Tag Archives: anxiety

Insomnia, Anhedonia and The Unbearable Politeness of Being

30 Mar

Right now my favourite part of the day is the last half hour or so, which is the time I spend fighting the effects of my prescription sleeping pill. I get to ride this wave of sleepy euphoria, where the whirring, clanking machinery inside my head slows down and all of my limbs are loose and relaxed. It’s like being drunk or high, except that it feels very calm and safe — unlike other altered states of consciousness, I know that nothing can go wrong. When I finally do lie down, with the thought that I have several hours of blissful unconsciousness to look forward to, I feel everything draw away from me, my body suspended in a dark sea as I wait for sleep to gather at the edge of the horizon and then come crashing over me.

This is what I look forward to, from the time I wake up until the time I take my sleeping pill. On bad days, everything else just seems like crap that I have to get to in order to get to this moment, this brief stretch of time when I am guaranteed to feel good in my body. And I know that that’s really, really fucked up.

The problem is that recognizing that a feeling is fucked up and figuring out how to change things enough so that you don’t feel it anymore are two very, very different things.

The last few months have been rough, for a variety of reasons that I’m not going to get into right here and right now. I’ve gone from feeling like my life was great and I was super on top of all of my shit to feeling like everything’s falling apart and I’m the most useless person in existence. Part of the problem is that I’ve had a lot of social isolation, which hasn’t really been anybody’s fault but also hasn’t been great. My anxiety’s been a bag of dicks, and the intrusive thoughts are getting old. I try to avoid triggers, but it’s hard and sometimes counterproductive. Like, if I’m trying to avoid something and then I worry about how I can avoid and whether I can actually avoid it or not, and then it’s just the same old tingling fear all spruced up in new clothing. And all of my energy’s somehow been sucked out of me, leaving this sagging bag of stupid flesh where there used to be a body that actually slept and ate and sometimes felt good.

These days, I don’t want to get out of bed. Like, ever. In the mornings I don’t want to get up and go to work, and once I’m home again all that I want to do is climb back under the covers and immediately lose consciousness. I keep telling my friends that my bed is a black hole, and if I’m at home I’m irresistibly pulled towards it by some kind of mysterious gravitational force. They laugh, and then I laugh, and then we all complain about how miserable this winter has been, but the fact is that like all good jokes, this one is firmly rooted in the truth. I told my therapist that I sometimes daydream about being in an induced coma, a state where machines would do absolutely everything for me.* I tell her that the idea of just lying there and not being responsible for a single thing, not even breathing, sounds incredibly appealing to me. She tells me that it sounds womb-like, but then she’s the kind of therapist who thinks that everything sounds womb-like.

I don’t feel much pleasure these days. I mean, do things – I do all of my regular, every day things – and it’s fine, but there’s this sense of getting through everything instead of enjoying it. It’s always, how many more minutes in this yoga class. Or, how many more bites left of this meal. Or else, how many much longer left of this show. Each activity is little more than a way of marking time until I can wash that little blue pill down with a glass of water and float my way into darkness. I’m taking a lot of pills these days – Zoloft for depression and anxiety, zopiclone for sleep, hormonal birth control for a barren womb, and copious amounts of tylenol for the tension headaches that creep in a couple of times a week. It’s like the valley of the goddamn dolls around here. Still, it’s better with the pills than without.

I think about my old life, my life before I had a kid, and I wonder how I did it. Up at six every morning for work, at the office for eight hours, then typically a seventy-five  minute yoga class and hangouts with friends. Oh and I also somehow managed to write a novel somewhere in there. Who the fuck was that person? Now I can barely drag myself out of bed at eight, and I only work a few hours a day (unless you count doing all the things that I don’t get paid for, like writing and parenting – you shouldn’t though, because I don’t count them). If I feel up to it, I take a yoga class. Often I don’t. When I’m not working I come home and dither around the apartment, unable to read or write or sit for any length of time. I try to talk myself into cleaning, but I usually don’t have the energy. I almost always end up napping, or else refreshing social media websites nonstop for two hours. Whatever ends up happening, it only makes me hate myself more.

What happened to all of my energy? I mean, how did I stay home and look after a toddler full-time less than two years ago? Is there actually something wrong with me, or am I just lazy? I’ve had all the right tests done – vials and vials of blood drawn, doctors peering down my throat and in my ears, but still no answers. It’s nothing physical, or at least nothing that anyone can find. I just have no motivation. It’s tempting to blame depression or anxiety, but somehow that feels disingenuous – I can’t exactly articulate why that is, but it’s probably something along the lines of how incredibly convenient it is for me to have an illness that prevents me from doing all of the things that I hate, things like cleaning, cooking, answering emails in a timely fashion, and generally staying on top of my shit. I mean how nice for me to be sick in exactly the way that forces others to pick up my slack while they kindly tell me to take it easy on myself, to be kind to myself, to do more things for me. But I already do everything for me. That’s my problem. All of the things that I do are for me and I still feel like shit.

I get everything that I want and more, but that fact doesn’t make any difference because I am a garbage person who deserves a garbage life.

At least, that’s what I’m told by the internal voice that I hear all the damn time until I shove a little blue pill in its face.

I don’t know why I’m writing all of this, except that I guess I had to get it off my chest. Maybe I just want someone to tell me that they’ve been there, and it gets better, and that I’ll make it through somehow. Maybe I’m hoping that the act of putting all of this out there, publicly, will somehow break this feeling’s hold over me. I want things to change – I want to love my days again instead of my dreamy, disjointed nights. I want to be able to think clearly, without these anxious thoughts clouding out everything else. I want to write because I love it, not because I feel like I should. I want to be a better mother, a better lover, a better friend. I want to feel something other than this stupid grey grinding nothingness, this fake laugh that’s just a little too loud, this sense of only ever enduring. I want and I want and I want and all of that goddamn wanting is exhausting.

I just need to you to promise me that I will feel better soon.

Jon Han for the NYTimes

Jon Han for the NYTimes

*I know, I know, induced comas aren’t fun, medical stuff isn’t fun, the ICU isn’t fun – I’m aware of how ridiculous my daydream is. But still.

It’s Just Your Depression Talking: On Agency and Mental Illness

31 Jan

I walked out of my therapy appointment yesterday. I don’t mean that I stormed out or anything – I politely told my therapist that I wasn’t in a great headspace and that talking about it was making me feel worse instead of better – but still. It felt like a rookie move. The kind of thing a sulky teenager would pull when things weren’t going the way she wanted them to. I felt that a real grownup would have stuck it out, pushing through all the bad stuff and coming out the other side. Because that’s really what talk therapy is, isn’t it? Wading through the shit and dealing with it, with the outcome of all that hard work being that you’re a better, happier, healthier person.

Except yesterday I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, wade. Talking wasn’t getting me anywhere – I was stuck in an endless loop of the same anxieties over and over again, and rehashing them just felt like poking an open wound. Reviewing my situation wasn’t giving me any special clarity, my therapist’s insights weren’t helping, and I was getting more and more frustrated and upset as the hour went on. It felt so stupid to interrupt my workday, drag myself halfway across the city and pay good money just to sit there feeling terrible. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to think. I just wanted to do something, anything, to shut off my useless brain. So I left, went home, and a crawled into bed.

When I told my friend about what I’d done, she asked, “Do you think that was you making the decision to leave therapy, or your depression?”

Framing a depressed person’s behaviour and speech as being influenced by their illness can seem helpful. I’ve certainly said things like, “that’s not you talking, that’s your depression,” often enough, both to myself and other people, as a way of mitigating negative self-talk. It works because it acts on the idea that depression feeds us vicious, nasty lies about ourselves, and that if left unchecked these lies will fester deep in our minds, crippling our self esteem and destroying our self-image. So when someone is telling you how worthless they are, how pathetic, how unloveable, the appeal of reassuring them that this type of talk is a function of their illness is undeniable. But telling someone, especially someone who is suffering from a mental illness and has spent years dealing with all the stigma that comes with it, that it’s not really them talking can be downright dangerous. Because once you’ve labelled someone’s voice as not being authentically theirs, once you’ve convinced yourself that what they’re saying isn’t coming from them but rather some invisible bogeyman you’ve labelled depression, you’ve taken away some of their agency. You think that you’re telling them something positive, but really what you’re saying is, “I don’t think that your words are your own.

How does anyone talk themselves out of that corner? Once their words and actions become suspect, how can they make you believe that it’s really them and not their depression? How can they have any agency when everything they do or say is written off as being done or spoken by some sort of evil spirit possessing them? It’s a slippery slope from there, and one that many people suffering from mental illness have faced before. Because once it’s been decided that it’s the illness and not the person talking, then that person may be considered to no longer be competent to make their own decisions. And then things can get really, really bad.

Are my depression and I really two separate entities? And is it necessarily useful to create this other, this monster, that represents all of my misfiring neurons and dysfunctional cognitive processes? This is something that I’ve been wondering about, and I’m still not sure what the answer is. It’s tempting to believe that depression is a sort of slippery parasite that changes my behaviour in order to further its own agenda, like that ant parasite that makes them climb to the very top of a blade of grass in order to ensure that they’ll be eaten by sheep and thus pass the parasite on. But I’m not sure if it really works that way.

I’ve heard of cancer patients imagining that their tumours are evil invaders, and then meditating on the idea that their bodies are fighting these bad guys off. Maybe that works when there’s something measurably wrong with your body, when you can pinpoint the existence of cells gone haywire, masses that have formed, blood counts run amok, but my depression is, for better or worse, my own brain. If my depression is smart, it’s because I’m smart. If my depression is tricky, then it’s because my mind has given it the tools it needs to trick me. I can learn how to manage it, how to work with it or maybe even outsmart it, but I can’t cut it out. And though it’s tempting to imagine it as a sort of demon that seizes me, takes me over and forces me to do it’s bidding, it’s not like that. Not really. It’s just my poor, sick brain.

There have been times when I’ve felt relief at hearing someone tell me, “That’s your depression talking.” There have been times when telling myself that has been a useful way of checking in and re-evaluating a situation. But there have been other times – many other times – when I’ve thought, “If this is the depression, then where am I? And why do you get to decide what my voice sounds like?”

Sometimes I make bad choices. Sometimes I say stupid things, especially about myself. Sometimes my depression really does influence my self-image, how I talk to myself, how I behave. But I am still me. I am still myself. I have my own voice, and when I speak, the words belong to me alone.

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Feelings Machine

3 Dec

I sometimes joke that I’m a feelings machine, but that description isn’t really so far from the truth. My brain churns out emotional reactions a rate that leaves me breathless, too fast for me to understand the why and how. Everything, everything seems to provoke some kind of intense feeling in me, and they almost always seem to be negative. I’m never just a little sad or anxious or concerned – I feel like the world is ending, over and over again, all day every day. It’s like the volume dial on my emotions is constantly cranked to 11. It’s exhausting for me, and I know that it’s hard for the people around me. I’m too intense, all the time, every day. It’s just too much.

The problem is that almost everything feels like an emergency, especially when it comes to interpersonal conflict; I have a seriously hard time distinguishing between an every day, run-of-the-mill argument and a relationship-ending barn-burner. If a friend or family member leaves before the conflict is resolved, I’m certain that they’re never coming back. Nothing ever feels solid enough.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, trying to figure out why I react with panicked sobbing to stupid differences of opinion that most people would just roll their eyes at. Why do these situations send off deafening alarm bells in my brain when they seem to be just blips on everyone else’s personal radar? And why can’t I ever stand my ground and assume that I might be right instead of turning into a babbling mess of frantic apologies and promises to do better next time?

I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of it has to do with the relationships that I’ve had with volatile, unpredictable people. And I don’t just mean romantic relationships – I mean any kind of relationship, with a parent or a sibling or a teacher or a friend. For whatever reason (I mean, I can think of actual Reasons, but I’m not going to get into them right now), I’m drawn to these people. For one thing, they’re exciting, aren’t they? You never know what they’ll do or say next, and they tend to stir up my otherwise boring, predictable existence. Staying on their good side seems like some kind of a challenge, and I’ve never backed down from a challenge. And I guess it’s a dynamic that I understand and feel comfortable with, even though you can never really feel as if you understand or feel comfortable with these types of people.

The problem with volatile people is that everything has the potential to be an emergency; something that they think is fine and dandy one day could send them into screaming fits of rage the next. You never, ever know how they’ll react, so you always have to brace yourself. Anything that you do or say could set them off. Conversely, anything that you do or say could also delight them to no end. There’s no way of knowing how things will play out, and so trying to please them is like aiming at a moving target – you’ll probably never be able to hit it, and if by some stroke of luck you do, that strike has nothing to do with your skills or capabilities.

If you live with a volatile person for long enough, it’s hard to maintain a consistent personal narrative. Every event is re-framed by how they saw it, and no matter how hard you try to hold on to your version of events, the force of their overreactions starts to erode your confidence in your own perspective. Trying to fight against them begins to exhaust you – they’re too good at pushing your buttons, know too well exactly what to say to hurt you most deeply, and you can’t keep up, can’t maintain that level of mean-spiritedness. You start to accept what they tell you, because it’s just easier. It’s easier to be wrong all the time. It’s easier to apologize. It’s easier to lie down and let them walk all over you. Of course, you lose yourself in the process, but what does that matter? By that point you believe that that self was worthless anyway.

Once you’ve experienced that type of relationship, it’s hard to know how to interact with other people, non-volatile people. You’re constantly looking for hidden meaning in their words and actions, looking for clues that might tell you how to behave. You don’t trust them when they say that everything’s fine, because you know that nothing is ever fine, not really. Even the smallest thing could escalate into a disaster.

So you overreact. You cry and panic over stupid, petty things, because how can you ever be sure that they’re really so stupid and petty? You grovel and apologize before they can get to the point where they demand and apology, because you know that it’s so much easier that way. You call yourself every bad name in the book before they can even open their mouths. You try so hard to beat them to the punch, even when there’s no punch coming. The new people in your life, these normal, non-volatile people, can’t figure out where you’re coming from. They chalk it up to low self-esteem, and try to build you up or bully you into feeling better about yourself. They all tell you that you need to care less about what other people think, and you want that, you want it so badly, but you have no idea how to stop caring. You’re not certain who you are unless someone else is telling you something about yourself; you feel like a sort of black hole, sucking in everything from the people around you. You’re so hungry for a version of yourself that you can love and accept, but nothing that anyone can tell you is ever enough.

You feel more defined by absence than anything else and incapable of emitting any light.

weird-machine

Guest Post: Life As A Mountain Hike

7 Nov

My husband Matt wrote the following post about how challenging it can be to have a partner who is depressed. If you are at all technically inclined, you can check out his own blog, Quoth The Runtime, “Segmentation Fault”. He mostly writes about programming, but he also posts some pretty great stuff about the rampant sexism and misogyny in his industry.

LIFE AS A MOUNTAIN HIKE

I’ve come to the conclusion that the best metaphor I can conceive of for everyday life is that life is a mountain trail. Some days you have to work hard to make any progress, other days are simple, and some are nicely balanced. You can see beautiful vistas, or find yourself in the bottom of a dark valley. The weather can be reflective of your mood, a lot like what you see in movies (there’s a reason why it always rains during movie funerals). Some days the air’s become so thin that it’s a struggle to do anything of any great significance. You see your friends from time to time on the trail, and perhaps you’ve arranged to meet sixty miles up the trail in two days, and you only hope it’s downhill or level at worst, because you have a lot ground to cover in not much time.

So, given that life is a mountain trail, what is it like when your partner is depressed? It’s like hiking with someone with impaired lung function. They need to carry oxygen, and some cases are worse than others. Some patients need to basically have the mask on the whole time, while others can operate normally with a couple of deep breaths every once in a while.

How does this affect your relationship? You both have to take more load. Your partner has to carry the tank, so you offset that increased load into your own pack. But you’re also thinking about their oxygen supply. Sometimes it’s “do they have enough air in the tank,” but when you’re really paying attention, it becomes “do they have enough airflow”, and usually that only happens when their depression becomes apparent again. The big problem with depression, not just socially, but functionally, is that it’s invisible. Depression quite literally changes how the patient thinks, both on and off treatment. Enough airflow from the tank, and your partner is brought up to baseline.. except for the fact that they’re still carrying the extra weight, so you’re still taking some of what would otherwise be their load! With the right treatment, the patient can feel reasonably close to “normal”, but if they don’t maintain the treatment, for some reason–maybe a disrupted routine means not taking their medication for a few days, or maybe they’re feeling so good they self-moderate to a lower dose–or their circumstances change and now they just aren’t getting enough air (perhaps their brain chemistry has adjusted), then they can’t perform as well… and as their partner, it’s up to you to keep an eye on that. It’s not just your partner’s concern.

Living with a depressed partner is hard. In addition to everything that normally comes up in any relationship, you’re ultimately their partner in managing their depression, too. Whether it’s as simple as giving them some slack on the harder days, and letting them do their thing while you pick up the housework, or something as detailed as collaborating in their treatment plan, their depression will always be there, whether it’s forgotten, or it’s the elephant in the room, or it’s something than can freely enter the conversation as necessary. But remember, it’s invisible, and it’s insidious. Because it’s part of how your partner thinks (and not, say, an obvious but treatable impairment, like a significant limp) it’s all too easy to forget that it’s even there when it’s well managed.

It’s easy to become resentful that you’re doing more of the housework, because it’s easy to forget that it’s not that your partner is being lazy, they’re depressed. It’s easy to forget that depression manifests itself in more than just tears; it can also be lack of energy, lack of motivation, or lack of interest. When depression isn’t obvious, it’s all too easy to forget that it’s there, and then it’s all too easy to establish a mental separation between your partner and your partner’s depression, because you might only think about it when they’re well and truly despondent. While you and your partner may not want their depression to be a part of their identity, it’s critical to remember that it’s always there, in the same way that an amputated limb is always missing, even if it’s been replaced by a prosthesis.

And when you’re in a long-term relationship, you’ve been carrying the extra weight for as long as you have, it’s easy to forget that what you don’t see in your partner’s backpack is their failing lungs and their oxygen tank. If your partner’s been having an easy time with the hike–perhaps a couple of huffs on the tank a day is all they’ve needed for months–it’s easy to forget why you’re carrying more of the weight. It’s easy to forget that it’s so that they can simply keep up with the pace of every day.

But when the depression becomes apparent again, naturally, you respond with compassion and empathy. You encourage your partner to talk about it, or you give them their space, but if you forget, or don’t realise, just how bad their depression really is when it’s in force, then you may forget how your partner may really need you to respond when their depression strikes. Of course, the deeper problem with this is that your partner is an adult, or at least competent to make their own decisions. It’s very difficult to convince who a person who doesn’t believe they need air–they’re just a tired today, or the trail’s harder than they expected–that they really do need air… At least, it’s hard to do that without coming off as condescending and paternalistic (and, let’s be honest here, if anyone is liable to be offended, and rightly so, by paternalistic talk from her husband, it’s Anne) when you’re in a partnership of equals.

My own overwhelming desire to respect Anne’s agency and autonomy has meant that, on a number of occasions, I’ve dropped the ball badly, because I have a pretty significant mental block around telling anyone I love, “you need to do x.” Particularly so when I know that the thing I believe they need to do is something they would ordinarily object to. Anne has already told the story about how her postpartum depression drove her to pharmaceutical help; but I don’t think she mentioned in that story her difficult history with pharmaceutical treatment, or with psychotherapy. I had broached both ideas in the past during lesser episodes, and met with resistance on every occasion. I didn’t want to press the issue again (and I didn’t know had truly bad her depression had become until I read that post), and every time her depression has resurfaced since, I’ve had a hard time finding the strength to ask basic things like “have you been missing your medication,” or, “have you been using your blue lamp,” because I want to be able to trust that she has, and I don’t want her to think that I think she’s forgotten, or incapable of taking of herself. I don’t think that she can’t take care of herself, but I worry, at those times, that her depression will colour how she hears these things, or tell her that her treatment isn’t working, and that she should just give up.

But as her partner, she does need me to be able to say these things (whether she’ll admit it or not). She needs me to be able to tell the difference between herself talking and her depression talking. She needs me to be able to see that the trail’s too hard for her today, and figure out what needs to be done, whether it’s replace the tank, try to open the flow more, take more of the load (or straight out jettison some stuff, or find someone to help), or even just make her stop and sit for a while. Maybe she needs me to call for help, but I’ll never know–and she may never admit it, even to herself–if I can’t talk to her about her depression.

We’ve both recently started following TSN anchor Michael Landsberg’s Twitter feed. Landsberg, if you weren’t already aware, also suffers from clinical depression, and has written about it on his blog for Off The Record, particularly in light of Wade Belak’s death. Landsberg has been promoting a topic on Twitter, #sicknotweak, in the buildup to launching a website of the same name, in order to promote a change in how we, as a society, view depressed people–that they aren’t weak, but they’re sick, just with something that isn’t normally visible. It’s an important paradigm shift that I need to keep in mind, particularly when Anne’s depression comes to the fore again. Depression is, fundamentally, a disease like any other that needs to be managed.

Just like a hiker with a bad lung needs to manage their air intake.

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Sometimes It Hurts When I Breathe

23 Oct

I’ve realized that I live in this cycle of frantic activity followed by total emotional and/or physical collapse. This has been happening a couple of times a year since my late teens, and you would think that by now I would be able to recognize the signs enough to stave off the impending crisis, but no. Apparently not.

My head’s been strangely fuzzy for a few weeks now, and my body’s been aching with the weight of something – my bag on my shoulder, my kid on my hip, all of my stupid anxieties. I kept feeling like I couldn’t catch my breath, and then one morning I woke up and I literally had a hard time breathing. So I called in sick to work, stayed in bed for the morning, and then ran some errands in the afternoon. By the next day I was fine, just tired.

I’ve been so goddamn tired these past few weeks, you guys.

I kept meaning to rest, but it always seemed like I had something pressing that needed to be done. A class to teach. Work email. Regular email. A workshop that I signed up for 6 months ago. Studio paperwork to take care of. Invoices. More invoices.  A band that I’ve been wanting to see live for ages and ages. A blog post that I’ve been putting off writing. Guest lecturing a high school English class. A friend having a crisis. Another friend having another crisis. A friend not having a crisis but that I haven’t seen for months. Matt. My sisters. My mothers. My grandmother in Spain. Housework. More housework.

And then there’s Theo. Because even once I’d checked everything else off my list, there was always Theo. How could I ever justify taking a break when I had Theo who needed my time and attention? Theo, who uncomplainingly let Matt pick him up from daycare and feed him dinner and bathe him nearly every night of the week because I had to work the evening shift at the studio or teach a class or do whatever it is that I do that seems to take up all of my goddamn time. Theo, who makes me feel pangs of guilt just by smiling at me. Theo.

So there was never a question of taking a break, because there was never a way of getting to the end of the list. And even though I will happily berate other people for not practicing proper self-care, I am terrible at it myself. Doing things for the express purpose of feeling good always seems like a terrible self-indulgence. Like, how can I justify spending an hour napping or reading on the patio or going out by myself for a coffee when it meant that all the other things weren’t getting done? How can I especially justify doing any nice stuff for myself when it means taking time away from my kid? My kid who I barely get to see these days anyway?

What I’m trying to say here is that I’m a horrible hypocrite.

I’ve spent the past two and a half weeks pushing myself through this deepening haze, shuttling from one end of town to the other, from Toronto to Kingston for Thanksgiving and then back again, from writing to teaching to mothering to hand-holding to coughing until I couldn’t catch my breath, until I was bent double and thought I might throw up in the gutter and oh god how embarrassing.

I forgot to mention that along with the exhaustion, there was a cough.

Finally, at the end of last week, I had this conversation with Nathan:

Nathan: When are you going to see a doctor?

Me: I’m fine, it’s just a cough.

Nathan: You’ve had this cough for what, two weeks now?

Me: Sometimes these things linger on. You know how it is. I’m fine.

Nathan: You are not fine! You might have pneumonia!

Me: I don’t have pneumonia. If I had pneumonia, I’d have a fever.

Nathan: You do have a fever.

Me: I would have a higher fever. I would be, like, bedridden.

Nathan: Maybe you have walking pneumonia.

Me: NO I DON’T.

Nathan: You know what? If it was me who was coughing like this, you would have forced me to go to the doctor ages ago. You would have even come with me, just to make sure that I went.

Me: Uh, yeah. That’s true. I guess.

Nathan: And you know what the worst part of it is? Your cough is so bad that I can’t even make fun of it anymore. You’ve taken away one of my few joys in life.

So I went to the walk-in clinic yesterday and the doctor sort of nodded his head and jotted down a few notes and said that it sounded like I probably had bronchitis. Then he moved his stethoscope around my back for a while and asked me to breathe deeply a couple of times. He kept bringing his stethoscope back to the same spot and pausing there.

“I think I hear some crackles in your upper left lobe,” he said. “I want you to go for a chest x-ray – you might have walking pneumonia.”

Afterwards, when I texted Nathan with the news, I received this delighted reply:

“Wait, wait, wait … walking pneumonia came up?

If you weren’t sick I would revel in my rightness, but you are, so I won’t.

I could be the first person to receive a doctorate just by watching medical dramas. 7 seasons of House, 8 ER, 3 Chicago Hope …”

I went for the chest x-ray today. Afterwards, I asked the tech when my doctor would have the results, and he told me they would be sent out in three to five business days.

“I just want to know for work,” I said. “Pneumonia just sounds so much more impressive than bronchitis.”

“Where do you work?”

“I manage a yoga studio and I teach yoga classes.”

“Let’s just say,” he said, glancing at the image on the screen, “that you might want to take it easy for a while.”

So I’m trying to take it easy. I’m trying not to think of all the messages in my inbox. I’m trying not to feel guilty about popping a kid-friendly DVD in the machine as soon as Matt and Theo got home. I’m trying to rest, and most of all I’m trying not to feel guilty for resting.

Because most of my to-do list can wait.

Because the best way to be a better mother is to get well.

Because it’s fine – good, even – to take a break sometimes.

I’m not good at this stuff. Not just because I kind of sort of maybe enjoy having a hectic life, and not just because doing stuff for myself makes me feel pangs of guilt, but also because I’m not great at being taken care of. I’m hardwired to make sure that everyone around me feels safe and happy and healthy, and I will gladly scold friends and family for not going to the doctor as soon as I think they should, or not taking enough time off work, but when it comes to myself it’s a completely different story. I hate having other people care for me; it makes me feel deeply, skin-crawlingly uncomfortable in the way that few things do. In fact, just thinking about it right now makes me want to barf, although that might also be from the super-strong antibiotics that I’m on.

But I’m going to try to be good and lie still and let other people bring me things, because right now, I kind of have to. More than that, I’m going to try, really try, to break out of this cycle that I’ve been in for the past decade. Because this shit’s getting old, this pattern is not sustainable, and I can and will change.

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How To Be A Grownup

19 Oct

It’s late afternoon on Thanksgiving Monday. I’m lying on a chaise longue on my mother’s back deck, a ratty old knitted blanket across my lap and a book that I am not reading in my hands. I am pretending to be a 19th-century invalid, recuperating from a non-specific ailment at a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. I am breathing deeply, imagining that I am taking something called the fresh air cure. The sun is warm, its light buttery and yellow. I can hear my son laughing in the distance as my husband chases him around my mother’s small garden, and I pretend that he is a small Swiss child who lives in a nearby thatched cottage. I tell myself that he is amused by the antics of the goats he is herding. This is, I assume, what small, 19th-century Swiss mountain children do: live in picturesque cottages and laugh heartily as they herd their goats.

I am thirty one years old and I am still playing pretend.

Is this what grownups are supposed to do?

Ten years or so into my purported adulthood and I’m still not really sure how to be a grownup, or what that even means. As a kid, I thought that being an adult meant that you did whatever you wanted, although for some reason all of my grownup fantasies were oddly baking-specific. For instance, I imagined myself making cookies whenever I pleased, and thought about how I would be allowed to use the electric mixer without any help. I would, I told myself, be able to wear party dresses every day of my life. And while all of these facts are empirically true and have been true for over a decade, the ability to do these things is neither as satisfying as I thought they would be, nor do they make me feel especially like a grownup.

What does adulthood mean? What is it supposed to look like? As a kid, there seemed to be recognizable difference between adults and not-adults, but now that demarcation is becoming less and less clear. There also seem to be more stages on the way to adulthood than I’d first realized – I used to think that you were either a child or an adult, but now it turns out that, rather than being a binary, it’s more like an evolutionary process, from infant to toddler to preschooler to that nebulous age between when grade school starts and puberty begins to teenager to university student to young adult to – what? Just plain adult, I guess.

Except that I’m not really sure if I feel like an adult.

Mostly I just still feel like myself.

It probably doesn’t help that I don’t look so very different from my teenage self; sure, there are a few lines here and wrinkles there, but the basic structure is exactly the same. I dress the same way that I did as a teenager, too, or rather I dress the way that my teenage self would have had the funds been available. I don’t wear what I think of as grownup clothing: crisp white shirts, tailored suits, prim polyester dresses in black or grey or navy. I like the same things as I did when I was a teenager, more or less – reading, writing, watching painfully earnest indie movies, dressing up, acting out, telling bad jokes, sitting on people’s living room floors while drinking and playing board games. I still read Little Women when I’m feeling down and want literature that’s akin to comfort food. I still get that same funny ache at the end of Empire Records when everyone is dancing on the roof, just like I did when I was sixteen. I still put waaaay too much sugar in my coffee. When we drive past a cemetery or over a bridge, I still hold my breath.

I’m still me, and I can’t help having this weird sense of disappointment over not being the prettier, smarter, more capable creature that I thought growing up would turn me into.

Maybe  part of the problem is that I’m no longer certain of what being an adult looks like. I used to think that there was a sort of set formula: you finished high school, went to university, started a career, fell in love, got married, bought a house, had kids, then watched your own kids repeat the same steps. But then I watched as this blueprint, which seemed to be the  How-To guide accepted and promoted by family, teachers, guidance counsellors, and just about every movie or book that I’d ever seen or read, failed my parents and many of their peers. They hated their jobs. They hated each other. My father stopped being a lawyer, left my mother, and moved to the city where he lived in a bachelor apartment and worked as a bike courier. My mother was exhausted and miserable, trying to raise three kids by herself on a secretary’s salary – by the end of the day, once everyone was fed and bathed, once the homework was done and the dishes were clean and half a dozen petty arguments had been mediated, it was all she could do to sit in front of the television and fall asleep to the sound of the laugh track of some corny late-90s sitcom.

That wasn’t what I wanted for my life.

I didn’t know how else to move ahead, though, so I tried my hardest to follow that old How-To guide. As the end of high school approached, the adults in my life encouraged me to apply to universities. Or rather, there wasn’t even much encouragement – it was just assumed that this was what I would do, and any divergence from that plan seemed impossible. There didn’t seem to be any alternatives that my parents or guidance counsellors felt were acceptable. College, it was intimated, was for the not-so-bright, and with my critical thinking skills I belonged in an undergrad program somewhere. Getting a job was out of the question, unless I wanted to be stuck working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life. Even taking a year off to figure my shit out was frowned upon – I was too flighty, they said, and would almost certainly never go back to school if I left. So my mother scraped together the hundred or so dollars needed for the application process, and I filled out the forms, and it felt like we were doing the right thing.

And I don’t mean to make it sound like I didn’t want to go to university – I did, I swear I did. I just want to make it clear that it also felt like that was the only way that I had of moving forward with my life. And I was desperate for some way, any way, of moving forward.

The problem with university was that while everyone agreed that I belonged there, no one seemed certain how I was supposed to pay for it. The provincial loan system was Byzantine, the forms and online application difficult to navigate, and the resulting funding amount impossible to understand. For example, the government could refuse to give you a loan if your parents earned a certain amount per year, even if said parents were not helping you pay for your education. Lines of credit from the bank weren’t much better – I mean, they were fine, I guess, if you had someone to co-sign. I didn’t.

When I asked the grownups around me how I could possibly afford this education that was supposed to be so critical to my life, they gave these strange sort of blank stares and suggested that I get a summer job.

Because when they’d gone to post-secondary school, a summer job had been enough to pay a year’s tuition and then some. That was obviously no longer the case.

The good old How-To guide hadn’t anticipated changes like this.

I managed to finish two years of university on a combination of government student loans, kind student affairs workers and a healthy state of denial. By the end of that second year, though, my finances were so badly fucked up that there was no question of finishing my degree. Two steps in to my path to adulthood, and I was already failing the model. Or rather, the model was failing me.

I’ve spent the last ten years trying to figure out if and how I can make the old blueprints work for me. It’s true that I can check off a few things on the list – I did manage to fall in love once or twice, I am married, I do have a kid. On the flip side, I haven’t finished school, I’m not sure that I would call my hodge-podge of jobs a “career,” and I can’t imagine a time when I will ever be able to own a house. Even the things that I’ve managed to check off seem, upon closer examination, to grow a bit murkier. My marriage doesn’t necessarily always look like what I thought a marriage should be. I don’t spend as much time with my son as I could. I often worry that I’m a bad partner or a bad mother. I am slowly learning that marriage and motherhood aren’t so much accomplishments as they are a lifelong work in progress. I’m also learning that being a wife and mother aren’t necessarily fool-proof indicators of adulthood; it’s not as if some magic switch is flipped when you say “I do,” or in the moment that your child is first placed in your arms.

So where does that leave me?

It’s both freeing and terrifying to realize that the old formula for adulthood doesn’t apply to my life is both dizzyingly freeing and incredibly terrifying. On the one hand, in theory, my life gets to be whatever I want it to be. On the other hand, I have no fucking clue what I’m doing, and the potential for failure seems high. It’s like wandering in the forest without a map, or even a guide to the flora and fauna – this glade seems like a nice place to build my home, but what if it floods every year during the spring thaw? These berries look tasty, but what if they’re poisonous? Of course there’s always the possibility of a happy ending, but it seems to be equally probable that I will die alone, frozen to death, maybe, or else eaten by wolves.

Lately I’ve been looking hard at my friends’ lives, trying to pick and choose the things that I want to emulate. What’s funny is that it’s not the friends who have the most material successes, the ones with the best jobs or the nicest houses that I’m drawn to, but rather the ones who have certain traits and behaviours that I covet. I admire, for instance, my friend who makes difficult choices, who goes ahead and does things even when he’s afraid or thinks that something is impossible. I admire another friend who’s an expert at saying no. I want to be more like the friend who seems to have that extra split second to figure out if their emotional reaction to any given situation is warranted and appropriate. I want to be like the friend who seems effortlessly organized, who holds family meetings every week to figure out who will be where doing what when during the next seven days. I want to be the person who fights for their beliefs without being disrespectful or unnecessarily cruel to the people who don’t agree with me. I want to be measured, calm, and collected.

And I want to do all of this and still be able to get a little weepy over Empire Records.

What I’m realizing is that, while creating a guide to my own personal grownup life, the best place to start is with myself. I need to work harder to build the type of person that I’m happy with before extending my energy outward. I need put a dot in the middle of the map marked you are here and then radiate all other lines outward from that spot. When I write this all out, it sounds unbelievably selfish, but I also can’t think of any other way to make a guide that suits the kind of life I want to live; because before I make that guide, I have to figure out my own shit, which means answering all of the big questions like what the fuck do I want, and why am I even here, and where do I go next?

Maybe that’s the best way to be a grownup.

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The First Lesson Is: Don’t Be Afraid Of Falling

16 Sep

My sister-in-law brought me along to her roller derby practice last night. She’s been doing the derby thing since March of this year, and I have been hella jealous. If there was ever anyone who was meant to be a bad-ass lady who roller skates, wears short skirts, body-checks other women and has a hilariously punny name. I mean, COME ON. That sounds like heaven to me.

Given all of that, why have I never tried to join a derby league in Toronto? Oh, I don’t know, because of Reasons I guess. I work a lot of evenings and didn’t want to have yet another night away from my family. I wasn’t sure how to find a good league, and was kind of freaked out at the thought of starting a new activity by myself with people that I don’t know. I’m not sure that I’m cut out for team sports; the idea of being yelled at by a coach makes me want to cry.

Most of all, though, I was afraid.

I wasn’t even sure that I could roller skate, for one thing – the last time that I’d tried was something like fifteen years ago at the now-defunct Forum Roller Rink in Cambridge, Ontario. I was there to celebrate the birthday of this dude that I had a huge crush on, by the way, and let’s just say that my roller-skate-skills did not exactly win me a place in his heart. As I recall, I fell. A lot. Embarrassing, sprawling falls, the type that cause people to point and laugh. Eventually I just sat off on the side, nursed a Dr. Pepper and tried not to cry. Story of my life, am I right?

Another problem was that I typically don’t enjoy participating in activities that I am not already good at, especially activities that involve me failing publicly. I have a very low threshold for embarrassment. I’m also a perfectionist, and I get frustrated with myself very quickly if I don’t master a new skill, like, immediately. Given all of this, it’s kind of amazing that I ever try anything new at all, although if I really think about it I can see that all of the new activities that I’ve tried over the past few years have mostly been things that I knew that I was sort of predisposed to be good at. For example, I had a feeling that I would be awesome at yoga because I’ve always been really flexible. Blogging didn’t intimidate me because, all modesty aside, I knew that I was a half-decent writer. I knew that I would be good at drinking scotch because it’s no secret that I’m a pretentious, snobby asshole.

I am not really good at any of the skills necessary for roller derby, other than a love of short skirts and the fact that I’m a hilariously scrappy fighter.

All kitted out - sadly no skirt, though

All kitted out – sadly no skirt, though. And yes, my shirt says, “The Bell Jar” on it.

Finally, the biggest fear holding me back was that I was afraid of falling. I was afraid of falling because of my bad knee. I was afraid of falling and being run over by other, faster, better skaters. Mostly, though, I was afraid of falling and looking stupid.

Imagine my surprise when my sister-in-law told me that the first lesson was going to be learning how to fall. Because, she said, I was going to fall whether I liked it or not, and learning how to do it properly would help prevent injury. Being a good skater wasn’t so much avoiding falling as knowing how to do it in a safe and controlled way.

So after wobbling pathetically around the rink a few times on my borrowed roller skates, I let her teach me how to fall. I learned how to fall on one knee. I learned how to fall on two knees. I learned how to do a four-point fall on my knees and forearms. I learned how to get up safely and quickly after each type of fall. Amazingly, after a good solid half hour of falling, I suddenly felt much more comfortable on my skates.

I had a sort of epiphany last night, skating around and around that open-air arena under the darkening Alberta sky. I realized how very much I need to learn how to fall in basically every area of my life. I need to learn that it’s possible to make mistakes and even fail and then get back up again and keep going. Right now, the thought of making mistakes in just about any arena – work, being a parent, my interpersonal relationships – makes me want to throw up. I feel like making a mistake is the end of the line, that there’s no going back, that whatever I’ve done will colour that relationship or work environment forever. The funny thing is that it’s almost never other people who make me feel that way; I make myself feel that way. If I inadvertently say something hurtful, or if I forget to do something or get something wrong, I have a really hard time forgiving myself and getting past it. To me, making mistakes feels like the world is ending.

But you can’t live like that, you know? You can’t just not make mistakes – that’s an impossible goal. Even if you are living the safest, most risk-free life ever, you’re still going to make mistakes. And anyway I don’t want to live that life – I want to take risks, I want to try new things, I want to push myself. So I think that I have to learn how to make mistakes, by which I mean how to react in an emotionally appropriate manner to my mistakes, and also how to work to quickly fix them instead of diving under the covers and crying for three days. I want to learn how to have arguments or even fights that don’t end with me apologizing profusely (or sobbing incoherently) because any kind of conflict makes me feel sick.

Most of all, I need to realize that if I want to succeed at something – anything – I might have to fail first.

There’s a theory by mid-century child pediatrician and child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott that says that one of the many reasons why play is important for children is because it’s a safe place for children to make mistakes. In play, children are able to explore the world and themselves without fear; they are able to try new things and make mistakes without serious consequences. Winnicott says, “It is playing and only in playing that the individual child is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”

I think that maybe I need to re-learn how to play. I need more spaces in my life that feel safe enough to fall and fail in. I need to find activities that help me feel more comfortable taking risks in the rest of my life. Maybe roller derby is the perfect place to start.

Still a bit wobbly

Still a bit wobbly

And for the record, the rest of the practice was fantastic. I learned how to skate on one foot, how to stop and start, how to turn corners. My sister-in-law taught me how to “get a whip,” which involves skating up behind someone, grabbing them by the hips and pulling yourself forward and past them. I got to watch the more experienced derby ladies skate up to thirty times around the track in five minutes. I got to watch the “benched” players practice skating formations, jamming and taking hits. I watched people fall over and over again, only to get right back up and keep going.

It was amazingly great.

SKATING LIKE A BADASS

SKATING LIKE A BOSS