A 7-Layer Cake

Don’t let the bastards get you down; eat chocolate cake instead.

This past spring I took a writing course. It had the amazingly succinct, yet perfectly spot-on title of “Write Anyway,” subtitle: “don’t let the bastards get you down.”

I mean, it’s perfect, right?

It turned out that Write Anyway was about way more than just writing. Because during the course and since then, I‘ve ended up taking the messages and philosophy of the course and applying them not only with my prose, but also in my life.

See, I’ve led a life that was, up until this point (and excusing maybe those first 5-6 years of life when all children are entirely self-motivated because, you know, survival and all that), one where I prioritized everyone else’s needs and wishes before addressing my own. It’s been one where I constantly second guessed myself, felt anxious about even the tiniest decisions, and intentionally kept things private because I feared criticism, embarrassment, and a sense of failure.

But I’m learning some new things now, and I’m trying some new things now too, so I took a leap and signed up for the writing course. In doing so, I challenged myself to be vulnerable and authentic and, you know, kind of, sort of legit with my writing and with myself.

Somehow it ended up feeling like participating in Write Anyway became the pinnacle of all the hard work I’ve been doing! It was like the icing on the top of a massive, multi-tiered cake I’ve been building these last few years. Like, I’m imagining that I’ve been adding layer after delicious layer of what is the most mouth-watering cake ever created. In my mind, this cake is a decadent dark chocolate and sits at least 7 tiers high. Each layer represents a momentous benchmark I’ve achieved:

Layer 1: Ending my marriage (hallelujah!).

Layer 2: Getting a mental health diagnosis and starting treatment.

Layer 3: Finding the right psychiatric meds to be on (this took sooooooo long and was sooooooo effing difficult).

Layer 4: Beginning therapy with some amazing counsellors and seeing/feeling real, authentic progress.

Layer 5: Buying my own home out in the most beautiful goddamn place and knowing that I don’t ever have to move again (can I get an amen?!).

Layer 6: Getting my first real job in almost a decade.

Layer 7: Calling myself a writer and signing up for “Write Anyway.”

Icing: Participating in said writing course (and giving it every ounce of effort and energy I could muster!).

Sprinkles (of course there are sprinkles!): Launching head/strong, sharing my story, and taking the leap into being a legit writer/blogger.

In between each of these layers would be the richest, creamiest, dark chocolate ganache, which cements everything together and makes sure that this cake doesn’t crumble or fall. Or maybe it would be custard. Or raspberry jam. Or strawberry! Mmmmmm…

Okay, okay, I’ll quit it with the cake analogy… it’s making me quite hungry, actually… The point I’m trying to make with my appetite-inducing dessert comparison is that I now finally have the confidence and the energy to just fucking WRITE ANYWAY in every single part of my life! (As in the literal sense of writing down words and in the metaphorical sense of, “we all write our own life stories.”)

I can write my own life and while I sometimes feel pangs for the life I thought I would have, or regret the words I thought I could have written better, I’m forging ahead and showing up and I’m living and writing the fuck anyway!

So thank you to Janelle Hanchett of Renegade Mothering who taught the writing course, and to the incredible and engaging women who took Write Anyway with me! Thank you for putting the icing on the cake of my accomplishments and pushing me that little bit further so I can show up and be present in my life.

I feel charged, I feel competent, I feel like taking some risks. And I know that’s the key to succeeding in life: you show up, you do your best, and you keep going even when the icing starts to melt, or someone’s stuck their thumb into the cake and fucked things up a bit.

Isn’t it amazing that life can be so delicious, even when it seems like it’s also full of shit?

xxJ

headstrong blog post - Sept 9 2018
When life hands you lemons, make chocolate cake instead!

Au revoir!

When I left my husband, I realized that I had lost much more than a marriage.

Now I understand that successful relationships involve people growing together as they work through their issues, face difficulties, celebrate successes, and find a shared identity as a couple while maintaining autonomy as individuals. But when you are in a codependent relationship, things are very different and when I walked away from my marriage, I was struck by a deep sense of not knowing myself.

In my relationship with the man who became my ex-husband, I molded myself entirely to how he wanted, or how I thought he wanted, me to be. I stopped doing the things I enjoyed doing. I stopped saying how I felt about things. I questioned my intuition. I lost faith in my ability to do anything. I became exhausted by the effort of trying to maintain the status quo (i.e. keep the peace and/or keep my husband happy). I had done this in previous relationships and friendships before (had I ever!), and at the time of my separation, the only thing that felt true about my identity was that I had become an expert at being passively codependent.

Yay. 

I was so lost when I was left on my own. I didn’t know what I liked to do anymore or what I was capable of. I felt dumb and useless and tired. The overwhelming sense I experienced was of being a complete stranger to myself, and I spent more time feeling triggered or completely drained than anything else.

I’ve always had a high level of self-awareness. In fact, even in the worst periods of my life, when I was shrouded in intense depression and anxiety, when I was beholden to my abusers, when I was contemplating suicide, I still had the knowledge that something was wrong and that I needed something to change. But since I framed my identity using the parameters my boyfriend/husband/parents/friends gave me, I couldn’t determine what was true and what wasn’t.

After many years of counselling, an amazing mental health day program, a consistent treatment plan, incredible support from some of the quality people in my life, and an unwavering sense that I absolutely could NOT give up, I began to unpack my experiences and rediscover myself.

And I realized a few key things…

  1. I could recognize that there were parts of me from my past that were still true, but that my experiences had fundamentally changed me. The core parts of me were still there, but they had to be rediscovered and given a new, healthy framework to exist in.
  2. There were things I had considered “core” parts of myself that I needed to throw out and replace with other things that came from a place of authenticity.
  3. I couldn’t continue trying to be the person I felt other people thought I should be.
  4. I had the capacity to discover my identity again, if I chose to work at it.

So I began to work diligently at figuring out who the hell I was now and who I wanted to be post-separation, post-abuse, post-youth, post “Life 1.0.”

It started with identifying how I had allowed myself to be defined in the unhealthy relationships I had before. What, if anything, was true about me based on those parameters? I started trying to throw out old, bad habits… goodbye passivity! See ya later mandatory politeness! Au revoir overextending myself!

I also grabbed some of my “bad” traits that had been misused and misinterpreted, and created new, healthier frameworks for them. For example, I had bought into the belief that being sensitive and empathetic was a bad thing. It led me to be overly emotional, hot headed, and too accommodating. Not true! Being emotionally sensitive and highly empathetic is a gift! I just had to learn how to use it well! I renegotiated a new understanding of that quality in myself and have set to practicing this new way of thinking.

The second (or third?) step was to unearth good qualities that I wanted to embrace. This wasn’t an extensive list…more like, an exclusive one! I prioritized things and made sure I was focusing on a few, core traits that I felt were latent in my being, but which were also underrepresented or misunderstood. Basically, I dug up the good qualities in myself, like independence and determination, dusted them off, and put them back in my emotional tool-belt so that I could grab them instead when I went for one of my old, unhealthy, codependent habits.

And I realized that there were some skills I really wanted to have that I would need to work at embodying. I had to learn how to be assertive. I had to learn how to be alone. I had to learn to be angry in healthy ways. I’ve put time into teaching myself these new things, folding them into my identity as they become more and more familiar.

Leaving my emotional abuser was the catalyst in finding a new and healthy identity for myself. I am in no way complete, nor am I an expert in self-discovery. And I don’t expect myself to stay exactly as I am right now, but I do expect myself to keep working on living in a healthy way that supports a healthy sense of self.

It’s possible for you to do this too, no matter your relationship status, your history, or your future plans. Abused or not, we can all love and accept ourselves while striving to improve.

Your identity is not something that should be handed to you.

It may seem easier or more familiar to continue existing in the frameworks other people craft for you, but over the long term, you’ll do yourself a disservice in allowing others to define you.

So take a moment, envision yourself as you wish to be, and start taking steps, small or big, towards your a truer, more vivacious self!

xxJ

2018-08-23 18.46.25
The flowers in my garden, like this Teddy Bear Sunflower, remind me that I’m always growing and that sunshine can always be found if you look for it.

looks like/sounds like/feels like

People have a hard time understanding what emotional abuse is. In fact, I’m going to confidently state that most people really don’t get it.

Like, at all.

Because to most people domestic abuse = physical violence. To most people, domestic abuse is loud and nasty and BIG and leaves bruises and cigarette burns, broken lamps and smashed dishes and holes in walls.

And yes, sometimes (too often) domestic abuse is vociferous and physically violent. But what if I told you that domestic violence isn’t always physical? What if domestic abuse can be subtler? What if it’s relatively inconspicuous? What if the victim is so good at compensating and pretending that EVERYTHING IS OKAY ALRIGHT?! that no one has any idea what’s going on? (Not that I’ve ever done that before…)

I think emotional abuse is usually misunderstood because most people don’t realize that neglect or silence can be just as vicious as a punch in the face.

I  want to try to explain more about what emotional abuse is and how people may experience it, so I’ve drawn upon my past as a teacher and what follows is basically going to be like a kindergarten circle time where we all gather together to talk about what something “looks like/sounds like/feels like”. Except instead of discussing “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” or how a bean seed grows, we’re going to tackle emotional abuse. Decidedly not a kindergarten-appropriate topic (Or maybe it is? I mean, kids are never too young to learn about consent and showing respect!) but I’m hoping you’ll find it insightful.

So, come join me on the carpet. Please sit criss-cross applesauce with your hands in your lap, eyes up, and mouth closed…Ms. J is going to start the lesson…

Emotional abuse looks like:

  • Absence
  • Stifling
  • Codependence
  • Intense control
  • Financial control
  • Manipulation
  • Vindictiveness
  • Pettiness
  • Insecurity
  • Narcissism
  • Lack of intimacy
  • Withholding (affection, money, time, etc.)
  • Lack of consent
  • Isolation
  • Patterns of negative behaviour
  • Idealization
  • Chronic forgetfulness
  • Posturing
  • Grandiose gestures that are out of context or used as leverage
  • Forced affection
  • Saving face
  • Hypervigilance
  • Disdain
  • Perpetual indifference or apathy

Emotional abuse sounds like:

  • Shouting
  • Silence
  • Harsh words
  • Lies
  • Backhanded compliments
  • Gaslighting
  • Indignation
  • Name calling
  • Threats
  • Put downs
  • Reprimands or punishing
  • Criticisms
  • Punitive statements
  • Questioning
  • Comebacks
  • Rationalization of unhealthy things/ideas/behaviours
  • Scapegoating

Emotional abuse feels like:

  • Loneliness
  • Despair
  • Confusion
  • Anger
  • Craziness
  • Self-loathing
  • Low self-worth
  • Lack of purpose
  • Rigidity
  • Fear
  • Shame
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Needing to be in control
  • Surreal
  • Duress
  • Pain
  • Exhaustion
  • Stress
  • Being overwhelmed
  • Worry

People who exhibit these behaviours (or other similar ones) chronically are perpetrators of abuse. Those who struggle continually because of these feelings and behaviours, are victims of abuse.

My own experience of abuse was insidious and cumulative and I’m tired of feeling like I have to prove that my experience was real.

Emotional abuse looks/feels/sounds real.

Abuse = abuse.

And accepting that helps people like me by letting us know that what we’re going through, or what we’ve been through, is just as real as a punch, kick, or slap.

You can now un-cross your legs and go have free-play time. Just don’t hog the Lego table and remember to use kind words with your friends.

xx J

2018-07-24 13.24.28
Feels like belly rub time for my pup, Kara.


Do you have anything you could add to the lists above? I’m sure there’s more that I’ve missed. Comment below and share your thoughts!