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Thanks for Letting Me Work Through It

A letter from a depressed person to the people around me.

Dear Friends,

I just want to say thank you for letting me work through this particularly hideous season of my soul.

I know the stuff I’ve been writing lately has been worrisome, and I’m so sorry it made you feel down. On one hand, I’m deeply grateful that you care enough to worry when I am struggling so hard. But on the other, I’m totally bummed that I ever let you walk away without a smile.

I want you to know that I AM okay. Not well. Definitely struggling worse right now than I have in a long time. But not giving up.

I promise never to give up. The living, or the writing. Or the parenting, which is honestly one of the hardest things to face right now.

The writing is hard in its own way. I am pushing myself harder than I ever have before, artistically and productive-ness-ically. I am cracking my shins on my limits, and it makes me want to scream. Like walking face first into a glass door between what I can do, and what I desperately, furiously, ravenously want to create. I’ve got the most serious case of artistic blue balls the world has ever seen.

The hardest lesson I’m trying to learn is to let myself work through the process. Be patient and stop screaming at my fucking self. Just give myself time. (And find an appropriate place to rub out the fury.)

This is exactly what I need to do in parenting, too.

And it’s exactly what you’re letting me do, here. By listening without covering my mouth.

I want you to know I will never judge you if you need to take a break from me. That’s a very healthy way to handle it when someone’s personal shit is overwhelming you. I adore you for being there when it feels right, and I adore you for taking space when you need it, so we can come back together when we’re both in the right headspace.

And I want you to know, too, that it’s okay to tell me how my posts make you feel. That’s really good feedback for me. As a writer, and as a person. Trying to figure out if I’ve gone too far when my emotional radar is malfunctioning is like trying to drive blindfolded. I need to hear when I’ve bumped up against something, so I can think about it and figure out how I want to navigate it.

I can’t promise my sense of what’s funny or important will always suit your palate. But I do promise to try to make this blog as much as possible, a healthy relationship between you and I.

So that means that right now, I need to give you an enormous hug and tell you thanks. You are a thing that helps me keep swimming in the sea of garbage soup.

Laurie

 

PS – I’m going to try some different things on the blog.

One is that I want to devote more airtime to the things that help me.  Obviously, something is helping. Otherwise, I’d be drowned by now.

I haven’t figured out exactly what the formula is for talking about mental illness in a helpful way; my gut tells me that we can’t just skip past the ugly stuff, but my heart says that can’t be all there is.

So, my plan for the next couple of months is to try mixing gritty, on-the-scene reporting about the sights, sounds, and smells at the bottom of the trenches, with a bit more sharing about the things that help me catch my breath down here.

The other thing that is tugging on my sleeve is that I want to have more conversations about this mess. I get stuck sometimes trying to write, because all I have is questions, and no answers. I feel like I have nothing to offer you. But then I get a chance to actually talk with someone, and they let me lay my palm on their raw, sticky feelings, and I get something precious. We both do. I can’t articulate what that thing is, yet, because it’s not like we come up with any answers, no new thoughts we haven’t already had. But there’s something about that moment when I share sensation with someone… feel our heartbeat synch up for a moment… it’s like it makes me real.

I’d like to share that with you. Create conversations with you, opportunities for you to say things to me and to Critter, too. And I’d like to share some of the goose-pimply conversations that I have with the seriously amazing people that I know. Not just copy-pasting private texts! And not secretly webcamming either, you kinky thinker. But maybe interviews, or something.

Oh yes! And reading. I’m going to expose you to footage of me reading. I hope it gives us mutual pleasure.

Speaking of, I had a freaking blast last night at the “It’s a Weird Winter Wonderland”. The reading was super fun, but so was just hanging with some of my favourite primates on the planet. I am deeply in love with the fact that I get to fumble around and try to figure myself out as a writer and make mischief with all of you.

Until we meet again, know this: You mean a lot to me. It’s okay to take a break from me. I’m never going to stop trying to make sense of all of this. And you can give me a dingle to come sit with me and Critter anytime.

 

Bang Your Head Against the Wall More Gently

“Stop starving your heart. Put your face into the garbage soup ocean and start sniffing. Snort ’til you catch a whiff that stirs the neck hairs of your soul. Then, chase it. Swish your limbs through the muck and don’t stop until you’re dead. That’s it. That’s all that living is.” – Critter, on how to survive as a slug in the anus of a decaying universe.

“Hey! Wake up.”

Critter is leaning on me with all her weight, trying to shake my shoulder.

“Uuuuuuuuuuuuugh.” I answer. “Go away.”

“We have to talk,” she says. I roll my face into the pillow.

“It’s important!” she says. “The whole forest is freaking out.”

I raise my head. “What forest?”

Critter rolls her eyes. “The urban forest. Everybody’s talking about what you did.”

I sit up, my eyes scrunched. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

Critter hops onto my lap and puts her tiny hands on my shoulders.

“Is it true?” she asks.

“Is WHAT true?!?”

She gives me serious face. “Did you. Kick. A deer?”

“Jesus fuck, no! Where did you get that?”

Critter flops down on her haunches. “Huh. Thought so.”

I raise my eyebrow and glare at her. She shakes her head.

“Should have known,” she says. “Squirrels are dicks. Gossipy, shit-disturbing dicks.”

I grit my teeth. “You’re telling me that squirrels are spreading shit about me?”

Critter nods. “Janet Fattail is swearing up and down the river that last time you walked at the park, she saw you assault a family of deer. Says you snuck up on them. When the mother bent down to eat, you kicked in her ribs. Then you tried to climb up and ride on the fawn.”

I smack my forehead.

Critter smiles. “Of course it isn’t true. I’m so relieved.”

“I can’t believe you thought that of me.”

Critter shrugs. “You’ve been off lately. Don’t deny it.”

“Yes, I’ve been fucking off lately. I can barely stand the sound of my own breath. That doesn’t mean I’m going to break somebody’s ribs.”

Critter tilts her head.

“It’s hard to know where your lines are,” she says.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means you’re a little self-destructive right now. Things you wouldn’t have done a few months ago are not so clearly in the no-go.”

I look away and blink tears out of my eyes.

“I don’t want to hurt anybody.”

“I know,” Critter says. “But you’re BURSTING with rage. And sadness. And want. You’re kind of in that place where people snap. Do something awful, just to feel something different. Lash out to cut through the despair.”

The tears start to pour, hot tracks down the sides of my nose.

“I don’t know what to do,” I whisper.

Critter jumps off my lap, onto my dresser. Then she leaps back and sets the kleenex box next to me. She drapes her soft belly over my heart and lays her head on my shoulder. The weight of her body presses against my chest. I sob, and sob, and blow a quart and a half of snot into tissues. They stack up in a soggy pyramid by my knee.

“I bet you wish those were masturbation rags,” she says.

I snort. “That’s a guy thing, Critter.”

She shrugs.

When I catch my breath, I stare at my hands.

“I’m a waste, Critter. I’ve got nothing. I will never have anything to give. I can’t make my brain work. Every tiny, normal sensation turns into three-and-a-half weeks of all-consuming obsession. Do you have any idea how many nights I’ve laid awake, fantasizing about scenarios that would be completely fucking awful? And how many days I have lost, writing dissertation-length, deeply heartfelt responses to people I barely know on Facebook, while my kids beg me to play with them?

I can’t play with them, Critter. Can’t even make myself want to. They feel like sand in my teeth. All the whining, arguing, fighting, refusing. Constant resistance. Constant demand. An incessant buzz of complaint. I can’t fucking handle it. I don’t fucking like them as humans right now and I can’t meet their underlying needs and guide them to behave any better because I can’t stand to be mentally in their presence long enough to get through to them.”

Critter looks at me with her eyes and mouth drooping. Like a sad dog.

“I faceplant into every puddle I pass, Critter. When I finally get my feet on the ground and try to work, it’s garbage. It’s taking me ten times as long to do every little thing, and in the meantime, the shit I was supposed to do has piled up on top of me. A mountain I can’t climb out from under, let alone summit. I can’t do this. I can’t do anything.”

Critter pats my leg.

“All I want to do is to make things better.  But I say things that make people feel worse. To my kids, to my friends. To my husband, every single fucking day. They’re all wrapped up in the whirlpool of my sick feelings. I don’t want to hurt them. I’m desperate to make it better. But I’m making it worse.”

Critter snuggles her butt beside me, and we sit there, staring into the distance together.

“You don’t have to fix it,” she says.

I shake my head. “I HAVE to fix it. I can’t stand this. I’m going to die if it doesn’t get better. ”

“No, you won’t.”

“Goddamn it!”

“You won’t die. No one will die. Nothing will break. The world will keep on turning.”

“I hate that even more. That means there is no escape. No exit button. This nightmare will never end. It will just get worse, and worse.”

“Well,” Critter says, “the world is like that. Entropy, right? The universe has been like this since the beginning. Long before you started acting like an anal-dwelling slug. The sun in the sky is in the act of burning itself out. It’s just physics. It’s not on you.”

“That fucking sucks, Critter. How am I supposed to find the will to keep on getting out of bed? To feed my kids and fight with them and drag their oppositional little asses to school? How am I going to keep fighting to work and write and face people?”

Critter looks up at me. “You stop telling yourself that if you finally get it right, the world will become good. That’s a  lie, and you know it.”

I stare at the wall in front of me. I frown. That’s the same grease-printed, scuffed up, slumlord-buff-coloured paint that’s been there since my husband bought the place. I’ve lived here for 12 years. I always hated these blank, avoidant, impotent fucking walls. But I could never gather my resolve to change them.

Critter touches my cheek to make me look at her. “Stop trying to be perfect. You’re not. This world is not. It’s a vicious, shitty, bloody mess. Just figure out what you need to survive. Stop starving your heart. Put your face into the garbage soup ocean and start sniffing. Snort ’til you catch a whiff that stirs the neck hairs of your soul. Then, chase it. Swish your limbs through the muck and don’t stop until you’re dead. That’s it. That’s all that living is.”

My face makes this demented, one nostril-dilated smile. Like Mowgli at the end of the old Jungle Book cartoon from the sixties.

“What?” Critter asks.

“I’ve got a whiff,” I say. “I want to read. To people. I wanna do voice stuff, and read my blog posts on YouTube and do audiobooks and I don’t even know what else.”

She shrugs. “Okay. Do that.”

“Okay.”

Tomorrow I’m going to read. To people. The last whiff I followed led to a short story that got published in a book called It’s a Weird Winter Wonderland. I’m one of the authors reading at the launch tomorrow night.

You can catch it on Facebook if you’re so inclined.

My contribution is a super weird story that tickled and satisfied me in ways I can’t fully articulate. All I know is that I’m hooked on this life, and I want to pull my head out of my own ass so I can read bonkers shit for people more and more and more. I have no idea how people will react, but even if all I get is blank stares and an uncomfortable cough, I want to do this thing.

With exactly the people I’ll be doing it with.

This is my whiff.

Critter and I hope you find yours, and that you give your inner bloodhound permission to chase and howl and raise everyone’s neck hairs.

“And may all your tissue wads be sticky with pleasure,” Critter adds.

Fucking EW.

 

Reflections on a Steaming Coiler

Critter sits hunched, her arms stuffed with nasty, dry, gluten-free chocolate chip cookies. She’s eating them mechanically and staring at me without blinking.

“So,” she says between mouthfuls. “That was… wow.”

“Yeah.”

Munch-munch munch. “You wrote. That’s good, right?”

“I… well, ” I frown. Shrug.

“And you published it. Without making it a story. Without even making it legible. That was… a bold choice.”

I stare at the table.

“It seemed important.”

Critter raises an eyebrow and keeps munching, her tiny paws maintaining a slow, steady feed of styrofoamy biscuits into her dainty jaws. Crunch crunch crunch.

“That’s what my great uncle Hank said when he started smearing feces in public places.”

I raise my eyes to her but can’t smile.

“He said the shit had a very important message for us and he NEEDED to share it.”

I frown harder.

“He started sneaking little shit smears into unexpected places. A little dab under a waiting room chair. A nugget in someone’s potted plant.”

I try to blink the goop out of my eyes.

“At first, no one could figure it out. We just thought he’d lost control of his bowels, and was walking around with dingleberries matted around his butt 24/7. I mean, the dude was OUT THERE. Seemed inevitable. We came to expect the soiled-diaper smell whenever he came around. But then someone noticed the stench clung after Uncle Hank had gone.”

Crunch crunch crunch. Munch munch munch.

“Then he started baking. We all thought it was a good sign. At least he wasn’t eating the poop. We’d been speculating. He was so obsessed, right? But he was making actual food. And sharing it. He brought around little plates of cookies and brownies and stopped muttering about how the truth was IN THERE.”

“The whole community was relieved. It was so nice to see Hank coming and not get punched in the face with the smell of impending senility. Plus, the “shit speaks” routine had really got old, but no one could bring themselves to say anything about it. To his face. I mean, what do you say to someone who’s clearly off their tree stump?”

I sigh loudly through my nose.

“Uncle hank was happy again. And the smell of his baking drew people to him. Man, I can still remember what it was like when he’d poke his head into our den, and the cloud of warm vanilla and cocoa rolled in with him. His brownies were insane. You could SMELL how moist and fudgey they were. We kids went ape for those things. I bet I ate fifty pounds of butter, eggs, and chocolate that winter. Doubled my weight. Best quasi-hibernation ever.” Critter smiles into the distance.

Crunch crunch crunch.

“The adults clapped Uncle Hank on the back and encouraged him to start a bakery. Said it was just the thing to keep his mind occupied so the crazies didn’t come back. Uncle Hank just grinned. He got this weird sparkle in his eye.

“At Christmas, while we all patted our pastry-thickened middles, Uncle hank announced he was going into business. He wasn’t going to see us for a while, because he’d be busy testing recipes and preparing his storefront. We were all thrilled for him. And eager to sample his new wares.

“He chose a likely hollow trunk and disappeared inside it for seven weeks. We could hear all sorts of scratching and digging, and the smells that came out of that hole could make you high. It was like hot fudge, chocolate ganache, and steaming piles of the finest cacao nibs were having melty, gooey sex in there. All of us cubs would press our faces up against the cracks in the door, which Hank had boarded up to keep us out while he perfected his products.

“Finally, at the end of February, Uncle Hank emerged. He looked like shit. His skin hung off him like a toddler in his daddy’s suit, and his fur was missing clumps. But he looked triumphant. He announced the grand opening would be in April.

“We could scarcely breathe for anticipation. Mouths watered whenever we passed Uncle Hank’s soon-to-be bakeshop. Pillows were soaked in drool from many a lip-smacking dream. Everyone laughed and rubbed their paws together.

“The day before the grand opening, the city inspectors came by to approve Uncle Hank’s business licence.”

Critter frowns.

“The next day, the bakery tree was burned to the ground. And Uncle Hank had disappeared.”

I look up at her, then close my eyes and cringe.

“Yeah.” she says. “Fecal contamination.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“I know. It was the health inspector who ordered the burn. She said it wasn’t even safe for a cleanup crew to go in there. So. Much. Caca. And he wasn’t even going to hide it. He’d named his chocolate croissants ‘boneless brown trout’. The brownies were ‘pinched loaf’ and the fudge sauce was ‘diaper gravy’. It was awful.

“The worst part was that as Uncle Hank’s insanity burned, the whole forest was blanketed in chocolatey smoke and ashes. We could feel it in our fur, taste it on our tongues. And even though we KNEW it was 37% turds, our mouths still watered.”

“What happened to your Uncle Hank?”

“No one knows. Some say he lost his brown biscuits when they declared the bakery would burn, and snuck past the guards to lay down and bake with his brownies.”

“That’s a terrible story, Critter.”

“I know.”

She reaches around on her belly shelf for another cookie, but they’re all gone. She sighs and gives the crumbs a few brushes with both hands. Then, she freezes. She slowly raises her paws to her eyes, then takes a sniff, staring at me over her little black fingers with horror.

“Those… weren’t… skid marks in the cookies. Were they?”

“Jesus fuck. No!”

She exhales.

“Oh. Good.”

“What the fuck, Critter?”

She shrugs.

“Bite me!” She says. “I’m not getting fooled again.”

I close my eyes and shake my head.

“They’re store bought, idiot.” I say. “Everything is going to be store bought for a while.”

“Because you might put poop in things?”

I glare at her.

“No.”

She raises her eyebrow.

“It’s because I can’t cook right now. I just need to survive and keep my kids fed until my brain comes back online.”

Critter nods. She seems satisfied and turns to go, but stops and asks over her shoulder.

“So, why did you publish that turd-sandwich post? Why was it important?”

My face crumples.

“I don’t know. Maybe it was like a high water mark, or something.”

Critter tilts her head.

“You gonna document the recovery, like ‘Come Hell or High Water, there WILL be a Stampede, So Help Me God, I’m the Mayor of this town and I say we are getting our shit together and we’ll look back on this and use it in our marketing later and brand ourselves all about resilience, kind of a thing?”

“Um. Kind of. Maybe just more like, ‘next time I’m back in the pit, I want to remember the way out.”

“Oh. Okay.”

We both look at the table.

“You’re going to be okay, you know,” she says.

“Yep.” I say.

“Even if that was embarrassing.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“And even if the recovery account turns into nothing, like a lot of your projects.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“Just don’t start baking, okay? Chocolate hides a lot of evils.”

“Fuck off, Critter.”

“Love you, too.”

Next Week It’ll Make Sense

Okay. So, I know depression lies. But it also impairs. And so people who telly ou you acn think your way out of it are wrong.

My therapist says I can feel my awy out of it, but I have to stop criticising myself to let that happen. And there’s another thing that I can’t do.

The criticism isn’t verbal. It’s sonsory. My lungs say “Ihate you” by crushing themselgves. My heart says I want to die by flinging itself against the back of my throat. Constantly. Monotonously. Sickeningly. It hurts and I can’t make it stop.

And my brain isn’t whispering “I’m awful.” It’s freezing. Coming up with blank spaces and error messages when I softly sob abd beg it to please do my jobs. Take kare oc my kid. Get them out of bed. Make them breakfast. Pack their lunches. Drive them safely. Resobpond to their conversation. Look at them. Just look at them. Please, brain. Please.

And it just won’t.

And I breathe through my nose and push myself forward, and take the humblings as I wander through the house, through the community center, through the day. I forget more things than I remember. I lose the trail of conversations and the reason why I came into the room and have absolutely no sense of why I woke up today at all.

IT’s all in my head. I’m just too hard on myself. I just need to be patient and accept that some days, some weeks, some sickening slides into dark, wet pits are natural. Totally fine. If I can just embrace it, I’ll be fine.

But I can’t. Every nerve in my body is screaming for comfort, and I can’t find any. Food has no tasete. Conversations have no warmth. Hugs don’t even reach my skin. I can’t. My brain can’t process any of it. Just pain.

I don’t konw what to tell you so you won’t worry about me. I have no connection to the ground. I can usually see my way out of things, even if I don’t like the answers. But this is one of those times I ca’nt see anything. I can’t look at my kids like this. I can’t even pretend today.

They say that something like 80% of depressive episodes resolve themselves within 2 weeks. All you have to do is outlast it. And find someone to feed the kids.

My greatest fear is that one of these will happen when Devon is away. Or that one day he won’t come back. I spend a lot of time pushing away those thorughts. And trhying to push away the never-satisfied rage and dysphoria that beats him up and does it’s damndestes to fulfill th e prophecy.

Am I going to be fine tomorrow? Sometimes I am, and then it all seems so silly. I can start rebuilding and wipe my brwo and say wow, that was close. Ir huh; that wasn’t as close as it felt. I dn’t know.

I was doing all the things. Exercising. Scializing. Medicating. Therapizing. Having projects and goals and hopes. Feeding the cravings. Saying no to the really bad ones. I was trying. Really, really hard. Didn’t help. It comes on anyway.

It’s very humbling. Like shitting your pants in publisc.

And you have to keep going. Somehow. YUo have to stop crying and kepp going. Do those things so your credit card doesn’t get cancelled and your husband doesn’t leave and you don’t turn into that thing that can’t even try any more.

Yur body and brain are so tired, but you have to keep going. Don’t stop.

Don’t stop. Okay? It gets better every single time.

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.