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.
To the incredible women in my life
I’m thankful for my great-grandmother, moving from Estonia to Canada with my grandpa in hopes of a better life. We are a product of that choice. Thank you.
I’m thankful for my Serbian grandmother, a woman I never got to meet, but a woman who raised my father in a home full endless of love, a home where he knew the power and influence of a formidable woman.
I’m thankful for my Finnish grandmother, who is herself through and through, a strong and passionate woman who pretends to be nothing else. She can do more push-ups than I can, and I'm not even mad about it.
I’m thankful for my mother who has shown me the power of art, patience, and compassion. Thanks for not smothering me with a pillow when I was an unruly teenager.
I’m thankful for my sister who has shown me the power of authenticity, honesty, and perseverance. You are everything.
I'm thankful for my aunts who exhibit a relentless work ethic and dedication to supporting and loving their family. Your kids are so lucky to have you. I'm lucky to have you.
I’m thankful for my girlfriends who have shown me the value unconditional support and are a source of constant inspiration. You inspire me every single day.
I’m thankful for all of the women out there who I don’t know personally who are making waves and being themselves without shame. You all make me so proud to be a woman.
Finally, a thank you the men who believe in equality. The men who support change. The men who are listening.
I paint because I feel like you don’t want to listen to me talk anymore. At least when you look at my work you can look on in silence.
I paint because when I speak, I often feel misunderstood and then I begin to doubt my voice. At least when I paint, there are no words for you to misinterpret.
I paint because when I cry, you think I’m faking it and you don’t care. Ouch. You don't care. At least when I paint, the colours can both reveal and hide how I feel, whether you care or not.
I paint because the canvas doesn’t judge me.
I paint because somebody somewhere understands me, no words necessary.
I paint because sometimes it feels like it’s all I have.
I paint because I can be vulnerable without fear.
I paint because it heals the past and paves the way for my future.
I paint because I can be me, the most authentic version of myself, and not be scared.
I paint because I can.
I paint for you in hopes that you'll see me
I paint for me.
Why do you paint?
Once upon a time I didn't love myself.
I didn't want to leave the house.
I didn't want to socialize.
I didn't want to eat.
I didn't want to exist.
All of that invisible pain felt unbearable. Wouldn't it just be easier to disappear? No one would even notice, right?
With an invisible illness it can feel hard to accept the fact that something is not quite right because, well, you look fine. If you can't see it, why believe it?
But then all that was invisible came to the surface and I wanted to hide away even more because all of my feelings and thoughts still did not feel justified - as if our feelings ever need to be justified.
This is still my reality some days, but I no longer live in a world devoid of hope. Why? Because I started to talk about my problems and little by little, I felt a bit more comfortable in my own skin. First in therapy rooms and then openly with close friends and family.
Now, I know that I am so much more than a mental illness and my hope is that all my students will know the same of themselves.
That being said, usually I just let my paintings speak for me. I like to hide behind my canvases because I, at times, fear being truly seen. When you spend so many years hiding and trying to disappear, coming to terms with being visible is not as easy as clicking your heels together. No matter how much time passes, this will never be a simple conversation, but it is an important one to have. My main concerns now rest in a lingering fear that someone will misinterpret my experiences as a weakness and view it as something that might resurface at any time and derail my productivity.
For six years of my life, I lived under these three umbrella terms synonymous with mental illness: Anxiety, Depression, Anorexia.
I let these words define who I was for so long. They sat on my shoulders, like vultures, feasting on my broken self and making me smaller.
Today, I proudly accept these terms as a part of my identity, but not all of it.
I know that I am no longer strictly defined by these words. Words only have the power you lend to them, so give with caution.
So how do we keep the conversation going? How can we relieve the stigma?
I paint and I write. I talk and I fight for what I believe in - I hope you do too.
This is how I remember all of those yesterday’s:
The control I believed I had once
Filled me to the brim,
More, more, more of
Less, less, less,
That’s what it took to win.
Until my tiny vessel overflowed with emptiness
And purging felt like a sin.
The lack of control over my perceived power
Dictated my every move.
It took all of my energy not to give in
or even worse, to lose.
I was restricted, my mind was wrought,
Until the only food that was left was thought.
Anxiety set in.
Endless hospital visits.
Too much sleep.
Not enough sleep.
The life I was living became a losing game.
And it never truly goes away.
We discuss and we eat,
But brittle bones are forever,
And they hurt when they rub against bed sheets.
Weakened organs are unpredictable
And dry, thinned hair is inevitable,
And self love seems impossible,
And socializing seems pointless,
And carbs feel reckless,
We cling to it.
Purpose, we need it.
Love, we thrive on it.
These abstract concepts become our medicine.
Goals beyond the scale.
A reason to step off of our lonely island
And swim against the current to shore.
You are worth the love you don't think you deserve and the support you don't think you have.
I believe you.
Let's heal together.
With the 2017 school year now in the books, I can finally bask in the glory of vacation, even though I'm already missing the classroom (I know, I'm nuts).
When years come to a close, there is a trend of recounting all of the accomplished goals or milestones set throughout the year, but I’m not going to sit here and reflect on all of the good and bad of 2017. I have mixed feelings about reflecting on achieving shallow, society driven goals or the many new things I tried and succeeded or failed at doing throughout the year. Do you care? Does it impact you? Not at all (hopefully). And I’m not sitting here pretending that my words can shape anything but my own interpretation of things as they were and are. I will do a private personal self-reflection, reviewing the highs and lows of 2017, but what can I take away from it other than that it’s now the past and I’m a product of these choices so I might as well just hang out here in the present?
Upon reflection, if I know that I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone, working hard on a daily basis to better myself in a variety of ways, putting in a consistent effort to maintain and build new relationships, then that should be enough, no? Or admitting to prioritizing naps over human interaction some days, or bailing on engagements because I wanted to be alone, or not following through on promises all of the time. I’m human. We are human. Life happens.
If we can’t accept our triumphs without summarizing them, sharing them, dare I say bragging about them, then something seems off centre. Our world is driven by immediate satisfaction and we can’t seem to stay too long in our own company without philosophizing about all of the things our brain has come up with and how we must share this immediately or risk not being acknowledged for our interesting thoughts.
Do things for you, not for your followers or friends. Take pride in knowing that waking up every day and getting through those 24 hours in one piece is enough. The books you’ve read, the drinks and food you’ve consumed, the places you’ve gone, the jobs you’ve worked, the passions you’ve pursued, all of these things mean nothing if you can’t find that place deep within yourself where you are utterly content knowing that you worked hard today and didn’t rely on others to feel like you were good enough.
In an age of over-sharing, in which we are all no doubt guilty, it’s important to remember that time can be given to things without seeking the reassurance of others. Maybe that could be a goal for 2018: make a list, and keep it to yourself. Hold yourself accountable. Keep chasing your dreams, make bold moves towards self-improvement and prioritize happiness, but know that you can find contentment without the validation of others. You are so much more than that.
2017 was what you made of it.
2018, you’ll get what you put into it.
Success is possible. Failure is inevitable. And the world keeps spinning either way.
People have asked me how long it usually takes me to complete a painting. My usual answer is, "it depends," but I'm not too sure what it depends on, aside from how I am feeling. Truthfully, this feels like a loaded question, one that is impossible to answer because I've never considered the role of time in my creative process. Things just kind of pour out at their own pace. Minutes turn into hours without me being cognitively aware. It’s like magic. Why tamper that by framing it with time?
How long does it take you to do what you love? Do you care? Does it matter?
Time as it stands is indefinite. Once applied to our lives, it suddenly feels calculated and restrictive. It is somehow manipulated into this all-consuming, life controlling dictator. To me, time spent painting is immeasurable and I want to keep that pure, limitless feeling alive, no ticks or tocks guiding my brush.
If only the ebbs of time receded with less haste in all aspects of our daily lives. If only the minutes flowed smoothly into each hour without eagerly anticipating the set stroke of freedom or the dreaded morning alarm. If only the clocks had less power. If only…
I’m grateful that there is not time restriction when it comes to artistic expression. Whether it’s immediate or a bit more languid, I know that I aim to please no one. My sole intention is to explore this compulsive need to express emotions and I don't need a stopwatch keeping track of my hours committed to the canvas.
Who cares, right?
It’s never a question of "how long will it take me to get this idea down?" or “when will I find time to paint?” but more of a “when will the moment strike and how will I seize it?”
Your time is valuable. Don’t waste another second watching the minutes drift into oblivion.
There is a reason I tend to choose abstract painting as my main mode of expression: because I don’t have to articulate what I’m trying to say. Who cares, right? The point is for the viewer to feel something. Once I release my work into the world, I can’t reclaim the original sentiments. I know what I felt when creating it, but overtime the certainty of my motivation fades and now the colours rely on the eyes of others to attach value.
But, I’ve made the attempt to seek out language to accurately convey the odd thought process that can sometimes occurs when I put paint down.
Everything starts in the same spot: what feels like me noiselessly screaming. These hushed sounds come out as red, and then an onset of horrific body shaking, fall-to-my-knees tears trickle down as blue, turning purple when it meets my soundless cry on the canvas. The intersection is a brief moment of clarity, joy if you will, where I don’t feel like my skin is crawling and my mind isn’t distracted by things out of my control. In an instant, my forceful thoughts are abstracted, stretching out across a flat visible surface; it’s all proof that those floating indefinite emotions and unclear recollections are factual. I then add white, almost in an attempt to erase the truth because who would believe me? White. Not symbolic of a clear head or heart, more so a lack of veracity. I suddenly feel dishonest and want to cover-up the mess I’ve made. These brush strokes, it’s me feeling like am empty vessel traipsing the Earth in search of meaning. Then, a splash of orange because it makes me smile and why not add on a cool off green hue, because in that soothing colour my centre holds firm. It brings me back down, grounding my senses in reality, and I no longer feel shame.
Finally, gold, because I want to believe that it does not have to go.
It is hard to revisit the past when you have worked so hard to mentally and emotionally distance yourself from it. I would like to think that even physically I am disconnected from every yesterday I have ever lived and I guess on the calendar I am. I can never physically revisit all of those yesterdays, but there are still traces of each setting sun that nestle deep into my skin, penetrating my bones. My thinned hair is a reminder of days past, my sallow skin and my aching bones can never fully recover from the torment they went through. It’s hard to explain pain, even hard to describe invisible ailments that strangers interpret as self-inflicted, and even more difficult to put into words the intangible forces that sit at the steering wheel in your mind for so long, taking you down unlit roads you and around sharp corners, all in an effort to thwart your efforts to push through, to prove you can beat this pain on your own.
I feel quite detached from the woman I was six years ago when I was at one of the peaks in illness, even two years ago when I officially sought professional help. Though my pain was still invisible back then, the effects were difficult to cover up.
It was about control. It was about something beyond my feeble minds comprehension. I still struggle talking about it, but I was anorexic, I had anxiety, I had depression, and I could barely get through the day. To be clear, these labels will never leave me, they will always be a part of my identity, but their control will not manifest the way they once did. Back then, night couldn’t come fast enough so I could go to sleep without having to explain myself. I would fall asleep each night with a promise to myself that tomorrow I would get help, tomorrow I would do better. So many tomorrows came and went and each day it would still take me four hours to eat an essentially calorie free meal. I avoided all social situations that involved food. I ate alone in my room. I went to the gym every day at 6am like clockwork, then promptly took a nap after my 8:30 am class. I don’t know how I lived like this. It seems like an impossible nightmare when I reflect back on those years. I treated myself with such disdain. There was nothing to love there, the mirror mocked me, and I tried so desperately to disappear. My hair fell out, my skin was dry and lifeless, my hips protruded and bruised, my nails broke off, my wrists were too weak to hold anything heavier than a pen, I look like I was made up of only sharp edges, and yet my mind convinced me that this was good, that this was the way of life I deserved. It was like Groundhog Day and I just couldn’t figure out how to move forward. Countless trips to the hospital could not convince me to eat and I still cannot pin point the exact moment things started to change, but I’m thankful they did.
My memories of these day are not solid, they are loose abstract formations that attach and detach themselves to create new narratives each time I try to remember. The past is hard to revisit if you cannot recall things clearly. It’s painful to think that I hated myself so much and that until 2016 I still had the same impressions of my self-worth.
I still feel like this isn’t worth talking about sometimes. I mean, who cares? There is this sense of guilt that trails you when you suffer silently for so long. You convince yourself that the voices in your head are right and that if you talk about your pain no one will believe you. They will think you just want attention. They will shut you down, turn their backs, and tell you to just get over it or else they will give you something ‘real’ to be sad about, because your current emotions are not rooted in anything visible and so they must be fake. You are a fraud. Get over yourself.
But that isn’t every day. Just some days. I know that everything I felt was real. I can still sense those urges trying to fight their way to the surface. When it feels like another creature is trying to escape through your skin and you start scratching yourself until you bleed or ripping out your hair and ripping off all your nails because the pain feels so inconceivable that you just need to distract yourself with anything. Hurting yourself always seems like the best option because they the pain becomes visible and you can see where it is coming from, only then you suddenly feel ashamed and try to hide it because maybe your pain will warrant unwanted attention, attention you don’t naturally seek but your body is screaming for it. I hate that pain used to be my way out. I hate that restricting food and killing my body used to be my way out. I hate that crying myself to sleep used to be my way out. BUT today these pains no longer manifest in self-harm and I am so thankful.
I am so happy that these are no longer options and that creating beautiful things and smiling all day is my reality. Maybe you can relate to this sense of defeat and triumph. If you do, I want you to know that your day of shining clarity will come and you’ll be oh so grateful to have stuck around to bask in its glory.
You know that scene in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" where Indy is attempting to get to the Holy Grail only he has to prove his faith in a higher power before entering by stepping blindly out off the edge of a cliff, hoping his belief is strong enough to create a path? Sometimes I feel like that only my belief in myself isn't strong enough and when I step off the edge I plummet to my untimely figurative demise. Then there are times where I feel like I'm navigating a tight rope (finally a tangible I can work with!) suspended between two mountains, only I have no cushy pile of softness to break my fall if I were to lose my balance.
Balance. There are a handful of definitions, yet none seem to accurately describe our daily pursuit to not lose track of ourselves amidst the trials and tribulations of daily life.
Losing our somewhat unclear grasp of that work/life balance is stressful because there is no one-size-fits-all guide for stability. I tend to feel an overwhelming influx of emotions when I'm presented two paths for my day and I know that whichever one I venture down, guilt will be trailing tightly behind. Can we really have it all? Meaningful work, a family, a social life, time for ourselves, time to give back to others?
So, how can we maintain our footing even when guilt or anxiety or depression clings to our minds?
I tend to favour the P's: perspective, positivity, priority, and being present.
Taking a positive and pragmatic outlook on life. Knowing that I'm fortunate enough to be able to pursue both of my passions on a daily basis because I prioritize them. I'm comforted by the fact that I've found not one but two career paths that I can commit myself to and actually feel rewarded at the end of the day. I don't ever wake up dreading work. I may wake up tired, I may sometimes wake up frustrated or anxious, guilt can sometimes linger, but when I put my day in perspective, I have only blessing to count and no pains to sulk about. I don't know how I got this lucky. I know that there are so many other individuals who are more qualified, maybe more dedicated to their work than I am, but I like to think I could challenge them on their level of passion. Even when exhaustion sets in and my eyes struggle to stay alert, I can't help but feel grateful for my tired state. Have you ever felt that? Gratitude in the present for being tired? Thankful for your day of labour? That concept was foreign to me five years ago. I now live for today, and today I'm prioritize positivity and not comparing the me today to my former self.
I get to do what I want to be doing every single day, and even though my teaching schedule can be demanding and takes away from the hours I would like to spend in front of a canvas, I've learned to maximize every minute I have with my paints. Whether it's five minutes or two hours, each second is a relaxed one. I feel no pressure to produce because I want to be here. I want to teach and I want to paint, and when you want something bad enough, your time management skills flourish.
What are you passionate about? How might your prioritize your time differently?
Know what you want out of life.
The opinions of others shouldn't sidetrack you or pull you from your focus in the now. You are capable of so much and I say that with first hand experience, scratching my way out of dark holes that dwelled on the past and the great what ifs. Corners that trapped me with my perceived shortcomings and lack of hope for a brighter tomorrow. Days and nights where I my strengths were blinded by my weaknesses and my passions seemed pointless.
Today is a beautiful one. Seize it!