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"Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time." ~ Thomas Merton "Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable." ~ George Bernard Shaw

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  • My Winter Tool Kit for Attacking My SAD

    I am gradually assembling my winter tool kit. I’ve finally admitted to myself that this Seasonal Affective Disorder is a problem. I feel a little weird about this, to be honest. On the one hand, I am fiercely protective of this diagnosis for all people. We have a legitimate, physical illness. Our brain chemistry is […]

  • Brain Fights

    Some days, I get really tired of my own brain. Like today: I got a great sleep last night, so I should be well rested and alert. But I’m not. I’m tired and dragging and my concentration sucks. And the irony? It’s probably because I have two deadlines coming up, and the slightly elevated stress […]

  • Are You a Highly Sensitive Person?

    Let me start in the middle. Discovering that I’m an HSP has been changing the way I live this year, for the better. It has explained so much of what I struggle with and given me strategies for coping and staying sane. I’m a little bit in love with the whole concept right now. I’m […]


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My Winter Tool Kit for Attacking My SAD

I am gradually assembling my winter tool kit.

I’ve finally admitted to myself that this Seasonal Affective Disorder is a problem. I feel a little weird about this, to be honest. On the one hand, I am fiercely protective of this diagnosis for all people. We have a legitimate, physical illness. Our brain chemistry is actually different in measurable ways. There is a list of symptoms that doctors recognize and treat. On the other hand, those symptoms include negative thoughts, difficulty concentrating (including memory troubles), lowered energy, and lack of motivation, and all of those things together add up to my brain tricking me into thinking that I’m just either not good enough, not strong enough, or not go-getter enough to act like a proper adult. I know, objectively, that it’s ridiculous and unfair for anyone, including myself, to judge my competency based on a chronic illness that will never be cured. And at the same time, I have a compulsion to hide it from everyone lest they think less of me. (Yes, I just used the word “lest” in a sentence. I wanted to follow it up with “lest they think ill of me,” and then I remembered that I’m not Jane Austen and this is 2015.)

So there it is. I’ve been minimizing my illness, even to myself. Maybe I did it because it was just easier to pretend to myself that I was fine. I mean, I went through some great counselling and learning over the last 17 years, and my improvements have been hard won. I don’t feel the same mental anguish as I did, I haven’t felt suicidal in ages, and I’m pretty good at recognizing negative thought spirals and getting out of them before they’re entrenched. So I think that maybe I then minimized the physical symptoms’ effects on my life.

But here’s the reality: every winter, I slowly fade away. My shiny, sparkly, creative, enthusiastic, interested, caring self gets thinner and thinner until I’m as flat as Stanley and I’m just trying to endure the tiredness without snapping at people until spring comes. I have the occasional good day, but they become fewer and farther between. I know that I need to cram all of my good work into the summer days when my brain still works, then use the winter for simple projects that don’t take much concentration. I disappear from social events during most of January and February. These are all classic signs of SAD, and it’s time for me to admit that it really does affect me still.

I’m tired of having only half a good year. I want to be myself in 3D as much as possible. What if I could actually write a book during the winter, or publish more patterns, or create new designs instead of having to wait for my brain to wake up enough in March for me to get on with things? What if Christmas became fun again instead of a month of overwhelming busyness to be endured and reviled? What if I didn’t have to put my life on hold for half the year, every year?

So. I’ve decided to be more aggressive about my treatment. This Winter Blues book that I’m reading says it’s possible. The author has SAD, and he has a successful practice AND he writes books! He attacks his SAD from all angles and is treating it and living his  life. I want that, too!

Here is what I plan to do. The key will be getting everything in place before the time change.

I’m going to find a psychologist that I like, who understands SAD and light therapy and can give me a reality check every two weeks or so. I need someone objective who will notice if I’m getting worse because at a certain point every winter, I stop noticing these things. I just think I’m tired and that I’ll feel better tomorrow, and it isn’t until spring comes and I wake up again that I realize how much I faded away for a while there.

I’m going to use my light therapy every morning. I will try to monitor my symptoms with a daily checklist so that I’ll know when I need to increase my light amounts.

I’ve had great success with using supplements in the past, and then I was mad when I needed to use them again the next fall. But I’ve finally admitted that I will have to resume treatment every. damn. year. There is no one-time fix for this. Unless I move to Florida. But even that’s not guaranteed, and darn it, I like Canada and my friends and family nearby. So anyway, back to the supplements for me. (In case you’re curious, I follow the plan laid out in The Mood Cure by Julia Ross. She explains all the how and why of it in great detail, and I love her. She has a handy quiz on her website for determining which neurotransmitters you’re low on. My body doesn’t seem to make or absorb enough serotonin, dopamine, or norepinephrine, so that’s why I take their amino acids (building blocks) as supplements. It really does help.)

I’m also curious about negative ion generators and transcendental meditation. The Winter Blues guy is quoting lots of research that shows they help, and he has some good hypotheses on why they work. Now, we Christians tend to get weird about spiritual practices that don’t originate with us, but I personally think that the bible talks about meditation quite clearly and favourably. So I’m open to learning techniques from different sources and applying them in a way that feels consistent with my beliefs. The studies show that the benefits are clear and measurable, and I’m intrigued.

I think I should also make myself a checklist of healthy habits. As the winter deepens, I usually forget the basics like drinking enough water, getting enough sleep (that’s a big one!), eating healthy food (I tend to lose my appetite and even food I like feels heavy in my stomach), and getting outside. I need to intentionally seek out activities that are fun for me, that bring me joy. It’s weird, but just plain giving yourself permission to do something fun for no reason can be hard at first! But it’s worth it.

And, last but not least, there’s the whole question of medication. Now, I’m not against it exactly, but I’ve tried a number of meds in the past and didn’t really find them helpful on their own. Maybe in conjunction with the light therapy they’d be more effective for me. But I think that, based on my success with supplements in the past, and the dismal results I’ve had with meds, I might still avoid them. And here’s the thing with meds: they don’t actually provide the neurotransmitters. They just prevent them from being sucked back up into their neurons prematurely, before they’ve been passed on down the synapses. And they can work a little like caffeine does: they stimulate production of something that needs to be made by your body, but if you don’t have the building blocks (amino acids) available, what’s the point? (Caffeine stimulates dopamine production. Eventually, if you rely on coffee as your only source of energy, your body is too depleted to keep producing the dopamine in sufficient amounts, and that’s why you need to drink more and more coffee to get the same dismal results, which eventually lessen more and more, leaving you wondering what happened to your wonder drug.) Without the raw material, how can your body keep making more, no matter how many meds you push into it? That’s why I prefer supplements: if I give my body the building blocks it needs to produce the proper neurotransmitters, it can build them. Incidentally, you can also eat your amino acids, but it’s much easier to swallow a pill a couple times a day than it is to change your whole eating habit when you’re already feeling like poo.  And the good news? You can feel the effects of the supplements usually within 30 minutes, compared to the 3 weeks you have to wait to see if your meds will work. And no side effects! (Now I feel like I should clearly say that I’m not a doctor, this is so not medical advice, and you are responsible for your own decisions about your body and your health. Get informed, read books, ask your doctor. I’m telling you what I do, but it might not be right for you.)

So. Do you have a winter tool kit you use to aggressively treat your SAD or depression? How do you cope? I’d love to hear your experiences and tips. Every little thing helps.

Brain Fights

Some days, I get really tired of my own brain.

Like today: I got a great sleep last night, so I should be well rested and alert. But I’m not. I’m tired and dragging and my concentration sucks.

And the irony? It’s probably because I have two deadlines coming up, and the slightly elevated stress level is actually making my thinking abilities worse, just when I need them most. I love, love, love the work I get to do! It’s my favourite thing ever, this knitting. Knitting keeps me sane and relaxed. But mix in a time crunch and a little anxiety about getting it Just Right, and suddenly it doesn’t seem as fun any more.

So. I have to trick my brain into thinking all is well, that there is no stress, and that these deadlines are actually wonderful opportunities for me to get paid for doing what I love. Isn’t that great, Brain? Aren’t you very, very happy about all this?

I am almost convinced now, says Brain. But remember that we have a doctor’s appointment today, and we have to leave in thirty minutes? So what’s the point of my getting all involved in heavy thinking if I’ll just have to quit soon, anyway?

Darn that Brain of mine. It’s just so reasonably unreasonable. We are not friends today. We are fighting. Because I really must get this work done.

And this is what my life is like almost every day. I battle against my limitations and resent that they exist. I am smart, damn it! But I don’t have the resources to really get things done. I imagine other, completely healthy people, out there living up to their full potentials while I’m stuck here fighting with my senses on overload and my inability to cope with even the lowest levels of stress.

On days like today, when I’m feeling overwhelmed and tired and discouraged, I have to remind myself of all my coping strategies: Drink lots of water. Eat something. Use the light therapy. Take deep breaths. Let all the unnecessaries fade away for a while and just focus on one thing. Tomorrow is a new day, and limits are a human reality that everyone has to face. I will get my things done, and it will be fine. And I’m allowed to say no at any time. I have that power.

My Brain is still fighting with me as I write these things, calling out in a muffled voice from the back of my mind, You can’t say no to anything! Are you insane? You have commitments that matter! Don’t kid yourself! Get things done! Get to work! Stop procrastinating with this writing and get back to work!

And I’m listening to it a little, but now I can hear other voices, my sanity speaking up: It’s all going to be okay. Your Brain works in weird ways, and remember that when you’ve gone along with the weird meanderings in the past, allowing the interruptions like the need to write, you can then focus better on what needs to be done. Just get it all out, and then you’ll be able to carry on. You’re okay.

That’s my new Scanner voice speaking up, actually. Did you know that some peoples’ brains can’t stick with only one thing, but need to jump around from interest to interest? We’re called, alternately, Scanners, multipotentialites, multipods, Puttylike… It’s a whole thing. There are books. Finding this out about myself has been enormously helpful because now, instead of forcing myself to try to focus on what’s not really working for me, I can allow myself to meander a bit. And if I trust myself — including my weirdo Brain that annoys the crap out of me — I always return to what I need to work on, with renewed focus and energy, after a break.

I do sometimes feel like it’s an uphill battle trying to integrate what I know about multipotentialites, HSP’s, SAD, introversion, and creativity. But I do think it’s all helping me cope better than I used to, so that gives me hope.

And now that I’ve written about it, I’ve reminded myself of the most important thing for my productivity: that it’s okay to be me. Now I can take a deep breath of relief and get back to work. After my doctor’s appointment, of course. 😉

Are You a Highly Sensitive Person?

Let me start in the middle. Discovering that I’m an HSP has been changing the way I live this year, for the better. It has explained so much of what I struggle with and given me strategies for coping and staying sane. I’m a little bit in love with the whole concept right now. I’m also a little bit overwhelmed by it all, but as you read on, you’ll see why.

First, what the heck is a Highly Sensitive Person? Let’s start with what it isn’t: someone who’s easily offended and cries all the time and takes everything personally. Now that we’ve got the negative stereotypes out of the way (wasn’t that quick), I’ll carry on.

Dr. Elaine Aron, who is the discoverer and one of the main researchers about this genetic trait, has written a couple books about it, and the one I’ve read it called simply The Highly Sensitive Person. According to her research, this inherited trait is found in about 15-20% of the population in at least 100 animal species as well as us humans.  It has distinct qualities inherent to the trait, and I love her description of it as sensory processing sensitivity.

There are four main components, and she gives a handy acronym for remembering them: DOES.

  1. Depth of processing
  2. Overwhelm
  3. Emotions heightened
  4. Stimulation

HSP’s have been shown to process stimuli more deeply and thoroughly. They make many connections, notice subtleties, and think very deeply about things. Sounds like a valuable trait, right?

Well, it goes hand in hand with a couple things that make life a little more difficult. Because of the intense noticing going on, the extra level of sensitivity to the things processed by the senses, HSPs are easily overwhelmed. In plain terms, we just don’t block things out very well. The little things in the background, even if we’re not consciously taking them in, get noticed and processed by our brains anyway, and we seem to have a lower threshold for filtering them out. So our senses get easily overwhelmed, which can lead to us feeling overwhelmed for no apparent reason. Our tolerance for stress is lower.

And those emotions? They’re just a little… more. The emotional reactions are bigger, magnified, if you will. Have you ever been so moved by the beauty of dust swirling, aglow, in a sunbeam that you thought your heart might burst? Then you might be an HSP. (Remember, we notice subtleties…)

And then there’s the stimulation. Our bodies have systems in place to manage our “arousal,” and no, I’m not talking about sex. I’m talking about the fight-or-flight systems. The surges of adrenaline when we get startled, and the calm-down system that kicks in when all is well. If you’ve ever read The Introvert Advantage, you’ll recognize these throttle-down and throttle-up systems. (Extroverts feel better when their throttle-up systems are engaged, and therefore seek more stimulation. Introverts feel more comfortable in throttle-down mode, and therefore seek out quiet situations and avoid too much excitement.) Everyone, no matter who they are, is always striving to stay within their unique zone where they feel just right — not too drained and not too agitated. HSPs reach the threshold of Too Much more quickly. It seems we  have a narrower range of just enough.

And, of course, when we get overstimulated, we get overwhelmed. And when we’re in a state of overwhelm, all our handy and amazing depth of processing abilities go out the window until we’ve been able to recharge. I think of it as needing to hit my reset button.

I’ve found a couple things that work for me to keep my stimulation levels at optimum ranges. (I hate feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated. I’ve spent my whole life trying to fix it but am only just now finding ways to stay level.)

Earplugs are my friends. I’ve found that if I wear them in situations that normally exhaust me and make me cranky, I can maintain a nice, calm feeling for much longer. It’s been amazing, really. I bought some special ones meant for wearing to concerts that don’t muffle sounds but merely turn down the volume. I can still understand voices clearly (which comes in handy at the grocery store!), but I feel much calmer. It’s amazing. I wear them when I’m shopping — I find stores, especially certain ones like Walmart and the grocery store, very overstimulating and uncomfortable — when I’m tidying up with the kids, and when I’m in a large group of people surrounded by that buzzing talking noise. The difference they’ve made has been like night and day. And I work from home, so I pop them in when I need to focus, if I’m not wearing my earbuds and listening to Spotify. (Sometimes, even my favourite music is too much for me.)

I need quiet. I feel just as recharged after lying down in my quiet bedroom with my eyes closed for 30 minutes, whether I’m asleep or not, as I do after eating a good meal. I mean, I find quiet as essential as eating. In our family of seven, I have to seek it out intentionally. It makes me a nicer person.

I need to eat regularly because just the feeling of hunger is overstimulating. When I’m hungry, I can’t really think of anything else, even if I don’t realize I’m hungry. I can’t concentrate, I get snippy with people, and definitely don’t ask me questions because I won’t even know where to start to find an answer. Now that I know this, I’ve learned to answer any question with, “Let me eat first and then we’ll talk.”

I have limits. Some days, this makes me furious, but other days, they make me feel safe and protected inside them. I’ve learned that I can handle about two excursions a week on average. I can handle an occasional week that’s busier with an errand or two, but if I’m out of the house for 3 days in a row, I start to shut down. (This is normal. Home is familiar and low on the stimulation scale; being out is full of new stimuli and highly stimulating.) But as a creative (which I think is probably highly linked to the HSP trait), I’ve learned to value the down time and quiet. My best ideas and connections come during the “wasted” time — lying on the couch letting my mind wander, colouring with pretty markers, doodling, knitting. In other words, resting, doing the things that relax me. Achieving that state of Just Right. (I think, perhaps, that learning I can make a living doing these things has helped me to accept them as unwasted time. Weird, though, that I still feel like I’m cheating when I’m doing them.)

And now, I’m hungry and finding it hard to remember where I wanted to go with this little bit of writing, so I’ll stop for today. :)