We need a ‘me too’ movement for mental illness and suicide

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Three high-profile people recently lost their lives to suicide. Fashion designer Kate Spade, chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain, and (perhaps well-known by association) Inés Zorreguieta, sister of queen of the Netherlands. Still fresh in my memory is the suicide of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington and actor Robin Williams. These stories are not easy to read for those of us who have come so close to losing our lives in a similar way.

Every life lost to suicide is tragic because every human being is valuable, means something to someone and has so much to offer the world. However, I can fully understand how someone can make the decision to end their life.

If you find yourself in the depths of depression, suicide seems like the greatest consolation. This is why I don’t judge any of these people for what they believed is the best way out because I also once found myself contemplating a very similar end.

I once read something that said: “No one commits suicide because they want to die. Then why do they do it? Because they want to stop the pain.”

Mental illness needs a ‘me too’ movement 

Suicide is an emotive, uncomfortable and controversial subject. A lot has been written about these suicides in the past few days and I have been both encouraged and angered by what I’ve read.

As these deaths received so much publicity it might make it easier for more people to talk about depression and suicide. What is really needed is a ‘me too’ movement for mental illness to raise the profile of conditions such as depression, anxiety, bipolar and PTSD.

It might raise the profile of mental illness – how awesome would it be if this category of illnesses were considered as serious as diabetes or heart disease? What if these deaths helped to remove the long-standing stigma associated with mental illness?

However, I am also angered by the lack of insight into what caused these people to take their own lives. The absence of compassion is concerning and devastating. Reading some of the Twitter commentary on these celebrity deaths is enough to make one lose complete faith in humanity. The media should also improve how they report on suicide.

We need to talk about suicide

Very few people want to engage with the fact that people kill themselves. How often are victims accused of being selfish, crazy or psycho? Labels hurt people. They are cruel. They cause people not to seek treatment for fear of judgement.

Depression is a legitimate medical condition

“In my mind, there’s nothing our generation should be more ashamed of than people with severe mental illness being punished for a disease they can’t do anything about. ” Fran Quigley

Depression isn’t just a case of “having the blues”. I spotted this beautiful statement by Kelly Risbey (@MntlHlthWarrior) on my Twitter feed some time ago: “If your friend was battling cancer, you’d send flowers, call, email, stop by. Do all these same things for your friend battling #depression.”

Don’t you sometimes wish that mental illness could be diagnosed with a blood test, or be visible on an X-ray? It would eliminate all those “snap out of it” or “it is all in your head” comments. No wonder so many people suffer in silence. Those who live with chronic conditions such as clinical depression, anxiety, PTSD or bipolar should be treated in the same way as someone living with diabetes, high blood pressure or asthma.

Check on your strong friend

This is such a powerful statement – check on those who you least expect to be struggling. The friend who tells you that they’re fine. That person who is always smiling. It could be a sibling who appears to have a picture perfect life. Is all really well?

 

 

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Truths about change – the beauty of being exactly where I need to be

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This week is my fifth month in the Netherlands. What an adventure to live the life I’ve always wanted for myself and my family! Besides all the expected challenges of settling into a new home country, the biggest change for me has been becoming a full-time mom. 

This was – and still is – huge. I’ve never not worked in my life. I spent the majority of my career working as a journalist in a fast-paced and severe environment filled with impossible deadlines, stress and anxiety. At the end of each day I had very little time or energy for my son. I had zero capacity for enthusiasm. It wasn’t sustainable and I knew it. My depression medication dosage doubled. I had more than one emotional, psychological and physical breakdown. 

Suddenly, all that came to a grinding halt. My life took at 360 degree turn. 

Instead of flying out the door at 6am in the morning to start work at 7am, I now make school lunches, prepare breakfast and take my son to school. I have time to make friends with other moms. I have coffee with new friends in the mornings. I arrange playdates for my son after school and I can actually be there. I fetch my son from school at 1pm and on our cycle home we talk about everything he did that day. The two of us can do so much together – walks in the forest, running up and down sand dunes, go to the beach, bake cakes, visit museums and go to the movies. 

During the past five months I’ve often had a song called Turn! Turn! Turn! on my mind. In 1965 it was a hit single by folk rock group, The Byrds, and was written by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s.

…To everything, turn, turn, turn.
There is a season, turn, turn, turn.
And a time to every purpose under heaven….  

There is something quite amazing about huge life changes. You find your direction amid the change and temporary uncertainty. I think being a full-time mom is possibly the best thing that has ever happened to me. This is a busy and demanding job but I love this season of my life.

When I think about how my life has changed, I now know this: 

I’m happy. Not in a frivolous way but a deep restfulness.  

My priorities and values are in alignment. I have time and energy for my son. I love showing him how wonderful the world is, I love encouraging him to dream, discover and experiment. 

I have time to look after myself. This is something I’ve neglected in the past. 

I’m brave. I am rebuilding my life the way I want it. 

I’m grateful that my husband values my contribution to our family and makes it possible for me to be at home with our son.

 

If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it. –  John Irving. 

To live deliberately

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Trees

                     Forest ride through Bloemendal and Overveen, North Holland.                                   Photo: Wilma den Hartigh

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. To front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discovered that I had not lived … I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… ” – Henry David Thoreau

Wow – what a challenge!  To live deliberately. To live deep.

But first, cappuccino

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Coffee – or cappuccino to be accurate – is important in my life. I have developed a habit of taking photos of my coffee wherever I go, and posting these on my Instagram account.

Take a look at these photos of some of my favourite cappuccinos over the past year or so, taken all over South Africa and in the Netherlands.

What I enjoy most about the ritual of ordering a cappuccino is the surprise of what it looks like. However, the contents should not be a lucky packet – strong and warm is a must. 🙂

I love the detail: the shape and colour of the cup, the old-school doilies (these only come with the cup in country places), the biscuits (usually shortcake or ginger and is always a plus point for me – the hand-shaped biscuit is my favourite).  Then there are disposable cups – sometimes corrugated, printed or biodegradable.

I also look at the colour of the coffee, the density of the foam and the patterns. Oh, I love the patterns! Sometimes these are added using a stencil with a dusting of cocoa or cinnamon.

What’s really impressive is if the barista creates a heart by pouring the milk in a certain way or writes words with chocolate syrup. Occasionally a few coffee beans are sprinkled on top.

Taking time out for a coffee is something I do just for me. It is fun, makes me smile and helps me to relax (unless the coffee is cold – then I ask for a new one!)

When was the last time you did something just for you? 

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Imagine what could happen

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Image: Wilma den Hartigh

 

 

A powerful and thought-provoking poem by Chilean poet-diplomat and politician, Pablo Neruda. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature – 1971.

“You start dying slowly

if you do not travel,
if you do not read,
If you do not listen to the sounds of life,
If you do not appreciate yourself.

You start dying slowly
When you kill your self-esteem;
When you do not let others help you.

You start dying slowly
If you become a slave of your habits,
Walking everyday on the same paths…
If you do not change your routine,
If you do not wear different colours
Or you do not speak to those you don’t know.

You start dying slowly
If you avoid to feel passion
And their turbulent emotions;
Those which make your eyes glisten
And your heart beat fast.

You start dying slowly
If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love,
If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,
If you do not go after a dream,
If you do not allow yourself,
At least once in your lifetime,
To run away from sensible advice.”

This girl listens to trees

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Wherever I go, I always notice trees. I think they are nature’s greatest wonders and we can learn so much about life just by observing trees and their seasonal transformation.
I have discovered some beautiful spots in and around Haarlem where I can go to spend time with trees.
Sometimes I am not alone (often I have my son with me) or I appreciate a beautiful tree through a window while I am indoors. However, I really treasure the moments when I am alone with them.
This ritual has become an important self care activity. Some people go for facials and manicures, I head for the trees.
In this environment I often find it easier to seek inner wisdom about life’s difficult questions and my inner struggles. It is an opportunity to connect with the earth and myself again. I don’t need to engage in articulate conversation. All I have to do is sit quietly, observe the beauty around me and listen to my heart. Trees teach stillness so well.

I think life is like a tyre’s tread. When a tyre hits a few bumps in the road it needs realignment to run smoothly again and prevent damage to the tyre. This also happens to people. When I feel that my soul is restless and things just don’t seem right I like to spend time in nature to find realignment and new perspectives.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. – Hermann Hesse

One of the most significant lessons I’ve learnt from trees is their ability to let go. Have you ever noticed how gracefully trees change colour and lose their leaves? They seem so at ease with embracing change.
Learning to welcome change – whether it is positive, negative or a bit of both – has improved my quality of life. I’ve realized that the universe always brings the change when I am ready for it and need it. Moving to another country is the biggest decision I’ve ever made. Uprooting 17 years of adult life in one place wasn’t easy but it also wasn’t difficult because the time was right to see what else the universe has planned for me.

There is great freedom in letting go. It could be a person, a relationship, a job, a career path, a home country or material possessions – all of these have applied to me at some point in my life. Letting go gives me so much freedom to discover new places, different ways of thinking, new people and ultimately a new life.

If you want to read some of my previous posts on trees, freedom and new beginnings, click on these links:

Dutch food – these are a few of my favourite things

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I love going to supermarkets and spending time walking down every aisle. I never thought I’d say this because I’ve never enjoyed shopping. However, I’ve realised that it’s a great way to make a new country feel like home.

Food is a universal connection point between people and an important aspect of every country’s culture. That’s why I think it’s important to know what people eat here and how it is prepared or presented.

Fortunately not everything has been foreign and eating Dutch food and treats brings back many beautiful memories from my childhood. I grew up in a Dutch home (my father was born and raised in South Holland before moving to South Africa in his early twenties) and my parents took great care to introduce my sister and I to Dutch food from a young age.

When I go to a store I always take a tas or tasje (This seems to be the word people use around here for a shopping bag). I like this part of the experience because I’ve built up an awesome collection of bags. I have my favourite cloth bags but most of them are made from waterproof material (these come in really handy in this climate).

My collection of shopping bags

It’s been great fun to introduce my husband and son to some of the yummiest Dutch food.

Hagelslag chocolate sprinkles. This can be enjoyed on buttered bread at any time of the day. I’ve also discovered that the sprinkles can be used to jazz up a home-baked banana loaf or mixed into plain greek yoghurt.

Stroopwafels. A syrup waffle is one of the best things that will ever pass your lips. They are sold in packets of 10 or so and it is impossible to only have one at a time. My husband and I enjoy having them with coffee or red wine. The filling consists of syrup, caramel, brown sugar and cinnamon. Apparently the stroopwafel was first made in Gouda during the late 18th century or early 19th century by a baker using leftovers from the bakery such as breadcrumbs, which were sweetened with syrup.

Speculaas biscuits. These are spiced shortcrust biscuits. They always have an image such as a windmill or figure (often from the traditional stories about St. Nicholas) on the front side. People tell me that they are supposed to be eaten at christmas time but I am quite happy to have them all year round. They are just perfect with a cup of tea.

Croquettes. A croquette is a small breadcrumbed fried roll containing mashed potatoes or ground meat, cheese or vegetables mixed with brown sauce. The best time to eat one (or two) is while exploring the streets of Amsterdam, at Keukenhof among the tulips, at a street festival or on a canal cruise. Croquettes go well with a serving of friet (french fries) and mayonnaise. You aren’t going to win healthy eating awards for this fast food combo but go ahead and try it. You won’t regret it.

Cheese. Dutch people eat a lot of cheese and I can understand why. It is simply delicious! Every Saturday morning we buy cheese at the Haarlem Market on the Grote Markt Square. We try out a different flavour every week. The supermarkets also stock a fantastic cheese selection. At the moment the Boerenkaas is my favourite.