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.

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

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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.