The idea for this project came when I was trying to figure out how I wanted to promote new content I was putting out in the world. I didn’t want to take another photo of me holding a guitar and looking smug because it’s not how I feel at this point in my life. In a world where, for the most part, only our best selves are represented, I wanted to be honest about why this single and this new album are important to me and the result is this series of photos and essays. A glimpse into struggles I’ve faced, or continue to face, just like so many people in this world face on a daily basis. I don’t always feel this way and I promise I’m doing just fine. (That part is for my mom and dad.)
I feel as though I’m jumping on a train that is already moving and there have been a lot of brave people shovelling coal and working harder than me to start the motion. To them, I am grateful and the only reason I have found the courage to share my own story is because of their bravery. I can only hope my contribution to an ever-growing conversation about mental health makes someone else feel brave.
Today is my birthday. I am 32 years old and I still have trouble taking care of myself.
I know I’m not alone in this. I see people abandon their own needs constantly to meet the needs of others and, speaking only for myself, my theory is this: pleasing others is more important to me than my own health.
So what do you do when pleasing others doesn’t fall in line with what you need? How do you take care of yourself when doing so makes you feel worse? Self-care isn’t always having a bath, reading a book or going for a walk. Sometimes, for me at least, it means being unavailable. It means not being able to answer that text message or to pick up the phone when it rings. It means being alone all day and reflecting and sometimes it means being able to sit and let the tears flow, uninterrupted. But in today’s fast-responding, 24 hour world, giving into what I need doesn’t feel good either. Maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing, but the insurmountable pile of guilt that I thrust upon myself whenever I fail to answer a call, text, Facebook message, Instagram message, e-mail or one of the 15 other ways we have to stay connected these days, usually cancels out my own needs.
I know it may sound like I’m making myself out to be a martyr: “Poor me, I’m suffering because I put everyone else’s needs before mine”. But I am no martyr and trying to navigate my needs while needing to please others can sometimes mean I do nothing. I don’t respond immediately, nor do I respond when I am feeling able because I have wracked up so much anxiety around it that I have paralyzed myself. Instead of trying to tell the truth and explain I wasn’t in a place to respond in a timely fashion, I do nothing. This quality damages a lot of relationships but it effects more than just my interactions with humans. A prime example of this is my relationship with social media.
I struggle daily trying to balance my mental health with the virtual world I need to work within. Trying to figure out the needs of people I don’t know so they will want to listen to the music I’m putting into the world is a stress most people can relate to on some level. There are people out there who pull it off seamlessly and actually seem to enjoy this rollercoaster we’re all on but I feel it impact my mood, my anxiety level and, in turn, my body. I feel it disconnecting me from my surroundings and turning me into a wireless version of myself; constantly available with no physical connection. I don’t mean to shit all over social media. I see how necessary it is and I envy those who are seemingly enjoying themselves. I haven’t been enjoying myself. Every post I made took hours to decide on, if I could decide on one at all. When I did post something and managed not to delete it 5 minutes later, I would get sucked into that virtual space, judging myself and checking for validation every few minutes.
Eventually, I realized that I was judging myself because what I was putting out into the world didn’t feel right to me. It felt like a poorly written character I had created and my response was to stop creating a character and start creating as myself. This project was born from that feeling and it has been my biggest experiment in self-care to date.
Today is my birthday as well as being the final post in this Expectation vs Reality series. My birthday, which I have always enjoyed, is the one day a year I shamelessly do things that feel good to me. This series is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but despite the fear, anxiety and everything coming out of me in liquid form these past two weeks, it was a way to be true to myself; which is part of my self-care checklist. I saved this final chapter for today because thanks to all of you who have followed along, liked, shared, commented or reached out with your own experience, posting this feels good to me. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for that.
I hate the word “victim”. In the dictionary it’s defined as someone hurt, damaged or suffering. It can also mean someone who is an easy target, fair game or “everybody’s fool”. When I was married, it was used to define me by the person I was supposed to trust the most, but it was used in a different way. I was told I needed to stop “playing the victim” as tears rolled down my cheeks.
I’m not writing this to delve into details about traumatic events. The details are irrelevant and don’t only involve me. I am writing this to be another voice in the chorus singing as loud as it can about abuse, violence and trauma because I am lucky enough to still have a voice. Many suffer in silence because they fear for their lives or the lives of their children. Many don’t have a safe place to go. Many fear the backlash it will cause and the stigma that surrounds it. I lived in fear for a long time but I am one of the lucky few who are privileged enough to be able to speak up. I can only speak to my own experience of dealing with trauma and as I’ve mentioned, I am not an expert and everything I’ve experienced is not necessarily universal.
After the dust settles from a traumatic event, or events, most people in your life start to think you are fine. You got out, you have great people around you, you seem to be doing well so there is no cause for alarm. I’ve had a lot of people say to me “I’m so glad you’re so happy now” and I understand why they would think that. My life, by all accounts, is a privileged, wonderful life but underneath the surface I am hurt, I am scarred and I have an anger in me that didn’t exist previously. I still feel fear and shame about what happened and often I spontaneously burst into tears because something triggers me. I have trouble falling asleep because my mind wanders to what caused the trauma and relives it, so I watch TV to fall asleep; something I really don’t enjoy doing. I get anxious around big groups of people and I hate going to parties or hosting them because I need to have complete control of my surroundings or I start to stress-sweat and then I start to cry. I need to feel comfortable and trust the people I let into my space because for many years, I wasn’t safe in my home.
As difficult as that has been to deal with, I’ve found it is the physical symptoms that have thrown me for a loop. For starters, I lost weight and quickly. My left big toenail stopped growing for 4 months which freaked me out more than anything. My shoulders felt constantly on fire and started cracking when I moved them back and forth. The entire left side of my body started rebelling and when I would try to do things to help it, like yoga, I ended up really injuring myself. All of these, plus a thousand little things that popped up from time to time, left me feeling weak and fragile. Like I could blow away in a swift breeze or be cracked wide open if something hit me just right.
Here I am over a year since that dust has settled and while I continue to get stronger, new things emerge from the depths constantly. From frequent flashbacks to physical swelling for no apparent reason, my body is taking its time to heal and it took me a long time to listen to what it needed. I felt that I needed to rush my recovery so I could get on with my life but, more importantly, so the people around me could get on with theirs. I get bored and angry of new problems that arise because I feel the people closest to me must be bored of hearing about it. I know they’re not, but I am.
I wish I could say I’ve found a great way to deal with all this but I haven’t. It’s constantly changing and just when I think I have a handle on it, it wins. As I said before, I’m lucky. I live a privileged life with support around me whenever I need it and as scary as it is, it’s a luxury to be able to lend my voice without fear of great consequence. Many are not so lucky and I hope to be an advocate for them moving forward because this anger that exists in me now seems inextinguishable as long as violence and abuse like this exist in the world. I hate the word “victim”. These people, these women, men, LGBTQIA+, whoever they may be and however they identify in this world, may be “victims” of their circumstance, but I can say with absolute certainty that if they are still on this planet they are not victims; they are survivors.
“…a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.”
When I first started trying to figure out why I constantly feel I’m not “good enough”, that is what I found. Impostor syndrome, or impostor phenomenon, is a very real sensation that comes over many people when faced with a personal task or accomplishment. As with any struggle, it manifests differently for different people and I can only speak for myself. This is what it means to me.
When I was working in theatre, performing someone else’s work, I didn’t have the same struggle. It wasn’t until I started creating my own music and putting it out in the world that I started waiting for people to realize I was a fraud. I wondered how long it would be until I was asked to hand over my journal and my fiddle. “That’s enough out of you, now,” I pictured them saying. These feelings of inadequacy, I think, come from the plethora of insanely talented people there are in this world trying to be heard, coupled with some crippling self-doubt. If there are that many people who have already been struggling for years then who am I to come along and think I deserve to be listened to? If you’ll indulge me in another anecdote, I believe this one describes it perfectly.
I grew up playing the violin, the saxophone, the drums, the piano and had tried to pick up the guitar a few times to no avail. I’d get frustrated with my tiny hands (a different struggle for a different day) and their inability to reach all the frets that needed to be reached. I would pick it up for a week or so and then put it away again for years. It was a tortured relationship we had, the guitar and I. But in November of 2017, my album “I Learned The Hard Way” was nominated for 5 Music PEI awards, one of them being Songwriter of the Year. I’d get to play alongside the other nominees in a Songwriter’s Circle. “Wow, that’s lucky,” was my first thought; nothing about how I had worked hard for those nominations and poured a lot of my soul into this project. My second thought was that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I’d better learn to play guitar.
I spent the next two months locked in a basement apartment in Toronto, learning to play the guitar. My only goal was to be able to get through my songs in front of an audience, hopefully without anyone realizing I had no idea what I was doing. Well, the time came to play onstage with a lot of people I respect and admire as artists, and a lot of people I respect and admire in the audience. I showed up for soundcheck with my guitar, plugged it in (for the first time) and it didn’t work. The battery was dead. Only slightly mortified, a battery arrived just before the show started and I made it through without anyone noticing my hands shaking. I think. Maybe they noticed but the point is I made it through and no one stopped the show to tell me I didn’t belong there. When it came time to announce the winner, I relaxed. It was over and I could be happy for whoever won and stop stress-sweating. The winner was me. Great news, right? For normal people, yes. My first feeling was that they messed up and said the wrong name and then that shifted to embarrassment. It didn’t matter that I had worked my ass off to be there that night, both by writing a body of work I was proud of and practicing every day for months. No, I felt embarrassed because I was sure it was clear I was the least likely candidate.
To be clear, I am extremely grateful for that award. It took some time and convincing from loved ones, but I came to feel it was earned. These feelings come and go with each new project I take on. Like this one, for instance. Who am I to be writing about struggling when so many people are struggling harder every day. The voice of reason that usually pulls me out of the downward spiral reminds me those feelings are only reserved for myself. I never feel that way about anyone else putting something they’ve created into the world. Confidence in my creativity is something I work towards constantly and a good guidepost is doing something that scares me. If I can live to see the other side, surely I’ll only be stronger for it.
The first time I can remember trying to actively lose weight was when I was 14. I had long before developed a hatred of my body, but to deal with it I just ate more. Getting to high school, however, where kids are meaner and boys are taller, it was like an alarm went off in my head. The need to be skinny was urgent. My obsession with looking like MTV Girls Gone Wild got the better of me and I got caught in a cycle of trying to get skinny. It went like this; starve yourself until you canʼt take it anymore, overeat, mostly sugar. Repeat. Obviously this is not a sustainable cycle.
When I hit the 11th grade, I was the busiest I will ever be in my life. I was going to school, I was in three separate theatre productions, 2 school bands, a string ensemble, violin lessons, dance classes, I was a member of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra and and before you yell “DORK!, I also had my first serious boyfriend. Every moment of my time was accounted for and I crashed and burned. I kept getting sick with sinus infections and then I started losing weight. I wasnʼt trying, it was just happening. I had lost about 15 pounds and it felt good. Really good. So good that I knew I could never go back and I would do anything to stay on this path.
That summer I worked at Zellers. Remember Zellers? Not the most glamorous job but it was my first one and gave me the schedule and privacy I needed to control my food. This was back when Slim Fast was still a big deal and I decided to take them at their word. I bought Slim Fast bars from Zellers and kept them in my room. I would have one for breakfast, one on my lunch break and then I would eat dinner with my parents at 5pm so it looked like I was still eating. By the middle of the summer I weighed 105 lbs and had to buy all new clothes. I highlighted my hair and laid in the sun every day to get a tan. I looked like a completely different person. By all accounts, I should have been elated but when I looked in the mirror, I only saw flaws and still thought I needed to lose weight. I was a size zero.
When I went away to College I was on my own, far away from home for the first time. I found I needed a lot of energy to get through the day. My controlled “non eating” pattern just wasnʼt cutting it anymore. Also, I was in college which meant I could have popcorn for dinner. Things started to spiral out of control and fast so I decided to come at it from a new angle. I would eat what I wanted and make myself throw up. I still get control but I get to eat food. My rational brain was aware this was a bad idea but being rational had no place in my life when it came to food. Especially after the first time I was able to make myself sick. I had tried a couple times before to no avail. This time was different. It was urgent. It was the only way to gain control of my life again.
No one likes throwing up. If feels bad. It smells bad. It hurts sometimes and it really takes a toll on your body. It also doesn’t work the way you expect it to if you are consuming a lot of food so when I got tired of binge eating, making myself sick and not seeing results, I would try to break the cycle by going on a cleanse. A cleanse was, in my opinion, a socially acceptable way to starve myself. And, as is the case with all diets, I lost weight and as soon as I started eating real food again, I gained it back. My only solution was to start making myself sick again. I was stuck in this cycle and I didnʼt know how to stop. If I ate junk food and couldnʼt get to a bathroom 10 minutes after I would burst into tears. I spent a lot of time bursting into tears because I also knew I was hurting myself. But, inevitably, I would get to dance class, stare at myself in the mirror and think “youʼre too fat” and continue the path of self destruction. I remember distinctly a moment during ballet class while I was doing a cleanse. My ballet teacher came up to me privately and told me I was looking thin. She meant it to be cautionary, but I left feeling high as a kite. It was working. People were noticing. I was doing something right.
It took a long time and a lot of relapses to start to dig up instead of down and get myself out of the hole I was in. I count myself lucky that I scared myself enough to want help. Many people aren’t so lucky and fall much further before they are forced into help they don’t want. Recovering didn’t happen overnight and in many ways I will always be recovering and struggling to remind myself that my self worth isn’t based on a number on a scale. My chosen career path, first theatre, now music, has never been helpful in trying to heal as there is always some aspect of appearance that comes into play. From being herded to a weigh-in while I worked on a cruise ship to having dressers comment on my body and whether I had lost or gained weight, this profession is not kind to anyone struggling with body image. And while the entertainment business is rampant with people quick to judge others’ appearance, the problem is embedded in our society. Body shaming, while rooted in our own insecurities, is one of the worst things we do to each other. As if we aren’t hard enough on ourselves, we feel the need to judge others based on a fabricated form of beauty. I like to think it’s moving towards a healthier place but then I hear stories from fellow actors (all female or female identifying) being told by their agents they need to lose weight. Or I hear people younger than me talking about their appearance in a way that is too familiar; that self-deprecating humour to deflect judgment and get ahead of the comments. It seems harmless, but it’s not. I try now not to talk about image or appearance unless specifically asked and I do my best to keep it entirely positive. I also try to call people out when I hear that self-deprecating devil start to work its way into someone’s vocabulary. There have been wonderful media campaigns to help promote body positivity and a lot of brave people talking about their experiences. Hopefully, this trend will continue and the conversation will grow to become normal. It’s easy to be an advocate for self-love and forget to extend yourself the same courtesy.
I’ll end on this note. I kept this a secret for a long time. At first it was so no one would find out and hold me accountable and later it was because I felt ashamed. I fancy myself a pretty strong person and I was embarrassed at how long I let this run my life. If you haven’t already, I urge you to speak up and let someone know that you’re struggling. A friend, a family member or a qualified professional. You don’t have to go through this alone.
Have you ever been stuck in the middle of a crowded room, you are having a conversation, you have sweat pouring down your back and now it’s starting to show on your face, you feel that lump in your throat that means you are definitely about to burst into irrational tears but someone is talking to you about something you should be interested in? This happens to me more often than not at a party, at events, any place I am with a lot of people and my brain has decided it wants to go home. The conversation could be thrilling, the company could be incredible but once the switch has flipped, I need my coat, I need my purse and I need to get out.
It doesn’t happen gradually either. One moment I’m conversing, truly enjoying myself and the person I’ve managed to latch onto in a corner, the next moment it feels like someone has tied two boulders to my ankles and it is now imperative that I escape or I will sink. This is with people I know and feel somewhat comfortable with. It goes double if I’m at an event and know no one. I tend to avoid those as best I can. The best way I can describe my behaviour is with an anecdote:
Almost a year ago, my album I Learned The Hard Way was nominated for some Music PEI awards. I was honoured and excited to be a part of Music PEI week, but I have spent my career in theatre and knew almost no one in the music industry on the island. So when it came time to show up at the kick off party at a bowling alley, my stomach was in knots at the thought of walking in there and trying to talk to strangers. My dear friend Aaron was scheduled to appear as well so I made sure he was coming and when I arrived I double checked that he was on his way. He was a bit further away than I expected so instead of going in and meeting new people, I sat in my car for 30 minutes and waited for Aaron to show up. It was minus 20 outside.
I ended up going, having a great time and meeting some wonderful people but I would do it all over again, exactly the same way the next time I’m faced with a similar scenario.
I make light of it and friends that know me well make light of my inability to be around people but in all seriousness, it can be quite debilitating. My job for the last 10 years has been one that requires social interaction and connecting with new people constantly and I know when I choose to go home alone instead of going out for a drink or hanging around for an after party that I can seem, lets face it, like a bit of a bitch. Or when I have a very select group of people over to my house because I know and feel comfortable with every single one of them and feel comfortable kicking them out when that switch goes off, it can be viewed as excluding others. For me, the choice to have an open invite into my space is not an option because it means stress, sweating and starting to cry at the loss of control in my environment. It’s not about excluding people I don’t like, I like a lot of people, it’s about curating an experience that I will get enjoyment from. I know that, with work, it will get easier to be social but with other struggles I’ve faced in the past few years it’s only gotten worse and I’ve felt my comfort radius shrink significantly. For now, my work continues and I will continue to step outside my comfort zone and challenge myself. But if I’ve learned anything from this struggle, it’s that life is too short to pretend to have a good time.