Depression has its way of convincing you that there is no way out of the darkness you are in. Tracey Maxfield was able to overcome that, escaping the rabbit hole of depression and, now, helping others do the same. She joins Patrick Veroneau to share with us her journey of coming out of that in this honest, raw, and hopeful episode. Bringing her book, Escaping the Rabbit Hole: My Journey Through Depression, Tracey talks about what it was like experiencing an acute depressive episode, how she battled through it, and recognized that there is hope. She shows others that there will always be a way out, even when it feels like all hope is gone. This conversation is particularly for those who have struggled and are struggling with difficult moments in their lives. Allow Tracey to remind you that tomorrow could be better. Join her as she shares the kind of mindset we need to have, as well as how we can impart that to our children as they grow up and face the realities of the world.
Listen to the podcast here:
Getting Out Of The Rabbit Hole Of Depression With Tracey Maxfield
My guest is Tracey Maxfield. She’s a retired nurse and a powerhouse. She’s an author of the book, Escaping the Rabbit Hole. She’s also the host of the very successful podcast called Engaged, Educate, Empower. In our conversation in this episode, she talks about her own experience battling depression and going down her own rabbit hole. The value here is trying to help people recognize that there are hope and ways to either help themselves or identify and help somebody else that going through a very difficult time. Certainly, we are in our environment right now where many people have struggled with going down on a rabbit hole. I hope you enjoy this episode. There’s so much value here.
Tracey, thank you for taking the time to be on the show. I appreciate it. We’re living in some unique times. We would both agree and we had this conversation about some crazy things that are going on. Your background certainly is well-suited in terms of you’ve had a wildly successful podcast as well as a blog. You had a book that you’ve written in regards to Escaping the Rabbit Hole that talks about your own journey. I’d like to have you tell your story in terms of what was it like to end up to where you are now and how did you get there? As we talked about before, how do we help people dealing with so much on their plate right now in these times?
Let’s take a step back and I’ll tell you a little bit about my story. I’m a nurse and retired with 37 years of experience. Back in 2011, when I started a new position, it was more of a supervisory team leader role but that was the first time I encountered a bully, and the bully was my superior. After about 4.5 years of constantly being harassed, threatened and intimidated, it wears you down. It culminated on August 20th, 2015 with a meeting that I had with her including union reps present. It was the icing on the cake per se. She basically came in with fully-loaded guns and fired at me. Personal, professional insults, lies and threats. It was horrible but what happened was I ended up falling down the rabbit hole.
I had a nervous breakdown or an acute depressive episode. My life changed. I can say I’m coming up to my anniversary of falling down the rabbit hole. My life since that day has never ever been the same. Certainly, it’s now better than it was, but in order to get to where I am now, I had to go through an awful lot, as you can appreciate. With depression, it’s not just the emotional cognitive. It’s the physical, suicide ideation and suicide attempts. It’s the feeling that you’re never ever going to be the person you were before and don’t even think that you can ever regain a possibility of life. It was through a lot of hard work, which comprised of journaling, expressing gratitude, sessions with my psychologist, medication and adopting a daily routine of a holistic approach to try and look after myself. All the time, as I started to get a little better, I started a blog. It was upon my psychologist’s recommendation to write a blog because most of my friends were healthcare professionals.
We’re talking social workers, doctors and nurses. When I would explain to them what I was going through, they couldn’t understand it, “You don’t look depressed. You seem fine. You’re functioning fine.” I was getting so frustrated that he recommended, “Start a blog. Tell them what it’s like living them with depression and give them an idea of what your life is like.” As soon as I started that, immediately, the conversations were, “We’re sorry. We never realized it was like that. This should be in a book.” Every single time I made a post, it was the same thing, “This should be a book.” After about six months, I was fortunate to be in touch with someone on LinkedIn who had previously written and published books.As human beings, we are our own worst enemies because we are so self-critical. Click To Tweet
I contacted her and said, “Do you want to take a look at this blog? Everyone’s going, ‘This should be a book. What do you think? Please be honest.’” A couple of hours later, she contacted me and said, “I have an editor for you in Toronto. Your book needs to be written.” Writing the blog, even though it was very painful because I was very raw and honest, it was also very cathartic. That definitely helped with the healing process and me coming to understand and coming to terms with what I was going through. The reason that I wanted to get the book out was because every day, I felt like I was the only one in the world going through this and no one would understand. That’s not true because the more people I met, the more I realized there were so many similarities. Even though each person’s journey with depression or any mental illness is different, there are certain things that we do have in common, perhaps the best way to say it.
I wanted someone who was reading the book to know, “You’re not alone.” Even if you think you are, you’re absolutely not alone. Over time, you will get better. In 2015, I never thought I would be sitting here talking to you. There was no hope and light. There was nothing. After the book was released, I began going to talk to people. I started a YouTube video. I did a weekly blog post about different types of mental illness, especially as they pertain to children and teenagers. I talked about bullying. I went on radios, podcasts and TV. My platform initially was to talk about my book in depression but I moved in the direction of speaking out for children and teenagers after I was invited to go to a middle school and talk to them.
I ended up having 63 teenagers, ages 11 to 15 come and confide in me about what they were going through regarding bullying, suicide, mental illness and self-harm. I was heartbroken and overwhelmed. Those were the two words. Overwhelmed that there were so many of them. I thought this is a problem with the school. It was only after I did some research that I realized it’s a global problem. This is something that’s happening everywhere. It was at that point upon a doctor friends’ recommendation who said, “This is your purpose. This is what you should be doing. It’s educating, going out there, advocating and supporting kids that are going through it.” That’s basically what I’ve done. Now I have a podcast, Engage, Educate, Empower. That’s how we connected because you were my guest on the podcast. It’s trying to get people to understand. I’m a firm believer of the more you know, the more empowered you are and the better able you are, not only to take control of your life, but to help others and try and move in a more positive direction.
I would guess that as this blog went out to, what it provided people was permission to be able to say, “I’m feeling that too. I’m going through that.” You felt a release from it but I’m sure they did too of saying, “It’s not just me.”
What surprised me was the number of messages I received from people that said, “I swear, you were standing over me as you were writing that.” It’s those feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, exhaustion and berating yourself. Dr. Daniel Amen is a very famous psychiatrist. He talks about ANTs in the brain, Automatic Negative Thoughts. I wrote a chapter about them because, as human beings, we are our own worst enemies. We are so self-critical. When you have a mental illness especially when you have depression, you allow those negative thoughts to percolate and 1 becomes 10, 20, and 100, and you knock yourself down constantly. It’s very hard to pull yourself out of that. That was also part of the message of the book of strategies of what you can do to take that next step forward and to keep going.
I mentioned at the beginning. I found that gratitude helped me enormously and that was being more mindful and accepting now and not, “Will I be healed tomorrow, next week or next month?” As bad as everything that I felt was going on with me, there was still beauty and wonderful things in the world. It was a habit of taking that time to acknowledge that there are wonderful things present. Lots of it was imagery from nature. It was those things that gave me some joy and peace. It gives you that little bit of motivation that even in the midst of all the darkness, tears, no it’s not, and everything that’s going on, you can stop for a moment and see two puppies playing, laugh and smile. You know that it’s possible. There’s something that you feel. To me, that was like the little ember that was getting brighter that you can feel peace and joy, you just got to keep working at it.
It’s interesting that you say it that way because I oftentimes think of it as a dance between expectation and gratitude. You need to expect that things are going to work out but also be grateful for where you are for the things that you do have. That’s how I see it as you were able to balance those things that you don’t beat yourself up. If you didn’t get, “I want to get to this level, but if I’m not there, I’m at least going to be grateful for this part of the journey right now knowing that I still expect to get there.”
One of the things I write about is it’s okay not to be okay all time. Here we are and it’s been years since the rabbit hole. Whilst I am so much better, unfortunately, with depression and I have the genetic form of depression, I still have good days, bad days and very bad days. In fact, when we were initially supposed to connect for the show, when you said to me how you do and I said, “I’m not doing well.” It was one of those weeks where it was very overwhelming.
When they used to happen, I get very scared because I used to say to people, “I’m dangling my feet in the rabbit hole or I’m circling in the rabbit hole.” It was that fear of, “I can’t go back down there.” Finally, I started saying to myself, “You were there and you got out so give yourself a break.” It’s not fair. Now is not a good day. You’re feeling very overwhelmed and hopeless but you know that tomorrow could be better and keep going forward. Once I gave myself permission to say, “It’s not such a good day now.” It takes the pressure off.
I heard somebody say once around mindfulness and challenges, they said to shake hands with your challenge as a way that you take the power away from it when you embrace it for that reason.Shake hands with your challenges as a way to take power away from them. Click To Tweet
Certainly, right now things are not good globally. I know especially the United States is having multiple challenges that they’re dealing with more so than other countries. Lots of people are feeling this confusion, this sense of being overwhelmed and stuck. It’s the uncertainty. With uncertainty and confusion comes fear because we all like to be or think we’re holding control. There are certain things in your life that you can control, especially your thought process, actions, the way you respond, the way you talk to people and body language. There are other things that are totally out of our control. This is why we’re seeing so many people that are reacting in a less than positive way to what’s going on. They have allowed their ANTs, Automatic Negative Thoughts, in the brain to take over to such a degree that sometimes they’re not able to think as clearly as they would have before.
We’re both on social media and I am seeing so much hatred, negativity and fear from people that have surprised me. It’s because they have allowed themselves to get caught up in this. Definitely, it’s like they’re in some vortex and they’re not quite sure how they’re going to get out and what life is going to be like when they do. They’re standing up for what they feel is right, but they’re standing up for things that haven’t even happened yet. They’re caught up in many of the conspiracy theories. They’re caught up in the, “This is what’s going to happen. You will have to do this and this,” and human nature says, “That’s not going to happen. You’re not infringing on my rights.” It allowed them to become a little bit emotional and carried away. They’re already preparing for what will happen when we don’t know what will happen if that makes sense.
Tracey, along those lines, it brings up an important topic around kids dealing with this. I haven’t seen the latest numbers but we already knew that suicide rates were trending higher in that age group under 24. You may know better than I am in terms of where those numbers are now, but I haven’t seen the exact other than to know that they’re not getting better through this whole thing. How many kids are now isolated and struggling because of this, but also having parents that need help understanding how you help kids deal with this if I’m the parent and I’m not dealing with this myself?
One of one good thing that has come out of all of this is there have been many resources that have come onto the internet from reputable organizations like the American Mental Health, the Canadian Mental Health and the World Health Organization that are providing resources and tools that parents and even children can use to make some sense of what is going on. We’re at the time where most governments are trying to get people back to a sentence of normalcy because we know the school year is about to restart again. That’s creating more fear and angst than ever before because of the unknown trajectory of this COVID-19. As parents, guardians, foster parent or even adult, any adult that’s involved with a child or teenager.
The most important thing that we have to remember is kids pick up so easily what you were thinking and feeling. If you’re anxious, panic-stricken and angry, they’re going to pick that up and that will then shape their behavior. That isn’t what we’re wanting to do. As parents, it’s now more than ever, is the time to try and remain very calm and positive. It’s time to get back to the basics of what is important, not only in an adult’s life but what is important in kids’ lives. That is the very small infrastructure that community network, who are the important people in that. It’s all working together as a team to reinforce support, love and confidence that we will be there with you. We don’t quite understand what’s going on just yet but don’t worry, we’re going to help you.
We will have a conference together or talk about, “If you go to school, you’re wearing a mask and your friend won’t, how is that going to make you feel? What will you do?” Try and get them to understand and get them to talk about their feelings. The most important thing, especially with kids, because by the age of fourteen, 50% of all mental illnesses will start showing signs and symptoms. By 24, it’s 75%. Kids are vulnerable. Teenagers are vulnerable period. Now, we bring into this equation COVID-19 or we add into this equation, Black Lives Matter, the racism, protests and everything that’s going on. We have kids that are very fearful, so as parents, we need to get informed.
We need to educate ourselves, first and foremost, to be there as a support to guide our kids. I know it’s very unfortunate because not everyone has that family network or connection. As parents, more than ever, you need to have this opportunity to start making personal connections with your child or your teenager to know what’s going on in their lives, what their fears are, what are their hopes once life gets back to normal, what would they like to do? What are they missing doing right now? How can you help them try and make the next best option? There is no easy answer but it’s okay. We don’t have the ideal solution in front of us but let’s brainstorm together. What could make it better? Kids and teenagers can come back with some very outside of the box thinking that helps inform adults way more than they would ever like to admit.
Through that, it would seem to me that if I want my kids to be more open and willing to have these kinds of discussions, it’s about vulnerability which I need to demonstrate that myself first. To be able to tell our kids, “I don’t have all the answers. I’m scared right now. I don’t know what’s going to be next.” There’s a balance there because it provides an opportunity for them to say, “It is okay to talk about this stuff. I don’t have to walk around like I’m okay. Put on a front when that’s what’s going on.” I watched my parents. They put on a front all the time. I know they’re stressed out but they act like it’s nobody’s business.
This is what we’re seeing. What this situation has done is people have shown us their vulnerability. Sometimes, for the best outcome, you have to embrace your vulnerability and give yourself permission to be vulnerable because you can move forward. Some people are ashamed or embarrassed by it that they then try to conceal it with anger, blame or negativity. In an ideal world, it is beyond honest. We are all hoping that you can go back to school. Are you good with that? Are you looking forward to going back to school? No. What scares you?
It opened those doors one after the other and it is saying, “I must be honest. I’m a little worried about you going back to school too but let’s work together.” Especially teenagers, as much as they don’t want to have the adults in their life telling them what to do, they would much prefer to work together and allow them to make decisions that you would agree with because they’re more likely to follow that plan instead of you imposing a plan on them that they have no say. It’s back and forth. The bottom line always is that you have got to keep reassuring them how much you love them, support them and you’re going to be there for them. Together as a family unit, you will get through this. More than anything, this is what adults need to hear. It is, “We’re in this together. We’re not alone. We’re going to do this. If this way doesn’t work, then we’ll look at that out of the way. We’ll figure it out.”
That was all kids want to know, “We’re going to figure this out,” but when you turn around, I’m going to be right there with you. It’s just reinforcing that over and over again and having those discussions. When I say discussions, I don’t mean you should be talking about it every hour, every minute of every day because it’s too much. It scares you, it overwhelms you, and you want to shut out the world. When you do talk about it, talk about it. If there’s a negative, counteract with a positive, “Mom, did you see the news? A hundred thousand people were diagnosed.” “I know. Isn’t that sad? Did you know that no one is dying right now? The medical treatment is improving. Look at all these people that have survived. That’s good.”We have to remember that kids pick up so easily what you are thinking and feeling, which will then shape their behavior. Click To Tweet
It’s always trying to find the positives that come out a bit and reinforcing, “We’re doing our part. We’re social distancing, washing hands and helping to be part of this solution.” That gives them that more confidence and a little bit of peace that we’re okay. It’s moving forward and trying to connect. There was a news reporter. The research has said that when COVID is over, they anticipate that mental illness amongst children, teenagers and adults around the world is going to be the highest numbers they have ever seen.
They anticipate at least a ten-year acute mental illness response because even when all of this is over, we don’t suddenly walk up the door and life was back to normal. Many people have dealt with many issues. We know that child abuse has significantly increased since lockdown. Not so much lockdown but social isolation of not going to school, online bullying, sexual predators and human trafficking. I couldn’t believe the numbers are three times higher than they were because having kids at home has provided a portal for them to weave their way into the kids’ lives and start taking them. It’s scary even though you’re in your home as parents, as adults, role models in that child’s life, you should not be given them free rein to go on any site to occupy their time. More than ever, you need to be talking about cybersecurity and working together., what sites are appropriate and what is not. Reinforcing all those danger signals with them because it has increased.
That’s where I think that as a parent, we play a significant role in how our kids are going to be able to address these things by how we show up. Unfortunately, that’s not available to all kids in all homes, but to me as a parent, that’s a huge responsibility to monitor how I respond because it’s being observed.
I always say, “Be responsive, not reactive.” As a parent, sometimes you have to literally bite your tongue and take that time out of mentally counting ten in your head before you will open your mouth to say something because we know whatever comes out of the mouth, your child is going to grab and hold of that. They are going to hear that. Even if you come back later and say, “I didn’t mean that.” They know at the moment you did especially if your eyes are open and right in the body language. I know that there are so many children and teenagers out there that do not have that stable family unit. That’s why it’s always important that as adults, as people in the neighborhood, in the community, you should always be looking out for the kids in that community to be their guiding force, their role model, a person that they can turn to if they’re struggling or something is not right.
You need to be aware of what’s going on. If you know that there’s a particular family that is not doing well, it’s not a case of mind your own business. It’s a case of, I’ll text, phone or stop by, maintain social distance and say, “I’m going to the store. Do you need anything? How’s everything going? Is everything okay? I picked up a few video games. Do you want to borrow them?” It’s keeping eyes on in a situation because we know what goes on behind closed doors for many kids and women in domestic abuse relationships. With children, they are still being abused. They are witnessing that.
We need to move past the intrusive nosy neighbor and be the concerned adult that’s looking out for the best interests of a family during this time, “I’m just checking if you’re okay. Do you want me to pick up something? Do you need a ride to an appointment? Is this something I can do?” If they say, “No, everything’s fine.” You’ve made that initial step, that’s why when you’re talking to your children as well, you may have a good family unit but ask about their friends because their friends don’t. It’s that link them to, “How are your friends?” More than ever, if we’re going to come through this, we’ve got to start standing together. We can stand together against political unrest and when we want to go on bash the police. Why aren’t we standing together as communities to support one another because that’s how the community grows?
I would circle around to a couple of very solid strategies that you had in the beginning that helped to do that. One is journaling but also looking at it from a standpoint of, “What am I grateful for?” There’s a contagion to that that we create. If we focus on the gratitude piece, there are a lot of things that are wrong right now but I believe that there are many opportunities that come from this. Also, there are more good things than bad things. If we practice that, as you said around gratitude, it puts us in that place that we become more problem solvers too, as opposed to getting sucked into, “This sucks.”
The challenge is as adults, we have to make it become a positive habit because it will reflect on the children and the teens. They will pick up on that and they believe that negativity is normal. When your teenagers say, “It’s not fair. Life sucks. I can’t see my friends. I can’t do this. I can’t do that.” You can miss them but you understand, “I hear what you’re saying but why don’t you try this or what was nice about now? What was good about now?” The more you retrain them into thinking that, you better able them to manage anxiety and stress when it happens and not beat themselves up. I’ll share a very quick funny story. When I was at that school and I’d been given 30-minute talks to the teenagers, at the end of the day, there was this thirteen-year-old boy and he hadn’t been engaged at all.
I knew there was something wrong with him. He was all in a black hoodie, very withdrawn. He came and he’s very embarrassed, he asked me, “Could I talk to you?” I said, “Yes, of course, you could.” He fell into my arms, sobbing his heart out. He said to me, “I’ve been in the rabbit hole for seven years. When will I escape?” He had depression since he was six. I sat with him in a private area and started talking to him. Everything was very dark and black. I said, “Mom.” He goes, “Mom is good.” I said, “That is something to be grateful for. That’s your gratitude is that you have a mother who loves you and will do anything for you.”
He said yes. Twenty minutes in I said, “Tell me, I know life sucks right now but what is it that you’re grateful for?” He is like, “Nothing.” I said, “When you go home, are you going to have an ice cream or something? That can be gratitude because that’s something that you love and you enjoy.” He’s like, “I got nothing. It’s just dark. It’s black.” I thought, “How am I going to get a thirteen-year-old boy to understand gratitude?” I’m giving him examples and he’s like, “I know I get it.” I said, “I can tell you one thing right now that you could write down that you’re grateful for.” He goes, “You can.” I said, “You’re sitting here with this hot woman who’s got her arms around you, telling you that you’re awesome. That’s gratitude.” He laughed and I said, “See, gratitude is little things. It’s going home, watching your favorite show on TV, playing a video game, and get to the biggest school. It’s going outside and feeling the sun on your face.” He looked at me and he said, “I get it.” He was very calm. I said, “Are you okay now?” He goes, “I’m okay.”Sometimes for the best outcome, you have to embrace your vulnerability. Click To Tweet
He wandered off. About an hour later as I was packing up to leave, he passes by the library, I saw him, I smiled and he was jumping up and down, waving his hands going, “I get it.” If the kids can figure out the tool, if you can give them guidance to what may help them, they will run with it and they will adapt it for themselves but it gives them that sense of control back in their life and that little bit of purpose. It’s always a good exercise to do every day with kids, even when they’re very young. What made you happy, what makes you smile or what was good about now? You get them starting to feel about positives in their life. That will always work when the not so nice things happen.
That was the last piece of it. It’s about routine at that point is what you’ve created.
Routine is safe but you can bring things into your life, into your daily routine that are mindful. It’s appreciating the moment, the little things. More so now than ever with the way our life has had to restructure with COVID, we have to get back to mindfulness and stop looking at, “Will it be gone in December? What is Christmas going to look like? What does my birthday next March going to look like?” “No, let’s do now.” Let’s try and make now the best it can be given the circumstances. If it wasn’t, then let’s give it a go again tomorrow. If you start showing up and doing that as a family, it will filter down to the kids and they will start doing it automatically.
Tracey, if people wanted to get a hold of you, read your book, listen to your podcast, what’s the best way to reach out to you?
The easiest way is to go to my website, www.TraceyMaxfield.com. Everything is on there, my blog, appearances, podcasts, resources and the book. It’s one-stop shopping.
Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you. It’s been wonderful.
I think the things that you’ve mentioned here about gratitude, journaling and making it a routine are such a strong recommendation for people to help them to deal with us. I hope people will take hold of that. Wishing you all the best.
Same to you and your family.
About Tracey Maxfield
Tracey Maxfield is a retired nurse with over 36 years’ experience in gerontology, mental health, and dementia care. She is a regular guest on well-known author and radio host Peter Rosenberger’s show Hope For the Caregiver on Sirius radio. Tracey has written multiple articles on dementia care, medical research and mental illness/bullying in teenagers. She is the Purple Angel Dementia Ambassador for the Okanagan. B.C. and NAASCA Ambassador for B.C., Canada
Tracey experienced her first episode of clinical depression in her twenties and lived with chronic depression ever since. However, nothing prepared her for the acute depressive episode she experienced in 2015. After enduring years of intense workplace stress, harassment and bullying, she plummeted into an abyss of darkness, hopelessness and despair the likes of which she had never experienced before.
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