mental health

That time my life was a TLC song lyric

I have been struggling with body acceptance lately, but 2-3 weeks at the gym with Coach Dr. Booté and I feel a lot better about it. Do I wanna lose 10 lbs? Sure, and I probably will. But I can look at myself in the mirror and say to myself “not bad, you’ll do”. #progress

I went dancing this week for fun, not as part of the team or dance squad. I dressed up, because it is easier to let myself be vulnerable when I am not feeling insecure about my looks – putting my best foot forward. #immyfathersdaughter #badpunsareathinginmyfamily

I had a good night of dancing, with many partners, most of them excellent leads, and my capacity to relax into a state of vulnerability to achieve the necessary connection with my partners wasn’t terrible. #practicemakesperfect #dancingasacopingmechanismagainstmyshadow. While waiting for my Uber outside the club, a car drove past me, and guy leaned out of the passenger window and yelled, “GIIIIIIIRL! YOU HAVE ASS FOR DAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYSSSSSSSSS”.

Not gonna lie, I really enjoyed that. Both because as far as cat-calls go, it was well articulated, properly enunciated and grammatically correct, and because I never expected that my life would be a TLC lyric, incarnate:

A scrub is a guy that can’t get no love from me
Hanging at the passenger side of his best friend’s ride
Trying to holler at me

That’s the second time I’ve been creatively cat-called on that same street corner. My new go-to location for an ego boost.

#itsthesmallthings

#hewouldhaveassfordaystooifhesquatted

#IcanintroducehimtoCoach

#backtobeingpromotionalmaterialforthegym

Not my street cred: A story about livers and attitude

This is not my story. But it is a story, nonetheless.


Almost 2 years ago, I joined my current company. As part of the onboarding process, I was teamed with an “office mate”, a dude named CSD, to show me around, answer generic questions, be my go-to person about life at the office. He worked in Ops, was a manager and was chosen because he is “youngish, funny, outspoken, opinionated like you, Vanilla. Pretty sure you guys will really get along.” CSD quickly became my friend & my ally. Ops and Finance sometimes struggle to collaborate, so it was great having someone to keep me connected to the “real” world from up top in my ivory finance tower. CSD is super smart, efficient and pig-headed like me, but goes about office politics very differently from me. I value his opinion, and would often seek it out. We chatted almost every day.

About 9 months ago, CSD started missing work with semi-regular frequency, and working from home. I missed my buddy – who could I rant to, when I needed to say the things that I couldn’t, as a manager, say in front of my team? Why was CSD not in the office when I needed him? I didn’t pry, bc CSD has excellent work ethic, so his absences could only mean health issues, and that was none of my business. About 6 months ago, the frequency became almost weekly. I worried. But coworker-friends are different from non-coworker friends: privacy & boundaries are a thing. CSD eventually asked for my advice on how to broach a health update with senior management, because of my talent for writing: revealing enough to address their worries without over-sharing. That’s how I found out that CSD was up against a big-time health issue, not a small-time hypochondriac issue.

It’s no secret that the Qc healthcare system has not been good to my family (Exhibit A: my mom. Exhibit B: my youth, how I was branded a cripple before I turned 12. Exhibit C: my difficulty finding a GP). So when CSD’s health issues proved to be complicated to diagnose, I mourned, anticipating another life derailed by Fate and our bureaucratic, incompetent, healthcare system. It seemed so unfair: CSD was young, took care of himself, ate healthily, exercised regularly. Pretty sure he recycled.

Last week, CSD underwent a successful liver transplant, necessary to save his life. Chatting with him via Messenger, 24 hours after surgery:

Holy shit I’m kicking some ass and taking names! Vanilla, I’ve set 3 hospital records already. What did I tell you about that attitude, lol? I woke up today and demanded the ventilator be removed. I was eating solids and walking less than 24hours after the op. (Side note: that alone BLOWS MY MIND. In each of my surgeries requiring a general anesthetic, I was puking my guts out for almost 2-3 days, so violently did my body reject those drugs.) How? Well, I’m a bit of an animal. I hate hospitals. And I have a tenacious attitude to get the fuck out. I gave myself a goal: I get a new tv and PS4 pro if I can get released for home. Then in 6months a 2week vacation down south, and in 1year a 2week trip to Greece with the fam.

Here’s my philosophy: I don’t know what’s in front of me but I know I have to jump off the deep end and just keep swimming. Can’t turn around, just keep moving no matter how fast the current. (*)


I sat with a goofy, teary smile plastered on my face for an hour after getting the news his surgery was successful. My relief was so profound. I realized that for all these months, I’d assumed that his would not be a happy ending. That’s a pretty fucked up attitude to have. Maybe my friend is not wrong when she suggests I have room for improvement in my optimistic outlook on life. I marvel at CSD’s messages immediately post-op. That would not be my attitude. I am not sure I am even capable of that attitude (**). I do know that no matter what life throws at me, no matter how deep my despair, I have this seemingly endless capacity to keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when I can’t see my way forward – that is what makes this battle with my shadow so exhausting, but is also, as my therapist reminds me, what stops me from being suicidal, so “count your blessings Vanilla!

Still, I can draw certain parallels btn CSD’s approach to life, and my own. We both believe in investing in one’s health on a regular, preventive basis. His habit of regular exercise and mostly healthy diet is a huge factor in his supersonic recovery. Most of my therapy sessions are not covered by my insurance, because mental health is still taboo, and psychologists do not enrich Big Pharma and the economy, so insurance companies do not typically cover more than a handful of therapy sessions. I calculate that between my previous 20month therapy stint, and my current one, I’ve paid $10K out of pocket. This funk might be a bad one, but those $10K have given me a toolbox to help me put the breaks on this funk’s attempt to spiral into something much worse. Then I wonder if maybe we both are kidding ourselves: if Fate really wanted to fuck shit up, there is nothing anyone could do to prevent it.

I’m so happy Fate decided not to fuck shit up this time. And I’m so so happy that CSD’s story has a happy ending. 


This is the Facebook post CSD made public yesterday, which I share with y’all to raise awareness of both the medical condition and the organizations in our province and country that work to bridge the gaps in our healthcare system, and because I can’t possibly do a better job than he at conveying his inspiring attitude.

As many of you may not be aware today is the one week anniversary since I was the recipient of an orthotopic liver transplant. This emergency and life saving operation was required due to a very rare genetic blood disorder known as Budd-Chiari Syndrome and without it, I would have been lucky to have made it to my birthday next month.

Because things have been going quite well and (fingers crossed) I’m on my way to a successful recovery, today I finally felt comfortable to publicly start sharing a few photos of my story as well as take this opportunity to draw some much needed attention to highlight a few of the many, many amazing people and organizations that make life saving transplantation in Canada possible.

Firstly, I want to share my thanks to the selfless and incredible work of the nursing and support staff from the ICU and transplantation units at the MUHC Royal Victoria Hospital. Without them none of this would have been possible and I cannot begin to express my gratitude for the incredible quality of care. They, along with the doctors, have been the highlight of this whole experience. We are very fortunate in this country to have these men and women dedicated to our healthcare and make no mistake, they need our support. So especially if you’re a resident of Quebec, please take the time to become informed on the funding current situation. Our nurses and doctors deserve better.

Side note – I will be writing about my experiences in an upcoming op-ed in the coming weeks as I’ve had the chance to hear many, many of their stories. And, after spending a number of weeks deeply imbedded in the public healthcare environment, I’ve become a very strong advocate for a patient-specific healthcare system in this country.

Finally, I would like to draw attention to a number of the organizations that raise awareness, funding and provide support for transplantation in Canada. Please consider donating. Without them, many of our fellow Canadians would not be with us today.
The Canadian Transplant Association (CTA), is a registered charitable organization founded to enrich and celebrate life while promoting organ and tissue donation across Canada.
The Canadian Liver Foundation (CLF) is devoted to providing support for research and education into the causes, diagnoses, prevention and treatment of all liver disease.
CORD is Canada’s national network for organizations representing all those with rare disorders. CORD works with governments, researchers, clinicians and industry to promote research, diagnosis, treatment and services for all rare disorders in Canada.

Thanks, and look forward to sharing more of my story as I continue down the path towards better health and a full recovery.


Disclaimer: I requested, and received, CSD’s full permission to share his story on my blog. This is one of those rare times where I write about a coworker on my blog – mainly because this story is far bigger than the restrictive label “coworker”.

(*) CSD would like it to be known that he was high off morphine when he wrote that. While he stands by the content, he wishes to clarify that his normal writing style is mildly less grandiose.

(**) CSD also would like to point out that he played an 18-hole round of golf after getting the phone call that he’d been matched to a liver, and was to show up to the hospital the next morning for the transplant operation. I am definitely not capable of that attitude. 

When a post about toolboxes turns into a post about constipation

Step 1 to fighting my shadow is always going back to Coach and his workouts at the gym. His nick-name is Dr. Booté (as explained here and here) because he is “good for the booty and good for the soul.” Which is 100% true. How many ppl do you know who have this much fun while suffering?

 

I went once last week. I felt immediately more stable. That gym tho. It truly is a remarkable place. A safe haven.

I went on Tuesday, where we lifted very heavy shit, and did a circuit to end all circuits.

I went yesterday. I had a knot in my left thigh. Coach massaged it, I did squats, and felt a 2nd knot forming. By the end of the workout (which included another circuit to end all circuits – Coach is extremely creative in his methods to make us suffer and sweat!), I was pretty sure my leg had transformed itself into one giant knot. No muscle, no fat, no bone, just knot. Today, I woke up and apparently I’ve put on 5lbs overnight: water retention, my body’s usual reaction to brutal workouts as it attempts to heal itself. Also? I’ve been constipated for the past 3 days, my body’s usual reaction to extreme stress. Am I stressed at work? Yeah kinda, but really? my body is stressed because IT THINKS I AM DYING FROM BRUTAL PHYSICAL ASSAULT.

Who said going to the gym was good for you? I am a bloated, constipated cripple.

Yet…

I really do feel better. While I’ve been abiding by my therapist’s orders to move almost every day for at least 30mins, bc of all my dancing, I now realize that isn’t enough. I need the next level release of endorphins which come from Coach’s brutal workouts. The fact that those workouts come with friends and a lot of laughter? Can’t hurt. Except for the extreme muscle soreness. That part hurts a lot.

So yeah. My body feels like it has the flu, but my mind feels better.

Also? I discovered adult coloring books.

 

My shadow is a worthy opponent, but it ain’t gonna beat me this time. Coach + coloring books. I’m all set, apparently.

Now about this constipation… How can I convince my body I am not dying, I put myself through those hellfire workouts on purpose?

#thestruggleisreal

 

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.”

It starts with the eyes

I’ve tried so hard to not admit this. Tried to be hopeful about it, but I can’t avoid it any longer. I am not ok.

Since seeking out my beloved therapist for my volcanic emotional reactions (I lied about my shadow), I’ve had less and less angry eruptions. Progress? Nah. More like defeat – there’s just no point in getting angry, I won’t be heard anyhow. My January breakthrough of owning my right to be angry? Undone. Worrisome. Especially since anger and sadness are two sides to the same coin, and I’ve quite the history with sadness.

I’ve lost my drive to write – nothing seems pertinent, of interest, worth sharing. I remember writing these words, once upon a time:

That, ladies and gents, is why I write. To share what is painful. Sometimes – hopefully, most of the time – it is painfully funny, but sometimes it is the ugly painful. Exploring the pain is an exercise in excruciating vulnerability; vulnerabilility, to quote Brené Brown, is “the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

I no longer have painful stories – I am too tired to feel pain. I am too tired to be connected. I withdraw, exhausted. The to-do list piles up, the guilt of being an MIA friend, of not answering texts, breaking promises, not showing up because all I want to do is take a nap in my apartment that I am too tired to clean… I don’t go out except for the occasional quiet supper with close friends with whom I feel safe enough to be my boring tired self, and not put on a show or be witty and entertaining. This particular, familiar weight of being a perpetual disappointment is settling down on my shoulders. I am too tired to feel.

I cave in at work because I’ve lost the energy to fight for what needs to be done. Vanilla, agent of change? No. Leave me alone, I just want to try not drown. I am aware that the drowning is partially self-inflicted, because of my terrible concentration. I don’t even escape onto social media much anymore – scrolling on Facebook requires too much effort. I stopped caring.

I stopped dating, or flirting, because my hormones are MIA, and really? No point investing effort in what will only end up in disappointment.

I stopped wearing make up or doing my hair. I still do laundry, but my clean clothes are piling up in an unfolded heap on my bed. I sleep to one side, almost falling off my bed. Uncomfortable, but less energy consuming than folding my clothes.

I’ve stopped working out – often because of work, but also due to an inability to arrange my schedule or get my shit together in time to make it to the gym. For a brief moment I considered hating my body, but that requires too much effort. I just put on random clothes, and no longer take pleasure in my appearance. But really, why care about my appearance? I don’t want to get noticed, because I don’t want to deal with dating or flirting scenarios.

I still go dancing, because I am a good girl, and I refuse to let down my team. But my pleasure is mostly gone. Like a robot, I go through the moves, without intention. We had a performance Saturday. I bombed. Watching the video, I can see the effort being put into the appearance of having fun, which consumed all my bandwidth, leaving me with complete blanks about the choreography. Part of me vaguely feels bad for letting down the team, not bringing my A-game, but most of me is happy that no one noticed that I wasn’t mentally present.

 

After our show on Saturday, I stayed for the social and danced till 3am. I was relieved to feel echoes of my former peace while dancing with partners. It felt good to dress up and take pride in my appearance – I was relieved to discover that I cared enough to do so. First time in weeks, since getting back from France. The time before that? May.

Looking at pics from Saturday, I can see my deterioration. It’s all in the eyes. My smile no longer reaches them.

Our first show in May. Real smiles.

Saturday’s show.

And then there was my reaction to Chester Bennington’s death. Not “how sad” but “at least he is finally free”.

I write this, not because I think it is pertinent, of interest, worth sharing. I write it because the only way to fight my shadow’s attempt to silence my voice is to speak up. I write it because of the power of simple conversations to change mental health taboos. I write it to remind myself that it is ok to admit to struggling – voicing it strips my shadow of some of its power over me. Having admitted it, I have my tool box and I will use it

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

The advantage of a digital trail

You know those Facebook memories? Lately, a lot of ppl in my dance community have been sharing memories. Several times in May, I was surprised to not remember the moments being shared –  sure enough: I didn’t know those people at that date. Kinda hard to remember something I never witnessed with a bunch of ppl I hadn’t yet met.

I forget that I’ve been dancing for less than a year. Thank goodness for this blog, which helps me keep track of the stories in my life.

Thanks to Teacher’s propensity to tape everything and share it on social media, I have concrete evidence of my learning curve. Behold, a choreography learned in beginning of January 2017.

Kuduro • AfroHouse | drkizomba.com

A post shared by 🅳🆁 🅺🅸🆉🅾🅼🅱🅰 (@drkizomba) on

 

We did not revisit that choreography until this past Tuesday. Behold, the same choreography, set to different music.

 

4.5 months makes a lot of difference.


Boxing taught me a lot of life lessons, at a time in my life where I was defenceless against my shadow. My depressions had me convinced I was worthless. Through boxing, I learned to fight – and there is no point of fighting for a worthless cause; to fight means I am worth fighting for. Key lesson.

Dancing is the next step. To dance is to accept one’s spot in space and to be seen as one is, imperfections and all, rather than as one would like to be perceived. To dance kizomba is to accept connection. It is an intimate, sensual, physical dance: chest and legs touching.  As a follower I must accept the leader’s lead: that requires giving up control, trusting him to guide me with clarity so that I can translate that into movement. It is a form of vulnerability. By accepting to follow, I must accept that I will sometimes get it wrong: I won’t understand, I’ll step on the leader’s toes & stumble, I’ll react too slowly, I’ll fuckup his intentions. I must accept that my imperfections will be seen and trust that the leader will treat them with kindness and patience and work through them so we can create something lovely together. My overriding need for perfectionism is one of the ways my shadow wears me down into depression, bc perfectionism is incompatible with compassion and vulnerability, the two cornerstones of human connection. By dancing, therefore, I am weakening my perfectionist tendencies, and strengthening my capacity for compassion and tolerance for vulnerability. By dancing, I am keeping my shadow at bay.

Accepting that vulnerability and connection hasn’t been easy: I still resist. The most common feedback I get from Teacher and his assistant is, “Try to follow, ‘Nilla, please? You are not the leader“. As I embrace the struggle of letting go of all the noise in my head, and opening myself up to the music and every partner’s unique energy, I am applying these lessons to my daily life. Setting aside one’s agenda to listen to another person, accepting that one’s imperfections will be seen and are just as worthy of compassion as those of others, are principles that apply just as much to verbal communication as to non-verbal communication. By dancing, I am learning kindness.

For months, I used to freeze up into a rigid unmoving blob on the dancefloor if a dance partner attempted such a move – I’d panic, convinced he’d drop me. My rejection of connection & vulnerability, physically manifested as an uncontrollable reaction.

​When I think of how much my life has changed since quitting boxing and taking up dancing, my confidence, my relationship with my body, my ever-expanding social circle, I can’t believe I crammed all that in such a short time period. I can’t wait to see what other lessons await me. There is so much to learn, technically and emotionally; so much happiness and joy to discover.

And I’ll have a digital trail to remind me of all these key lessons.