struggles

The Anti-Romanticism of Pathology

I haven’t been writing here half as often as I used to. I’ve been spending most of my writing time on fiction for the last little while (enormous thanks to those darlings who took a peek at my recent short story!), and when I’m not doing that, I’m making various endeavors to learn to play musical instruments, getting more tattoos, and decorating for my cats (seriously, this is in a frame above their food dishes. It is important for me to chronicle this life of mine through writing, but lately I’ve found it slightly hypocritical to do so without actually spending it living. Still, I’ve been taking lots of pictures and recording lots of videos (which I’m sure will come back to haunt me in the not-too-distant future), and connecting regularly with some really awesome people.

But recent life hasn’t all been smooth. I’ve always maintained the importance of eternally moving forward, no matter in which direction, but for a little while over the few months leading up to Christmas, I felt myself being pulled toward a dangerous destination. A place where old, distorted ways of thinking wrapped their way around the progress and masqueraded as reality. And that called for action.

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From late 2011 until about spring 2012, I started to see a counsellor. I also started taking medication for my anxiety for the first time in my life. I went through a ten-week course with the Anxiety Disorders Association of Manitoba, I did my homework, and after a few months, my case was closed. But toward the end of 2012, I found myself immersed every day in what felt like a pool of toxins that began to insidiously creep in and distort my entire mentality. No longer was I spreading my wings on the vast ocean of possibility, but I was becoming caged, torn between my own vision of capabilities and the person I had to be in order to comply to that environment’s standard. I’ve always been motivated by achievement and surpassing others’ expectations, but when your wings are clipped and all you’re left with is a dream of what you could be doing, you begin to question the capabilities you had in the first place. Everyone around me told me what a huge, positive difference I’d made. But those with authority over me saw nothing but someone stepping beyond their role, taking on too many “extra-curriculars” – necessities, in my mind, for a successful operation – and pointing out all the places things could be done better. I was someone who didn’t fit the corporate mould.

“I’m too good for that, there’s a mind under this hat;” words to a favourite song come to mind. “I speak because I can to anyone I trust enough to listen; you speak because you can to anyone who’ll hear what you say.”

I mean no malice in writing these words, but I have to be true to the reason that led me down the path of old habits and distorted imaginings, things that led me toward the place I used to be. I started feeling that if all my achievements, hard work, creativity and dedication to bettering something meant nothing, then maybe the same held true for myself as a person. Maybe the same held true for my friendships and relationships; maybe I personally felt I was doing all the right things but maybe I had it all wrong. So I started looking for signs. And in doing so, I saw my insecurities manifest from thin wisps of possibility into a corporeal monster that tore away at everything I held dear. Something had to be done. Something had to be done now.

So I went to see a psychiatrist. Re-opened my case with my counsellor, who, after a session, recognised where I was and wanted someone who specialised in mental health to help me. I’d been on the medication for about a year, but I apparently should have been getting infinitely more benefit from it than I was.

The assessment consisted of a one-hour booking which turned into a near two-hour session with me, my counsellor, and a young psychiatrist. I think I threw him a little by being so on the ball with my own mentality, and after an extensive fleshing out of my childhood, my cross-continental uprooting, my traumatic experience of a “marriage”, my amazing but heartbreakingly ill partner and my increasingly toxic work environment, he decided I “didn’t fit any one mould.” I learned that within classifications of the various mental illnesses any one person could have, there were “cluster A, B and C trait” characteristics, each subsequent one being less common than the last, but still possibly present. I didn’t have a textbook anxiety disorder. I definitely didn’t have social anxiety, which explains why I felt so out of place in the ten-week program I attended a year ago. I didn’t have generalised anxiety either, but I did have B- and C-cluster traits of a “non specified anxiety disorder”. Additionally, I had the same for borderline personality disorder. He made it very clear I didn’t have BPD   – but my heightened concern about others’ perception of me being “good enough” and continual fear of abandonment fall into that realm.

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The fact that I didn’t fit neatly in one box didn’t surprise me. I never have in any area of my life, and only recently found peace with simultaneously being a fiercely passionate creative with a love for arts and language and an enormous sci-fi, psychology and science nerd with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I never have been typical, and this plagued me for most of my life. But I think I’ve learned to embrace the uniqueness – and so the diagnosis, as it were, didn’t upset me. He recommended a change in medication, some mental exercises, and to check in with my doctor and counsellor regularly over the next couple of months.

“There is nothing less romantic, literary, or lyrical than the language of pathology, diagnosis, symptom checklists. As I read through these checklists over and over again I was struck by the harshness, the crudeness of the terminology. And once the evaluation process began, more and more distinctly unpoetic terms were added to the lists, as the problems quickly grew in scope and seriousness.”  — Priscilla Gilman

It’s hard to put this stuff out into the world, to admit that you’re flawed, but I want to remember the journey. I’m not scared of being judged for it because I know I’m really doing something about it. And I tell myself that makes me brave. On top of that, I am so much more than a diagnosis. I’m someone who takes action when things get sucky, I’m someone dedicated to bettering myself, I’m someone who makes goals and follows through on them, and I’m someone who feels the fear and goes ahead and tries anyway. I’m someone who sees beauty in the universe and feels so very deeply, and I’m someone who’ll be a brilliant friend if you’ll let me. I am so much more than a diagnosis, and this is merely a stop on the map that will lead me to where I believe I’m supposed to be. I know a lot of people are reluctant to turn to medication when it comes  to issues of mental health, usually due to the strange notion that becoming dependent on them is both terrifying and bad. Is it so terrifying when one has something as terrible as cancer and “depends” on medication for a better quality of life? Why the double standard when it comes to issues of the mind?

So it’s been a couple of weeks. The first night I began the new meds I was promptly knocked the hell out for a good fifteen hours, and struggled to stay awake past 8 PM for the next few nights. But that very first day, I was blown away by how quickly I felt so much better. It felt like I’d been living with my heart in a vice that had finally been released and allowed to breathe. I felt free, and it felt strange – it felt like the continual physical tension and weight of anxiety and worry I hadn’t even realised was there was gone. I was just about to go into a brand new job, and I found myself excited, without a trace of fear. It was beyond bizarre. But I couldn’t be happier. This freeing has left me with a sense of urgency – to dive into the world around me and do all those things I’d set out to do, knowing how much easier they’re all going to be. Knowing that the joy and adrenaline will finally outweigh the fear. My first week at work is going swimmingly, and the plan is to get up and perform at an open mic within the next two weeks (without throwing up afterward).

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I think this is the start of brilliant things.

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“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Well, I’ve been back in Winnipeg for about three weeks now since heading to Baltimore last month. I was pretty scared to go to begin with, and the hurricane didn’t do much for alleviating that fear, but the fact that I’m here writing to you should be a good indication of my not dying or getting whisked away to Oz.

The Out and Equal Workplace Summit was pretty incredible. I joined 34 other colleagues from offices across the globe along with close to 3,000 individuals all committed to workplace equality. I don’t even know where to begin – it was such an energizing week full of shared education, experiences, strategies, struggles and hope, and being part of such a large group of like-minded people was nothing short of inspirational.

I attended numerous workshops put on by big companies and learned about things like The Trevor Project, designed with the hope for a future “where the possibilities, opportunities and dreams are the same for all youth, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” They are determined to end suicide among LGBT youth. Acceptance and inclusiveness are part of their mantra, and they are rooted in the belief that everyone should be treated like a human being. It Gets Better is another fantastic project started in 2010 in response to the suicides of teenagers who were bullied because they were gay.

I also had the chance to attend a session delivered by Google on LGBT issues in a global workplace. Part of their mission includes many diversity and inclusion efforts: “in addition to hiring the best talent, the diversity of perspectives, ideas and cultures leads to the creation of better products and services.” I couldn’t agree more. Throughout the workshop, I found myself simultaneously inspired and saddened. It was encouraging to see such a large company have strong Employee Resource Groups, strong local leadership and support from the executive level to ensure their colleagues are treated with the same respect as their clients – but it was also incredibly eye-opening to see just how much work there still is to be done. I sat behind a representative from a company in Singapore, and had to jot down his awesome comment: “It’s a very restrictive culture there. And I’m all about tearing that shit up.” Yes, we may work in restrictive, conservative cultures, but that doesn’t mean conformity is the answer. Nobody should feel pressured to hide who they really are, and personally, I believe it’s ultimately to the detriment of the offices that foster that sort of environment. When people feel afraid, judged, or reprimanded for bringing their true selves to the workplace, motivation goes out the window.

I also had the chance to attend an interesting workshop put on by Straight for Equality and PFLAG on navigating religion and LGBT issues in the workplace. As a straight atheist, I was highly intrigued to hear how these seemingly mutually exclusive topics could coexist, and actually left quite inspired. I’m not going to go into my feelings toward religion right now, but it was nice to hear of some churches actually taking steps away from judgment and exclusion and initiating things that promote equality for all.

As one of my colleagues stated, “as with every civil rights and equality issue, it’s only when the many come together that we achieve the power of one. There are no women’s rights, gay rights, ethnic minority rights or religious rights… there are only human rights.”

People at work are often afraid to speak up about LGBT issues, despite the fact that 8 out of 10 people in the US know someone who is LGBT. Reasons can range from being afraid of controversy, being opposed based on religious grounds, and being afraid of being thought to be gay – as was my experience when I hung the Pride flag in my office! Again, it was saddening to see these issues so horribly rampant, but somehow comforting realizing you’re not alone.

There are many anti-LGBT arguments out there that simply don’t make sense. Workplace benefits, the right to marry, and adoption legislation should be equal across the board. When they’re not, you’re effectively stating that some people do not deserve the same rights as other human beings. And the fact that this is considered an argument worthy of debate is beyond ridiculous. These are real people who live, breathe, work just as hard and love just as much as everybody else, and to deny them the same basic rights based on who they are is a form of discrimination no different than sexism, ageism or racism.

Before I left, I had an unsettling talk with one of my superiors about the discrepancy between some of the company’s values and the lack thereof existing at the ground level. I am proud to work for a company that promotes diversity, respect, innovation and inclusion, and I am even prouder of all the work that the LGBTA group has done for health and welfare benefits and US tax legislation. But there’s a difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. When I pointed out the incongruity, the response was a disheartening “you can’t change people”. Is that what people struggled against back in the day when fighting for race equality? Maybe deep down, it is difficult to change people, and maybe it’s not my place to do it. But you can change behaviour, you can promote strong values, and you can lead by example. That’s why we need to keep fighting the fight and standing up for what’s right. (I swear I didn’t mean for that to rhyme. I’d be a terrible rapper.)

The summit concluded with a glittering gala celebration, hosted by comedian Kate Clinton who reminded us of the safety and acceptance we all deserve in our workplaces. Guest speaker Brigadier General Tammy Smith, the first openly LGBT officer of flag rank in the US Army, shared her experience of successfully rising through the ranks while struggling to remain true to herself. Her resounding remarks illuminated the importance of each individual’s presence at Summit and future equality efforts.  Addressing all attendees, sponsors, volunteers and staff, Tammy said: “If I am able to stand here as a soldier and as my authentic self, it’s thanks to you. Don’t stop, don’t even slow down in creating equal workplaces. I am in your debt.” I sat next to someone who recognised my name as “the one who’s done so much for the gays.” 🙂  And Sister actual Sledge performed!!

I spent much of the remainder of that evening crying instead of packing. If you know me personally, you’ll already know that crying is about as normal to me as breathing (I just feel really hard!), but that closing night, I couldn’t help but sob. It was a mixed bag of feelings – gratitude for having been given such an incredible opportunity, sadness after hearing so many stories of injustice and discrimination, fear of being too small to make the amount of change so desperately needed, inspired by the inclusion and diversity efforts of so many organizations out there, and the blessing of having met such an amazing group of brilliant world-changers.

In the words of a colleague and friend: “the conference sneaks it way into your heart and slaps you awake with its true relevance. Empowered by the passion and energy for human rights, educated and armed by workshops, panels and discussions, I am reminded of the privilege and duty I have to keep evolving as a man… as a gay man. I was touched spiritually and prayed with strangers in an exhibit hall. I was brought to tears more than once hearing others’ stories, witnessed true strength and courage of those that have formed friendships that fill a void left by families, and recognized the enormous sense of family and community. Thankful for the opportunity and the blessing. My love to all those who touched my heart this week and entered into my life. May we continue to empower each other.”

Hear, hear.

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

As of next week, I’ll be flying to Baltimore, MD (home of the grave of a certain Mr. Poe!) for a work trip to attend the largest LGBT corporate conference in North America. Close to 3,000 LGBTAs will be in attendance, and I, a little Winnipeg Administrative Assistant, was somehow chosen as one of fifteen colleagues from across the world to go. This wasn’t without its challenges – Administrative Assistants don’t usually get to travel, aren’t really supposed to take on extra-curriculars, and definitely don’t have corporate credit cards. When I was asked, the immediate response locally was a hesitant yes, on the condition that I did all prep work for it on my own time, and earned the hours in advance to cover the travel days. Nobody else had to do that. But because of the unusual circumstance of somebody at my level being offered this opportunity, I did. Which I reluctantly decided I was okay with – I wasn’t going to miss out on something this awesome just for the sake of having to work through lunch hours! 

Something I’ve struggled with throughout my career are the limitations determined by job title. Possibly appearance, too, but I’ve talked about that before. I have a pattern of entering organizations at the administrative level – reception, admin assistant, etc. and quickly expanding the role as much as I can to reflect my actual capacity. I wasn’t given a brain to answer phones and file papers, and I’ve proven myself more than capable in writing/marketing/graphic design, social media, group facilitation, and all sorts of communications functions. At my last job, I initiated, designed and delivered entire curriculum for a series of workshops, gave corporate presentations to promote services, wrote radio/print ads, and managed two corporate videos from the ground up. Yet my title was not permitted to reflect how much more I brought to the role.  I always suspected it was due to looking young, but now I’m experiencing it again, I’m certain it’s the case. 

I’m 27 years old. I still get asked if I’m 18 and told how young I look. People joke that it’s a good thing – and I’m sure one day when I hit forty, it will be – but in the meantime, it’s a curse. People judge you based on what’s on the surface. They don’t take the time to read over your accomplishments or look at your work ethic. They don’t spend time investing in hearing your ideas or asking your opinion. They see someone who looks new to the workforce with an entry-level title. Someone inexperienced and therefore unworthy of being heard. I’ve come up with countless proposals, ideas and process improvements, I’ve expanded my network, I’ve initiated communications and social media strategies that have gone national. I’ve been asked to be part of a global steering committee for a corporate diversity network. Outside my office walls, I’m recognized and valued. But locally, I get the sense I need to stop thinking outside the box, get back in it, and stay there. Consequently, the flame on my desire to do more is waning. And how is that good for a company as a whole?

In addition to titles and physical appearance, I’m sure some of this is generational. I always have been one of the youngest members of the office, and it is hard to “teach old dogs new tricks”. But how do you get those tricks to be acknowledged when the very position you’re in is the obstacle? I’m struggling a little with this trip. I’m going as a corporate ambassador, to promote the company and how it encourages diversity, respect, and innovation. I am proud to work somewhere that supports these values – I just wish there was something I could do to help them become more of a priority.  Still, I am incredibly excited (and nervous!) for this trip. I’m going to be meeting colleagues from across the world I’ve been getting to know and befriend over the last few months. I’m going to be surrounded by people who have the same values I do, who share the same passion for equality in the workplace. It’s going to be incredibly inspiring. But I’m nervous about how to get my learning heard when I return home. I have felt disheartened – but one of my US colleagues encouraged me recently to keep doing what I’m doing. Keep standing up for what’s right, doing everything I can to promote inclusion, diversity and equality. He reminded me that I may only reach one person – but that that in itself is one more person touched than had I given up. I’ve tried to take that message to heart and keep it there for when things get tough. 

At the end of the day, I don’t want to look back and say I was defeated. I want to stand strong, though perhaps having taken a fair share of knocks, perhaps a little scarred, and perhaps slightly saddened by the discrepancy between how the world is and how it could be. But I want to be able to say I never gave up. I know my capabilities, and I refuse to be caged by others’ resistance to change and innovation. And I know my intentions are always to better things around me. It’s hard, sometimes, when your efforts are stifled and quelled, but I think that’s where personal accountability comes into play: it’s easy to become the product of other people’s expectations, and it’s alarmingly more so to believe something just because it’s continually reiterated – but you have to find your own truth, stand your ground, and remember the wise words of Albert Einstein: 

Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly. 

I’ll update again soon – this summer/autumn have been incredibly eventful, and I have stories of tattoos, space parties, new kittens, love, ridiculous Halloween costumes, music, bookwriting and flesh-eating diseases to share, along with a post-conference update on how brilliant Out & Equal was. Oh, and why am I going to a giant LGBT conference anyway? No, to answer the colleague who asked my boss if I was “coming out”. I’m going because I’m proud to be an ally, and I want to do everything I can to change the corporate culture to one of equality, where people can feel comfortable, unafraid, and free to be their true selves.

Stay strong, stay real, and see you on the other side!

Edit: In a case of fantastic timing, I saw this article posted by a friend of mine today: When did Gen Y become Gen Y-Can’t-We-Take-You-Seriously? “I hate that adage that youth is wasted on the young. It’s so defeatist, and it comes with a whiff of patronizing bitterness and jealousy. Usually, it’s uttered by people who are older, who somehow resent the young – the beauty and possibility they possess, and the fresh intelligence that threatens those in positions of authority.” It seems I’m not alone after all.

Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths

“Anxiety is love’s greatest killer. It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic.”   – Anaïs Nin

It’s been a difficult couple of weeks. You know, one of those annoying splotches somebody spilled on the canvas of the life you want to lead. Have you ever looked at your life as a nice, freshly baked pie? Rhubarb, perhaps, because it’s the best kind of pie.  (It should also probably be noted that I’m writing this at lunchtime, having forgotten to bring something to eat, and trying desperately not to spend on the exorbitance of downtown dining.) Have you ever mentally divided that pie into sections – work, home, friends, love? And have you ever delved in only to find that somebody’s eaten it all up? A vacuous dish you expected to be filled with deliciousness, but instead filled only with an ugly mess of scattered crumbs and regurgitated leftovers somebody decided they didn’t like all that much after all. It’s slightly alarming when you look to your plate and instead of finding things neatly in place, everything is all wrong. I’ve felt a bit like that over the last few weeks, and when that feeling hits, it’s hard not to look to the common denominator and feel that you must be the problem. But can it be you, if you genuinely feel inside that you try desperately to be a good person and do the right thing for every person and in every situation? Or could it be that your intentions become warped somewhere in the transition between your heart and the world outside, and you, simple medium, are oblivious to the final product?

A couple of issues from various areas have surfaced as of late and I’ve been left feeling powerless as to what to do. Take a blast from the past friendship, for example. A few of you may know that December 2011 was a pretty rough point in my life, and the build-up of only partially really dealing with my anxiety effectively led to me doing something awful that resulted in many people in my life wanting to distance themselves. It was a very sad and lonely, but I had no-one to blame but myself. Since then I’ve been determined to right the wrong, and have dealt with it in the best ways I can think of.

I went through a ten-week program through the Anxiety Disorders Association of Manitoba, and began seeing a counsellor. I started medication and increased the dose so I could get to a point where I wasn’t crying all the time. I did assignments every week and learned the enormous thought distortions that accompany an anxiety disorder. I learned to separate reality from distortion, and reshape my thinking and subsequent reactions to things that before would have had me in tearful hysterics, spouting my twisted imaginings onto those close to me and believing them to be real. I was a horrible person to be around, but the catalyst for really getting better was the self-inflicted isolation. If I wanted friends and loved ones to be around, I couldn’t treat them as I had been, and had to learn new and healthy ways of relating to people. Learn to be independent, to not catastrophise and assume the worst, to stop reading minds and seeing the world solely in black and white, and to stop blaming others for things my mind had invented. I’m in a much better place now, but I’m still not there yet. The slow journey is one that sometimes doesn’t sit well with my impatience, but I know it’s the only way to truly get there.

A handful of people stuck by me six months ago. A small handful of people who wanted to understand why it got to the point it did, and wanted to be there to support me as I got better. To let me know I wasn’t alone. I wish I could re-write the dictionary, add a second volume of words or maybe even add another twenty letters to the alphabet, to conjure up a whole new lexicon of emotions that express the true extent of how deeply thankful I am for those people, and how the amount of love for them I have fills my heart up so full it could almost burst.  But a larger number of people turned their backs. People I’d invested heart and soul and love and vulnerability into told me I “needed more than they were able to give”, and went about their happy lives without being weighed down by a friend in need. It stung. A lot. But I couldn’t blame them.

I reconnected with one of these people recently and we chatted about how things had been since December. I had thought that devoting myself to all the things I had to do to rectify the way I’d been acting may result in some of these people coming back, but I received this message earlier this week:

It sounds like things are really looking up for you and that you’re happy in your life right now and I think that’s fantastic. It took a long time to find what you were looking for, including a divorce, a partner’s stressful family, coping with a boyfriend who has a debilitating condition and then when things got too much, what happened in December. Up until the very last point, I was with you every step of the way, but at the end of it all, there was just nothing left to give. If you have friends now that you know will stick with you through thick and thin and are the rocks at the bottom, that’s wonderful and it makes me really happy to know that you’ve found those people. With that said, I just can’t be that friend – I just don’t have enough in me to be what you need. I’m happy to see you if we run into each other and catch up, but that’s all that I have right now. I’m sorry if that hurts your feelings, but I respect you enough to be honest. I still think that you’re a good person and I’m genuinely happy that things are looking up for you. Thanks for understanding and I’ll see you around.

I think, six months later, I’ve earned the right to feel it’s good to know who your true friends are. The reason for putting so much work into getting better wasn’t to win friends back, it was to be a better person – a better one for loved ones to be around, one who was more equipped to see things in a positive light and not cause undue stress on those I care about more than anything; a better person at work, who wasn’t preoccupied with worry about things that were only an issue in my head; a better person for myself, to have my thoughts and actions be in harmony with my values and what’s most important to me. So I’m not disappointed – the last six months have been spent with a few people who really have become those rocks, as well as learning to be independent, do the things I’ve always wanted, and be more of the person I really want to be. But when life gets overwhelming, I have a terrible tendency to revert to the stranglehold of old thought patterns and behaviours.

When life seems to be beyond your control, it can lead to feelings of despair. I spent many a night alone in my little apartment in the weeks leading up to Christmas sobbing into my poor little cat’s fur, wishing for things to be different. But if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that nothing is going to change unless you take the action to do something about it. If you don’t like something, change it, don’t just sit there crying and playing the victim of the world’s wrongdoings. If everything seems out of your control, focus on what you can control. Your own actions and attitudes, not the thoughts of others.

The mind can become a sinister place when eclipsed by the shadow of anxiety. Every thought is wrapped meticulously in a dark veil of uncertainty, every hope and ounce of positivity choked tightly until all that remains is a core of steadfast fear. Friends become liars, who must be masquerading care and concern. Lovers become impostors, saying the right words but surely secretly wishing you were different. Acts of kindness and affection are drowned before registering as ever having existed at all, and you are left feeling alone, lost, and abandoned, wondering why everyone is suddenly giving up on you. But as real as it may seem, it is a fantasy. A dark place that exists solely in the imagination of those affected, their world becoming distorted as if by some sort of intoxication.  where everyone is an enemy.  Trust nothing, no-one. Become blind to reality and see the world only through a distorted lens of neglect and fear. It’s terrifying, once safely on the other side, to look back and see yourself helpless to an attack of the mind – to have studied psychology and read all the ins and outs of anxiety, yet once in a while still be powerless to its brute force.  There have been a few of those attacks recently, and I’m upset with myself that I still haven’t 100% beaten it, but I have never been more determined. The big difference is that before, I believed my thoughts to be completely justified. Now I can see that they’re not, but every once in a while, I still can’t seem to escape their grip.

I need to learn how to better deal with life when it gets overwhelming. I need to learn how to channel that energy into something positive and productive, to remind myself continually that crying and victimising yourself is the complete opposite of how I want to live. I pride myself on taking action to better things when there’s a problem, not sitting there whining about them. I think I’ve made a lot of progress, but I want it to be always. I don’t want there to be relapses, however few and far between. I want to be better permanently. For me and everyone around me.

But enough of the nervous ramblings. If we’re friends on Facebook, you may have seen there are an awful lot of fantastic things happening in the next little while, and having that to look forward to is my shining light. Soon enough, problems won’t seem so large, work will be caught up on, and all that will be left is awesomeness. In five days (touch wood), after a year of waiting, my divorce will finally be granted. In just over a week, an amazing new friend and roommate will be moving in with me, someone I am so glad to have met – a fellow INFJ with an incredible story who loves reading and musicals as much as I do, and – be still my heart – Moulin Rouge! 🙂  Not long after that, Winnipeg seems to be having a festival celebrating pirates, steampunk and the Renaissance – I can’t wait to get costumed up, watch jousting and dance around to one of my favourite Celtic bands. Then for a night of fancy board games for my birthday, a Space Party to celebrate the anniversary of humanity launching itself into the sky and landing on the moon, and then FRINGE, where the city turns into an enormous celebration of culture and creativity, and old friends come to visit from across the globe. The last few weeks have had their fair share of win too: a 1920s themed, swing dancing games night, being given the captain’s chair on creative projects at work going across the country,and a giant party in the park put on by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, surrounded by fellow space nerds, watching a partial solar eclipse. Summer really is shaping up to be pretty wonderful. And for now, I must focus on the positive. Focus on what’s important, and what’s a priority. Focus on catching myself before I fall, and focus on making the most of every moment I am lucky enough to have been granted. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. And I’m determined to show just how much I really am.

In my head the flesh seems thicker

It’s not a secret I’ve had issues with body image for a long time. And it’s always difficult to post about them because really, it’s such a spectacular waste of mental energy. Not wasting time is one of the driving forces in my life, and it’s unsettling when I find myself making a choice that doesn’t line up with my values, yet at the same time, I don’t seem to be able to help it. Something that’s left me more than a little disconcerted as of late is my weight: last year, I’d posted about the fact that I was probably considered medically underweight, and that gaining a few pounds might actually be a good thing – yet I was struggling with the idea of becoming bigger because being thin was something that people had complimented me on my whole life. And when you have abundant issues with how you look, the thought of letting go of the one positive thing isn’t something that sits easily. 

In the spring, most of you know that I went through some pretty major life stress, and in the preceding and subsequent few months, in a terribly unhealthy coping mechanism, I basically stopped eating. I remember feeling such a loss of control in terms of life events and emotions that I tried to take it back in the form of something I could control: my weight. If the world insisted on spinning around me, the one thing I could keep a hold on was what I put into my body, and as frightfully unhealthy as that sounds, I think it’s a pretty typical psychological response. Emotional eating isn’t uncommon; people have a tendency to go to either one of the two extremes, and as a result of something nasty hitting the proverbial fan, I found myself embarking upon an inadvertent hunger strike. 

But I didn’t like it. I didn’t like feeling lost, I didn’t like feeling panicked, and I didn’t like feeling hungry. And when you acknowledge the fact that there’s a giant discrepancy between where you are and where you want to be, it’s enough to cause even the most stubborn of us to take action, and it wasn’t long before I was setting about making an action plan to move ahead with life in full force. I found myself a new apartment within a couple of weeks, started spending time with incredibly wonderful people, focused my mental energy on things within my control along with the positives of the situation (as Beyonce so aptly said, I “found the good in goodbye”), and set about moving forward. When I got to my new place, unpacked the bathroom scale, stepped on it and saw I was at 100 lbs, the gravity of how unhealthy my month of avoiding food had been really hit home. So I went grocery shopping. 

Now, one of the things that goes along with living completely solo is the need to budget – something I hadn’t had to do too strictly in a very long time. I’ve always shared accommodation with other people, and subsequently my bills for rent and food had always been a fraction of what they’d be if I lived alone, leaving enough wiggle room for the odd Friday night takeaway, bottle of wine, concert ticket or new piece of clothing. I’d also been able to make big dents in paying off my debt – something I’ve been picking away at for as long as I can remember, and that I was on track to have tackled completely by the end of 2011. Fast-forward to the new now, however, and things aren’t quite so flexible. My rent is exactly half my monthly income, which leaves the other half to cover food, bills, transportation and other miscellany, leaving a float of less than $60 per week for things like entertainment and debt payments. Which is quite the adjustment. I wonder how people do it, but then I realise that most people live with others. I want to eat healthily, but on such a tight budget I’ve found myself eating what’s cheap, and not much other than pasta, pizza and pop tarts. And though I’ve been able to just about manage financially, I’ve definitely put on a large chunk of weight in the last month. And it’s unsettling.  

Friends tell me I look healthier – that before, they thought I looked “borderline eating disorder”; that before, I was the skinniest person they’d ever met, or that you could see my collarbones protruding from across the table. Now my clothes are definitely feeling tighter than usual (uncomfortably so; several pairs of work trousers are now actually unwearable), and I find myself shelving the tank tops and skinny jeans, instead opting for flowy clothing that camouflages the body.  (The silver lining, I suppose, is that a tiny bit of the weight has gone straight to the bust, which is nothing for a former A-cup to complain about!)  But though people say I look good, healthy, and that they can’t see where the pounds could have possibly gone, I feel bad knowing I got to my so-called “healthy weight” on a Diet for Poor People. I don’t want to continue eating unhealthily, but I can’t afford things like fresh greens and fish every other night like I used to. I’ve been buying KD, microwave pizza and sacks of oatmeal so I can have enough for other expenses, and though my BMI is now considered in the normal range, I feel awful knowing I got it there so unhealthily.

So what do I do? The end definitely doesn’t feel like the means were justified in the slightest, and though I know I’m sitting at a weight that’s probably way better for me than it has been in a long time, I want to know I’m staying there healthily. But how do you do it when your budget is tighter than the locks on an Azkaban prison cell? I feel gross, I feel huge, I feel superficial, and I’m feeling really unsettled about it. I was going to end this post by asking for tips, but then I read something very aptly timed indeed over at Suzy’s blog:

…i’m noticing a lot lately how that stuff–the words and the looks and the notes–can live inside of your head for a long time. they can glob together into an angry giant, feed off your memories, knock your good sense out and take over the steering wheel.  i was talking this over with a friend the other day, and confessing to her that i still think about these things too much and that i still see myself as that annoying, clumsy, horribly ugly girl from frontier, and she said something great.

she said, “i think, at some point you just need to get over it.”

and at that moment i was all snarky and thought, “yeahokwhatever.” because i’m not really sure how you just get over something that has been driving your brain around like a demented chauffeur for 17 years. but i wandered around inside of that thought for a while and realized that that’s really the only thing i can do. i’ve forgiven, i’ve realized that most of these things came from kids who didn’t know better and were probably even more insecure than i was, but i just wasn’t sure what i was supposed to do about the leftover sinking feeling that maybe they were right. you know, the part where you look in the mirror and go, “yep.” and you can’t see anything except the ears, the teeth, the hair, the whatever else they told you was wrong with you.

the answer: just get over it. look in the mirror and see what’s actually there–not what you’ve been told is there for years and years. and realize that no matter what’s there, it’s ok because that’s not the most important thing anyway. 

and THEN i realized that the same basic principle applies to every kind of pity party. i’m so guilty of pity partying.  i kind of think we’re a society that loves pity parties. we love wallowing. we focus on how we’ve been wronged and we let past hurts of all sizes and strengths grow like weeds in our brains. how useless and ugly. fact is: you’re fine. you’ll be ok. i don’t mean it didn’t hurt, i don’t mean it, whatever “it” was didn’t suck. but it’s over now and you have two options: stay here, or move on. let it drown you or get out of the water.

I don’t think any words could’ve been more appropriate. It’s the same sentiment as I tried to express last time we spoke: if you don’t like something, change it. Don’t just sit there whining. So I’m going to make a Proper Budget, and a Proper Schedule. Actually factor in things like vegetables and fish, and make a conscious effort to avoid so many carbs. Eliminate things that add up over time, like the Starbucks every day with milk and four sugars. Give myself an extra ten minutes in the morning to make a healthy lunch rather than pick up KD to go or a couple of Bagelfuls. Leave my debit card at home, so I can’t pick up unhealthy snacks over the lunch hour. Actually take my two coffee breaks, and walk a few blocks around downtown instead of sitting at my desk working through them. Dig out those dreadful Hip Hop Abs DVDs and schedule them in, instead of coming home and sitting straight back down at the computer to read blogs. I want to be a healthy weight, and maybe that means losing a little bit – not enough to get back down to an unhealthy 100 lbs, but enough to make me feel comfortable in my own skin. Small steps add up to big changes, right? 

Have you ever had to make a drastic change in diet and budget? What helps you stay on track with your eating habits, and how do you budget a limited income and stay healthy?

* Lyrics from the only food attitude-related song I could find, and it’s a great one.

The Weighting Game

Remember last year, when I realised I’d lost all my sick days at work rather quickly, and that when I get ill, I get hardcore ill, and started fretting I was going to get fired? My hypothesis was that because I was theoretically underweight (and my BMI was low), my immune system was pretty much a giant wuss. Fast-forward to now. Sweet and I have been on a major health overhaul for the last few weeks – we’ve both been exercising more, and have switched our eating habits to eating five or six little meals and snacks throughout the day instead of three heftier ones. I’ve heard for years this is way better health-wise. Now I just have to clear the piles of greeting cards off the treadmill and start working jogging back into my routine (it was brought to my attention recently that my wedding was three months ago, and my physical activity had plummeted to basically zero since saying “I do”), and I’ll be set!

Last week, though, I noticed an unexpected side-effect of the new diet: I’d put on six pounds. Before the wedding, people were eternally telling me to eat something, asking if I was deliberately losing weight, and pretty much hinting I was borderline anorexic (NOT true in the slightest). Yet crazily, it was something I was proud of. I was proud to be skinny because though I have huge body-image issues (don’t we all?), unlike the shape of my nose this was something over which I had some control. I never snacked, I drank nothing but water, I refused to order puddings, and I’d never eat anything past seven PM. Enter the new diet, where I’m suddenly taking granola bars, fruit snacks, crackers, cheese and yoghurt along with my lunch to work, snacking every few hours and thinking I need to invest in some sort of lunch briefcase – and I wonder why I’m surprised to have put on weight. My first reaction was one of despair: all of a sudden my skinny jeans were feeling uncomfortable, the scale slapped me in the face, and my first instinct was to wail like a giant baby. Sweet immediately reassured me, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of discontent – I wanted to get healthy, but I didn’t want to put on weight. Catch 22. Deep down, I know that when my BMI is 18.3 and all sources point to that being unhealthy, that gaining weight healthily is a good thing – but I can’t seem to feel comfortable doing it. Does that mean I value physical appearance over physical wellbeing? Does that mean I’m a terribly shallow human being? I hope not, but I feel incredibly uncomfortable not being comfortable that maybe I’m actually reaching my “healthy weight”, and I don’t know how to change my thought patterns.

Last year when I was thinking about this sort of thing, I felt like a giant hypocrite putting any energy at all into thinking such negative things. I wrote: I’m 104 lbs right now and I still feel like a whale after I eat a big meal. But I don’t skip meals or throw up or anything. I’m just naturally small framed and consequently the slightest bulge stands out a mile.  To me – and so, in my head, to everyone else as well. I just want to be able to overcome it – all of it, not to be seen as attractive by other people, but to feel confident in myself so I’m not held back so much, so I don’t shy away from people so much, scared of what they might be thinking.  I want to be able to be comfortable and confident. I want to be able to contribute to the world and this seems to be the one destination to which I can’t see a clear path. Six months later, I still feel like a hypocrite, advocating for stepping outside your comfort zone and challenging yourself to grow, to be a better person, to make a difference in the world when I’m guilty of spending my time thinking about something so shallow.

But maybe I just needed to read this post from the wise and beautiful Hannah Katy, which landed at the top of my Reader just seconds ago as I was about to wrap this post up. The Universe does work in interesting ways. Maybe I need to take a leaf from her book, and decide that if I, too, “had two extra hours to my every day, I would surely dedicate the 120 minutes to tracking down a scholar who could point out to me just where women started missing parts and cutting themselves off at the knees. Where it began… Where he believes it might end… Where we learned verbs like “comparing,” “despising,” and “sizing.”  And started using our adjectives to belittle our bodies and devalue our worth.”

Maybe I just need to listen to this incredible girl who I’ve not had the good fortune of meeting face-to-face, but who never fails to pull me back to what’s really important in life. Who never ceases to help me by sweeping my negative thoughts out onto the street and replacing them with the ones that deserve to be in the spotlight.  I really do value health and wellbeing, and I really do make an effort to eat and live well. I know that to live where I do, surrounded by the people I am, to have a home and a  job and a working body I am incredibly, incredibly lucky. But how do you become comfortable with being a bit bigger healthier in a world that’s encouraged you to feel blessed to be skinny your whole life? I’ve scoured the Internet for “healthy BMI” sites, and they are full of tips on losing weight – but it’s hard to find any information at all on gaining weight in order to be healthy – and feeling okay doing it. I realise reading this back, how frightfully superficial this all sounds  (and that this is probably anonymous troll-bait territory), but I’ve always told you I’ll write honestly, and I can’t pretend it’s not something I’m thinking about right now. I hope you’ll forgive me, and that soon, my thoughts can be more in line with what they should be.