“Get Loud”? Get Real.

This is Mental Health Week in Canada. The slogans tell me I’m supposed to “Get Loud” for mental health. Problem is, I’ve been getting loud for years now, and I’m exhausted. I’ve done TV and radio interviews. I’ve spoken at national conferences. I’ve blogged. I’ve written articles. Writing is an essential function for me, little different from breathing or blinking. I need to do it, and to share it. Being a mental health advocate, on the other hand, does not come as easily. Whereas writing is invigorating, advocating for better mental health services and understanding is depleting. And I’ve gotten so little back, in return.

What has Getting Loud gotten me? It’s gotten me judgement. Isolation. Pity. What has it not gotten? System change, and a decrease in stigma.

I have PTSD as a result of being sexually assaulted when I was 20. I was only officially diagnosed this past year. For almost three decades, I’ve lived with anxiety, depression, intrusive thoughts, fear, self-loathing, an eating disorder, and an inability to trust myself or others. I’ve made poor decisions, and tried on and discarded jobs, friends, and relationships in an attempt to be someone (anyone) other than who I am. No mental health or medical professional ever attempted to connect all the dots. I was left to conclude that I was simply flawed; a peculiar collection of undesirable ailments packaged into a small, unlikable and unstable person. Getting the PTSD diagnosis and proper treatment has been like being reborn. There is a long recovery journey ahead of me, but everything feels new and promising. I mourn the decades I’ve lost.

Finding a mental health provider who understood sexual violence and PTSD should not have taken 29 years. I know it’s not just a function of my age or the era, either. Halifax has a fabulous sexual assault centre, but it recently had to close its waiting list for counselling services. Demand is simply too high. Like me, other women are going to have to lose years of their lives to the aftermath of trauma. They, too, will experience providers who pass judgement, or who suggest they should just ‘get over it’ because it’s in the past. People they considered friends will turn away, uncomfortable with the pain and subject matter. Family will tell them it’s better to keep these things quiet and not make a fuss.

How are these women supposed to “Get Loud” when they are silenced?

I also have a child with mental health and neurological issues. I have spent almost 10 years advocating on his behalf. What does “Getting Loud” for a child with mental health issues look like? It means hours of research about conditions, treatments, and possible outcomes. It means months of sifting through policies and academic articles in order to make a case that he deserves funding for special education. It means being on call 24/7 to be his personal counsellor and to do crisis intervention when he wants to self-harm (seriously, this is the most use I’ve ever gotten out of my MSW). It means explaining to teachers, other parents, and even our own family members, that this isn’t something that will just go away. “Getting Loud” means resigning yourself to the fact that this is your reality, likely forever. “Getting Loud” means knowing that teachers and other parents see you as ‘THAT mother”…the one who is always kicking up a fuss about what her disruptive, odd child needs. It means that not only is your child pushed aside and isolated….you are, too.

“Getting Loud” for a child with mental health issues is a full-time job, with no support. I know it’s taken a toll on my own mental health issues and financial resources, but not one of his mental health professionals have ever asked how the rest of the family is coping with having a child who is often in crisis. We’re simply expected to do it. And to keep on doing it, ad infinitum.

How are parents supposed to “Get Loud”, when they’ve been screaming so long their voices are giving out?

I know the idea behind the slogan “Get Loud” is that we, as a society, need to talk about mental health. The reality is, those of us who talk about it — who live it, every damn day — aren’t being heard. The message many of us read behind “Get Loud” or “Let’s Talk” is that if you’ve never ‘come out’ about your mental illness before, you should tell your story. We’ll applaud you, and pat ourselves on the back for being so supportive!

(But if you’ve been talking or getting loud for years, could you please tone it down? We don’t need you to *keep* talking. It makes us uncomfortable. Are you okay?)

I haven’t posted in my blog for months now, because of the comments I was receiving about my mental health posts. For every person who said they understood what I was writing about, there were so many more who suggested I was being difficult. They said I couldn’t possibly expect the system to change in a timely way. They pointed out that everyone has struggles, and that I am just whining. They told me that this is just part of parenting, and to deal with it. Some said I really should just keep these things to myself.

So which one is it? Get Loud? Let’s Talk? Or Let’s Keep Things Quiet and Not Make a Fuss?

It’s been almost nine years since I first started working with an amazing group of community members and health professionals to create Nova Scotia’s first mental health and addictions strategy. We held consultations with thousands of Nova Scotians to get their input and ideas. We encouraged people to “Get Loud”. The strategy that we created wasn’t perfect, but it was more than this province had ever had before, and I was so proud to have been part of its creation. Sadly, it’s more than we’ve had in quite a while. When the Liberals were elected in 2013, the mental health and addictions strategy was quietly pushed into the corner, and hasn’t been replaced or updated.

How are Nova Scotians supposed to keep getting loud when nothing ever seems to change in the way our mental health services are funded, delivered, and valued?

So please, stop asking those of us with mental illness to Get Loud. We’ve been loud for years. Maybe you just need to Start Listening, and Start Acting.

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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.

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?

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.

The Leap

Sometimes the universe gives us a nudge. This summer, it’s been hurrying me along with a finger in the back, steering me in a certain direction. 

These summer days have been long, heavy, and wickedly humid. The sun is too hot outside; indoors, I move about in a perpetual twilight, with the shades drawn to keep out the heat. The weather isn’t the only thing that’s intense. There is an electricity in the air that transcends summer thunderstorms. It’s so much lighter and livelier than the oppressive heat. Have you felt it? It’s an energy. It’s like magic.

Something magical has happened to me this summer. I’ve revisited old ways of exploring my intuition and connection to the world.  I’ve tapped into a well of creativity I didn’t know was still there. I’ve surrounded myself with like-minded creative people who see there are different ways of doing things and different definitions of success. There are signs and serendipity everywhere — in forgotten songs I randomly hear; old friends who once again drift into my sphere; shooting stars; the peace I feel while writing. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote here about my need to take a deep dive into life — to leave safety and complacency on the dock, and jump in and see what the water holds for me.

I have taken the leap.

I am going to make my living by writing, as I’ve wanted to do since I was a child.

I feel naive and even a bit silly writing this. Who am I to think I can succeed at anything on my own, let alone this sort of endeavour?  

Well…who am I to think I can’t?

I was raised to believe things happen a certain way when it comes to careers and money: you go to school. You do well. And then you get a job…and you STAY at the job, because a job is safety. A job is identity. A job is status, and your future.

I started down that road. There were many wonderful opportunities, and I was ‘successful’. But somewhere along the road, a nagging little doubt crept into my thoughts: “Is this really what I’m supposed to be doing? Is this it? Is this who I am? Still, I stayed. That’s what we do, isn’t it? It felt too late to change paths. It would be too risky. I had a pension, security. I had responsibilities. I was climbing the ladder. A person can’t just jump off and start again. 

Then, I was pushed off the ladder. It felt like the end of the world, but as is so often the case, it was a gift. It’s been three years since my very good job with the government ended abruptly, and I took my first wobbly steps as a consultant. First, I worked under the umbrella of a wise and established mentor. Then, I left to take a contract with a non-profit. 

It was always meant to be something temporary: once Puck’s issues got sorted, I would go back to a straight 9-5 office job. I would figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I would find security. I was looking only at what I’d given up — all those traditional notions about status, bonuses and job titles. 

I realized last year, though, that I couldn’t get back on that ladder. Puck’s issues weren’t going to magically go away. We would always need more flexibility than a traditional office job offers. The magic, such as it is, would have to come from me. I would have to make it for myself.

I spent a while feeling very sorry for myself about this. I compared my path to those of friends’. I looked at social media posts with envy,  comparing my own situation to their seemingly interesting and secure jobs. I saw only what I didn’t have.

This summer, I flipped that thought: I started looking at what I do have. I have freedom, and I have honesty.  The flexibility that is a necessity is also a gift. Through all the struggle we’ve been through, I’ve had to have a hard look at what is important to me, how I define myself, and how I define success. And for me, success means being creative. It means being content. It means telling the stories inside me, and helping others tell theirs. 

I’ve spent the summer revisiting a novel I began many years ago. Rewriting and discussing it with a trusted writing coach has brought me joy I haven’t known in any ‘professional’ work setting. It’s given me the courage to take the leap.

So how am I taking this leap? Well, I’ll be helping people tell their stories. All kinds of stories, in all kinds of contexts. That might include:

  • editing personal or professional writing;fullsizeoutput_289a
  • researching and writing documents;
  • preparing grant proposals;
  • creating content for blog posts or websites;
  • creating newsletters and communications materials;
  • writing articles;
  • writing your cover letter or polishing your CV;
  • presenting to groups small or large about mental health, digital health, and the history of social work in Canada.

Thanks to Danielle Crowell, I have a beautiful website that highlights work I’ve done (https://www.michellehebertboyd.com). Please share it with anyone you think might be interested, and keep me in mind for your writing and editing projects.  I have researched and written documents for government departments and national agencies. I have helped small non-profits create policies and communications materials. I have helped individuals edit work submissions, blog posts, and manuscripts. I can’t wait to see what other stories I can help bring into the world.

I am not brave, by the way. This is as much a leap of necessity and faith as it is an act of courage. I have to trust that the work will come, and have to accept that I may not be as financially secure as I was brought up to believe I must be. Ultimately, though, I have to believe that work isn’t just about making a living and getting to retirement; work is about creating a life.

This seems like a radical idea. I hope you’ll join me in it. Let’s create together. 

Beneath the surface

A typical conversation with anyone, these days:

Them: How is Puck? He seems fine?

Me: Everything is fine.

(Everything is not fine).

Them: How are you doing? You’re doing such great work! Things seem to be going really well!

Me: Everything is fine.

(Everything is not fine).

Things look so great on the surface, don’t they? It’s summer, and everyone is posting their fabulous vacation photos. Bikini photos. Summer party photos.

That’s just the surface, though. Those are the images, the narrative, we can control. You never really know what’s going on. Below the surface, things get murky.

We have a family cottage on a lake. It’s idyllic. I like to sit on the dock and dip my feet in the water, watching the kids and the dog spend the whole day swimming and playing. It’s been so hot lately, and the water is so refreshing…but I don’t go in. There is a part of my imagination that is still six years-old and imagines there are monsters below the surface. I hear the Police song Synchronicity II in my head as I draw my fingers across the dark water. I am NOT going in there. 

It looks beautiful; it feels tempting. But I am scared. I don’t know what I might be jumping into. And I am so tired, I might sink like a stone.

I’ve been waking up tired for months, despite sleeping well. It’s a different kind of tired; a tired that parents of kids with special needs know well — a kind of psychic tired. The tired you get when you are always walking on eggshells, waiting for the next crisis (because, of course, things are never as calm as they appear on the surface). The kind of tired you get when your own needs are shoved back and ignored for years, just so you can all keep everything and everyone going.  The kind of tired you get when you’re expected to be an expert in something you were never trained to be an expert in. The kind of tired you get when you’re too often reduced to ‘mom’ and forget who else you meant to be. The kind of tired that far too many women, frankly, consider normal, because if we don’t do this emotional labour, who will?

It’s the kind of tired you get when you’ve been fighting against accepting what life has dealt you.

Everything has been in limbo for so many years now, as we’ve waited for things to get better with Puck…to get back to ‘normal’. I’ve had to jettison anything that weighed me down so that I could just keep treading water. Friendships. My career. Self-care. Reading a book that isn’t about a particular neurological disorder. Writing my own book. I jettisoned so much, in fact, that as I sat on the dock by the lake this summer, I realized how little of me was left. I felt as translucent as the little dragonflies that skimmed across the lake’s surface. 

Who am I, anymore? Where are all the parts of me that once defined me?

I found myself sitting on the shore of a lake and asking myself, like in the Talking Heads song, “Well, how did I get here?”

Where is my beautiful job?

Where is my fabulous life?

I sloughed them off, long ago. I am left with this translucency. When the little dragonflies skim the surface of the lake, water droplets create rainbows on their tiny translucent wings. I’m jealous of them. I want their colours.

My summer’s work seems to be to come to terms with our ‘normal’: this is it. There will be no return to some nostalgic family life that I’m not sure even existed for us before Puck’s troubles began. Puck’s needs and our constraints are real and they are permanent, and I have to work with that.  I’ve been mourning the things I jettisoned as the things that defined me: the 9-5 office job and the financial security it represented, the career ladder. The wardrobe that consisted of more than pyjama pants and jeans. But that’s who I used to be.

And if I’m honest, a lot of the things I’ve jettisoned weren’t such a loss. My new, self-employed way of working may not be financially stable (yet), but it gives me freedom and flexibility. I’ve lost touch with a few friends, maybe, but the true ones are still around, and I’ve managed to find a tribe of creative, supportive women who understand my choices, because they’ve made tough ones of their own. There are a lot of dragonflies out there.

And then, sitting on that dock, an idea: Who’s to say what lurks below the surface of the lake is bad? What if, instead of finding monsters, I found something wonderful? What would happen if I actually dove in?

I recently made the decision to end a work contract I’ve had for a couple of years. I know it’s the right, healthy decision for me, but it’s scary: there’s nothing to fill that financial void. I have to trust that it will come. I have to take a leap, and learn to swim once I’m in the water.

Others have told me I have so much to offer, so much experience, so much skill — things will happen, they assure me. But we all know that sometimes, it doesn’t work like that. Experience and skill sometimes aren’t enough. Look, I’m middle-aged (there, I’ve said it.) This is not a time for reinvention or to figure out what you want to be when you grow up. But there you are. That’s what I’m doing.  (And you may ask yourself, how do I work this?)

I am a translucent dragonfly, but I’m finding my colours. I’ve started working on my novel again – an act that feels reckless and brave and true. I’m revisiting things I used to do and love long ago, and listening to myself more. I’ve talked to so many women in the past few weeks who have encouraged me to think outside of the box and use my talents to make change in the world…I’m just not sure how, exactly, but I’m working on it.

The person I am becoming is not who I was or who I thought I should be. But it will be who I need to be — for me, and for Puck. That’s a gift he’s given me.

What lies below might be good. I need to dive in.