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 post is part of the #100loveletters challenge, which started June 21, and is open to anyone, at no charge! The challenge is really easy, and really hard – for 100 days, from June 21 to September 29, write yourself a love letter. It can be short, it can be long, it can be a stick figure or a sonnet or a flower or a song. Share your pictures, comments, thoughts, and stories in the hashtag on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or in your blog, and find a community of people practicing a summer of daily self-love.
You can join the email list to receive writing prompts, encouragement, and success stories.)
Yesterday, just a week into the 100 Love Letters Challenge, I didn’t write myself a love letter.
I thought about it. I almost wrote it. I almost wrote about ten different versions of it. There were multiple points in the day where I thought “I did that well, I love that about myself,” or “that was really challenging, I could use some gentleness and love around that issue.”
(Like every day, there were moments of confidence, moments of doubt, moments of anger, moments of joy. Once you start noticing your experience, the complex and varying texture of each day becomes so much more apparent.)
I even pulled out my box of greeting cards* and flipped through, looking for the right card for what I was feeling.
I thought about writing my love letter in another Facebook post – I’ve done that most days so far.
I thought about taking some more pictures and turning one of them into a meme to go with the love letter – I’ve been enjoying the nudge towards more creativity.
I thought about scrawling a stick figure on a post-it note, as midnight approached, and I started to feel more anxious about missing the deadline.
But the stick figure on a post-it note would have been purely performance – that wasn’t the love letter I wanted. It would have just been for show, to prove that I’m doing the challenge successfully. So, I didn’t do it. It didn’t really feel loving.
I’m not sure why I didn’t write myself a letter yesterday. I could have – I had the time, I had the content, I had the motivation. I wasn’t hating myself, or particularly disappointed in myself, or feeling ashamed of myself. I had moments of self-awareness and self-compassion that could easily have become a love letter.
But I also had a significant reluctance to write. To write anything. Anything at all.
My reluctance was both internal and external.
On the one hand, I felt anxious about being visibly self-loving. What if I love myself too much, too openly, too loudly, too visibly? What if it makes people hate me? And, also, what if I love myself visibly, but I do it wrong, and people are disappointed in me? Visibility is risky. That’s the external reluctance – the fear of what people will think about what I write to myself.
But then, the internal resistance.
It’s just hard, my friends.
Writing myself a love letter every day is hard.
I don’t like it.
I like self-care that focuses on my flaws, my anxieties, my failings. I like looking at my failures and then forgiving myself for those. I like paying attention to the sadness, the fear, the wounds that still hurt. It keeps the focus where I’m comfortable.
Love letters are different.
Romance is different.
Different, and hard.
I can do love letters to others, and romance for others, easily. But not so much for myself. I might do it wrong. I might do it wrong.
And so, yesterday I didn’t write.
Because I am running this #100loveletters challenge, that unwritten letter is, in some ways, as visible as any of the written letters. And it’s worth acknowledging the lack of a letter. It’s worth talking about the resistance.
Every one of us in this challenge will run into resistance. There will be so much resistance. And we will get through it, whatever it is. Fear of “doing it wrong,” anger at ourselves, shame, discomfort, embarrassment.
When you hit that wall, if you haven’t hit it yet, know that you’re not alone.
We are here together, floating on the glow of self-love and dragging with the weight of self-hate.
There will be days with no letter, and that doesn’t invalidate your participation in the challenge, and it doesn’t diminish the love you are cultivating for yourself.
We can look into the parts of ourselves that are less comfortable, and we will be okay. That loving abyss is gazing back, and yeah, it’s terrifying, but, you know, it’s also really great. I’m pretty sure it’s really great.
Here we go, onward!
* I have a phenomenal collection of greeting cards, and I’ll be sending a hand written letter to five challenge participants over the course of the hundred days. I’ll be randomly selecting one challenge participant every twenty days of the challenge. To enter, just send me an email and let me know that you’re participating in the challenge and you’d like to be entered for the hand-written letter!
(Image is from gratisography.)
This is (sort of) a Patreon reward post. At $5 support per month, you, too, can have a personalized post on the topic of your choice during your birthday month! Because this topic ended up generating so much meaningful discussion about ageing, rather than trying to cram everything into a single post I have expanded it into a three-part series. All substantial blog posts are released to Patreon patrons one week early.
This is Part Two of the three part series. In Part One, we talked about the fear of ageing, and how to care for ourselves through those fears. Part Two is about the joys of ageing. Part Three, on the topic of fear of death and end-of-life preparation, will be next.
I struggled with writing this second post in the series. So often, an acknowledgement that joy is possible becomes weaponized – rather than gesturing towards a possibility, joy becomes an obligation.
Because so much of our culture, particularly in the self-help and self-care communities, focuses so hard on “manifesting” positive outcomes through positive attitudes, with the corollary victim-blaming coming along for the ride, I find myself hesitating even to talk about joy for fear of how it will be interpreted and how it could be turned as a weapon against the vulnerable, the hurting, the fearful among us.
The vulnerable, the hurting, the fearful – these are my people. Although I am a playful, sparkly, joyful person, I identify strongly with the parts of me that are almost always fearful, almost always hurting. My joy is a sparkle in the dark, rather than the other way around.
And so, part of my resistance to this second post was also my own cognitive distortions – my tendency towards all-or-nothing thinking (if joy is possible, then joy is always right and fear is always wrong!); my internalized victim-blaming (if I could just be happy, then I would be happy!); my fear of joy. Brené Brown writes, “I think the most terrifying human experience is joy. It’s as if we believe that by truly feeling happiness, we’re setting ourselves up for a sucker punch. The problem is, worrying about things that haven’t happened doesn’t protect us from pain.”
Although Brené Brown’s description of fearful joy is not universal, it certainly does ring true for me, and is part of why I often hesitate to embrace joy in my own life. Letting go of the fear feels as if it will open me up to tragedy. If I am constantly afraid, maybe I won’t end up hurt?
But is it not possible to fully engage with the range of responses I got from people without engaging with the joy that some of them expressed. The anticipation. The freedom that they saw in ageing, and the carefree delight of it. An honest engagement with my research means pushing through my anxiety and digging into this rich and uncomfortable soil – the terrifying possibility that joy is lurking.
What I learned from the generous responses of the people I spoke with is that ageing isn’t all bad, and our relationship with ageing doesn’t have to be one of fear and dread. This is true despite the fact that many fears that people expressed are completely valid and grounded in the reality of ageism (and the many other intersections of marginalization that exacerbate the impact of ageism), as well as real economic and social threats. Some people are able to see the positive sides of ageing, regardless of the scary things.
This joyfulness is not solely the realm of the privileged. There are people facing sexism, racism, cissexism, binarism, ableism, sizeism, and many other marginalizations who still find joy in the idea of ageing, and there are many people with various privileges who view ageing with significant fear. It’s important to acknowledge that each person responds to situations in their own individual ways, informed by their culture and family of origin, their available resources (including social, emotional, mental, and material resources), and with their own unique outlook. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to approach ageing – the fear is valid, and so is the joy.
And, importantly, the fear and joy often coexist.
Emily, who also talked about fearing increased pain and loss of mobility, says, “I call grey hairs wisdom strips and love getting older and feeling more content to be myself. The growing invisibility works well with my personality too.”
Although Tammy expressed anxiety about losing physical and mental abilities and being on the receiving end of our culture’s abysmal elder care (such a common, and reasonable, fear), she also said, “On the positive side, I menopaused at 47 and am quite happy with it. I also love being able to do whatever I want as my kid is now an adult, I have no partner, and I don’t give a flying f*** what anyone thinks.”
Similarly, Nicole talked about fearing loss of mobility, but started by saying, “I quite enjoy getting older now, as I feel like I’m at the stage where I’m becoming the person I want to be, someone I (mostly) like.”
That sense of confidence and self-assurance was a theme in a lot of the joyful responses, and it makes sense. One of the benefits of ageing can be a more solid sense of self, and less concern with what other people think about you.
Nadine’s comment exemplifies this. She says, “I enjoy getting older a lot. Possibly because I don’t associate my childhood and teen years with the kind of vitality most people ascribe to “youth”. I wasn’t a particularly strong, healthy, nimble or attractive to my peers as a child or during my teens. I didn’t have much control over my circumstances. I had strong instincts but lacked the maturity, intellectual skills and verbal ability to articulate or even fully understand what those feelings were about.
The more time passes, the more I understand my mind and my body. I know a lot more about how to take care of myself and my health. I’ve accepted what I look like. I can express my inner thoughts and emotions. I have some agency in my life. I don’t love how crunchy my knees are, but apart from that, getting older is my jam!” (Nadine is a fantastic sex educator, and specializes in supporting sex positive families – coaching parents and providing resources for kids.)
Margaret also expressed joy at feeling more confident. She says, “I’m turning 44 this year. Not afraid of aging. Kind of enjoying being treated less like a sexual object and more like a social subject. Increasingly feeling competent and confident. Slightly afraid symptoms associated with aging (physical problems, etc.). A little vain about how I look as I age, but finding a style that works for me.” (Margaret is an academic activist, and when I was but a wee little researcher and had recently come out, finding her Introduction to Bisexual Theory syllabus online changed the trajectory of my academic career, and started the journey that led to my community activism.)
Andrea says, “I know I’m still quite young, but aging is something that I’ve really enjoyed. Physically and mentally, I’ve never felt a desire to go back and even tho the future is daunting sometimes it’s something I constantly crave. Physically (this is what I hear emphasized a lot from people in my life) I’m not in a hurry for things like grey hair and wrinkles but my impression of them is that when they do come I will have earned them. I think they’re cute and, like, stretch marks or scars, they’re a sign that your body has existed in time and space, and has been literally shaped by experiences.”
I really love the idea that the inevitable signs of ageing can be “sign[s] that your body has existed in time and space, and has been literally shaped by experiences” fits to beautifully with my own narrative approach to self-understanding. Grey hair (which I’ve had since my teens) and wrinkles don’t bother me, but other changes in my body, particularly related to the fibromyalgia, have really bothered me. I sat with the idea of these changes being signs of my body being marked by my time here, and although I’m still pondering it, I do think there’s something valuable in the idea.
I’m conscious of the impact of trauma on the body, and how adverse childhood experiences and histories of abuse can impact our bodies. It’s one of the things I work on in my writing workshops and coaching sessions, and it’s something I’m very interested in in my own life. Although I’m not sure where this little thread of thought will end up, I wonder if there some valuable restorying that can happen if we take our bodies’ responses to trauma and see them as signs of existence and experience.
Another factor in finding joyfulness in ageing has to do with our exposure to old people and to the process of ageing. Being around old people is one way to reduce our fears of ageing, and to recognize that life does continue past the wrinkles and walkers. (Again, this is not always true. A traumatic experience with witnessing ageing might have the opposite effect.)
Another Margaret says, “Growing up I was very close to my grandfather who is vibrant and alert and still working up until very sudden death the age of 86. My grandmother died she was 92. Ageing never seemed scary to me as they set an example of independence, connections with family friends and community, constant learning and enjoyment of life.”
A 2013 study into the perceptions of successful ageing among immigrant women from Black Africa in Montreal found that the old women identified four elements that they considered essential for successful ageing. These were social engagement, intergenerational relationships, financial autonomy, and faith.
Social engagement, intergenerational relationships, and financial autonomy are all linked to both the fears identified in Part One, and the joys identified here.
The 2014 paper, “Strategies for Successful Aging: A Research Update,” found that physical activity, cognitive stimulation, diet/nutrition, complementary and alternative medicine, social engagement, and ‘positive psychological traits’ were all correlated with a higher likelihood of ‘successful ageing’ (though this term itself is contested and complicated).
These ‘positive psychological traits’ include a wide range of qualities such as resilience, adaptability, and optimism, and the reason the range is so wide is because they are most often self-identified among people who consider themselves to be ‘successfully ageing.’
(Again, that flutter of anxiety that identifying these potential helpful traits will be turned into obligations and used to blame people for their own struggles. I think this fear is a side effect of doing so much reading in the self-help section as research for my work as a coach, and being bombarded so often with weaponized positivity!)
But rather than taking a prescriptive view of these helpful traits, I think that we can take a narrative approach and part of our self-care around ageing can include looking for the stories in our own histories that demonstrate resilience, adaptability, and optimism – the times when we bounced back, when we adapted to a new situation, when we kept our heads up despite the weight of discouragement and the times when we didn’t but we also didn’t stay down.
This feels important, because it gives the stories we tell about ourselves and about our psychological traits power and meaning, and we can change the stories that we tell even when we can’t change the situations around us. This does not mean that we can remove ourselves from the toxic soup of racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, cissexism, etc. with the power of our minds. But it may mean that we can mitigate some of the damage, and give the systems that want to destroy us a gleeful middle finger. (While also recognizing that financial security as a determinant of successful ageing is one of the cruelest things imaginable in our current context of late capitalism.)
So, what does that mean for our self-care practices?
I think that these stories of joy and anticipation can be an invitation to look for opportunities to view ageing differently. Our self-care can include intentionally looking for ways to engage with joyful approaches to ageing.
We can also start to examine our views of ageing, and look for the stories that we’ve internalized about the ageing process and about what it means to be older. Our fears are valid, but there is also joy possible.
We can try to incorporate more intentional social engagement, particularly across generational gaps, into our lives.
We can keep our brains active by allowing ourselves to be curious and enthusiastic about our interests.
And, I think, we can work at accepting our ageing bodies – seeing the beauty in these signs that our bodies have existed in time and space, and been shaped by our experiences.
Alyson Cole’s article, “All of Us Are Vulnerable, But Some Are More Vulnerable than Others: The Political Ambiguity of Vulnerability Studies, an Ambivalent Critique.” This paper is behind a (significant) paywall. If you have access to it through a library, it’s a worthwhile critique of vulnerability studies, and since I cite Brown in this post, it’s important to acknowledge and examine the ways in which her framework fails to do justice to complex issues.
On a similar theme, Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s essay, “Shame and Disconnection: The Missing Voices of Oppression in Brene Brown’s ‘The Power of Vulnerability’,” which is available freely on The Body is Not An Apology.
Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson’s article, “Walk A Mile in Digital Shoes: The Impact of Embodied Perspective Taking on the Reduction of Negative Stereotyping in Immersive Virtual Environments.” This is such an interesting study, with very cool implications for challenging our own negative stereotypes about a range of people, including elderly people. I would highly recommend reading this one.
Jeanne Holmes’ 2006 dissertation, “Successful Ageing: A Critical Analysis.” I haven’t read this whole dissertation, but I found parts of it very helpful in understanding the differences between how we conceive of successful ageing and how older people themselves experience it.
This post is part of the Spring series! You can read about the Spring theme in this public post on my Patreon. This post was available a week early to patrons, so if you want to read more, and sooner, consider supporting me!
I have always loved metaphors. And ritual. And things that are slightly mystical and shrouded in secrecy and specialness.
How badly did I want to be Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon?
Prettttttty badly, lemme tell ya.
Badly enough that I dressed as Morgaine every Halloween for six years in a row (possibly contributing to my lack of popularity in junior high), and I reread that book every year for more years than that, and when I decided to Go Goth or Go Home in grade 10 (a story of self-definition for another day), Morgaine was my template.
And so, of course, it is a pagan sort of woo that draws me.
(Did I once embroider an assortment of mystical symbols into a black cloak I had made for myself, because I was both Gother Than Thou and crafty af, and maybe also just desperately wanted to be magical? Yes. I did.)
But when it comes to self-care, tarot is more than just another iteration on a lifelong theme.
I came to tarot (or tarot came to me) at one of the lowest points in my life.
I felt like I was dying. Not to be dramatic, but I am pretty dramatic, so… I felt like I was dying.
I was desperate for hope.
I was desperate for another story.
A friend offered me a tarot reading. I said yes.
They pulled some cards for me from the Wildwood Tarot (a deck I still don’t own, and would very much like to someday) and they told a story that resonated for me (because my friend does tarot like I do tarot – conversationally).
The story was hopeful.
The story was about survival, and about persistence.
The story was exactly what I needed.
(Fun fact, every single story a tarot spread tells can be about survival and persistence. Tarot is, after all, the story of journeying through many stages of selfhood.)
After my friend read my cards and gave me back a shimmer of hope, I bought my own deck.
I landed on Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s Shadowscapes Tarot , and it’s still my favourite deck. I love the colours, I love the art, I love the stories that the cards tell me and that I tell with the cards. It’s a gentle deck. It’s a little bit sassy. It’s soft, and welcoming. All fae creatures are genderqueer, in my imagination, so the deck feels welcoming for me as a genderqueer reader, too. (That’s important. That’s why I don’t own and probably never will own any of the standard decks. I want my metaphor magic to be queer and genderbendy.)
Then I found Little Red Tarot and got my second deck, The Wild Unknown . It’s sharper. A little more stark. Less sass, more ‘sit down and listen.’
I started reading tarot almost every day.
It was a hard time in my life.
I was seeing my therapist every week, and after every session, I would sit in the park by her office and read my cards. I bought a whole bunch of tarot books (that’s how I roll) and learned about card interactions and about the tarot suits and about intuitive and conversational reading. I did Little Red Tarot’s Alternative Tarot Course and found a space that welcomed my non-religious woo.
I bought the Fountain Tarot, which is beautiful and cold and I only use it rarely. It’s not nearly as welcoming or intuitive for me – it speaks a language I’m not as fluent in.
I bought more books.
I added crystals, because if you’re going to survive on the strength of your woo, you just may as well. I bought a whole bunch of oils from Twilight Alchemy Lab.
I used tarot to get me through some very dark, very long, very desperate days. And nights. And weeks.
“Can I keep going?” I asked the cards.
The answer was always, always yes.
Every card in the tarot deck can say yes.
Every story can be a story of survival, a story of persistence.
(Every card can say no. Every story can be a story of ending. We write our own stories.)
Eventually, as the tarot deck promises, the wheel of fortune turned.
My life stopped being so awful.
I stopped reading tarot so often.
Now, I have more decks. I have a couple oracle decks. I read my cards less desperately, clinging to those metaphors a little more loosely. I no longer feel like I’m going to die. My questions are a little less fingernails-digging-into-the-crumbling-edge.
But I still find a lot of comfort in the cards.
In the conversation.
In the answer that is always “yes, you can continue.”
When I was in junior high (or, as I like to call it, hell), I had a bit of a mental break.
I took all of the anger and hurt, all of the parts of myself that could not go on any more, and pushed them into a corner, and they clumped up in that corner like some kind of psychic dust bunny of doom, and they developed a personality (which was as sparkly and delightful as you’d imagine) and we had very many conversations through the long nights of asking “can I keep going?”
And unlike my cards, the answer was usually, “no. you should not. give up. stop now.”
I have often wondered what I love so much about tarot, since the woo does still give me twingy little feelings of anxiety (do I really believe in mystical tarot cards? telling me things? I mean… do I believe in mirrors? I guess? I don’t know. These questions are hard.)
I think that at the core of it, what I love about tarot, and oracle cards, and other woo – what I love is that it gives me a chance to have those conversations again, and instead of answering back to myself “no, stop, give up” and then fighting like hell to deny that dark pull, now I have those conversations and the answer is “yes, absolutely, you can keep going. you’ve got this. I believe in you.”
I have always needed those conversations to somehow be externalized. Either in the form of the psychic dust bunny of doom, or the cards.
I like the cards better.
Maybe it’s more that I like myself better, now.
I have better stories to tell.
That dust bunny still lurks in the corners, and even though she’s no longer splintered off away from the “real” me, still, sometimes I sweep her out gently into the light and give her a hug and let her tell me how nobody loves me and I’m stupid and there’s no point and I’m going to die alone and I should just give up now – she’s trying to help, in her own way. All my anxiety and trauma, all bundled up into something I can speak with, instead of something I have to be.
(This is not necessarily the most healthy coping mechanism and I am lucky to have found excellent mental health care, but it is also not something I am willing to disown or feel ashamed of. Externalizing my pain is what allowed me to survive my teen years, and whatever we do to survive, well… fuck it. We’re survivors.)
I love the cards for the way they let me tell my story in new and wholehearted ways. I love how tarot can be queered, and how there is so much power in these metaphors. I love how tarot traces cycles – small cycles through the year, and large cycles through lives, and huge cycles through human nature.
I love how people throughout history have found ways to make our magic, our metaphors, tangible.
I love us. Weird and woeful and wooful creatures that we are. Fae and fantastic. Strong and struggling.
I just got a new deck – an Animal Spirit* deck to go along with my Wild Unknown.
The first card I drew was the Fox.
The little sheet of meanings says, “Smart. Adaptable.”
I look at the card, at the fox, and take a breath.
I think, yes.
That’s a story I can hold.
*This is not a “spirit animal” deck, and I wouldn’t buy one that was. Cultural appropriation is a serious issue in contemporary woo, and, as this post on The Wild Hunt points out, “At its core appropriation is a form of violence and aggression against brown bodies and brown communities. It is a minstreling, a racist caricature that tells more about the frame of mind of the performer [appropriation is a performative act] then it does about the original practice or cultural significance. Not only does it cause harm through this mimicking of symbols and actions, but it further creates difficulties for seeing real images of brown people and our gods on community altars due to the fear of appropriation.”
Spirit animals, when used by people who are not Indigenous, absolutely are appropriation, and this post by Spiral Nature goes into some depth about how the language we use matters, and how even though animals are present as spiritual guides in many practices, there are relevant nuances. Whether we use our woo as a spiritual or metaphorical or religious or blended practice, we have to work to decolonize our language and our practice. From the post, “We must accept that the reason that the idea of spirit animals exists within occulture is cultural appropriation and the misrecognition of Indigenous beliefs, and had that early appropriation not taken place, there would be no such confusion now. Even if the practitioner does not otherwise engage in sort of pseudo-Indigenous practices as filtered through early spiritual texts, relying on terms like “spirit animal” is still cultural appropriation and should be avoided at all costs.”
Possibilities Calgary is relaunching! Over the next couple weeks, you’ll see the About pages updating on the Facebook, the MeetUp, and Twitter. The posting for the first event will be going up tomorrow, and the event itself will happen in April. The first blog post will be up the first week of April. (You’ll even see a dedicated page on tiffanysostar.com, but not quite yet.)
First, some history. Then, some FAQs (the questions I asked myself most frequently when planning the relaunch).
Possibilities Calgary was founded in 2010 as the term-project in a Feminist Praxis course. I was in my second year of University, had recently come out as bisexual, and was searching for community. Searching… and searching… and searching…
At the time, there was no cohesive community in Calgary for bisexuals.
This is not unusual, since the bisexual community is chronically under-supported. The lack of support leads to, among other things, increased risk of intimate partner violence, under- and unemployment, significant rates of poverty, and poor mental health outcomes. (For a comprehensive look at the issues, read the 2011 Bisexual Invisibility Report, or, even better, read Shiri Eisner’s fantastic Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution.)
I wanted community, and I couldn’t find it, so I built it. I had support from my Women’s Studies professor, Fiona Nelson. I met with community leaders to learn how to organize queer and feminist community in safe and effective ways. I had an amazing group of people to help me, and the Possibilities board was such a phenomenal support.
Possibilities ran for 5 years.
In that time, we expanded to include the asexual community (zero is not one, and so our ace friends fit under the non-monosexual umbrella comfortably!), and to include the transgender community (particularly the non-binary and transfeminine communities). There are trans members of every orientation – gender identity and sexual or romantic orientation are not the same things – but we found that those folks at the intersection of trans and non-monosexual identities were particularly and uniquely marginalized, and that Possibilities could help. For the last year of Possibilities, we had an offshoot community in Translations, which focused on transfeminine experiences.
We hosted three BiBQs during Calgary’s Pride week, and two Probabilities: Queer and Feminist Gaming Conventions. We also partnered with Calgary Outlink to host a monthly Community Café, which was a gender- and orientation-inclusive space. And, one of my personal highlights, we ran the UnConference series, bringing in speakers for multi-day events (including the hugely successful co-hosting of Courtney Trouble with the University of Calgary’s Institute for Gender Research).
Brittany says, “The BiBq was a super chill thing that I miss!” and Jocelyn confirms, “Get togethers involving food and convo” were a favourite feature.
Sid, a former board member says, “I got the opportunity not just to have my own need for support and community met but that I was also in an environment that gently encouraged me to explore how I related to other axes of oppression. Also, I always appreciated the constant supply of tea.”
Our intersectionality developed and grew over time, and although it was always imperfect, it was sincere. Rachel says, “I felt incredibly safe there.”
Michael, another former board member, says, “I really appreciated the sense of belonging to a community, and the ability to learn and grow from a group of amazing people with diverse life experiences.”
Scott, also a board member and facilitator, says, “I am not a word smith. I don’t have words beyond it was community for me. It felt inclusive and supportive.”
Jonathan, who helped me with the founding of the group, says, “Possibilities helped me learn more about how my newly discovered queer identity fit within a community. It enriched what would otherwise have been a much lonelier journey.”
It was good. It was so good. And it was needed.
But in 2015, a significant percentage of the board had moved on to new cities or new projects, and I burned out hard. Physically, emotionally, financially – I was tapped. The board members who remained continued to work hard, and new volunteers stepped up, but the organization was struggling. We couldn’t keep going. After major soul searching, we admitted the truth. Possibilities was on hiatus.
In 2016, I looked at restarting Possibilities, but realized that I didn’t have the resources to make it sustainable for myself. It hurt, but we stayed on hiatus.
But yesterday was the first day of Spring, 2017, and it was time for this seed to grow again. And so…
Why am I relaunching Possibilities now?
Because it’s time. Because not having access to community causes harm, and because I have always believed that if you can do something good, then maybe you should do something good. (That maybe is super important – only you know what you can and can’t, or want to, do.) Because I miss this community. Because I miss being a community organizer. Because it’s time.
How am I going to avoid burning out again?
Friendship and magic? No, but seriously, I am hoping that two years of learning better self-care skills will help. I am also going to make it easier for people to support the work, and am tying it directly to my self-care and narrative work, which leads us to…
What will the relaunch involve?
I am making two commitments in this relaunch effort – one blog post or article per month, and one in-person “self-care for the b+ community” meeting. I don’t know if the BiBQ, or the gaming events, or the UnConference series, or any of the other major projects we were involved with will come back online, but I’m also not going to worry about that yet. By tying the work explicitly and intentionally to my self-care resource creation, this iteration of Possibilities fits beautifully into the work I’m doing for (and with) my Patreon. Which leads to the final question –
How can community members get involved?
If Possibilities is important to you, and you value having this community back up and running, please consider becoming a patron. That is the best way you can support this work, though I know not everyone is able. Possibilities discussion events, and the blog posts and articles, will be free for anyone, and the Patreon is what makes that possible. (Blog posts will also be available a week early for patrons, so, there’s that!) It makes me so happy to have come full circle, to have spiralled around to a new way to approach an old passion, and you can help ensure that the community stays active and vibrant going forward.
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.