Christmas 2018: A Weary World Rejoices

Last week, a woman threw her coffee at me. This kind of sums up my 2018, really.

I had parked my car along a curb to pick someone up from an apartment building. Another car pulled alongside mine, blocking me in. I waited a moment for them to move forward. They didn’t. I waited another minute or two, started my car, and gave a gentle honk of the horn to let them know I was there. 

After a moment, a woman got out of the passenger side. I gave her a friendly wave. She slammed her door and yelled obscenities at me. Then she threw her cup of Tim’s coffee at my windshield and stormed into the apartment building. 

I was shattered for the rest of the day. I asked myself, over and over, what I’d done to provoke it. I hadn’t been hostile. Why had she? I kept seeing the coffee splattering across my windshield, the mess obscuring my vision.

And that, for me, was 2018: I pinballed through the year thinking I was doing okay only to meet with the worst, until I could see only the mess.

I know I’m not alone in feeling like 2018 has dragged on for much longer than its allotted 12 months. This year has been a long slog through a dank pit of ugly. For me, I’ve been trying to emerge from a cocoon, but I am far from a beautiful butterfly (at best, I am a stubby moth). It’s been a year when I felt like the universe was shouting “NO” each time I tried to move forward — almost as if a physical roadblock was placed in front of me, forcing me to stop, check my map, and recalibrate. I’ve learned not to take stability of any kind for granted.

I shed a work situation that was financially ruinous for me; on the upside, it forced me to be intentional and creative about the path I want to take going forward.  Puck emerged from the worst (knock wood) of his challenges; his confidence and peace are a wonderful mystery to me, but I’m always on alert for things to change. Daisy, on the other hand, has struggled mightily this year against her own demons. My heart aches for her, and I worry about the road ahead. But my concern is tempered by the fact that my sweet girl shares her feelings and fears with me. We will find the strength to get through these things, together. 

2018 was the year I confronted the demon that’s been riding on my back for almost 30 years: I was diagnosed with PTSD as a result of the sexual assault I experienced at age 20. I’ve long suspected the diagnosis, but as so many of us do, I saw the problems I’ve experienced more as character flaws and personal failures. I saw the symptoms individually rather as connected parts of a constellation. The hyper-vigilance and startle reflex. The nightmares. The flashbacks and invasive thoughts. The fear of groups of people. The fear of people who are drinking. The inability to trust people or open up to them. The constant, punishing self-hatred and self-sabotage. It was only when someone helped me to see these things together that I understood this wasn’t just something I could just shake off.  Parts of me are still stuck in that August afternoon in 1989, and I’ve started the hard work of facing them. World events have certainly forced my hand in this. It’s hard to deny your own experiences when watching Christine Blasey Ford give her brave testimony, or when listening to so many #metoo stories. The more women come forward, the more others make sense of what has happened to them.

There is relief in knowing that I can, finally, work through this, and that the world is in a more supportive place for it to happen. There is exhaustion and dismay at doing it at the same time my children need my full attention. And there is so much emotion. I am raw, and vulnerable, and I cry a hell of a lot. I am so angry, and so sad, but I have also found my voice and a new energy. I feel like kicking things. I want to kick at my memories, and at insensitive people. Inadequate systems. The patriarchy. 

It’s tempting, after such a year as this, to turn one’s back on the holiday season. It may seem needlessly exhausting, frustrating, and even pointless to turn on the Christmas tunes and put on a merriment we don’t necessarily feel. There are oh, so many moments when I want to just pull a blanket over my head and hide until January 2nd. Many of us feel shame about our lack of Christmas spirit. But there should be no shame is noting what’s lacking in our hearts. Focussing solely on the happiness of the season ignores the polarity that’s inherent in Winter Solstice. This time of year and its celebrations are traditionally as much about the darkness as the light. Death and rebirth. Ends and beginnings. I feel that more than ever, this year. So despite the emotional exhaustion and confusion that’s been my 2018, I can embrace that polarity and drag myself across the year’s finish line. We’ve made it. It’s almost done. I might not be able to clearly see the light yet, but I can celebrating the fading of the dark.

This year, I find myself clinging to traditions. I’m not doing it out of a fear that it MUST be done or Christmas will be a failure (which is how I’ve felt in the past). This year, revisiting traditions and holiday memories feels healing and therapeutic. We dig our traditions out of boxes and recipe books each year not just to make things look good for those around us, but to connect with what’s missing. I do them because they bring me closer to the women who have gone before, who have struggled hard to make a magical holiday out of very little in times or war, unemployment and illness. I look at their cookie recipes, written in fine cursive on the back of a receipt in the 1940s, and I know I am another chapter in our family story. I feel less alone. There is continuity and renewal.

This year, Daisy and Puck are both teenagers. I’m less concerned with the external trappings of Christmas, and much more focused on how things feel. My rituals exist not just to give them magic and memories, but to give them tools for the future, for times when the pressure to have a holly jolly Christmas exceeds the happiness they feel. The tools aren’t fancy, and they aren’t necessarily ones I learned in social work school. But they can, I hope, help them fill their cups at times when they’re running dangerously low on magic and faith. This year, I’m teaching them to make the Acadian meat pie generations of my family has eaten on Christmas Eve, so that they can feel more connected to who they are and where they come from. We’re talking through memories as we choose which decorations to put out. Christmas 2018 is about careful, quiet activities that bring us peace, and that we choose for ourselves. If we don’t want to do it, we’re saying no. The three of us have come to realize, this year, that living up to others’ expectations — and sometimes, our own expectations — can be where trouble begins. Defining happiness for ourselves (and defining what Christmas will look like), can be where peace starts.

Traditions ground us, providing a reminder that no matter how unrecognizable life becomes, there are still elements of comfort and joy and familiarity — things that can take us back to what feels like a simpler time. They don’t have to be done to Martha Stewart standards. Half-assed will do very nicely, sometimes. Having the right decorations and an Instagrammable meal doesn’t guarantee holiday happiness. To be honest, some of the years when I had the most picture-perfect holidays was when I was feeling my absolute lowest. 

There was a Christmas when Puck and Daisy were still babies, when everything looked perfect. The house was perfectly decorated. The gifts were just right. My freezer was stuffed with cookies. But my world smelled of gingerbread and despair. I woke in the wee hours the day before Christmas and thought, for an instant, that the best gift I could give everyone was to no longer be here. The thought was fleeting, but it was terrifying. Despite the brightly coloured lights around me, I could see only blackness. Later that day I went into my office, closed the door, and called a crisis line. A photo from a Christmas party I attended that evening shows me cuddling a young Puck in my arms, smiling and laughing. You’d never have known. 

You never do know. 

That’s why kindness — to ourselves, and to others — is so important. Everything is fleeting. Happiness. Life. The holiday season. Troubles.

The solstice approaches. The darkness has drawn out, but the light will return. 

And to the woman who threw the coffee at my car — I get it. I do. A cup of kindness can be hard to find, sometimes, and the smallest thing can become too much. I hope your cup and your spirit are well replenished. 

 

*NOTE: if you need help over the holidays, do reach out. There is hope beyond the dark.

https://www.crisistextline.ca

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868

Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566, or text 45645

Native Youth Crisis Hotline: 1-877-209-1266

or DIAL 911, or visit your local emergency department.

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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.

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?

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.

 

Breaking Up

It’s never fun, as a parent, to see your kids bullied by mean girls, or left out of social groups, or losing a friend. It’s a rotten part of parenting, but we can hope our kids have  the resilience to manage these social interactions (with our support) — to learn from them, move on, and find new places where they can belong and thrive.

That becomes a little harder when your child is dealing with mental health and neurological issues.

Puck recently spent a day with his long-time best friend — a boy he’s known since Primary, at his old school. I knew something was wrong when Puck texted me to pick him up early from the friend’s house (he’s usually begging to stay longer). He went straight to his room and shut the door.

It took him a few hours to tell me what had happened: his friend had told him he has a new best friend now.

Puck cried when he told me, and kept crying for a day. He’s still heartbroken. He has other friends, but this was his best friend, and was one of the few positive links he had to his old school. 

At times like this, I don’t know the words to make it better. I can’t kiss it and make it stop hurting. I am simply a sponge: I sit with him and absorb the tears, the emotions that are still too big for him. I add them to my own big fears and upsets, and squeeze it all out when I’m alone so that the sponge is ready again when he needs it. And he needs it, often.

Rejection is such a theme for us, lately. I keep trying to help Puck find the places where he’ll belong and thrive: friends, school, activities, the mental health system. We find rejection at every corner.

The same week his best friend “broke up” with him, he got dumped by his psychologist. This was the third psychologist in the past six years to suggest it just isn’t working out. Once, it was blamed (rightly) on Puck (he was uncommunicative and resistant to therapy). The second therapist, who Puck had actually warmed to, left the city. This time, the therapist graciously bowed out after eight months,  saying some version of “It’s not you, it’s me” (except, it was clear she really felt it was about Puck, not her). We were sent on our way, with a ‘good luck’ and not much else.

Therapy, like friendship, is an intimate relationship — especially for a child like Puck, who fears opening up about his feelings after years of feeling judged and rejected. We can’t expect friends to always be there for us, perhaps. But shouldn’t we be able to expect that mental health professionals will try their hardest not to underline the feelings of rejection and inadequacy that are already in play? It’s good to admit that you aren’t the right one to help, or that you’ve taken it as far as your skills allow. But if you aren’t the right one to help…who is? Where do we go from here? How do we find what we need?

We are back at the start, with no mental health support. Alone.

Puck is not unaware that he’s been rejected, again. He’s old enough to understand what’s happened; he understands his role in it. He also understands that he needs some support in working through his emotions and developing coping strategies. He knows he’ll need to find that somewhere, and that the whole process will begin from step one. That’s an exhausting prospect for him.

Where does this leave us? Well, I can go through the listings or get recommendations from friends or professionals I know, and try to figure out who might be a good fit. Then, we’d go through the screening process again, maybe even costly psychological testing again (out of pocket, because we’ve long ago maxed out our insurance for the year). And then, we’d once again spend months in the ‘getting to know you’ phase, watching Puck bristle at having to explain to adults, once more, what he struggles to understand himself.  We would be months away from any actual constructive therapy.

The other route available to us is to call the children’s hospital and go through their mental health referral process. We’ve tried this before, and I have friends who’ve recently done it, too. 

It did not go well.

It begins with a phone screening, during which the person reading from the script refers to you consistently as (you guessed it) “Mom”,  because you are obviously just a generic sketch of a parental-type person as opposed to an adult trying to hold together a family in crisis. After you have broken down in tears from frustration and their lack of empathy, you will be given an appointment with a mental health professional, anywhere from two to six months away. You’ll later receive a letter stating the time and date of the appointment. These appointments are in the middle of the work/school day, making it difficult (if not impossible) for many parents to accept them without losing work and pay. If you miss that appointment, your file is closed. If you request a change in date/time, you might be waiting another couple of months.

It’s not a system that’s friendly to financially marginalized families, or any family that doesn’t have the flexibility to get to an appointment in downtown Halifax in the middle of the day.

When months have passed and the appointment finally comes, you get asked all the same questions you’ve answered before. As a parent, you’ll be asked to fill in more questionnaires about your child’s behaviours and symptoms, and how it is affecting them and your family. A friend of mine had the awful experience of having the answers she’d written about her child (which she thought were confidential) read back, word-for-word, to the child. Not great for building trust at a time when emotions are already fraught.

At the end of the appointment, you’ll get handed some brochures and helpful websites to visit or books to read (at this point, I seriously think I’ve read every book and could redesign every website, especially since that’s the only help I can access in the months between mental health appointments). 

And then comes the moment of truth: what will they do with you? 

There might be some community-based resources they could refer you to — but too often, when this is requested, the professional isn’t familiar with the community resources available.

You could get sent to a psychiatrist or psychologist in the hospital’s clinic (I’ve never actually met anyone who was offered this option).

You can be referred to a phone-based family coaching program. This program is award-winning, and I personally have not taken it, so perhaps I shouldn’t comment. But I do know people who have taken it. Again, the times for the phone check-ins are not always flexible, so not helpful for shift-workers or for people with family commitments beyond this one child in crisis. Building skills and family resilience are absolutely important, but many I know who’ve taken this program came away feeling blamed; they left feeling it was their inadequate parenting skills that got them in this mess. If they just knew the right things to say, if only they behaved better, little Johnny wouldn’t have a mental illness.

(I bet they’re also referred to as “Mom” on those phone check-ins.)

You can be put on a waitlist for group support. For Puck, this would be a support group for kids with anxiety disorders (which is only about 30% of what’s actually going on with him). The group only happens a few times a year, and there is always a wait list for registration. So you’re looking at other six-12 months for that option. If Puck was offered this, by the time his place on the waitlist came up, he’d likely be placed in the group for 13+. However, he is immature for his age. He’d be better served in a group with younger kids, not teenagers. But that wouldn’t be an option. I know him — he would be intimidated by those bigger kids, and wouldn’t go. Another six-12 month of waiting, wasted.

Puck will start school in September, and his teachers will have the expectation that we’ll have conferences with his support team…which is now non-existent. I am, once again, his support team. It falls on me to be the expert in things I’ve never been an expert in. I will be the one to research possible interventions, to figure out why he is reacting a certain way, to try to find a path forward (at least I’m putting my social work degrees to good use, I suppose). We are fortunate to have a fabulous family doctor with a background and interest in mental health, so at least we aren’t entirely on our own. But realistically, we’re a good eight to 10 months away from any meaningful mental health support. 

Add to that the fact that even if we managed to get psychological help, there is no holistic approach. I certainly don’t expect someone to have expertise in all the issues Puck has going on: Tourette, learning disabilities, anxiety, depression. But there should be help for parents like me to put all those puzzle pieces together and find the experts who can help, who will talk to one another, who will see kids like Puck not as one issue to be treated, but as complex individuals with lots of things going on. I am SO tired of explaining, “This is probably not the anxiety, it’s likely Tourette…”. Someone else needs to help connect these dots.

We need a Tinder for mental health professionals… swipe right for ones that work with your specific issues, have actual availability, and won’t call you Mom.

It would be nice, too, if at least one of them asked how I, as the parent who lives with these issues 24/7, is doing with all of this. (Not. One. Ever. Has.) The generic “Mom” is supposed to be some kind of super-robot, I guess, who is capable of handling all the emotion, confusion and screwed up family dynamics, while managing to work outside the home, and function as an enlightened liaison between home, professionals, and school. 

Our mental health system claims to use an ecological/systems approach that considers the complex interplay between the client and their environment. I see little evidence of that. The effort to get kids through the system quickly and reduce numbers on wait lists means that kids are reduced to a single issue to be treated, not a complex mix of strengths and challenges. They are boxes to be ticked off; files to be dealt with and closed. They are widgets to be pushed through an increasingly dehumanized system, rejected out the other end, and sent back to Mom to deal with.

And ‘Mom’ has to be that super-robot, capable of providing support without any impact to her own emotions, because, too often, we’re the only mental health resource our kids have. 

If you give a Mom a popsicle…

When Daisy was a toddler, we had a fluffy calico cat named Scarlett O’Hairy. Daisy adored her and wanted to be just like her. She’d sleep like a cat, all curled up with Scarlett in a patch of sun on the floor. She tried eating like a cat (but even her love for Scarlett couldn’t convince her to take more than one bite of the foul-smelling food). Once, in the wee hours of the morning, Daisy saw Scarlett jump off my bed and decided to do the same thing. While Scarlett landed gracefully in the laundry basket, Daisy fell into the dresser and split her forehead on a sharp corner. This resulted in a trip to the pediatric emergency room, and four stitches. Another time, Daisy took up Scarlett’s favourite pastime – digging in the houseplants. She ripped leaves off the plants for Scarlett to eat and crammed mouthfuls of potting soil into her own mouth. This resulted in a call to poison control, and a decision that maybe a baby brother or sister would be a safer companion than a cat.

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Scarlett O’Hairy: on Wednesdays she wore pink.

 

We’ve spent a lot of time in the emergency room over the years, for cat-induced and other ailments: ear infections, kidney infections, strep throat, croup, broken bones.  Eventually, toddlers pass out of the Walking Germ Bag phase. Trips to the emergency room become so infrequent that the kids actually look back on them fondly: misty watercolored memories of being safe and warm, wearing brightly coloured johnny-shirts and wrapped in warm flannel blankets, and being treated by kind people who gave them popsicles and stickers and cool-looking bandages. 

My memories of those visits are equally nostalgic. Maybe that sounds strange – I mean, what parent looks fondly back at illnesses and middle-of-the-night trips to the ER? But like my kids, I don’t remember the illnesses much. I’ve thankfully forgotten the vomiting, the search for clean sheets in the middle of the night, trips to the hospital through dark streets with time standing still. What I do remember is how we were all treated. My kids were treated with compassion and kindness. I was also treated so well. Everything was well-explained, follow-up instructions and appointments were clear, and the health professionals seemed as concerned with how I was coping as with how my kids were managing. Once or twice, I even got a popsicle of my own.

I’m nostalgic for that, because these days my visits to the ER are for Puck’s mental health crises — something that can’t be treated with stitches or antibiotics, and is a genuinely terrifying kind of pain. And when we get past this, my experience with the mental health emergency room is not a memory on which I’ll look back fondly.Read More »