Since January of this year, I have felt like I got thrown onto a ride I never asked to be on. It’s taken me at top speed through mental and emotional hills and valleys that also plunged down to depths I didn’t even know were possible. The ride has finally begun to slow down (fingers crossed) and I am starting to feel like I am back on stable ground.
I want to share my story as I truly believe that mental health and physical fitness are connected in a holistic approach to coping with a range of mental illnesses. This story is a testament to that belief and if it can help someone find the outlet they’ve been needing to begin a healing process, then that would be enough for me.
My father was diagnosed with cancer in late 2016 and was going to have to go through 7 grueling weeks of chemo and radiation treatment. With my husbands support, I took a leave from work to go to Quebec to spend the 7 weeks with him and my mother as a support and to help. To watch a family member go through these treatments was one of the hardest things I had to do. We spent hours Monday to Friday in the hospital on a weekly basis – some days it was in the radiation department (which was buried at the lowest level of the hospital), some days it was in the chemo room (with up to eight other patients at a time) and others it was both – making for long, full days in the hospital. I tried to be the driver, translator (from French to English) and support for my father as he fought the side effects from the treatments which included weight loss, burnt skin, loss of taste, extreme fatigue and even swelling in his throat that got so bad he required a feeding tube.
Through all of that, I found my outlet and peace in a gym nearby. Even though I was tired and had to fit it in around a chaotic and unpredictable hospital schedule, I ensured I got in 30 to 60 minutes most days of earphones in and world out time for me. I know with everything in me that this is what got me through those 7 weeks. It is what allowed me to still be a good daughter, wife, mother and support for my loved ones despite everything that was happening.
My dad completed his entire treatment plan with a level of strength and determination that will forever inspire me. I’d like to say that’s where the story ends, but it is what happens next that sends me into a spiral I wasn’t sure I would come out of.
After 7 weeks, I returned home to my husband and daughter – ready to get back into our family unit routine and give them back the wife and mom they deserved. But three days after my return, my mother became critically ill and was placed into a medically induced coma for seven days to save her life. The shock and fear that I felt I still can’t put into words. She did come out of it but we would spend the next six months with her bed ridden and having to go into a nursing home. I could feel myself cracking – my mother has always been my best friend. I went from seeing her everyday to not being able to talk to her – I was in Ontario and she did not have a phone within reach in her room. I spent days worrying about her, planning to move her to Ontario and also ensure my father was recovering well from his treatments (and he was now living in their home without his wife).
I had some of my darkest moments – I would cry in the shower wondering if my mother’s life was ending and if I had made the right decisions for her care. I stopped focusing on my health or taking time to rest, I was busy trying to work things out in Quebec from Ontario while still working my job.
My workouts became less frequent and eventually it caught up to me. I didn’t recognize the feelings right away but soon I noticed I was walking around always feeling angry and irritated and usually at the wrong people. My stomach was always upset and I was experiencing a lot of headaches. I felt weak and tired…and I didn’t like it. I knew I was on a path that would affect my well being and I knew my mental health was suffering.
Slowly, I begun to carve out time to get a workout in. I started small, promising myself 20 minutes to workout even if it was just a walk. I stopped myself from reaching for comfort food since I knew I wouldn’t feel good after eating it – instead I returned to my better eating habits. This meant I had to carve out time to meal prep and make real food again. Eventually, after some time, I found myself back into a routine I recognized and felt good about. Yes, I still had days where I let the stress take over or my schedule go out of and, but overall I felt back in control. And it all started with getting back to my physical fitness.
We tend to let go of the things that help us when we are faced with hard situations. I know I did, I stopped making time for what worked for me and I sacrificed my well-being because of it. My outlet is putting my earphones in and focusing on challenging my body with a workout I enjoy. It makes me stop thinking of everything else and only focus on me. The music makes the thoughts stop and the workout engages my whole body so I am in the present moment only – not everywhere else I think I’m supposed to be.
My workouts saved my mental health by getting me to take time for me and to stay in the present moment. I hope this inspires you to try adding physical fitness as a healing tool for yourself – it’s can do wonders for so many ailments including our emotional and mental health.