How about that fat-shaming Netflix series?

I was brushing my teeth today and I look in the mirror and my face was caught between two panes of glass, a section of my forehead and most of my nose had been swallowed in the crack where the tri-fold doors of my medicine cabinet met.

It reminded me of that thing I used to do when I was a teenager. I’d stand in front of the mirrored closet doors, arranging myself so that my body was spliced in half by the crack and put back together, thinner. I’d look at my body, the body I wished I had, and imagine the life I would have if I looked like that. My fat midsection sucked into the thin slice of darkness, erasing my shame. Erasing the parts of myself that I was convinced were holding me back.

I watched a lot of TV growing up. More than I probably should have. I watched Even Stevens and yearned for the thin leggy beauty of Ren. I watched Hilary Duff in Lizzie McGuire and wished I had the body of that petite blonde. I watched Boy Meets World and deciphered that even the nerdy girls like Topanga were supposed to be beautiful and, well, thin.

I was convinced I could have these bodies if I worked hard enough. If I ate less. Worked out more.

I could achieve the body in the mirror. And I needed to achieve that body in the mirror, because if I didn’t I was worthless. I was nothing if I wasn’t thin.

I told myself all the things I could do once I was in my right body. I could make friends. I could go out on dates. I could get a job and go to university and get my hair cut short. I could wear sneakers with skinny jeans. I had all these rules for my fat body that I could leave behind when I was finally thin.

I starved myself into a size 4 dress for my prom and that’s when I felt like my life could finally start. My life didn’t start and so I decided I wasn’t thin enough. There was too much of me and that meant I wasn’t enough. I tried different diets, painfully measuring out honey and cayenne pepper and spending way too much money on fresh-squeezed lemon juice. I tortured myself. I weighed my body before and after bowel movements. I wondered how much my legs weighed my breasts weighed how much did the liver inside me weigh? I’d subtract these numbers, trying so hard to reach a point where I felt like a real person. I needed to take away pieces in order to pretend I was whole.

I gained all the weight back and then some when I started university. My first year of school I was thin but I didn’t know it. I was too focused on the way my thighs rubbed as I walked down the hallway. I participated in a study ran by a graduate student for extra credit in my intro-level psych class. She was brilliant, but the swell of her gut pushed against her cotton t, rolls of flesh swelled over the sides of her jeans. I told myself no matter how long I spent in academia I’d never let my body go, I wouldn’t get fat like her.

But I did. I gained and gained and gained and I hated my body, wishing I could chisel my true self free.

My fourth year of university, I took self-timed photos of me in my bathing suit in my poorly lit bathroom, counting every roll and dimple and stretch mark. My imperfections. This was my before. This was the body I would cast aside for my real body, my good body.

When I got into graduate school, I was still fat. And I told myself I didn’t deserve it because I was fat. I worried about moving to a new city, “How will I make friends if I’m fat?” I worried about teaching, “How will I teach if I’m fat?” I worried about sharing my ideas, “Who will listen to me if I am fat?” My body was something I despised. Something holding me back. I didn’t come up with these ideas on my own–this is what I had been fed my entire life.

Fat bodies are the before. Fat bodies are bad. Fat bodies aren’t actually bodies, they are flesh that needs to be peeled away to reveal the real body underneath. This is what I was taught. This is what I believed.

And I don’t believe this now. I know it’s not true. I’d been in the battle with my body for so long and I think I finally just got sick of it. I didn’t want to binge and purge. I didn’t want to weigh myself morning and night. I didn’t want to punish myself for not fitting into a pair of pants at a straight size store.

I stopped hating my body for being my body.

At least, some of the time.

When I’m sad. When I’m mad. When I’m alone and depressed, or dissatisfied, or scared, I remember that I’m fat and the idea creeps in that maybe I don’t deserve to be happy because I’m not thin. I don’t deserve to have a partner because I’m not thin. I don’t deserve ________ because I’m not thin.

Sometimes I catch a glimpse of my reflection, caught between two panes of glass, my mid-section swallowed by that little crack, and I think that’s perfection. Sometimes I can shake this thought out of my head, and step in front of a full pane of glass and know that what I see is good enough. Better than good enough.

But sometimes I can’t shake those thoughts.

And that’s why that Netflix series is harmful. Not only does it reinforce a harmful revenge body plot line and paint women’s bodies as objects, it supports my worst thoughts about myself.

It makes the awful things I thought about my body true.

This TV show takes the narrative from the shows I watched as a teenager even further–it provides the schema for how to get thin. And I don’t think it can get much more damaging than that.

F*CK YOU

I want to write about what happened to me but I don’t know where to begin.

I start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Over and over again. I wonder is this right? Am I getting it right? And sometimes I wonder if I’m even allowed to say what happened, if that story even belongs to me… because, to be honest, I’m not sure what parts of myself I even own anymore.

I guess I’ve always been a giver. I give a lot. And I like to do it. I like to be the soft person I am, the one people trust with their secrets, the one who people rely on for help, the one who people run to when they need someone to lean on. I know that makes me vulnerable, sometimes, kind of, but I like that vulnerability because it makes me feel necessary. I know those parts of myself make me an easy target for predators, but I don’t ever want to feel like I need to change (become harder, more closed off) in order to protect myself from people who shouldn’t even be preying on me in the first place.

Right?

I’m reading Hunger right now. It’s great. I’m so glad Roxane Gay had the courage to write it because sometimes when I’m reading her words it feels like she’s held a mirror up to myself. And it makes me feel a little bit more okay about being the way that I am. About being a lot soft and a little afraid all the time. She was able to put words to her trauma and it made me think that maybe one day I’ll be able to put words to mine too. Not now, not soon even, but maybe eventually. The book is complex and I like that. It’s made me realize that I’m allowed to be complex, that I’m allowed to be conflicted, that I’m allowed to be a full human, a full woman, even when it seems like there are plenty of people in this world who would like to take that away from me. These are the people who use me for parts. Like stealing a car, stripping it down, leaving the useless chassis behind. These people are mostly men, but sometimes women too. Although I can’t blame these women because they are doing what they must to survive: behaving like men.

Maybe the reason I can’t write about it is because it’s not one thing but a series of things. Dominoes. If I push over one I push over them all and if I push over them all and they topple and fall then I will just be left with a pile, disorganized, on the floor of my brain and I won’t know how to clean it up.

That’s the thing, I guess. These experiences accumulate. Like a snowfall in spring and you think it’s not going to be so bad, that it will melt when it hits the ground, and some of it does. The snow turns to water on cement but it clings to the branches of trees and the brown brittle grass and you go to bed and the next morning everywhere is slippery and frozen and white. And if you back out of your driveway a little too slow you’ll get stuck and if you back out a little too fast you’ll slide into your neighbours garbage cans, and both those options suck. So you better be perfect.

That’s what it’s like when you’ve been abused. The first time it’s awful and you might not even realize how bad it is because you’re just a kid and you’re with an adult you trust. Then it’s a few years later and you’re a few years older and you learned that your body is nobody’s body but yours and you’re supposed to tell someone you trust if you’re being touched but what if the person you trust is the one doing the touching? Then it’s a few years later again and you’re in high school now and you don’t know how to connect with men unless you’re naked and they are too. And then more time passes and more things happen and a dating app tricks you into thinking that you’ve got all the power and it is your body and you’re doing what you want with it but you know it’s not actually your body when you’re drinking warm root beer Schnapps just so you can handle a thick tongue jammed between your dry lips and clumsy hands fumbling in the dark for the clasp on a bra you decided not to wear and the awkward stumble from couch to bed. And afterwards you cry driving home when you shouldn’t be driving home but you can’t stay there. And more time passes. And you meet a man at a club and he invites you back to his place and says you can sleep in his bed and you do (but you don’t sleep, really) and the next morning he tells you he has a girlfriend and you sit behind the steering wheel of your car and you cry because you don’t understand why nobody loves you but everybody uses you. More time passes again. And you meet someone and he seems interested in you and you decide you can be interested in him too. And you start dating him and decide that he is supposed to be safe but one night when you’re tired and he isn’t he rolls you over and grabs you and pushes against you and takes something that I guess you gave so freely that he just assumes it belongs to him now. And you wonder if that’s what a relationship is supposed to be like because you have no idea what it means to be with someone. And more time passes and you move away and think you can leave everything behind. You learn to protect yourself. You gain weight. You insulate yourself. You wish that you could rip off all your skin and be someone completely different, someone stronger. You surround yourself with safe people. You try very hard to disappear (and you almost succeed). You avoid straight men, because you’ve learned those are dangerous men.  And this means you’re almost surprised when you get groped in public by a man, when his meaty palm pushes against your round bum and the slippery slide-y fabric of your slacks feels too thin against the peach lace panties you decided to wear that day because you thought it’d be nice to feel special. You want to scream or throw up or both but you don’t because you’re a professional. So instead of surprise you feel shame that you let your guard down, and then you’re reminded of all the times that all those men took those pieces of you and neglected to give them back. And you’re angry because that’s not the way you’re supposed to feel and that makes you a bad woman and a worse feminist and why can’t these men just keep their goddamn hands to their goddamn selves?

I’ll sum up those experiences in one neat stack of words. Men have hurt me. Over and over again. And I wish they’d fucking stop it.

Adjusting expectations.

I started this summer break the same way I’ve started all summer breaks–with a bang. And a whole lot of ambition. I’ve always had a tendency to bite off more than I can chew (literally and figuratively) so of course I wanted to do it all this summer. Explore every inch of my new city. Get in shape (finally). Write 1000 words a day. Eat a healthy and sustainable diet. Put a dent in my reading list. And things started off well enough… but then that thing happens that always seems to happen when I pile my plate far too full: I burnt out.

I had a very productive three weeks–I was working out EVERY day. I was getting up before 10 AM (that’s early for this girl). I was eating all of the food groups. I was writing. I was reading. And I think I was happy. But about 10 days ago it all came to a very abrupt halt.

One morning, when my alarm clock went off I just couldn’t get up. I hit snooze once twice three times before turning it off. I slept half the day away every day for about a week. I didn’t go to the grocery store except to buy a black forest cake which I promptly polished off in three sittings (dinner, midnight snack, and breakfast). I stopped exercising and even though I was forcing myself to write… I don’t know that I created anything that doesn’t completely suck. It’s unsettling to go from one extreme to the other like that. It pissed me off, to be truthful. And I spent a couple days eating cake and beating myself up (for eating the cake, for sleeping in, for sucking, for just being me). It’s a brand of negative self-talk that I’m unfortunately very familiar with, but after a full 48 hours of treating my brain and my body like a trash can–I stopped it. I realized that I might not have had the ability to take myself for a run or to do my dishes or to wash my sheets or to buy groceries… but there was nothing wrong with that.

I mean, was I living in filth? Yes. Did I die? No.

I realized that I needed to adjust my expectations. I was trying to do too much at once. And there’s nothing wrong with that… It actually was working for me, I thought. I was feelin’ fit and writing stuff and eating good meals. But it wasn’t sustainable. At least, not for me. Now might be a good place to point out that even though I might be mostly unemployed, I’m taking this summer to write the first draft of my Master’s thesis project… and that’s no joke. I’m also TA-ing for a spring course. And I’m in a workshop group that meets once a month. So, there’s more going on in my life than might be seen on my Instagram.

So, I decided to prioritize. What is important to me? What’s most important to accomplish this summer?

First, I needed to give myself a break. Second, I needed to clean my apartment. Third, I needed to write.

So I did.

And as a bonus I’ve been going to the beach everyday–it’s been proven that being next to large bodies of water boosts your mood AND your creativity, so I think of it as therapy, almost.

Working on a large project has changed the way I look at my writing and at my life. I used to be very conscious of perfection. Anything less than perfect was a fail… and failing was bad. But creating such a thin line between success and failure is limiting, both personally and creatively. Art is not the pursuit of perfection. And the end product isn’t more important than the process of making it. I will have ups and downs in my creative process, but one doesn’t negate the other. Both will contribute to my eventual success.

Failure is not a bad thing. It’s just another opportunity to try. And that’s all part of the process.

Me at the beach being a big fat failure and loving it.

life lately.

I don’t really have time to be doing this, but I figured if I’m going to procrastinate I might as well procrastinate in a  backwards, kind of productive way.

I’ve officially lived in Victoria now for over two months. Which is insane to me because it feels like I’ve been here for 2 minutes but at the same time like I’ve been here for 2 years. So I have no idea what’s going on, is what I’m saying. And that’s par for the course, from what I understand now of going to graduate school.

Days mean nothing to me. They are just blocks of time to do work (or not do work, as I’m doing now). And they are going by entirely too fast for this girl to get all her work done! Probably because I’m lazing around watching reruns on Showcase, but that’s beside the point.

I guess if you want to know what’s going on with my life, I can give you the quick and dirty on that. I have made a couple of friends here, and one really good friend (who I am eternally thankful for). I’ve had one crappy workshop, and one good workshop, and I’m coming up to my first graduate workshop this week. I’m writing some good things and some garbage things, but I’m writing and I’m thankful for that.

I rode my bike to school last week which was an experience that was equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. And also terrifying. Victoria is maybe not known for its hills or its drivers, but neither are conducive to a happy cycling experience for a newbie. My thighs were burning like nothing else I’ve ever experienced, and my back is still sore for some reason, and I almost swerved into a bus. But I’m glad I got out there (mostly because I had to get out there to get to class almost on time). It also broke up the monotony of taking the bus and let me see my new city in a new way. So, although painful and dangerous, it was worthwhile on multiple levels.

I haven’t yet completely ran out of food or money, which is further than I thought I’d get living alone. And I’ve actually started experimenting in the kitchen a little bit with herbs and spices and zucchini. It’s been good. And tasty (usually).

I’m enjoying it out here, and I know how lucky I am to be here, but I have been battling the blues a bit. It’s stressful, university, and it’s hard when you’re dealing with it on your own. Completely. I miss the comfort of a house filled with people at the end of a long day. I miss running into friends in the hallways of school. Most of all, I miss being understood. It takes a long time for people to get to know me–I have a hard time letting people in. I don’t know how to, really. It makes some days lonely. Other days, it’s awesome because I’m an introvert who needs her alone time. But sometimes, on a Friday night, I miss having someone I can call up and head to Denny’s for late night-early morning pancakes.

Now, the oddest thing about all this is that even if I did have those people here, I wouldn’t be able to do those things because I’m so damn busy. I’m sad but I’m too busy to fully realize my sadness, so I just keep bumbling along, getting projects done and talking to the other humans and putting my stretchy pants on one leg at a time. It’s almost like I’m stressed out and depressed but because I can’t intellectually deal with it, I just don’t. It’s obvious something is going on because my cuticles are shredded and my fingers are bloody nubs, but because I just need to keep going… I do.

The point of all this is that I’m fine, but I’m not fine some days too. It doesn’t mean I want a swarm of messages sent my way–I honestly don’t have time for that (and if you’re going to send anything, let’s be honest, send money) and it would just make me feel worse knowing I can’t respond. But I just needed to get this out, I guess.

Things are good on the West Coast. I’m good, and I love it here. But I don’t love it here all the time. And that’s normal. I think. Who loves everything all the time? Liars, that’s who. And, as my dad would often say, “You can trust a thief but you can never trust a liar.”

And so, that’s what’s new with me! What’s new with you?

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.

get lost

When I was a kid, all I ever did was read.

And I mean, it was all I did. I didn’t have many friends and I didn’t have any extracurricular activities and I didn’t have anything better to do… so I just read, read, read, read, read.

My favourite author then–actually, my favourite author of all time–was/is Stephen King. I devoured his books and the monsters inside them with an unbridled enthusiasm. If my mum ever lost me in the library, she knew exactly where to find me–nestled in Fiction, under the letter K (or B, depending on whether I was working my way through the works penned under Richard Bachman).

Mr. King provided a much-needed escape from my sometimes-shitty life. Like I said, I didn’t have many friends (or any friends) and the lack of social stimulation could be kind of lonely, so it was nice to lose myself in a world that sucked even more than mine did.

Books were my best friend. And I ain’t even ashamed to admit it.

Even now that I actually have a social life (-ish) and adult responsibilities and just things to do in general, I find myself escaping into a good story every once in a while. Lately, my life has gotten a little out of control–nothing I can’t manage, but something I definitely like to forget about sometimes. So, I started reading Angela’s Ashes, because I figured what could be worse than growing up in poverty in Ireland in the ’20s?

Literally, nothing. Nothing is worse.

It is the most heart-wrenching thing I’ve ever read.

Ever.

I have to read it in spurts because I get overwhelmed. There is something about having these truly terrible things narrated by a child that makes the memoir chilling (in the best way, obviously) and it gets me emotional. I don’t want to spoil anything (although, the book and the movie have been out long enough that y’all should know what happens by now) but a lot of children die and it’s really, really, really sad. And Frankie’s dad, well, he will piss me off in one minute and then have me laughing in the next and then have me crying and then before you know it I’m pissed off at him again. It’s a roller coaster of emotions, but I appreciate it so much because when I’m reading about kids starving to death and an alcoholic father and a seriously depressed mother… I forget about my own life.

I’m about halfway done Frankie’s memoir and despite experiencing the full spectrum of emotions over and over and over again, it’s done wonders for my mental state, to be honest. When I return back to my own life, the problems I have feel much more manageable now. I’ve given my brain a break from stressing over my life to lose myself in somebody else’s.

The way I figure it,  if Frankie McCourt can make it through his life, then I’ll be just fine.

the blues.

I’ve been feelin’ a bit blue lately. I woke up one morning and it felt like I’d forgotten who I was. Not in an amnesia-like way, but in an existential crisis-like way. It was as if my entire personality was wiped clean overnight. Like my favourite things, my interests, my accomplishments were just erased. I felt blank. Naked.

Boring.

I spent that whole day convinced that I was the most boring human alive, that everybody hated me, that I was an unsuccessful sack of trash who was going nowhere and doing nothing.

(I’m an expert in the art of self-deprecation).

By the end of that day, I’d convinced myself that I was a disgusting, stupid, worthless, unsuccessful human being. I was the worst kind of person and I deserved every second of emotional pain I was inflicting on myself.

It’s scary to think about how powerful my own mind can be… but it reminded me of the need for a mental health check. I’m an emotional person (sometimes to a fault) and it’s easy for me to get lost up in my own head. I can create whole scenarios and convince myself they’re real before I even get out of bed in the morning. It’s worse when I’m stressed out, and it’s worse when I’m sad. And it’s worse when I refuse to be aware of it, too.

Patience is key. It’s important to realize that everything takes time, and I know that usually the biggest source of my depression and anxiety is not measuring up to these imaginary standards I impose on myself. I keep raising the bar–which is good–but I also have a tendency to forget about the goals that I’ve already met. I keep my eye on the prize (constantly) but I keep changing the rules of the game. Being goal-oriented is important. Looking to the future is crucial to success. But the self-deprecation that seems to go hand-in-hand with it is not.

I’m a perfectionist, and, although cliche, that’s what breaks me. The self-imposed pressure to be the best I can be prevents me from being the best that I can be.

I need to learn to take a step back, crawl out of my own head, and just appreciate myself–have faith in my own abilities. I’ll get there when I get there, and I know I will get there.

It’s scary to think about how powerful my mind can be, but it’s exciting, too.

 

Suicidal Thoughts

Suicide is a sin. That’s what I learned in Sunday School. Sitting on a floral patterned couch that looked like it belonged in a church basement, along with 6 other kids–teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17–we talked about the Bible. We’d pass around copies of the good book and we’d go ’round the room reading a passage each until we reached the end of whatever scripture was to lead the discussion that day.

We would talk about sin, and Heaven, and Hell, and God (of course). We’d talk about what it mean to be a good Christian. And then we’d pray. It was the same every Sunday and I hated it.

“Is suicide a sin?” Mrs. Paterson asked the group. It was a free-for-all, with everybody pitching in their answers. I guess according to the Bible, it is a sin. But the Bible is a story, open to interpretation, and maybe Christians have been getting it wrong all these years.

“Do you think someone who commits suicide goes to heaven?” Sinners go to Hell. Everybody knew that.

I was a socially anxious, self-conscious teenage girl then and I hardly ever spoke up. But that day for some reason I needed to make my voice heard.

“I hope they go to heaven,” I said. “Because they’ve probably been going through Hell on earth.”

My mum had a cousin who killed herself. Steph. I never knew her; I was too young when she died. So my memories of her are filtered through my mum, attached to a faded snapshot that stuck to the side of the fridge for as long as I can remember. A young girl in a yellow soccer jersey, with thick framed glasses and blunt bangs. She was 16 when she hung herself in her dad’s garage. I was 11 the first time my mum told me about her.

“I always bring Steph yellow roses,” we were visiting her grave on a family trip to Lethbridge.

“Who’s Steph?” I asked her.

“She was my cousin,” my mum looked out the car window at the gravesites passing by.

“How did she die?” I was too curious to be tactful.

My mum paused, “A car accident.” Her voice was stilted, false, lying. It was guilty. It wasn’t until 4 or 5 years later that I got the real story. My dad told me one night. A couple of weeks before she did it, Steph asked to come up and visit us. She’d always wanted to live with my mum, and she promised she wouldn’t eat too much and that she’d wear my older sister’s hand-me-downs. But she’d tried to take her own life and been put on suicide watch–not allowed to travel.

Not too long after that, she was gone.

Even talking about it now, my mum gets choked up. “It doesn’t ever stop hurting,” she says as she cuts the leaves off a bunch of radishes. “I think you just learn to deal with it.” Slice, slice, slice. She moves the knife through the crisp stems, focusing extra hard on the bottom of the kitchen sink. “I’ll always wonder if there’s something I could’ve done.”

I try to comfort her, but I never know the right thing to say.

“There’s nothing you could’ve done, mum,” I say. Maybe there is no right thing.

A man my brothers and Dad knew took his own life this past Friday. I don’t know why. But I don’t need to. I hardly knew Billy, but I know the struggle of mental health and I know how hellish this life can be. He is survived by his wife and three boys, and remembered fondly by all who knew him.

May he rest in peace.

_______________________________________________________

Billy unfortunately did not have life insurance and his family is facing not only overwhelming grief, but financial stress as well. Any donations to cover funeral costs and future expenses are being welcomed here.

 

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..