I love being a story-teller and I have this idea that it would be rad to share some of the significant experiences I’ve had using a narrative format. I want to tell stories about things that connect with the purpose of head/strong—abuse, mental health, life, love… I want to engage people in conversations about these things in creative ways, so settle in everyone; it’s story time.
P.S. Obviously privacy is important, so names will always be changed, but the stories are otherwise true.
I’m 15-years-old and, along with 30 or so other kids, I’m sitting in a cold and musty portable for my Grade 10 English class with Miss Lee. This week we’re studying media literacy and today we’re starting a group assignment looking at the messages and imagery advertisers use to promote their products. We’re a few minutes into the class, groups have been assigned, and we’ve be given most of the period to work on our presentations.
My group is gathered close to the front of the portable. I remember seeing the chalkboard directly ahead of me—it was filled with our teacher’s neat, curly, cursive writing. I stand up to retrieve the package of assignment guidelines, printed on blue copier paper, from the teacher’s desk at the front of the class.
As I return to my group and begin to sit down on my chair, something jabs me between my legs. Shocked, I look behind me and I see, grinning up at me, the face of a boy in my group. In his hand is a blue, Bic pen, poised vertically on the seat of my chair.
I sort of register what’s happened, but I don’t know what to say… So I blush, I hold back embarrassed and confused tears, and I force myself to start the work with my group. But, through my thin, Jockey underwear and the jeans I stole from my older sister, I feel bruised and tingly. In fact, my shock makes it impossible for me to feel anything else until the bell rings and I’m shaken into the present moment.
As my classmates file out of the portable, I decide that I’m going to say something to my teacher. I wait for the classroom to empty and then I head over to Miss Lee’s desk.
I am so embarrassed and I can barely get the words out, but Miss Lee is young and friendly, she has a kind and approachable face.
“Brian stuck his pen up between my legs at the beginning of class.”
She asks me to repeat what I just told her, so I do. My cheeks burn with embarrassment and shame for not understanding what happened and for not just ignoring it like I’m sure most other girls would. Miss Lee asks me a few more questions, which I do my best to answer before stumbling out of the portable.
Later that day, my parents get a phone call from my school. Miss Lee has talked to the administrators, and Brian and his parents have had a meeting with them; Brian denied everything. I tell my parents what I know happened and I resolve to face Brian at school the next day. Where this courage comes from, I’m not sure, but it doesn’t last, because when I show up at Miss Lee’s portable for my second-period English classI’m met with nasty taunts from Brian and his friends, who are standing outside the portable’s door. They call me a liar and a slut. They say I just want attention. They make me cry.
I uncharacteristically skip Miss Lee’s class that day.
Time passes and the incident quickly blows over. I mean, it’s not really that big of a deal, right? Boys will be boys? Maybe it didn’t even happen…did I make it all up?
No, I didn’t.
In Miss Lee’s grade 10 English class, I learned that advertisers use women’s bodies to sell everything from cigarettes to shoes. I also learned that boys can shove Bic pens between girls’ legs and it’s not called sexual assault. I learned that I should feel shame for something that made me feel violated and that I should just get over it, because most people don’t think it’s a big deal, especially not Brian.
But I don’t ever really get over it, and the truth is, I still feel that pen sometimes.
I live with a dual mental health diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Of the two, anxiety is the stronger beast and tends to take first billing in the screenplay of my life. One of the core contributors to my anxiety is an ever-present and absolutely fervent desire to be perfect. I try to come off as cool and calm and relaxed—ha! The vicious truth is that the effort I put into seeming nonchalant about things is actually a symptom of my perfectionism.
Anxiety produces hyper-vigilance in me so habitual that it pervades all of my life. Everything ends up being calculated and controlled and set up so that I have the absolute best chance of not failing or embarrassing myself, even if the threat of failure or embarrassment isn’t actually real.
It’s kinda messed up, right?
These are the levels of thinking that Generalized Anxiety Disorder bequeaths upon me! I have the gift/curse of being so so so SO aware of every goddamn thing I’m doing all the time. And if I perceive a risk of failure or humiliation, no matter how small, it’s always a full-stop.
Okay, there are probably times when I can’t avoid risky situations (okay, there are definitely times when I can’t avoid risky situations…), but that doesn’t stop me from doing everything I can to mitigate the chances that I won’t be successful.
I’m not exaggerating: perfectionism rules my world, friends.
In some ways, my perfectionism is good; it pushes me to strive for success, which can be very motivating and, in certain contexts like school, perfectionism helps me succeed at a high level. It makes me an attentive mother/friend/lover/daughter/sister/person and it ensures that I give my full effort to whatever I take on.
But here’s the other edge of the sword; perfectionism is my enemy too. When its hyper-vigilant voice takes control, it debilitates me and vilifies me with feelings of unworthiness, failure, guilt, and shame. Sometimes I can’t do something because I’m too afraid that I will fail. Sometimes, unexpected challenges or variations pop up and my carefully-crafted perfectionist plan gets thrown out the window, which triggers major anxiety in me. A lot of the time, perfectionism makes things take waaaaaaaaaay longer than they need to, because I have to lay out and follow a prescribed set of steps to accomplish whatever level of success my perfectionism has determined for me.
I can’t even send a fucking text message without re-reading it eight times and checking for typos. And heaven forbid if I edit my text, send it, and then find a latent typo! The shame I feel on those occasions is akin to when you accidentally call your grade 4 teacher “Daddy” instead of Mr. Snair (not that I ever did that!). Or when you’re 12 years old and you catch your toe on an uneven patch of sidewalk and stumble awkwardly while sauntering past your current crush AKA the love of your life AKA THEONLY PERSON WHO MATTERS IN THE ENTIRE WORLD
Writing this blog is a test of patience and mental fortitude for me. I will admit, I re-read everything I write, including unpublished drafts and the bits and bobs I keep around as potential writing topics in the future, at least 800,000,000 times before I hit “publish.” Then I look them over another bajillion times after publishing to affirm (and reaffirm, and re-reaffirm, and re-re-reaffirm…) that my writing is worthy of being looked at by other people.
In my past relationships, perfectionism fed my codependent behaviour and my abusers benefited greatly from my desire to make things perfect (i.e. the work I put into making them happy, keeping our lives together, making it look like everything was okay to others, etc…). They used this to encourage me into putting more and more effort into fulfilling their desires, instead of addressing my own needs. Emotional abusers don’t care about the amount of effort their victim puts forth, they only care about getting what they want. I was the perfect candidate for the job of codependent and perfectionism was a big contributor to helping me get hired.
I know that perfectionism isn’t a healthy habit. I also know that it’s something I’ll have to keep working on, probably for the rest of my life. In fact, one thing I’ve come to understand about a diagnosis of something like Generalized Anxiety Disorder, is that it’s a lifelong diagnosis and that the effects of this disease can be managed, but never eliminated.
Perfectionism is a part of me that will never go away, but I do practice relieving myself of the pressure to be perfect as often as possible. I try to allow myself to fail. I try to allow myself to make mistakes. I attempt to allow myself to not know something every once in awhile. I also let myself ask for help (well I try to, at least!).
I may have to force myself to do these things, but I do them because I know that putting myself in these situations prepares me for when it’s not a choice to have things change. Maybe the funny part of this is that in choosing to allow myself these transgressions, I’m still allowing my perfectionism and anxiety to hold the reins, but this way they remain at a distance. I’m electing to put myself into “risky” situations so that I can be better prepared for when truly risky moments occur.
So I’m still being perfectionist—I’m still plotting out the course I will take every single day. It’s just nuanced so that outwardly, it doesn’t appear that I’m controlling things and so that inwardly, I still get peace of mind and maintain a sense of control, which helps me manage my anxiety and makes me feel successful.
Does perfectionism rule your life too? Maybe we should start a support group… How about, “Life Will Never Be Perfect So Let’s Get Real About That And Figure Shit Out Anonymous”?
Up until very recently I was living a depleted life. My days were filled with anxiety and depression, I was constantly overwhelmed and tired. My sleep was poor, I got light-headed all the time, I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t remember things, and I couldn’t keep up in general. I once had a naturopathic doctor posit that I felt this way because my body‘s resources were completely depleted and couldn’t keep up to the intense amount of stress I was going/had gone through. This sentiment was echoed by other medical and mental health professionals to the point where I accepted it as fact.
But my mission now, with my divorce settlement set in stone and my life much more in order, is to rejuvenate my body, soul, and mind and to give myself the loving care Ideserve and have so needed.
To that end, I’ve sought out help. I have an A-list team of mental health, medical, and wellness practitioners assisting me in my recovery. Since seeking help, I’ve made huge (read: GINORMOUS) strides in bettering my mental and physical health: I’m on medications that seem to be helping me, I have counsellors whom I trust implicitly, I have friends and family on my side, and I have healthier outlets for my anger, my sadness, and my anxiety.
Right now, I’m working, just a little bit, which is something I hadn’t been able to do for years.
Right now I’m dating, just a little bit, which is also something I couldn’t have handled even just a little while ago.
I’m relaxing, just a little bit, which is something I had forgotten how to do.
And I’m eating—I’m eating well!—which is really the crux of what I want to talk about here. Because, like many other people, I have body issues and food issues, and these issues get more or less out of hand depending on how well or not well I’m doing.
Last autumn I lost 20 pounds. It just fell off me between October and November.
It was gone.
Some people would rejoice at shedding 20 pounds, but I know (and I knew at the time) that the weight loss wasn’t healthy for me. This weight loss was the result of tremors and panic attacks; it was the result of my lack of sleep and my lack of exercise. Really, it was the result of a deep depression and severe anxiety that made me lose my appetite and lose my will to try.
Fast forward to a few months ago when I hired a clinical nutritionist named Trish to help me make a healthy eating plan. Trish is awesome and one of the things I love about her is that she gives her clients a life plan, not just a nutrition plan. So when we met we had a conversation about, and I received personalized recommendations for, sleep, exercise, nutrition, sex/birth control, mindfulness, and stress management. Trish and I extensively combed through my habits and my preferences, as well as my stresses and my struggles. She learned about the meds I’m on, my hormonal cycle…everything!
Did you know that gluten can significantly affect our mental health? I had no idea.
Did you know that people can have late onset lactose intolerance? It turns out I’m one of those lucky late-bloomers.
Did you know that soy can do incredible damage to your hormonal cycle? I actually knew this, but I honestly didn’t realize how much it had affected me (fyi: I was vegetarian for 8 years, so soy was a staple in my diet!).
There are lots of fad diets out there like Keto and Paleo and GAPS that try to convince you that they are the BEST and ONLY way to eat. I know many people feel successful at addressing their body/food/health issues by following one of these diets, but I truly subscribe to the belief that each of our bodies is different and therefore each of our bodies has different needs.
My body’s not your body, your body’s not my body, and everyone should stop treating them as if they are the same.
So Trish and I came up with this plan, which I’ve been implementing for over three months now and guess what? IT’S LITERALLY BEEN LIFE-CHANGING!
I am NOT used to what it feels like to have a healthy body; I’m not familiar with having stamina and strength and fullness. I love these changes, but here’s the rub: I love how I’m feeling, but I don’t love my body right now.
Those 20 pounds I lost last autumn? They’re back, and then some. In fact, I’m heavier now (aside from during my pregnancies) than I have ever been before. My clothes all feel tight. My belly is rounder. My teeny boobs are definitely less teeny. My thighs are chunkier. And don’t even get me started on the increasing voluptuousness of my booty.
My instinct is to hate it. And I mean HATE it. Feminist that I am, I’ve still fallen prey to the body image standards that society dictates and the messaging I got from family and friends growing up. I’ll sheepishly admit that I’ve always prided myself on being thin. But fuck, it turns out I was living a thin-privileged existence because this weight is really, really getting to me!
I can try to rationalize it to myself however the hell I want and I still always come back to “I look fat.” I avoid looking into mirrors now, because “I look fat.” I struggle to choose my clothes each morning, because “I’m too fat.” I feel self-conscious and so, so body-aware all the time.
And I know it’s bullshit. I know, intellectually, that this is a crock of shit that my anxious, sick, unhealthy selfcreated. I know that what I’m saying is stupid, but I feel like it’s completely and utterly true.
At least, I did until this afternoon.
Today, I put on my favourite pair of soft, body-hugging leggings, and a form-fitting, ribbed tank top, because I knew I wasn’t leaving the house and I knew that I wanted to wear something comfortable (none of my actual pants fit me anyway!). My daughters and I were busy all morning so I forgot to worry about whether or not my tummy was protruding or my thighs looked lumpy. Then I saw myself in the bathroom mirror at lunch time and my gut instinct was to feel revulsion, which is really the point I was at with myself! I immediately felt repulsed by my own image, but then a second later, I had an epiphany:
What if this is what healthy looks like on me?
What if this is what healthy looks like on me?
What if this body, these extra fifteen pounds or so, what if this is the body I’m supposed to have in order to be strong and energetic and beautiful and sexy? Oh my god what if??
When I left my ex-husband, I chose to do so because I knew I’d rather explain to my children why I left than why I didn’t. And today I decided to tell myself that I would rather be healthier and happier with fifteen “extra” pounds than keep living the hollow, depleted life I had been surviving in for the last two decades. I would rather eat well and feel full, buy pants a size or two bigger, have seconds if I want them, and snack instead of falling prey to my hypoglycemia…I would rather be bigger and find a way to feel beautiful at THIS size, than keep starving myself.
This has been a profound realization for me. And it’s one that I know I’ll be digesting (pardon the pun…not!) for quite a while.
I want to love my new body. I mean, even when I was thin (thinner?) I didn’t like myself! So what the hell do I have to lose in embracing the changes that are happening, which are OVERWHELMINGLY positive, and accepting that I am now this way and that it’s completely, entirely, fucking alright.
Who gives a shit that I have a few extra pounds on me?
Who cares that it took me this long to start feeling better?
What matters most is that I’m reaping the benefits of paying attention and giving my body what it needs. What matters is that I’m striving to embrace the version of me that looks different, but feels good. What matters is that I’m edging towards thriving instead of just surviving, and if achieving that requires me to go out and buy a couple new pairs of pants, then it’s most definitely worth it.
Maybe this is what my body looks like when it’s healthy.
You know what? Fuck maybe.
This IS what my body looks like when it’s healthy! And I’m going to fucking embrace it.