Dirty Laundry: A Conversation on Mourning in Public

Dirty Laundry: A Conversation on Mourning in Public

Image description: Tiffany looks at a pile of laundry.

The following is a collaborative discussion that I was invited into by the amazing Emily Leedham. Intro and outro are Emily’s words. We are publishing this a year later because the process of editing it into a readable format was daunting and emotionally exhausting. This conversation is cross-posted on Emily’s website here. Collective ownership of ideas and words! I love it.

Intro

My divorce was one of the most isolating events I have ever experienced. I got married young, so there were few of my friends who could relate to what I was going through or know how to offer support. It was also an emotionally exhausting situation most people understandably didn’t want to get too tangled up in. But I also shut a lot of people out. I was fragile and extremely sensitive to judgement.

Around the same time, my friends Tiffany and Sarah were going through devastating breakups of their own. I reached out to them both after Tiffany had posted this article, If Community Were a Safe Space to Fall Apart. It spoke to the isolation and alienation I felt:

“My friend and his former wife had gone through these divorces in secret and silence. Their union and wedding had been public. Their divorces took place mostly in the shadows.

And it made me ponder: how is that the coming together is in the light, in public, a public celebration — but the falling apart done in the shadows, in silence, in loneliness?

If we are a community, we should be together through thin and thick, for better and for worse. We stand together in the valleys and on the mountaintops. How do we make it possible for us to stand together when each of us goes through the valleys?

Why do we celebrate together but suffer in silence?

It made me realize that we have no rituals for suffering, for breaking up, for hurting. I am not sure what those rituals would look like, but it does seem like something to seek.”

Mourning rituals. Community. Those both sounded like things I wanted to seek out as well.

I asked Tiffany and Sarah if they would be willing to talk about their own experiences mourning relationships both on their own and with friends and family. Could we develop better processes by which to grieve and mourn with each other? Could we invite others into that process in a safe and healthy way?

What follows is a conversation between myself, Tiffany, and Sarah, about loss, mourning, and community support. The initial conversation happened in Google Docs from February through April 2017.

We are publishing this a year later because the process of editing it into a readable format was daunting and emotionally exhausting.

We took our time. Like mourning itself, it wasn’t something you could make follow a schedule.

This is an approximately 35 minute read and covers a lot of ground, potentially triggering to those who have had traumatic breakups. We suggest this conversation is best read in a safe, comfortable environment where readers can take breaks and self-care measures as needed. We hope that this conversation will help others in their mourning and healing processes both individually and within their greater communities.

February 9, 2017

Emily: I asked you both here because all three of us have been through pretty earth shattering breakups, resulting in significant changes in lifestyle and living situations.

For myself, it’s been really difficult to know how to let others into this grieving process, especially when as a result of all this, I found myself in an extremely vulnerable situation, both physically, financially, and emotionally. I shut basically everyone out. I felt like I had to, it was an act of self-preservation. But I didn’t want to be alone. I just didn’t know what else to do.

So I want to talk about mourning rituals, how to create them and how to incorporate others into them so we can resist the alienation that happens during some of the most vulnerable moments of our lives.

Sarah: Last fall I experienced a brutal breakup that left me feeling completely abandoned and discarded. It came out of nowhere and a lot of my friends/community had been following our “epic” love story (he bought me a house, we blended families, had a dreamy life, then he ditched).

Because I had celebrated so much of the relationship with my friends online, when it ended I felt like I needed to share with them. I hadn’t been on Facebook for about a month at the point of the breakup, and immediately activated my account after he left, knowing I would need the support of my community or I would quite possibly not make it through. I TOTALLY grieved publicly, but was very careful not to sound bitter or vindictive, I just needed support.

Emily: Thanks so much for sharing!

Tiffany:  Whoa. That would be brutal. I’m glad you were able to find a community space for that grieving, but I can imagine it was a tightrope to balance on.

Sarah: Yeah, I didn’t want to teeter over the edge of shitting all over him and lowering myself, I guess?

Tiffany: Legit. I have had a few big relationship transitions, and when we first talked about this project, I wanted to discuss my divorce which happened almost ten years ago. It was a pretty major break from one life into another.

But right now, I think I would almost rather talk about my most recent transition, which wasn’t a breakup, but was pretty cataclysmic and didn’t leave space for public grieving. If that’s okay?

Emily: Of course! Yes, whatever is weighing on you the most right now.

Tiffany: Awesome. Thanks!

So, then, my story for the purposes of this, is that I fell in love with someone who was married with two kids. He fell in love with me. There was an awkward and not really open period of trying to incorporate polyamory (I am polyamorous and was living with a partner when this happened). His spouse was not okay with it, lines were crossed, there were five months of zero contact, then there was a long period of in-house separation for him, my relationship with the partner I lived with got very … hmm.

See, even talking about it is so fucking hard. I moved out. Joe and I live together now. I’m stepparenting, and it’s a massive change (I never had or wanted my own kids). I struggle with the label of “homewrecker” and also with all the challenges of being a stepparent while queer and non-binary. There’s a LOT of grief. And it doesn’t feel like there is any space for it.

I was very quiet on social media about what was happening, because I didn’t want to hurt the partner I was moving out on – we had just bought a house together that year. We didn’t break up, and are still together. And… the moving out would probably have happened regardless of the situation with Joe. It wasn’t working, the way we were together, in that house. The house was a huge part of what changed the sustainability of that relationship in that format. There were challenges. But talking about it hit some raw, painful nerves for that partner. AND talking about it opened me up to all the judgment about my role in the ending of Joe’s relationship. If Joe and I hadn’t happened, and if we hadn’t happened in the way that we did, the transition of that relationship would have happened differently. And the trajectory of Joe’s relationship would also have happened differently. SO, yeah.

Sarah: That would be super hard to talk about! Thanks for sharing it with us. Relationships and love can be so dang tricky.

Emily: Yes, thank you so much, I know these narratives are just…they’re not simple. They never get said because we like to put relationships in little boxes with bows on top and the reality is, I think, they’re just so fluid and there are so many different dynamics that spill over into each other… and then there’s love. How are we supposed to grieve when we’re not allowed to have complex narratives? No wonder we hide and isolate, or at least for me.

I’ll share just a bit more about my story, because it does relate to yours a bit, Tiffany. I got married when I was 22. At the time I got engaged, I had grown up a Christian fundamentalist. I had all these ideas in my head about what an ideal relationship should look like. I found what appeared to be that, and in so many ways it was very good for me, very nice and lovely.

But I had changed so much over the 7 years we were together and the 4 years we were married. I had a different outlook on life, on myself, on relationships. And then, I ended up falling in love with someone else. And I left my husband for someone else. And I can’t tell this story because of the narrative that paints me as…I don’t know, the fickle, untrustworthy, manipulative woman.

Tiffany: That narrative. It is SO POWERFUL. Pervasive.

Sarah: Super similar to my first marriage too. I left for him for a friend I was in love with, then ditched the friend too ha. I hated myself for years.

Tiffany: So… I left my marriage, lo these many years ago, after I had an affair. That marriage was so toxic for me. It was so bad for me. It was crushing me. And I had come to such peace with the fact that my affair was the best thing I could have done for myself.

But now? Now that I have this label again, in a different way, in a way that *includes children* and “breaking up a family” – my shame, ten year old shame that I really never processed then because I put on this hugely defiant “I AM GOING TO SURVIVE, I AM ALLOWED TO BE SEXUAL” … not mask, but it was performative, for sure. I never processed that shame because I felt like if I even admitted an inch of it, I would be overwhelmed by people’s judgement. But now I’m feeling this “I’m a homewrecker” shame and the compound interest is here to demand payment. It is so tough.

Sarah: I totally hear that. In those cases the narrative is soooo complicated. This past breakup was the first time I’d been involved in a very CLEAR case of “I AM THE VICTIM” and it was almost… relieving? Exciting? I was LEFT, and it wasn’t my fault! Clean storyline, nothing but sympathy.

Whereas my previous two marriages ended because of me and were very unhealthy for me mentally. I will say though, in therapy, the best thing I heard was “You’re allowed to change your mind”. That has stuck with me, and I feel like as women we put so many expectations of “how to be” in relationships – like be a good girlfriend/wife/lover. When we change our minds it feels disgusting to us? Whyyyyy.

Emily: Okay, I have like serious shivers, honestly, you guys, like thank you so much for talking through all this and being so vulnerable here. I want to touch on how our relationship narratives determine how we go about mourning/processing with friends and family. I think that’s a key thing that has shown up here.

Sarah: I also wanna clarify that I was still utterly gutted and am still recovering. It’s just a completely different mourning process than the self-loathing ones I’d experienced previously, and it’s weird to feel mega love for yourself after something like that goes down.

Emily: Totally!

I want to talk about the stereotype of like…not airing dirty laundry, or being a “burden.” Like you said, Sarah, you had to walk a fine line between asking for support and not being bitter. And I think we’re so often conditioned to think of ourselves as needy and weak for expressing our brokenness online. So what are ways we can counter this?

Tiffany: Yes, the burden thing is tricky. Because the fact that we can’t talk about a lot of this openly (and I’m still struggling to talk about this even within this space – shame is such an isolating emotion! And so is fear) – it means that the few people we CAN talk to, or at least the few people that I found I could talk to, I talked to A LOT. And I ended up feeling like I was damaging those relationships because the weight was so much, and it was just all bearing down on me and on these few support people. That made it hard.

(And on that topic, I can definitely say that I had a suicidal depression absolutely decimate a relationship once and it was so awful to lose that relationship – I did get it back, but I lost it for a while – because of that weight. That’s another thing we aren’t allowed to be open about!) So, yes. Burden. Fear. Weight.

Sarah: I’ve always had a hard time with isolation, and one of my coping mechanisms (I think) has become meeting new people, getting into one BIG HEAVY conversation with them that we both are suuuper into, and then kinda vanishing? Like not fully, but I always have disclosure regret and feel bad when they want to be super friends after and I’m at home realizing I used them for therapy. I don’t know if it’s cool of me or not – probably not – but I’m not doing it on purpose!

Emily: Omg I totally get thaaaaat haha. And I think it’s because, I don’t know, if it’s someone you don’t know too well, you can feel like you’re bonding and sharing something intimate with them but don’t feel obligated to pursue more of a relationship that you don’t have energy for.

Tiffany: Yuuuup. Me too. I love the idea of being radically open about my experiences and my weaknesses but… kinda, more at a distance. Lol. Radically open on Facebook, crying in complete silence in the bathroom at home, kinda deal.

Sarah: Haha yes totally. During my last breakup there were a couple people I didn’t know well who full on STEPPED UP and went all out to help me, and then I felt sooo obliged to reciprocate and was just so drained by the breakup, I ended up feeling like a HUGE jerk.

Emily: Yes, I think it’s really important to recognize when someone is grieving, they might not be able to give you as much energy as you give them. They might not be able to give you any energy back at all. I think for someone in that position, you might have to recognize that, I don’t know, you’re almost commiting a random act of kindness that may never be reciprocated?

Tiffany: I totally agree. I think that the fact that we don’t have many mechanisms for widespread community support makes that tough. There IS an expectation of reciprocity. And reciprocity in a “timely fashion” because we have the ideal of the nuclear family and even, I think, the idea of the “squad” or small group of tight friends. But that kind of dynamic doesn’t work when there is a major, life-altering grieving happening. Because you just can’t bounce back and reciprocate right away. And that means that a lot of relationships become collateral losses, because big grief breaks the social contract. (The current iteration of the social contract is fucked, imo, but it’s still there.) At least, it seems that way to me.

Sarah: Totally agree. I will say that opening up publicly (and having the clean narrative to do so – like it would have been so different if Facebook had been around during my first divorce), was super beneficial and like, the commiseration that poured in was very healing. It’s so messed up that it has to be SUCH a clean storyline though. Like I literally only lost one acquaintance, whereas after my first divorce, I lost my entire hometown haha.

Tiffany: YUP. My whole extended family, for like a year. Everyone loved my ex-husband. And it’s not that the clean narrative makes the grief easier – I don’t think it does. It’s still such a major, major loss and so crushing. It doesn’t change the GRIEF. It just changes what avenues to support are open.

Emily: I relate to the family thing, I’m in the middle of a divorce and my ex, well, yeah, my entire family adored him so it’s a pretty big mystery to them – most of them – why I would think of leaving. And I moved cities, for sure. I’m glad I’m here, I’m glad I’m where I’m at, but it still hurts to feel so abandoned just for making choices based on contexts that literally only I knew, only I was capable of making these decisions for myself.

Sarah: Same! It took years before I could make my mom see why leaving my first husband was so crucial. Religion played a big part too. Like the idea was “a marriage only ends out of selfishness.” And like, my mom had escaped an abusive marriage, yet it was still so hard to explain to her why my marriage was horrible. In that case, I have a lot of resentment for the church, etc, but that’s another conversation ha.

Tiffany: Yeah, my mom also didn’t understand for a long time. But it also really hurts that my extended family is accepting me now, more than they EVER have before, because I’ve got a relationship that they can understand. Now I’ve got a cisgender man as a partner, and two kids. Now I “fit.” My bisexuality, my polyamory, my genderqueerness – it’s all erased. It’s still there – Jon and Scott and my girlfriend still come to Christmas dinner when I host it – but the extended family just sees me and Joe and the kids, and we fit in their box. And I fucking hate it. And it leaves no room for my complicated feelings about these changes, and it definitely leaves no room for my queerness or my gender.

Sarah: I recently came out as bi to my mom by telling her about a date I went on with a girl and she was super chill which was a massive relief, but she was probs only okay with it because me and my sibs have put her through so much at this point. Anyway at a later time I’d be interested in hearing more about navigating as bi!

Tiffany: Totally!!! It’s one of my favourite topics. 😀

Emily: Yay!! I am also bi but not super open about it to my family, for reasons. But it makes me happy we are all here together haha,  go us <3

So given these narratives, again, that erase us, erase our agency, erase people’s ability to perceive us as capable of making our own decisions….well, let’s just bring it to an individual level and talk about personal mourning rituals. Because getting others involved, as we can see, is a really complicated, and sometimes unsafe process! Depending.

For me personally, I found myself in a place where most of my self-care rituals were thrown out of the loop. And those self-care rituals were developed out of financial stability, out of being in a certain socio-economic status. My self care rituals involved eating nice food, seeing my therapist I could afford through my partner’s benefits, and other things that sort of became habitual when I needed to take care of myself.

Here, in this situation, I was very isolated with few resources or people I felt like I could trust. But what I noticed I did start doing is documenting everything that was happening – I started writing more, taking pictures – I started noticing all these tiny little things I would take pictures of, and that would sort of ground me. Even if I wasn’t sharing it with anyone, I was taking control of my own narrative for myself, and affirming that what I was experiencing was valid and important, even if no one else saw it. And I found that to be incredibly valuable.

Sarah: I love that. I think I’ve had bursts of self-care, but am only now thinking in terms of “rituals”, and I guess mine is walking and writing jokes? I have to walk every day, for at least 30 min. I have to write jokes and they have to be positive and (if I can manage) not self-depreciatory. I enjoy wine but try not to ritualize it too much haha. Mainly walking, breathing, I don’t really know what else is a constant for me. With kids everything goes loopdy-loop, it can make quiet self-time tricky. Walking though, and jokes. Like my comedian friends can tell when I’m having a hard time because I’m tweeting jokes more haha. That’s when they’ll check in.

Emily: Haha, I love that! It’s nice when friends are like, attuned to you that well and check in. I think that’s huge. Last year, I had a friend who would check in, and still periodically checks in, because she realized that saying “Oh, I’m here if you need me” was bullshit. People suffering don’t want to be burdens, to say “Hello friend, may I assail your ears for an hour about my heartbreak?” Like, that gets back to that feeling of “Am I using this person, this friend?” But if the friend or group voluntarily checks in to say, “Hey, want to talk? Hey, how are you doing” that’s an invitation, and I think mitigates that feeling of burden, because they’ve welcomed you to share.

Sarah: Totally, totally. I’m lucky to have a supportive community, and again, lucky to be able to use online platforms as a way to vent or express pain when I feel like I need a new/healing perspective. But also, super great to have friends who call (like who CALLS anymore, rare precious unicorns).

Emily: I always balked at calling bc #millennial, but more and more, and probably since I moved away too…there’s just something different about someone’s actual voice, or even Facetime or something. Like texts are good, but a call feels like an “event” you know, the conversation meanders, you can’t just disengage after a few texts, you’re invested to a certain extent in having a meaningful update about each other’s lives.

Tiffany: There is so much here, both around narratives that erase, and the pressure towards tidy narratives (I have FEEEEELS about that), and also the self-care stuff, which is really near and dear to me, and yet also really challenging right now and I haven’t got a handle on it. Like, self-care plus kids? Self-care minus financial stability? Self-care plus BEING a self-care coach, plus kids, minus financial stability, plus hella shame? Questions I do nooooooooot have answered but am asking myself daily. So, definitely want to explore more.

Emily: I will say that every time I’ve opened up online, and I’ve observed with the two of you, just through Facebook, people do really respond to vulnerability. Because I don’t think there are a lot of clean narratives out there, or a lot of people that are willing to share their vulnerability in an age where it seems like we have to be these perfectly curated #brands, so I guess I will say that. I’ve experienced a lot of shame and fear from my family, but from my friends and others, people really want to know it’s okay to have these messy narratives. And that’s a huge part of healing for me, I think, is people saying “It’s ok. It’s ok.” Even just the few friends who have, it means the world. And I get messages from people saying “That thing you shared, that meant a lot to me” and that helps me heal too.

Tiffany: Yes. Agreed. I have had the same experience. At times when I was being more open about my struggles, I have gotten similar messages from people who appreciate it. One thing that has been really challenging for me in this most recent plot twist is that I haven’t been able to be as open because so many other people involved in the narrative are still involved in my life. So talking about how I feel about Scott, knowing that Scott is going to read it – it’s harder. And talking about Joe, knowing he will read it – it’s not the same as talking about the experience of being bisexual, the experience of being genderqueer, my divorce, etc. The story doesn’t just belong to me, so there are ethical and logistical issues around sharing.

It’s like talking about my move towards atheism and then towards whatever hybrid-wootheism I’m practicing now – harder to talk about because people I’m close to, who might read what I write, have feels about it. So that’s a long, long, long way of saying – YES! And also, despite the fact that this is such a valid coping mechanism, and so healing, it’s challenging to figure out how to access it again when variables shift.

Sarah: Very into exploring all this more. It’s always super cool and relieving to hear the things you’ve been turning over in your brain expressed by others, it feels like magic haha. Which is why I guess people respond to vulnerability online too. It feels like magic to connect with people now. When I had a visual art practice I always made the work unapologetically personal, and always so enjoyed when people would send me messages after because it had reached something in them, something about the super personal also being the super universal.

Emily: Magic is a good word for it <3

Feb 17, 2017

Emily: Wanted to follow up earlier but have had the most. Terrible. Two weeks ever.

Also, I got emailed a certificate of divorce this week lol, so I guess I’m officially divorced now? God, it feels so adult to say I’m divorced…more adult than being married.

I want to talk about anger and mourning. I feel like femmes have their anger policed on so many different levels, and even in the times of anguish we’re still told to always put others ahead of ourselves. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to be cognisant of how we express our anger and how it affects others, but sometimes it feels like it’s an emotion that’s simply not allowed at all. So how do you manage anger in this context?

It’s been challenging for me to express pain and anger over the end of my relationship because it was I who left, so therefore I forfeit my right to those emotions, apparently. Either that or there’s very little sympathy, and it’s implied I deserve whatever negative experiences occurred at the end of our relationship.

This is just…so toxic, honestly. A woman should be able to leave a relationship she feels is not right for her without fear of violence or poverty and yet this is a reality for many. But these narratives we have – that deny women any sympathy for making decisions for themselves – allow this kind of violence to be justified and normalized. Our pain and anger are erased and the pain and anger of whoever we left, or hurt, is justified.

This is not to deny my ex-partner pain, anger or mourning. The entire time this was happening I felt like my heart was being fucking torn in two because I knew how much I was hurting him. I tried to mitigate that pain as much as I could, I really did. But it hurts. it hurts. and I would never deny that.

But there are structural issues at play in relationships – and these narratives about manipulative, fickle women justify structural oppression. My partner was heartbroken, but didn’t have the added stress of worrying about rent or groceries. My partner was heartbroken but didn’t have to worry about being like, disowned by his family. My partner was heartbroken but had access to health and mental health benefits. My partner was heartbroken but could afford a lawyer, etc.

I was heartbroken and all the sudden had the rug pulled out from under me – all of these things went flying up in the air. How am I supposed to mourn and process and heal when I don’t know where I’m going to live, how I’m going to pay rent or buy groceries? And furthermore, when this vulnerable state I am in is justified because I broke someone’s heart?

I have guilt and shame for leaving him, and the added guilt and shame of being in poverty – which you’re just not supposed to talk about. You’re not! As soon as you start talking about poverty, it’s like, “Oh well you should have made better choices.” We still totally equate poverty with moral character. Those who have nice stable lives and who have been married the longest are good people. Those who got divorced for whatever reason and who experience financial fallout from that, well, they’re bad people, irresponsible.

I saw the same thing with my mother – she left my dad and faced a lifetime of stigma from it! She lived in the shadow of it her whole life – the fact that she struggled to provide for her children was seen as a moral failing in our Christian communities. I know she internalized so much of that. We lived in subsidized housing and there was a stigma around that too – like subsidized housing is for people with immoral lifestyles.

And this thinking still exists! People in Calgary will get all up in arms about affordable housing and secondary suites because they think poor people are immoral. It’s absolutely disgusting.

So, I struggle with how to express pain or anger in all this. I know at times when I was extremely financially stressed I would text him viciously. I don’t regret it, honestly. But other times I would get on Twitter and my anger would be more passive aggressive because of course I couldn’t speak about it directly, I would just go off on men in general haha. Which like, is not very healthy or constructive and didn’t really make me feel better either. I was in so much pain about the structural violence I was experiencing but I wasn’t in a place where I could articulate it in a healthy way.

So, that’s my experience with anger and pain. If either of you felt like sharing, I’d be interested in hearing your perspectives on dealing with these emotions. ♡

One last thing I’d like to talk about, besides anger, is examples of already existing mourning rituals like, when widows would wear black for a certain period, etc.

Would there be a way to incorporate some sort of outward symbol/signifier for a relationship mourning period etc? Would that be helpful on a personal level and help others in the community understand where you’re at and how to offer support etc. I don’t know what that would look like, but I like the idea of physical symbols and rituals helping to process pain and engage others.

April 19. 2017

Image description: Emily holds a basket of laundry.

Tiffany: Just caught up on the conversation I missed in Feb – so good and so valuable. <3

Emily: Thanks! How would you feel about picking up on the subject of anger and like, healthy expressions of it etc. Or would you want to start off with something else that’s been pressing? Also we’ll wait for Sarah to show up too.

How’s your day been? Haha

Tiffany: My day has been busy. I’m wearing my bee socks, because I needed to be productive and was not feeling it. Outfits = armour and encouragement. Scaffolding! It was interesting reading the comment about widows wearing black, given how I use clothing as an avenue for expression so often! I interviewed/chatted with Sarah R. for my financial self-care article just before this.

Emily: Oh awesome! I’m really looking forward to that, so important. Also the clothes thing, yeah, I feel that too. It’s been frustrating for me having to adjust what kinds of clothes I wear because buying a new piece of clothing used to be kind of a self-care thing for me haha but it really can’t be anymore, so it’s hard to adjust – as super privileged as that sounds.

Tiffany: Not at all! Financial self-care is often in direct conflict with every other kind of self-care. Thanks, capitalism. This article is actually proving suuuuper difficult and emotional to write, because I have hella hangups about money. I thought I had worked through most of them, but “working through” is always iterative and I guess I wasn’t prepared for this iteration.

Emily: Same, I mean it’s stressful because like turns out not being able to pay for things/not having autonomy is one of my triggers from growing up in child poverty. Just that sense of helplessness that sends you spiralling when one tiny thing goes wrong. It’s been a fucking trip. I always knew I was privileged when I was married, but you sort of forget just how much easier life is. You totally forget, poverty stays with you but it also fades…. Anyways. Makes it hard to sort through emotions.

Tiffany: YES!!!! SO hard to sort through the emotions. Also, not to hijack the topic, but I do think there is just so much grief that comes with life transitions that move you away from financial stability. One thing that has come up over and over for me as I try to write this article is my desperate longing for the financial stability of my marriage. It was such a shit show and such a disaster for my emotional health, but… I could just buy what I wanted, really. Camera lenses. Notebooks. Fuckin’ ridiculous scrapbooking supplies. We weren’t wealthy but we were stable. I haven’t had that since. And I didn’t grow up with it. And I *did* almost have it with Scott before I moved out to live with Joe. And part of me… wow. The just… the sadness. Sadness at just never feeling stable. I just want to feel safe and like my life is not so tenuously anchored, financially. There IS grief there. But how do you talk about that grief???? You can’t.

Emily: Holy fuck, yeah I get that. I feel an immense amount of sadness that my new relationship has to bear the weight of the fallout, both emotional and financial, of my previous relationship. Like – what, our relationship gets to have this kind of strain? There’s almost a level of like, sorrow for this current relationship sometimes, that is has to be plagued with these issues. Sometimes I do wonder if my past relationship was really that bad and if I had known how hard it would be, would I have left? I mean, not that those questions are that helpful or productive. But I do feel like…augh there’s such a cost to truly making a decision for yourself. Like this relationship means so fucking much to me and I don’t regret leaving at all, but I am angry when things are stressful and I feel like the relationship might drown because of these external factors.

Tiffany: Yeah. And there’s so much anxiety that Joe will hit this wall of grief and loss and regret it and take it back. He had a lot of financial stability. I made $40k in my most lucrative year of my life, and that was the year I was an executive admin assistant. I will NEVER do that job again. Ever. So. I mean. I grieve losing my financial stability. What will Joe end up grieving when he comes face to face with this? Ugh. And then I just can’t help judging myself in terms of financial worth = personal worth. It’s gross.

Sarah: I have so much to say about self-worth = financial stability! One of the biggest shocks/adjustments I had to make in my last relationship was *finally* not having to worry about money. He made 6 figures and everything just flowed in: the house, fun plants for the garden, great food, daily gifts that to him were just little things but to me were like “WHOA A PS4 I NEVER THOUGHT I WOULD OWN ONE OF THESE”.

I grew up in poverty too, as a kid (one of six) my dad was usually unemployed and we literally survived off of food provided by the church storehouse, clothes came through charity, holiday or birthday gifts came in the mail from family. During my first marriage, my husband gave me the OPTION to work, and it blew my mind! When I eventually left him I was young, childless, and in art school, so going back to poverty was like “meh, this is normal”. Second marriage never had financial stability, I worked through my pregnancy and during newborn times, supported us while he was in school. Came out of the marriage in debt and still don’t know how I paid rent and bills afterwards as a single mom of two kids on 30k a year.

So this last relationship was WILD in terms of “oh my god this is a new reality, I don’t have to worry about money??”. I always felt uneasy about relaxing into it, and when I finally did – when I finally decided “no, I can trust this. This is finally the real thing”, he left lol.

So needless to say, having a taste of that financial freedom, especially as a parent, and then finding myself back in povertylineland fucking sucked haha. BUT, by the grace of tax audits that took 18 months to process, I got 2 years of tax returns plus retroactive child tax benefit payments, which wiped out my debt and has allowed me a savings cushion. I have a great job that I love and for the first time I feel financially secure ON MY OWN TERMS. It has completely changed how I view relationships. My world is so precious to me now, I’m SOOOO hesitant to share it with someone else who might mess it all up again. I don’t need a partner to achieve my financial dreams (it’ll still be a decade before I can buy a house but that’s fine!) or to feel secure! It took 38 years but OH WELL. I’m in control of my financial future and all my exes can all kiss my ass haha. (I hope this doesn’t sound like bragging, I HOTLY encourage you both to retain hope for your independent financial futures 🙂 )  

Emily: Do you want to talk about anger? I’ve been getting so much better at managing my emotions only because I’ve had to, also the trauma of the whole leaving situation is further away in my mind, but lordt…..I still get so angry. And anger was like a primary emotion in the thick of it too.

Tiffany: Anger. Heh. Okay, so, in my family of origin, it often felt like my dad was the only person who was allowed to express any anger. In my marriage, my husband would literally refuse to acknowledge my existence – sometimes up to two days in a row! – if I showed *any* signs of anger. With one partner, we fought like cats and dogs who don’t get along. Another shut down ENTIRELY when I got angry at them. And in all of those relationships, I just didn’t have the tools to try and learn how to navigate it more effectively, less hurtfully. I did a relationship counselling session once and learned how to do “discussion mapping” – basically turning the discussion into a physical representation of the timeline, with shapes of different sizes to represent our level of emotional intensity or upset. It was really helpful, and showed us where our experiences of the argument differed. Joe and I can have disagreements that include anger without it escalating and without it needing a lot of really intentional help to keep it productive, and that’s one of the first times in my life I’ve had that. I think I learned a lot in my relationships with Jon, and then more in my relationship with Scott, and I feel some guilt and shame over the fact that I’ve sort of… springboarded into new awareness at the expense of the comfort and health of these relationships. Anger scares the SHIT out of me. I feel so much anger. And I have so much trouble identifying when I’m feeling it. (Unless I’m feeling it on behalf of someone else.) And SO MUCH trouble expressing it. Ugh. Anger.

Emily: There was a lot of anger in my home growing up, lots of kind of chaotic stuff, so I learned to pretty much shut down. As soon as I get angry about anything, even today, I just shut down. I go silent. I think I was used to being forced into the role of mediator, or knowing that I couldn’t add any fuel to the fire. So…I’ve been called passive aggressive haha. But it’s only because I’ve been conditioned that it was unsafe for me to ever question authority or ever express anger. I had to express it other ways. And I get so upset about that hahaha that I can’t just BE ANGRY oh my god because I have so much to be angry about and, I truly believe it’s healthy to be angry, people can learn to express anger in healthy ways… So with this whole marriage thing, it’s been frustrating, because YET AGAIN I am not allowed to be angry. Because I left. And my ex would talk so calmly and be like “I’m being so calm why are you so angry” while doing and saying the most damaging things…. It was infuriating. Anyways, like I said earlier, I would take to twitter. Haha. bad idea! But lordt, there were just hardly any “acceptable” outlets! I still struggle with it, although my current partner is really, really supportive and allows me to be angry in healthy ways, and we share that anger together and so that feels like a healthy expression, which is nice. But…it’s a hard thing.

Tiffany: Yeah. It is a hard thing. And I think that we really don’t ever talk about how to have healthy interactions that include anger. We just don’t. Even when we talk about men, who are allowed to be angry (when white) and expected to be angry (when Black or Indigenous), still we don’t ever talk about how to have healthy interactions within that anger. So nobody learns how to have healthy and productive angry interactions. It makes it really scary. I would rather shut down and go process things until I can be calm and then come back and have the interactions without the anger there. But that’s often very self-silencing and dishonest.

Emily: Dishonest, that’s a good word. I really love the song Mad by Solange…it’s so so great, just this lovely song about how it’s okay to be mad. It’s definitely written for black folks, and I don’t want to appropriate or erase that, but it’s a sentiment I rarely hear expressed in that way and it resonated with me a lot.

Sometimes I wish I could express my anger in like this violent physical way, or loud way, but at the same time, I think I have to give myself a little more credit for not going that route also. Because that’s harmful and damaging and all that too. So, what’s the balance between expressing anger in a way that isn’t silencing but also isn’t like, damaging. I find writing helps, which is maybe why social media seemed like a good outlet.

Tiffany: That makes sense. I also write. In my marriage, I threw sneakers against the door, when Aaron wasn’t home. Nothing could get broken, nothing was damaged, I put the dogs downstairs so it wouldn’t scare them, and it gave me a bit of that physical outlet. In high school, I had a punching bag in my room and it also helped. Having a physical outlet can be really helpful. I don’t think that kind of anger expression has any place within an interaction, because of the inherent threat – even shoes against a door are threatening when there’s another person in the room – but as an outlet, it can help. And I have really struggled since the fibromyalgia, because that physical outlet is far less accessible. How do we practice anger mitigation when chronic pain gets in the way? I haven’t figured that out yet.

Emily: Totally, yeah, and i’ve always felt a punching bag would help me quite a bit haha. I should take up boxing, seriously. Probably would be good for my physical and mental health.

Tiffany: Yeah. I would have to look it up, but I am pretty sure there are legit studies documenting how that kind of physical outlet can be a regulator for anger and stress. Even just hormonally it makes sense to me. Endorphins? Idk. But I do think it works. One reason I hate fibro so much is because a punching bag is probably never gonna be an option for me again. But yoga does help.

Emily: Yeah, actually the reminds me of something that happened the other day. I was like brushing my teeth, something mundane, and after I put my toothbrush back in the cabinet but it fell out again and I picked it up and it just wouldn’t stay put haha and I ended up just SLAMMING the cabinet door shut and for a second I just stood there like shit I hope my partner didn’t hear that. And I realized how much pent up anger I had that wanted to come out in a physical way, and I wouldn’t want it to come out unexpectedly at like the wrong time, you know? So it’s good to be self aware of that and really find healthy outlets for it.

Tiffany: Yeah. I have a lot of conflicted thoughts and feelings about anger and honestly it just kinda makes me want to shut down because it’s annoying and makes me feel physically uncomfortable. Lol. But. It is irritating that so much weight is put on women and femmes and non-men to mediate and regulate our anger, and to find healthy outlets, and to be aware of how anger can be weaponized. To dispel the anger before we come into the interaction. That irritates me. I know that it’s the better way, but it irritates me anyway because the same expectation is not placed on cis white men in the same way. And also I wish there were ways to bring anger into interactions without it being rejected or escalating or seen as inappropriate. Like, yes, we should find those healthy outlets and punching bags 4 life, but at the same time, it is so fucking irritating. And also unfairly distributed. You and I are allowed more anger than, say, a black or a fat woman. That’s bullshit! Yeah. Eh. It’s a messy tangle.

Emily: Yeah, I feel that. Like if we can develop mediation skills and do the emotional labour to understand and regulate other people’s anger, why can’t other people do the same for us?

Tiffany: EXACTLY. Exactly. But then also, nobody should have to do that work. I don’t actually WANT everyone to learn how to do that dysfunctional work that I’m so skilled at. But I also resent the fuck out of the fact that nobody in my life is doing that work for me. Like, I mean, I guess this exactly how abuse perpetuates itself. But whatever. It still makes me mad and hurt and sad.

Emily: Yeah. Yeah, I feel that so much.

April 20, 2017

Sarah: YES ANGER. After Ryan left me I was filled with so much rage, I felt like Phoenix Force (from Marvel comics haha); like I wanted to raze the physical world around me, just wanted to destruct reality at an atomic level. My eyes felt blackened for a solid month, at least. There was a day when I mixed several buckets of salt water and planned to spend the day salting the entire yard and all the gardens (of the house he had bought for us and left me in) – I was going to kill every possible plant and wanted it to be a deadzone that would baffle neighbours forever afterwards haha. I didn’t do it though, I texted friends, they convinced me not to, so I dug up all the plants and gave them away, then hurled ice cube trays around in the kitchen, shattering them and leaving sharp bits of plastic all over the floor for him to clean up after I was finally out of the house (my kids were at their dad’s for those last couple weeks, so they didn’t witness any of this). Oh god I was SO ANGRY. It’s been six months now (and he has never reached out, haven’t seen or spoken to him since he left) and the anger has subsided a lot, but I still experience waves of fury at what utter bullshit his handling of it all was. I see a therapist now and am trying to do all the work I can in healing up before getting into another relationship. I can feel how toxic the anger and bitterness is (moreso than after either of my other divorces) and I just don’t want it to ruin me. I don’t want to give him that, he doesn’t get to wreck me. He never deserved me in the first fucking place (THESE ARE THE THINGS I TELL MYSELF, QUITE ANGRILY).

———

Reflections One Year Later

A year later, this conversation strikes me as something incredibly beautiful. Thank you both so much for sharing this experience with me.

It has taken so much time to get to this point. Circumstances resulting from the fallout of our relationships have made it challenging to coordinate time together. It’s also not the easiest subject to pick up and work on at any time. Taking the time to let this project breathe has been important.

Right now, I am surprised to find myself still grieving a lot. Not so much the relationship itself as those tangential to it: my relationship with my hometown, my province, my perception of self and who I wanted to be there – all of that just gone. It’s a lot to lose at once, and there are still reminders of that loss everywhere.

But I have also gained a lot in the past year, and I wouldn’t have been able to accept this newness into my life without properly grieving. And I also have to recognize that grief is ongoing! It’s not like you just grieve it all at once and get over it, you kind of have to process it in fragments. But with that, you can take more and more steps forward.

I recently started the book Rebellious Mourning, a compilation of writing on grief edited by Cindy Milstein and published by AK Press. This passage resonated with me:

“One of the cruelest affronts, though, was that pain should be hidden away, buried, privatized – a lie manufactured so as to mask and uphold the social order that produces our many, unnecessary losses. When we instead open ourselves up to the bonds of loss and pain, we lessen what debilitates us; we reassert life and it’s beauty. We open ourselves to the bonds of love, expansively understood. Crucially, we have a way, together, to at once grieve more qualitatively and struggle to undo the deadening and deadly structures intent on destroying us.

Cracks appear in the wall.”

I’ve always sort of downplayed my personal reflections and essays as too self-absorbed or self-indulgent. Who wants to be perceived as another self-obsessed millennial? But – what I have always strove to do is situate my experiences within larger contexts, draw connections, and – yes – find those cracks in the wall, to break free, to move forward on both personal, communal and structural levels.

This project has shone light into some of our darkest and most isolating personal experiences – but we have also discussed or touched on broader issues and concepts such as: marriage; parenthood; polyamory; religion; shame; sexuality; family; mental health; fear; regret; love; abuse; gender; finances; poverty; employment; benefits; social media; anger; the legal system; housing; guilt; morality; clothing; capitalism; debt; tax returns; men; masculinity; racialized expressions of anger; physical expressions of anger; chronic pain; and white privilege.

There’s a whole lot of cracks in the wall.  A whole lot of room for new life to break through.

Emily Leedham is a writer and organizer based in Treaty 1 territory, Winnipeg, Manitoba. You can read her other work here and follow her on Facebook for updates on future projects.

Tiffany Sostar is a self-care and narrative coach, working with folks going through a trauma or transition to take care of themselves in the chaos, and land as softly as possible in their new story. They founded and run Possibilities Calgary, a bi+ community group, and generate free, shareable resources for the community on a monthly basis (thanks to the support of their Patreon backers!) Tiffany is also a freelance editor, writer, and tarot reader. You can find them on their website, Facebook, and Patreon. Tiffany lives on Treaty 7 land, in Calgary, Alberta.

Sarah Adams is an artist, comedian, organizer, and makes new life bloom at Alberta Girl Acres.

#stickfiguresunday: The Path(s)

#stickfiguresunday: The Path(s)

Image description: A stick figure stands on a road labeled The Path. Small paths lead away, labeled Why?, Is there another way?, What do I want for my life?, Who drew this map?, Where does my heart want to go? In the bottom right is a small Tiffany Sostar logo and a link to www.tiffanysostar.com

The inspiration for today’s #stickfiguresunday came from a good friend sharing their life-changing experience of realizing that further grad school would not actually get them where they wanted to be, and that there were other paths to their goals that felt better, easier, and more wholehearted.

More grad school had seemed like the best, maybe even the only, path towards their goals. But when they started questioning what they wanted, why they wanted it, and how to get it, they realized that grad school was not only not the only answer – it wasn’t even the best answer.

In that same conversation, we talked about why I had gotten married. I was on The Path – date, fall in love, get married. What I wanted was to move out of my parents’ home, experience freedom and independence, and feel capable and supported. Marriage seemed like the best, and at the time only, option. I loved him, we had been dating for quite a while, it was the logical next step. But if I had been able to ask myself some of these questions with compassion and curiousity, I could have found other paths toward my goals – paths that may have ended up in less pain and heartbreak for myself and my ex-husband.

It doesn’t help to assign blame to past selves who didn’t know that questions were possible – we make the best choices that we can with the resources and information we have available.

But it is helpful to invite ourselves to question the paths we’re on now.

Why are we on this path?

If the answer is that the path is right for us, awesome! We can stay on it.

If not, then we can start exploring alternatives.

Is there another way to get what we need?

If the answer is yes, it can be worth exploring what those other paths might look like, and whether they feel like a better fit for us. This line of questioning is most helpful when we feel trapped or forced into a certain path. Exploring alternative options with creativity, compassion, and curiousity can help us feel more grounded in our agency and self-efficacy – if we explore the options and find that this path is, indeed, the best or only path that gets us to our goals, then we can make a choice to stay on the path. Rather than being passively pushed forward by inertia or external pressure, we can make choices about what we do with our time and energy.

This is important, because there are not always better options. Sometimes we are on a rocky path and it truly is the only path available. It can hurt to look that reality in the eye, but once we do, we can start making choices about how we move forward on the rocky path we’re walking. G. Willow Wilson said “There is not always a way out, but there is always a way forward,” and that motto informs so much of my personal philosophy. Questioning our path can help us find the way forward.

What do I want for my life?

Taking a more expansive view can help. We’re on this path – towards marriage, towards grad school, towards a career in the trades, towards a big move or a friend group or a hobby or a habit or whatever else – and this path is not the only one that we’re on. We live multi-storied lives, meaning that our lives are made up of a huge number of events, experiences, thoughts, beliefs, and situations that create the stories we tell and are told about ourselves. There are many paths we are walking simultaneously. What do want for our lives? What is the bigger picture, and how does this path fit into it?

Who drew this map?

Why did I believe that marriage was the only way I could successfully move out of my parents’ house? To my older self, that is very clearly a false belief. But there was Life Map that I was trying to follow, and marriage was the next stop. I wasn’t navigating from a place of self-awareness, compassion, and intention. And that’s okay! We all have maps that were drawn for us by our society, our families of origin, our communities, or our histories. Those maps are not bad or wrong. But it’s worth examining who drew the map we’re following, and making a choice about whether we want to keep using it.

Where does my heart want to go?

What makes me happy?

What helps me feel whole?

What daydreams or imaginary selves keep tugging at me?

It’s worth paying attention to those gut-and-heart knowledges, even if they seem to contradict or challenge what we know with our rational minds.

So, what path(s) are you on?

How did you get there, and do you want to stay there, and where do they lead?

Let yourself ask the questions gently, compassionately, and with as much curiousity as you can muster.

This process can feel overwhelming and scary – if we question our path, does that mean we’ll have to abandon everything we love? Does it mean we’ll end up ostracized, alone, and broke? Does it mean we’ll realize we have no choices? (The answer to all of those is “no” but I totally understand the fear!)

If nothing else, start looking for the small question marks that pop up. When you start asking yourself about your path, as my friend did about grad school, let the knowledge unfold. What do you want? It’s okay to ask. And you might love the answer!

Finding Wellness: An Interview with Jen Donovan

Finding Wellness: An Interview with Jen Donovan

Jen Donovan lives in Eugene, Oregon, and is a mental health therapist. She posts frequently about her experience with chronic illness (mast cell activation syndrome), and her journey towards wellness. She blogs at Skunk Speaks.

She generously shared her experience and insight as part of the July theme week on the Sostar Self Care Facebook page – System Failure: Self-Care for Sick Days (and weeks, and months).

Tiffany – Can you share (as much as feels comfortable) about your experience with becoming ill and coming to terms with what was happening?

Jen – This was really hard for me because the disease I have is pretty rare and the symptoms are often fairly vague and hard to make sense of. So, for the first six months or so of having acute symptoms, I really thought that I was “going crazy.” Additionally, a symptom of the disease is panic attacks, which further confounded what was physiologically happening to me. I was lucky that I had a doctor at the time who happened to be familiar with the disease and was able to diagnose me. Just having the validation, that I was not just having somatic delusions, was a really important initial step in coming to terms with what was happening.

After that, though, came the second part of “coming to terms” – actually accepting that I have a rare, incurable disease. Again, I was lucky that I had exposure to alternative and holistic healers in my community who helped me realize that although the disease cannot be “cured,” it can be “healed” through major lifestyle and diet changes, among other things. The distinction between “healing” and “curing” has become an important one for me in my process of acceptance.

I acutely remember one day in early February, looking over the four pages of things that an herbalist recommended I start doing to treat my illness, including an extremely stringent diet and major lifestyle changes, and I was just crying and crying and crying. Even being very disciplined with these changes, it can take years to see a significant effect. I had a horrifying moment of realizing my life would never be the same. I felt like I couldn’t do it – it was too much – I would just be sick forever and eventually die. And at that moment of total terror, I had this incredible experience of complete surrender. I felt my “ego” just fade away and I just totally submitted to a journey towards wellness, no matter what it entailed. That was a really important moment in my acceptance.

Tiffany – I wanted to ask a bit more about the idea of surrender – you talk about that as being such an important process, but our culture is so resistant to the idea of surrender. Sickness/illness is something we are supposed to “fight” but in your words, it’s not about fighting illness so much as surrendering to a journey. Can you add to that? It’s just such a narrative shift that I wanted to expand on it.

Jen – Yeah, the idea of surrender has been big for me. I think one idea that has become a major core belief for me is that, generally speaking, the body is infinitely wise. If it’s doing something harmful to itself, it’s because something in the environment is not working for it. It’s not being given the space it needs to take care of itself. Symptoms are messages – our body telling us ‘hey this isn’t working!’ So to “fight” against illness is to disrespect the messages our body is giving us about how to heal. Again, this way of thinking about it isn’t going to work for every person in every situation. But for me what has worked is to accept that the healing is in the wound. That’s a phrase I read from my horoscope by Chani Nicholas at the beginning of the year and I cannot get it out of my head. So instead of rejecting my symptoms I’ve been trying to turn towards them, and accept that my body is doing something important, something meaningful. If I can surrender to the body, work with my symptoms as a partner to investigate why it is struggling and suffering, I’ve made so much more progress than when I was stuffing myself with medications to try to stop the symptoms. This is what surrender has been like for me.

Tiffany – How do you handle the social aspects of chronic illness? Especially the impact of illness on relationships.

Jen – This one is weird and I’m still struggling with it. The first major one was re-navigating my relationship with my primary partner. I realized early on that many of the things we would do together as a couple to bond were no longer accessible for me. I can’t eat at restaurants, I can’t drink alcohol, I can’t do recreational drugs, I can’t go backpacking or even camping for more than a night really, I can’t do super heavy impact play or other s/m activities. I had a couple of weeks where I worried that our relationship would collapse because all these things we had structured our relationship and intimacy around weren’t options anymore. It was scary for awhile. But I eventually recognized that if he decided to leave me because I couldn’t do these activities anymore, then he wasn’t actually dating me for “me,” but for the things I did. And that ended up not being the case. We have had to have a lot of intentional conversations about it, but we have been able to restructure our relationship around activities we can still do. And in some ways our relationship has grown deeper and more intimate because we’ve been forced to do this, and get to know each other in new ways. We have done a lot more things like more spiritual bdsm, tantra exercises, walks and gentle hikes, and we still go out dancing sometimes – I’m just sober now – and we have a great time.

I have found that this illness has given me a strange opportunity to really learn who my true friends are. It was surprising to see who stopped talking to me, or inviting me to events, once I became sick. I think some of it has to do with similar to the above, not being able to do the same things I used to. I also think some people are just really uncomfortable around someone who is chronically struggling. The reality is that even on good days I’m not really “good” – my body is extremely sick! And there are days when I feel very sad and discouraged. I try not to be excessively negative – but I’m also not going to pretend that everything is fine. And I’m learning who can handle that and who can’t, and having to adjust my social connections accordingly. Part of me feels bitter or rejected at times, but part of me sees this as an opportunity to focus my energy on people who can be there for me in a deeper way.

Tiffany – What has been the most helpful strategy you’ve found for keeping yourself moving forward? And, how do you handle those times when you can’t? (I’m asking this one because you always convey so much honest exhaustion and discouragement but you rarely come across as hopeless or despondent – it’s really encouraging and inspiring, and I’m wondering what keeps you tethered to resilience.)

Jen – Honestly, I don’t feel like I have any other option. I think this goes back to that “surrender” moment I had back in February. To give up is to just accept illness, accept death. I have to be real with myself that I will be dealing with this disease for the rest of my life, but that’s where the difference between “healing” and “curing” comes in. I’m not trying to cure myself. I’m just trying to heal. I’m trying to give my body space to take care of itself. And I deeply, deeply believe that bodies know how to take care of themselves if they are given the proper space and environment to do so. So to give up, to not continue to move forward would be to reject this deeply held belief I have and I have just seen too much powerful evidence in the world to do that.

Another thing is that I’ve managed to find some spiritual purpose to the experience, which I think has been essential to me. Here I am, 27, struggling with a rare disease and terribly ill. And yet – I’m sober, I have more fulfilling relationships now than I ever had, I’m eating and taking care of my body better than I ever have before, I’m better at setting boundaries around my health and self-care than I ever have before – my entire life is now centered around wellness and healing. I’ve made these changes because I’ve felt like I’ve had to – and yet… if I hadn’t gotten sick the reality is I probably never would have made these changes. I’ve had visions during meditations recently where it was explained to me that this illness had to happen in order for me to progress in this way in my life journey. I don’t think everyone needs to or can find greater purpose in their illnesses. But it has been a very profound realization for me – that somehow in sickness I have found wellness.

And lastly, there are days when I don’t feel resilient, I don’t feel like I’m moving forward, and that sense of despair and terror sets in. I cry and I wail and I feel like I’m dying and nothing can help me. But that’s part of the process too, in a way. Those fears and feelings are real and to suppress them would be toxic. So, when they come, I really feel them. Just really wallow in them. And usually if I let myself really sob and wallow for awhile, the wave naturally passes and my thoughts naturally start turning to more optimistic thoughts. So I guess that’s a part of what helps me keep moving forward too.

Tiffany – I also wanted to ask more about spirituality, if you want to talk about that. That’s such a difficult and fraught topic for so many people – I know that a lot of folks in my community have come out of harmful fundamentalism, or have rejected religion for one reason or another, but I also know that there are a lot of folks (sometimes the same ones! sometimes others) who are searching for some kind of spiritual connection or process. What has that journey been like for you?

Jen – Well, I’ve come from the opposite situation, lol – my dad is a fundamentalist atheist so it’s been a journey for me to find spirituality rather than get away from it!

(If you appreciate and want to support this work, consider visiting my Patreon page.)

Relaunching Possibilities Calgary

Relaunching Possibilities Calgary

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.)

We’re back!

First, some history. Then, some FAQs (the questions I asked myself most frequently when planning the relaunch).

Some history

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…

Some questions

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.

And, edited to add a link to our first event in two years!

Ocean Currents

Ocean Currents

 

 

 

 

This post was available to my Patreon patrons on Feb 11. If you would like to see posts a week early, visit my Patreon.

This week was challenging. I say that most weeks, though. There’s so much change. I don’t know who I am within these new roles, and everything keeps shifting.

I’m not actually an ocean navigator, despite the wave in my logo. I’m terrified of water (that’s one major reason we picked the wave, and that will be another post). I navigate a metaphorical ocean, but still, I think that the best metaphors are grounded in some reality. And so I sometimes read about the ocean, and how currents work.

There are all kinds of different currents in the ocean.

There are surface currents, driven primarily by wind. Rip currents that happen when a large volume of water funnels through a narrow gap in a sandbar, or between rocks. There are upwellings and downwellings, which happen when the wind blows across the surface of the water and either deep water rises up to fill the displacement, or surface water accumulates if the wind blows it against a shoreline.

And there are deep water currents, too. Like the “global conveyor belt,” a deep-water current that circles the globe and is the foundation of the food chain. It moves more slowly than surface currents, and it takes a thousand years for a section of the belt to complete its journey around the globe.

And there are tidal currents, which switch directions and respond to the gravitational pull of the moon. Flood currents and ebb currents, predictable and cyclical and strong.

Metaphorically, and in reality, these various currents have a significant impact on the whole – whether it is the ocean influencing life across our planet, or the inner ocean influencing the self. The tides, or the deep water ribbons that move slowly and forcefully, or the surface with its rip currents, and its upwellings and downwellings (and the rich metaphor of algae bloom and anaerobic suffocation in the downwelling – the choking off of life when there is no connection to the deeper water – and in the further stretch towards recognizing how downwelling, even though it creates areas of reduced productivity, is necessary for the ecosystem because it allows for deep water ventilation – there are times when lower productivity is necessary for survival).

The sun setting on the ocean.

All photos in the post, unless noted, are copyright-free photographs via Pixabay

So these metaphors, and these currents, and this difficult, difficult week.

Deep water currents change slowly. Climate scientists are worried about the global conveyor belt because increased rainfall and polar melt will change the salinity of the ocean, and therefore change its density. If the belt changes, everything changes.

And there are changes in my own deep water currents. They change everything.

My work life is changing. I have been aware, for almost a year now, that my steady day job is not guaranteed. The economy, changes in management, the nature of my role. It’s been almost a year of nearly constant low-level stress, with monthly peaking moments of intense anxiety (usually when my student loans come out of my account – lolsob). My day job – boring, predictable, reliable, and one that I am exceptionally good at – has been a constant for me for almost a decade. I’ve been with the same company, in various roles, for ten years. And I’ve been in this particular role for almost six. Seven? I don’t know. A long time. It’s been an anchor. Sometimes weighing me down, but also keeping me stable.

My work life is changing, too, because of this. The coaching and the self-care work, the workshops and resource creation and writing and trying to shape this into a career. The desire to move from work that is reliable and that I am reliably good at but uninspired by, to work that I am passionate about and personally invested in. I will be good at this. I will make a difference. But while I move towards that, there is chaos and uncertainty.

Uncertainty especially in my financial life. I have not been truly financially stable since I was married – my husband made a solid lower middle-class wage, more than enough to allow me to run my dog training business and weather the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, and to buy clothes and food and craft supplies without worrying about it, and to have hobbies and go out for dinners and have adventures. I didn’t worry about money, when I was married. And I have worried about money constantly, since divorcing. It is, like the work stress, a constant low-level hum of anxiety with regular surges to the surface. These tidal currents – the huge gravitational force of capitalism pulling deep fear to the surface.

And that financial anxiety is also tied to my relationships. This deep current originates in my family of origin, in watching the dynamic between my parents when it came to money, and agency, and independence, and reliance. Who earns it, who spends it, who makes choices about it. And then, my divorce and the year after I left, with months of rent on the credit card and groceries paid for by my best friend – a level of vulnerability and insecurity that I had never previously experienced, and one that still trickles icy through my memory, makes me wary of taking risks. And then time spent supporting a partner, who now supports me, and another partner who also supports me. And the vague sense of unease I have every time I require help, ask for a loan to bridge a financial gap, make a choice that may impact someone else.

And now the “someone else” is so complicated by the addition of two little elses. The new relationship of stepparenting. And knowing that my choices now are not just going to impact my financial stability, but also the financial stability of my relationship with my nesting partner, and rippling out from there to affect my stepkids, both neurodivergent, both requiring additional supports. And in addition to the worry about being able to provide materially there is also the worry about being able to provide emotionally and mentally. To heal the old wounds that I still carry so that I don’t pass them on, to adjust to this new role in a way that doesn’t place emotional weight on the kids as I adapt. The shift, such a huge shift, from knowing in a deep and fundamental way that I would never be a parent, to knowing that now I am a parent. And also, the drive to learn enough about the unique needs of these two specific kids, individuals, amazing little humans, to be able to help them, and to help my partner.

And that’s the key, that’s the deep water current that is changing right now – my very sense of self, in multiple areas.

And so then researching. Reading Understanding Stepfamilies: A Practical Guide for Professionals Working with Blended Families (in this, I am both the professional and the family – approaching my life, as I always have, from an academic perspective), reading Family Therapy and the Autism Spectrum: Autism Conversations in Narrative Practice, reading The Whole-Brain Child and The Real Experts: Readings for Parents of Autistic Children. Learning a whole new language, a new area of knowledge. And finding gaps in it – both when it comes to stepparenting and when it comes to parenting neurodivergent kids. Gaps filled frustratingly with the assumption of heterosexuality, monogamy, and cisgender identity, gaps filled with transantagonism, ableism, normativity and social pressure in so many bitter flavours it overwhelms my palate and leaves me gulping for fresh water in the form of writing, reading, trying to find connection and community and incorporate this work into my coaching because if I am falling into this gap, other people must be, too.

And also reading about coaching, about relationships, about narrative therapy – Opening Up by Writing It Down and Retelling the Stories of Our Lives and Levels 1 and 2 of the Gottman Institute ‘Gottman Method Couples Therapy’ and half a dozen other books and courses. And underneath all this research, which I love, is the slow tug of grief at leaving academia, because I decided not to pursue an MA in counselling psychology and instead started on this endeavor and it’s the right choice, and I will make a difference, and I will continue to be an academic and a researcher and a writer (writing a book! And learning how to do that). Independent scholarship is a real thing, and I will do it, but still, the changes.

Some of the books that I’m currently reading.

Photograph by Tiffany Sostar

And this change, this shift away from academics, is huge. Because deciding to finally go to university was a big deal. I had always wanted to. And I had been told, shortly after I graduated high school, that I didn’t have what it takes. I believed that story. That story became part of my core set of beliefs about myself. I was smart, I was a good writer, but I was not persistent. I did not have the “sticktoitiveness” to get through university. So I read academic theory on my own time (this essay – Reading Wonder Woman’s Body: Mythologies of Gender and Nation, by Mitra Emad, was my first academic love), and wrote nerdy papers about feminism and gender on my own time, and didn’t believe I could hack it in post secondary. Until I started dating someone who said “why aren’t you in school? You’re sending me links to feminist theory because you’re reading it for fun – apply to the University of Calgary.” And I trusted him. So I did it. And I graduated with a First Class BA Honours in English and a First Class BA Honours in Women’s Studies. I did it. I challenged that core story and I changed it. And I miss academics. As broken and abusive as that ivory tower is, still, I miss it.

And I miss myself within it.

And that’s the key, that’s the deep water current that is changing right now – my very sense of self, in multiple areas.

Who I am.

Who I am as a labourer – emotional, domestic, social, and other. Where and for whom and how I work, and how I get paid, and where my money goes and where it comes from, and how I spend my time, and my intellectual energy, and what I write and when I write it and who I write it for, and who judges it, and who judges me, and how I define my value and my worth, and where I find myself, and what I call myself, and who sees me and how they see me, and how I see me.

These are the ocean currents of my life, and myself. The deep water currents and the surface currents and the tidal currents. The core self, and the self in relationship, and the self in society.

So, these weeks are challenging. As I move through my life I am aware of the currents shifting, and I don’t know what the ecosystem looks like once they’ve shifted. Who I will be, how I will be, what I will be.

But change is constant, and it is not the enemy.

The Earth has experienced changes before, and I have experienced massive change, too.

I have faith in my ability to survive the chaotic betweentime, and I have faith that I will eventually settle into new patterns and find new wholeness and new peace.

I’m happy with how things are changing. I love coaching. I love this work. I love my kids. I love my partner, and my entire polyamorous pod. I love researching, and I love finding subversive ways to inhabit liminal spaces – bisexual, genderqueer, invisibly disabled, neurodivergent – I was made for the liminal spaces and the betweenings. Independent scholarship feels like an exciting new liminal space to step into. Just like stepparenting feels like an exciting liminal space to explore, with rich potential for writing and researching and offering help and hope to others. Just like parenting while queer, and parenting while non-binary, also feels liminal and rich with betweenness and both/andness.

This is an upwelling – the wind has blown hard across my surface and there is space now for deep water to rise, and bring new life to the surface.

It’s scary, but the ocean always is, for me.

I love it anyway.

Plot twist!

Plot twist!

01

January, 2017

The other morning I was sitting on the floor in the living room, assembling Lego. Some days I build new sets for myself or for the kids, and some days I reassemble sets that have taken too many toddler-assisted falls. It was a good morning – the kids with their mom, and I had a London Fog and affection and I have this beautiful life I’m building – but I was overwhelmed with wave after wave of heavy emotions.

Because this story is not the story I thought I would be telling now, at 35.

And this is not the first time the story has changed.

And every time the story changes, there is grief, and loss, and guilt.

Lego octopus in a sunken ship.

Photograph by Tiffany Sostar

Once upon a time, I was straight. I was monogamous. I was a woman. I was married. I was going to grow old having chili bake-offs with my husband, inviting family over to taste-test, both of us winning. Every year we would go to the boutique gift shop for beautiful Christmas ornaments, to be given in wooden boxes we had designed and built and stained together. We would go to Croatia to meet his family someday. We would go to Norway to meet mine. We had three dogs. We had a new house. But I’m not straight. And I’m not a woman. And I’m no longer married.

Once upon a time, I was a dog trainer. I specialized in working with fearful and aggressive dogs. I was really good at it. I was APDT and CAPPDT certified, I took courses at the San Francisco Academy for Dog Trainers. I ran my own business. I was going to be an expert in the field. I would speak at APDT, I would host conferences, I would be sought out for interviews, I would publish books. But the economy tanked, and I went to university, and I love dogs but I no longer train them.

There are other once upon a times. Stories that felt like my forever story, fundamental to my being, that I am no longer in. The story where my soul mate and I grow old living together, he a lawyer and me a gender studies professor. The story where my anchor partner and I grow old living together, them at their video game console and me organizing events for the bisexual and trans communities, doing activism, being an activist. The story where I’m a famous author at 25. The story where I never have kids. The story where I work in my dad’s bookstore until he retires and then I become the manager. The story where I’m straight. The story where I’m cisgender. The story where I’m able-bodied. The story where depression is overcome, forever, and I am triumphant over my mind. The story where I’m inherently and eternally broken (that one was so hard to let go of).

“I am not the only one who has lived in many books.”

I am not the only one who has felt my identity sink solidly and safely into a narrative, only to have someone in the distance shout, or whisper, “plot twist!” and to feel the ink of my identity fading on the page, new words forming, words I do not know, or know how to inhabit.

These plot twist moments can be traumatic. They are moments of “identity threat” – times when our sense of self, and who we are, and how we are in the world and in relationships and in each other’s eyes, when it all shifts.

When we come out. When we divorce. When we lose a job, or a friend, or a partner, or a parent. When we gain a job, or a partner, or another partner, or a new name or a new body or a new baby. When we transition to polyamory. When we discover our kinks. When we tell our lover. When our lover tells us. When we hear that voice, stage left, “plot twist!”

Or, sometimes, when we feel the slow twist of a knife long buried. Microaggressions. Erasures. Moments of invisibility and coercive passing. When we are read by those around us as something we are not, and we see reflections of ourselves in others’ eyes that do not feel right. When stereotypes or biases against us start to eat away at our own sense of self and wholeness.

Illness. Wellness. Brokenness. Wholeness. Togetherness. Aloneness.

When we move from one state of being into another. When we find ourselves lost, and find ourselves, and lose ourselves.

I like tentacles.

Photograph by Tiffany Sostar

Lego can be fixed. I can go back to the book, find all the missing pieces (or most of them, anyway), reassemble it and it will look almost like it did when I first built it.

Life is not like that. I cannot find the booklet and all the missing pieces to reassemble those old stories, those old lives.

But my life is like Lego in another way – endlessly adaptable. A smashed house can become a truck can become a dragon can become another house. There is hope, and new wholeness, and new stories, and there is healing possible. I have learned to sit with the grief, and the loss, and the sadness, and the hope, and the joy, and the excitement. I have learned to let the plot twist, to trust myself to be present in whatever story comes next. To know myself, and love myself (in action if not in emotion, and in intention if not in action, and always reaching towards a more wholehearted love), and care for myself. I have learned how to breathe in to the moments of change, and trust that even when my identity feels threatened, feeling or fearing a thing doesn’t make it real. Whatever comes, comes. I can find a way to exist within it.

Moments of identity threat can be incredibly challenging. We often feel guilty when the narrative changes, because we know it isn’t just us that’s impacted. And we want the people around us to be happy, we want them to like us, we want them to know us. It’s hard to find a solid sense of self in the plot twist moments.

Lego can be fixed. I can go back to the book, find all the missing pieces (or most of them, anyway), reassemble it and it will look almost like it did when I first built it.

Life is not like that. I cannot find the booklet and all the missing pieces to reassemble those old stories, those old lives.

But my life is like Lego in another way – endlessly adaptable. A smashed house can become a truck can become a dragon can become another house. There is hope, and new wholeness, and new stories, and there is healing possible. I have learned to sit with the grief, and the loss, and the sadness, and the hope, and the joy, and the excitement. I have learned to let the plot twist, to trust myself to be present in whatever story comes next. To know myself, and love myself (in action if not in emotion, and in intention if not in action, and always reaching towards a more wholehearted love), and care for myself. I have learned how to breathe in to the moments of change, and trust that even when my identity feels threatened, feeling or fearing a thing doesn’t make it real. Whatever comes, comes. I can find a way to exist within it.

Moments of identity threat can be incredibly challenging. We often feel guilty when the narrative changes, because we know it isn’t just us that’s impacted. And we want the people around us to be happy, we want them to like us, we want them to know us. It’s hard to find a solid sense of self in the plot twist moments.

“There is hope, and new wholeness, and new stories, and there is healing possible.”

That’s what I’m here for.

If you feel like you are losing yourself, or have lost yourself, and the narrative is getting away from you and everything feels scary and overwhelming and you don’t know what your story is anymore, I can help.

Self-care, self-discovery, self-expression.

I can help you find the story that lets you move forward.

You can find my daily self-care tips on Facebook.

You can email me.

If you’re excited about this work and want to support me, you can find me on Patreon. In addition to the coaching, I am committed to creating accessible self-care resources because financial insecurity is too often a barrier to help.

Or you can watch this page, because as I develop resources, they’ll all be collected here.

I’m excited about this journey! We’ll build the path forward, brick by brick.