Tag Archives: anxiety

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

Your Life As A Play

18 Aug

You think that if you get all the window dressing right then everything will be fine.

The floral-patterned dress, the beat up cowboy boots, the vintage leather jacket.

The carefully tousled hair, the oversized sunglasses, exactly the right shade of peachy-pink lipstick.

The golden tan, the throaty laugh, the full smile.

The way the sun hits you from behind, so that you’re sweetly backlit in the late summer afternoon haze.

The books on your shelf. The distressed furniture. The tacky knick knacks you wouldn’t have been caught dead with five years ago.

The antique china tea set your grandmother gave you.

The mint green bike you bought second hand.

The midcentury modern buffet you found on the street on garbage day.

The smart, funny, handsome husband.

The smart, funny, precocious child.

The off-beat, artsy career.

The morning yoga classes you teach, the playlists you create timed perfectly with the flow of poses, the warm, sympathetic tone to your voice.

The afternoons you spend in coffee shops drafting up your novel, your screenplay, your heartwrenching poem.

Everyone who looks at you is envious. You can feel it when they size you up. You can tell how much they covet your life, all of it, every tiny detail.

You’re so good with details.

You’re so good at so many things.

You lucky, lucky girl.

It’s like creating a set for a play, isn’t it? A play about a life you’d like to live. You think that if everything is placed just so then it must follow that you will be happy. If the print on the table cloth is exactly right, if the soft cotton quilt that your grandmother gave you is just tattered and faded enough, then you will break the spell. You will finally feel alive.

It doesn’t work that way. Your things are just things. Your hair, makeup and clothing are part of an elaborate, time-consuming disguise. Your husband and child are not as perfect as they seem, because no one is perfect, but the tantrums, the arguments, the dull drag of day-to-day life never make it on to your Instagram account. The print on the table cloth is just slightly wrong.

The window dressing is just window dressing. Your heart is the reality, and it cracks in a way that can never be repaired. You will always be you, no matter what your life looks like, no matter how many best-sellers you write, no matter how envious anyone else might be.

You will always be you, living in this particular skin, on this particular planet, at this particular time in history.

You will always be you.

Talk about a life sentence.

Talk about a life sentence.

Talk about a life sentence.

Alice Summers in Paris

How To Talk To Your Son About His Body

14 Aug

I loved this post on how to talk to your daughter about her body, and I wanted to create something similar for parents of boys. My friend Nathan and I put this list together, and would love to hear your input.

How to talk to your son about his body, step one: talk to your son about his body. Give him the vocabulary that he needs to communicate how he feels about himself.

Teach him that it’s normal to think about his appearance.

Teach him that it’s fine to want to be handsome or pretty.

Teach him that being a boy doesn’t take away his right to have feelings about his body.

If your son tells you that he is unhappy because he is too fat or too skinny, don’t dismiss him. Don’t tell him that boys don’t have to worry about stuff like that. Don’t tell him that he’s lucky that he’s not a girl, because then it would really be a problem.

Listen to him – really listen – and keep your opinions about his appearance to yourself. Don’t tell him that you’ll help him lose weight. Don’t tell him that he’ll bulk up when he gets older. Just listen, and encourage him to explain how and why he feels that way.

If your son is older, talk to him about male bodies in the media. Ask him what he thinks of the storefronts for Hollister or Abercrombie and Fitch; ask him if he thinks that images represent how he thinks men should look. Talk about the fact that Photoshop is used to alter images of boys as well as those of girls.

Don’t make jokes about your son’s weight. In fact, don’t make any comments about his weight. Don’t talk about how funny it is that he was so skinny as a little kid and now he’s not. Don’t poke him in the side and tell him that his ribs stick out. Don’t sigh enviously over how thin he is.

Don’t assume that you can talk about your son’s body any differently than you talk about your daughter’s.

If you notice that your son is gaining or losing weight, remember that these can be signs of depression. Without asking leading questions or otherwise being obvious about it, try to get some insight into how your son is feeling. Be sensitive to the fact that if you’ve noticed a change in your son’s weight, chances are good that he’s very much aware of it and may feel ashamed or embarrassed.

If you notice that your son is rapidly losing weight, seems to be trying to limit what he eats, or is otherwise occupied with the idea that he is fat, remember that eating disorders are on the rise among teenage boys. If you suspect that your son might have an eating disorder, don’t try to “fix” him by telling him that his body is fine and he has nothing to worry about. Eating disorders are serious, and if you have are concerned that your son might have one, you should contact your pediatrician immediately.

Don’t comment on other men’s bodies – neither positively nor negatively. Don’t communicate an idealized version of masculine beauty, and don’t run other men down. And for the love of God don’t make jokes about hair loss, or say that you don’t find bald men attractive. Don’t make jokes about short men. Don’t make jokes about body hair. Don’t make jokes about penis size. Seriously. Those things aren’t funny.

Don’t make negative comments about your own body. Don’t let him overhear you calling yourself fat, or saying that you should go on a diet. He will learn to love and accept his body by watching how you treat yours. Always remember that he will take his cues on body acceptance from you.

Teach your son to be kind to himself.

Teach him to be kind to other people.

Teach your son that his body is good for all kinds of things – dancing, sports, digging in the dirt, yoga, gymnastics, figure skating, or even just sitting quietly and thinking.

Teach him to move his body in lots of different ways, from lifting big rocks to spinning pirouettes, because those things are fun and they feel good. Teach him to stretch and touch his toes because this will help keep his muscles flexible and elastic. Teach him to do cartwheels because there is no greater expression of joy. Teach him to lie in a patch of sunlight and dive into a good book.

Don’t teach your son about “good” foods and “bad” foods, because food shouldn’t be subject to moral judgment. Instead, teach him about foods that will fill him up and give him energy versus foods that will leave him feeling unsatisfied and cranky an hour later. Teach him that candy and desserts are great, but that they won’t give him the drive he needs to get through the day.

Teach your son to cook. Teach him to cook anything and everything – scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, tooth-achingly rich chocolate cake. Teach him how to sauté vegetables and whisk egg whites.

Prove to your son that he doesn’t need a woman to cook for him.

Prove to him that there is no such thing as a “girly” interest or hobby.

Teach your son that people come in all different shapes and sizes. Teach him that there is no one specific way that he, as a boy, should look or act – his appearance and his interests are perfect because he is perfect. But teach him, too, that there is nothing bad or shameful about feeling uncomfortable with his body. Teach him that there is nothing wrong with wanting to talk about his body, or wanting to find ways to feel happier in his body.

Teach him that you’re there to listen.

Teach him that he’s not alone.

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Ten Lies Depression Tells You

7 Aug

1. You are a bad person who deserves bad things.

2. You are unhappy because you are lazy or lacking in willpower. Happiness is a choice, a choice that you have failed to make. Somehow, somewhere over the course of your lifetime, when faced with some metaphysical fork in the road, you chose the wrong path. You brought this curse down on yourself.

3. Your sadness is the baseline by which the rest of your life should be measured. This sadnesss is your norm, and any other emotions, especially positive ones, are exceptions to the rule. Yes of course there will be good times, of course there will be flashes of joy; you will certainly, on occasion, experience the pleasure of a good book or a ripe juicy peach,  However, those experiences will be few and far between. Your bad days will always outnumber the good.

4. Your family and friends do not love you. Your family are people who feel obligated to spend time with you because as luck would have it you share a similar genetic makeup. Your friends are people that you somehow tricked into thinking that you, as a person, have some kind of value, and now they don’t know how to extricate themselves from your pathetic, needy grasp. No one spends time with you because they enjoy it; they do it out of a sense of duty, a feeling of pity. Whenever you leave a room everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

5. Your family and friends do not want to hear about how sad you are. No matter how sympathetic they may seem, no matter how sincerely they might ask how you are feeling, remember that it’s all an act. The more that you open yourself up to them, the more you pour your heart out, the more resentful of you they become. Do not fall into the trap of sharing your feelings; do not give into the temptation to draw back the curtain and, like a tawdry magician, reveal your grotesque sadness. Your sadness is a choice, remember? This burden is yours to bear alone.

6. Your friends and family deserve better than you. Everyone deserves better than you

7. In order to make up for your unhappiness, it is your responsibility to make sure that everyone around you is happy. If you can manage to maintain a near-constant veneer of kindness, helpfulness and sincere interest in others, then that will make your presence more tolerable. Your amiability, though entirely inadequate, is the best apology that you can make for your existence.

8. Everything is your fault.

If you plan a picnic and it rains, it’s your fault. You should have been more thorough when you checked the weather. You should have learned to be an amateur meteorologist so that you could better read the clouds. You should have packed a canopy. If you go out for dinner, for your once-in-a-blue-moon, hire-a-babysitter-and-wear-a-nice-dress date and the food or service or conversation is anything less than exceptional, it’s your fault. You should have read more restaurant reviews, should have asked friends for more recommendations, should have prepared cue cards with talking points. If someone is unkind to you, it’s your fault. You should have smiled more, been more gracious, tried harder to be whatever it was that they needed in that moment.

Everything is your fault.

9. There is no cure for your sadness, no effective treatment, no way of managing your symptoms. There are, of course, doctors and pills and various therapies that help other people, but you’ve tried all these things and they don’t work for you. Nothing will ever work for you.

10. You will feel this way forever.

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Stigma

26 Jul

When BlogHer asked me to speak at their annual conference on a panel called Mental Health in the Online Space, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. For one thing, I’ve never spoken at a conference before, and for another, I’m hardly a professional when it comes to talking about mental health. I mean, sure, I have lots of thoughts and opinions and feelings about it, and I feel pretty comfortable writing about my own experiences, but I’m by no means an expert. In fact, when I first received the invitation to speak I was sure that BlogHer had sent it to me by mistake.  But it turned out not to be a mistake, which is how I found myself sitting in a fancy conference room in a fancy hotel in fancy ol’ Chicago talking about whacky brain things.

The whole thing went pretty smoothly; a lot of it felt like we were preaching to the choir, to be honest. Our audience was mostly made up of people who had either had their own mental health struggles or else had experience with mental illness through their friends and family. Most of what we said was met with sympathetic nods or else comments from audience members who wanted to share similar issues that they’d experienced. About halfway through the session, though, just as I was starting to settle in and feel like I was getting the hang of things, one question caught me by surprise.

One of the panelists had mentioned that she hadn’t told her employer why, exactly, she was speaking at BlogHer, because she hadn’t wanted to divulge her mental health history. This is a pretty common dilemma faced by most people who live with mental illnesses, so I didn’t think anything of it until a hand shot up in the audience.

“I don’t have a mental illness, so I’m sorry if this is offensive,” said the woman, “but you’ve all talked a lot about stigma and, well, if you don’t tell your employer that you’re mentally ill, aren’t you contributing to that stigma?”

At that moment, we all looked at each other, and I could tell that all of us were thinking the same thing:

Ohhhhhh, she doesn’t know.

She doesn’t know that when you tell someone that you’re mentally ill, they look at you differently. When you tell your boss that you’ve struggled with your mental health, they start to treat you like something other, something lesser. Instead of your usual assignments or tasks, you might be asked to take on something a little more boring, more mundane. When you want to know why your role has changed, your boss might tell you that they were concerned that your former duties were too stressful for you. When you try to explain that, no, it’s not like that, you might get a look that’s a cross between father-knows-best and we’re-just-looking-out-for-you.

She doesn’t know that even if you do divulge your status as mentally ill, that doesn’t mean that you can talk about it, casually, as if it’s just another illness. For example, when someone at work asks you how you’re doing, you can never just reply, oh, you know, sad and a little anxious. If you have to take the day off because you woke up to a panic attack and you feel as if the grim, grey sky might crush you if you move from your bed, you can’t tell your employer the real reason why you won’t be at work; instead, you have to fake a convincing cough or else invent disgusting details about a fictional stomach flu.

She doesn’t know that when people talk about mental health in their workplaces, they run the risk of getting fired. Oh, not fired specifically because of mental illness, because that’s illegal, but fired for one of any number of trumped up reasons that their employer might come up with. She doesn’t know that someone can be fired for taking too much time off for doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions, even if those things are necessary in order for them to function. She doesn’t know that someone can be fired while they’re on a leave of absence due to anxiety or depression just because they’ve posted pictures of themselves smiling on Facebook.

I wish I was making that last one up, but I’m not.

Most of all, what this audience member doesn’t know about is the stigma; stigma felt by everyone, your friends, your family, your doctor, and even you, yourself, the mental health advocate. She doesn’t know what it’s like to have to learn as much about your illness as you can because your doctor’s understanding of it is, at best, incomplete. She doesn’t know what it’s like to go to see a psychiatrist, one of the best in his field, and, after you’ve explained your history to him, none of which has been in any way violent, harmful, or neglectful towards others, have him ask if Children’s Aid has ever been involved with your family. She doesn’t understand that those of us who struggle with mental health issues grew up in the same world as everyone else, and we absorbed all the same toxic messages about mental illness that everyone else did. She doesn’t know about how we internalize that stigma, how we have to fight against our own shame, guilt, fear and doubt in order to love ourselves or even just take ourselves seriously.

She doesn’t know about how some of us hate ourselves for these things that are not our fault, and then feel like hypocrites for hating the very things that we’re trying to educate others about.

And that’s the key, isn’t it? Education, I mean. That’s the way to end the stigma and shame and fear. I know that, other mental health advocates know that, and even that woman in the audience knows that – which is why she was asking about how my co-panelist could hide her mental health issues from her employer rather than taking the time to educate them. The fact is that education about mental illness is incredibly important. But (and this is a big but) you can’t put all of the responsibility for educating others solely on the shoulders of mental health advocates. For one thing, it can be exhausting and emotionally draining to try to explain over and over again the particulars of brain chemistry and trauma and he ways that those things can shape your life. For another, being one hundred percent open about your mental health all of the time can, as mentioned above, have real-life consequences. And yeah, in a perfect world you could be like, fuck this job if they’re going to look down on me for an actual, bonafide illness, but we don’t live in a perfect world, and sometimes you have to take what you can get just so that you can pay the bills.

Education about mental illness needs to start earlier for everyone, and it needs to come from the top down. It should be included in grade school health classes, in curriculums designed, in part, by mental health advocates. Education needs to come from doctors, who need to be properly educated themselves about all the ins and outs of the sad, lonely world so many of us find ourselves in. Education needs to be everywhere and be accessible to everyone in the community, because that’s honestly the only way we’re ever going to get to a place where someone can casually say at a dinner party, oh man, I had a manic episode yesterday and coming down sucked but I feel way better now, without everyone else giving them the side eye.

Because I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty down with living in that world.

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Insomniac

2 Jul

You start by carefully arranging everything on the bed: the long skinny pillow on one side, the regular pillow at the top, the pretty handmade blanket folded just so. You place your glasses and phone and kleenex on the night table and turn off the light. You lie down, wriggle yourself into position, and close your eyes.

Stop thinking, you tell your brain. Go to sleep.

But your brain won’t stop. Instead, it offers you bits and pieces of information, things that are useless on their own but suggestive of something deeper, more frightening. Or else it takes one small event from the day and expands it, blows it up like a grainy old photograph, then picks it apart. Or else it gives you just the beginnings of sentences, stuff like:

My kid is. My partner doesn’t. My boss won’t. My friend says. She knows. He wants. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.

You try to stay very still and think about nothing, but since when does thinking about nothing ever work? And while we’re at it, how does sleep work? How does everyone make the daily transition from conscious and thinking and feeling to, well, unconsciousness?

You squirm around, trying to find that elusive perfect spot on the pillow, the one that’s smooth and cool to the touch. Your legs get tangled up in the blanket, and the sheets feel wrong and scratchy. Frustrated, you strip the sheets and blanket off the bed and throw them into a pile on the floor. But now you’re cold, so you put on a sweatshirt and a pair of socks.

You lie there. You check the clock. You close your eyes. You open them. You check the clock. You count down how many hours are left until you have to get up.

And your brain says, Let’s have a drink.

And your brain says, Let’s read Sylvia Plath’s journals.

And your brain says, Let’s make a list of all of your shortcomings.

But you’re smarter than that, aren’t you? So instead, you do this relaxation exercise that you learned years ago in some theatre class that you took, where you bring some kind of mindful awareness (what does that even mean?) to each of your body parts in turn, starting from your toes all the way to the crown of the head. And as you’re doing this, you remember how, another time, in another theatre class, you learned to do a sort of bastardized version of the Alexander Technique. After class, you went back to your dorm and offered to teach it to the boy you had a crush on, just so you would have an excuse to touch him.

From there, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to the memory of how you told him that you were in love with him. It was in a friend’s dorm room, where five or six of you were lying piled on a bed, watching South Park. At some point, people decide to go find snacks and drinks and you end up alone with your crush and you suddenly, bravely, think, now or never. And so you tell him, awkwardly, in fits and starts, how you feel about him and then you start to cry because you’re so nervous and you love him so much and anyway how could anyone ever love you back?

Then he takes your hand and, very kindly, tells you what everyone but you already knows – namely that he’s been fucking your best friend for the past three weeks.

That anecdote offers an easy transition into the list of people who you’ve loved but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, love you back. Also included on this list are those who loved you at first but eventually stopped loving you. And then, of course, there are the people who really did love you, but loved you badly, or too much, or not in the way that you needed.

But why didn’t these people love you? They must have had reasons, good reasons, even. What on earth did you do to drive them away? And ohhhh shit here it comes, the list of all your shortcomings. And it’s too late to stop yourself, because you’re already halfway done.

You’re a fucking sneaky bastard, brain. Did you know that?

In the morning, you drag yourself out of bed. The insides of your eyelids feel like cat’s tongues, with all those scratchy little barbs. There’s grit in your mouth, like someone’s tried to bury you in sand. You feel queasy.

You don’t want to eat anything, but you force yourself to, hoping that it’ll give you a boost of energy.

You spend the day downing coffee and you swear to god that if one more person tells you that you should cut caffeine from your diet you’re going to punch them in the face. Caffeine is the only thing that’s currently making your life bearable, and the idea of not drinking it makes you feel like you might want to die.

Everyone has some sort of solution to your sleep problem, but none of them, in your experience, work. Or rather, they work for a few nights, maybe even a few weeks, but then they stop. For all you know they never worked in the first place, and it’s all one big placebo effect. The fact is that you should just stop complaining about how tired you are. You don’t sleep. You’re never going to sleep. End of story.

By the end of the day, you’re so tired you could cry. Sometimes you really do cry, and when your partner asks what’s and you tell him that you’re not sad, you’re just so tired, you feel like a stupid little kid. You spend the evening in a daze on the couch, your brain too fuzzy for activities like reading or conversation. You wish you were dead.

Then ten o’clock comes and it’s like someone’s flipped a switch in your brain. You’re wide awake, wired, even, ready to take on the world. But it’s bedtime, and you have to work in the morning. So you turn off the lights, lie down, and let the whole cycle start all over again.

Man.

Fuck sleep.

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Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose

30 Jun

It’s been a crazy week, eh, internet? I mean, between Wendy Davis’ filibuster  and the American supreme court repealing DOMA, it’s been pretty exciting all up in here!

And it’s Pride in Toronto right now!

And tomorrow is Canada Day!

Meanwhile, I’m working all weekend, and have spent the last several days alternating between being screamed at by my toddler and struggling to find the motivation to finish my book, since my deadline is July 15th. I mean, in case you were wondering why I haven’t been posting much and also have maybe noticed how incredibly shitty I’ve become at replying to comments. Sorry guys, I kind of suck right now.

Basically my life write now - trying to finish my book while doing my best not to drown

Basically my life write now – trying to finish my book while doing my best not to drown

I can’t remember if I’ve talked about the book on here or not. Probably not. I’m pretty terrible at self-promotion, which is a problem, I guess, when you’re a young, unknown whippersnapper of a writer. Like, when people ask me what my book’s about, I just sort of mumble incoherently and then change the subject. Mind you, I’ve never actually published a book, so I can’t say this with complete certainty, but I’m pretty sure that that’s not how you get people interested in what you’re writing.

Anyway. This book. It’s going to be an e-book, published through Thought Catalog, and will be sold both on their website and on Amazon. The first draft is mostly done, which is kind of bad news, because that means that editing comes next, and editing my own work mostly makes me want to gouge my eyes out. I’m pretty excited about it, though. It even has a title – My Heart is an Autumn Garage. That’s a Salinger reference, specifically a reference to a line from Franny & Zooey, so right away you know that it’s going to be an awesome book.

So what’s this mystery book about? Welllll, it’s about the time that I was hospitalized for depression back in 2003, and all the crazy hijinks and hilarious misadventures that ensued! That is, if by crazy hijinks and hilarious misadventures I mean “possibly the worst, most frightening thing that has ever happened to me.”

Writing this book has been both a weirdly nostalgic experience and super anxiety-inducing. The former because even though the summer and fall of 2003 were a really fucking terrible time in my life, it was neat cracking open my old journals and reading all the weird little details about my life back then. And yeah, a lot of what I wrote was heartbroken and angry, but there were a few things that made me smile –  for example, a pros and cons list that I wrote of reasons why I should or should not kill myself (spoiler alert: I didn’t, even though there was only one item on the “should not” list). That list, by the way, was made with complete earnestness, and there really shouldn’t be anything funny about it, but somehow it feels pretty damn good to read it ten years after the fact and be able to laugh.

Writing this has also brought up a bunch of anxiety because, to be honest, I actually thought that I’d changed a lot since 2003. Like, I’d somehow become  an entirely different person or something. But, of course, even though my circumstances have altered since then, my actual core self is pretty damn similar. Reading those old journals reminded me that I still have all the same old insecurities and fears as ever, and sure, maybe I’m better at coping with them now, but my coping abilities feel fragile and feeble at best, and it seems like it wouldn’t take much to bring me right back to where I was.

And speaking of being right back where I was, that’s sort of what I’ve been doing while writing this book, isn’t it? I mean, I’ve been working really hard to get into the headspace I was in ten years ago, those good old days when Halifax seemed like a mean, grey trap and suicide felt like the only way out. By and large I’ve been pretty successful at recapturing those feelings (thanks Past Self for all your extremely detail-oriented journal entries – way to look out for Future Self!), and while I do think slipping back into how I felt and thought in those days will make the book much stronger and more immediate, it hasn’t exactly felt great for my present-day self. It’s hard not to read pages and pages of hopelessness, regret, and suicidal ideation without starting to think, hmmmm, maybe she has a point.

So that’s basically where I am these days. There’s been a lot of writing and self-reflection over the past few weeks, and a healthy dose of change, too. These have, in the long run, all been good things, I think, but they’ve also been kind of wearing on me, and I haven’t exactly been the most fun person to be around. I also feel that I never have enough hours in the day, although somehow I always magically have enough time to refresh Facebook obsessively or check my email fifty times, so I dunno. I’d better get my shit together soon, though, because it’s summer and I fucking love summer. First of all, it’s my birthday in a little over a month. Second of all, summer. And if you’re one of those assholes who hates summer and will spend the next two months complaining about how hot it is, well, you know where the door is.

In other news, I will be in Chicago at the end of July speaking at the BlogHer conference on the topic of “Mental Health in the Online Space.” I’ve never been to Chicago, so I am pretty stoked! I know all about how their hospitals work, though, based on my obsessive teenage watching of both ER and Chicago Hope.

Hey, Dr. Carter?

Call me, okay?

Also, my friend Audra started a blog called Enthusiasm Makes the Difference. I asked her if it was going to be a blog about blow jobs, because I feel like that is a scenario where enthusiasm really can mean the difference between a great blow job and just a so-so blow job, but she said that it was only going to be about oral sex sometimes. Anyway, she is a great writer and you should probably check her out!

Oh, and if you want to read some advice that I gave Sheila Heti about change and decision-making, you can check that out here.

In conclusion, I will leave you with my favourite scene from The Royal Tenenbaums, which I have been watching this week in the name of RESEARCH. Because the fact is that only ten days before I was planning on killing myself, Elliott Smith committed suicide by stabbing himself in the chest. And I can’t think of Elliott Smith without remembering the part in the Royal Tenenbaums when Luke Wilson’s character slashes his wrists while Smith’s Needle In The Hay plays on the soundtrack. And oh frig, you guys, this scene gets me every time. There’s just so much feeling, but it’s so quiet and lovely and happy-sad. Oh man.

On Friendship (Or, How To Over-Think Everything)

13 Jun

This past Sunday I took Theo to the park, hoping to score a little mother-and-son quality time. We went to the “Secret Park”, so-called because of the way it’s tucked behind our local high level pumping station, an Art Deco monstrosity that’s designed to fit in with the rest of the gorgeous early 20th century architecture in our neighbourhood (rich people: even their municipal pumping stations are pretty). My plan was for Theo and I to spend the morning chilling out on the climber, engaging in some witty banter and maybe taking turns pushing each other on the swings.

I hadn’t counted on my toddler totally ditching me for a new-found friend.

This other kid was already at the Secret Park when we got there, running around like a madman, waving a huge stick in the air and screaming. Theo was immediately entranced. He watched, shyly, as this boy tore around the grassy slopes, and I could tell that he wanted to join in but wasn’t quite sure how to achieve that. I suggested that we could go play on the climber or on the swings, thinking that doing some park-type stuff might make him feel a little more at ease and thus help put him into the right frame of mind to make friends. He shook his head, though, his eyes never leaving the other boy. Finally, still not looking at me, he said with a great deal of seriousness,

“I need a stick.”

So I found him a stick, and that was all it took for him to feel comfortable enough to start playing with the other boy (whose name, it turned out, was Duncan). Once Theo had that stick in his hand, he and Duncan were running around shrieking delightedly together. Then they played in the sand doing something at once precise and elaborate and yet totally mystifying with a plastic cup and a Christmas tree ornament shaped like a chilli pepper. Then they buried Duncan’s extensive collection of dinky cars, then dug them all up again and started racing them up and down the trunk of a nearby tree.

Insta-best-friends.

I was hella jealous.

I’ve been thinking about how that situation would have played out had it involved myself and some other adult who just happened to be doing something that I found incredibly intriguing. Would I have been able to just jump right in and befriend them, without even so much as an introduction? Oh, fuck, no. Here’s how it would have gone if I’d been in Theo’s place:

Anne’s internal monologue: Whoa, that person seems amazing. I really want to run around and wave sticks with her! But probably she’s way better at waving sticks than me. I mean, I guess I could ask her to teach me, but isn’t that a little pathetic? And anyway, I’m sure that she has more than enough friends. I’m sure that she doesn’t want to talk to me. Maybe if I google “how to wave sticks and scream” I could just do it by myself? Maybe it’ll turn out that I’m really great at it? Maybe if I do it awesomely enough, she’ll come over and try to make friends with me? Do I even really want to make friends with her, though? I mean, she seems great now, but she’s probably not as awesome as she seems. I have a lot of great friends – I don’t need this not-as-awesome-as-she-seems stick waver!

Anne (out loud): Guhhh nice stick!

At what age does the ability to instantly click with someone over something like screaming and waving sticks end? At what age do all these stupid, tangled thoughts take over and prevent people (and by people I mean me) from taking any kind of initiative from befriending others? My kid is (currently, at least) the kind of person who can just jump right in and assume that his awesomeness will be evident enough that he can make friends with anyone he wants to. Or, going even further, he doesn’t even bother to wonder about the state of his awesomeness. He just does his thing and goes from there. And I’m kind of jealous. I fucking want that personality trait so badly, like, you don’t even know.

I really, really want to be the type of person who sees someone cool and is like, “Hey, let’s hang out sometime.” But I’m not, and I never have been.

Instead, I am the type of person who, when I went camping as a little kid, would get my father to visit the campsites of families with kids and act as a sort of friendship matchmaker.

I am the type of person who daily descends into the bottomless black hole of saying too much and then trying to correct that by saying even more.

I am the type of person who goes out for dinner with a writer that she particularly admires and brings cue cards full of things to say in case the conversation lags.

I really, really want to be the kind of person who says, fuck cue cards, but you guys? I actually love cue cards. And I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with loving cue cards, except that maybe it’s a problem when you come to depend on them as a sort of social crutch.

I don’t want to be the type of person who, in the middle of a nice dinner, whips out a list of interesting conversation topics, but what the fuck else am I supposed to do? Think thoughts and say words in real time? As Barney Stinson would say: please. Putting my thoughts down in a blog post is fairly easy, because I can edit and then re-edit until I’m sure that I’ve got it right. But having an actual, un-plannable, give-and-take conversation with another person is a different beast entirely.

I mean, seriously, how does anyone ever figure out the right thing to say? Because this must be something that other people are capable of doing, unless everyone else has somehow learned to be extremely stealthy with their cue cards. And how do people not only manage to say the right thing, but also avoid saying exactly the wrong thing? And how do you come to accept that it’s not actually a binary, that there is a wide gulf between right and wrong, a deep valley full of conversational material that’s perfectly fine, but for whatever reason isn’t particularly scintillating or thought-provoking.

And that’s just the basics of general small talk. That’s just beginner’s stuff. What about all the crap that comes later, once you’ve managed to become friends with someone and actually establish some kind of relationship? Then comes the really tricky stuff – carefully cultivating that relationship, making sure that you make time for that person, learning how to deal with any conflict that arises with them.

Ugh, conflict. Oh, conflict. My old nemesis.

On Sunday, I watched my kid get into an argument with Duncan over who got to hold which car. It didn’t quite come to blows, but there were definitely angry words and hurt feelings involved. Then, miraculously, two minutes later they were firm friends again, discussing the various merits of blue race cars versus red race cars as if nothing at all had happened. Meanwhile, when I get into a fight with someone, I end up spending days, sometimes even weeks, treading and retreading the same mental ground over and over and over again. I I spend ages trying to figure out what I could have done differently, as if I’m ever going to be presented with the exact same set of circumstances at some point in the future. Worst of all, I need an incredibly amount of reassurance that yes, I am a still good, yes, I am still loved.

This last one has been killing me lately. I’ve realized that a huge part of it is because when you take up residence in anxiety-town, you lose any ability to trust your own senses. So you end up feeling like you have to sort of crowdsource your thoughts and feelings, constantly asking, “Is this okay? Is this a normal reaction? Am I right to respond this way or am I going overboard? Do you still love me? Is it okay for me to love myself?” And yes, sometimes this way of coping is super helpful, but sometimes it can be totally toxic as well. Even when all of your neurons are misfiring in exactly the right way to make you feel like you are a terrible person, it’s dangerous to think that someone else can give you an accurate read on what you’re doing or how you should feel about yourself. On top of that, you might not get the answer that you want, and at the end of the day constantly demanding feedback and reassurance can make you feel pretty pathetic.

So what’s the answer? I’m not sure, to be honest. Lately I’ve been making a lot of checklists for myself (for whatever reason I find list-making to be very soothing). After a couple of days of trying to unsnarl this mess in my head that I call my brain, I now have a bunch of easily-accessible documents that I can refer to whenever I start to doubt any given situation. These lists are full of reminders about all of the empirical evidence that I have that yes, people do love me, and yes, there is value in the things that I say and do. I’ve also made lists that help me to remember that conflict isn’t the end of the world (even if it sometimes feels that way), and that it’s totally possible to have a horrible fight with someone and then move past it and maybe not exactly forget that it ever happened but also not let it be what defines your relationship from that moment forward.

All of this is to say: I really want to be the kid who one minute is screaming about how it’s my fucking turn to hold the red car, and then the next minute is fine. I want to be the kid who jumps right in without a single thought. I want to be that goddamn kid who runs around waving a stick and screaming without first having to google how and why I should do this so as to prevent myself from looking like an idiot.

Because that kid? That kid seems really fucking rad.

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On Self-Loathing

27 May

I hate myself.

I say those three words in conjunction with each other on a fairly regular basis. Most of the time, I’m joking – if I’ve screwed up while trying to do something easy, for example, I’ll roll my eyes, laugh and say oh God, I hate myself. Sometimes I say it in a half-kidding, half-serious way, like if I’m really frustrated with a situation that I feel is somehow my fault. Sometimes, though, I really, really mean it. Oh fuck do I ever mean it.

I hate every little thing about myself, but what I hate the most is how annoying I am. I hate the grating sound of my voice, the way I start to cry, publicly, when I’m too worked up or angry, and I especially hate what a goddamn Pandora’s Box my stupid heart is. The minute I open it, everything awful flies out. Worst of all, once that happens, I can’t seem to stop talking about all of the awfulness. It’s like there’s another me, standing there watching myself go on and on and on about  everything, and I can see the glazed, irritated look on the other person’s face, but I can’t seem to stop. By that point, I’m annoying even myself, but I just keep on going, digging myself in deeper, thinking that the words that got me into this mess will somehow get me out of it.

I hate how often I look to other people for reassurance.

I hate how insecure I am about myself.

I hate how no one can fix this but me, but for some reason I seem to keep asking the people who love me to put me back together.

I’ll believe anything about myself, so long as it’s bad. I can hear a thousand nice things about the way I look, or how smart I am, or how great my writing is, but the moment someone criticizes me, I assume that they’re right and everyone else is wrong.

I sometimes think that one day I’ll go in for surgery and they’ll cut me open and there won’t be anything inside of me, nothing at all, just a black pit of self-loathing that goes on and on and on.

I sometimes think that I don’t believe in good things anymore, just things, regular, plain old things, each with their own unique capacity to hurt.

I sometimes think about myself and I feel sick. Actually, physically sick, like, the type of thing where you taste bile at the back of your throat.

The hardest part about all of this is the tendency to purposefully, if subconsciously, damage everything positive in my life. Because I know that I don’t deserve anything that makes me happy, so I set little traps, miniature emotional minefields for myself and other people to ensure that I stay miserable. And then I stupidly act surprised when these tactics work.

God, I hate myself so much.

And before you ask, yes, I see a therapist. I’ve seen a string of them. They always want to talk about stuff that happened when I was a kid, or how I feel about my parents, or when this all started. And I answer these questions as honestly as I can, but those answers never get me anywhere. It makes no difference knowing how or why you got somewhere when you know that you can’t go back by the way you came, and all the ways forward seem blocked

Part of it is probably that it’s easier to hate myself than anyone else. If someone else hurts me or upsets me, it’s so much easier to turn all of my bad feelings inward. That sounds counterintuitive, I know, but think about it this way: if I’m angry at someone else, then I have to use up all kinds of mental and emotional energy being upset with them, plus I have to take all this time explaining to them why what they did hurt me, and on top of that I may not even be in the right anyway. In fact, I’m really bad with conflict, so if I try to argue with someone about who was right and who was wrong in any given situation, I will invariably end up feeling like everything was my fault. So it’s much less complicated to assume that everything bad that happens is because of me, and leave it at that.

If I were a different person, I would probably try to kill the way I feel about myself with drinking or drugs. I would go out and do self-destructive things, I would lose control, I would, for even just a few minutes, feel completely different. But I’m not that type of person – for one thing, I’m terrified of not being in control of myself. For another, I have a kid, which isn’t really conducive to that type of lifestyle. So instead I sit at home and seethe with anger at myself, anger at how stupid I am and anger at my inability to change. I sit and make a list of all the ways that I’m toxic to other people, all the ways that I’m unintentionally hurtful, all the ways that I keep fucking up.

And then I go to bed and I don’t sleep and in the morning, when I get up, I’m still my own stupid self.

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What It’s Like To Live Here, Part III

20 May

Your stupid, treacherous heart is like the Sacred Heart of Jesus, naked and quivering on your chest. Except that whereas Christ’s heart rests on his fully clothed breast, your bare skin has been cut and neatly pinned back, your torso resembling nothing so much as a biology class dissection. The muscle and sinew of your heart are gone, too. All that remains in the well of your chest is a tangle of glistening arteries and blood vessels, and a bundle of nerves, jangling and raw.

You talk and talk and talk as if you can’t stop. Words keep tumbling from your mouth, hard and fast, and you wince whenever they hit the ground. Everything sounds wrong, but by the time you’ve said it, it’s too late. You can’t ever call it back.

You feel as if you’re living underwater. People try to speak to you, but their words are warped, distorted beyond recognition. They might have meant something once, but it’s impossible to say, now, what their original shape might have been.

There is a grooved track inside your mind, and all of your favourite fears and worries follow it round and round and round. At night they gain momentum, and even though you’re tired, so goddamn tired, you can’t sleep. The racket in your brain never stops.

You try to explain what it feels like. You try to make people understand that this, this gibbering, twitching creature, isn’t really you. Everything you say falls short of what you mean, and you realize that every single word you know is completely insufficient. You wonder if this would be any easier in another language, if the Germans have a word for waking up to the raw, grey dread that’s become your norm.

You start to cry. You hate yourself for crying. Is there anyone that you will ever hate more than yourself?

You sit. You stand. You pace. You chew your nails. You check your email five times, and then once more for good luck. You put on your shoes. You walk across the street. You buy a pack of Belmonts. You strike a match, but your hand is shaking so badly that you can’t light your stupid cigarette. You wonder if people walking by think you’re some kind of junkie, and laugh because nothing could be further from the truth. You finally manage to light the damn thing, inhale deeply, and then immediately stub it out on the sidewalk beside you. You walk home. You take off your shoes. You sit. You feel as if you’ve accomplished something, even though all you’ve done is blow twelve bucks on something you’ll never use. But maybe the action itself was the accomplishment. Maybe it’s enough that you kept yourself busy, gave yourself some sort of direction, even for just five minutes. Maybe that was worth every penny you spent.

You lie in bed under your heavy down blanket, even though it’s still early in the afternoon and hot as hell outside. Your mouth is a cavernous desert; you couldn’t swallow even if you wanted to. A feeling of doom hangs over you, so palpable that you’re sure you could reach up and touch it. You listen to your neighbour downstairs playing twangy, plaintive songs on his guitar. You make a list of all the ways that you’ve wasted your life.

The telephone rings, over and over and over again. You don’t even consider answering it. There isn’t a single person in the world right now whose voice you want to hear.

You ride it out, like a bad bout of malaria. Anxious tremors wrack your body the way that fever chills might. Your bones seem as if they’re made of glass, and you can feel them clinking, gently, achingly, every time you move. Everything hurts. But still, somehow, you know that there’s a life on the other side of this. There is, of course, always the possibility that this time the disease is going to kill you, this time you won’t make it out alive, but still. It hasn’t yet. And that thought cheers you up, because in spite of everything, the odds are on your side. You feel almost optimistic.

The bundle of nerves in your chest, the ones that have replaced your heart, twitch and quiver. You know that it’s not safe to leave them exposed like this, but you don’t know how to protect them. They’ve always been like this, stripped down, bare, too painful to be of any real use. But they’re yours and, somehow, you wouldn’t have them any other way.

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