me.  It's exhausting and it's exhilarating. 

To sum it up, anxiety creates constant contradictions and total confusion, while finishing it all off with complete harmony and peacefulness. 

I may never learn to fully conquer it, but I can learn to accept it and roll with it as best as possible.  And then I'll continue to soak up the feeling of jubilation that arrives shortly after...the best feeling ever.    

Sunday, 22 February 2015

3 Years, 7 Months.

I'm at the 3 year and 7 month mark - medication-free.  It's been awhile since I've posted and most recent posts have been in regards to some of the meals I make for my family.  I thought it was time for another "post benzo blog entry".   

The farther out I get the better things become.  It's proven to have been a two-steps-forward-one-step-back process at times.  I find I got through many weeks or months of feeling 97% better, only to get hit with a strew of old side effects.  And again, many of you who read this update might think, "um, if you're 3+ years off, how can you have a side effect of a pill you don't even take?"  A quick reminder:  benzodiazepines affect the central nervous system (which as you know can take a long time to heal).  They also take over the body's natural "GABA" which acts as a natural relaxer.  When you take away the pills, your GABA has to now relearn in a sense.  Your body has to figure out how to calm itself down naturally.  This is why it can - though not always - take upwards of 5+ years to recover from the effects of the pills.  I am not a "usual" case.  Most people will come off of Benzodiazepines with less issues - even no issues.  Why it hit me this way is a question I'll never be able to answer.  The only thing I wonder if it's because I had been prescribed so many different SSRI's and benzos over the years (especially in my teens)...perhaps my body had enough of it all. 

So on a normal, healthy day - which is most days - I am a regular human being.  Nothing too exciting to tell.  I find my biggest issue is heightened anxiety (again most people get nervous or anxious over situations...I just tend to get that much MORE anxious and my body tells me this by throwing little curveballs my way).  My main symptoms that linger aside from anxiety are nausea (still can't get rid of that one), over-active bladder (proven to be a real pain when driving more than an hour...though sometimes my bladder causes no issues), sleep disturbance (though not as common...worst issues are active-dreaming, nightmares which cause issues with clenching at night) and that brings me to dental issues.  My teeth are healthy - no problems there - but they hurt ALL the time.  Whether I have a wiggly sensation in my front teeth (which makes me speak different as I feel like I have to curl my upper lip to keep them in place...even though they aren't actually's only a sensation), or dental nerve pain that I have revisited the Dentist for on numerous occasions, only to learn my teeth "look great!" 

This might still sound like a lot to be dealing with 3+ years out, but it's a walk in the park compared to 3 years ago, when I was dealing with over 30 symptoms which included dry-heaving, sweats, muscle pain (like the flu), rib pain, headaches - you name it.  Nowadays, I can live a life like everyone else.  If I'm nauseated, I just take a breath and know it will pass eventually.  If I'm anxious, I take an even deeper breath and remind myself of how many times I've overcome anxious situations and always win.  Positive self talk has proven to be HIGHLY effective.

So now this brings me to Christmas time.  Whether it was the excitement of it all, the excessive sugar intake after being SO strict for 3 years, the late nights (when my husband is on vacation, we are all about late nights on the couch watching movie after movie, or TV shows on Netflix), OR a combination of it all:  I got hit hard.  It was slowly creeping up a month or two before Christmas.  I'd say I noticed it in November.  Just more nausea than usual.  Getting hit with the sweats.  "Benzo-flu" off/on (which basically feels like a mild body flu but just comes and goes as it pleases).  And then post-Christmas, the panic attacks.  FULL attacks which I hadn't been experiencing in a LONG time.  The worst was the morning of a recent snow storm.  School was shut down.  Hubby got the word to stay home from work.  It SHOULD have been an exciting day!  As soon as I woke up something didn't feel right.  I was filled with this nervous energy which felt like electricity running through my veins.  I felt like I needed to move constantly.  My chest burned as I breathed.  I felt a lump in my stomach.  I sat behind the computer to check my e-mail when, "WHAM!"  That was it.  I was up like a lightening bolt.  My daughter was still asleep, but my husband was awake.  I looked at him with wide eyes and said, "something is wrong".  This led to minutes of pacing my bedroom in tears.  I felt the urge to dry-heave.  Was I sick with the flu?  Or was it anxiety?  My husband reassured me endlessly that this was anxiety.  It has been creeping up for weeks and this was the big hit.  "You know it passes".  SURE!!!  OF COURSE it passes!!!  The advice I've given myself over and over for years now was NOT going to work.  In my head I was dying.  Not literally of course, but it sure felt like it.  My head was spinning, I was sweating but chilled to the bone.  My breath was fast - hyperventilating.  I felt like throwing up.  The only thing I could think to do was call my parents.  I haven't had to do this in SOOOO long.  It was humiliating and humbling at the same time.

"Hello", my Mom answered.

"Mom?  I'm so sorry", I sobbed.

From then on I cried and repeated how scared I this couldn't be happening again...I couldn't put my daughter through this again...why is this happening???...What if it stays for months like last time???  I had so many questions that I knew couldn't be answered but I was scared - terrified, really.  I finally told my parents I'd let them go.  I just needed to work through this and continue to pace.  When my daughter woke up minutes later she saw my red, swollen eyes.  I told her, "sweetie, you remember all that stuff I went through a few years ago?  This is like a small version of that.  It won't last,  I'll be okay, it's just hard and it's making me cry".  Her answer was, "okay!".  No stress.  A hug and a look of reassurance from her, and all was right in her world.  My old therapist had told me a few years ago, "You aren't traumatizing your daughter.  You are teaching her empathy.  This will make HER stronger".  She was 100% right and this was proof.  She has become an extremely empathetic girl with a huge heart.  She feels emotions of others around her and notices EVERYTHING.  But she has this strength that I find SO admirable.  Even at school when a peer teases her or makes her feel bad, she comes home, tells me right away what happened, MAYBE lets out a few tears, but then knows that tomorrow is a new day.  She's never "angry" with those peers...only disappointed.  It's a great quality.  We, as parents, try to hide the "bad stuff" from our kids.  We want them to think we are perfect.  We tell them half-truths so they won't be disappointed in us.  But what does that do for them long-term?  THEY'LL be frightened to tell us just about anything for fear of letting us down!  I think this experience of benzo withdrawal only taught my daughter about mental strength, empathy, unconditional love - and to top it off she got to watch her DAD step up to the plate and become the cheerleader in our family. 

Got a bit off topic there...continuing on:

Well, about 45 minutes later from the start of the panic attack, I was out shovelling our snow-covered driveway for almost 3 hours (I helped a neighbour as well).  NO signs of anxiety. The nausea, the sweats - all of it - had passed.  And it has NOT come back to that degree since.  As quickly as it came that morning, it left.

When you go through benzodiazepine withdrawal and read all the manuals/books, it can be overwhelming and frightening, but what it repeats over and over, is that it's not uncommon to get hit out of nowhere with what feels like withdrawal all over again years out.  What follows the "climax" of that wave is normally weeks of improvement, where you end with an all-over improved baseline.  I am slowly approaching that now since having that panic attack - which would have been the climax.  I can feel all of those symptoms slowly fade away again.  Less nausea, less sweats, less anxiety, and a better sleep pattern. 

It's a reminder that this is not over yet - not my journey at least.  Some people will be symptom free in a matter of weeks.  I seem to be taking the longer route.  But either way, it gets better.  SO much better.  The med-free-Sarah thinks more clearly and feels a genuine, deep happiness I was missing while "numbed" on medication.  I smile easily - and this time I don't have fear hiding behind that smile.  I can commit to things, though I have to be careful of what I commit to as some things still bring on too much anxiety.  This means I've learned to say "no".  I can socialize easily AND enjoy it (not just "be" there).  Life is pretty beautiful. 

Meditation, yoga, exercise, long walks, and "me time" seem to be essential to working through my anxiety issues.  I will always use these tools.  Healthy diet is a key and I have learned the hard way after allowing myself a few too many treats in recent months.  Our meals are notoriously healthy, but the small snacks...not always.  I was reminded and have now committed to making the necessary changes.  Water is another one that is so essential, but I have a horrible habit for "forgetting".  I could go an entire day with "forgetting" to drink, then would try to get several glasses in me during the evening, only to visit the washroom throughout the night which meant a not-so-solid sleep.  I now remind myself to "drink drink drink". 

This journey has been VERY scary at times, but in the end kind of exciting.  My blog has been a resource to some who have either contemplated coming off of benzos OR have wondered if medication is right for them (and I don't completely knock medication as it's effective for some...I just choose not to as the cons HIGHLY outweigh the pros in my case).  It helped my close family and friends learn about this journey as well.  Not only did I become stronger throughout this but so did my friendships and my marriage.  There's a lot to be said for those who stick by you during difficult times when life isn't full of sunshine and roses.  I thank them quietly very often.  They are awesome people and I was partially so successful with this because of them. 

As I continue this road, I hope that in the coming year or two this will be behind me entirely.  I've read of those having issues for upwards of 7 years, but obviously I hope that this coming year is my last.  No one is perfect.  Everyone experiences anxiety to some degree - even if it's just occasional butterflies or an evening of worry.  I don't expect to become Super Sarah who lives with zero fear and endless happiness...I just know that I am a human who is capable of altering things in my life (in my case diet and meditation) so that I can live a more comfortable life - nerves and all.  I can proudly say I've gone through this journey without any bitterness. It's been about growth and self-learning - and growing love for and from those I love. 

“A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.”  - Elbert Hubbard

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Dinner Time Quesadillas

Since going dairy-free (except for yogurt) and meat-free (I do eat fish), there are surprisingly very few meals I've missed.  Lately, however, I've been craving a quesadilla.  I was trying to think of what I could use to replace the cheese in a quesadilla that would bind the tortilla wraps together.  I have never tried any replacement cheeses, though I'm aware they are out there, because I never really miss cheese.  I searched online and found that many people said they got great results from using black beans (mashed) because of their sticky consistency.  So black beans it was!

I took one can of black beans (rinsed) and mashed them well into a paste (you could use a blender instead but I prefer some texture). I then added 1 heaping Tablespoon of Tahini (sesame seed paste), a splash of lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste, garlic (fresh or powder), cayenne (if you like some spice), some Nutritional Yeast (optional), fresh spinach leaves (a good handful, washed), and finally I grated 2 full-sized carrots into the mix.  I mixed well to combine all the ingredients and then spread it onto my tortilla (I used whole wheat flax wraps) which was waiting in a lightly oiled pan (I use avocado oil since it cooks well at higher heat).  I then spread the filling (as much as you'd like…keep in mind that with beans comes LOTS of fibre), then add the 2nd tortilla on top and while the one side is cooking I add a bit of oil on the top wrap so when I flip it it's already oiled and ready to go.  I cook it at a medium heat.

Once browned on both sides, you're almost ready to eat!  I first make an easy dip (a different take on sour cream).  I use 2-3 heaping Tablespoons of Plain Greek Yogurt.  I then add 1T of lemon juice, some garlic (fresh or powder), cayenne (if you like spice) and salt and pepper to taste.  Mix well, and you have a simple dip that adds a punch of flavour to your quesadilla!

I was SO impressed with this meal and it's become a favourite in our house (though my daughter prefers her wrap with some shredded cheddar added).  The beans do a great job at keeping the tortillas together, and the flavour is amazing.  There could be so many variations.  I added black olives to our first batch (but since then we have preferred the shredded carrots).  You could add some cumin or chilli spices.  Maybe a layer of guacamole would be good as well, or if you don't like to cut out the dairy, then added a nice aged cheddar to the mix!  Have fun coming up with the flavour you prefer!

 The bean, spinach and carrot "paste" starting to cook on the tortilla
 The finished product!  The tortillas have a nice crunch to them.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

3 Years Free

Today, July 19th, marks my 3 year anniversary medication-free.  Since coming off of SSRI's and Benzodiazepines, I have never thought once about taking them...ever again.  After relying on prescription medication to treat my anxiety for over 15 years (off and on), it feels liberating to say the least that I no longer feel the need to run to the doctor every time life gets a bit stressful or difficult to deal with.  Instead I take a deep breath, and tell myself "this is just a bump…everything ALWAYS works out in the end…go with it."

That might sound too easy, and truthfully it is, because there's a LOT more that has helped me get to where I am today.

I've spoken many times on this blog about the do's and don’ts of living with anxiety and what I have done to help myself, so I hate to sound like a broken record…but I also know that if you are living with anxiety, sometimes things have to be repeated over and over and over again before they will sink in.  It can take years before you have that "aha" moment.

So to start off, where was I three years ago?

Three years ago I was taking my very last dose of Diazepam, after completing a 10 month taper off of Clonazepam (that eventually became a crossover to Diazepam since it has a longer half-life and would hopefully make the taper a little less difficult).  For 10 months I struggled with just "being".  Every morning I felt drugged, borderline depressed and lethargic.  It took every ounce of mental strength to not only get out of bed…but to greet my daughter (then 7) with a smile, make her breakfast, make and pack her lunch for school, and walk her to school (some mornings I could only get as far as making and packing the lunch, so several dear friends would take turns jumping in and pick my daughter up for school).  Once I was back home and the door was shut, the tears would flood down my cheeks and I'd be running to the kitchen sink where I'd proceed to dry-heave for a few minutes.  I would then warily walk to the couch where I would curl up, knees tucked to my chest, and sit in a daze…often wondering, "how did this happen to me, and what did I do wrong?"  Usually by lunch I had called my husband at work to either cry or panic.  He would go to a room where he could still work but also talk to me in private.  Patiently he'd listen to me say and question the same things I had said and questioned the day before. 

I'm scared.
Why is this happening?
Am I ever going to feel normal again?
What if this isn't the medication…what if this is just ME? 
Will you still love me if this takes another year? 
This isn't right, something is wrong with me.
I shouldn't feel this way…why do I feel this way?
I'm so scared.

Help me…please.

He listened.  He listened every single day.  And when he came home from work, he wrapped his arms around me, kissed my head and told me he was sorry I was going through this.  He was a rock.  He was also human and got frustrated, but 99.9% of the time he was supportive and loyal, and sometimes that is all we need.  Someone who can just be "present". 

…As my day continued…

3 o'clock would soon arrive and off I'd be walking to pick up my daughter from school.  The whole way there (it's a ten minute walk), I'd have to say "left, right, left, right" to myself, because I was so dizzy all the time and if I didn't remind myself which foot was to take a step I'd loose my balance.  Then I had to mentally tell myself, "you aren't going to throw up…breath…slowly swallow", because the withdrawal caused me to feel like I needed to throw up just about every single day for those 10 months.  Once I arrived at the school, I'd flash that smile and try to fight back tears.  Some days were harder than others and if I was fortunate enough to be with a fellow parent that I felt very comfortable with (with NO kids around), I'd let out a few quick tears before my daughter would come out of the school.  Some days she'd bring friends home from school, and somehow I kept on a brave face and went with the flow.  It wasn't always easy, but doable.  It's amazing what you can do when you have no other choice.  They wanted a snack while I felt like dry heaving?  Sure!  They wanted me to put on the sprinkler while walking made me dizzy?  No problem!  They felt like having a sleepover at our house while I just wanted to curl up in bed and sleep for 24 hours?  Why not, the more the merrier!  Life couldn't stop just because I felt ill.  I think being a Mom through this ordeal forced me to put my problems aside from time to time – which can be an awesome thing.  I didn't want this ordeal to "become Sarah"…so in order to keep with that plan I had to force myself to work through it even when it was most difficult. 

By the time my husband would arrive home from work though at 4:30pm, I was "done" (even if I hid it well from others…and by "done" , I mean exhausted…emotionally and at times physically "spent").  And that's probably what I told him 100+ times throughout the ordeal. 

I'm done. 

I can't do this anymore.

Will this REALLY be worth it?

If the Sarah that sits here today could have spoken with the Sarah from 3 years ago, I would have said:

"Stay strong.  You are fighting what is hopefully going to be the most difficult fight of your life, but if you stick with it, you will only be rewarded with a much brighter and sweeter life than you thought possible.  Things won't be perfect.  You might not ever be free of anxiety.  But who is?  People will tell you they don't get it.  They may say they can't relate.  But we ALL deal with anxiety of some kind.  We just don't want to label it.  We're too afraid of what comes with that label.  Weak?  You're certainly not weak if you battle anxiety.  Crazy and/or irrational?  Wrong again.  So hold on tight because this won't be at all easy, but if you stick with it 100% and have faith in yourself – telling yourself EVERY single day that today is a new day, something great could happen – you will make it to the finish line and ALL of this will be worth it."

And it has been worth it.  Three years later I have learned more about myself than I have in my 36 years of existence.  I've also learned so much about the people around me.  I've learned that by being an open book and being 100% honest with whom I am, I can open up a world of support to others who may struggle in similar ways.  I've learned it's better to be honest and say, "I'm sorry, I'm just feeling off today…a bit anxious", because the moment you make that statement and be honest with others, 20% of the anxiety dissipates. 

My blog was created to reach out to others who may quietly suffer.  Either from the POSSIBLE (but not always) negative side effects of many SSRI's, and in my case Benzodiazepines, OR from anxiety and/or depression in general.  I do not at all "bash" medication and I fully understand that many people see great benefits from taking them.  I only worry that they are prescribed far too easily and not managed by some doctors.  I was told that Benzodiazepines could be taken for the rest of my life if need be by two doctors.  "It's safe", they both said.  So then to Google it, and find out on site after site (and eventually by speaking with three Pharmacists who all agreed), that they should ONLY be prescribed to patients with anxiety for no longer than 2 weeks because of its addictive nature and possible horrendous withdrawal effects…left an extremely bad taste in my mouth.  I was fed the line, "you NEED this medication the way a diabetic needs their insulin".  Please don't ever trust that statement…at least when it comes to anxiety.

I had my first true panic attack at 15.  I thought I was dying and that the world was crashing in on me…or at least my grade 10 geography classroom.  My heart raced, my stomach turned, my head pounded and the voices of my classmates became muffled.  I have had hundreds of panic attacks since that morning.  They never get "easy", but they become manageable.  It takes a LOT of work, and in the past I didn't want to have to work on it so medication became the solution.  But it never "solved" anything.  I never properly learned the tools it takes to live a vibrant life with anxiety. 

***On a side note:  Aside from the anxiety I'd say that all of my problems with depression were a "side effect" of the medication I had taken off/on for years.  Now that I am medication-free, I am a very grounded and happy individual.  Depression is a thing of the past. 

So to recap what has helped me these past few years? 

Diet:  My diet has changed drastically.  Gone are the chicken wings with pizza on the side nights…all washed down with a Coke (this meal was a common weekend "treat").  Gone are the Starbucks Frappucinos (which tasted SO good, but always created a surge of crazy adrenaline about an hour after drinking them).  Gone are the meat and dairy…aside from Greek yogurt.  I thought I'd miss cheese, but surprisingly don't at all – it helps that cheese and most dairy were causing huge digestive issues.  And after struggling to digest red meat for months, it was an easy choice to cut it out of my diet as well.  The poultry just went away naturally as I no longer had a "taste" for meat (I do eat fish, however, and love it).  IN came the copious amounts of vegetables.  Broccoli, cauliflower, peas, edamame, mushrooms, asparagus and grains such as quinoa.  I have also discovered that although bread sits fine with me, pasta does not – so I've switched to a brown rice pasta and find I eat less of it now, opting for loading on more veggies.  We also eat a lot of legumes, our favourite being chickpeas.  Since the sugary drinks are long gone, the only liquids I consume are water, soda water with lemon and green tea. 

We also don't consume any alcohol anymore.  I SHOULDN'T have been drinking in the first place while medicated, but every now and then I would have a couple of beers.  I would pay hugely the following day.  What 7 beers would do for some people, 1 or 2 would do for me (that's what happens when you are taking prescribed tranquillizers).  Plus, although I enjoyed the taste of beer, I found that one beer would already make me want to curl up and go to bed (again…tranquillizers) – not become more social and ready to party.  My husband's story, on the other hand, is much different.  About 2 years ago, he noticed he didn't feel well after drinking.  And I'm not talking about an all-nighter of reckless drinking…I mean just a few beers while socializing.  So he cut back to two, and low and behold he still felt unwell.  He would become extremely tired, dizzy and out of sorts, a bit queasy, and the heart palpitations would come on.  He decided at that time to quite drinking for good to see if that made a difference (which it did).  Well, months later after discovering he had an elevated bilirubin count (some routine blood work) he was sent to a specialist, and it was there that he learned he has Gilbert's Syndrome.  His liver is unable to breakdown the alcohol which leaves him feeling ill quickly.  He could actually poison himself very quickly if he chose to continue drinking.  So instead of pushing it, he had decided to quit all alcohol (months before he knew his diagnosis), which in the end was the smartest decision he could have made.  He listened to his body – which so many of us don't.  We think, "oh, one more beer won't hurt", or "I know I'll pay for this tomorrow, but I'll at least enjoy this double cheeseburger with friend onions, mayonnaise, mounds of cheddar and bacon to top it off".  In the end, that is what he and I have both done – listened to what our bodies were trying to tell us and instead of pushing the limit, weaning off of the things that weren't in any way helping us thrive.  We might be seen as "boring" or "party poopers"…but we're still smiling the next day and full of energy…and I promise you, we are loads of good fun.  We feel so much better – "cleaner" if that makes sense.  We control what goes into our bodies and it feels SO good once you see the results (whether physical or mental).  I do still have "fun"…but my fun nowadays comes in a package labelled "chocolate mint bar".  Yum.

Exercise:  We don't all love doing it, but it is SO necessary for good mental health.  My choice?  Hiking.  I absolutely love it.  The air is fresh and clean, you are surrounded by the sounds of nature, and you work up a great sweat by hiking on an incline.  I also enjoy blasting some music and lifting weights or using the elliptical, but I find I stick with the walking and hiking better – I don't bore of them.  I also stretch almost daily and do some yoga.  Yoga was difficult for me when I was coming off of the medication because it forces you to be quiet – to listen to your body and breathing.  The medication made me so jittery and "afraid" that it was almost impossible to be surrounded by silence.  It feels amazing now to be able to not even think about those days anymore. 

Support System:  Nothing beats an amazing support system.  It isn't always easy to get when you're dealing with mental health issues, but if you can get even one or two friends on your side, it will be the best kind of love you will ever receive.  I was EXTREMELY fortunate in this department.  My parents had watched my ups and downs with anxiety my entire adolescence and young adulthood – they NEVER gave up on me and were always there in a heartbeat.  My brother, sister-in-law – even Aunts, Uncles and Cousins – they all "got it".  Anxiety runs openly through our family so there's always someone who will understand.  It's certainly not a taboo in our family, thankfully.  Friends – I really discovered how loyal my friends were through this.  I believe the more open and honest we are about our struggles, the more others can relate to us at a whole other level.  If we aren't ashamed of our downfalls, then why would others ridicule them?  It doesn't always work out that way, but I think in most cases, being an open book helps more than hinders.  My friends were incredible.  Some of them had witnessed my ups and downs throughout high school (and still stuck around – never thinking twice), so here they were again, stepping up to the plate and THEN some.  Such amazing and beautiful people.  Then there were "newer" friends didn't think twice about helping in tremendous ways.  Their loyalty and kindness will never go unnoticed.  And of course, I've said it before, but my husband and daughter – WOW.  Talk about unconditional love.  From numerous "get better soon, Mommy" notes left all over the house by my daughter, to the love and admiration from my husband – I am eternally grateful.  If you have a loved one who lives with anxiety or had a traumatic experience with medication, keep in mind they don't MEAN to think irrationally, cry, panic or feel hopeless.  They are scared and to them it is very real, but it will pass. 

Meditation:  Whether sitting on a cushion in your living room, in your garden, at the beach, or even in your place of belief – meditation can be a magical thing once you feel comfortable with it.  It can take months – even years – to learn how to do it but is extremely rewarding.  While sitting in the car on the highway (as a passenger of course), or walking through a busy mall, I can take myself somewhere else – to a safe place.  I don't always do it well, but it gets easier.  It comes with a lot of self talk, trust, and in my case visualization.  Sometimes people find they need an object to help them.  I often find twiddling my finger and thumb around an article of clothing helps me tremendously.  I was taught the "rubber band technique" years ago, where you put a rubber band around your wrist and when you begin to panic and think irrationally, you snap the band on your wrist and mentally tell yourself "stop".  I used this technique and found it helpful, but eventually found that visualization worked better for me. 

With all of these tools, I have made tremendous headway.  I am no longer controlled by anxiety.  I have days where I'd rather back out of events/parties/social gatherings because it can be tiring to fight it, but 99% of the time I succeed and feel better that I at least give it a try (and most of the time, thoroughly enjoyed).  I am in a very HAPPY place.  I feel grounded and in control of my life.  I feel ecstatic that I no longer have to carry an orange prescription bottle with me everywhere I go "just in case".  I only have myself to rely on and that is extremely freeing. 

I have more progress to make.  I still continue to experience symptoms from the withdrawal.  That may not make any sense to most, but keep in mind the medication affected my central nervous system – which can take years to heal.  I find I still get "mixed signals" from time to time which leads to days of nausea and/or heightened anxiety and agitation.  So when I should feel hungry, I feel very queasy and unable to even take in some water.  Eventually – after hours – the nausea will pass and TRUE hunger pains will come on and I am then able to enjoy my meal.  It's frustrating at the time, but once the "wave" passes I forget about it and continue on with my normal day-to-day life.

Whether you choose meditation, diet changes, exercise, talk therapy or a combination of all, realize it takes time.  It's not a quick fix by any means and it will take a lot of dedication and self-confidence.  I have dealt with anxiety for 20+ years, and have been prescribed upwards of 10 medications to overcome it since I was 15 years old (all which proved to be temporary bandages OR made it worse), and finally at the age of 36, I now understand it.  I realize what changes I had to make in order to lead a more comfortable life, and all of those changes have made me a healthier person – mentally and physically.  Listening to your body is the key.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Making Pizza...When You Don't Eat Cheese

This weekend I celebrated my birthday - I love birthdays!  Even at 36 I still get that giddy feeling you had as a child.  Lately we've been on a homemade pizza kick, so this weekend I decided to try two different types.  However, pizza can be a challenge when a) you don't eat meat, b) you don't eat cheese, and, c) you prefer not to used store-bought sauce.  So I brained stormed, and came up with two delicious pizzas that I believe even a meat and cheese lover would enjoy. 

Pizza one:  I did buy store-bought pizza crust as there is a brand I like that is as healthy as it's going to get without being homemade.  For this pizza, I brushed the crust in olive oil and garlic.  I then created a bed of spinach leaves (about 2 inches in height -  you want LOTS of spinach as it will steam when cooking and becomes a very thin layer in the end).  After that I sliced up two large tomatoes and layered them over the bed of spinach.  Topped off with some green and black olives, a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and then the best part:  Nutritional Yeast.  I've mentioned this before, but nutritional yeast is the "go to" for vegans (though I'm not vegan...I do eat fish and yogurt).  It has a delicious nutty/cheesy flavour and is PACKED with B Vitamins.  It is also high in fibre, protein and folic acid.  I LOVE it and use it daily on my food. 

I baked the pizza till the edges were brown.  It is SO delicious and has such a fresh taste.  You could add so many things to it including basil leave, kale, artichokes, mushrooms, etc.  The possibilities are endless. 

Pizza two:  I went for something more filling and chose to make a pierogi pizza!  I first washed some potatoes in vinegar and water, and then cut them - leaving the skin on - for boiling.  I boiled till soft and then mashed them with butter (another dairy product I DO have from time to time), almond milk, garlic powder, salt and pepper, and then some nutritional yeast to give them that cheesy flavour that often comes with pierogies.  I topped the pizza crust with a thick layer of mashed potatoes.  Then I caramelized some onions and mushrooms.  On top of the potatoes I added a bed of spinach again - spinach adds so many nutrients and has a mild flavour, so I add it to a lot of our meals.  Over the spinach came the cooked onions and mushrooms.  Then a bit of salt and pepper and in to the oven it went.  I topped mine off with a dollop of plain Greek Yogurt. 

Two DELICIOUS pizzas - and both without cheese and/or sauce!   Both were packed with nutrients and left us feeling satisfied.  Sometimes  you have to think outside the box with meals when you choose to eliminate certain foods, but it's actually quite fun to create new recipes and  I find myself cooking with a lot of spices I didn't tend to use when eating meat and cheese. 

Hope these two recipes inspire you to create your own "pizza magic"! 

Pierogi pizza on the left, fresh tomato and spinach pizza on the right

Thursday, 15 May 2014

2 Years and 10 Months

2 years and 10 months.  I am days away from that "med-free mark."  I haven't kept up with my blog as much, so I figure it's time for an update, and it's a long-winded one.   

Life is quite beautiful nowadays.  I can happily say things are looking up and I remain 100% confident that medication will not be a part of my future (at least when in regards to anxiety and/or depression). 

Are there still signs I'm not 100% healed from the benzodiazepines?  Yes – but there are MORE signs that I'm almost at the finish line.  When I tapered off of them in 2010/2011, I was well aware that the recovery period could be long.  I still remember (too well) the day my dad and I went for a drive out in the country.  I was crying, exhausted and feeling hopeless. Dad and I made the decision to go to the pharmacist and ask, "Is this normal…should I be in this much pain?" 

I think Dad and I both knew his answer could either give me relief OR cause more pain.  I walked in to the local IDA that morning and quietly asked to speak to the pharmacist.  I had tears in my eyes and I was shaking, my dad standing behind me.  I was visibly in emotional and physical pain.

"Hi, my name is Sarah, and I am tapering off of benzodiazepines.  I am sick all the time, and I'm so scared.  Is what I'm feeling normal?  Is this going to get better?". 

He asked me again what I was on and how I was coming off of it.  He gave me a look.  It was a look that said it all.  I wish I had a picture of that look, but I knew with "that look" what his answer was going to be.  He quietly replied, "Yes.  Are you aware of how long it can take to get better?  Some people can have side effects for up to 3 even 5 years AFTER coming off of benzodiazepines.  Many people don't end up coming off.  It's too hard for them, but you can do this."

That's all I needed to know.  I wasn't "losing it".  This wasn't "me".  I went home with some hope and a bit of relief – even if the nausea and shakes didn't go away.  

 Then months later, around the 4mg mark (of Diazepam, as I crossed over to Diazepam from Clonzepam to make my taper a bit smoother), I woke up feeling this absolute fear.  My husband and daughter were asleep.  It was 7am on a Saturday or Sunday.  I needed someone but couldn't wake up anyone.  So I grabbed the phone and called the local Shoppers Drug Mart.  It was there that I spoke with another pharmacist - this time a woman.  She was an angel that morning.  She spent 45 minutes on the phone with me as I cried and listed all 20+ of my withdrawal side effects over and over.  "Yes".  She replied after each one.  She was well aware of the issues surrounding these meds and informed me she had several other patients with similar issues.  "Why can they sell them?  Why can a doctor prescribe them without warning us?"  She didn't have an answer – she only agreed that they were prescribed too often and easily.

"Sarah, you can do this.  You're going to do this.  Your body needs a break so stay at your current dose for a week or two longer.  I know this is hard but you can call me anytime.  I'll be here to listen and reassure you."

I cried some more and thanked her several times for her love and support. 

There are some amazing people in this world.

I am still so incredibly touched by the empathy I received from others.  People I didn't expect to understand went above and beyond to teach themselves about what I was going through.  My husband was receiving texts from friends who didn't want to bother me, but wanted to know I was okay, and to let me know they loved me.  While one friend was sending me newspaper articles about "tranquilizers in the news", another friend was encouraging me to start this blog – to reach out to others and teach people about my experience with anti-anxiety medication.  It was amazing to have that much outpouring of love and support.  

If you take an antibiotic, there's a chance you might have diarrhea or maybe lack of energy.  When you get the flu shot, you might feel "flu-like symptoms".  When you have to endure chemotherapy, there is a chance of hair-loss, nausea and vomiting.  When you take ANY pill or shot, there is a risk of side effects, and people are all well aware of that and expecting of it.  But when you say you're coming off of an "anti-anxiety" medication, suddenly you can lose people.  Whether they figure you did this to yourself, or they think "there's no way THAT kind of medication could make you feel so sick…this just must be you, you must be crazy".  People can lose a lot of support when coming off this medication and I saw evidence of that all the time on the forum I joined, so I was very fortunate to have a very positive response from the people in my life.  Family and friends really stood up to the plate and I hope anyone who reads this would do the same for their loved one. 

So now at the 2 year 10 month mark, how are things?  They just keep getting better.  Do I have anxiety?  Yes.  Would you know it?  More than likely not – unless you know my quiet "signs".  Will I always have anxiety?  Quite possibly – because realistically, who doesn't?  But it's how we learn to live with it that makes the difference.  I used to have to keep my pills on hand, "just in case."  Now I don't rely on anything but my own mental strength.  I recently went to a woman's house to discuss something school-related (for my daughter).  I was getting a tour of her home and while in one room, this cold and hot rush went through my body like a lightening bolt.  My bowels started to make this "not so pleasant" sound and I felt the sweat run down my back.  In my mind I was thinking, "Seriously?!  RIGHT NOW?!  I need to get out of here – fast.  Like right now.  Is this room hot?  Can she stop talking?  Why is the room spinning?  For crying out loud this has to stop!  Why now?!."  So I did a "natural" walk around, slowing my pace.  I took some quiet deep breaths and then reminded myself of how many times I've done this and overcome it.  "This will pass, Sarah.  Just keep walking and talking and it will naturally go away".  And within minutes it was over.  No one knew. 

Mindfulness and meditation are not easy to take on.  It can be the LAST thing you feel like doing while you're in the midst of anxiety.  But the key is to learn it when you're NOT anxious.  I have worked on it for the past few years and it is a beautiful thing once you feel comfortable with it.  You might have to practice for months or years, but once it's there, it's like a "magic pill" in your back pocket – that comes without ANY side effects, and you don't need water to swallow it.  It's all in your mind and it can help you come out of many anxious and uncomfortable situations. 

The withdrawal effects that bother me nowadays are becoming less.  I still experience nausea, which is never fun, but thankfully it's lessening over time.  I still get nerve pain that feels like shingles.  It usually affects my arms, back and ribs.  I've had bouts of MAJOR hunger which is complete opposite of the daily nausea and lack of appetite I had during my taper.  I've read that this is common and it's a sign our bodies are still "figuring it out".  At least I can thoroughly enjoy food again.  Fatigue was a big one this past year.  Every afternoon around 2pm I'd get hit with an almost sick-tired feeling.  I was beginning to be a bit concerned with it, but it seems to be passing, so I feel more settled now.  The anxiety comes and goes.  Today is a particularly bad day and I haven't felt this level of anxiety in months – maybe even a year.  I woke up feeling great and full of life.  I made my daughter's breakfast and made/packed her lunch for school, and then as I was getting dressed I felt this feeling of fear come over me.  My stomach felt like it was in my throat and I could feel the sweats coming on.  I walked my daughter to school as I always do and though she didn't have a clue, I was feeling HORRIBLE inside.  I couldn't get her there fast enough.  That was at 8:30am.  It is now 1:30pm and is still lingering.  Not sure what caused it – if anything at all.  The difference now is that I just roll with it.  I hate it – I LOATHE it, but I know it ends…even if it takes all day.  Anxiety never lasts forever.  And when it finally does pass, you feel like you've hit the jackpot and are on vacation.  The "coming out of anxiety" feeling is awesome. 

I know many people who feel better being on medication to treat their anxiety, and I would never talk them out of it, I would only have them aware of the POSSIBLE risks.  We are all on our own journey and it's up to us to do what is best for ourselves.  I am a rarity, in that I had mostly positive support from the people I love.  Not everyone has that.  Some people make others feel ashamed for living with anxiety or depression.  They accuse them of being weak or lazy – or even worse, crazy.  Support is the KEY to dealing with this naturally.  Also, dealing with this naturally is time consuming.  It becomes a job – of sorts – till you figure it out.  Eating healthy, keeping hydrated all day long, meditating, yoga, walking, clearing the mind – it all takes time – and in a busy world, we don't all have time.  So I am extremely fortunate that I can "heal myself" without feeling the pull of the outside world. 

If you're ever in the position where you want to start coming off of  anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication, be aware that withdrawal side effects CAN happen.  But they don't ALWAYS happen.  My story happens too often, but is certainly not the "norm".  And if they do happen, they won't last forever.  It's well worth the fight. 

As always, thank you to those who stood by me these past few years.  My friendships grew stronger and I have the utmost respect for my husband, daughter and parents who never left my side.  They are awesome people. 

Till next time!  Love, light and healing to all.  

 *  Images Source:  Pinterest

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The New "Fast Food"

Before I became sick from the medication, my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed our "crap food nights".  Normally it was a Friday night, and sometimes even carried through till Saturday night.  It consisted of a choice of frozen chicken wings, frozen pizza, nachos or store-bought perogies.  If we were in a "healthier crap food night" kind of mood, then it was breaded chicken strips in a wraps with "some" veggies and cheese. 

Fast forward to the present and "post Sarah's medication disaster", and we have changed our diet drastically.  If I want to be free of medication and treat any underlying anxiety naturally, then it starts with making smart food choices...and understanding that healthy food choices doesn't mean cardboard or boring.  So after a long walk this afternoon with my husband, I came home famished.  And with no dinner plans, I decided to make my current favourite "crap food night" meal - though it's far from crap food.  It does, however, give me that "comfort food" satisfaction.  And knowing it is good for me just makes it better. 

First I start with cooking a pot of quinoa.  While that is cooking, I drain one can of low-sodium chickpeas and throw them in a pan with avocado oil (which can safely cook at a higher heat).  In a separate pan with avocado oil, I throw in some cauliflower (about the equivalent of one head, OR one bag of frozen cauliflower to make the meal even faster).  As the chickpeas begin to cook, I add some seasoning salt (we buy Spicy Herbamare which can normally be found in the health food section of your grocery store) and approximately 2-3 heaping tablespoons of Nutritional Yeast (I've mentioned this ingredient is PACKED with B vitamins and is an amazing supplement for those who don't eat dairy).  The Nutritional Yeast creates a coating around the chickpeas and as they cook they become crunchy (and extra delicious). 

As my cauliflower cooks, I add about 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and stir.  Once the cauliflower begins to brown (cook at a low to medium heat so you don't overcook), I add about 2 cups worth of edamame, and continue to cook (you can use fresh or frozen as well). 

Now, in a bowl, you can make an AMAZING avocado dressing to add on top of your quinoa creation.  I use 1-2 avocados, and mash them well.  Then I add a good splash of lemon juice (or the juice of 1 lemon), some plain Greek yogurt (around 1/3 cup), some crushed garlic (or garlic powder), and salt and pepper to taste.  I also add a good amount of cayenne pepper to ours as we like our food spicy.  I modified a recipe I found awhile back on Pinterest to suit our liking.

Once everything is cooked the way you like it, it's time to serve!  I first plate the quinoa, then add the cooked cauliflower (which tastes AMAZING when browned) and edamame, then the chickpeas and then add some dressing (which has a thick consistency to it).  I throw on some raisins as well, but I am the only one in my home who likes to throw in some sweetness. 

It takes about 20 minutes to fully prepare, so it's not "super" fast food, but it is worth it!  This is by far my favourite comfort food nowadays.  You can play around with it and use a variety of vegetables, but we have found our favourites to be the combination of cauliflower and edemame (which you could bake on a baking sheet instead of pan frying...I've done it both ways and it's equally delicious).