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Getting There with Wet Underwear – How to Persist Through Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Critter,” I sigh.

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

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

“I’m stuck,” I say.

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

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

Critter nods her head knowingly.

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

I raise a curious eyebrow.

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

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

My raccoon chuckles.

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

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

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

Critter tilts her head.

“What DO you want to say?” she asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, deadlines.

I shake my head and frown.

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

“You’re scared.” she states.

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

“See?” I report. “All dry.”

Critter shakes her head and looks at me kindly.

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

I frown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shake my head, my eyes big like baseball.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Boxhorse?” he asks.

“Yes, please,” I answer.

The scene repeats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My heart flutters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legs-forward it is.

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

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

“Huh?” asks the guy behind me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The coach nods.

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

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

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

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

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

I smile sheepishly and nod.

“That’s impressive,” she says.

I chuckle.

“It was worth it,” I say.

Critter nods and grins.

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

Critter eyes me with her head slanted.

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

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

Critter smiles.

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

I breathe deeply and think about it.

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

Critter nods and strokes her chin.

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

I consider this.

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

I raise my eyebrows.

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

Critter grins and I scratch the top of her head.

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

I nod and keep scratching her scruffy scalp.

“Amen, sister,” I mutter.

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

Then she cracks one eye open at me.

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

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

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

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

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

Critter raises an eyebrow.

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

Critter nods.

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

“Promise,” I reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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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The Sixth Day of Griefmas: The Art of Reaching Out for Help

Today’s post about how to reach out for help is going to be a short one. It’s been a rough day; my brain could not get a grip on my time or emotions. It feels like I’ve been trying to run on ice, and I’ve pulled all my mental muscles.

“Why don’t you let me handle the post today?” says a voice at my side.

I look over, and there is Critter. My imaginary raccoon has crawled up onto the bed beside me. She looks at the computer on my lap, puts a paw on my arm to stop me typing, and looks at me with concern.

“I’m fine, Critter,” I say. “I just need to bang this out.” But as I say it, a voice inside me groans.

Critter can hear it. Her eyebrows roll from a look of supplication to suspicion.

“Sure you are,” she mocks. “that’s why you lost it this morning on the girls, failed to get them out the door to daycare, and wasted half your day weeping through fifteen minutes-worth of paperwork.”

I don’t even have the energy to argue. Although she is being kind of a bitch.

I just rub my eyes.

I put my hands back on my keyboard and stare at the screen, thinking hard. What was I trying to say?

Critter waves a paw in front of my face.

“You’re doing it again,” she says.

“Buzz off, Rodent.” I mutter, and keep staring at the screen.

Critter crawls right up onto my keyboard.

“Hey!” I shout, as her butt types a long string of q’s.

Critter straightens up and puts both hands on my face.

“Go to bed!” she commands.

My heart starts pounding.

“I can’t,” is all I can say. My mind races, words tumbling over each other with the dizzy speed and heat of those gigantic gas dryers at the laundromat. My thoughts come out shrunken, with just a faint whiff of burnt.

Critter squishes my face until my mouth puckers between her paws.

“You’re glazing over,” she says. “Don’t do that. Come back.”

I heave my eyes back into focus, and plead with her.

“I can’t, Critter! Don’t make me think. I just can’t. Let me finish this…” I trail off.

Critter sighs loudly and drops her hands to her sides. She sits there on my keyboard and looks at me with her head tilted for a moment or two. I just stare back.

Then, she straightens up.

“Listen,” she says. “You are not accomplishing anything here. You have reached the point of diminishing returns. Actually, I think you hit it last night, but you just kept on going. Like a drunk driving home with a stop sign dragging underneath the car. You didn’t even notice.”

I chuckle. Critter smiles.

“You need to pull over, now,” she says. Then, she strokes my forehead. “It doesn’t have to be the all-Laurie show, you know.”

“But, it’s my blog…” I say. “And my freelance business. And my kids. And my laundry. And my meals…”

“And your brain,” Critter interrupts. “Which is currently making loud noises and belching smoke. Can’t you see it?”

I take a slow, deep breath. Well, I can’t see the smoke… but I can feel it, the chafe of unlubricated synapses grinding against each other and chewing one another into dust.

“That’s not how it works,” Critter blurts.

“I don’t care,” I groan.

“Hey,” she says, “before you start calling me nasty names, can’t you please just admit that you need help?”

My thoughts get high-centered on this concept.

Critter is not the first one to suggest this in the last couple of days. I hear echoes of myself saying the same damn thing to my friends who are struggling. But I can’t wrap my brain around what that would look like for me.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” I say to Critter, frowning. “How am I supposed to ask for help? I already have a counsellor. I lean hard on my husband, spend precious money on daycare, have hired coaches for business and writing… I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do. It’s not like someone can come and do my work for me.”

Critter furrows her face and considers.

“How are you supposed to ask for help?” she says. “I don’t know. This isn’t a thing for raccoons. When we’re tired, we just stay curled up in the den. When we’re ready, we come out. It’s not an epic drama.”

I think about this for a moment.

“You bring up a good point,” I say. “Part of the reason it is so hard to ask for help is that people have a ton of expectations of each other.”

“Yeah, you do.” Critter agrees. “You people always make things over-complicated. We think it’s hilarious that you consider yourselves such an intelligent species.”

“Well, we can’t all live on garbage,” I say, frowning.

“Too bad,” Critter answers.

“Anyhow,” I continue, “the hardest part of asking for help is negotiating those expectations. It’s humiliating to have to say to someone, ‘I’m weak, please have mercy on me.’ And it kind of screws up your relationship. The other person either decides that they have no time for you and your fat handfuls of disappointment, or they feel sorry for you, and put themselves in this awkward position where they are afraid to expect anything of you.”

I express a heavy sigh. This conundrum has always made me ache.

Critter looks at me kindly.

“And the worst part for you, is deciding that you can’t expect anything from yourself,” she says.

This makes my eyes well up. They are so puffy from sleep deprivation that the tears won’t spill. Those swollen grey pouches can hold a lot of water.

I blink hard to empty them, and wipe at the raw corners of my eyes with my sleeve.

“I just hate being a let-down,” I whisper.

Critter stands up against my chest and nestles her head into the crook of my neck. I reach up and stroke her back, pausing on the barely perceptible sounds of my hand swishing across her coarse fur, and her heartbeat fluttering against my collarbone.

“Are you going to forgive yourself?” Critter whispers into my ear.

Holy crap, I think. I don’t know.

Although I still haven’t figured out how I’m going to ask for help, I recognise that I need to do so. And more importantly, I realise that what’s holding me back is not so much a lack of creativity, but a refusal to give myself permission.

I don’t know the secret to asking for help gracefully. It’s definitely an art. It requires a fine balance between advocating for your own needs, and acknowledging the other party’s.

In the end, asking for help comes down to a critical choice in your relationship; do you address your struggle and make room for your partner to do the same? Or do you hold back and watch in silent horror as you let them down?

Tonight, if you feel like you’re losing control, but don’t know what to do, I hope you will open your mind to the possibility that speaking up about your struggle might give your strained relationships a chance to heal. And I hope it makes room for new ideas to come that help you manage your needs and obligations.

May we all have the courage to face our weakness, do what needs doing, and accept ourselves as we are.

Like raccoons do.

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The 12 Days of Griefmas

Ah, Christmas and grief. They go together like raw eggs and rum.

Hello, my friends.

I’m typing to you with sweat-slicked palms. I have this idea about dark feelings during the holidays. This idea wants out. It’s chittering like a pissed-off chipmunk and giving me a headache.

Critter is here – my faithful friend, straight-talking muse, and imaginary raccoon. She just shook her head at me and yawned. Apparently, mouthy nut-hoarding tree-dwellers don’t impress her.

So this idea keeps buzzing in my skull. I can’t spit it out. It’s been there for two weeks.

My jaws are locked tight by an exaggerated nervousness about Things I Might Regret. It’s getting rather constipated in here.

This giant feeling of foreboding has been standing in front of my expressive outlet, looking like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It is crossing its tree-trunk arms and giving me a cocky grin that says, “Good luck with that.”

This smug censor is an agent of Doubt, and is the biggest pain in the ass on my internal executive committee. When I get threatening ideas, Doubt’s henchman cracks thick knuckles tattooed with his motto: Don’t Write Checks You Can’t Cash. Or Else.

Well, the chipmunk isn’t having any of that. He has started stomping his tiny feet and waving his paws, and just squeaked something like, “This nut needs to be cracked!” Or, it might have been, “You’re gonna get smacked.” I don’t know; I don’t speak chip-squeak.

Anyway, these two lunatics started a brawl in the backroom of my mind. The stale grey air filled with echoing screams and hunks of fur that fell like snow. Flying chairs and tables dinged the walls.

At the height of the melee, I left the building. I propped the back door open with a dustpan, and squatted against cold, gritty brick in the back alley. I laid my head in my hands. I breathed hard and listened to the wheezy in-out huffs, trying to get grounded and figure out what to do.

On one hand, I know I am in a messy place. I’m so far behind on my obligations and so run down on my reserves that making another promise right now seems like masochism.

But on the other hand, I think that maybe Mr. Chubbycheeks is right; maybe this nut DOES needs cracking.

I tossed this question back and forth for awhile, like an exhausting game of one-man badminton.

All of a sudden, an impatient, “Ahem,” broke my thoughts. I looked up, and there was Critter. Her arms were crossed like captain beefcake, but her message was totally different. Instead of sporting a menacing grin, she was rolling her eyes.

“Are you done?” she finally asked.

“Done what?” I asked back.

“This!” she said, waving her paws around the alley. “And that,” she added, cocking a thumb toward the door; “Your drama made one hell of a mess.”

“That wasn’t me!” I protested, “Those guys are nuts! I came out here to get away from it.”

Critter gave me the “bullshit alert” eyebrow. I closed my eyes and rubbed my palm on my forehead.

“God. Okay. Fine,” I grumbled. “The drama is me. The chipmunk is me, the meathead is me…”

“And the lily-livered whiner cowering behind the dumpster right now is DEFINITELY you,” Critter finished for me. Helpful, as always.

“Fuck off, Critter.” I said. But she didn’t flinch. Instead, she came closer, and laid a paw on my thigh.

She waited until I looked at to her and said gently, “Just do it.”

I looked at her. I didn’t know what to say. My heart pounded in my ears. My breath scraped in my chest.

I couldn’t even make words for my excuses.

Critter waited patiently, breathing with me. We stared at each other, and I started to get lost in the soothing neither-nor-ness of her brown-grey coat, and her yellow-green eyes.

For a moment, I forgot what we were talking about. My face relaxed. Critter saw the shift, and her ears perked up.

I picked up her wordless expectation, and sighed.

“Alright,” I said. “Fine. I’m doing it.”

Critter smiled and patted my leg.

“Atta girl,” she said.

“What if I can’t keep it up, though, Critter?” I asked, “What good will it do if I get started and can’t follow it through?”

“We might as well find out,” she answered. “It’s not like this holding back has helped anyone, or preserved your inner peace.”

I snorted. No kidding.

Alright. So… here we go.

I have this idea, and I’m just going to say it:

I’m going to run a campaign, starting today. It’s called 12 Days of Griefmas, and it’s for everyone whose heart breaks over and over again, every single Christmas.

I know there are a lot of us; the sad truth about the Christmas season is that it is kind of a magnet for grief.

The story is in the numbers; rates of illness, death, divorce, suicide, and self-harm spike in the dark of December. I think part of the problem is the crushing reality that the perfect Christmas dream we sell to each other isn’t real. It cannot exist in our brains, bodies, and families.

We push ourselves to the brink physically, emotionally, and financially, trying to produce the holidays we think our families need from us. And instead of drawing comfort from each others’ warm bodies at this time of year, we beat ourselves up and lament our loved ones’ failures. We drown our disappointment in food, drink, overwork, and meanness. We push ourselves further and further away from the connection we crave.

And all this is happening in a season when we’re low, anyway. The short, dark, shivery days and merry-go-round of snot-spewing contagion make winter a necessarily hard time. No wonder so many species migrate and hibernate to avoid it.

Since we can’t avoid it, and so many of us are sitting here feeling shitty anyway, I thought I’d light us a fire.

I’m going to pop on here every day between now and Boxing Day to keep the flames stoked with whatever tinder I can find: tips, songs, jokes, games, stories… who knows. I haven’t completely thought this through. I haven’t even counted the days… I think it might be more than twelve. Whatever. That’s not important.

What matters to me is reaching out to you, and clearing a place in the dark forest where we are wandering so we can come together.

I hope you can join me, and I hope it helps you get through this long night.

If you like this idea, go ahead and share this post. You all know I’m not shy about broadcasting my brokenness. Maybe it will find someone who needs it, and help them feel less alone.

Whatever it is you really need, I encourage you to find it. Sniff that shit out, gather it up, and line your nest with the things that express and soothe your ache.

And have yourself a grievy little Christmas. Let your heart be embraced by the dark critters all around you, and the love that comes from relating.

 

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Depression, Zen, and BDSM

“I’m dying, Critter,” I whisper to my imaginary raccoon. She has appeared, as always, to talk me through a flare of chronic depression.

“No, you’re not,” she retorts.

“God damn it. I don’t mean physically,” I grumble. I close my eyes and feel my cheeks burst into flame. Jesus Christ, Zottmann. Do not cry.

That thought just makes me want to cry more. Everything makes me feel worse. I push it away the only way I know how.

“Of course, I’m not literally dying, you condescending trash muncher. For fuck’s sakes! Listen!” Then, my voice echoes back into my ears. Aw, shit. I’m an asshole.

My posture flops and I add softly, “Please.”

Yep, here come the tears.

I slink to the bathroom to loudly saturate three-eighths of the kleenex box. Then I slump back onto my kitchen chair and lay my face on the table, looking away from my shat-upon friend. The cool surface of the oak soothes my cheek, but the grit of neglected crumbs and the tacky tang of a dried apple juice puddle scratch at my tenderness.

“Fuck. This is disgusting,” I think. “I am the shittiest housekeeper who ever lived.”

I bet there is some hideous bacteria festering in the table’s center crack right now, just inches from my face. All spills run into there. It’s like an ocean of failure.

Has the the table been warped, or was it designed with an imperceptible slope just to ensure that stupid crack would catch every drop of spill? It’s so wrong! It makes my head ache, along with that ghastly-smelling organism mouldering in the dank crevice.

We don’t even own the fucking leaf that’s supposed to slide into there, for the love of God. What a piece of crap. I mean, it’s actually a nice table, all solid oak and everything, but it’s a hand-me-down, like everything else in our shithole house, and the surface is wrecked. We promised ourselves we’d fix it up, but have failed at that. Like everything.

Critter’s impatient sigh disrupts my mental rant. I open my eyes and lift my head. For a moment, I forget why she is mad. I creak my neck around to look at her. Then I remember.

She is staring at me with her short arms crossed. Waiting. She doesn’t waste time chastising me. She just looks at me with that look on her face that says, “This conversation resumes when you make it right.”

I can feel my mouth twitch. It wants to mutter, “Bitch.” But I don’t let it. I’m not thirteen years old anymore.

I take a big breath and look at the furry face of my conscience embodied. She doesn’t look hurt, but my lashing out has pissed her off. She has no time for my self-sabotage bullshit.

Part of me wishes she would rise to the bait and we could have it out like a couple of furious drunks.

I want to purge all my pent-up anxiety with an apocalyptic throwdown. It would feel so good to scream, and then grab that holier-than-thou scavenger and let the violence blast out through my hands.

My blood aches for an emptying out: a grunting, heaving, exhausting grapple.

Even the stinging trails where the Critter’s claws would rake my face would feel like satisfaction. The disaster inside me could leak out there, through the wailing pain and trickle of blood.

Finally, I would savour an explosive release as I hurled the Critter’s weight into the wall. There would be a kick-drum thud. Finality. Utter fulfillment. Maybe even a dent in the plasterboard: gleeful, undeniable proof that I escaped the jaws impotence.

But as I said, Dark Little Critter is too smart for that. And although the monster in me is roaring to bathe in our blood, I am glad that my imaginary friend steps coolly around my trap.

I don’t really want to hurt her. She’s not the one who’s done me wrong. It’s me. Just me.

I want to be done now.

“Critter,” I rasp, “I’m sorry.”

She looks at me and exhales.

“I know,” she says.

I stare at the table. The filthy, ancient fridge behind me hums obnoxiously.

“Are you going to say what you need to say?” Critter finally asks.

I sigh.

“Okay. Here it is: I’m fucked, my friend. Totally fucked. I can’t make this writing business work. I tried. I’ve been balls-to-the-wall for six weeks. I spent hours every day watching, reading, and listening to “take it to the next level!” courses, while I scrubbed floors and toilets, fed the kids, bathed the kids… and ignored the kids. I built a new website, networked, set goals and conferenced for accountability. I even got a couple of clients. I got so close to figuring it all out, and then I got sick. I had to put things off and reschedule, and suddenly, I hated it. All of it.

I don’t want to do it anymore. I dread every eyeball-throbbing early morning, and the nights of multitasking mania that don’t end until I should have been in bed an hour ago. I despise the useless productivity plans that get crushed by bullshit from the kids, or me, or just life. I can’t stand the suffocating pressure to keep pushing harder and harder until it works. I can’t do this anymore. I’m fucked. My family is fucked. I’m a useless human being.”

Critter listens with her black brow furrowed, but doesn’t interrupt. She pauses a beat before she responds.

“You need sex,” she says. “It always clears my head when the bullshit squeezes too hard.”

“Ha! Are you kidding?” I say. “I wish it was that simple! I can’t even wrap my head around the thought of it right now.” I rub the flesh between my unplucked eyebrows and more tears come.

Unwisely, I start to picture Critter in the throes of a sexual exorcism. What would that look like? Do raccoons make weird sex faces? Do they do it in different positions? And what do they use for toys – pinecones?

I must be making a weird face of my own; Critter laughs out loud.

Then, she pats my leg kindly and crawls up onto my lap like a warm lump of comfort. I stroke the tiny curve of her crown, and she rolls her neck to expose the space behind her ear. I take the hint and scratch the fuzzy valley.

“You may be a long way from carnal bliss, but you can’t deny it, that’s what you need,” she says with her eyes closed.

I think about this. She’s not wrong. Orgasm is pretty much the opposite of depression.

I think back to times when I have used sex as an escape from self-hate. Sometimes, it was a huge let-down that just made the cycle worse. But other times, it was… a great release. The best times were with a partner who let his inhibitions go, and who I trusted to respect my boundaries while I let go, too.

Wild, but safe. Honest, open, and naked with someone who joins me at my level. Putting all the shoulds on mute, and turning rapt attention to our feral appetites.

“Holy shit,” I blurt. “BDSM is fucking therapy!”

“Hehehe. Fucking therapy,” Critter says. “Sounds good.” We both ponder the thought for a moment.

“Do you actually mean BDSM, or are you just talking about regular sex?” Critter asks.

“Definitely not regular sex,” I answer. “The usual is just painfully… judgemental. It gets ruined by criticism – hating on your body, your partner’s body, your experience or lack thereof, the expectation that the act will begin in a certain way, last a certain duration, and look and sound just like the movies. That second-guessing shit is exactly what makes life such a steaming pile of… of….”

“Lunch?” Critter offers.

“Putrescence,” I say. “Loathing. Despair. Depression.”

Critter tilts her head and frowns.

“What makes you think that BDSM is different?” she asks.

I rub my hair and frown while I think about this. Where is this idea coming from?

I picture all the things that are crushing my brain right now – the spiralling money problems, the fights with the kids and the husband, and most of all, the constant, contemptuous whisper that huffs in my ear and slimes every conscious thought.

“You fail,” it says with decayed breath.

What is the opposite of that?

Suddenly, my hands spring up, finger to the sky like a field goal cheer.

“The orgy!” I shout.

Critter’s mouth flops open.

“You had an orgy? How do I not know about this?” she asks.

“Not mine, Butthead,” I say, rolling my eyes. “Someone else’s. I read an essay by a man who organized an orgy, because it was his girlfriend’s birthday wish.”

Critter looks disappointed.

“It was amazing. The piece was about this very experimental couple involved with the fetish scene. One year, the woman shared her fantasy of being the center of an orgy. She was very specific – she wanted to be lavished with attention and sex on her terms, and the men needed to be healthy and kind and share the couple’s sex-positive attitudes. She asked her boyfriend to find suitable candidates, book a venue, and serve as her bodyguard during the event. The man was intimidated, but on-board, and together, they worked out all the details and made it happen. And they were both so happy. It was the most heartwarming love story I’d ever heard.”

Critter’s robber-mask markings shift like raised eyebrows. She’s impressed.

I can feel my face brighten as I remember reading the story. It blew my mind. I couldn’t believe there were such emotionally-secure relationships out there.

Wouldn’t that be the opposite of depression?

Ownership of your appetites. Open communication, acceptance of limits, and collaboration for mutual enjoyment.

No shame. No isolation. No punishment.

“Holy shit, Critter,” I say. “We might have just discovered the cure to depression.”

Critter smiles.

“It’s sex, isn’t it?” she says.

I laugh.

“That’s definitely part of it. But it’s more than sex. I think the answer is mindful, intentional pleasure and honest connection.”

I think about my life. My brain. My failures. My piece of shit kitchen table.

What if I could forget it all, and let the sweet synaptic honey of self-indulgence wash away my bitterness?

I might be a long way from planning an orgy, but I can start right now to make room for my inner animal. Who knows where that will lead.

If I’m honest, I have to admit that in spite of all my obligations to the house, the kids, and the gaping debt hole, I can hear the wet chambers of my heart slapping out a message: write a book.

I’m going do it – let myself slide beneath the bubbles of the most selfish use of my time and money I can think of.

I’ll make sure my husband is on-board and recruit a gang for support. We’ll see if we can set that fantasy free.

And I’m going to scrub this fucking table.

“So, you’re saying we need to find like-minded members for our orgy, and march proudly into the dens of ecstasy where we belong?” Critter asks.

“Pretty much.” I answer.

“I can get behind that philosophy,” she says, her eyes crinkling with a smile. “Though, I prefer to be the one got-behind.”

Critter hopes that you let your fantasies speak, too. May you actualize your version of the great birthday gangbang, and may it cure what ails your body and brain.

Writing Your Own Survival Guide

“Hey, Critter!” I say. “I’m so glad you’re here. I need to tell you…” But I can’t finish, because my imaginary raccoon raises a paw to stop me.

“It’s gonna have to wait,” she interrupts. “Something has come up.”

My words catch in my throat; it’s not like Critter to show up with an agenda. Our little chats are usually about whatever is frying on my sweaty little mind. That’s how I like it.

I feel annoyed. And confused. And then a little worried.

I frown at her a moment, my mouth pressed tight while I spin the wheel to see which reaction I will be going with. I’m ready to open with a windy “Oh-no-you-didn’t” tirade, but the pointer stops on worried.

“What’s going on?” I ask. Oh God, please don’t say you’re leaving. Don’t leave. Don’t leave!

Critter tilts her head at me.

“All of a sudden, you look constipated,” she says. Then, she sniffs three times. “But you smell fine.”

“Just tell me what’s happening,” I say. My forehead is getting prickly.

“We’ve got to get ready,” she finally says. “We need a plan.”

“What for?” I ask, my voice squeaking like a pubescent boy’s. I knew it, she’s leaving. My imaginary friend is leaving me. Jesus, that’s pathetic. I’m pathetic. Oh god…

“Winter.” she says, looking into my eyes as if that explains everything. “Winter is coming.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” I ask, with an eyebrow raised hard in the universal expression of WTF. “This isn’t Game of Thrones.”

Critter rolls her eyes at me. Like I’m the one being an idiot.

Then, she narrows her eyes and sighs, like she’s trying hard to swallow-back some sarcasm.

“What does winter mean to you?” she asks.

My stomach drops. For me, winter means dread. The darkness and heaviness that plague me all year swell hideously when the weather shifts in the fall. Winter means I lose the sunshine, fresh air, and easy activity that sustain me. They are replaced by cold drafts blowing on my nervous sweat. Windsheild-scraping, parka-wearing and bundling up my thrashing-mad children. It makes me want to cry and go back to bed.

I have no idea why anyone ever decided to settle the northern parts of the world.

My body hates winter because shivering for seven months in a row sucks snowballs. My brain hates it because it feels like drowning and starving at the same time.

When I picture winter, I see the dirty grey sky looking all blurry because I am peering up from underneath the ice.

It makes me shudder.

“I’ve been trying so hard not to think about it,” I say quietly. “I don’t understand why you brought that up.”

Critter’s face softens.

“I know,” she says. “You didn’t want to ruin the summer with anxiety about fall. But we’ve got a problem. Fall’s here. Winter is coming. And we don’t have a plan.”

Suddenly, I understand. I run my hand through my hair.

“You’re right,” I sigh. “I need a plan. Crap – I can’t believe I haven’t started preparing.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Critter soothes. “Let’s start now.”

Those three words have saved my life repeatedly: Let’s Start Now.

So here goes.

Disclaimer: This list contains affiliate links, which means I learned how to play around on Amazon and create buttons for some of the stuff I wrote about. If you make a purchase through these links, Amazon will send a small fee to the Critter and I. My furry friend has asked that I spend it all on cat food. The wet kind. Although that’s probably not going to happen (sorry, Critter, that stuff stinks), we are grateful for your support! Also, full disclosure: making these links was really fun.

My Winter Depression Survival Plan

Motivation:

When I don’t commit to a plan, my lows get out of control; I sabotage myself and act like a dick to the people I care about.

No more burning bridges and sinking deeper into the cycle of messing up, hating myself, and throwing good things away. I can’t wait until spring to feel human again.

Rationale:

Making a plan helps. It makes it easier to get moving and do the work I need to do. I feel more confident knowing I won’t have to try to come up with solutions after I’ve slipped into dysfunction. It will be easier to get up and try.

Having a plan also helps me win the argument against the voices in my head. They tell me to stop acting, because I don’t really have a problem, and nothing can help me, anyway. I know that stuff is garbage, but it gets to me. My best chance to beat it is to get a head start.

Plan:

  1. Reach Out
  2. Take Care Physically
  3. Seek Pleasure
  4. Find True North

Details:

  1. Reaching Out

Struggle Buddies

At least once a week:

  • Call, message, or arrange a visit with someone who can handle me, and talk about my struggles
  • Let them empathize, relate, and share their strategies
  • Take their caring and encouragement in
  • Reciprocate
  • Thank them and appreciate our connection

Community

At least once a week:

  • Reach out within a Facebook group where people share some of my same challenges
  • Share something that is giving me heartburn
  • Encourage at least one other person
  • Share stuff that helps
  • Celebrate each other’s wins.

Therapy

At least once a month:

  • Check in with my counsellor
  • Ask for help with the biggest thing that is weighing me down
  • Commit to feeling what is there and saying what I need to say
  • Open up to one new task that helps me handle my fear, despair, and exhaustion in a new way

2. Taking Physical Care

Serotonin:

  • Every morning, use the UV light for Seasonal Depression
  • Every day, take brain-support supplements (fish oil, Rhodiola, and 5HTP)
  • Every two months, check in with the naturopath to monitor and adjust dosages
  • If this stops helping (or if side effects get out of control) talk to my doctor about going back on antidepressants.

Sleep:

  • Set an alarm to chide me when it’s time to turn off the computer, TV, and phone.
  • Turn my stuff off at bedtime, even if I still have work to do.
  • Make sure I finish all my chores and prep for the morning before I flop into downtime
  • Bribe myself as extensively as necessary to finish those chores
  • Build a Netflix-watching nest out of snacks and blankets
  • Have one good book beside the bed to entice me away from the TV What I’m currently reading
  • Do yoga and progressive muscle relaxation, and listen to guided meditations when I’m too wound up to sleep
  • Get serious about weaning the baby

Exercise:

  • Schedule exercise around all the crap I have to do
  • Multitask as much as possible (take the jogging stroller on errands or to the park; ride bike to Starbucks for writing mornings, workout at the playground while the kids play, make an obstacle course for all of us in the living room, etc.)
  • Go to at least one interesting fitness class per week all by myself
  • Buy groupons for classes I can’t normally afford
  • Let my embarassment about being out of shape motivate me to work on my weak spots between classes
  • Let my sense of impending burnout motivate me to get to drag myself to class

3. Seeking Pleasure

Feel Better Music:

Food

No more than once a week, indulge completely in something that I usually have to avoid: chocolate, cheese, or anything with ICING

Stories

Lose myself in stories that make me feel like the world is twisted and beautiful enough to fight for:

  • The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, and Talking Dead
  • Game of Thrones and Song of Ice and Fire
  • Anything by Stephen King, Elizabeth Gilbert, Yann Martel, Alice Hoffmann, or Lawrence Hill
  • Re-reading the Harry Potter series

Pampering

  • Massage – as often as our health plan will allow
  • Painting my nails
  • Getting the wherewolf waxed off my face

Escape

  • Date night
  • Girlfriend visits
  • Starbucks writing sessions, runs and bike rides all by myself

4. Finding True North

As needed, I will bring out writing, film, and webcasts by people who help me find my bearings:

  • Deepak Chopra
  • Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Ekhart Tolle
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • Patton Oswalt
  • Daniel Tosh
  • Amy Schumer
  • Kristen Bell

So that’s me; now what about you?

Whatever it is that triggers you, Dark Little Critter wants you to face your villain standing up.

Make YOUR survival plan. Do what works for you. And yes; blasting the Stones while you squeeze fudge sauce onto a bowl of peanut butter and bacon bits IS therapy, if that’s what lifts you out of the gutter.

Think about what gets you out of bed, and write it down. All of it. Make it happen as you schedule each day, week, month, and year.

Turn back to it when the manure hits the propeller. Adjust when it’s not working.

And always remember, you are the author of this Choose Your Own Adventure. You are the only one who can rub the genie’s lamp (or any other part of him) and arrange for the day to be saved.

A Constant Process of Coming Back

“Holy crap, you’re back! Where the hell have you been?” I blurt.

It comes out too hard, like an air-bubble blast from a ketchup bottle. I groan.

I have been sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop open. My butt has warmed the grooves of my grubby wooden chair, and my heart feels tight in my chest.

I am supposed to be writing, lightening the world and my debt load one essay at a time. But I am not writing. I am drowning.

I have got to get these words moving.

I have banged a title across the top of this document. It is my summoning incantation, an invitation for my muse to come and show me the way out of the crushing pressure in my head.

And she has appeared. I heard the dry tick-tack of her raccoon claws jogging my way. I turned my head, and saw her furry grey form approach.

But instead of relief, I felt a cold flare of anxiety.

My armpits began to prickle. This isn’t the sweet comfort I was hoping for.

That’s when I spat criticism at my dearly-missed friend.

Now, my Dark Little Critter has stopped beside my chair. She doesn’t answer my rude question. Her face is blank.

She cocks her head to the side and stares at me, then rises up on her hind legs and begins to sniff. She puts her paws on my thigh and leans in for a stronger whiff. Her head sways back and forth and her nostrils dilate, sniffety-sniffing, taking my measure.

Finally, she stops, and sits back on her haunches.

“You’re in strange shape,” she says.

“You have no idea!” I answer. “I’m stuck! All gunked up. I can’t breathe. Can’t think. Can’t sleep! Can’t parent, or wife, or write. I’m full of garbage. Where the hell have you been?”

My voice cracks and my heart hammers.

Critter stays seated at my feet, looking up at me. I become hyper-conscious of my face – my cheeks, mouth, and nostrils. They all seem to be snarling. I try to force them to relax, but they won’t listen. There is a numb disconnection between me and my body, and I am awful.

“You’ve been gone for months!” I suddenly cry. “How could you leave me like that? I’ve been floundering without you. Everything is bloated and stiff: every muscle, every thought. I’m in agony. I needed you, and you didn’t come.”

Now, there are hot tears in my eyes.

Critter’s face softens. Her green eyes seem to melt into puddles of mossy light.

Looking into them, I feel like I’ve slipped into the heart of a deep cave. I see a pool of cool water, rippling with light from a source I can’t explain. In this space that should be dark and cold, I feel penetrating comfort.

Critter’s voice brings me back to my kitchen.

“I know it’s been too long,” she says. “You’ve been unhealthy. It’s been hard for me to watch.”

“You were watching?” I ask. “Why didn’t you come?”

“Because you never asked,” she said. “I watched and waited, and hoped you would reach out, but you never called.”

Now I feel sorry. A wave of it rolls over me, dousing my hot blades of anger.

She’s right. I didn’t call. I had felt the freezing stress, rising higher and higher up my body. My toes went numb, my groin screamed alarm, and my chest squeezed blue. I was strangling inside the pressure of fear and despair, but I never called out for help.

I had forgotten that was an option. I lost the words to say and the numbers to call. I went horribly blank.

Two blinders had covered my eyes; one said that I was alone, trapped in a world where no one and nothing could help me. The other said that no one would help me, even if they could, because my darkness was too sticky and gross. I was unbearable to touch.

“So you kept your mouth shut,” Critter interjects, having seen this story scroll across my trembling brow. “How did that work for you?”

“Not good, Critter. Not good.” I admit. I take a full breath and sigh it out slowly, feeling the weight of my mistake.

I didn’t call for help when I needed it. I didn’t open up and give my friend a chance to help. I made her watch me drown, and attacked her when we finally came together. That must have been painful.

This truth, seen directly, is sad, but not crushing. I am surprised that I can fully feel my regret, and somehow draw strength from it. It feels like next time, I will remember this, and I will do better.

I look up at my fairy god-rodent. She is crying.

“I’m sorry, my friend.” I say. I scoop her up and hug her to my chest. It feels like I have shed a chain mail sweater. My burden is suddenly lighter, and there is no more barrier keeping warmth away from my heart.

I bury my nose in the Critter’s thick, coarse coat, and inhale the dusty spice of her body. She sighs.

This is why people love pets, I think, wishing that I wasn’t allergic to real fur. I would get the most intuitive, raccoon-looking cat I could find and love that thing with all my soul.

“It’s not about holding a furry body so much as choosing to open up ,” Critter says.

“Mmm-hmm,” I agree. And it starts with being honest with myself.

I hold my imaginary raccoon for one more breath, letting the warmth of our embrace penetrate right to my spine. Then I let go, and she hops down from my lap.

I notice that the cold pressure around my lungs has released, but a weight has settled down on my lap. It doesn’t interfere with my breath, but it begs to be handled.

I look down, and see the weight take on a physical shape. It is a grubby bar of steel, and there is a number stamped into it.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” I ask Critter.

“That is your work. You need to make something out of it. Take your aching and turn it into something useful,” she answers.

“Oh. Okay,” I say. “But what does this number mean? I can’t quite make it out.”

“That is the number of people you need to help. You don’t need to know how many just now, but I’ll tell you, it’s a lot.” She explains.

“Whoa,” I say. “I think I see five digits!”

“Yep. But don’t worry about that. Just start working, and start helping.” she says.

“Okay,” I say. My chest is getting warmer. This feels right. “What happens when I hit that number?”

“You’ll see,” Critter answers, and her eyes sparkle.

I really want to know what is making her smile like that, but I know damn well she’s not going to tell me. It makes my eyebrow wrinkle, but I give it up for now.

“Alright,” I say. “One more hug, then.”

“Of course,” she says. “Then, get to work.”

And now, I am.

Today, I want to leave you with a few thoughts:

First, we are all drifting in the same ocean. No one is so wretched that the world has created an entire, extra-horrible ocean just for them. The universe is way too busy maintaining the physics of every atom, planet, and star system to single out one pitiful human. We are all in this mess together.

That means that you are not alone in your darkest times, even though your weather may be stormier at the moment than others’.

If you feel like you’re drowning, reach out your hand.

Ask for what you need, and try not to blame people for not reading your mind.

Apologize when your fear makes you mean. Get back on track.

Find people you can trust to listen and help you get oriented when you’re lost. They may be friends, professionals, or figments of your imagination. Call on them as needed. Allow them to support you.

Return the favour when someone you love falls into the ocean.

And most of all, never stop trying until you grasp salvation. It is near, even when you can’t see it. Remember that. And find it.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Today, I’ve got something different for you.

I’d like to introduce you to my dad.

With Father’s Day around the corner, of course he’s on my mind, but he is also wrapped around everything I am trying to achieve with this blog.

My dad passed away when I was thirteen. Losing him was hard, and it was one of the things that tipped me over into my first major depression.

My dad was a wonderful and hard man to live with. His sense of right and wrong was like granite. He would go to the ends of the earth to do right by his family, but he didn’t really believe in forgiveness or acceptance, for himself or for others.

My dad was also bipolar. That meant my siblings and I were more than twice as likely as the average kid to develop severe mental illness (that is, bipolar depression, unipolar depression, or schizophrenia), and eight times more likely to have ADHD.

Many issues connected to my dad – the need to understand the effects of emotional trauma, the skill development required for grieving, forgiving, and accepting, and the tools necessary to overcome genetic and biological obstacles – are what we need to talk about in order to get a handle on mental illness.

But there is something more, and with Dad on my shoulder, this is the perfect time to bring it up.

We need to be able to flip our suffering upside down once in a while and look into its bunghole to find the light.

Because even though I am a neurological mess, I can be funny, too. At least 35% of the time.

So could my dad.

And while sometimes I need to talk about my hard stuff to help illuminate yours, I also need to make you smile. That is the only real thing that keeps us from being victims.

Laughter is a leap of faith. You have to open yourself up to receive it. It is a choice. You need to decide that you are secure enough to touch the things that make you squirm. If you do, and find the ridiculous in your pain, you will shatter the shame that keeps you stuck.

Laughter dissolves misery. We all need that.

I am bringing up the funny around my dad because it helps me remember that I am more than a kid with a wonky brain. I am the daughter of a one-of-a-kind man who was smart, passionate, and quirky as hell.

When I think of Dad from all angles, I know that in spite of what went wrong, he loved me, and all of us around him. I believe he still does.

To honour that, and to balance my message, I’m sharing an essay I wrote about him. I think is as important as anything in the mental health conversation.

I hope you enjoy it, and that it helps you sniff out the farts in your own disasters and laugh about them, with the lack of respect they are due.

Hot Diggety Dad

A lot of the comfort that Dad left behind for us exists in objects. These articles were special to our family: things that he built, restored, or scrounged up from God knows where.

Each of these things symbolized something unique about Dad: his huge imagination, his brilliance for design, his eye for the potential in something broken, or his hilarious glee at discovering an item for sale that he wished he had invented.

One thing Dad snatched up like a feverish pirate was the Hot Diggety Dogger. It was basically a toaster, but instead of having two long slots to drop your bread into, it had two round holes for wieners and two big half-moons slots for buns.

With this genius contraption, he could make both the essential parts of his all-time favorite meal with a single, satisfying thunk of a lever.

Everybody knew that Dad loved hot dogs. If hot dogs had needed child support, he would have found a way. No one would have batted an eye if hotdogs had been named in the will. It was a surprise that all three of us kids escaped a meaty namesake; there is thankfully neither an Oscar, nor a Meyer, among us.

Dad demanded that his hotdogs be crispy. He quickly dominated the Hot Diggety Dogger’s anemic settings by developing a special technique. This consisted of pulling out the buns after the first cooking cycle and leaving in the meat for an extra “bing” or two. He toasted and re-toasted his pork cigars until the drip tray ran with salty rivulets and the air hung thick with the smell of bacon’s tubular little brother.

I’m not going to lie; Dad’s dogs were good. Damn good. Those crackly, crisp tubes of ground pig lips got sublimated into hot dog heaven.

The Hot Diggety Dogger’s existence was a metaphysical wonder, like some being of the highest evolution had reached into Dad’s technicolour mind, pulled out a dream, and made it real. He loved that thing.

And I loved him.

Ever since, I have appreciated a nicely crisped meaty morsel on a golden-toasted bun. Much to my delight, my stepmom let me take the Hot Diggety Dogger with me when I moved out. It was one of my prized possessions.

I’m pretty sure that the first meal I made for my roommate, Lucas, was Hot Diggety Dogs. He may have thought I was a tiny bit nuts as I tried to prepare him for the pure, crisp-salt-smoke satisfaction he was about to experience.

“Sure, I like hot dogs,” he shrugged, like someone who had no idea that his mind was about to be blown.

I’m guessing that my eyes were as demented as Gollum’s as I gingerly struggled the apparatus out of its tight cardboard cocoon.

There may have been some muttering under my breath like, “Mmm… Crackled skin… Ooooo… One more cycle! …Oh my god, it smells like bacon!”

My mind would have raced while I waited endless minutes for our smoked puree of unmentionable animal parts to alchemize into condiment-drizzled bliss.

Finally, we would have eaten.

But Lucas, one of my truest, most cherished friends, had thought the Hot Diggety Dogs were just okay. He continued to boil his wieners in a pot. Like a total chump.

Somehow, we managed to stay friends.

Oh well. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him classy.

Speaking of classy, I was at the discount grocery store the other day. I was pushing a squeaky cart with my runny-nosed girls in the classiest way possible, when a vision arrested me: there, inside a gleaming, red, brushed-stainless case, sat a modern version of our sacred appliance.

But it was all wrong. Someone had pathetically renamed it, “hot dog toaster.” I mean, come on; where’s the poetry? That’s like a name that got translated from another language. You might as well call it, “depress-lever cooker of mixed meat cylinders.” Total lack of reverence. Disgraceful.

Although my face was crunched into a “Tsk”, my neck was peppered in goosebumps.

Dad has been gone for twenty-two years, and all that time I have been dreaming of running into him somewhere, feeling a wave of recognition and longing crash over me like thunder.

And there he was. Hot Diggety Damn.

Elimination Meditation

“How’s it going with the brain training?” my furry little imaginary friend asks.

“Umm, okay,” I answer. “I’m meditating every day, but I can’t stop falling asleep in the middle of the practice.”

“Sounds like my kind of workout,” my companion says. She yawns as she arches her back and spreads her tiny toes luxuriously. Then she smacks her lips and smiles. Her black eyes glimmer like glass beads in her charcoal bandit markings.

“Must be tough, being a raccoon,” I say.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty sweet,” she answers. “I nap all day and roam all night. People worship me. It’s delightful.”

“People worship you?” I laugh.

“Of course. That’s why they leave me tributes.” She answers.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I ask.

“You know,” she says, pointing to the garbage can beside me, “tributes. Every household maintains an altar in the back lane. People even leave spontaneous offerings on the sidewalk. They rejoice in me. The spirit to praise The Dark Little Critter strikes everywhere.”

I chuckle.

“Wow,” I say. I am impressed that my imaginary talking raccoon has more colourful delusions than I do.

“Hey, listen,” I add, “can we chat later? I’m kind of occupied.”

I am sitting on the toilet with my leggings scrunched around my ankles and a notebook on my lap.

Critter tilts her head and regards me.

“You don’t look busy,” she says.

“I am,” I say, and heartburn flares in my chest. “I’m fighting with a blog post again. It’s four days late. I have to get this thing out.”

“Well, why don’t you?” she asks.

“I’m trying!” I whine. “I’ve been working on it all week. It’s stuck. There’s this idea that is driving me nuts, and I’m trying to get down but it won’t come out right.”

“Hmm…” Critter says, “but, why are you writing in the bathroom? Is this some kind of metaphorical gesture, like you’re mentally constipated and you’re trying to push the words out?”

I roll my eyes.

“No, it’s not a metaphor. I really have to poop. My husband took the kids out to play, and I was going to write, but then my guts started to groan. I brought my notebook in here to multitask. The kids will be back any minute.”

“Oh,” she answers, “too bad.” Then, she looks quizzical, “Well, why aren’t you pooping? I can smell a turd from eighty paces, and my stink counter isn’t registering a single pebble.”

Suddenly, my throat feels hot and tight.

“You’re right,” I moan, “I can’t even get the pooping done. I have no time, and here I am, completely wasting what little I’ve got.”

Dark Critter scowls.

“Completely wasting? Some people would be grateful to get an audience with a minor deity,” she pouts.

“This is not a spiritual communion!” I snap. “This is you, harassing me. On the shitter.”

“You’re the one who called me,” she huffs, crossing her short arms.

“I did not!” I burst. “You just barged in here and started bragging about your fan club!”

“You can’t blame me for anything!” she shouts, “I’m a figment of YOUR imagination!”

Our eyes lock, narrowed against imminent battle.

Then, my face drops. The Critter’s face softens. She lets her arms flop to the sides of her fuzzy belly and heaves a deep sigh.

“Listen,” she says, “I’m here to help. It wouldn’t matter if you were in the middle of eating toenails on a toadstool with a… toad. When you need me, I’ll be there. Now, silly human, why did you call me?”

My eyes well up.

“Because I can’t do this,” I whisper. “I can’t be a professional writer. I am terrified to monetize this blog. I feel like it isn’t an honest trade because my writing isn’t good enough. I want my words to be sharp and deep and full, but they’re not. They’re muddled, because I’m so muddled. I can’t run a real business, and I’m wasting my family’s resources by trying.” I close my eyes on this, and hot tears spill down my cheeks.

Dark Critter pads softly over to me. She stands on her hind legs and rests her head on my bare knee. I stroke her coarse fur. I can feel the warmth of her body radiate up my arm. Amazingly, I can even feel the pitter-pat of her heart. It raps out a rhythm in double-time with my own. The soft, steady beat makes my blood feel lighter in my veins.

After a moment, she raises her head and catches my eye.

“What do you need right now?” she asks.

This is her magic question. Whenever I answer it, I find my way.

I think for a minute.

“I just need to poop,” I say. “I need to put down my pen, close my eyes, and have the poop, the whole poop, and nothing but the poop.” As I say it, I start to feel better.

The Critter smiles at me and I smile back, and then I do what I need to do.

It is amazing.

As soon as I let go of my desperation, stillness embraces me. My body does its job effortlessly. I realize that at that very moment, it is quietly completing a million processes. Metabolism, digestion, and elimination are all unfolding in a dance of enzymes and tissues that know exactly what to do. There is no pressure for me to intervene or understand the mysteries at all.

I feel amazed and grateful.

Words start to flow in my head like a glacial stream. Out of nowhere, I start to pray.

Dear god, thank you for this poop. Thank you for my body that is so healthy and more intelligent than my mind. Thank you for the food that it has transformed.

Thank you so much for this quiet. Thank you for this break from the kids, and for my husband who steps in when my head is about to explode.

Thank you for this bathroom, the plumbing that makes it so comfortable to do my business, and our home.

Thank you for this weird world where I can find bliss in the fog of my own stench.

And thank you for Dark Critter, who shows me the way.

When I open my eyes, my friendly racoon is gone. My bowels are empty, my blog post is outlined. Even though I have no idea what my readers will think of this story, I know that somehow, everything is going to be alright. Maybe I can link this to an ad for Metamucil, or something.

The Critter and I hope that comfort finds you wherever you need it. And we hope that you trust your inner raccoon (or giant talking gorilla, or whatever you’ve got) to help you let it go.

A Tag-Along for Target Practice

Last week, I told you about my village, the circle of family and friends whose support gave me the energy to crawl out of my latest depressive relapse and care for my girls during my husband’s work trip.

All the help and connection I received lifted me up and got me moving. I rolled one good day into another as I enjoyed and looked forward to each opportunity to exercise, write, and be more than an aching brain.

But when the friends went home, the Facebook chats trickled to a close, and the post-workout highs wore off, I was right back where I started: alone with my spiralling thoughts and the crap-crusted carousel of my kids’ incessant needs.

This is where my depression lives, and the place where I built cerebral training camp.

My plan looked like this:

First, I would clean up lunch, which neither child would have eaten. I would scrape their plates onto mine and shoo the girls into the living room while I stress-ate my second helping.

Then, I would wrestle the one-year-old into a clean diaper and referee between her and the four-year-old until we had litigated our way through two or three storybooks.

Finally, I would lay the toddler down for her nap, and set the preschooler up with a craft of some sort so I could retreat to my room and follow a guided mindfulness meditation.

The first day after my husband left, we went through the preparatory steps. The girls and I were pretty worn out. Little One went down to sleep without protest. I checked on the Big One, and saw that she seemed to be drifting off in her room.

I tiptoed into my room and climbed up onto my bed, the only tidy spot in the house. I took out my phone, turned off the ringer, plugged in my earphones, and called up the body scan meditation at palousemindfulness.com.

I had just lain down and closed my eyes, when Big One’s smurfy voice intruded in my quiet.

“Mommy, can I come and cuddle with you?” she asked.

“It’s Mommy’s quiet time, Sweetheart.” I answered, my eyes still shut.

“What’s in your ears?” My daughter chirped. “What are you doing?”

“I’m listening to some relaxing words,” I said.

“Go play,” I thought.

“Can I listen, too?” the four-year-old asked.

“Hmm…,” I said, frowning.

“Pleeeeeeease, Mommy? Can I please listen to your relaxing words with you?” She begged.

I cracked an eye and looked at her, considering. She raised her arm and started sucking on the back of her wrist, leaning into her curious self-soothing reflex. Above her purple sleeve, she blinked her giant globes of chocolate brown, silently pleading.

I saw the outer corners of her brows sink and her breath snag in the top of her chest. The needle on her anxiety gauge was creeping toward the meltdown zone.

We have been living at the upper end of my girl’s anxiety range for awhile now. I have been searching for ways to help her let go and relax. This slightly annoying request actually presented an opportunity.

I was painfully aware that she had been watching me crawl through a long string of bad days. I had felt her eyes on me many evenings, as I slithered up to bed the moment her dad emerged from work.

I knew she had heard me say, “I’m too tired to play,” too many times, because she was starting to use that line on me when I asked her to tidy her toys or brush her teeth.

I realized that I needed to show my girl the other side of overwhelm. I wanted my anxious, frustrated daughter to see me working, building calm and strength. I hoped to plant the seeds for her own rebellion against the evil empire in her thoughts.

And someday, I wanted to explain that she was the reason I was doing this work. I needed her to know how badly I wanted to be there for her and her sister, and that all the times I had to tap out of motherhood made me sad, too.

“You know what, Honey? Let’s give it a try. I’ll turn up the speaker, and we can listen together.” I said.

My Big One grinned as she clambered up onto the bed beside me, and laid her head on her daddy’s pillow.

With that, she became my first, and only, bootcamp recruit.

We lay there softly, and the recording began. The instructions dissolved, though, before they reached my ears. All I could feel was the quiet, covering us like a blanket.

With my eyes closed, my other senses reached out. I could hear my daughter continue to gently suck her arm for a few minutes, then felt the bed jiggle as her hand came down and she nestled her body into a supine posture of openness.

My firstborn’s peacefulness was sweet and comforting, like home-baked pastry. I took a deep breath, and my throat welled up: such a rush of gratitude and relief.

A tingling in my chest told me I had just released a tight cramp. My heart had been gripping sadness, a sweaty fistful of grief about my girl’s ear-piercing meltdowns and all the things that were tougher than they needed to be.

As I breathed in the quiet, the wad in my chest unfolded further. I saw a hopeless feeling in there. It hovered behind my daughter’s worries and her never-satisfied restlessness, the way that she kept pushing away her peace and sleep, and sliding deeper into my familiar, miserable spiral.

Looking at these feelings was hard. They were sucking me in, dragging me back to prior moments of grief, frustration, and guilt.

But thankfully, amazingly, I realized I didn’t need to go there.

Because of mindfulness, the mental-ninjutsu I have been working so long to learn, I had another option. It gave me a perspective I could reach for beyond the emotions that threatened to overwhelm me.

Counselling, books, and guided meditations like the one I was currently ignoring had helped me see a helpful truth about depression and anxiety. I recognized the chilly muck of rumination, the old, grey thoughts and feelings that trap my brain like quicksand.

Those painful feelings wanted me to do something, but I was so terrified by their strength that I became paralysed, enthralled by my grief instead of taking action to care for it.

I caught myself as I was about to dive in and wallow in memories of every difficult moment with my daughter. I remembered I needed to do something, to take care of my feelings. So I took a breath.

I listened to it whisper in through my nostrils.

I felt my chest tense up as I tried to bring the air in deep.

I felt the breath slowly drain out, dragging against the back of my throat.

I felt the absolute quiet in the pause between my breaths.

I remembered that my girl was right beside me. I heard her breath, even and deep. I realized she was asleep. She had let go, and was doing the thing she needed to be restored.

I listened to my breath. It was not so even, but it was there. My lungs were doing their restorative work, and I realized, so was I.

Even though I was struggling, I had shown up, and I believed that I got stronger each time I consciously decided to let go of those old, worn-out thoughts.

I squeezed my feet, let them relax, and felt a flow of warmth run down my body.

I am going to do this,” I said to myself. “I am going to make this work.

I know you are,” came a small, furry voice.

I could almost feel a puff of warm breath, and a tiny, wet nose tickle my ear.

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dark Critter,” I whispered to my imaginary raccoon.

Anytime,” my dark friend answered. “By the way, you’ve slept through it.

Wha??” I asked. I suddenly realized the recording was silent, and the baby was stirring in her room next door.

“Aw, crap!” I said out loud, startling the four-year-old.

Better luck next time,” the Critter chuckled, and I knew she meant that there would be a next time, because I was going to keep at it.