“A lot of times, the world wants the smile of a woman, especially black women…and I wanted to make sure everyone she comes across in this show has to earn her smile. You’re not going to just get it.”
~ Actress Dominique Fishback on her character in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.
“The way you speak, the way you act, you’re very…measured,” my counsellor commented during one of our sessions last year. She went on to explain that I wasn’t fake or dishonest, merely that the way I put myself out to the world was controlled and considered, even in that safest of spaces where I was expressly permitted to let down my guard.
I could only agree. And with my agreement came regret.
“You know,” I said, “after my sister and my dad died, I was heartbroken but also, in a strange way, liberated. I had a legitimate reason to be sad, to not be my usual upbeat and optimistic self, and it was like a crushing weight lifted from my shoulders. I could walk through the grocery store with tears running down my cheeks and I didn’t care. For the first time in a long time, I could just feel what I wanted to and didn’t feel guilty about letting it show. There’s this mask I have, and I’m used to wearing it to make the people around me feel good, but it’s exhausting sometimes.”
I suspect some of you—likely women of a certain age—may be nodding your head at that last sentence. Whether it’s nature, nurture, or a combination of both, there are those of us who are hardwired to want everyone to be happy, who avoid conflict, who have a smile-mask they can put on when the real smile just won’t show up. And for those of us smile-mask wearers, learning to be okay with not being okay usually feels like more work than it’s worth.
While it’s true that almost all of us paint on smiles now and then, and almost all of us understand that functioning in society means we don’t always get to express exactly how we feel at any given time, there is a small percentage of us who feel like showing any of the less-than-shiny parts of ourselves makes us failures.
To combat this, at least in the virtual space, I’ve tried to share as many lows as highs on social media. I’ve tried to show myself as I really am—wrinkles and messy hair and sweatpants and bad lighting—and to write honestly about bad times as well as good. Even if it feels a little awkward and occasionally like I’m sharing too much, it’s important to me to do what I often can’t do face-to-face, and that is simply to be a real person with a variety of moods and emotions.
Now some of you may be thinking, “Why can’t you be that way all the time, Kristene?”
Good question, reader.
Well, as I find myself slowly coming out of almost seven years of varying degrees of depression and a year of anxiety as the cherry on top, what I’ve learned is that we modern day humans are not good with negative emotions. On the few occasions where I’ve worked up the courage to express my pain or have run out of the energy to hide it, reactions from the people around me were frequently unhelpful and sometimes made the pain worse.
Dismissal (You’re blowing things out of proportion), denial (How you feel isn’t how things really are), anger (Stop feeling sad and moping around), frustration (Why can’t you just get over it), distraction (Look at all the good things you have and all the reasons to be happy), and advice (Get out and do something fun) are common reactions. Hell, I’m guilty of all these with my own reactions to pain and sorrow from others.
We’ve somehow become a culture that is unwilling to sit with sadness, with grief, with hurt and loss. If we feel those emotions, then we must fix ourselves, or fix the situation, or slap on the smile-mask and jump back in the joy pool. But what is wrong with allowing ourselves to feel the full range of human emotions and to step away from the constant happiness for a while to process difficult feelings?
My grief, my sadness, and my hurt have made me a better person. As awful as they have been to live with at times, they’ve also offered me new perspectives and have gifted me with empathy and patience. In those moments when I took off the smile-mask and stuffed it in a drawer, a new world appeared before me. This world was slower, somber, filled with obstacles and pitfalls that I could not see from behind that suffocating mask. It’s a world that demands attention and caution, a more considered step and less frantic carriage. In this world, there’s beauty in the cracks and hidden spaces, and the beauty of that other world is revealed as a façade, a trick of light, a fairy tale with a promised happily-ever-after dangling like a carrot above a pool of quicksand.
In this maskless, despairing world, the true happy-ever-after is merely connection. It’s that moment when you look into another person’s eyes and really see and accept each other, flaws and all. The nod of a head, a twitch of the lips, the released breath that says, “Why don’t you sit a while and feel what you need to feel”…without a word spoken. It’s knowing there’s space for all of you, not just the happy parts, the positive parts, the busy-making, striving, go-getter parts. It’s acknowledging the darkness without the need to shine a light. It’s silence, reflection, and stillness and, when necessary, shuddering howls and primal screams. And tears.
We need that other world. We need it so much.
So here I am. Returning to the world of light and movement and busyness, looking at that old mask and wondering what to do. I like my happy self. I naturally gravitate toward laughter and music, and I enjoy the pride of working toward worthy goals. But I don’t want to fall back into those old patterns, I don’t want to end up trapped behind that mask because I’m afraid of how other people will react.
I want to smile but I want those smiles to be real, to be earned. And if I’m sad, I want the right to be sad, to sit with that feeling whether or not those around me feel I have the right to it, and no matter how uncomfortable it may make them feel.
So, let’s make a pact, you and me. Earned smiles only, going forward. You feel sad, be sad. I’ll make room for your hurt, and you do the same for me. Let’s do the same for everyone. Let’s leave our smile-masks for emergencies only.
When I hear those lyrics in my mind, I am transported to my friend Tania’s basement in the late 1970’s. Her parents had not finished their basement, so the plywood floors became our roller rink. We cranked disco music and skated circles around the billiard table—the only furniture in the room. We laughed as we zoomed around and around with our crappy metal skates that pinched our feet and cut off our circulation if we tightened the straps too much.
Music permeates most of my happy memories. Even the lamentations of The Cure or The The can instantly and happily transport me to my best friend Trina’s red MG–cruising, singing, feeling the kinship of round pegs in a world of square holes. Charley Pride’s version of The Green, Green Grass of Home takes me home to my own Mama and Papa, listening to 8-tracks in our truck and camper, on our way to some campground and the promise of adventure. And, of course, Roam by the B52’s will always be the official “Heading to Baja” anthem, as Fred and I blasted it every time we pulled out of the driveway in the winter.
In short, I love music. Truly, deeply, madly, love music.
So, when I tell you that, for the past year, I found no joy in music, perhaps you can understand how low I felt. A song would come on the radio, and I’d think, I used to love that song, but when I searched for that feeling…nothing. Where there had once been elation, or despair, or motivation, there was only a flat, grey landscape of meaningless sounds. I didn’t feel happy, or sad, or angry, I simply felt nothing. I didn’t care about music. I didn’t care about anything. I faked it for myself and others but I felt nothing.
More than anything, this was how I knew I’d fallen deeply enough into depression that I needed serious help. If music cannot make me feel something, what can?
This was also how I knew I was healing, when one day, without realizing it, I suddenly noticed that I was tapping my foot along to a song on the radio as Fred and I were driving. Such a tiny miracle: a tapping foot. But, oh how my heart lifted. I’m enjoying a song! My body is responding to music again!
It is these small victories that I have come to appreciate. Actually, it is all the small things that I now see through new eyes.
I went for a walk!
I did my yoga again!
I felt excited about something!
I finished a book!
I went an entire day without falling into a fixation loop!
It has been nearly a year since I fell apart. For the first time since then, I can honestly say that I feel hope and joy, that I honestly want to wake up in the morning and that a day is not merely something to endure but something to savour.
At the same time, I have learned to move slowly. I’ve let go of old me and her rigid standards. If I feel tired, I rest, without guilt. If I walk for 30 minutes, instead of berating myself for not running for 30 minutes, I celebrate. I’ve accepted that only gentleness and kindness will get me through this. Something as unremarkable as a tapping foot might as well be fireworks to me now.
When you lose almost every good part of yourself, gaining the smallest thing back makes you want to shout from the rooftops. I feel like George Bailey coming back to reality except instead of “My mouth’s bleeding, Bert! My mouth’s bleeding!” I’m shouting “My foot’s tapping, world! My foot’s tapping!”
I suspect that there will still be down days ahead but feeling something about anything fills me with hope that I can find my way home. I will be a different person when I get there but I think I will be a better person, a person who understands suffering and sadness more profoundly and who will listen more closely to those who have yet to find their feet tapping again and will not judge them for it. A person who knows how it feels to be lost and how it feels to find their way home.
Yes, they’ll all come to meet me. Arms reaching, smiling sweetly. It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home
I have two cats, Serenity and Ripley. They are sisters, from the litter I fostered five years ago. These two cats have been with me since they were five weeks old. Their lives have been identical, but they are not.
They eat the same food, receive the same care and love, live in the same environment, and yet they are very different cats. We call Ripley “The Ambassador” because she loves to meet strangers and will gleefully walk up and introduce herself. Serenity, on the other hand, disappears when new people come around and can often be found hiding under a blanket or in a closet. Ripley cuddles infrequently and on her own terms. Serenity’s nickname is “The Parasite” because she needs constant physical contact with me. Serenity is highly agile and thin; Ripley is a little clumsy and thick. Etcetera, etcetera.
These two cats are both wonderful in their own unique way and one is not better than the other.
These two cats have helped me understand humans a little better and their differences are helping me come to terms with the fact that I need to be on medication for depression. How? Glad you asked.
Almost from the moment I started taking medication for depression and anxiety, my goal was to get off it. I was going to do the work, heal, and then get back to “normal”. At one point, I thought I was ready. I had stopped taking my anxiety meds, I felt mostly good, and under my doctor’s guidance I halved my dosage of citalopram for depression. Hooray! I was on my way!
And then I melted down in the middle of spin class and ended up a sobbing, anxious mess in my car in the parking lot.
Back onto the regular dose again. Back to the counselor.
But even that wasn’t cutting it. As I said, I felt “mostly” good, but I also carried a constant, cold, tummy-tightening ball of anxiety inside me that refused to leave. I used all my new tools, and nothing worked. It wasn’t debilitating anxiety, most of the time, but was ever-present and uncomfortable. It interfered with everything I did and sucked the enjoyment out of any happy moments.
Back to the doctor. This time, I increased my dose of anti-depressants. I tried to tell myself I wasn’t a failure. I was not convinced.
It has been several weeks since the increase and…sweet valley high, I feel better! The constant anxiety is a shadow of a shadow. The feeling of failure has been a different story though.
That’s where the cats come in.
Also, society and North American culture.
Time for a side story.
When I was twenty, I worked at a fitness center. The center had a small spa in it, with a tiny but mighty Austrian woman named Irmi who ran the show. As staff, I was allowed some free treatments to help me sell the spa to customers. This was the first time I’d had a professional massage, a facial, and reflexology—it was all AAAAAMAZING! This was when I also learned that other countries do things differently. In Austria, Irmi explained, six weeks vacation was standard and for at least one of those weeks many companies would send their employees to a spa to relax and rejuvenate. Spa time was not a luxury there, it was part of maintaining good mental and physical health.
I envied the Austrians.
The culture I grew up in was about work. Work, work, work! Hustle, make money, get rich or die trying! If you’re not working hard, you’re a leech, a loser, a drain on society. Be thankful for your two weeks off and if you work REALLY hard for decades then maybe you can have three or four weeks off per year. Relaxation must be earned, don’t forget that!
I drank that Kool-Aid for decades. The belief that I am only as good as my productivity and my finances seeped into the marrow of my bones like a cancer. Rest, healing, self-care, these are luxuries, and the goal should always be to get back to your hardest working, most productive self.
Naturally, in my current state, I see myself as weak, a leech, lazy, sub-standard. I need to get off these meds and back in the game! I mean, look at all these other hard working, successful, driven people. I should be like them, right?
Or maybe I’m just a different kind of cat?
I don’t pass moral judgements on my cats. I don’t think Ripley’s better because she’s social or Serenity’s better because she’s cuddly. I can clearly recognize that their differences are beautiful and interesting and, most importantly, not a choice. They are who they are. It’s not up to me to change them but to learn how to give them a life that meets their individual needs.
I’m a different cat. I’ve never been great at hustling. I love to work hard…but only at things I care about. I have always valued rest and relaxation, and the chance to let my brain run wild and create stories. It’s not my job to fit into what society says I should be, it’s my job to be me. I didn’t choose who I am any more than my cats chose to be who they are. The failing is not that I don’t live up to society’s standards, the failing is that society demands we conform to an ideal that few of us can, or even want, to achieve.
In the words of Ted Lasso, “All people are different people.”
I am a person who needs an antidepressant to get through life right now and in the foreseeable future. I take longer to process big changes and emotions than other people. Things that other people can shrug off, I can’t. What may seem minor to others can be traumatic to me. And I need to keep reminding myself that all this is just fine. Serenity isn’t hurting anyone when she seeks the shelter of a warm blanket to hide from newcomers, and I’m not hurting anyone by taking medication and moving through life a little more gently.
I have two cats I love dearly not despite their differences but because of them. I hope I can learn to love myself the same way.
You are a planner. You got that from your mom, your adopted mom, who would spend the better part of a year planning a summer vacation. Remember the stacks of folded clothes on the basement table, months before you actually left for your destination? Planning well is a handy skill to have, sure, but also a weight around your neck if you’re not careful.
Planning and goals have defined your life for more than two decades now. The ever-present white board detailing by week, month, year, lists upon lists of tasks to be completed and deadlines to do so. When you were healthy and energetic, it was the means by which you controlled and directed the fire inside you.
And it all started to crumble after Kelly died. More so after Dad died. It was like one of those earthquake disaster movies where the hero watches the road before them crack open and fall in on itself, stranding them amid the danger. You spent the better part of five years trying to rebuild that road, trying to summon the fire inside you, which was barely a flickering flame. You tried and you almost succeeded. Then, 2020 arrived and cleared your whiteboard with one infectious swipe.
So here you are. No lists. No grand plans. No energy to do more than stand and gaze upon the rubble. This isn’t the first time you’ve failed, in fact, you’ve always embraced failure as a challenge. But this time is different, isn’t it? This time it feels permanent and personal. This time you’re angry at yourself and frustrated that the part of you that always got back up and kept fighting has been KO’d. You’re fragile; a single word could break you. Without your precious goals, who even are you?
Painful but true, yes?
Okay, kiddo, let’s get real. You didn’t start writing stories all those many decades ago because you wanted to be a published, professional author. You wrote because you loved it, because it was fun, because there was magic in stories and you wanted to learn and master that magic.
Guess what? There’s still magic. Lots. You haven’t even scratched the surface.
What if—hear me out now—what if you just wrote for fun, for you, with no thought of what the writing should be or where you could sell it or who would read it or all the RULES of good writing? What if you simply wrote to make yourself happy?
Because, my friend, that’s the real goal, to seize as much happiness as we can. Life is too short and unpredictable as hell. You’ve seen that with your own eyes. Remember how Mom said that when she retired she was going to golf? When she died, at the age of 57, her clubs remained, untouched, in the closet. Why did she wait? I’ll tell you why. Because she made a plan and plans must be followed! Think of all those summer vacations and Mom’s inevitable meltdown once you all returned home. Not because the vacation was over but because it did not align perfectly with her meticulous planning.
Plans and goals are great… and they are also traps.
You’re standing in front of that road that has cracked open and fallen in upon itself and all you can do is stare and grieve. Maybe it’s time to leave that road, no matter where you think it leads. Maybe it’s time to look for a new route. It may be a winding country path or an underground tunnel or perhaps a giant bird will land and you can hop on and fly out of here. Whatever you choose is fine as long as it makes you happy deep down in your bones.
That’s the goal, friend, the only goal worth pursuing, the only plan worth making: happiness.
At the risk of slaughtering your sacred cow, let’s talk about your dad. He was, as you know, awesome at so many things and you are perfectly right to admire his gentle, fun-loving, easy-going nature. He was hard working, but he loved his family and perfectly demonstrated how to balance whimsy with responsibility. Most importantly, he encouraged your crazy dreams. I know you’ve tried, consciously or otherwise, to emulate him but there’s a piece you keep skipping over. Your dad was just as bad at modelling conflict resolution skills as your mom, in fact, he’s the one who showed you how to roll over and let people step on your voice and take away your power.
I know you want to hold him up as a hero, but he was human and humans are flawed. Your mother’s silent treatments and guilt trips were as traumatic as if she had yelled at you or slapped you, and how many times did you see your dad stand up for you and protect you? Once? Twice maybe?
Oh, he gave you some comforting words on the sly, “You know how your mother is, babe.” Yes, you knew how your mother was, she punished you and everyone else by withholding and withdrawing. I see the scars on you to this day, in your obsessive need to make other people happy, the way you become instantly anxious if the people you love go quiet. How many nights have you lain awake worrying if you did or said something wrong and that someone you care about is upset with you? (Answer: Waaaaaaaay too many)
Parents aren’t perfect. Your mom was a product of abuse and poverty and she lived at a time when the stigma around mental health might as well have been a flashing neon sign. She did the best with what she had. All the same, she hurt you. You loved your dad so much because he was the “nice” parent, right? And isn’t that what you’ve strived to be for so long? “Nice”? Nice, friendly, easy-going, quick with a smile and a laugh, “no worries”, considerate, and thoughtful?
So, honey, what happens when you get angry or upset? How do you express yourself? What happens when you have a not-nice emotion and every right to have your feelings heard and respected?
A little louder?
Oh, yes, you shove those feelings down and swallow them, or you do what your mom did and go silent to punish the people who hurt you. And how’s that working out for you?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Well, kiddo, there’s a new sheriff in town…a sheriff who is fair but maybe not always “nice”.
We’re going to start working on speaking up in the moment, or as soon after the moment as we can. We’re going to think about our healthy boundaries and what we’ll do when people violate them.
We’re also going to practice accepting that we have no control over other people’s reactions. You may not get the response you want but that’s not the point. The point is to use your voice—that’s your right and stop letting other people convince you otherwise.
By all means, hang onto all the good qualities your dad taught you. Laugh often, love deeply, work hard but not at the expense of your happiness or good nature. His spirit lives in you, and that is a gift. But own the flaws he gave you too. Pick up where he left off, work on fixing the bits that aren’t working for you (and never have), believe you are worthy…because you are.
I’m not going to lie, this is going to be hard for you. You will be frustrated. You will want to fall back into old habits—and you will from time to time—but you’ve overcome worse than this.
Have the kind of faith in yourself that your dad always had in you.
Stop grinding your teeth, drop your shoulders, take a deep breath. And, yes, I know you’ll do what I tell you and then forget ten minutes later but what you really need to know is that you’ve been stuck in a state of trauma for almost a year now. Your mind and body are fixed in survival mode. Along with all the nasty physical and mental side effects (yo, we can’t afford to lose any more teeth to your stress!), it’s also put a big feckin’ cork in your Bottle of Creativity.
You’ve been given a few tools from your counselor, please remember to use them. And for the love all holy hedgehogs, be kinder to yourself. Just because someone else’s life is more difficult and challenging than yours doesn’t mean your challenges and your pain don’t matter. It sucks that someone made a point of telling you that your life was easy and carefree compared to another, and that those words have become the quicksand that you sink into a little deeper every day, but you are also surrounded by many more compassionate and kind people tossing ropes of words to pull you out. Use that, hang onto the love of friends and family for dear life.
Life isn’t the Suffering Olympics. Someone will always have it better than you and someone will always have it worse. There’s no trophy at the end for the person who endured the most pain with the least complaining.
Listen to me. Seriously. Close Facebook. Close out the rest of the world and other people’s opinions and listen to me you beautiful, golden-haired sea creature! You’ve been dealing with menopause and all that shit, which is awful enough on its own, and you have also watched every member of the family you grew up with die. You moved away from a community of good friends and fellow artists and had to start from scratch…again. You had barely begun to recover from your grief when the pandemic hit (and it was adorable how you thought you would be fine and unaffected by a global crisis, you crack me up). Your living situation disintegrated with no warning, and you were powerless to do anything about it except finally and utterly fall apart. Nothing like finding yourself homeless in the middle of a pandemic when there are no rentals and the housing market has lost its damned mind and you are having a mental health crisis, huh? Good times. And here you are, starting over and building a new life and home for the billionth time. I’m exhausted just writing all that!
Repeat after me: I am allowed to be hurt and sad and in pain. I am allowed to call this state “trauma”. I am allowed to do what it takes to heal. I am allowed to be kind to myself.
Now, go do some breathing exercises, pet your cats, take a walk and enjoy the sunshine on your face.
The phrase “tough love” is believed to have originated from the title of Bill Milliken’s book “Tough Love”, in 1968. It has since become a catch phrase for any kind of stern, blunt, cold, punitive, and even harmful way of handling someone’s actions—a departure from, and misinterpretation of, the author’s original concept. Tough love can be effective, when used correctly in the right situations. Used incorrectly, in the wrong situation, tough love is simply abuse and comes with all the same long-lasting negative impacts.
I used to be a fan of “tough love”. My reasoning was that a kick in the butt had really helped me a few times, so it had to be a good, right? And it wasn’t like I wanted to hurt anyone (or did I?), I was trying to help them, that’s the “love” part.
I was wrong.
Also, I was mean and kind of jerk.
Oh, you want an example? Very well.
A little more than a decade ago, I was an active member of an internet forum. Members came from all walks of life and discussions were lively. Topics ranged from ridiculous to profound, and I loved having such an interesting virtual hangout since I was so far from home and my friends. One of the forum members, who I will call Rose, was in an emotionally abusive relationship. From what she wrote, I recognized all the signs, including the cycle of “abuse—apology—forgiveness—honeymoon phase—more abuse”. There might as well have been red flag emojis instead of words in her post.
I liked Rose and I ached every time I read that she was heading back into the arms of the abuser, but I never commented on those posts because of the “huggers”. Every time she would share the latest terrible thing her partner had done—and they were terrible—she was flooded with support and virtual hugs. “Oh my gosh, Rose, I’m so sorry this happened. I hope you’re taking care of yourself. (((((HUGS))))).” It was always a hugfest and all I could think is, You’re not helping her!
Then, one day, I snapped. If no one else was going to be the asshole and be honest with Rose, I would do it. (Excuse me while I pat myself on the back). I can’t recall my exact words but it was something like, “Rose, you are a sweetheart but you’re starting to sound like a broken record. You keep telling us about all these terrible things your partner does and then you keep going back to them. You need to take a good look at this pattern because it’s not going to change.”
There! I had used the power of Honesty! And now she would see the truth and take steps to change.
Rose left the forum that day and never returned. I reached out to her in a personal message, but I never heard back. The unanimous opinion of the huggers was that I was a jerk. “But I was only trying to help her! It was just tough love!”
I think of Rose a lot. I hope she broke out of that relationship but I’m no longer deluded or foolish enough to believe it would be because of anything I told her. I worry that she remained in the abusive relationship and that I cut off one of the few places she had for comfort and support. I worry that she might have been so hurt by my words that she harmed herself. I am haunted by my irresponsibility and reckless use of “tough love”. I wish I could take it back.
That is one example. It shames me to admit there are others.
The irony is that, in those moments, I genuinely believed I was being kind, that I was doing the right thing, that I was motivating someone through honesty, and that I was bravely risking their opinion of me in order to save them. I was wrong. I was wrong every time.
And, occasionally, I still slip and make the same mistake.
What is it about kicking someone’s butt when we believe they are doing something wrong that is so much more appealing than hugging them and just being there for them?
I’m not a psychologist but I can tell you that, for me, it felt like action versus acceptance. I didn’t see the results of the huggers—building trust, creating a safe place for the other person to speak, creating a sense of community, getting to know and understand the other person more deeply—I only saw that the undesirable behaviour was not changing, and I wanted to fix it…NOW! I wrongly assumed that because the huggers weren’t being bluntly honest with Rose then that meant they were okay with her behaviour.
There was an element of ego in there as well, “Look at me, I’m willing to be hated to help this person! Aren’t I brave?” Gold stars!
At the darkest end of the spectrum, let’s be honest, humans want to see bad behaviour punished. We can wrap it up in all the fancy words we want but the fact remains that there are limitless ways to deliver the truth and when we choose the fastest, bluntest, and least compassionate way, we know it is going to hurt and we want it to. We don’t think we do, we fool ourselves into believing our motivation is pure, but punishment is satisfying on a primal level. When someone’s actions hurt us, either directly or indirectly, we want to punish them for it. Watching Rose making all the same, painful mistakes I had made, reminded me of my own failures and that hurt. I’d be lying if I said a microscopic part of me didn’t want to punish her for that.
I’m not suggesting that we should never be honest, especially with those closest to us, I am saying that we need to be careful about how and when we are honest. There’s a reason people don’t go to one therapy session and walk out cured. Humans are complex and the “truth” can be even more so.
So, what about the people who kicked my butt and helped me change? Well…that’s complicated too.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that some of those folks didn’t actually help me. In one case, a woman from my Karate dojo dropped an honestly bomb on me a few months before I married my first husband. She told me I was making a huge mistake, that I was too young, I wasn’t thinking clearly, he wasn’t good for me, etc, etc, etc. Folks, she was right, but the way her words were delivered made me angry, made me double down on my commitment to get married, made me dislike and distrust her, made me feel bad about myself, and basically made everything worse. Could she have helped me or helped me change my mind? Perhaps not in that moment, but she could have made herself someone I trusted and felt safe with, someone I could have talked to when things got bad (well, worse) and I needed a friend.
Some of the butt kickers did help me but in each case it was because we were extremely close friends, they understood the situation in all it’s complexity, we had built trust between us, they delivered the butt kicking with obvious love and concern, and they made it clear that they would support me no matter what. Another important element is that it was clear they valued what I thought of them and did not want to risk our relationship. They made me feel supported instead of ashamed.
I think more carefully when I navigate other people’s undesirable actions now. I can’t say that I won’t mess up, but I think I’m more likely to apologize when I do. I will use tough love, but mostly as a tool for setting healthy boundaries. “I love you but I do not love this behaviour/action, so here are my boundaries…”
I still strive, often unsuccessfully, to be a hugger, but it is the huggers who have made the biggest, longest lasting, and most profoundly positive changes in my life. These are the people who inspire me to be better, simply by watching how they move so kindly and compassionately through the world. You can kick anyone’s butt if you’re foolish or stupid enough but hugging requires you face the person head on, open yourself up, and make yourself vulnerable—and that is true bravery.
I hope to be that brave.
And if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of my boot, I am deeply sorry.
What words do you struggle to say aloud? What thoughts make you cringe? What truth about yourself would devastate you if it were made public?
I was raised by a mother who, because of her traumatic past, dished out guilt and shame like she was an ice cream shop owner during a weeklong power outage in the middle of an August heat wave. I’ve had no shortage of shame in my life. I wrestle with it constantly and I suspect I will be fighting that particular battle for years to come.
Before you suggest it, yes, I have watched the Brene Brown Ted Talk, read her books, listened to her lecture series. I understand the concept of vulnerability and whole heartedness. Great in theory, difficult to put into practice.
My last Chronicle dealt, metaphorically, with anxiety and mental illness. I will talk about that later but first I want to put you on a plane that’s falling out of the sky.
I’ve told the story of my terrifying plane ride, from Tokyo to Los Angeles, more times than I can count because it’s exciting and full of all kinds of perfect story elements. The truth is less fun. I was on a 747 that, due to pilot error, dropped a long way down and everyone was screaming and we all thought we were going to die. As happy as I was to not crash and die, that flight ruined my love of flying. For someone who loves to travel, that’s torture.
After that near-death experience, every flight I took was a war with my brain. I figured if I just toughed it out long enough, my brain would eventually remember that air travel is statistically safe and I would no longer suffer silent terror from take-off to landing. My brain did not get that memo. My brain hated every flight. It made my heart pound, my palms sweat, and filled me with anxiety with every tiny noise and bump. Bad turbulence was sheer hell.
I knew that some people took medication to help with their fear of flying but I wasn’t one of “those” people. Heck, I used to laugh during turbulence. Take-offs and landings had been my favourite part of the ride. I wasn’t weak, nuh uh. I’d had a bad experience, sure, but I would keep getting back on that damn horse and learn to love flying again if it killed me!
Then, in 2007, staring down the barrel of a lengthy flight to the Cook Islands, where Fred and I would meet our new employer, I finally broke down and went to see my doctor. “Um, I, uh, had this this really terrible flight in 1993 and ever since I get really scared when I fly, and, um, I feel stupid but, um, my flight to the Cook Islands is going to be super long and I want to be able to sleep and relax. Is there maybe some kind of medication I can take? Just for this one flight?”
My doctor stared at me for a moment, then he smiled and grabbed his prescription pad. “1993? Why did you wait so long?” He scribbled out a prescription for the generic equivalent of Ativan and gave me instructions to use it. He even explained that I could use it to help with jet lag and to get onto the local time when I arrived.
The flight from Los Angeles to Rarotonga was a dream! No sweaty palms, no pounding heart! I slept for hours and arrived in Rarotonga rested and relieved. Why did I wait so long to get help? I wondered. Fourteen years of terror for what? For the pride of feeling… “tough”? Pffft, screw that, I want to enjoy air travel.
My new chill pills have accompanied me on every flight since then. And here’s the best part: I don’t need them anymore. Yep, after years of actually feeling relaxed in the air again, my brain has learned to re-associate airplanes with fun and happiness—and it took far less than fourteen years to get to that place. The pills tricked my brain and it worked.
So why did I wait so long?
The short answer is: shame.
Society did an excellent job of making me believe that taking medication for anything related to the brain was a weakness. Medication for any other physical ailment was fine—I have been on Synthroid for my underactive thyroid glands since I was thirteen years old and I’ve never thought twice about it—but the brain, the mind, that was something else. Start down that road and the next thing you know you’ll be in Riverview in a padded room. Since childhood, I had been taught that any form of mental illness, even trauma-related anxiety, was something to be ashamed of, and I bought into that belief at the cost of my own well-being.
It’s almost as if we don’t see the brain as a part of our body. Funny, considering the entire point of our bodies is to carry our amazing brains around.
Of course, there is physical shame too and lots of it. Shame around sex and everyday bodily functions. I was in my twenties before I could say, “I have my period” to my boyfriend. I had a long list of euphemisms or I would simply say, “It’s that time”, while cringing and wanting to climb in a hole. And ask my boyfriend, or anyone else, to buy tampons for me? Are you kidding? I could barely buy them myself and was mortified if the cashier put them in a bag that didn’t completely hide my disgusting feminine products! And just when I got over that shame, it was time for menopause and all kinds of new shame. Whee!
Beyond the body, we get into financial shame, romantic shame, intellectual shame, cultural shame, and so on and so on. If there is a way society can make us feel bad about ourselves, it will. And while Brene Brown may be right about living whole-heartedly, those moments when we make ourselves vulnerable and it backfires, and we are hurt more deeply or our shame is weaponized, make the transition seem impossible and, frankly, undesirable.
I write these Chronicles for a number of reasons, one of which is to make myself vulnerable in the way I feel comfortable doing so—in writing—and to share some of my struggles so that maybe other folks out there will not feel so alone.
With that in mind, let me talk about the “bees” and my shame around them.
I have been coping with varying degrees of depression for a while now. 2015 was a major low after the deaths of my dad and my sister, our move away from Nelson and my robust network of friends and fellow writers, and the ensuing financial uncertainty of relocating. I thought about therapy or counselling, but it was too pricey and our insurance didn’t cover it. A friend offered his services but I was too embarrassed. I muddled through it with a combination of exercise, artistic endeavours, and employment at a job I enjoyed. Because I obviously learned nothing from my fear of flying, I did not seek help from a doctor or ask about medication.
I suffered silently for the next five years.
Then it got worse.
I thought I handled the pandemic pretty well, early in 2020. I mean, didn’t I leap in almost immediately, and start volunteering and helping my community? Fred turned out to have plenty of work and I kept busy in the garden and baking and other…stuff. It’s true I stopped writing and was waking up every night at 3am in a panic and couldn’t sleep at all without melatonin or some other OTC assistance, and I cried at the drop of a hat and often felt sick to my stomach and stressed over every small detail and frequently questioned the point of existing at all, but I was doing okay, wasn’t I?
I was not. Unbeknownst to me, along with my ongoing depression, I was now experiencing increasing levels of anxiety.
I’m going to skip ahead to the breaking point. Because there was a breaking point and it was awful. In early February, I had what amounts to a nervous breakdown. The next day, Fred went with me to my doctor. We three had a long discussion and, at the end, (along with instructions to REST, REST, REST and let my brain heal), decided that anti-anxiety meds were needed in the short term, and anti-depression meds for a slightly longer period. It felt weird, and if I hadn’t been in such a low place, I would have been humiliated. I also emailed a counselor and made my first appointment.
Friends, it was the plane thing all over again. It was years of “toughing it out” on my own, then getting the right medication for my suffering brain, and then wondering why the hell I had waited so long to do it! Oh wait, I know why, because of crap like this:
It’s been 28 years since that fateful flight from Tokyo and the harmful attitudes about the human brain and mental health persist. Even after the amazing results I had with the anti-anxiety meds to overcome the trauma of that experience, I am still ashamed to need medication for my brain.
But the medication works. It is working now. And I am going to tell you some of my experience and what I’ve learned as part of my microscopic effort to push back against the stigmas and the bad information out there.
There are different medications and dosages for depression. I am taking Citalopram, which is an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor). SSRIs increase levels of serotonin in the brain—serotonin is the hormone that makes us feel happy, stabilizes our mood, and helps with a feeling of well-being.
SSRIs don’t work right away. They can take 1-4 weeks to really get into the system and make a noticeable difference. Conversely, the side effects, if any, will be worse at first and gradually wane. The first 2-3 weeks I was tired, fuzzy-headed, and had constant low-level nausea but now I have no side effects.
You also should not stop SSRIs right away as there’s a very real chance of relapse or of the original symptoms worsening. Usually, you stay on the medication for 3-6 months and then, if you’re feeling better, gradually wean off. I am pleased to say that I am feeling better and when this prescription runs its course I will start weaning off. Hooray!
Interestingly, Citalopram is also the medication doctors prescribe for some symptoms of menopause.
For my anxiety, I was given the exact same medication that I use for flying. The anti-anxiety meds were more of an instant assistance. For the first two weeks I took one every day, sometimes two a day if I was feeling extra anxious. (Remember, the anti-depressants take a while to kick in so the anti-anxiety meds had to handle the whole problem). These pills made me REALLY sleepy, which was fine because I was trying to rest. Unlike SSRIs the goal is to quickly wean off this medication, which I have done. I have a small supply that I keep for emergencies but otherwise I am done with those…hooray!
It has been about 6 weeks since I started the medication. I am not 100% back to myself but I am almost there. What the medication did that helped so much is that it brought me back to a neutral state. There are lots of things we can do on our own to control or prevent depression and anxiety—exercise, getting a full night’s sleep, eating well, socializing, being creative, getting out in nature, etc—but when we are overwhelmed even the simplest of tasks becomes impossible. For the first two weeks after my meltdown, I basically slept, watched Disney movies, and coloured in an adult colouring book and that was absolutely all I could do. The few work meetings I had scheduled for that time (via Zoom thank goodness) were exhausting, stressful, and required taking anti-anxiety meds beforehand.
Along with the medication, the things that helped me were:
My husband. I literally do not know how I would have made it through without him. He was my nurse, my cook, my house cleaner, my cheering squad, my confidant, and my best friend.
My closest friends, some of whom had been through the same thing, all of whom have been unbelievably kind and supportive.
My counselor, who was compassion incarnate and helped lift the veil of my emotions to get at the truth.
My doctor, who, like my doctor in Nelson, helped me see that it’s okay to accept help from the world of modern medicine, even for your brain.
My manager, who didn’t hesitate to give me the time I needed to heal and was considerate beyond measure.
My cats, for obvious reasons.
And, of course, recognizing the causes of my anxiety and taking steps to address or remove them.
Everyone’s brain is different, everyone’s situation is different, but if I can get one message out to anyone who is struggling it is simply this: Do not be ashamed to get whatever help you need.
To the folks sharing crappy memes and uneducated opinions, please stop. You are harming, not helping.
How are things for me now? I am writing again after a year-long dry spell! I have been working outside in the sun! I feel hopeful for my future! I have highs and lows, but more middles, which is awesome! I sleep through the night 90% of the time with no chemical assistance for the first time in close to a decade! I still wrestle with the shame of my brain problem but mostly I’m just happy that I finally have tools to fix it.
On the evening of May 1, 1993, I knew I didn’t want to marry my first husband. In a car with two of our mutual friends, I drove around town and scoured the local bars to find my fiancé. He’d been drinking, again. There had been a fight, again. He had taken off in anger, again. I knew what would happen next—the confrontation, him shouting himself hoarse and falling into a booze-soaked sleep, me lying awake crying most of the night, the next day’s apology and excuses and pleas for forgiveness—and the little voice in my head warned me, begged me, to call off the wedding and walk away.
Two weeks later, we were married.
It is an odd feeling to allow yourself to be carried on a tide of events, to feel helpless even when you are not. I let myself go through with that marriage for a long list of reasons, none of which included my happiness and well being.
As all my friends and family had silently predicted, the marriage failed. The last words my ex spoke to me as I drove away from our home were, “Life isn’t all just fun and games, you know!” I remember thinking, Maybe not, but it shouldn’t be this sad either.
What he meant that day was that relationships have tough times. From his perspective, I was simply running away from one of those times. What he didn’t realize is that I wasn’t running away from him, I was running toward a better version of myself. What I didn’t realize, and what I would learn much later in life thanks to the words of a friend, was that I had never accepted his flaws and I never would. Without that acceptance, love and happiness were impossible.
My ex was not a bad person, he was a product of his upbringing, trauma, and genetics. I remember, near the end of our marriage, sitting in an Al-Anon meeting and listening to people talking about their alcoholic spouses, some of them having been married for decades, and feeling terrified and confused. How could anyone put up with that for so long? Like so many others, I considered addiction a moral failing not the result of genetics, trauma, or mental illness. What I know now is that these people had accepted that the person they loved was an addict and these meetings were a tool they used to cope.
For me, that meeting was a watershed moment. I did not and could not accept that particular flaw. No part of me wanted to be sitting in a room, twenty years from now, eating donuts and drinking tea out of a Styrofoam cup, talking about my husband’s latest drunken episode. Al-Anon didn’t save my marriage but it saved me.
The older I get, the more I see how vital it is to understand which flaws we can accept in those we choose to hold closest in our lives, and those flaws we cannot. And when it comes to lifelong partnership, in the words of my wise friend, one of the keys to a successful marriage or partnership boils down to: “Find someone who will accept your flaws…and then you accept theirs.”
Not as easy as it sounds.
I’ve had reason lately to ponder my marriage. Not to question, merely to examine what it looks like from the outside. What do people see when they look at Fred and me?
I didn’t fall in love with Fred at first sight. In fact, as soon as I realized he was interested in me, I actively worked to shut that whole thing down. But we were sitting in the green room of the Nightman set, waiting to be summoned to work, and we started talking about the ocean and whales and dolphins and fish and diving and…he changed. His face lit with a love and energy for the world beneath the waves that I had only ever known in myself. You know that moment when you finally meet someone who loves the thing you love that no one else seems to care much about? That feeling of instant connection and kinship, not to mention the relief of learning that you’re not a lone weirdo after all? Yeah, this was it in blazing colours and fireworks.
Four soul and esteem crushing relationships had taught me a thing or two about not simply giving in to passion in the moment. Yes, this Fred was fun and funny, energetic, talented, smart, and my kind of quirky, but was it all an act for my benefit? I’d certainly seen that before.
When Fred and I started dating, I made an important decision. I wasn’t going to judge him based on how he treated me, I was going to pay attention to his interactions with everyone else. What were his friends like and how did he interact with them? Did he get along with his family and, if not, why not? Was he nice to serving staff in restaurants and cashiers at the grocery store? More importantly, how did he treat my friends and family?
Most importantly, what did my friends and family think of him? My ex had quickly and effectively driven a wedge between me and the people closest to me. He’d spun tales to make me believe they were jealous or didn’t understand us or whatever narrative he could create to make me believe the problem was them and not him. This time, however, I would rely on the opinions of the people who cared most for my happiness and I would give their judgments the weight they deserved.
I needn’t have worried. Fred passed with flying colours. My family thought he was terrific, and he treated them all well. The local server at his favourite restaurant knew him by name and they exchanged all kinds of friendly banter. His next-door neighbour, (who would be become my beloved friend), basically interrogated me over a bottle of wine to make sure I was as serious about Fred as he was about me because she didn’t want to see him hurt. His friends were lovely, hardworking, kind people all around. He welcomed all my friends with open arms. He had a good relationship with his family and his mom was a former teacher who LOVED books…swoon!
The rest is history.
Okay, not so fast.
Let’s talk about those flaws. I have mine and Fred has his. For all our similarities, Fred and I have some big differences. For example, I have jokingly referred to him as a “bulldozer” when it comes to getting his way, though it’s not always a joke. One of his favourite sayings is “Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission”. Me? I would say, “Always ask permission, nicely, maybe get it in writing just to be sure.” I’m also a textbook conflict avoider and, as a result, I’m usually the one to “give in” to what other people want or find a workaround (see also: lying and/or sneaking). I am deeply sensitive to the feelings of those around me…to the point of neurosis. I have lost untold hours of sleep worrying over something someone said, their tone of voice, the expression on their face. Fred, on the other hand, can miss social cues that to me might as well be flashing neon lights on a billboard. That is just a small sample of our flaws.
And, as anyone in a long-term relationship will agree, during tough times, the flaws come to the surface and overshadow almost everything else.
Accepting flaws doesn’t mean liking them. It only means that you choose to stay and work through it together. It means that you sit in that church basement with a bunch of strangers, eating donuts and drinking tea from Styrofoam cups and crying, if that’s what it takes to make it through those tough times. I don’t like Fred’s flaws any more than he likes mine, but we’re in this for the long haul because when our life is fun and games, hoo boy, it’s so worth it.
I accept his flaws and he accepts mine. We’re a team.
We all make judgments about other people, other partnerships and marriages. The more I ponder what Fred and I look like from the outside, the less it seems to matter. The relationships that last do so because they transcend a single moment in time. If I had truly loved my ex and had accepted his flaws, that night in May would have just been a bump in perhaps a rocky road but a long road nonetheless.
I’ve also learned that when I make judgements about other relationships, it’s like reading a book with half the pages missing. There are all kinds of chapters and moments that we on the outside never see.
One of those moments, between Fred and I, happened in my sister’s hospital room while she was undergoing treatment for acute myeloid leukemia. Kelly was scared, sad, sick, and confused. Fred came with me to visit her one day and there was a chart on the wall listing all the dates of various treatments and procedures Kelly would be going through along with the results of daily blood tests. Now, “always ask permission” me would never have dreamed of touching that chart but “better to beg forgiveness” Fred grabbed one of the felt markers and started scribbling. When he showed us his work, Kelly’s schedule now included sky diving, river rafting, and various other adventures. My terrified sister laughed and laughed. She showed the nurses, and they laughed. Me, I couldn’t have loved my husband more in that moment if I’d tried. He made my dying sister laugh, he eased her worries and pain for a little while, and what a gift that was…to both of us.
Life is definitely not all fun and games, but with the right person, as a team, the hard times are a little easier and the good times make it all worth it.
When the first bee flies into your body, it’s no big deal. We’ve all experienced the occasional bee or two buzzing around in our chest cavity. Your pulse quickens a little, your muscles tighten, your breath becomes shallow as you wait for whatever prompted the bee’s entry to end. A single bee, or a pair, usually don’t stick around long—though it feels like an eternity when they’re inside us, doesn’t it?
Bees are beneficial, in a weird way. The buzzing (and occasional sting) heightens our awareness, often when we need it most. The relief when they depart is euphoric, too. A reward for our vigilance.
But when the bee doesn’t leave, when it’s joined by another, and another, and another, until you have a basketball team’s worth of bees inside you, that is when the problems start. And let me be clear, a dozen bees suddenly bouncing off your kidneys and crawling through your vena cava would send anyone running to the doctor, but it never happens suddenly.
After the first one or two bees have settled in, the sensation becomes normal. You start to forget there was a time when you didn’t have bees inside you. The constant buzzing? White noise. We filter it out. Humans are adaptable. When a third bee shows up inside you, it’s barely noticeable. Two, three, who can tell the difference? After three becomes normal, the fourth bee flies in. Repeat for the fifth bee and so on.
A tiny part of you will always know that something isn’t right. When the bees wake you up at 3am, buzzing around your brain, pollinating thoughts of despair and hopelessness, that tiny part screams, “Get help! We should not have all these bees in here!”.
The bees, now annoyed, buzz more loudly and drown out any cries for help you send to yourself. You lie awake for hours, in the dark, thinking it would just be nice if you could fall asleep forever and never hear the buzzing again. You don’t want to hurt yourself, you just desperately want this feeling to stop.
It’s here that I need to note that the bees aren’t actively trying to harm us. I suspect they would much rather be out bopping around from flower to flower, making honey, and hanging out in their hive than flying in circles around our pancreas and watching us digest our disgusting human food. They are just as confused about this as we are.
Sadly, things can get much worse for us and for the bees.
The longer those dozen or so bees spend inside you, the more agitated they become. Agitated bees stuck inside humans send out all kinds of pheromones and other silent signals to their fellow bees on the outside. If steps aren’t taken to free the bees inside you, soon you may have a lot more bees to deal with. Give them a big enough opening—unemployment, domestic disputes, financial uncertainty, a global pandemic—and BOOM, now you have a swarm.
A couple of bees is annoying. A dozen bees is painful. A swarm of bees is debilitating.
Once the swarm gets in, it’s only a matter of time until your body breaks down. The buzzing becomes as loud as a fleet of helicopters circling directly overhead. The bees sting everything they touch. Every muscle tenses, your hands shake, your heart pounds, your chest tightens until it feels as if you are constantly on the verge of a heart attack. You’re not sure if you will pass out or throw up, all you know is that this can’t continue.
If you’re lucky, you get help. If you’re very lucky, you have someone in your life who helps you get help and helps you as your recover from the swarm. And it is important to allow yourself time and space to recover—this didn’t start overnight, and it will take a while for you to heal from the damage.
You may be asking, “Why don’t people seek help for their bees earlier? There are many professional bee-wranglers out there who can help remove bees from the body.” The answer is that the problem with bees isn’t the bees, it’s how people think of the bees. The problem with bees is us. Despite untold public awareness campaigns, there remains a serious stigma around people with bees inside them.
Some people think that bees can’t really exist inside us—it’s all a bunch of hooey! Some people think that those with bees are exaggerating or just looking for attention. Some people think people who let bees inside them are weak. Some people think you don’t need a bee wrangler or anti-bee medication or rest and self-care to deal with your bees—as long as you get fresh air and exercise you can get rid of your bees or never get them in the first place. Some people think that if you have bees inside you then it’s your own damn fault.
There are all kinds of reasons for the bee stigma, mostly rooted in a lack of understanding and compassion. I must admit that before I experienced a swarm of my own, I didn’t completely understand or fully empathize with the problem.
Now that I have been enlightened, let me share a few tips I learned from my time with bees.
First, that tiny part of you that says, “This isn’t right”? Listen to it. Acknowledge it. You may not understand that there are bees inside you but admitting that you’re not feeling like yourself is a good starting point.
Second, ignore the bee-deniers (even if you were one), and go talk to your doctor or a bee-wrangler.
Third, if you do talk to a doctor and they recommend anti-bee medication, DO NOT FEEL ASHAMED! Yes, there are all kinds of things you can do to help yourself and prevent future swarms but first you need to get rid of the bees you have right now. You need to get back to a bee-less state and if medication can help with that, then use it. Having bees is no different than having any other medical condition. You wouldn’t feel ashamed for taking antibiotics to cure an infection, would you? Well, anti-bee medication is the same thing—it helps to rid you of something harmful.
Fourth, be patient. As you heal, you may feel as if all the bees are gone and then end up getting stung when you’re not prepared. This is normal. Take a deep breath, do whatever you’ve found that helps to calm the remaining bees. Talk to your bee-wrangler, (if you have one), they may have some extra tips for coaxing out the more stubborn bees.
Fifth, reach out to supportive friends or family. You may be surprised to learn that some of them have dealt with their own swarms. You’ll be amazed how good it feels just to have someone text you: “I’m thinking about you. I hope you’re doing okay with your bees.” Compassion is miraculous.
You may have to live with the fact that some of us will always have a few extra bees inside us, and so we need to take steps to manage our buzzy buddies. What I’ve learned from my bees is that we never really know what another person is going through. If bees can teach us to cultivate more empathy, then that’s a kind of honey of it’s own. So, thank you, my bees, for bringing a little more sweetness into my life.