Monday Musings...When All You Own Goes Up in Flames

Here we are in Ontario sitting on our comfy couches, peering at our computer screens following in real time the blaze that is raging through Fort McMurray and edging ever closer to the Saskatchewan border. As we watch with curiosity and shock at the sheer power of the flames and the path of destruction they leave, we can’t help but wonder about all those who had to evacuate their homes and leave behind all the material conveniences we take for granted.

What would you take with you? What would you be willing to leave behind?

These are questions that we might do as an exercise in school. If you were stranded on a desert island, what three objects would you want to have with you? But we never take the exercise seriously and believe it will never happen to us, so why give it much thought. But what is happening now in Alberta is not a game. It’s real. What really is important? What do we really need?

When you are faced with losing everything, and haven’t had time to prepare, you’ve got three options: fight, flight, or freeze. When the tongues of the flames are licking the back of your neck, you can’t freeze. You’ll be fully consumed and the fire will be victorious in vanquishing your life. You might be inclined to fight as your anger boils over at the injustice of the fire threatening to swoop through your sanctuary and destroy it. But you realize your don’t have the tools or the training to tackle this torrid inferno. And so the only thing you can do is flee: to run as you have never run before, in a marathon that has no defined finish line. And you have limited time to decide what you’ll take for the road ahead.

Mental health struggles can feel a lot like this situation in Fort McMurray. We all believe that symptoms only happen to other people; that somehow we are immune to problems. We may hear of other people struggling or even being consumed by the flames of depression or anxiety, but it really doesn't affect me. There may even be judgement and misunderstanding that only people who are weak can’t handle the challenges of life. In Alberta, it didn't matter if a home was made of brick, wood, or straw, the fire consumed everything in its path. It did not discriminate. Mental illness, like a fire, shows no preference either. We know the stats that 1 in 5 Canadians will suffer with mental illness at least once in their lifetime, but 5 in 5 people are affected by it. We all have to decide what to do with the flames that are sure to come our way at some point in our life.

We've made amazing headway in breaking the stigma by building public awareness largely through the testimonies of athletes and celebrities who are open to sharing about their struggles. People are finding solace in knowing they are not alone in their head space. But there are still barriers to overcome. People are still waiting too long and waiting until they come to a crisis point before seeking help. I think this is because of the fight response. "I can do this on my own." "Tomorrow might be a better day.'"" I’ll get more sleep when life settles down." And the fire still burns and edges ever close the border of your mind. Your bucket of coping resources runs dry and you've got nothing left to fight the flames.

And so flight is your only choice. And what are you going to take with you? What would you be willing to leave behind?

These are probably the most important questions you can answer – whether it is in the case of a real fire that threatens to destroy your home and the contents of it, or whether it is the burning flames in your mind that consume your waking and sleeping life, your ability to enjoy life and to feel productive.

So if we could only take three items with us for our journey towards mental health, this is what we should take. First, research shows that support is the biggest thing you need for mental wellness: someone to help you understand your symptoms, stay by your side, but allow you to do the work of managing your mental world. This can be a friend, family member, or even a pet. Secondly, you need to take with you your memories of past triumphs. What has brought you peace in the past? How did you get through tough times before? We've all had struggles but we often don’t take the time to review the process of recovery. So make this an active habit. What did I do, or what did I tell myself so I could push through the flames? I'm sure that as the evacuees left the city of Fort McMurray in the midst of the encroaching fire, they were unsure of where they were going. But they likely had a full tank of gas, a passenger or two, items of sentimental value, and supplies to last them a few days. They knew to bring these things because they had travelled before, perhaps not in panic mode, but none-the-less, they thought about past journeys. Third, you need the help of professionals. Fire fighters are trained to assess the scene, know the tools to harness the blaze, and then determine the right approach to douse the flames and extinguish the fire. We have no problem calling the fire department when we see that the fire is beyond us. We need to do the same with mental health. You don’t want the smouldering flame to grow. It could cost you your life. Trust the experts and stay with the treatment plan, because it is all too easy for fires to reignite after we think they are gone.

Now, think about what you can leave behind. How many people carry unnecessary baggage with them? Past hurts, disappointments, rejections and failures are like weights that are pressing against your spine and forcing your feet to drag along the pavement. None of us can redeem the past. It is done. The present is what we have.

You may say, well my present reality is that I have lost everything. You have hit rock bottom emotionally, financially, socially and it is devastating. But there is something amazing in the human spirit. There is within most of us this power of resilience and desire to rebuild. You've overcome challenges before or you wouldn't be reading this. So, can you do it again?

Brian Jean, the MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin, who lost his own home in the fire, said rebuilding will actually provide "an opportunity to correct past urban planning mistakes". That is such a great perspective to take when we think about mental health. Rebuilding gives us an opportunity to let go of the past to create a stronger, brighter future. At the time of suffering, it seems impossible, but truly there are second chances in this life, to take what we have come through and be better for it. We can flee to a new future.

John Craig MacIssac, an evacuee, reflected on the loss of his home in his FB post: “I don't know what's left of it really. But I know it will stand again. It will be rebuilt. Because my story of McMurray is all too common. We are young and love our home. We have built it together as it has built us and our families.”

We have stories in common. We can rebuild health and hope together. You may feel like all you are or all you have has gone up in flames. But you too can flee to safety. Think about what you really need and rebuild your mind and future.

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