Tag Archives: anxiety

On This Day In History

7 Aug

It’s my birthday, y’all. I’m 32 today.

I had a personal essay go up on Jezebel today (trigger warning for talk of suicide)

I also had a serious scholarly article about Anne Boleyn go up on The Toast.

It’s been a big day.

We drove for three hours to see my grandmother in St-Bruno, then drove three hours back to Kingston, where we’re staying with my mom for the week. I only got to chill with my Nana for about two hours, but it was one hundred percent worth it because I get to see her once or twice a year tops. My Nana is a really rad lady, in case you were wondering.

She hates having her picture taken, but here’s an awesome picture of my grandfather I found while I was there:

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Also this is how big the fucking hedge is in my grandmother’s backyard (Theo pictured for scale), so whenever I’m there I feel like I’m chilling in a fairytale forest, which is obviously something I’m into.

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I love that stupid hedge an unreasonable amount. I used to play hide and seek in there with my cousins when I was a kid. Also we turned part of it into a fort where we did secret things. And by secret things I mean played house.

We made it back to Kingston by early evening, and I paid my yearly tribute to Hiroshima. They hold a Peace Lantern ceremony here in one of the parks downtown, and the ritual of making lanterns, folding cranes and singing Pete Seeger songs has become an important part of my birthday. It’s kind of weird to feel so tied to this horrible event that happened decades before I was born, but I’m also weirdly thankful for the moments of sad remembrance on what is otherwise a happy day. The bombing of Hiroshima feels like a part of who I am, in a way that I can’t really properly articulate.

Anyway.

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Making lanterns with Theo

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The boy beside us, Yuto, made the lantern below. As you can see, there’s Pikachu and also an illustration of the bombing of Hiroshima. He was adorable and a great artist. I think that placing these two scenes side by side really makes a statement.

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Making paper cranes:

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My crane:

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The lantern procession:

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Getting ready to float them out on the water:

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Perfect.

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This birthday was one of the good ones.

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“You Know I Love You A Lot Too Even If I Sometimes Get Impatient”

4 Aug

I am a person who needs constant reassurance that other people love and value me.

And when I say constant, I mean fucking constant.

Like, in a perfect world, every morning and evening all of my friends would fill out a survey detailing how they felt about me. In this document they would remind me of the fact that they loved me, and let me know what my areas of improvement were, so that I could fix any little issues before they blew up. Or if, for whatever reason, I couldn’t fix them, I would, at the very least, not feel blindsided by any big conflict that they might bloom into. I could plan ahead how I would react, the pithy things I would say and the brilliant retorts I would make. I wouldn’t melt into a sobbing, gibbering mess, the way I usually do.

The way I always do.

I found an old notebook of mine in my mother’s basement today. It was from the first grade and was supposed to be a sort of journal, a place where I would write little stories or comments to my teacher every Monday, and she would answer back. A lot of the stuff that I wrote is pretty funny, and probably fairly typical for a six year old.

Stuff like:

“On Sunday we went to Debbie and Dwight’s farm and I saw a lot of sheep. They separated the mothers and the fathers and the babies. And I saw BC, their cat.”

“I have a loose tooth. Next week I will go to the dentist.”

“Today I will go to Brownies. It’s where I go to learn how to jump rope and be nice.”

“Last night I went to bed at 8:20.”

Pretty average, I guess. Except for the fact that tacked on to the end of nearly every other “entry” is a note that says, “I love you, Madame Renée.”

“Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted a dog but she lived all by herself and didn’t have any money. One day she found a dog. I love you, Madame Renée.”

“Last night we went out for dinner. I love you, Madame Renée.”

“I would like to switch seats please, Madame Renée. Have you corrected my recherche yet? Goodbye, Madame Renée. I love you, Madame Renée.”

“I don’t know what to write. I love you, Madame Renée.”

At first, reading back through all this stuff, I had a hard time figuring out what my angle was. Had I really been such a suck-up back then? That didn’t sound like me but hey, I guess a person can change a lot in twenty six years.

Then I realized why I kept writing “I love you” – because every single time I did so, she would write “I love you, too.” It was a way of checking in, a way of making sure that we were still cool. It was especially a way of making sure that I hadn’t angered or frustrated her past the point of no return, which was and is a thing that I’ve worried about doing to my friends and family for as long as I can remember.

Finally, there’s an entry towards the end of the notebook that says simply, “I love you, Renée,” and then is followed by a lower case alphabet in cursive writing.

My teacher’s reply is something that I would imagine a lot of people who know me even now would like to say to me:

“You know that I love you a lot too, even if I get impatient sometimes.”

I have a hard time understanding that I can still have conflict with people that I love. In my head, it seems so black and white: either you love me or you don’t. And if you’re angry at me, or frustrated with me, or hurt by something that I’ve done, then you don’t love me. And if you don’t love me, it’s almost certainly because of something I’ve done, some way in which I’ve fucked up. If you don’t love me, I probably deserve it.

And so I melt down into that sobbing, gibbering mess and feel like I can’t breathe and feel like the world is ending and feel like I am not worthy of anyone’s love. Like it’s somehow just a weird trick of fate that I have a husband and a son and lots and lots of friends. I feel as if when I have any kind of conflict with someone, it’s because they’re finally seeing the real me, the bad me, and now that the jig is up they’ll never love me again.

I do a lot of stupid little things to try to help shield people from seeing the true, terrible version of myself that I try so hard to keep hidden. I buy people a lot of little presents, as if these objects might work like some kind of charm to keep them from leaving me. I go out of my way to do thoughtful things, so that I might be seen as a thoughtful person. I avoid doing things for myself unless I think that I truly “deserve” it, so that people will believe that I’m a martyr instead of a monster. None of this is logical. None of this is sustainable. And, finally, none of this is actually useful in the long-term.

I need to learn how to manage conflict without resorting to, “you’re right, everything is my fault and it’s no wonder you hate me.” I need to start believing that people love me and want to be around me because I’m smart and funny and interesting, not because I buy them shit and solve all their problems. Most of all, though, I need to remember that my friends and family love me a lot, even if they sometimes get impatient with me. Because that is how relationships work – you have conflict, and you work through it, and then it’s even stronger than ever. No friendship will ever be conflict-free – and if it is, that probably means that something is seriously wrong.

So hey, six-year-old me, I’m sorry I still haven’t figured this shit out yet. But I want you to know that I see you, and I know how you feel, and I’m still trying. And I’m going to keep trying. So please hold on and don’t give up hope. I got this.

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Pharmacopeia, or, The Drugs Don’t Work

11 Jun

TW for talk of suicide

Some days, as I rush around the apartment trying to get ready to face the world, I can’t help but feel like a traveling pharmacy. Inside the vast expanses of my purse, along with my laptop, my wallet, my keys, my book-du-jour, two shades of Sephora lipstick (neutral pink “charmer” and come-at-me crimson “tango”), my headphones, my phone, assorted bandaids, bobby pins and hair elastics, I neatly arrange the bottles of multicoloured pills through which I measure out my life like those metaphorical coffee spoons. Blood-red prescription iron supplements, safety-vest-orange Zoloft, dingy red-brown Seroquel, electric blue Imovane and, of course, the virginal pink birth control pills. My own private stash.

The pills are like little hand-holds to grab onto as I swing myself through my day. Orange and red with my breakfast, to keep my mood somewhere above apocalyptic-crying-level and to boost my energy, red again with supper, to keep my iron levels up over night, then red-brown, pink and blue at bedtime to respectively “enhance” my anti-depressant, make sure that I don’t accidentally bring forth another life onto this dismal planet, and then float me off to sleep the sleep of the innocents.

I’ve been on psychotropic drugs since I was sixteen, and can give you a poetic sort of laundry list of all the different types I’ve tried: Paxil, Prozac, Remeron Effexor, Elavil, Ativan, Wellbutrin, each at varying and increasing dosages. Paxil was the first one they tried on me, and when it perform as expected, they kept increasing the amount until I was a miserable wreck: twenty five pounds heavier, lethargic, awake all night and falling asleep in class. The funny thing was that my doctor kept telling me that it was working, that he was seeing improvements. Never mind that I felt worse than ever – to him, it definitely seemed as if I was getting better. It took months of arguing before he agreed to try a different drug.

The latest addition to my personal valley of the dolls is the Seroquel, typically used as an antipsychotic. I wondered if my doctor was trying to tell me something. I asked Nathan if he thought my doctor was trying to tell me something.

Me: It’s an antipsychotic. Do you think my doctor thinks I’m psychotic but just doesn’t want to say anything in case it upsets me? Am I psychotic?

Nathan: The medium isn’t always the message, Tiger. [Editor’s note: he likes to call me Tiger. Sometimes also Buddy or Slugger or Buckaroo. One time it was Tex.]

Me: But Marshall McLuhan said it was!

Nathan: Heritage Moments aren’t always right.

But then again, sometimes they are. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

I’ve never really been able to tell if these drugs help at all (except for the sleeping pills, which are an insomniac’s best friend, and, of course, the birth control, thank god). Sometimes I take them and things get better, but it’s hard to know if that’s from the pills or from the natural dips and rises of my inner life. But I keep taking them, even after I swear that I won’t. They’re well-marketed, these drugs, and at my weakest moments I always find myself acquiescing. The doctors make a good case for acquiescing.

Those doctors always sell me on the antidepressants by telling me that I have a chemical imbalance, a lack of serotonin that causes my brain to short circuit and makes me want to die. That’s the best way to describe what it feels like to be suicidal – a short circuit, a glitch in the system, a design flaw. Killing yourself becomes the answer to everything. Your mind becomes like a record needle that jumps the groove, a sort of skip in your mental process where instead of going forward and thinking up solutions to your problems, all that you can come up with is, the only way out is to kill yourself. And the drugs are supposed to fix that skip, supposed to make it so that your record can play all the way until the end, and then you can flip it over, then put on another record, and so on ad infinitum, happily ever after.

The idea of a chemical imbalance is supposed to make you feel like you’re not crazy in the 19th century meaning of the word;  you’re not some kind of incurable case about to be shipped off to Bedlam. What’s wrong with you is physical – like a diabetic who lacks insulin (they’re always comparing selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs to insulin for some reason), you just need a little medical help replacing something that your body is failing to make on its own, and then you’ll be fine. It’s not really a mental illness so much as it is a physical condition with mental manifestations. You’re not like those people.

By those people they mean, of course, the people with schizophrenia, or borderline personality disorder or some kind of nonspecific psychosis. Doctors never let you forget that there is a hierarchy of mental illnesses, one which you might slip down at any given moment. Doctors want you to remember that your place in the mental illness food chain is a relatively coveted one, lest you get any big ideas about going any crazier.

It’s easy to internalize the stigma against mental illness. Sure, you’re mentally ill, but you’re not like them. You don’t ever want to be like them.

Never mind that you already are one of them, no matter how you frame it. Never mind that all of your attempts to distance yourself, to other, only make things worse for everyone. Because you’re basically giving healthy people permission to other you.

You and your delicately imbalanced chemicals.

The chemical imbalance theory has been around since the 1960s. There was never much research done into the idea; it was just something that seemed like it could be right, and everyone sort of ran with it. Maybe they couldn’t properly test for that sort of thing back then. Maybe theories were the best they could go on. But now, fifty years later, it might be time to re-examine those theories.

According to Robert Whitaker, author of Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, doctors have known for a long time that the chemical imbalance model is likely flawed. In an interview on CBC’s The Sunday Edition, he says,

And as early as 1998, the American Psychiatric Association in its textbook says we’re not finding that people with depression have any abnormality in their serotonin, but because it’s such an effective metaphor for getting people to take the drugs and sell the drugs, it’s continued to be promoted.

According to Whitaker, people who take psychiatric drugs were more likely to still have symptoms five years later than those who didn’t take psychiatric drugs. Because, see, here’s the catch – people who take SSRIs but don’t have low serotonin to begin with begin to rely on those drugs to manage their serotonin levels. SSRIs actually reduce the brain’s ability to produce serotonin.

So maybe the drugs have never actually been helping me, or any of us; maybe all they’ve done is create a population of people who are dependent on psychiatric medication.

And maybe The Verve were right after all, and the drugs don’t really work, they just make you worse.

It bears thinking about, anyway.

I’ve been reading about lobotomies recently (as any good mental health patient does, I suppose), and I came across this gem in Ronald Kessler’s The Sins of the Father describing Rosemary Kennedy’s lobotomy:

We went through the top of the head, I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch.” The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. “We put an instrument inside,” he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman put questions to Rosemary. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing “God Bless America” or count backwards….. “We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.” ….. When she began to become incoherent, they stopped.

Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like doctors take the same approach – albeit on a much smaller scale – with psychiatric drugs. Increase the dosage until the patient becomes incoherent, or at least docile. Push the pills until they don’t feel anything, because feeling nothing is better than feeling sad or confused or anxious. Don’t offer counselling, or therapy, or life management skills. Just fork over pills pills pills until some kind of effect (or affect – little psychiatric joke there for you) is achieved.

The truth is that we don’t know how psychiatric medication works – we just know that sometimes it does. If you’ve ever taken the pills, you know that it’s a lot of trial and error until you find something that gives you some kind of relief. Which is great and everything for the people who benefit from it, but where does it leave the rest of us? We become guinea pigs of a sort, choking down brightly-coloured pill after pill, praying that something, anything will work. Because, honestly, it’s better than the alternative.

The alternative is, of course, that the brain is still a vast unknown. That we are only just barely beginning to grasp its complexity, and we may never fully understand it. That those of us who suffer from mental illness are sailing in uncharted waters, with no stars to guide us. What looks like Cassiopeia or Orion to everyone else is just a jumble of unknown lights to us. And maybe for some, the drugs make the stars realign into their proper order – but for the rest of us, maybe we need to begin creating our own private constellations to ferry us from one point to another.

The thought is terrifying, and I feel unequipped to deal with it. I’m not an astrologer. I just want the same stars as everyone else.

I’m going to keep taking the drugs, at least for now. They feel like a sort of safety net, and I know that I’m not ready to walk the high wire without them. But someday, someday soon, I want to begin to chart my own inner universe. I want a map of my own personal stars, and there isn’t anyone else who can do that for me. If I’m not willing or able to play amateur stellar cartographer, well, then, what’s the point? A lifetime of one brightly-coloured pill after another, each with its own dreary side effects, none of them even remotely effective. I can’t live like that.

But I haven’t lost faith that I can, somehow, find a way to live.

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Life Goes On And Other Garbage

18 May

The main problem with life is that it goes on. And on. And on.

People say that like it’s supposed to comfort you. Like, if you don’t get the job you wanted or your dog dies or the guy you’re so smitten with just out of the blue stops calling, your mom or your friend or your boss will inevitably say, oh, well, life goes on. As if i’s supposed to make you feel better, somehow, knowing that not only do you have to deal with this stupid bleeding heartache, but even while you gingerly nurse that hurt you still have to keep making your stumbling way through this magnificent/godawful old world.

Life goes on even after you’ve poisoned every good thing that’s ever come your way. Life goes on after you’ve single-handedly destroyed every relationship that was important to you, as if you were on some kind of mission to prove just how unloveable a person can be. Life goes on after you’ve fucked around so much at work, knowing all the while that you’re fucking around and hating yourself for it, that you face the very real risk of being fired. Life goes on, and you’re left standing amid all the sad wreckage of your little self. Life goes on even on the days when you can’t get out of bed. Life goes on especially on those days.

Life goes on after the good stuff, too. Like that walk home from the bar with your lover, when both of you were tipsy enough to find everything perfect and funny, even the things that were neither perfect nor funny. It was summer then, a real big city summer where daytime heat smashes you hard against the pavement, but  that night was a sort of reprieve. The baking stillness of the day was gone, and there was a delicious breeze coming from somewhere, maybe the lake. The leaves on the trees were broad and green and made a soft shushing sound above you. The streetlights hazy, and the world smelled like fresh cut grass. You knew that when you got home you would fuck and eat junk food and watch cartoons and then fall asleep in a tangled pile like a pair of puppies.

It was the kind of moment that you feel nostalgic for even as you’re living through it – you catch yourself mid-laugh and realize how happy you are, and then you instantly feel the sharp pang of longing for the thing you’re still in the middle of experiencing.

But life goes on.

You don’t get to hit pause or take a break from living. Even if you stay perfectly still and will everything around you to do the same, life still steamrollers over you. There’s no chance to sit back and appraise the situation, no time to collect your wits or figure out what you’re going to do next. You have to stay on your toes, you have to keep running, or else life will crush you. But even once you’re crushed, life goes on.

I have such a deep ambivalence about living. Things are either painfully, frantically wonderful or else they’re bitterly terrible. I love this world, but I love it with a suffocating zeal that can’t possibly be maintained. I rarely ever seem to hit that balance of peaceful contentedness that other people seem to manage – I’m always running headlong into something, trying to create some feeling that would otherwise be lacking. And if I do somehow manage to hit that point of effortless happiness, I always manage to sabotage myself. I’m like Shiva, the destroyer of worlds, except that I’m Anne, the destroyer of boring, petty human lives.

Which isn’t easy.

I mean, you really have to work hard to be this consistently vicious and miserable all of the time.

It’s not that I want to be unhappy, it’s just that my brain is an expert at leading me on these circuitous little journeys that always start out so promisingly but end with me stabbing myself in the back. I’m an ouroboros of anguish, both the giver and receiver of all my own pain. I’m hell-bent on being the wrecking ball that smashes through the wall of my own house. I’m all-the-other-semi-accurate-and-very-dramatic metaphors you can think of.

And, I mean, we could delve into all the reasons why I act this way, but frankly the story is long and unoriginal. Suffice to say that shit happened, some of it was my own fault, and now I’m here. The rest I’ll save for my therapist.

Because life goes on and I’ll have another therapy session this Wednesday and then I’ll come home and crash into my bed and try to sleep but probably I won’t be able to.

And then I’ll get up and putter around the house and maybe wash the dishes or start dinner since life, of course, goes on.

I wish that I could wrap this post up on a hopeful note, maybe with a line of trite wisdom that you might find on a greeting card or in a particularly terrible self-help book. I want to be able to tell you that everything’s going to be fine, that sure, life goes on, but it’s all in what we make of it and we have to take the good with the bad and there are other fish in the sea. I wish I could tell you that I wasn’t sitting here in a seething fury of fear and self-hatred, but that wouldn’t be true. I wish I could tell you that I wasn’t a self-indulgent, oversharing little brat, but. Well. Here we are.

The most that I can do is offer all of this up to you. Maybe you’ll see some of yourself reflected here. Maybe a sentence or two will strike you as being quite true, in a way that you were never able to articulate before. Or maybe this will help you be more compassionate or some junk like that.

You, the people reading this, are the only thing that make these garbage essays about my garbage feelings worthwhile. Because you always seem to glean some kind of meaning from them, even when all I can see is a morass of bad prose. You’re the way that I manage to justify bleeding this way all over the internet. You somehow make that bleeding important.

Against all odds, you give me hope.

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When Getting Better Is No Longer An Option

27 Apr

Trigger warning for talk of suicide

I used to think that I would outgrow it.

I used to think it was just hormones. The same hormones that caused the constellation of angry red pimples on my face and back. The same hormones responsible for the dark, wiry hair between my legs and nearly unnoticeable A-cup-sized swell of my chest. I thought that once the hormones settled down, I would feel better. Normal. But even once I grew used to my new body, even once I hit my twenties and everything was supposed to level out, I still felt it. The same howling misery, the same blind, raging creature whose claws and teeth were sunk somewhere too deep to find, was still there.

I did not outgrow it.

I used to think that I would get better, if by getting better I meant being cured. I used to think that I would find the right combination of drugs and therapy and life choices to make this thing, whatever it was, go away. Or maybe I would just wake up one morning and it would be gone, instantly and inexplicably, the same way it had come. I thought that it might recede like the tide going out, and then, like a bare beach scattered with seaweed and shells, I would go back to being the person I’d been before, only with a few small relics left over from what I’d been through.

I did not get better.

I might never get better.

These past few months have been hard ones. Really hard. And I don’t know how to talk about this, except that I think I should. For the last weeks of March and the first few weeks of April I was suicidal. Suicide was all I could think about. I didn’t want to die, exactly, but I didn’t want to be alive, either, and I couldn’t think of any other option. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t read. I’d injured my hamstring, so I couldn’t really do yoga. I couldn’t string two thoughts together. I couldn’t even follow a conversation. All that I could do was get up in the morning and drag myself to work, and then drag myself home and cry. On weekends Matt would take over childcare, because I couldn’t get out of bed. Everything seemed awful, without any understanding of why it was awful. I felt like I’d come up against a brick wall, and all I could do was scratch at it until my nails broke and my fingers bled. I couldn’t imagine what the future would look like, other than more of the same but worse.

None of these are especially good reasons for being suicidal. But the thing about being suicidal is that you don’t need a good reason. You just are, and you don’t know how to get out of it. What makes it even worse is that you can’t talk about it – suicide is too big, too scary to bring up with your friends and family. And if you mention it to a health professional, well, I mean, forget it. All they want to do is lock you up so that you can’t do it (and rightly so), but they don’t seem to want to talk to you about the whys and hows of the way that you feel. Which means not only is everything awful, but on top of that you don’t have any kind of outlet. Because you don’t want the worry or the pity or the fear of the people around you.

So you just don’t talk about it.

Things are slowly improving now, but I know it will come back. That’s the funny thing – when I’m well, I’m constantly aware of it waiting for me, biding its time, sidling around me like a constant threat, and yet when I’m in the middle of a breakdown I can’t imagine that I’ll ever be ok again. When things are bad, the only thing that exists is the pain I feel. That is my only reality. While some part of me logically knows that it’s a cycle and eventually I have to come out of it, there is just no way to make myself believe that fact. The only fact I can trust in is how terrible everything is in that moment.

I’m learning to live with the fact that I am not going to get better, if by not getting better I mean that I am probably going to live with depression for the rest of my life. This thing, this goddamn soul-sucking thing, is not something that I can cut out, or drown, or poison. I can’t look at a CT scan and point out where it is. I can’t even really know anything about it, except that it lives inside of me and feeds off of me and leaves me aching and exhausted and so sad that sad isn’t even the right word for it. I don’t know what the right word is; maybe there isn’t one.

I’m also learning to live with the fact that I am never going to be the person I was before all of this started. I’m not even sure that it makes sense to want to be her anymore – she’s an absurdly hopeful little thirteen year old girl with no life experience and little understanding of how the world works. She’s the last memory I have of what I was like before this dark creature began nesting inside of me, and for a while I clung to her image as something that I could maybe someday achieve again, but I need to recognize that she’s gone. She’s gone and she is never, ever coming back.

Mental illness destroyed who I was. And I’m at a place now where I’m trying to recognize that that’s not a bad thing. I mean, I don’t think that it’s a good thing either. It’s just a thing. A fact. A truth. My family and I have had to adjust to this reality; we’ve had to mourn the loss of who I was and who I might have been, while at the same time accepting the person who was left behind. It’s a funny sort of thing, a weird feeling that I’ve somehow lived two lives – like a building gutted by a fire whose façade stays the same but whose interior, once restored, is entirely different.

I don’t know how to explain it any better than that.

So I’m learning to live like this. I’m learning to ask for concrete things – help with housework, help with childcare, help with routine daily tasks. I’m getting used to the idea of talking to my employer about my mental health, and negotiating the possibility of time off when I need it. I’m trying to be better about accepting the fact that sometimes I just need to lie in bed and do nothing. I’m trying to be better about accepting all of this, because fighting it tooth and nail has gotten me nowhere.

I’m trying to tell myself that I am not weak. I am strong, and I will get stronger. The person that I was might be gone, but this version of me, the one that exists now, is just as good as she was – mentally ill, yes, but kind, compassionate, smart, funny, and with so many people who care deeply for her. She, too, is worthy of love.

If you are depressed, experiencing suicidal thoughts or otherwise need someone to talk to, please call 1-800-273-8255

For international readers, here’s a database of crisis centres listed by continent

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On Being Useful

8 Apr

I often worry about being useful.

Especially these days, when I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of bad moods and even the most basic daily activities are a struggle to complete. The truth is that for this past month I’ve barely been able to take care of myself, let alone do things like wash the dishes or give my kid a bath or think up genius words to write. For most of this year so far I have been the opposite of useful, and that’s been frightening and disorienting. I am so accustomed to being the unstoppably active one, the go-getter, to do-er of things that I just don’t know what to make of myself right now. All that I know is that I am not useful, either to myself or to anyone else.

I don’t just mean in a general sense, like a broad what-am-I-doing-with-my-life sort of thing, but rather an exhaustive catalogue of every little thing that I accomplish in a day. I worry about what I should be doing at any particular moment, and even times of rest are evaluated by what and how much they are accomplishing. For example, if I spend half an hour sitting in a coffee shop reading my book, then I tally that up as thirty minutes of preparing myself for the rest of the day, or thirty minutes longer that I will be able to work that night, or thirty minutes of “getting better.” I’m told that focussing on myself will help me get better, as if I don’t spend all of my time already mired in the stupid fucking mess that is my pathetic self. At least being useful helps me forget myself, even just briefly.

I’m encouraged by many people – by doctors, therapists, friends and family – to think that doing pleasurable things is part of the cure for for what ails me. And I know that these people have good intentions, and I know that they only want me to relax and be happy, but the truth is that telling me this only results in me feeling that experiencing pleasure is yet another thing that I have to check off my list. Pleasure is not something to achieve in and of itself, but rather a means to an end – it’s a way to fix my broken brain, or a way to create or maintain a relationship with someone else, or else just a way to swing from one moment to another so that I can make it through the day. On my worst days, the idea of pleasure seems like little more than work. And if I’m going to work, then why not be useful?

I worry about how much love I will lose if I am not useful. If I am not constantly on the move, if I am not always somehow working towards something important, if I am not proving my worth at every chance that I get, then how will I convince people that they ought to keep me around? Surely my value to them depends solely on my ability to keep the conversation going, to offer whatever help I can, to soothe hurt feelings or give encouragement or else plan interesting activities. Surely if I were to sit there and let my face go slack, if I were to let every little bit of happiness, eagerness, optimism, charm, sweetness or whatever else it is that I think people want from me drain out of my expression, then everyone would turn and run. Surely if I were to let anyone see my true self, the self that doubts and is sometimes afraid and sometimes clueless about what to do, then no one would love me. What else, other than my usefulness, do I have to offer?

I’ve been wondering lately if this desire to be useful is a gendered trait. The men that I know don’t seem to have any trouble kicking back and spending an hour or two watching a movie or playing guitar or reading a book. It seems to be mainly the women that I know who are constantly bustling about, washing a dish here or tidying a room there. The men seem much more capable of just being, whereas the women seem much more intent on justifying why they should be allowed to be. And when these women are sick or hurt or otherwise unable to fulfill what they see as their duty, they are the first to apologize to everyone around them for how useless they are. Perhaps there’s a part of us that believes that if we want to have it all, then we need to do it all, if only to convince the world that we’re capable enough for this.

Sometimes the feeling of not being useful brushes uncomfortably close to what we imagine female frailty might feel like. And that is the last thing that we want.

But the truth is that equality lies not in our ability to tackle everything, but rather in our ability to share responsibility. And feminism doesn’t just depend on women enthusiastically tackling every issue that comes their way in an effort to fix the gender gap; it also depends on our being able to sit with ourselves, to accept ourselves as we are in that moment rather than constantly looking for areas of improvement. And none of this is to say that we should give up or try to stop bettering ourselves and the world around us, but rather that if every single goddamn moment of every day has to be a fight in one way or another, then what are we fighting for? If we are fighting for equality, then we are also fighting for the right to sometimes take time for ourselves, time that might otherwise be employed doing something practical.

And if I don’t ever learn how to sit with myself, if I don’t ever learn to love myself even just enough to be present in my own body with my own thoughts, then I’m never going to get better. Yes, doing useful things distracts me from how I feel, but at the end of the day I always have to come back to myself. And no matter how much I feel that I’ve accomplished, if I can’t comfortably live in my own skin then it’s hard to feel as if I’m succeeding.

The fact is that I don’t always need to be useful.

I don’t need to fill every second of my day with activities that prove my value in this world. I am not on trial; I am not expected to prove my worthiness of being able to occupy space. My grandmother was wrong – idle hands are not the devil’s playthings. Sometimes they are just resting. Sometimes they are enjoying themselves. Sometimes they exist in the space between one thing and another, and the truth is that they have every right to do that.

Useful_Ideas_Photo

I just want to break that song into pieces and love them all to death

2 Apr

TW for talk of police brutality

I just finished reading Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park and dang. It gave me a lot of feelings.

I read it for Young Adultery, which is a) a book club where a bunch of fabulous grownups sit around and talk about YA literature and b) the coolest book club around. Like, what up, I spent last night sitting in a gorgeously hip Queen West book store talking about a super great book with some of my favourite people in the world. It was so great (and the perfect diversion from all the mental health stuff that I’ve been dealing with).

What was interesting for me was that for a lot of people in the group, this book brought them back to their first romance, their high school crush, their awkward first kiss. And, I mean, Eleanor & Park is primarily a love story, so that makes perfect sense. For me, though, the book stirred up a lot of memories about what it was like to be the poor kid in high school with a group of nice middle class friends.

I was always embarrassed when people came over to my place. We lived in this ugly brown townhouse, which was part of a low-income housing complex owned by the city. The places had probably been nice back when they were built, which is to say back when they were all privately owned. But the lot was right next to a former landfill site that everyone called Mount Trashmore, and sometime in the 70s there had been a health scare about it. It turned out that the giant mound of decomposing trash (covered by some very attractive sod) leaking methane into the air, so they evacuated everyone and for a while the houses were abandoned. And then the city bought them and moved the poor people in. We all had to have methane detectors in our basements and here was this giant industrial flame that burned day and night. It was supposed to burn off the methane. 

None of my friends had to worry about dying of methane poisoning in their sleep.

It wasn’t unusual to see the cops in our complex. Like the night we heard gun shots and my mother tried to laugh it off and pretend for our sake that she wasn’t scared. Or the time the police came to our door and said that a neighbour had accused me of stealing their car. I didn’t even know how to drive a car, but they wanted to question me because, they said, I matched the description of the thief exactly. Or when another neighbour’s brother showed up high as fuck and stark naked. Someone called the cops and when they came they immediately started beating him. Like, they didn’t even give him the chance to come quietly. And he was rolling around on the ground screaming, “Oh god, oh god, oh please no,” but they just kept going. I was on my way to school when it happened, and I stopped and watched because I felt like I should do something. But what was I supposed to do? I couldn’t call the police, because the police were already there. They were there and they were hitting a man senseless with their batons.

And the next time I saw the cops in our neighbourhood, I made a point of smiling at them. I wanted them to think that I was harmless. I was afraid of what would happen if they didn’t think that I was harmless.

All of my friends lived in nice houses on tree-lined streets where no one was ever high or naked or puking on their front lawn because it’s Christmas and the whole family, even the five year old, is drunk. My neighbours thought it was funny to get their five year old drunk. But only on special occasions.

I always had the wrong clothes. Always. I was so embarrassed by my clothes. And when they ripped, which they often did because I wore them to shreds, I didn’t know how to fix them. I would put safety pins through all the tears, and I was always so worried that someone would see the flash of silver in my armpit or my crotch and realize that my clothes were pinned together and, like, not in a cool way. Not in an on-purpose way.

Speaking of clothes, this one tine time in English class my jeans were sagging low enough to show my underpants. I figured this out too late, after a kid called out, “Hey, nice panties.” I was mortified. My body was the biggest it had ever been and I didn’t want them to see the rolls of fat above the waistband of my pants. I didn’t want them to know that I was wearing stretched-out baggy underwear full of holes. But they saw everything and they all laughed. Even the teacher laughed. Having a grown man laugh at my torn up worn out purple grandma panties felt unbearable, but it must have been bearable because I still came back to school the next day.

I could never afford anything. I had to beg and beg my mom for money just to go see a movie with my friends. Sometimes after the movie my friends would want to go out to a restaurant because hey, we were young and fancy-free and why not stay out late on a Saturday night? I would tag along because I always wanted so badly to be included in everything, but I would always just order water because I couldn’t even afford a Coke. Watching my friends eat would always make me so hungry, so I would ask if I could have one of their fries and then they would get mad and say that if I’d wanted fries I should have ordered some. They weren’t being mean they just didn’t know why I never ordered food, and I didn’t want to tell them.

Speaking of food, it was all canned soup and grilled cheese and frozen dinners at my house, because my mom got home from work late and then often went out as soon as she got home, because she was finishing her bachelor’s degree in night school. This meant that a lot of the time, I would end up making dinner, but I didn’t know how to cook. I mean, I knew how to make pancakes and fried hotdogs and stuff, but nothing with actual nutritional value.

Sometimes my friends would invite me over for dinner, and their parents would prepare this amazing meal made up of food that I’d never even seen before, like eggplant and zucchini. They would make stuff like macaroni and cheese from scratch and, like, that wasn’t even a thing that I knew you could make from scratch; I just thought it only ever came in a box. And I didn’t want to have my friends over for dinner because I didn’t want them to know that we had Chef Boyardee not as a once-in-a-while treat, but all the time because it was fast and easy.

One time my friend’s mom gave us a giant box of food for Christmas and she started crying and I was so mad at her for crying. No one else got boxes of food for Christmas.

I remember telling my friends that I was going to my dad’s on the weekend and he wanted me to go a rave with him. His friend was going to bring some speed for us. I’d thought that my friends would think that my dad was such a cool, bad-ass parent, but instead they just looked uneasy. Having a forty-something dad who went to raves and did hard drugs was apparently not the same as having laid-back middle class hippie parents who were hiding but not quite hiding their pot habits. They didn’t think my dad was cool – they thought he was scary and weird.

I had this boyfriend who lived in a beautiful house in the next town over, and I was excruciatingly embarrassed whenever his parents dropped me off at home. I didn’t want them to see where I lived. I didn’t want them to think that I wasn’t good enough for their kid. I could tell that they didn’t like me. It was like my poverty had a smell, somehow, coming off me in waves. They wrinkled their noses when they saw me, even though I could tell they were trying to be nice.

Being poor meant that I couldn’t afford the twenty dollar student card fee in grade twelve, which mean that I couldn’t collect the extracurricular participation points that year. This meant that I wasn’t eligible for the giant silver participation plaque that they gave out at graduation and you know what? I am still fucking sore about that. When I am super-famous my high school will call and BEG me to take that stupid plaque and I’ll be like HEY, FUCK YOU, WHERE WERE YOU FIFTEEN YEARS AGO but also I will be like, yeah, give me the damn plaque because I am still not too cool for this. But the point is the office would happily have waived the fee for another kid, a cleaner, nicer kid, but they did not give a shit about me.

Being poor meant constant vigilance over how I acted, dressed, even smelled. It especially involved hypervigilance when talking about my family because there was just so much to edit out, or else to purposely misconstrue so as not to make our family life sound so bad. And I should clarify that it wasn’t bad – my mother did the best that she could for us, and she did a fantastic job. Our life wasn’t bad, but it was so different, and I knew that I was being judged and found wanting on a daily basis. Appearing to be middle class was especially critical when meeting my friends’ parents, who all seemed to size me up as soon as I went in. I was irrationally terrified that they would tell my friends not to bring me around again.

Being a teenager was just so much trying to hide our economic status. It was avoiding awkward questions from the school counsellor, because what was she going to do about it? It was using money that my grandmother had given me for Christmas or my birthday to buy the disgusting nachos at the school cafeteria, because for once in my life I wanted to be someone who was rich enough to buy nachos in the cafeteria. It was telling teachers that I couldn’t go on field trips, because I couldn’t afford them. It was scouring the Value Village down the street and learning to develop this cheap funky style that no one could make fun of because it was obviously intentionally tacky. It was borrowing a prom dress from the mother of the kid I babysat for, because I couldn’t afford anything new. It was a million stupid little humiliations, and a few big ones.

And everything, all of this, had to be kept hidden at all costs. Because I was already being made fun of, and I didn’t need to add fuel to the fire. And I didn’t want me friends to think of me as so different from them just because they had more money. And I sure as hell didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.

Eleanor & Park fan art by Simini Blocker Illustration http://siminiblocker.tumblr.com

Eleanor & Park fan art by Simini Blocker Illustration http://siminiblocker.tumblr.com