I'm pleased to have a piece in the UK magazine, Lit.202.
You can read it right here:
I realize it has been quite a long while since I last touched base with you. I have many excuses, of course, because excusing my own behaviour is one of my super powers. Let’s chalk it up to general malaise. Some grieving, some restlessness of spirit. I tend to turtle when I feel badly and then reach out once I feel a bit better. I truly admire those who can say, “Hey, everyone, I’m struggling.”
When I am in turtle mode, I am a bit of a navel-gazer. Our internal lives are endlessly fascinating and we all live them in our own unique way. I myself have to get that inner world outside of me where I can take a look at it. How do I know what I think until I hear what I say? This method is fraught with potential pitfalls. I actually don’t recommend it. I wish I could keep my thoughts to myself and think things through first. Not my strong suit. Never has been.
Don’t ask me how I’m doing if you’re in a hurry.
My close friends have come to accept the volatility of my emotional weather patterns. I’m great. I’m sad. I’m inspired. I’m defeated.
No fourteen-day forecasts – it’s by the hour for me. And recent events – around the world and in my own life – are creating a climate change landscape inside me. Unpredictable. Record highs. Record lows. Devastating storms.
This makes me wonder about the internal world of others. Does the store clerk fail to meet my eyes because of anxiety? Are they afraid to make contact lest their tenuous hold on their emotions comes apart? Are they detached because they are wrapped in pain?
We all carry so much that we don’t talk about. At least not easily. And when those emotions begin to surface, what do we do? Shove them back down and distract ourselves? Or do we let them come?
Last night at dinner, a friend shared the statistic that in the world of music, most people choose sad songs over happy ones – at a ratio of ten to one! He posed this question: Why do I tear up more easily to a sad song than to something sad in my real life?
He thinks it’s because music is therapy, and obviously, for him, it is.
In this moment, I am doing the other thing that I do when emotions rise to the surface: I am sitting on the deck in the sun, looking out over the lake and I am writing. (This is my less verbal way of processing my inner world.)
When I have used up all my words, I will walk down there, jump in the cool water and let it all wash away until I emerge refreshed in body, mind, and soul.
I wonder what everyone else does with their surfacing feelings? Jog, bike, swim? Read, write, paint? Sing, play guitar, draw? Listen to music? Read poetry? Go bowling? Walk the dog? Bake cookies? Lay in the hammock and let the feelings float past like clouds?
It is so hard for people to carve out time for themselves in this crazy world. If they manage it at all, it tends to be for the well-being of their physical self.
Learning how to care for myself was part of growing up. How to manage my world on a practical level, how to take care of my physical well-being, as well as learning the skills of maintaining a healthy emotional life. (See how I made that sound so easy?)
As I age, I’m finding that my body needs different things. More of some things, less of others. In the same way, my emotional needs change as I age. Which is to say, the process of understanding oneself is a life-long practice. Just when you think you’ve figured out what you need, you change. I’d like to tell you there is a finish line for self-awareness but I suspect if there is one, we cross it about one second before we take our last breath.
And so, in the interest of not being too wildly off-course in that final moment of life, I continue to do the work of exploring my inner world, accepting it – the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’ll keep talking. And writing. And swimming.
Hopefully, when my moment comes and I can look from here to there with clarity for one perfect millisecond, I won’t be shouting, Holy moley! Did I ever get that wrong!
Hopefully, my soul will look across the divide and be able to say, Ah, yes. Now I get it. Well, I was close.
I was lucky enough to take in the Victoria Pride Parade today. It was the most colourful, vibrant, joyful celebration -- and I cried through the whole thing.
I teared up as soon as I found a place to sit; when I saw the crowd that had gathered. Tens of thousands of people out to celebrate love. All kinds of love.
The parade took a full hour to pass. So many people, laughing and dancing. Back and forth from people in the parade to people watching, there were constant shouts of, Happy Pride!
It was amazing to me. It’s been a few years since I took in a Pride parade and the scope of the event was almost overwhelming.
Overwhelming, largely, because of the juxtaposition between this day and my first Pride parade:
It is 1988. My stomach is a mass of tension as my partner and I grimly prepare to walk out the door of our safe little house and go stand on a downtown sidewalk, out in the open where everyone can see, and watch the Pride March. I don’t think I manage a full breath the whole way. We are both teachers and know that we can lose our jobs in a heartbeat. Finding a spot that seems less conspicuous, we watch as the “parade” marches past us. It takes less than ten minutes. Several participants walk with paper bags over their heads to protect their identities. I clap for the young men who have the courage to sing and dance and shout. To rage against the machine while the machine systematically chews through their community. More than 30 million people will die worldwide, but today it is still the “gay disease” no-one cares about. And AIDS is not their only worry. I hope they plan to travel in groups today following the parade, as “Faggot Hunting” often accompanies Pride events. My partner and I scurry home to our safe haven. I vow to march the following year. I will wear a paper bag if need be.
Today, through my tears, I see a woman walking with a hand-made sign that says, “Out since 1978.” I don’t know her, but I recognize her instantly. The strength in her gait, the steadiness that has kept her going through 50 years of living a life I know. Rejection, pain, fear, disappointment. Rinse and repeat.
I never thought I would live to see what I am witnessing now.
A school district float filled with happy kids of all ages rolls past and my throat aches with the sobs I’m saving for later.
Not a single heckler here. The tide has turned. The haters are vastly outnumbered at long last, and they are the ones cowering in their homes. The streets are for everyone today. The streets are for love today.
Image by Sara Rampazzo
I’m sitting on the beach watching the lake, considering a chunky dunk even though it isn’t all that warm yet. It’s May, but this has been a cold, wet spring. It would be a CCD, for sure. (Chilly Chunky Dunk). I take off my hikers and socks, roll up my jeans and take my ankles in for a test dip.
Yikes. CCD, for sure.
(A young woman comes to the beach and has a skinny dip – a CSD – and as I listen to her gasp and wheeze as she sprints for her clothes, I know I made the right decision.)
But I wonder.
What if this is the last time I ever see my lake? Will I lay on my death bed wondering why I didn’t jump in one last time? Will I have the luxury of time for such reflection? Or will I just be gone?
I have been thinking about death a lot lately. Not in a hide-in-the-house kind of a way. It’s more of a savour-every-moment thing.
I swim in this lake almost every day in the summer, and every year, at the end of August and beginning of September, I swim each swim with the knowledge that it might be the last swim of the season. Our summers often end abruptly, as if following some divine stage directions. Fade to cool, cue rain, and, exit.
So, I savour each of those late-season swims in particular. I stop, float on my back and fill my lungs with gratitude. I whisper good-bye each time, just in case. I send out my silent love letter to the lake.
Earlier today, my partner and I talked about grief, change, letting go – and how much easier letting go is when you have a sense of completion. Whether you are saying good-bye to a person, a job, a place, an era of your life, or the lake, moving on is easier if you know that you have done all you can. That you have said everything you needed to say, taken every swim you could, and more importantly, savoured each one.
I hope that it won’t be just the end-of-season swims that will be special this year, but each and every one. And if one of those swims ends up being my last, I can let go knowing that I enjoyed every minute, every stroke, every ray of sunshine, every splash and laugh.
Easy enough – I love swimming more than just about anything.
But today I am wondering about how to do better with savouring other things in my life. I’m wondering how to bring that same appreciation to housework. I suppose it starts with recognizing the huge gift in housework— I have a house! Or in yard work because, I have a yard! Or in cooking, and laundry, and everything that I do routinely and by rote, without stopping to really think about what it means. I want to stand amazed by every daily and ordinary joy* and the abundance dwelling in each.
It's laundry day at my house today. So, my friends, if it also happens to be laundry day at your house, I offer my sincere congratulations!
(*I borrowed this phrase from Barbara Kingsolver who wrote it in a book inscribed to my partner, circa 2010.)
Today, I find myself wondering about grief.
Why is it so different for each of us? Do we ever really “get over” a major loss? Is it possible to follow someone else’s roadmap through the stages of grief? “Stages” sounds pretty linear and my grief is not linear. (Yes, I see the irony since I am a Type A Virgo who can’t make a bag lunch without a to-do list.) I would love grief to be linear. I would have my list completed in record time, boxes neatly checked, hair combed, ready to resume life.
But it isn’t like that at all. Grief can blind side you anytime, anywhere.
My dad died when I was 14. That’s 42 years ago. If you had asked me two weeks ago if I still grieved for my dad, I would have told you no. Without hesitation. I would have said my memories of him now are pleasant little surprises. Unexpected gifts.
So, imagine my surprise when I had a minor meltdown last week after looking at a book about my dad. My sister compiled pictures from my dad’s photo album of his childhood, his emigration from Germany, and his early years in Canada. She also included some text that Dad had been dictating to Mom in the final months of his life.
Actually, I didn’t cry when I read the book. I felt strange right after I read it – as though I was watching myself warily from the corner of the room. I put the book down and walked around it like it was booby-trapped. I felt raw and I remember wondering how long it would be before I would feel ready to look at it again.
That evening, we watched a musical on television. A filming of the Broadway play, Come From Away. (You have GOT to see it!) Anyhow, there was a poignant moment in the show and I teared up. But the tears didn’t dry up. I actually started to cry a little, then more, then I had to ask my partner to pause the show because I “needed a break” and I started to sob. The last time I cried that hard was about 17 years ago – also about my dad.
After my cry, we finished the show (Did I mention you must see it?) and then I tried to process what had happened. This wasn’t the first time that I’d seen new-to-me pictures of my dad. It wasn’t the pictures – it was his words. Hearing his “voice”. And the awareness of his potential, his enthusiasm, his resilience, all those dreams . . . and knowing it was all cut short at 43.
When my sister and I talked about it today, she shared that she recently took a course about helping grieving children. Young children will grieve significant losses over and over as they grow up. They will feel their grief anew – and differently – as they move into each new developmental stage.
That made me realize that I no longer grieve my loss when I think about my dad, I grieve his loss.
I grieve that he never met the adult me, or any of his grandchildren, or great grandchildren. I grieve that he never got the farm he always dreamed of. I grieve all the things he never got to do.
And in the next moment, after that deep sadness, I become aware that I have met his grandchildren. And his great grandchildren. I don’t have a farm, but I am living my perfect life. It made me so profoundly grateful to be alive and to have all that I have – love, health, home.
By our fifties, most of us have experienced some significant loss. My most significant loss was early, and largely ungrieved at the time (but that’s a story for another day.) When I was crying last week, I felt like I was my 14-year-old self.
It has taken many years to do the work of grieving; to feel that I am “over” that loss. And then, an unexpected trigger brings it all back. But that’s okay. I welcome the opportunity to purge my heart of whatever tears have been accumulating for my dad – and all my other losses.
And then I opt to share my grief with you. That is to illustrate a point: I believe when we share our stories with others, healing takes place. I believe listening to each other’s stories of grief and loss is a sacred responsibility in our friendships.
I like to imagine a world where we are more comfortable with grief. A world in which someone could just say, I’m grieving, as they stood in the middle of the sidewalk crying, and a stranger passing by would nod their understanding, stand silently with them while they cried, then go on their way.
Grief is as individual as DNA. What works for me might be useless for you. But I have always found it helpful to hear how others understand and process their grief. Years ago, in a novel, I read a short paragraph about grief which, for me, was the perfect analogy.
“Grief is a most peculiar thing; we're so helpless in the face of it. It's like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.”
Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha
My grief window has opened, but only a tiny bit, and I trust the window will close soon enough.
If you are being visited by grief today, may your memories be the blanket that protects you from the chill until the window closes again.
Image by Hannah Tims on Unsplash
Image by Tobias Bjerknes
On the first day of 2022, my thoughts match the scene outside my window - snowflakes in the wind. I want to gather them, organize them into something coherent - a whimsical snowman perhaps. Or a defensive snow fort. Or a deftly-aimed snowball. But for a moment, I sit and stare out the window, allowing my thoughts to play in the wind; to fall and dance. I will follow the random magic of my mental snow globe for a bit . . .
This morning my mom called. In her globe she was looking at the snowy memories of her childhood, riding across the Saskatchewan prairie in the cutter, off to the Christmas party at the one-room school house. She shared a story I'd never heard before - an accident in which a loose team of horses collided with their cutter, rolling it over. Her father opened the cutter door to hooves stabbing at them as the entangled horse kicked and struggled to free itself.
How was no-one hurt? I asked. Just one of those things, she replied.
How the world has changed since cutters and sleighs. In my mind's eye, I follow a cutter gliding across a white, moonlit prairie until eventually my reluctant imagination brings it to a road, an intersection perhaps, where grandpa yells 'whoa' and pulls the horses up to wait as a Tesla zooms by.
Everything feels juxtaposed today. The start of a new year in the midst of an old pandemic.
A weary world rejoices.
Does it, though?
Stories no longer seem to provide a balm. Not stories of manger births. Not stories of heroic nurses. Not stories of supportive communities and selfless neighbours. We discard old stories with restless impatience. Our new stories bare sharp edges. As we isolate ourselves to protect those who scoff, our loneliness grows into frustration. As hospitals fill with those who chose not to vaccinate, and surgeries and cancer treatments are cancelled, our frustration grows into anxiety. Eventually, almost inevitably, our anxiety turns to anger. We lash out like small children churlishly crying out for connection. We create chasms precisely where we long for bridges.
Last night, the cold air lacked the cleansing quality it often carries for me on New Year's Eve. The chill did not burn out the old to make room for the new. Rather, it stiffened my back and raised my head; not in anticipation of a fresh start, but in an unconscious resolve; a grim determination to carry on.
But isn't that the main ingredient of hope? The ability to raise our heads, to resolve to move forward and then to actually take a step. And another.
I shake the snow globe in my head, send the snowflakes flying again and now I see myself driving through a blizzard. The wind drives the snow at the windshield creating a hypnotic kaleidoscope that lulls me toward sleep. The heater and the steady thunk, thunk of the wipers sing me a lullaby. My fingers relax on the steering wheel. If I close my eyes for just a second, they will stop burning. In that long blink, the tires bounce against the edge of the ruts they have been following for miles. The skid sends my heart into my throat, reminds me that pulling off the road is no longer an option. I lean forward, tighten my grip, look past the flakes, past their mesmerizing pattern. I squint into the distance and see two red dots. Tail lights of the car ahead. I train my eyes on those, I refuse to see the storm. The blizzard is no less intense, but I have to look past it, or it will swallow me.
Time to put down my snow globe and take a step into this new year, whatever it brings. I'm going to try to look past the present storm - find one small thing to focus on and move forward.
I will leave you with a poem written in lighter times. And with it, hopefully, a smile.
A curtain of snow falls outside my window -
each silent flake a word -
hoping to be caught -
for such weather,
are already out there,
catching single words
on their tongues and
Short story writers hurl tightly packed snowballs with startling accuracy.
Novelists grumble at these antics as they bundle up and grab their shovels.
Someone has to clear a path through all these words.
"Word Storm" by Janny Thompson
Image by Daniela Diaz
I want a refund!
I was told there would be wisdom with age. That I would be less volatile, calmer. I have a very clear mental picture of myself, looking all sage and serene, just nodding knowingly as all hell breaks loose around me . . .
But that isn’t how it’s panning out. My excuses for this disappointing development range from menopause (and it’s crazy-ass medications) to the pandemic to living in a construction zone and a whole lotta nothing in between.
The reality is that I am scrounging around the back of a very cluttered closet to try to find my equilibrium.
I’m the first to admit that I am not naturally placid. I am emotional and prone to being reactive. But tell me if this sounds weird; I was just messaging with a friend trying to find a time for the two of us to have a visit, and I ended up with my head on the desk, crying. (It’s all set up, by the way. That wasn’t the problem.)
It’s never about the incident. I can name various innocuous triggers from recent weeks that have ended with my head down on my desk, me crying.
Another rejection from a publisher: tears. Sore wrist when I’m trying to type: tears. Power outage: tears.
Now, so far, these may sound like reasonable reasons for tears, but let’s look closer, shall we?
That is about my hundredth rejection from a publisher, my wrist has been sore for always, and the power goes out at my house like the garbage truck comes to yours. But without a schedule.
These are normal events in my life but recently, I just can’t deal. Yesterday I cried because I couldn’t figure out how to work a new app on my computer. (Never in the history of my life have I figured out an app on my own. Suddenly, my ineptitude is a crushing blow. What??)
The day before yesterday, I cried because I went to put on my boots to go for a walk and they were wet. On at least two occasions in the past week, I have cried during a sitcom. I cried when I made my coffee too weak, I cried when I spilled the baby powder, and I cried when I buttoned my shirt wrong. (This is also something I do with disconcerting regularity.)
This emotional rollercoaster feels a lot like the first few months of perimenopause when I was afraid to leave the house in case I killed someone.
And now here we go again! I’m supposed to be winding down on the hormonal surges and entering the wise crone stage and I can’t peel a banana without a minor break down.
So, having spent way too much time trying to figure out where the emotional landmines are coming from, I am now focussing solely on how to get through the field each day.
First of all, if the tears come, they come. Who am to say whether they are serving a purpose or not? I don’t try to stop it, I just get to a private place and let ‘er rip. As I said, there have been a lot of them at my desk. I might put a small pillow there, beside the tissues.
Second, I change gears as soon as the tears are slowing down. Like most people, I can blubber my way through quite a list of real and imagined grievances to keep the cry on, but that’s not helpful right now. I switch to another task or activity. Preferably one that involves movement. If time permits, I have a workout or go for a walk. I remain a big believer in the gratitude list – that always helps.
But I want to be proactive and so I am trying to be more regulated in my daily regime. The biggest part of that is to start my day properly.
I think I have shared this before, but it is still the best way for me to start the day (especially if I am hoping to get through it without any major breakdowns).
I go into my office (one really must have a room of one’s own) and I read from Embers by Richard Wagamese. I light some sage, recite my morning meditation and then sit in my comfy chair and meditate for a few minutes. Not long, just enough to still my mind and feel my heart loosen, open, expand.
Then I try to write. Sometimes I don’t get past the pipe cleaning. That’s the first writing of the day where I cough up the emotional flem. Some people call these morning pages, or daily journal, or freewriting. I usually call it fire pages, because that is where my pages go – into the fire. This is where I complain and whine and grouse about every little thing that might be hanging around in my psyche. I clear the pipes. This morning I did it on my computer and just deleted everything. (Then my computer froze and I cried.)
Hopefully, once I’ve coughed up my crazies, I can get to some original writing. If not, I go straight to an ongoing project. I drink as much water as I can, I try not to look at my to-do list until late morning, and I plan some sort of exercise for whenever the muse leaves the room. (My muse is a bit of a task-master and generally ends our sessions by slamming my office door and yelling, “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!”)
Anyway, I’m telling you this to make myself accountable for doing the things I know help with my emotional wonkiness. I’ve said I’m doing it, so now I gotta’ do it, see?
One last thing, if you see me sobbing in the grocery store, just pretend you don’t recognize me and keep moving. It’s probably just a milk thing.
Image by Jon Tyson
I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin' . . .
This profound statement was brought into my life by the Hanna sisters, Jackie and Kim. They were my sometimes line-mates on the hockey club that let me stay on the team even after they saw me skate because my house was perfect for the team Christmas party.
Kim and Jackie, like all siblings, had their own communication style, with its unique phrases and layered nuances. Often, their conversation would end as they came into the change room before a game and one or the other would adjourn the conversation with the words, "I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin'!"
I was always impressed with how much they conveyed with that spicy configuration of words. Sometimes, it meant, "Let's finish this later." Sometimes it meant, "I don't want to talk about this anymore. Ever." Sometimes it meant, "I hear you, but maybe you should rethink this." It meant, "I didn't mean to offend you, but that's how I feel about it." It meant, "Don't be upset, I still love you even though I think you're wrong." And of course, sometimes it meant, "Shut your festering gob."
The line was multi-faceted for the Hanna sisters because they are sisters. Which word did she emphasize? Was she looking at her sister or away from her? What was her body language saying? And tone? Oh, so much to glean from the tone! Then there is context. What were they discussing? And what had they been discussing earlier in the day? Or yesterday? Or last year? Or when they were teenagers?
You see my point. Context is everything. Tone and body language are huge. But words? Not so much.
That's what makes language so interesting.
To be attuned to the malleability of language is also to be attuned to its fallibility.
When we first begin to learn language, it is fairly simple. A two-year-old points to a guitar ands asks, what's this? The answer is, It's a guitar.
But as we grow and learn, those two words could mean something completely different. For example, a spouse points to a guitar and says, What's this?
Their partner knows exactly what they are really asking:
Why is your guitar out? You promised we would do something together tonight.
As I sit here wondering about words, I am alone in my house and so I look up the word solitude. It is a very simple definition. Solitude, says the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, is the state of being alone. Hmm. I am in solitude right now. Yet, that’s not the right word in my mind. I would say that I am in solitude when I have taken myself out of my regular day to day context and chosen to be alone for some specific purpose. Usually, it is to write. The word solitude for me is a positive, exciting word. It denotes a choice on my part, and so I have already moved away from the dictionary definition's placid 'state of being'.
However, my thesaurus suggests that the word isolation is interchangeable with privacy, seclusion, isolation, and even loneliness. As you read the list, each of you will have a different opinion about which of those terms fits best with solitude.
For me, each of those words evokes a different sphere of experience and feeling. And none of them matches my personal definition of solitude.
So, when I tell you that I have spent a lot of time in solitude lately, I am sharing good news. You likely have someone in your life who could say the same words and it would mean something completely different and would evoke very different emotions.
I think the reason this topic fascinates me so much, is because my writing, fiction and non-fiction, is driven by my desire to understand people. Others and through them, myself. So really, if you want to truly understand someone, you need to speak their language - THEIR language. And that is a commitment. Language is a living, evolving thing. To truly understand another person takes a huge amount of effort and time. I have lived with my partner for 33 years and while I have a good grasp of "Shannonese", I can still be surprised by evolving definitions or new nuances.
Life experiences also change our relationship to words and so many words at 55 years of age have very different layers of meaning than they did at 33. Many words with which I had only a theoretical relationship are now small lexicons of their own.
How you respond emotionally to that word has nothing to do with a dictionary definition, does it?
Ah, language! It can lift us up and it can trip us up. As usual, I am not offering answers or insights. I'm just sitting here wondering.
I will say this, though. The language centre in the brain is an amazing thing, but I can't understand nothin' about nothin' if my heart isn't involved.
I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin'.
“I think you have three choices,” says my wise friend when I ask him how he stays joyful in this world on the brink.
“You can live in ignorance,” (Been there, done that.)
“You can live in despair,” (Got the t-shirt.)
“Or you can live in hope.”
Well, that sounds good, let’s do that, I say.
But it’s not so simple, is it?
Hope, says Emily Dickinson, is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.
Great, Em, says I, but how do you get the feathered thing to stay with you?
That’s what I’m wondering today as I sit on my deck in the cool morning and listen to the birds. I can’t see them all, but I know they’re there. I hear that beautiful chorus.
I want them to feel safe in my yard, to want to visit me, so I sit quietly with my heart open and ready. I silently invite these feathered beings to be with me today. And I will invite them again tomorrow. And when the rains come and their song is harder to hear, I will just have to trust that they are still out there and invite them over and over, and never stop at all.
It’s 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday, and so far today, I have reorganized my office, burst into tears when I saw a picture of a lamb, started six emails and finished one, danced to a good song, ate Egg-in-a-Hole for the first time in about five years (in response to a wave of nostalgic cravings), wrapped a present for someone I probably won’t get to see at Christmas, stared at a picture of my great-niece for about ten minutes straight, went on a deranged search for tissue paper, cleaned the toilet, had an argument with myself and lost, balanced my cheque book and then ranted (to a picture of a dog) about the fact that banks don’t supply cheque book registers anymore.
Today’s topic is mental health.
Generally, I consider myself a fairly well-adjusted adult. Apart from menopause, I have never had to seek treatment for anything in the realm of mental health—and I know how lucky I am. Perimenopause, with its hormone surges, created mood swings that made me think my cheese was sliding off my cracker until I realized what was happening. That was the first time in my life that I really thought about my mental health.
And this is the second. Living with a global pandemic is a whole new thang for all of us. We are in uncharted waters, and none of us can predict how we will react within this new set of variables.
My life has been relatively unaffected by the pandemic, yet I am aware of the ambient stress in the air, the fear that hangs over our world like a global weather warning. We need to pay more attention to our overall well-being. Perhaps this is one of the benefits of this difficult time – it is pushing us to think and talk about our own mental health.
Few of us are shy about discussing physical health: exercise, diet, sleep. We love to talk about our aches and pains and ailments. Why do we lower our voices when we say, mental health?
I am not lowering my voice. As I told my students last week, sometimes I am the last to know when I am feeling dysregulated. We talked together about a situation last week, where I bawled them out about leaving their basketballs outside in the rain. I had been mid-rant when I heard myself, and realized I was discombobulated. I also shared with them how I got myself regulated again.
At home, I clue in to my dysregulation when I notice certain “red flag” behaviours in myself: like getting up in the middle of a conversation to straighten a picture on the wall, or cleaning the kitchen counter for the 80th time in a row.
One of the things I am most grateful for in my life is a partner who will talk me down when I ask her to. I know I can count on her to gently suggest that I do something to self-regulate when she finds me cleaning the bottom of the sliding door with a Q-tip, or flipping out about the lack of space in the refrigerator.
Lately, there’s been a lot more of these “unexpected reactions.” They are both a sign and a symptom to let me know it’s time to pay attention to my mental well-being.
The other red flag is what I call glitch capacity.
Now, under normal circumstances, I have a typical glitch capacity. Not as high as some, not as low as others. I think I can safely say that most parents have a higher glitch capacity than I have. All the practice, I imagine.
But I can handle glitches as well as the next seasoned teacher. They are, after all, part of the job. But, like most of us, when I am feeling worn out or ill, my glitch capacity falls. In these circumstances, I might have a more difficult time dealing with some little snafu that comes up.
In spite of NOT feeling ill or worn out, I have noticed my glitch capacity dropping steadily since the pandemic began. Once upon a time, being stranded overnight with a bus full of teenage volleyball players during a blizzard in northern Manitoba registered as slightly inconvenient. In my present emotional state, the afore-mentioned wet basketballs almost caused a meltdown of epic proportions.
A few months ago, the little hiccups of life barely registered as glitches. Now, they can cause tears, immobilization, indecision, panic . . . all manner of unexpected reactions. And being someone who is not used to these reactions, they can be upsetting, embarrassing, even a little scary sometimes. What to do?
As always, I ask myself, what I would say to a student who was experiencing this? I would tell them not to worry, assure them that it was temporary, explain that it is probably just a sign of heightened anxiety and perfectly understandable. I would soothe them, cajole them, and distract them.
So, Mon, don’t worry. Your cheese is fine and your cracker’s never been all that steady anyhow. But you’re okay. Feelings are feelings, not facts.
Why don’t we go for a nice, long walk?
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