Secrets Are Bad For You

download (1)

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

lazycat

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

Blog 21 pic

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

Flipphone.gif

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.

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.

ACoA Report Card: Part 1

apple-report-card-271

Once we become aware of the effects that trauma has had our lives, at what point do we progress from being victims of our circumstances to being accountable for our choices? This is a question I ask myself a lot, particularly identifying as an ACoA (adult child of alcoholic). This two part article series will focus on how being a ACoA has influenced my personality and thinking patterns, and the steps I take to challenge some of the traits common with this group in order to be a happier person. In reflecting upon if and how much I still identify today as an ACoA, I write this piece as a progress report of sorts. So let’s see how I’ve been doing…

Even splashing around in the shallow waters of the research online, I found that most resources agree that ACoAs share common characteristics because of the circumstances of their upbringing and household. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, the following are traits that I certainly identify with, which I have divided into two categories, Relationship with Self and Relationship with Others. Some ACoAs find that they identify with at least some of the following traits:

Relationship with Others:

  • People-pleasing: sometimes at the expense of one’s personal comfort or dignity
  • Emotional regulation difficulties: struggles with having an appropriate emotional reaction to circumstances – can be an over-or-under-reactive to life events.
  • Hypervigilance: very sensitive fight or flight stress response
  • Seek unavailable people (emotionally or otherwise) in relationships
  • Fear of abandonment/rejection
  • Little understanding of how trust works: can be overly trusting or distrusting

Relationship with Self:

  • Guilt and shame associated with perceived flaws
  • Both overly responsible and irresponsible at the same time
  • Self-medicating: with food, alcohol, drugs, sleep

Relationship with Self

Guilt and shame associated with perceived flaws

Growing up in a household with an alcoholic parent, it became very important to maintain the appearance of normalcy, not only to preserve the secret of the ill person from people outside the family, but to avoid adding fuel to the fire in an already stressful environment. When a child or teenager is unable to express their worry or feelings in an effort to avoid rocking the boat, much of that negative energy gets turned inward and manifests as personal shame. I remember feeling like I couldn’t ever make a mistake because I was fearful that any mistake could incite another conflict, and any criticism, no matter how constructive or well-intentioned, felt like a personal attack.

And now? Grade: B

As I continue to learn more about myself, appreciating my strengths, accepting my weaknesses and seeking to uncover the blind spots in my skill set, mistakes and personal deficits feel more neutral to me. Maturity and confidence help me accept that more and more of my mistakes and fumbles can be chalked up as yet another learning opportunity instead of an indictment of my character.

Both overly responsible and irresponsible at the same time

Many children in alcoholic families find themselves taking on much more responsibility and worry than their childhood peers, because they’re exposed to very adult problems, like the safety of their parent or the state of their parents’ relationship. I felt responsible for the wellbeing of my family and shouldered that worry in my day-to-day. At the same time, I could be wildly irresponsible with my money and my time, and to illustrate, my dignity has still not completely recovered from having my car towed on more than one occasion by ignoring parking tickets and signs.

And now? Grade: B+

I’m still prone to feeling overly responsible for other peoples’ feelings, and will sometimes still wonder if I am the cause of someone’s poor behaviour or bad mood, however, I have become much more responsible for myself – taking more ownership over my finances, commitments, and chores – a facet of adulthood I was slow to adopt. I have become more aware that other people are struggling through their days too, and their bad moods and behaviour could be caused by a hundred different things that have nothing to do with me.

Self-medicating: with food, alcohol, drugs, sleep

It should come as no surprise that ACoAs can turn to substances as a way to escape feelings- we are talking basic social learning theory and role modelling. I’ve certainly been known to manage my feelings by diluting their sting with cocktails, binge eating, or taking what I like to call a “depression nap” – can’t feel bad when you’re asleep!

And now? Grade: A-

I’ve become more aware of when my body needs actual nourishment and when I require emotional nourishment or attention. If I’m suddenly craving a drink or a carnitas burrito out of the blue, I now know to ask the right questions – am I upset? Am I avoiding something? Am I looking for comfort? These questions help me avoid misusing substances or becoming reliant on this kind of comfort and support.

As far as this progress report goes, I feel like I’ve done fairly well so far. Stay tuned for my next piece where I discuss how ACoA traits have influenced my relationships, and how I’ve tried to counterbalance these effects.