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

Whiteout

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.

Turning Off, Turning Out

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I have a problematic relationship with my phone. Not only are the monthly data overage charges a cause for stress (sorry Mom), but my reliance on the device for personal comfort is downright shameful.

My 2011 MacBook Pro has essentially become an oversized paperweight while I use my smartphone for all of my activities within cyberspace: to connect with my friends and family, to check and update social media, to listen to music and podcasts, to take pictures of my life. I watch (listen) to Netflix to fall asleep, I send email, I make appointments, I pay for my coffee, all through one App or function or another. When I don’t want to be bothered in public, I’ll stick my nose in my phone. Have to stand in line? Check the phone. Wait for any amount of time beyond 10 seconds? I’m scrolling. Awkward moment in a group setting? Ah, a notification.

I am hardly ever alone with my thoughts, and the constant stimulation from screen time contributes to the noise already in my head. How many times have I turned to my phone for connection instead of engaging with the human beings around me?

Instead of reaching out to someone who cares about me either in person or through voice call (old school, I get it), I find myself turning to Google in search of answers and opinions, asking questions that I’m embarrassed to ask aloud. Often, the answers I find are not wholly comforting and I don’t feel much better after browsing through articles and discussion forums containing the key words I typed. The whole practice turns me more inward, invites more questions than answers, and I continue to feel alone in my worry.

Apparently, I’m not alone as I might think, as articles like this one from The Atlantic describe how Google has been tracking the search for mental health related keywords, noting that questions like, “Why am I sad?” or “What are the symptoms of depression” seem to spike in colder weather months across the world. Whether or not Google searches could reveal the actual prevalence of mental health issues, including unreported cases, it remains to be seen. What observing this information tells us is that people are interested in the topic, want to know if their symptoms are legitimate, and feel the need to be anonymous in the search for information and support.

Smartphones make us passive, and lazy. We don’t have to remember things, directions, phone numbers, birthdays, because all of that information lives in the cloud somewhere, or something. They say it saves us time but what exactly are we doing with our new-found time – other than filling it with celebrity gossip and videos of swimming pigs (omg).

It’s not always easy to verbalize what’s bothering you, but the act of expressing the troubling thoughts or ideas can neutralize them. When negative thoughts are swirling around your head unchecked and unchallenged, they can feel very real and true. Allowing another person to share the burden with you, even for a moment, can be a relief.

If you are apprehensive about engaging in conversations around your mental health or well-being, here are a few things that have worked for me, both when I am sharing my own thoughts and listening to others:

Preface: Starting a conversation by sharing how it is hard for you to talk about this, or expressing that it may be difficult to hear, can be a way to prepare the other person for sensitive subject matter and encourage a thoughtful response. It gives the other person the opportunity to recognize that you are looking to be heard and have trusted them for this role.

Sitting side-by-side: I can’t tell you how many difficult conversations I’ve had in the front seat of a car, and it works because this seating arrangement takes the pressure off constant eye-contact, particularly if you’re concerned about having the “right reaction” when someone is crying or upset. Sitting side-by-side in the car also allows you to make physical contact, like holding their hand, that doesn’t feel overly intrusive.

Get active: Similar to sitting side-by-side, doing an activity, like shooting hoops (who am I) or going on a hike, can again take the pressure off constant eye contact, but can also facilitate honest conversation, as you may be less likely to overthink what you say as you continue with your hike or game.

Embrace silence: We’ve heard it before – silence is not the enemy to good conversation. Silence offers time for the person to give a thoughtful response, can allow the person to collect themselves if they are upset and crying, and can allow space for other forms of support, like a hug.

It may be daunting to reach out when we are feeling down, and turning to our phones, Google, or other isolating sources may seem easier than involving another person in your troubles. We don’t want to be a burden, after all. But trust me when I say that other people want to be there for you – it’s up to you to let them.

P.S In an effort to practice what I preach, my very own $52 basic flip phone is on route to me as I write this. I’m sure I’ll be hit with waves of nostalgia as I relearn how to text using T9 and end phone calls with a satisfying snap of the lid. My iPhone will live on in semi-retirement, reserved for when and where I can hop on the wifi.

“I didn’t mean to…”

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Thanks, always, to Louis C.K, for providing thought-provoking brain snacks.

As a sensitive kid growing up, my feelings were always hurt. A sideways look from a classmate or seeing whispers between friends were enough to upset me and trigger the tears. Sometimes, my feelings were hurt on purpose (even before the Internet, children were cruel) but sometimes, no one meant any harm and I was being overly sensitive.

I’m still just as sensitive and thin-skinned, but I’ve developed some emotional armour in my old age that keeps me from being hurt all the time. And while I’ve learned to adapt, I still think that there is some responsibility to claim when we become aware that we have hurt someone.

Hurt feelings are often a product of mismatched expectations: I wanted him to do this, he didn’t do this, and now my feelings are hurt. And while the dynamics of the relationship will often dictate how candid you can be about your wants and needs, communicating your expectations can save you many hours (or years) of hurt feelings.

The good ones, the ones who care about you, don’t want to see you hurt, and will likely make attempts to modify their behaviour or make amends. The others will show you how much you matter by way of how much they are willing to address what is upsetting you. How someone feels about you and how they treat you are intimately related – you will get your answer to the former by observing the latter.

“I didn’t mean to…”

“You’re so sensitive!”

“That’s just the way I am”

For all you sensitive folk out there, don’t let these phrases make you feel dismissed. Your feelings are valid and are worthy of attention and respect, especially by people who claim to care about you. Communicate your needs, express your frustrations, and continue being soft – this world needs more empathy.

 

 

Hello, Nourished Life

I’m in the process of saying goodbye to somebody. Unlike most goodbyes, that we want to avoid because they are sad, this is a goodbye I happily walk toward. I’m saying goodbye to this girl:


She looks happy right? She seems nice, confident, smiling. This is where she fools you.

Although I was 20-years old when this photo was taken, when I look at this, all I see now is a sick little girl with her collarbones and neck tendons jutting out, thinning hair, and no boobs to hold her dress up. A girl who ate only salads, who tried to literally outrun self-esteem issues at a rate of 15km per day. A girl who was scared of food and scared to miss a workout. A girl who lost her period for months due to restrictive eating and over-exercise. A girl whose problematic body behaviours went unnoticed because her BMI was still “within range,” even when her body was screaming that this weight wasn’t sustainable. A girl who regularly received reinforcement in the form of compliments that she looked great and to “keep it up.”

Imagine how much I could have accomplished had I directed even a quarter of the brain power I had put toward taking up less space in the world, towards my schooling and future career… I like to think I’d be backing up the Brinks truck into the driveway of my summer home.

I won’t say it’s not hard to look back on these photos and know that I was much thinner then than I am now. When these images pop up unexpectedly (Facebook, you’re the worst), I give myself a moment to float around in those feelings of inadequacy – if only I had appreciated my body then, and had not been so self-conscious with it, etc, etc, ad nauseam. There is a part of me who still looks for this girl when I see photos of myself now, and when I don’t see her, the same part of me wants to look away and avoid acknowledging the reality of my actual, real, nourished body.

Soon enough however, in my back of my brain I hear the voice of my best friend Kim chanting, “No! More! Skeletor!” and I’m rushed back to the truth: That girl had a lot to learn. I’m smarter than that girl. I’m kinder. I’m a better listener, a better friend. I love myself more. My hair doesn’t fall out, but grows in long and shiny. I have a butt and boobs (both of which took a notable leave of absence during the time this photo was taken). I have hobbies other than obsessing over food labels and tracking burned calories.

I don’t miss her. Being obsessed with controlling my body and what went into it left little room to think about other people, and for the life of me, I can’t recall many instances during this time where I helped someone or threw myself into a project that wasn’t all about me. Disordered eating and exercise habits are an isolating and all-consuming endeavour in themselves, in addition to the effort put forth to avoid detection from others. This was a lonely, lonely life.

My life now nourishes me. I make a concerted effort to fill my world with good things – good people, good food, good movement, good thoughts – instead of trying to deprive my body and mind of what it wants. I consciously include things in my life that make me feel whole and allow autonomy over my life, something I was always pursuing but never achieved while restricting.

Of course there are moments where I wish I didn’t worry about what my body looks like, and I fool myself into thinking that women thinner than me could not begin to understand how I feel. Of course I deflate a little inside if someone makes a comment about how thin (and blond) I was back then. But I know these feelings are leftover from when I truly believed that my body size determined my worth, and I know better now. Media and society tell us that thinner is better, more attractive, the only kind of beautiful that matters, and we must have either reached that ideal or be punishing ourselves towards it. But at what cost? I will tell you for free that it is not worth everything I gave up in the pursuit of making myself smaller.

Along with a few LBs, I’ve gained self-awareness, true friendship, a passionate career, and a lifetime worth of belly-laughs. If gaining all this means adjusting my ideals of thinness and worthiness and saying goodbye to the sick little person featured above, then girl, bye.