the writer is (kind of) present

Hi all, sorry for my absence as of late–I’ve just been really, really fucking busy. Who knew that grad school would be so intense? I mean, I didn’t think it would be a walk in the park by any means… But I never would’ve guessed that three courses would take over my schedule this way.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and a little bit of writing (not nearly enough, but we’re getting there), and I’ve also been continuing to acclimate to the West Coast (I’m still permanently sweaty and I have no idea what season it is). Things are going well-ish. I have my good days where I feel like I belong, and this my new home, and I’m going to do so many great things as a writer. But then I have my bad days where I don’t want to leave my house, and I miss my friends/family, and I don’t know how I’m ever going to be successful at anything.

It’s a process. And it’s not easy. I think I should assert how happy I am to be here–I mean, this is something I’d dreamed of as an 8 year old. I pinch myself on the daily because a huge part of me is worried that this is all an elaborate dream and I’ll wake up to a life where I’ve forgotten my entire vocabulary and no longer know how to write cursive. But the absolute joy of getting into this program does not negate the self-doubt. It almost encourages me to put more pressure on myself (as if I don’t already put enough).

And I want to make my people proud.

I have so many people rooting for me–my family and friends back in Edmonton, my BFF in Toronto, my family overseas in Scotland. And I don’t want to let y’all down.

I’m so lucky to have such a widespread net of support. I know even if I fall, someone will be there to pick me up. I’m honestly not sure what I ever did to deserve such a rockstar support group, but I’m really glad I did it. I never would’ve made it this far without you (and you all, I’m sure, know who you are).

I’m busy, but I’m blessed.

So, I will continue to plug away at my reading, writing, and life skills here in Victoria, but I might not be around on here as much. I hope you don’t take that personally, it’s just, in a world where school is taking over my life… something’s gotta give.

reasons I’m scared to move: chapter 2

I like to think that I’ve got it pretty together, most of the time. And I do a decent enough job of taking care of myself and making it through most days relatively unscathed.

Until my car breaks down on the side of the highway and I’m stranded in Red Deer and I’m blocking holiday traffic, anyway.

I’ve always had the urge to be fiercely independent–probably because I’m shy and socially awkward and it’s just easier to do things solo. If you want something done right… well, you know. But there are certain things that I can’t do alone (tow my car, or replace its timing belt, for example) and when those things arise… I lose my mind. 

In situations where normal people would just, I don’t know, ask for help… my brain short circuits and instead of reaching out, I implode. And then I explode. And then I can’t recall what happens next because I’m probably in the throes of a panic attack.

Luckily, I’ve got a very understanding mother who has spent the last 26 years bringing me down to earth when I spiral out of control. And a dad who’s willing to shell out the money to pay to have my car repaired.

But what am I going to do when I’m 895 kilometres away? This past weekend sent me into a spiral of catastrophization–I was going to starve to death, fail out of school, lose my apartment, and just be overall incapable of taking care of myself when I lived away from home.

How can I take care of myself when I can barely take care of myself?

I don’t know and I’m terrified to find out.

I’m happy and I know it

I know that positive people are the worst because others’ happiness is just disgusting, but because I don’t give a fuck about all that I’ve decided to take a moment to reflect on how lucky I am.

I used to hate my life a lot. My BFF can attest to how much of an asshole I was–a pessimistic piece of shit who hated everything and everyone and mostly hated myself. I was probably depressed and I needed to change. I don’t know how I kept it up for so long to be honest; I spent the better part of 2009 being miserable and that carried into the following… 4, almost 5, years.

I was sad, self-destructive, mean, hateful, and just really unhappy. And I thought it was everybody else’s fault (naturally). That’s the thing about being seriously depressed–there’s always an excuse, and always a reason, and always a something to direct the blame away from numero uno and onto somebody (anybody) else. Depression is self-centred, it’s selfish, it’s a sickness. And as soon as I realized that, or, more aptly, as soon as my BFF told me I needed to get help or else, and I got help, and that led me to realize how sick I was  and how selfish I was and how miserable I was… I started the journey towards being better.

And it’s been a journey, and it’s going to be a long one. I know I still struggle with perfection, anxiety, and self-destruction–I have a tendency to catastrophize and get wound up and worry and explode emotionally. But, I’m aware of it and that helps. It also helps to have my BFF, my fucking rock, to lean on when things get shaky. And, because she’s across the country, I’m also fortunate to have a support network here that I can fall into (you know who you are, Peaches, et al). And not only do I have an emotional support network, somehow I fell into a pretty solid professional one, too (thank you university).

Isn’t that happiness just disgusting?

There’s this weird myth about being a writer, or any type of artist, that you have to be miserable to make art. And that’s such a lie–I mean, there’s value in reflecting on past misery. But real art doesn’t come from living that dissatisfaction. It comes from living through it.

reasons I’m scared to move: chapter 1

I have terrible social skills.

I always have. I don’t know why–both my brothers are well-adjusted, sociable, likeable people, so it can’t be an environmental thing. I’m backwards, though. Shy. Weird. It made things difficult when I was younger. I remember I hated going to church because church meant Sunday School and Sunday School meant sitting in a room full of other kids who I didn’t know how to talk to.

The worst part about being socially awkward is being forced into social situations. It only makes it more uncomfortable. I’d get overwhelmed and I’d lose track of the conversation and my timing would be just a tick behind–so close, but when something is that close to being normal it makes it seem so much further off.

Regular school was tough, too. Every single first day gave me severe anxiety (although, back then I had no idea that this was even a thing–I knew I was different but I thought that I could force myself to be the same as everybody else. You can imagine how well that worked). Even if I remembered faces, names, friends, from past semesters… I didn’t know how to engage with them. Our relationship was forged in the confines of a particular classroom, and outside of that context I had no idea what to do or say. I didn’t have my script. I didn’t have a schema. And everybody else seemed to be doing just fine without one.

When I’m around new people I forget how to be myself. I know I’m inside me; I can feel my personality pressing against the inside of my skin. But there’s just something stopping me from letting it out.

I’m always just a few steps behind. It’s awful.

When I was in my late teens-early twenties, I drank. A lot. I drank because I couldn’t be social sober. I needed to drink until my inhibitions were completely wiped out. That means I don’t remember a lot of 19, 20, 21. Luckily, camera phones barely existed and apps like Snapchat and Instagram were merely a glint in their creators’ eyes, so I don’t have embarrassing photos/videos to fill in the gaps. I drank until I was funny. I drank until I knew the right things to say. I drank until I was drunk, and the rest I can’t quite remember.

University helped. I think it’s because in order to have any level of success in post-secondary school you’ve got to put yourself out there. Even if it’s just a little bit. I also managed to somehow make really good friends. Although, I’ve never had a problem forming strong bonds with people one-on-one–it’s group situations that really throw me off. But in school I found my way.

I faked it, mostly.

I stole behaviour from my best friend (a social situation wizard, god bless her). I would ask myself: What Would My BFF Do (WWMBFFD)?  And go from there. It helped me quite a bit, and I’m grateful for her because of that (and for a multitude of other reasons as well).

In between the social anxiety and faked social competency, I stumbled into myself. I took a creative writing class and that creative writing class led to another creative writing class which led to another… and before I knew it, I was part of a community. Some of it, I built. And some of it was pre-fab. But all of it is a safe space where I can be all the parts of myself, comfortably.

I’m writing this because I’m moving in three months and I’m terrified to leave this community behind. I know I’m going to have to start all over, and that’s scary. I’m afraid this was a fluke. An accident. A mistake. 

And I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it happen again.

 

And it all came crashing down.

My computer crashed. Moments before submitting what would’ve been the last essay of my undergraduate degree, my poor old MacBook Pro crapped out on me.

I was putting page numbers on (which I am never doing again, just an FYI) and she just quit. She stopped working. Caput. So, I did what anybody who has absolutely no idea what she’s doing would do–I forced a restart. And the next thing I knew I was staring at a flashing question mark and having a panic attack.

I took her to the Apple Store, and even though the boys in blue explained to me (in great detail) what went wrong, I still have no idea what happened. All I know is that I’ve got my baby girl back and despite some short-term memory loss (back your files up, people. Back them up right now) she’s as good as new.

She might be too good, actually. And it’s not just that she thinks it’s March 24, 2016 (my last backup–I don’t want to talk about it). They gave her a good cleaning and I almost don’t recognize her anymore.  Her keyboard lacks the familiar stickiness and the crumbs lodged between her keys are gone. Even though I know she’s her, something still feels off. It’s weird how things change slightly and even though they are technically the same… they’re not. A minor change sometimes creates more distance than a big one.

We might not be talking about hard drives anymore.

Things change. That’s a fact. And people adapt. I’m coming up to a time in my life where everything is going to shift (I’m moving to Victoria, blah blah blah, it’s all very dramatic) and I’m okay with that (kind of). But what’s getting under my skin right now is the tiny slivers of change.

It’s not switching jobs, or graduating school (hopefully), or… anything like that. It’s that I feel disconnected from people who used to be my people. There was no falling out. There was no screaming match. There was no passive-aggressive showdown. There was no earth-shattering fight. There was just a gradual shift, followed by a gradual shift, followed by another gradual shift, and now I’m sitting on an island, alone.

I guess that’s good practice for when I’m actually alone on an island, but I still think I’d rather park that feeling for sometime late-August.

Anyway, one more reminder if you haven’t backed up your files, please back up your files. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone–trust me.

When Anxiety Strikes

Thump thump thumpthumpthumpppppp. The erratic staccato of my heartbeat cresendos into a dull hum, vibrating in my skull and blurring my vision. My breath is short and shallow. My head is pounding. My skin is stretched too tight across my entire body.

I scream.

I cry.

I panic.

I haven’t had a panic attack since 2012. In the last four months, I’ve had three. I teetered on the edge of my anxiety, crippled beneath a skewed work-life balance, thanks to an overactive social life and a summer internship at an Edmonton festival. I wanted to leave my mark on the industry, pave the way for future opportunities by making the most of this initial one, while still preserving a healthy personal life. The entire time, as I was poised on the precipice of panic, I asked: is it just me?

***

It’s normal to experience a certain amount of anxiety. Even the most well-adjusted people admit to feeling nervous, stressed, or anxious at times. The moments before an exam, a performance, or starting a new job induce anxiety in all of us—it’s referred to as state anxiety, and it’s normal. It’s a feeling that exists in the moment and is triggered by our environment; it’s an adaptive reflex to change. This type of anxiety can actually be a healthy thing, though, if it is pushing us to succeed or thrive. Anxiety can also protect us from the unknown: Freud theorized that anxiety is a response to danger, and that a certain level of anxiety helps us survive. But what happens when that anxiety is a response to danger created up inside my own head? What if anxiety is preventing my success by protecting me from failure?

My curiosity led me to the internet, where I stumbled upon a self evaluation for something called the Spielberger Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI). It’s a series of 40 statements, half of which evaluate your anxiety level in the present moment–state anxiety–and half of which evaluate your overall level of anxiety–what’s referred to by Spielberger as trait anxiety: how much your reactions to stress are hardwired into your personality. It’s scored out of 80, with a higher score indicating a higher anxiety. On state anxiety, I scored a shattering 71. Trait anxiety left me with a more manageable (and surprising) 54. This eased my worries–slightly. As an anxious person, I am always looking to the future, juggling the what-ifs and worst case scenarios, planning for my ultimate demise. It gives me a false sense of security, like if I already lay the foundation for an escape plan when the inevitable awful events actually unfold, I’ll be fine.

Scoring 54 on the trait anxiety was a good thing, but it was a bad thing too: it lulled me into thinking that I was already fine. An assurance that will only last until the next bout of panic hits. And, trust me, it always does.

Scoring 71 out of 80 on the state anxiety portion of the STAI gave me something new to worry about, putting a fresh wave of panic right around the corner. I was functioning at a high level of stress, and had been for the last few months. What had pushed my normal level of anxiety up a notch? It didn’t take a lot of soul-searching for me to admit that the newfound pressure in my life was thanks to my internship. Anxiety and internships aren’t a novel pairing, though. And the anxiousness I attributed to my role as an intern wasn’t as rare as I thought.

I’m an undergrad, which means I’m already pre-disposed to a level of stress–being in university is a period of transition ripe with anxiety and, with the added stress of academic performance and financial worry, it’s the perfect breeding ground for even the most levelheaded individuals to lose their minds a bit. Among undergrads, anxiety is ranked first as a presenting problem for students seeking counseling, with academic and work-related concerns coming up right behind in second place. When an already stressed student is put in a position where both academic and work-related standing are at stake, it’s no wonder that she cripples under the pressure.

Although anxiety can be paralyzing, there’s evidence that suggests a positive relationship between anxiousness and academic performance—as long as the anxiety is managed correctly. The secret is finding the sweet spot between ultimate productivity and strung-out listlessness. Let the anxiety drive you, but keep it from directing you over the edge.

Waves of anxiety course over me, and the blood inside my skull crashes around my veins. My body is drowning itself in sweat. My metabolism is in overdrive. I am in fight or flight mode, but there’s nothing to battle, nothing to run away from.

***

During my internship, I organized, researched, read, wrote, and acted as sounding board for the festival’s executive director—my boss. It was my first experience working in the industry—what if I messed up and ended up blacklisted in the Edmonton arts community? It seems farfetched, but for an individual with anxiety it barely scratches the surface of worst case scenarios.

This fear tainted everything I did. I might take an entire day to pen a newsletter because I was scrutinizing every word, perfecting every piece of punctuation. I’d cringe as my boss proofed my work, agonizing over each sigh or intake of breath, paralyzed by the fear that I might have misplaced a comma. When I mentioned my editing-related anxiety, she said, “You don’t need to feel nervous. Proofing, editing, it’s a very real part of the industry. There’s always going to be a person looking over your shoulder, telling you what’s working and what isn’t.” She continued proofing, nonchalantly tossing out this piece of advice, “Everything’s a draft at one point, anyway.”

My boss and I went over a feedback form provided by my university towards the end of my internship. She was overwhelmingly positive with her praise, and provided helpful critiques. She highlighted my strengths: writing, editing, creative management–whatever that means–and pointed out things I needed to work on. She reminded me that I’m still learning, &, although I’ve gained a lot of knowledge over the summer, I’ve still got quite a ways to go.

Everything’s a draft.  Everything starts out incomplete, and sometimes it takes a few passes with another set of eyes and a red pen to turn it into the finished product. I am unfinished. I am imperfect. But that doesn’t make me a failure–that makes me a work-in-progress

***

The thing I’m scared of is something I’ve constructed in my own mind—like a child afraid of the monster under the bed. Everything looks different when you flick on a light, but how do I cross the gap between hiding under the covers and the light switch on the wall?

Coming down from a panic attack isn’t easy. But it isn’t impossible.

For me, it is about acknowledging that I’m in a state of anxiety: I let myself be scared. I don’t force myself to calm down, but I take ownership of my panic and let my body slowly tell my brain that there is nothing here to fear, but fear itself. It’s all about dismantling what you’ve created inside your own head–control your emotions by not allowing them to control you. Let yourself be scared, let yourself try, and let yourself fail. And when the panic passes, pick up the pieces and do it again.

References

Al-Qaisy, L. M. (2011). The relation of depression and anxiety in academic achievement among group of university students. Inter J Psychology Counseling, 3(5), 96-100.

Bellini, L. M., Baime, M., & Shea, J. A. (2002). Variation of mood and empathy during internship. Jama, 287(23), 3143-3146.

Spielberger, C. D. (2010). StateTrait anxiety inventory. John Wiley & Sons, Inc..