Category Archives: Depression

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.”

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.”

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

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

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

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

I’m freaking out, man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I frown as I pat her back absently.

“What completion?” I ask.

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

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

I shake my head sadly.

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

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

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

Critter rolls her eyes at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I chuckle. Critter tilts her head at me.

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

I chuckle again.

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

Critter grins and leans into the scratch.

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

I take a deep breath and nod.

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

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

I take another breath and sigh.

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

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

I nod.

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

Critter tilts her head and considers.

“You need nudist therapy,” she announces.

“What?” I laugh.

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

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

I laugh and shake my head.

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

Critter smiles at me.

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

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

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

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

My self-assured rodent grins and polishes her claws.

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

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

I scoop up my imaginary raccoon and hug her fiercely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When You Suddenly Can’t

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But instead, it came with shame.

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

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

I refilled my tea and stared harder at my laptop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I squinted to keep his face from rippling.

“Oh,” I said.

“You going up to write?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“Just to bed,” I said.

“Okay,” he said.

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

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

“Go to bed,” he whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can I catch up today? I dared to wonder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critter chuckles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I take a deep breath.

“Let go of what?” I ask.

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

I breathe in and out.

“What picture?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mouth twists in a wry smile.

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

Critter grins at me.

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

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

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

I chuckle and roll my eyes.

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

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

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

If you say so, Trashmuncher.

Don’t Let It Ruin Your Breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nestle that first, rapturous bite into my mouth.

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

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

I open my eyes and sigh with visceral contentment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m glad that I shared my treasure.

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

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

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

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

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

I open my email.

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

“Finish What You Started,” is the subject.

“Aw, FUCK,” I mutter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stroke her back, chuckling.

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

She blinks at me, then sighs relief.

“You gonna finish those eggs?” she asks.

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

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

I’ve let my warm breakfast grow cold.

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

Critter’s eyes crinkle with concern.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nod.

“What’s happening?” she asks.

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

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

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

Critter pats my shoulder and nods.

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

I wipe my nose and chuckle.

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

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

I look off into the distance and consider this.

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

Critter smiles and pats my head.

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

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

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

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

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

“So, ARE you done with those eggs?”

Facepalm.

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

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

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

Self Love, Raccoon Style

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

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

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

The dream is over, my heart whispers.

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

Then, my face spreads in an involuntary smile.

Oh! I think. THAT dream.

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

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

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

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

Dread steals my breath.

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

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

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

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

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

I sigh.

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

Critter nods and smiles gently.

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

I frown.

“It wasn’t a sad dream,” I argue.

Critter tilts her head.

“Did you… achieve fulfilment?” she asks.

I shake my head.

“Why not?” she asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critter laughs out loud.

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

I cross my arms and harumph.

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

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

I take a deep breath.

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

I pull the sheet over my head.

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

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

I frown beneath the sheet.

Critter sighs and shakes her head.

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

I consider this quietly.

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

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

My heart aches.

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

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

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

I raise an eyebrow.

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

Critter covers her face and laughs into her tiny hands.

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

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

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

My jaw hangs open.

“Are you serious?” I stammer.

“As a forest fire,” Critter nods.

A red wave of embarrassment splashes over my face.

Critter points at me and haws.

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

I cover my eyes and chuckle. Critter smiles.

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

Critter slaps her forehead.

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

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

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

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

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

I rub my forehead and chuckle.

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

Critter’s eyes crinkle warmly.

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

That feels kind of right.

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

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

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

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

I laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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Serenity Prayer for Mental Illness

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

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

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

My heart sinks.

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

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

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

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

“Ow! Fuck!” I hiss.

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

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

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

Jesus Christ, this is awful, I think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tear swells in the corner of my eye.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critter considers me.

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

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

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

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

“What do you need?” Critter asks.

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

Critter puts her paw up to stop me.

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

My eyes brim with water.

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

Critter listens patiently.

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

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

My hands ball into fists.

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

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

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

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

“Huh-how?” I hiccough.

Critter tilts her head, thinking.

“Bring on the drama,” she says.

“Huh?” I ask.

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

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

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

Critter grins.

“Exactly,” she says.

That new frame changes the whole picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck it. Let’s do this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critter stands up and hugs me around my neck.

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

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

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

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

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Three Phrases from Critter to Cure Your Fear of Failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I chuckle.

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

Critter rolls her eyes at me.

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

I don’t answer. Because I know.

Critter waits a beat and then tilts her head.

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

I groan.

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

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

“GAH! Enough!” I say, sitting up.

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

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

“Are you avoiding your work?” Critter asks.

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

“I guess,” I say.

Critter pats my thigh but doesn’t say anything.

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

I look up at her.

“It’s squeezing me,” I say.

“I know,” she answers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the next room, the baby wakes up.

I start to laugh. It makes me wheeze harder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just begin,” she says again.

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

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

I run my hand through my hair.

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

Critter frowns.

“Then edit your work,” she says.

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

Critter rolled her eyes.

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

I laugh.

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

But Critter won’t let it go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s okay to need help,” she says.

I let that sink in.

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

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

It’s okay to need help.

Something clears in my head.

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

“What?” Critter laughs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nod.

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

I gulp.

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

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

Critter’s words echo back inside my head.

Just start now.

It’s okay to need help.

Get to work.

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

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

Critter’s Message for You:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just start now.

It’s okay to need help.

Get to work.

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

The Tenth Day of Griefmas: Holiday Grief Accounting

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

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

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

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

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

I wrap my arms around myself and roll my eyes.

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

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

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

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

It’s Critter’s turn to roll her eyes.

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

I glare at Critter.

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

I raise a bullshit-brow. Critter shrugs.

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

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

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

Seeing me give up that fight, Critter relaxes.

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

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

Critter looks at me.

“I take the fifth,” she says.

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

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

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

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

Critter crosses her arms and scowls at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I close my eyes.

“Goddamn it,” I whisper.

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

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

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

Critter smiles.

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

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

Critter laughs.

“Nope,” she says. “Try again.”

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

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

Critter’s face lights up.

“Go on!” she says, clapping her paws.

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you give up?” she asks.

“YES!” I say.

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

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

Critter puffs up her chest and beams.

“I’m naturally resourceful,” she says.

I laugh.

“So you are,” I answer.

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

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

Critter pads over and pats the top of my head.

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

My heart sinks.

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

She rolls her eyes.

“Let me show you,” she says.

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

Laurie’s Griefmas Ledger

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

Points Tally: 5.25 out of 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s it.

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

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

In that respect, it was a wonderful Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you see what I mean?” she says.

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

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

“Ew,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing matters, except what matters.

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

And let the rest wash off you.

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

Thanks, Critter.

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