Image description – Autumn leaves and berries on nearly bare twigs against a grey sky. Text reads #TenDaysOfGrey #Mental Health. There is a small Tiffany Sostar logo in the top right.
Content warning for discussion of depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidality.
Today is World Mental Health Day. This is my final post for Bryan McLean’s #TenDaysOfGrey mental health awareness project. You can read my interview with Bryan here. Rather than writing something new for today, I’m sharing a post I wrote four years ago that detailed my mental health journey up to that point. The reason I’m sharing it at the end of the Ten Days of Grey is because when I wrote this post I was in the grey. I am in the colour now, and I appreciate that.
I wrote the post shared here in 2013. Now I am 36, it’s four years later and many things have changed and many things have stayed the same. I am thankful for my 32 year old self writing this. I am thankful for my 28 year old self making it through, for all those younger selves who made it through. I have spent so many years in the grey.
At 36, I am not depressed. (I am often anxious, I am in the middle of a three-months-and-counting fibro flare, and I am experiencing regular existential dread over the state of the world, but miraculously, I am not depressed. Wow!)
It is sort of amazing to reflect on that, because there is a lot going on in my life that would is difficult, stressful, and overwhelming. I am thankful for the resilience I have developed, and I am also conscious of the truth that these sorts of things are not always “overcomeable” and these monsters will visit again. I’ll make them tea, cry with them, and continue surviving. I am thankful for that confidence.
I am also amazed at how strategies shift. When I wrote this original post, I had a few coping skills that I leaned on daily – my extensive lip balm collection is a testament to that. I used lip balm application as an alternative behaviour to self-harming, and it was life-saving for me. But these days, I have only even felt the urge to self-harm once or twice in the last couple years, and I only use lip balm when my lips are chapped. Self-care is such a responsive process – we are always responding, and the act of self-care is an act of presence and awareness. It becomes habitual, but it can never be only habitual. I love (and hate) that iterative, never-ending process. (I also really miss my Patchwork writers! If I ran another six-week poetry writing course, would you be interested? Let me know!)
Here is my 2013 post, edited to remove some ableism (we are always learning!) and to update links.
I’m sitting in Vendome, one of my favourite cafès in Calgary. I just sent out the writing prompt to my Patchwork writers, posted it on the Facebook page, shared it on my personal Facebook, tweeted it, posted it on the Writing in the Margins blog. Most of the time I respond to writing prompts privately, in a longhand journal. If I share the writing later (which I rarely do, outside of workshops where I read my just-written work with the group), I type it up and polish it a bit.
But the prompt today is to write about mental health.
And I am a mental health advocate. So I am typing this response directly into my “add new post” screen, and I am going to hit “publish” when I’m finished. And then I’ll post a link to it on Facebook and on all of my Twitter accounts, and here’s why –
At 13, I went through my first serious depression. I did not know what was happening to me. (If you suspect that you may be going through a depression or other mental health concern, here is a free screening tool. It’s not perfect, and symptoms are not so cut-and-dried for many people – it is a place to start, but not a final word.)
Suddenly everything was awful. There was a pain in my body/brain/heart/soul. I cried a lot. I self-harmed. I scratched my neck and shoulders and hips and belly until I was cross-hatched, red and scabbing. I smashed my head into walls, sometimes until I was dizzy. I didn’t know who to talk to. The only person who knew I was self-harming, the only person I confided in, was my 9 year old sister. It was terrible for both of us, a weight far too heavy for her small shoulders (or my own).
Writing about this time, I feel my chest tighten and my breath shorten, the muscles in my neck knot up – these are the first physical manifestations of anxiety in my body and I am aware enough now, at 32, to recognize them for what they are. I take a deep breath, roll my shoulders, take a sip of water, continue.
In high school, at around 16 or 17, I went through a second (or perhaps just a worsening of my ongoing) depression. This was complicated by the arrival of Sadisty – a very angry, very vicious voice in my head. I do not seem to have a split or multiple personality disorder – Sadisty was just (“just”) my mind’s way of externalizing the intense self-loathing that I was experiencing. Though I feel a deep shame about what feels, to me, like one of the lowest points in my mental health journey, I am also amazed and grateful for whatever it was in me that did choose to externalize rather than internalize those feelings. Sadisty wanted me to die, and I had many moments of suicidality, but I didn’t want me to die. I put all of that negativity into Sadisty, to get it out of my own head, to make those nasty comments come in a voice that wasn’t my own.
I am lucky to have survived high school, to have survived Sadisty and that second/ongoing depression.
(Breathe again, breathe again.)
At 18, I started volunteering at the Calgary Humane Society. I adopted a dog, my soul mate. Tasha. She had separation anxiety and dog-dog aggression. She was anxious, fearful, aggressive. Helping her helped me. Things got better. Sadisty was gone, and she has never come back.
I got married, I got divorced.
My mental health stayed at a consistently low-grade level of self-loathing. Low self-esteem. An at-that-time undiagnosed anxiety disorder. The impact of early trauma, unacknowledged anxiety and low self-esteem on my sex drive led me to believe I was “sexually dysfunctional” (a whole other thing, related but tangential to this post).
(Breathe, breathe. Roll shoulders, stretch wrists, refill water. In my body right now – tightness, tension. Shame, anxiety, fear.)
After my divorce, I went through a third severe depression. Again, I was self-harming. Again, I was suicidal.
I was 28.
I was ashamed.
I felt foolish – this was supposed to be done, part of the horror of adolescence. How could it follow me into adulthood? How could it threaten to destroy the new life I was trying to build for myself? How could I?! Shame, anxiety, self-loathing – there was a toxic mix of emotions and beliefs at play. Fortunately, I was seeing a counsellor and had her support, and the support of my anchor partner. I had started seeing a counsellor when I was trying to get past the sexual dysfunction, and continued seeing her through my divorce and into the depression that followed it. I still see her, and will continue to do so. I recognize now that my neurodivergence is not something I will ever “overcome” – it is part of who I am. It has taught me invaluable lessons, and has helped me become the advocate that I am. At 32, I recognize the value that this neurodivergence has brought to my life.
But at 28, I climbed halfway over my 28th floor balcony, intending to make strawberry jam on the pavement below.
After that, my counsellor helped me come up with an emergency plan.
I made the painful call to my sister, my mom, my dad.
I said, “I am currently depressed. Sometimes I feel suicidal. I am calling to ask if you would be willing to be part of my emergency plan. What that would mean is that if I call and tell you that I am feeling suicidal, you will be available to come and be with me, or take me to the hospital if necessary.”
I had to euthanize Tasha.
My mom was hit by a truck, she almost died.
I experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. The depression got worse. The self-harming escalated.
My best friend stopped taking my calls. Months later, she told me that it had just gotten to be too much – there was something wrong every time we spoke.
Depression, anxiety, other mental health concerns… they can be like bombs, decimating at the point of impact, shrapnel flying everywhere. Relationships can be fundamentally altered or destroyed. Partnerships suffer. The ripple effects of a mental health issue can make the isolation and loneliness, the shame and fear and pain so much worse. Among the conversations that we do not have regarding mental health, this conversation about self-care for caregivers, and balancing the various and sometimes conflicting needs for support is both absent and necessary. It is possible to remain friends with a depressed person, but because we do not ever have this conversation, many people don’t know how.
I came out of that depression.
I became an activist.
I developed an amazing, diverse, wide-ranging social circle.
I learned new coping skills. I breathe more intentionally now. I pay attention to tension in my body. I rarely allow an anxiety attack to escalate to the point where I feel the urge to self-harm. I use lip balm and apply it when I start to feel anxious – I pay attention to the feel, the smell, the taste. I take supplements and get exercise. I see my counsellor every other week, more frequently when things get bad.
I am 32 now.
I am currently depressed.
I wake up in the morning and I feel sad. I feel hopeless. I feel discouraged.
I haven’t reconciled with the addition of fibromyalgia to my life. I miss my dad. I miss my dogs. I am financially unstable, and frustrated by my ongoing mental health concerns. I am immobilized by anxiety on a regular basis.
But I have help. And I have a purpose. I believe that my weakness is one of my superpowers, that my willingness to speak openly about my struggles is part of my activism.
So I am depressed.
I am waiting for it to be over (for now).
I use all my new coping skills. I lean on my friends, as much as I can allow myself, and I breathe. I stretch. I take my supplements and drink my water and have epsom salt baths to help with the physical pain.
It is World Mental Health Day.
And this is my mental health story.
(This post was available on my Patreon last week. If you’d like to get access to posts early, consider supporting me!)
In August, I asked my Facebook community – Where do you find hope in media lately?
I asked the question because hope has been on my mind. Or rather, the lack of hope. The need for hope. The challenge and pain of trying to hope in a world that seems so soaked in dystopia and pain and fear and hate.
Hope, hopefulness, hopelessness. What hope is, and what it isn’t, and what it does and doesn’t do for us.
I’ve been thinking about reading Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone’s Active Hope but so far it remains just a thought. Hope feels like a necessary and dangerous topic, an exposed nerve for so many of us in the current political, social, and economic climate. (On this note, I am considering attending this retreat in October, recommended by the same person who recommended the book to me. I haven’t figured out the finances, but if you have $250 and can be in Alberta and want to attend, let me know and we can do a retreat together!)
For a while now, I have felt deeply hopeless, hopeless down to my bones. I have been swimming in existential dread. I struggle to see a way forward for humanity – at all times, I think we’ve overstepped and overstayed, embraced a political and economic framework that is fundamentally unsustainable, and supported it with a social framework that isolates and harms so many people, and in the dark times, I think there’s no way back. I have felt, for a while now, that the end of the road is close.
I have handled that deep hopelessness by holding onto smaller hopes. I’ve found a metaphor that works for me, based on that idea of the road – I think that there’s value in walking to the end of the road together. Doing it intentionally. Doing it with self-awareness and with compassion. I think that there is something powerful and meaningful and hopeful about the idea that we can offer whatever comfort and self-care and community care and survival strategies we can, despite the end of the road looming. I feel sad for the world and for all our unmeetable potential, crushed under a drive towards hierarchy and violence and exploitation. But I also think that we can do what we can, with what we have, for as long as we are able, and that’s worth continuing on for. That’s the safety net that keeps me from falling off the cliff.
I am also wary of any self-help advice that includes weaponized positivity – the idea that if you aren’t positive enough, don’t look for the positive, don’t find the silver lining, then you’re at fault for your situation – and I think hope falls into that category all too often. I don’t want to contribute to that body of work that constitutes a vast and crushing arsenal of weaponized positivity. I am not here to tell you that you just need to hope – just need to vibe higher, think brighter, seek the light. Nope. In my heart of hearts, I think we’re screwed. And even if we aren’t, the fear and the pain and the hopelessness – it’s real. It’s so real.
And I also believe that when the car is spinning out, it helps to look for the clear road rather than the trees. I think that we will have better luck taking on the role of death doula for a dying species if we find some way to hope within that. If we find some clear road to aim for – some awareness, some intention, some compassion, to bring to this critical work of loving ourselves and each other through this time.
So, I do believe that there is value in curating our thoughts, words, and media intake. Not in demanding that we always ‘think positive’ or find the silver lining, but in recognizing when we need an infusion of hope, joy, humour, or encouragement and when we notice the need, seeking those things out.
And so, for those moments when you need to find some hope, here are a whole bunch of suggestions from fellow travelers, in some cases paraphrased and edited. (With additional links added by me in the brackets, in case you’re like me and like to read reviews before you invest in any media.)
Where do you find hope in media lately?
Jim: Muppet movies. The theme of pretty much all the old Muppet movies is, “we can achieve our dreams, if we work together.”
(I enjoyed this essay from Bitch Media about feminism in the Muppets, and if you’re an academic nerd like me, you might enjoy knowing that Kermit Culture: Critical Perspectives on Jim Henson’s Muppets exists.)
Samantha: Steven Universe. It validates and celebrates everyone. Poly, straight, Bi-Gender, people with trauma…everyone. And everyone gets to be a hero.
Bob’s Burgers. It’s a show about good people and while they’re weird and the world can be cruel to them, they are ultimately resilient because they have each other.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl – It’s just madcap fun. With a diverse cast and some serious heart. It’s not a new way forward for the medium but it never fails to make me smile.
Ms Marvel – Teenage Muslim-American gets super powers and then has to balance heroics with family life? It’s basically the end point of the Spider-Man formula. Really, really good.
The Adventure Zone – a D&D podcast about three adventurers. It’s a humour-based show but grows into so much more. And while the early goings can be rough, they get very good at representation and combatting problematic tropes.
Rose Buddies – a Bachelor Fancast. While I will never ever watch The Bachelor family of products, there’s something about two people who love it and love each other that is oddly fulfilling. They engage with the problematic elements and it might not be for everyone but it’s my second favourite podcast.
(There are lots of articles about why Steven Universe is rad, but I like this one from i09, this one from Liverpool Geek Girls, and this very thoughtful essay about POC-coded Pearl from Black Nerd Problems.
There are also lots of articles about why Bob’s Burgers is brilliant, but I love this one from Decider about why Tina, Gene and Louise are the feminist role models we need.
Samantha’s picks are all, honestly, really fantastic and I had a great time finding articles about them.
This one about Squirrel Girl shares the same enthusiasm I had for the comic when I first discovered it.
And G. Willow Wilson, who created the new Ms. Marvel, is my hero. I saw her speak at Mount Royal in Calgary, and her quote “There is not always a way out, but there is always a way forward” became the cornerstone of my coaching practice. This article about Kamala Khan is fantastic.
This post about why Adventure Zone is fantastic is also great, but watch out for spoilers!)
Katie: Not conventional media, but ASMR roleplay videos on YouTube have been an effective way for me to escape the existential dread.
Rick and Morty for helping me laugh through the fear and pain.
(According to The Nerdist, the opening premise of Rick and Morty is “like Sliders but good” and that’s some high praise in my secret Sliders-loving heart.)
Richelle: Dogspotting and We Rate Dogs. So many good doggos, and the fact that there are beings on this planet that are beacons of joy and love and floof who continue to be happy gives me hope. Even if I’m ready to give up on the human race, there are adorable dogs who will never bring about the apocalypse.
(This post about how doggo memes can teach us about consent and inclusion is one of the most hopeful and encouraging I’ve read in a while.)
Jon: Video games can be a source of hope too (depending on the game). Often the stories can be hopeful (like a lot of the Lego games, games about rebuilding after an apocalypse, some of the final fantasy games). Even just the concept of games can build hope, though. You are presented with a challenge. To get over the challenge you have to have hope that it’s possible. You work at it and eventually you make it through.
Video games are often overlooked when it comes to media; they’re written off as a quark of a particular sub-culture that a lot of us shy away from (sometimes for good reason). I’m really glad to see some of the most recent game designers come out to make games important to them (and us), though. They’re definitely artists and sometimes they create truly hope-inspiring pieces.
Seeing the work that some game designers pull off despite the general toxic nature of gamer-culture also gives me a lot of hope.
(Jon suggests Never Alone as one of his favourite examples of hopeful games. And I have been reading SuperBetter by Jane McGonigal, which is all about how game playing can increase resilience. I recommend both the book and the app. I’ve also been tinkering with a blog post about videogames and self-care for about six months, so, someday that’ll happen. Someday. Haha. *headdesk*)
Andrea: Body positive Instagram. Tess Holiday, queenkim_nyakimm, fat women of colour, curvy_curvy_cosplayers, curvycampbell, and gabifresh. I haven’t seen a lot of disability inclusivity in these BUT most are on their game with racial and body shape diversity. Using Instagram for body positivity is a very new thing for me, tbh. It was mostly food, travel, and protesting. Not by any rule but I think mine started with Tess Holiday and I was like “oooohhhh this is such an emotionally productive way to use Instagram.”
And I find hope in radical books that destabilize systems of oppression. I’m currently reading “Mongrel Cities” by Leonie Sandercock. It was written in 2003 so it is dated but it was already addressing the fear and the Othering inspired by 9/11. I’m not that far in but already it’s talking about planning for communities that acknowledge differences as strengths. The author actually says about herself that she remains a hopeful theorist even when our visions of urban Utopia fail endlessly, that she seeks to keep going and try new things. She looks largely at the age of migration in the western world and shares her criticism and hopes of what our cities and societies can be. She’s a professor at UBC who leads the Indigenous planning concentration and she focuses on storytelling and narrative in planning practice. I fangirl over her (this is the planning program I’m trying to get into).
Alexis: The bible. The concept of a higher purpose and God is the only thing that gives me hope.
I’m part of a fundamental religious group. So we adhere to the bible. It’s our source of guidance. And everyone who bashes alternative lifestyles and hides behind the bible to justify their hate – they’re not acting like the Christ I know.
I’m a Jehovah’s Witness. I have gay friends. I have trans friends. I am friends with recovering addicts and people who choose to work in prostitution.
I believe in harm reduction and the freedom to do what you want/need to be happy.
If that includes God/the bible – great.
If not. That’s great too. I aim to imitate Jesus and his love (yup I know that sounds hokey). But he was kind and he showed love and didn’t condemn people.
I can tell you that if I didn’t believe in God, I would be an awful person who was extremely hopeless. Whether what I believe comes true or not, I’m kinder and happier. I feel hope. I’m not overwhelmed by what is in the media. It’s scary out there. But I would rather live and die with hope in my heart than believe that the world is going to implode at any minute.
Michelle: APTN, Aboriginal People’s Television Network – they aren’t perfect but at least give us a voice without colonial talking points
Patricia: Pod Save America. It’s written by Obama’s writers and communications team. I feel like they are intelligent, well informed, experienced voices who are able to read and critique what occurs in the media very logically. Also, they are sweary sometimes, which is necessary and awesome.
(Another) Katie: Not really hopeful per se and definitely not perfect, but I find when I’m overcome with existential dread that revisiting media from my childhood helps calm me down and cradle me. The Harry Potter franchise has been good in that regard – it’s like comfort food in book form for me.
(I have really enjoyed Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, a social justice-informed podcast that explores the Harry Potter books. And there’s research to support Katie’s love of returning to cherished media, as this Mary Sue article outlines. I won’t link to the study directly, because it’s called “The Temporal and Focal Dynamics of Volitional Reconsumption: A Phenomenological Investigation of Repeated Hedonic Experiences” and that sounds pretty dry, even to me. Okay, fine, I will. Here it is.)
Jess: I have songs I wrote to sing to myself when I’m full of existential dread. One of them is actually on soundcloud, I hope it’s helpful to someone else!
Justine: Lately, I’ve been fascinated with Jay Z’s 4:44 roll out and the videos and footnotes he’s released. They’re beautifully made and really fascinating.
It gives me hope because a central theme throughout is that artists need to be in control of the process involving their artwork, which is really cool thinking that Tidal might operate more as an (elite) artist collective and inspire other streaming services to organize along similar lines.
Other than that, comedy is a still big one for me. Political comedy has been really great lately in calling bullshit, which is really validating. Personally, I recommend:
1) Full Frontal with Samantha Bee
2) Late Show with Stephen Colbert
3) The Daily Show with Trevor Noah
4) Late Night with Seth Meyers (Amber’s segments are SUPER good)
Lastly, for a feel good, hope for the future feeling, I recommend “Homecoming King” by Hasan Mihnaj (Netflix). It’s a really well done stand up that talks about his experiences growing up as an Indian American Muslim, and it’s really well done, and I found it really powerful.
(This New Yorker article agrees with Justine’s assessment of Homecoming King.)
Sierra: The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, a very interesting book by Sarah Lewis. The author explores pushing past and learning from our mistakes and failures. It is also very well written. Sarah Lewis does an incredible job of highlighting the deeper fiber of perseverance and positive humanity.
Stasha: This page called Just Ravens on here. This lovely lady lives up north and shares photos and stories of her relationships with a group of ravens. Most recent one I liked was a raven waiting on her car for her to get off work, so the raven can hitch a ride on her side mirror and get some snacks. There are some treaty 7 people in the group talking about ravens that I know irl. So, everything about it just gives me hope and joy.
(Ravens are amazing, as GrrlScientist attests.)
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.”