Kickers vs Huggers

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.

Or…

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.

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It’s a Flying Shame

What are you ashamed of?  

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.

And I’m dreaming of flying again.

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Fun and Games

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.

But.

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.

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The Problem With Bees

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.

It can’t.

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.

Posted in Health and wellness, Mental Health | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Safe

Stay safe.

Raise your hand if you’re tired of hearing that or any of the variations on that theme. I’m tired of hearing it and I’m tired of saying it.

Safe.

There’s no such thing as safe in this world and never has been. In the words of Helen Keller, “Life is a daring adventure or nothing.” But it seems more apparent to me every day that “safe” is a cousin of “perfect”, neither strictly achievable and yet both worthy, within limits, of our efforts.

If you want to understand the contradictory nature of safety, spend some time on the ocean. Nowhere do humans more regularly display their stubbornness, ignorance, and hubris than on those bodies of water that cover most of our world.

In the Bahamas, I watched the Atlantic Ocean change from a glassy picture of idyllic calm to a raging, roiling monster in a matter of minutes…right beneath me. While the wind sheared the tops off waves and hurled them into our boat, Fred clung to the wheel, and I hunkered out of the elements shivering from cold and fear. We were as safe as we could be—Fred is a skilled captain, our boat and motor were sound, we both wore our PFDs with safety flares securely attached, and we had an EPIRB locator aboard to aid in a search if a search became necessary—but the ocean could have easily swamped us, driven our boat (and us) into the jagged coral, chilled us to the bone and dragged our hypothermic bodies wherever it wished before anyone could save us. That we made it through the squall soggy and shaken but unharmed had as much to do with luck as it did with planning.

But we did plan. If we made that trip again, we’d plan again. We’d strive for that elusive, perfect safety. We’d plan again because we’re both gamblers by nature and one thing that a good gambler always knows is to keep the odds in their favour.

To be safe, or safer, on the ocean, requires four things: knowledge, preparation, experience, and humility. When we lived on Aitutaki, in the Cook Islands, our home was an island surrounded by a barrier reef. There were only two openings through that reef through which boats could pass. One opening was on the windward side and was extremely dangerous on most days. The other opening was a human-made channel dredged during WWII, wide and safe for all boats to pass through most of the time. Fred’s was the only boat, however, that journeyed through that channel, outside the safety of the reef to the open Pacific Ocean, to take tourists on adventure snorkel tours. Thrill-seeking guests loved his tours and the chance to see Giant Humphead Wrasse, schools of Eagle Rays, and friendly turtles. It didn’t take long for word to get out that Fred’s was the tour to take if you wanted to see the wild side of Aitutaki.

Fred is safe. People often misunderstand that those who make a living taking big risks are usually the folks who understand danger best and who prepare most diligently. Stunt performers don’t just walk off the street and start jumping off buildings. Along with years of training in various disciplines, there are rehearsals and safety equipment and every damn thing a person can do to make sure the danger is mitigated and controlled as much as possible.

When Fred took guests snorkelling outside the reef, he would put his keen sense of safety into hyperdrive. No matter how fit or willing his guests may have been, ultimately it was Fred’s responsibility to bring them back to the dock in once piece at the end of the tour. Some days, when the weather refused to cooperate, that meant staying inside the reef and enjoying the more sedate magic of the lagoon.

On one of these days, one of Fred’s guests balked at the announcement that the tour could not venture outside the reef and insisted that the conditions were “not that bad”. As Fred stood on shore, watching the waves break in the distance, years of knowledge and experience informing his judgement, he could have easily told that guest that no means no, end of story. Instead, given her insistence, he decided to make it a learning experience. “Okay, if you think it’s not that bad, let’s go,” he said, and loaded the guests onboard.

The closer the boat got to the channel, the bigger and louder the “not that bad” waves grew. Fred watched the woman’s body language change, her back stiffened, her hand grasped the gunwale. Soon she was glancing back at him, eyes wide, waiting. The crash and roar of the waves thundering through the channel ahead, which now resembled a god’s washing machine agitating on high speed, finally won over the woman’s pride and she waved frantically for Fred to stop. He slowed the boat and, at her request, turned away from the danger, back to the calm water of the beautiful lagoon.

Lesson delivered.

When I sat down to write about safety during a pandemic, that story and so many other ocean adventures came to mind. That woman who thought the weather was “not that bad” wasn’t a terrible person, she merely lacked the four requirements to navigate the ocean safely. Without knowledge and experience, the waves hitting the reef probably didn’t look all that threatening from a distance. Because she was traveling as part of a tour, she didn’t have to prepare for the journey or consider the safety of others—that was Fred’s job. And because she did not come to the danger that is the ocean with proper humility, she refused to listen to the more experienced voice of her captain. She was smart enough to recognize the danger once she could see it clearly, and I think, (or hope), that after Fred’s lesson she learned to respect both the ocean and those who spend most of their lives working on it.

I’ve seen these same missing requirements frequently this year in the ways people have responded to COVID-19. The masses of people who continue to insist that the virus is “not that bad” are no different from the woman on Fred’s tour—lacking knowledge and experience, they can’t see the threat in something that seems so insignificant from a distance. Because these people are not the ones who will have to spend their days and nights clad in PPE, watching people suffer and die en masse, they see no reason to consider the safety of others—that’s someone else’s job. And lacking humility, they refuse to listen to the experienced voices of experts, or to anyone who does not reinforce their misguided beliefs.

Since March, I have been, by turns, amused and annoyed by the people who chalk up the actions of anyone willing to follow the advice of those on the frontlines of the pandemic to fear. These folks laugh at the “sheeple” who strive for safety in an unsafe world, confusing empathy and humility with blind obedience and childish naivety.  I find myself wishing that I could, as Fred did, take them right to the precipice, let them see the threat up close, and wait for realization to dawn.

The lack of a perfect state of safety in the world does not mean we abandon reason, or each other.

I’ve spent thousands of hours on the open ocean with Fred as my captain. His degree of risk tolerance is higher than mine simply because he’s more experienced. I trust him out there on the water but it’s not a blind trust—I’ve lived through some hair-raising ocean experiences thanks to my husband’s knowledge of ,and respect for, the elements. Despite my trust, however, I’ve never lost that little ball of cold fear that settles in my stomach when the weather turns nasty while we’re offshore.

But here’s another interesting facet of safety—sometimes it’s easier to feel safe when we protect others.

Coming back into the Ucluelet Harbour (interestingly, “Ucluelet” means “safe harbour”) one afternoon, after a hard day of fishing, the wind, which had been mildly unpleasant for the west coast, turned up several notches and we found ourselves pounding slowly through rough seas and driving rain. We had some friends with us that day, including our friend’s young son “E”. Since we were getting thoroughly tossed around, I put E on my lap in the passenger seat next to Fred and wrapped my arms around him. E was wearing his lifejacket, and I was clad head-to-toe in my survival suit, with tons of flotation and warmth. I knew, deep in my soul, that if anything ever did happen to us that I would hold this kid tight and keep him warm and safe. In that moment, for the first time, the cold ball of fear vanished.

Keeping the people you care about safe is the opposite of fear. Keeping the people you care about safe is a kind of superpower.

So here we are, more than a year since this new strain of coronavirus burst into the world and turned our lives upside down. Are we safe yet? No. Vaccines are rolling out and some parts of the world have made deep sacrifices to stop the spread of the virus. Sadly, there are still too many out there who lack the requirements to accurately assess the danger, and many of those who also demean those striving for that always elusive safety—for ourselves and others.

I am tired of telling people to stay safe but I will keep saying it. When it comes to ocean safety, Fred likes to say, “Humans get tired, the ocean never does”. I could say the same of COVID. We’re all tired. We’re lonely and sad. We miss the big things like concerts and parties, and the little things like taking a leisurely stroll through a grocery store without a piece of fabric covering our face. Some of our captains have not done a great job guiding us through this storm, others remain steadfastly at the wheel no matter how towering the waves. Regardless, we are all done with safety…and we must not quit.

Humans get tired, the virus never does.

On the cusp of Winter Solstice, let’s remember the light will return. The rain will stop, the storm clouds will part, and someday the waves will cease.

Until then…

Stay safe.

Posted in Aitutaki - Cook Islands, Health and wellness, News and politics, Ocean | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Perimenopause Diaries Part III – Bringing the Heat

I am about to do something radical. I am going to share something positive about menopause with you.

At the age of thirteen, after my math teacher noticed that my neck appeared swollen and a little green (ick), I was sent to a specialist to test my thyroid level. I learned I was hypothyroid, which means that my thyroid glands are underactive. I learned I would have to take a pill every day for the rest of my life, which was the WORST—young me dreaded swallowing pills of any kind. What I didn’t learn was one of the side effects of hypothyroidism can be cold sensitivity. It would take three more decades before I learned that fun factoid. In the meantime, I spent most of my life perpetually chilled.

Fred used to joke that I liked the house thermostat set at “nursing home”. Friendlord Kate learned to come visit us in the winter in flip flops and a light t-shirt because I would have the wood stove blazing so hot that the paint on the walls was practically melting. And long road trips with Fred and me were essentially mini wars of attrition when it came to climate control. Being cold all the time sucks…for everyone.

At the Surrey International Writer’s Conference, several years back, standing in line at the buffet, arms bejazzled with goosebumps as I shivered my way toward the roast beef, I joked to a writer friend that I was looking forward to menopause and hot flashes because maybe I could finally be warm for a change. A silver-haired vixen in front me turned around and gasped, “You’re going to love it!”

Friends, that vixen was right.

There is little about perimenopause, and now menopause, that I haven’t loathed and wanted to hurl into the sun, but…oh, baby…I do love being warm.

Yes, I get the occasional annoying moments of overheating. I have had a few night sweats, which are gross, not because of the heat but because by the time you wake up you are freezing from laying in pools of your own perspiration. But, overall, what I have experienced is the slightest rise in my internal temperature. I am, at last, as warm as an average human being, and it is glorious! This stage of The Change, at least, comes with one perk. I am not undervaluing that perk, either. It is one hell of a perk.

You know how it feels to walk into a cozy, warm house after being outside on a freezing cold day? That first moment of “Aaaaaaah”, when your shoulders relax and your teeth stop shattering? That is how this stage of menopause feels to me. I no longer dash out of bed in the morning, already clad in fleece from head to toe, and rush to put on a housecoat and slippers. No, I saunter. I saunter out of bed, in the lightest of pajamas, no socks, feeling just the tiniest chill. Sometimes I even take my socks off and enjoy the feeling of the cool floor on my bare feet! Oh, happy days! Take that, winter.

There is one other perk, though. And this one is a doozy.

A few years before my thyroid diagnosis, my body surprised me with a lovely early puberty. Guess what? You’re fertile! Here, have a whole ton of hormones that will mess with your mind. Feel like being sad or angry for no reason? Done. Want a face full of zits? Presto! How about some fibroid cysts and endometriosis to make the monthly pain extra, extra painful? All yours, kiddo!

But you know what else those lady hormones do? They envelope you in a serotonin fog. Author and journalist Caitlin Moran compares the feeling of those serotonin-loaded fertile years as being “high on nature’s sexy valium”. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean women are happy all the time—we are most definitely not—it just means that we more easily put up with low-level bad behaviour and annoyances. (How else would mothers be able to live in the same space as toddlers without running off into the wilderness screaming one day when they’ve heard Baby Shark for the millionth time?).

So, what happens when we stop being fertile and nature’s sexy valium leaves our body? Well, some of us get cranky. We sober up. We see bad behaviour and all the little inequalities that we’ve always shrugged off for exactly the crap sandwich that they are. Suddenly, things we just did because they seemed like the “nice” thing to do feel exhausting.

The moment I read the analogy of menopause as sobriety, I had one of those lightbulb moments. Yes, damn it, I’m done with trying to please, trying to calm, trying to smooth out all of the everyday rough edges for everyone in my orbit. I’m done with softening who I really am to make myself more palatable. I think back on the hours upon hours I spent, in my past, making sure my hair looked just right, my face looked just right, my clothes looked just right, fretting over every nano-particle of my being to ensure that I was “acceptable”. What a waste. I could have been reading good books, or getting my university degree, or learning to speak Mandarin and play the harmonica. Why did I care that much? And why did I ever put up with one tenth of the shit I put up with?

Hormones, baby, hormones.

The fog has lifted. I can see clearly again, and I’m figuring out who I really am and what I really want.

And, unlike the typical mid-life crisis where you toss out your old life like a pair of jeans that no longer fit, leave your spouse, get a tattoo and a convertible or whatever, I’m finding that my sobriety has made my marriage better, more honest, more equal. Every day I grow less afraid to speak up, to say, “I don’t like that” or “I’m not interested in going there” or any number of phrases that boil down to, “Nah, no thanks, that’s just not me.” This doesn’t mean I won’t compromise. You can’t have any kind of satisfying relationship without compromise. It simply means that I recognize the difference between compromise and cowardice.

I have been a coward. I can see that now and I wonder why I ever couldn’t see it? Oh, right, hormones.

I have been more honest lately. Painfully so, at times. But you can’t turn into a beautiful fucking butterfly without dumping the gooey cocoon that’s weighing you down. I’ve spoken my mind this year in a way I never have before. This honesty has cost me friends and I’ve let them go. I have lines now, not just on my face, but also in my heart and mind. There are behaviours that hormonally sober me has no energy to excuse any longer.

My forties started off great but the hormonal hangover was excruciating, messy, and confusing. My fifties will also have their challenges, I’m sure, but I am clear of mind and warm of body and in our topsy turvy, post-truth, mid-pandemic world, that feels like a kind of superpower.

All the rest of menopause can eat nails. The perks make the sleeplessness, hormone-induced depression, anxiety, weight gain, painful sex, and…um…what was that last thing? Oh, yes, short term memory loss. The perks make all those continuing side effects somewhat bearable, buoyed by the knowledge that this too shall pass. And when it does, I have a feeling me and my new warmly-honest self are going to be extremely happy together.

Posted in Health and wellness, Women's Issues | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Perron Family Holiday Letter 2020

Dear family & friends,

Happy Ho Ho Ho-lidays! This year, Fred and I decided to send out our annual Christmas letter early because we won’t be making our usual trek south for the winter and also time has lost all meaning! Hooray!

Let’s see, what have we been up to this year? Well, salmon fishing was excellent this summer, I had a record tomato crop in the garden, we FINALLY got Fred’s truck bed spray-lined, and we’ve both decided to remove our human skin suits and reveal our true alien forms. Oh, I know what you’re thinking: Why did you wait so long to get the truck bed lined?? Crazy, right?

Life is a little more difficult now that we are no longer confined in our flimsy meat shells but, overall, we’re happy. The timing just felt right, you know? I mean, a year ago, the site of a couple of six-legged, scaled, fluorescent yellow, aliens with tentacles for arms—and mouths at the end of those tentacles (with razor-sharp teeth)—would have caused mass panic, especially on quiet little Quadra Island, but it’s 2020 baby! Nothing surprises anyone anymore.

Well, almost nothing. Yesterday I was picking up some Presto logs for dinner from our local grocery store and some woman started freaking out at me in the line. “IT’S UNNATURAL!” she screamed, pointing at the masks on all my tentacle-mouths. The store manager had to call the cops to drag her out. Poor guy, he felt so bad for me that he tossed in some free votive candles for our dessert. Gotta love small towns.

I do have to say that the events of this past year have really made us reflect on the home planet we left behind to make a better life. I’d share the name of our planet with you but there is no written way to express it and the sound, to human ears, is similar to the screams of a million cats simultaneously getting their tales stepped on while a Finnish death metal band performs a song about a million cats having their tales stepped on. So, let’s just call it Blerf, to make it easier.

Half of Blerf is covered in molten lava and volcanoes spewing molten lava 24/7, and the other half is covered in strip malls. As you can imagine, it’s awful. I still have nightmares about those Cheesecake Factory menus. Even so, when I lived there, I couldn’t understand how sometimes one of our “people”, despondent at the opening of yet another Halloween store, would simply walk off to the volcano side of the planet to end it all in a pool of molten lava…but then I watched Rudy Giuliani on a 55inch HD TV screen sooooo… I get it now.

I get it.

But enough doom and gloom. It’s almost our favourite time of year! We’ve started decorating the house with non-denominational Starbucks cups and singing our favourite carols…”Liberal snowflakes war on Christmas, fa la la la la la la la la!” Celebrating the holidays in our true forms is going to be so special and once we find all our cats, who ran from us in terror, it will be even better.

I would end by saying that I hope our holiday letter finds you well during these difficult times but I’m afraid you might think we’re trying to sell you something. (www.warpworld.ca) We’re not! (Available in ebook and paperback!) That’s just silly. (Volume 1 is free!) Instead, I’ll keep it real and remind you to keep at least one tentacle length away from others, wear masks on all your mouths in public, and for the love of Pete don’t eat at The Cheesecake Factory…ever.

I’m sorry if some of you have a difficult time with Fred and I revealing our real selves but please know that we fled a dystopian hellscape and since arriving on earth we’ve been hardworking, tax paying citizens just like you! Now, I have to wrap this up because Fred says there’s an ice delivery van out front asking for us. Our neighbours must have sent us some extra ice for the egg sacs we fertilized in the hopes of raising a family. So thoughtful. Gotta love small towns!

Happy Holidays from our home to yours!

Kristene & Fred

xo

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All the Beautiful Losers

It seems impossible to believe now but there once was a time when beauty pageants commanded the TV spotlight and families gathered in the glow to see which woman would tearfully accept a crown and ascend to her role as Queen of the Beautiful. In my childhood home, we never missed the Miss Universe pageant, with its miles of gleaming teeth, lacquered hair, and Stepfordesque perfection. Even after I crossed into the teen tunnel of darkness, I still partook of the annual tradition since, for a spike-haired wannabe punk ready to toss her parents’ sacred cows into the bin, these pageants were a veritable snark-buffet.

Long before my teen angst, however, one of my first pageant memories was watching my mom dissolve into tears at the end—as she would do at the end of every pageant, I would soon learn. Mystified, I asked her why she was crying. “Because…I feel so bad for the losers,” she sobbed.

I laughed. “Oh mom, you’re so silly.”

Of course, I didn’t know then where my mother’s deep well of empathy sprang from, and even if I did I’m not sure I would have given her the credit she deserved without a lived experience of my own. My family wasn’t rich and I would never be a beauty queen but I grew up never wanting for much, in a family that loved me, in a world that loved blondes, with the metabolism of a hummingbird on speed and looks that were only a few notches below “popular girl” pretty. My mother’s childhood had been a struggle on all fronts and as an adult she continuously battled with her weight and self-esteem. She wept for those lovely ladies bereft of crowns because she knew how it felt to be passed over, to be a loser.

Looking back, despite any flaws and shortcomings, in the twenty-six years I had with her, my mother gave me a masterclass in empathy. In return, I gave her my disdain. I didn’t see a human whose past suffering opened a window in her heart and allowed her to see more profoundly into the hearts of others, I saw weakness.

I’ve written in these Chronicles about my late arrival to empathy but these past few years, particularly since the start of Covid, have driven home to me not only the importance of empathy in our world but also how eager others are to paint it as weak, soft, and naïve. Let me tell you something about my mother, the best part of her, the strongest and most admirable part of her, was her empathy. I can’t imagine how much courage it took for her to sit in front of that TV screen every year to watch the Miss Universe pageant, knowing she would cry and knowing the rest of us would tease her about it and make her feel like another kind of loser.

And that is the smallest and least significant example of my mother’s empathy. We once cared for a former neighbour’s son for a year so that his single mom (still a rarity in those days) could get ahead financially. I’m sure my parents received some financial compensation but it was a big commitment nevertheless. Michael—who was six, the same age as me—lived with us full time, with only infrequent visits with his mother since she lived a long drive away from us. We even took Michael with us on our three-week summer vacation to California. My parents showed this boy the same love and care they showed me, which was a lot.

Ask yourself, would you take a six-year-old into your care for a year? Not for a family member or your dear friend, but for a neighbour and for probably not much more payment than enough to cover groceries and a few expenses? Are you that strong? I’m not.

Empathy is not weakness. Only fools believe that—and I have been that fool.

These days, my head feels like it’s stuffed full of angry bees. I’ve started and discarded more of these Chronicles than I can count. Many more never made it out of my head. One made it all the way to a first draft and died after I shared it with a friend who I suspected might be harmed by the content. I am in a constant state of conflict between the desire to dump all my thoughts onto the page and the desire to be mindful of others’ feelings. There’s too much division as it is and I don’t want to drive the wedge even further.

But…

But I’m also appalled and distressed at the lack of empathy I see and read and hear about. I’m frustrated and saddened by the narrative that has infected a substantial percentage of our society, namely equating a desire for fairness and equality and empathizing with those at the bottoms of our social ladders with weakness. Especially since, thanks to a combination of Covid, unchecked capitalism, and environmental stresses, there are so very many of us at the bottoms of those ladders (whether we want to admit it or not).

I watched an old, overweight, unfit man, who pays a pittance in taxes (when he’s paid them at all), amble out of a hospital where he received the best and most expensive treatment tax payer money could buy and declare that because he is well the rest of us are overreacting about a global pandemic and shouldn’t worry. I watched this and I knew those same people who see empathy as weakness would agree with him and they would carry on endangering others with criminally reckless abandon. They will mock and threaten those of us who take steps to protect those with the most to lose. They will have been emboldened by a leader who wouldn’t know empathy if he groped it at a party.

In 2020, it’s hard to believe that beauty pageants even exist, let alone once commanded so much public attention. What kind of shallow culture parades women around on a stage to be judged on their appearance and parlour tricks like a bunch of trained circus animals? There’s nothing wrong with competition—I’m pretty competitive myself—but some contests have no place in an enlightened society. (And they certainly should not be run by lecherous old men who like to pop into the change rooms unannounced.) I think most of us are ready to let them disappear like the outdated relics they are.

Our society is full of folks who lost a rigged game or who live on the edge of defeat. Maybe it’s time to realize that we’re all losers sometimes and that doesn’t make us any less deserving of kindness, care, comfort…and even a crown or two.

I have shed my share of tears since March—for the sick, for the dead, for the people left behind, for the lonely, for the poor, for the homeless, for the trapped and isolated, for the health care workers, for the essential workers who cannot afford to stay home, for my friends and family, for everyone who has lost something because of the pandemic—including me. If my mother were here today and asked me why I was crying, I would hug her and say, “Because I feel so bad for the losers.”


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This Post Is For One Person

thermometer in snow reading 0 degrees

Waiting for a bus, a woman says to the man next to her, “Wow, it’s twice as cold today as it was yesterday!”

Yesterday it was 0 degrees Celsius. What is the temperature today?

This is the question that changed my life. I’ll save the answer for the end of this post and I’ll skip most of the boring backstory, but that question was the topic for my first essay in my Philosophy 100 class in University.

I did not plan to study philosophy, and would go on to take only one other philosophy course during my tumultuous two-and-a-bit years at Simon Fraser University, but of all the classes I have taken in my educational life that one was by far the most valuable.

Years later, it would also become the most depressing and frustrating.

The subject of the course was “Critical Thinking”. The simplest description I can think of to describe critical thinking is “thinking with your whole brain”. In the real world, what this means to me is that when faced with a statement, a question, an event, or a problem, etc, instead of acting on my first instinct, I stop, take a step back from the immediate response my lizard brain hands me and engage the more evolved parts of my grey matter. Next, I consider both my biases and the biases of whatever or whomever it is I’m dealing with, ask questions, consider all the answers, and then respond accordingly.

The process may sound slow but it doesn’t have to be. Ask any First Responder about the first consideration when rescuing someone and they’ll tell you that you must quickly assess the situation to see if it’s safe to attempt to help. If you rush in to help someone without that assessment, you could end up in the same predicament…and now you become one more person that needs rescuing. You’ve made a bad situation worse. That first situational assessment, even done at lightning speed, is an example of critical thinking. Let me break it down:

  • A person is trapped in a car and badly injured. A First Responder sees that person and knows they need to get to them quickly.
  • Immediate emotional response: Quick! Run to the car and save them!
  • Critical thinking response: That person needs help but I can see there’s a fallen power line in my path that may be live. If I rush in, I could get electrocuted. I will call 911 and wait for help with the power line.

Critical thinking isn’t some elitist, artsy fartsy concept for folks who lounge around and ponder the meaning of life, it is a learnable skill that, in many instances, could mean the difference between life and death. It can also mean the difference between living in a world where we address real, pressing problems with a deep understanding of their complexities and with as much compassion and kindness as we can offer, or living in a world where we are constantly distracted from making meaningful change by hyperbole and lies designed to trigger our lizard brain instincts.

Remember how I said that 100 level philosophy course would become depressing and frustrating? Yeah, that would be the past several years I’m talking about. It was bad enough, pre-2016, when most of the bad logic came from anti-vaxxers, chemtrail believers, 9/11 “truthers”, and other run-of-the-mill phony baloney. But since the election of a human lie machine to the White House, followed by a global pandemic, trying to combat the flood of fallacies by encouraging folks to use critical thinking feels like bringing a knife to a nuclear weapons fight. Sadly, I seem incapable of just putting down my useless little knife, walking away, and surrendering to the inevitable explosion of lies, conspiracies, and propaganda. I blame that Philosophy course. Thanks for nothing, institute of higher learning!

I’ve probably done something like this before (heavy sigh) but I’ll try again, with the vaguest of hopes that maybe just one person out there will find some comfort in the warm glow of logic and reason.

So, here are some random thoughts and tips I have for that one person, (whoever you are, thank you and good luck) who may want know how to think a bit more critically about this messy world of ours.

  1. It’s okay to be wrong. I know we grow up bombarded by the bizarre message that if you’re wrong and you admit it, you’re weak, but everyone gets things wrong. Learning what you think or believe is wrong and then admitting that and changing is called growth. Growth is good. Even the mere act of questioning whether something you think or believe is right or wrong shows you have the incredibly important ability to evolve and change.
  2. Sources matter. Who would you rather have remove a cancerous tumor from your brain—a brain surgeon or some random person who watched a video about brain surgery on YouTube once and claims that they’re totally an expert even though they work at a gas station and have never even held a scalpel? The more important and personal the task, the more we tend to care about the credentials of the person doing the task (well, for most of us, that is). Try applying that standard to more areas of your life. When you are presented with information—a video, a Facebook post, a meme, etc—look for the original source. What are the credentials of that person or organization? Are they really qualified to speak on this topic?
  3. Sources matter…part 2. Okay, so you track down the source of a video you’ve seen on Facebook about Covid 19 and, yes, the person speaking is actually a doctor. Good enough, right? Oh, but wait, that doctor has publicly stated that gynecological problems like cysts and endometriosis are the result of people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches, and that alien DNA is used in medical treatments and that scientists are working on a vaccine to stop people from being religious. So, no, not good enough. Character and history also matter. A string of letters after someone’s name is not an automatic guarantee that they can be trusted or that they are a credible authority.
  4. Unleash your inner toddler. If you’ve ever ended up in a conversation with a small human where they ask you a question, and you answer that question, and then they ask “Why?”, and for the next ten minutes every answer you give is followed by “Why?”, then you know what I’m talking about. I’ve had numerous debates about conspiracy theories where I take on the role of “never stop asking questions” toddler. In the case of conspiracy theories, you’re probably not going to change anyone’s mind but the more questions you ask, the vaguer and weirder and more defensive the answers become, the more you will know that you’re dealing with a hoax.
  5. Expose your beliefs to daylight. I used to be one of those folks who was anti-chemicals when it came to whatever I ate or drank. Chemicals are bad! If you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it! But after some conversations with actual scientists and science enthusiasts I realized that, um, EVERYTHING is “chemicals”. Can you pronounce “Protocatechuic-Acid”? Guess where you can find that evil sounding chemical…in an apple (yes, in an organic, non-GMO, pesticide-free apple). I still believe in eating lots of healthy, whole foods but by examining my beliefs around nutrition, I’ve learned that much of what I clung to as truth was false or misleading and that has allowed me to enjoy more food and suffer from less stress about my health. Big or small, examining our beliefs is part of that whole “growth” thing I mentioned.
  6. Not everything needs to be shared. Look, if you know me, you know I share a lot of stuff on social media—cat photos and videos, jokes, articles I find interesting, fishing pictures, cool science, etc—but you might be surprised at how much I consider sharing and choose not to. Part of thinking critically online is to stop and ask yourself, “Why do I want to share this?” Here are some of my reasons for not sharing that you might want to consider: 1. I like the message but the person or organization sharing the message is problematic and I don’t want to increase their viewership. 2. I don’t agree with everything in the message (ex. I support Black Lives Matter and I oppose violence against protestors but I don’t believe “All Cops Are Bastards” and so I won’t share anything that combines those messages). 3. I can’t verify the facts. 4. The message is designed to emotionally manipulate the reader or viewer in a way I consider dishonest or harmful. 5. I don’t want to shit on people’s harmless fun (ex. I hate a book or movie that lots of fans love). 6. The message is a subject best discussed by people who understand it more than I do (in which case, I will try to be a signal booster for those people).
  7. Ask: What emotions am I feeling and why? Powerful emotions are seductive. The recent variety of reactions to the protests in Seattle and Portland reminded me of watching the news coverage of the Iraq “War” under George W. Back then, Fred and I would scroll between CBC, CNN, FOX, and BBC and marvel at how it seemed as if there were four very different wars going on. What was most striking was how neither CNN nor FOX News ever seemed to show the damage and suffering of ordinary Iraqi citizens or to examine the conflict with any nuance, choosing to keep their focus on The Troops, The Brave Troops, DANGER, TERRORISM, FIGHT FOR FREEDOM, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, RAWR! Americans, still reeling from the shock of 9/11, were fed a steady diet of high grade media fear and the repercussions continue to this day, when we see the DHS, supposedly created to prevent terrorist attacks in the US, turned loose upon US citizens protesting discrimination and racism. There is absolutely a time for emotions like anger but we still need to ask those hard questions. We need to be sure that our buttons aren’t being deliberately pushed by folks who do not have our best interests at heart. We need to know, when we speak and act, that we do so from a place of all the facts, not hearsay and propaganda.

Thank you, maybe-one-person, for reading all that. I suppose I will continue to be that annoying person on social media who begs people to fact check and consider their sources, etc. waving my puny knife around while nuclear bombs fall. Thanks to that stupid philosophy course, I refuse to abandon the importance of words.

Oh, do you want to know the answer to that opening question?

There is no answer. Why? Because of one simple word…

“Twice”.

The word “twice”, in this context, is subjective. The woman feels it is twice as cold. She’s speaking about her personal observation not referencing an actual temperature. You can’t apply a subjective idea to a scientific measurement. That’s the extremely simplified version of the answer I gave in my essay, which gained me an A- (she said, very braggily). It took me some time to find that answer and only my complete suckitude at math eventually led me down the right path. But  that question stuck into my brain the importance of thinking critically about ideas that seem simple and straightforward on the surface.

One word can change everything.

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It’s Just the Flu

Doctor wearing a surgical maskJan 2, 2007, somewhere in Oregon, I noticed my throat was sore. Probably just a cold, no big deal, I thought. This is where the narrator of my life should have said, “But it was not just a cold and it was, in fact, a very big deal.”

That sore throat was the beginning of the worst flu I have ever experienced. I spent the night in a roadside motel in Twenty-nine Palms, California, alternating between lying naked on the tiled shower floor to try and cool down, and putting on every layer of clothing I could find and shivering feverishly under the covers. Today I looked up my blog post from that time and it included the following description:

Sometime in the middle of the night I awoke with the horrible realization that there were approximately 27 hedge hogs dancing the Macarena in my stomach and someone had turned the thermostat down to Antarctic-Degrees-Celsius. On top of that, someone was pouring hot, liquid lead down my ear canals; another someone had set fire to my eyeballs and was inflating them with a tire pump. Meanwhile, Mike Tyson was busy perfecting his right and left hooks on my kidneys. I was in the grips of a monster flu and my sole consolation was that we were in a motel room and not camping on some deserted stretch of nowhere.

Ugh. Yes, I remember it well.

The next day, we arrived at the home of our dear friend Liz, and Fred ran interference to protect our host from the plague. I slept for 24 hours solid. What followed was weeks of misery. When the globs of grossness I was hacking up started coming out bloody, I gave in and went to a doctor (always a scary prospect for a Canadian in the USA). The prescribed medicine helped, but for months afterward—months!—I remained constantly tired and lethargic. I fell into a funk and would later discover that I was one of the lucky few for whom the flu increases the risk of depression. Hooray. I’d never experienced actual, clinical depression before that time but ever since that flu it rears its morbid head when it is least appreciated.

What I had was “just the flu” and it was fucking awful. I suffered for months and the time I should have been spending hiking and fishing and enjoying the Baja countryside and my friends, was spent sick, in pain, or battling depression. And I was lucky.

Let me repeat that: I was lucky.

I was lucky because I was on vacation at the time and had the luxury of a nice place to recover, a husband and friends to take care of me, and I was otherwise young and fit, which made recovery easier. I didn’t miss any work. I didn’t have kids or family members to look after. I was able to afford the prescription medicine that eased my symptoms. But, most importantly, it was just the flu. Yes, the flu kills many people every year—mostly those who are very young, very old, or who are already vulnerable—but for someone like me the virus would be a minor annoyance and the after effects (with the exception of the depression) would vanish soon enough.

I was lucky because it was “just the flu” and I didn’t have to reasonably worry that anyone I’d come into contact with, including our lovely host, could end up dead.

There is a “but”, though.

But…that “just the flu” didn’t have to happen.

Why did I get that flu? Because I’d attended a small house party on New Year’s Eve, with some good friends, and one of their friends chose to come even though she knew she was sick. I didn’t know she was sick. Not when we hugged at midnight, not when we were playing hilarious party games like “pass the orange from neck to neck”, not when we laughed and ate and drank so dangerously close to each other.

All that needed to happen for me to avoid months of misery, and depression that will follow me for the rest of my life, was for a sick person to choose to stay home and avoid infecting others.

Of course I was angry when I found out the cause but I couldn’t stay mad for long. We’ve all been there, right? We feel a little “under the weather” but we don’t want to miss a good time, so we go out anyway. We go to work sick, even we when can afford not to. We shop sick, we go to school sick, we exercise sick. As long as we can, we do. Not because we’re selfish monsters and we want everyone else to be sick, but because we’ve been bottle fed on the idea that illness equals weakness. Because it’s “just a cold” or it’s “just a flu”. We have put a sadly low price on our health and the health of others—and now we’re paying a much higher price for that attitude.

I’ve noticed a steady decrease on social media of the “just a flu” comments around Covid 19. In part, because the virus has shown us how much more pernicious and dangerous it is compared to the usual seasonal flu, in part because I’ve been ruthlessly unfriending people who refuse to accept basic science, and in part because the new hip topic is masks. To wear or not to wear?

The fact is simple: masks help stop the spread of Covid 19 and almost everyone can wear one with no side effects whatsoever. However, once more, waves of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and junk science are creating another infodemic.

You may be on the fence. After all, it was confusing that in the beginning we were told that masks were not necessary and yet now we’re being told the opposite, right? Or maybe you do know that masks help protect others buuuuuut it feels weird to wear one and you don’t want to be looked at or laughed at while you grocery shop. Or maybe you’re looking around where you are and there are no cases so you feel safe, and, sure, you know there are no cases because everyone took the appropriate steps early on but that’s all behind us. (It’s not, but we’ll put that aside for a moment). If so, I ask you to consider my story of “just the flu”.

How would you feel if you were sick for months and you found out it was because someone chose to be around you when they knew they were sick and probably contagious? What would you think about that person while you missed work or couldn’t care for your family or perhaps missed out on an important life event all because they didn’t take one simple step to protect you? What would you think about that person if your illness put you in the hospital or left you with debilitating side effects for life? What would you think about that person if you caught their illness and didn’t develop symptoms but unknowingly passed it on to someone you loved? What if that person you loved died from it? All because one person chose not to take the smallest, simplest action to protect you.

What if you were the person who made that choice?

I wear a mask in every indoor public place, and in every public place where I know I can’t safely distance. I wear a mask because it’s easy, it’s safe, and it works. I wear a mask because screw the social norms that have devalued our health and wellness for generations. I wear a mask because even if Covid 19 was “just the flu” (it’s not, to be clear) I don’t want to be the asshole that puts someone else through what I went through in 2007. I wear a mask because some slight social discomfort is worth more than finding out one day that I was responsible for someone’s preventable death. I wear a mask because the more people who do it, the easier it will be for people who aren’t as socially daring as I am. I wear a mask because I want this to end and I want to hug my friends and family and go to New Year’s Eve parties and play silly games and laugh and kiss and dance, and the sooner we all work together to stop the spread, the sooner that can happen.

Covid 19 is not just the flu. A bad flu is fucking awful; Covid 19, unchecked, is mass graves, economic collapse, people you love suffering and/or dying alone, supply chains breaking down, every existing social ill exploding exponentially, hospitals overwhelmed and health care workers in constant danger, borders between friendly nations closed indefinitely.

I am willing to bet everything I own that, even though the stakes were low, if the person who infected me at that party in 2007 could go back in time and choose to stay home to avoid passing their illness to others, they would.

So.

Now the stakes are high.

The choice is yours and it’s a simple one.

Wear a mask.

Please.

Posted in Family & Children, Health and wellness, News and politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment