This painting - it’s an exercise in noticing a thing worth no notice at all, or at least that’s how it feel most days. And yet, much of my youth was devoted to analysing this feeling and tearing it apart. This overwhelming sensation of needing to be loved, and it never feeling like it was returned in the way I so desperately dreamed of. My mind was full of romance and magic, and yet I could never be at the centre of it. I was always on the outside, wondering when it would be my turn and if it would be worth the wait.
This painting - it’s a lifetime of words left unsaid, of love unexplored that grows in secrecy below the surface, planting roots so deep that you’re completely unaware of how or where they are growing. These seeds of potential, these wee crushes, these fragmented interactions that we read too much into, they explode in ways that are unimaginable. It’s all of those nervous feelings wrapped up inside you until you decide that no dream is worth the risk, and you suppress it all - you swallow these fantasies like Tylenol and pray for them to disappear. All of these seemingly insignificant moments, all of these messages that you can’t decipher, it all takes hold of you and your overactive imagination runs wild through the fields of everything that would never be - because you were too scared to speak up. For fear of what? For fear that these feelings would not be reciprocated, that you may potentially be rejected, and then what - your mind will run further still. It always feels as though the risk is not worth it, as though your dreams are a much better place to live out all that could happen, because reality could never live up to what this idea of love meant to you.
This painting - illustrates all that is happening beneath the surface. Up top, you’re calm and collected, but below is a different story. It’s a narrative of missed opportunities or love squandered because you grew too impatient. It’s pure romance. It’s mystery. It’s magic. It’s all that could have been had you wanted it enough, had you been less afraid, had you believed that you were worth this otherworldly love.
This painting - an exploration of something not really worth exploring, but wow, there is so much beauty to be unearthed in these overlooked places.
This painting - is pure magic to me. It has been a summer long labour of love and when I look at it, if feels like everything. And pictures cannot do it justice. She it a precious piece of me that cannot be appreciated from afar. You need to experience her up-close. There are a lot of secrets woven in there.
I scroll and scroll and get caught up in a world of phonies, and when I say phonies I don't equate myself to the judgemental voice of Holden Caulfield - rather, I’ve more or less internalized the nature of Holly Golightly and have immersed myself in this world of everything that is fast and fake.
“She is a phony. But on the other hand, you’re right. She isn’t a phony because she’s a real phony. She believes all this crap she believes. You can’t talk her out of it.” -Truman Capote from Breakfast at Tiffany’s
And this is a feeling I carry around every single day in my chest. It hurts some days to acknowledge it and it’s comforting on other days when my sense of self is floundering. It crawls up and down my arms and legs and it manifests in my writing and painting. I’m trying to capture those precious moments that are fleeting and make me feel human, or at least the most authentic version of my human self that doesn’t adhere to all expectations - if such a person can exist.
Our lives are but a series of moments and I’m torn between whether or not they are worth sharing. We share too much in this generation and it gets to the point where I either want to do it excessively or bow out entirely. It’s a struggle to find that balance.
Full days and weeks and months pass and it’s the tiny seconds that stand out or stray away from the ordinary, making them memorable to us, but what are these moments exactly? Are they instances or experiences that society has designed for us? Are you at an Instagramable hot spot? Did you get a big promotion? Are you engaged to be married? Did the sun set and the sky was a myriad of cotton candy colours, a view so mesmeric that you’d think you could soak it all in, and yet you couldn't actually be fully present because you needed to whip out your phone to photograph it as proof that it existed and you experienced it, and promptly post it so everyone knows that you like nature and appreciate beauty.
There is no harm in doing this - we all do it - but I just wonder if our brains are capable of actually absorbing the current moment without feeling this dire need to save it forever on our phones. Can this moment not simply exist in our memory? Can we not save this image in our mind and revisit it when we’re feeling a little lost? Obsessive visual documentation - this is our downfall.
This is, however, what I try to capture every time I paint. I don’t work from any picture - I work from banked up experience. I know that I can’t capture a whole summer in Ottawa on a single canvas - too much has happened! But I have this bag of feelings and moments I’ve collected since summer began and the result is bright, soft, happy, and tranquil. It’s love. It’s experience. It’s family. It’s change. It’s the essence of summer. It’s what I hoped I would feel and what I actually observed. On the other hand, I question all of these experiences and emotions and tear it all down with each brush stroke. I think of how fake I feel and how I’m caught up in this world whose priorities do not match up with mine and I wonder how it seized me and convinced me to chase after frivolous things that add up to nothing and can I prevent this sham of a society from swallowing me up entirely. And then I flip back to how much I want to fit in and go along with what is expected because it’s, dare I say it, the comfortable choice and also the one that deep down I truly want - or at least I think I do. I don’t know anymore!
There is a very fast teeter-totter that is planted in my mind. Everything is a distraction preventing us from seeing our reflection clearly, and yet I want to see me so desperately. The unclouded, unmanipulated version of me - and I’m hopeful that with each brush stroke and each word typed I can achieve this. I only hope that we can all find this part of ourselves, the part that doesn’t feel an insatiable need to fit in or be on trend or show off wealth. The part that embraces flaws as less of a weakness or more as a strength and the part that accepts our individuality as the highest form of currency.
There are a handful of instances in our lives that we may or may not consider to be defining moments. Whether it is celebrating an accomplishment, mourning a loss, or a small seemingly trivial bit of time that solidifies inside of you in such a way that you’re forever changed, well...we’ve all got them and sometimes we don’t know their influence or importance until much, much later.
The Netherlands was one of those moments for me and it’s not what you think. My life was far from glamorous, despite the photos I posted on Instagram or Facebook. This place became a moment in the sense that it didn’t go as I'd anticipated and I’ve spent the last four years mourning missed opportunities while carrying so much shame for my mistreatment of a family that took me in.
They know who they are and I’m hopeful that they’ll read this and not necessarily forgive me for my bleak presence, but I do hope they know how sorry I am. I’m realizing this now more than ever with great clarity - that my instability, insecurity, and inability to communicate with a grain of truth or reassurance cost me the solid presence of a Dutch family that took a chance on me.
I went over in September of 2014 and as we near the departure date almost four years later, I can still feel all of the anxiety, crippling depression, and overwhelming uncertainty that I carried over there with me.
I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I had two university degrees at the time and felt entitled, but I was lost in a culture and job market that did not favour my attitude or the specificity of my education. A Masters? In English? Great. This basically meant that I read books, wrote essays, and effectively communicate all thoughts with an elevated clarity, and yet I could not be truthful with myself. I was lost and tormented on the inside. I blamed Canada. I blamed my family. I blamed everyone but myself. I thought that if I left for a year then magically all of these broken pieces would find their way back to each other to create a sensible whole. Only then could I be me again, or a happier version at the very least.
I'll try to paint a picture of my mental state before deciding it was a great idea to pick up and leave. I had anxiety attacks every single day. I was scared to leave the house in case I had an attack in public (which happened a handful of times). I was so depressed from my lack of direction and purpose that I spent most of my days in bed re-watching shows and movies that would transport me back to simpler times. I barely ate, or whatever I did consume did not constitute as a full meal in the slightest. I was mentally and physically crumbling - tumbling into a pit of despair, desperate for things to change but without the slightest understanding of how to do so. I didn't know how to ask for help yet.
I either needed to remake the past or forge ahead to a new adventure filled future, and without a solid head on my shoulders or proper nutrients in my body, I bought a plane ticket to the other side of the world, thanks to this family who were willing to take me in.
Though I would have never admitted it at the time - I was 100% just following my boyfriend. It ate me alive to think that he would experience this new way of life without me and I knew that I had two options: I could be depressed in Waterloo or be depressed in the Netherlands.
I got on a plane with the highest of hopes, believing so deeply for a solid 48 hours that this trip and this job as an Au Pair would fulfill me and make me whole once again. My imagination conjured up a new reality where I knew who I was and what I was supposed to do with my life. I, in all honesty, believed that being an Au Pair would be some sort of game changing experience maybe. I was hopeful that I'd find some sort of sense of purpose and I liked the idea of creating a new life away from anyone who knew my past. In the Netherlands, I was free to be whoever I wanted to be. Anorexia was in the past and my mental instability? Never happened. I needed to believe that a change of scenery would be the cure. It had to be. I was desperately grasping for any strand of hope that presented itself.
But as most of us know, you cannot run away from your problems - especially if they’re internal.
And then there I was, in my new room, smiling as the kids unveiled their art they’d drawn for me as a welcoming gift, all of the youthful eager energy bouncing off of the walls - and all I could think about was how much I wanted to shut the blinds and fall asleep forever. It could have been the jet lag speaking, but my journals from the time confirm it.
September 17th, 2014
New place, same problems. I guess I couldn’t outrun this after all.
And so it was.
I’d made it over there with too many bags and not enough energy.
I was so tired.
Exhaustion is my main memory of my first few months there, unfortunately. I was living in this expansive house in Groningen and I was tired. Tired to the point where I’d go to bed early and begrudgingly wake up early to bike the kids to school, only to come home and fall back asleep until I’d have to go fetch them and then, gasp, hangout with them. I know it wasn’t supposed to feel like work, but it did. In my head I kept questioning this choice and saying to myself This is a waste of time. I have better things to do. Yeah. I hate myself remembering this harmful mentality, but I was sick. I was so sick and I just kept ignoring it, ignoring it to the point where I’d isolated myself from the people around me, the ones who were housing me and feeding me, and I prevented them from getting a chance to understand who this stupid, self-absorbed Canadian girl was. What's worse is that I prevented myself from getting to know these wonderful humans the way I should have - and I deeply regret this.
I was terrible. They knew I was terrible. But they tolerated me until they no longer could. I was essentially a child when I needed to be an adult presence. I was in no shape to be doing this job. I couldn't be a stand in sister or mother to these children when I could barely take care of myself.
I wish I would have spoken up sooner instead of hiding my truth.
I can still feel the toxic energy that would exude from me each morning. I doubt I woke up feeling grateful once for the incredible opportunity I was given. All I could think of, day in and day out, was that I was educated and worth so much more than taking care of kids, and yet I really was not worth more than this at the time. The fact that I felt that entitled was a sign of my naivety and inability to see myself clearly. I was worth exactly this and until I accepted this and stopped deflecting blame elsewhere or opened up to discuss my self-destructive behaviours, I would have nothing more.
Ultimately, I was relieved to leave yet I hated that I was so relieved. I cried until my eyes were swollen shut when they told me it wasn’t working out and I knew it wasn’t working out but they actually called me on my bullshit and now I was getting exactly what I deserved. I needed to stop getting stuck in my own head, I needed to speak openly instead of hiding, I needed to just be honest.
I blamed everyone but myself at first.
It's this weather! It rains too much!
I'm just homesick. I swear I'll be better.
It's this! It's that! Blah, blah, blah.
I tried talking them into keeping me for a job I didn't even really want. I was a failure. An embarrassment. How was I going to tell my family? All of my integrity was lost in those four months in Groningen and I’ve spent the last 4 years trying to recover it.
This was the defining moment.
Now, being relieved of my duties was a blessing in disguise even though at the time it was hard to see it that way. I was now faced with a new reality, one that I couldn’t ignore. I had to find a new job and a new place to live or else I’d have to go back home to Canada, a failure.
I did not want to admit that I had failed. It was proof that I just could not do anything right and solidified this worthless feeling that swelled in my gut.
I messed up.
I messed up so badly and to this day, I think about this family so often it aches my core. I just wish that they got to meet the version of me I am today. I know they would love me so much more now and be happy for this shift in my perspective and personality. I wish I wasn’t so abhorrent back then. Even though I now see my mental illness as less of a weakness and more as a strength, I did not have the tools to wield my mind to my advantage at the time and so I spent most of my days crying for what felt like no reason at all, exhausting all of the people around me, lying and pretending like everything was fine when I wanted to rip my skin off because I felt like some unruly creature took up space in my stomach, chest, and head. I was exhausting. I’m surprised my boyfriend didn’t break up with me because he’s the one who had to take me in and he let me co-habitat with himself and six other men from his basketball team. Yes. Seven men and sad, depressing me in The Slaughterhouse, which is a wonderful story for another time!
But, fortunately for me this defining moment lead me down the path I needed:
In the end, I realized that our defining moments do not necessarily need to be successes - they can be failures. I failed. I failed in a magnificent, expert fashion! I was let go from being an Au Pair! I don’t know why this makes me laugh now. Maybe the fact that I feel no more shame about it. I’m liberated from this failure because it gave me everything I have now and I can bask in the sunlight, no longer hiding in dishonesty.
This family, in their great wisdom, let me know in the most polite fashion possible (over candle light and tea) that things were not working out - and because of this honesty, this blatant truth that was confronting me and not letting me budge, well, I’m indebted to them. They did what no one else had the courage to do up until this point. They called me on everything and thank goodness they did.
What I've taken away from this experience runs deeps. I value honesty and integrity above all things. I do not want to ever pretend as though I'm a faultless human. My mistakes humanize me and are proof that failure paves the way for all forms of prosperity. My writing will always be sincere and my paintings will never lie about the nature of my being. There is no use in pretending to be that which I am not.
I do it for me and I do it for all of the teenagers that I work with in the classroom. You're allowed to fail - you just have to accept it and press on.
And to my Dutch family - thank you. I wish I'd been healthy and given you more when I had the chance.
After being in the classroom for a year, I’ve realized my passion for education and working with teenagers, and yet - my desire for this particular reality took a long time for me to reach.
On this road to discovery, I had many (many) terrible/terribly interesting jobs that held my attention for a while before extinguishing all of the fire I had within me. When you do a job you're not passionate about, your sense of purpose and meaning falters, and the brain starts to spiral downward at a rapid rate.
Retail did this. The food industry did this. Being a barista did this. So many things did this.
And yet, it’s all of these work experiences that have given me a greater understanding of a teenagers struggle to find purpose in the world and, for the most part, their ears are open to my perspective because I can relate to their ‘first job’ struggles and the pressure to find their purpose at the tender age of 17.
Now, I don’t want to write about teaching here - I want to write about writing.
Since I can remember, I’ve kept a journal. I would write and write and write for hours. To start, I’d write about my day because at 8 that was all I could grasp. Each evening I’d sit in be with my notebook propped up on my knees and write about the adventures of my youth. Eating candy, playing basketball, sleepovers, eating pizza, how much my sister sucked and then how much I loved her. All very surface level. Then I hit those deadly teenage years and my daily summaries turned into an analytical party of interactions and emotions. I was never satisfied. I turned in on myself and explored all of the dark corners of my mind, ripping bandages off of insults and determining that everyone else’s opinions about me were indeed fact. Then in university, my writing took another turn to being too critical and analytical of thing outs of my control and I often questioned my purpose. Every entry would reference at some point my insecurity with myself, the future, the meaning of existence, and the heart wrenching, gut stabbing realities of love, and perhaps that I might not ever live the life I intended: meaning, would I ever get paid to do something I loved?
To be honest, there wasn’t much positivity in my writing, but the act itself was therapeutic and it was for me. Only me. It wasn’t until this writing platform that I developed any sense of confidence in my own words. I loved to write, but the thought of someone reading anything was horrifying. Much like art, I’d think about how much others would judge me and I’d strip the joy from my writing process by comparing myself to others. What a wretched mistake. Academia definitely played a role in this process as it tends to tear down one’s confidence in writing, especially if you’re studying English beyond undergrad. But that is a tale for another time.
Then came the job that would swiftly adjust my distorted perspective on my ability to string together sentences: ghostwriting.
And not just any ghost writer. A fashion writer for what people now call ‘social media influencers’ and boy was my influencer a big deal. Her following continues to grow every single day around the world and sometimes I feel as though my two years of writing for her never happened. I watch teenagers scroll through Instagram and they will come across her and comment on her clothes, her lifestyle, her beauty, and all the things they envy, and yet, I know the other side of this screen. I was there, in her office just outside of Amsterdam, and I would write for her.
You know all of those blogs you follow of people you find inspiring? Well, when they are a big enough presence in the world, they don’t have time to write out their own thoughts, and so suddenly my skills become a necessity because I can write as though I’m them and then push those words out to the world.
Every single time a post ‘went live’ I was horrified because I knew how many people would be reading it (millions) but then I would calm down because no one had any idea it was me. Crazy, right? All of these people around the world reading my words, leaving comments, telling this influencer how inspiring she is, and I’m the one writing it. Now, to her credit, she would leave me detailed voicemails everyday on what to include in each post, but it wasn’t simple to write as though I were someone else, especially if this other person’s first language isn’t English. Suddenly, I’m cautious of my word choices and how I’m expressing ideas. But how many different ways can I describe a cool outfit without using the word cool? THIS IS NO EASY FEAT!
I actually learned so much from my time working with her in the Netherlands. Sitting in her office with the rest of the team, developing ‘content’ and planning out photoshoots for the upcoming weeks, there was an element of glamour to it! I actually loved that I was the one writing these things and that I was given the opportunity to write up interviews and articles about her for magazines and other online publications. I mean, my words have been published in a handful of languages around the world! In print! Think of fashion at the most elite level - and my words were there interacting with these publishers and brands - And yet, my name is on none of it.
This fact started to eat away at me.
I was a published writer and millions of people were reading my words - but no one knew it was me.
Eventually, I started to crack down and turn in on myself. There I was, making someone else’s dreams come true, and I felt neglected, like I got no credit at all. And honestly, it is no one’s fault but my own. I never said anything. I lacked confidence in myself and had no idea how to confront my boss about my position.
All of that writing, all of that time spent on building the dreams of another confident, hardworking woman…
I realized something in those months in the Netherlands and then in the subsequent time back in Canada when I continued to write for her. I learned that I wanted to have my voice heard and that it was worth hearing. I learned that I was allowed to dream as big as she did and that I too could reach my potential as an artist and writer. If anything, having all of those strangers respond positively to my words gave me the confidence I so desperately needed to press publish on my own ideas.
I no longer fear how my writing will be interpreted by a stranger, or a loved one for that matter. That job gave me something that I did not necessarily know at the time and I am forever grateful to my peers that I worked with there, especially Negin. I hope she reads this someday and knows how thankful I am for the opportunity she gave me when I was an insecure Canadian on the other side of the world, away from my family, and desperately seeking a place where I belonged. I know that I let my sadness get to me when I was there, but she still tolerated my moods and trusted my talent, and no one can put a price on that unwavering trust.
So Negin Mirsalehi, if you ever read this - thank you. Thank you for motivating me to take direct action and to have more faith in myself. You gave me the tools I needed in a time that I was so reluctant to accept them. Thank you, for letting me be a part of your world, if only for a short period of time.
We tell our students this all of the time: the internet is forever so don’t put anything on there that you wouldn’t mind future employers seeing. As a child who straddled the development of the internet, I was in a way a part of the preliminary group who dared to share, though I’ve yet to discover anything too incriminating. Thankfully there was no Snapchat or Instagram when I was in high school.
Yet, this sentiment has come up a quite often in my life and place of work: don’t put anything online that you don’t mind others knowing about.To unpack this: don’t put anything online that might derail your chances of acquiring adequate employment.
Now, this has nothing to do with photographs of an elicit nature, rather, it has more to do with the fact that mental illness can still get in the way of your dreams if others know too much about it.
“Just know that people read this, so make sure you don’t mind them knowing about everything you’ve been through. I wouldn’t want that to impact your chances.” –Said by someone who cares
In the past, this would have sent me sprinting home and in a few simple, tearful clicks I would have deleted every post that mentioned my past trauma’s.
Today, my only response to this sort of statement is:
I am me. My past is me. I pride myself on being authentic and I don’t like to lie. I am not perfect. You are not perfect, and if I’m to be punished for being genuine and vulnerable, well then, we still have a long way to go, don’t we?
I’m not making this up. People still question me actively pursuing my voice. I know it comes from a place of love and concern, but it only perpetuates this stigma that we can’t share what we’ve been through and then expect to get the job we want. Suddenly, we're torn between two parts that we need to keep us whole. Career or integrity, which would you choose?
Truthfully, I’m pursuing my career in light of my experiences. I aspire to work with, coach, and teach teenagers. If ever there were a group of people to understand my plights, it is them, and visa versa.
In my heart, I can still feel 14-year-old me bumbling through grade 9, my braces shining, my hair dull, my skin raw, and my clothing choices questionable. I connect to every insecurity my students hold on to, and I know in my heart that my purpose is to be there for them. I am meant to be the one that I did not have.
Try to remember what it was like to be a teenager. They’re concerns about bullying, relationships, and appearance are not insignificant worries. These misconceptions of themselves plague their minds until they can’t focus on anything but those harmful words or the makeup that won’t cover up their skin. Working with kids in the generation of social media makes me thankful that this was not a tool that could be wielded against me during these bleak years. A single scroll through Instagram and you can see the joy drain from their cheeks. How did they not get invited to that party? Why were they not in this picture? How does her hair look so shiny? I wonder if anyone will ever love me like that. Now, I have the chance to bring their spirits up and change their perspective. My writing, which they’ve discovered online (as young students often do when they’re curious about a teacher), has led to some incredible conversations. My honesty has prompted them to open up and talk to me about the insecurities and fears, and that, dear hiring committees, is worth more than the career you assume my honesty might spoil.
May we stop pretending to be better than we are. May we stop hiding that which makes us vulnerable and simply accept that we are perfect with all of our imperfections. I think we’ll all be better professionals once we’ve embraced our flaws, for they are not faults; they are a strength that is unique to us alone. Hiding only perpetuates the stereotype that mental illness is a weakness. Be the person you needed when you were a teenager. I know I am.
Maybe the most difficult of virtues.
Some often equate passivity with patience. Do you guys equate patience with being lazy and watching your life go by? If so, why? This seems crazy to me because if you are patient, you do not necessarily lack ambition and you are definitely not passive.
But, I get it! I was there. Sometimes it feels like yesterday. Yesterday…I woke up every day and felt like I had all of these things that I wanted to do and yet the idea of pursuing them crippled me to the point where I became, what felt like, a passive observer in my own life. Time ticked by and I just watched, waiting for whatever it was I was waiting for to happen. Little did I know that this was not all necessarily a bad thing, however, even while working towards something, being patient can create its own kind anxiety. You think that you’re waiting for things to happen and while waiting you think you are becoming complacent and not actively pursuing your dreams. And then it’s this downward spiral into self-loathing and stress, a feeling that gnaws on you until you just can't take it anymore and jump blindly, grabbing on to the first opportunity that presents itself, even if it wasn’t the best choice – it was the most convenient.
And yet, if you lack patience, if you tackle your visions and expect them to come to fruition instantly, you will be sorely disappointed.
Patience is an odd thing in this age of instant gratification. Many equate their ambitious nature with getting things done immediately or in a short period of time. What happened to the days when the thing that was valued most was working hard for longer than a minute?
Two years later, and my patience seems to be rewarding me even when I feel like jumping and firmly digging my nails into the quickest, easiest thing. I know, deep down, that this option does not make me happy and I won’t make that mistake again. I kind of cringe now, when I think of making that leap. Easier and quicker does not mean better.
I know now what I’m worth and I don’t plan on settling for less than that. All it takes is a little patience and, obviously, a lot of hard work. Still, two years later has come and gone since I started this website, and the idea that I make art that some people enjoy still feels like some strange, alternate reality that should not be mine.
For this brief moment, I will dig up some sentiments from the past.
Journal Entry, January 2015 (a while before finding my purpose)
“Anxiety smothers me like a dirty dish cloth.
I’m nervous about everything.
I wish that all of the uncertainty cradling my stomach would detach itself and digest.
I’m coasting, floating, fatigued, a figure with no definite outline.”
Ah, the beauty of anxiety.
Today, I recognize the value in reflecting, acknowledging, and celebrating milestones, no matter how big or small. For me, it’s hard to believe that two years ago I started living instead of simply surviving. A great tectonic shift occurred in 2016 and every day since then I just feel like living proof that anything is possible. During that whole process of recovery (years of it) I just wanted it to be over. I wanted to be free. I wanted to stop letting my dad pay for all of the specialists I needed to see. I just wanted...I wanted to find me again. At the time, I could not get through the steps fast enough and when there were relapses, it all just felt crushingly hopeless. Yet, without those years of trusting the process, getting over my expectation of instant recovery and gratification, I've found myself in a place that still has so many uncertainties, and yet happiness is what I feel.
It’s a strange thing how everything seems clearer the second let go of this fear of losing to an invisible disease - I’m oddly thankful for my anxiety and depression. I'm sometimes even thankful for the trials and tribulations of anorexia, though my physical setbacks are still something I'm grappling with and seem to be my last true hurdle.
Today, May 10th, 2018, I am less horrified by this idea of my being an artist. In fact, it’s one of my qualifiers now; a label I’ve collected and one I feel infinitely proud of when I’m not paralyzed by it. A lot has happened in two years, and I don’t want to waste your time, or mine, with a deep reflection on all that was accomplished (or not, definitely lots of failure!) because that exercise requires me to spend too much time in the past, when I’d rather just sit cozy right here in the present. I feel nothing but gratitude and I aspire to keep moving forward. I’m hoping that in a years-time, a handful of new exhilarating things will have happened in this tiny career of mine. And if they don't? Then I'll keep pushing forward, as we all do, patiently anticipating the next thing worth waiting, and working, for.
Each day, I wake up happy. Not this shallow, simplistic notion of happiness, but a deeply grounded contentment; a pleasure that evaded me for many years. Happy that I get to go to a job that I love, happy that I'm surrounded by like-minded people, happy that I'm not settling for less.
But then something happens. These strange thoughts try to fight their way in. These ideas that I'm not really doing what I should be doing, or that I've yet to achieve true success because everyone else is doing so much more.
Comparison truly is the thief of joy.
I then begin to think of time passing too quickly. I look at relics that hold memories, flip or click through pages of a life that no longer exists. A little person who dreamed of the world. Curly locks and gangly limbs, a future yet to be determined.
We grasp too desperately for the past sometimes. These places that we can no longer visit, these homes that no longer stand or the buildings that hold newer memories, ones we didn’t create. The faces begin to fade and so does the hope of a simpler time.
Or we dream unrealistically of the future, thinking of all of the things we want and imagine what life would be like once we've acquired them. Perhaps, finally, possession of these things would cease our desire for more.
A part of me feels as though I’m prolonging growing up because pieces of me are still so connected to that child sitting on a tree stump, blowing bubbles carelessly, thinking about nothing but the fun I wanted to share with my friends. Those times before technology, riding around freely on bicycles, hitting baseballs into the neighbours garden, sticking gum in my sister’s hair so that I could give her a hair-cut. Putting on fake nails made of play-dough, rooting through our dress up box and putting on plays, desperately hoping to one day be Sailor Jupiter.
Being a child is pure magic, pure imagination, or at least this is how most of us choose to remember it. Why do we lose this when we get older though? This sense of wonder that is so…just everything that life is not when the skin around your eyes start to crease. I think too much of what was or what could have been. I think of how I might have prevented certain things from happening, or how I might have achieved goals faster. Everything comes down to this abstract concept of time. This invisible thing that dictates our lives, this space that holds everything we know with each passing tick, each gradual stroke.
And then I go to work, a reality that centres me and rips me from these futile thoughts. Here, all of those doubts and musings pixelate, fading to white.
There are no thieves of joy here in the present. Only endless possibilities.
Today I woke up feeling a little sick to my stomach. I felt guilty and unworthy of good things. I'm in a state of constant worry that this good thing will be taken away from me and that everyone will finally realize I'm a fraud. Every time someone expresses their excitement for me, my initial instinct is to shut down their kind words. All I can think is who cares? It's no big deal. Let's not make a big deal out of this. Stop paying attention to me. It's no big deal. Really. What's happening in your life? That's way more interesting!
A quick deflect because when you spend a decade trying to hide, it is hard to be visible and accept it as natural. I struggle to accept the good things when they come.
On April 6th, 2017, I started writing about my art and my struggles with mental illness, and openly sharing it because I was tired of living with the shame I carried around on my shoulders. I was vulnerable and scared, but knew that the only way to heal was to start talking about my past (and present) without embarrassment, because really, what did I have to be ashamed of?
Today, April 5th, 2018, is the opening night of my first solo exhibition in an art gallery. My art…on the walls…of a real-life art gallery. This is real! Younger me is screaming in disbelief! And me today is crying with joy. I know that this might not sound like much, but…it is everything. My journey has literally, and metaphorically, come full circle - to the day! I went from sharing my journey openly and honestly to getting to reveal a collection of works that reflect the painfully hard work that went into my recovery. I am eternally grateful to all of the people who have stood by me through this process. There is never a right time to seek out help. You will always find excuses to avoid it and it is so much easier to just deal with it yourself than to actually acknowledge that you have a problem and let someone else take the wheel for a bit. There is no shame in leaning on others. You are not weak. You are so much stronger than you think.
The journey is never over, but I’m going to try to enjoy this moment and try not to feel like an imposter.
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
It takes a village.
In March of 2016, I was tasked with an exercise by my therapist to write a letter to the younger me. It didn't have to be age specific, just younger than I was in that moment. What a task!
Today, I found this letter on my computer. Something in me told me to look for it. I was curious to see what I'd written to myself two years ago (almost to the day!), when I was at what felt like rock bottom.
Reading it today through the lens of 2018 me, I feel sad knowing that that's where I was, but so proud knowing that where I am now could not have been possible without all of those years of pain.
I wanted to share the letter with you because I think it might be helpful if you're equally struggling. It's important to know that we are not alone and that I'm here to listen if you need a friend.
This letter also made me realize the value of being honest with yourself. There was no sugar coating my feelings here. When I read this, I see myself. I hope you see me too.
March 22nd, 2016
Seeing a therapist feels shameful at the beginning. You always think about what got you there and if you could have avoided it. It’s uncomfortable opening up to a stranger you’re paying to listen to your every thought. Then you’re expected to share the darkest parts of your life and complete exercises that you feel are silly and not essential to the healing process. One of the exercises she had me do was to write a letter to my younger self. What would I tell her? There were too many things. I wasn’t sure where I should start. I’d always loved writing, ever since I was a little girl. I felt like my voice was heard when my pen hit paper. There was no judgement, no ridicule or bullying. Just trust between this book and my mind. It was sturdy and trustworthy, but I only turned to writing when I felt no one was listening and that became dangerous. The pain that poured forth from the tender age of 8 is uncomfortable to reflect upon. I felt so strongly about so many things and I felt like when I spoke, my words fell on deaf ears. And so, I wrote everything down. I wrote down my secrets and experiences I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with anyone. I felt proud of myself for ceasing complaints about what others believed to be trivial things. I felt as though I was finally gaining control of my life, honing my emotions through this creative outlet. It felt safer than painting at the time because my parents couldn’t see it. I wouldn’t let them see me for everything that stirred around inside my mind because I felt ashamed and scared. Scared they wouldn’t understand, scared they’d shut me down, scared they’d tell me I was wrong. I was a teenager and going through a “phase” so they didn’t seem to take notice of the deeper issues, and, how could they? I made damn sure they wouldn’t be able to, locking away everything in the pages of my notebooks. Sometimes I wish they would have disrespected my privacy a little, to really see what was going on. To see how terribly sad I was, how angry and alone I felt, and how badly I wanted them to be proud of me, for something other than athletics. I feel like so many things happened and nobody knew. My sister knew, but just barely. How was I so depressed, so anxious and stressed, from a young child to my mid-twenties, and no one did anything about it? So, I’m faced with this task of writing a letter as an adult and I don’t know if there is any one place to start, any event or age, I almost feel like it had to be vague because so much of it applies to most of my life, some even still applies today. How do you talk about bullying, insecurity, self-loathing, and self-harming? How do you talk about anorexia, mental abuse, overdoses and sexual assault? How can I put this in a letter that doesn’t sound pitiful, that doesn’t sound like I’m looking for sympathy? All I ever really seemed to want was an ear that would listen and a heart that would love, and yet I was stuck in this cycle of pain that I couldn’t escape from. How could I get out when I wasn’t even sure how I got in? Writing this now, I feel like my words seek attention but it’s the opposite of their intent. What do I want? I want to be free from my demons and I want to help others be free of theirs. I often wonder what I’d be like today if people had listened to me more deeply as a teenager and young adult, if my words weren’t shoved to the side so quickly. Would I have treated myself with greater respect? Would I have loved myself more and rely less on the approval of others? Would I have been strong enough to fight off unruly hands and unwarranted attention? Would I have consumed half a bottle of laxatives in one sitting? Would I have eaten more food so I wouldn’t collapse in class and get rolled out on a stretcher to the hospital? Would I have left the house more often to avoid being paralyzed by anxiety? Could I have avoided this personal embarrassment, this unnecessary attention of my withering self? I’m not sure. There is no way to really know.
Here it goes...
Dear young Alexandra,
I don’t know exactly what age you are and I don’t think it matters because since I can remember you have felt inadequate to everyone around you, like you would never be able to amount to anything, like your thoughts and opinions were worth less than gum stuck underneath your desk. I wish you could see into the future and know that everything is temporary. That what’s on the inside outweighs the outside and that you’re going to grow into the beautiful woman you never thought you’d be. What you’re feeling right now will fade eventually. I know that sounds crazy because you’re so wrapped up in the present you can barely think past tomorrow, just know it’s true. I wish you would defend yourself better and not let the harsh words of others determine your self-worth. You shouldn’t let anyone make you feel like you’re not worth loving, even though you don’t feel it now. I wish you loved your unruly hair, your braces, your rough skin, and your “fat” legs and developed female body. All of these things just make you, well, you. I wish you didn’t compare yourself to others. I wish you’d accept your unique qualities. I wish you could see yourself the way your loved ones did. I wish you didn’t see your reflection as repulsive and volatile. I wish you’d stick out the school day instead of disappearing and taking the easy way out. I wish you didn’t see failure as the end of the world. Know that failure is a stepping stone to learning. You will always be learning. I wish you knew how smart you were and that you’d spend more time worrying about school and less time worrying about some silly crush. I wish you knew how to express your feeling in a more productive way and didn’t just keep them to yourself because you were scared to be mean or hurt someone’s feelings. Honesty sucks sometimes but your lies will always catch up to you. I wish you didn’t let others actions dictate how you felt about yourself. Know that your parents are trying their best. You’re their first kid, the guinea pig. Take all of their criticisms less personally and you’ll be better off. They have your best interest at heart, they just struggle to show it sometimes. I wish that all of these harsh words and bullying wouldn’t weaken your character and the self-respect you carry with you. Please. Don’t seek unnecessary attention. You’re beautiful. Embrace that. I just wish you could be happier and know that people are proud of you even if they don’t say it. I know you till don’t feel worth being proud of or loved and that nothing good should come to you because for some twisted reason you think all of those good things belong to someone else. I just wish that you loved yourself the way you want your own daughter to love herself. You’re everything you never believed you were, you just couldn’t see it.
Yesterday I stumbled upon a quote that resonated deeply with me:
"Fear is to begin with the end in mind. There is no end."
There was more written after but I kind of liked the idea of stopping the thought here. I like the open-ended nature of it and how relatable this idea is. Fear holds us back to the point where we are too afraid to start. How is it possible to even fear what we don’t even know to be true? None of us are capable of seeing where these intricate roads take us, so why not approach our fears knowing this? There is no end! Stop worrying about what is ahead of you, rather focus on what is right in front of you. Centre your energy on the journey, not what will come once the adventure comes to a close.
I especially like this quote in relation to the process of creating art.
"Fear is to begin with the end in mind.” I always envision my end to be failure or unnecessary worry about what is next.
“There is no end." If I don’t think about failing or things beyond the present, then there is no reason not to start. There is no end, meaning, failure is not waiting for me.
Or, there is no end, art is a never-ending process that is impossible to complete.
A common question I get after “How long does it take you to finish a painting?” (no idea!) is “When do you know, or how do you know, when the painting is done?”
I usually respond in a trite manner: I just know.
But truthfully, I don’t really know. Can a painting ever really be done? Is there a true definitive end to the process of creating one singular piece? I’d like to think that when I’m done painting everything fades to black and the credits begin to roll signaling THE END, but unfortunately my life is not a movie, as much as it pains me to admit that!
If I approached my work with this fear that no one would like what I produced or no one would buy it so why bother starting, then I’ve already sabotaged myself. Fear once held me back. Fear of judgement, fear that I wasn’t good enough, fear that if I do paint something that people like, then what? Sometimes it is more than just a fear of starting, it is a fear of what happens when you start to prosper?
Can we give ourselves the permission we need to cast fear aside, move forward without thinking about failing, or worse, worrying about what to do if somehow you trick people into liking your product?
My hope is that for today I will not worry about tomorrow, or April 5th (first solo-exhibition show!) or where I’ll be teaching come September (English and Art teacher for hire!).
Today, I have no fear. There is no end, only the beginning.