Baby on a Budget

It all started with a letter in September from my auto insurance company that they would not be renewing my coverage for the next year at the current rate I was paying. I hadn’t had to adjust my insurance for several years, and had all but put this expense out of my mind. I’ve never claimed to be good with finances, after all. But as I asked my mom how I should go about finding another provider as a “high-risk driver” (yikes) I have never felt more like a plastic bag blowing in the wind when it came to money.

I started asking people how they kept track of their spending. I think I half-hoped that budgeting required some rare, innate skill that I simply didn’t have, so I could continue to bury my head in the sand about my spending habits. Then, my best friend showed me how her banking app categorized and tracked her spending so that she could make conscious decisions about when she could afford to eat out at a restaurant that week or buy new winter boots this month.

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Breakdown of my bills and expenses during a healthy month

“Sometimes looking at my bank account feels gross,” she said, “but I’d rather know than not know.” The magic words I needed to hear. I needed to face the damage. It was no longer acceptable to make a habit of accumulating ever-more consumer debt. I’m supposed to be a grown-ass woman!

So, I started doing some research. My mom had been encouraging me to use an Excel spreadsheet to budget my spending, however, it felt clunky and unrealistic to type in expenses retroactively and hold on to receipts to ensure accurate numbers. I have enough clutter – there had to be an app for that. And then I found Mint. After connecting my bank accounts to the app, I saw the state of my finances in all its colourful glory, and it was…gross. My spending exploded wildly from month to month, on things I could barely remember buying. I could literally trace the peaks and valleys of my depression by tracking increases in spending on things like take-out, delivery, and fast food, and decreases in gas and travel purchases. Clearly times where I was not leaving the house and seeking comfort. And by the end of every month, I was putting more and more things on my credit card, because I simply had no cash left. The whole exercise was horrifying. But now I knew. I had developed some self-indulgent habits that were extremely costly and I was overspending every single month.

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The yellow reflects reckless spending under “Shopping”, “Uncategorized” and “Food &  Dining” in the months prior to having an organized budget

Mint made it easy to plug in my bills and arrange for pre-authorized payments so that all my bills were paid in cash. (Do I sound like an advertisement yet?) The app categorized my past spending and made suggestions for monthly budgets for what I regularly spent money on – groceries, gas, restaurants, coffee, pharmacy, cat food, etc. It became clear that spending $150 monthly on coffee like I was Beyonce, was living beyond my means, to put it mildly. Starbucks, and its wildly successful Gold Star customer reward program that made me a loyal minion, had no place in my new budget.

The knowledge of the boundaries and limits of my budget has allowed me to create habits that have a positive spillover effect into other parts of my life. Making my own coffee at home in the morning cuts financial costs as well as calories, yet I don’t feel deprived of taste and have created more time for myself in the morning. Meal planning requires a level of preparation and organization, so staying within budget promotes a cleaner kitchen space, something that has always felt elusive to me in the past.

You might be asking what working within a budget has to do with mental health, and before writing this post, I couldn’t put my finger on why managing my finances properly made me feel better. But, like I discussed in my previous post about the burden of keeping secrets, my unaddressed debt and poor financial hygiene weighed heavily on me because I didn’t own it. It was a sore spot that I didn’t want to face, and on some level of my subconscious mind, it bothered me.

The cycle of good habits I’m creating will serve me well when the next depressive low rolls around, because the routine is already in place. This is particularly crucial as winter descends, a season that traditionally does not treat me kindly. In learning to accept my financial reality and face consequences, I’m shedding light on one of my biggest blind spots. There is a sense of peace in lifting the lid on my shortcomings and living transparently.

Secrets Are Bad For You

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At some point in life, secrets are not always so fun. I already know what I’m getting for my birthday, that Santa Claus isn’t real, and I told all my childhood crushes that I was the secret admirer long ago. Sometimes I think there are no more good secrets, because as I reflect on the purpose and consequences of keeping secrets, I see how this can create more harm than joy.

In the wake of the #MeToo Harvey Weinstein explosion, it has become abundantly clear that the combination of power and secrecy have been fuelling abusive and harmful treatment of women for decades. And Hollywood has just taken the spotlight in this moment. To believe that the same dynamics are not at play in corporate settings, technology, labour industries, and government, is evidence of the pervasiveness of secrecy. The power of secrets can be found everywhere.

At its worst, my eating disorder was my best-kept secret. I would lie and sneak around in order to preserve that intoxicating sense of control I felt I had earned by restricting my intake. I felt empowered and superior in exerting willpower over my body, all the while, denying I was actively dieting and chasing the feeling of control. The lying, the secrecy, fuelled the ED because I had nothing to challenge the perspective of the hungry, sick voice in my head. Only when I was finally confronted by my family and my doctor about the obsession with eating (or not eating) and food, did my secret finally spill out and I felt embarrassed and weak. I wasn’t in control at all – my illness had been dictating my every mouthful, social event, and passing thought. It had been controlling me. This secret had imprisoned my mind and harmed my body.

Working as a Probation and Parole Officer, I see countless clients who have endured some form of trauma or abuse that has deeply affected their lives, and without a doubt has contributed to the reasons they are seated across from me in my office. Whether they experienced abuse as children, or experience it present day in a toxic domestic relationship, clients disclose that their abuse was founded upon secrecy. To protect a loved one, an abuser, families and children, fear or threat of life or livelihood– I’ve heard every combination of reasons why a victim would keep their abuse a secret. And therein lies the power, and permits the harm to continue.

While I generally try to navigate my life being as forthcoming as possible (this blog being one of a number of exercises in honesty) at one time, I allowed myself to be swept up in secrecy in my personal life. The effect of keeping the secret was poisonous, and took its toll on my sense of self. I was lying to my friends, my family, and myself– and while I did not have the mental toughness to punish my physical body like I did when I was a teenager, I was in a near-constant state of emotional self-harm. All that negativity had to be directed somewhere, and my self-esteem and confidence were easy targets. Keeping secrets created a toxic discrepancy within me that I could not live comfortably with. I wanted to be a good person, but I was not acting like one.

Freeing myself from secrets felt like shedding a snakeskin, and I felt immediate relief from it’s hold on me. I could honestly believe others when they reminded me that I’m a good friend, that I’m thoughtful and a good listener. I remembered that I can expect from others everything I’m willing to give in relationships, that I don’t have to settle. I had forgotten that being honest with myself and being happy can be achieved at the same time. Who I want to be and who I am are back in alignment, and I can feel good about that. Growing up may mean there are fewer fun secrets left, but that’s okay with me.

Be Hard on Yourself

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Whenever I make the mistake of sharing my unfiltered negative self-talk with my friends or family, as in, the really abusive things I can sometimes say to myself that I would never dream of saying to anyone else, I always receive some variation of “you are being way too hard on yourself!” in return.

And I would take this gracious bit of validation that I was doing just fine, doing my best, chugging along. In my lowest places, I really lean into this practice:

Don’t be so hard on myself – the dishes can wait.

Don’t be so hard on myself – I’m so tired, I can’t possibly get to the gym today.

Don’t be so hard on myself – cooking for one is exhausting, I’ll order butter chicken delivery instead.

Don’t be so hard on myself – I’m too sad to take this call from my mom, best friend, auto insurance company… maybe later.

Does it smell like bullshit in here, or is it just me?

Whether this is a testament to my improved state of mind as of late, or whether it’s becoming more work to spin my tendency for avoidance into a cute anecdote, I think I am lifting the lid on some of the ways I am, in fact, way too easy on myself. I’m not sure I want to be the girl surrounded by takeout containers in my bed, cuddling with my computer watching calls go to voicemail between mouthfuls of naan bread. I’m not sure she’s doing her best.

There will always be things we don’t want to do – the tedious administrative parts of our jobs, taking out the leaky garbage, spin class at the gym. And yet, people do them. Those things get done. In my experience, the first casualty of depression is my motivation, and during a depressive low, the list of things I don’t want to do can become quite the long read. How do other people get up on time, even after a bad night’s sleep? They just do it. How do other people save money by meal prepping and grocery shopping ahead of time? They make time. The gym? They go, whether they are particularly feeling like it or not.

I may never feel like doing something, but I should do it anyway. Why? Because there are certainly consequences for doing it (it will be hard, exhausting, take a long time) but there will be consequences for not doing it, and I will likely regret these more. I need to care enough about Future Vic to take care of things for her and to not make life any more difficult than it already is by avoiding it. If I would do something for a friend without thinking twice, I need to do it for myself whether I feel like it or not.

I think we wait for inspiration or motivation or willpower to kick in at some point. And like being stood up for a date in the 1990s before cell phones, we may be waiting a long time. I’ve referenced Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck in a previous post, and I shamelessly do it again to promote his idea of flipping the script on motivation to read something like this:

Action → Inspiration → Motivation

*not the other way around.

The brief moments of motivation and energy are fleeting, and this feeling is usually front-loaded at the top of a project or goal we have some emotional attachment to, like starting back up at the gym after seeing a particularly ratty-looking tagged photo of yourself. But it takes a lot of energy to keep that motivation revving, and it will inevitably wane. This is where Mark Manson says we need to DO SOMETHING, even something small in the direction we want to go in, because the act of doing something – anything – can cultivate some of those feelings of accomplishment and passion that got us started in the first place.

By forcing myself to do something small, like taking a moment to prep the coffee machine the night before, I initiate a chain of steps in a positive direction. With coffee prepped, I can turn it on in the morning while I get dressed, fill a travel mug with the life-giving nectar, leave the house on time, skip Starbucks, save money, and roll into work caffeinated and on the right foot. I didn’t feel like doing it, but I was looking out for my future self #thxbbgirl.

I think I’m particularly prone to the paralyzing effect of being too easy on myself, where, in my desire for comfort while in a particularly bad place, I monopolize my decision-making. I’ve seen my willful ignorance affect my relationships, my social life, my ability to fit into my jeans – most recently, I’ve taken the blinders off to the state of my finances (more on that later).

I get it. Doing things is hard. Doing things is very hard when living with a mental illness, and all you seek is to feel comfortable in your own head. I can’t promise that you will feel better soon, but I can assure you that those brief moments of discomfort that come from doing something good for yourself, can help.

18 Things I Could Do at 18, That I Can’t Do at 28 because, (Mental) Health

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18. Not wear sunscreen: As much as I resist the culturally ageist perception of ideal beauty as exclusively young and wrinkle-free, I’m hyper-aware of sun damage in my late 20s and lather up accordingly. As a tanning bed reformist for 10 years, it gives me more peace of mind to be pasty and safe(r) than bronzed and worried about my increasing resemblance to an old leather boot.

17. Skip the stretch: A mistake I learned the hard way when I launched myself into a women’s soccer league one summer and limped away after one game with two pulled hamstrings and lower back pain. This 28-year old requires a proper warm-up and stretch before the recommended 30 minutes of mild-moderate exercise per day.

16. Drink with abandon: Gone are the days of vodka-Diet Cokes, wine by the litre, and double-header party weekends. As the kids say, I simply cannot. With every passing year, my hangovers become more and more wicked and with the current medication that I am on, going over my limit means spending the next several days trolling around in my own misery.

15. Hang out with toxic people just because they are fun: And make no mistake, they were very fun. But on a lazy Sunday, I want to clean up the party with someone who wants what is best for me and makes me feel understood. I’ve become more adept at evaluating character over the years and find myself being more discerning over who I become close with and allow to influence me. When it comes to fun and quality, I say, get friends who can do both.

14. Diet, restrict, and punish my body: Making my body feel deprived and empty used to empower me. Now I just feel empty and deprived when I try to restrict or calculate my food intake or punish my body at the gym when I’ve been “bad”. I try to listen to my body and understand what it is trying to tell me, because I’m learning that it responds better to tenderness than hate.

13. Eat shit: While I’ve moved away from restrictive eating, I do have to be careful of what I put in my mouth because my body does not bounce back from McDonalds & friends like it used to. While no foods are off limits for me (still have a weird aversion to bagels though) I have to consider whether I am prepared for the physical consequences once certain foods have had their way with me.

12. Sleep (without background noise): I used to be such a good sleeper! I could read for a few minutes and drift right into dreamland. My sleep hygiene is a work in progress, but I always try to fall asleep in silence for a few minutes before I inevitably cave and throw on mindless background noise to drown out racing thoughts.

11. Remember… anything: Remember getting somewhere without a GPS device? Knowing phone numbers? Birthdays? I used to. Now I need aids. I think my brain is lazier now.

10. Not own an agenda: how did I even know which way was up?

9. Wait for “next week’s episode”: When someone offers me a television series recommendation and informs me that I CAN’T watch all the episodes in one afternoon, I feel overwhelmed- thanks, but no thanks. I have lost the virtue of patience when it comes to my entertainment.

8. Be a road warrior: While I make the best of the driving I have to do by filling up the time with podcasts, audiobooks, and steering wheel karaoke, I am not the driver I used to be. Long drives take a toll on me, mentally and physically, and I know when I need to avoid them and recover from them.

7. Make everyone like me: I remember being shocked when I was informed that I couldn’t expect to be liked by everyone. That it was possible to not be everyone’s proverbial cup of tea. “If I could only tap into what they liked…”, I used to tell my dear naive self. Let’s chalk this one up to being too exhausted for constant performance art, but I think I’m really more interested in being a person I can be proud of, since I’m the one who has to live with me full-time.

6. Care too much about clothes: My closet was a graveyard for all the dead fashion trends of the past –polo shirts in every colour, dozens of pairs of cheap flats, hip-hugger jeans. I shudder. These days, I wear what I feel comfortable in, what I think looks good, repeat outfits frequently and DARE SOMEONE TO SAY SOMETHING.

5. Unpack and settle: I used to love my room at home, and spent hours putting magazine clippings on the walls, listening to my 6-disc CD player, and losing myself in a novel. Perhaps from all the moving I did in university, I really struggle to settle into a new space. I avoid unpacking and putting things on walls and getting everything I need for the place to feel comfortable. I don’t know why I feel like I need to be ready to pack up leave at a moment’s notice.

4. Deny my mistakes: I went to any length to avoid admitting that I had done something wrong and rarely let me myself believe that something was my fault. Maybe I was holding on to the residual childhood fears of “getting in trouble” and “being bad”. Now I’m not afforded the luxury of denying my responsibility, because I cannot physically sit with the feeling that I may have hurt someone or avoided accountability. It’s uncomfortable and I feel compelled to make it right somehow.

3. Take my parents for granted: At some point in the last decade, my parents decided to become more human instead of the immortal beings that I believed they always would be. The nerve. While they both feel and look good (Hi, Mom), I’ve become acutely aware of their human vulnerabilities and changing pace of life. I get on their case about their health. And I worry about them more.

2. Avoid counselling: As if I was stronger because I didn’t ask for help. Silly girl.

1. Pretend I’m okay when I’m not: I always tell my parents they should have put me in drama and gotten me an agent, for the amount of time I spent in my late teens/early 20s acting as if I was okay when I wasn’t. Was I ever good at faking it. Not only does it seem counterproductive to bury and dismiss my feelings now, but I feel like I couldn’t do it if I tried. Hence, this blog, I guess.

Flip my Phone, Change my Life

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As you may have read, I’ve relegated my iPhone into semi-retirement, only using it when I am connected to wifi, so essentially, at home or as I pop into Starbucks. At work, in the car, out and about, or hanging with friends, I’m armed with my Alcatel GO FLIP phone, which the lads at the Bell store threw in for free with my $29/month talk and text plan. It was all very easy, aside from the technology being ill-equipped to transfer my iPhone contacts to my new “Address Book” and having to half-halfheartedly joke that I was interested only in simplifying my life, not pushing drugs.

It’s been an illuminating experience so far, with the most notable observation being that, before the switch, I suspect I was edging on an addiction to my smartphone. I realized that I would scroll mindlessly, only stopping once I registered that I had seen this post earlier in the day. Because, God forbid I failed to Like a single photo of someone else’s child the moment one was posted. My phone was on my desk at work, in my line of vision, so that I could respond immediately should a notification come in, so really, there was no reprieve from screen time, and I felt a near-constant impulse to stay in the loop.

At work, screen time is unavoidable. We need to use our computers and be connected in order to carry out the functions of our jobs. And many of us are good about taking regular breaks from our desks to stretch our legs and give our eyes and brains a break. But what do we so often do when we take a break from the computer? My guess is to turn directly to our phones to see what we missed.

So, there is no break.

I would argue that our reliance upon our devices makes us feel more overextended in our lives than we actually are. Finding the work-life balance that is right for us and our families is already a work in progress, yet we allow ever more distractions into our personal lives that interfere with our ability to be present.

When we interrupt an in-person conversation with someone to address a notification from our device, we throw ourselves into a state of limbo. We have plucked ourselves out of the real world, that particular human dynamic, full of non-verbal cues, gestures, and nuanced expression, in order to attend to the digital world. But we are not fully in that world either, apologizing for answering the call or text and feeling guilty for not giving our companion our full attention, we might rush through the digital exchange. We don’t get ahead either way. Once we finish with our device, we have to reset the human interaction with a version of “okay, sorry, what were you saying?” effectively hindering the flow and chemistry of the conversation. Do we ever fully return our undivided attention to our companion, or is half our brain still scanning the digital world for information? There is no rest for the screen-stimulated brain.

The more we allow our device to control our attention, the more we feel like we are missing out on something, and this is certainly not a feeling we welcome. Aside from life-and-death emergencies, and other such situations where we require instantaneous feedback, the information will be there whether we address our device every ten minutes, every hour, or once a day. When we get in the habit of requiring constant stimulation, we may never feel like we have fully decompressed and refueled the tank. If our brain does not differentiate between types of screen time, are we really striking the work-life balance we think we are? We may be away from our desks, but our brains are still very much at work processing information from a screen.

So what started as tossing my smartphone to reduce my monthly cell phone bill, has evolved into a kind of vacation of the mind. My flip phone is no frills by definition: numbered keypad, capped talk and text, and no front facing camera- may my unborn selfies rest in peace. And guess what? I no longer feel the same itch to check my device for notifications. I decide when I check it, and attend to that information when I have a moment. I feel less attached to the social media world and feel a diminished need to scroll mindlessly through apps when I do have internet access at home. I use my phone to confirm plans but avoid long-winded texting conversations for the most part– mostly because texting on the number pad is far too time consuming. I feel more rested, present, and would you believe that, the other night, I read a book in its entirety without once interrupting myself by checking my phone. And I say interrupting myself because I have a renewed sense of choice when it comes to tuning into and out of the digital world.

What is it that we are so afraid of missing out on? Does anyone actually feel better after a deep creep? What “they” are doing out there is not where life is. Life is taking place right here, between your ears, in front of your eyes and in your hands. We should be looking up from our screens once in a while and join in.

The Unlearning

I looked to know you,

when we shared the same air, only ours.

Passing warm breath back and forth like secrets.

I see you, beyond and beneath the face I’ve been learning.

I trace your wiring, your make-up, your pieces,

the ones almost forgotten,

like a stack of photographs hidden in an old book.

Your colour, the stitching of your insides,

It’s purple, not quite pink,

because you are flawed, with frayed edges,

So hungry for dilated gazes, and warm skin.

Flawed, and wholesome somehow still,

yellow and gleeful,

but not in my hands.

Finding My Metaphor

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I have never fancied myself a creative writer, but in trying to express how my illness feels right now, I find myself looking for the perfect comparison: The personal overhead storm cloud, the veil of sadness, the blinders – all good metaphors for depression, but I find, in trying to process my most recent spiral out,  these comparisons do not entirely capture all the small, painful struggles of this illness.

I was driving home from my parents’ house at nighttime in a blizzard. My mom had asked me to stay the night, but knowing I’m not a morning person and could not guarantee that I would wake up in time to get to work, I decided to start the 2-hour drive around 9pm. I’m a confident driver, a highway warrior. It would be fine.

It should come as a surprise to no one, that my mother was right.

I knew she was right as the all-weather tires fishtailed on the on-ramp to the highway.

I definitely knew it as I was white-knuckling the steering wheel at 30km/h taking refuge from the wind behind a transport truck.

She is always right.

Despite the windshield wipers flapping furiously and straining my eyes, I could not make out more than two feet in front of my face. Trundling through the whiteout, my side and rearview mirrors were of no assistance. My only goal was to remain on the tire tracks made by the equally idiotic souls ahead of me.

Every couple hundred yards I would feel the car slip beneath me, threatening to skid sideways and out of my control. I was exhausted but terrified to peel my eyes away even for a second. My shoulders and stomach and legs remained braced for …something – impact? An unexpected obstacle? A blast from the horn of a transport truck?

I held myself in this state of paralyzed concentration in complete silence for hours, for fear that any distraction would push me off the road. I’ll never know how many details of that drive I missed when I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the immediate road ahead. Save for a couple of transports that barreled by me at just furious speeds, it was just me and my wits on that road.

Rather unseasonably, I’m reminded of this experience and how helpless it made me feel. Yes, I could have stopped for temporary reprieve, but the drive remained ahead of me. All I could do was move forward cautiously and with very little control of my surroundings, despite how intently I concentrated. My muscles ached from tension.

In the thick of a particularly stubborn low, the sensations are familiar. Sometimes I can’t see past how shitty I feel in this moment, or more than two feet in front of my face, even though I know that this disease moves in cycles of highs and lows. I find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop, the trick floorboard to disappear beneath my feet, to slip and skid sideways off the track. The aftermath of bracing for impact lives with me for days after, with physical and physiological costs, and while I’m so tired, sleep is not always a relief. I move forward, slowly, in the direction I guess I’m supposed to go, knowing full well that I do not have a confident grasp on everything I need to attend to, but doing what I can.

It looks like I’ve found my metaphor, so the English major in me is satisfied. But I suppose this is where the real work begins.