(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).
This is the second part of a Patreon reward post series for Dylan. At the $10/month support level, I’ll write you a post on the topic of your choice for your birthday, too! Consider heading over to my Patreon and signing up if you want to support this work!
You can also read Part One – Narratives of Quitting.
This series of posts attempts to address the topic Dylan posed. They said, “I’m so tired and stretched thin across multiple projects so I apologize if this is not helpful. It’s kind of hilarious that this is about self-care and I’m not really doing awesome on that front atm. I was thinking about self-care as it relates to quitting because I’ve made a number of difficult changes over the past couple of years that required working through these ideas. I gave up on many hobbies as a kid because I didn’t want to face the horrible anxiety that came with pursuing hobbies: fear of public failure or embarrassment, fear and awkwardness of interacting with new people… I started to think of myself negatively as a quitter and that has nagged at me as an adult such that I have a difficult time quitting or changing directions once I set myself onto a path. But quitting can be such a vital part of self-care because sometimes we do need to change directions or leave to protect ourselves.”
This second part of the series looks at the factors that influence when/whether/how/what we might quit (or not quit).
There are so many factors that can influence whether or not someone decides to (or is forced to) quit something, or, equally complex and common, factors that influence whether someone decides not to (or is unable to) quit something. I narrowed these factors down to a core set, with the understanding that this list is incomplete and that these factors blend together into a nearly infinite range of potential influences.
I don’t think it’s possible to talk about the factors that influence quitting without addressing the way that trauma impacts, long-term, our response to threat situations (and to situations that look like they might be threatening, whether or not they actually are threatening). It’s too easy to approach the topic of quitting and self-care from a rationalist perspective, distanced from personal histories of trauma, and when we talk about quitting only in terms of the “rational” or “reasonable” response to influences or situations, we end up contributing to the stigma and shame that already weighs heavy on trauma survivors.
When we quit, how we quit, why we quit, whether we quit – our histories inform these actions in a major way. (And each of our histories influences this – family histories, success and failure histories, and trauma histories. But this section is about trauma histories.)
These trauma histories (which include any Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs, such as abandonment, abuse, childhood poverty, or watching a caretaker struggle with addiction, abuse, or financial/emotional/mental instability or illness) echo through the rest of our lives, and although I sincerely believe that we are both the protagonists and the narrators of our own stories, I also recognize that our stories happen in contexts that we do not, and cannot, control.
So, how do these histories inform how/when/why/whether we quit?
I mean… how do they not? But for the sake of this post, we’ll look at four common responses to threat, how they can be influenced by trauma histories, and how they can influence a decision to quit.
Fight, flight, freeze, or fawn are four common responses to threat.
When you’re making a decision about whether/when/how to quit, if you’re responding to a (real or perceived, internal or external) threat, and if you have a trauma history (as so many of us do), then your ability to access each of these responses will be impacted. In lots of ways.
Fight – When we feel threatened, one response is to fight.
Making decisions about quitting outside of a trauma history, the story of fighting might be one of the protagonist recognizing an injustice or other problem, assessing their available skills and resources or determining that the situation is untenable and has to be challenged, and fighting it. These stories are the stories of people who didn’t “just” quit, and they are often among the most highly praised stories.
However, the story of a trauma-infused fight response might look more like the protagonist “lashing out” and “making the situation worse” – these stories are often far less acceptable, and when the person fighting is marginalized – a woman, femme, disabled, fat, poor, neurodivergent, racialized, addicted, or otherwise marginalized person (whether they’re fighting from a place of trauma or not) – the fight response is often used to blame them for any harm that they experience.
Trauma-informed fight responses can also be hard to control, and the flood of adrenaline can make it difficult to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. It is hard to fit trauma-informed quitting decisions into an acceptable Narrative of Quitting, and this is particularly true when the response is a fight.
Flight – Another response to threat is to run away.
Outside of a trauma response, flight stories are often easily understood and accepted, because flight is non-confrontational and clearly acts to end a threatening situation. These stories can even sometimes be retroactively rescued into a Triumphant Quitter narrative, especially if the protagonist is marginalized. (Marginalized folks are expected to flee and punished for fighting against a threat, and vice versa when the person is not marginalized. This means that someone with privilege – a white, male, abled, cisgender, straight, wealthy, educated, or otherwise privileged person – will often feel a significant amount of shame for fleeing rather than fighting. Fleeing is often perceived as a sign of weakness, and groups that are already considered weak can flee without challenging the dominant narrative of who they are, but they can’t fight. And people who are perceived as strong can fight, but they can’t flee without challenging that dominant narrative of strength.)
When flight is a trauma-informed response, and is a panicked cut-and-run that seems, to an outside eye, disproportionate to the situation, there is a lot of shame attached to the flight response (even though it is often a very reasonable response to threat!).
Trauma histories that push us towards flight can make it difficult to stay in situations even when staying might be a better choice.
Freeze – Another response to threat is to freeze. For trauma survivors, this might look like dissociating, disconnecting, or mentally checking out. In a moment of freezing, we are unable to quit and unable to move forward. Being stuck in a freeze response can end up making the choice for us by default, either because we keep moving forward on the energy of our inertia, or because we’re forced to quit when we’ve stopped taking productive actions.
Freezing fits tidily into the Weak-Willed Quitter narrative, and into cultural narratives that lean hard on victim-blaming to explain away the long-term and pervasive impacts of our violently racist, sexist, classist, ableist and otherwise oppressive culture. According to bootstrapping ideology, doing something is always preferable to doing nothing, and freezing is, in many ways, the least validated response and the hardest to rescue into an acceptable narrative.
Fawn – A final possible response to the threat is to fawn, or try to appease the threatening person. This is often the safest space for someone who is under threat to stay, but it can feel corrosive to be submitting to a threat and appeasing rather than escaping harm. When we have used this coping strategy to keep ourselves safe, it can be challenging to change the pattern and we can feel a huge amount of shame whenever we slip back into submission-for-survival. This coping strategy also gets slammed in self-care and psychology settings, framed as codependence, anxious attachment, and other problems that frame this as an unreasonable and dysfunctional strategy. Although it’s true that this can become a maladaptive strategy, especially once we’re in safe relationships, the blaming doesn’t help. If this is how you cope – if you submit to other people’s needs, act as a “people pleaser” and make your choices about whether or not to quit based on what other people with power want, it’s okay. Like every trauma-informed decision, it can be hard to explain and hard to understand, but it is also a valid survival strategy. And if you want to learn how to relate in other ways, that can happen without blaming and shaming yourself for what you needed when you needed it.
We have a lot of cultural narratives around fear, and they’re everything from Frank Herbert’s famous “fear is the mindkiller” to Gavin de Becker’s “the gift of fear.” Everything we want, according to the platitude, “is on the other side of fear” and we are admonished to “choose love, not fear.”
And fear is a huge influence when it comes to our decisions about when/why/whether to quit.
We might be afraid of success (or failure), and quit to avoid getting the dreaded answer to the question “do I have what it takes?”
We might be afraid of what it will take to keep going, and quit.
We might be afraid of being seen as a quitter, and not quit.
We might be afraid of disappointing ourselves, our partners, our friends, our professors, our communities, our parents, and not allow ourselves to quit.
We might be afraid of burning out, and quit.
Some fears tell us we’re in danger, and listening to those fears, and quitting before we get hurt, is wise. Allowing ourselves to identify, understand, and act on those fears is an incredibly difficult and valuable self-preservation skill.
Some fears tell us that we’re running low on resources and we need to quit before we run out entirely – the fear of failure, for example, can seem like a fear that should always be “overcome” or pushed through, but there are times when the cost of failure is too high, and listening to the fear is the wisest choice we can make.
Fear can also be an indicator that it’s time to keep pushing – there are times when we feel fear and it’s the fear that accompanies a challenge, rather than a threat. This fear says “this is scary but keep going! We’re on the right path!”
How do you tell the difference?
How do you tell the difference if you deal with anxiety?! (One definition of the difference between fear and anxiety is that fear is a response to a situation you are currently experiencing, and anxiety is a response to a situation you are anticipating. Anxiety is about the possible-but-theoretical future, and fear is about the present and immediate future. This is obviously not a perfect definition, because wouldn’t that mean we feel anxiety, rather than fear, about failure or success? I would say that if the feeling is stopping you from starting a project, it’s anxiety – reacting to a theoretical. If it’s impacting whether you continue or quit a project, it’s fear – reacting to an ongoing situation. I also think that it doesn’t really matter what words we use, as long as we know what we mean, and these hairs might not always need to be split. Another definition, which I personally find very helpful, is that fear is situational and passes when the situation changes, and anxiety is pervasive and lingers even after the situation changes.)
Y’all… I do not have any easy answers for this one.
I know that I feel fear and anxiety on a nearly daily basis, and panic less often but still regularly, and that my fear has become an excellent and reliable (if irritating and painful) guide. The fear that tells me to keep going feels different in my body – it’s not the hollowed out fear related to threat that tells me to stop, go home, turn back. It’s a crackling electric fear related to challenge, and it has the power to generate change and growth.
I only know the difference sometimes, and often only retrospectively, and I only know it after years of practice (and years of failure – pushing into the wrong fear and staying in damaging relationships, for example, because I thought the fear was wrong, or giving up at the first flutter of fear without giving myself time to learn which flavor it was).
Fear of failure, and the equally stifling fear of success, are two that dog me constantly. These are the fears that influence my decision to quit working on a writing project before I submit it, or to create marketing plans and not act on them, or to look into Masters programs and not apply. These fears are so real.
Dylan’s original question included references to “fear of public failure or embarrassment, fear and awkwardness of interacting with new people” and those fears are also so real, and can push so many of us out of hobbies, jobs, communities, and even relationships that we might sincerely enjoy and want to engage with. Sometimes it is true that what we want is on the other side of fear, but when we’re looking at fear as an influence in our decisions to quit, we need to be compassionate with ourselves. We are not fearful for no reason, and we are not fearful because we’re broken, weak, or foolish. Our fears come from somewhere, and we can’t just set them up as enemies to be overcome – often we need to sit down with that voice of fear, pour a cup of tea, and really listen.
What are we afraid of?
Can we address that fear compassionately and intentionally?
Once we’ve listened and understood our fears, we can make better decisions about whether to quit.
There is so much shame associated with being a quitter. You didn’t have enough guts. You weren’t smart enough. You weren’t strong enough. You weren’t tough enough. You just weren’t enough. If you had been, you could have stuck it out.
Even when we quit for the best reasons, and even when quitting is the right choice for us (as it often is – none of us can continue in every venture we begin indefinitely, there isn’t enough time and energy for that! And we grow, we change, we quit so that we can start something new) still, shame is always waiting to pounce.
And fear of that shame often stops us from quitting when we need to quit.
Shame is a silencer, distancer, suppressor – not only does it keep us tied to things we want to quit, and distant from things we want to embrace, but it also keeps us quiet about the experience.
Access to Resources
Access to resources is, in some ways, the most challenging and frustrating influence over decisions to quit. When we have to quit because we don’t have enough money to continue, or we don’t have enough energy to continue, or we don’t have enough support to continue – it sucks.
It sucks a lot. And it happens a lot. It happens to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons.
For folks who are disabled or chronically ill, sometimes we lack energy and that can fuel a lot of shame, but often we also lack finances because of un- or under-employment, and we lack support because of pervasive ableism.
For poor folks, particularly people who are dealing with generational poverty (which disproportionately impacts Black and Indigenous communities), there is often not only a lack of money, but also a lack of time and energy because poverty often means working multiple jobs, or working long hours for low pay. Poverty is also a significant social determinant of health, which means that folks living in poverty are also often dealing with health issues that sap time and energy and money. And poverty, particularly childhood poverty, can result in long-term trauma. Despite all the bootstrapping mythology in our cultural narratives, poverty forces so many people to quit so many things that they love and excel at, and it’s not because they are weak-willed or lack determination and stick-to-itiveness.
For trans, queer, racialized, or otherwise marginalized folks, that same intersection of frequent un- or under-employment, plus lack of social supports and a lot of stigma and pervasive oppression (especially in the form of microaggressions in work and play spaces) results in quitting things that they might otherwise enjoy and excel at.
On the other hand, gaining access to resources – through scholarships, living wages, more equitable distribution of domestic and emotional labour, supportive social spaces, and thriving communities – can enable people to not quit, or to quit in ways that feel right for them.
Gaining access to social supports and employment opportunities might allow someone to quit a job that isn’t right for them but that they’re staying in for the financial security. Gaining access to scholarships, housing opportunities, or food security may allow people to continue in post-secondary educations that otherwise would be out of reach.
We can collectively make a difference when it comes to this – we can vote for politicians who support living wages, daycare programs, and other social supports. We can put our money directly into the hands of people who need it, through crowdfunding and platforms like Patreon. We can advocate for accessibility and inclusivity in our spaces – particularly if we have privilege and our voices are more easily heard by people in power.
Access to resources also intersects with harm reduction, since a lack of resources can make it nearly impossible for folks to quit habits, addictions, or subsistence work even if they want to, and even if they would be happier and more fulfilled if they were able to. But, again, our bootstrapping narratives conveniently ignore the way that lack of access to social and material resources places barriers in front of people.
It’s easy to feel hopeless when it comes to access to resources. And I fully reject an individualist narrative that says this issue can be solved at the level of the individual – in order to make a real difference when it comes to access to resources, we need to fundamentally alter the social structures that uphold inequality. But just because it will take policy changes, doesn’t mean we are powerless.
We can push on this one, so that more people can keep doing what they love, and more people can quit doing what hurts them.
We hope things will get better.
We hope that they’ll get better if we quit, and hope influences us to quit. To seek something new.
We hope that they’ll get better if we stay, and hope influences us to not quit. To try and improve the situation from within it.
When we quit from a place of hope, often it feels liberating. Doing anything from a place of hope feels better than doing the same thing from a place of hopelessness or fear. (Now, if only hope weren’t so intimately tied up with access to resources, trauma histories, and social inequality…)
Self-efficacy is our belief in our own ability to successfully meet our goals or challenges and to generate a positive outcome as a result of our actions.
We can build self-efficacy through mastery experiences (having the personal experience of attempting something and succeeding at it), vicarious experiences (witnessing someone like us attempt something and succeed at it – this is why representation is so critical!), verbal persuasion (encouragement and support from influential people in our lives), and imaginal experiences (visualizing yourself attempting something and succeeding at it – there is interesting new research into increasing self-efficacy using VR and witnessing a personalized avatar succeed at a task).
Physical, emotional, and psychological states also impact self-efficacy.
If you’re interested in building your own self-efficacy, you might be interested in the gamification series of posts that I’ll be running weekly starting in October.
Self-efficacy impacts whether/when/how/why we quit because believing that our actions have the ability to result in a positive outcome is a huge factor in whether we feel empowered to keep going, or to quit when it’s right for us. Feeling helpless and ineffective often means we are more likely to quit out of despair and discouragement, and also more likely to not quit for the same reasons.
Want to be a writer?
Want to start your own business?
Change the world?
First of all, good luck. I think you’re amazing, and I count myself as one of you. Idealism and stubborn hope and the desire to make positive change in the world is beautiful.
And also, how are you going to pay your rent?
When are you going to get a real job?
What qualifications do you have?
Who gave you permission?
Who gives you permission?
The social pressure to get a “real job” is huge, and it intersects with issues of fear, access to resources, shame, and trauma histories. But outside of those intersections, the social element, and the social narratives around what types of work are valid is so huge.
Social pressure can keep us stuck when we want to quit – can keep us in marriages, in jobs, in degrees, and in communities that no longer serve us. And social pressure can force us out when we want to stay, from all those same places.
We are not supposed to “waste” our talent, and so if we’ve ever done something well, we should keep doing it.
And we are supposed to grow up and get a real job, and so if we dream of alternative jobs we meet a significant amount of skepticism (internal and external).
“Don’t quit your day job” is excellent advice, and horrible advice.
“Chasing our dreams” is also idealized and vilified, and it can be great advice when someone tells you to keep going, and it can be terrible advice when they tell you to keep going.
Social pressure and social support are also often linked. When we’ve received social support, we often feel indebted to our communities and their desires or expectations or fears can put a lot of pressure on us.
And, while it is true that this is your story and you are both the protagonist and the narrator of your story, it is also true that we live within families (chosen and given), communities, and societies that influence and are influenced by our choices.
Part Three of this series – The Things We Quit and Self-Care for Quitters – will be going up on my Patreon later this week, and will be available publicly a week after that.
This is a Patreon reward post, and the first draft of this post was available to patrons last week. At the $10 support level, I’ll write a self-care post on the topic of your choice during your birthday month. And at any level of support, you’ll get access to these (and other) posts early.
This post is for Shannon, who is one of the strongest and most courageous people I know. She deals with chronic anxiety and other health issues, and yet is always doing as much as she can with the tools and resources she has available. She is an inspiration to me. Her requested topic was sensory overwhelm – what it is and how to handle it.
I decided to take this prompt in a different direction than my usual, and drew a comic for her rather than writing a post. There’s a longer post on the Patreon in the first draft, so if you want my long and slightly incoherent ramblings about what sensory overwhelm feels like for me, you can check that out as a patron.
After thinking about it, though, I think the comic is better without the explanations. I realized that one of the ways I try to process and mitigate sensory overwhelm is by over-thinking it, analyzing it into the ground, intellectualizing it, because being present with it is just so effing uncomfortable. But that over-analyzing, over-thinking, over-intellectualizing gets in the way of getting through the experience.
When I lose myself in sensory overwhelm, it’s often in those moments of trying to think myself out of my body. Sometimes it works better to just try to stay grounded while the overwhelm overwhelms, to let it happen and trust that there’s another side to come out on, to breathe even when the sound of the breathe is too much, to push my shoulders down from my ears even when the movement is too much, to close my eyes and know that I am alive, I am okay, I will be okay, even when everything is coming at me amplified and awful.
So, here’s my comic. This is how I experience sensory overwhelm.
Panel One: A disjointed stick figure, with none of the limbs connected. “I feel disconnected and out of sync.”
Panel Two: A stick figure stands and covers their ears. Yellow and red lines and wiggles surround their head. “Sound are overwhelming.”
Panel Three: A stick figure stands. The sun is in the top left corner of the panel. Red and yellow starbursts cover the stick figure’s head. “Light hurts my eyes.”
Panel Four: A stick figure stands. Green wiggly lines surround them. “Smells are so strong and bad.”
Panel Five: A stick figure stands, surrounded by a spiky red field. “I feel like one giant exposed nerve.”
Panel Six: No image. “Sometimes I lose myself for a while.”
Panel Seven: A stick figure sits cross-legged. Blue and green concentric circles radiate out from their torso. “Eventually I can breathe and centre.”
Panel Eight: A stick figure stands. “And then I am back in sync.”
This is a Patreon reward post, and the first draft of this post was available to patrons last week. At the $10 support level, I’ll write a self-care post on the topic of your choice during your birthday month. And at any level of support, you’ll get access to these (and other) posts early.
This one’s for Stasha, who has been one of my most active supporters and cheerleaders. I appreciate her comments and insight so much. She was also the inspiration for the #100loveletters challenge that I’m currently running, and her willingness to be visible in her experience of working towards self-love is empowering an ever-widening circle of participants in the challenge and beyond.
Her requested topic was visibility, and the complexities of doing self-care while invisible or hypervisible.
These are two sides of the same issue –
Being invisible – having parts of your identity illegible and unrecognizable and unacknowledged by the people around you – can make you feel crazy and alienated from your own experience. Invisibility can become a deeply damaging, traumatizing experience of being gaslighted by the entire society around you.
Invisibility takes many forms. Often, invisibility brings the double-edged sword of ‘passing’ – we are invisible (in whichever of our identities is unwelcome in the context) and that invisibility causes incredible internal harm and pain while also granting us conditional privilege as we appear to belong to another, more welcome, more acceptable, more safe, group. Passing as straight. As cisgender. As white. As neurotypical.
There are so many identities that become rendered invisible in most contexts. Where the assumption of normativity – the assumption that we fit society’s definitions of “normal” – is stifling. Crushing.
Queer invisibility – the harm felt by queer folks in heteronormative spaces, where we are automatically assumed to be heterosexual. Our queer identities are erased by the assumptions of the people around us. It hurts. We have to choose, each day, in each interaction, which hurt we want to experience – the pain of erasure, or the battle of fighting to be seen. Do we come out? Is it safe to come out? What are the consequences of coming out?
Trans invisibility. The experience of trans men and women who ‘pass’ – who are perceived as their gender and assumed to be cisgender – often have their transness rendered invisible unless they come out, and this can be both painful and comforting. Sometimes at the same time. Is it safe to come out? Is it safe to get close to someone without coming out? (Passing is a hugely contentious and fraught issue.)
Non-binary trans invisibility is a whole other issue, and one that I can speak to more personally. I am ‘read’ as a woman in every context except those ones where I have explicitly and decisively come out as genderqueer, and even in those situations, the illegibility of my identity is often clear. I’ve said the words “I am genderqueer – I do not identify as either a man or a woman” and have still found myself lumped in with “us girls” or “the ladies” or whatever other assumptions of womanhood people have, even by people who have heard me come out and have acknowledged the validity of my identity. They are trying to see me, but they just… can’t. Don’t. Won’t?
Femme invisibility within the queer community – the assumption that women with femme gender presentations are automatically straight. Also within the queer community, bisexual invisibility – a huge issue that remains pervasive.
Invisible disabilities, both physical and mental. Invisible neurodivergences, and the incredible pressure on neurodivergent communities to ‘pass’ as neurotypical. (The fact that we consider it a marker of success if an autistic kid is able to get through a class and “you’d barely even know they’re autistic!” is such a problem.)
And other invisibilities, invisibilities of experience – the invisibility of addiction and the experience of being sober within intoxication culture (many thanks to Clementine Morrigan for that phrase), the invisibility of childhood poverty in academic and professional contexts, the invisibility of trauma.
One of my heroes is Amanda Palmer. In her book, The Art of Asking, she said that so much of her artistic life has been spent saying, over and over, in song after song, performance art piece after performance art piece, in every way, again and again – “see me, believe me, I’m real, it happened, it hurts.”
I saw her live at one of her kickstarter house parties, and she was talking about the experience of being a woman and being tied to reproductivity – that question of children being a defining question. Another person in the audience, a genderqueer person like me, but more brave than I was, pointed out that not everyone with a uterus is a woman, and not every woman has a uterus – that this experience is not tied so tightly to gender. Amanda Palmer blew past the question, erased it, made a comment about how if you have a uterus then you are a woman and you will have to deal with these questions.
It wasn’t malicious, but it was violent – invisibility is not neutral, it is not passive. Rejecting someone’s effort to be seen is never a neutral act. Being made invisible in that way, particularly after making the effort to be seen, hurts. It hurts a lot. It took me a few years after that to be able to listen to her music again, and I just started reading her book this week.
(It’s a separate issue – the necessity of making space for imperfection. The story is relevant, but the healing process is a post for another time. Amanda Palmer is not perfect but I still find so much value and even validation in her work. This is one of the most exhausting challenges of having invisible identities – we still need community among the people who can’t, or who won’t, see us.)
So, how do you do self-care while invisible?
And what about self-care while hypervisible?
Hypervisibility is a separate but related issue.
Hypervisibility is when, rather than being assumed to be part of the normative group, you are visibly Other and that otherness becomes your defining characteristic. It is as much an erasure as invisibility – you lose the nuance of your whole and complex self. When people see you, they don’t see you – they see your visible characteristics and don’t move past that.
Most often, hypervisibilities are written on the body. The colour of your skin. The sex you were assigned at birth. The size of your waist. The movement (or not) of your limbs.
I don’t experience hypervisibility very often – I’m white and thin, with class, language and educational privilege that helps me blend into most environments, and my disabilities are all invisible (unless I’m trying to be physically active). When I do experience hypervisibility, it is in contexts where my assigned sex or my gender presentation are conspicuous – primarily cis-hetero men’s spaces.
Hypervisibility brings the threat of violence. Racist, transphobic, homophobic, and sexist violence can all be sparked by the wrong person seeing you and seeing you. Violence against fat and disabled people is similarly tied to hypervisibility. Violence against homeless or visibly addicted people is similar.
Hypervisibility doesn’t offer the option of passing, and the fight is often chosen for you – rather than choosing between the harm of erasure and the harm of exposure, hypervisibility means constant, constant exposure. They don’t make an SPF high enough to protect from that.
It is possible to experience hypervisibility and invisibility at the same time – to be a Black queer femme. To be bisexual in a wheelchair. To be non-binary and homeless. In those moments of compounding erasure – one identity hypervisible, every other identity erased – self-care becomes even more challenging.
Self-Care and Visibility
It is an incredibly difficult thing to be a loving mirror for yourself when all around you are mirrors that either don’t see you, can’t see you, or only see some parts of you. But that is the core of self-care and visibility – the ability and the necessity of finding a loving mirror within yourself and within your communities.
Find that one friend who sees every part of you.
Be that one friend who sees every part of you.
Get to know yourself.
Get to know every part of yourself – the invisible bits and the hypervisible bits. Write it down. Make a list of all the things you are, and solidify yourself for yourself.
It can help to take a page from narrative therapy and write yourself a small Document of Authority that states who you are, and to keep it with you as a talisman in situations when you know you either will be invisible or hypervisible.
Another self-care strategy is to practice recognizing, naming, and countering the gaslighting that comes with both invisibility and hypervisibility. Start to notice when people make statements that assume you are something other than what you are, or that flatten you down to a single identity. Note them, name them (out loud or just to yourself) and counter them with the truth.
Speak yourself into being, and into complexity.
It is the hardest thing in the world.
It’s why representation matters so much.
But I believe in you.
I know that you are real, and that what you have experienced is real, and that what you are is real and valid.
You are the expert in your own experience.
You know who you are, even if you can’t access that knowledge consciously yet.
Hypervisibility: How Scrutiny and Surveillance Makes You Watched, but Not Seen, by Megan Ryland at The Body is Not an Apology. This post is brilliant, and is part of a two-week series that ran on the blog in 2013.
The 5 biggest drawbacks of hypervisibility (and what separates it from the constructive visibility we need), by Jarune Uwujaren at Resist. Another great post that clearly outlines the harms of hypervisibility and the double-bind of being expected to be grateful for being seen.
Hypervisibility and Marginalization: Existing Online As A Black Woman and Writer, by Trudy at Gradient Lair. Trudy’s work revolutionized my understanding of misogynoir and the specific issues facing Black women. Her writing is excellent, and this post is no exception. (She no longer blogs at Gradient Lair but has generously kept the content available there.)
Queer Like Me: Breaking the Chains of Femme Invisibility, by Ashleigh Shackleford at Wear Your Voice. There is so much to love in this post (and many of the posts on this site).
10 Ways to Help Your Bisexual Friends Fight Invisibility and Erasure, by Maisha Z. Johnson at Everyday Feminism.
The Importance for Visibility for Invisible Disabilities, by Annie Elainey. I rarely link to videos (because I dislike watching videos most of the time), but Annie’s are absolutely worth watching. Her engagement with disability, and so many other issues, is fantastic.
(I am so thankful for the work of women and femmes of colour who have generously offered their insight and wisdom and emotional and educational labour to create these resources. Many of these content creators and sites are reader-funded, and if you’re in a position to support them, that’s rad!)
This book is an invitation for you to use the simple act of writing as a way of reimagining who you are or remembering who you were. To use writing to discover and fulfill your deepest desire. To accept pain, fear, uncertainty, strife. And to find, too, a place of safety, security, serenity, and joyfulness. To claim your voice, to tell your story.
– Louise DeSalvo, Writing as a Way of Healing
This course, Writing towards Wholeness: Expressive Writing for Self-Care and Healing, extends DeSalvo’s invitation (and draws on her excellent work, along with the work of many other fantastic writers). The course starts on May 8, and runs until June 19. In these six weeks together, we will learn what expressive writing is, how to use it, and how to care for ourselves through the process of writing our difficult stories.
Each week will include video content, writing prompts, exercises, and a scheduled live chat. The course is designed to be modular – if you’re not interested in the behind-the-scenes lit reviews, discussion of the hows-and-whys, or extra information, you can skip the video content. If you’re just interested in learning about the topic and trying it out later, you can skip the prompts and exercises.
The course is capped at 10 participants, and I’ll be available for individual cheerleading, coaching, and that gentle butt-kick of accountability for each participant individually, in addition to the content available to the group. As of May 3, there are 4 spots still available.
The time commitment for the course is flexible, but you’ll get the most out of it if you can spend 10-20 minutes writing, 4-6 days per week, in addition to the few minutes it takes to read the emails. The video content will be anywhere from 3-15 minutes per week, and the live chat will be 45-minutes per week. With an investment of 1-2 hours per week, you should see some significant progress. And if you do every exercise and read every link and watch every video, you could spend 3-4 hours per week (though I have absolutely no expectation of that!)
The cost for the course is $60, with sliding scale available. It’s $45 for patrons of my Patreon, and it’s free for coaching clients.
If you’d like to sign up, email me!
- Introduction to the course and the core resource books
- How expressive writing works (and the limits of its utility)
- Designing a self-care plan
In Week One, I’ll give you a mini review of the current state of the scientific research into the healing effects of expressive writing. Expressive writing has been studied as a tool for healing since the first paper was published on the topic in 1986, and there have been hundreds of studies since. We won’t talk about all of those studies, but I’ll give you a brief overview to help ground you in the science behind the practice. We’ll also talk about the limits of expressive writing, and alternatives to writing. Drawing, dancing, mind-mapping, and other artistic forms of expression are welcome, and we’ll touch on the research that supports their benefits. In Week One, we’ll also bump up against the limits of the research. The fact is that we don’t know why expressive writing does and doesn’t work, and although we’re getting closer to answers, they’re still in the future.
You’ll also begin to design a personalized self-care plan in Week One. We’ll talk about how to identify your needs, and set yourself up for success.
- Narrative trajectories
- Personal anthologies
In Week Two, we’ll introduce the narrative side of the project. Drawing on David Denborough’s work with “everyday narrative therapy,” you’ll start to identify and explore your own life story. We’ll talk about personal origin stories, and how to create an anthology of your own formative positive moments. These positive story will work with your self-care plan to help give you a solid grounding in self-compassion and non-judgmental self-awareness. For many of us, the negative stories are easier to believe and easier to call to mind, so although this week is focused on the positives, it’s definitely going to be a bit uncomfortable at times. Good thing we have a self-care plan in place!
- Writing and trauma recovery
- Other benefits of expressive writing
Week Three will dig deeper into the specifics of how writing can be used to work with trauma and other issues (such as focus at work or school, or managing depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues). We’ll talk about how trauma impacts the body, and some of the research into the health effects of trauma. We’ll also talk about externalization, and start practicing seeing problems as being something outside of ourselves, rather than something inherent to ourselves. If that sounds weird and counterintuitive, don’t worry. I’ve got exercises and simple explanations to make it more accessible and engaging.
- Expressive writing
This is it. We’re doin’ it! In Week Four, we’ll put our self-care plan into full effect, and engage in four days of 15-20 minutes of writing about an emotional topic. If you’re a trauma survivor, don’t worry – you don’t have to write about the scariest or most challenging – we’ll talk about a wide range of potential topics and you can write about whatever feels right for you. You will have access to all of the course materials even after the course wraps up, so you can always come back to it as many times as you want.
- Reframing, reshaping, recovering
We’ll take the body of writing (or drawing, or talking, or dancing) that you’ve generated over the last month and start thinking about how it fits into our narrative trajectory – the path we want our lives to take and the path we see ourselves having already taken. We’ll talk about how to use the skills and tools we’ve gained so far to reshape and reframe our stories, and to use these narrative strategies to recover from traumas and difficulties.
- Tools for a sustainable practice
- Discussion and wrap-up
In our final week, we’ll talk about how to use these tools going forward.
I am so excited about this course. I have used writing as a coping and healing tool for decades, and writing has gotten me through some of the worst times in my life, and helped me appreciate some of the best. Telling our stories intentionally, compassionately, and wholeheartedly has the potential to change the way we see ourselves in the world, to help us feel centered and strong in the stories of our own lives.
Dressed up as a Gloom Fairy – one of the self-care strategies that got me through university.
This is a Patreon reward post. At $5 per month, you, too, can have a personalized post on the topic of your choice during your birthday month!
Red Davis (one of the first people to back my Patreon! *heart eyes*) is a current student and good friend. He asked for “a post relating to disabilities and mental health disorders within a university, professional, or social context; recurring themes of self-shame, embarrassment, and self-imposed solitude often debilitate many in higher learning or work situations.”
I will admit, I struggled with this post.
I wanted to write it, of course. Helping people navigate these hostile contexts while existing on the margins is exactly what I want to do in my coaching and self-care resource creation. Not only that, but it’s a reward that I’ve committed to providing for someone who is dipping into a tight student budget to support me, and make this work possible.
Every time I sat down to work on the post, my own feelings of shame, embarrassment, and self-imposed isolation flooded through me.
I remembered, specifically, one afternoon in 2012, standing in a hallway at the U of C, probably the Social Sciences building. One of the little ones, too brightly lit, with old computers on white tables, and plastic chairs, and a few students wandering. Wearing my winter jacket, dragging my backpack on wheels because the fibromyalgia no longer let me carry all those books, on my cell with the campus dental office cancelling an appointment because I was having a panic attack.
That panic attack cost me $100 in a late cancellation fee, and I never rebooked. Now, 5 years later, that memory still sparks shame and anger, and an icy-gut feeling of humiliation over the fact that my panic attacks cost me so much money at a time when I had so little, and that they kept me away from necessary healthcare. (And they have continued to do so! That appointment would have been my first visit to a dentist in years, and when I said I never rebooked, I mean that I never rebooked. It’s on my to-do list for this week. Seriously. I’m gonna do it. For real. I swear.)
The memory is about the money, the shame of “wasting” money on a “ridiculous” mental health issue. Sort of. Maybe. I mean, the money is part of it.
But it’s also about the voice on the other end of the phone, the impatience and irritation of the receptionist, and the feeling of shame when I started to cry and she cut me off. “Sorry, no exceptions to the cancellation fee, if you were going to be unable to make it, you should have called yesterday.”
These feelings are deeply physical. Shame, humiliation, fear – these are all visceral reactions, gut feelings. 5 years after that phone call, I still feel the twisting in my belly as the shame winds through me.
And when Red touches on self-imposed solitude, this twisting shame belly is part of that. Shame, after all, is an isolating emotion. It pushes us away from each other, drags us off into dark corners to hide ourselves.
How do we reach out when we are captives of our shame?
But shame is not the only factor.
Time and energy are also factors.
How do we maintain our social circle when disabilities make the work of school or professional life take longer, and take more out of us?
When fibromyalgia arrived on the scene, stealing my energy and my reading comprehension, and for one horrific semester, my ability to write… everything took longer. Everything took longer. Crossing the street took longer! Reading a paper took longer, and took more out of me. I was tired at the end of a page, exhausted at the end of a chapter. I deferred coursework, missed deadlines, spent endless hours in doctors’ offices and at the disability resource centre – hours that were then not available for schoolwork or paying work or socializing.
The anger at no longer being able to operate as I had was immobilizing, and embarrassing. The shame was overwhelming. The exhaustion was beyond comprehension. It triggered a depression… or did the depression precede the pain? Those years are a dark smear of distress across my memory.
How do you make it through post-secondary or professional contexts when dealing with disabilities or mental health issues?
How do you survive?
How do you continue, knowing that your brain and your body are working against your ability to fit into these contexts?
In 2013, I did my first Year of Self-Care.
I needed it. Even through the blur of my distress, I knew that I needed it. I was falling apart. I was a wreck – physically, emotionally, mentally, financially.
I don’t honestly remember much from the beginning of that project.
I know that I was desperate.
When I was 18, at another desperate point in my life, I had done a Year of Independence in an effort to heal some relationship trauma. It was one of the highlights of my youth, remains one of my favourite experiences. I leaned on that, and set out some plans.
It wasn’t easy.
But one of my founding principles for that year was compassion for myself. The act of compassion and care, even when the feeling was unattainable.
I needed to start there, because at the time, my body and my brain felt like my enemies. I think that’s a common experience for people dealing with disability or neurodivergence. It’s hard to practice effective and sustainable self-care when you feel like your own enemy.
The Year of Self-Care included a lot of hit-and-miss experimentation.
During that year, I discovered how much I enjoy the ritual of tea, and that’s the year I learned to make London Fogs. I still make amazing London Fogs (though not as often as I used to – I need a new milk frother).
I also experimented much more intentionally with using outfits as armour and as a self-affirming tool. Gloom Fairy, The Pirate King, and Elf Commander all have roots in those Year of Self-Care experiments.
How do you continue, knowing that your brain and your body are working against your ability to fit into these contexts?
It was the year that the Wall of Self-Care went up, white boards with anxiety bubbles, and self-care lists, and my inspiration board.
It was the year I learned to swim, in order to challenge a phobia, and get my fibromyalgia pain under control, and prove to myself that I could.
It was the year of endless struggle, and I was lucky because it was also the year of infinite support.
It was a hard year. But it was a good year.
A list of self-care to-do items posted on Facebook in 2013 with the comment: This afternoon took a sudden, unexpectedly intense turn for the worse, so I hung up some stick-on white boards (expanding my wall of self-care) and made a list. Intentional self-care! For those of us whose default position is ‘the unfortunate person crying in the stairwell.’ Sigh.
A badge given to me by my friend Patti when I successfully managed to tread water.
A love note from my little niephling.
The biggest lesson from that year was that self-care is fucking hard. It’s hard. Making a cup of tea when you’re exhausted, and ashamed, and embarrassed, and feeling lonely despite your community – it’s hard. Reaching out for help? Holy shit, that is not easy. Doing anything other than wallowing is just really hard.
Making choices intentionally, and choosing compassion and care, it takes effort. And you fuck up, a lot. You fuck up all the time. It took a year and half to complete my Year of Self-Care (my “Year of Whatever”s are almost always a year and a half – either the new year to my birthday the next year, or my birthday to the new year. I like some wiggle room.)
In that year and a half, I made plans and failed to complete them. I made the same plan again and failed. I made a slightly different plan and failed in a different way. I made a totally new plan and still failed. I tried again and failed. I made schedules and failed to stick to them. I set goals and didn’t meet them. I dropped more balls than I kept in the air, and that’s okay.
It doesn’t feel okay at the time. It feels awful. But that process of failing at self-care is an important part of the journey. Self-care has to involve deep compassion for your broken, aching self. It can’t all be celebrations and successes. It won’t be. If it was, you wouldn’t need it so badly.
In order to get to a place where you have effective and sustainable self-care practices in place, you need to go through the process of pushing against the resistance. The internal resistance, sure. The shame, the fear, the feelings of selfishness and the anxiety over failure. But mostly, mostly, the external resistance.
You have to smash your fist against the cost of self-care. That $100 penalty for a panic attack. The cost of admission to the pool. The cost of white boards. The cost of missed work hours. The cost of healthcare, even here in Canada. The cost of therapy. The cost of nourishing food. These costs that you cannot always afford. You have to run into that wall over and over and over until you find ways under, or through, or around it. And sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you can’t. Self-care cannot belong only to the financially secure. Those of us who are disabled or neurodivergent or otherwise marginalized are much more likely to be dealing with economic insecurity, to be living in poverty, to be stretched too thin, to have ends that not only don’t meet, they don’t even make eye contact. We deserve self-care, too. But it takes time to find those tools, because it’s much quicker and easier when you do have the money for it.
And you have to smash your fist against the unreasonable and inhumane demands of post-secondary and professional institutions. Deadlines and dress codes and disdain. I dropped a course I really loved because handwritten notes were mandatory for a huge percentage of the grade, but my hands hurt too much to write long-hand. More bitterly, I dropped out of the Arts and Sciences Honours Academy because the professor in third year required mandatory attendance, with no more than two exceptions for medical issues. “Breathe deeply and drink a mug of tea” doesn’t wash the salt from those wounds. Getting to sustainable self-care means feeling that sting, doing what you can with the resources that you have, trying to find ways around it. Finding the understanding professors, begging with the disability resource centre, paying the $25 to have a doctor write a letter saying that yes, you really do need these accommodations. It takes time, and it takes energy, and it takes a lot of permission to just be angry and bitter on your way to being calm.
And doctors… another wall, another round of smashing and smashing and smashing until you find the way through. Get the diagnosis, get the prescription, get the help. Or, sometimes, you don’t. Find other ways to cope.
The systems are not built for us.
It hurts to contort ourselves to fit within them.
That pain is real. That injustice is real.
There are ways forward. My Year of Self-Care made a huge difference for me. I’m not meaning to downplay the importance of doing that gritty work of developing more wholehearted self-care and self-storying strategies. But I get frustrated at resources that don’t acknowledge how hard this is, and how much the odds are stacked against anyone who differs from the straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical, class privileged norm.
When I started working on this post, I did what I always do at the beginning of a writing project. I opened a new Chrome window and I googled this shit out of my topic. I started with “self-care for students” and I found dozens of posts. Every post-secondary institution seems to have some kind of self-care guide for students. (Perhaps because post-secondary institutions are set up in such a way that any student who doesn’t have an extremely solid base of socioeconomic stability is pretty much fucked when it comes to mental, emotional, and physical health? Dunno, just a theory.)
These resources place a huge emphasis the individual doing everything possible to maintain their self-care
This resource from the University of Michigan is a perfect example.
“Taking steps to develop a healthier lifestyle can pay enormous dividends by reducing stress and improving your physical health, both of which can improve your mental health as well. Students with mental health disorders are at a higher risk for some unhealthy behaviors. You may find it challenging to make healthy choices and manage your stress effectively while in college. This section of the website will help you find ways to take care of your health, which can help you to feel better and prevent or manage your mental health symptoms.”
Look at that language! You’re at higher risk for unhealthy behaviours. You may find it challenging to make healthy choices. Gross. Gross! There is nothing there about how the structures and systems and expectations and normativity around you are the source of that distress, and put stumbling blocks in front of your movements towards “health.” It pushes the responsibility entirely onto the student who is struggling, and then wipes its hands clean. There’s good advice in that resource, but it comes in bitter packaging.
Even posts like this assume that the identity of “student” is also normatively able-bodied and neurotypical.
“College students’ ability to deny basic needs like sleep can oftentimes seem like a badge of honor proving we are reckless and young. At my school, it can seem like a competition to see who can stay up longer to study, and pulling all-nighters seems like proof we are true UChicago students. One’s talk of working grueling hours in the library is met with solidarity and sympathetic laughter, while taking a break or decreasing course load seems to be associated with weakness.”
College students who can’t meet that expectation are, I guess, not “true students.” When the article concludes that:
“If we want to improve our psychological and emotional health, college students could perhaps benefit from changing their mindsets and relationships to work. Taking breaks and letting our minds rest could be an effective strategy for achieving our goals in the long run, because stress or lack of sleep can hinder productivity. Maybe the next time a friend bemoans having to pull an all-nighter for a class, we can think about how our response may perpetuate a culture that idolizes self-destructive behavior. Perhaps rather than laughing or saying that we understand their struggle, we can gently encourage them to take a break. Or, if it’s you who’s putting in those late-night hours, maybe go home for sleep rather than the campus cafe for coffee. You deserve it. You matter, and your health matters.”
There is still the assumption that this is a choice, and that is not the case for every student.
So, in conclusion, it’s fucking hard. And it’s not your fault. And you can figure it out, but it will take time. And you will continue to run into walls.
Being your own ally is not easy. It’s even harder when there are complicating factors like disability, pain, depression, anxiety, or other chronic issues that aren’t going away. And it’s even harder when you’re in hostile environments like many post-secondary and professional contexts.
But I believe in you. There is a way forward. There is always a way forward.