Image description: A chai latte with the tea leaves visible in a strainer beside a laptop with a text document visible. Text reads “Digital self-care” and there is a small Tiffany Sostar logo in the bottom right.
This post is an interview with Cynthia Khoo, a Toronto-based lawyer who focuses on Internet policy and digital rights. Check out her website here – she’s amazing!
Back in April, Cynthia and I started talking about digital self-care, and harm reduction strategies for existing in our increasingly overwhelming digital spaces. She directed me to the Note to Self Infomagical boot-camp for “making information overload disappear,” and I completed that (you can read my review of the first day of the boot-camp on Patreon!)
This interview is long, and dense. It’s fairly link-heavy, and I’ve compiled each of the links into the resource section at the bottom, and embedded them in the text for context. We also tried to include supplemental resources for folks who want to dig deeper, and both Cynthia and I hope you find some help and inspiration for creating your digital self-care plan!
(Bolding added for emphasis after the conversation.)
Tiffany—First of all, thank you so much for making time to talk with me about this stuff. I know you are super busy. On which note, could you tell our fine readers who you are and what you do?
Cynthia—Sure, and thank you so much for having me! My name is Cynthia Khoo and I’m an Internet lawyer and digital rights advocate based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. My practice is cross-disciplinary and involves working on law and policy reform in (tele)communications law, intellectual property law (specifically copyright), and a bit of privacy law.
Tiffany—I’ve learned so much from your posts about what’s happening at the intersection of digital and legal life, and about digital security. You pointed me in the direction of the Infomagical series, and it was really helpful.
I was hoping to talk about digital self-care today, which is a huge, and kind of confusing, topic.
When you’re online, what kind of self-care strategies do you rely on?
It seems different than practicing self-care offline, but there are similarities, too. And overlap! When we first started talking about this project, you brought up the physical self-care aspect of digital self-care, in terms of ergonomics, eye strain, and posture. That’s so relevant! And impacts our experience of the digital space. Emotional and mental self-care are also here in these digital spaces, especially if we haven’t set boundaries for ourselves. It can be difficult to practice self-awareness and intentional, compassionate action online, but it feels important.
Cynthia—I’m really glad to hear that my posts have been helpful! Especially with digital security, I think it can be intimidating or overwhelming to grapple with when you first get into it, and more so if you don’t normally work a lot with tech or live on the Internet. So, I’m very appreciative of people and groups who take the time to create guides and resources (such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self-Defence toolkits and U.S. border device security guide, and resources from Tactical Tech) to make it a little more doable for people who aren’t necessarily thinking about this all the time or who don’t look through life through that lens (and for that matter, also more doable for those who are/do!).
The idea of digital self-care is fascinating, and I think an increasingly important one. I have to admit it’s not something I particularly thought a lot about in its own right until you brought it up with me, and so I’m looking forward to digging into this with you as well.
Tiffany—I hadn’t considered digital self-care as its own thing much either, despite the fact that we started talking about this collaboration months and months ago.
For me, the extent of my digital self-care has been limiting my engagement with trolls, and balancing my exposure to negative media with hopeful media (or pictures of small animals). I think those are valid parts of digital self-care, but I have a feeling that there is more we could be doing, and we could bring more awareness, intention, and compassion to our digital self-care. So, one goal for this conversation (and future conversations that this might spark) is to start digging into what that sort of sustainable digital self-care might look like.
Cynthia—I think that’s a good natural starting point, and probably a common one, that speaks to the considerable toll that both of those things take on you over time (engagement with trolls and onslaught of exclusively negative media). They are definitely valid ways to respond.
I agree that there is more to it than that as well, but it also depends on the context of your digital environment. So, there would be different strategies or approaches of bringing awareness, intention, and compassion to your online activities, and I think doing that is what I would consider digital self-care.
You asked earlier about what are some self-care strategies that I rely on when I’m online. I had to think about that because I think there are strategies that I do rely on, but they evolved organically in response to what I felt or realized I needed at the time, as opposed to my sitting down and going “I need to implement digital self-care.” They each address a different aspect of my “digital life” (quotation marks because I don’t believe it’s separable from “offline life,” but still a useful term in this context).
For example, in terms of exposure to general media, news, politics, current events, and the overall milieu of what people refer to when they want to avoid the Internet/online media, something I’ve found useful is to identify what I will get out of reading something, and assess whether it will be worth it. During the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, I largely avoided all coverage of it entirely—*not* because it would “bring me down,” ruin my day, etc. (although it would), but because it would do those things AND there was nothing I could do about it. Not even vote.
When I first started reading news, politics, etc., to become a more “aware/politicized” person, it was because I thought it would make me a more informed and thus better person, that could contribute more to the world, etc.
But reading the latest terrible tweet and then a dozen run-of-the-mill takes on it will not help me do that or add anything in the way of value to my life or how I am as a person.
If it were a Canadian election, however, there is still a bit of news rationing I might want to implement, but it would be different because that’s something where I could have more impact or do something in response to what I’m reading, or where what I’m reading would directly inform and make me more effective at what I do or how I go through my parts of the world.
I think it’s important to distinguish between media that you will and won’t read, and identify what that rubric is, because if the criteria is “anything that makes me feel bad / depressed / angry / etc.”, then it seems dangerously easy to tip from self-care over into willful ignorance.
So, for example, I don’t find it valuable to read “plot” or “horse race” news—what happened, who said what, etc.—but I do find it valuable to read more thoughtful or analytical pieces that are more “what does this mean, what does this tell us, what insights can be drawn, what can we/you do, where do we go from here.” These pieces, regardless of the emotional impact, are still valuable because the insights are potentially transferrable beyond the particular event, and I can draw on or apply that insight in the future.
That was kind of a long answer and was just one example!
Tiffany—Yes, that idea of curating media consumption based on where we can affect change really resonates for me. I’ve been reading Jane McGonigal’s book SuperBetter, and she talks quite a bit about self-efficacy, or the confidence that our actions can positively impact our outcomes. I think that intersects with digital self-care.
Cynthia—Before going on, I would be really curious and interested to hear about your thoughts on the similarities between digital and “IRL self-care,” because the latter is also something I’ve mostly thought about passingly or when forced to, rather than a deliberate overarching strategy.
Tiffany—I agree that “online” and “offline” are not super relevant divisions, given the way we use technology at this point in time. I view it similarly to how I view mental, emotional, physical, and social self-care—they aren’t separate selves, but there are distinct strategies that I use in each type of self-care, and teasing them out into categories gives me language for weighing my choices.
Do I need the social self-care of going out with friends, or do I need the financial self-care of not spending any money?
Do I need the emotional self-care of a beloved movie and some popcorn, or do I need the physical self-care of a swim?
These things are not always compatible, and having language that pulls them apart makes it easier (for me) to prioritize. I think digital self-care is similar, and overlaps and intersects with each of the other types of self-care.
Cynthia—I think that’s a brilliant way to think of it, and makes complete sense to me.
Tiffany—And I absolutely agree that our self-care strategies often develop organically in response to growing self-awareness, situational context, or needs. The value that I see in making that invisible work visible, is that it can offer a bit of a map for folks who are struggling and may not yet have landed on the strategies that other folks have developed.
Cynthia—Exactly. Even identifying that it’s a need in the first place, I think for a lot of people would be revelatory.
Tiffany—One question I do have, and it’s something I struggle with personally, is how do you streamline the process of weeding out the stories and articles and tweets and listicles that will not benefit you, or, on the other side, how do you increase your chances of finding the thoughtful, meaningful, or useful articles that you want to read?
I have almost entirely stopped hate-sharing anything, for example, and I try not to hate-read much anymore either. The morbid curiousity, and the desire to share anger with my community has mostly left me, because I realized how much it was draining me. (I do make some exceptions for particularly egregious articles that hit me hard, though.)
But despite making that choice for myself, and seeing the benefits of it, I still sometimes find myself wading through many articles that are not enlightening or helpful, and it can get tiring. Do you have any strategies?
Cynthia—I definitely don’t hate-share or hate-read anything. That goes back to what I said earlier about value. I have friends or acquaintances for instance who will share things like “look how ridiculous this person is hahaha” because it was incredibly sexist, racist, or whatever.
I guess the value they get out of it is amusement. I don’t find it amusing though, I just wish it didn’t exist in the first place.
We saw a LOT of that during the US election. So much of that “amusement factor” shares and responses seemed directly tied to privilege, and came from seemingly liberal/progressive people who would not bear the brunt of the current presidency.
The other thing about hate-sharing—and this is definitely a result of the work I’ve done in digital rights advocacy—is that I simply don’t want to give that content and its views or perspectives more air time. I want it gone, and then going beyond that, I want in its place what I would rather see instead: an article done right, or that shows and teaches people what it means to be better and how to go about doing that (whether in the context of journalism and media coverage, or in the context of the situation being covered, i.e. police brutality, sexual assault, disability rights, and so forth). Attention only helps strengthen the message, and reifies it as a thing. When it comes to messaging, public discourse, influencing sociopolitical norms, etc., I don’t believe in fighting fire with fire, but starving it of oxygen. And then growing a tree there instead.That metaphor works, right?
Tiffany—That metaphor works beautifully, and fits with a lot of what I’ve been thinking about in terms of my own emotional self-care in the current political, economic, and social climate.
Cynthia—Now to answer your actual question! [How do you streamline the process of choosing which articles you want to read?]
So, first, I should say that I do not have the most efficient or streamlined approach to media consumption, at all.
It’s actually quite haphazard and dissatisfactory, and I’ve been meaning to do something about it for a while now. I used to rely on RSS feeds, but time and the loss of my first RSS tool, then Google Reader, and not having found any satisfactory replacements (yes, including feedly!), meant I now basically rely on Facebook and Twitter for news. So I’ve come up with different strategies for each.
On Facebook, I’ve subscribed to the pages of a lot of media outlets, so there’s actual news to begin with and I’m not wholly reliant on what people in my feed post.
If I’ve noticed that someone in my feed tends to post good (thoughtful / insightful / informative) articles, or writes thoughtful / insightful /informative status posts, or their posts tend to attract good discussions, I will star them or use that feature where their posts always appear first.
I also use the “unfollow” button very liberally—thinking on it now though, I haven’t really had cause to unfollow people for political reasons, more that I just don’t care about their vacation photos or whatever.
I also rely on a tool called SocialFixer, which is a chrome plug-in for Facebook, that has too many features to describe here but I guarantee will make your experience on the site better. The idea is that I’ve filtered out the content that adds no value and just takes up space (mentally or literally on my screen), and tried to boost the content that does add value, whether relationship-wise, information-wise, or “becoming a better / more thoughtful person”-wise.This becomes more complex though if you stop to ask yourself whether you want Facebook to have such a clear read on your preferences.
As for Twitter, I didn’t use it for the longest time because it was such an overwhelming firehose in terms of reading content, and a void in terms of if I ever posted something myself. I really only became active on twitter for work, because pretty much everyone in my field is there. And there, it actually is helpful and sometimes necessary to have “horse race” news because I do need to know what has happened / what is happening to be effective at my job.
The trick to making Twitter manageable, for me, has been lists. It’s unfortunate that Twitter doesn’t seem to have optimized that feature, because it’s incredibly useful. I made one list of everyone who seemed immediately relevant to my work or if I simply wanted to encounter more of what they wrote or posted, and that one list is my Twitter homepage.
I ignore my general /overall Twitter feed and ignore all my other lists, unless I have an idle moment and then I’ll click in just to see what’s going on. And since that one curated list has a much more limited number of people, it makes for a more manageable amount of content to take in on a regular basis.
Tiffany—I love how much you curate your online experience. The firehose as a metaphor is so relatable, but the work of putting processes in place to curate has always felt daunting. It’s encouraging to read about your strategies because they feel more doable than…. I don’t know. Getting off social media entirely because it’s a disaster and only ever communicating via Slack.
Cynthia—One more note on curating online experience. This is such a small, almost trivial (but I think ultimately not trivial, for a variety of reasons) thing, but with such outsize impact that I have to recommend it. There’s a Chrome extension called “Make America Kittens Again,” and as you surf the Internet, it replaces all photos of the current US president with photos of kittens. Life-changing.
Tiffany—Ooooooh!!! You know, that actually is brilliant and would reduce so much stress. For multiple reasons! They have done studies (including this one specifically on kawaii and attentional focus) on the effect of seeing pictures of cute animals online, and it actually does calm you down. Win-win!
Cynthia—Exactly. It does double duty—not only removing the negative, which alone is already helpful, but puts something with actual positive impact in its place.
Tiffany—On a side note, I am so excited by this framework of actionable information being prioritized in digital self-care. I think that’s something I have already been leaning towards, but you’ve given it language and that is so valuable. Thank you!
Cynthia—You’re welcome! That’s a really interesting observation. I’m not sure if that framework is a result of the general environment of digital rights, technology, and the people generally found in these areas, or due to my own personality, which has become much more actionable solutions-oriented than I naturally was when younger. I think it is partly a result of legal practice and becoming a lawyer, combined with digital rights advocacy and what I’ve learned from working in that space.
I also have a side note.
At this point, I have to say I’m really wary of using words like “negative” and “positive” in generic terms outside of specific contexts, and especially as applied to media, because people can so easily twist that into “well articles about racism are / make me feel negative” and so they never read articles about the experience of racialized people, or never read articles about how they might be and could stop being racist, and then they think they’re just doing “self-care.”
So again there’s a line there and I think it warrants a whole other discussion maybe some other time about how you distinguish what is “legitimate / valid” and what isn’t. (And I suspect there’s also potentially something that could become problematic about the idea of deeming someone’s self-care illegitimate / invalid, but that might just go to something similar to the paradox of tolerance. The line simply has to be drawn somewhere if anything is going to mean anything at all.)
Tiffany—That side note is so relevant. I am in a constant state of trying to find the right language these days—using words that won’t become weaponized against vulnerable groups, or that won’t be used to validate ignorance and further complicity in oppressive systems. Thank you for bringing that up!
And, yeah. Negative/positive, healthy/unhealthy, valid/invalid — so slippery.
Especially when you combine it with how often more aware or politicized people are accused of “being negative,” and with how often “positive thinking” is used to obscure, erase, or derail the experiences of people going through objectively difficult or traumatizing experiences that it is imminently reasonable and even healthy at certain times for them to be allowed to be cynical, depressed, angry, etc., about.
Tiffany—Weaponized positivity is the bane of my self-care work. That sludge is eeeeeverywhere, and it harms so many people.
Also, yes yes yes to how “being negative” gets used against people (see also “being divisive” or “being just as bad as the people you’re fighting,” which all feel on a similar spectrum of “shut up and manifest your best life”).
That’s why I love the idea of using whether an idea or article will provide an actionable insight, and whether it will increase understanding about an issue (which then becomes actionable in its own way) as the metric.
And on that note, I wonder how people can find hope and a sense of their own agency, so that they can recognize where they can act. A lot of folks feel disempowered in the world as it is now.
Cynthia—YES, to all above re “positive/negative.”
Oh wait, I think I misunderstood your earlier question about prioritizing the actionable in digital self-care. With the media metric specifically, that’s just something I’ve instinctively done on my own for a long time, and have only articulated it as such to myself more recently.
Tiffany—It’s brilliant. ❤
And empowering! And it ties so beautifully in with other work around building self-efficacy, self-confidence, and our sense of agency (which ties directly into how resilient we feel).
Cynthia—I was going to say, in response to earlier question about hope and agency, that I’m not sure if that’s something you can just “do,” particularly not through the idea of digital self-care. You can’t “make” yourself feel hopeful, and you can’t just suddenly feel like you have agency. I think that goes more towards your life experiences overall, and whether they have led you to possess a sense of self-efficacy, self-confidence, and belief that you have agency to change things and impact the environment around you. I have been very lucky in that sense.
In terms of recognizing where folks can act, I think again, it depends on the context.
It’s much easier to answer that question if you have a specific issue or cause, than if you just want to “do something, anything” generally.
And then I think, as with everything in life, Google is your best friend (its search function anyway, if not the multinational monopolistic company with more power than some countries).
People do not give enough attention to the fact that other people spend a lot of time writing articles and explainers and lists that lay out clearly what any given person could do to help make the world better on any given issue.
If I want to do something about one of the recent hurricane disasters, for example, I will look up one of the many guides on that, from people who are on the ground there or work in the field or otherwise know what they’re talking about, and follow their advice.
If I want to act to make the world better for people with disabilities, I will look up the myriad articles and resources written by people with disabilities about how I can help do that.
I realize that a lot of that also starts from the prior assumption that I can act and can do something. And your question seems to be getting more at how to help someone to believe that in the first place.
In which case, I’m actually not that sure.
Perhaps something along the lines of starting small, e.g. donating to a marginalized writer you love, or engaging in mild snark so an oppressive comment at work doesn’t go past in peace, accepting those small wins for yourself, and then building upon that.
Tiffany—Those are great suggestions.
I also wanted to ask about digital security, and how that intersects with digital self-care. This is a topic that I really struggle with, and I mostly just ignore (which I know is not great self-care in any area!)
How would someone get started figuring out how to keep themselves safe online? How do you determine how much safety is enough, and how do you balance the social aspect of online life with the security risks of it?
Cynthia—First off, I am by no means an expert or anywhere near on digital security, at all. I am one of those people who are grateful for those who do work on digital security as a living and produce the guides and resources that I would also be completely lost without. So just to put that out there.
Next, I think that was three questions in one!
1) How would someone get started figuring out how to keep themselves safe online?
2) How do you determine how much safety is enough?
3) How do you balance the social aspect of online life with the security risks of it?
So I will address them in that order.
Tiffany—Awesome. And yes, it was. Sorry!!
Cynthia—1) How would someone get started figuring out how to keep themselves safe online?
I think the first and most useful thing, on a psychological level and to reduce frustration once you start the process, is to accept from the outset that digital security is not a quick errand you can run.
Think of it as an IKEA project, for your digital home. Imagine the frustration if you had to build an IKEA shelf or bed and assumed it’d be a quick task you could randomly fit in between things, and then it’s 4 hours later and you’re trying to find a missing nail and now you’re not sure the shelf even fits. At that point you’d probably throw up your hands and go, “You know what, being hacked and tracked doesn’t sound so bad.”
So give yourself the time and the space to learn and to do it right. The last thing you would want is to think you’ve secured yourself digitally when you really haven’t.
It is worth it to put aside a designated evening, afternoon, day, etc. to do it, especially if you’re coming at the whole idea of digital security from scratch. You could make an event of it if that helps, like people do with other self-care things. Or make it a date with a partner, or have a cryptoparty with friends or colleagues, where everyone learns and assists as you figure it out together.
Then, again, I would point to guides online, such as the ones listed in Martin Shelton’s Current Digital Security Resources Guide.
However, I would just start with ONE or it will be immediately overwhelming. Each guide is meant to be standalone, so it should not even matter which one. Start with that, forget the rest. Follow that one guide, and if you feel you have the energy or want to do more after, you can move on to another one and use any information in there that wasn’t already in the first.
It is kind of hard to answer this question in the abstract though, because of your second question: How do you determine how much safety is enough?
Everyone has a different threat model. I believe there are guides out there that also help instruct how you figure out what yours is.
For example, if you are an environmental activist or political journalist who travels to the United States or abroad a lot, your digital threat model would likely be much higher than, say, a junior accountant who lives in the suburbs.
I should say, a hetero white male junior accountant who is not politically active nor engages in allyship, who lives in the suburbs or not.
Tiffany—The IKEA metaphor is good. And explains why I’ve found this so frustrating. I definitely was not viewing it as IKEA furniture.
Cynthia—In the spirit of actionable advice, here are some things off the top of my head people can start with:
1) Install Signal or Whatsapp for encrypted texting [easy and painless]
2) Install PGP if you think you should have encrypted email [not as easy or painless as expected]
3) Install 2-factor authentication on all important online accounts, if available [easy and painless, provided you always have your phone on you]
4) Learn / read about how to do passwords properly, and start doing that.
When I think of digital security, I think of it as two categories: The first is protection from other people: how to encrypt your data, prevent your data from being breached, falling into wrong hands, etc.
But the second is digital security in the sense of backing up my data: how can I access it if it’s lost somehow or my normal avenues to it are cut off (such as if someone confiscates my phone)?
For the latter, I would recommend an external hard-drive that you place in safekeeping somewhere, and/or cloud storage such as Dropbox.
And then the next step beyond is combining the two: protecting/encrypting your backups. There are apps that will integrate with various cloud storage services (e.g. Boxcryptor is encryption software that works with Dropbox), and there are mobile versions as well, so you can keep things encrypted and closed to others, but still accessible to you on your phone as well as computer.
3) How do you balance the social aspect of online life with the security risks of it?
This is a really good question, and a hard one. I remember seeing a series of tweets shortly after the 2016 US presidential election, along the lines of “now is the time when we have to lock down everything and know who your true friends are, and cut off sycophants and people you do not trust.”
And I more or less agreed with that, or in any case it strongly resonated with me, and I immediately thought of all these people I would not trust. But then the issue was… wouldn’t that just lead to complete balkanization, and the precise people who should be reading and learning, no longer being exposed to those most likely to post what (imho) they should be reading and learning?
Similarly, if I have a higher threat model than average, does that mean I have to cut off all online communications with friends (or family, or partners, or colleagues) who have a lower threat model, and who implement few or even zero digital security practices, or just never digitally communicate to them anything personal or sensitive?
I remember at a conference once, a speaker mentioned how male journalists in particular would display a lot of bravado around digital security, like “I don’t care what happens to me! I’ll do anything for the story!” And then she’d ask: “But what about your family? Or your sources?” Whose personal /sensitive information is also on that person’s phone. And they’d go, “…Oh.”
I think all of that is a very personal call, and may take both research into and identifying your own threat model first and what levels of risk you are comfortable with relative to that, and then maybe some conversations with people if necessary.
Tiffany—That makes sense. And I had never seriously considered how a security breach could ripple out—or in!
Cynthia—”Weakest link” is a very relevant term in this context.
Tiffany—Yeah. I can see that. That does make it so complicated.
At this point, I want to give some word of reassurance but also not in a way that undermines everything said above or the point of this discussion. I mean, at some level it is a matter of “do your best,” and yet at another level, if your best wasn’t actually adequate, then that’s not helpful.
Tiffany—Yes. I think in that way it’s a lot like any self-care or security protocols. We can only do so much, and shaming ourselves for what we can’t do is not helpful. And also we need to do as much as we can, without shaming ourselves or victim-blaming if it isn’t enough. We have to hold those difficult and sometimes incompatible truths together at the same time, which is difficult.
It’s important, AND limitations are real, AND outcomes can be serious if we don’t take care of ourselves.
I think that part can also be complicated, especially if it ended up impacting other people or if digital security is a part of the person’s professional responsibilities, for instance.
Although digital self-care is a fairly new topic of discussion, and an evolving issue, it’s an important one! Hopefully this conversation offers a start in your own digital self-care planning and practice. Share your digital self-care tips or concerns, and maybe this will evolve into a more comprehensive resource over time!
The Link List
Cynthia Khoo’s website
Note to Self’s Infomagical Bootcamp
EFF Surveillance Self-Defence toolkit
EFF U.S. Border Security Guide
Make America Kittens Again
An article from psychologicalsciences.org about the “cuteness is good for mental health” study, and the study itself on PLoSONE
The Big Think on the Paradox of Tolerance
Albert Bandura’s paper on Self-Efficacy (our belief in our ability to affect positive change in our lives)
Martin Shelton’s Current Digital Security Resources Guide
The Security in a Box guide to assessing digital threat. This guide was designed for LGBTI individuals in the Middle East and North Africa, and is more comprehensive, with step by step instructions and matrixes to fill out, than others I found.
Signal and WhatsApp for encrypted communication, and PGP for email, Boxcryptor for encrypting cloud files
Securing Your Digital Life Like a Normal Person
Guide to Assessing Digital Risks
Violet Blue has been writing about digital life for years, and her Patreon features a weekly Info Security round-up on Tuesdays.
Image description – Autumn leaves and berries on nearly bare twigs against a grey sky. Text reads #TenDaysOfGrey #Mental Health. There is a small Tiffany Sostar logo in the top right.
Content warning for discussion of depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidality.
Today is World Mental Health Day. This is my final post for Bryan McLean’s #TenDaysOfGrey mental health awareness project. You can read my interview with Bryan here. Rather than writing something new for today, I’m sharing a post I wrote four years ago that detailed my mental health journey up to that point. The reason I’m sharing it at the end of the Ten Days of Grey is because when I wrote this post I was in the grey. I am in the colour now, and I appreciate that.
I wrote the post shared here in 2013. Now I am 36, it’s four years later and many things have changed and many things have stayed the same. I am thankful for my 32 year old self writing this. I am thankful for my 28 year old self making it through, for all those younger selves who made it through. I have spent so many years in the grey.
At 36, I am not depressed. (I am often anxious, I am in the middle of a three-months-and-counting fibro flare, and I am experiencing regular existential dread over the state of the world, but miraculously, I am not depressed. Wow!)
It is sort of amazing to reflect on that, because there is a lot going on in my life that would is difficult, stressful, and overwhelming. I am thankful for the resilience I have developed, and I am also conscious of the truth that these sorts of things are not always “overcomeable” and these monsters will visit again. I’ll make them tea, cry with them, and continue surviving. I am thankful for that confidence.
I am also amazed at how strategies shift. When I wrote this original post, I had a few coping skills that I leaned on daily – my extensive lip balm collection is a testament to that. I used lip balm application as an alternative behaviour to self-harming, and it was life-saving for me. But these days, I have only even felt the urge to self-harm once or twice in the last couple years, and I only use lip balm when my lips are chapped. Self-care is such a responsive process – we are always responding, and the act of self-care is an act of presence and awareness. It becomes habitual, but it can never be only habitual. I love (and hate) that iterative, never-ending process. (I also really miss my Patchwork writers! If I ran another six-week poetry writing course, would you be interested? Let me know!)
Here is my 2013 post, edited to remove some ableism (we are always learning!) and to update links.
I’m sitting in Vendome, one of my favourite cafès in Calgary. I just sent out the writing prompt to my Patchwork writers, posted it on the Facebook page, shared it on my personal Facebook, tweeted it, posted it on the Writing in the Margins blog. Most of the time I respond to writing prompts privately, in a longhand journal. If I share the writing later (which I rarely do, outside of workshops where I read my just-written work with the group), I type it up and polish it a bit.
But the prompt today is to write about mental health.
And I am a mental health advocate. So I am typing this response directly into my “add new post” screen, and I am going to hit “publish” when I’m finished. And then I’ll post a link to it on Facebook and on all of my Twitter accounts, and here’s why –
At 13, I went through my first serious depression. I did not know what was happening to me. (If you suspect that you may be going through a depression or other mental health concern, here is a free screening tool. It’s not perfect, and symptoms are not so cut-and-dried for many people – it is a place to start, but not a final word.)
Suddenly everything was awful. There was a pain in my body/brain/heart/soul. I cried a lot. I self-harmed. I scratched my neck and shoulders and hips and belly until I was cross-hatched, red and scabbing. I smashed my head into walls, sometimes until I was dizzy. I didn’t know who to talk to. The only person who knew I was self-harming, the only person I confided in, was my 9 year old sister. It was terrible for both of us, a weight far too heavy for her small shoulders (or my own).
Writing about this time, I feel my chest tighten and my breath shorten, the muscles in my neck knot up – these are the first physical manifestations of anxiety in my body and I am aware enough now, at 32, to recognize them for what they are. I take a deep breath, roll my shoulders, take a sip of water, continue.
In high school, at around 16 or 17, I went through a second (or perhaps just a worsening of my ongoing) depression. This was complicated by the arrival of Sadisty – a very angry, very vicious voice in my head. I do not seem to have a split or multiple personality disorder – Sadisty was just (“just”) my mind’s way of externalizing the intense self-loathing that I was experiencing. Though I feel a deep shame about what feels, to me, like one of the lowest points in my mental health journey, I am also amazed and grateful for whatever it was in me that did choose to externalize rather than internalize those feelings. Sadisty wanted me to die, and I had many moments of suicidality, but I didn’t want me to die. I put all of that negativity into Sadisty, to get it out of my own head, to make those nasty comments come in a voice that wasn’t my own.
I am lucky to have survived high school, to have survived Sadisty and that second/ongoing depression.
(Breathe again, breathe again.)
At 18, I started volunteering at the Calgary Humane Society. I adopted a dog, my soul mate. Tasha. She had separation anxiety and dog-dog aggression. She was anxious, fearful, aggressive. Helping her helped me. Things got better. Sadisty was gone, and she has never come back.
I got married, I got divorced.
My mental health stayed at a consistently low-grade level of self-loathing. Low self-esteem. An at-that-time undiagnosed anxiety disorder. The impact of early trauma, unacknowledged anxiety and low self-esteem on my sex drive led me to believe I was “sexually dysfunctional” (a whole other thing, related but tangential to this post).
(Breathe, breathe. Roll shoulders, stretch wrists, refill water. In my body right now – tightness, tension. Shame, anxiety, fear.)
After my divorce, I went through a third severe depression. Again, I was self-harming. Again, I was suicidal.
I was 28.
I was ashamed.
I felt foolish – this was supposed to be done, part of the horror of adolescence. How could it follow me into adulthood? How could it threaten to destroy the new life I was trying to build for myself? How could I?! Shame, anxiety, self-loathing – there was a toxic mix of emotions and beliefs at play. Fortunately, I was seeing a counsellor and had her support, and the support of my anchor partner. I had started seeing a counsellor when I was trying to get past the sexual dysfunction, and continued seeing her through my divorce and into the depression that followed it. I still see her, and will continue to do so. I recognize now that my neurodivergence is not something I will ever “overcome” – it is part of who I am. It has taught me invaluable lessons, and has helped me become the advocate that I am. At 32, I recognize the value that this neurodivergence has brought to my life.
But at 28, I climbed halfway over my 28th floor balcony, intending to make strawberry jam on the pavement below.
After that, my counsellor helped me come up with an emergency plan.
I made the painful call to my sister, my mom, my dad.
I said, “I am currently depressed. Sometimes I feel suicidal. I am calling to ask if you would be willing to be part of my emergency plan. What that would mean is that if I call and tell you that I am feeling suicidal, you will be available to come and be with me, or take me to the hospital if necessary.”
I had to euthanize Tasha.
My mom was hit by a truck, she almost died.
I experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. The depression got worse. The self-harming escalated.
My best friend stopped taking my calls. Months later, she told me that it had just gotten to be too much – there was something wrong every time we spoke.
Depression, anxiety, other mental health concerns… they can be like bombs, decimating at the point of impact, shrapnel flying everywhere. Relationships can be fundamentally altered or destroyed. Partnerships suffer. The ripple effects of a mental health issue can make the isolation and loneliness, the shame and fear and pain so much worse. Among the conversations that we do not have regarding mental health, this conversation about self-care for caregivers, and balancing the various and sometimes conflicting needs for support is both absent and necessary. It is possible to remain friends with a depressed person, but because we do not ever have this conversation, many people don’t know how.
I came out of that depression.
I became an activist.
I developed an amazing, diverse, wide-ranging social circle.
I learned new coping skills. I breathe more intentionally now. I pay attention to tension in my body. I rarely allow an anxiety attack to escalate to the point where I feel the urge to self-harm. I use lip balm and apply it when I start to feel anxious – I pay attention to the feel, the smell, the taste. I take supplements and get exercise. I see my counsellor every other week, more frequently when things get bad.
I am 32 now.
I am currently depressed.
I wake up in the morning and I feel sad. I feel hopeless. I feel discouraged.
I haven’t reconciled with the addition of fibromyalgia to my life. I miss my dad. I miss my dogs. I am financially unstable, and frustrated by my ongoing mental health concerns. I am immobilized by anxiety on a regular basis.
But I have help. And I have a purpose. I believe that my weakness is one of my superpowers, that my willingness to speak openly about my struggles is part of my activism.
So I am depressed.
I am waiting for it to be over (for now).
I use all my new coping skills. I lean on my friends, as much as I can allow myself, and I breathe. I stretch. I take my supplements and drink my water and have epsom salt baths to help with the physical pain.
It is World Mental Health Day.
And this is my mental health story.
(Image description: A large tree in front of a house, the image is in black and white. Text reads: #TenDaysOfGrey Help promote Mental Health Awareness this October 1st-0th. Post Photos in Grey HELP Share Facts, Stories, Resources, and Donations. Create Awareness for World Mental Health Day October 10th. Use hashtags #TenDaysOfGrey and #MentalHealth)
This October, I’m participating in a new project to increase mental health awareness. The project was launched on Instagram this year by Bryan J. McLean, a Canadian multimedia artist. His music, poetry, fiction, paintings, and web published works include writing such as poetry from The Syndrome Papers, and (1)ne Night Stand, and more recently a Tumblr scifi-poetry project titled, #100days The Open Air : a dark urban fantasy about the light.
His newest project is Ten Days of Grey, which starts on October 1st and runs until World Mental Health Day on October 10th. You can find posts for the project under #TenDaysOfGrey, and you can participate by posting a black and white picture with the hashtags #TenDaysOfGrey and #MentalHealth. If you use these posts to share stories, resources, or support about mental health, you’ll make Bryan’s day.
I saw Bryan’s posts about the project in the days before October 1, and decided to participate. Mental health is such a complex and stigmatized subject, and there is a huge amount of victim-blaming and differential access to resources that complicated how and whether people can access supports.
Bryan generously agreed to an interview about the project.
Tiffany – What inspired the project?
Bryan – You know, I never thought that hard about it. I was upset with some recent career failures and was struggling with health and depression (yet again) this past summer, and then I saw World Mental Health Day was coming up. I started thinking “what can I do to bring awareness with the least amount of effort.” It’s funny to say that, I know, but I had a break down and it takes too much energy right now to pump out creative-anything.
Tiffany – Ableism in activism is so real, and so prevalent. I’m glad you gave yourself permission to do what you could with the resources you have available. I think that self-awareness about limited energy is such a critical part of self-care.
Bryan – I wanted to find something people do every day to share stories and facts. Clearly, the easiest answer was social media, memes, and picture-filters on phone apps. Selfies, food, cat or dog photos, whatever, wherever we are. We’re all addicted, but it’s such a beautiful way sometimes to share how you see the world. And then I considered how much of how I feel just turns to grey when I’m going through a depressive episode. It becomes the lens I see through. I ‘know’ all the good things are over there in the colour, but I’m cold and wet, trapped here in the grey. It’s all you see sometimes, it’s out of your control. (If you’ve ever seen the movie Pleasantville, it feels a lot like being trapped in the ignorant b&w.)
To explain how I got to this point – I’ve been trying to gain a specific full-time professional role for five years, and I’ve been maintaining two skillsets at my job and I’ve essentially been two people at work for five years. It finally caught up with me as I had pushed too long, and ended up essentially in adrenal fatigue. This exacerbated the depression & anxiety that I’ve been managing my whole adult life. I found that the self-care tools I’d developed were no longer working for me.
I collapsed emotionally. It’s embarrassing to say it out loud. It’s embarrassing to say that I was trying so hard & so long that I was exhausted, slept on breaks & at lunchtime, literally crying from exhaustion at work some days, overwhelmed after several months of living like this daily, I finally broke. I mean my brain did. I couldn’t multitask. I couldn’t wash dishes and have a conversation at the same time for months, the focus I required would just break. I couldn’t do complex math / excel formulas in my head any more, which used to be like making a sandwich for me. I couldn’t remember a conversation that just happened… or even what groceries I was supposed to pick up. Things you take for granted just remembering them. And it was very much like I was locked in a room full of doors and I knew the information I needed was just on the other side and I couldn’t get there. It was out of reach.
I’m slowly leaving my current career to restart my undergraduate & Masters work in fine arts (painting) with a minor in psychology, so I can move to work in art therapy. It’s hard, but not as much as the pain I realized I would feel spending another twenty-five something years doing something that isn’t going to help people the way I need to help them. I have the gifts (creativity & compassion) and I should use them to help adult learners.
Tiffany – Congratulations on making the choice to change your career. That’s hard (speaking from personal experience!) The experience of your burnout sounds so difficult. I know that losing executive function was one of the most challenging things about my early fibromyalgia journey – it felt like such a personal failing. And it definitely pushed me into a depressive episode that was resistant to all of my previously-effective tools. Since then, or even before then, what has your mental health journey looked like?
Bryan – I’ll try to sum that up. It’s difficult to condense the ups and downs. Since I was a teenager, I was melancholy. Just sad, not suicidal. I didn’t know it was depression. People get sad, they have regrets, lament over things, feel lonely. It didn’t feel special. I moved away for college so I spent a lot of time just alone in a new city where I knew very few people. You get lonely, but I’ve always been introverted, I like my own company. But, I’d be irrationality sad for days… a down feeling that wouldn’t leave.
Over time, I moved cities & provinces, had relationships & friendships, breakups, makeups. All the while, I just had dark days. It wasn’t like the world was ending, but I’d feel heavy or in pain. I’d keep going though, it’s what you do. Everyone feels like this, right? Also, I used to think I had insomnia but it’s actually something called bi-modal (sleep a few hours, wake up for 2-4 hours, and go back to sleep). So, I’d struggle with sleeping, overthinking, but usually I’d feel rested. I’d say my depression grew overtime though. I got more tired.
One time I set my kitchen on fire, overthinking & distracted, I’d left the plastic kettle on the stove burner. It wasn’t all that dramatic but prompted me to see my physician and I went on meds for a year, because of anxiety, depression and cognitive issues. Side effects were the worst sometimes, but it helped me get focused and back on track.
I spent a lot of time trying to avoid having to return to medications though; it’s the right thing for some people, but I wanted to do all the right things, if at all possible, to never need them again. I took up mild running, tried yoga, stopped eating a lot of take out and just cooked at home. I studied meditation and things on psychology. I’ve seen several naturopathic doctors and psychologists over the years when I needed direction and a neutral person to talk to. I wanted to stay grounded. It took a lot of work, but it’s help me be balanced. It’s a struggle to act or feel normal sometimes.
I don’t know if all of that really helped the way I thought it would, but I put in the effort of doing the self-care I needed for pretty much my adult life. I’ve been on meds again. Had another rough year. Saw my doctor, my psychologist. Was again diagnosed with anxiety & depression. I’m usually a funny, intelligent, thoughtful, and friendly person. I’m not faking that part of me, however some days it takes a lot out of me to just ‘be myself.’
Tiffany – You’ve taken that struggle and used it as motivation to start this project, which I think has the potential to reach a lot of people. What do you hope the project will inspire or accomplish?
Bryan – The worst thing someone recently said to me was, ‘everyone has anxiety, everyone gets depressed.’
It was the most unkind thing you can possibly say to someone in crisis. It makes me sick to think that is the message being shared by the public. These types of words end lives. We are all people and we all deserve kindness.
Yes, people get sad, people get worried. Yet they don’t get diagnosed with an illness by a physician and feel irrationally worried and suffer prolonged sadness for days on end.
Not everyone has high functioning depression like I have managed; I can mask my symptoms and just ‘deal with it’ but sucking it up for years, is like watching a plane that you’re flying slowly head into a mountain. You will crash, it’s just a question how badly.
So, I guess I am hoping this project will inspire awareness. Most people are lucky and don’t have to live with being sad or worried too often, or deal with the mania that bipolar people experience, or deal with schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, dementia, or other cognitive issues that plague their quality of life. Yet these issues happen. Almost no one is trained to deal with the situation when mental health issues arise, especially when they happen to us personally, or in our close relationships.
No one really wants to talk about it, because what is there to say? Often mental health is a silent kind of disease, the myth is that it is ‘best ignored and left for doctors to decide how to deal with it.’ Issues like this though, they fester when ignored. Patience, kindness, compassion, are skills that many people don’t have, and no one really knows what to say. They don’t see it is a part of your health, they don’t see it like a broken arm – they act like you are weak or lazy, they don’t believe you… Yet those are the moments we need to be listening to each other more compassionately, not less. We need to be open to solutions. Sometimes it’s a matter of talking to the right counsellor or health professional.
Not everyone needs help, but no one should go through these things alone, and there are so many local resources & people out there that can help and are properly trained to help.
If you don’t know what to say,
If you don’t know what to do,
find a professional.
Hopefully sharing facts and sharing stories will keep giving some exposure to mental health. Even just knowing that one in three Canadians will be diagnosed with mental health problems in their lifetime, will maybe ease the pressures of doing things all alone, and seeking help.
Tiffany – That’s great. You’ve talked about different groups of people – the people who experience mental health issues, the people who don’t (and often don’t know what to say), and the professionals who might be able to help. Who do you hope will get involved in the project?
Bryan – I don’t really want to ‘own’ this idea, it’s meant for others to pick it up, so even if it’s small, I’m hoping it speaks to people to slow down and know it’s okay to seek help. Dealing with mental health is not something you have to do alone.
I was really just doing this thing for myself, it’s something I needed to hear so many times in my life, I forget sometimes that even if a small voice speaks out, maybe that idea can help others understand or seek help.
You don’t have to be in a massive crisis to talk something out. We get to being in a crisis by not talking about and not listening/believing, not finding the right professional to connect with, not having that one person say, ‘hey why don’t we talk this through.’ No one wants to be a burden, but problems like these don’t go away. They almost get stronger if you set out to ignore them.
Tiffany – What else feels important about the project?
Bryan – The simplicity. Just imagining the world in Grey for a few days might help people find a way back to the colour.
Tiffany – You talked about the tools that you used to use suddenly not working when you experienced burn out and depression. Have you found new tools that work?
Bryan – It’s been a long journey, so I want people to know, I didn’t wake up one day and have it all figured out. I’m saying that because I think it’s important to know that you will struggle trying to find out what works best for you and what fits your lifestyle; you will grow and change, and growth always hurts in some way.
I studied a lot of things, experimented a lot, talked to a lot of people & professionals. I sought help and I didn’t expect someone to magically ‘fix me.’ Sometimes I felt I was doing this workout / yoga wrong… eating the wrong vegan things… or doing that spiritual technique badly… felt confused about certain concepts… but the truth of the matter is that it was (and continues to be) a journey of the internal self.
What helps me:
- Ask for help. Ask anyone. It’s so hard when you don’t know what you need. But talk about it with a trusted advisor/friend and then a professional.
- Learn to sit quietly, to sit with yourself, and to quiet the noisy mind. Don’t worry. This takes practice, but every bit helps. So, doing Zazen (seated meditation) at minimum five minutes a day, but best 20mins when you wake up & 20mins before bed. Rhythmic breathing.
- Studying Shamanic meditation helped me. Learning to see different perspectives and ‘journey’ to discover goals, problem solving, and energetic healing.
- Studying Buddhism & Quantum Physics. I love complex patterns and how things connect, quantum mechanics tells that story. I wanted to study the nature of things, understand myself or my place in the universe or something like that, so I was looking at ethics & science. I guess I was trying to stay grounded, because spiritually is the inner path, the self… It seemed very selfish to only look inside knowing there is an outside world to experience. You can get a big head full of delusions when looking at the true nature of what being a person means, thinking you know all the answers, how everything is connected… so, I guess I wanted follow a good base set of rules of investigation. Science is a quest for truth and testing those facts. And then I read this book, The Quantum & the Lotus. It’s a conversation worth having and it took a good look at where Buddhism & Science meet. They are both the quest for truth and testing that truth, incorporating new findings and accepting that maybe what we think is true can change. It’s important to be open when you’re on any kind of journey, so these were good lessons to learn.
- Free Weights. Yoga. Spin. Dance. Being active with intent is meditative – it distracts the mind. It’s ironic when depression hits, it becomes this huge wet blanket in your life, stopping the desire to be active. Literally everything is harder & heavier. You shouldn’t force it if you need a rest day, but I try really hard to be active at least once a week, preferably five times a week. (Recent research supports this.) But even 15 mins of workout is literally better than nothing. I am an introverted person, I don’t like exercising in public or classes, but finding that sport or workout thing that makes you motivated can help a lot.
- If I can’t sleep, I do pushups or planks, downward facing dog, until I am tired, which frankly won’t take long. You can also look up breathing techniques for helping sleep, like the 7 second method.
- If something is stopping my brain from getting sleep, I get up and deal with it. I try not to lay there grinding my brain. Get up, clean the house, write down the issue, and try to come up solutions. You’ll never get to sleep just lying awake. It only gets worse. You might not solve a problem but it’s better than lying in the dark hating yourself or others. I try to take action the next day on those problems to solve by making a list and making deadlines to fix what is bothering me.
- I cook for myself. I reduced / stopped eating take out, and reduced my salt & sugar intake, and my alcohol intake (it’s also sugar). Learning nutrition from a Naturopathic Doctor, Nutritionist, or your personal doctor can also help – getting help to make a plan for your physiological needs. Single. Person. Is. Different.We all have different needs. For me, it was important to move towards being vegan/vegetarian. Requiring animal protein is a myth, it’s not the only way to get protein, not the only thing a body needs, and there are healthy ways to incorporate both your current lifestyle and what your body needs together. Listen to your body. Listen to a real doctor, not what the internet thinks you should do. Drink water, your body needs it.
- Camping, Hiking, Canoe/Kayak, & Sit with Nature. Turn off the noise. Sit at a river. Stare at some trees. Walk your dog or someone else’s dog, but be outside without your headphones in. Listen to the tress talking. Mindfully acknowledge the Now that is all around you. This helps me a lot.
- Write poetry or short stories. Paint. Draw. Craft. Bake. Sing. Make music, make things, and share them. It doesn’t matter if it’s bad, it doesn’t matter if no one ever sees it. The act of expression is the most important exercise, because there are things that words cannot express and stories that need telling.
- I also use a sleeping mask all the time, and a full-spectrum light panel in the winter.
Bryan’s Recommended Resources:
- Zazen (Seated meditation) I have studied soto zen Buddhism for a long time, the best resource you can find is a very very short book called Buddha in Blue Jeans by Tai Sheridan
- My top two fave books on Buddhism are
- Sit Down and Shut Up by punkrock buddhist Brad Warner
- Peace is Every Breath by Thich Nhat Hahn, an activist and Vietnamese Buddhist Master
- Shamanic Studies: Secrets of Shamanism by Jose Stevens, a practical guide to journeying & goal setting
- Finding Ultra & Plant Powered Way by Rich Roll, on athleticism & become vegan with his researched cookbook
- Wil Wheaton’s video about his mental health
- This video is really helpful – I had a Black Dog, his name was Depression
Tiffany’s Further Reading List:
- For folks who want to explore shamanism but are concerned about cultural appropriation, this article goes into quite a bit of depth.
- Accessing professional care can be difficult for people of colour, but this list of podcasts by therapists of colour is a small step towards meeting that need.
- Rest for Resistance is another great resource written by QTPOC.
- 7 Cups is a free therapy resource for folks who can’t afford professional help.
- Exercise and physical activity can be challenging if you’re dealing with chronic pain, and chronic pain can exacerbate mental health issues. This post includes some tips (and also cute cat gifs).