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Coloring when colorblind

My current funk is a pretty bad one. Crying at work in the bathroom, feeling fragile. Obvi, my concentration is shit, trying to focus through this fog. A lot of effort is being spent appearing normal, and I am not quite sure I am succeeding. Given the gravity of the situation, I have been resorting to some pretty extreme measures:

  • Forced social time with ppl I feel safe with –> bc my shadow’s #1 goal is to isolate me and drown my emotional brain with narratives that imply I am unlovable. As my grasp on reality weakens, there remains certain ppl I know love me unconditionally, with whom I can be my unwell self without judgment. Dynamo. My cousins. Allie.
  • Lots and lots of downtime, to recover from the strain of socializing with those people –> It feels embarrassing to require 1 hour of alone time for every hour spent in public, but so it is right now. I NEED the time-out, without it I am filled with despair. I need to recharge from the effort of appearing normal, a Herculean task.
  • Exercising with Coach 3 times a week until my mental health stabilizes –> No bailing, under any circumstances. That means skipping dancing on Tuesdays, getting my shit together at work to leave “early” at 6pm on Thursdays, and setting my alarm on Saturday mornings.

This weekend, I went to the gym and as expected, almost died during Coach’s workout. That gym really is my happy place.

Everyone who walks into the gym is looking for an escape from the outside world. Yes, the same can be true of a yoga studio. But here, people are looking for a reprieve from the tangle of thoughts, emotions, and frustrations that is a necessary by-product of being alive through the action of hitting an inanimate punching bag over and over again. It’s a safe haven that allows a person to work through whatever they need to work through, surrounded by people doing the exact same thing. The particulars of each individual’s tangled mess is irrelevant; everyone has preoccupations, and the gym is our way to work through our shit. People who walk through the door are looking for the freedom of a few hours when socially acceptable constraints are no longer required. The punching bags become the recipient for every harsh word that was bitten back through the day, every slight that was received, every injustice, every worry. For a few hours, the world stops pushing, and we can push back as hard as we want, without any consequences. Bliss.

I hadn’t realized how corrosive the dance environment can be for my body-image: my team-mates describing me factually, never meanly, as “too heavy for so-and-so, well of course you are tired, you partnered with Vanilla, you are used to dancing with Blonde, she’s light as a feather, watch your back, don’t get injured. I hadn’t noticed how often now I scrutinize my appearance wondering if I really DO look that much bigger than all the other girls, maybe I am in denial, maybe I am wrong for thinking I am healthy. Dance IS an aesthetics based art. There are norms, the audience must find the dancers appealing etc. At social events, guys ask the girls they find most attractive to dance, until a girl earns herself a reputation for being a fantastic follower – and even then, looks factor heavily in the balance. That is all understandable. It just fucks with my mind. I need the counter-narrative provided by my gym, where skinny is NOT good, and muscles are celebrated: when I, or any of the girls, lift as much as some of the guys, it is praised, by Coach AND the other guys. One of the best boxers at the gym is an Olympian and two-time Worlds medalist: the male boxers boast if they survive a round of sparring with her, “Yo man, her hooks to the body! Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick, I need to find a way to generate as much power as her. Wow, she’s amazing!” A strong body is a sexy body. Strong body, strong woman, fuck aesthetics, own your power, be an Amazon. That’s the vision celebrated by Coach & the guys at the gym.

On the way home from the gym, I stopped at my favorite place in Montreal, Park Lafontaine. Just to feel the sun on my face, enjoy my feet in the cool water of the lake and sit. Doing nothing. Taking a breather. A time out.

Saturday, I wanted to go dancing. Bc of the team, and all the practices and shows, I no longer go dancing often for dancing’s sake. I felt dread at the prospect of strangers, proximity, connection, uuuuuugh. So I applied one of my new rules: spend time with someone I feel safe with. Blonde on my team makes me feel safe.  I do not feel judged when I am with her. She encouraged me to attend the dance event, so I did. I felt bloated and gross, and multiple partners told me I was too stiff, to relax. I was not having fun, always irritated with my partners, and frustrated with myself. Blonde pumped me with shots of alcohol and encouraged me to keep trying, and by the last hour of the night, I found myself smiling while dancing. It took me 4 hours to get to that space of openness & vulnerability required for dancing, but I made it! #smallvictories

Sunday, I spent the morning with Dynamo and his wife. I love them so. But 3 hours of love and brunch wiped me out. I sought refuge chez moi, and spent the afternoon coloring.

Overall, this weekend did me good. It was hard, at times, so hard. EXHAUSTING. But I did what needed to be done to manage my shadow, and found moments of contentment. Contentment is not the same thing as joy, my IG Crema filter is still firmly in place, but this weekend, and all it’s small victories, gave me enough ammunition to stop my shadow from changing the filter to Moon (black & white).

Right now, that’s worth celebrating.


Recap of the current funk:

A different kind of colour blind

I have lovely friends. Several reached out to me after my last post, just to remind me they are there. One girl in particular – she doesn’t get depression. We’ve had so many talks about it before; she sees how miserable I am, she worries, but she doesn’t get it. Can’t I just trick myself into feeling better? Fake it till I make it? Practice optimism?

That’s cute.

No, I can’t.

As in, I actually can’t. I fully acknowledge the benefits of optimism. I try avoid negativity whenever possible – it is such a drag at work, or in group dynamics. I look to assume positive intent, to see the good in people and the situation. Fucking hard, oftentimes sometimes, but I work very hard at it. I aim to extend to others the same compassion I hope to receive when I am struggling. I can do all that and still be depressive.

Depression is the inability to feel joy. It’s like waking up one day and being color blind.  My current funk is nowhere as drastic as my 2014 depression where I woke up one day in a world of claustrophobic grey. It didn’t matter that I knew that just the day before the sun was bright and the sky was blue; it didn’t matter that I could remember those colors. I was living in a world of grey. For the past two years, I’ve been mostly symptom-free, experiencing the full rainbow of emotions, discovering for the first time what it meant to be alive. I’d say that my current funk is more like living in a world where the Instagram Crema filter has been applied: everything is dimmed, and occasionally the saturation drops to almost nil. My capacity to feel deeply, especially deep happiness, is gone. I can optimistically believe that I will overcome this funk by diligently applying my toolbox: but I am still living in a bland world, and cannot see the bright variety of colours for what they are.

On Monday, I didn’t wanna go to kuduro. But the cornerstone of my tool box is exercise and kuduro = #sweatlife, so I made myself go. I vaguely remembered that once upon a time I loved kuduro, but that love was completely absent on Monday. I wanted a nap. In dance class, we learned a new choreography. It was fast, tricky footwork. I struggled to keep up. I came close to walking out of class several times: this is stupid, I’m a shit dancer, I can’t even count to 8, I look like a newborn giraffe, why the fuck am I here, I hate this, there’s no point. But vanity stopped me: that would be diva behavior, worthy of censure, and a poor reflection on the school & team. I’m no diva. Towards the end of class, I stopped trying to drown out those negative voices – impossible anyhow – and channeled my remaining energy on merely executing the steps (instead of dancing aka expressing myself).

 

Now, I KNOW I love dancing. I KNOW that kuduro makes me feel alive – I’ve documented it extensively in this blog. I can reread those posts all I want, I am the same physical person… but my depressive state makes that joy inaccessible. It has stolen my pleasure.

My rational brain knows my emotional brain is fucking around. But that’s the thing with emotions – they override reason. It doesn’t matter that my brain knows that my emotions are false, untrue, incorrect. These feelings dictate my reality. And to the extent my rational brain understands that this perceived emotional reality is false and unreliable… that adds a layer of confusion, doubt and exhaustion to every moment of the day.

It feels like a war. A constant battle between my two brains. The rational brain fighting to have its balanced, reliable, reality acknowledged and the emotional brain seeking to cover everything in this dark shadow that shuts out love, joy, happiness and sunshine. It is exhausting. “I know that I exist in a world of color and that even though I am only seeing shades of grey right now, the bleakest of views, I am probably ACTUALLY surrounded by vivid colors. But I can’t tell. I can’t feel.” And just like a color blind person can’t fake it by wearing colored lenses, I can’t fake it by plastering a smile on my face and hoping that will result in me feeling better eventually. A depressive person is incredibly skilled at smiling and appearing normal.

It almost seems like a cliché to say comedy comes from pain, but real comedy is connected to the deep pain and anguish we all feel. I worked with Robin Williams in an obscure film called Club Paradise. (…) Robin is one of the most deeply melancholy people you’ll ever meet. You can just see it all over him. It’s what makes him so human, and I love and respect him. Deep down, Bill (Murray) is as serious as a person can be. He’s raging, angry, and full of grief and unresolved emotions. He’s volcanic. Comedy gives them a place to work out ideas and entertain – and these guys love to entertain – but they want you to know they feel. (…) You go see Robin Williams do standup, and you can’t get more laughs than that. I’ve been onstage. I know what it feels like to have those waves of laughter. It’s like being bathed in love. Once you’ve had it, it’s like a drug. It wears off, and then you need something more. I want the audience to feel something more than that. I want them to feel my pain. – Harold Ramis (Sick in the Head, Judd Apatow, p.126)

If the battle is long enough, and the emotions vicious and destructive enough… that’s why the Robin Williams and the Chester Benningtons of this world seek the bliss of permanent silence.


I got this message today from a friend from my extended social circle:

I’m so proud of you! You’re opening up and addressing important mental health issues. My friend was talking about her struggle with depression and I gave her my phone so she could read the article you posted the other day. She was trying to find words to explain to me how she feels and I just said – read this. And then, when she was done reading, she said “Yup! That’s me”. It allowed us to have a really great conversation once it was out in the open. So thank you.

I’m clearly doing not that badly, because I did feel something reading that. Possibly that was my rational brain jumping up and down excitedly, sticking out its middle finger at my emotional brain, and shouting, “SEE, motherfucker?! Vanilla DOES have a voice, she DOES have painful stories, and she WILL continue writing.”

Some shadows can’t be beat

It’s rare that a celebrity death will get to me, on a personal level. Sure, death is always sad, but most celebrities are strangers whose artistic legacy may or may not have affected me. I regret that the planet has lost a person that used their influence for good, bc that is something worth regretting, but I remain unaffected.

There are a few celebrity deaths that hit a bit closer to home. Princess Diana, Robin Williams.

And now Chester Bennington from Linkin Park. This one hurts.

Like every other middle-class white kid growing up in the suburbs, I could sing along to all of Linkin Park’s albums. I could relate. #adolescentangst But unlike most of my teenage musical appreciation, I’ve continued to relate. If anything, I relate more now. Not in a nostalgic way, but in “great music remains timeless and relevant” kinda way. My adolescent angst has given way to my shadow, and it hasn’t been easy. I listen to the lyrics, from their earliest stuff till now, and my teenage recognition of a shared emotion has deepened into a sadness, an understanding of what 17 years of an endless struggle feels like.

That sadness is now tinged with despair. Whenever someone loses their battle against depression, especially after putting up a valiant fight, I panic. The older I get, the more I get it. I get the exhaustion that leads someone to say, “I can’t anymore. I have no fight left in me.” I feel deep sorrow that the world has lost Chester Bennington’s voice forevermore. I am grateful we have record of 17 years of his inspired music. But most of all, I feel an odd satisfaction that finally, the guy is at peace, free from his shadow. 41 years is a lot of years to put up a fight. Well done, buddy. You were a trooper. Thank you for making the rest of us feel less alone, for the space of a few minutes, a few songs. You brought us relief, however temporary. Now, rest. 

This cover. He rolled in the deep, alright.

For those who aren’t as familiar with Linkin Park’s work, I STRONGLY recommend the following albums:

Chester could sing.

Until he couldn’t anymore.

#depressionsucks

Balancing privacy with self-expression

I’ve posting a bit less frequently lately. Not because I don’t have stories, I do. Incredible, stranger-than-fiction stories, from every facet of my life: work, dating, dance. One day, imma write my autobiography, and it will be published as fiction. No, I haven’t been posting because I’ve been struggling with finding the right balance between my stories’ characters right to privacy with my right to self-expression.

My blog is not anonymous. Vanilla is my pen-name, but that’s the only purpose it serves. I post my blog on my Fbk wall, friends, coworkers and family read it. Once I publish a story, I accept that it is part of the interweb, and is no longer my own. People will read it, react to it, use it. Therefore it is my responsibility to take reasonable care that none my content cause excessive harm to my characters. In general, I follow these principles:

  • Anything told to me in confidence? Off-limits – I will never sacrifice my justly-deserved reputation of being the loudest, most discreet, trustworthy friend and coworker in my network for the sake of my blog. Anything said in a public setting, in the presence of others? Fair game. If a story can spread verbally, through other sources than me, I am not violating the subject’s privacy by telling that story on my blog.
  • Any story that is about me? Go for it. However, I notice if there are topics that I am uncomfortable writing about, and use that as a benchmark when deciding to write about others – chances are if I wouldn’t want a story told about me, they won’t either.
  • Any story that features somebody else? Go for it as long as I am comfortable with them reading it: they don’t have to agree with my portrayal of them, but they must recognize it as factually true. I am never mean.
  • Any story that features somebody else negatively? Tread carefully. I must be comfortable with them confronting me about it. I never write when mad, and always try write from a place of kindness and empathy. I limit negative portrayals to the bare minimal context and facts necessary for my readers to understand my subsequent emotions. Afterall this blog’s purpose is to voice my life, for my own mental well-being, and because my readers enjoy relating (or not) to my (mal)adaptive thought-patterns. Will this harm their reputation? Most of the time, this question only is relevant for stories featuring “public figures” like some of the boxers I’ve known, Coach or Teacher. Most of the time, the answer is no, bc I avoid ppl who are jackasses. But in the rare times the answer is yes, that is a red flag: do I care if I hurt their reputation – is that an acceptable cost to my right to self expression? And, if yes, am I sure I cannot get sued for it? To date, I’ve only needed to carefully consider that last question once.
  • Any story that features coworkers? Off-limits. There is precedence of employers firing bloggers for blogging about work or coworkers. Yes, I have mentioned work, and have 1-2 posts that carefully mentioned coworkers, but in flattering terms, with no company-specific details, and my boss was aware of the content. However, all of my work stories are about me, really. I don’t blog about my coworkers because it violates the principle that anything I wouldn’t voice at the office because it would be deemed office gossip should not be mentioned on my blog. And as I refuse to engage in any office gossip because I think that is corrosive to a healthy work environment, and I have a responsibility as a manager to promote vibrant team work, that basically means that none of my work stories are ever shared, verbally or on my blog. Pity, because there is an endless wealth of material there. But some things take precedence over my need to have a voice. Work, and my obligations there, is one of those things.

For the first time in my blogging life, I got it wrong. This week I posted what I thought was a really interesting story, about the mind-boggling experience resulting from helping a friend – it necessarily involved some of my friend’s backstory, to explain why I was involved in such a crazy adventure. However the point of the story was my adventure, and the roller-coaster of emotions that resulted from my saga. As it had a happy ending, did not involve sharing any information that couldn’t already be gathered by any one who had stalked the shit out of my friend’s social media profile, I felt I was abiding by my above principles, balancing my friend’s right to privacy and my right to self-expression.

Apparently not.

My friend was flabbergasted to see his life described publicly. I pointed out the lack of new information – that all the “new” stuff was not about him, but the incidents that I had undergone in my chapter of this adventure. It didn’t matter. For all my logical counter-arguments to his dislike of my post, he kept repeating: “Its my life. You cannot talk about my life.” Of course, I’ve taken the post down, because no matter how much I disagree with his assessment of my post, ultimately, I do not want my blog to strain any of my friendships. But it grates. I flip-flop between thinking “He needs to suck it up, I’m within my rights” and “Just because I am within my rights, does NOT mean I AM right.”

I hate being wrong.

Killing two birds with one blog

Last week I got a message from an acquaintance. We’ve met a handful of times over the past 3 years, no more, because our social networks overlap extensively, but other than being Fbk friends with all the resulting “likes” and superficial familiarity with each other’s virtual life, we are not close.

Vanilla, I need a therapist and it sounds like you have a good one. Would you share his info with me please? It would give me a place to start, and I really need to start. I am not ok.

I forget, sometimes: I forget that people read my blog. Ironically, I do not talk about mental health struggles, or therapy, in my non-virtual life, other than with 2-3 extremely close friends, and even then, in limited dosages, so as to not burden/bore them. Everyone has shit they need to work through, I don’t presume that my problems are more significant or worthy of attention than my friends’. My blog is my space where I share my lessons, stories and struggles, and all my friends are free to read as much or as little of it as they please because that is how the interweb works. And while I periodically get messages/comments that my blog resonates with my readers, this was different. Asking for help is excruciating. Thank you. Thank you for trusting me with your vulnerability.

Friday: 2nd appointment with my therapist. I hadn’t finished taking off my jacket, he thanked me for the referral, nothing makes him happier than positive word-of-mouth from his patients. We got to work, a good productive session as always. As I was leaving, he thanked me again: I explained that really, it is because of my blog – my acquaintance is a long-time reader, almost from Day 1. His gratitude changed to wonderment: But that means that it is public. You’re willing to acknowledge my work on a public platform. That doesn’t happen in our line of work.

Yes, I am. Obvi. Sir, you’ve changed my life, you don’t think I would refer you to any and everybody?

It is jarring and lovely when I get reminded that these words, floating about in the infinite blogosphere, matter.


The power of simple conversations:

#oktosay

My groupie status is confirmed

I’ve always been a fan of the Royal Family. Which Royal Family, you ask? Sigh, THE Royal Family. The family of the Queen of Canada – because yes, she remains our head of state. #commonwealthnotwithstanding. (P.S. Happy 91st bday, your Majesty!)

I possibly maybe day-dream that I am some far-flung distant relative of the Family. My grandmother was the Queen’s doppelgänger. And I have frequently been labelled a princess. Stranger things have happened. It is possible.

But now, with the Heads Together campaign overseen by Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Henry of Wales, I’m legit a groupie. They are doing SO MUCH to normalize the need to talk about mental health. Prince Harry’s interview where he admits he required therapy to cope with the unacknowledged grief of his mother’s death. The Duchess of Cambridge’s admission she struggled adapting to being a mother. The need for these simple conversations.

Look at this video of a convo between Lady Gaga (another one of my faves!) and Prince William:

(Lada Gaga’s open letter on her battle with PTSD can be found here.) Ground-breaking content? No. But relatable? Yes. I felt she was taking the words from my mouth.

Prince William: It’s time that everyone speaks up, and feels normal about mental health – it’s the same as physical health; everybody has mental health, and we shouldn’t feel ashamed of it and just having a conversation with a friend or family member can really make such a difference.

Lady Gaga: Even though it was hard, the best thing that could come out of my mental illness, was to share it with other ppl and let our generations as well as other generations know that if you are feeling not well in your mind, that you are not alone and that ppl that you think would never have a problem do.

For the rest of the videos that are part of the #OkToSay campaign, click here. A mix of celebrities and non, covering a wide variety of mental health topics – how help starts with a simple conversation.

YES.


How did I spend my friday night? At my therapist’s office. First time back in 51 weeks.

Y’all.

It was fantastic. We picked up where we left off. He was SO delighted to hear of all my progress and self-discovery in the past year, and agrees that I’ve done as much as could on my own. Unravelling why I am so easily angered and hurt, and learning to better regulate all of my emotions, both positive and negative, is the next logical step on my path from depression to happiness. We covered an astonishing amount in our hour session – the foundation of trust that had been built in our 20 months of work together still was strong. I’ve some hard work ahead of me, but I left his office feeling so relieved. Relieved because I had had a conversation about how I was stuck: I’d identified the problem, but was powerless to fix it on my own. And now I am no longer on my own. Even the greatest pro boxers need their coach in their corner during bouts. I’ve got him. I’m good now.

He is my 4th therapist in my lifetime. The first was meh, the 2nd was solid, the 3rd was a total waste of my money but I was in such a bad space I thought I was the problem. Not all therapists are made equal, and not all are a good fit. But when you find one that works for you? Game changer. He gave me my life back in 2015, and now he will teach me how to access happiness.

How did I find him? By having a simple conversation with a coworker in 2014, where I confided how anxious networking made me, how much I HATED small talk. She gently remarked that I seemed always anxious, unpleasantly so, and then gave me the name of my therapist, mentioning that she’d consulted him too in the past for something similar. She thought we’d be a good fit: he was competent, zero-bullshit, and funny. When my depression exploded a few weeks later, I called him up.

The power of simple conversations. My admission to my coworker led to an exchange which led me to my therapist, without whom I would not be where I am today, on the cusp of happiness for the first time in my life.

Sharing my recent struggles hasn’t been easy. The conversations that resulted from it however, were lovely. Bit by bit, the dialogue about mental health is becoming less stigmatized.

Tonight, I feel hopeful and grateful.

#OkToSay

 

Me & Prince Harry: same

Last week I wrote about my constant struggle with my mental health issues (ADD & depression – diagnosed; anxious personality) and my reluctant return to therapy.

Writing it was hard. Those aren’t easy, simple or pleasant emotions to unravel. Posting it to Facebook? Excruciating. I was ashamed, and I feared people’s reactions.

Feared their contempt for being:

  • Vulgar. Airing my dirty laundry in public. Ew.
  • Dramatic. Happiness is a choice, obviously. With my life, wtf is my problem thinking I have the right to be discontent. There are children being gassed in Syria, you know. THEY should be sad.
  • Lesser. Mental health is icky. Only weak people have mental problems.
  • Incompetent. The disappointment to my close friends and family that I still don’t have my shit together like I should, that I still underperform, that my inability to do regular adulting activities with consistency causes problems for others, professionally and personally.
  • Crazy. Any emotion, reaction, opinion that doesn’t coincide with theirs is obviously the result of my unregulated mind, and should therefore be discounted. Vanilla is crazy – don’t listen to her.

My coworkers, both above and below me on the corporate ladder, read my blog – would I lose their respect? “I’m not sure we should consider Vanilla for that promotion, her mental health is too fragile.” Boys I’ve dated, boys I have crushes on, boys who might one day date me, read my blog – would they find me less of a woman? “She’s cool and sexy, but I dunno man. All that mental health shit. No, thank you!”

Knowing that yes, it is quite possible I will suffer consequences for posting this, makes me mad. I refuse to let myself drown in self-imposed shame. I feel compelled to write about this, own it, and post it publicly. The ONLY way to get rid of the shame – so unnecessary, so poisonous, so destructive – surrounding mental health IS by talking about it. And if my approach is too brash, well… hopefully I’ll polish it over time, which can only happen if I take chances and try this open approach.


Record number of likes on Facebook. People reaching out to me privately, to commiserate with the incredible burden that is the shame associated with mental health struggles. To ask me more questions because having read my blog they wonder if they/their child/sibling/parent/best friend might have X health issue, they never considered that as a possibility, they’ll approach the struggles differently, with greater empathy and understanding. To say they too have Y mental health issue. To compare resources they’ve used. To thank me – they feel less alone in their struggles; they always thought I was one of those ppl, “so happy and smiling and friendly, fit, has her shit together”. They realize now that no, I just have (mostly) mastered the art of faking it, at huge personal cost.


A few days after my post, Prince Harry made the news for admitting he’d been in therapy for the long-standing, serious repercussions stemming from his inability to process his grief following his mother’s death. Anxiety, aggression, all had negative impacts on his royal duties, and professional and personal relationships, and culminated in him seeking professional help to work through his issues. (*)

Even at royal engagements, he said, he had found himself battling a “flight or fight” reaction without properly 
understanding why. Once he started opening up to friends, he added, he found those same friends felt able to “unravel their own issues”. (…)

“I know there is huge merit in talking about your issues and the only thing about keeping it quiet is that it’s only ever going to make it worse,” he said.

YES.


I told my CFO-boss. I wanted to warn him that I’d recognized the blips in my performance, and I was taking steps to rectify them before they further deteriorated. Was that the right thing to do? I dunno. It was risky. I’ll find out the next time I am up for a promotion if it paid off.

As for boys… I tell myself, the blog doesn’t really make a difference – they’d find out first-hand about my emotional messiness anyhow, live. Best they find out via the blog and move on, than find out gradually and make those hurtful comments to my face.

I don’t have the energy to pretend anymore. I don’t see the point. Life, adulting, is fucking hard enough without pretence.

None of us should feel ashamed for our struggles.

Sometimes, silence is overrated.

#OkToSay

 

(*) Check out their Royal Highnesses‘ work on mental health, through their charity Heads Together. I think it is brilliant.