The Proliferation of False Positivity

My biggest pet peeve is the proliferation of false positivity.

False positivity litters Instagram, Facebook, magazine pages (wait, does anyone still read actual magazines??), blogs, web sites, self-help books, and almost all other media and advertising. We seem to be living in an era where we are told that simply having the “right” attitude is what will fix all of our problems:

Okay, first of all, no one should be taking advice from a fictional character, ESPECIALLY not Jack Sparrow (or Johnny Depp…ew!). Secondly, I’ll buy that the way we think about things affects our experiences of them, but I refuse to promise myself or anyone else that just “changing my attitude” will solve all my problems. In fact, I see this kind of bullshit approach to managing mental health and personal well-being as reductive and limiting. It tells me that if I’m feeling shitty, it’s because I just don’t have the right attitude! As a survivor of abuse and a person with diagnosed mental health disorders, I’m offended by the suggestion that my attitude about these traumas and struggles is what’s affecting my ability to heal or feel well.

And this is the problem, I feel, with what I’m calling “false positivity”. False positivity reduces our legitimate struggles into memes and clichés that essentially instruct us to ignore or disassociate from our problems. OR they create a sense of shame and blame that we can’t just “attitude” our way out of them!

Look at this bullshit! I guess it’s supposed to be uplifting, but it feels like anything BUT uplifting to me! If only I could simply use my supernaturally powerful thoughts to think away the abuse I endured, the chemistry of my brain, and the long-term trauma that’s resulted from my struggles with these things! Wow! Either I’ve been handed a magic key to happiness (nope!), or I’m being blamed for the trauma I experienced (yep!).

And this! This actually makes me angry. Like, I want to go punch something right now, because it’s so wrong to suggest that betrayal by someone you trust and love is actually a blessing or a gift! It’s the same with suggesting that my anxiety is a gift in disguise. Or that emotional abuse was a blessing because now it’s fueled this blog and my writing.

My anxiety is a daily and lifelong struggle. It was exacerbated to the extreme by my abusive partners. I did not asked to be abused. I have not fully recovered from that abuse and likely never will. And most of all, it’s NOT MY FAULT that people took advantage of me. Telling me that I should just “think differently” or see my experience of abuse (or the aftermath of it) as anything other than trauma is exceptionally upsetting to me.

I found these and many, many more after spending only about 10 minutes scrolling through Instagram. All of them create so much unease within me. I’m frustrated that people seem to think that comments like the ones in these screenshots are helpful, authentic, or reasonable. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they are more damaging than anything. They offer, at best, a temporary sense of relief from whatever mental anguish is ailing us, but the consequence of that is, I believe, a perpetuation or deepening of the shame/fear/struggle/anger/issues that we are trying to cope with.

You can’t solve real problems with fake positivity.

So what is an alternative? How can we offer better support and cultivate hope for people who are struggling for any reason? Why do we continue to rely on cute memes and catchy Instagram posts instead of addressing our problems in more authentic and lasting ways?

I believe that vulnerability and authenticity are the key to managing these problems better. For example, my writing with head/strong is based on relating my first-hand experience and offering insights into how I *actually* manage (or don’t) based on the  knowledge I have right now. You don’t have to swear like a sailor to be authentic; you just have to be consistently honest and allow yourself to admit fault, to share struggles, and to relate the real experiences you have.

Therapy can be a great tool for cultivating self-awareness and authenticity. Good therapists don’t hand you answers (which is effectively what the images above are trying to do); they help you work through your struggles and co-develop the coping strategies that work best for you.

Unfortunately, therapy isn’t accessible to enough people. And it can be really hard, even IF you can afford and find therapy, to get a counsellor whom you work well with! Just because they’re qualified as a social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, or mental health worker, doesn’t mean that they’re able to support you in the ways that you need. My experience is that I have the most success in finding therapy when I reach out to referrals from trusted people in my life and then set up what are essentially interviews with these prospective therapists. If we don’t mesh in that interview, then I try someone else.

My first therapy experience was with someone who didn’t care to know me as an individual. We made progress in some regards, but the lasting impression from that experience is more trauma that I carry with me. I’ve learned how to speak up for myself so much more now that I’m not willing to accept people like that in my care team or in my life in general. (‘Bout fucking, time, eh?) It’s been decades of learning to get to this point though and I know how lucky I am that I can access exceptionally high quality counselling as I need it.

After learning so much in therapy, mental health programs, and lots of hard work, I can’t look at bullshit like what I see on Instagram and buy into it. I guess I can imagine, though, that some people feel good when they read something like this:

At least, they likely feel good for a moment or two…

But really, how practical is it to “walk like you are made of magic”? Like, how the hell do you even do that? What does this have to do with improving your mental health (the screenshot came from a mental health support post) and how effectively does its message of “walking with magic” reduce the legitimacy of mental health (or any) struggles?

My god, I wish I could feel like magic all the time! I can’t. No one can! And I don’t want to feel a sense of shame for “failing” to walk like magic when clearly that’s exactly what I should be doing to fix my life.

What do you think about false positivity? Do images like the ones in this post lift you up in authentic ways, or are you like me and view them cynically (and likely cringe) whenever they show up in your news feed or wherever?

I plan to continue avoiding and remaining skeptical of messages like the ones I screenshot for this blog post. And my goal with head/strong (and in general) is to continue being authentic and offering real, tangible ideas for how to manage as an abuse survivor and a person with mental health problems—we can do so much better than telling ourselves that our attitude is the problem, instead of the problem being the problem.

xxJ

My attitude towards false positivity (artist unknown, unfortunately)


It All Comes Down to Me

My struggle with depression feels like a never ending mental tug-of-war. This chart that’s been making the rounds lately sums it up just about perfectly, because depression (or at least, my experience of depression) is a nuanced shifting of feelings that goes between numbness and detachment, to sadness and hopelessness:

I think a common analogy we can relate to depression is the image of drowning: one minute you’re there, kicking your legs and thrashing your arms, head staying above the water, even if just barely. And then suddenly your head goes under and you swallow a bunch of H2O and it feels like you’re never going to come up again. Depression often feels like you’re being swallowed up in deep, dark water that pulls you down, no matter how hard you try to get back up to the surface.

Sadly, some people never make it to the surface again. I feel lucky that I always manage to kick myself back up and out of the water. But, when I get depressed like I am now, life remains a struggle until I’ve reached the shore, so to speak.

When I’m depressed, I often fixate on my alone-ness and currently I’m spending a lot of time thinking about it. I’ve felt alone for as long as I can remember, because emotionally abusive partners don’t make you feel like you have support—they can’t offer you security or consistency—and things like depression get worse in an unhealthy relationship. Or, when you somehow manage to stand up to your abusive partner (which is, of course, the last thing they want you to do), you have to deal with the fall out that comes from sticking up for yourself. The retribution of an incensed emotional abuser is often powerfully devastating.

I have now divorced or broken up with my emotionally abusive partners, but I continue to deal with the consequences of being in those relationships. My tendency in all my relationships is to put an intense amount of effort into supporting the other person. This is a fault of mine that I continue to work very hard at changing, because it’s something that not only made me an easy target for narcissists and abusers; it also made it feel like I was alone in those relationships. When I’m really depressed, I often linger on these feelings of being alone and not having anyone in my life to share the burden of living with (FYI: when you’re depressed, life really does feel like a burden, not a privilege. It’s totally fucked up.).

Maybe I’ve romanticized the hell out of what it would be like to have a partner who isn’t a narcissistic and abusive asshole (maybe a little bit…). But what I see in the friends and family who support me so well is that they all have someone else in their lives who they prioritize more than me. And I can see that these people all have someone in their life who prioritizes them too. I’m not talking about worshiping your spouse or partner; I don’t mean that my friends and family have perfect relationships and get all their needs met all the time. What I’m talking about is how they each have that person, the one who knows the shit that’s going on in their life and who keeps a beat on their comings and goings. The person with whom they have built a secure baseline of love and trust; the person they can count on to be there for them.

Now, some of my friends and family who read this will likely want to say to me: “Of course I’m here for you! I support you in so many ways! You can always call me and I’m always here for you!” Please don’t think that I’m unappreciative of your love and support, or that I don’t see and feel the ways that you help me. I do! I’d be even more of a mess than I currently am without you! But at the end of the day (and I mean figuratively and literally), who are you coming home to? Who do you sit and watch Netflix with before heading to bed? Who do you remind about packing school lunches, or remembering to call your sister for her birthday, or ask “did you pick up your medication on your way home today”? Who do you organize your life around and make plans and set goals for a life together with? Who gets first billing in your life and offers you that same commitment back?

It’s not me.

And I don’t expect it to be, but I long for someone in my life who chooses to make me their priority and who expects and accepts that I do the same for them.

This feeling eats away at me every time I fail in another relationship, or I have another mental health relapse, or even just when I climb into my bed alone every night. It makes me feel like a failure, like I’m unworthy, and, since I’m being honest here, it makes me resent the very loving and supportive people in my life for having what I can’t seem to get.

The best way I can sum up these feelings, is to say that in times like this I can only think about how it all comes down to me.

There is a silver lining, though. It’s a tiny, glimmering ring of silvery dust hanging around what feels at the moment like an hellishly big rain cloud looming over my head. The silver lining is this: it all comes down to me.

You see I’m learning to recognize that in the end, all my failures AND all my successes, all my terrible relationships AND all my amazing ones, all my depression AND all of my happiness…every. fucking. thing. comes. down. to. me. And that includes the bad AND the good.

My depression often steals away my ability to notice the good parts of being independent. It feeds my feelings of loneliness and anger and sadness. It heightens my awareness of the hard parts of being alone. So I’m now trying to curb my thinking towards recognizing that it takes strength and courage to face the world on your own. That people like me, who don’t have a trusted partner in their lives, possess a huge amount of grit and determination for getting through every day solo. I’m telling myself that I am not giving up, even if I’m alone when I settle down on the couch for some Netflix at the end of the day.

I mean, at least I never have to argue about who gets to hold the remote.

xxJ

I think I’m the one.

Why I Swear So Goddamn Much

(And Other Small Acts of Rebellion)

Hi. I’m Juliana and I like to swear. Like, a lot.

Okay, I’m not exactly Eminem or Lil’ Kim, but I do like to utter expletives on a fairly regular basis.

Some might think that doesn’t make sense… I’m a university educated individual who studied classical music and English. I have degrees in music and education, and an early childhood education diploma. I have two young daughters at home and I maintain a professional life as a music teacher and tutor, which involves presenting myself competently to parents and my fellow educators.

But, I still love to swear.

Especially on this blog, let’s be honest.

But why swear so much, Juliana? Why????

Because I fucking can!

Because I fucking didn’t before!

(Because I fucking couldn’t before!)

I grew up in a family that placed politeness at the top of the list when it came to expectations around behaviour. Unfortunately, because of my tendency to be passive, insecure, anxious, and an all-around goody-two-shoes, I deeply internalized this messaging and wouldn’t allow myself to do something so embarrassing or inappropriate as swearing, not to mention anything else that might be considered rude or attention-seeking. Tut tut. This tendency to avoid “inappropriate” language, carried forward into all my other relationships. When I got involved with my emotional abusers, I was held to a high standard of behaviour and was both implicitly and explicitly told that I shouldn’t swear, so I kept my mouth shut.

But times have changed…and I’ve changed! And now, I swear whenever the hell I want to!

I do it because it’s incredibly liberating and it’s a small act of rebellion against my abusive exes and my polite upbringing.

I spent my youth and young adult years swearing only in my head, silently enjoying the sweet sound of a well-timed “fuck” in the lyrics of a song I happened to hear, or quietly typing curse words in the poetry I wrote as an escape from my life. I spent those years being repressed in all ways and changing the language I use has been a small, but impactful choice I’ve embraced now that I’m on my own.

I’ve talked about the power of language before (here, here, or here, for example) because it’s an important tool for abuse survivors to use in their healing. Language is also something emotional abusers use to manipulate their victims. In my experience, abusers use their words to repress and reprimand, while elevating themselves by adhering to a completely different standard of communication.

Swear words have power. They hold weight. There’s a reason 10-year-olds whisper and giggle if they hear someone say “ass.” (Side note: I’ve learned that “bad” words completely lose their potency with children if you treat them like any other word and explain the contexts in which you should or should not swear. My daughters both know a bunch of swear words, but basically ignore them. In fact, they usually insist on saying “heck,” “dang,” or “darn” when they need to vent some frustration. Honestly, I don’t even know where they learned those words; Mommy uses the “proper” swears!)

Being liberal with my utterances of “fuck this” and “goddamn shit” has enabled me to feel a sense of power over my words again. And I take every opportunity possible to enjoy moments of feeling like I’ve re-claimed my life.

Swearing has the bonus of being a small act of rebellion within society too. I may look like a soccer mom, but I can sound like a total badass babe when inclined to do so.

I can think of other modest acts of nonconformity that I practice in order to feel a sense of control in my life again. Like, setting up my home and yard however I like and in spite of my nosy neighbours. I can hang pictures and art that I choose in the way I want, and I can cut my grass or plant my gardens however want to. I can make plans without getting permission to do so. I can walk around without shaving my armpits and not worry one damn bit about what someone else thinks! There are all these little, itty, bitty ways that I can subvert the expectations previously placed upon me and it feels so damn good! It’s like when you break up with someone and you feel sad, but then realize that you can now go to that Thai restaurant your ex hated but you love; it’s like that, only better.

So, fuck not swearing. Some people may not like my potty mouth, but then this blog isn’t for them! I think the people I’m closest to actually appreciate my new ability to be authentic. Especially because I’m not stepping beyond what would be considered appropriate; I’m just using my language intentionally and allowing myself to enjoy the satisfaction of calling someone an asshole when that’s exactly what they’re being.

Will you join me? Have you tried swearing more often and experienced the liberating effect of articulating yourself through curse words? I would highly recommend it. And if you’re not convinced, watch this famous video of Sir Billy Connolly describing the power of the words “fuck off” and get a better sense of their potency and maybe a chuckle or two as well.

If swearing isn’t a small act of rebellion that suits you, I encourage you to think about other ways can you reclaim your identity and exert a sense of control in your life. Abuse survivor or not, we can all do something to live more authentically and create some fucking space for ourselves in the big, wide world.

xxJ


Image credit: falseknees.com

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. 

What NOT to Say to A Survivor of Emotional Abuse

I’ve been posting some pretty heavy stuff lately, so think it’s time to lighten things up and bring back some sarcasm. Adding humour to conversations about emotional abuse and mental health is something that’s always kind of “funny-not-funny” but I think we can laugh every now and then and not hurt our cause.

So today I would like to present to you, complete with the witty and charming commentary you’ve all come to love hearing from me,


Number 10: “Well, it takes two…”

Um, excuse me?

Whoever says this manages to both undermine the legitimacy of your experience and place responsibility for that experience on you, the victim. OBVIOUSLY relationships involve more than one person BUT only the abuser is responsible for their abusive actions. I’ve said it before and I will keep saying it: you are only responsible for yourself, no one else! You are not responsible for anyone else’s feelings, behaviour, or choices. Emotional abusers use tactics like gaslighting and playing the victim to convince you that everything is your fault and not theirs. There may be two of you in your relationship, and neither of you are perfect, but when you are being abused emotionally, you cannot be blamed for it.

Number 9: “No one’s life is perfect, so why are you complaining?”

Ugh. This one. The worst! Okay, well, one of the worst.

Saying this to someone is like when you were 6-years-old and refusing to eat your Brussels sprouts and your parents said, “There are starving children in Africa who would love to eat those” in an effort to guilt you into consuming what you’ve come to understand is a vile vegetable. (My adult-self now loves Brussels sprouts, for the record.)

Actually, it’s worse than that. Clearly anyone who says this has no understanding of what it feels like to be abused emotionally. When you come to someone and confide in them that you are experiencing abuse, there is no place for shaming. Yes, we all experience stress and hardship in our lives, but ABUSE IS NOT NORMAL STRESS OR HARDSHIP and therefore, it can’t be treated as such.

Number 8: “Couldn’t you just try harder?”

Wow. Okay, again, what a shitty thing to say to someone! When I was in abusive relationships, I worked my ass off to change them into healthy ones. I sacrificed and struggled and exhausted myself putting effort into making things work.

If your abuser isn’t putting equal effort in, or, if the effort they are putting in is narcissistic and hurtful, then it won’t matter how hard you try; your relationship will still remain abusive.

I think it is safe to assume that anyone who comes forward and says that they are being abused has spent an incredible amount of time and energy trying to avoid coming to that conclusion. So don’t say shit like this to them.

Number 7: “But how can you leave them? You have children together.”

There are probably lots of people who will disagree with me on this one and I’m betting some of those people have made the decision to “work through things” with their partner “for the sake of the children.”

I’m calling bullshit on that.

Who in their right mind thinks it’s better for kids to live in a dysfunctional home where one parent is being abused? What kind of model is this setting for those children? And why is it considered selfish to try to stop being abused?

Leaving an abusive partner when you share children is incredibly difficult; I know that firsthand. It’s not the kids’ fault and yet they have to endure the struggles of managing the breakup of their family. Some days I feel insanely guilty about putting my kids through a divorce, but then I return to the little mantra I made for myself: I would always rather explain why I left, than why I didn’t.

‘Nuff said.

Number 6: “But if you leave [insert name here], you’ll be all alone. Do you really want to be [insert age] years old and single??”

Fuck, it sucks to be a single divorcée! It especially sucks to be a single parent! Do you know what sucks worse, though? Being in an emotionally abusive relationship. As hard as it is to be alone, I would never EVER go back to my previous partners.

As if being single is someone’s primary concern when they come to you and admit that they are being abused! Please don’t say this to someone who comes to you looking for support. Just don’t.

Number 5: “Well, there are plenty of other fish in the sea…”

This one’s kind of the opposite of Number 6, isn’t it?

So someone’s just come and told you that they think they are being abused. Now is not the time to offer clichéd dating adages. Also, if someone has experienced emotional abuse with a partner, there is so, so much that they need to work through before they can feel safe and secure enough to trust somebody new. I’m not saying survivors don’t get into rebound relationships or go looking for another “fish” too quickly (yep, guilty of that!); I’m saying that to suggest that there are other, better fish out there in the sea, at a time when the fish this person had chosen has let them down and fucked them up monumentally, is completely inappropriate.

Number 4: “Suck it up; just get over it.”

In the most significant relationship of my life so far, I spent the majority of my time “sucking it up” and since ending that relationship, I’ve done everything in my power to “just get over it.” There is no magic way to recover from emotional abuse. There may not be physical reminders of a survivor’s experience, but emotional scars run incredibly deep and they have their own timeline for healing. Advising someone to “suck it up” is a callous and insensitive thing to say, no matter what they’re telling you about.

Number 3: “They didn’t actually hurt you, so it’s not abuse.”

Oh my goodness, this one drives me absolutely crazy! People don’t usually put it to words so clearly, but often there is a strong implication that emotional abuse doesn’t count because it wasn’t physical (something I argue against here).

If you tell an emotional abuse survivor that their experience wasn’t real, you continue the cycle of abuse by gaslighting them into believing your own misinformed perspective. I still struggle with accepting the legitimacy of my experience because I assume that since a) my former partners don’t recognize the abuse, and b) I have no police report, hospital stay, or physical reminders to show that I was abused, it must not count.

How messed up is that? I am literally writing a blog about my experience of emotional abuse and I continue to question my experience! No one who has gone through something like what I did should have to justify it with corporeal proof.

Number 2: “But he/she/they seem like such a nice person…”

Wow, gee, yeah…I guess since you think he’s such a nice guy, I must be totally wrong! Thanks so much for helping me see that!

I have heard this so many times in the last few years and it is infuriating.

Do you think an emotional abuser isn’t capable of “playing nice” outside of the home or wherever they proliferate their abuse? In my experience, emotional abusers are exceedingly talented at manipulating others, so they can seem “nice” when it serves them to do so. I was once told that my story couldn’t be true because my former partner was “so handsome and charming.” I think I threw up a little in my mouth when I heard that and it definitely set me back a few counselling sessions too.

Ugh. Let’s move on to number 1…

Number 1: “I don’t care. I don’t believe you.”

Clearly, this is the WORST thing you could ever say to a survivor of emotional abuse. I don’t think I need to say much more about it; survivors need to know that we have the love and support from the people we confide in. A much better response when someone tells you that they are being abused is to say, “How can I help and what do you need right now?”


Helpful? Not helpful? Fuck, I don’t know all the shitty things people say to each other! But I do know that there are lots of ways to mess up supporting someone who needs loving kindness after recognizing a pattern of abuse in their life. (If you think you need a better understanding of what emotional abuse looks like, check out my post “Looks Like/Sounds Like/Feels Like”.) 

I hope you laughed a little; I hope you thought more about what you could say to someone in need. I mean, no one’s perfect (see number 10) but we can all try to show compassion to those who come looking for support.

Emotional abuse = abuse. Period.

xxJ

Damn, I Wish It Was Easier.

Grief is a tricky, messy feeling. It manifests in many different ways and goes at a pace that is unique to each person who struggles with it. I’ve personally experienced the death of loved ones and I know what that grief feels like.

I still carry with me a sense of loss for those people I no longer have in my life, but I’ve learned that grief can also be a response to things other than literal death. In the counselling I’ve done these last few years, I’ve come to realize that I am living in a cycle of grief. Not because someone I loved has died, but because the life I thought I would live ended.

Just as it does when we grieve the death of another person, my grief ebbs and flows; it changes, but it still persists. Some days are easier than others, but last week, when I wrote about struggling at Christmas time, my grief was very present. The holidays bring out all the symptoms of my grief because this time of year highlights many of the difficult and lonely situations I have to face in my post-divorce/post-abuse life.

I’m not sure how many people consider the experience of a break-up, or divorce, or another significant life change, as something to grieve, but I now believe that part of what makes these break-ups so difficult is that in these situations, we have to learn to accept life without the person or things we thought we were going to have. The plans we made, the future we envisioned, the expectations we created; these are all things that may contribute to our sense of grief at the end of a relationship or during a big change in our circumstances.

The grief I am living with now is for losing the life I envisioned as a mother and the life I thought I would have as a wife. It’s also because of a deep sense of injustice that I haven’t been able to get over yet.

Imagine being away from your kids every other weekend and committing to this schedule until your children have grown. Consider for a moment what it would feel like to wake up on Christmas morning and not see your own kids. Imagine how it feels to answer phone calls when your child is with their other parent and tell them, as they beg you to let them come home, that you can’t come and get them (because a court order says they have to be with your former partner). Pretend for a minute that your baby is sick and you can’t hold them because you can’t be with them during their other parent’s access. Imagine that you have to explain to your kids over and over again why you and your partner have separated, but at the same time, you can’t say to them that the reason for this is a long-standing history of domestic abuse. 

This is how I experience life in a family of divorce and I will readily admit that it has been a devastating change for me to try to accept.

I once had someone tell me that giving up Christmas mornings and living through those teary phone calls are “necessary sacrifices” in order to save ourselves from an abusive or unhealthy partnership. It’s become a small comfort to tell myself that and I’ve looked for other ways to help assuage my grief. For example, soon after my separation from my husband, I wrote a little sentence that has become somewhat of a mantra to me, and I keep it in mind whenever my grief bubbles up and I feel guilty, sad, or angry about my circumstances.

I tell myself,

“I would always rather explain why I left, than why I didn’t.”

These words offer a little assurance when I start feeling triggered, but my grief is a constant in my life. It is present all the time and every day that I miss with my girls, every Christmas I don’t wake up to their happy faces, every birthday when we’re not together, every time they call and ask to come home, every time I am surrounded by friends and family in loving, intact relationships, I am reminded of my loss and reminded that this is how it will always be from now on.

Always, in the corner of my heart, I hold my grief.

Always, I feel it in my gut.

It is always there.

Much like how we need to acknowledge and accept that mental health can be just as debilitating as any other disease, we also need to see that grief is a reasonable response to loss and not just to death. As I said before, I used to think of grief as something we only experience when a person we care about dies. Now I see that grief really means experiencing profound loss of any kind and trying to come to terms with it.

So I allow myself to acknowledge my grief and I know that’s the best way to deal with it. I also know that I need to give myself permission to feel shitty sometimes; grief has no timeline, no schedule, no checklist and I need to make space for it on the difficult days. The only way to move through grief is to live through it.

Damn, I wish it was easier.

xxJ

2018-11-28 12.09.37
“Some pain is simply the normal grief of human existence. That is pain that I try to make room for. I honor my grief.” – Marianne Williamson

“Jingle Bells, Anxiety Smells, Depression Kicked-in Today…”

“The days are short, the nights are long, it’s Christmas again, hurray!”

Around this time last year, I came across this brilliant little graphic while scrolling through my Instagram feed:

Holiday Anxiety Letterpress Card Image
(I wish I could credit whoever made this, but sadly, its source is unknown to me.)

I lol’d for sure upon reading this, but to be honest, my giggles came from a place of humour and from recognizing how deeply I related to this little letterpress graphic.

I know humour is great medicine and I’m always appreciative of a good belly laugh, or even just a quick little smile and nose exhalation (come on, you so know what I’m talking about), but when you live with mental health struggles or in the wake of trauma, too often those happy moments are small in number and short in duration. Good times always seem to be followed by a reaffirmation of the anxiety or depression you feel and usually these reminders intrude vehemently, as if they are trying to out-do the little bit of joy you just experienced. It’s like my anxiety reasserts itself saying, “No, no, no…remember me?? You can’t forget about me; I’m what matters most. Hahahahaha!”

(For the record, I’m imagining that being spoken by either Cruella De Vil or Skeletor; take your pick of the two.)

do like Christmas. I do like celebrating holidays and special occasions, or at least, I want to enjoy them. But I struggle during these times; I always have! And the recent events in my life have made these times even more difficult.

Anxiety is often described as a fear of what is yet to or may come. Working with the assumption that anxiety’s core quality is this intensely fearful anticipation of the future, and understanding that anxiety manifests as things like social anxiety, panic attacks, mania, or other debilitating symptoms, I think it’s easy to see why holidays trigger people who struggle like I do.

Throughout the Christmas season, I try to remind myself to cherish it; to use it as an opportunity to connect with friends and family, to enjoy holiday traditions with my children, to pause and celebrate my successes over the past year... I try to do all those things, and I succeed some of the time, but I know I’m facing a lonely season. I know I’m going to be without my kids for much of the Christmas break. I know I will be surrounded by happy couples and happy, intact families who get to enjoy Christmas together. I know I am responsible for all the holiday activities, meals, gifts, and decorations around my household. I know I have to bear the financial burden of these celebrations. I know I will have to participate in large, social gatherings and will need to travel substantial distances over the Christmas season. I know that I will have to manage my diet and my body insecurities as I’m offered treats throughout the holidays; I know my willpower will be tested and that when I indulge, I will feel guilty.

I know all of these things,  but it’s the anticipation of them that really causes me to struggle at this time of the year. Yes, it can be (read: it is really, really) hard when I’m experiencing them in the present, but ultimately it’s the build-up to Christmas that gets me down.

do my best to get through the holiday season, but despite my efforts, I always spiral into unhealthy thinking. Like, right now, as I’m typing this, my anxiety has just promised me that if I can just get a boyfriend, all my holiday anxiety will go away. Of course! Meet a dude—the right dude, obviously, because that’s so easy to do—and all will be well!

As if it’s just that simple!

The effect of this thinking is to lead me into another anxious and depressed down-spin, where I start thinking about how lonely I am, about how there must be something wrong with me since I’m a single, divorced, mother of two. How all the men I’ve been with have let me down or been entirely the wrong fit. How that can’t be true because the only common denominator in those relationships was me, so clearly everything is all my fault…

Do you see what I did there?

It’s a fucking slippery slope, friends. And again, I’m half-laughing because I recognize how absurd this thinking is. It is absurd, but my reaction to all these stressors does make sense.

Christmas time is one trigger after another; it’s incredibly overstimulating! And my fancy Christmas anxiety may look really pretty on the outside, but it feels sharp and gut-wrenching on the inside.

Are you lonely this Christmas? Do you have to give up time with your children because of divorce or separation? Are you a single parent taking on the responsibilities of the holiday season all by yourself? Are you living with chronic illness or mental health struggles that sabotage your experience of special occasions or require significant accommodation so you can manage?

I hear you. I see you. I feel you.

I wish I had something more to offer all of us than just that, but I don’t. And honestly, my plan for getting through the holiday season is pretty much just to rely on silly Instagram posts, a good dose of writer’s therapy, and all the self-love and self-care I can muster. I hope it’s enough, but I know I will still struggle. I won’t give up, though, and acknowledging my struggles, speaking  up about them, and giving myself permission to feel these things, will go a long way to helping me get through this festive time of year. 

I think as a starting point, I’m going to keep re-imagining the lyrics of different holiday songs. For example, maybe the lyrics “Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer…” should be changed to “Christmas time is here, doing my best to get through it this year…”

What do you think??

xxJ

Christmas Skeletor
Skeletor: Oh, oh, I don’t think I feel well.
He-Man: Well, I think you’re feeling the Christmas spirit, Skeletor. It makes you feel… good.
Skeletor: Well I don’t like to feel good. I like to feel evil. Oooh.
She-Ra: Don’t worry, Skeletor, Christmas only comes once a year.
Skeletor: Ah, thank goodness! (source)