Fifty Candles

Two very annoying things happened this week, and they are related to one big thing that will happen later this month: my 50th birthday.

First, after three years of working on my own and some bad work and life situations that have left me financially drained, I need to find a ‘real’ job. I had an interview for a senior position a couple of weeks ago. It was a policy position for which I was perfectly qualified. It was between me and a man who is 27 and right out of grad school. This week, I got a phone call that the job was offered to the younger man. I was immensely qualified, I was told, and my experience was impressive…but they’d decided to go with someone who might have “some longevity with the organization.” 

In other words, I am too old.

Of course I was pissed off. But I also had a chuckle, because this is like some weird Gen X twilight zone. When I was in my 20s, I got turned down for job after job because they went to Boomers who had more experience. Now, I have TOO much experience and am losing out to Millenials. At some point in the past 15 years, for a good three months or so, I might have been exactly the right age to hire. I wish I’d known when that was happening.

The other thing that happened was that the “Oh, what are you doing for your birthday?” questions started. I was at an appointment, and the person had seen my birthdate on my file. 

“Ooh, this is a big one! What are you doing to celebrate?” she asked, breathlessly. 

I shrugged. “Not much.”

She pooh-poohed this, insisting I MUST do something monumental for my 50th. She and her friends had gone to Vegas. Or maybe my husband would throw me a big party?

I shook my head. I had neither the necessary people or resources to make either of those things happen. Plus, as an introvert, my idea of the Bad Place would be a surprise party or a weekend in Vegas. 

“I will be at home, with my cats and kids, eating a lot of cake,” I insisted. It seemed ideal to me, really. But this woman looked at me like this was the saddest idea in the world.

I’ve never really enjoyed birthdays or New Year’s Eve, or any event for which you are made to feel required by law to have a good time no matter what else is going on in your life. Don’t get me wrong – I am not giving in completely to my inner Eeyore and indulging in a pity-party for my birthday. I do not intend to spend my birthday staring mournfully out my window and thinking about everything that’s wrong. But somehow, having a giggly wine-bash just because that’s what social media says I should do doesn’t seem right to me. That’s not what I want. It’s *my* 50th, damn it, and I should mark it the way I want.

There are a lot of good things in my life, and things I’m proud of. know I have a lot of privilege, and I’m grateful for what I have. But I feel the weight of these 50 years. I bear the scars of having survived them when, a few times, I was sure I wouldn’t. Lately, I can’t seem to get out from under the weight of my life, and that weight obscures all but the dark things. My kids are unhappy and struggling. My parents are ill. I have no job or income. My personal life in no way resembles what I thought it would be a whole lifetime ago, when I was 25. I cannot say that I am a success in any of the areas of life that are important to me.

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To no one’s surprise, this was one of my favourite books when I was little. 

Am I wrong for not wanting to throw a party to shine a light on that?

I know there are things I can’t change in my life. There are things I need to just keep pushing through. But maybe I can light these 50 birthday candles and shine a light to find the joy.

To help me think about what the next part of my life will look like (and what I need to do to get there), I recently did a Joy Audit. A Joy Audit (or Life Audit) is a series of reflective questions about key parts of your life — personal, professional, spiritual, financial — that helps you focus on what is bringing you joy, what you need more of, and what you need to cut loose. 

What my Joy Audits always remind me is that I need to be true to the things that have been important to me since I was a little girl: things like writing and being creative, helping people, taking care of myself spiritually, and being independent. This time, my Joy Audit also helped me think about how I want to mark this approaching milestone birthday.

My Joy Audit reminded me that one of the things that brings me joy is doing something to leave a legacy to the world. If my years in this realm are slipping through the hourglass, how can I leave a mark that says I was here? How can I be sure the fact that I existed made a difference? How can I bring joy to others?

So my celebration of this milestone birthday will be quiet and personal, but it will last the whole month (I’m wondering if this means a month of cake, too, and I think the answer is yes. Because 50, damn it). 

Every day until my birthday on November 28th, I’m giving myself four gifts:

  • I’ll focus on one thing I’m grateful for, and do whatever I can to amplify the joy it brings.
  • I’ll make time for the gifts I’ve already been given, like writing just for the pleasure it gives me. I won’t let it be pushed to the back burner (helpful that my birthday falls during #NaNoWriMo!).
  • I’ll choose one gift I can give the world, in whatever small way. This might be a small act of kindness. It might be joining a board of an organization where I know I can make a difference. Whatever it is, in a small way, it will help me leave the world a better place.
  • I’ll choose one gift to give to myself. Not a material thing, but something that brings me everyday joy. A walk in the forest with my dog. Coffee with a friend. Reading one of the books piled on my nightstand. Forgiving myself for not being who or where I expected to be.

Fifty candles can shine a lot of light. They can burn down what’s not needed. They can give warmth and comfort.

That’s what I can do, too.

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Time and Tide

I like to tell my children two facts to dazzle them with proof of my advancing years:

1. I was born (slightly) before humans went to the moon, and;

2. Three-quarters of my life (and most of its most significant events) came before social media. 

Of these two facts, it’s the latter that my kids find most shocking, because a life without social media — without a digital trail of your every move, just a click away— feels more alien to them than a trip to space.

Most of the hard proof of my existence is analog, not digital. It’s photos and memorabilia, and it’s scarce and scattered. It’s shoved, out of order, into photo albums and shoeboxes and slide carousels. It’s hidden in cupboards and cabinets and basements. It’s gathering dust in mysterious undeveloped rolls of film in a junk drawer. It’s falling out of yearbooks, along with pressed flowers and notes whose importance I’ve forgotten (although they were important enough for 16-year-old me to keep them forever, certain that middle-aged me would remember and be impressed). 

It’s easy to ignore analog memories. Don’t want to think about it? Don’t look at it. Hide that photo. Pack away the yearbook. If I don’t think of them, the memories stay hidden and unconfronted. Many exist nowhere but in my mind. And memories, I’m all too aware, are tenuous things. Keep them hidden too long, and they may well fade or get lost forever…much like an old Polaroid fades, its image slipping away.

The digital world, though, doesn’t let things slip away. We trip over the memories it throws in our path, unbidden and out of context. It’s not the shoebox hidden under the bed; it’s Pandora’s Box opened in front of the world.

I was reminded of this last week when Facebook showed me what I was doing eleven years ago. Memories from that far back don’t usually pop up in my timeline; back in my early social media days, I didn’t post much, unless it was something really important. And this had been important: my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. We’d spent it at White Point Beach Resort on Nova Scotia’s south shore. The early October days had been warm enough for my kids, then just two and four, to play in the ocean. My parents happily spent hours with them on the beach, sharing stories and making memories. 

The picture that popped up in my timeline was sweet: a photo of the two most important females in my life — my mother and my daughter — walking on the sand, backs to the camera, marching purposefully toward an adventure. In this photo, Daisy is a lively little strawberry-blond girl whose biggest problem in life is figuring out which Disney princess is her favourite. She is walking next to my mother: a tall, vibrant redhead, intently telling Daisy stories and secrets.

The photo took my breath away. It took me by the shoulders and forced me to acknowledge how much things have changed in eleven years. When it popped into my timeline, I’d just returned from visiting my parents for their 61st wedding anniversary. When I visit my mother these days, I note the repetition, the lost memories, the uncertain questions about how old Daisy and Puck are and what they are doing. I notice that my parents’ house is not as well cared for as it used to be, and that my mother doesn’t want to leave the house, at all. I see that the brilliant red hair is faded to silver-streaked copper.  I note all these things, but I hold them at arms-length. I don’t’ look at them too closely. She is, I tell myself, 81. We are all getting older. That’s all it is. Nothing has changed, so much.

But this photo. More than anything in the last five years, it’s forced me to look at what’s happened to her – to us. Even more than that time, five years ago, when my parents were going away and she showed up at my house with twelve loaves of half-eaten, partly-moldy bread for ‘safekeeping’. Even more than two Christmases ago, when she gave 12-year-old Daisy a size 4T sweater.  Even more than the several times she’s confused me with her late sister-in-law, calling me by her name and giving me the cold shoulder because they never got along well.

This photo forces me to look at the before and after. I am jolted by the realization of how much she’s failed in just eleven years, how quickly dementia has pulled at the threads of both her mental and physical self, loosening the weave that held her together. She is a faded Polaroid of who she once was. I am struck by how willfully I haven’t looked at it.

I show the photo to Daisy, asking her if she remembers that day. She cocks her head to the side and thinks.

‘I remember getting in bed with Nana and Papa early in the morning,” she tells me. “Papa was snoring. But Nana told me stories. She told me the story of little Red Riding Hood.”

I smile, picturing my redheads sharing that story in the dawn hours.

Daisy wrinkles her nose at the photo. “I was all in pink,” she says. “I was such a girly-girl.”

Daisy sees little in common with the tiny girl on the beach. She doesn’t like pink anymore. She’s known for a while that she’d rather find a princess than a prince. She barely recognizes herself in the photo. I, though, see her, still. I will always recognize her, as my soul recognized her’s the first time I held her and looked into her eyes. She’s the same, though grown. The photo shows her walking eagerly toward adventure. She’s well on the path, now.

Daisy doesn’t recognize my mother, either. She doesn’t really remember a time when my mother was lively and ready to go for walks and adventures. She only remembers the more fragile, uncertain grandmother.

My mother, too, is still there, although it’s harder to recognize her. As the bright red hair fades, I feel her essence is fading, too. Who she was in this photo is disappearing like a footprint in the sand. It’s only the memories that will preserve the way she was. I’ve been hesitant to look at those memories. I see now that I have to look and to remember before it all fades – before time and tide shift it all, and rub it out altogether.

Grey sky. Bright leaves.

Are you as exhausted as me?

This week has been HARD. I should know to stay away from the news. But I couldn’t. I kept watching, even while a sexual assault survivor was mocked, the whole world became more hostile, and anger and pain seeped out of every social media channel I checked into.

I felt frayed. Every cell in me felt shrill, like I was screaming from deep inside and no one could hear me (or no one would listen). My eyes burned with tears that wouldn’t fall. My head ached. I think a lot of women felt like that, this week. 

That would have been more than enough, frankly. But I was also struggling personally this week. I had a child in crisis (not the usual child, either) and felt like a failure as a parent. I had a mother who couldn’t remember that I’d called already, who hinted I was a failure as a daughter. I was trying to move on from a job I’d left, with suggestions that I hadn’t done enough.

Messages of failure, all around.

I wanted to crawl into my bed and hide. But I couldn’t. My husband was away, my kids needed me, and life had to go on. I had to be the adult, even though I felt like I’d failed at being an adult.

By mid-week, I felt alone. I felt unloved. I felt (as many of us do) tired of fighting the same fight, over and over again. I felt lost. I had nothing more to give.

What pulled me through? Not self-care. Not bubble baths or meditation. This was beyond that, frankly.

What pulled me through was other people, and gratitude. Messages of love, all around.

All it took were a few messages. A few people who checked in to see how I was doing. People I haven’t heard from in a long time, but who, I was so happy to know, still thought about me. 

Never underestimate the power that has.

If you are thinking about someone, tell them. A simple email or text asking someone how they’re doing can make all the difference in the world to someone who feels alone and is struggling. It’s those delicate but strong little spider webs of connection that can hold us in place. I needed to know, this week, that someone saw me; that someone heard me. I needed to know, this week, that someone thought about me fondly. I needed to know I mattered.

Knowing that other people care about us can help us to care for ourselves. These messages of care lit a match in my darkness. They showed me I wasn’t alone, and that there was a path in front of me. They pulled me to my feet and gave me the energy to keep going.

I often hear it said that we can’t be loved until we love ourselves. There is truth in that, to be sure. But love doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We need to know we matter. We need to know there is a place for us, and that someone sees us. Connection is a huge determinant of health. None of us can do this journey alone.

That doesn’t mean having a huge friends list or a non-stop social life. It can mean a connection to one or two people who really see you. It means connecting to people who see your value and your flaws and care for you, just the same. It means connection to people who, ultimately, allow you to not be strong or have a perfect image all the time. This gives us permission to not be strong all the time. Sometimes, like this week, we just can’t.

It’s Thanksgiving, and all through this rotten week, I was also reminded that I’m supposed to be grateful. It sounds trite when you’re feeling really low, but finding even small, mundane things to be grateful for can help make the flame that lights our way a little brighter. Even with all the crap in the world and in my life, there is still gratitude:

I’m grateful that my kids are able and willing to open up to me about what they’re experiencing.

I’m grateful for new beginnings.

I’m grateful for the courage to revisit paths that are important to me but that I’ve strayed from. I’m also grateful for the courage to step onto a completely new, somewhat surprising and completely different path — one I’m going to travel simply because it can bring others joy.

I’m grateful for my cats.

I’m grateful for friends, especially those I thought I’d lost.

I’m grateful for the brilliantly coloured leaves that flare against this morning’s grey sky, reminding me that there is hope in the bleakest moments, and that change can be beautiful.

What are you giving thanks for?

Cold milk, warm cookies, & magic.

Every evening after supper, my son and I take the dog for a walk. And every evening on our walk, we have the same conversation – one of us will ask the other, “If you were at Disney right now, what would you be doing?”

No matter how hard his day was at school, or how intense his anxiety and depression, talking about Disney brightens Puck’s mood. His face animates as he tells me which park he’d be in, and which ride or attraction he’d visit. We talk about which restaurants we’d go to, and which treats we wish we could eat right now (Mickey bars and Mickey waffles are two of our favourites). We imagine which resort we’d be staying at, in which type of room. We even reminisce fondly about the Orlando airport, or the beautiful boat ride from Port Orleans French Quarters to Disney Springs. By the time the walk is over, we’re both feeling happier and have planned out a whole day’s activities for a vacation we aren’t even planning to take any time soon. And we’ll do it all over again the next night.

IMG_0170Yes, we are one of *those* families. We’ve been to Disney – a lot. We’ve been on a Disney cruise. We’ve gone on other vacations as a family, too, but it’s Disney that holds our hearts.  I’ve been fortunate to travel a fair bit. I’ve been (and lived) from coast to coast in Canada, and I’ve traveled throughout the United States. I’ve traveled to several islands in the Caribbean, and several countries in Europe. But it’s Disney that we keep returning to as a family. Some people don’t get it, and question why we go back over and over. It certainly wasn’t what I had planned. I was going to show my kids the whole world. But for us, Disney provides a dependable happiness and a retreat from reality that we haven’t found anywhere else. The rest of the world can wait. We’re searching for a world of magic.

Don’t get me wrong: my history of vacationing at Disney is not one of perfect family time or unbridled joy. We are not the happy family you see in commercials. Each trip has come with its own challenges, but also lessons. As a teen, I traveled with a mother who actually didn’t like Disney at all, and a father who wasn’t keen on most rides. I learned to appreciate everything else the parks have to offer. My first trip with children of my own was as an extended family. At the time, my father-in-law was in the early stages of dementia and was confused and prone to getting lost. My mother-in-law was recovering from a hip replacement but in her typical no-nonsense fashion, refused any help. I learned to slow down and not try to do everything. 

Other trips have been planned to balance my daughter’s “let’s do everything!” style with the ups and downs of Puck’s constellation of challenges. Sometimes, sounds were a problem for him, so we learned which attractions or places to avoid. On other trips, it was the crowds, so we learned where to watch fireworks in a less intense setting.

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Tinkerbell and Daisy in a deep fairy discussion.

Although we used a travel agent for our first two trips, I quickly became an expert at doing the planning on my own, focussing on my family’s special needs. I learned what Disney had available to help us, and created detailed itineraries that helped Puck understand what was going to happen each day, while still giving us the flexibility to have fun. I learned how to help Daisy do the things that would make magical memories while keeping Puck happy and calm.

We go back because even though Disney can be a non-stop, intense destination, it actually does a lot to cater to families like ours. Never was this more clear than on our last trip. My father-in-law’s dementia has worsened to the point where it is impossible for him and my mother-in-law to travel on their own. We knew it would be hard, but we wanted to take one last big trip together, as a family. 

I was so hesitant. I knew caring for him and my mother-in-law (who is game for anything, although frailer than she’d admit) on a cruise and then at Walt Disney World was going to be a challenge. On top of that, we had our own kids to think about – including Puck, who would turn 12 on the trip, and who had been having a terrible year with clinical depression and anxiety. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. Even though a dear friend and Disney travel specialist helped plan the details of the trip for us, I had very low expectations.

We didn’t get off to a good start. Puck’s anxiety about leaving his routine kicked in at the airport, and he was in the bathroom being sick right up until our flight boarded. My father-in-law had no idea why we were on a plane or where we were going. We spent the five hours of travel explaining to him, every ten minutes or so, that we were all going on a vacation together. 

Everyone was tense.  I was sure we’d made a big mistake.

We were leaving on a cruise the next day. But first, we’d have a night at a Disney resort. We got settled in our rooms and headed to the Magic Kingdom for the evening. My father-in-law had been agitated and confused, asking repeatedly where we were. Puck was weak and anxious from being sick and was popping ginger tablets like candy. The rest of us were tired and a bit defeated, feeling certain the trip was going to be a disaster. 

But when we got off the bus, got everyone through security, and walked onto Main Street, everything changed.

My father-in-law stopped and stared at the castle in the distance. “Oh!” he said, a big smile spreading across his face. “We’re at Disney!”. And he proceeded to tell us stories from visits 40 years earlier, when he’d gone there with his young children. He could remember those trips in detail, and while sitting on Pirates of the Caribbean, he marveled at how things were just as he’d remembered. He grabbed Puck’s arm and said, “Oh, the jail scene with the dog is coming up next!”

He couldn’t remember how we got to Florida or why, exactly, we were there, but somehow, he remembered what scene was coming up in a ride he hadn’t been on in years. He was smiling and relaxed and having fun — something that happens too little, these days. 

Puck, too, changed as soon as we were in the Magic Kingdom. The anxiety melted as he saw familiar sites he loves. Puck’s challenges make him a bit less mature than his age would suggest, but that doesn’t matter at Disney. Everyone – even me, who was just turning 49 — can be a child. There is no pressure to be mature, and no one judges you for acting like an excited child. He can act younger than his age. I (a grown woman) can get excited to the point of tears over hugging Eeyore. It’s all good.

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You’re never too old to hug Pooh bear.

Later that night, when we got back to our resort, my father-in-law wanted a ‘bed snack’. We went to the quick service restaurant, and my mother-in-law chose some cookies for him. At the cash register, my father-in-law became distraught: he couldn’t eat cookies without milk, he wailed. He was on the verge of tears. My mother-in-law panicked; she didn’t know where the milk was, and she couldn’t leave my father-in-law to go look. She was worried about him making a scene, and not being able to calm him down. The cashier came to the rescue.

“Of course you need milk!” she assured him. “You can’t eat cookies without milk! Let me get you some.” 

My mother-in-law was fretting, though, because she hadn’t brought enough cash for milk (and didn’t understand she could charge things to her room).  The cashier waved off her concern.

“Don’t worry about the milk,” she told her. “It’s a gift from Mickey. He wants Mister to enjoy his milk and cookies.”

When my mother-in-law told me this,  we both cried. She didn’t remember the name of the cashier, so I went to the front desk and thanked asked them to thank the restaurant staff for their kindness.

When we got on the cruise, warm cookies and a glass of milk were magically brought to my in-laws’ room every night at bedtime. Screen Shot 2018-09-29 at 11.52.44 AM.png

THAT’s why we keep going back to Disney. 

Yes, it can be a crazy, overwhelming place, but even for a family like ours (with proper planning) it can be the best vacation you’ve ever had, with people who work so hard to make magic for you. For families like mine — with parents exhausted from trying to manage and micro-manage every detail of the day, who have come to expect that people will not understand, will judge, or will let you down — this is amazing. That’s why my son and I talk about it every night when we’re walking the dog. It’s an escape, to be sure, but it’s also familiar and warm. It’s a place where burdened adults can be children, even just for a while, and where children who sometimes don’t feel confident can discover they are actually brave enough to ride Splash Mountain. 

Even though we talk and plan every day, it’s not likely we’ll be going back anytime soon (our finances don’t stretch to that, at the moment). But still, we dream. We talk. I help other people plan their vacations and live vicariously through them. In fact, I’ve actually thought about becoming a Disney vacation planner, so that I can help other families with special needs realize that spending time together on such a trip is not logistically impossible. I’ve done a lot of work in my life to improve services for people with special needs and mental health issues on a policy level. Maybe I could also create some magic for people at a family level. 

Families like mine need some cold milk, warm cookies, and a heaping serving of magic to keep going. Really, these days, we all do.

The Big Drop

Having my kids in my late thirties was a spectacularly bad piece of planning on my part. Just when I’m embarking on this magical journey to Menopause Land, my kids are beating down the gates to Puberty World. My house is currently the worst theme park ever: emotional rollercoasters, long queues for the bathroom, people fighting over the last chocolate treat, and a parade of characters that switch on a whim from princess to villain.

My 14-year-old daughter and I spent the summer on a happiest-place-on-earth hormone high, excited about what the Fall would bring. For her, it was a new school that will allow her to better balance academics and her professional dance training program. For me, it was a leap into full self-employment as a writer and consultant. We spent long hours writing, creating, and dreaming. We congratulated each other on how fabulous our decisions were.

Then, September hit. The hormones crashed. We went from happiest-place-on-earth to haunted house.

Like someone flipped a switch, both Daisy and I felt our internal light go out as darkness settled into the place where hope had been. Both of us, faced with meeting our goals and doing what our hearts told us was right for us, were struck down by fear. Imposter Syndrome grabbed us and buckled us in. We were on this ride for the duration, and it was headed down a big, scary drop.

Imposter Syndrome is a very real thing, and I’ve experienced it frequently throughout my life (although never quite so profoundly as I have these past few weeks). It’s the feeling that despite your gifts and abilities, despite your experience and knowledge, you are a fraud who doesn’t deserve to succeed. You worry that someone will find out you actually have no idea what you’re talking about or doing. You worry that any success you’ve had to this point was a fluke. Imposter Syndrome convinces you that you aren’t worthy of joy or success. Those are things for other people. Not for you.

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This is more than a ‘fake it ’til you make it’ feeling, and it’s not about low self-esteem. It can be terrifying and confusing, causing you to throw away the very things you’ve worked so hard to get close to. I know more than one person who, faced with actually landing their dream job or taking a big step in life, ran away in fear — it was easier to not try, they reasoned, than to fail and lose their dream. The light of their dream, up close, blinded them like the sun.

They convinced themselves it would never work.

They told themselves other people were better or deserved it more.

They said they just weren’t ready, or they’d changed their minds. They didn’t want it, anyway.

But they hadn’t changed their minds. The Imposter Syndrome had changed their ability to stay true to their dreams. It had robbed them of their courage, replacing it with self-doubt. 

The fear of not doing something well (if not perfectly) can keep us from doing anything, at all.

Imposter Syndrome can also keep us from acknowledging what we’ve already achieved. For Daisy, that means that despite being accepted into a professional ballet training program, she still thinks she’s not a good dancer. For me, it means that despite being a published author, I still feel like I’m ridiculous to think of ever being published again. As a result, both of us started September in crisis mode: she was going to quit dance. I was going to quit writing. Who were we to think we could succeed?

The fact that Daisy was faced with Imposter Syndrome at the same time I was helped pull me out of it. I spent long hours talking and counseling her, coaching her to see her potential and her accomplishments (leaving me exhausted and feeling even more like an imposter, since I couldn’t practice what I preached. Such is the life of a mama.).

These are the tips we’ve been following together:

Acknowledge it. And then tell it to shut up. That nagging voice that tells you you’ll never succeed? That’s your gremlin — your worst critic. Give it a name (the name of someone you strongly dislike is good, because you’ll be swearing at it a lot). When it sits on your shoulder and tells you that you’re going to fail, listen. Challenge it (“Really? Because I’ve succeeded at xyz before and I know I have what it takes”). Tell it off. Move on.

(Note: your gremlin is NOT the same as your gut. Your gut gives you clues about when something isn’t right. You should listen to that. But don’t trust your gremlin.)

Challenge those thoughts. Are you falling into thought traps? Is everything either good or bad? Are you constantly going to the worst case scenario? Ask yourself (and your inner critic) why you are assuming the worst will happen. Why aren’t you assuming the best will happen?

Keep a list of your successes.  It can feel braggy, but keeping a running list of projects you’re proud of can be good to keep at hand for times when you feel like you never have and never will accomplish anything. I keep a list of things I’m proud of tucked away in a journal. Daisy keeps a notebook with positive feedback from her dance teachers. 

Keep the big picture in mind. You will get over the Imposter Syndrome. This is just a set-back. Who do you want to be? Where do you want to go? If you run away from whatever is scaring you now, how will you get where you want to be? How would your 7-year-old self feel about that?

Get your dreams out of your head. Make a vision board. Tell a friend about your goal. Make a big announcement on social media. Once your dream is out in the world, it becomes more real. It’s not just an idea – it’s the first step in a plan. And you’ll be surprised how quickly people appear to help you make your plan a reality. 

Keep calm. For those of us with anxiety, Imposter Syndrome can be like quicksand — when you get into that bog of fear, it’s easy to sink lower and lower until you’re in deep and can’t fight your way out. Practicing grounding techniques can help calm you. Daisy and I have apps on our phones that help us practice mindfulness. Another easy way to ground yourself when you feel your anxiety rising is to do the 5-4-3-2-1 Check-In.

Look around you. Name:

Five things you can see. 

Four things you can touch.

Three things you can hear (not your own thoughts!).

Two things you can smell.

One thing you can taste.

Always – be kind to yourself. Imposter Syndrome is exhausting. Working through it can be even more so. Forgive yourself. Be kind. Now’s the time to eat well, get out in nature, do things that lift your spirits and inspire you. 

Daisy’s sorted herself out, for now. She got a role she coveted in a ballet, and with it came a boost of confidence. Her light is back.

My struggle off the rollercoaster has been harder. I haven’t been able to write in weeks. I set my novel aside and haven’t been able to look at it. Work is dwindling, and I’ve been scouring job ads, convinced I’ll never make a go of things on my on. I’ve been waking up in full panic, wondering where the joy and creativity I felt this summer has gone.

But I’m still trying.  I’m hoping that the rollercoaster is going to head back up. I have to believe it will. Because I know that sometimes, we can ride this rollercoaster, scream our heads off, tell ourselves this was a stupid decision and that we’re going to die. But the ride ends, and we find ourselves laughing and breathless, proud that we did it and eager to try it again. Other times, however, we pass up the ride and miss the ride of our lives. I don’t want to miss that ride.

I’ve been keeping these lines of my favourite poem by Marianne Williamson close to me. I recite them to my gremlin. They inspire me and reassure me that I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

 

Have you faced Imposter Syndrome? What helped you through it?

10 Mental Health Tips I Learned from my Cats

When I was living on the other side of the country in my early 20s, far removed from friends and family, my boyfriend gave me a little grey kitten. I named him Eeyore (the kitten, not the boyfriend). The boyfriend only lasted two more years, but Eeyore was a constant for almost 15 years. He traveled across the country with me, from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, and honestly, he never really forgave me for it. 

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Little Eeyore on the Prairie.

Eeyore also traveled with me on my journey to recovery from an eating disorder. Do I sound like a loser if I say Eeyore was my best friend during this time? Well, he was. He was with me in the middle of the night, giving me head butts and chin nibbles when I’d wake up in a panic. He listened to my semi-coherent ramblings as I tried to sort out feelings between (or because of) therapy appointments. He comforted without judgment when I cried or struggled to make myself eat. He was by my side as I eventually grew healthier, married, and had babies. He always looked out for me. One of my clearest memories of being in labour with my daughter is being in the bathtub, working through contractions, while Eeyore sat in the bathroom door, growling protectively and refusing to allow either my husband or the doula into the room. He’d occasionally look over his shoulder at me, making sure I was okay, as if to say, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”

I’ve shared my life with a succession of cats since I was eight years old: Boo Boo Kitty, Miss Toby, Eeyore, Oedipuss, Mr. Cuddles, and Scarlett O’Hairy. These days, I share my house with Ivy and Smudge (five-year-old cowcats), and Rory, a very lively five-month-old black kitten. I also have a dog, Pippa (who thinks she’s a cat, because she’s around them all the time) who is sweet and gentle and will be trained to become a therapy dog. Pippa does wonders for my son’s anxiety. When he’s feeling especially low, she’ll cuddle next to him instinctively. When he’s sad, he says hugging her makes him feel better. When he’s lonely, he tells her she’s his best friend. I know she’ll make an amazing therapy dog.

Cats are underrated as therapy animals, though. This is too bad; they’ve been a critical part of my own mental health team (sorry/not sorry to all of my therapists and health professionals who might frown on being lumped in with felines). As I’ve gone through challenges, grown, recovered and had my own career in mental health, I’ve learned these ten key mental health lessons from my cats:

  1.  Nap

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Scarlett O’Hairy sharing her mad napping skills with the next generation.

For much of my life, napping felt like a waste of time. Even when mental distress led to chronic insomnia, I couldn’t nap. It felt like slacking off. So I would just push through, even though I was too exhausted to be productive or enjoy life. It usually made my physical and mental health even worse.

You’ll never see a cat too exhausted to enjoy being a cat. They know how to slow down and listen to their body’s cues. They feel no stigma about napping — it’s a critical part of their lives.  They aren’t missing out. They are recharging, in energy-saving mode, getting ready to play and do their cat stuff and live their best cat lives.

If you are too tired to enjoy being a human, have a nap. Recharge. You need energy to live your best life.

2.  Play exuberantly.

When my cats do wake up, they are a bit bananas. They run as if they’re being chased by demons. They pounce on things only they can see. They spin in circles chasing their own tails. They don’t care at all that I’m sitting and laughing at them. They don’t care if they look foolish, or if what they’re doing makes no sense to anyone else.

Watching my cats chase their tails reminds me of taking an adult ballet class: I stumbled. I wasn’t coordinated. I probably looked foolish to people who might know better. But I kept going, because I liked it.

Cats don’t worry about whether they look silly. You shouldn’t either.

Don’t worry that the things you love aren’t ‘cool’ enough or feel badly because other people look down on your passions. Don’t worry about looking clumsy or falling over now and then. Play is important. Finding things you love to do is a critical part of staying mentally healthy. If it makes you happy, do it, no matter how you look or what others think of the things you like.

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Mr. Cuddles confidently shows off his dance moves.

 

 

3.   There is always time for self-care.

When I became a mother, self-care got pushed way down my to-do list. Waaaay down. I remember once when my kids were toddlers, I cried because I’d been reminding myself to clean my makeup brushes for at least a year. Those makeup brushes mocked me every time I walked into the bathroom; they were a testament to my failure at self-care and a reminder of all the small but important things I used to do for myself but that now, with two small kids, I was sure I had no time to do.

For cats, though, there’s always time for self-care. To a cat, self-care isn’t something extra you add to a to-do list. It IS your to-do list. Watch how much time cats spend grooming. They are either exceeding vain creatures (likely) or just consider taking care of themselves to be their main job. 

Why don’t humans consider taking care of ourselves to be our main job? Why is ‘important’ work something that takes place in an office? Why is it only valuable if we’re paid for it?  We only get one body and one mind. Why don’t we consider caring for them to be the most important thing we can do?

You don’t need to spend as much time grooming as a cat does (unless you’re a Kardashian), but imagine how great you could feel if you made yourself (and the things that make you feel good) a priority.  Taking care of yourself isn’t merely an add-on or something to get to if you have extra time. It’s your most important job.

 

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Even when on duty as office cat, Smudge makes time for self-care.

4.  Claim your space.

Cats aren’t shy about taking what they want. They aren’t shy about letting you know they are there and want attention. Sure, this makes them jerks sometimes. If they want your attention, they’ll sit on your damn laptop, thank you very much. I’ve learned to back up my writing constantly to avoid the dreaded butt-delete.

As a small-sized, introverted woman in a mansplaining and manspreading world, it’s often hard for me to claim my space. I can’t just sit on a laptop to get someone’s attention. But I can be fearless about making my presence felt. I can practice letting people know I’m there, and making sure I’m noticed even when someone is trying to ignore me.

Cats are persistent. They will raise their voices and howl. Women can, too. Persist. Let your needs and your presence be known.

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The bag was impenetrable. Nevertheless, Oedipuss persisted.

 

 

5.  Show affection on your own terms.

Cats are models of consent. Most of us who’ve been scratched know better than to attempt to give a cat a belly rub without permission. The cat will let you know when it’s okay to do that. And when you are permitted a cuddle, you feel honoured. 

Set your boundaries, and don’t be afraid to enforce them.

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A blurry photo of the first time we met Smudge, in 2013…still the only time he’s let us hold him. We respect his boundaries.

6.   Daydream.

Our society values productivity. Busy is the holy grail. But cats know better. Ivy likes to spend long periods of time staring at nothing at all. Frankly, this freaks me out. But she is clearly seeing things that I can’t. Maybe she’s daydreaming. Maybe she’s communicating with the mothership. 

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Ivy did not drink this wine. She likes to have a clear head for her mindfulness practice.

I am a daydreamer by nature, too. I don’t stare at the wall like Ivy, but I’ve learned the value of just sitting with my thoughts. Daydreaming and napping have proven to be a powerful combination for my creativity. The best ideas come to me when I practice mindfulness, or just allow myself to sit quietly and just be. Ideas for writing appear in my head like gifts. Answers to wicked problems become clear.

There is value in doing nothing. From our dreams come our best realities.

7.   Know the healing power of just being present for someone.

I’ve spent a lot of money on therapy over the years. And as a mental health professional myself, I am the first to say if you need professional support, get it. But as a cat lover, I can also say that at some of the lowest moments of my life, it wasn’t talking to another human being that brought me back from the dark. It was a cuddle, a purr,  a lick on the back of the hand. Cats know when you need them. They’ll find you. And because they’re so often guarded with their affection, having a little fur ball curl up next to you when you feel despair is profound. You know they wouldn’t do that unless you were very, very important to them.

They can’t talk, they can’t judge. They won’t mansplain or try to fix things. They’ll simply be with you in your struggle until you’re yourself again. They’ll like you at your lowest, and they’ll like you just the same when you’re at your best. 

They’ll like you even better when you feed them.

 

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When I spent over a week in bed with a bowel obstruction, these guys only left me a few times a day. Best nursing care I had.

8.   Embrace your body, whatever form it takes.

I have struggled with body image throughout my life. I’ve helped others work through their own struggles. At the same time, I’ve had cats of every size and shape, every colour and fur texture. They don’t care how big or small they are. They know they are beautiful.

Cats love their bodies, whether they’re slinky or voluptuous. There is no wrong shape for being a cat.

Why do we think there is a right or wrong shape for being a human?

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Gotten to big to fit into your box? Helpful hint from Scarlett O’Hairy: get a bigger box.

9.   Learn to disconnect.

Working from home as a writer, it’s easy for me to sit for long hours in front of the computer. That’s not very good for my physical or mental health, though. Depending on my frame of mind, spending time on social media might make me feel really bad about myself. Fortunately, my cats let me know when I’ve had enough. Often, they’ll shut down my computer for me. Thanks, cats.

But I take their point. When a cat sits on my laptop, I take it as sign I need to get up and move around and take a break. Somedays, I take an awful lot of breaks.

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Rory’s novel is better than my novel.

10.   Give zero fucks about what others think.

Cats really don’t. That’s why some people don’t like them: unlike dogs, who crave human approval, cats do not care what you think. They will be their exasperating and lovable cat selves, no matter what you think about it. They are authentic.

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Do they look like they care what you think? No, human, they do not.

Now, sometimes, humans do need to care what others think. Being as insouciant as a cat is probably poor advice for getting ahead in life or living in society. But maybe if we cared a bit less about what people think of our choices, and cared a bit more about living a life that feels true to our values and spirit, we’d be happier.

 

Cats know there is no stigma in being a cat. If they felt stigma, they wouldn’t wash their butts in front of important company, or shamelessly get high on catnip and destroy stuff. They wouldn’t fall into the bathtub, struggle out, and indignantly wash their wet fur while you laugh hysterically at them.

Be you. Strive to live as authentically as a cat.

 

Coming Out of the Dark

Trigger warning: this post deals with sexual assault and mentions suicide.

August 25th creeps up on me from behind every year, clamping its hand across my mouth and holding a knife to my back, forcing me to relive a horror almost three decades old.

On August 25, 1989, I died. 

The person I’d been died. Rather, she was murdered.  On August 25, 1989, I was sexually assaulted by a group of men in a university dorm room.  The 20-year-old girl I’d been was left for dead — not just by my attackers, but also by me. By the cops. By medical professionals. By people who couldn’t understand what had happened, and assumed it was my fault.

All these years later, I’m still trying to come back to life.

Twenty-nine years after the assault, I no longer think about it every single day. I know that even the most mundane of my choices and actions are still shaped by what happened that day, but it’s become unconscious; secondary and instinctual. Every August 25th, though, everything comes to the foreground, the feelings and memories as fresh as if they’d happened the night before. I wake up with it foremost in my head; the fear, the anguish, the sense of physical and emotional loss, can’t be shaken.

I’m still surprised that it happens like this — that every year, my brain recognizes a date that I try so hard to ignore, or genuinely forget in the rush of my life. This year, I went to bed on August 24th happy and peaceful. I’d spent the day working on my novel and making lovely summer memories with my kids and dog. I hadn’t given a thought to the date.

I woke up in hell.

From the moment my eyes opened, I felt my heart pounding: an anxiety attack, before I was even properly awake. Throughout the day, random images flashed through my consciousness, like slides on an old carousel projector:

A slash of late afternoon sunlight through the dorm room window. 

The clothes I was wearing that day. 

One of my shoes, abandoned in the middle of the room. 

A wooden chair knocked over.

A spilled glass of rum I’d never even wanted. 

A couple at the Elderhostel who, seeing me drugged and unable to speak in a hallway, with my clothing askew, called me a slut and walked on by. 

The boy who’d been part of the attack but who helped me back to my room, put me in bed and apologized. 

The coffee I’d gotten from Tim Horton’s the next morning, that I’d let go cold because I couldn’t deal with putting anything in my body. 

The nurse’s stern face at the hospital. 

My own bedroom in my parents’ house, the next night, looking so ridiculously innocent and normal that it made me angry to be there (a feeling I still get when I go there).

These are, in fact, almost the totality of the memories my brain lets me see. Even after 29 years, I’ve never had full recall of what happened that day — only snapshots and random sounds. Part of this is, I strongly believe, because the drink I was given had been drugged. The men were so insistent that I drink it – all of it. It’s also because of a head injury I got during the attack. One of the memories is of sitting in a bare wooden dorm chair, being pushed backward and hitting my head against the hard, tiled floor. I remember the sound as my skull knocked against the floor, the sensation of pain, the fear, the utter disbelief that this could be happening. Then, mercifully, I remember little until it was over. That I still only remember these vignettes is, I believe, my brain’s way of protecting me and keeping me alive, a built-in resilience which amazes me and for which I’ve been so grateful over the years.

That I remember little of the attack was, of course, a huge deal to the police, who didn’t believe anything had happened. Nor did the medical staff at the small town hospital my friends took me to the next day. I remember a nurse saying, “You must have been drinking”. I remember the doctor asking what I’d been wearing. I remember being told to go home and sleep it off, and to be more careful next time.

“Next time”. The very idea that there would be a next time caused me to vomit. That caused further looks of disproval and judgment from the medical staff, who (I felt) were more interested in cleaning up my sickness than they were in what had happened to me.

The police contacted me at my summer job because a report had been filed by the university. I didn’t want to file a report myself. I wanted to forget it, not re-live it, and in 1989 women were treated horribly at sexual assault trials (little has changed). And I didn’t want my family to know. I thought my parents would be so upset. I thought they’d be angry at me. It was my mistake, I thought (already internalizing the cues the world was giving me); it was my secret to keep.

The police officer took my account of what had happened. My memory of it, just a few days after it had happened, was even more full of holes than it is now. I knew he didn’t believe me. He said, “If you don’t remember anyone having sex with you, how can you be sure it happened?”

I thought to myself: four men. Blood. Pain. Bruises. Being unable to wear my pants comfortably. This constant feeling that I want to vomit, shower, purge myself…end myself. 

To the police officer, though, I said nothing. I couldn’t tell him names. I couldn’t remember faces, or what people were wearing. I had no answers for him. I had no proof that would matter to the world.

I thought that maybe each year, my brain would allow me to know a little more about the details, when I was ready. Maybe I’m still not ready, because I still don’t remember. But I’ve come to realize that remembering the physicality of what happened is not what’s most important. A sexual assault isn’t about a sexual act, after all, even though that’s what the media and society will focus on. It’s an act of violence and terror that is just the starting point in tearing away one’s sense of humanity and power and sense of place in the world. It’s the beginning of a life that’s based on fear and survival. It’s a murder: the death of who you were before, the death of friendships, the death of possibility, the death of courage. Those young men killed me that afternoon, as sure as if they’d put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger.

I have been reborn, to be sure. I’ve built a life. But that life is so different from the one I’d envisioned for myself, before that afternoon, that it seems like it belongs to someone completely different — a twin I’d forgotten about, perhaps, or someone from a past life. 

I was 20. I’d been a journalism student, confident and excited about the future. After, I dropped out of school for a while. I floundered, trying to understand who I was now, when (in fact) I didn’t want to be anyone. I didn’t want to be. I drank too much. I got into a series of crap relationships. I stopped going to the gym, because I clearly remember my attackers commenting on my body and asking if I worked out. I lost most of my friends, and still have a hard time being close to people. I developed an eating disorder, turning my anger and loathing inward on myself. I treated myself with as little compassion, and as little respect, as I’d been treated. I ran away across the country and back again, trying to find myself. And I kept it all to myself, because I blamed myself. It was my fault this happened. If people knew who I really was, they wouldn’t like me, anyway. I feel like on a Wikipedia page for “lost potential” or “failure”, my photo should feature prominently.

On August 25th, I mourn. I mourn that young girl who, in moments of middle-aged weakness, I still judge as having made poor choices. I mourn who I might have been, and all the things I might have done, had my courage and very life essence not been taken away. I grieve for how I’ve treated myself, the friends I’ve lost, and how alone I’ve been.

I grieve, too, for my friends who found me that night. We’ve known each other since Grade 7, and are still bound awkwardly together by our own memories and experiences of what happened in that dorm room on August 25, 1989. For years, we didn’t speak of it. I didn’t speak to them, although they spoke to each other. And then years later, convinced I was losing my mind and making the whole thing up, I emailed one of them to ask if what I remembered was real. She filled in enough of the details to confirm it was real. It had happened. And she shared with me that my dear friends had their own struggles to deal with what had happened. They’d had their own feelings of guilt, anger, and confusion. They’d struggled to trust and to continue with ‘normal’ life. In my own pain, I hadn’t even considered theirs. We still haven’t talked about it face-to-face, at length. That will take a strength I’m not sure any of us has been able to muster. 

A few months after the assault, on December 6th, 1989, a man walked into a classroom at l’École Polytechnique in Montreal carrying a rifle and hunting knife. He separated the women from the men, and killed 14  women —  simply because they were women. I remember watching the news that night and seriously thinking about taking my life. That very day, I’d officially dropped out of journalism school (using a fake excuse, because I didn’t want to tell the avuncular director of the school what had really happened). My parents — who I still hadn’t told about the assault — thought I was flaky and irresponsible. My friends thought I was a loser who just wanted to spend her time drinking, not studying. I was utterly lost and couldn’t see a future. I didn’t want to continue in a world that was intent on destroying women, one by one.

The #metoo movement has brought back so many of these memories and feelings for me. It’s been difficult. But it’s also allowed me to start speaking my truth: this did happen, it’s affected me profoundly, and don’t you dare question it. Each time I hear the stories of Mollie Tibbetts, Reteah Parsons, and so many other women who’ve died as a result of sexual violence, I feel sick and weak. And then I see the marches, the women coming together to speak their truth, and I feel stronger. One story can make a difference. One thousand stories can spark a revolution. 

This August 25th was a lot like the twenty-eight that preceded it. Every nerve in my body was jangling from the moment I woke, like a jolt of electricity was flowing through me all day. Everything I did, from what I chose to eat for breakfast down to what I wore and where I went, was tied to memories; my actions were being directed by the ghost of who I was. I could not shake the grasp of the memories any more than I could shake the grasp of my attackers.

This August 25th was different in some important ways, too. I went to the gym — something I’ve only started doing this summer, with my 14-year-old daughter. It’s not about fitness, or weight loss, or any of the usual reasons. It’s about getting back my strength, literally and figuratively. It’s about not letting my attackers have something I once enjoyed so much. I’m reclaiming my power.

I was also extra kind to myself this August 25th. Typically, my inclination is to stay alone, hide, isolate, mourn. This time, I got out. I stayed close to people and things I love. I moved about in the world, not as a ghost, but as a grown, alive and very vulnerable-feeling woman. I ate ice cream with my kids. I spent time in nature. I sat on a beach. I watched the stars in the late summer sky.

I also opened a notebook and wrote something important: thoughts for a creative non-fiction book about this experience. I’d like to write about how the assault shaped my life, as well as how it affected the lives of my friends and others around me. I want to show how sexual assault isn’t an act against one person: it’s an act of violence and betrayal against society, and has far-reaching implications. Exploring it all in depth will take a courage I still need to find, but by next August 25th, I hope I’ll be stronger. 

Thirty years is a long time to hold on to a secret and self-loathing. Although I don’t keep what happened to me a secret any longer, each time I share a bit of what happened I panic. Will this affect how people think of me? Will it be used against me? What if the friends who abandoned me back then (and to whom, admittedly, I was pretty crappy) come back and laugh or say, once more, that I was lying? What if I get called a slut again? What if one of those men who attacked me read this blog and found me?

The fear is pervasive. I’ve let it hold me in, hold me down, for too long. Trauma kept inside is dangerous and erosive. Sharing stories like this might help someone else feel less alone. I don’t want anyone to feel the way I did — the way I have, for so many years. I know I am stronger now, and I need to keep building that strength. Speaking my truth is one way to build that muscle.