Pushing buttons

Being a parent means having a lot of your buttons pushed, unless of course you had a super amazing childhood and your parents were perfect and nothing bothers you. So, basically not me. My children are the loves of my life, I adore them. But they push almost every button I have. When my anxiety is high, when I’m stressed, when I’m overwhelmed, the irritants become many and my temptation is to tell them exactly how they’re being annoying.

What is really hard for me, and maybe for others too, is checking my own emotional response before I take my anxiety or stress out on them. I have a hard time disengaging, walking away when my buttons are being pushed. In any circumstances really, at work, at home, with my family members. I normally get sucked in. I normally take the bait, I can barely help myself.

I think this is what growth might look like for me. Not taking the bait, not always trying to win the argument or be right. Checking my emotional response before before I open my mouth or say something I’m going to regret. Or sound unhinged, which is the look our older daughter gives me when I’m giving her a hard time about the tv being too loud. She gives me this look like, “what is your problem”? And honestly I don’t know what my problem is.

Our oldest is almost nine and this is a tricky age: bossy, bold, strident, opinionated, sassy. So basically my doppelganger. The problem is, as a kid, I was never allowed to be any of these things. I could be sassy for entertainment, like a trained monkey, but not for real. Not to stand up for myself, not to be myself. I wasn’t allowed to talk back or shout or be rude. I wasn’t allowed to be bossy or strident or weak. I wasn’t allowed to express myself in any way that wasn’t completely and totally unobtrusive. So when Finley is sassy and rude, I take the bait. Every time. There is something deep inside my psyche that is yelling at me, don’t let her get away with it, she’ll turn into a monster! And then I take the bait. There’s a fine line between teaching her to be a polite, civilized person living in the world and being a total control freak about everything she says.

I have a lot of buttons to push and they’re not that far from the surface. I want my girls to know that having buttons is normal to push. That it’s not unreasonable to feel irritation, annoyance, anger, frustration and sadness. But what I’m really hoping to learn, and to teach them, is how not to take their shit out on other people. xo Janet

Our wedding

Taken at a friend’s wedding in 2008, we’re wearing our wedding outfits.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our wedding recently, not only because it was our anniversary on Monday but because I see so many images of same sex couples in bridal magazines and now I can buy a same sex couple a greeting card at Chapters if I need one. 13 years ago, when Meg and I got married, that definitely wasn’t a thing. When we got married, it felt a radical, political act because it was one. Same sex marriage had only been legal for a year. One year. 52 weeks. 365 days. We were the first of our group of friends to get married and it even though we were both 29, it felt like we were charting unknown territory.

LGBTQ2S people have been in relationships for hundreds of years, it has just mostly been in the shadows. Emily Dickinson famously loved her sister-in-law, something I just learned about from the Molly Shannon movie. In the last 13 years, I have gone from seeing no one like me getting married, to a whole bunch of people like me get married, then get divorced, then get remarried. I see two brides in Brides magazine get married in wedding gowns, something I still don’t get because a white wedding gown was supposed to be a sign of a bride’s virginity. But hey, you do you.

Meg and I wore beautiful pant suits which is a little cliche for lesbians but we both looked amazing. I was so nervous that day that I had a total meltdown at the hair salon about my updo, it was way too poofy and I freaked out. I was so disconnected from my feelings and my experience of my anxiety that I honestly thought I was freaking out about my hair. Now anyone who knows me knows my hair is very important to me. But a little too much hair spray sent me into an emotional tailspin. Pre-wedding jitters one might say, or just rampant, unchecked, unbridled anxiety. Take your pick.

That day was honestly the best day of my life up until that point. I have never felt so special and probably never will again which I’m just fine with. I got to marry my most important person. It was a really special day with our friends and family there, we were so proud of ourselves, we felt so grown up. I look back on that now and think how little we understood about what marriage really means, what it takes, what makes it work. Neither of us had a clue frankly, but we did it anyway. Lots of people don’t get married and that’s great too, whatever works for you is the right thing. We have far too many conventions about what one ought to do when becoming an adult, the timelines, the expectations. It’s all bullshit.

That day I felt like by doing something so conventional like get married, I was radicalizing my life. I was standing up for my rights, I was marrying the woman I love in a ceremony in front of people who love and care about us. I was making a public declaration of my love and commitment. I was telling the world that I didn’t care about their conventions and edicts, about how I should marry a man instead. I think it was the first time in my adult life that I could honestly say that I wasn’t doing what people expected of me and it felt amazing. Still does. xo Janet

Lucky number 13


 Meg and I at Toronto Pride around 2005 or 2006

This is a big week around here  – we’re getting our house ready to sell, I got to do my first real photo shoot on the weekend which was amazing and yesterday, Meg and I celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary. By celebrated, I mean I stayed home from work so sick I could barely get out of bed, Meg ran around getting stuff sorted with the house, painting walls, talking to the painters who were here all day and keeping Lenni occupied and happy. That’s what August 19th looked like for us this year.

Now to be fair, we went out on Friday night and had a really wonderful evening eating out, meeting the amazing Vanessa Vanjie Mateo and seeing a fabulous drag show. We were out way past out bedtime and it was great.

Pride this year is very special for me because I’m part of the Wheelhouse community and they are doing some amazing things in support of the queer community in Ottawa. If you’re not following them on @instagram, you’re missing out.

It’s also special for me because it’s the 18th Pride I’ll be celebrating with Meg. 18 years of anything is amazing; 18 years of celebrating being queer and proud with a woman I love so much, who teaches me something every day, who is an amazing person and mom, is really something. There’s no secret to a being with the same person for a long time if that’s your thing. You have to do the work on yourself and your relationship, you have to keep showing up, keep choosing that person. Don’t take them or the things they do for you for granted. And if you do, say you’re sorry and mean it. Change your roles. Change your expectations. Manage your expectations. Remember that they’re flawed and fallible too and don’t hold it against them or throw it in their face. Be kind to yourself and them. Happy pride everyone and honey, happy anniversary. Xo Janet

Recovery takes time

When I think about taking time to recover from depression/anxiety, I realize that the feeling of wanting to rush through it was so powerful. I wanted the whole thing to be over. I wanted to be well. I wanted to stop feeling like a major inconvenience. I wanted to stop feeling ashamed of being broken. But there was no way of hurrying the process up because everytime I thought about going back to work, I would get heart palpitations and break out in a cold sweat.

The thing about recovery is that there is no timetable, no rule book or manual. It depends on the supports you have in place, how skilled your therapist is, whether you have a therapist in the first place, and your family system. The best thing about being away from work on parental leave was that I had lots of time to think about other things than work. The not worrying about work stopped after about eight weeks, by month three, I didn’t care about work at all. I had completely disconnected myself and that felt amazing.

Unburdening myself from work was so freeing and allowed me to focus on other things like exercise, therapy and being with my children. We had a newborn and I was trying to sort out my terrible mental health, my broken back and be a good mom. I was barely functioning emotionally but wanted to be present for my family and it took me several months. At least four or five. By the time I went back to work after my parental leave it had been eight solid, blissful months of being at home, taking care of myself full-time and I felt better. But I still wasn’t ready to go to back to work. As soon as I went back, the insomnia kicked up again, my anxiety spiked and it was hard. I realized in retrospect that I should have gone back part-time, progressively. But I didn’t even give myself the space to think that would be an acceptable solution. I thought I was better and threw myself back in full time.

Eventually, the return to work became a new normal but that took time too. So if you’re in this space or thinking you need a break and have the ability to take one, I encourage you to think about it. If it’s possible to give yourself any space, even a day or two, take it. You’ll feel better as long as you give yourself permission to not feel guilty. xo Janet

How do you know when it’s time to fail?

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about failure. It’s good for me, I wasn’t allowed to fail as a kid which isn’t a great lesson frankly. Being perfect all the time is a real pain in the ass. So now I can see that failure is essential. Failure brings growth and lessons. Failure breeds character. Failure means progress. Professionally, so many of you have to risk failure to innovate, to change, to push growth. But personal failure is something else. Most of us are taught young to fear failure, to avoid it all costs.

The truth is, personal failure is essential. So many of us fail as spouses, fail as parents, fail as friends. And we beat ourselves up for it, over and over again. We shame ourselves, feel guilty, pass the buck, shovel shit elsewhere. Most of us project it or internalize the shame/guilt of failure. But, there’s a third way. We can lean into the failure, own it, name it. Be clear about what it is but what the consequences are as well. Sometimes failure is necessary for self preservation. Sometimes failure is necessary to move on. Sometimes failure is your bell weather to say, don’t do this, change course. I could use all kinds of sailing metaphors but I don’t sail so they probably wouldn’t float (lol). But what I’m trying to say is that as soon as I got real with how I felt about being a failure and distinguishing between experiencing failure and being a failure, things got a lot easier to process.

Here’s my list for experiencing failure:

  1. Do the work with a therapist and lean into it.
  2. Separate yourself from the failure and know that you aren’t a failure.
  3. Failure is human, failure is normal. Everyone fails, most people just don’t talk about it.
  4. Learn to live with it and be honest about it. Failure humanizes and makes us accessible. Failure teaches us if we listen.
  5. Covering up our failures hardens us. Leaning into them makes us vulnerable.

I have made a lot of mistakes. I’m slowly starting to work through them. Hope this inspires you to be alright with yours too. xo Janet

Dropping out of my Ph.D.saved my life part II

Wow did yesterday’s post get a lot of conversation going! That was amazing, thank you all so much for commenting! Sharing my drop out story was awesome, felt good. But I wasn’t totally honest. I dropped out only after trying to move programs because my supervisor died.

Ok, let’s back up. So I’m flaming out in my first year of the program and I go to the head of the graduate program and tell her that I am taking a leave of absence for medical reasons. I confide in her and tell her that my supervisor has been bullying and demeaning me and I tell her I want to quit the program essentially because I’m a total fraud who can’t hack it. Do you know what she said to me? Bullshit. She said, “Janet, this isn’t about your abilities, you’re amazing. You need to find a supervisor who will support you and help you get this done if that’s what you want. Don’t quit because of someone else, quit only because you don’t want to do it for yourself anymore”. Wow. Powerful words. So I said to her, ok, I want you to supervise me, can you do that? And she said yes, just change your topic so that it’s in my area of expertise.

So I did. I had a completely new topic (same general theoretical area of expertise), a new committee of advisor, and a comprehensive list. If you’re like what the hell is a comprehensive list, in the second year of a most social sciences Ph.D. programs, students have to pull together a comprehensive list of readings, do the readings, and then write the mother of all exams on them. Once you’ve done that successfully, you can move on to actually write the damn thing. So I had pulled myself together, I was moving forward with a new topic and a wonderful supervisor. And then she died, one day, of a massive brain aneurysm. It was the second loss I’d suffered since my mom died eight years before. It was horrible, I was devastated. And then I realized, it was over. My academic career died with her. I only had two years of funding left, no supervisor, no ability to do my comps and I fled the province.

But even then, I didn’t totally quit. I tried to go back to Queen’s to keep going (foolish). Tried to get a new topic (even more foolish). Tried so hard to cling to the idea that I was my work, my life was my achievement. Failure, even at this point, wasn’t an option. But it was already done. And the downward spiral really started at that point. This was 2003 and into 2004. I can’t tell that story yet, I’m not ready. But if you are wiling to share, please tell me in the comments, how did you survive a big failure? What made you walk away from something so hard? What helped you to leave? What did you learn? I’d love to know. xo Janet

Dropping out of my Ph.D. saved my life

I like to say on this blog that my midlife crisis started three years ago, which is essentially true, but the fact of the matter is, I’ve been in crisis most of my life. The the real flame out started in 2001 when I started a Ph.D. program. I went back to Vancouver after very successfully finishing a Master of Arts in Sociology at Queen’s in 2001. I hadn’t taken a break from academic work since after my Mom died in 1995, a huge mistake. So after an honours BA at UBC and a Masters at Queen’s, I decided to move back to BC which was a huge mistake.

Saying that my trauma was triggered the minute I got off the plane is an understatement. I think I had a massive panic attack that lasted about 2 years. You think I may be exaggerating but I’m not. Genuinely not kidding, it lasted 2 years when I fled the province with Meg by car.

I started the Ph.D. program with the highest of hopes. I wanted to be an academic and I thought I would be a good one. I really did. But I couldn’t deal with my trauma, be in Vancouver, I was completed burned out from overworking myself and I flamed out. But let’s go back to what I think happened and then, with almost twenty years perspective, maybe did happen.

I started in 2001 and it seemed like it was going well. I had no idea what fresh hell awaited me – the people were competitive, the city was cold as hell (both the weather and the people) and I had no idea what I was doing there. But I faked it, sort of. My supervisor whom I gone to work with could clearly see me flaming out in my first year because she didn’t like my work and didn’t hold back in telling me. She told me on a weekly basis how truly terrible it was for someone in a downward depression/anxiety/shame spiral was super helpful.

But she didn’t know about the spiral and I didn’t tell her. In fact, I couldn’t tell anyone. I was so afraid and ashamed about having depression that I didn’t think I could be a Ph.D. student and be diagnosed with a mental illness. It was pretty dark and being in a doctoral program was soul crushing. I think the most mentally healthy of people suffer as doctoral students. The sole purpose of these programs is to strip students down. To make them prove their scholarly worth. To try to push every piece of ego out of their work, as has been done to them. It’s not only dehumanizing, it’s unconscionable.

So every time someone has asked me about doing a doctoral program, I’ve advised them against it. And not because I hold a grudge against the program or that I spent years feeling like a failure because I couldn’t finish it, it’s because I genuinely believe it’s not worth it. Very, very few people who get Ph.D.s these days get a full-time, tenure track jobs. That’s the golden carrot they dangle in front of you when you do a doctoral program. And it’s far too elusive these days to be worth the struggle. I’d love to hear from people who had a good recent experience with a Ph.D. program, it would make me believe more in the sacrifices required.

With 20 years hindsight, I can see that I was so unwell even before I got to that program. And going back to Vancouver, after being away from the pain and trauma for two years, was a huge mistake. I could feel the mistake in every bone of my body and I didn’t listen to it. I refused to listen to the voice that told me not to be there, to pull the plug. If I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done the Ph.D.program, I wouldn’t have gone back to Vancouver and I could have started my healthy life a lot earlier than I did. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get my shit together. But you all know what they say about hindsight. If you have the opportunity to listen to the voice that tells you, don’t do this, just tune in, just for a minute. It may pivot your life in ways that are a lot healthier. xo Janet