The Difference Between Being Careful and Being Free: Who Am I Without Depression?

It was a Thursday. I was wearing leggings as pants. Things were strange.

I felt an overwhelming urge to run, as I always did when the elevator doors were about to kiss each other closed. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk. It was more about the way the psychologist stared at me like there was a pickle growing out of my chin. She announced that we would be spending the hour together painting our feelings. (What she meant by this was that I would paint and she would sit behind me cooing softly.)

“Fantastic,” I said, recalling the week we made a collage of my happy place. The idea was that I would take it out and look at it in the most desperate of moments. This would have been fine if I had known what said happy place would look like, but I didn’t, so I cut and pasted pictures of flowery meadows, soft kittens and chicken parmesan. Things were strange.

I dipped my brush in crimson paint. She asked me if I was angry. Her words were delicate porcelain and I did not want to break them. I told her that I liked the colour red. Things were strange.

The day I decided not to see her anymore was also the day I concluded that art was overrated. I was tired of feeling like a lab rat with a paintbrush, and besides, I had more important things to do, like drink smoothies beneath my duvet of misery. I banished the term ‘artist’ from my resume for the next 6 years. Things were definitely strange.

About 10 months ago, I told my new therapist (who doesn’t treat me like a dolphin with an oven mitt) that despite all of the personal discoveries I’d made, depression seemed to be moving in and making itself comfortable while renting rooms to anxiety and insatiable boredom.

“Well, if we don’t fill the spaces inside of us with things we’d like to feel, other shit moves in. It’s not the good shit, either.”

“You’re losin’ me, P.”

“What do you do when you’re not busy applying the skills you learn in here?”

“I thought they were the whole point.”

“No, balance is the point. Do you know how to have fun?”

I was almost insulted. It felt as if she were insinuating that I was a juice box in the plastic cooler on the beach of life. Who was this broad to tell me I wasn’t Pina Colada mix?! Like clockwork, she lined up to throw one of her exhausting and impressive curveballs of truth.

“You are fun. I can see that from here. Do you know this? What is the difference between being careful and being free?”

I didn’t have an answer to that. I went home that evening and mulled over just what it was that I wanted to feel instead of this ever-present numbness. I recalled the way it felt to have joy ripple through my stomach and crawl into my heart. It’s a very specific feeling; somewhere between wanting to collapse into hearty laughter and the urge to puke a little.

When I was young, I noticed this every day. The feeling fluttered by whenever it happened to be sunny and stormy at the same time. It settled on my shoulders as I set a new record for jump rope. It reached for me every time my favourite song would play over the radio in our minivan. Can you imagine how much joy I must have known during a time when every song was my favourite?

I thought a lot about what kind of person I would have to become to feel like this again. What I could have used in those moments was advice from my 9-year-old self; I had to know what she would do. Somehow I’m certain; it is not this.

This thinking before living. This concern for the stain on my shirt that I am pretty sure everyone can see. This filtering and editing of my thoughts before they are pretty enough for paper.

I don’t have time to wonder how different my life might be if on that Thursday, in those leggings, with that therapist I had said “Yes, I’m very angry.” I don’t have time, but I spend it anyway. I forgive myself for this every day.

I forgive myself every time I pluck the wrong string. I forgive myself when my eyebrows come out more RuPaul than Cara D. I forgive myself in the many moments I am tempted to say “I’m not an artist,” and instead blow the idea away; a spore on a dandelion.

I guess what I mean is that I’m not a traveling hippie, and I’m not a college grad. I still don’t know deadlines, but I get a lot of sleep and I’m slowly becoming more familiar with fun. Things are stranger than ever, and I’m still okay.

(You will be too.)

A Stigmatic Society and a Little Girl’s Laughter

“I have a problem with stigma.”

I see this statement shared continuously over every feed of every social media platform that I use. It makes me ecstatic. I have spent countless hours in therapy agonizing over the ways in which to move beyond Bipolar and operate as a normal, functional human being. But here’s the thing, guys. I kinda don’t fucking want to. I have felt an immense pressure to appear as this beam of light, and an enormous responsibility to give that light to the darkness of stigma, to hold myself up so that the damage it causes is too well-lit for anybody to continue to put it on the back burner.

My main difficulty with the negative connotation surrounding mental illness used to be for reasons such as a combination of high expectations and little empathy. I had to reassure myself constantly that people just didn’t understand, that they couldn’t see the way that I suffered. Don’t get me wrong, these things still bother me, but there are other things that go undetected. Important things. People don’t see the way that I thrive.

They do not see me as I lay on my back, chin up to kiss the stars while combinations are twisted against thousands of safes, releasing my thoughts to tumble over one another. They do not see me swell in gratitude as words appear and I welcome them as if they were diamonds spilling from thin air into my open mouth until I glimmer from the inside. They do not see the kind of release it brings as I send them back to twirl in infinity. What ails me… it heals me, too.

I am never more creative, never more alive than during or directly following an episode. The closest comparison I can make is this: Sometimes, as I sit back and observe my 3 and 5-year-old nieces at play, I swear that they are one blazing billboard, a sign that my illness is also genius. For one thing, they feel. A lot. Loudly and unabashedly. They let me know over and over with their exaggerated moans of both delight and frustration. They do not approach any situation with modesty, and I’ve never heard either of them say “I’m not very good at that.” In fact, they are pretty damn certain that they know everything.

Most of the time, I’m pretty sure that they do, too. Once, after I gave one of them shit for running ahead, she replied “YOU are not the boss of me. You’re not even ANYBODY’S boss!” There were 2 things that occurred in this situation: 1) The thing that I actually did, which was force her to hold my hand and walk alongside me, because toward traffic is not a cool direction in which to gallop. 2) The thing that I desperately WANTED to do, which was to pull her close to me and tell her that no, nobody was her boss. To ask her to always to own this idea and to never believe in such a thing as a ceiling, glass or otherwise.

They also keep that shit so real. They ask whatever questions pop into their thoughts, and if the answer doesn’t give them satisfaction, they invent their own. They particularly like to do it in situations that make me, as an adult, uncomfortable. Somewhere along the way, we are all taught that a very small portion of our wildest visions apply to real life. We begin to learn that we may not grow up to be an astronaut and a ventriloquist and also a ballerina. We begin to understand that the place in which we imagine unicorns that eat broccoli and people who use their hearts instead of their fists is commonly referred to as “La la land.” This place houses everything that we see that is “never going to happen” because it’s “not real.” Maybe it is learned from our parents, or teachers, or that assbag 6th grader who guards the swings and yells truths that we did not ask to hear.

Being told to mellow out, to calm down, to get a grip is being told to unlearn everything that we are conditioned to do by nature. Whether this is necessary is another matter entirely, but it certainly isn’t easy. When I watch either one be told “no,” my heart breaks and bursts at once. Not because I don’t believe in discipline, but because the way their faces curl up in confusion mirrors a feeling that I am so very familiar with. Before Bipolar, before depression, before psychosis and before mania, I had forgotten what it was like to experience this series of discrepancies between what I felt and what was acceptable. To hear such beautiful symphonies and to feel such despair upon realizing that nobody else could hear them. To try my best to assimilate, wondering why the real world couldn’t be more like me.

Please understand that while I associate the confusion of mental illness with the confusion of growing up, it is not meant to say that it is childish or that it can be snapped or grown out of. There are plenty of reasons that I could list as to why it is much, much more complex than that, but that would take me days, and frankly, it’s not why I’m here. What I AM here to tell you is this:

Stigma says that we are an inconvenience, that our symptoms are a burden, a drain. Stigma says that we should be rewired and rewritten to be read in a way that is more fitting for society to accept. Reality says that we are precious, wholesome and magnificent, that our symptoms are the cracks of creativity. Reality says that we shall reclaim our identity and recover. We won’t grow out of it, but we will grow through it.

What I am here to tell you is that dirt is misunderstood. So often we gaze at the flowers and the foliage, paying no mind to the dark, fertile environment from which they sprouted. It is not only your transformation, your end result that should be loved and appreciated.

The next time stigma runs its slimy fingers over your hopeful face in an attempt to draw your eyes closed, this is what I hope your quivering voice will say:

“You speak so boldly of that which you do not know. You stretch my spine so that I may look more like a wooden soldier than a human being. You seek to blind me of the problem, blur my purpose, dress my voice in shackles and my face in a neutral expression. But when you speak, I do not recoil. I do not close my eyes to your lullaby of ridicule. When I stand up straight, it will NEVER be because you pulled me there. It will be because I have wept away the blur and I see more clearly than ever why my voice is so fucking valuable. I will pick every lock until it is your turn to tire and live in silence.”

I hope that as you haul lumber, shuffle papers at your desk or lay sleepless in bed, you will know that whatever you are at this moment is as brilliant as it is tangled. I hope that whenever stigma looms, pouting in your dusty corners, you will honour your inner 3-year-old as you mutter “YOU are not the boss of me.”

An Open Letter to the Woman Standing in Front of Her Mirror

To the woman face to face with her reflection,

You don’t know it yet, but you and I are very good friends. I feel you there, standing in front of your bathroom mirror, seated across from the window of the bus on your daily commute, flipping open your compact in the bathroom stall of a night club. I watch your neck as it jerks back violently, watch you recoil as if your face were a cemetery come to life. I hear you mutter “shit,” under your breath, the way you would if you had discovered something wildly inconvenient. A flat tire. Spoiled milk. A fire alarm at 3 AM. The kind of thing that ruins your entire day. The kind of thing that you would have prevented if only you could go back; if only you had been given the opportunity.

I know that “If Onlys” riddle your days and nights. They come like a stream of headlights in the dark, and you wonder how a town as insignificant as yours could have so much traffic. You imagine yourself somewhere like Times Square where there are far too many sights, too many sounds to notice the headlights. You wonder what it would be like to see a more beautiful version of yourself on a bright billboard, wonder if traffic could move slowly enough for you to run between bumpers carelessly, unconcerned with the “If Only” headed straight for you.

I know these things because I’ve imagined myself there, too. I’ve hoped for hips built like a suspension bridge, covering the gaps in my self-esteem. I have felt that my thighs were like wearing anchors while swimming. Sometimes I scan my wrists for invisible marks where they’ve been cuffed to the scale. The times in which I’ve felt truly beautiful are catalogued in my brain, and I flip through my memory when I need help leaving my reflection behind.

I need you to understand something. I need MYSELF to understand it, too. Whatever it is that you and I are looking for, whatever nameless quality it is that we seek so desperately, we will not find it in that mirror. It cannot be seen up close while we scrutinize our pores. It will not show up in the time it takes for a sideways glance at the cowlick in our bangs. Staring at a reflection is a lot like turning off a ceiling fan. You know you’ve flicked the switch, but staring at the fan as it slows somehow makes it appear to gain momentum until you wonder if you’ve really moved your fingers at all. We cannot stand there, flicking the switch on an off until we are unsure which is which. We’d never get a damn thing done, you and I.

Please know that when I compare you to a hummingbird, it is not because you are weightless in my hand as I pull you from the cage of your ribs, but because you are so colourful, such a rare and delightful sight to behold. A hummingbird’s wings beat an incredible 70 times per second and there are things in you that fascinate me just as much. Know that it is hard not to think of myself as beautiful when I look at you, someone so captivating, so convinced that they are anything but.

It’s been some time since I banished the scale from my existence, but I still don’t feel done with it, because I see you measuring every inch of your being between the digital decimals and digits, and I wonder if anyone has told you yet that you don’t need to. I wonder if anybody has mentioned that you take up more space than you know, in a more positive way than you will ever understand. I question whether or not you have been told that your face is not a grave if your smile can bring enough light to a room to see dust particles dance, that fire alarms were created to save lives.

Don’t we deserve to see ourselves as part of some unbelievable display of nature? Don’t we deserve to look at photos of ourselves and stand open-mouthed as if we were staring down into the Grand Canyon? Who could shame a rainforest? How could we, such unique and mysterious creatures be any less magnificent?

Today, as you read this, I challenge you to leave the bathroom and do something that heals you. I challenge you do look out the window of the bus at the buildings that pass and marvel at all the ground you have covered instead of looking through yourself. I challenge you to toss your compact, have a drink and flail around on the dance floor until the world spins and you are a puddle of sweat and happy exhaustion. I challenge you to cover your mind in love letters that will be true in ways that your reflection on glass can never be.

If you have trouble, find me and I will do these things for and with you. After all, you and I are very good friends.

With love,

Karlee

Bobby Borden and the Hunt for Happy

Robert L Borden on a string, fluttering in the wind.

I watch him dance and I smile. I think about how nice it would be to dance with him, but I know better. I haven’t always known better, of course. I’ve only just learned. It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday in June, and I’ve spent the entire day chasing him around the park.

I felt the $100 bill brush against my wrist this morning as I lay in the soft grass, waiting for something, anything to happen. I reached for it immediately, my fingers turning to claws and my heart turning to an empty pit, ready to be filled. It darted away on a prairie breeze, taunting me, urging me to get up and work for the feeling of paper inside a closed fist. “Nothing is free.”

I knew this, and so did my feet, because they started to run. They leaped and twirled and pounced, trying to catch the bill. I came close numerous times, but never close enough before it took flight again. “C’mon Bob, don’t be a dick.” The sun flickered through the trees as I sat once more at a distance, waiting for the right moment. As it did, the light caught, blinding me a little too temporarily, and I noticed something just ahead. Invisible wire. I couldn’t touch it to verify, but all at once I knew this was not the wind, and not a windfall, either. Not pennies from heaven, but a prank. I raced alongside the glimmering streak, trying to locate the culprit, but the tears clouded my eyes until I could not separate the end of the wire from my beginning.

This is what an obsession with finding happiness feels like.

I keep looking for the answer, listening intently to anyone willing to let me in on their secret. It’s gotten so bad that I scroll through video after video on YouTube on nights when the bed is empty and closing my eyes feels eerie and lonesome. Search bar. Typing. H- Deleting. Typing. “How to Be Happy.” Go.

I put in my headphones, unsure if my best friend can hear this carrying down the hall. Hoping that she can’t. She knows everything about me, but in this moment I pretend that neither she or anyone else can guess that I have no idea what THE FUCK I am doing. “Exercise, it releases endorphins!” Okay, cool. I do that. I must be at least semi-close to my destination. “Travel, it releases prejudice and fear of the unknown!” Right. I can get down with that. I like planes and the idea of fruit that grows year round. “Meditate, it releases, like, everything!” I could probably benefit from letting my brain marinate for a while. “Just choose happiness!” Wait.

She says it like we’re at a movie theatre. “Junior Mints or Caramilk?” She says it like there’s a choice to make. She sounds like Cat Stevens in Moonshadow, telling me that she wouldn’t be upset about losing her legs. Are you fucking with me?! Still, I’m left feeling painfully inadequate that I don’t know how to make this non-existent decision.

I suppose part of me gets it. If the choice is “Go sing karaoke with that one friend you have who is bloody terrible and hilarious or stay in your bed and wonder why you have no social life,” Then it would seem that it makes sense what the happier option might be. But that’s not what Cat Stevens with a vagina said. Back button. Close tab. Imagine punching that condescending bitch in the face.

What she means I’m not sure of, but I know it can’t be the way I’m interpreting it, because I’m interpreting it as a slap in the face to myself and every other person who sees happiness as a dart on a map that can’t be reached by any form of transportation that we are familiar with. A blow to people who work their asses off, hearts vulnerable, open to receive it, only to catch debris.

I don’t want to make it sound as if I’m not content. I am, exceptionally so. Sometimes, though, it can be difficult to evaluate as I wade through the how-tos of happy that are constantly put in my path. Should I want more? Should I be doing more? How do I know what it is I should want? How do I know exactly what life should feel like? Lately I feel as if I’m failing every time I get angry. Every time I do something that isn’t considered 100% selfless and efficient for everyone. Every time I have a shitty day, I cover it with the idea that I SHOULD feel gratitude.

Why?

Some days are shit, and there isn’t a trace of gratitude in my veins. Some days I don’t feel like thanking the universe for sprinkling fecal matter all over me, and I certainly don’t feel like thinking about all of those who might have it worse. I am unbelievably tired of everyone trying to solve the problems of other people with “Just think positive!” I know that positive thinking is an asset in overcoming, in becoming; I’ve seen it. But I don’t need to do it every minute of every goddamn day.

If you ask me, sadness and anger are just as important. They have had an equal part in my metamorphosis, in building my character. I would even venture to say that they have provided far greater incentive to reach for more than any great day I’ve ever lived in. On great days, I celebrate, and on shit days, I evaluate. That’s healthy, and to do otherwise would be to deny myself a basic human requirement. I wish we had evolved beyond the need for tear ducts, but we’re not there yet, so I’m damn well going to use them.

Nathaniel Hawthorne compared happiness to a butterfly. I think it’s so beautiful, and I feel in my soul that it is accurate. It’s fragile and fleeting, and a butterfly couldn’t inspire laboured sighs of awe echoing through the world if it were trapped and squished in our fists. It’s okay not to be able to catch it and make it a pet. If someone is building a railroad through the centre of your angry town, if they’re calling “ALL ABOARD: DESTINATION HAPPY!” It’s okay not to take the train. Walk until you feel like experiencing change, because there will ALWAYS be another one sending its joyful choo-choo down the line. And, if not, there will always be another plane, another electric car, another path.

I imagine myself watching ol’ Borden as he dances, and I imagine seeing a young boy finally catch him. The jig is up. I don’t feel jealous or inadequate. My only thought is “Well, damn. Good for you.” I get the feeling that the bill wasn’t mine to catch, and I lay back down in the soft grass, waiting for something, anything, to happen.

Spinning a Tale to Avoid Going Stale

I collect fear.

I collect fear in the way that some people collect stamps or coins or porno. When exhibiting fear, I trail my middle finger along my wrist, searching for my pulse the way that others might run their fingers along grooves in the glass that encase their prized possessions. I examine fear under the lens of criticism, side by side with the possibility of a pleasant outcome. It doesn’t seem to make a difference how shiny this pleasant outcome might be. It doesn’t matter that the light hits it and illuminates even the darkest corners of my mind. I cradle fear, holding it close, feeling the familiar warmth and weight until I inevitably place it on display next to the seemingly endless rows of fear that already occupy an alarming amount of space.

I am at capacity.

My fears range in logic like antique furniture ranges in value. Some are commonly owned and frequently discussed, like heights, spiders and tight spaces. Others are more concerning, like social situations and happiness. Still others are illogical and strange, like death by choking on ginger beef and opening medicine cabinets. (These make great conversation pieces and sit on a pedestal in the middle of the exhibit.) It would seem that I have a rather expansive and well maintained selection.

Do you know who travels from all four corners to visit the showcase of fear? Nobody. For such an exhausting amount of work, this presentation is not very fucking lucrative. I spend the majority of my day bent over the agony of my anxiety, and at this point I’m not even sure what for.  Most of these fears will never have the chance to become anything more than what they are, yet they are the only thing I am aware of that have the uncanny ability to blossom and decay simultaneously.

Much like my painted circle, this exhibit has got to go. There is nothing to gain in absorbing the glory and the plight of those around me. It’s like drinking molasses in attempt to quench a biting and undeniable thirst. Besides, if this life has taught me anything, it’s that misery will find me no matter where I hide. Should it not find me doing something that I love? Should it not quiver in doubt at the sight of my courage?

After Tough Mudder I began to wonder where I would take Lipshits and Mental Fits. There was a period where I wasn’t sure that there was anything significant to draw from, no experience intense enough left to jam into the keys. Like most writers, I am acutely aware that almost any subject can become stale, and that’s just not something I ever desire for my blog. I write it as I live it. It’s as if almost every tear slipped from its chamber, landed and splattered here for all to read. Though I’m more than pleased, I’m a little sick of crying.

Just before the race began, the speaker asked “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” I almost laughed, since aside from that moment I made a valiant effort never to venture into the world of intentional change. I crossed the finish line and wondered why not. I wiggled my fingers and toes, scanned the clusters of faces, heard the garbled hum of hundreds of voices and thought “Everything works.” I have spent the last 3 years becoming comfortable accepting that I am damaged, like the dented can of tomato soup that we keep on the back wall of the shelf. There is no reason for this. I am so capable, so full of good intentions. It’s time that I acknowledge and honour not only my dents, but my durable and nourishing nature.

So I’m bringing something new, and I hope you enjoy reading about it. I’m calling it “First Time Friday.” It’s my way of forcing myself out of the confines of comfort on a weekly basis in order to grow. This week I’m playing bingo. I don’t like the idea because I imagine it being stuffy, featuring uncomfortable lighting, people bathing in Red Door and a ton of laboured breathing, but I hear that you get pretty coloured dabbers and can swear unabashedly, so it seems like something I should carve somewhere into the story of my existence. I’m going to post about my experience every week on the Lipshits and Mental Fits Facebook Page, so follow me there to see pictures and expose yourself to (even more of) my nonsense. If anyone in the Grande Prairie area wants to join me on my personal mission to try anything and everything, drop me a line on the page and I’ll fill you in on where I’ll be and what I’ll be tackling that week.

I hope that I teeter and shift until I split wide open with gaps large enough to allow the light to seep in. I hope that I meet people who will share their stories, filling me with inspiration like a tank of helium and allowing me to give some of that back to all of you who have shared my journey. I hope that I too can be a floating orb of colour across the sky, unaware of the distance between myself and the ground or the fact that there is no hand holding tight to my string. I hope that next time I can write

“I collect dreams.”

Life Outside the Lines

The term “comfort zone” is funny to me.

I don’t know about you, but I was never really all that comfortable inside of mine. It was this space in my mind that I created to lounge around eating chocolate chips and making excuses for every part of my life that had fallen apart because I had been diagnosed with a mental illness. It was a lot like sitting down in the middle of a concrete sidewalk, painting a circle around myself and deciding that this tiny spot was an adequate area in which to spend the rest of my life.

But life didn’t stop because I had laid claim to this part of the sidewalk. People walked by in an endless stream of conversation and laughter, beckoning me to join them.

“Hey Karlee, we’re going to a concert. They’ve got this really great opening act and you look kinda lonely.”

Because I still desperately craved friendship and human interaction, I would say

“Nah, man. Crowds are hell on Earth, nosebleed seats are the worst, and does live music ever sound as good anymore? You guys should come and hang out with me in here. I’ve got chocolate chips and I won’t charge you $8 for a beer.”

Nobody ever wanted to come and hang out in my painted circle in the middle of the sidewalk, and though I would find myself angry, calling them stupid assholes under my breath, I knew why. I knew why because I actually really liked live music and $8 beer and contagious energy, but I feared all of these things at the same time, and besides, I couldn’t just leave my comfort zone. Soon enough, people watching felt like a tedious exercise. They stopped approaching my circle. Where it used to feel like an eternal cluster of people walking toward me, I could only see them walking away.

“Where are you going? Come back. Come back and tell me about all of the parts of your day that went awry so that I can feel better about being trapped inside of this circle. Don’t just walk past while I catch fragments of conversations about things you enjoy. Why are you doing this to me?”

A comfort zone is supposed to be this sanctuary that shields us from the danger of the world outside. Some might argue that it does, but I would remind them that it doesn’t shield us from the danger that builds and boils inside, which is perhaps the most destructive and the most widely experienced danger there is. It wasn’t until someone I love very much sat down in the circle across from me with a somber expression on their face and held a mirror directly in front of me that I realized this. “What are you doing? Did you come in here just to upset me? What the fuck am I supposed to do with this? Get out of my circle.”

I was so angry. I screamed and I cried and I yelled, hoping to remind them that I needed the circle, that showing me how aged and sad and blank I looked only made it worse for me since there was no way out. They didn’t even react. I sat alone in my circle, staring into the mirror. I examined the bags under my eyes and the way they seemed permanently swollen from weeks without any real sleep. How could I be so exhausted, so drained if I were truly as comfortable as I believed? It occurred to me that I hadn’t even tried to escaped the confines of the painted line that surrounded me. I began to wonder whether the circle was keeping the pain out or if it was really just keeping me in.

I thought about this for weeks until I decided that I didn’t want that to be my life anymore. I told myself that if I tried, and if it didn’t work out, at least I could say with certainty that my comfort zone was where I belonged. I took my first step outside of the circle on a September day last year when my friends said “There’s this kickboxing thing going on at the elementary school. You wanna go?” For the first time in what felt like forever, I said yes. And that’s when I met Alycia.

The class started at 8. I showed up at 7:15, determined not to walk in late so that people wouldn’t look at me or take note of my presence. The parking lot was full, but the doors were locked, and it was cold. There were these two little boys standing in the foyer staring at me through the window with their mouths open, as if I were a giant pickle wearing a toque. My brain was all “Fucking shit fuck, Karlee. These kids think you’re so weird that they don’t even want to open the door for you. Go home and watch documentaries about people who do things like this.” I waited it out another 5 seconds and sure enough they opened the door. I was reminded that kids are just funny little beings who can’t seem to help hanging out with their mouths wide open.

When I walked in to find her I was the first one there. Under any normal circumstance I would have felt overwhelmed, but when she looked up I saw that she looked just as nervous as I did. She fumbled around, handed me a form and introduced herself. She asked me my name and I told her a little about my situation. My hands started to sweat when I told her “Sometimes I might have trouble understanding you. I hear voices.” She was the first person who didn’t look at me like a science project after the words fell out. She just smiled and said “That’s okay. We’ll make it work.” As the rest of the ladies poured in, she took us through the class and didn’t hover over me once, except to say a quick “nice work.” I couldn’t remember the last time I felt like I was the same as everyone else. I went home and cried.

Wednesdays became magic for me. I didn’t want to admit it to anyone, but I waited all week to go to class and do something that people outside of my tiny circle did. I began to allow myself to dream of doing more. One evening Alycia told us that the company hosting the classes was pulling the kickboxing program out of our town, and my heart broke. I had become so attached to her and the people who took the class with me, even if I didn’t talk much. There was two whole seconds where I feared that I would be stuck inside of my circle of doom before she said “I can’t give up on my Sexsmith girls, though, so I’m going to teach it on my own.” I will never forget that moment, because it did something very specific for me. It reminded me that the margin of risk can be less important than the possible reward. It reminded me that the reward is not always in paper form. Sometimes the reward comes in the form of a smile or a hand to hold or a “thank you.”

Alycia teamed up with Frances, an equally radiant soul and together they opened Pure Fitness, which quickly became my happy place, my escape. It was the one place besides my own home that I could feel free and secure. When I would have episodes, they would both smile and tell me how proud of me they were for coming, for fighting through the voices, for coming back again. They would tell me that I could leave if it got too much, but that they wanted me to stay, and that it was okay not to have my shit together all the time. Alycia came over to me once, standing in front of the bag confused. She said “You tell those voices that I have you and that you’re just fine. You tell them that you’re kicking ass.” At the end they would meet me with hugs and I would leave every time feeling like someone more self-assured than the person who walked in. I forgot about the noise and the pressure and I felt a true appreciation for all that I could do when I allowed myself to feel as if I deserved it.

I don’t know why I felt that I didn’t deserve it. I don’t know why any of us do. All that I am sure of is that it is a lie. Maybe it’s a lie that we invent in moments of confusion and sadness, and maybe it’s a lie that is whispered to us enough to recognize it as a familiar and comfortable pattern. Maybe it is then that we paint our circles, telling ourselves that if we don’t dare to desire anything beyond that which we are certain we are capable of, we won’t be disappointed. I wish that I had the words to tell them what it means to me to know them, how much I didn’t know I needed them. I wish I could tell them that heroes don’t always wear capes or armour. Sometimes they wear 3 year olds on their backs and smiles of encouragement on their lips. Sometimes they are single moms who give up the remainder of their free time to make other people feel great about themselves. Plus, it makes all the difference to be trained by people who will enjoy a well deserved slice of pizza and beer with you when the week is through.

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 I lost 50 lbs, but that isn’t what I want you to take from this. What I earned from the hours I spent working on my physical strength and battling my ego was far more magnificent than that. What I earned was a dream come to life. Yesterday I accomplished the goal that I quietly allowed myself to envision when I took the first steps out of my circle. Yesterday I battled my head and my heart as I ran 11 miles, conquering my fear of heights, crowds, darkness and greatness, often all at once. Yesterday I sobbed as I crossed a finish line that was so much bigger than the event itself. I finished the race against my brain. I can’t tell you what a miracle it was to wake up today and know that I am an undeniably strong, committed, worthy person. To say with absolute certainty that I am capable of whatever ridiculous, crazy, unfathomable idea graces my thoughts. To believe that I am a credible source when I sit here and type that you are capable of all of these things, that you too are a worthy individual.

I know that this is incredibly long-winded, but I wanted to be able to write it from start to finish to tell any of you who are stuck inside of the painted circles that your past or circumstance has left you with that there is a way out. Whenever you’re ready, dare to reach out and run your finger along the line, noticing how little depth it has, how little control it has, until you feel comfortable enough to move beyond it. Tell your story. Talk about your circle. I don’t know anybody who wants to hear a tale about someone who adapted to everything with ease, so give them your rawness and your jagged edges, show them the undeniable will that it takes for you to make it through a single day. Not everyone will like it, but there will be more than enough that love it, that love you, so much so that you may find your edges have smoothed being surrounded by people who give a shit what happens to you.

Today when I look in the mirror I see someone who is young, curious, beautiful, and best of all, happy. I see someone who sleeps through the nightmares her brain plays for her. I see someone who a painted circle is just no match for.

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“Searching For a Heart of Gold.”

To be human is a very complex thing.

The closer I become to feeling as if I I know who I am at my very core, the more I am faced with and reminded of just how much I have to learn. I haven’t decided yet if this is the worst or most wonderful thing that continues to happen to me.

I think many of us lay awake at night asking questions without answers. Maybe for some the questions are about college applications, and maybe for others the questions are about succeeding as parents. Maybe the questions are about love or emptiness or direction. Maybe we’re all asking the same question in different words. “Will I be okay?”

I say it all the time, and I truly believe that people are who they are by way of where they’ve been. Though I believe this, it is not always enough.

Here we are, all 7.243 billion of us, all of us so vastly different. Here are our minds and our hearts, our hands and our mouths. This is the way they do not always connect. I think it’s safe to say that we do not yet know how to coexist, and the questions that haunt me at night usually have a lot to do with whether or not this is possible.

I talk a lot about love and about compassion, and choosing to act with both in mind. This is a relatively new process for me, and I am still learning, still stumbling over the idea. Before 2011, anger was a driving force in my life, and it had many faces. It was more like anger disguised as ambition or my own idea of justice. My days were a perpetual state of survival (or what I thought it meant at the time.) Somehow I had come to the conclusion that everyone was a threat. I would react to minor indiscretions in a way that ensured they could never become major issues. I feared major issues, and now I know that it’s because they would cause me to face myself. I am learning to forgive that part of me and build something more solid.

Letting go of anger is difficult because it is bred by a deep-seeded hatred. What I come to find most often is that it is not a hatred for other people. It always comes down to some kind of inner conflict. Though I do not like to sound so self-loathing, I know that it is part of the journey to loving myself. Sometimes I’m not sure why I bother, but I know that it is bettering my life when I look at other people and find myself making an effort to truly understand them, to truly love them despite the temptation to pick them apart.

I can only be responsible for the impression that I leave upon the world. I know how difficult it is to feel beaten down and mistreated, but I also know that it is infinitely more difficult to come to the realization that I have been the source of someone else’s pain, their unanswered questions.  I still come up against the powerful urge to sink my teeth into the soul until I draw the blood of insecurity, but there is something so much more forceful to combat it. That something is the image of the people who met my anger with an unwavering love. The memory of those who made it their mission to love all of the fear out without the guarantee of anything in return.

It is both a frightening and fulfilling challenge, to love people even when they may not necessarily deserve it. How do we forgive and still manage to keep our dignity intact? How do we bury the hatchet without burying our values with it? These are the questions I whisper to the night, hoping always for answers with the sun. The sun never brings the answers, of course, but what it does bring is warmth to melt the ice of defeat, warmth to spark enough curiosity to imagine that, perhaps this is the day that I will figure it out.