Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Cold & Thirsty

I had the wonderful opportunity to meet with Brooke Rewa from Culver City's recent addition, Cold & Thirsty, in order to discuss her health journey- a passion that led to her own line of cold-pressed juices and fresh almond milks, then a partnership with a friend offering "Cryotherapy." The juice (such as "Glow," a delicious combination of pineapple, cucumber, spinach, kale & apple) and milks (think flavors like lavender or honey vanilla) are incredibly nutritious and tasty, and at the end of our interview, she kindly offered me a Cryotherapy session! Though I was worried that it might increase my anxiety, it actually lessened it. For hours after, I felt amazing- very clear headed, happy, and incredibly relaxed. Read more on her path to wellness and to learn what in the heck "Cryotherapy" actually is and how it can help. 

What did your life look like before you became interested in wellness? 

I was actually vegan, but when I first moved to LA I started getting sick. I'm from Buffalo, New York, where a vegan's options are mostly salad. In LA, you can have fake tuna, fake cookies, fake brownies, fake chicken, fake hot dogs. I began eating all this processed food and thought it was fine, because it was vegan and therefore still good for me. 

That's when I started having some health issues, and I was going to doctors and not getting any answers. I was having all these invasive surgeries, looking at things trying to figure out what was happening. It got to the point where they just said, "We don't really know, you might have IBS, which you'll just have to deal with." My blood levels were fine when I saw all the doctors. One even said I was allergic to eggs, but since I was vegan and wasn't eating any at the time, it made no sense. They tried to go to the base of things. First, it was Celiacs then gluten intolerance, but none of the blood tests came back positive. I swallowed a pill that showed everything inside my intestines. I had a colonoscopy then an endoscopy..nothing. A doctor told me I would have to take MiraLAX everyday, so that I would go to the bathroom. I felt discouraged, but then I thought that [that] can't be the answer.

How did you begin to turn your life around? 

One day I was sick and at a friend's house, and he had cold-pressed juice. That was before it was popular. It was delicious, and I started doing research on cold-pressed juice, bought my own juicer, and started doing it at home. Within two days of juicing, I felt amazing; my problems completely turned around. So I kept on this whole foods, holistic diet for a year- nothing processed. It reset everything that was going on internally. Now I can eat other things- not that I stray much- but when I do stray, it's fine, because my gut is healed. The juice thing was amazing. My hair and nails started to grow. My skin was glowing. I had a crazy amount of energy and felt really good. 

Why start your own juice business?

Once cold-pressed juices started becoming more popular, places began to pop up everywhere. I thought, "This is great, now I don't have to make my own juice anymore!" But I realized that many of them didn't taste very good, weren't organic, and were bottled in plastic. Then I came to the point in my life where I was helping others with their businesses and wasn't happy. I was good at launching businesses, but if I was going to help others launch their own companies, why not launch my own? Juice was something I was passionate about. I really do think a juice can change the way you're feeling, and you notice changes right away. I put a lot of herbs and super foods in my juices, so they're very nutrient-dense. We source everything locally, and it's all organic. 

When it comes to almond milk, the only kind people can buy is at the stores, and those are heavily processed and loaded with chemicals. There are actually some companies being sued right now for having two-percent or less of actual almonds in their milks! Lots of people are getting off dairy, but they're getting boxes of chemicals. So I wanted to have an option for others with dairy intolerances. It's really taken off; it tastes good, and people feel well after drinking it. People want real food, and it needs to become available to them!

Did you ever struggle with depression, anxiety, and other emotional pain? 

I had just moved to LA, so I had a brand new job in the film industry. That made me anxious, and then any time I would eat, that would create even more anxiety [becoming a bad cycle]! That whole year was definitely very full of anxiety.

Since your health philosophy entails a holistic approach, in what ways have you learned that mental, emotional, and physical health align? 

I think there's a certain aspect of [emotional and mental] wellness that comes from taking control of your health. It's knowing your health is in your hands, and you're making choices to be healthy! That whole year I felt so out of control with having no answers. Doing this put the power back in my own hands, and it was totally life-changing. All I learned began with myself. I think that a lot of how you feel starts with your gut. I had gained weight being a vegan, was sleeping a lot more, and felt less energetic. A few nights of the week, I'd have some drinks. Then I noticed that for days afterward, I had anxiety.

The healthier I felt, the clearer my mind was. I deal with a lot of clients who say they have brain fog, which leads to them not being able to do things. They can't see their way through the day because of this "fog." Not eating the right foods leads to a this, which then leads to depression and anxiety. When you hear "brain fog," you don't think gut health, but it is. 

Why "Cryotherapy?" 

My business partner, who is one of my good friends, knew about it. I decided to try it, but the day I was supposed to go, I started to get a really bad migraine. I had been getting migraines almost weekly, because I was holding so much tension in my neck and shoulders from stress. And that was something that was adding a lot of of stress to my life, because I was panicking about getting the migraines! I ate as cleanly as possible and did a lot of different body work to release it, but nothing was working. So the day I was supposed to try it, I thought it was going to be awful. But during the Cryo, it started to go away. Within an hour it was completely gone and never came back, which had never happened with anything I'd done. I've not had a migraine since that day! And now any time I start to feel tension building up, I hop in the machine, and it goes away immediately. 

Cryo increases your metabolism, gives you more energy, you get better sleep for the next few nights after you do it, and the day you do it you burn between 500-800 calories. It also helps with inflammation and chronic pain, and it starts working right away. We have people come in here with chronic back pain or hip pain- pains they've had for years and years. Some people come in whose last hope is surgery. After three or four sessions, the pain is completely gone. So many clients are really grateful for it, because it's only a three minute process. 

It just makes you feel good- like everything is going to be okay. It's the coldest thing you've ever felt. It's not wet though, and you warm up right away afterwards. You just fight through it and feel amazing afterwards. It's worth it. 

* Cryotherapy is basically done by a machine- or "cryosauna"- that reaches up to -264 (theirs goes to -240) degrees while you're in there. It's dry, cold air and nitrogen. An individual wears no clothing except for wool gloves, socks, and boots. The body's response when facing such extremely cold conditions is to go into fight-or-flight, or survival, mode. This forces blood to your vital organs in order to protect them with more oxygen and nutrients. Once you leave the sauna, this enriched and less toxic blood then flushes back through the rest of your body. Brooke called it "super blood," and after my session, I understood what she meant! 

What are some staples in your diet that help make you feel your best? 

Definitely juice- I juice everyday. I add medicinal herbs like astragalus, which is good for your brain. Turmeric is really great too, and so is chaga [a type of fungus that grows on trees and has been shown to enhance the immune system and fight degenerative diseases]. Fresh food- as local as possible- is important. I buy locally, because you're interacting with the people who actually grow your food. I think that makes a big difference. I also try to eat seasonally. If watermelon isn't in season, then I'm not going to eat it. Your body is on this clock, and it knows. 

*As a side note, seasonal produce is shown to have less toxins- as it doesn't need to be grown with as much human assistance- along with more nutrients and benefits. The earth's natural cycle coincides with the body's, as lighter foods tend to be in season when the body is hottest during the summer, and heavier foods grow in the winter. 

Are you still vegan, or do you now eat other things? 

Being a vegan, you can think it's a better way [than how others eat]. There's some truth to it, but I was a vegan for six years. Then last January I started getting insane cravings for chicken! I'd been a vegetarian since I was twelve, so I hadn't had chicken in years. I could taste it in my mouth. For six weeks I had these cravings, and mentally I didn't want to do it. I was fighting it, but my body was telling me something. I finally ate it, and I felt amazing. I'll have chicken now every five or six weeks, but I have to be craving it. Otherwise, it doesn't taste good to me. 

We beat ourselves up over this stuff! I was embarrassed, and I didn't want to tell anyone. Being vegan was such a huge part of my identity, and I was worried people wouldn't buy my products anymore just because I wasn't vegan. I think our bodies go through different phases at different parts of our life. Being vegan is great at some points, but as we age, a lot of us need different things. It's important to listen to your body. I consider myself a "nutritarian"- I try to eat nutrient dense foods. 

Has anyone inspired you on your wellness journey?

I'm constantly inspired by my customers and the people running small businesses around me. It's a really great community in LA. People are doing this because they love it, which is really awesome. I love customers who are educating themselves and listening and willing to be educated about these alternative ways to be healthy, instead of just running to the doctor whenever something is wrong. 

What do you believe is the most important thing one can do every day for his/her mental and emotional well-being? 

I think it's really important, whether it's first thing in the morning or at night, to take some time and just breathe. When I wake up or any time I feel myself starting to get frustrated or anxious or down, I like to step away and take a couple breaths then remind myself of what I'm grateful for. And say it out loud; put that energy out there in the world. 

I believe you can breathe through anything! My meditation is in very small amounts, and it's really just breathing. I try to do it for about five minutes every morning- focus on my breathing, and afterwards say what I'm grateful for. My mind wanders a lot because of running two businesses and being so busy, but I think five minutes is realistic. It's so important and so energizing and sets you up for success throughout the day.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Los Angeles Food & Wellness Series: Part One

To kick start my Los Angeles series, I've decided to sit and chat with chefs, restaurant owners, and others who are health & wellness seekers. All of them are on a path to knowledge, wisdom, and empowerment when it comes to physical, mental, and emotional well-being. 

The Springs

For my first interview, I was lucky enough to speak to chef Michael Falso of one of my favorite LA spots- the Springs. If you've not been here, it is an absolutely amazing experience. I have never tasted fresher, tastier, or more wholesome foods. The Springs is unlike any of other place in Los Angeles. Though touted as "vegan" and "raw," it's not what you'd expect. There's no judgment here, and the vibe is different from anything I've felt; it's clean-cut, earthy, contemporary, and approachable all at once. There's no emptiness in its open space and sleek style.  It also doubles as a wellness center, with a spa and yoga studio adjoining the restaurant. Label it whatever you like, but to all food and wellness enthusiasts, it doesn't disappoint. Take a bite of one of their delicious salads, or sip a thick and creamy smoothie, and you'll be hooked!

Name: Michael Falso
Occupation: Chef at the Springs 
Location: Los Angeles, CA

What was your lifestyle like growing up? How did you eat? 

It was the Standard American Diet- lots of dry pasta, ground beef dishes of all sorts, and so forth. My mom would have fresh fruit, but it didn't seem appealing to me. I occasionally ate that but never consistently. The first time I remember having a peach that wasn't canned was when I was fourteen. How had I not had one before then?! It was amazing. I think there was a lot missing I didn't notice. Everything was highly processed, very carboydrate-rich, and not nourishing. So I think that's why I kept eating; I was looking for the nourishment I wasn't getting.

Did you ever struggle with anything mentally and emotionally? If so, how did you deal with it?

Oh yea, definitely- emotionally for sure. I was really frustrated and believed I needed to accept that there was nothing I could do. It was extremely depressing to be sentenced to be overweight and unhealthy forever. I didn't know what to do! Diets didn't help, and the food didn't taste good. I primarily wanted to go to culinary school to learn what went into things and how to make healthy dishes. I didn't realize that [that was the reason] at the time. At the Culinary Institute of America, you gain the "freshman 50." We were exposed to a lot of things and ate a lot of heavy foods. That was really valuable, because I was eating things I'd never eaten before but at the same time felt awful. For how much weight I gained and how much food I ate then, I had never been hungrier. That's something that I talk about with my friends a lot too; we were constantly hungry. We were overfed but malnourished. 

Where did you work before the Springs?

Before this, I worked at Moon Juice, the juice bar in Venice. I also worked for Matthew Kenney for awhile, then Pure Food & Wine in New York. And I also worked for Mario Batali. 

What inspired you to change to making plant-based dishes?

I was actually significantly gaining weight. I had gone to the doctor and found out that I had high blood pressure. I was just diagnosed with sleep apnea at the time, and I was considered pre-diabetic. I was ballooning- literally- and didn't necessarily know why, or what the reason was. I was thinking all the food that we made was from scratch, so it seemed, "Oh, this is the healthiest option," like the meat and pasta. But it was all so heavy! 

I was desperate. I tried all different kinds of things. I made myself exercise seven days a week, and that helped a little bit. There was something still not right, but I couldn't really put my finger on it. One of my friends gave me a book called Eat to Live [by Doctor Joel Fuhrman], and when I was reading it, it made so much sense. He challenges you in it to eat fruits and vegetables for six weeks straight. I don't know why I did or what possessed me to actually do it, but I sat down and scratched it out in a notebook, because I wanted to try it! I bought a Vitamix and started making smoothies. I literally stuck to it, and I want to say by the end of the first week, there was such a dramatic shift in everything I was feeling. I went from being extremely depressed to actually being light-hearted. I was looking at food differently; everything changed. I dropped ten pounds in one week! I started having more energy, sleeping better, and I thought to myself, My god, this is only one week. That was the start of it, and it got me interested in pursuing "vegan." I didn't want to say that word, and I don't think I even understood that [that's] what it really was. It felt really restrictive and unnatural, but it truly started a journey making a connection between what I was eating and what I felt. 

It was because of this that I went looking for a smoothie while out with a friend one day, and we found Pure Food & Wine. It was packed, and people were enjoying themselves. I was looking at the food people were eating. It was beautiful and really well done, so I wanted to just try something. I took a bite and had that experience where you eat something, and in your head you're just looking for the words to describe what you're experiencing. I was completely blown away! Like, how was this raw food? It really stuck with me, and I kept going back to it. I ended up quitting [at Mario Batali's] within a week of that experience and going to work there. It was that powerful.

Why raw?

I am not completely raw now. I was strict for a year and a half- very regimented and very unapproachable about it (like my mind was made up). It didn't serve me that well. I'm glad I did that, as my intention was clear about what I wanted to pursue. But it was not the most balanced. I was very hungry all the time. I had to always think about what I could eat, where I could eat, and where to get it. I'm not interested in living like that; I don't want to schedule out every moment of my eating life. It creates an imbalance. I think it was good for me to get that way, because I knew it was possible to choose what I wanted to make. For the first time, I was making my own recipes [he designed the Springs' menu]. I'm not interested in eating meat, but I've had cheese a few times. When I go home, I eat my mom's Christmas cookies, because that's the tradition of my life. I'm not giving that up. I'm sure she could make it without butter or refined sugar, but I'm not concerned as I'm not consuming it on a day-to-day basis. I don't feel guilty about it. I think I've found my own worth through it; it's not all-or-nothing. 

Do you notice a difference in your mental and emotional well-being since eating this way? How?

VERY much so. And if nothing else, I became very aware of Omega 3 intake. It's very important for mental stability. I take a supplement and eat a lot of flaxseed. I don't like to play with that, because it's missing from a lot of our diets. 

I feel more in control and feel better about myself. It has revealed a lot of my deeper intentions and showed me what was important to me. On the nutritional side of things, I was very prone to mood swings, which is closely related to blood sugar levels. I get less headaches now. 

What's a typical food day in your life look now?

When I first wake up I have a green juice. I've read a lot about that not being good for you due to the sugar rush (because it goes straight to your blood), but I feel incredible! I can go most of the day without eating anything else. It's not that I'm trying to, but I feel full. The next time I eat is usually by three o'clock when we have family meal. It's usually a salad and a grain (rice or quinoa), since it makes it a bit more hearty. We'd love to make only raw meals, but it's not financially realistic or sustainable.

Why did you choose to work at the Springs?

For California, there's not that many places to get very good or tasty salads. We need salads that are meals and satisfying. The salad isn't meant to be eaten with other things; it's concentrated nutrition. This was the primary reason. Also, I'd fallen in love with juice and wanted to try my own flavor combinations. 

Kimberly and Jared (the owners) are from New York; they'd actually eaten at Pure Food & Wine, so they probably tasted some of the dishes I made! They moved here within same time frame as I did, and we were introduced by a mutual friend. I was listening to all the things they wanted to do, and it sounded incredible. When I started to see things come together, I wanted to be a part of it. I couldn't separate myself from the operation at all. 

How do you balance work and lifestyle in order to stay healthy? 

I work all the time, so it's very hard for me to do; I just don't have an option. I have to do it. I love bikram yoga. It's so awful and so hot and so terrible that I don't have a choice but to to meditate to get through it! The discomfort forces me to disconnect and be mindful. I feel really good at the end of it and feel better sweating, and it makes me hydrate properly. 

I used to go to farmer's markets and just kind of look around and get inspired by seasonal produce- what was coming in and what was going out. I've also been reading a lot. I take an acting class as well; I'm partially serious and partially not. I don't hope for anything from it, but it's just great exploration of self and a very difficult exercise. It's terrifying, but I like it. 

Is there anything you won't eat because you know it makes you feel unwell- be it anxiety, depression, etc.? Or any type of food you think people should avoid eating in particular?

Coffee... I like cold brew, but when I have it my heart races, and I get very shaky. People don't realize that one cup is supposed to be eight ounces (not a coffee mug cup). It really, truly affects people in ways they don't realize, and it really affects me. Even if I have a little, I get very anxious, sweat and feel uncomfortable. It's very taxing on your nervous system and on your adrenals!

Has eating better inspired you to make other lifestyle changes?

I wouldn't be in California if it wasn't for my change in eating; I wouldn't have been interested in it. Meditation and mindfulness have helped me be more aware. I was becoming "vegan" without knowing it and began throwing around the "V" word with everyone. My family and friends thought I was throwing away my life and wasting really great career opportunities. 

But I came to realize there's something very dark about consuming animal products. It's easier not to acknowledge when it's a part of your routine. I don't want to call it "wrong," but I think having a little space between each allowed me to recognize that. At the Springs, we aren't dogmatic- it's not anyone's place to shame someone else or to tell people what to do. Everyone comes to their own realizations at their own time if that's what they're seeking. We try to focus on providing the most nutrition in each bite as opposed to throwing around blame!

What is your favorite dish to make?

It changes quite a lot, but I have a really big thing for salads. I have a knack for piling them up and tossing them with the right amount of dressing. 

Is there a particular health advocate or wellness figure who inspires you?

Dr. Fuhrman, because he was the most eye-opening and kind of in-your-face experience. I'd never made that connection before in my life, and it just became obvious to me. And then Victoria Kutanko (Green Smoothie); it got me interested into trying to make smoothies taste good. 

Finally, what would you say to skeptics who don't believe mind and body align?

You can pull it off now but not forever. That's not to say that just eating healthy or taking care of yourself will guarantee you longevity or a healthy future, but it removes some serious risks in an already stacked situation. We have chemicals of all kinds that we're ingesting, breathing, and putting on our bodies. Why wouldn't you want to do the best for yourself that you can?

Friday, August 7, 2015

A Face of Mental Illness

Location: Los Angeles, California
Occupation: Actress/Writer
Age: 24

Mental Illness(es)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Anxiety, Depression, Eating Disorder (Anorexia Nervosa, Binge Eating, obsessive eating habits)

When were you diagnosed with a mental illness?

I was 16, although I was diagnosed with general anxiety at a younger age after a bout with extreme anxiety and depression. Growing up, I knew something was different about me. I had powerful urges and tics to do strange things- like walking through doors over and over until it "felt right," crossing my eyes every time someone said a word I didn't like, and scrunching my nose until it hurt. I'd randomly get really bad anxiety- this sense of foreboding- and not be able to figure out why. It was incredibly scary and depressing. I also was afraid I was going to commit suicide after I read about it in one of my sister's magazines. I'd lie on the couch, completely paralyzed with fear, and unwilling to go anywhere near the kitchen (which had knives in the drawers). 

I'd had my first major ordeal when I was only 9. I was sitting in the backseat of my mother's car, eating goldfish crackers, and upon swallowing a handful, my entire body went numb. A hot, dry feeling flooded me, while ice crept up my neck. Immediately I thought I was choking, and I began to hyperventilate. This happened a few more times that day, and I just remember falling onto the floor while screaming that I couldn't breathe. At home, I lay on the couch and stared at a framed picture of flowers while thinking I was going to die. It was my first real wave of deep, terrifying depression and doom and also the first time I pictured my life actually ending. When he heard, my father knew it had been a panic attack (hyperventilation), as he'd had a few when he was younger. It made little sense though. Where had it come from so suddenly, and why?

The fear of choking stuck, and I slowly began to eat less and less until all I was consuming was cottage cheese, meal replacement shakes, and baby food. I remember one particular day when my family was on vacation. My aunt sat me down after everyone had finished breakfast and declared that I could not leave the table until I finished the last piece of cereal; all I could take was three bites. Everyone knew something was wrong. Everyday, I stood in the bathroom mirror so that I could see myself chew. I'd watch the food go down my throat, as I was terrified that it would get stuck. When it became so severe that my parents had to puree all solid foods until they were liquids, my father dragged my family and me to the Philadelphia Children's Hospital. They recommended a child psychologist- "Dr. K" as I came to call him, who taught me the nature of anxiety and relaxation techniques while we sat and played chess. I got better after a month or so, and my family and I just moved on from it.

It wasn't until after my father passed away, and I left the small school I'd attended for ten years to go to high school, that the real OCD hit hard. I'd asked to see a counselor, because I was having really disturbing and terrifying thoughts. They were so bad that I couldn't leave my room and would lock myself in my closet with a blanket over me to shut out all light and sound, where I'd stay like that for hours and just cry. I would have a terrible thought about myself- that I wanted to kill my mother, that I hated God, that I liked my father sexually. The images that accompanied the ideas were so vivid and realistic; each thought paralyzed me. It was complete torture unlike anything I've ever experienced. I will never, ever forget the pain it brought with it- or the complete terror of myself. Unfortunately, my mother sent me to a church counselor who kept trying to talk to me about my father's death, which made it all worse. I began looking online for answers and stumbled upon "OCD." I immediately self-diagnosed and demanded to see a psychiatrist, who then confirmed my suspicions. After that, it was various medications and years of therapy that did little to help me. 

When did you first receive actual help?

What was so frustrating was that I am very progressive and ambitious, so I spent A LOT of time researching. I always felt in my gut what I should do- call it "intuition" or what you will- and never seemed to feel like the "help" I was receiving was right! I'd see counselors who claimed to be certified in treating OCD, but they weren't doing the therapy I'd read about. That therapy is called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. A huge part of CBT for my particular disorder is called Exposure-Response Prevention, where the patient exposes himself/herself to his/her fears without performing any compulsions (rituals) to reduce anxiety. Yet none of my counselors did this with me! I'd spend sessions talking about my day, or some even talked about their day. So I went to my local bookstore and spent a few hours in the self-help section, reading anything and everything I could find on anxiety. I came across multiple OCD books, but unfortunately, I'd use them to try to convince myself my fears weren't true whenever I was obsessing. The books became a sort of compulsion within themselves. 

Then, I had an idea. Wasn't there a place- an institute- I could go that would help jump-start my recovery? I'd heard of "rehab" for various addictions, so was there one for OCD? I went online and researched, and I stumbled across a few. I immediately told my mother that I wanted to go to one- to actual experts who knew what they were doing and could teach me, as I couldn't do it alone! My mother asked my psychiatrist at the time (a horrible, vain woman neither of us liked), and she shot it down. My mother listened to her, which I greatly resented. This was the same psychiatrist who had once made me wait three days before refilling my prescription that had run out (and if anyone has ever been on a high dose of a drug, they will know what hardcore withdrawal feels like...yes, it's absolute hell). Anyway, when I went to college at 18, I knew I couldn't do it anymore. I wanted to do so much in my future, and I knew I'd never reach those things unless I dealt with my illness. So I got a campus therapist I was seeing to recommend me to OCDI- the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Institute- in Boston, MA. I'd basically already signed myself up and did all the paperwork, and he sent a referral. Then I got a letter that I'd been accepted. It was amazing. 

What was that like?

Living in a "mental hospital" is not at all what people think it's like. I don't mean that it's fun or normal- it's far from that! It's actually quite miserable and terrifying to face your worst fears everyday, because OCD recovery therapy is HELL. I mean, imagine your worst fear. Maybe it's being locked inside of a room filled with rats. Or maybe it's being stuck at the bottom of a well. Now imagine doing that...for four hours a day. Yea, that's what we basically did! But I met some amazing, strong, and courageous souls. In fact, there was a 75 year-old man named Joel who was getting help for the first time. It takes a lot of guts to get help and do the work. That just goes to show that you're never too old to face your fears and obtain the life you want. It was incredibly inspiring! But the people there were like those you see everyday- fathers, mothers, sisters, daughters, brothers, husbands, wives, students. We were all at different walks of life, together for a common purpose. But yes, mental health reform is seriously needed. We were treated like sub-humans. In fact, I'm writing a memoir about my stay at OCDI. 

What is your worst memory of your OCD?

That's really hard to define; I've had a lot. The scariest times were when I just didn't care about anything anymore- when I wanted to die. I came off medication at the end of 2011, when I was 21. No one tells you what withdrawal is like, and the adjustment is the hardest part. I was flooded with everything the meds had previously numbed, especially depression and anxiety. It overwhelmed me, and I lost my balance. That was pretty terrifying, because there were times I actually feared my own sanity. I was in and out of hospitals, and, one particular evening, I wondered out barely clothed in the middle of the night (it must've been freezing outside) and just sat under the tree staring at absolutely nothing. I cried and cried that I was dying. I really thought I was. Everything in my body hurt. My poor mother drove me to so many doctors. After months of fearing I had every ailment possible, I finally realized it was just my anxiety. Thank god.

But throughout my battle I've had lots of really, really dark moments. Hitting rock bottom became pretty normal. But I think when I thought of killing myself and dying, it really scared me. I became incredibly angry and bitter all the time. I hated everything. And there were other times when I was just terrified of being around my family and friends because of the sexual and violent thoughts I had towards them. The guilt and disgust I felt towards myself was triggered by their presence, so it became unbearable. I avoided everyone, and it destroyed my relationships with them...which was so painful. I developed an eating disorder and, at 5'10" weighed about 110-115 pounds. I didn't want to eat. I didn't want to be well, because I wasn't. I hated myself and my body and everything else. I wanted to die. I remember one Christmas Eve, as I lay on the couch, I missed my father so terribly that I really wanted to join him wherever he was. Death was pretty much all I knew at that point.

I think I was 17 when I had a counselor who actually worried I was going to kill myself, so she called the hospital. They then called my house and forced me to come in, where I had to get into a robe and be mentally evaluated all night. That was pretty distressing. I also felt so ashamed standing in front of my mother and family and friends. My instability humiliated me. There were other times too. I was making dinner one night and had a "bad" OCD thought. My scary thoughts were constant, and this particular moment infuriated me since I was so hungry and just wanted to eat! But it ruined my appetite. So I sat at the table fuming then got up and started to smash my head against a wooden cabinet until I was bleeding. I had times when I thought I'd had sex with people and committed incest, molestations etc. Of course, rationally I knew it wasn't true. but that didn't stop me from feeling the fear that it was somehow real. But I guess my scariest moments were with the thoughts, lying on my bed, convinced and horrified that they were true. I cried all the time, especially when they were about my family and father. The pain nearly killed me. Anytime I had a disgusting sexual thought/feeling it was absolutely horrifying and very, very uncomfortable. 

There were other things too- like the time I was dating my ex boyfriend. I was at his apartment after having just gained about fifteen-twenty pounds. I looked so much healthier, but at the time, it overwhelmed me. I thought I looked awful. I remember showering and after, I stood staring in his bathroom mirror with a self-loathing I've never felt on that level before. I thought about how much and all the ways I hated myself. Before then, maybe one of the worst instances was when I actually believed I was possessed by demons (one of my biggest fears). I just remember how terrifying that night was. I wouldn't go near my Bible. I stopped going into churches after that. It was pretty awful. 

What do you have to say about the stigma attached to mental illness?

There's a lot that is wrong with it. Many people think that the "mentally ill" are crazy people that need to be in a mental hospital. They're scared of the concept. What they don't realize is that many, many people suffer from mental illness- everywhere, everyday. In fact, most of us do to a degree at some point in our lives! A mentally ill person isn't necessarily someone locked in a psych ward. We're not stupid, ignorant, or delusional. We are normal. That's probably the biggest misconception- that mental illness isn't normal. But why not? Physical illness is considered normal, yet the mind is so much more sensitive than the body! We aren't weird for being mentally ill; would we call a cancer patient weird? Of course not! I think one of the most infuriating things I was ever told was by a young guy at OCDI. When he met me, he seemed shocked. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, "You're too pretty to have OCD." Maybe he meant it as a compliment, but I didn't see it that way. I saw a stigma that greatly mitigated my reality. It doesn't matter how we look, what jobs we have, where we went to school, how old we are, who we're dating or married to, how much money we have, or where we live. Mental illness has no particular face but many.

We live in an age of social media, where we see others' lives that we want to be our own. But traveling and wearing nice clothes and eating yummy things and looking good aren't what make up the majority of our lives; it's the in-betweens that do. It's the quiet moments with ourselves when we struggle the most and our personal battles with fear, identity, work and relationships. All of these things affect us mentally. In fact, I can't remember a single time in my life when I felt physically exhausted without some sort of mental affect- be it stress, depression, anxiety, or all three. We need to learn to stop viewing mental illness as an oddity and realize it's a very REAL reality...for all of us. 

How do you hope to change that?

I started this blog- Mind Your Voice- when I moved to California back in November. However, I had so much going on that I pushed it to the back burner at the time. Now, I'm hoping to move forward with it. Working in the mental health field is something I hope to do for the rest of my life. Next up- a Los Angeles series that keeps the key concepts in mind! We are too accustomed to keeping our mental struggles to ourselves. The fear of how we will be perceived if we share often keeps us from talking to others. It's been amazing and wonderful how sharing my battle with others has opened up conversations and real, meaningful connections. It's created deeper love. I value human interactions so much more now that I am older. Hopefully someday soon I can travel and reach out to even more people! 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Photo by Matt Kelly

Name: Lisa Walter
Location: Ontario, Canada
Occupation: Visual artist, educator, and advocate for those with mental illnesses
Age: 46

Tell us a little bit about your early battle with mental illness.
I’ve had mental illness on and off through my life, mostly depression and anxiety. As a kid, my family went through a lot of stress and turmoil, and I was bullied very badly in school. I became very depressed and anxious in my teens, and started to cut myself to help control my feelings. I started to see a psychologist when I became suicidal, and she was very helpful. I got back on my feet and graduated from high school with honours.

Did anyone else besides a therapist help you during that time?
My family was very creative and nurtured my interests in acting and in visual art, which helped to propel my life forward. 

Were there any instances in your life that acted as triggers for your anxiety and depression? 
When I was a child,  I was molested by a neighbour. One of my brothers committed suicide when he was 29 and I was 24, which plunged me into some very difficult times. Again I got professional help, and I pulled out and moved on to some very rewarding work.
In my late thirties I was laid off from my job and became depressed again. This time, though, I developed a lot of other problems as well. I became extremely anxious. I had flashbacks of having been molested. Worst of all, I started to worry about some weird thoughts that I’d always had, and which I’d never bothered to think about before. (I’ve since learned that research shows everyone has random intrusive thoughts – weird ideas that flash into a person’s mind that really go against what they believe in. Like, “I could push that guy off the subway platform,” “I might stab my dog,” or, “What if I drove my car off the bridge?” For the most part, no one pays attention to them because they know that they’d never do such a thing.) But I had had thoughts of hurting children since I myself was a child. I’d never thought about them before, but for some reason, I now became really concerned about them. I wondered why I would have these kinds of thoughts if I would never do them. I wanted to stop having the thoughts, and as a result, they actually came more frequently. I did more and more things to avoid anything that reminded me of children. It was like quicksand; the more I tried, the harder it all became.

How did your active resistance of your scary thoughts and feelings affect you?
I became convinced that I was an evil monster for having those thoughts, and that I posed a serious risk to the safety of children – even though the very idea horrified me. I became horribly ashamed of myself, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone about what was going on in my head. 
I started to cut myself again, which I hadn’t done for a long time. I felt that I had to punish myself for being evil. My life really went downhill, and I became suicidal. Even after I told my doctors what was really going on in my head, they failed to recognize that my symptoms were actually a version of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I didn’t have any of the obvious behaviours people think of when they think of OCD, but I had all kinds of coping behaviours going on inside my head. For example, trying to “erase” bad thoughts; spending long periods of time lost in my thoughts; and doing anything I could to keep myself from thinking about children. This last thing, especially, became a huge problem, to the point where the only way I could leave my house was if I took elaborate steps to prevent myself from being aware if any children were in my vicinity. I wore a jacket with the hood up, a baseball cap with the brim pulled low over my face, and I always had my music player going. This way, I could only see a few inches of the ground in front of me when I walked, and I couldn’t hear any sounds that might make me think of children. 

How did it affect your life?
During this time, I alienated some of my friends and lost touch with most of them. My spouse broke up with me, and I had to find a new home. I had to go on disability. I tried to kill myself twice. Both times, I was discovered by a fluke and rushed to the hospital, where I was in intensive care for days, unconscious and unable to breathe on my own. For my parents and the few friends I had left, this was very painful. My parents suffered particularly, because they’d already lost one child to suicide.

What was your darkest day with depression and anxiety? Do you remember what  your thoughts and emotions were like?
The worst day I can remember was one time a few summers ago; a friend of mine had stopped by my place briefly while she was babysitting a little girl. As she was getting ready to leave again, her car somehow locked itself with the keys still in the ignition. The toddler was strapped in her car seat. While we waited for an emergency service worker to arrive and open the door, it was getting hotter and hotter in the car. The poor girl was crying and screaming, and my OCD was telling me that it was my fault she was in so much distress, that I must have done something terrible to her. Everything worked out fine, but afterward, I couldn't stop having flashbacks of the girl screaming. That was when I decided I had to get rid of myself, because this incident was "proof" that I posed a terrible risk to kids. I started planning my suicide and three weeks later, gave it a go. The memory of those three weeks still makes me feel shaky and upset. They were a torment.

Did you ever try medication? If so, what are your thoughts on drug use for OCD?
After a couple of years, I was diagnosed with OCD. I tried different medications, most of which made no difference, a couple of which helped a little, and some of which made things much, much worse. 
It's a bit of a blur now, but I remember that they [medications] made me feel more anxious – much more anxious. I never usually experienced strong physical symptoms of anxiety, but on these medications, my hands and legs would shake, I felt out of breath, and I was wet from sweating. It was impossible to sit still. I also became afraid to take short-term anxiety medication, because I learned that it can be disinhibiting – that is, it can make you more likely to do things on impulse that you normally have to sense not to do. So sometimes when I was so anxious that I was almost hysterical, I would refuse medication because I was afraid it would make me more impulsive and therefore more dangerous to children. I really did feel like I was losing my mind.

When did you get help? What did you do/where did you go to find it? What was your therapy like?
After the second suicide attempt, my psychiatrist referred me to a specialized treatment centre for OCD in Boston. I spent three months in intensive treatment there, learning to see my horrible intrusive thoughts as just meaningless thoughts that come and go. I also had to learn to tolerate my pain and shame without hurting myself, which was very difficult in itself.
Those three months were perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through, but I managed to make huge improvements. When I got home, I still had a lot of residual anxiety but I worked hard to keep going with ERP and therapy, and I’m glad now that I did.
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is a kind of treatment that's used to help people with anxiety learn to tolerate things that terrify them. It involves confronting (or "exposing" yourself to) the triggering object or situation and then experiencing the anxiety as it gets worse and then gradually eases off again. For example, I had to expose myself to things that made me think of children – writing the words, "boy," "girl," "kid," etc.; looking at pictures of kids; walking by a childcare centre and listening to the children playing outside. These situations brought the intrusive thoughts rushing into my mind. Normally, I would kind of panic and I reacted by running away, hiding in my room, trying to undo my bad thoughts or punishing myself for having had them. In ERP, I had to learn to adapt and cope with how the thoughts made me feel, without doing any of those "rituals" which made me feel better. I had to just carry on with life "as usual." It was very hard at first, but it turned out to be incredibly helpful, as I learned that I could in fact tolerate what was going on. 

How are you coping now?
Since then, my life has improved dramatically. I’m going to graduate from university this spring; I’m being trained in how to provide peer support; and I’m doing a fair bit of public speaking, talking about my experiences and helping to debunk stereotypes about mental illness. Most importantly, I’m writing and illustrating a graphic memoir about my life while I was ill, and how I found my way from that terrifying place. Life is pretty groovy right now, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be alive and able to appreciate it!