Burn Anyway

I came across this little piece by Erin van Vuren the other day:

Its appearance on my computer screen felt like a moment of serendipity.

Fuck them. Burn anyway.”

These were exactly the words I needed to hear as I was, in that moment and in the last few weeks, experiencing some major insecurity about head/strong and about speaking up in general.

By choosing to make my experiences and my words public, I’ve had to push through a lot of fear. My anxiety creates a sense of fear around literally everything, but choosing to write publicly about my life—my past, my kids, my struggles, everything!—has essentially been a practice of putting something on a page, closing my eyes, and hitting “publish” before I chicken out or throw up.

That’s because the act of sharing something personal, of offering something authentic to the world, also means being vulnerable. And feeling vulnerable is a deeply uncomfortable feeling. Even more so when you are a person who has been taken advantage of in moments of vulnerability before.

The current authority on vulnerability is most definitely Brené Brown. Her amazing TED talk about vulnerability, aptly titled, “The power of vulnerability” has been viewed on the TED website over 38 million times. Her 1.2 million Instagram followers, plus her five New York Times best-selling books, attest to Brené Brown being a tour-de-force in her chosen field of study (not to mention the fact that she has a PhD in Sociology, is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW), and teaches at the university of Houston in Texas. No big deal, right?).

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

Brené Brown

I’ve put myself in a position where I feel excruciatingly vulnerable. I felt this way when I first started talking to friends and family about my mental health struggles and the issues in my marriage. I felt this way every time I went and spoke to a counsellor and tried to dig deeper into what was causing me so much pain and heartache. And now I feel this way every time I sit down to write, and especially when I share that writing here on my blog and via Instagram or Facebook.

I’d be lying if I said that writing for head/strong isn’t partially about creating a sense of catharsis for myself—it does help make me feel justified in my experience. But I think that’s a helpful thing for me and for anyone who reads this. I’ve learned that there’s a difference between writing for yourself and writing for an audience (thank you Janelle Hanchett) and for every post I make, I keep this guidance in mind and I try to tread the line between being vulnerable (and therefore, authentic) and not using my blog as a personal diary.

I recognize that I’m the one who has put myself into this very liable position. I could have continued to keep my mouth shut, keep my words to myself, and not allow myself to be vulnerable. I was pretty much a master at maintaining the status quo already (regardless of how much it was hurting me), and likely could have kept on maintaining.

Except that I couldn’t.

And also, I wouldn’t.

I mean, I won’t.

A fire’s been lit inside me (to reference back to the piece from Erin van Vuren) and now…well now, I’m not going to shut up.

I think my experience gives me something worth saying and I think that using my life as an example allows people to connect better with what I’m talking about. I’m trying to connect with emotional abuse survivors, mental health warriors, and the people who support them. This is a very courageous, yet delicate group of people. Trust definitely needs to be earned authentically, so I feel its necessary to share about my life. I need to show that I’m in the club too; I’ve lived what I’m talking about.

The flames that are now flickering with head/strong want to grow and I want to fan them and let things build into a flaming inferno (not to be dramatic or anything…). I want to become a powerful woman who uses her position of authority to accomplish something meaningful and head/strong is an avenue to do that.

So I’m stoking the fire. It was lit a few months ago, really, when I made my first post and committed to writing every week. The spark I struck by hitting “publish” that very first time has ignited a flame and I intend to grow that fire and burn the hell out of anything that gets in my way.

I let myself be full of ashes for most of my life, but I won’t allow my light to be dimmed again. I’m not going to stop burning, even if I’m afraid.

Because I think we need to talk more about emotional abuse.

We need to talk more about domestic abuse.

We need to talk more about mental health.

We need to talk more about single parents and divorce and writing and creativity and healing and struggling and we need to allow ourselves to come from a place of vulnerability so that we can authentically connect.

So look for big things. Watch as I fumble around and try to make head/strong grow. Stick with me (I hope) and be vulnerable alongside me. There’s beauty in the flames, remember?

xxJ

Burn, baby, burn.

Til Death Do Us Part

When you have a partner who is narcissistic or emotionally abusive and you make the choice to leave them, the advice that’s always given is to go “no contact” and cut them out of your life completely.

That would work beautifully as a solution to healing from the emotional trauma of being in a relationship with a narcissistic emotional abuser. Except…

What about when you can’t go “no contact”?

What about those of us who created beautiful children with terrible people? What about the women and men who have left an abusive partner but can’t fully escape them because of the children they share?

What about the people like me?


The single, most difficult thing about my life now is managing the co-parenting relationship I have with my daughters’ father. It feels like I continue to hold the vast majority of the parenting responsibility, as I always did, but am required to engage in a relationship with my children’s’ father, regardless of my history with him.

My struggle in this relationship is so bad that I’ve idealized the lives of other parents whose former partners have completely abandoned them and their children. I recognize (and empathize so much with) how incredibly difficult it must be for these parents, financially and otherwise. But I envy the freedom they have when it comes to making decisions for, and being caregivers of, their children.

I also envy my friends who got divorced BEFORE they had kids. In my mind, that type of divorce is akin to ending a middle-school relationship; you both move on and it never has to matter in your life again EVER. Again, I’m not saying it’s easy, just that it’s easier than divorcing when you have kids.

I don’t actually think of what my ex and I do as co-parenting. In fact, there’s a different term for the type of parenting we do: it’s called “parallel parenting.” “Parallel parenting” looks more like a business relationship than a typical parenting relationship. You detach from the other parent and operate separately, aside from making major decisions together. This article explains it much better than I can, but hopefully I’ve given you the gist.

Thinking about all this stuff makes me wonder, how do other parents manage when their partner is abusive? Whether that person is narcissistic, emotionally abusive, physically abusive, or just a shitty person…how do the non-abusive parents cope with an ongoing parenting relationship? Because it’s hard. It’s really, really, fucking hard. And it takes time to figure out ways of coping.

If you also need to continue engaging in a difficult relationship, I do have a few ways you can help minimize the effect it has on your day to day life. You can do things like…

  • Setting a specific ring- and text-tone for your former partner. This way, when calls or messages come in you know right away who it is and you can pause to prepare yourself before answering.
  • Bathing your children when they return home (or having them shower if they’re old enough) and washing the clothes they came home in. I find that scent is a HUGE trigger for me. If it’s a problem for you too, you can eliminate or reduce triggering smells by literally washing them away and the kids never have to be the wiser. All you need to say is “it’s bath night!” and that’s enough.
  • Doing all pick-ups and drop-offs outside your house or in a neutral location. Two choices here: either arrange to meet your ex and the kids somewhere close to home, but not AT your home, or move the pick-ups/drop-offs to your driveway. Again, this is about putting boundaries in your life (and your children’s lives) to keep you feeling safe and secure. Your home should be your sanctuary and if you feel threatened by your ex, inviting them in—or even just having them stand in your doorway—may be too much to ask of yourself. On top of that, and I may have some personal experience with this, opening the door to your ex may enable them to invade your space without permission. So do the drop-offs elsewhere and keep your space sacred (or at least douche-bag free).
  • A similar solution, if it’s possible with your kids, would be to arrange pick-ups and drop-offs around the school schedule so you don’t even need to face your ex at all. Yay!
  • Calling in the recruits! When you have to face your ex, having back-up in the form of another trusted person (a parent, new partner, or friend, for example) can help immensely. Not only is there strength in numbers (or at least that’s how it will look if there are two or more of you), having another person there holds both you and, more importantly, your ex accountable for what is said and done. (Soooo what I’m saying, really, is to make sure there are witnesses, because if your life starts to look more like a crime drama than an actual life, you may need them.)
  • Hiring a professional. If you have the funds, hire a parenting coach or counsellor and attend sessions separately (parallel parenting, remember?). Let the coach do the work of managing your ex’s outbursts, irrational behaviour, out-of-whack expectations, and all other forms of bullshit. If you do end up meeting as a group, you’ll have the counsellor or coach there to keep things on track and keep everyone feeling safe.

Telling abuse survivors who are parents to go no contact with our abusers is actually shitty advice We don’t get to go no contact—it turns out that when you have children with your abuser, “til death do us part” is a life sentence whether you stay married or not. Instead, we should be given tools and language that enable us to set up and, here’s the key part, maintain strong, healthy boundaries that protect us when we feel (or are literally) threatened. Life’s not as simple as just turning away from our problems and when you have kids, you always have to stare those issues straight in the face.  

xxJ


My home is my sanctuary. I feel safe here and my daughters feel at home. We can be secure in these walls no matter what else is going on.

I’m a Codependent

So I guess I’m into admitting things on here now…? Last week I came clean as a swear-aholic (damn right!), a few months ago I talked about being a perfectionist, and really the whole point of this blog was to come out as an abuse survivor and talk about it.

Well, it’s time to admit one more of my issues: I’m a recovering codependent.

It took me a long time to realize my issues with codependency. In fact, I had no idea what “codependent” meant until 2016 when it came up at the mental health day program I attended. I remember that day so clearly because when the clinician explained codependency to our group, I got shivers up my back: I had never been described so perfectly before.



(source)

Language has power, right? And so does knowledge, to paraphrase the familiar colloquialism. Coming to understand the word “codependency” and recognizing how I participated in codependent relationships…shit! It was eye-opening! And it allowed me to take a monumental step forward in my therapy work and in my recovery as an abuse survivor.

I now imagine a codependent relationship as a circle—it’s a revolving loop of two people who need each other in the worst possible way. I’ve come to believe that it’s also a form of self-medication; whether we are the person in the relationship who holds power or we are their victim, we’re still using another person to try to fulfill a need.

In emotional abuse, power-hungry narcissists create a “sub-reality” in which they gaslight, manipulate, use, or otherwise abuse their victims. Narcissists prey on passive individuals who often have a strong inclination towards being caregivers and once victims are convinced that we’re responsible for our abusers, the cycle of codependency is created.

But how can you recognize signs of codependency in your own relationship or with people you care about?

Never fear, I have a list! (Note: I’m going to assume in my list that you are looking to identify codependent tendencies in yourself, but you could easily interpret these when looking at someone else. Also, I use the term “partner” when talking about the other person in a relationship, but for most of these points it could also be your parent, sibling, friend, coworker, or another person in your life. Read it however you need to.)


How to Tell If You Are Codependent: A Handy List

1. You define your worth based on the opinions of others

More likely, on the opinion of one, specific person (i.e. your partner). Codependent people require external sources to tell them who they are and if or how much they matter.

2. You no longer trust your own experience.

You question your feelings, thoughts, and behaviours and always assume that you are wrong. You live with a deep sense of shame, guilt, or embarrassment, regardless of what you say or do.

3. You consistently put your partner’s needs before your own.

You never say “no,” you get things done regardless of your own needs, and if your efforts don’t “work” you become depressed and feel like a failure.

4. You cover for your partner’s shortcomings and feel responsible for their behaviour.

You come to believe that no matter how they act, your partner’s behaviour is a reflection on YOU because you have assumed responsibility for it. (Or rather, they have foisted the responsibility upon you and because you’re codependent, you accept it.)

5. You feel viciously abused by the mildest criticism.

This is because you’re working so damn hard to keep the person who holds the power happy and because you depend on them for your own happiness. In this situation it’s easy to begin thinking self-deprecating or suicidal thoughts, especially in moments when you feel criticized.

6. You seek permission from your partner before doing anything.

Since you can’t trust yourself (see #2) and you need the approval of another to let you know that what you’re doing is okay (see #1), you always have to ask for permission first. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, without your partner’s “okay” you can’t confidently do anything. (And it should go without saying that gaining this “permission” is often excruciatingly difficult.)

7. You are always afraid that your partner is going to leave you.

This becomes your worst fear and leads to doing just about anything in order to ensure that your partner stays with you.

8. You focus on your partner’s emotions and struggle to differentiate between how you feel and how they feel.

Instead of having your own thoughts and feelings, you become a mirror for the other person’s emotions.

9. You change your personal values for your partner’s.

You become utterly loyal to them and adopt their values as your own. You may take on their interests and hobbies and will quickly back off when challenged to avoid anger or rejection.

10. You have become hyper-vigilant and are compelled to keep track of your partner at all times.

You know their routine inside-out and backwards, you jump up as soon as they enter a room, you are constantly listening out for them, and you put significant effort into anticipating what they need before they even need it.

11. You’ve become controlling with others (NOT the person you are codependent with).

Since you feel so utterly out of control in your own life, you attempt to regain a sense of stability by exerting strict boundaries or expectations on other people, or in other places, in your life.

12. You avoid conflict with your partner at all costs.

Your #1 operative is to keep the peace with your partner, so you acquiesce, you give in, you avoid; you do whatever is necessary to make sure everything is “okay.”

13. You allow your body to be used for your partner’s pleasure.

Sex becomes an act of duty and you allow your body to be used regardless of whether or not you want to participate. You may fear your partner’s touch, but you’re simultaneously compelled to give in because you can’t say no and view sex as one of the things you “have” to do in order to keep your partner happy.

14. You participate in self harm in response to the codependent relationship.

“Self harm” can happen in many ways, but it is all an attempt to regain a sense of control (see #11). We typically think of self harm as cutting yourself, but it can also include bingeing on or restricting food, pulling out your hair, picking at your skin, forcing yourself to stay awake, exercising excessively, using drugs or alcohol, or engaging in any behaviour that intentionally causes your body harm.


I’ve heard it said that once you’re an addict, you’re always an addict, and I now know that one of my addictions is being codependent. I vividly remember living that way, but after a lot of very hard work, I’m now able to have healthy relationships instead of destructive ones.

I hope sharing this helps other people recognize codependency and take steps towards managing it in their own lives or with someone they love. Thankfully, I’ve been able to radically change my experience and the best advice I think I can give is to reach out, get help, learn more, and focus on your own needs first. You can overcome codependency. You absolutely can.

xxJ

Codependents; the modern day two-headed monsters. (source)

I’m At My Best When I’m Depressed

Depression can be described as a deep sensation of numbness. Of sadness. Heaviness. Loneliness. A profound sense of despair. An internalized sense of being unworthy. Constantly feeling isolated and invisible.

Depression is like:

“A distance between you and the world. You cannot see any tangible future, so there is a feeling of hopelessness. It takes extra effort to do anything because the world is so far away, and emotions rarely make it through the void either so you are numb and distant (and all to [sic] often using lots of energy to prevent people from realising [sic] how you actually feel).”

source

Saying that depression sucks would definitely be an understatement, but I want to argue that, actually, I’m at my best when I’m depressed. Let me try to explain…

When I’m depressed, I feel tired all the time. Actually, not just tired, exhausted. I can sleep for two hours or 20 hours and still not feel rested. But everyday, I get up and I get through it.

When I’m depressed, I imagine that I don’t matter; I feel an ongoing and intense sense of despair deep within myself. But, I get up and I get through it.

When I’m depressed, all I want to do is curl up and disappear. Sometimes this manifests as suicidal thoughts or ideation, sometimes it’s just a sense of wanting to shut the world out and find a safe, comfortable space to hide in. But regardless of feeling this way, I get up and I get through it.

When I’m depressed, I struggle to eat, which means that I don’t get the nourishment I need. This creates a cycle of feeling too shitty to eat and then feeling worse because I haven’t eaten. It also often results in a pattern of bingeing and then restricting, which messes up my system even more. And yet no matter what, I get myself up and I get through it.

When I’m depressed, my anxiety goes on high alert too, so I become exhausted AND hyper-vigilant at the same time. It’s like there are sirens blaring in my head but my body is so heavy that I can barely move. And yet, even with these overwhelming sensations going on in my brain, I get up and I get through it.

When I’m depressed, every part of being a mother becomes extra difficult. Making meals, getting school stuff sorted, making my children laugh, comforting them, getting through bedtime…even just being present with them… But I don’t want my mental illness to affect my children no matter how low I get, so I get up and I get through it.

If you haven’t caught on yet, what I’m trying to say is that when I’m depressed, I show up anyway. I get myself out of bed and I push through the day, regardless of the desire to stay in the warm sanctuary of my covers. Regardless of wanting to disappear, or feeling afraid, or wishing I could hit “pause” on everything and shut it all out…

I keep going anyway.

And that’s why I am at my absolute best when I’m depressed.

That’s why all of us who suffer from depression are at our best. We fight against our disorder, push through the numbness and the despair, and make ourselves face each and every day.

It may not look like we are trying. We may seem tired. We may cry often. We might attempt to isolate ourselves. We might not speak with excitement, or we might overcompensate and act TOO excited. We may just barely get through the day… But we work hard to overcome what our depression puts on us—one day at a time, one moment at a time.

Change your perspective on those with depression, because we feel like we’re drowning, yet we continue to grab breaths when we push our heads above the murky water, and that takes immense strength that few can ever see.

And if you are someone with depression in your life, know that when you feel depressed, you’re actually at your absolute best because you haven’t given up on trying to keep yourself afloat. You’re a fighter and a survivor and I hope you are proud of yourself.

xxJ


If you or someone you love need help, please reach out.

Canada: http://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/ or https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/mental-health-services/mental-health-get-help.html

USA: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or https://www.mentalhealth.gov/

Worldwide: http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html


We Can’t Be Fixed

And that’s okay

My counsellors get mad when I say that I’m broken. I kind of get it…saying that reflects a certain attitude about my state of well-being that seems unhealthy. My one counsellor, Daniel, would likely remind me that I need to re-frame my thinking.

Ugh. Fine, I’ll try:  I feel broken.

Okay, I’m being a smart ass. Sorry Daniel…

But sometimes the word “broken” is the best way I can think of to describe myself.

My brokenness stems from  a bunch of things. In the past, I often felt confused. I was so mixed up because of the lies I was being fed and the stress in my life that I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t. I felt and still often feel fragmented, like I have too many parts of myself chipped off and spread too far. I get frustrated by my inability to do the things I used to be able to. I am aware of all the things I can’t do anymore—my brain and my body just don’t work like how they used to, or how I want them to, and that makes me feel broken.

I am happy to say that lately my okayness has seemed to outweigh my brokenness, but I know that at any moment the scales could tip and I’ll relapse. I’ve reached my depths before and risen up from there, but more stress is inevitable and change is inevitable and I accept that I will never stop being a person with anxiety, depression, and a history of abuse.

Back in 2016 I attended a life-changing mental health day program at my local hospital. Before going, I had some pretty strong assumptions about what my experience there would be. First, I thought I was going to be judged harshly by everyone and told that I didn’t belong. Second, I assumed that I would struggle to connect with my fellow participants. And third, I figured I wouldn’t learn anything new.

Wow. I was SUCH A JERK. 

Actually, I was just super nervous! 

What I got from the experience of attending this program, was that a) people in a mental health day program are, in general, exceedingly compassionate and kind; b) I found in these struggling, but warmhearted individuals so much common ground that I couldn’t wait to get to my workshops every day; and c) I learned so goddamn much more than I ever thought I would.

(I promise this story is getting to a point… pinky swear.)

But, the number one, most important, most life-altering lesson I learned at Day Program is that those of us with mental health issues will carry that diagnosis for the entirety of our lives and that this doesn’t mean we will always be unable to function, but that our goals and plans need to be adjusted with the understanding that we will always have to bear these struggles in mind. 

In other words: we can’t fix ourselves, we can only manage our symptoms. 

Boom! Take that one and throw it into your emotional health tool belt, because THAT is a quintessential moment of learning how to talk about and understand mental health problems.

Think about it like this: Cancer survivors who are in remission continue to have checkups and tests even if they remain cancer-free, and they will always keep an awareness of their diagnosis in the back of their mind, no matter what their state of health. Those of us who have depression, bipolar, anxiety, mania, or other mental health diseases have to follow a similar approach to maintain treatment for our illness. Once you go down the rabbit hole, you carry a piece of that experience with you forever. 

Knowing that we can be accepted regardless of our mental health diagnosis is vitally important. You wouldn’t expect someone without an arm to continue operating as if they have two; why do we expect people with mental health problems to behave as if they don’t? Why strive to “fix” us when we will always operate differently?

I hope Daniel will forgive me for continuing to say that I feel broken. Because if society continues to expect me to function like the elusive “normal” (Come on, what’s normal anyway? A post for another day, I think.) then I’m going to fail. Every day. And so are millions of other people with diagnoses and symptoms like mine. 

We can’t be fixed, we can only manage our symptoms.

I’m not being cynical, I’m just accepting that it’s okay to not be okay. That it’s okay to not be normal. That I still feel broken but instead of striving to put myself back together how I was before, I’m going to focus on using those fragmented pieces to build a version of myself that meets the needs I have now. 

xxJ

It’s okay to not be okay.