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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 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.

 

My Muslim-Catholic-Orthodox Easter

Faith and religion are thorny issues. Deeply personal ones too, except when they become the cause of so much world conflict and hatred.

Funny joke:

Easter wasn’t celebrated in the USA this year because Jesus, with his Middle Eastern background, got stopped at the border.

Ha. Ha.

Sigh.


I was baptized Russian Orthodox Christian. However, due to my mother’s poor health, she was unable to make the weekly treck downtown to the 2 Russian Orthodox Churches in Montreal. She firmly believed that any religious upbringing was better than none, so she brought me to the Catholic parish close to our home. I attended that church from the age of 8 to 22, and integrated myself into that community, singing in various choirs, meeting my high school best friend, experiencing my first adolescent crush, doing volunteer work – some of my happiest memories from my youth are from that parish. My mother also enrolled me in an all-girls school run by Catholic nuns, because she admired the nuns’ mission to educate strong-minded, independent feminist girls. She was not alone: my fellow students were Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Mormon, Catholic, and avowed atheists. We studied all the major religions on the world: the nuns explained that while they were true to their faith, they weren’t in a position to pass judgment on the other religions. Moreover, if we were to be true citizens of the world, capable of empathy, tolerance and good manners, we needed to understand the broad tenets of each faith, as well as the socio-geo-political implications of each religion.

The consequence of this upbringing is that I identified primarily as Catholic, when young. However, my mother made sure I understood the differences between the Catholic and Orthodox faiths, and I’ve continued to attend Orthodox liturgies regularly but infrequently (2-3x a year). It is difficult to dissociate cultural heritage from the religious one. Part of my identity is Russian. The older I get, the more I appreciate my Russian roots and relate to the Orthodox dogma. Yet when I go to the Russian Orthodox churches, I am overwhelmed by my feeling of exclusion from that community. I don’t speak the language, I am SO Western, I don’t belong. The usual struggles of any 2nd generation immigrant.

I feel like a fish out of blessed water. I do not belong anywhere.


I was ex-communicated for having pre-marital sex with my then-boyfriend at the age of 23. It makes me laugh, now, except not really. It remains one of the most upsetting things to have ever happened to me.

I’ve struggled to reconcile the requirements of my faith with my reality as a young adult living in a secular society. Now that I am less young, I struggle even more. As y’all know, reading this blog, I aim to live a life of integrity, vulnerability, joy and self-realization. That’s HARD. I am also aware that while those are good goals, some of the behaviours that allow me to achieve them are not compatible with the requirements of my religion. I have no idea how to reconcile my identity and my faith.

Enter Dynamo. If I as a haphazardly-practicing Christian find navigating a secular world difficult, Muslims have got it a bazillion times worse. Dynamo has successfully built a life for himself that works, that is fully integrated in this secular, frequently intolerant of Muslims, world, yet allows him to practice his faith (e.g. Ramadan, Halal food, no alcohol). I consider him my role model, especially since we inhabit a similar social & professional world; it isn’t easy for him. We have talked of our struggles often over the years, the compromises we are comfortable making, as well as some of the similarities and differences in our religious dogmas. But the differences don’t matter, nor do our failings – we share this struggle, and encourage each other to be our best selves. As Dynamo told me 2 months ago:

Happiness is a choice, and is contingent on the alignment of the values you hold dear and your own behaviour.(…) Have your values changed? Because your quest for happiness has not, so make sure your behaviour is reflective of that. I don’t think it is.

My (Christian) values. Not his Muslim ones, although there is a significant overlap. And unlike that Orthodox priest that ex-communicated me, Dynamo does not judge me. He gently reminds me to reconsider that which matters to me. My Muslim friend wants with all his heart that his Christian friend finds happiness, peace and salvation.


After months away from any church, of any denomination, I spent Easter weekend (this year, Orthodox and Catholic Easter coincided) with my Catholic godmother and her family. We went to church a lot. The responses, the exclamations, the prayers of my youth were instinctive. I found myself weeping a lot – a mixture of grief, repentance, and happiness. I’m no closer to aligning my behaviour with my values, but it’s clear to me that this is a struggle I wish to continue engaging in. I cannot, despite my best efforts, break away from my faith.


How wonderful is it that my Orthodox faith is sustained by the love of my Muslim friend?

#HappyEaster

#IslamophobiaFTW

Onto the more important stuff

After months of posts about self-discovery, personal growth, travelling, happiness, dancing… time to knuckle down and address the big issues in my life.

I’m having a bad hair day.

NOT a my hair looks fine to everyone else I’m just freaking out on the inside bad hair day. NOT a this is a relaxed weekend “forgot to shower” look at the office oopsies bad hair day.

NO.

A Bad Hair Day.

Behold, a selfie:

I naively hoped my hair would fix itself during my commute, if I prayed hard enough and asked it kindly. It didn’t, divine intervention couldn’t save the sitch.

Fun fact: its too late to ask for a sick day once you are already at the office.

Kim gets me.

#makeitstop

#oneofthosedays

Mais je me considère Parisienne, du coup!

3rd time back in Paris within 4 months, 7th time ever.

The clerk at the hotel front desk offered me a complimentary map of Paris; I smugly thanked him, “Ce n’est pas nécessaire, merci. Je connais Paris très bien.”  (“That won’t be necessary, thank you. I’m very familiar with Paris.”). I barely made it into the elevator before doing my victory dance. #snobbybutTRUE #fittingrightin

Obligatory pic on the way to the office, for a jet-lagged afternoon of work:

I love it here. I do. Yes, it’s big, dirty and impersonal, but it feels so right. The rhythm is different, less frantic. I don’t listen to music, bc I love the sound of Paris; the cars are quieter (electric or diesel, the honks less jarring); heels clicking as people walk on the sidewalks (people walk!!); the constant chatter. The French language is so beautiful here – I’m always eavesdropping bc the simplest conversations are filled with humorous expressions and varied vocabulary. On the metro, rare is the person looking at their phone – everyone has their nose in a book. A physical book, not a Kindle. Every street has history, you never know what new beauty you’ll discover when you turn the corner.

One day I will make Paris my home.

“Ce n’est pas nécessaire, merci. Je connais Paris très bien.”

Suitcases: tricky concept

I need a vacation, yeah? And I am going on a vacation. So far so good. Packing? Not so good.

Last night I had a full blown anxiety attack when packing for my Paris/Dubai trip.

The breaking point came when I couldn’t fit my beach towel and the 7 pairs of shoes I absolutely needed. I cried a little bit. But then, I gave myself a talking to, “Vanilla, you are a competent, smart career woman. Problem-solve this! Be proactive. Google. Google will help. Google “How to pack for two different climates”, and everything will work out.” Everything did not work out. Instead, I tried on every single article of clothing from my summer wardrobe – what! At any point in time only 2/3 of my summer wardrobe fits me, and it isn’t always the same two thirds… I am female. My weight and shape changes dramatically from year to year! I haven’t worn that stuff in a year, my body has changed a LOT! Last year, I was muscular and an Amazon. This year I am #skinnybitch except I happen to be PMSing and bloating right now which means that omgomgomgnothingfitsmeIamsogross.

After 2 hours of packing, I was exhausted from the physical effort of changing in and out of outfits, and had my shampoo and flipflops packed. It was midnight.

I ended up resorting to the tried and true method of packing:

Pretty sure I have my toothbrush. I think. I have two pairs of sunglasses, so that counts for something, right?

This is true love

I love cheese.

I’ve fallen in love with every water (and waitress) that has come by to offer to sprinkle cheese on my Italian meal. And by sprinkle, my meal is cheese with a side of Italian food ingredients.

Today. Valentine’s day. I hate Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day is the reason I started blogging. I decided to ignore the whole concept. Didn’t bring chocolate to the office, dressed in black (and purple), just a normal day in the life of Vanilla.

Until.

My junior knocked on my cubi-office, and handed me a aluminum foil rectangle.

From one single girl, to another… Happy Valentine’s Day.

Y’all.

She got me a grilled cheese sandwich. If that is not true love, I don’t know what is.

I did say I have the best team ever? As if I needed further proof.

#dreamteam

Croissants: Swiss vs French

Here I am, at the Geneva airport, waiting to board my flight home to Montreal. My first trip of 2017: done.

A last minute request from head office brought me to Paris for work. I never knew it was possible to love a job/career/company as much as I do mine. Sure, there are aspects of it that drive me nuts, definitely there are some tasks that numb my soul, but what job doesn’t include that? Overall, I believe in what I do, respect my company, am thrilled by the coworkers I am meeting. This is good stuff.

I love work trips because they allow me to see past the perfect veil of tourist traveling. My favorite part is listening to my French coworkers as they sit for their déjeuner at the company cantine – their expressions, their topics of conversation, their customs, the nuances between France French and Québec French. Noticing the tiny differences between our cultures. I’m aware of how they differ from us, from all my interactions with the French immigrant population in Montreal – it’s the topics of memes and endless jokes. But it is jolting to become aware of how they deem that I (we) are different from them, when I am on their land. 

My love affair with France grows stronger with each visit. And with the backdrop of American turmoil shedding gloom over the world (I won’t even attempt to describe the pervasive mépris the French feel for Americans & American politics right now), walking the streets of Paris, seeing everywhere the juxtaposition of past and present, the scars of battles won and lost on buildings that are older than the entire North American continent (as per Western historical chronology) continues to make me feel that weird mix of sorrow and joy – I feel alive. This post from my trip in June resonates again and again.

I took the TGV Friday after work to go visit my friend in Lausanne for a mini weekend getaway. She is Canadian and was my coworker back in my audit days: I worked with her on several of my most intense mandates. I always admired her for her intelligence, beauty, drive and efficiency. 4.5 years ago, she moved to Switzerland to marry her Swiss-Canadian boyfriend; they now have a beautiful toddler, live in a house with a view of Lake Geneva and radiate happiness. While her first years in Switzerland were filled with homesickness, she now loves it. The fresh air, the quality of life, the absence of all the North American noise and consumerism. She says she has time to breathe and look around her.

And boy, oh boy, is there ever a lot to see.

With every visit to Europe, my Dream grows stronger: I will live here one day. I must. My soul demands it.