Why Not To Be A Jerk: Notes From A Recovering Bully

Sometimes there’s no other way to slice it than with the truth; I used to be an asshole. I know a lot of inspirational tales about the survivor, but I almost never hear much about how life turns out for the bully. (It makes sense if I think about how many people actually want to own up to their bullshit.) Since I try to live with no shame in my game, I’ll tell you how it goes. I can’t tell you how not to be an asshole, of course. That one is all you. But if you’re reading and nodding along, that’s a good step. I’ll just tell you WHY not to be an asshole instead.

5 Things That A Bully Knows

1. Words are glass. Small, jagged shards that wink as they hang in the light. These moments last only seconds, but these seconds in this light make the shards look as much like the truth as they felt leaving our lips. It is not until we lay sleepless inside of ungodly hours that we taste the blood in our mouths.

2. We have our reasons. Reasons like self-respect and love and justice. We see ourselves as the messenger rather than the villain, for a villain would surely use his fists.

3. Hate is heavy. To rule this way brings discomfort that is felt at all times, like stacking those we dislike atop our shoulders. We do not feel discouraged, because it takes a strong person to carry this weight. We blame them entirely, all the while questioning why everyone is on our back.

4. Bullies have bullies, too. There is the one person we all know, the one who started it. The one who gave us all of our reasons. An objective perspective would tell us that the virus did not begin with them, yet we will maintain the idea that this person doesn’t have reasons; just a blank space where a soul should be. We will imagine that even for a soul that is black like soil, there is, at the very least, hope that good things might still someday sprout.

5. We are just confused. How could we not be? So few of the people we know walk around with the weight of nothing and nobody. This is not malice; it’s survival. Surely if you cease to be the one holding the saw, you become the one laying on the table.

5 Harsh Truths That A Bully Learns

1. Awakening to life’s purpose will more than likely not involve pretty pastels, no third eye, no peace. It will feel as if we are going about life, skin held together by staples while our body attempts to shed this and replenish itself. We will resist, clinging to our rough exterior as if it were worth more than it is. We will not let go until we realize how painful it is to embrace ourselves.

2. Change, the grand, sweeping kind is almost never launched in quiet, thoughtful moments. Change is brought in by heavy gusts that shatter window panes. Change becomes the guest choosing to stay; invited or not. We will adapt and flourish next to it. Or we won’t, and we’ll find ourselves brushing up against it, hearts like sandpaper, vowing that we’ll teach our kids not to be wimps, because life is tougher when you’re a wimp. We’ll find ourselves spitting glass.

3. Everyone has their reasons. Reasons that make us unimportant to them, like them to us. Reasons like pride disguised as self-respect, vengeance disguised as love and loss disguised as justice. We will not see this great wheel of reasons until we and all involved notice that we’re running in circles.

4. Nobody with any kind of character bets on the bully. To be an asshole, to fly off the handle, so far it’s (kinda) worked. However, there are VERY few areas in life in which these strategies are efficient or tolerated. One day, when our sideshow is no longer the freakiest in town, the crowd that coos and strokes our fragile egos will begin to thin until it is us and the dust. We will be remembered, but people will not find it entertaining. We become the empty vessel after the party.

5. Perhaps the most jarring truth is that we matter more than this, that our lives are worth more than we’re doing with them. Our voices are melodious when they are not being used to wound. The energy we squander on hate takes real commitment, and there are innumerable positive outlets we could use to fine tune that rather endearing bit of our character. As we turn this over we will see that almost every black, rotten part of us started growing with the hope of something good. We alone are something good. The road is a unique, authentic journey for all who travel, but the pattern of change has been the same since Moses was an angsty teen. We become who we are when we discover that we can no longer be who we were.

The Net: An Honest Conversation About the Holiday Season and Sadness

I’ve been staring at a blank screen for weeks. I’ve typed countless fragmented sentences wrapped in cheer, but none of them felt right. There was the pretty paper, and beneath it, boxes inside of boxes of nothing. I don’t get down like that, so I’m giving you guys something else; some real shit for the holidays.

I loved Christmas as a kid. Lights? The flickering ones, on the fastest possible setting before mom says I’m going to give someone a seizure. Music? That one song by Tom Petty where he sings about not wanting his relatives to kiss him at Christmas. Silly Tom Petty. Carolers? Stand there and sing to me FOREVER! Annual mass? Fuck yeah! (Kinda.)

The entire month of December was a visual smorgasbord. I can’t actually think of a happier string of days in my life, my only complaint being that more of my family liked ham more than turkey (some bullshit.) Perhaps that’s why this time of year has been the most difficult to handle for some time. Still, every December I wait in anticipation of the magic seeping into my skin so that I can have greens and golds.

I feel the sadness take hold beginning in October, but the days are still long enough to conjure up sweet visions of what joy would look like if it had a face. In November my brain is fighting, but my soul is undeterred. “Next Week. Next Week I’ll feel ready.” December comes and brings with it everything and nothing, and some wouldn’t believe it, but both are heavy.

The holidays are a painful time of year for a lot of us, for a myriad of reasons. It can be particularly lonely when we’re tripping over well wishes and brushing up against festive images of social connectedness. There’s also the expectation that everything should be peaceful and celebrated, gratitude glowing in every corner. I find it especially cruel that the time of year we feel the most numb is also the time of year that we most resemble broken records, saying things like “I’m great, thanks for asking.” and “Wonderful to see you!”

Small talk is called small talk for a reason, and the reason is that there is no room for genuine feelings inside of it. When they ask “what’s new?” I will tell them that there’s nothing too exciting. I will tell them this because there is no room for me to say

“I feel like shit. Well, kinda. I mostly don’t feel anything about anything, but, well, that’s pretty shit. It’s been 6 days since I had a shower, and more since I changed my clothes. I watched an entire season of Mad Men even though I knew that the stable version of myself would hate it, because getting up and choosing something else seemed exhausting. I’ve eaten nothing but Quaker Instant Oatmeal this entire week. There is dog hair all over my life. Sometimes I get a feeling or two and I can go somewhere, but talking to people is like driving with a flat tire. Possible, but not a great experience. I feel like the prisoner behind the glass, reaching, but unable to make contact, and all I have is this phone with which I send reassurance down the line. How can a person love life so much and still not be able to get out of bed?”

Fuck small talk, guys. Insincere conversation blows anyway. If nobody has asked you yet, I’m asking: Are you okay? Really okay? If not, that’s fine. Is there something that could be done to make it better?

Maybe for you, like me, it’s depression. Maybe you have suffered a loss and you’re grieving. Maybe you’re just unsure. Whatever it is, it’s okay to feel it (or not feel it.) Whatever it is, I know that bullshit clichés don’t remove the film that covers you. So what I will say is “Me too, friend.” What I will say is that I’m proud of you. Because it’s hard to feed the demand for happiness and stability when both are in short supply. Because you’re kick-ass and even if it doesn’t feel like it right now, it really is wonderful to have you here.

To anyone who is struggling quietly, you are very brave. Please know that being brave doesn’t also have to mean being alone. You may tell yourself that it’s not anybody else’s problem, that they didn’t sign up for this. Please remember that you are not just the space provided for another to write their name and volunteer their time. You are a jarring and magnificent example of what it means to be human. You walk that beam gracefully between two worlds and you balance so well, but if there were a net, would it be okay to fall?

Because there is a net. Sometimes it looks like mom, or a close friend. Sometimes it looks like a psychiatrist. Sometimes it sounds like collective voices saying “Hi, Karlee!” in a support group. Sometimes it sounds like the suicide hotline. And what it feels like? It feels like fear and sadness and frustration and utter relief. It feels like recovery.

If the net looks appealing for no other reason, consider this: I will never know what the inside of your fire looks like if you don’t stick around to walk through it. To write it, or paint it, or sing it. I’ll never know where the fire burned hottest, and that would be an incredible shame, because your story feeds my story and all of the great tales ever written.

This year I want to give my readers the gift of conversation instead of small talk. There is no better opportunity to call a loved one, to tell them you are thinking of them. To ask them if they are okay. There is no better opportunity to offer a hug or a smile or a meal. There is never a better time than RIGHT NOW to ask for help if you need it.

There is no shame in knowing that there are more ways to dig a grave than in the frozen ground. There is no dishonour in feelings that scare you silent. Most of all, it shows no weakness to give them up for the possibility of feelings like self love and happiness. For the realization that there is more to grass than mowing it.

If ever the wind whistles and threatens to blast you off course, and you’ve forgotten how to maneuver, forgotten to WANT to maneuver, Please don’t also forget that

There is a net.

If you or someone you care about is in emotional distress or suicidal crisis:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK

For more information on suicide prevention, click here.

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.”

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.

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.

Sanity Sold Separately

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This is my mom.

She is 54 years young. She likes gardening and talking to strangers. She’s a mother of four with an iron will and a tender heart. Her kiss has a sound and if you are lucky enough to have one placed upon your temple, her lips will echo in the background of every beautiful melody you hear forever after.

But she doesn’t know who she is right now.
My experience with mental illness began long before mine ever surfaced, though I would not understand what that meant for quite some time. My first clear memory is from when I was about six:
My mom was seated on the front steps smoking a cigarette. I was watching her from around the corner, noticing that she was crying. I thought she looked beautiful when she cried, and I found it strange even then.
I asked her what was wrong, asked her if she had ‘owies.’ She smiled through her tears and tried to explain that sometimes people just get sad for no real reason at all.
I asked for a Fruit by the Foot and she hummed “Band on the Run” while she fumbled with the packaging.

It always went like that.

As I grew up, I knew that she was struggling, even if I couldn’t pinpoint where it came from. Sometimes I asked her, but she just brushed it off and continued to put scrunchies in my hair and coming to school to help me clean out my desk, which was always as messy and colourful as my imagination.

She finally sought help in 2001, where she was met with a diagnoses that indicated her thyroid was not functioning properly. She was also given some antidepressants. She became softer somehow, like falling off of a pair of skis into powder.
She was tired a lot, and because I was so young, I didn’t stop demanding her time and her energy. I didn’t stop shouting “Mom! Mom! Hey, MOM!”
Sometimes I wasn’t sure that she could hear me, even when she was staring right at me.
I heard the term ‘Schizoaffective Disorder’ in the winter of 2009, the first time I watched her stumble across the line between reality and her thoughts; the first time the ambulance came to collect her.
It was difficult not to fear what I had seen, but when I finally got to visit her a couple of days later, she had her hair slicked back in a bandana, she smelled like coconut body butter and waved hello to every person she passed.
That’s the kind of woman she is.

You could be the meanest of mugs, and you still couldn’t intimidate my mother. You could throw boards over every window in the room, but she would learn to make her way in the dark. You could hurl insults left and right, but you would always miss, because she would tune out every word.
My mom is a rare and beautiful creature who meets fire not with aggression, but with the knowledge that fire will eventually burn itself out.
Argue, scream until you are blue in the face, but know that when she says she doesn’t care, she actually MEANS it.

This time when she had to go, we were on vacation, and I was ready.
I saw her off with the understanding that nothing lasts- that life has its own seasons; that we are never any one thing at a time.
When I got to see her the next day, she was as tender as ever, laughing at jokes that didn’t make any real amount of sense, brushing hair from my eyes and simply saying “Well, I don’t like it in here, but it’s okay. Do you think you could bring me a Big Mac tomorrow?”

In the hours that most people would spend in agony, she thought about me, about all of us, because she doesn’t know how not to.

In the days that followed, she took me through the facility and showed me what it had to offer. I was delighted to see that she had the option to bake, play basketball, meditate, and participate in activities like yoga and tai chi.
She showed me all of the art supplies and lit up when she pulled out the pictures she planned to colour for her grand babies.
After a game of twenty one, I cuddled up next to her on her tiny hospital bed; her little spoon. I felt the pressure in my chest release when she said “I feel safe here. I feel like I can heal.”
As she stroked my hair, my mother asked if I was angry with her. She tearfully told me that she was sorry that she gave me this illness; that this was not how she wanted to be remembered.

I turned to face her and told her that I remember her skin being soft like the velvet skirts of the dresses I wore on Christmas eve. I told her I know that if she were stranded on a desert island and had the option to play any album for the last time, it would be The Eagles’ Greatest Hits, but that she would be okay with Cat Stevens and that Van Morrison makes her snap her fingers while she dances.
I reminded her that she could moonwalk across the entire kitchen floor; that I only recall her loving me more than she loved herself.

She gave me far more than an illness. She gave me the ‘oomph’ to work my way through one. She gave me the sense of humour to laugh when my eyes burned too much to continue crying. She gave me the imagination to carry me away from despair and the gratitude to understand that the fact that I’m still here means that I am lucky.
She smiled and asked “Would you write about me?”

Here’s to you, my beautiful-eyed, iridescent soul. Here’s to scrunchies and Barney and Gushers and old English lullabies. We’ll take care of you now.