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.

It Takes a Village

Week one of Mental Health Bootcamp is underway, and things are looking up.

Surprisingly, I noticed an improvement in my mood even before my first mental workout. This is thanks to everyone around me, including you, Dark Little Readers.

The graph first registered an upward twitch when I decided to share my Bootcamp experience. I knew that announcing my plan would create pressure for me to follow through. Like a vicious trainer, thoughts of you all going, “What ever happened with that?” would prod me past fatigue and fear of looking like an idiot. They would keep on poking until I got the job done.

When I talked about my bootcamp idea in person, I got funny looks: smiles that were supportive, though slightly quizzical. When someone’s face says, “I love you, but have no idea what you’re talking about…”,  it gives me a call I can’t refuse. That expression is a challenge to explain myself better, move forward and make my weird vision real, so I can go, “See?” and hear, “Oooooooh! I get it. That’s cool.”

Is there anything more intoxicating than feeling someone step inside and join you in the wilderness of your mind?

I thank you all for agreeing to go there, and giving me that motivation boost.

Next, I needed help managing the practicalities of my life so I could do the work I needed to do.

To my deepest gratitude, many family and friends were willing and able to help. Together, we organized visits and babysitting so I could do the things my brain needs to heal. I had great workouts and even better writing sessions.

One night, someone brought over dinner, and another, someone took me and the girls out. One determined individual even did my dishes and tidied up the girls’ toynado while I was out kickboxing.

Seeing the calendar fill with these plans lightened my lungs. I knew that breaks were on their way – opportunities to pull in oxygen before diving back down into the jobs of the day. I even started to look forward to things for the first time in weeks. It was so good.

Patient friends engaged in Facebook conversations with me, even though I took hours or days to reply. I got to poke my head into other people’s space and feel something other than my own overdone thoughts.

My husband Skyped home every evening, managed to remotely fix our Netflix connection, and even made sure that our pulled-apart Roomba was back up and running before he left town.

Every one of these things helped; I’m not sure I can express how much they affected me, or how grateful I am. My circle of people saw me in my mess and instead of turning away in disgust or embarrassment for me, they reached out.

This reminded me of words I have seen in some of my favourite books and meditations by Deepak Chopra. They go something like, “We are all privileged children of the universe.” Right now, I feel that. In spite of my brokenness, I have everything I need to succeed.

I am surrounded by support. Knowing this, I can work wholeheartedly on standing back up. I can trust that no matter how much I wobble, those outstretched arms won’t let me fall.

How often do we fool ourselves into believing we are alone? In my darkest places, I can hardly stand myself. It seems impossible to imagine that anyone else could handle me in my reeking, tacky blackness.

There is some truth in that thought; when we are anxious, depressed, or in a rage, it impairs our brain. It makes us go partially blind, and without self-awareness, we tend to flail around and act like a bit of an ass. It is hard on the people around us.

But the aloneness is a lie. No one is alone. Even if we live alone, don’t have a job, and do our best to avoid the rest of the world, somebody out there needs us. They need our help, our friendship, our talents, our genuine smile.

When we are well, we contribute to the world just by living in it. Someone is better off because we listened and saw them. Somebody remembers a good time with us, and wishes for more.

When we are ill, our people are wishing to get us back. We are loved, all of us, whether or not we have a wedding ring, paycheque, or family tree. No matter what we have done or failed to do.

I think there is a web among us; others feel it when we hurt and they want us to get better. Of those people who feel you, there are some who are ready to help.

If you are hurting, and especially if you feel like there is no one on the planet who would or could help you, I challenge you: prove that feeling wrong.

Sit quietly in your dark place and listen; what is one thing that you need? Your pain is trying to tell you.

Then, think of someone who might want to help. People whose offers you have turned down in the past, or people who have stood with you before.

Humbly and honestly ask for what you need.

Receive it with gratitude, and go get better. Do it for you, and for them.

When you are well, for however long it lasts, contribute to your village to the best of your ability.

When you go down again, as many of us will, remember to reach back into the web.

If you can’t think of a lifeline available to you, tally your resources: family, friends, teachers, mentors, bosses, doctors, religious leaders, human resources or employee assistance programs, health insurance for physical or mental healing, not-for-profit facilities and organizations, subsidized or free programs for fitness or counselling, one-on-one therapy or support groups… even the level-headed, great listener who cuts your hair could be an asset.

You don’t have to bare your blackest pain. Just ask for help with something. Let the village materialize and prove that you are supported.

If you are far from other people, reach out through the distance. Read, write, and make a long-distance call. If worse comes to worst, just start scribbling it all down and stuff your expressions into a seafaring bottle (or launch it onto the internet), and trust that someone is going to pick it up one day and get you.

You might find that you are the one who finally receives your message. Hearing yourself, completely and without judgment, opens you up to hear others. You can plug yourself into deep, fulfilling empathy.

You are not alone.

This week, my incredible friends and family sang to me that I am not alone. It lifted me up, and I hope it lifts you up, too.

Cue Musical Montage: Dark Little Critter is Lacing Up for Mental Health Bootcamp

The Critter and I have been battling against a hulking springtime depression. We’ve been in the ring with it for over a month, and we’ve had enough. It’s time to knock this greasy sucker down and get out from the stench of its presence.

Throughout this grisly matchup, my shadowy friend has been in my corner. Every time I flop onto the bench, she wipes blood from my nose with a soft cloth in her tiny paw and says,

“Don’t just stand there, blocking with your face. Do something.”

“I am doing something,” I mumble through the hamburger that used to be my mouth. “I’m taking refuge in Being.”

She raises a racoon eyebrow and answers, “I think you’re doing it wrong.”

She may be right. I have been trying to shake this bad boy off through avoidance. I have traded writing for reading, walking for baths, and real food for these chewy marshmallow bars made with various kinds of sweet garbagey cereal.

It has been interestingly crunchy, but not productive. I can’t really enjoy these mental getaways, because I spend them dreading their end, anticipating the cold wad of despair that will resettle in my lungs the moment I turn back to my obligations.

What has made things worse is that my kids and I have been taking turns getting sick since January. At any given time, one of us has been either aching, whining, and spewing sticky geysers of mucus, or cramping, whining, and spewing stinky geysers of ew-ness.

This has been not only disgusting, but also a surprisingly potent threat to my mental resilience. Our family germfest has blown away my survival routine. I’m self-destructing without my thrice-weekly visits to the gym where I can sweat, write, and get the hell away from the river of, “Nos!” and “Mommy I wants!” that make me want to slowly push a smelly marker all the way up my nose (right into the old Crayola oblongata, just like Homer).

Now, when I’m at my messiest, my husband has left town for work. The next couple of weeks are going to have me chained with one small, complaining child on each ankle.

It’s like this hideous depression is about to tag in a fresh new harbinger of hell.

I decided I don’t want to go to hell. I want to come back and be here, available for my kids. And for the love of everything sweet and chocolate and holy, I want to start tasting my snacks again. I need to get my brain back online.

I am ready to win this round, to climb out of the ring laughing and be done being a sporting victim.

Therefore, I’m starting on a Mental Health Bootcamp.

Like a strength training program for the brain, this curriculum is going to provide structure and move me through techniques that work.

It is based on the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and will involve daily exercises to strengthen the neural pathways that create calm and clarity.

MBSR has been studied extensively since 1979. In numerous university and hospital trials, it has produced measurable improvements in mental and physical health for people suffering from anxiety and depression, as well as heart disease, cancer, and chronic pain.

Starting today, I will be following the Free Online MBSR program at PalouseMindfulness.com, and sharing my experiences here on this blog. You all are going to be my accountability team, so thanks.

If you are curious about MBSR, or if you can feel something furry tickling your ear with a whisper of, “Doooo it!”, then I invite you to join me.

You don’t have to purchase anything, input personal information, or send the first toenail clippings of your third born daughter. Just check out the videos, talks, and readings.

Here’s how to get involved:
– Visit palousemindfulness.com to explore the program or try it for yourself.
Like Dark Little Critter on Facebook to have new posts, updates, and additional resources show up on your newsfeed.
– Send me a Private Message on Facebook to be added to a Bootcamp Discussion Group where we can talk about our experiences, mindfulness, and recovery from depression.

If you are terrified of cracking under the weight of stress, and think you should do this someday, do it now. There is no reason not to.

There is no cost, no travel, and no schedule. You can make it work with whatever time you have, even just a few minutes before you go to sleep each night.

The exercises won’t be easy (I know because I’ve done this type of thing before), but they will be productive. Within a week or two, you will start to feel stronger, steadier, and freer. As you build the relaxation muscle in your brain and body, it will change the way you move through each day, the good ones and the bad.

You can change your brain. You can take whatever you are doing now, whether it is self-management through exercise and diet, or getting help through counselling or medication, and add this piece (the program recommends that you let your counsellor or doctor know you are participating so they can monitor how it affects your therapy).

If it feels right, go for it.

There are a million right ways to get better. I know that MBSR is what I need right now. By the time my husband comes home from his trip, I will be waking up with lightness in my chest.

Whether you join me, or take your own path forward, the Critter and I hope to see you rise up lightly, too.

Just Show Up

My mind is a mess today. I’m sorry. I wasn’t able to pull together a proper essay for you all. There has been a lot of screaming, crying, and dragging of unwilling donkeys around here in the last few days… my brain has finally walked out, waving goodbye with its hypothetical middle finger extended.

Whenever my Productivity takes a sabbatical, Appetite for Snacks and Naps takes the wheel. And here she is. She has little patience for any obstacles to her comforts, and is threatening to make me fiddle with more settings and crash the site again.

I’m surrendering this battle, but not the war.

Before I slink under my blankie with something sweet (yet not crumbly! No crumbs in bed, for Pete’s sake!) let me leave you with this:

Sometimes, all we can do is show up. That might mean dragging our reticent bodies out to the car and physically appearing where we planned to be. Or, it might just mean not ultimately checking out.

Whatever that means to you, just keep showing up. I promise that both of us will be back in fighting form soon.

I’ll meet you back here when the fog clears.


Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Last week, I almost slapped my daughter.

The brutal urge chilled my guts. The image came through crystal clear. It seemed nearly real.

Shaking, I stepped away from my girl. I retreated to my room and paced. My heart raced, but my head was surprisingly clear. I watched myself buzz back and forth, feeling the dust on the carpet as I pounded with my bare feet. I heard the air scrape in and out of my chest like a blacksmith’s bellows.

At the same time, I replayed the awful mental scene in my mind. I felt lightning flash from my belly to the tip of my hand. I heard a brittle crack that brought a sting to my palm. It felt horribly good, as though the hot, tense energy from weeks of escalating frustration was suddenly released.

In my mind’s eye, I saw my girl’s head snap to the side and back. I saw her mouth open, fingers splayed in shock. I watched her little face crumple as she lifted her gaze to mine and raised her hand to touch a red patch blooming at the corner of her mouth. I saw her shrink away from me as a scream began to peal from her throat, so high-pitched it barely made a sound. Then, the noise suddenly swelled, and the piercing wail made my brain tremble.

I couldn’t watch anymore. I came back to myself in my room and looked at my hands. They had almost done The Really Bad Thing, something of which I thought I was incapable.

On seeing the truth that yes, I was indeed capable of striking a child, my first thought was, “I am a monster.”

But luckily, I know better. I can thank a really filthy bout of prenatal and postpartum depression, and the counseling that got me through it, for teaching me how to see through this shattering mental spiral.

Peace and security, knowing that my children are safe in my care and that I can cope with this frustration, comes from peeling back all the layers of the truth. The process is ugly, but it is only by facing the ugliness in my heart and mind that I can deal with it and stop it from lashing out through my hands.

These are the layers that I found:

Truth: I am capable of violence. I am essentially no different than other people – my father who spanked, my mother’s father who went further. We all encounter pain, helplessness, and rage, and we all have a limit beyond which we can lose control.

Truth: I can hurt the people I love. Loving does not shelter us from that possibility; it only makes the consequences more devastating.

Truth: I am responsible for how I handle my fear and rage. No one else can see it, tolerate it, and process it for me.

Truth: Rage can be resolved, but it requires determination. It is uncomfortable and it takes time, energy, and humility.

Truth: It is hard to admit that I need help, but doing so is the only way to save my relationships, my soul, and my life.

As I remembered this, the blood in my face started to cool. My eyes welled up, and I admitted to myself that it had been a hell of a couple of months.

The stress between my daughter and I had reached titanic proportions. She and her baby sister kept taking turns getting sick, each receiving a handful of sleepless nights, while I volleyed, bleary-eyed, between them. This began at the end of January, and is just waning now, in the middle of April.

The big girl and I have been a mess. We both struggle through our mornings, slip-sliding on the slop of our brains. We constantly fall off track and our tempers spew out of nowhere, scalding each other like treacherous geysers. Every breathless, clenched-teeth late arrival to preschool makes both of our hearts sink in shame.

Week after week, the misery has been rising. My big girl’s behaviour has become increasingly defiant and demanding, and she melts down like Fukushima over the tiniest denials and disappointments.

I have been gripping the shreds of my patience desperately, but they keep slipping.  I snap and yell. I keep getting filled with a scorching desire to put my fist through the wall. I keep shoving it back down into the darkness, but it keeps bobbing back up.

The image is so satisfying – a bang of exploding paper and plaster, a white mushroom cloud of dust, a delicious burn in my scraped knuckles and stony-clenched fist – I think I might have been secretly harbouring it, while letting myself think I was letting it go.

Everything came to a head last Thursday morning, when I had finally coaxed, cajoled, threatened and reprimanded the four-year-old into the bathroom. I asked her to open her mouth to let me brush her teeth, and she flopped down onto the floor with the fiercest, “Nooooo-ooo!” that her thin little chest could produce.

My fantasy-self wound up and let loose on her, as though ridding me of all of her infuriating reflexes, throwing all the stress she had caused me back into her face. My punishing-self thought that pain would finally teach her, where firmness and explanation had failed. I thought it would end our war.

My rational self knows that it wouldn’t work, but like many burnt-out parents before me, I felt the destructive compulsion.

Why do these poisonous impulses surface when we experience anger?

I think it’s because violence sells. It gets our attention. Anger has a message for us; something is threatening us and we need to act. If we ignore our anger, it swells into rage. Rage speaks through visceral images and urges. Like a dream, it can access all of our senses and transport us into a vivid scene. It is like a waking nightmare with a warning. Also like a dream, we need to dig deeper into our dark visions to decode their message.

The fury that slashed my brain wasn’t really shouting, “that kid needs her bill slapped ‘round backwards like Daffy Duck.”

It was whispering, “Laurie, you’ve got to do something about your girl’s stress and behaviour. It is pushing you toward violence. You need to change it. Find a way.”

It was a hard truth to take, because I felt overwhelmed and at a loss for a plan. But seeing where our path was leading, all I could say back was, “Hell, no. We are not going there.”

It made my overwhelm and doubt suddenly unimportant. That horrifying view of my darkest potential gave me strength. It opened my eyes and made me determined to choose a better outcome.

The next day, I did some things I had been thinking about for a long time, but kept putting off.

I emailed my daughter’s teachers and admitted we were struggling at home. I asked for their input; were they seeing the same anger and anxiety from her at school?

I had been avoiding asking them. If they said no, I was afraid they would think I was either a neurotic, overreacting parent who saw problems that weren’t there, or worse, a hot-headed, incompetent one who was causing her own problems with her child.

I was afraid they could be right on either count.

If they said yes, it might mean there was more going on with my daughter than typical childhood boundary-pushing, something that needed more attention. Where would I possibly find more attention?

Next, I sat with my husband and told him about my chilling moment, and the email to the school. It made him freeze up, like I knew it would, because he is even more fearful than me of how people see us, and of receiving bad news about our children.

To his credit, even though he was distressed, he didn’t walk away. I eventually managed to reassure him that reaching out for help would gain us information, and possibly resources, that could help our family.

We are moving forward.

What I learned from that Dickensian vision of my darkest potential is that I need to get over my self-consciousness and find concrete answers for my girl. If that means revealing my imperfection to her teachers, so be it.

Perhaps, though, with them seeing me come panting into the class with her, late, day after sweaty, grimacing day, I think that particular cat may have already left the bag.

Of course, this blog is out there, too, proving to the interwebs that I am a messed-up mom. I don’t mind, though. I know I am going to do something productive with this mess.

And I trust you all to take my stories and see the truth, that there is strength and hope for you, too, in your darkest, most honest moments.

Don’t be afraid of the dark; see it, hear it, and take care of it.

There is Always a Way

My oldest daughter, a four-year-old so opinionated she will probably launch her own blog before I get this one off the ground, recently had her first nightmare. At least, it was the first one she shared with me.

The dream involved volcanoes. As she related it, several things struck me. First was the sense that this moment was critical, my first attempt at open surgery on her anxiety. There was a hush in my ears that blocked out the breath of the furnace and other murmurs of the night. I wanted to be there and get my reaction right.

Second, I noticed my little one’s tone. It wasn’t hysterical or dramatic, like I would expect from a small child confronting the limitlessness of imagined fear.

Her voice was quiet, and surprisingly sad, like she was resigned to a crushing inevitability. I realized that she had not come to me for comfort after her bad dream. I might not have known about it at all, if I hadn’t been woken by her baby sister and noticed her sitting awake as I passed.

“Mommy,” she whispered when I asked what was wrong, “I’ll never go back to sleep. Never.”

I took her in my arms and could feel the weight of sadness, her chest pressing into me with more than her little body’s mass.

I held her close, rocking her, breathing words into her hair, willing the warmth of my chest to radiate into her. Her trunk was stiff and her limbs were limp. It felt out of sync.

I pushed my worry down and pulled my knowledge up, all the things I knew about childhood emotions, managing anxiety, and the role I wanted to play in her growth.

I listened quietly until she was done. I reflected back the feelings she described, and admitted that sometimes, I had bad dreams, too. I said I knew a trick that helped me feel better, and would share it if she’d like.

She sat on my lap, turned her back into me, and looked out into the darkness. Then, she nodded.

I said, “My trick is to close my eyes and imagine the dream again, but this time, I imagine myself solving the scary problem. I might fix it with magic, or by talking, or fighting, or calling someone who can help me.

Maybe you could wave your hands like Elsa and make all the hot lava get frozen, so it’s not dangerous anymore. Maybe you could make it turn into chocolate syrup, and eat it all up. Or maybe you could imagine a great big butterfly that appears and picks you up and flies you to safety.

All you need to remember is that there is always a way to get safe. Every scary dream has a way out: a secret door, or magic spell, or fairy godmother who will come to help when you call her. No matter what, there is always a way to get safe.

When you wake up and feel so scared and can’t get back to sleep, start telling yourself, ‘There is always a way to get safe.'”

We repeated the words together a few times. At first, my girl was reluctant, then she got into it, and finally, she started to seem a little bored. She rubbed her eyes.

“Great job, Honey, “I said, kissing her soft hair, “I’m so proud of you.” I laid with her a little while, and when her breath got slow and even, I crept back to my own bed.

Ironically, now I couldn’t sleep. I was happy with how we handled her fear, but bothered by what I saw behind it. That quiet shift she made, from fear to hopeless resignation, bore the signature of my personal monster. That is depression, in a nutshell.

This was my biggest fear, the reason why I didn’t want to have kids. I hated the idea of bringing someone into the world who would grow up tormented like me, and many others in our family.

I felt tangled in smothering blankets of guilt, shame, and doubt. I looked ahead and saw my gorgeous girl struggling, growing up emotionally stunted, sabotaging herself both purposefully and unwittingly. I saw her in my place, fighting dark urges that never completely go away, especially when near a high railing.

I sneaked down to the bathroom, where I could tremble and cry without disturbing my husband. I did that for quite a while.

What finally brought my breathing back was a particularly sharp slice of shame. It poked me between the ribs, harder and harder until I could barely breathe. When I finally paid attention to it, I realized it was not just garden-variety shame at my brokenness, but something more focused: it was shame at my hypocrisy.

I realized I would never be able to sell the whole, “There is always a way to make things okay,” shtick to my anxious daughter unless I lived it, too.

My nose stopped gushing and my chest stopped heaving that very second.

I won’t say that I haven’t had any moments since then of sorrow and fear for the journey ahead of my sensitive kid. I have. However, I can say honestly that recognizing the need to take my own medicine in order to help my child has made me ready to commit with all my soul to winning the war inside me.

Fighting depression through every strategy imaginable has dredged a rusty ton of useful tidbits from the bottom places of my life. The knowledge is there to help me and my girl; I just need to trust it and use it, to wave my magic hands and call upon the wisdom to resolve each nightmare as it comes.

If you see me looking in the mirror, or watching my star-bright, complex little girl with a smile on my face but a wrinkle in my brow, you will know that I am whispering to myself, “There is always a way.”

And there is. For you, too.

Welcome, Dark Critters.

Welcome to Dark Little Critter.

My name is Laurie, and my dark critter takes many forms: depression, anxiety, rage, and a mental fog that sometimes gets so thick, you can stand a fork in it.

I’m starting this blog to give my shadow animals some air time. They have surprisingly helpful things to say. I suspect yours do, too; you just have to learn their language.

Once you get past all the moaning and hissing, dark creatures will tell you something true that will help you move forward. That is what they do. (They also have a tendency to knock over garbage cans, but it’s not their fault; they just want to visit, and don’t understand why we hoard our rotting refuse.)

Anyway, my Dark Little Critter and I welcome you and your mental raccoons, and look forward to deepening the trust and communication in your strange metaphysical marriage.

Depression, Anxiety, Rage and Raccoons

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