Narrative Practices: Connecting to Our Skills

Narrative Practices: Connecting to Our Skills

(This is an expansion of a post that was shared with my Patreon patrons last month.)

I am learning how to do narrative therapy, how to be a narrative therapist, how to engage with my clients in ways that are narratively-informed. But what does that mean? What is narrative therapy? What does a narrative therapist do? What benefit does narrative therapy offer?

One of my favourite things about narrative therapy, and the piece that comes most easily to me, is the creation of documents to extend conversations from one individual or group out into a wider community – collecting, formatting, and sharing the insider knowledges that marginalized communities have developed and are using to resist injustice. I create courses, interview communities and generate resources and posts, host workshops, and I love when this facilitation work can be extended into a shareable resource or document.

Since documentation is my jam, I am going to create a series of blog posts that explore and share some of my favourite pieces of narrative practice. If you’re interested in these practices, and you’d like to set up a narrative session, or ask me further questions, comment or send me an email! My goal with this series of posts is to invite you into the process, offer you some tools that you can try out on your own, and maybe even entice you to get in touch and work with me.

In this first post in the series, I’m going to talk a bit about collective documentation and share an experience from the Advanced Narrative Skills teaching block that I attended recently.

(This story is shared with the permission of my collaborators, Julia and Tarn.)

Part of narrative practice is the creation of collective documents. These are documents that are meant to honour shared experience without erasing difference, and they are often used to make visible the skills, stories, and knowledges that people use to get through difficulties or resist injustices.

At the teaching block, we spent some time in groups of three, practicing this work. We each took turns being the interviewer, the interviewee, and the witness. The job of the interviewer was to listen to carefully, notice the phrases that were repeated or the themes that were emerging, and ask questions to elicit rich descriptions and preferred outcomes. (This idea of preferred outcomes or stories is one that I’ll come back to in a later post.) The job of interviewee was to respond to the questions. And the job of the witness was to take notes, which is often referred to as “rescuing the said from the saying of it” (this is a phrase of Michael White’s, explored in some depth in this article by David Newman).

This “rescuing” (which can be a problematic word to use, especially for white therapists working with people of colour, because there is a long and violent history of “rescue” being something done to marginalized folks, done by privileged folks) is used in many therapeutic documents, not just collective documents. (In a later post, I’ll write about some other types of therapeutic documents, and how I use them.)

Tarn, Julia, and I each asked, answered, and “rescued” on the following prompts (from the “Generating material for collective documents: What gets us though hard times” hand-out in the University of Melbourne and Dulwich Centre Master of Narrative Therapy and Community Work):

  • Describe something that gets you through hard times
  • Share a story of a time when this special value, belief, skill, or knowledge has made a difference to you or others
  • Speak to the history of this skill, value, or belief. How long have you done this? Who did you learn it from/with? Who has recognized this /acknowledged this? Who would be least surprised to know about this?
  • Is this linked to particular groups, family, communities, or cultural history of which you are a part? Is this linked to collective traditions and/or cultural traditions?

Then we each had an opportunity to hear what the “rescuer” had recorded while they listened to us being interviewed, and to correct or change or add to the story that we heard back. This is a critical part of narrative therapy, and part of my practice – you are the expert in your own experience, and you have control over the story that you tell and that is told about you within the therapeutic setting. Your words, your meanings, your stories – those are yours.

One thing that I appreciate about narrative therapy is that there is an accountability back to the people we are working with, to ensure that their stories, words, and experiences are taken up and interpreted in ways that feeling honouring, respectful, and accurate. This is part of how we resist pathologizing or further oppressing the people that come to us for help in navigating their stories.

Once we’d had a chance to try out each of the three roles, we collaborated on creating a document. We went for a long walk together through the park near the Dulwich Centre, and talked about where we noticed echoes and resonances between our stories. Once we found the thread that we wanted to use to tie the stories together – in our case, it was an experience of flow between togetherness and aloneness – we wrote the document through a series of drafts, shared back and forth and added to by each of us.

This is the document we created:

Together and Alone: How We Get Through  Some Hard Times

A window into some Hard Times.

In Calgary, Tiffany is making a strong Earl Grey, adding double-fold vanilla extract and vanilla sugar, frothing hot milk, and assembling it all in a blue-and-purple octopus mug. The skill of the London Fog.

In Kathmandu, Julia is making a cup of coffee and writing three pages in the quiet of the house before bringing her practice into group sessions, where she will rescue words, shape them into poetry and stories, and share them back. The skill of writing.

In the Blue Mountains where she grew up, Tarn is sitting on a rock, the river far below, gum trees and black and white cockatoos all around, and across the river the white stripes of gum in the deep green of the trees. The skill of going into places of space and nature.

These are very different skills.

They have very different histories.

Tarn grew up on 50 acres of bush land, and the birthmark on her forehead is the same shape as Tazmania, where her parents have hiked every year, for 45 years. Now she lives in the redness and dryness of central Australia, near Honeymoon Gap, surrounded by all that resilient life, trees that have adapted and grown prickly and dry. She’s loved the land since she was tiny, and has made choices to live where she can get out into that vastness. But even in the city, she finds the flowers on the ground and the mice scurrying through the bushes. This is a skill with deep roots.

Julia learned to love writing stories at the same time she learned to write. Her stories were a survival strategy during a difficult time, and she loved books and reading. She lost touch with her love of writing after a betrayal of trust by a teacher, and now that she has it back, she is learning how to use it for herself and for others. This is a skill that has been reclaimed.

Tiffany learned to make London Fogs when they were housebound with pain, when the kitchen was as far as they could get in a day. Now they can move again, walk again, get out to cafes again, but the London Fogs have stayed, and have become a cherished ritual shared with others. This is a newer skill.

Despite all this diversity in history and expression, there is resonance.

There is a flow here, between togetherness and aloneness and everything in between.

How we engage with the flow is unique to each of us – Tarn connecting to generations of people who have lived on and loved the land through time spent alone – togetherness in the alone time; Julia, who grew up with books as friends and teachers, writing alone before writing with others; Tiffany engaging a skill learned in the isolation of illness and now shared with friends who are struggling.

But, despite the fact that we each enter the flow in our own ways and with our own histories, we each bring both solitude and multitude into these skills that get us through hard times.

We wonder how others engage with aloneness and togetherness, and how people find other flows that include other ways of getting through hard times. We especially wonder where these diverse flows lead.

The next day, Julia shared this drawing with me, which I am planning to frame and hang in the office where I meet with clients.

Image description:  A piece of art made for my by my classmate. Text reads ‘Making London Fox/Fog/Frog out of Lemons in an Mug ~ How Tiffany makes time and space for getting through hard times.’ 

The fox/fog/frog piece is an inside joke based on some pronunciation chaos, and the art itself has become another part of the collective document, and a gift that tethers me back to the idea of community, connection, and collaborative learning.

So, how does this have the potential to help my clients?

The idea that the skills, values, beliefs, or knowledges that get us through hard times have their own histories, their own roots into our communities, and their own rich stories is one that can be incredibly helpful when we are struggling. Often, we breeze past the skills, beliefs, values, and knowledges that get us through our days – small things, like a mug of tea, or larger things, like the ability to plan a trip or create art.

Narrative therapy offers practices to help us recognize, honour, and document these skills, beliefs, values, and knowledges.

This can be useful for groups, such as partners or family groups going through a hard time. It can also be useful for individuals. And the process of documentation can help translate those skills, beliefs, values, and knowledges into something tangible and material, that can be reviewed when needed, or shared.

If you’re going through a hard time, maybe this practice will help! You can answer the questions for yourself, or with someone in your family, friend group, or community. You can also create the document yourself. And if you’d like help with it, I would love to work together.

January review/February preview

At the beginning of January, I posted about upcoming projects. At the beginning of February, I posted this on my Patreon! If you’d like to see what I’m up to in a more timely manner, I definitely recommend the Patreon. One of the benefits is you’ll see posts theoretically a week early, but actually more like a week and a half, since I am forever struggling with herding those to-doodles. This version of the post is updated to add details that have developed in the last 12 days. Phew! What a moving target life is.

One reason I’m going to keep up with the review/preview posts through 2018 is because I tend to set unrealistic goals for myself, not attain those unrealistic goals, and then feel like a failure. I would like to start documenting my goals and my work, so that I can bring my goal-setting more into alignment with my actual available time, energy, and financial resources.

This will be particularly important in this upcoming year because my Master of Narrative Therapy and Community Work program starts this month. (Yes!) Update: Today! It starts today! Once I hit publish on this post, I’ll be hopping over to the UofMelbourne site to get started on my readings!

I work with people to help them develop sustainable self-care strategies and to help them make progress on the goals that are important to them. I want to help myself in that way, too. And the first thing I tell almost every client is – start noticing. If a client came to me with my life and asked for help, I would say – Notice what you’re asking of yourself, notice what you’re accomplishing, notice how it feels, notice what choices you’re making to support and care for yourself. See it, name it, make space for it.

So that’s what I’m doing in these monthly posts, and I’m hoping to keep that up throughout this year.

So here’s what I accomplished (and didn’t accomplish) in January, and what’s on tap for February.

– The Caring for Neurodivergent Kids book club has soft-launched. The Facebook group has been created, and the first book has been chosen. We’ll be reading No You Don’t by Sparrow Rose Jones, the author of Unstrange Mind. There is still space available in the book club, so if you’re in Calgary and interested, let me know! Our first meeting will be happening at the end of February. If you’re not in Calgary, or not able to attend, I’ll still be writing up a detailed review of each of the books we read, and those reviews will be posted on my Patreon, and then on the blog. Update: mid-March for the first meeting, so that we have time to read the book, which hasn’t arrived yet.

– The Extroversion and Self-Care/Mental Health resource is progressing slowly. We ran into a few hiccups with scheduling because January was full of migraines and illness for myself and the people I was trying to coordinate with. It’s progressing, though! And there is definitely still opportunity to get involved, if you’re interested. Update: I had an absolutely fantastic interview with someone for this project, and have a refined vision of what kinds of issues to include in the resource. Namely, the expectation placed on extroverts to be perpetually resilient and constantly available.

– The collaboration with my brilliant sibling, Domini Packer, has a name. Well, This Sucks will be a resource to help support that self-care and recovery process for folks following sexual assault – both the survivors and the people supporting them. I’m not 100% ready to reveal the major changes to the plan but trust me when I say… it grew exponentially. It started as a plan for a downloadable resource, similar to other resources I create on specific topics, and over the course of this month, during discussions between Domini and I, and one really fantastic interview with a community member, it grew. And it grew in ways that made my therapist say “wow, that sounds really exciting!” Domini and I are heading out of town for a day of planning, budgeting (yes, it has become a plan that requires a budget), and preliminary-outlining. I’ll have more to share after we get back! Update: Ye gods, is there a lot to share. This will be a whole post. 

– The Bad Gender Feels resource is also slowly progressing. Very slowly, but that’s okay.

– The January Possibilities event was great, and the Winter Self-Care for Weary Queers resource was posted earlier this week. In February, we’ll be talking about Self-Care in Queer Relationships. I think the upcoming discussion and resulting resource will be important, and I’m really excited about it.

– The February Self-Care Salon will feature Rein Sastok presenting on self-care for teachers and other child-centric professionals, with the conversation also extending to parents, stepparents, and other carers. To be honest, I have been struggling with the Self-Care Salons – attendance is low, and I have yet to cover the costs of renting the space and paying the guest speakers. Update: This was cancelled. We are still going to generate a resource, to be completed in May, with companion modules for professionals and parents/stepparents/non-parent carers.

Bridges and Boundaries: Social Self-Care has launched, and I am really happy with how it’s going! I also had the realization, as I finalized the Week Two content earlier this week, that once I’ve run each of the four core courses this year, I will have 200+ pages of work, which could form the backbone of a book on self-care. That’s not something I’m committing to, it’s just sort of floating around in my head as a thing that could happen.

– Speaking of books… the 100 Love Letters book is… still going to be happening. I did make some progress on it this month – I won that package of coaching sessions for writers back in December and I had the first coaching call on January 18. I’ll be slowly (emphasis on slowly, and on low pressure) moving ahead with this project.

– I haven’t made a ton of progress on pulling my work off of Facebook and onto the blog more consistently. For some reason, that extra step just feels overwhelming. I am considering figuring out some kind of content management system that will let me cross-post to multiple platforms at once. But I’m not 100% sure when I’m going to do that so… we’ll see. But I do know that many of my favourite people have fled the mess that is the books of face, and I want to stay connected. It’s simmering in the back of my head. I’ll figure something out, but I’m not sure what or when.

– I started working on the disenfranchised grief project(s). There is a set of grief-related projects that are coming up. One is a resource on sibling loss, and I’m collaborating with a new friend, who has lost a sibling, on that project. We’ve started pulling notes and resources together. Another is on the loss of someone who is addicted or street-involved, because that grief is so complicated by our victim-blaming culture. And the third is a project on anticipatory grief. This is all in the preliminary stages, but I’m including it here because it’s been floating to the front of my mind pretty regularly this month and I’ve spent time and energy on it.

– I’ve kept up with the Tender Year posts, and am posting those on my personal facebook page (almost) every day! I’m really proud of this project, and of the fact the three of us collaborating on the project have stuck with it for 120+ days so far. I don’t know what will come of this work, but I am excited about it either way.

And in terms of new goals and projects for February.

– That Master program thing. I’ll be doing a lot of reading in February, but I won’t have my first written assignment due until early March. Would patrons be interested in hearing about what I’m reading and learning? I will definitely have to slow down on the output of my other writing (look, aiming for sustainability!) and this would be one way to keep up my end of the Patreon deal. (I will still be producing the Possibilities resource and the Patreon reward posts each month, and I’ll still be working on the other resources, just a bit more slowly.)

– I’m going to take one day off every week this month. That’s not an “output” goal but I think it is important to take note of. I had hoped to do that in January and it just fell apart after the … honestly, I only managed it one week in the whole month. So, I’m putting it here as part of the accountability part of this project. Update: Lol. BUT! I am trying. This week, for sure. For sure!

– I have two outstanding Patreon reward posts for January, and one Patreon supporter whose birthday is in February who has asked me to do something super terrifying rather than write them a reward post. So, I’ll be catching up on those two posts and also considering the absolutely mortifying idea of setting up some kind of crowdfunding for the financial gap I’m looking at over the course of this year. I will, even if I don’t set up any crowdfunding, definitely be writing about the process. I think that money shame is a topic I’ll be tackling in February. (And by “tackling” I mean “sidling up to slantwise and with much trepidation.”)

– I’ll be hosting another Smutty Story Circle facilitated writing group for the Calgary Centre for Sex Positive Culture on March 2. (I know that’s not February, but I’ll be doing all the prep in February.)

– I’ll be meeting with a professional grant writer this month to talk about finding some funding for the (suddenly enormous) collaboration with my sister, and possibly for some of my other work. Update: Wednesday! Wish me luck.

And, of course, continuing to post about self-care, including Stick Figure Sunday and Woodland Wednesday, on the Facebook page.

If you want to be involved in any of the collaborative projects, let me know! And if you have any feedback on the projects, or other projects that you’d like to see added to the slow-moving list, let me know that, too!

I really could not be putting as much energy, time, and effort into creating the self-care resources without the support of my Patreon patrons. When I get discouraged, and feel like my work isn’t making a difference because the world is just so sharp these days, the fact that people consider my work worth supporting keeps me going.

Two more updates: First, I lost one of my paying jobs. This is a big deal, because I was already facing some challenges on that front. I’m applying for more editing work, and renewing my focus on finding ways to get the word out about the coaching business. And second, I am launching an exciting new tarot project. It’ll be separate from this work, so if you’re interested, send me a message and I’ll connect you with that!

January Preview

I’ve spent the last couple days mapping out my immediate upcoming projects. It’s pretty exciting, and there are many things coming up that you can be part of!
Check these projects, collaborations, and events out, and get in touch with me if there’s anything that piques your interest.
  • I’m launching a book club for parents, stepparents, and caregivers of autistic kids. We’ll be reading books by autistic authors, and recentering the conversation about what autistic kids need away from neurotypical experts, to autistic experts. I feel like this is a critical counter to the standard approach, and it’s important to me because both of my stepkids are autistic. I want to do the best that I can for them, and that means listening to autistic adults. You can get involved by sending me a message and letting me know you want in. Unlike most of my work, this one will be in person. We’ll be meeting once a month-ish at my home, so space is limited. However, I’ll be writing up a detailed review of each of the books we read, and those reviews will be posted on my Patreon, and then on this blog.
  • I’m collaborating on the creation of a resource for extroverts, addressing self-care and mental health, since so much of the available self-care and mental health writing assumes introversion, or assumes that being outgoing and social is incompatible with depression or suicidality. You can get involved by sending me a message. Our first in-person round table discussion is coming up on Saturday, and there will be a second in-person round table discussion later on. You can participate online (in text or skype interviews), in person (in one-on-one interviews or round table discussions), or some combination of these. I am particularly interested in talking with folks whose experience of extroversion has been impacted by cultural norms that don’t leave space for extroversion. (For example, autistic folks are assumed to be inherently introverted, and so are many Asian folks, while Black and Indigenous women are interpreted as “angry” or irrational if they’re extroverted, and women in general often find it difficult to be accepted as extroverts without being shamed for being “gossipy,” “loud,” or other unacceptable things.)
  • I’m collaborating with my brilliant sibling, Domini Packer, to create a resource for survivors and supporters following sexual assault, to help build and sustain networks of support following a crisis. You can get involved by sending me a message. We’re meeting with people one on one to chat, and also talking with folks online. This is going to turn into a zine (or similar), with stories, resources, and action plans for survivors and supporters following sexual assault. We noticed a pretty big gap in the available resources, and a lot of “lean on your community” without a lot of insight into what that looks like, how to ask for what you need, how to keep boundaries between yourself and your supporters. And for supporters, a lot of “believe them, be there for them” without a lot of information about how to do self-care during the crisis so you don’t end up burning out (or worse, turning around and leaning back on the person who has just been through a trauma), how to maintain boundaries with the person you’re supporting, how to reach out for your own support in safe and respectful ways. We’re going to attempt to fill that gap a bit. I’m also interested in talking with professionals who would like to contribute. (This one is coming up quickly, so get in touch asap if you want to be involved.)
  • I’m working on a resource to help folks navigate those “Bad Gender Feels” days. This project is in the germination stage, but I am starting to meet with folks to talk about what would be helpful and what they’d like to see included in a resource like this. This resource will also include information for parents and other supporters of trans and gender non-conforming kids who want to help them get through those dysphoric days.
  • Possibilities Calgary events are running on the third Tuesday of each month at Loft 112 in Calgary’s East Village, and are always free to attend. Every month has a theme, and our in-person discussion becomes the framework for a shareable, downloadable, free resource booklet. You can participate at the conversations, or by sending your ideas or suggestions once the monthly topic is announced. (January is Winter Self-Care for Weary Queers.)
  • The Self-Care Salons are running every month on the first or second Sunday at Loft 112 in the East Village. The cost is $50, sliding scale is available. Every month includes an in-depth conversation and a resource book. 10% of the profit from the Self-Care Salon goes to the Awo Taan Healing Lodge. (In January, Vincci Tsui, RD will be facilitating a discussion about food, health, and bodies that is size-inclusive, anti-diet, fatphobia-challenging – Self-Care Salon: Bodies, Food, and Health.)
  • Bridges and Boundaries: Social Self-Care will be launching Jan 22. It’s a 6-week online course focusing on building tools for social self-care. The cost is $150, sliding scale is available, and it’s going to be awesome. You can sign up by sending me a message.
  • You can also get involved by supporting my Patreon. And at the $10/month level, I’ll write you a post on the self-care topic of your choice. My Patreon supporters are the reason I’m able to put so much time and effort into developing resources that are comprehensive, inclusive, and available for free.
  • And, lastly, my self-care and narrative coaching (for individuals and relationships) is on sale until the end of January. You can check out my services on my Facebook page (I’m in the process of updating this website to be up to date), or you can just send me an email! A single session ($150) is 10% off, a package of 3 ($400) is 15% off, and a package of 10 ($1200) is 20% off.

There are other projects coming up that aren’t collaborations or events, too. Blog posts and other plans for creating new work, mapping out my content focus for the year. 2017 focused on wholeness and integration, and 2018 will focus on hope. I’m in the process of figuring out what that means, and how to bring that focus into my various pieces of work.

I’m also working on pulling some of my work off of Facebook and making it accessible elsewhere. I’ll be shifting my Tender Year posts into a new blog (and cross-posting with Facebook), and once that’s up and running, I’ll share the link here. I’ll also be posting more of my self-care content onto my Tiffany Sostar blog so that people can read it without being on Facebook.

And, perhaps most exciting for me, two major projects are lurching up to speed:

  • the book I’ve been talking about and writing about and thinking about for ages is happening and I’ve started to pull the content together for it, so watch for updates on the 100 Love Letters book coming throughout this year, and,
  • I’m 83% certain I’ll be doing the Masters in Narrative Therapy and Community Work this year at the Dulwich Centre (I’ve been accepted into the program, and now I just need to sort out funding – yikes!)

And one major project is just starting to simmer more assertively:

  • I’m putting together my speaker event wish list, and starting to think about restarting the UnConference Series and bringing people in for events (Avery Alder is at the top of my wish list, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to bring her in for a weekend workshop on transformative gaming sometime this year).

2018 is going to be about continuing to do what I love, learning how to do it more sustainably and effectively, and working with my communities to develop strategies and resources for resilience and hope. It’s going to be good.

Queerness and Physical Self-Care resource

Queerness and Physical Self-Care resource

Image description – A screenshot of the front cover of the PDF. Blue text reads “Queerness and Physical Self-Care: Gyms, Team Sports, and Gender.” Smaller text reads “A Document Generated Following the November 2017 Possibilities Calgary Bi+ Discussion Group.” There is a decorative orange line down the right side of the image.

The monthly Possibilities discussions are full of rich insights, knowledge-sharing, and collaboration from within our bisexual, pansexual, asexual, trans-inclusive community.

One of my goals is to create resources that grow out of these generous and creative conversations, so that the work we do in those moments can extend out to join larger conversations about queerness and self-care. One reason for this is because when we are struggling, we have valuable insider knowledge that can help other people who are also struggling – it’s not true that the only people with answers are the “experts” or the ones who have it all figured out. To the contrary – it is often those of us who are actively grappling with an issue who have more direct insight and knowledge to share. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for experts or guides, but part of what I hope to accomplish with my work is consistently and intentionally centering the voices of marginalized individuals and communities, and creating resources that honour hard-won knowledge and skills.

In an effort to share these moments of community-generated wisdom from the Possibilities discussions, I’ll be creating a resource most months that documents and shares our collective insights. Anonymity, or naming, is at each participant’s discretion, and at the beginning of the discussion we talk about why I’m taking notes, what I’m planning to do with them, and how people can access the document before it goes public. Any participants who want to look over the document before it’s made public have that opportunity, and there’s a second check-in at the end of the discussion to make sure everyone is aware of what might be shared and has a chance to opt in or out. Confidentiality within supportive community spaces is so critical, and these documents will not contain identifying details (unless participants want to be named or identified).

This document is meant to extend the conversation and also to invite further conversation. Please email me at sostarselfcare@gmail.com if you have any questions, or would like to add to this discussion.

This document was created following our November 21, 2017 meeting, and is meant to be a resource for the queer community that validates the challenges of physical self-care as a queer person, and offers potential ways forward.

The Key Points

• It can be difficult to access or maintain access to gyms and other fitness-focused spaces because of expectations of gender identity and sexuality, particularly expectations of hypermasculinity and heterosexuality.
• In spaces that are not explicitly queer-inclusive, performing an acceptable identity can keep us safe, but the emotional costs can be high.
• Solidarity – both within the community (going together to a space), and from allies (working to create safer spaces) – is one potential way forward.
• We have made significant progress as a society, but there is a lot more work to be done.
• Self-care is a complex and interconnected process – physical self-care is not distinct from emotional, mental, or social self-care. We need them all.

I’ll be creating a document like this for most of the future Possibilities discussions, so you can look forward to Queerness and Holiday Self-Care coming up next month!

Download the PDF here.

You Are Not Alone: Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day 2017

You Are Not Alone: Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day 2017

Image description: A picture of a forest. Text below reads You Are Not Alone Stories, thoughts, and resources after the loss of a pregnancy or child Created for Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day | 2017

Today is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day.

Ten days ago, one of my friends noted that the available resources were incredibly gendered, heteronormative, cisnormative, and overwhelmingly white.

Creating resources that help serve the margins is exactly the goal of my Patreon, and it’s why I do what I do, so we came up with a plan, reached out to contributors, and spent the last week and a half pulling together something that I am really proud of.

This resource is not perfect. It’s a first draft, and it’s not as inclusive as it needs to be. Our goal is to reissue the resource each year with an expanded selection of personal stories, and a refined resources section. If you would like to have your story included in the next issue, let me know.

You Are Not Alone

Stories, thoughts, and resources after the loss of a pregnancy or child

Created for Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day | 2017

Introduction

This document was created as a response to loss resources that are highly gendered, and that implicitly assume their readers are straight, white, and cisgender. It was also created to try and provide something free and easily accessible.

It is a first draft, and we hope to reissue this document yearly with more and better information and resources.

Although this resource attempts to be intentionally inclusive and anti-oppressive, the two primary collaborators – Tiffany Sostar and Flora – are both English-speaking white settler Canadians, with stable housing and strong social supports. Our privilege means that we are missing nuance, and we do not see what we’re not seeing. We are open to being corrected, and to hearing from people who do not see themselves represented in this document. You can reach Tiffany at sostarselfcare@gmail.com.

This document is designed to be a grief and loss resource, and we have included abortion stories and resources. However, we recognize that not every abortion is experienced as a loss or followed by grief. (This is true for miscarriages, too!) We also recognize that it is possible to feel grieve without feeling regret, and this is true for any pregnancy loss, whether it’s abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth, or adoption.

We are so thankful to the individuals who contributed to this document. Our call for contributors was met with courage and generosity by people who shared their stories despite the pain that telling the story brought up for them.

We are also thankful to Andi Johnson and Randi van Wiltenburg, both full-spectrum doulas in Calgary, Alberta, who contributed not only their personal stories but also a wealth of knowledge and information. Their professional contact information is listed in the resources section.

Parents we want to honour:

  • Those who have lost a child to miscarriage
  • Those who have lost a child to abortion
  • Those who have lost a child to stillbirth
  • Those who have lost a child after birth to medical illness
  • Those who have lost a child after birth to adoption
  • Those who have lost a child after birth to structural violence

This affects:

  • People of any gender identity
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World Mental Health Day reshare and reflection

World Mental Health Day reshare and reflection

Image description – Autumn leaves and berries on nearly bare twigs against a grey sky. Text reads #TenDaysOfGrey #Mental Health. There is a small Tiffany Sostar logo in the top right.

Content warning for discussion of depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidality.

Today is World Mental Health Day. This is my final post for Bryan McLean’s #TenDaysOfGrey mental health awareness project. You can read my interview with Bryan here. Rather than writing something new for today, I’m sharing a post I wrote four years ago that detailed my mental health journey up to that point. The reason I’m sharing it at the end of the Ten Days of Grey is because when I wrote this post I was in the grey. I am in the colour now, and I appreciate that.

I wrote the post shared here in 2013. Now I am 36, it’s four years later and many things have changed and many things have stayed the same. I am thankful for my 32 year old self writing this. I am thankful for my 28 year old self making it through, for all those younger selves who made it through. I have spent so many years in the grey.

At 36, I am not depressed. (I am often anxious, I am in the middle of a three-months-and-counting fibro flare, and I am experiencing regular existential dread over the state of the world, but miraculously, I am not depressed. Wow!)

It is sort of amazing to reflect on that, because there is a lot going on in my life that would is difficult, stressful, and overwhelming. I am thankful for the resilience I have developed, and I am also conscious of the truth that these sorts of things are not always “overcomeable” and these monsters will visit again. I’ll make them tea, cry with them, and continue surviving. I am thankful for that confidence.

I am also amazed at how strategies shift. When I wrote this original post, I had a few coping skills that I leaned on daily – my extensive lip balm collection is a testament to that. I used lip balm application as an alternative behaviour to self-harming, and it was life-saving for me. But these days, I have only even felt the urge to self-harm once or twice in the last couple years, and I only use lip balm when my lips are chapped. Self-care is such a responsive process – we are always responding, and the act of self-care is an act of presence and awareness. It becomes habitual, but it can never be only habitual. I love (and hate) that iterative, never-ending process. (I also really miss my Patchwork writers! If I ran another six-week poetry writing course, would you be interested? Let me know!)

Here is my 2013 post, edited to remove some ableism (we are always learning!) and to update links.

I’m sitting in Vendome, one of my favourite cafès in Calgary. I just sent out the writing prompt to my Patchwork writers, posted it on the Facebook page, shared it on my personal Facebook, tweeted it, posted it on the Writing in the Margins blog. Most of the time I respond to writing prompts privately, in a longhand journal. If I share the writing later (which I rarely do, outside of workshops where I read my just-written work with the group), I type it up and polish it a bit.

But the prompt today is to write about mental health.

And I am a mental health advocate. So I am typing this response directly into my “add new post” screen, and I am going to hit “publish” when I’m finished. And then I’ll post a link to it on Facebook and on all of my Twitter accounts, and here’s why –

At 13, I went through my first serious depression. I did not know what was happening to me. (If you suspect that you may be going through a depression or other mental health concern, here is a free screening tool. It’s not perfect, and symptoms are not so cut-and-dried for many people – it is a place to start, but not a final word.)

Suddenly everything was awful. There was a pain in my body/brain/heart/soul. I cried a lot. I self-harmed. I scratched my neck and shoulders and hips and belly until I was cross-hatched, red and scabbing. I smashed my head into walls, sometimes until I was dizzy. I didn’t know who to talk to. The only person who knew I was self-harming, the only person I confided in, was my 9 year old sister. It was terrible for both of us, a weight far too heavy for her small shoulders (or my own).

Writing about this time, I feel my chest tighten and my breath shorten, the muscles in my neck knot up – these are the first physical manifestations of anxiety in my body and I am aware enough now, at 32, to recognize them for what they are. I take a deep breath, roll my shoulders, take a sip of water, continue.

In high school, at around 16 or 17, I went through a second (or perhaps just a worsening of my ongoing) depression. This was complicated by the arrival of Sadisty – a very angry, very vicious voice in my head. I do not seem to have a split or multiple personality disorder – Sadisty was just (“just”) my mind’s way of externalizing the intense self-loathing that I was experiencing. Though I feel a deep shame about what feels, to me, like one of the lowest points in my mental health journey, I am also amazed and grateful for whatever it was in me that did choose to externalize rather than internalize those feelings. Sadisty wanted me to die, and I had many moments of suicidality, but I didn’t want me to die. I put all of that negativity into Sadisty, to get it out of my own head, to make those nasty comments come in a voice that wasn’t my own.

I am lucky to have survived high school, to have survived Sadisty and that second/ongoing depression.

(Breathe again, breathe again.)

At 18, I started volunteering at the Calgary Humane Society. I adopted a dog, my soul mate. Tasha. She had separation anxiety and dog-dog aggression. She was anxious, fearful, aggressive. Helping her helped me. Things got better. Sadisty was gone, and she has never come back.

I got married, I got divorced.

My mental health stayed at a consistently low-grade level of self-loathing. Low self-esteem. An at-that-time undiagnosed anxiety disorder. The impact of early trauma, unacknowledged anxiety and low self-esteem on my sex drive led me to believe I was “sexually dysfunctional” (a whole other thing, related but tangential to this post).

(Breathe, breathe. Roll shoulders, stretch wrists, refill water. In my body right now – tightness, tension. Shame, anxiety, fear.)

After my divorce, I went through a third severe depression. Again, I was self-harming. Again, I was suicidal.

I was 28.

I was ashamed.

I felt foolish – this was supposed to be done, part of the horror of adolescence. How could it follow me into adulthood? How could it threaten to destroy the new life I was trying to build for myself? How could I?! Shame, anxiety, self-loathing – there was a toxic mix of emotions and beliefs at play. Fortunately, I was seeing a counsellor and had her support, and the support of my anchor partner. I had started seeing a counsellor when I was trying to get past the sexual dysfunction, and continued seeing her through my divorce and into the depression that followed it. I still see her, and will continue to do so. I recognize now that my neurodivergence is not something I will ever “overcome” – it is part of who I am. It has taught me invaluable lessons, and has helped me become the advocate that I am. At 32, I recognize the value that this neurodivergence has brought to my life.

But at 28, I climbed halfway over my 28th floor balcony, intending to make strawberry jam on the pavement below.

After that, my counsellor helped me come up with an emergency plan.

I made the painful call to my sister, my mom, my dad.

I said, “I am currently depressed. Sometimes I feel suicidal. I am calling to ask if you would be willing to be part of my emergency plan. What that would mean is that if I call and tell you that I am feeling suicidal, you will be available to come and be with me, or take me to the hospital if necessary.”

I had to euthanize Tasha.

My mom was hit by a truck, she almost died.

I experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. The depression got worse. The self-harming escalated.

My best friend stopped taking my calls. Months later, she told me that it had just gotten to be too much – there was something wrong every time we spoke.

Depression, anxiety, other mental health concerns… they can be like bombs, decimating at the point of impact, shrapnel flying everywhere. Relationships can be fundamentally altered or destroyed. Partnerships suffer. The ripple effects of a mental health issue can make the isolation and loneliness, the shame and fear and pain so much worse. Among the conversations that we do not have regarding mental health, this conversation about self-care for caregivers, and balancing the various and sometimes conflicting needs for support is both absent and necessary. It is possible to remain friends with a depressed person, but because we do not ever have this conversation, many people don’t know how.

I came out of that depression.

I became an activist.

I developed an amazing, diverse, wide-ranging social circle.

I learned new coping skills. I breathe more intentionally now. I pay attention to tension in my body. I rarely allow an anxiety attack to escalate to the point where I feel the urge to self-harm. I use lip balm and apply it when I start to feel anxious – I pay attention to the feel, the smell, the taste. I take supplements and get exercise. I see my counsellor every other week, more frequently when things get bad.

I am 32 now.

I am currently depressed.

I wake up in the morning and I feel sad. I feel hopeless. I feel discouraged.

I haven’t reconciled with the addition of fibromyalgia to my life. I miss my dad. I miss my dogs. I am financially unstable, and frustrated by my ongoing mental health concerns. I am immobilized by anxiety on a regular basis.

But I have help. And I have a purpose. I believe that my weakness is one of my superpowers, that my willingness to speak openly about my struggles is part of my activism.

So I am depressed.

I am waiting for it to be over (for now).

I use all my new coping skills. I lean on my friends, as much as I can allow myself, and I breathe. I stretch. I take my supplements and drink my water and have epsom salt baths to help with the physical pain.

It is World Mental Health Day.

And this is my mental health story.