Self-Care: A Gross Approach to Help You Cope

“Living with mental illness is like working over an open toilet bowl; self-care is like closing the lid, so your duties don’t fall in. Plus, it helps you cope when your hand hits the poop water.” – Critter, on self-care for depression and anxiety.

Ploop!

I just dropped a spoon into the toilet.

“Mother fucker!” I hiss.

A fat droplet of water leaps straight up. It hangs above the ivory rim, then swan-dives back to the surface, where it crashes with a “Splip!” and explodes into a firework of pale fecal mist.

I’m pretty sure it has aerosoled my jeans. I might as well have kneeled in the bowl. My throat clenches with disgust.

The fallen spoon slides down the toilet wall and settles at the bottom. Soggy chunks of bloated cereal swirl above it.

“GodDAMN it!” I shout. I set down my daughter’s rejected breakfast bowl and reach up to rub my forehead.

But my hand freezes mid-reach. Suddenly, I am hyper-aware of the sensations on my hands, arms and face. It’s probably just tiny beads of sweat and oil, and air currents disturbing little hairs on my skin. But it feels like a full-body mask of coliform microbes.

I don’t want to smear MORE invisible shit onto my face

I stare at my contaminated palm.

“Aaaaaggggghhh!”

I reach toward the sink, desperate to wash the creepiness off, but then I freeze again.

Wait, I think. I shouldn’t wash yet. I should grab the spoon first. If I wash now, I’ll have to wash again after I grab the spoon. Three times, at least. And then my hands will get so dry…

Then my cuticles will crack! And that’s where necrotizing fasciitis gets in. Nothing good can come from this.

I know I need to rescue that bloody spoon and get on with my fucking day, but I can’t make myself do it. My hand hovers over the bowl where my family backs the big brown motorhome out of the garage on a daily basis.

This is ridiculous, a nasty voice hisses in my head. YOU are ridiculous! No wonder you can’t meet your deadlines and keep your kids in clean clothes. You’re absurd. Neurotic. Useless.

Tears slide down the valleys on either side of my nose, and a droplet of snot dangles at the tip. My face screams with irritation, but I don’t dare wipe it. Not with these poop water hands.

I lose time.

“Laurie… Hey! Laurie!”

A high-pitched voice hacks into the panic that has solidified around me.

There is movement near my feet. At the bottom edge of my vision, I catch a furry shape climbing onto the counter. It’s Critter, my imaginary raccoon. She’s come to save me.

I want to focus my eyes and look at her, but I can’t. My brain ping-pongs between a multitude of intentions—wash my hands—retrieve the spoon—call out to my friend—scream!

I can’t choose one. Can’t do any.

Another tear falls. So does the nose drop.

“Oh, Honey,” Critter whispers. “You’ve seized up like an open tube of toothpaste, haven’t you?”

Her voice is warm in my ears. My paralysis melts.

I take a huge, whooping inhale. My lungs feel like a sticky, shrivelled balloon. I exhale and breathe again. My chest and throat expand and burn with the stretch.

“It’s alright,” Critter whispers. “I’m right here.”

Finally, I can move. I turn my neck a few degrees and look into her furry face. She smiles.

“There you are!” she says.

I sniffle loudly and open my mouth.

“Yes?” she prompts.

I take another breath.

“I dropped my spoon,” I say.

Critter raises an eyebrow. I gesture with my head toward the toilet. She cranes her neck to look. Then she looks back at me with a chuckle.

“That’s it?” she asks.

I cross my arms and huff.

“Oh, fuck off,” I grumble. “I know it’s stupid.”

Critter looks at the spoon again and frowns.

“I get it,” she says.

“Huh?” I grunt.

“I said, ‘I get it’,” she repeats. “Sometimes, it’s really hard to pick up your spoon.”

I frown.

“This isn’t about the spoon,” I say. “It’s the filthy-disgusting toilet water! And the horror of watching a supervillain bacteria eat me alive!”

Critter chuckles.

“It is, and it isn’t,” she says. Then she smiles at me with an all-knowing expression that makes me want to shake her.

I clench my jaw and speak through my teeth.

“Can you PLEASE just tell me what the fuck you’re talking about, rodent? I’m not in the mood for riddles,” I say.

Critter looks at me and frowns again. Then she takes a big breath of her own.

“I don’t know if I can make you understand this,” she says. “You’re cranky, and your ears are closed.”

I scowl at her, but my cheeks are red. She’s not wrong.

Critter’s gaze doesn’t waver.

“But I love you, so I’ll try to get this across. It might help you get unstuck.

“First of all, you need to recognise that a spoon isn’t just a spoon. It’s a metaphor for the physical and emotional energy you need to take care of your responsibilities: your relationships, your work, and yourself. Spoon theory is a reminder that your energy is finite.”

“Oh, I KNOW my energy is finite, Critter!” I say. “I’m so fucking exhausted, I wish I could give up. All the things I have to do in the next week, month, year… I have no idea how I’ll accomplish them, or how many I’ll let fall. I just want to curl up on my bedroom floor and lock the door. How is this supposed to help me? This spoon talk is stressing me out!”

Critter rolls her eyes.

“People with chronic illness have embraced ‘Spoon Theory’ as a way to help their healthy friends understand why they have to decline invitations sometimes to come out, join in, or contribute. It’s not a rejection; it’s a concrete limit.

“But YOU,” Critter says, tapping a tiny finger on my sternum, “need to digest spoon theory to understand what is happening to you right now. You can’t even do a simple, albeit disgusting task, because your last spoon has literally fallen into the toilet. You’re out of spoons.”

My eyes widen as the realisation settles over. Critter’s right. I’m up the creek without a spoon.

It’s been a very long couple of months. While I’ve been flailing at my writing deadlines and struggling to ride my winter funk, my family has been passing around a nasty chest cold like a pestilential hot potato.

Now, colds are not earth-shattering; I know this. I’m ashamed to admit that these simple problems have overcome me. It’s all small stuff— wiping my kids’ leaky noses, scraping their crusty eyeballs, begging them and my husband to drink more fluids and use the motherfucking saline nose spray…

And clinging to the dim, desperate hope that my miserable invalids will get some relief, and I won’t have to keep getting up every SINGLE hour to rub their backs, or bring them warm drinks, or steam up the bathroom to settle their coughs and help them take a few breaths in peace.

These demands are small, but they’ve added up to something greater than the sum of their annoying parts.

And that’s not even counting the trips to the clinic, pharmacy, and emergency room…

I’m beyond burnt out. I’m cremated.

My eyebrows tent as I consider Critter’s message.

“I don’t understand,” I say. “How am I supposed to find time and energy for self-care when I’m drowning in urgencies? This feels like a no-win.”

Critter takes my hand.

“You’re trapped in a cycle of overwhelm and exhaustion,” she says. “The longer you stay here, the weaker you’ll get. Eventually, you won’t be able to handle those urgent responsibilities, or ANYTHING ELSE. If you want to come back to life, you HAVE to get more spoons.”

I look into Critter’s eyes; she’s begging me, just like I begged my family to do the things they needed to get better. Because we were all suffering.

I notice the knot of worry in her brow and realise she must be suffering, too.

Then I think back to the number of times this spring that I have lost my shit and yelled at my kids, ranted at my husband, and told them I couldn’t spend time with them because I needed every last breath to chase fruitlessly after my deadlines or the forgotten concept of sleep. It’s too many to count.

My heart aches.

“Talk about letting the shit flow downhill,” I mutter to myself.

“Ha!” Critter laughs. “And you thought a little splash of toilet water was the problem.”

I roll my eyes. Then I sigh.

“You’re obnoxious,” I say, “But you’re right. Everything rides on my ability to take care of myself. I HAVE to find a way to make this work. I just don’t know how.”

Critter smiles.

“There’s always a way, remember?” she says, winking. “You say that to your daughters all the time; now it’s time to prove it.

“And remember your friend, Sue? She got this same message in a situation that was immeasurably more dire. Remember how she found a way to save her own mind?”

I smile.

“Yeah,” I say. “Sue has a clear eye and monster-sized cojones. I’ve always admired how she sees the heart of the matter and finds the strength to do what needs doing.”

Critter tilts her head.

“I’ve never noticed her testicles,” she says. “But I’m sure they’re very nice.”

I almost slap my forehead.

“Not literal cojones, you numbskull,” I say. “She’s a woman.”

“Then she’s got señora cojones,” Critter smirks.

“Whatever, wiseass!” I say. “I’m inspired, but still confused. I’m not half as smart or strong as Sue. I’m waving the white flag at these motherfucking colds! What miracle is going to get me out of this rut?”

Critter narrows her eyes.

“We’ll just have to work with your teeny brain and tiny ovaries,” she says. “We’re going to start small.”

“Try this,” she says:

  1. Recognise that you are not in control of the outside world. You only control you.
  2. Remind yourself that There is Always a Way to make things better.
  3. Get support to lighten your load (like babysitting, house cleaning, help at work, friends who listen, counselling, or medication).
  4. Do the smallest things you can to scoop up some joy.
    1. Listen to music, audiobooks, or meditations while you rest or do chores.
    2. Go outside for however long you can manage.
    3. Use the great-smelling stuff in your shower, drinks, and cooking.
    4. Curl up with your family, pets, or favourite books.
    5. Get your body moving in any way you can.
  5. Address the bullshit voice that says you don’t deserve to get better.
  6. Consider the consequences if you keep waiting for the outside world to get better before you take care of yourself.
  7. Pick one thing that feels right and try it.
  8. If your energy rises, try something a little bigger.
  9. If your energy falls, try something a little smaller.
  10. Pick small tasks with big rewards and build momentum.
  11. Allow yourself to feel a little uncomfortable, and listen when your body says, “Stop”.
  12. Give yourself credit for your effort. It matters. It’s EVERYTHING.

    When Critter finishes, my frown softens.

    “That list makes me feel a little better,” I admit. “I forgot how much I love peppermint oil in the shower and listening to meditations on YouTube while I fall asleep.”

    Critter nods.

    “That’s the way!” she says. “Start with little things that feel good, and go from there. You will really notice a difference when you start exercising again. Keep working toward that.”

    Critter tilts her head again.

    “You look different,” she says. “Lighter, like a shadow has passed.”

    I smile. I feel different, too. Like I’ve shed a too-tight skin. It’s easier to breathe.

    “Keep thinking about that aromatic shower,” Critter winks. “You’re going to need one after you retrieve that filthy toilet spoon.”

    I grab my furry little wise guy and pretend to stuff her into the bowl. Her eyes bulge, and she clings to my arm. I laugh, give her a hug, and set her down on the floor.

    Then I stare at the sunken spoon. The waterlogged corn flakes have drifted to the edges, leaving a clear path for my nauseating act of determination.

    I slip off my watch, suck in a breath, and take the plunge.

    Before I know it, it’s over. Cool water drips off my arm with fat, crystalline notes. My fist grips the lost utensil.

    “You gonna throw it in the dishwasher?” Critter asks.

    I reach beside the toilet with my foot and press the pedal to open the garbage can. The spoon clangs as I drop it in.

    “Nope!” I answer. “Gonna get some new spoons.”

    Here’s what this little adventure taught me:

    As a person with mental health issues, I can’t let myself get too depleted. Even though I have friends who aren’t active, get minimal sleep, or go long stretches without breaks from their work or kids, that’s not me. I need to remember that coping is taxing, and stay on top of my spoon budget.

    To function with ADHD, depression, and anxiety, I NEED to take care of my body. That is how I get more “spoons” to handle the work I need to do. This can be empowering knowledge; I can build up my resilience, even if I can’t cure my unstable constitution. When things are going badly, I know I need to come back to self-care.

    When my energy falls in the toilet, I need to take action. I can’t wait for a period of craziness with my family or work to let up before I do something that nourishes me. There are no rules about shitty times; a cold can last two months, and a butterfingers moment can devour a whole day. It’s up to me to learn little ways to catch my breath and ask for help to make things doable.

    It’s okay to start small. If I stop telling myself that only a marathon will do, and just allow myself to take a five-minute walk to grab a tea, I’ll feel better. And then I can decide whether I want to get back into running or just start a new, pleasant snack routine.

    Critter grins.

    “Living with mental illness is like working over an open toilet bowl,” she says. “Self-care is like closing the lid, so your duties don’t fall in. Plus, it helps you cope when your hand hits the poop water.”

    “Haha! Doodies,” I snicker.

    Critter chuckles and trots away.

    How do YOU keep your spoons out of the bowl? Connect with Critter and me on Facebook or Twitter, and let us know. We’d love to chat and share your solutions.

How to Be Barely-Functional Without Hating Yourself

“When raccoons are too tired to make our nests livable, we don’t beat ourselves up. We get creative. You’d be amazed how much your husband will get done for the promise of sexual favours.” – Critter, on alternative home economics for depressed wives.

“I’m too tired to chat today, Critter;” I say to my imaginary raccoon.

She looks at me and nods.

“I understand,” she says. “Your eyebags have eyebags.”

“Can I just ramble a bit,” I ask; “and stroke your back while I try to untangle my thoughts?”

“Sure,” Critter says, then she smiles and leaps onto my lap. She turns in a circle and nestles herself into cosy ball like a cat, then closes her eyes and says,

“Proceed.”

I chuckle and bury my fingers in her dust-coloured coat, making little windrow trails along her back. Then I take a breath and begin putting my ache into words.

“I want to comfort myself about being depressed in the springtime,” I explain. “and encourage anyone else who is struggling with the fact that they’re struggling.”

“Mmm-hmm…” Critter hums, as she relaxes into listening mode. I scratch around her ears and let my thoughts trickle out.

“I’m beat-down right now,” I say; “and it hurts because I was counting on spring to perk me up. I had held my breath through the drear of winter and budgeted my blood oxygen to last exactly this long.

“I desperately need to inhale again, but I can’t, because spring didn’t bring relief.

“I’m still emotionally underwater, and to my intense frustration, I’ve sunk deeper than I was a month ago. My kids and I have been sick, my work has ground to a halt, and all of the goals that prop up my self-esteem have fallen into an overwhelming heap of pressure and failure.

“I just need some sleep. And a break. And a week of free nannying, housekeeping, and meal delivery. I just need the universe to line up in the most perfect way so I can write again, and move, and do all of the things that charge me up.

“I feel like the liquefied kiwis at the bottom of our fruit bowl. I watch myself from the outside as I yell at my kids, get stuck on my work, and smother in the filthy avalanche of dishes, laundry, and toys. I am disgusted. And deeply disappointed.

“My ears and brain are filled with my silent screams of rage, and everything seems more maddening than it can possibly be.

“I hate myself right now, and I know that I shouldn’t, but I can’t hold off the voice in my head that says that I’m the laziest, weakest, least competent human being on the planet.”

Critter cracks an eye and appraises me.

“What would you say if someone told you they felt that way?” she asks.

I frown as I think about it.

“I would tell them I understand, ” I answer; “But honestly, I don’t know anyone who is this far behind the eight-ball. Everyone I know is a functional adult. It would be easy to point out how well they are doing and how strong they are.”

“Would it?” Critter asks. “I’m not so sure. I mean, a raccoon would have no trouble accepting your empathy and comfort. We’re practical and sage like that,” she says with a wink. “We don’t waste time on false modesty.”

“But humans are weird,” she continues. “You people seem to be magnetically drawn to extreme opinions of yourself; you either think you’re the best, or the worst, and you have trouble tolerating the states in between when you have to struggle without validation.”

I scratch the back of my head as I digest the observations of my guiding rodent.

“I think you’re right,” I say finally. “Other people probably do feel this way. And my shitty self-esteem is just another side of my insecure ego.

“I can picture that, but I’m not sure how to get around it. I’m choking on dismay about all the things I can’t win at right now. I want to let it go, but I can’t! I’m stuck. I don’t know what to do.” I sigh look away from Critter’s olive-green eyes to wipe a hopeless tear from mine.

Critter pats my hand with her dainty black paw.

“You don’t have to perform a feat of strength,” she says warmly. “But you DO need to do something. It can be anything, but it has to nourish the part of you that is starving.”

I smile and shake my head.

“Are you going to say I should eat some garbage?” I chuckle. “Or is this another talk about masturbation?”

Critter shrugs.

“That’s up to you,” she says. “What do you need right now? Why are you so miserable?”

I breathe deep and sigh slowly as I try to feel the answer to Critter’s question.

What do I need right now?

I put my hand over my heart, where the depression aches like a slab of lead, and I listen.

After a minute or two, I look up at my furry friend.

“I need more time,” I state. “Somehow, I need to manufacture an easier schedule so I can do the jobs that make me feel good, and get help with the jobs that I hate.”

“Like what?” Critter asks.

“Well, for one thing, I need to push back my timelines for writing. My sick kids have thrown me so far off-schedule that I’m paralysed with shame.

“I need to chat with my editors and see if I can loosen the noose a bit. It would feel amazing to relax and pump out some sensical lines.”

“Good,” Critter says. “What else?”

“The other two things that are giving me heartburn are the filthy house and the landslide of clutter in every square foot. I desperately want to hire a housekeeper and a professional organiser.”

Critter tilts her head.

“That sounds fun,” she says, “but expensive.”

I nod.

“Yeah, it’s not in the budget right now. I have to get working first. And I can’t scale up my work until I get a steady run with healthy kids so I can pawn them off at school and daycare.”

Critter frowns.

“If hiring a cleaner and organiser isn’t realistic, then how does it help you?” she asks.

I run my fingers through my hair.

“I guess it just feels good to know what I want,” I say. “There’s something about acknowledging my end-game that helps me feel more patient about working up to it.”

“And it helps me let go of the fact that I can’t do it all right now,” I add. “Until I come up with a few energetic hours, we’re going to have cope with the filth. We can cover the sticky spots on the floor with paper towels so our socks don’t get ripped off when we walk past.”

Critter crinkles her nose.

“Wow,” she says. “You really do need help with the housework.”

I chuckle.

“I’m not even kidding,” I say. “But until I have the energy or the money to deal with it, I’m going to have to tolerate it.”

Critter nods.

“You definitely need to practice living with the grubby stuff,” she says. “Don’t let it stick to your fur so bad.”

I shrug.

“Patience is not my strength,” I admit. “But I’m working on it.”

Critter looks at me and rests her cheek on her fist.

“You’re going to be okay,” she pronounces. “You just need to get through this part of your story when everything is going wrong. Take a few baby steps and hang onto faith that things will get better.”

Then she adds with a wicked grin;

“And it never hurts to offer your husband sexual favours for helping out around the house. That’s what raccoons call win-win home economics.”

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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Depression, Anxiety, Rage and Raccoons

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