Sometimes — okay, most days — okay, always — I have a sense of embarrassment and even guilt over my eating disorder. I can sit in therapy and discover so many things that combined, grew, multiplied until I found myself eye-deep in my mental illness. But really, nothing has been so bad, so hard about my life.
Oh sure, my parents divorced. Just like 80% of the people around me.
Okay, a loved one experienced a traumatic illness when I was a kid — tough on us, but so, so (unimaginably so) much more difficult on him, yeah?
True, I’ve been teased by other girls — and guys — in elementary and high school. But compared to the girl or boy who was mercilessly bullied? Or essentially friendless? My “experience” seems hardly worth mentioning. I had intimate friendships for the majority of my childhood but as a sensitive kid, even the slightest cloaked insult was emotionally crippling.
I had the World’s Best and Most Loving Mom. Two great older siblings to teach me how to fight but also how to love. A Dad who maybe wasn’t quite so present when I was young but who went all in with parenting once my he and my Mom split up (Think: hours of playing double-dutch with my sister and I, 1:1 father-daughter camping trips (a tradition we’ve continued to this year, ages 25 and 59), ball tossing, lunch packing)…
As a family, we weren’t well off — but we had everything we needed. I spent my teen years on life-changing wilderness trips that forged incredible friendships. I played summer sports and later, club volleyball — not something which every family could afford. I had boyfriends who told me that they loved me. I had top grades and my pick of University programs.
I was hired to work for the organization that had changed my life and spent 6 years working at my dream summer job. At school, I got into the Major of my choice and graduated from my University with honours and distinction. Again, I had my choice of Master degree programs, each with enticing funding offers.
But somewhere, somehow, I developed an eating disorder. I spiralled — hard — and I nearly killed myself through abuse and neglect. I experienced a big, dramatic illness (both mentally and physically)…because, of what? My loving parents weren’t quite loving enough? Because away at school I discovered that I wasn’t “the smartest,” but closer to average afterall?
And so, I judge myself. What was so damn hard in my life, that I would react in this way? And I feel embarrassed. Whiny. Who am I to sit in therapy, or use up mental health resources when all I have ever known is privilege? Recently, I asked this of my dad — what is so difficult about my life that I should complain of being so depressed and mentally unwell? And he told me: you had an eating disorder. That is so huge. That was — is — so incredibly hard and destructive.
Okay, sure. But what the fuck gave me the right to have that disorder in the first place?
…I am tempted to end this post here. Those feelings of embarrassment and guilt are still strong. I still judge myself as weak, selfish, ridiculous…dramatic? But I am attempting to change that story (one of many). And for those of you who, perhaps, relate to this, I am going to offer up what my Dad said next:
Mental illness knows no privilege.
For my own benefit, I am going to write that again:
Mental illness knows no privilege.
…And so maybe someone else has experienced more obstacles than I. Experienced war, famine, prejudice, hate, loss, such that I can hardly imagine. And maybe that someone else still finds it easier to put one foot in front of the other each day. Maybe, that makes me weaker than them. But if there is one thing I am learning (over and over and over again until one day it will stick), it is not to compare. There is nothing constructive for me in comparison.
And so, I am ready to “own” my story. This has been my experience — unique to me. It is what it is. And I am who I am. My illness does nothing to detract from another’s experience. It is not a commentary on another’s suffering — and neither does anyone else’s say anything about mine. I am done invalidating my own story. It is what it is. I am who I am.
There is something so enchanting about this phrase, so whimsical. Lost in a book. As a lifetime romancer of YA fantasy, I picture myself caught up in a mythical adventure, a flurry of horses and dragons and magicians. Forests, mountains, cold, untouched streams.
But what if you were lost in a different book? Lost, or rather, trapped, in a story of disappointment, inadequacy, feelings of shame. Given the choice, this is not the tale in which I would lose myself.
…Except I have. And I wonder if I am not the only one. We all (I think) have shit from our childhood. Perhaps things we were born imprinted with from the stories of our ancestors, or perhaps tales that we believed about ourselves when we were young and innocent. Maybe we had inarguably wretched childhoods — experiences of obvious neglect, abuse, disappointment. Perhaps, like me, we were loved — hard — and had opportunities and joyful moments. Regardless, if we look closely enough…there is shit. Someone, somewhere didn’t love us hard enough. Somewhere, somehow we learned that praise = love and that to be loved we must perform (and succeed). That to fail is to be dismissed, discarded. We learned fear. Shame.
As capable, independent adults, you might think that we would discard these old scripts. We have proven ourselves strong, resilient. …And perhaps that is your story — as in, perhaps you have changed your story.
I have not. I am “lost in the book” that was written as a child. Trapped, eternally reading (or writing) the same pages over and over and over again: Inadequate. Not belonging. Unloved. Bad. Shameful. I am the same child who somehow, amidst all of the love and support believed herself to be unworthy. Today, decades later I recreate that story day after day through behaviours that leave me self-disgusted, sad – defeated.
How then to find ourselves? To escape the pages of this cheap horror novel? In studying recently for my upcoming yoga teacher training I have been reading through the Yoga Sutras — and they speak a lot about non-attachment. Non-attachment: choosing not to suffer. So simple in sound — but is it truly? How simple is to to stop a pattern we have ingrained over years, that is a part of our every day? In order to not suffer, logically, we must break the chain and resist the behaviours that perpetuate our pain. What are they? Do we binge on food? Do we present an aggressive attitude toward those around us, constantly standing in the way of the childhood “us” who so badly craved acceptance and belonging?
Stop the behaviour. Stop the suffering. Escape the story.
…But of course it isn’t so simple. If it were we might have stopped long ago. We have tried to stop, to harness willpower to combat our destructive habits.
And so today (it is February 21st) I am suggesting something new. New to me. I am suggesting it and I am committing to it, for myself. What if today, we went back to the beginning? What if today, we remembered the child us — Haven at 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…12. Haven at 0 who was born a clean slate. Haven who was new and whole. Was she “bad?” …How do I feel about her?
I am talking about our “inner child.” Yes, yes, we’ve all heard it — it’s almost a “buzz phrase” in the increasing popular theme of self-love. Our inner child, that youthful version of ourselves who bought into a story that is not true. The kid who somehow got stuck in a poorly written book.
It turns out that I love that girl. She was curious. She was fiercely independent and she insisted on dressing herself. She loved bright clothes and her brother’s oversized hand-me-downs. She hated socks that fell down and scrupulously rolled hers down into funny little inner-tubes around her ankles. It is that same girl who today only wears ankle socks.
That girl could swing for hours on the little plastic swings in our big maple tree, imagining she was on a flying horse, escaping from an evil raven — a character from a storybook we read once from the library. This girl hated change and threw anxious fits when her Mom and sister would move the furniture around in the living room. My heart goes out to that girl.
That girl was enough. That girl was young, loving, afraid, bold, shy, smart, clever, silly, loud, quiet. That girl was enough and she deserves to star in a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. She deserves to write the rest of her own story.
I am going to find that girl. Beyond that…I do not know exactly what it is I will need to do. But that girl is lost. Lost in a book. And she deserves to be found.
It has taken 24 years to be to say this, for me to own this, but…
I am not for everyone.
My whole life, I have made an effort to be nice, kind — to get along well with others. Conflict (aside from tiffs within my immediate family, with whom I aways knew and trusted there to be love) has always made me incredibly, incredibly stressed. As a child I was painfully shy around new people and I learned early on that the safest way to survive social experiences was to, as I said, do my absolute best to get along with everyone.
There are positive outcomes from this sort of approach. It has helped to shape me into a more open-minded individual, with wide diversity amongst my friends and acquaintances. In many cases it has encouraged me to be more laid-back, less rigid — when my tendency if on my own, can often be to bevery type-A, with a touch of OCD (and although I say that flippantly, I actually do have an OCD diagnosis. Thankfully though, it is fairly mild compared to many (Quick aside — it is a major pet-peeve when someone uses “OCD” as a joke-y adjective or critique of themselves or a friend, when actual OCD is not present. OCD is a disorder. And it can severely handicap how a person is able to conduct their daily life. That is all)).
…It has also led to a disconnect between what I want and what I do. Over the years, I have become so concerned with what others want and avoiding conflict that I stopped even asking myself, however privately, what I wanted. Did I have an opinion about what restaurant to go to? Did I like the band _____? Did I actually agree with what this person was saying? (Because out loud, I certainly did)!
I’ve spoken before about losing myself in this quest to please others and to be accepted — about losing sight of what matters to me, what I value, or how I would choose to conduct my life if no one would see or know. However, this lifelong habit has backfired in even more ways. I am only just coming to realize how I have harboured secret (yes, secret even to me) resentment toward others. Why do they matter so much more than me? I have grown envious of others’ confidence, apparent freedom and power — the power and ownership to assert their needs. (Wow)!
This pursuit has led to less fulfilling and sound friendships because I was so intent on being someone…else. Interestingly, looking back, the repercussions have been way larger, and much more damaging, than sitting with the discomfort of not being universally liked.
…Plus…many people have persisted in not liking me in my life, anyway. So I’d say this whole tactic was basically bust.
…Which brings me to today. Today I am coming to terms with the notion: I am not for everyone.
I do not like everyone. Not everyone likes me. Logical…but still hard to swallow.
I have been asking myself questions: If I could choose between everyone liking me “well enough,” or a few people liking me a “whole darned lot?” which would I choose?
Honestly? It’s an easy answer. I’d choose the few and the “whole darned lot.” Okay. Perspective. I am not for everyone. I do not desire everyone.
…I’ll keep saying it, until it sticks. I am not for everyone, and that is okay. A single person’s opinion of me does not speak to my value or worth as an individual. It can feel as if it does — and I can choose to let it — but I can also choose to just accept the fact. We are different. We all have insecurities and histories and an ugly side…sometimes a person can trigger these in another, simply by “being.”
“Being for everyone” (or trying to) has limited me in my life — my choices, my risks, my romantic and platonic relationships. It has held me back, made me afraid to take a false step.
So. After a couple of decades, I’m calling it quits. I am freeing myself from the need to be liked by everyone, always. From the instinct to always try to be liked. Accepting that I am not for everyone is freeing — it creates a lightness in me, as I realize the choices that I can make now, stress free, when I care only how a few dear people might react. It am released from the need to look, be, “do,” a certain way.
…And, full disclosure, it frees me from the internal conflict I’ve carried my entire life: my desire to fit in, to be part of the pack…and my opposing ego that makes me crave distinction, to want to stand out. (To be the best). …Not that I am choosing to embrace this pathology toward having to be the best…that is a whole ‘other can of worms and an entirely separate blog post…but it is a relief to take a step away from this misalignment of “wants” which has always left me…dissatisfied. Losing out.
Accepting that I am not for everyone is a huge stepping stone — one that I hope will lead me toward sorting out my confusion around feeling “not chosen,” being envious, feeling like the world is “unfair”…and all of the inner drama that those feelings have created.
…So, what about you? Are you “not for everyone?” Is it time for you too to embrace this concept and recognize that…it is okay?
This time last year, I wrote a piece (this piece) for my school’s Mental Health Blog. It was some thoughts about autumn. About change. Transitions. It is September again, which, as Gretchen Rubin says, is “the other January” and I want to share it with you now, here. Thank you for reading.
Autumn is a season of transition. Change. Slowly, the trees are shedding emerald garb in favour of majestic reds, browns and orange. Temperatures are declining, and the first sting of frost becomes apparent as the sun drops away behind the mountains each night. Here, at UVic, we too are in a period of transition. Moving from our summer jobs or travelling into the busy and often overwhelming rhythm of classes, library study sessions, and late night plans with friends. Perhaps we are returning to school after a summer away; perhaps this is our first time away from home, our opportunity to assert our independence, to choose what we’ll have for dinner, choose “who we want to be.” Possibly this month marks our first time living off campus: cooking our own meals, managing the commute, navigating roommates and chore schedules. For many of us, we are arriving in a brand new city: unfamiliar surroundings, school, people.
Change is challenge. Even for those who embrace it, who exclaim “I love change!” it takes a certain elasticity of mind and emotion to flow gracefully from one way of being into another. Unconsciously, we all have ways of coping with change, keeping our heads above the water, as the tide tugs us in a new direction. This might involve trying to take as much of our past with us as possible: struggling to maintain the same habits we’re used to. Morning runs. Friday night parties. Honey Nut Cheeri-Os. Finding friends that remind of us people we know. Sometimes, we see ourselves developing new habits: a new gym routine, Netflix binges, late night munchies, a vigorous commitment to our studies.
This isn’t easy. Even if we are not consciously aware of the discomfort, as we are thrown from one reality into another, there is a long period of adaptation. We might notice a shift in the quality of our sleep, find ourselves sporting a shorter fuse, or a lower threshold for stress. Importantly, we aren’t alone. We are human. This is life. Some of the ways I am managing my own transition this month (moving to a new city, starting a graduate program after a year away from school, living without roommates for the first time) is by establishing nurturing routines. Yoga in the mornings. Finding something each day to be grateful for and writing it down. Making plans with acquaintances, testing them out, but practicing being my honest self even if it means we don’t perfectly “click” (because I know that someone will). Cooking food that nourishes me. Scheduling phone dates with family. Exploring the city and in particular, the nature surrounding it. Mount Doug near campus is a beautiful park to explore, or we can venture further, for some puppy therapy at Beacon Hill Park, or to Fisherman’s Wharf to enjoy seals and colourful houseboats.
On my fridge I have posted a weekly calendar, dry-erase. This is my “self-care calendar” and each day I schedule something just for me: a yoga class, a hot bath, a massage, painting my nails, reading a novel. Often, when things get hectic, self-care practices are the first to go, because they seem “less important” than that lab due, that midterm next week, our workout…But this just isn’t true. How far will any car go if we neglect to fuel the tank? By writing out plans for ourselves, it becomes easier to prioritize fitting in 10, 20, even 60 minutes into our day to refuel. On the topic of “refueling,” I’m also committing to getting enough sleep, 7-8 hours every night. This is a major game changer…and coming from a girl who, in the last year of my undergrad, put sleep at the very bottom of my list, after school, gym, friends, bars and Netflix (Suits anyone? Sherlock)?! Right now, I am rising by 6 am each day, which I know means being in bed no later than 11. And time and time again, I am noticing that I am not feeling regretful for leaving the bar a tiny bit early. The more tired I am, the more stressed my body and mind are, leaving less room for patience, for embracing fun and social pursuits and for the things I just love to do.
Acknowledge the changes happening this month in your life. Recognize that it isn’t easy—for any of us. Choose self-love and nourishment. Because you are worth it. Now, grab a glass of fresh water, local “kombucha-on-tap,” ginger tea, or a pint of craft brew …and make a toast: to you. To your best health. To a precious and exciting, life-long relationship with your mind, body and the possibilities of change.
This is a concept that I have been conciously grappling with for the past few months. Or, not grappling with per se (it makes perfect sense, on paper)! but really struggling to remember, and to adhere to, at my core.
Stressed. Anxious. Worried. How many of us are all too familiar with these sensations? I sure am. The past few months have been full of stress over my thesis, my future direction, concerns re: family and friends, anxiety surrounding my health and body… This past June I had my first conference as a Master student and I had such worry over returning to Vancouver for it, nearly 2 years to the day since I had moved away (more on that in a minute).
…I can get wrapped up in my worries and carried away. I can wind up so far down some twisty road that it is all I can do to find my way back. You know when Harry Potter tries to get to Diagon Alley but ends up in a cupboard in Knockturn Alley — a noxious, stale, depraved place? It feels something like that. Alone, disoriented and stuck in a small, dark space.
This is where the question of fear vs. fact has really started to help me (that is, when I can manage to think logically and detach myself from the overwhelm of feeling). Is this a fear of mine, or an actual fact? Do I have proof? Recognizing when a worry or stressor stems from fear, suspicion or assumption, rather than clear fact can be a useful tool in easing my mind and finding my way out of that vanishing cabinet in Borgin and Burkes.
For example: I was nervous about that trip to Vancouver because when I was last there, I was incredibly unhappy (although not self-aware enough to realize it until I moved back home and was met by unanimous shock and concern). I used obsessive exercise to distract myself from uncomfortable feelings of pain. I was living with a roommate, previously a best friend, who had seemingly –bafflingly– grown to hate me. I left, thinking no one would miss me–so why stay? In the two years since that time, so much has changed–including about a decade of overdue self-reflection and healing. Still, I was afraid. I feared that I would somehow be transported back in time and find myself vulnerable, insecure and miserable once again.
Fact or fear? Fact: I was unhappy the last time I was in Vancouver. Fact: I believed my friends no longer liked me — or feared they tolerated me, but liked me less than our other friends. Fact: I was living in Vancouver, finishing a degree, experiencing confusing, difficult relationship choices. …Fact: That is not this. Then is not now. Fact: I have evolved from the person/state I once was.
In essence, none of my fears were founded in any sort of fact or truth…they were just fears (“just”). And when I did find myself in Vancouver again, nervous but determined…I was wonderfully surprised by how pleasant it was to be back after so long. I had left on a bad note, but there had also been highs during my four years there. Good memories, previously clouded by a bitter taste in my mouth, slowly found their way back into my mind. Above all, I was gratified by the old friends who went out of their way to see me…because guess what? My fear that they didn’t like me? It was a fear. No one had told me “I don’t like you.” (Okay, that one roommate, but it was fear that let that single relationship poison my view of my other friendships, and of myself).
Now, on a near weekly basis, I am beginning to uncover fears I have treated as fact. For the past 18 months I have been haunted, over and over, by a fear that people dear to me no longer wish to spend time with me–or more accurately, dislike my company because they did (and perhaps continue to) view me as mentally and physically ill. Which I was. About 18 months ago. Yet even as I made huge strides in my health in the time since then, I persisted in imagining myself through others’ eyes — close friends, ex-lovers, even family (my biggest supporters) — and seeing only sickness. Anytime anyone would fail to answer a text or a call, or be unavailable to see me, this story became more and more cemented. Honestly, I cannot count the number of times or people with which this fear reared its ugly head. Yet I had no proof. I never once asked anyone if it were true. Slowly, now I am learning finally to see these stories for what many of them are: fiction. Or to use another Harry Potter reference: a bogart, pretending to be a dementor.
A pretty smart friend (okay, my therapist)! once told me that if I can change something, then change it, and stop worrying about it. And if I can’t? Well, worrying won’t help. My fact vs. fear analysis is something like that. So often now I am finding that the source of my stress or perceived unhappiness is not fact-based at all — and that realization helps free, however slightly, me from the tight grasp of those harmful emotions. Only this week, my Mother reminded me of a Chinese fortune cookie “fortune” I received three times as a child (which is about as many times as we ate Chinese food, since we rarely ever ate out or ordered in): Never trouble trouble ’til trouble troubles you. Perhaps the “fates” were trying to warn me away from becoming the ball of stress that I ultimately did become. Today though, I will continue to question: fact vs. fear? I cannot so easily stop the worry or the instinctual emotions (aka this habit of “troubling trouble” of mine), but I can address and alter my thoughts. I can recognize that there is no proof that two weeks away from my yoga studio will render me too inflexible to perform kapotasana….and I can subsequently choose, deliberately, to let that worry go. (Spoiler: I tested this one and my kapotasana might actually have improved from the rest! Funny how life turns out sometimes).
Fear: Cho Chang will say no if you ask her to the Yule Ball. Fact: You have no idea. And if you’d only asked before Cedric…who knows?
Fact or fear. What fears are you feeding yourself, disguised as fact?
Quitting. The very word makes me physically uncomfortable — in fact, I am nervous just thinking it, as if the contemplation alone could send me down a path of…quitting? …Needless to say, I do not identify well with the concept of “quitting” and have long equated it with “failure” and “not being good enough” (two of my biggest fears).
Recently however, I have been wrestling with the notion of courageous quitting. Is it possible that quitting something could be the brave, bold choice? Are there times where sticking with a thing that makes you unhappy becomes the cowardly choice — one you take to avoid that feeling of self-judgement, in fear of letting down yours (or others’) expectations?
Part of my identity has long been the “good student:” good grades (ideally, the best grades), hard working, self-motivated, timely… I left high school confident I could go to any university and any program. Some of that ego was shattered that first year (okay, a lot of it) but my grades were high for the remainder of my degree, and once again, I felt confident that when I was ready to apply, I could study with any (geography) professor I chose.
Well, here I am. 1 year into my Master of Science degree. My coursework is finished and I find myself staring down a long, long, unending road…my thesis.
I am going to confess something. My thesis does not excite me. Our professors have drilled into us that we need to love our projects…our degree requires we pour hours, months, even years into this research with little distraction. The very notion makes me…dizzy. Ill. Miserable?
I don’t think I want to pursue geography/hydrology anymore. I don’t intend to segue into my PhD in geography, nor does the idea of working in government, researching these topics appeal. Don’t get me wrong — there is still something thrilling about research and science…but some spark has gone out of this work for me. Perhaps if my thesis were different…yet I find myself unwilling to entertain the possibility of changing topics and starting from scratch, when my overarching feeling is that…I don’t really want this degree anymore.
Well, okay, I do want it — sort of. I want to have my Master, just to have it. I want it because I literally always expected I would get it (it was only the PhD that was up in the air). My parents both have, at minimum, a Master degree, as do both of my siblings (at minimum). I’m smart. I do well at school — isn’t this my calling? Maybe. Maybe not. Or maybe I am in the wrong field.
I also want it as a safety net — a wild card of sorts, that might open doors to opportunities yet unknown. I desperately want to find the ability to power through and earn this degree…except that would entail a year or more of me and this thesis, every…single…day.
And I find myself very unhappy. I find myself, for maybe the first time…unable to self-motivate. To set deadlines. To sit down and do the work.
I find myself…waiting. Waiting to be happy. Waiting to live my life. Last year I was waiting to move to Victoria, to go back to school, to regain weight and become healthy and womanly again…And now, I am waiting for my thesis to end (assuming I can bring myself to start). “Just one more year” until…I can do what I want? Until I finally feel fulfilled?
Honestly, I don’t think quitting my thesis will make that feeling magically go away. But perhaps it will free me from some unhappiness — push me to find what really does light me up. Nutrition and nutritional therapy? Yoga and yoga therapy? I won’t know until I try.
So, my question — is quitting my Master cowardly or courageous? Is it me giving up in the face of hardship, me starting a dangerous spiral of never seeing anything through? Or, is it the brave course of action: choosing uncertainty, insecurity for a chance at happiness. Risking discomfort, regret, self-criticism. Giving up my current income as a graduate student.
Currently, I have no idea. I do know that I am done passively making my way through each day. I know that I do need to make a choice. One way, or another.
I lost my hair, my “feminine figure” and my ability to reproduce. Was I still a woman?
There are so many things that we (women, men, society, cultures) associate with being a woman. As a white female who has grown up in Canada (as my parents did before me) some of those things have been:
An hour-glass figure.
Long, luxurious hair.
…(But no hair anywhere else)!
The ability (should we choose) to carry and bear children.
Being a “good lover.”
Some element of “daintiness,” of “petiteness.”
Being whip-smart and talented because #equality.
Not too “bulky” — slender…
…At some point this list is just going to get mixed up with all of the things I have believed I ought to be, not necessarily related to my gender (e.g. perfect, the best (at…everything), funny, witty, kind, graceful, athletic, “beautiful,” desirable, resilient (not sensitive)). I’ll stop here.
For some of you, you may nod along as you read through my list. You may recognize that you have shared these beliefs, at least in part — and you may or may not be beginning to question one or more as you consider them, directly, perhaps for the first time. That is wonderful — because today, I am talking about what it is to be a woman. Or rather, my perspective on the matter, and how it has changed. Spoiler alert: everything above is total BS.
First, let’s tackle hair. This is a funny one because long before my time, in the Roaring ’20s, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers chopped off their hair in favour of short, boyish locks. Audrey Hepburn and her short pixie remain a beauty icon today, whilst Marilyn Monroe, the poster girl for a sensual woman, rarely sported a cut below her shoulders. Yet I see that many of us, myself included, have continued to place some of our feminine identity in our long tresses. Or perhaps, it is not fully the length — but rather, in having a head of hair, period. Although men are likely not pleased by the curse of male-pattern baldness, it is significantly more common in our society to see a bald man, than a woman. A pixie can be feminine and chic — but a hairless pate? SHUT. Your. Mouth.
Well, aside from a brief year in the third grade when I opted for a boyish cut (to mimic my sister’s cut three years prior, when she was in third grade), I grew up consistently having medium to long hair. In fact, I distinctly remember a day in ninth grade Health class (I had a cut just barely to my shoulders at the time), in which we were critiquing stereotypes in the media — sexualized women, Barbie-doll physiques, yada-yada — and although fully on board with the lesson our teacher was trying to convey, I was absolutely struck by a photo of a topless model on a beach, her wild, waist-length hair artfully arranged to conceal her breasts. She looked…like a mermaid.
I didn’t cut my hair again for 3 years. Even after that time, I would trim only the ends, just enough to keep my hair presentable while losing minimal length.
Until, that is, last summer.
In the months leading up to summer 2016, I began to lose my hair. Slowly at first, such that I didn’t really notice (I was always shedding). Gradually, however, I began to notice quite a lot of hair accumulating on the floor of my bedroom. When I showered, vast amounts would come away in my hands. This continued over weeks and months, until my hair had visibly thinned. I began to wash my hair nervously, once a week only. I tried to avoid brushing it and I switched from hair elastics to gentle scrunchies to minimize breakage. I hated tying it up, fearing it would tear out precious hair, but I felt ashamed not to do — to display this illness. Instead, I mastered a big loopy bun that somewhat created the illusion of hair. In reality, however had I done my typical tight top-knot, it would have amounted to something the size a marble. Left down, my hair hung in thin strands, like our old beaded curtain after our cats had torn down multiple strings to produce gaping holes. Like missing teeth. My mother told me frankly that she expected to me to go bald and I tried to steel myself for that eventuality. Certainly, I was resembling Gollum more every week.
…Although I said “let’s start with hair,” in many ways, this was actually the icing on the cake — the culmination in my feminine crisis. Coinciding with this time, I was dangerously underweight. I had lost all semblance of hips or my butt (I’m still working through chronic pain from imbalances produced by the atrophying of my glute muscles). I was stick thin, and, after picking up yoga as both a mental and physical escape/therapy, I developed lean, almost scarily defined muscles through my arms and back. My stomach was nearly constantly bloated from a variety of digestive and IBS issues that I am still working to address today, a year later. I regularly half-joked that I had a little boy’s body — round tummy, stick legs, zero curves. The only thing that was curved about me were the rounded, arched veins that bulged blue through the skin in my arms, legs and stomach. …And, speaking of my stomach, I further developed a soft “fuzz” across my abdomen in addition to on my cheeks — lanugo. Fine hair produced when your body has such little fat that it cannot warm itself sufficiently to protect your vital organs. I was losing hair on my head, but I was growing hair on my face and on my body.
To top it all off — I had no period.
It came down to this: I had lost every attribute that I had grown to associate with my womanliness. My menstrual cycle, my long hair, a hairless face, my figure… I felt an outcast from my female tribe and in many ways, wildly alone: not a woman, but also not a man. Sitting in a Woman’s Circle that summer in Bali, I had an urgent sense of disbelonging. Our discussion centred on what we had been taught in our lives about what it was to be a woman. I confessed, crying, that I felt as far from a woman as I ever had. I had been raised to be “a strong woman,” taught to be a “tom-boy” and to not be “too girly.” Later, as a teenager I had rebelled against that philosophy, wanting desperately to “fit in” — fashionable clothes, make-up, boyfriends. That night in the Circle, I felt that I had failed in both approaches — I was far from feminine but I saw it as a weakness of character, rather than a strength, that had led me there. …After me, another woman, fuelled by a fiery sort of self-love spoke joyously of the power of being a woman — our power to reproduce, to bear children. There was nothing so wonderful, so strong, she thought.
But my body couldn’t bear children.
I have fought with these questions and feelings for over a year now. Am I woman? Can I still be a woman with no menstrual cycle, with a body so far removed from what I previously knew and thought to be feminine?
Hell, yes I can be. Hair is just hair. I can lose a finger or a leg, and I can still be a woman. My hair is small potatoes to those changes and it does not change me. I’ve sported a short pixie cut since August, now turned mullet — and I am still a woman.
The lanugo is long gone — but body hair doesn’t define my identity. It is not in fact inherently womanly to have no body hair, but rather “girly” and even “boyish” — prepubescent.
My periods? Still missing. I am actively working to rebalance my hormones but my female sex hormones are still far, far too low. Still, I am a woman — with a mullet, muscles and almost zero estrogen or progesterone…or hips. But I am a woman. I claim that identity. Perhaps I wasn’t a woman so much this last year — perhaps I so firmly believed that I didn’t belong, despite being born a girl and growing up so, that I truly didn’t. In this time, however, I have come to believe that gender is what we choose it to be, as well as what we make it to be (and stereotypes be damned). A woman can be tall or not. Hairy or not. Muscled or not, near-sighted or not, kind or not. What we have in common is the powerful knowledge, or rather the belief: that we are women.
Quite simply, this is what a woman is. Me. As I am. Now. Me as I used to be — she, too, was a woman. As was Marilyn Monroe. Audrey Hepburn. You, if you want to be. 100% of what makes us women, I think, lives inside.
Maybe this post will speak to you — maybe not. But I know that I am not the only one who has grappled with this feeling or this loss of self and I hope that someone, somewhere will find this…and be reminded. A woman comes in every kind of package under the sun, and even the ability to reproduce — even that is not what makes us women.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Today I overheard a child rattle this off in the grocery store and it struck a chord. I am curious — is it just an empty little limerick we parrot mindlessly? Or do we believe it? Or, maybe, do we say it as a mantra, willing it to be true?
In my experience, words hurt. I have been fortunate to have never broken any bones, although I have experienced a serious sprain, stress fractures, and other physical injuries. These experiences were challenging in how they impacted the way I conduct my daily life — for example, I developed the stress fractures when I was running 7 days a week…and obviously, they forced me to stop running for a time, to heal. Mentally giving up that daily habit (and admittedly, addiction) was hard — a lot harder than the actual pain.
But I rarely dwell or even think about that time. It was a short, acute “blip” in my life. The injury healed, the pain receded and I was able to continue running. Although it was only 2 years ago last month, when I started writing this post just now, I had completely forgotten about it. I wrote “I have been fortunate to have never broken any bones” and fully intended to add a period, and move on with my point. Well, my point is this — these injuries do cause physical pain..for a defined period of time (I won’t be getting into chronic injuries and pain today because that is a whole different can of worms, with chronic effects on our psyche and mental state). They happen, and then they pass and we can move on.
I have never forgotten the time that I was 19, getting ready to attend a wedding. I was wearing a dress I loved, and feeling beautiful — and made an off-hand comment about how maybe one day I’d wear my Nana’s wedding dress for my wedding, as my Mom had. The person to whom I’d spoken replied that it was likely too small for me.
I was blindsided. I didn’t see myself as large — and I’d never felt large in comparison to my Mom’s body type (albeit, a couple inches taller…actually, woah. Maybe that is what was meant. My Nana is even shorter than my Mom. Maybe I have completely misunderstood all these years. But regardless–). Those words hurt. I have not forgotten them. I internalized them. I felt large and awkward, and imperfect. I felt…like I was doing something wrong, to be bigger than supposedly my Nana had been, to be clearly so off-the mark from what was “ideal.” I felt like I was wrong.
“Words leave scars.”
Let me just say that I don’t blame anyone for this casual comment — we are all a product of our generation and of society, and we say things unthinkingly. I think too that we also believe some things unthinkingly (such as the notion that a 24-inch waist is “how a woman should be).” I once sat at a table with someone very dear to me — it was an antique with edges that came down very, very low such that I could not comfortably cross my legs under it. This person matter-of-factly told me that it was because of my big thighs, which were so much larger than his (he could cross). Just as with that wedding exchange, there was (and I know this for certain in my heart) no intent to harm. However, even those who love us, and with no malicious agenda, have the power to cause pain with a simple statement. I filed that moment away as a part of my identity, added it to my slowly growing fodder of self-dislike, and never forgot it.
I take issue with the “Sticks and stones” rhyme, not only because it is inherently untrue but because there is a connotation that words should not hurt us. That if they do, we are “too sensitive” (something I have been hearing my entire life), too weak. If words hurt us, we are doing something wrong andare to blame. In all honesty, since my first real exposure to sarcastic (and often vicious) humour in the 7th grade, developing an immunity to the power of words has been a necessary mechanism of survival — something I have managed, generally, to create the appearance of. Inside however, words have always pierced me. In society, it is a failing to react to something that is said to us…and so, if we are shamed by a comment, we then experience further shame for not being “strong” enough to be unaffected. I know firsthand the destructive effects that this cycle can have over the years.
I think it is time to put that tired, old adage to bed — and with that, to reclaim our sensitivity. “Sensitive” is not a dirty word. To feel emotions of any kind is not weakness. In fact, it is my believe that to allow ourselves to experience hurt and sadness is an act of courage. These sensations are not easy and the safer course often appears to be the one in which we build walls to shut them out, or to run away. It takes guts and practice to let discomfort in, to accept that as humans we are meant to feel. As humans, we are highly affected by the information and the world around us.
Hi. My name is Haven and I am vulnerable. I am sensitive.
My name is Haven, and I am human.
I’d like to propose that we all perform a mini self-experiment. First ask — what words have stuck with you throughout your life? Perhaps it was a comment about your body/appearance, as with my two examples. Perhaps, when you were about to get on a stage to claim an award for the highest overall average in your grade for the second year in a row, your Physics teacher told you that you were clearly in the wrong spot…and you felt shame, and embarrassment. Perhaps, although you joke about it now, you have never quite let go of how it made you feel, and every time since that you did not perform to your highest academic standards (hello 1st year University)!, those words taunted you: “he was right about you.”
Recognize these experiences. Start to unravel the impact that they have had in your life. Understand that we are all right there with you. Accept: words leave scars.
My second experiment is to be more thoughtful with our language. Very few of the life-altering and hurtful comments I have held onto in my life were anything more than an offhand remark. “You have little gremlin hands” (yes I spent years ashamed of my hands. Hands)! “He’s so cool…Wait, you’re his sister? You don’t seem anything like him…” (My brother was kind of a big deal in high school. At the time, 6 years younger, I was apparently not). Practice pausing, even just a moment longer than usual, to make sure that you do want to say what you are about to say. We have all felt the effects of words — so let us begin to be mindful in not perpetuating their damage in others. Let’s practice making the choice not to set the foundation for our peers and loved ones to construct destructive stories about themselves.
Sticks and stones can break my bones…but words? Words have done so, so much worse than that.
Humans are inherently social beings. Even the most introverted amongst us craves some level of interaction and even physical touch. However, in my life, and I am beginning to find increasingly in others’ as well, relationships have been one of the most harrowing and challenging areas of life to navigate scratch-free.
Among many of us, there is a common desire to fit in. To be accepted, valued, included when, say, our peers make weekend plans. Sometimes, in our hunger for this, we might compromise some pieces of who we are in order to guarantee that we are “liked.” You like reggae? Oh cool, me too! Probably. Yeah, I hate beer—only wine for me too! Small things, but sometimes bigger things as well. Funny enough, this tactic, more often than not, winds up biting us in the butt.
My own story is very much that which I have described above. For as long as I can remember I have hungered for acceptance and friendships, simultaneously fearing judgement and dismissal. At some point in my life (high school? Before)? I began to automatically agree with others, even if in my heart I held a different opinion. My own values became less important than that someone—anyone—liked me. As a Type-A Perfectionist (recovering now, I hope)! I felt that I wasn’t good enough unless everyone appeared to consider me…what exactly? Good enough? The best?! …And I do mean everyone: friends, teachers, strangers, mean girls, even people with whom I had zero in common, and, had I paused to consider, quite probably did not even like. Who was I to be choosy about my friends? It was others who had the power (or so I felt) to like, or not like me. The possibility of the latter could easily keep me awake at night.
Fast-forward a couple decades to a meeting with my therapist. In this particular session, she fires off a real “stumper” at me: “Who are you? What do YOU like?”
Silence…More silence. “I don’t know,” I answer, feeling a shock as I recognize the truth of those words. Inside, a familiar voice whispers: “What do you WANT me to like?”
… (Does any of this sound familiar to you)?
All of those years of habitually sacrificing my own beliefs, opinions, preferences, wants in favour of others’, culminated, ultimately, in my losing myself. At 23 years of age, I was left without any sense of even which activities I truly liked to do…did I like running, or did I like how it made me look to others? Was I truly in love with hiking, or was I enamoured more with the epic photos it allowed me to post on Instagram and that I felt it made me seem “cool” and “adventurous?” When I think about this now, I am reminded of that scene in Runaway Bride where we discover that Julia Roberts’ character always eats her eggs in whichever style her boyfriend prefers: sunny-side-up, over-easy, poached. In my past, I would find myself listening to my boyfriends’ preferred genre of music. I would really get into it, claiming it as my own favourite. Probably, I claimed that it was from the get-go, in my quest to homogenize myself with others. (God forbid I stand out and risk standing out for “bad” reasons)!
…Enough about me. What can we do to reclaim our identities? How can we avoid perpetuating these mistakes, from entering into false friendship after false friendship? In my life, these relationships never provided the satisfaction I craved because they were not founded in truth – because even if I was “liked,” I was not permitting my honest self to be seen. Ultimately, this led me to feel constantly that I was not liked as well as others…and there I would go again, re-entering that cycle of “not good enough.” It is possible too that, at some level, our peers see through us – they sense that something, although we desperately do everything we can to be fun/nice/endearing/cool, is false.
What we can do is to make a self-promise: to commit wholeheartedly to being true to our authentic self. Ask yourself: What do I value? What do I want? In our past, in our desire to flee loneliness, we sought friendship of any quality, at any cost. Now, let’s do ourselves a favour, one that will save us from so much pain and confusion down the road: stop settling. We are worth more than that.
Acknowledge your fears. Ask: what am I afraid of? Being alone? Being found wanting? Stop everything. Right now. Pause…for just a minute. Remind yourself that you are enough. You are awesome. The relationship that we have with ourselves is the greatest and most critical. Do not disregard it. Be gentle with yourself. Recognize your worth, your gifts, your unique wonderfulness. And then hold out for friendships that nourish you, that encourage you to follow your values.
Lastly, recognize that this might entail a little bit of space, perhaps a lonely night or two as we sift through the masses for those that make us feel special and safe – those with whom we “click” when we are being our authentic selves. Remember that we are strong…and recall how lonely we have been our entire lives, even surrounded by these somehow unfulfilling friendships. This lull, this pause, as we find and form our supporting, nurturing tribe, might even be a wonderful gift: the perfect opportunity to fuel and nourish our relationship with ourselves. Nearly a year ago I began to practice yoga, to calm my mind and fill some empty hours – and it has become a true passion. In the evenings, I have a nightly journaling practice…and if there is something that I want to do, but no one to do it with? I grab a backpack and go anyway – be it exploring a local hike or farmers’ market, or trying out bouldering at a climbing gym or signing up for a community meet-up (acro-yoga in the park)?! Perhaps we can view this as a chance to practice self-love, self-forgiveness, self-patience…and a touch of grace. We are enough. We are precious—just as we are. And we deserve true friendship, true love and real happiness.