Getting There with Wet Underwear – How to Persist Through Anxiety

“It’s not the inherent danger of the stunt that makes you freeze,” Critter says. “You just forgot why you climbed onto the trapeze. Stop and listen; if your whole body says you want to do this, get out there and do your Ringling thing.” – Critter, on how to persist through anxiety.

I am sitting on my bed with my laptop on my knees. There’s a cup of vanilla rooibos tea steaming on my dresser, and it’s making the place smell like raisin bread. It’s peaceful, quiet, and perfect for writing. But I’m stuck.

I blink at my screen, squinting and trying to focus. But the bright backlight is taunting me through the smudgy display surface. There’s also a fine spray of toothpaste dried on my glasses, and an aqua-musical of floaters doing pinwheels in my corneal jelly. I might as well be peering through a frosted glass brick. I can’t see shit. I sigh loudly through my nose.

“Fuck,” I mutter. “Maybe I should just roll over and go to sleep.”

“No way in hell you’re napping,” comes a voice from below the far side of the bed. “You’ve got shit to do.”

With less grace than a cat (but more than a dog), my imaginary raccoon pokes her face above the edge of the mattress and clambers up beside me.

“Hey, Critter,” I sigh.

“What’s up?” she asks, leaning over to peek at my screen. “Why aren’t you tappety-tapping your way through another thrilling tale of low self-esteem?”

I look at my made-up muse, then look back at my laptop, and frown.

“I’m stuck,” I say.

“What’s got you in its jaws?” Critter asks.

“Muck,” I say. “Some serious gloop. My brain feels like it’s been tarred and filled with that heinous fluff that poplars crap out in May.”

Critter nods her head knowingly.

“Ah,” she says. “A classic case of gunk-head, or as we call it, the cerebral piles. Raccoons get that sometimes.”

I raise a curious eyebrow.

“Sure!” Critter continues. “We get mentally constipated, too. But it doesn’t get us down. We just stick a finger in there and dig it out.” She makes a circular motion with one of her dainty black digits.

“Jesus Christ, Critter!” I groan, covering my eyes. “I’m never going to get that image out of my head.”

My raccoon chuckles.

“It all comes out in the end,” she says with a smirk. “You just need to get those cognitive bowels moving,” she says. “Now tell me, why can’t you work?”

I open my eyes to scowl at my disgusting guide. Then I dig both hands into the short mop of hair at the back of my head and scrub my scalp with my fingers. Finally, I drop my hands onto my thighs and sigh.

“I don’t know, Critter,” I mumble. “I’m just super foggy. I can’t concentrate on what I want to say.”

Critter tilts her head.

“What DO you want to say?” she asks.

I reach back up to my hair and bury my right hand, pulling and twisting sections as though it will stimulate thought.

What AM I trying to say? I ask myself I can hardly remember.

I look down at my notebook beside me, where I’ve sketched a rat’s nest of braindumps for three pieces that need writing. The first is a letter to my daughter’s school, the second is my blog post for the week, and the third is a short story that has me equal parts delighted and terrified.

These pieces are straining against the inside of my skull with thoughts and intentions that need to come out. But I can’t put them into words.

All I can think about is what a crappy job I’m going to do of them. I kind of liked my last post about anxiety and artistic nudity. I’m 100% sure the next thing I write won’t be as good. I’m fighting hard against the urge just to leave these next three failures unwritten.

I’m useless right now, I think. If I try to force it, the pieces will be god-awful.

I look down again at my two pages of scrawled planning. It’s broken up into chunks with circles, underlines, and arrows darting this way and that. The whole thing is a bloody mess, and it’s failing to ignite any inspiration or confidence. I do NOT want to do this right now.

But, deadlines.

I shake my head and frown.

Critter reaches over and rotates the notebook so she can have a look. I watch her eyes track the bumble-bee’s path from one thought to another, wondering what she makes of it. When she’s done, she turns the notebook back to me and looks me in the eye.

“You’re scared.” she states.

“Huh?” I say. “I’m not scared today. Just fogged-up” I lift an elbow and pinch the fabric near my armpit to test for moisture.

“See?” I report. “All dry.”

Critter shakes her head and looks at me kindly.

“Fear doesn’t always look like sweating and shaking and chattering your teeth,” she says. “When it goes underground, fear can look like anything.”

I frown.

“Then how do you know it’s fear?” I ask.

“Because it shows up as a compelling reason to hold yourself back from what you want,” she answers.

I look across the room to the curtained window and consider this.

Is that what’s happening here? I wonder. Am I lost in this brainfog because I’m afraid to get working? 

Then for no obvious reason, a memory from last summer materializes in front of me.

I am standing in line at an adult gymnastics gym, waiting for my turn to try an exercise. I’m in a class called Ninja Warrior (after a TV gameshow, I’m told, though I haven’t seen it). The workout is designed to prepare you for an obstacle course race like Tough Mudder.

I’m not a member at this gym, and I’m definitely not registered for Tough Mudder. As a struggling writer with two little ones at home, I don’t have the time, money, or focus right now to commit to Ninja Toughening.

What I am is an out-of-shape mom who snatched up a Groupon to sample this weird workout, because it reminds me of the fun I used to have before kids.

That’s why I’m standing in line a dozen-or-so people much fitter than me, with my face stretched taut in a smile I can’t control.

This is going to be fun! I squeak inwardly. Look at me having fun!

My classmates and I are arrayed in front of a long trampoline. Above it is a set of gigantic monkey bars. They are about ten feet or so above the bouncing surface, and the rungs are about four feet apart.

Our challenge is to start bouncing, and get enough height to reach a bar. Then, the coach demonstrates how we will take a few swings and fling ourselves through the air to catch the next rung.

I watch the others; some skip the exercise altogether, citing bad shoulders; some get partway there (able to bounce up to the first rung, but not catching the second). Some master the whole maneuver with the effortless grace of a circus-trained primate.

I watch those who make it through the stunt, and I want to do it, too.

But I’m scared. There is a film playing in the back of my head where I see myself miss the second rung and fall backwards. I whiplash my neck into the trampoline, or land with my neck horrifically bent, my head crushed beneath my own shoulder. It’s not a pretty scene. My stomach twists.

In front of my real eyes, my classmates are doing fine. No one else is falling backward. The coach is letting people who seem vertically or athletically challenged climb up onto a boxhorse to reach the first rung.

One after another, the students either shake their heads and step out of line, or climb onto the trampoline and take a crack at the outrageous move.

Everyone who tries either catches that next rung, or misses and lands on their feet. I see that no one is getting hurt. This could be doable.

That’s when I realize how BADLY I want to do this. The part of my mind that is not screaming, “Danger, Will Robinson!” is projecting what success will feel like. And it’s delicous.

I imagine myself nailing the stunt: I feel my legs swing, my hands release the first bar, and my belly swoop with a great tug of gravity.

Just as my flight begins to arc downward, I catch the next bar, and swing through smoothly. I can feel success sing in my shoulders, hips and spine… a delicious lengthening that opens physical space and unimagined possibilities between each vertebra.

 

I stand there in line, watching this imagined scene and feeling a grounding surge of awareness centred on in my belly button. I feel miraculously alive.

I want it. I want to grab that fucking bar. I want it so bad.

I rub my hands together, gathering heat. They are cold and damp. I look down at them and see a sparkle of salt crystals in the whorls and creases of my palm. I shake my head. The fearful vision returns of the back of my skull whip-cracking onto the trampoline. I close my eyes and push it away.

“This won’t do,” I mutter to myself, frowning. I wipe my soggy paws on my useless, non-absorbent lycra tights and scan the room for a bucket of chalk.

Success! There it is behind me, a 5-gallon pail pushed against the wall at the next station. I whisper my thanks to the gods of grip enhancement and dart out of line to partake of the protective mineral.

There is a whole brick of it sitting atop a mass of loose white powder. I grab the hunk between my hands and work it vigorously like a bar of soap.

It’s overkill. I open my palms to check the effect, and they look like doughnuts caked in powdered sugar. I rub them together to release the excess back into the bucket. It clumps like soggy sand.

Hope that dries before the next sucker reaches in, I think scrunching my face at their imagined disgust.

Then I look up to check the progress of the line, and see that I’ve missed my turn. My classmates are going for a second round on the ape bars.

“Shit!” I squeak, and bound over the thickly matted floor to rejoin the back of the lineup.

The line moves much more quickly this time, and before I know it, it’s my turn. The instructor looks at me and tilts his head.

“You’ve done this before?” he asks in Russian-tinted English.

I shake my head, my eyes big like baseball.

“You start on boxhorse,” he decides. I nod gratefully, and climb up onto it.

The nearest bar is right over my head. I can reach it without jumping.

“Grab bar and hang,” he says. “I move the boxhorse.”

So I reach up and hang, lifting my feet while the coach slides the boxhorse out from under me.

“Swing now,” the coach says. “You swing legs up, then fly to next bar.”

I swing. Back and forth, once, then twice. This part is easy – it feels like fifteen years of playing at the park, and junior high gymnastics, and all of the playful thrill I have ever enjoyed in my body.

My legs are kicking plenty high. I know I have enough momentum to fly to the second rung. I can feel the rest of the class watching me, their arms crossed, chests heaving, catching their breath and preparing for another round.

They’re waiting, I think. I’m ready. GO!

On my third swing, I kick my legs forward, feel them swing up, then snap them down and whip my upper body into the empty space. I rush weightlessly between what I know I can do, and what I hope, and fear, and crave in my guts.

I feel myself flying forward. I know I released at the right moment, and my trajectory is true. I can feel my position in the emptiness; my head is ahead of my spine, my arms are ahead of my head, and everything is going to be fine.

It’s not until I feel the mallet-blow on my left wrist that I realize my eyes are closed. I had no idea that I overshot, and instead of reaching the next rung with the meat of my palms, I crash into that steel bar with the veins and tendons at the base of my hand.

My left arm hits first. The impact reverberates like a gong strike, booming into my elbow and the back of my teeth. The hand curls into a useless claw.

My right arm is slightly behind, and that wrist doesn’t hit as hard. The hand is still usable, and it swipes reflexively to grasp the bar as I start to drop. But only the tips of my fingers catch. It’s just enough of a snag to pull me off-center, my left side plunging faster than my right.

I spread my limbs like a star in an effort to right myself, but as I am in midair, it doesn’t accomplish much. I crash onto the trampoline, not with the back of my head, but with the side of my left foot and curled left claw.

The rest of my body follows in a heap. The gym falls silent. I look up and see a dozen faces frozen in concern.

“I’m okay!” I croak, as I push up to my knees. Then I shuffle to the edge of the trampoline and climb down.

The room breathes a sigh of relief. My heart hammers in my ears. Everyone turns back toward the front of the line. I take my place at the back.

I’m going to do this! I think. I stand in the line and watch the others take their third turn. They are accumulating confidence. I clench and release my fists at my sides, then press my hand into my sternum to slow the galloping beast in my chest.

It’s my turn again. I look up at the coach, and he considers me a moment.

“Boxhorse?” he asks.

“Yes, please,” I answer.

The scene repeats.

I reach up and hang. My stomach drops. I glue my eyes to the bar ahead of me, and begin to swing.

One, two, three times I pump my legs. On the third, I snap them back and fling myself forward. I am flying through the air, waiting for the slap of steel in my palm…

And am surprised by another resonant whack across my tender wrist.

My right hand catches, and then slips. Just like before.

I look down and prepare to meet the trampoline as it rushes up at me. I get my left forearm and knee under me. My body follows in a plop onto the stretchy black fabric, with slightly more control than the first time.

No one stops breathing this time. My face glows red as I climb off the matted edge of the bouncer and shuffle humbly back into the lineup.

“You cannot see the bar?” the coach asks.

“I think I’m closing my eyes,” I mumble, looking at the floor. My face feels so hot I’m sure it’s purple.

The coach shrugs and leaps effortlessly onto the trampoline like someone whose natural habitat is made of mats and springs and bars.

“Now,” he says to the athletic fellow next in line. “We bounce to each bar. You jump, you catch. You drop, you bounce to next bar. Bounce-catch, bounce-catch. Yes?”

He demonstrates, and the class murmurs understanding. One by one, everyone takes a turn. About half of the students are able to jump high enough to reach the bars. I am among those whose fingers strain into empty air on every bounce.

After my first time through, I watch my classmates more closely. The ones who make it up to grasp those bars are mostly men, but there are two women who can do it.

So, it’s not just a guy thing, I tell myself.

I compare the body size of the people who hit the mark. The women are both several inches taller than me, but two of the men are near my size.

So, it’s not just a height thing, I conclude.

My second round goes much like my first. Bounce, streeee-tch… miss. I experiment, holding my gaze and arms up just a second longer before I look down and coil up for the next bounce. It doesn’t give me any more height.

But as I pass the apex of my jump and begin to fall with my head still tilted upwards, a sickening spasm jolts through my stomach. I feel my center start to fall backwards.

With a horrified jerk, I snap my arms and head forwards, and manage to throw my body out of the perilous backward lean. I land folded, squatting with my hands on my knees and my ass in the air. I waver awkwardly as I still the bounce of black cloth and squeaky springs.

“Hehehe… almost had it,” I mutter, smiling sheepishly to no one as I climb off the trampoline.

I am still chuckling nervously as I step into line for the last round.

The next person to approach the apparatus is a tallish guy in his late twenties. He looks like he hasn’t been inside a gymnasium since it was required for graduation credits. He presses his lips together as he bounds heavily through his failed attempt: bounce-miss, bounce-miss, bounce-miss.

The coach watches him, frowning. Then he addresses the class.

“It is not knees bending,” he explains. “Knees locked. The feet are springing.” Then he demonstrates.

The coach is barely taller than my 5’2”. And probably several pounds lighter than my overburdened frame. But this little man launches himself off the trampoline again and again, his rebounds peaking at eye-level with the bars. His legs are straight, toes pointed. Face relaxed. Like it was the easiest thing in the world.

If he can do it, so can I, I tell myself. It’s technique, not brawn. Just gotta make it click.

On my third turn, I climb onto the trampoline and glare at it’s woven surface with determination. I swing my arms and begin to bounce.

I look up at the first rung and count my bounces: one, two…

I prepare to explode on bounce number three. I lock my knees and push downward with every muscle in my body. I’m going to MAKE that trampoline launch me to my mark.

But all I produce with this fierce blast of effort is a jet of hot urine in my underwear.

Time slows. I feel my eyes bulge and my jaw drop in surprise. My explosive spring collapses into a stunned float, and I arrest my bounce midway down the trampoline. For a heartbeat, I am frozen.

When I start to breathe again, I turn to look at the coach. But he’s not there. He has already led the rest of the class over to the next station.

I slither off the trampoline and skulk quietly off the floor. I find the bathroom and lock myself inside without turning on the lights. I’m surprised my hot cheeks aren’t producing a pink glow.

When I finally flick the lights on, they hesitate with the unmotivated flicker of old flourescent tubes. I look in the mirror and see myself in flashes. I am breathing hard. I am bent over, my hands gripping the sides of the sink. My mouth is open, expressionless.

As the flickering light finally snaps decisively on, I look into my own eyes and start to grin.

“Ho-lee shit,” I whisper. “I just pissed myself!” My eyes get wider and wider, and I swear they look slightly misaligned. I am wracked by competing urges to laugh and cry.

“I look like a lunatic,” I cackle quietly. “Dear fuck, I feel like one!”

I hear a murmur of voices from outside, and realize I’m talking to myself with my outside voice. I press my lips together and breathe hard through my nose, eyes still locked on their own reflection. My heart begins to slow.

I watch my body change as the adrenaline begins to fade. My shoulders start to ease away from my ears. My hunched neck begins to straighten. My death-gripping hands release the sink.

I stand up straight and take a deep breath. I feel it fill my belly. My weight settles into my hips, through my knees, and onto my feet. I become aware of the floor beneath me. I breathe again.

I sit on the toilet and pull down my pants to assess the damage.

Yup, those are some wet undies, I think. But then a thought occurs to me. Did it leak through my tights?

A quick check is inconclusive; the anemic bathroom light and strong dye on the black lycra conspire to hide what I’m sure is a large splotch of shame.

Note to self, I chuckle inwardly. Add incontinence pads to the gym bag.

It occurs to me that there are probably a lot of moms who have added bladder-control products to their athletic routine. Childbirth isn’t kind, y’all.

Then I remember that serious athletes probably do a shitload of kegel exercises after they have their babies so they can run and jump again without wetting their pants.

Finally, I realize it’s been a long time since I was anything close to a serious athlete. I don’t have time to rebuild my pelvic floor muscles before my Groupon runs out. And I don’t want my wimpy bladder to keep me from embracing this sweet slice of fun.

I AM having fun, right? I silently ask my reflection.

I look carefully into the mirror; the crinkles around my eyes and leftover flush on my cheeks whisper, “Fuck yes!”

Alright, I say to the mirror. We’ll be back, then. But for now, it’s time to go home and grab clean pants.

But I don’t go home. Like a total lunatic, when I exit the bathroom, I hang a right and head back out onto the floor.

The rest of the class is a margarita mix of lime-bright fear and smooth tequila satisfaction. We take running leaps to catch a trapeze, and time our release to go sailing over a thigh-high crash mat and land on the other side. I’m not half-bad at that one. It gives me the delicious flying sensation I was craving on the monkey bars.

Then we use cupped palms, straight arms, and straight legs to run up a sticky pole. My feet slip on that one about seven feet off the ground. It makes me gasp and I nearly pee some more, but I don’t fall.

My least favourite exercise is running up the curved wall. I have trouble moving my feet fast enough, and take a tumble on my way down.

Through all of this, no one says a word about my grade-school “accident.” No one splashes water on the front of their pants in solidarity, either, a la Billy Madison.

I’ll never know if my classmates noticed my wet pants, or what they thought about them. And I’m good with that.

Finally, the workout is almost over. The coach leads us off the main gym floor and points up a wooden staircase.

“The stunt tower,” he said. “Now, we practice falls.”

My heart flutters.

This is what brought me to this gym. The ad for the Groupon featured a picture of a dude summersaulting off this two-storey tower onto the exact same red and white crash bag I see below.

My face stretches back into that cheek-straining grin I wore an hour ago, when I was contemplating the monkey bars.

This is it, I think. I get to fly!

One by one, my classmates make their choice: they either descend the stairs to sit out this last feat, duck below the platform to jump off the lower level, or proceed straight ahead to leap off the top platform.

“You jump legs forward, land on back, arms to sides,” the coach shouts up at us from beside the crash bag. “Body like a cross.”

Wha?!? I think. Won’t we hit our heads on the platform?

I had been expecting something else; if not the front-flip from the ad photo, then maybe a forward leap and roll to our backs.

“Or,” the coach adds; “You face backwards and just fall back.”

Fucking NOPE! I say in my head. I need to see what’s happening.

Legs-forward it is.

My fearful movie screen flickers on again, showing a vision of me leaping out… but not far enough. I begin to lay back in the air, and hear a meaty thwack as my occipital bone cracks against lumber. A shiver runs from the arches of my feet up to the back of my scalp.

“No fucking way,” I mutter to myself. “That is NOT going to happen.”

“Huh?” asks the guy behind me.

“Uh, nothing,” I mutter. My cheeks get hot.

“Next!” shouts the coach, and I realize it’s me.

I gasp a breath in and step forward to the edge of the platform. I’m at the top of the tower. I am very relieved to see they’ve built a short railing on the side. I grab it with my right hand and squeeze it a few times.

“When you are ready,” the coach says. His face is neutral. “Take big breath. Straighten body in the air. Spread your arms when you land.”

I look down. The surface of the crash bag is shimmery… I briefly wonder if it’s made of silk, or nylon. And then suddenly, I jump.

I push hard. I hear wind in my ears as I lean back and tense my whole body as I wait to strike the bag. There isn’t even time for a full heartbeat.

Thwap! My stretched form punches into the bag. My butt has landed ahead of my shoulders, and the uneven momentum whips my head into the bag. It rings a little in my ears, but I’m fine.

I blink and stare at the ceiling while I catch my breath.

Holy fuck! I think. I did it! I FLEW!

“You’re alright?” the coach asks. I roll over, rise onto all fours, and turn to him with a thumbs up and a gigantic grin.

The coach nods.

“Stretch arms more,” he says. “Land evenly.”

“Got it,” I say, and slide off the edge of the enormous air pillow to take two more turns to sail off the tower before it’s officially time to go home.

Back in my bedroom, with my computer on my lap and Critter at my side, the gym scene fades in my mind. My cheeks are warm from remembered excitement.

Critter is sitting beside me, gaping at me. She has followed along with my thoughts.

“Wow,” she says. “You seriously peed yourself at the gym?”

I smile sheepishly and nod.

“That’s impressive,” she says.

I chuckle.

“It was worth it,” I say.

Critter nods and grins.

“Honestly,” I admit, “I can’t figure out why that memory is sticking to me right now.”

Critter eyes me with her head slanted.

“I think you want to make a point to yourself about being scared,” she says.

“Like what?” I snigger. “If your bladder is weak then you gotta wear Depends?”

Critter smiles.

“You already learned that one,” she says, winking. “What have you not figured out yet?”

I breathe deeply and think about it.

“I guess what I remember most about that class was how scared I was, but how that uncontrollable craving to feel weightless kept me going,” I say.

Critter nods and strokes her chin.

“I think that day at the gym taught you the secret to conquering fear,” Critter says. “It’s desire.”

I consider this.

“It’s not the inherent danger of the stunt that makes you freeze,” Critter continues. “You just forgot why you climbed onto the trapeze. Stop and listen; if your whole body says you want this, get out there and do your Ringling thing. There’s a net, you’ll be fine.”

I raise my eyebrows.

“That’s weirdly apt,” I say. “As usual, you freaky little genius.”

Critter grins and I scratch the top of her head.

“You humans are unique in the way you cling to your fears,” she says lazily. “You really suck at predicting the future, but keep stubbornly trying.”

I nod and keep scratching her scruffy scalp.

“Amen, sister,” I mutter.

I smile as Critter’s eyes start to close, lulled by the comfort of my touch.

Then she cracks one eye open at me.

“So, you going to climb back on that boxhorse?” she asks. “Get back at your writing?”

I take a deep breath and close my eyes. I search inwardly for the desire to do these pieces.

“For the letter to my daughter’s school,” I say, “the desire comes from a problem that needs to be addressed. It’s going to be uncomfortable to bring it up, but there’s a chance it will make things better for everyone involved. I have no idea what kind of response I will get, but I’ve got to speak up.

For the blog post, the desire comes from my need be useful – to produce something for my readers that rewards them for sticking around.

For the short story – whew, that’s the one with the biggest fog of fear wrapped around it. But in the cold spaghetti of my guts, I can still make out the desire: I want to take a crack at telling another kind of story that is rattling its chains in my head.”

Critter raises an eyebrow.

“You’ve become my comfort zone,” I admit to my imaginary friend. “I am dying to step outside this situation where you always save the day and see what happens when I go wandering through my ideas on my own,”

Critter nods.

“You can handle it,” she grins. “But you’d better come back and tell me all about it,”

“Promise,” I reply.

“There you go,” she says. “You found your reason for doing these terrifying things. Now, it doesn’t matter how scary or hard it gets. Just remember: your need is your north star. Keep it in view, and it will guide you home.”

I smile at Critter. She steps away from my stroke, then leans down and pats my hand.

“Just keep showing up on the trapeze platform,” she says. “With your pants as wet as necessary.”

Critter chuckles. Then, she gives me a smile that warms me head-to-toe and leaps off my bed to leave me to my tappety-tappings.

Both of us wish you a lifetime of “Holy fuck I just flew,” and “I peed myself and don’t even care,” kind of moments.

Critique vs. Inner Critic: How to Grow without Crippling Self-Judgement

“Being an artist is kind of like being a nudist,” she says. “You can’t get into the club unless you bare your naked truth, but wearing your skin suit in public is an act of discipline.” – Critter, on exposing yourself to judgement so you can grow.

“Do I have to look?” I mutter to myself as my finger swipes the notifications off my phone’s screen. “I really, really don’t want to.” I swallow a flare of heartburn and lay my phone on the kitchen counter so my hands are free to flap.

I swallow a flare of heartburn and lay my phone on the kitchen counter so my hands are free to flap.

I’m freaking out, man.

The messages are from my friends – fellow writers and/or lovers of a story well-told. Why wouldn’t I want to see what they have to say?

It’s because they’re not just friends today, they’re beta readers. They are giving feedback on the first complete draft of my book. And I’m pretty sure they’re going to say it’s cheesy, half-baked, and fucking awful. My heart is in my throat.

It’s been four months since I committed to turning the stories and messages from this blog into a book. In that time, I have been tossed like a rubber duck on tidal waves of emotion.

It started with ecstatic freedom – knowing that my fate is in my own hands.

“I’m going to be my own freaking fairy godmother!” I sang inside my head. “I’m gonna turn myself into an author!” All I had to do was learn the steps to the self-publishing dance and follow them. Simple as pie.

Next came slice of juicy satisfaction. It felt indescribably good to reject the traditional publishing route. Much like starting my blog, producing my own book freed me to dig my fingers into wet and smelly stuff without worrying about soiling a publisher’s image or offending their marketing sensibilities.

No one was going to stop me from saying the things that I felt needed to be said or water-down my tone. I was completely free to amuse myself with all the gross and unsettling imagery I craved. The sensation of creative control was like bacon-wrapped filet – arousing, addictive, and nourishing to a part of me that was always hungry.

But with all that dizzy liberty came huge responsibility. Every time I caught a giddy swell of possibility, I’d fly off the crest and freefall into twenty-league trough of doubt.

You can’t do this, the doubt in me hissed. You are too scattered to make your deadlines, you’re too flighty to make it polished, and you’re too egocentric to make it satisfying to anyone but you.

And that’s what I was sure these messages from my beta readers were saying.

“What the fuck on god’s green earth made me think I could do this?” I moaned to the kitchen cupboards.

“LEARNING how to do this, dummy!” came a squeaky voice from near my feet. “You learned, and then you tried it. What is there to fuss about?”

I look down and see warm green eyes smiling up at me from a furry black robber’s mask. I start to bend over to pick up my imaginary raccoon. But part-way over, I freeze, staring numbly at the floor behind Critter, my hands working open and closed.

Critter tilts her head and frowns at me, then thrusts her arms in the air to spur me back to action. She looks exactly like my two-year-old, her face saying, “Yeah yeah yeah, I know you’re having all kinds thoughts… but come on. Pick me up and let’s get on with this.”

Critter’s movement catches my eye, and my focus rolls onto her face for a blank pause. Then, I complete my initial motion and lift my scruffy friend to my shoulder. I heave a sigh.

Critter nestles her head against my neck and exhales with audible contentment. Usually, her cosiness radiates into me, but today, it’s bouncing off like heatless rays from an LED bulb.

“What’s up with you?” Critter asks sleepily. “I thought you’d be basking in the afterglow of orgasmic completion today.”

I frown as I pat her back absently.

“What completion?” I ask.

Critter pushes her chest away from mine and looks up at me with an eyebrow cocked in disbelief.

“The book?” she says. “The one you just finished? How are you not dancing right now?” She tilts her head and peers into my eyes, searching for signs of madness.

I shake my head sadly.

“Oh, it’s not finished,” I report. “That was just the beta draft. I was thrilled yesterday because I thought it WAS almost done, and it was such a relief. I was ready to collapse – it’s been a hard push to meet my beta deadline.

But as soon as the first feedback comments started rolling in, I realized the manuscript is nowhere near done. It’s a steaming coil of thoughtless turd, and I’m afraid it’s the best I can do. I have no idea how I’m going to make it fit to publish.”

I sigh again, and it makes my chest ache. It’s like trying to breathe through wet sand.

Critter rolls her eyes at me.

“Are you serious?” she chides. “You’ve finally made it to Mount Doom, and you want to hand-off the ring to Gollum now? I don’t mean to be rude, but are you a moron?” She gives me a crooked smile.

I blink at her, not sure if I’m about to burst into tears or a tirade.

Critter pulls herself out of my arms, crawls onto my shoulder, and leaps onto the counter. Then she stands on her hind feet, so our faces are level and puts her paws on my shoulders.

“What’s your problem?” she huffs into my face with catfood breath.

“What happened to last week’s humble acceptance of your imperfection?”

I crinkle my nose and pull away from the spoiled meat breeze that carries Critter’s words.

My stubborn raccoon narrows her eyes, grabs handfuls of my shirt, and clings to me. As I pull back, her body stretches away from the counter like an accordion, following my retreat.

“Oh no you don’t,” she laughs. “Quit evading the question, or I’ll reach up there and give you mouth to mouth.”

My stomach lurches, and I step forward, clasping my hand over my mouth. This brings Critter back toward the counter, and she shoves off my shoulders to regain her stance on my food prep area.

“Ha!” she says. “You’re helpless before the power of putrefied Purina.”

I swallow hard and scowl at my pushy friend. She scowls right back.

“Spill it, Captain McQueasy,” she says. “What happened to realizing that your best effort was good enough?”

I breathe deep and think about it. An image of last week’s peaceful surrender in the bathtub floats into my mind.

“It’s all about nakedness,” I say to Critter. “Last week, I was just being naked and honest with myself. It was a wonderful feeling of freedom and security.

But this week, it feels like I’ve just dropped my trousers in front of my friends. And it’s only a practice run for the big show when I release the book on the market. I’m basically a stripper, Critter, and I don’t have the body for it!”

Critter covers her eyes and sniggers. Then she opens them and shines her mossy-hued lamps at me kindly.

“Being an artist is kind of like being a nudist,” she says. “You can’t get into the club unless you bare your naked truth, but wearing your skin suit in public is an act of discipline.”

I chuckle. Critter tilts her head at me.

“You’re not that far off on your analogy about stripping,” she continues. “Trying to make a living with your art means you are exposing yourself, ostensibly for the benefit of your audience. If you ask for their sweaty dollar bills, you’d better give them a good show.”

I chuckle again.

“It’s weird how right you are,” I say, shaking my head and scratching Critter’s ear. “Only you could make me feel better about the prospect of training for stripper-cise.”

Critter grins and leans into the scratch.

“You realize how lucky you are to have that terrifying feedback lurking in your mailbox, don’t you?” she asks with slitted eyes.

I take a deep breath and nod.

“Those are your exotic dance instructors,” she says, pointing her nose toward my smartphone. I watch it’s message-alert blinking green a few times, and notice the quiver in my guts.

“They’re giving pointers to help you put on a show you will feel good about,” Critter finishes.

I take another breath and sigh.

“You’re right,” I say. “This judgement is kind; they are trying to help me.”

“And they will, if you let them,” Critter adds.

I nod.

“Somehow, I have to muzzle the terrified voice inside me that just beats me down,” I say. “I need to clear my ears so I can hear the helpful critique and move forward.”

Critter tilts her head and considers.

“You need nudist therapy,” she announces.

“What?” I laugh.

“Nudist therapy; stripping is all about polishing your moves to please people, and it forces you to submit to judgement,” she explains.

“Nudism, on the other hand, is about abandoning judgement and just letting everyone be what they are. There are no beauty pageants on the nude beach.”

I laugh and shake my head.

“You make the nude scene sound meditative,” I reply, “But I’m not quite ready for that.”

Critter smiles at me.

“I know,” she says. “Why don’t you start with a swim?”

My eyes and mouth open wide and I suck in a rush of air.

“That’s… freaking…. Brilliant!!” I gasp. “I always feel scared to step out in my bathing suit, but as soon as I start moving through the water, nothing matters. The curve of my belly, the shape of my thighs… all the things I am so afraid to have judged… they just become body parts once I sink below the surface and start to blow bubbles.

The rest of the swimmers are just collections of body parts, too. We are all exposed at the pool, and we just let each other be. Holy crap, Critter! You just invented bathing suit therapy!”

My self-assured rodent grins and polishes her claws.

“I’m going to do it!” I sing. “Tomorrow morning, I’m going for a swim after I drop the girls and daycare and school.”

“Atta girl,” Critter says, “and don’t dig into your beta feedback until your bare feet are planted firmly on the ground.”

I scoop up my imaginary raccoon and hug her fiercely.

“I don’t know how you do it,” I whisper to her, “but you make this terrifying shit doable.”

Critter looks up at me with mischievous crinkles around her eyes.

“It’s what I do,” she says. “And if you want to show your gratitude, I could go for a can of something wet and stinky.”

“Yuck,” I say, grimacing. “But to be fair, you’ve earned it.”

So I fix Critter a bowl of slimy stuff from the garbage can and wash my hands three times. The next day, I follow-through on my plan for a swim.

It feels amazing, and the sound of my bubbly breath fills my ears until the voice of my inner critic fades away.

Now, I’m ready to face the beta feedback on my book. I’m going to let my feverish ache to provide a satisfying show pull me through the next phase of gruelling revisions.

And I’m going to make sure I tell my beta readers how much I appreciate their brave critique of my literary lap dance.

Critter and I know that you face daunting challenges, too. We hope you find a way to balance your stripper-training with nudist therapy and give yourself room to grow without crippling self-judgement.

When You Suddenly Can’t

“Perfection is for canned goods; the stuff that gets gooey and furry and rank is where the real nourishment lies.” – Critter, on being okay when you suddenly can’t.

Panic. My heart is galloping across the back of my tongue. When I inhale, the oxygen barely makes it past my bronchi before turning tail and retreating back through my teeth.

I am sitting at a table in my gym’s cafeteria. I keep huffing those non-committal efforts to survive while the room spins.

I put my elbows on the table and grip my skull with both hands.

Slow down, I whisper. Please slow down. I need to think.

I close my eyes and force myself to maintain the suction in my throat just a second longer. I do… and feel something midway down my chest begin to expand like a sticky balloon. Warm relief floods in as the air finds its way deeper into my lungs.

I’m still dizzy, and that’s disappointing, but it will have to do. I’ve got an assload of things to do today.

Finish the goddamn BOOK! A voice growls inside me. It is a swirl of terror, heartache and rage. I had promised myself the final chapter yesterday, and a glorious breather today. But it didn’t happen. I am crushed.

For the past ten days, I’ve been riding a surge of productivity. I paddled through almost a chapter each day. The steady movement soothed my worries. I assured myself it would all come together in time. I felt alternatingly cautiously hopeful, and hyperactively blissed.

The energy peaked over the weekend, and I dove so deep into writing that I got the bends when I surfaced for meals. I looked at my kids while they spoke to me and, “Mmmm-hmmed” whenever they paused, but I had no idea what they’d said. My husband raised his eyebrow at me but didn’t say anything.

“This isn’t forever,” I told him as I carried my laptop up to bed. “I’ll come back soon. I promise.”

When I made that vow, I was picturing the giddy relief of a herculean task completed. I saw myself pressing send to email the manuscript out to my beta readers, punching the air and jumping on the bed like a rioting gorilla. I thought a long-neglected rest would come with victory.

But instead, it came with shame.

Yesterday, my toddler broke out in the kind of inconsolable crankiness that usually precedes a minor plague. I braced myself for a few exhausting days and sleepless nights (whispering,”It’s okay, it’s not forever…”) and quelled the first gust of terror.

But then, I started coughing. And my head started pounding. And my muscles turned to lead and my brain filled with cotton. And then I thought, Oh. Fucking. No.

I refilled my tea and stared harder at my laptop.

Come on; I moaned to that unmanifested chapter. Hurry! But it didn’t. It didn’t come at all.

I wrote around in circles for a couple of hours, and when the alarm rang to mark the end of my little one’s naptime, I whimpered out loud.

Don’t crap out now!!! I thought. The end is in sight!

My heart thudded in my chest, and my breath echoed like a steam-engine straining to pull away from the station. I pushed down the panic and carried on, setting up the baby and her sister for TV and a snack. Then I swayed into the kitchen to start dinner.

But I couldn’t even do that. The aperture of my tunnel-vision had narrowed to a pinprick. My brain was frozen.

I lay my cheek on the table and moaned quietly to myself.

What the fuck am I going to do? I whined. I need to get that chapter done. I need to start revising! I just need to push out one, last, motherfucking chapter… why won’t’ that son of a bitch come!

I stood up and grabbed the table as the room wavered in front of me. I paused for some coughing.

NO! I shouted inside my head. For the love of god, don’t get sick! Have to keep writing. Write, goddamn you, write!

But my brain and body ignored me. They just kept on getting stiffer and heavier.

I got supper on the table and made myself spoon a portion down my gullet.

For strength, I told myself. Can’t get weak now.

But by the end of the meal, I was jello.

“Hellooo… you in there?” I heard my husband say.

I focused my eyes and saw him across the table, looking at me with a half-smile.

“You’ve been staring at me with your mouth open,” he said.

I squinted to keep his face from rippling.

“Oh,” I said.

“You going up to write?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“Just to bed,” I said.

“Okay,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. And I nodded my head but didn’t get up.

My husband stood, grabbed his plate, and brought it around to the dishwasher behind me. Then he turned and leaned toward my ear.

“Go to bed,” he whispered.

I nodded, kissed his cheek, and zombie-walked upstairs.

The next thing I knew, it was morning. My alarm hadn’t gone off yet, but my brain had popped alert and decided it was time for me to rise and pulse dully.

I grabbed the dresser as I stood, expecting the space around me to give a nauseating lurch. But it didn’t. I tried a test swallow and felt no soreness. No cough. No headache. Not even the thinnest sniffle.

I realized the baby hadn’t been up in the night, either.

Holy fuck, I thought. Maybe we’re okay?

I wandered downstairs and made it through my morning routine. A little workout, a shower, up with the kids, then breakfast and school time.

Everything tumbled along like clothes in the dryer, all generally moving in the right direction.

Can I catch up today? I dared to wonder.

But by the time I had dropped the kids at school and daycare, I had persuaded myself to spend the morning berating myself instead.

I’m a ridiculous stresscake, and I’m burning out within sight of the finish line. Like a giant fucking loser. I hissed to myself.

I sat down at my cafeteria “office”, arranged my tea, snack, and laptop in a fortress wall around me, and dove headfirst into the bottomless pool of panic where this story first found me.

I’m not going to finish, I moan into my hands.

“That’s ridiculous,” comes a whisper from just behind my ear. “You’re almost there.”

I raise my head and turn golf-ball eyes of alarm toward my imaginary raccoon.

“This is not the apocalypse,” Critter states. “Breathe.”

I think about opening my chest to let in more air but am overcome by the sensation of stiffness pulling tight across my sternum.

“I can’t,” I whisper, and my eyes bulge further.

Critter chuckles.

“If you peel those things any wider, they’ll fall right out of your face,” she chides. “Slow down, human! Just breathe.”

I close my eyes and try. In and out. Just in and out. How hard can this be?

But the harder I try, the louder the voice in my chest screams, It’s nooooooot woooooorking! I CAN’T I CAN’T ICAN’TICANT’ICAAAAAAAAAAANT!

“Look at me,” I moan. “I can’t even breathe right. Goddamnit, I’m useless. I’m worthless. I’m fucked.”

Critter’s smile fades, and her brow scrunches toward her nose. She climbs onto the table and puts her face right in front of mine. Then she starts breathing in time with my fight-or-flight pants.

Our eyes lock, and I start breathing harder – we both push hard on each exhale like we are pumping up a mattress. Huff-huff-huffing despair out our noses until the hiss of it fills the whole world.

I can feel my belly flexing like a fist on each puff. It feels warmer and warmer, and the sensation becomes more focused and defined. Soon, all I can feel are my abs and diaphragm… they are straining, fatiguing, and then spent.

I sit up and pull away from Critter’s tractor-beam gaze, sucking in a great swoosh of air. It goes all the way in; I feel it hit bottom, and all the muscles in my abdomen finally wake up.

In and out. I am tired, and the distraction of fatigue lets the oxygen sneak into the space where it belongs.

“You were gripping so hard, you couldn’t move,” Critter says. “You need to let go.”

I take a deep breath.

“Let go of what?” I ask.

“Control,” she answers. “That picture in your head of perfection.”

I breathe in and out.

“What picture?” I ask.

“That one of you writing the perfect book and performing the perfect launch,” Critter replies. “Let me save you the suspense; it’s not going to happen.”

My mouth drops open; I’m sure this is the cruellest thing I’ve ever heard… all of my helpless/hopeless/worthless nightmares come true. But somehow, it’s not. I thought my stomach would drop, but it didn’t. It just got grounded.

Critter’s hard truth is actually the most comforting assurance I could imagine. The pressure that has been mounting behind my brainstem dissolves.

My first crack at writing a book isn’t going to be perfect. And that’s okay.

Even though I have spent a small fortune on courses, graphics, and editing. And even though I’ve sacrificed time with my kids, husband, and friends… and would die of embarrassment if anyone popped in to see the state of my house.

And in spite of the fact that I drove myself batshit with anxiety over this project. None of that matters.

I am going to finish the book. It will contain every ounce of effort-related bodily fluids that I can squeeze from my flesh. That is all I can ask of myself.

It is a weird comfort to admit that I will NOT achieve the earth-shattering, cover of People magazine, astonishingly photogenic triumph that the slickest self-publishing coaches want me to ache for.

Equally, it is not going to be the critically acclaimed, smothered in award-badges, “Another Famous Canadian” validation that the intellectual crowd wants me to struggle for, either.

It’s just going to be mine. That’s all I need – to put MY book out there. It is my very best effort to provide comfort, hope, and satisfaction to the readers who will kindly give me their time. But it isn’t the work of a seasoned pro. It’s my awkward first time… the clumsy virgin of self-publishing attempts.

It’s my awkward first time… the clumsy virgin of self-publishing attempts.

And if it is okay for this book to be imperfect, that means it is okay for me lay down my whip and let myself breathe right now.

This thought floats through my mind, and it brings a vision: it’s me, later on tonight… I am walking away from my laptop and stepping into a bath. The air is heavy with eucalyptus steam, and fog has hidden the mirror. I couldn’t fret over my reflection right now if I tried.

As I sit here in front of my sleeping laptop, I can feel the warmth and quiet of this fantasy beading on my skin. All I want to do is get into that hot water and let myself be an okay almost-author. I want to feel my paralysing desperation to be good enough soak out of my heat-reddened pores.

The more I think about it, the more that taking that bath feels like a powerful thing to do.

“It is,” assures Critter. “It asserts your authority over your inner critic. You need to remember that you can muzzle it any time.”

I nod. It’s weird to forget that I am the chairman of my own mental committee, but I do.

“They say you catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” Critter adds, “but raccoons will eat anything. If you want us to work for you, just remember to feed us.”

My mouth twists in a wry smile.

“That’s kind of perfect,” I say. “Thanks.”

Critter grins at me.

“Any time,” she says. “Being right is what I do.”

I pick up my self-confident rodent and hug her to my chest. She snuggles her head under my chin, then looks up at me.

“Do you want some more tough love?” she asks. “I’d be happy to tell you the truth about your hair and your housekeeping.”

I chuckle and roll my eyes.

“Nah, I think I’m good, Critter,” I say. “But I’ll keep you posted.”

The next time you feel powerless in the face of your exhaustion, I hope your inner creature comes to pant lovingly in your face, until you remember how fine it is to just breathe and be as imperfect as you are.

“Perfection is for canned goods,” Critter adds. “The stuff that gets gooey and furry and rank is where the real nourishment lies.”

If you say so, Trashmuncher.

Don’t Let It Ruin Your Breakfast

“Take the good, leave the bad, and try not to let it ruin your breakfast.” – Critter, on letting go of contempt for ourselves and others.

I am alone in the kitchen on a Saturday morning. My husband and kids have gone to visit his family, and I have 24 magical hours to myself.

I wander downstairs, breathing deep of giddy freedom. My tummy grumbles and I smile because I know exactly what I want to do first.

I crack a couple of eggs into a pan and rub my hands together. My mouth waters and my tongue already feels the buttery caress of molten yolk.

“These little snot balls will be WARM when I eat them!!” I announce to myself, clapping like a blissed-out six-year-old.

Since becoming a mother, I have surrendered my mornings to daughterly harassment. Hunger stabs my entrails by the time I reach my own plate, and my heart weeps while I choke down forkfuls of cold, rubbery disappointment.

I am prepared to endure this grief until my little chicks fly off for college. Or jail. Whichever comes first.

But today, the empty-nest has come early. Oh, thank you, Santa Claus! And praise to the great omelette in the sky!!!

Without a single distraction, I tenderly lift two perfect, over-easy ovum onto my plate. I sit down at the table, take a deep breath, and carve out a bite of sunshine with my fork.

Vivid yellow richness oozes out of the cut like golden gravy. I use my morsel of firm, white perfection to scrape it up, and then close my eyes.

I nestle that first, rapturous bite into my mouth.

Oh. My. Lord. My exquisitely edible avian mucus. My song of savoury satisfaction. My pleasure! My nourishment! My warm, runny-yolked eggs!!

I am so transported, I can’t hear myself moan. But I feel the sound vibrate in my throat.

I open my eyes and sigh with visceral contentment.

“Oooooooooh yeeeeeeesssss….” I whisper, fanning myself.

“I’ll have what SHE’S having,” comes a chimpunky voice from below the table.

I bend sideways to peer under the ledge and see that my imaginary raccoon has let herself in. No doubt, she was attracted by the sounds of carnal bliss.

“Actually, it was the smell of food that brought me,” Critter chirps. “Everything in the meal cans out there is frozen, and my belly wants something warm.”

She climbs up onto the chair opposite me and looks at me with huge eyes. Her mouth parts in an expectant smile. She glances conspicuously at my plate. Then back at me. Then my plate. Then me.

My brows knit together and I shake my head, “No fucking way.”

Critter’s face droops, and she presses her paws together in a humanlike gesture of supplication.

“Get away, Mooch!” I say, wrapping my arms protectively around my plate. “Find your own grub.”

Critter’s lower lip pooches out, and her shoulders slump.

I glare at her. I look down at my plate. The yolk that had spilt a moment ago is already congealing into an ochre glue. My heart sinks. This perfect morning is slipping away…

I look back up at my loyal fur-friend. I swear I haven’t decided yet, but her face suddenly blooms with a smile. She hops off her chair and trots eagerly up to my shin. She stands up on her hindfeet with one paw on my knee.

I sigh. Then I cut another chunk from my faded morning glory, and hold it out with my fingers.

Critter takes the bite gently and zips it down. Then she licks the residue off my skin and plops back onto all fours.

My little meal-grubber smacks her thin lips and her mossy eyes fog over. I watch the pleasure ripple outward from her belly to the tips of her claws. Her charcoal face illuminates with dizzy gratification.

My cheeks contract in amusement at the sight of her bone-deep bliss.

I’m glad that I shared my treasure.

I scratch Critter’s head, and she smiles dopily. Then, she hops onto my lap and curls up for a satiated snooze.

I stroke her back, breathe deep, and look around the room. All of a sudden, the clock on the microwave catches my eye.

“Shit!” I hiss. It’s already 9:30 am. How the hell did THAT happen?

I was supposed to be working. When the kids are away, I plan heavy-duty writing time. Today, it’s a desperate attempt to put down some chapters on Critter’s first book. My editing deadline is approaching. I’ve got to pound keys.

Careful not to disturb Critter, I grab my laptop from the chair next to me and flip it open. Then I do the one thing a time-crunched writer should NEVER, EVER do.

I open my email.

“Oops!” I say, immediately aware of my mistake, but before I can close the window, a message catches my eye.

“Finish What You Started,” is the subject.

“Aw, FUCK,” I mutter.

It’s the last video in a series about self-publishing that I have been hate-watching all week.

These videos started with some great tips about organizing your thoughts and gaining momentum with your writing. I knew they were a setup to pitch a book marketing course, and I was prepared for the content to transition from free advice to an ad campaign. This is standard in the online course industry.

Unfortunately, this particular webinar series trailed off into skeezy persuasion tactics. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

It was about 10 minutes into the first video where the speaker (we’ll call him Slick), lost my love.

While his overtanned hands made air-chopping power-poses, Slick swore that he was dedicated to making our self-publishing dreams come true.

Then, he revealed that he had recently witnessed the death of a friend in a tragic accident. He said the shock had shown him that life was short, and it inspired him to run this campaign. Helping us sell books would give his life meaning.

Now, I can appreciate genuine vulnerability, but Slick made my bullshit alarm howl bloody murder. It was the way that he relayed the details of the horrific accident with a smirk on his face like it was some juicy tip for the stock market.

In the second video, Slick bragged about how he had written his book in a weekend.

In the third, he boasted about having lied in an interview for a business magazine. He had claimed that his months-old company was on-track to break seven figures by the end of the year.

“It wasn’t true,” he beamed with his orange-tanned face, “but it was like issuing myself a challenge. I went for it, and I actually did it!”

He made me grind my teeth. I paused to yell at his image on my laptop screen, but I didn’t close the media player.

Now, on this morning when I have so much better shit to do, I am paralyzed by that “Finish What You Started”, like it’s some kind of word-taser.

“What the serious fuck am I doing?” I groan as I click on that final link.

The video promises to reveal the Slicks’ patented strategy for a six-figure book launch… but it ends up being just a re-hash of his earlier tips, with one last memorial parade of his dearly departed integrity. I mean, friend. His dearly departed friend.

I spend half an hour staring at Captain Manipulation with my face cramped in disgust. I shout at the screen like an elderly Jeopardy fan telling off Alex Trebek.

When I finally grab ahold of myself and slam my laptop shut, Critter wakes with a start.

“Puritan Stew!” she shrieks, pawing at her eyes. “The can is stuck on my head!”

I stroke her back, chuckling.

“Whoa there, Critter” I soothe. “It’s okay; you were dreaming.”

She blinks at me, then sighs relief.

“You gonna finish those eggs?” she asks.

“Huh?” I respond and look down at my plate.

Sure enough, there sits 7/8 of my former breakfast heaven. Critter and I had only got to revel in ONE luxurious bite each before I flushed my sacred morning down Slick’s bowl of ethical turdmanship.

I’ve let my warm breakfast grow cold.

“Nooooooooooooooooo!” I whine. But it is too late. The yolk has run all over the plate and is cracked and flaking like a neglected splort of yellow tempera.

Critter’s eyes crinkle with concern.

“Oh dear,” she says. “Are you alright?”

I want to say, “Of course,” but I can’t. I just stare at those lost moments on my plate and feel something collapse inside me.

“I can’t, Critter,” I say. “I can’t control my brain. I got sucked into something that I hated, and I couldn’t get out. I lost my amazing breakfast! I’ve wasted my morning. I feel like a fucking idiot.”

I slouch forward, feeling my neck strain as I crumble toward the core of my self-contempt.

“Hey,” says Critter. “Hey! Look at me!” She climbs onto the table and braces my face with her paws.

“They’re only eggs,” she says, “and they’re still perfectly good! Just stick your fork in there and eat them; you’ve had cold eggs before.”

A fat tear pools in the corner of my eye, making Critter’s bandit-markings blur. I blink, and the tear slides onto my cheek, where Critter’s paw softly wipes it away.

“This is about more than eggs, isn’t it?” she asks gently.

I nod.

“What’s happening?” she asks.

I take a deep breath and push the air out until I am empty. Then I take another breath into the free space, and the fog starts to clear.

“I am ashamed,” I say, “Because I waste so much time. I worry and complain constantly about how busy and overwhelmed I am, but when I have an opportunity like this, to just rest, and enjoy, and work quietly… I waste it. This is my life, Critter. And I’m wasting it.”

Water starts to flow steadily from my eyes, and I alternate between wiping them with my left sleeve, and my right.

Critter pats my shoulder and nods.

“I understand,” she says. “Even raccoons get sucked in sometimes. Once in awhile, I follow a trail to what I’m sure will lead to a beautiful piece of rotted fish, but then I find out it’s just a stinky homeless guy. That mix of musty sweat and dribbled urine tricks my nose, because it promises everything I ever dreamed of.”

I wipe my nose and chuckle.

“In the back of my head,” Critter continues, “I know that I’m being misled. But I can’t give up the trail until I get to the end. I’m compelled. I need to know for sure.”

“Here’s the thing,” she continues. “Maybe when we make these mindless detours, something good happens along the way.”

I look off into the distance and consider this.

“I guess I did get something useful from that grease stain,” I say. “As much as I abhorred his dishonesty, I was actually inspired by his encouragement. He kept saying, “You CAN write a book!” and I needed to hear that.”

Critter smiles and pats my head.

“We all need encouragement,” she says. “And it’s easy to get pulled off-course by someone who boosts your confidence.

People are a swirl of good and bad; Slick is a flake of buttcrust, and you are a flighty writer. But you don’t have to obsess about his faults, or yours.

Just keep going. Take the good, leave the bad, and try not to let it ruin your breakfast.”

With that, Critter hops off my lap. She waves goodbye and trots out the doorway to the living room.

I smile to myself and open my laptop to finally start writing… and then Critter’s face pops back around the corner.

“So, ARE you done with those eggs?”

Facepalm.

Whatever hunk of wrongness is sticking to your shoe, whether it is yours or someone else’s, Critter and I hope you can scrape it off and carry on. Because you have a metaphorical warm breakfast to get back to.

“And don’t be hasty about tossing it away,” Critter adds. “Always give your goop a sniff, ‘cause you never know when you might have stepped in something good.”

That’s just… gross, Critter. Super gross.

Self Love, Raccoon Style

“We all need some fire in our belly to get us through those days when the garbage truck has been by, and the bins of nourishment are empty.” – Critter, on coping with depression on Valentine’s Day.

My morning alarm slips a cold, wet finger into my ear. It trickles into my listening holes with tinny plink-plonks that irritate the hell out of my brain.

I open my eyes to a dark February morning. I am NOT feeling the love for this day.

The dream is over, my heart whispers.

What dream? I wonder. I close my eyes and try to remember.

Then, my face spreads in an involuntary smile.

Oh! I think. THAT dream.

It was one of my escapist dreams, a fantasy that always comes when I’m feeling extra worthless.

In last night’s iteration, a long ago crush revealed he had always wanted me. I became his. I trailed along behind this half-remembered he-man, aching for the moment when we would dive into reckless oblivion.

But then my fucking alarm butted in. Goddamn fucking piece of electronic trash.

Back in my bed, I sigh and try to raise my thousand-pound body. I’ve got shit to do: two small kids need me to wake and dress them, feed and fight with them. I have to herd their catlike brains while mine strains with rage, and resist the urge to drive off a bridge on the way to daycare and school.

Dread steals my breath.

“I can’t do this,” I groan to no one, and bury my face in the pillow.

“Sure you can,” comes a rodenty voice out of nowhere.

I crack an eyelid and turn my head toward the movement beside me. I can just make out the silhouette of my imaginary raccoon.

“No, Critter,” I say. “I can’t. And I don’t want to. I just want to go back to that dream.”

“What was so great about the dream?” Critter asks.

I sigh.

“It was delicious,” I say. “I was supercharged with anticipation and totally self-assured… the opposite of my real life.”

Critter nods and smiles gently.

“You smell like excitement and sadness,” she says.

I frown.

“It wasn’t a sad dream,” I argue.

Critter tilts her head.

“Did you… achieve fulfilment?” she asks.

I shake my head.

“Why not?” she asks.

I close my eyes and think back… Mr. Spectacular was holding my hand; my palm was dry. I was blissfully free of the constant, nauseating self-consciousness that usually oozes from my pores.

We were at the beefcake’s office, and he was hiring me to help his business grow. He wanted ME to make HIM stronger. His faith made me giddy.

Then, my childhood best friend appeared. She was being super bitchy, and kept asking irritating questions like, ‘What are you going to tell your husband?’ and, ‘What’s going to happen to your kids?’

I said to myself, “Damn, she’s jealous!” and tried to ditch her. But she kept hounding. My Hot Beef Sandwich disappeared as I scrambled away from the guilt-trip. That’s when I woke up.

Now, the tone of the dream shifts in my memory. My heart flops.

“Aw, shit, Critter,” I say. “I’m a whore, aren’t I?”

Critter laughs out loud.

“HA!” she says. “A whore? I WISH. Our conversations would be much more interesting.”

I cross my arms and harumph.

“Fine,” I grumble. “I’m a boring whore.”

“Well, now you’re a pouty, boring, whore.” Critter counters. “But seriously, what makes you think you’re a prostitute?”

I take a deep breath.

“It’s because I am empty inside, I would sell anything to fill my hole,” I explain. “I am desperate to be validated and I fantasize about destroying my family. I’m fucking pathetic.”

I pull the sheet over my head.

Critter gently tugs, and I give in and lower the cloth to my nose.

“You’re not as reprehensible as you think,” she says. “In fact, you’re making a characteristically human mistake.”

I frown beneath the sheet.

Critter sighs and shakes her head.

“Your species has a strange mythology around sex,” she says. “You tell endless stories about how intercourse proves your worth. But sex can’t do that.”

I consider this quietly.

“Do you think we’re too obsessed with sex?” I ask.

“Not at all!” Critter cries, rolling her eyes. “Good lord. If anything, you humans don’t think about it enough. You don’t see sex and respect it for what it is.”

My heart aches.

“I wish someone saw ME and respected me for what I am,” I say.

Critter’s eyes widen and she shakes my shoulders with both hands.

“You NEED to be seen!” she exclaims. “And accepted, and embraced. But you’ve got the process backwards. You think it’s all your partner’s job.”

I raise an eyebrow.

“Well, where does this magical approval come from, then?” I ask. “Are you going to say I need an audience?”

Critter covers her face and laughs into her tiny hands.

“Oh my acorns,” she says. “THAT would knock your insecurity loose. You’re hilarious.”

I frown as my imaginary raccoon shakes with silent laughter. When it passes, she wipes her eyes and sighs. Then, she looks kindly into mine.

“You need to masturbate more,” she says. “All humanity needs to get better at pleasuring itself.”

My jaw hangs open.

“Are you serious?” I stammer.

“As a forest fire,” Critter nods.

A red wave of embarrassment splashes over my face.

Critter points at me and haws.

“Look at you!” she says. “You can’t even talk about buttering your muffin. How do you expect to master the art of dialing your rotary phone? Visiting your safe deposit box? Auditioning your finger puppets?”

I cover my eyes and chuckle. Critter smiles.

“It’s not like I don’t know how…” I say, my cheeks glowing medium-rare.

Critter slaps her forehead.

“But you’re doing it wrong!” she says. “Consider that feeling you had in your dream, when you thought you were about to have a Meg Ryan-worthy moment with someone that you worshipped.”

I recall the delirious thrill that eclipsed my self-doubt.

“Now,” Critter says, “imagine you felt that way about paddling your pink canoe.”

I try to imagine it. The idea seems odd… but strangely liberating.

“Don’t you see?” Critter cries. “Pleasure isn’t a gift from a steaming hunk of man-meat. It’s something that you own, and you can touch it any time you want.”

I rub my forehead and chuckle.

“Good lord,” I say. “So, you’re saying that if I feed myself pleasure, my emptiness won’t devour my life?”

Critter’s eyes crinkle warmly.

“Exactly,” she says. “You just need to make yourself feel beautiful.”

That feels kind of right.

“Do raccoons need to feel sexy?” I ask.

“Of course!” Critter says. “We all need some fire in our belly to get us through those days when the garbage truck has been by, and the bins of nourishment are empty.”

“Wow, Critter,” I say. “Raccoon sexuality is weirdly uplifting.”

Critter grins and says, “Now you know why they always say, ‘You can’t pour from a leaky cup; you have to fill your own hole.”

I laugh.

“That’s not how that goes,” I chuckle.

“Sure it is,” she says. “You just never realized it.”

Then with a wink, my imaginary raccoon hops off my bed and disappears into the dark hallway. I slide onto my feet, smiling now, and get ready to face my day.

However YOU want to interpret Critter’s Self-Love Sermon, we hope that you start to see your hole in a kinder light. May you fill it with pleasure that gets you out of bed on your dark mornings.

“And whenever someone says ‘self-love,’” Critter adds, “I hope you giggle. Because if you’re not enjoying it, you’re doing it wrong.”

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Serenity Prayer for Mental Illness

“God, grant me the clarity to recognise what I can control and what I cannot, and the imagination to walk through my own warped storylines like a badass.” – me, right now.

“Is this hell, Critter?” I groan to my imaginary raccoon. I am sitting up in bed with the light on. It is 1:00 am and my two-year-old is cough-howling in the next room.

I lay George RR Martin’s A Clash of Kings face down on my bed. In the back of my mind, I can hear the spine silently straining and feel the glue threatening to let go. I picture the pages of this well-loved tome creaking toward the same heart-rending explosion that befell my worn-out copy of Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald.

My heart sinks.

“Please… hang on!” I whisper to the book.

I paw frantically through tangled layers of blanket to find my bookmark while my sick baby chokes and wails next door.

Jesus Christ, woman, GO! A clear-eyed version of me shouts to myself.

“Fine!” I say out loud. I rush around the end of my bed, but take the corner too fast and whack my thigh against the edge of the frame. That’s gonna leave a bruise.

“Ow! Fuck!” I hiss.

I stumble the few steps into the hall, then wrench my little one’s door open and drop to my knees at her bedside.

“Shhh, shhh, sweetheart. Mommy’s here. Shhhh, shhh… come here, just breathe, Baby,” I mutter as I scoop her up.

My little lovey buries her face into my chest and hacks and howls. It takes two or three minutes before the obstructive goop works itself free in her airway. When she can finally breathe, she sucks in a lungful of air and pushes it back out as a piteous wail.

Jesus Christ, this is awful, I think.

A few days ago, I’d sat in the doctor’s office with my little pestilence culture on my knee describing these scary plugged-chest episodes.

“I know it sounds like she’s dying,” the doctor had said, “but really, she’s fine. It’s just a nasty bug. It will take at least a week to work itself out. Bring her back if she’s not starting to get better within two weeks.”

What if I can’t make it two weeks? I had wondered.

My husband had just left on a work trip. I was getting tag-teamed by my most dreaded foes with no backup. If I had had a nickel, I wouldn’t have risked it on my odds of victory.

I was struggling as a solo-parent, night nurse, and freelance professional. The past three days had been excruciating: my oldest daughter had overwhelmed me with a constant flurry of infuriating arguments, while with my youngest (the human petri dish) bawled and clawed at me 24/7, begging me to let her crawl up underneath my shirt.

I had a deadline tonight. The client had emailed three times today to touch base and add new thoughts to her project. I was straining for every word on her piece, with my brain running on the fumes of four hours of sleep in the last two nights.

It felt like infant care all over again. It felt like hell.

Back in the baby’s bedroom, I stand beneath the dim blue stars projected by her night light and hold her tiny hot head against my skin. I rock for her comfort, and for mine.

What the fuck am I going to do? I wonder.

“Whatever needs doing,” comes a whisper from my shoulder. “You’re the mom. Just do what needs doing.”

It’s Critter. She has climbed up next to my ear and is gazing at the top of my little one’s head with melting kindness.

“She’s having a rough time,” Critter says, and strokes the baby’s soft hair exactly the way I do.

“She’s SO miserable,” I whisper. “I need to make her feel better. I need BOTH of us to feel better!”

Critter turns her soft green eyes to me. She touches my cheek with her delicate black fingers and breathes deep.

“I know,” she says, “But you can’t. You can’t control this. It sucks. But she is okay. And so are you. You just gotta ride it out.”

A tear swells in the corner of my eye.

“I don’t think I can, Critter,” I whisper.

“One thing at a time,” she answers. “Let’s start with some Tylenol. I think she’s due for another dose.”

I check my watch, and as usual, Critter is right. The last dose was at eight o’clock. Maybe another mouthful will give my baby’s battleground body some relief.

I cuddle my hairless gorilla child under my chin and Critter rides effortlessly on my shoulder as we descend the dark stairway.

The baby flinches when I click on the hood light above the stove. Then she sits up eagerly when I grab the familiar bottle of ache-relieving suspension.

My left arm starts to go numb with her small weight on my elbow. I manage to shake the bottle and fill the syringe mostly one-handed, without dropping anything or anyone. The little one drinks her dose and sighs. At least this is one task that doesn’t give her pain.

Next, I dip a Q-tip into a mix of antacid and anti-histamine and dab it on the sores lining her lips and mouth. For a “harmless virus”, this bug has been vicious.

Then, I stand in the dark kitchen and cuddle and sway my sick girl until her breath starts to soften and slow.

I carry her back up the stairs and lay her gently in her bed. I curl up next to her in the converted crib (yeah, I’m that short) and listen to her suck her thumb and whimper until she falls asleep.

I carefully peel myself out of the bed and slip the door closed behind me. As I crawl up onto my own bed, I find my freaking bookmark. I slide it between the ruffled pages of my abused paperback, and press hard on the covers as if this will straighten out the kinks and waves. I put the book on my dresser and stare at it.

“Aren’t you going to bed?” asks Critter. I had forgotten she was there. She hops down off my shoulder and arranges some folds of mussed-up blanket into a nest. Then, she curls her grey-brown body into it, sighs contentedly, and looks up at me expectantly.

“God, I wish I could just shut down and go to sleep right now,” I say. “I know I need to. I just can’t. My brain is fried.”

Critter considers me.

“I know this isn’t really hell,” I continue. “It might be if the baby was seriously ill. Or if my husband wasn’t coming back.” I start thinking of the people I know who have been through these trials, and worse.

And then I think of my friends who have infants and are living this kind of constant, gut-wrenching demand month after month.

Then I think of my loved ones who have had recent devastations, and ones whose nights of heartache and bleary-eyed torment have lasted years.

“This is nothing,” I say. “But it feels like doom. I’m fucking useless.” My heart goes thud-a-thud in my throat, and I can hear myself screaming in the back of my mind. I am too strung out to cry. I just stare, and rub my burning eyes, and feel the pressure building behind them.

“What do you need?” Critter asks.

“I don’t know!” I cry. “God, I wish I knew. So many people have offered to help. I just can’t figure out how. The baby is stuck to me like an octopus. It’s not like I can just peel her off and plop her on someone’s lap and go to the spa. By the time I finished explaining about the small handful of things she can kind of eat right now, and the popsicles, and the meds, and the salt-water swish, and the Q-tips and the…”

Critter puts her paw up to stop me.

“I get it,” she says. “Good lord, that’s enough.”

My eyes brim with water.

“I keep thinking,” I say, “about how if someone asked me for advice, I would tell them to make a plan… figure out what you need, and just ask for it… but I can’t. I can’t see past the end of my nose. I have no idea what I need. I need sleep, and that can’t happen right now.”

Critter listens patiently.

Her quiet makes me want to scream. I am bracing myself for a splatter of judgement from her mouth… she’s going to tell me I’m being dramatic. I just know it.

Critter just keeps looking at me, her moss-coloured irises reflecting the lamplight like warm little torches in her soft black mask.

My hands ball into fists.

“Stop looking at me like that!” I shout. “I know I’m being ridiculous. I know it, okay?!? I can’t stop! I can’t! I can’t make it stop! I’m ridiculous! I can’t!!” My cries dissolve into sobs, and I cover my face with my hands.

I feel movement on the bed, and then a gentle touch strokes my back.

“Shhh… it’s okay. I’m here,” Critter soothes. “It’s okay. You’re okay. We’re going to figure this out.”

I lift my face and wipe my eyes with the back of my wrist.

“Huh-how?” I hiccough.

Critter tilts her head, thinking.

“Bring on the drama,” she says.

“Huh?” I ask.

“If it feels like drama to you, let’s go with it,” she explains. “We’ll save your life with role play. Pretend that you are going through epic hell – like a horror movie. And then become the badass heroine who survives.”

I let this thought sink in. I think I like it.

“Like Michonne, on The Walking Dead?” I ask.

Critter grins.

“Exactly,” she says.

That new frame changes the whole picture.

Suddenly, I don’t give a shit anymore about how other people would handle this mess. The dead crust of shame flakes off my skull, and the shiny pink flesh beneath is grim and determined.

I let myself dive into the reality of it – the hideous way it feels, the non-negotiable things my girls need from me, the degree to which I am handicapped right now, and the tasks I can honestly let go.

My scenario starts to come clear. I know what I need to do.

I’m going to make myself get up and take the big girl to school tomorrow. But I’m not even going to try to get dressed.

I’m going to finish this piece of copywriting work, and then help my client find another writer –  someone who has the time and energy to maintain the intensity her project requires.

And forget dragging the kids through the grocery store. I’m ordering that shit online.

And I’m ordering in our dinner for the next couple of days. I don’t care if it has to go on my Visa. I’ll figure that out when things are better.

Fuck it. Let’s do this.

I’m going to get it done like my favourite dreadlocked ninja.

Here’s why Michonne is my favourite character on TWD; it’s not just because she works a katana like a Cuisinart and is as cool and inevitable as the Columbia River in the face of fear.

I love Michonne because she always dives into the mess, rather than running away.

She neutralised the zombie corpses of the men who took everything from her and used them to walk safely among the dead. That’s not just fucking brilliant, it’s wisdom and courage and clear-eyed honesty. This fictional woman represents unassailable emotional strength, right down to her made-up marrow.

Michonne can admit when things are shit. She can also admit when she’s been too hard on the world, and pry herself back open.

And she never hesitates when the way out of a jam is to plunge your fist straight into its rotting middle. She slimes herself with gore when it gets her where she needs to go. And she gets there. Every time.

I can’t help but wonder if Michonne has a guardian raccoon, too. She certainly finds many interesting uses for rotting meat.

“Alright, Critter,” I say. “I’m going to be a badass. I’ll get through this fortnight of hell. Even if it’s not pretty, I’ll still be standing when the sun comes up. Or when the cavalry shows up in the motorhome. Or whatever.”

Critter stands up and hugs me around my neck.

“Atta girl,” she whispers. Then she turns, and with a wink at me over her shoulder, my imaginary raccoon hops off my bed and trots out of the room.

Here’s what Critter left me with this week, and which we hope will help you, too:

  • Just do what needs doing.
  • What do you need?
  • We’re going to figure this out.
  • Bring on the drama.
  • Become the badass who survives.

And I’d like to add – Get your food delivered. Critter says she’d be happy to bring you a care package, but I promise, you won’t want what’s inside a dumpster-diving rodent’s Tupperware. You can take Critter’s advice, but not her catering.

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Three Phrases from Critter to Cure Your Fear of Failure

I am in bed on a Tuesday afternoon. My body is shrouded by three layers of blankets hermetically sealed around my chin. I am wearing two shirts and a hoodie underneath. Only two inches of flesh between my upper lip and eyebrows are exposed to the air. The cruel, unspeakable, room-temperature air.

It is physically impossible for me to be this cold right now.

Yet, here I am. Shivering right down to my bones.

“Goddamn it, I’m FREEZING TO DEATH!” I hiss into the empty room.

“No, you’re not.” Comes a snarky reply.

I sigh. I should know to expect this annoying tap on my shoulder whenever I dunk my head into the toilet bowl of self-pity.

Without breaking the blanket seal, I roll my eyes as far as I can. I can’t quite see the indent where my imaginary raccoon has landed on the bed. She pads delicately toward me and finally comes into view. She touches her nose to mine and her furry face blocks my entire field of vision.

“What’s going on under there?” Critter asks; “You look like you’re about to eat the young.”

I chuckle.

“Do you think it would warm me up?” I ask. “If so, I’d consider it.”

Critter rolls her eyes at me.

“You’re ridiculous, you know?” she says.

I don’t answer. Because I know.

Critter waits a beat and then tilts her head.

“But really, what are you doing in there? It’s daytime. You have work to do,” she says.

I groan.

“I know. But I’m tired. My eyeballs just about melted out of my head when I read to the girls at naptime. And it’s soooo freaking COLD!” I complain.

Critter furrows a brow at me, then starts sniffing all around my face. Her whiskers tickle so bad that I need to pee.

“GAH! Enough!” I say, sitting up.

“You don’t smell sick,” Critter states.

“I know,” I say. I look down at the blanket.

“Are you avoiding your work?” Critter asks.

I suck a huge breath in through my nose and sigh. The spot between my chest and my belly aches.

“I guess,” I say.

Critter pats my thigh but doesn’t say anything.

I have steeled myself for her usual smartass bossypants routine, but it doesn’t come.

I look up at her.

“It’s squeezing me,” I say.

“I know,” she answers.

I look down at my hands and watch them wring each other. They are restless. Don’t know what to do with themselves.

They should be typing. But they can’t, because my mind is frozen.

My heart beats, and it feels like it’s too big for my chest. Like my fat waist strangling inside my jeans.

I start to breathe faster as an image sweeps over me. A crush of shame and dread rolls up my body like a rolling pin. Every organ gets squashed. I suffocate. And finally, my soft tissues ooze out of every facial orifice. I am mesmerized by this sad, gory, figurative mess.

Critter crawls onto my lap and puts her little black hands on my shoulders.

“Hey,” she says, “come back. We’re talking, here.”

My eyes rotate in her direction without seeing. I’m panting and starting to wheeze.

Critter hops off my legs, then leaps the gap between the bed and my dresser. The surface is slippery, and her hind paws fishtail as she slides. Her front claws scrabble and dig into the wood, then her butt knocks over a stack of paperbacks. Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art falls into the crack between the dresser and the wall.

Fuck. That’s going to be a pain to retrieve.

I am thinking about the infuriating ledge at the back of the dresser, where things that fall down there get stuck. I can’t quite reach them from underneath, and the behemoth furnishing is too heavy to pull out by myself.

I am trying to count the lost items and hopeless hangers that have been sacrificed to the gods of WTF when something strikes my leg.

It is my aero chamber, a big plastic tube that slows down the spray from my inhaler. Next, Critter pounces back onto my lap, with my blue rescue inhaler between her teeth.

She drops it next to the chamber and says, “Breathe.”

Dutifully, I shake the shit out of the cannister to prepare the puff. The shaking tosses Critter about; she grips into my legs with her claws.

I shout in pain, and the inhaler sails out of my hand and whacks against the wall.

In the next room, the baby wakes up.

I start to laugh. It makes me wheeze harder.

Still chuckling, I climb out of bed and go use the inhaler. Within a few breaths, the thickness in my lungs starts to ease. There is nothing so delicious as those first easy breaths.

As I head out to raise my little one, Critter dusts her hands.

“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” she says.

I shake my head and take care of baby business. Once she and her sister are settled onto the couch with their afternoon snack and tv, I mosey into the kitchen. Heartburn starts to rise in my throat. I know what’s waiting for me.

I grab my laptop and lay it on the kitchen table. I pause to think about how much I love the feel of this writing tool. It is small, light as a feather, and has a delightful aluminum cover with a diamond-patterned texture. I stroke my lovely machine a few times, but cannot open it.

“Do it,” Critter whispers, as she peeks around the doorway. “Just start now.”

“I can’t,” I say. “My words are stuck.”

“Just begin,” she says again.

“But it’s going to be bad!” I say, my voice rising. “My last series of posts was a mess!”

“What was wrong with them?” Critter asks, her eyes boring into me like a laser.

I run my hand through my hair.

“Everything!” I say. “Typos, missing words, muddled thoughts, and pointless points.”

Critter frowns.

“Then edit your work,” she says.

“I did!” I whine, getting frantic now. “At least, I thought I did. I re-read and re-wrote until my eyes were about to bleed. I swear! I literally couldn’t see the words anymore, so I just published. It wasn’t until the post came back to me by email that I saw all the errors.”

Critter rolled her eyes.

“Then get an editor,” she said. “That’s what they’re for.”

I laugh.

“I can’t afford an editor for blog posts!” I say.

But Critter won’t let it go.

“Then ask a friend. You know someone has offered,” she says.

I pause. My lovely friend Dakota has offered to give my posts that essential second set of eyes. And my equally lovely, and relied-upon friends, Sue and Marielle, have also offered their corneas to help polish my writing.

“You’re right, Critter,” I admit, “but it was too much of a burden. I was always behind on those posts and didn’t finish most of them until after midnight. I couldn’t bother anyone at that hour, and I didn’t want to delay the posts any later. So I tried to do it all myself. Bloggers do that all the time. It should have been easy.”

“But was it?” Critter asks, walking toward me.

“No,” I answer, and like a potato sack over my head, the shame comes back and traps me.

Critter hops up onto the table and pretends to peek under the edge of my imagined shame sack.

“It’s okay to need help,” she says.

I let that sink in.

At first, it feels awful, like a bin of leftover spaghetti dumped over my head. I hate that I can’t get my shit together on my own.

But then, those imaginary cold noodles start to melt, and a weird sense of comfort drips down my chest and back.

It’s okay to need help.

Something clears in my head.

“Holy fuck,” I mutter. “There’s an app for that.”

“What?” Critter laughs.

“Editing!” I shout and flip my laptop open. I open two tabs and show Critter what I’m talking about.

Grammarly and Hemingway,” she reads. “What’re those?”

“They are online editing apps,” I explain. “One does a really basic proofread – typos, punctuation, and word usage – and the other highlights sentences that lack clarity.”

“Holy scat,” says Critter. “That is handy.”

“Totally,” I say, and I smile. “They don’t replace a real human editor, but they can help a writer with ADHD filter out the garbage that her brain can’t catch.”

“That sounds like a decent solution for blog posts,” Critter says.

I nod.

“You’re running out of excuses,” she adds.

I gulp.

“Get to work,” she says. My imaginary talking raccoon ruffles my hair, then hops off the table and leaves me to it.

I open up a doc and stare at the cursor for a minute.

Critter’s words echo back inside my head.

Just start now.

It’s okay to need help.

Get to work.

I decide to dedicate today’s post to those three Critterisms, and my snarky, pushy, always-there-for-me friend.

And I smile as I unzip my hoodie. Because I’m not cold anymore.

Critter’s Message for You:

Critter wants you to think about what is holding you back from the stuff you need to do.

You know those jobs that are so important to you, they make you want to puke? What would it take to get them done?

Do you need to let go of perfectionism and just start now?

Do you need to get help to complete tasks you can’t do on your own?

What would release the pressure so you can get to work?

It doesn’t matter whether your help comes from friends and family, paid assistants, coaching, counseling, assistive technology, or medication. Just do what it takes and get it done.

And if it takes a dozen tries to get it right, so be it. Keep going.

Just start now.

It’s okay to need help.

Get to work.

Critter gives you her word as the world’s wisest creature (good lord, Critter!), you can do this.
PS – If you are looking for “words” for 2017, you could do worse than take these ones from an imaginary garbage-eating rodent.

The Tenth Day of Griefmas: Holiday Grief Accounting

It’s Boxing Day. I am laying in the bathtub, my thighs, belly, and breasts floating coolly above the Epsom-salted water. I can’t smell the lavender anymore, but I know it’s there. In an hour or so, I will walk into its leftover cloud and rediscover the quieting herbal aroma. That will be after I’ve dried and dressed and moved on with whatever is going to become of this day. Right now, I’m soaking in brine and trying to get a grip.

“You need to reconcile your receipts,” comes a voice from behind the bathroom door.

If I didn’t recognize my imaginary counselor’s rodent-y timbre, I’d still know it was her from that barge-right-in timing.

“Leave me alone, Critter.” I grump. “I’m in the bath.”

“Oh, that doesn’t bother me,” she says, and a chilly draft sweeps across my exposed flesh and raises goose pimples as she lets herself in. “It’s a good thing I’ve got this amazing raccoon dexterity; you forgot to leave the door cracked.”

I wrap my arms around myself and roll my eyes.

“Close the door, you little maniac,” I say. Then, I do a double-take. “What the hell are you wearing?”

Critter hops up onto the kids’ stool to admire herself in the vanity mirror. She turns her head from side to side to get a good look at the transparent green visor, button-down shirt with armbands, and grey pinstriped vest. She tugs on the ends of her tidy black bowtie and grins.

“Not bad, huh?” she says. “Guess what I am!”

“A pest,” I answer. “Whose garbage did you root through to find this getup?”

It’s Critter’s turn to roll her eyes.

“First of all, it’s none of your business where I procure my apparel. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t know. I may have left a bit of a mess in the yard of one of your neighbours.”

I glare at Critter.

“Hey, I’m sorry! It wasn’t my fault; I was just about to start cleaning up, when a huge white dog came out of nowhere, barking like it was armageddon,” she says.

I raise a bullshit-brow. Critter shrugs.

“You wouldn’t be so flippant if I’d been mauled,” she says. “That beast could have bit me in half. Then, who’d be here to set you straight?”

I close my eyes and sigh. Yes, I guess I should be grateful that my imaginary talking raccoon didn’t get eaten by the neighbour’s dog.

Not that that’s possible. But I don’t want to be ungrateful.

Seeing me give up that fight, Critter relaxes.

“Anyway,” she says, “you still haven’t guessed what I am! It actually took four separate trash cans for me to find all the essential pieces.”

“Good god, Critter!” I say, “You didn’t knock over every can on the block, did you?”

Critter looks at me.

“I take the fifth,” she says.

“This is Canada,” I explain. “We don’t have amendments here.”

“Whatever!” Critter shouts. “I don’t care about your stupid judicial system! But I’m pretty pissed you aren’t even trying to guess my costume! I went to a lot of effort, here! This is for your benefit, you ungrateful primate. I’m trying to get you out of that funk. You’re stewing in your own fetid juices. It’s gross. Snap out of it. Come on!”

My jaw flaps open. I shut it. It pops back open. I shut it again. Finally, I find words.

“Did you just tell me to snap out of it?” I say, slowly.

Critter crosses her arms and scowls at me.

“What the hell, Critter?” I say. “I thought you were on my side?”

Critter’s face scrunches harder for a moment, and then she suddenly lets it go. Her brows soften, and her hands fall to her sides.

“Listen,” she says quietly, “I am on your side. I will ALWAYS be on your side. But if you can’t acknowledge that I have needs, too, then we can’t connect, and I can’t help.”

I open my mouth to argue; I want to say, “Isn’t this getting a little out of hand? You’re my imaginary friend, for Christ’s sake?!?” But I don’t. For a third time, I shut my yap without saying anything.

Because even though Critter isn’t real, she’s right.

I can’t expect anyone to support me if I don’t support them back.

I take a huge breath and sink down into the tub until my knees pop up like volcanic mountains, and my sigh turns into a motorboat sputter. I pause there, breathing through my nose, and watch the ripples radiate out from my face. These tiny waves create a disturbance, distorting the water’s surface and blurring the image of my belly button.

Everything I do radiates outward; it rocks boats and slaps shores. I can’t avoid affecting the people around me.

I close my eyes and groan. I think of my stressed-out kids, to whom I have given so little predictability these last weeks. I ache for my elderly grandmas, whom I couldn’t get my shit together to visit before Christmas. I picture my husband, his eyes sad and his mouth slack, because he doesn’t know how to talk to me.

My husband’s face cuts me the most; I am equal parts angry with him because he won’t spit out what he needs to say, and angry with myself for nagging and complaining so much that he can’t. Every time something negative pops out of my mouth, I see my husband pull back, and another brick slides into the wall between us.

I close my eyes.

“Goddamn it,” I whisper.

The wave of regret rolls up from my belly and over my head. It’s so intense, I can’t breathe until it passes.

When it does, I open my eyes and turn back to Critter.

“I’m sorry, my friend,” I say. “You matter to me.”

Critter smiles.

“I know I do,” she says. She drops off the stool and crawls over to the tub. I reach out and scratch her ears with a pruney hand. Fat droplets slide off my arm onto her head and form clear beads on her fur that catch the light. I pull back my hand.

“I don’t want to get your costume wet,” I say. “You make a magnificent… um… poker dealer.”

Critter laughs.

“Nope,” she says. “Try again.”

I frown as I concentrate, and look her up and down once more. Green visor… white shirt, vest armbands, bow tie…

“You look like you belong stooped over a table in a stuffy back room, with a feeble lamp and a wall of stacked papers,” I say.

Critter’s face lights up.

“Go on!” she says, clapping her paws.

“Aw, man… it’s on the tip of my tongue…” I say, struggling.

“Hang on!” she blurts and darts out the door. I am just about to shout for her to come back and close it, when she returns, dragging a cloth sack.

She stops, opens the top of the bag, and pushes it down to reveal the mystery within. It is a metal machine of some sort, with numeral buttons and a hand-crank on the side. I notice the paper tape sticking out the top.

“Is that an old fashioned cash register?” I ask.

Critter shakes her head with her hands clasped beneath her chin. She is practically vibrating with excitement.

“Do you give up?” she asks.

“YES!” I say.

“It’s an adding machine! I’m an old-timey accountant!!!” she reveals with as much glee as though it were a twenty-pound pile of fish guts.

“Ooooooh,” I say. “You’re an accountant! With a crazy old adding machine. Did you seriously get this all out of the trash on my street? Holy cow, Critter. That’s pretty good.”

Critter puffs up her chest and beams.

“I’m naturally resourceful,” she says.

I laugh.

“So you are,” I answer.

My water is getting cold, and I want to get out of the tub, but I pause, frowning.

“I’m totally impressed,” I say, “and I don’t want to be ungrateful, but I don’t get how this was supposed to cheer me up.”

Critter pads over and pats the top of my head.

“Simple human,” she says. “I am dressed charmingly like an accountant, and have brought along this adding machine, so we can make a reckoning of your Griefmas behaviour.”

My heart sinks.

“Critter,” I say, “my griefmas behaviour was shitty. How is that supposed to cheer me up?”

She rolls her eyes.

“Let me show you,” she says.

She bangs away on the mechanical keys for a few minutes, paws pumping like pistons. Occasionally, she reaches over the crank the crank, then resumes her key-hammering. Finally, all out of breath, she stops, reaches up, and tears off the long curled paper. She passes it to me, and this is what it says:

Laurie’s Griefmas Ledger

(1 point): Published 9 blog posts.
(-0.25 points): Failed to deliver the last 3 promised in the series.
(1.0 point): Ordered enough Santa pictures this year for all interested friends and family.
(1.0 point): Delivered Christmas presents and greetings to 15 people
(-0.25 points) Failed to deliver to 5 people.
(1.0 point): Spent a few minutes each morning cuddling with the girls
(-0.5 points): Lost track of time every morning and had to cancel almost all plans.
(1.0 point): Bundled up the girls to play in the snow and made them hot chocolate.
(-0.5 points): Did not join the girls outside.
(1.0 point): Made sure the girls got to see all their grandparents over the holidays
(-0.5 points): Skipped 4 out of 8 family events.
(1.0 point): Responded to Christmas greetings from a few friends
(-0.75 points): Failed to check in with people who have been left hanging for months.
(1.0 point): Wrote Christmas cards
(-0.75 points): Wrote some epically awkward inscriptions.
(1.0 points): Had two short yoga workouts
(-0.5 points): Gorged enough on holiday treats and leftovers to negate the physical and mental benefits.
(0.0 points): Did not take the girls out to skate, sled, or look at Christmas lights.
(1.0 point): Spent one hour with husband drinking tea from gorgeous new teacups and watching tv
(-0.75 points): Did not finish work early enough to visit with him before he fell asleep on the other 11 nights.

Points Tally: 5.25 out of 10

I re-read the ledger twice, then lay it on the floor and think quietly for a minute.

5.25/10 is a crappy mark. It’s 52.5%. That’s barely a pass… or an outright fail, in some metrics.

Although, I suppose it depends whether it’s graded on a curve. Is Christmastime Adulting marked on a curve? Who marks it, anyway? I don’t think Santa really gives a flying reindeer turd about maternal performance. He’s busy judging the kids.

I wonder what the average mom’s Christmas Correctness score is.

Then, again, maybe I don’t care. Actually, I don’t care at all how other families get through the holidays – whether they create Norman Rockwell, cocoa-by-the-fireside perfection for twelve nights straight, or whether they dine exclusively on pizza and Kraft Dinner, and their children’s eyes shrink noticeably due to overexposure to screen light.

In the end, it doesn’t matter to me one flying fig how the rest of the world moves through Christmas.

I hope there is joy. And I hope that everyone gets some kind of comfort and coming together during the holidays. We all need that, and we all deserve it.

But when it comes to judging, comparing, and setting a standard for proper Christmas celebration, that shit really doesn’t matter to me. At all.

That means, all this guilt I have been laying on myself about failing to live up to Motherly Christmas Duties, is a sham. I don’t genuinely believe that moms NEED to do all that stuff. And that means that I need to give up my hand-wringing over my Martha Stewart inadequacy.

What IS important to me is acknowledging the holidays with my family, reaching out to people that I love, and doing my best to make a little light when the days are short and dark.

That’s it.

And in general, I can honestly say that I did those things. Even if I didn’t accomplish half of what I planned, and made a mess of some of my efforts.

There were presents; there were gatherings, and there were hugs. Epic hugs. Hugs warm enough to last me until spring.

In that respect, it was a wonderful Christmas.

And I wonder, if I can remember this next year, the fact that I sincerely don’t give a shit about what moms are supposed to produce over the holidays, maybe Christmas will come a little easier to me. I wonder if letting go of my self-criticism will make the black hole that surrounds the anniversary of my dad’s death a little less dark and dense.

After all these years, I am still sifting through my holiday grief. Someday, I will separate the sadness of missing dad from the hopeless pain of hating myself for hurting, and feeling like I will never be as good or strong as the rest of the world.

I think the day that I finally see that I’m okay where it counts, will be a very good day.

My thoughts come back into my body, sitting in the cold tub. I pick the paper tape back up. Wet fingerprints are beginning to soak into transparent windows, blurring the ink. The more I look at the ledger, the less sense it makes, and pretty soon, the soggy mess reflects my new certainty: all that shameful accounting is utterly meaningless.

I pass the damp paper back to Critter. She is grinning.

“Did you see what I mean?” she says.

“Yep,” I say. “Thank you Critter. You’re an awesome accountant.”

Critter bows dramatically then comes close. I think she’s going to ask for a hug, and I start to say that I’m too wet, but instead, she reaches past me and dunks the paper tape into the water. She swishes it around until it’s thoroughly soaked. Then, she pulls it out and wrings it, with her remarkably dextrous raccoon hands. Finally, she wads the paper up and tosses it over her shoulder. It lands dead-center on top of the garbage can’s closed lid with a decisive splat.

“Ew,” I say.

“Nothing but net,” says Critter. Then she dusts her hands, pulls the sack back up over the adding machine, and drags it away.

She leaves me to climb out of the stew of my own filth. I stand up, listening to the water swoosh off my body and plunge back into the chilly tub. I lift the stopper with my toes and hear the unabashed gurgles and burps as the drain greedily swallows my sloughed-off skin, stale perspiration, and slicks of dirt-saturated oils.

I turn on the shower and quickly soap my hair and body, imagining a layer of self-hate rinsing off me like a thin black slime.

I look down at the drain and picture a swirl of emotional sludge spiraling around the chrome, dissolving into the clear water around it, diluting until it ceases to matter.

I pop the tap closed, wrap myself in a towel, and move forward, a little lighter, into the day that awaits.
Critter says that if you are keeping a mental list of all of your failings and inadequacies, you might as well put them on paper.

Get your self-directed accusations out where you can see them, and then do whatever accounting you deem necessary to figure out where you stand with yourself.

Critter and I hope that when your wins and fails are tallied, you make the same empowering discovery as we did.

Nothing matters, except what matters.

Take care of yourself, so you can take care of what matters.

And let the rest wash off you.

“And one last thing!” Critter says. “Remember that cosplay can change lives.”

Thanks, Critter.

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Ninth Day of Griefmas: 15 Christmas Gifts for Someone Who is Grieving or Depressed

It is always hard to know how to help when a loved one is grieving or depressed.

At Christmas, though, there is extra awkward pressure. You want to give something, but you can get paralysed if you start to worry about all the ways you cannot help.

You won’t be able to bring their lost loved one back. You can’t erase the trauma or heal the damage in their brain. There is no right answer that will make everything suddenly alright.

But that doesn’t mean your gift will be meaningless.

On the contrary, you have the power to make a huge difference. You simply need to reach out, convey empathy, and offer something that will make their dark days a little easier.

“Just bring them food,” says our favourite imaginary rodent. “That’s how raccoons offer support. Sometimes, we even change out the bedding in the den. Nothing says comfort like a fresh pile of dead lives, pinecones, and spruce branches.”

I think what Critter is trying to say, is it helps to be practical.

I have found that no matter what people have given me, the thing I have needed most when I am in my dark pit has been to hear, “Let me help you with that.”

Those are the most powerful words you can possibly say or write. They shrink our unfathomable misery from an inescapable negative force that pervades the entire universe, into a single, black cave; “I am here to help” centres us inside a contained experience of shittiness that has a beginning and an end. It helps us to realise our dark cocoon is surrounded on the outside by friends.

 

With that in mind, here are 15 gifts that say to your loved one who is struggling, “Let’s make this easier.”

The following list contains some items that are pricey or unavailable in some areas. Use these ideas as a springboard for your own supportive gesture.

If you do choose to purchase something through our affiliate links, Critter and I will receive a little thank-you from Amazon to help keep me supplied with Terry’s Chocolate Oranges (and keep Critter supplied with lickable wrappers).

Without further ado…

  1. Empathy Cards by Emily McDowell: this line of sympathy cards says exactly what you feel but can’t put into words.
  2. Sunshine After the Storm edited by Alexa Bigwarfe: this collection of essays by moms who have lost a child holds comfort, connection, expression, and hope for grieving parents.
  3. A Self-Care Package: as part of their non-profit work, Sunshine After the Storm sends care packages to bereaved families. You can add your love and support to this effort by donating to SATS, requesting a package for yourself or someone you know, or creating your own bundle of pampering and self love for someone in your life you needs it most.
  4. Light Therapy for Seasonal Depression: this is kind of a personal item, but if someone you know has expressed an interest in Light Therapy, providing a lamp can bring big relief. Make sure the recipient knows to mention their Light Therapy to their doctor if they are also taking antidepressant meds, and to keep an eye out for issues with insomnia or manic behaviour.
  5. Roomba: this is an expensive gift, but if you happen to have the money (or access to a handyman who can repair a cheap fixer-upper), this little cleaning machine can be a life changer. Mine makes my house feel livable, and makes me feel like a competent homemaker, when I can’t seem to win at anything else.
  6. Meal Delivery Service (Canada or USA): This is a triple win for someone who is struggling to get by; it provides healing nourishment, relieves the labour of meal-planning, shopping, and produce prep, and gives another precious self-confidence boost when the receiver sits down to a fresh, delicious meal that they made with their own, worn-out hands.
  7. The Way of the Wizard, by Deepak Chopra: This book was lent to me by my sister when I was struggling with deep post-partum depression. I’ve had it for five years now, and am not sure I can give it back, because I go back to it again and again to find comfort, purpose, and hope.
  8. The Harry Potter Series, by JK Rowling: Harry’s horrible misfortune and mistreatment speak to me when I’m wrecked, and his very human struggles to do the right thing make me want to keep fighting. Even if the Dark Lord of my life is only my brain chemistry.
  9. The Song of Ice and Fire Series, by George RR Martin: Like all great fantasy, the Game of Thrones stories provide a passionate escape from one’s own head. In dark times, losing ourselves in another world can be the only pleasure strong enough to get us through the day.
  10. 50 Shades of Grey, by EL James: speaking of pleasure, these stories are all about the concept of pleasure-seeking, and there is a thin thread of comfort in seeing the anxiety-ridden Grey create a successful relationship – albeit a hopelessly unrealistic one. Nevertheless, I think 50 Shades went viral because it hit our need for escapism on the head, and this is a very valuable tool in the battle with depression and grief.
  11. An eReader: For a book-lover, an eReader means easy access to gazillions of books. The ability to purchase ebooks online or borrow them from the library means that a really worn-out individual can keep their mind fed even when they can’t leave the house.
  12. Alice in Wonderland Colouring Book: There is something dark and comforting about Lewis Carrols’ strange tales. Colouring the original illustrations could be a fortifying meditation on our own surreal experiences with grief, and the fact that, like Alice, we’re still standing.
  13. Curse Words Colouring Book: This is just a lovely way to process our fucking rage about all of the fucked up shit around us.
  14. Use Your Words – A Mothers’ Writing Guide, by Kate Hopper: This book is like a beginner’s workshop on how to write about the experiences that won’t let you go. It has guided me through many cathartic essays and writing exercises, and is definitely one of the reasons I started to blog.
  15. A Mini Chromebook: For under $300, a Chromebook mini laptop (like the Acer CB3-131 that I own and adore) gives easy access to everything that is good and healing about the internet: social media connections to people you can’t visit or don’t know how to talk to in person; forums, support groups, and blogs that connect you to other people’s real life struggles, triumphs, and insights; and the incredibly enriching experience of writing your own messages of strength through your social media or blog.

Critter and I hope that this list has reassured you that you can, indeed, make a difference for someone struggling with depression or grief this Christmas. Remember, this list is not exhaustive. Just let it get you thinking about the ways you can relate to what your loved one is feeling, and offer something from your heart that lightens their burden this Christmas.

Critter says, if all else fails, a nice pile of candy bar wrappers you haven’t finished licking always goes over well at raccoon Christmas.

That’s gross, Critter.

The Eighth Day of Griefmas: Adjusting Your Course when Holiday Grief Throws You

“What are we doing in the closet?” whispered my imaginary racoon.

“Shh,” I answered, and took a careful sip from my tea mug. I didn’t want to be discovered, nor to spill on all the coats. “We’re playing with the kids.”

Critter tilted her head and looked at me.

“Mooooooo-mmy???” Called my five year old daughter.

“Aaaaaah youuu?” added her two-year-old sister.

I could hear them nearby in the living room, lifting tossed blankets and digging through piles of toys as they expertly combed the scene for my whereabouts.

I took another quiet sip of long-cold tea, and felt the first smile of the day start to spread on my lips. It felt like my first smile all week.

“What’s so funny?” Critter asked.

“This is the best game, ever.” I answered.

In my pocket, the countdown timer on my phone silently ticked away the seconds. Only four more minutes and forty-two seconds left of engaging with the girls before I would have fulfilled my duty, and I could retreat back into the almost-manageable world inside my head.

This week had been hard on the girls and I. A few weeks prior, when I had realized the school holiday was coming, I had promised myself I would maintain our routine of getting up and out of the house each morning.

The plan was to bring the girls to the gym for our allowed two hours of childcare per day. I was counting on those pester-free periods to get caught up on my overwhelming pile of freelance work, and move forward on my personal writing.

After each morning work session, I saw myself taking the girls on an outing – to the library, the dollar store, or a visit to one of their great-grandmas. Then, we would return home for lunch and the baby’s naptime. While the littlest one dozed, I would squeeze in some quality one-on-one with my big girl, and then send her off to play while I hunkered down for another couple of hours of satisfying productivity.

“But what really happened,” said Critter, butting into my internal narration, “was that you slept-in every day, fought incessantly with the kindergartener, and took your Facebook addiction to new heights. It took you three hours to get breakfast on the table, five to brush your teeth, and seven to decide that you weren’t cooking dinner. Every single day.”

I turned to Critter and glared at her in the dark of the closet.

Being all gifted with night vision, my conscience personified had no trouble reading my expression. She just didn’t care.

“Honestly, I don’t know why you bothered,” she drove on. “It was painful to watch. And the look on your oldest kitten’s face was shattering when she asked you each morning, ‘What are we doing today, Mom?’ and you looked at the floor and answered, ‘I don’t know.’ I could see her pulse quicken every time. And then her questions came more often; ‘What’s for breakfast?’ ‘What’s for snack?’ ‘Are we going out today?’ It became obsessive. And every ‘I don’t know,’ drove her a little more batty. This morning, she looked like she wanted to shake you.”

My stomach turned. Although I felt Critter was being a bitch about it, I knew she was right. My daughter had become painfully anxious as each day passed and she watched my eyes fog over, thicker and thicker. Her disappointment and insecurity added heaps to my guilt and shame.

It bubbled up behind my lips like hot acid.

“Thanks for the recap, you mold-licking pest.” I growled. The words squeezed out through my clenched teeth and my breath steamed out through my nostrils.

Critter straightened up and eyed me coolly.

“If you think you’re going to scare me off this tender topic, you’re mistaken.” She said.

Tears burned in my eyes.

“God-DAMN IT, Critter!” I hissed. “ Can’t you leave me the fuck alone? Don’t you see that I’m a mess? I can’t do this with you right now. Go the fuck away! You’re not helping!”

The girls voices drifted down from the upstairs where they continued their search for me. Squished in between our winter coats and snowpants, I panted rage. My tea mug shook and sloshed precious caffeine onto my night shirt.

I felt the cold soak into my skin, and gasped. Critter and I both looked toward my belly, where the spill bloomed.

“I’m making a mess,” I whispered, and my mind started to float away to the numb place.
Critter called me back.

“Yeah, you are.” She stated.

I looked at her. She looked at me. My gaze started to slip down to the floor. Critter stepped forward and touched my arm.

“No,” she said. “Come back. Be here.”

I looked into Critter’s eyes, and tried to be there. My mouth was open. My mind was an ocean of grey, indistinguishable from the pea soup fog above it.

A tear spilled down my cheek.

“Oh, Critter,” I sighed. “What am I going to do?”

Critter looked into my eyes and stroked my arm. I could feel warmth radiate from the dime-sized patch of skin where her paw touched. It soaked deep and spread wide, into my bone, up my arm, and right through my chest. If this warmth were water, I would be sopping wet. Instead, I was sopping warm, thoroughly soothed and comforted inside every single cell.

She stretched both paws up to my belly, and I bent to pick her up, leaving my tea mug on the floor. I held Critter’s body to my heart and swore I could hear the staccato rhythm of our heartbeats combined.

“You’re asking the right question,” she said, and wiped a tear off my face.

I inhaled deep and sighed from my navel.

“What do you want to do?” she asked.

Without thinking, I answered, “I want to be present for the kids.”

“Then, do that,” Critter said.

“But it’s so hard,” I said. “I look at them, and see every beautiful thing that they are. But then they start talking, and I get overloaded. They babble, drone, speak over top of each other and ask meaningless questions… It makes me want to scream. I can’t process it right now. I just can’t.”

Critter put her forehead onto mine and looks through my eyes into the grey matter behind them.

“You can,” she said. “Just a little. Just enough.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Keep on doing this,” Critter said, waving her paw toward the hanging outerwear behind me. “Bite-sized bits of attention. Keep it manageable. Try to give them as much structure as you can.”

Then, she looked back into me.

“Stop saying, ‘I don’t know what we’re doing,’” she finished.

My heart started to pound again.

“But, I DON’T know what we’re doing!” I said. “I keep making plans and failing them!”

“Then, stop making plans.” Critter says. Like it was as simple as that.

I thought, What if it is as simple as that?

Critter watched me consider that for a moment. Then, she continued.

“It’s like when you or the girls are sick,” she said. “You pay attention to the symptoms, and try to make a call by bedtime about what is going to happen tomorrow. You give your big one a heads up if she might miss school.”

I thought about that.

“Sure,” I said, “but that’s much easier to anticipate than this. I can see and touch a cold or flu. I can take a temperature, listen to the cough, tally the patterns of sleep, appetite, or behaviour, and then make an educated guess about how severe it will be the next day. But with my mood, anything can happen. I can go from zero to a thousand, and back again, within a day.”

Critter raised an eyebrow.

“Is it really that hard to predict?” she asked.

I thought about it. I replayed the week, each day from morning to evening, and mentally graphed my levels of energy and functioning.

I realized I had known since Monday morning that the whole week was going to be a shit show.

“Holy cow,” I said. “You’re right.”

Critter smiled.
“I know,” she said.

“So, what do I do?” I asked. It felt like something was about to come clear.

“Read the signs,” Critter said, “and adjust your plans accordingly.”

Holy fuck. Did that ever sound simple.

“That’s it?” I asked.

“That’s it,” she confirmed.

Just then, like a herd of baby buffalo, I heard the girls come down the stairs.

“Mommy?” said my oldest; “Where are you hiding?”

Then, my phone deetle-deeted, as the timer ran out. I let it carry on while I watched through the crack where the closet door hinged. The two-year-old turned in a circle, while the five-year-old’s face lit up like a birthday cake.

She grinned as she walked straight to the closet, then paused with her hand on the handle.

She pulled the door open slowly, holding her breath with her mouth open.

“Tadaaa!” I said. “You found me!”

“I always find you, Mommy.” my daughter said.

“Yes, you do, my love.” I answered.

And it was true. She always helped me find myself. Someday, I might tell her how much help we both had received from a certain imaginary raccoon.

If you feel like your grief and depression throw you so far off-balance, that you can’t react and adjust your course, look deeper.

When you start to spiral downward, do you panic?

If so, who are you most loath to disappoint? Is it your kids, your partner, or your clients and colleagues?

Can you imagine a scenario where you gave these people a heads up about your state, adjusted your plans, and everyone took it in stride?

When I finally explained to my daughter that we had to change our plans for the rest of the week, she was disappointed. I had thought that would be excruciating for me, but it was actually easy. I just found myself explaining to her, as I did ten thousand times on the average day, that sometimes we feel disappointed; it’s okay to be sad about it, but ultimately, we need to figure out how to flex and find another way to meet our needs.

We will be rescheduling our fun for the week after Christmas, when my energy is very likely to be back.

That conversation with my daughter was incredibly liberating. Getting things out in the open and establishing new plans lightened my brain fog considerably. I was even able to get some of my freelance work done in the afternoon and release even more overwhelming pressure.

My daughter hasn’t forgiven me yet for letting our “fun week of holidays” dissolve into an unsettling stretch of cabin fever and tv overload. It’s going to be work to process this with her, but I feel like I can handle it. Confronting my fear about letting her down freed up some energy I have desperately need to manage this mess of a week.

I think I’m going to be alright tomorrow. We might even leave the house.

I hope that you find a way to brush off the fog that wraps around your brain, and that the solutions you need are sitting right there when your vision clears.

And if you need some ideas for engaging with your kids when your mental fuel gauge is on E, check out this brilliant post by The Ugly Volvo.

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Depression, Anxiety, Rage and Raccoons