Open Heart, Open Mind

“After all these years, I was still the kid in the closet, too frightened to cry over something I couldn’t control … In that moment, I understood that, to rescue the part of me still locked in that closet, I would have to admit my vulnerability. I would have to let my beautiful tears flow.”

~ Clara Hughes, Open Heart, Open Mind, pg. 201

For Bell Let’s Talk Day, I wanted to share a book that is important to me, Open Heart, Open Mind, by Clara Hughes. For those of you who may not know, Hughes is not only a six-time Olympic medalist, but also the only Canadian ever to win medals at both the Summer and Winter games, in cycling and speed skating respectively.

I love her book for so many reasons. First, Hughes is an extraordinary athlete who is unapologetic about her competitive nature; her vitality radiates from every page of her book. Her strength and determination make her an inspiring role model for strong-minded women everywhere.

However, Open Heart, Open Mind is about more than Hughes’ sport success. She also writes with honesty and humility about her struggles with an alcoholic, emotionally abusive parent, drug/alcohol abuse in her teen years, body image dysmorphia and depression — issues to which, sadly, many of us can relate. Hughes and I also share the same birth date and she is a Winnipeg native, an amazing city in which I was also fortunate to live for a few years. So, for all these reasons, her book deeply resonates with me.

However, the main reason that this book is so important to me is that it arrived in my life exactly when I needed it most. I am doing well now, but five years ago, I was in a dark place. Unresolved grief over my mother’s death, work stress and health problems precipitated a mental health crisis in my own life.

In retrospect, a crisis was clearly coming. I was irritable, anxious and panicky. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t exercising. Frequent migraines created a nauseating haze of pain through which I struggled to do anything. In the darkest nights, I tossed and turned, contemplating the brevity and futility of life and aching for my mother to comfort me.

I had stopped reading entirely. At the time, I was a teacher, and had spent most of my career as a teacher-librarian. I was always reading something. But I couldn’t read anymore. I just couldn’t focus. All my energy was directed towards trying to maintain the appearance that everything was fine, trying to quell the ominous thoughts swirling in my mind. 

Is it any wonder that I was diagnosed with chronic migraine disorder, and later, major depressive disorder? I was beyond exhausted, emotionally wrung dry. And I felt totally frightened and humiliated by what was happening to me. It all came crashing down one dark, cold day in February. I stopped being able to function. I could barely move off our living room couch where I lay in a tight ball of physical and existential pain every day. I struggled to look after myself, let alone my two young children, as the migraines kept hammering me relentlessly. I felt so guilty, ashamed and alone.

And of course, I still wasn’t reading. Until I received a gift card for Mother’s Day to a bookstore, a very intuitive gift from my patient, worried husband. We walked into the book store and I saw Hughes’ book in a big display at the front. I was drawn to it immediately. I bought it, took it home and started reading again for the first time in months, devouring her memoir in only a couple of days. Her candor about her childhood, her mental health struggles and the path she took to wellness opened up my own heart and mind, making healing finally possible. One quote from her book stays with me to this day: “For me, movement through nature is pure medicine, for both body and mind.” Movement is medicine: that became a powerful key to wellness for me.

Nothing in life is simple; Hughes’ book did not instantly solve all my problems. I still had to do the work, and at times it was difficult. I regularly met with doctors, specialists and mental health professionals. I tracked my migraines and tried out several medications. Our family moved. I quit my stressful job and went back to school. I took up running. We got a dog, and then a cat. I started volunteering and then working again. Slowly I got better.

I still become anxious sometimes. I still get sad and irritable. I still get migraines, some of which can still debilitate me temporarily. And I still have setbacks. But I have learned to reach out for help much sooner. I have learned that I am not alone. And I still reread Hughes’ book when I need a boost of courage, and the reminder that movement is medicine. 

Books can take you far away, but they can also lead you home again. Back to yourself. Back to your life.

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