Home For Mom

Photo: Rob Bye
Photo: Rob Bye


While I lived in Ontario for a year, I came back home every month. It was not for a boy, but rather for my mom. She has terminal lung cancer. She won’t do chemotherapy. At the point where she was, there was no use- it could have killed her rather than saved her. Yes, her slow demise is really painful, and it’s been on my mind every day for more than a year.

I learned that my mom was sick in February 2014. Even before that, I had a feeling that the news would probably be gloomy because my mom warned me that she was going through a series of tests.

I was also worried because in December 2013, we went for a four-day trip in Quebec City and I realized that she was more tired than usual. She was dragging. She needed more coffee breaks.

I was fearing the worst while hoping that it would not be lung cancer. I’ve had the intuition that she was going to die from lung cancer for years. It was not a death wish but rather a strong intuition. I also have an amazing yet disturbing intuition, and it’s mostly right- precisely what makes it disturbing.

My mother smoked cigarettes for years. When we lived together, she would go outside, mostly, or smoke under the hood to mask odours. Sometimes, when I would come back from my dad’s place, she would have had opened all the doors and windows to ventilate the apartment. She would also often try to hide this because she knew that smoking in the apartment, and in general, was not a good idea. Still, she kept doing it, despite my many pleas. I even made no smoking signs in a heart-shape, imitating a Health Canada campaign from the 1990s.

When my mother told me about her illness, I was devastated. I kept it inside and went to my father’s place to pick something up. It was towards the end of the afternoon that I started crying and I couldn’t stop. At the same moment, my father and his girlfriend came back. They were shocked, but not as much as I was. They dropped me off to yoga class. I went because I thought that it would change my mind. I spent half the class crying, to finally breathe. 

A couple of days after this, I got a call: I was accepted in the master of journalism at the University of Western Ontario.

I felt guilty. I didn’t want to leave my mother in Montreal, yet I knew I had to go. One of my dreams was coming true. It was my second and last attempt to get into one of the few master of journalism programs in the country.  Again, my intuition was kicking in, this time telling me that I had no choice but to go.

Discussing it with my dad, he understood my dilemma. ‘‘There are times in life where you don’t know what is waiting for you, but you know that you have to go,’’ he said.

My mom wanted me to go, telling me that I had to. She didn’t want me to feel guilty. That being said, I also always felt that I had to be back as often as possible to Montreal to visit, and I wanted to. 

In February 2014, the doctors gave my mother six months to a year. I did feel guilty at times for choosing my future over my mom, yet I didn’t choose. I managed to give as much as I could to both. It was not easy because it required tremendous energy. I often felt discouraged, anxious, angry or sad, but I did it.

In the months prior to graduating, I applied to a bunch of jobs all around the country, not knowing what was coming up. I would have loved to move to a new city, probably Toronto, get a high-paying job, find a new apartment and buy new clothes. I would have loved to start anew. I would have loved to become a real adult, to enter middle class, to reap the fruits of my labour. 

Despite my lofty goals, it’s not what life has in the cards for me right now.

On Easter, I had breakfast with my mom and she told me the result of her last scan: she has six months left to live. While she has exceeded her original life expectancy, I know that she won’t this time. It’s more or less six months.

Over coffee, my mother told me that it was fundamental that I’m there for the end of her life. I knew it, but it confirmed it. Time is finite and life happens and then it’s done or as Nas would say, ”life’s a bitch and then you die.” Time with loved ones is precious and it’s probably the most important thing in the world. It’s something that can easily be forgotten in this individualistic and workaholic society.

I’m my mother’s only child and closest family member. While the responsibility can be a burden, it’s also an opportunity to prioritize what is really important. In a nutshell, life and death. In a word, love.

My mother is not the easiest person to take care of. She suffers from borderline personality disorder, which means that emotions are heightened and days unpredictable. Add to that the physical suffering that is worsening as days go by.

As she outlived her life expectancy, she stayed seemingly healthy for months, although inside she was losing every day. She doesn’t seem as healthy anymore. She coughs constantly, and it is harder for her to go to public spaces or to walk outside.

On Mother’s Day, we were walking on Blvd St.Laurent and she was coughing so much that a 20-something guy gave me a concerned glance. I will have to get used to those glances now.

As much as I love my mom, I hate life for giving me such a hard time. My favourite aunt (her sister) already died from cancer in 2005. Why is it happening all over again?

I want my family to be healthy and I want to get on with my life. But then, I’m conscious life is not only about me and the most important thing right now is to take care of my mom.

I find the situation increasingly difficult as her health is disintegrating. I have a guy friend who went through a similar situation with his mother and he told me that despite it being the hardest thing, it is very important to be there constantly, especially in the last moments.

It is fucking painful. I want my mom to revert back to a healthier state. Instead, I’m seeing her lose strength as the days go by. She is scared, she is sad, she is constantly living the full spectrum of human emotions.

I’m trying to ease her pain and help her out as much as I can. I help her clean, I bring her food, I listen to her talk, I record her voice so I can keep memory files.

It’s difficult to know that for me, my mother will disappear soon.

I will never see her become an old lady with a full head of grey hair. She will never meet my future children. That is one of the hardest realizations to have.

Also, the worst is that everyone wants to believe that things are looking up, that she will heal. She will not. She will lose all of her energy. She will die. So many people ask me dumb questions about her state, about whether or not she is doing chemotherapy. People hope for the best. I understand. But the best doesn’t always happen. 

My mother’s illness has made me realize everything that she has given to me, everything that she passed down to me in my lifetime. I wouldn’t be as smart, critical, funny, sensitive and artsy if I had another mom. Despite her difficult childhood, she gave me everything that she did not have. She worked hard at being a mom. She worked hard at being an artist. She gave me everything. The list is infinite.

I will never forget that. I will never forget her. And when I eventually have children, I will make sure to tell them who their grandmother was.

 

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My Guilt-Ridden Journey to Being a Mom

photo-1414432548815-900106408037 copyIt’s a dark and lonely journey sometimes. The one leading from the day you have a child to the day you become a parent. “It’ll come,” they said. “It’s all natural,” they shushed.

It didn’t feel natural.

I ignored it, basking in the surrounding warmth. My mom was there to help me, a welcome breath in the blur of new parenthood. I rarely got to have her around, so it was lovely to have her by my side. I was surrounded by helpful and positive souls. That helped. Helped me forget there was a problem. Helped me sweep it under the rug.

“It’s just baby blues. It’ll go away,” I told myself.

Baby blues! That even sounds ‘cute’. And dismissible.

So I dismissed it.

That mommyhood ‘glow’ was not something that happened to me. I’d had a C-section. My body was struggling, not because anything went wrong, but because someone had to cut through seven layers of me to get to a baby, only to sew me back up and send me away, tasked with the care of said baby.

I call her Murphyskid. She was born in distress and had infant reflux. She never slept for more than 40 minutes at a stretch, and when she did, it was sprawled out across my chest.

This is the stuff you’re unprepared for. The stuff no beautifully presented prenatal class or book tells you.

Three months of lovely, helpful guests, having meals cooked for me, and endless helping hands later, my mom left. I remember her trying to prop me up a few days before. She’d pretend the baby wouldn’t settle with her and hand her over to me (having done most of the heavy lifting first) and when she did fall asleep, I’d get big smiles of,”Look how good you’ve gotten at this.” God bless that woman. She is my hero. No matter what your relationship is with your mother, make it work. Fix it; shine it. You’re going to need her (or the closest equivalent thereof) if you plan to do this baby thing.

The night before my mom left, I lay in bed crying. I could not imagine doing this without her.

She left and I had no choice but to cope. My husband and I lived in Dubai at the time and we had access to some household help. My in-laws came to visit. They were all great with the baby, but I still felt like something wasn’t right.

Was it normal to only feel fine when the baby wasn’t with me? It sounded wrong. It made me feel guilty. So I ignored these vague wonderings, grabbed a footing and hung on for dear life. All the while, I was feeling nothing for my child but mild curiosity. Cue more guilt.

Then the rug was pulled out from under my feet when we moved to Toronto. That in itself is a task of mighty proportions, but add in a sick, cranky baby and it was almost unbearable.

Symptoms got worse with the baby. Unknown to us, she had a dairy allergy, one that took the doctors (two different competent ones on two different continents) 11 months to figure out. Allergies often have associated pain. And when they are too young to tell you, they cry, and gripe and cling. In our case, Murphyskid did all of those. For nearly the whole first year of her life, when she was awake, she sat on the back of the couch, behind me, hanging on to my hair. She only slept with me beside her, holding my hair. I’d stay still and not breathe, in case I woke her and we had to do it all again.

Personal space was gone. I felt claustrophobic and angry all the time. Completely out of control. And guilty. I felt so guilty.

I fantasized about ending something. “We’ll put her up for adoption,” I said. “Lots of people want babies. She’s young enough that she can forget us.” Or we could move to someplace where we have a bit more help. Or, at worst, I thought I could just kill myself.

My husband, M, listened quietly, helplessly, desperately trying to help take the operational burden off me, so I could breathe on my own. That helped a bit, but still it was so much easier for me to just sit there and feel sorry for myself. So I did. And I was passive aggressive about it. Even malicious. I hugged too hard. Pushed too far. Yelled too loud. Cried too often. Maybe if I did that enough she’d stop wanting to be so close? Maybe then I’d have more space and that would make me happy?

That’s when M and my cousin suggested that I look into the resources available for mommy depression. “You cant be the only one,” he said.

I dragged myself to our family doctor, and I say “dragged” because it was such an effort. Shower, get out of pyjamas, and go out? That’s got to be more than I can take. Why cant I just stay here and sleep? I did a lot of that at the time…sleep. And feel guilty. My typical day involved: Wake, ineffectually cope, feel guilty, sleep, overeat, cry, cope, sleep, feel guilty, feel guilty… you get my drift.

The physician was great. He was matter of fact, and empathetic. He suggested self help as the first line of attack, primarily because we didn’t have insurance to cover rounds of psychotherapy, and secondly because he is a fan of cognitive therapy. In normal speak that means being aware of what you’re thinking, feeling and doing; trying to establish patterns that will help you find the sticky areas, which hopefully you can work on fixing by being less negative. It’s heavily reliant on your action and that’s exactly what I needed. Control. Not in a bad way, but in a, “I need to be responsible for stopping my life from spinning out of control” way.

It was an investment of time. I had to read a book he recommended. I had to fill out exercise sheets with how I was feeling, when and what triggered it. I had to quantify emotions. What a load of crap, I thought. How can this possibly help? I hated my life, I hated my child; how could the way I felt at 7:30 am this morning possibly help me figure this out?

But then I surprised myself. I found those patterns. M helped me distance myself from some of the situations that aggravated my anger and helplessness. Even today he does more bedtimes than me because that was one of the things that undid me. My claustrophobia would come out to play when I was trapped in a dark room with her climbing all over me because she didn’t want to sleep.

Soon I needed less and less logging. My mind found clarity. We paid to take Murphyskid to a naturopathic doctor for holistic help. The dairy allergy was found. A switch to soy and three days later she was a new person. The wasted time and effort of it all could’ve driven me on a downward spiral, but instead I felt relieved. Like a mom would. It was a sign of wellness.

The doctor also put me on B vitamins, which were responsible for the functioning of the central nervous system. She told me carve out a portion of the day for myself. Have a few drinks with a friend once a week. Exercise.

I can’t say I did all of those things. But I did some. And it helped. Oh, how it helped!

Yes there is a happy ending to my story. I am now 3.5 years into my relationship with a walking, talking, feeling, intelligent little person whom I love from the bottom of my being. We could’ve got there a lot quicker if I had had the right expectation. If that default screen saver image of what motherhood should look like hadn’t been planted in there to mess with my head.

I am respectful of the mind now. It’s not all about thinking, it about feeling. It’s about making deeper, more meaningful connections. It’s about letting myself love, both myself and those around me. It’s about learning coping mechanisms for when life becomes overwhelming. It’s about talking to people. And most important of all, it’s about taking it one day at a time.

Susan Diaz is a writer and independent communicator. She lives in the mad bustle of downtown Toronto with her husband and challenging 3 year old who drives her to blog most days! In her blog Carrots and Peace, she offers a humorous perspective on the things close to her heart – food, no holds barred parenting and musings on just about anything else in-between. She’s on twitter @susandiaztweets.

In Defence Of Mental Wellness

there's more to mental health than mental illness

I don’t like the way we talk about mental health, mostly because the conversation is usually framed around “mental illness.” Mental health is so much more complex than that. There’s this entire other side to the equation, one we don’t talk about as much or often enough, and that is mental wellness. When we forget about wellness, we remove not only the element of hope that is so crucial when you are depressed or anxious or angry or lost, but also the opportunity for things to get better.

I’ve written a lot in my life, and on occasion I’ve even gathered up the courage to put something out there that is really personal. It is terrifying to admit to the world that you are flawed, that you have complexes, that sometimes the things you do or think are not normal. I’ve shied away from talking about my own battles with depression and anxiety because I too fall victim to the stigma. But I’m starting to care less about what people think these days. Depression and anxiety may be a part of my life, but they do not define it.

I started shifting my thinking about this late last year. I realized that I had a problem with how I viewed my own mental health. My perspective mirrored society’s. I too looked at my condition as a mental illness and I forgot about my own mental wellness.

It’s easy to do that when you are sick. But after a while, I became sick of being sick. I was sick of feeling sorry for myself, sick of being sad, sick of crying all the time, sick of feeling like nothing was ever going to get better, sick of talking to people, sick of taking pills, sick of drinking too much, sick of feeling the way I felt, sick of being tired all the time, sick of fighting it. I cycled through years of this and every time it felt just as bad as the last.It felt like things would never improve, like I was destined to live in this cloud of darkness.

I read memoirs about other people’s struggles with depression and even the ones I cherished, most notably Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, didn’t do much to make me feel better, even if I felt less alone. At some point, I accepted depression and anxiety as part of who I was, and that was a dangerous thing for me to do. With acceptance comes comfort and once you’re comfortable, what desire do you have to ever change things?

It’s not like I didn’t try. I spent a lot of time getting referred from one place to the next and listening to one person’s opinion then another. I worked hard on my career, determined not to let my sickness bring me down and even though it did at times, I was further determined not to let anyone know that this sickness existed. I got pretty good at it too. My reputation for being social and bubbly and hard working never faded. But it was not a very effective method for me because at the end of every day I still felt sad, this deep crushing sadness that made me question everything in my life, including my value and my worth. I wondered if people thought I was talented. I wondered if people loved me. I wondered, when they told me that they did, what they could possibly see in me, a shell of a girl.

Then I started thinking about it and I realized I was actually just sick of thinking of myself as mentally ill. How I hated that term. I’m not mentally ill! I shouted from the inside out. There’s so much more to me than that. I’m ambitious, I’m funny, I’m loving, I’m fun. I like to plan events and parties and talk to people and travel places and take pictures and document life and try new things and take chances. I realized it’s not that I was mentally ill, it’s that I wasn’t mentally well.

This idea of wellness seemed new to me. I hadn’t quite looked at things through that lens before and this changed things. I started to recognize that I really did need to learn how to shift my thinking patterns, and I realized this would take time and effort. I stopped thinking about the things that made me sick and instead concentrated on the things that could make me better. I sat down to write a list of 25 things that made me happy and before I knew it I had 47, then 60, then 82. I had a totally new perspective on my own mental wellbeing and I knew it was up to me to make some changes.

I decided to embrace mind over matter and I stopped looking at myself as sick and started looking at myself as someone who had the power to be well. I started embracing the very idea of wellness. All these things that were contributing to my depression and anxiety, I realized I could change them. And if I couldn’t change them, I realized I had to let them go. Maybe I’ll always struggle with my mental health to some extent, as I still do now, but I’ve realized I have a responsibility to myself to not make it any worse. I have a responsibility to myself to make it better.

Everything is going to be okay because what other option is there? ~ Me

In order to become okay, I had to put work into myself, a different kind of work than I was doing before. I had to be proactive and less passive. I had to decide what was worthy of occupying what I call my mental real estate, the places in your mind where all your thoughts, fears, and dreams live. I had to decide to be okay.

After so many years of feeling trapped and running in the big fat hamster wheel that is depression and anxiety, realizing I have the power to open the door was a huge discovery for me. And being ready to open that door was life changing.

How My Vanity Helps Fight My Depression

Lipstick-in-mirror

I like to look good, but I admit I don’t always dress the part. On occasion my hair is a disaster and in need of a good washing, and sometimes my outfits are a little on the questionable side. What can I say, my depression gets the better of me sometimes, and it makes getting dressed and doing my hair feel like climbing mountains. I know this because I climbed a mountain once in the heat of the Vancouver sun. I thought I wouldn’t, but I made it to the top.

Depression itself is a lot like climbing a mountain. You just keep going and going looking for the light, the break in the trees, the place where it all levels out. The summer I climbed Grouse Mountain I started paying attention to the details, and perhaps it is for this reason I still remember the signs warning climbers of mountain lions in the area, of the possibility of imminent danger. This is also what depression feels like: that at any moment something could just come out of nowhere and take you out without warning. It is both exhilarating and exhausting to live on this edge, this divide between beauty and the beast.

When I got to the top of Grouse Mountain I looked like shit. I know this because I took a before and after photo and my straight platinum blonde hair had turned into strings that dangled from my head like pieces of rope. Despite the accomplishment, I was ashamed of my appearance and of the sweat that told the story of my struggle up the mountain and how even when I came out on top, literally, I didn’t look at the top of my game. This bothered me. I never showed the photo to anyone. If Instagram had existed then, no filter would have salvaged my confidence.

A big part of my life since the depression started seeping in has been keeping up the illusion that my depression does not exist. I have my vanity to thank in part for that. Appearances have become quite important to me, and looking good has become my best defence in this battle. I have found solace and strength in the deception—and I have found a special kind of hope that comes from looking after yourself. Keeping up appearances has prevented me from plummeting to new lows because it proves to me that I still love myself enough to care.

Eye shadows and red lipsticks have become my weapons in this war. Strokes of smoky purples and dark eyeliners have become my armour, and a crisp chiffon shirt or a tight black dress (worn with pumps or a good pair of boots), my uniform. Maintaining my roots and upgrading my wardrobe have given me the confidence to fight this battle. These are the tools in which I use to combat my depression. They may not be the most noble, but they work.

Women do these little things everyday, but it is these little things precisely that make the difference when you’re depressed. When you put the time into your appearance you feel better, and feeling better is the ultimate weapon in this struggle. Feeling better gives you the strength to put your brave face on and persevere. When you’re feeling better you look better and this makes you more approachable. It allows you to maintain relationships with your coworkers, to hold down jobs, and find success in your endeavours.

If I let myself go, which is rather tempting at times but never an option, I know I would become much sicker. I would fall back into the depths of depression and I would feel ten times worse. There are other tools in this fight—medication and therapy, mostly—but I have found neither to be quite as immediately effective as taking the time to inject self-love back into your daily routine.

Self-love comes in many forms. For me it also comes in working on my body in healthy ways. I go to the gym, ride my bike to and from places, and practice yoga. Being active encourages me to eat healthier, both of which are proven to help lessen depression. Not only does this make me feel better mentally and physically, but it encourages me to work on myself, which ultimately assists in other areas of my life as well. It makes me more accountable and dedicated, and forces me to set goals and work towards them. Feeling a sense of accomplishment is yet another tool in this battle. These small things, even though they stem from a place of vanity, have helped me push forward even when it’s felt unbearable.

Depression is a brutal and debilitating illness that makes doing any of the above feel impossible at times. I am not always able to put on the mask. But it has taught me how important it is to take an active role in your recovery, and to take advantage of any methods that work for you. Depression can make you feel stuck and the best thing to do when that happens is move. I love the excitement that comes with the physical act of getting ready to go somewhere. It indicates that I am moving—and movement, as they say, is life. When I’m feeling really low and I need to shake it, I just get up, put some music on, curl some waves into my hair, and slap a little lipstick on. Depression may not be pretty, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be.

Behind the Clown Nose

Taken during my time in the Comedy Program
Taken during my time in the Comedy Program

On the first day of my Humber College Comedy Writing and Performance Program, our Mentor told us, “If you are here, there is something seriously wrong with you.” I remember thinking he was joking. He had to be. I was sitting in a room full of amazing people who only wanted to make other people laugh. What a beautiful thing. But every day that has passed since then, I can see exactly what he meant.

I remember one of the first assignments for Stand-up class. We had to write two minutes of jokes on pain. I was too vulnerable to write about my own pain. So I first wrote two minutes about the pain of someone else. I was ashamed of myself, because I had pain. It was a demon I have been fighting as long as I can remember. In fact I wrote about it once before here on Blonde. It was about my childhood battle with Scoliosis. Though I have learned to cope with my insecurities on the subject, I know it affects me still. I always forget about it until I find myself getting close to anyone.

Although Robin Williams passed away a few months ago now, I find myself thinking of him lately in the context of my own experiences dealing with pain through comedy. What many people construe as comedic charm is actually an armour of humour. That’s what we need to take from Robin’s Death. He was known as once of the funniest and kindest people in the entertainment world, but he killed himself. How? I am sure non-coms (non-comedians) think he had everything and his death was, though sad, very foolish. What Robin has done has reminded this generation that comics are not happy people. This message was delivered once before by another great comic by the name of Lenny Bruce. In Lenny’s final days, he struggled emotionally and legally over the censorship of material. Not many people today know his story unless you were a comic. I remember being told the Lenny was the Jesus stand-up, because he died for our sins. Lenny Bruce changed the rules of stand-up for the future. Before him… comedy was clean. Now, comedy is a place where issues can be addressed and in my opinion stand-up is the one place where no subject is off the table. Thank God for that.

People Like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin all said something to the world with their stand-up. Lucille Ball said something to world with Desilu Productions. Robin William said something to the world with everything he did, but in his lifetime we didn’t really see it. He did stand-up, he acted in great heartwarming hilarious films and it took him dying to remind us how important it is to realize how much of a silent killer depression really is.

My first year in Comedy School I was dumped. Oh I was dumped BAD. I was destroyed. Luckily, at that time I was assigned a stand-up piece addressing anger. That’s when I came up with this angry comedic poem about everything that happened. I have never been that vulnerable before. Doing it terrified me. Still, I got up on stage and performed it. Looking back at it, I hate that set. It was uncomfortable and painful, but it was so freeing. It was one of my first performances that I ever did. It was also the first time I turned to the stage to deal with something. By doing it, I made myself laugh. People were enjoying themselves and that was my payment for opening up and dealing with an inner struggle in a very public way. To be honest, I thought it was kind of… well, it was twisted. Strangely, I felt better and it helped me to overcome my personal tragedy. That was when I began to understand what my mentor was saying.

We had a class called Physical Comedy. It was because of this class that I truly began to see and understand the people I was working with. There were about 30 people in it and only three others were girls. Naturally, many of the guys became my best friends. One day, our regular teacher was away and filling in was the former Physical Comedy teacher. We did this activity were we had to list of the names of the chapters in our life. This may not mean anything to you, but when you get that specific and share the intimate details of where we are from and what we have been through with a group of people you begin to really see how beautiful and broken people can be. It was this day that I fell in love with every person in that room. I wanted to hug them, protect them and be there for them. I knew that comedians were not like other people. They were delicate and fierce all at the same time.

To me Robin Williams was always a symbol of strength and comfort. I knew of his fight with addiction, but as a fan I only knew him as a symbol of happiness and hilarity. I sometimes forget about the first words said to me in Comedy School. There is something wrong with all of us. There has to be. To know that our best way to deal with things is to get up make fun of our problems and leave with an adrenaline rush. The more I think about my life the more I remember how safe and secure these people made me feel. I also remember when I graduated thinking that I would never again know the love and comfort that I felt in this place. I was wrong, because after the program when I got a day job I began seeing the same comics who I would see in the stand-up world, but they weren’t stand-ups. They were bartenders, store clerks and working at the Apple Store. Comics are different, but we gotta live like we are not.

Robin Williams was a man who had accomplished everything that any comic dreams of, but still he was not okay. He wore that suit of humour with pride and brought joy to millions of people. His death is a permanent reminder that we need to remember that not just comedians, but people in general are suffering and sometimes it is really hard to tell. We need to see his death as a very important reminder that charm doesn’t equal confidence and quite frankly that we don’t know anyone. So be kind, be understanding and no matter how well you think you understand people, remember that you only see what is shown to you… and sometimes it is just a show.

A Decade Under the Influence

sad girl sitting

The sky had barely broken on the New Year when I found myself crumpled into a ball crying in your lap. I didn’t want to seek solace in you about this, a topic I deem too personal to even discuss with you, the one I love, but the truth is I am struggling and I feel myself becoming one with the edge. I am no longer sure where to turn.

I don’t remember when it started. I imagine it happened normally and maybe even casually, the way it does sometimes when these things sneak up on you. I don’t know what compelled me to first stick my finger down my throat and force myself to throw up everything until I spit blood. But I did, and after that, I felt, relief. Relief is not the best word for the elimination of self-inflicted ghosts, but it is my word and it is the word that would frame my existence for many years to come.

I had never been thin and for me this was all entirely about becoming thin. At 16, all I wanted was to be thin like the other girls. I became obsessed. I went to the gym, for hours, every day after school. It became a joke around my friends and even my family that I would eat only a granola bar and that would be it for the day. I was busy. Being busy made missing meals passable and even easy. The truth was I didn’t even want the granola bar, but without it I struggled to get out of bed. It was hard to focus and the shaking was noticeable. And somewhere along the way, when I did eat it, I started throwing it up. I wasn’t bulimic. Bulimia is when you intentionally binge then purge in a retroactive form of damage control. I just didn’t want food inside me. Eventually, I decided not to eat the granola bars anymore. At the end of the school year, I found dozens smooshed at the bottom of my bag.

I accepted a job at a fast food burger chain. It was my first actual job that didn’t consist of babysitting neighbourhood kids. I actually like the job too. The people I worked with were fun and I went to school with most of them, which made work enjoyable and social for me. On breaks, as an employee, you would get discounted food while you worked. Many of my peers took advantage of this, a couple of them got jobs there solely because of this, but I ignored it. I worked in a sea of greasy french fries and endless ice cream for almost a year and I never ate there even once. In the meantime, I had started to develop some bad habits. If I was at a party and people ordered pizza, I would spend five minutes blotting the grease off with a napkin before deciding to abandon the pizza altogether. I was getting worse, but my bones weren’t sticking out so, for a long time, no one said a word.

The first intervention came one night when I could no longer remember the last time I had eaten. My parents sat me down and told me I could have anything I wanted and that they would make it for me. Anything. I had lost a lot of weight by this point and my life had changed drastically. I was much more social. Boys were paying attention to me. I was even making out with them. I had discovered alcohol and parties. I decided to choose something random and obscure thinking it would deter their efforts. I remember what I requested: a chicken Caesar salad from Swiss Chalet. They went out and got it for me and I sat there waiting for them to return and I didn’t even move. When they came back they sat at the table to make sure I ate it. I cried the entire time, choking on every bite. I think they cried too.

But after that, it was as though in my mind I was magically recovered. I toned back the restriction, started eating dinner, and assumed things were better, all while failing to notice the signs were still there. When I moved away to university to live in residence, my first time living on my own, I was not concerned at the end of the year when it was discovered I had much more than 50 per cent of my meal plan remaining. Most students added more money to their plan part way through the year. I wasn’t throwing up much anymore so I thought I was fine, but I still also wasn’t really eating. My meal plan was nonrefundable. I started paying for people’s snacks and meals regularly. By the end of the year, I was buying people Fruitopia by the case.

The years after this are blurry and while I never thought of myself as sick, it is easy to see in retrospect that fractured existence of what clearly was—maybe still is—an eating disorder.  My weight continued to be a problem, going up and down like a rollercoaster, taking how I defined my worth and happiness along for the ride. In third year I decided to join an actual weight loss program. This was my first introduction into what would later become an obsession with calorie counting. Within months I was a mess. If I knew I’d be going out drinking that night, I would simply not eat all day long in an effort to never, ever go over my points. Points became the bane of my existence. If you worked out, you got more points, which for me actually meant more alcohol. I started working with a personal trainer at 7 am every morning. It was an impossible time for me, but I did it. One day he was guiding me through an exercise at a machine and the next thing I knew I was sitting in his office being forced to eat an applesauce. What happened? I asked him. To this day I do not remember passing out, I do not remember being taken to his office, I do not remember my first bite of that applesauce.

The program fucked with my head and instilled in me a new weapon in my war on food: guilt. Suddenly there were good foods and there were bad foods. There were foods that would make me fat and foods that would make me thin. There were foods that were approved of and foods that caused shame. When I quit counting points it was because I couldn’t live like that anymore, defining my success and basing my happiness on which silo my foods fell into that day. I had also, in the process, fallen in love and moved to the city. I was a new woman and I was determined to get in control.

Control. Where did that word come from? Control is a word people like to use when describing those with disordered eating habits because it is argued that we use food as a form of control to find order or balance in our lives and maybe even also to provide a scale of which to monitor and maintain power. Restriction and throwing up were never about control to me on the inside, but I can now see they were always about control on the outside. When I ate too much, or more accurately felt like I ate too much, throwing up was an easy way to undo perceived damage.

Things have, in recent months, become entirely about control. On my latest foray into weight loss I decided to try things differently. I didn’t want the blemished skin, the shaking hands, the guilt and the downward spiral I had had so many times before. I wanted results. So 10 months ago I joined the same program that caused me such disarray the first time, quit again shortly after for the same reasons I quit the first (and second) time, struggled with issues of throwing up for several months, then finally found the right balance between eating right and exercising. It was a magical feeling to see that number going down without making myself sick, without depriving myself. I felt truly accomplished and radiant and people noticed. They even said I looked skinny. Me, skinny! It was the best feeling I could have ever imagined.

Unfortunately this is where the problems have started again and in fact I am only writing this to prevent myself from relapsing. The number stopped going down. I stopped losing weight. When I stopped losing weight, I got scared and I have been scared for more than a month now. Suddenly I feel out of control and when I feel out of control I make bad food decisions. For months I wasn’t actually eating enough, and now I am scared I am eating too much. It is haunting me, a dark shadow that follows me around. I am getting feelings I’ve never had before. I am thinking to myself, this is pointless, this isn’t working, I’m not trying hard enough. I make plans and go to the gym for hours, then don’t go for days. My routine is so fucked and my head is so fucked I feel the storm coming.

It’s definitely coming back. But not in the ways I told you about, it’s coming back like it was like it did a couple summers ago—the most brutal summer in the history of my disordered eating. That summer was so bad that by the end of it I actually started looking into getting help. I saw doctors. I saw therapists. I was scared to be awake. I was scared to go out. I hated food and I hated life and I hated myself. My depression was rampant and I was throwing up all the time and my throwing up knew no boundaries: public washrooms, restaurants, bars, clubs, concerts, family functions, anywhere it could happen and everywhere it did. My face was puffy and broken out. I was losing control and the eating disorder was instead taking control of me. I’m not even sure anymore if I was losing weight, but these things can be mean like that. I was able to turn things around then with a lot of determination, therapy, reading self-help books and memoirs, and especially with the help of my boyfriend, who has helped me get through this countless times now. I have learned it is nearly, maybe entirely, impossible to get through these things on your own.

But I’m scared this time. I am terrified of what is happening to me after months of being healthier than I have ever been. I am worried it’s too late to undue the damage of all the calories I’ve tracked religiously in the little app I am always updating. I am worried about what happens next because I’ve already read this story. This is the part when things start to spiral out of control at a time when you really need that control. So you start eating less and start being more restrictive, purging whatever food you deem “bad,” prancing down the road you’ve travelled down so many times before, a deer in the headlights, never learning its lesson. Turning the pages anyway.

What people don’t get about depression

girlwithbirds

When I’m really depressed, I write long-winded notes on loose sheets of paper about what life was like when I was alive. What people don’t get about depression is that that’s the only way to describe it. Though I’m here theoretically, at least in body, I’m not really here. I don’t know where I am. Depression takes you to dark places and doesn’t let you escape scratch free.

What people don’t get about depression is it is not about being sad. It is the process of losing yourself entirely, of looking into the mirror and seeing a stranger in your clothes. Why is she so tired? Who is she anyway? Picture the saddest day of your life then multiply it by a million then have no reason to really explain it. What people don’t get about depression is it creeps up on you. It rears its ugly head in many ways and many forms and at any time. People with depression know depression is a snake. A boa constrictor. It strangles you and takes your life away just enough so you keep breathing.

When I was alive I used to write things that weren’t about depression. I used to laugh a lot. When I was alive my hair was shiny and my skin was clear and I was 21 and nothing could stop me because I was young and fearless. But then suddenly I wasn’t. Suddenly, or so it seemed, I was somewhere else entirely, a parallel universe, floating above myself, and I would reach my hands out so far but I would feel nothing.

And when the meds didn’t work and therapy didn’t work and I didn’t work, I filled time with my own medicine and sometimes didn’t write at all. Sometimes I had no words. Sometimes I had nothing. Sometimes I slept for days. Sometimes I didn’t sleep for days. Sometimes I didn’t know what day it was.

What people don’t get about depression is it is not pretend. Depression doesn’t forgive me for the things I’ve done, the people I’ve let down, the friends I’ve lost or the mistakes I’ve made because of it. The consequences are very real. Depression doesn’t care that I have goals and dreams. Depression doesn’t listen when I try to lock it behind doors and ignore it. It picks the locks so easily, like a criminal. As if the bolts are invisible. Depression doesn’t even blink when I scream.

What people don’t get about depression is it doesn’t go away, at least not without a fight. I remember the first night it hit me, like really hit me, like oh, this isn’t disappearing is it? It was New Years Eve several years ago now, the day before everything starts over. The last big hoorah. And I chose to go home alone after an unsatisfying restaurant shift when all my friends were off into the night making out and making mistakes. And I knew right then things had to change. And I thought they would. But they didn’t.

On the questionnaire they ask you if you ever think about killing yourself. What people don’t get about depression is even if you’re not suicidal you often think about dying because sometimes you already feel dead. Except if you were dead, you wouldn’t feel like this, and sometimes yes, that does seem more appealing.

On the questionnaire they ask you if you ever have difficulty making decisions. So you sit there and debate and go to say one thing but then change it to another before realizing, oh, yeah I guess this is an obvious one. What people don’t get about depression is sometimes the easiest things are the hardest. Sometimes no, I really can’t get dressed or make food or go to work today. I just can’t.

They call it a screening test and they ask you 18 questions and rate you on a scale. The higher the number, the worse you are. I was clinical the first time I wrote it. And the second. And many more times after that. But what people don’t get about depression is eventually things start to change. Eventually you find the right combo. Eventually you find something that works. Because if you don’t you might as well be dead, for a life with depression is no life at all.

What people don’t get about depression is this can take a really long time. Depression is a horrible, evil condition that goes into remission, like a cancer, which is maybe how I’d describe it anyway. It robs you of your soul and wellbeing. It takes you away piece by piece. What people don’t get about depression is we hate it more than you do and we know it hurts you and we hate this too. All we want is to put those pieces back together, and, after a while, we begin to.

When I’m less depressed, I write about being alive and I write this on anything and everything. What people don’t get about depression is how beautiful these moments are, even when temporary. We are soldiers in a constant battle of losing ourselves and discovering ourselves. We are progress lost and found.

What people don’t get about depression is sometimes you emerge from those dark places, scratches in tow and you feel so alive, but you no longer remember how to actually be alive. Even so, finally, the New Year begins.