Richard Wagamese wrote in his book For Joshua: An Ojibway Father Teaches His Son that the most important lesson of all is this: “the journey is the teaching, and proof of the truthfulness of all things comes secretly, mysteriously, when you find yourself smiling when you used to cry, and staying staunchly in place when you used to run away.”
These words. I’m holding them tightly and zipping them up in my coat pocket. I’m carrying their weight with me each day. They used to be a lot heavier, but now they feel like the air I breathe in; simply a part of me and necessary for survival.
When I read these words something stirred. Again, I find myself in the middle of yet another transition and yet for the first time in what feels like forever, I’m not trying to run away (though the desire to definitely still exists). Truthfulness comes when we least expect it. Smiling when you used to cry, and staying staunchly in place when you used to run away.
I’m moving again; hopefully this place will stick for a few decades. That thought used to horrify me. Decades. Who could ever commit to something like that when there was so much of the world to see and so many things to experience. How can people be expected to stay put, when once upon a time we were all nomads?
Since 2010, I’ve lived in 13 homes, in 6 different cities. Not just traveling from place to place homes. Full on having to pack up my books and clothes and art supplies and mattress homes. I craved disorder and shunned stability in hopes that I’d find truth and purpose in this state of constant change. Staying put meant I had to commit, not just to a location, but to myself. When you’re constantly on the move, you don’t have time to dissect and truly, deeply discover the essence of your being. I was scared to find out that I wasn’t talented and that I was incapable of anything meaningful, and so I ran.
I ran for so long.
But pain follows you.
It followed me from Waterloo to Kingston, from Ottawa to Europe, and back. There were even pieces of it lingering in Port Hope.
Until I stopped moving, I couldn’t handle any of the mental or physical trauma I’d experienced. It was so easy to avoid.
And the fear never leaves. It's there, always. I'm wary of appearing too excited about this next move because a little piece of me still holds onto my old instinct to flee. It's struggling with accepting this new truth; the fact that I finally belong somewhere...permanently.
Now, here in this moment, I smile instead of crying, and I stay put when I couldn’t easily run away.
Our journey is our greatest teacher. Trust your journey. Travel. Move. But don’t be afraid to stop. Don’t be scared of committing to a place and yourself. Explore who you were, make amends, and grow into the person you were meant to become; because that’s our purpose and the destination all roads lead us to.
2020. The ominous new decade has finally arrived and I feel a wee bit compelled to write; alas, it's the only hobby that has sustained me for the last three decades and one of my most reliable survival tools. Words, and their formative power, are one of the few things I can count on.
When I was 15, half a lifetime ago and the same age as my current students, I didn't think I would reach this year. I knew that once 2020 rolled around I would be 30 and I could not quite grasp what that might entail. It was such a distant, unsubstantial, inconsequential number, because I held on to this notion that I would never have to face it. I would never have to deal with all of the strenuous shifts in my identity and my feeble grasp of reality. I would never have bona fide responsibility or ever have to face the complications of the aging process. Better yet, I would never have to know true failure or make choices that would dismantle, well, everything. I would be young forever and expire when my fragile heart was too weak to pump life through me. That's how I sensed it would go. That was the path I was ambling along. Little did I know that none of these mindless worries would matter and that the world was so much bigger than my narrow self-centred mindset lead me to believe. Growing up is not the worst thing that can happen to you, as our Mother Earth continues to remind us.
Watching people reflect on their last decade felt...inspiring, yet self-indulgent. Even now, I'm questioning the merits of this exercise and who it's for. Certainly for me and my own sanity, but who else? Why do we feel the desperate need to share and connect? Why are we comparing what we've achieved and overcome in ten years? Does it truly even matter when the world around us is burning up? Why are we so damn selfish and needy? Myself included. Let's just agree that no one has it easy. Life does not let up, ever. So let's reflect less on what we've dealt with, because we're all overcoming something. We need to strive to spend our time in more meaningful ways. We can do better.
2020. What will the next decade bring? I'm exhausted by the past, but equally horrified about the future, which puts me in these neat little present bubble of optimism punctured by darkness. I'm hopelessly floating upwards on an unpredictable path, determined to remain suspended a little while longer. I'm not ready to burst quite yet. None of us are.
My artistic output will be heading down the path of change, as it always does, and will continue to reflect the world as I see and understand it; in a state of turmoil and constant flux, laced with great expectations.
When I was in grade 12, my art teacher handed out our final summative project which required each student to pick a theme and do a series of paintings based on our chosen theme.
My theme was death.
I know, so deep and moody. What can I say - I was the epitome of teen angst! The darker the better was my motto and I thrived in this little creative bubble devoid of colour.
Additionally, I chose it because I was suffering from undiagnosed depression and darkness was what my head was familiar with. I hated using colour in my work. I mean, I absolutely HATED colour. The only colour I would experiment with was red because it could illustrate a more Tarantino-esque vision of death. I’d splatter it everywhere. I still remember working on this project in the basement of our family home and my dad coming downstairs and asking me, “Why is everything you paint so dark? Why don’t you ever use any colour?”
The truth was, I had no idea how to use colour because it made me uncomfortable. Colour was wearing a dress when I'd rather wear basketball shirts and shorts. Colour made my skin crawl. It was anxiety. It was fear. It was insecurity. It was not me and I was too stubborn to think about changing. Colour was uncomfortable, just like dresses and makeup were at the time, only because it didn’t feel like an authentic reflection of who I was: a broken teenager who lacked conviction and the ability to see myself the way others did.
Colour also symbolized happiness and at this moment in time I was anything but happy.
Fast forward to 2019, 12 years after I completed this death riddled summative, and I’m a part of a show that celebrates colour. Getting to present a show that focuses on the joy of colour and how it has now infused my world, well, I didn’t think that this day would come. You might think I’m exaggerating, but for years I lived in darkness. My family and friends can attest to that.
Heavy shades encompassed my head and this bleak outlook on life was reflected in my clothing choices and the way I carried myself. I layered myself in baggy, heavy black sweaters and oversized t-shirts. I only ever wore black tights. I was hiding. I was trying to disappear.
Colour meant being seen. Colour meant confidence. Colour meant beauty. Colour meant joy. Colour meant having to truly exist in this world. Colour meant taking up space.
I didn’t want any of those things - until I found painting again in 2016 after extensive therapy.
After each session, I was actually tasked with wearing an article of clothing that was devoid of black at least once before my next session. It didn’t matter what colour, just not dark and it had to be fitted. I was challenged to wear jeans and I was encouraged to accessorize. At first, I felt like all of this was frivolous. What was the point? In my head this was all a waste of money and a waste of my energy - because I didn’t feel like I was worth having nice things. Colour was supposed to reflect how I was feeling inside and at this point in time I felt like I was barely existing. In essence, I felt like I was a corpse with lungs and a heart that still worked in spite of it all.
Today, the colours of my world are no longer monochromatic. I’m no longer held back by fear or insecurity and I’m no longer drowning in a pool of darkness. I'm no longer a bag of bones trying to make myself smaller.
This series is in your face. It’s bold. It’s colourful. It’s SO HAPPY. It’s proud. It’s confident. And most important, it takes up space. I’m not hiding anymore.
Colour symbolizes so many things for me, but the way it expresses my healed perception of myself and the world gives me strength.
Thank you, colour. My world has finally been infused with the power of your positivity, and I am eternally grateful.
New show opens April 2nd and runs until the 27th. The official reception will be held on April 6th from 3-6pm at the Santini Gallery.
We shouldn’t be scared to be who we are, and yet we tiptoe around on a daily basis, following the crowd, and cramming our limbs into uncomfortable, predetermined cookie cutter shapes that do not accurately reflect who we are. I see this everyday at school. Teenagers trying to find their place and being scared to truly stand out.
Whatever people judge you for, whatever society is most critical of - own this. This is your secret weapon. This is your divine strength.
When you start to share your insecurities with others, when you open up and reveal your vulnerabilities, that when we can truly begin to heal. That is the moment that you get to start living your life authentically.
After sharing the article with my students and colleagues, I was received with such...compassion. So much love was directed towards me and I didn’t feel as though I deserved any of it. All I did was open up to a group of people who only saw me smiling in the hallways or shouting on the basketball court. What I did...it did not feel courageous, and yet their messages reflected this inherent strength. To me, it does not feel brave to be myself openly. What it feels like is a relief that I get to just be myself knowing that at the end of the day I love my reflection and the person I am. What a gift that is. There is no fear left and no time is being wasted on frivolous or vain pursuits.
My goal as an educator is to be human. To be someone students see themselves in - something beyond gender, skin colour, and age.
A person who knows what it’s like to be paralyzed by performance anxiety, a person who cries, a person who laughs, a person who carries the past on my chest like a badge of honour. A person who empathizes with struggle and encourages greatness.
A person who leads.
I’m thankful for the article that Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport published. It has opened up new avenues for discussion, especially in the workplace where I fear there is still a stigma against mental health.
Here are a few messages stood out the most to me and I want to share them here with you.
From a fellow teacher:
Wow! Alex! What a story. I knew you were big into basketball, but I had no idea what you went through (how often do we not know what a person struggles with, even with our friends and those we work with).
Thanks for sharing your story. It really is a courageous act to open up about yourself like that, and use it to help others. It takes a very special kind of person to do that. You have a wonderful heart.
We are lucky to have you on our staff, and I can only imagine the positive impact you have with the students.
From the person who hired me:
thanks very much for sharing this. I appreciate that it takes a lot of courage to put that out there it also helps us in our journey of understanding multiple stories as opposed to the single story sometimes we just see face to face. You are a great example to your students and staff thank you very much for showing your vulnerabilities and your growth and your strength. Thank you.”
I feel so blessed (and this is where I start to cry) to get to go into a workplace every single day that loves and accepts all people for who they are.
If I could tell my younger self anything (and keep telling all of the young girls I interact with on a daily basis) it would be to skip past all of the insecurity and get right to the part where we LOVE OURSELVES. Find what is special about you and OWN IT.
Don't waste another minute trying to be someone else.
Check out the article here is you haven't already
I was reading through old journal entries, or online I have them filed under “random thoughts”, and I came across this rather poetic bit I wrote last year.
November 20th, 2017:
“I don’t aim to inspire, I aim to heal. My trajectory non-linear and my goals unclear. I want to wake up smiling, no more tears, no more pain. I think the ties that bind me are the ones I need to severe, to regain my aim. This whole thing, it can’t all be a losing game.
With good intentions and an authentic altruistic vision, I turn to art. When nothing in this world makes sense, when I overthink every last detail of a conversation that struck me down, when my eyes are foggy and my limbs heavy, art is my saviour. I tend to reject the luxury of its healing nature at times. I take it for granted and I pay no attention to my practice for days on end. I always regret this and I feel guilty for the way it trickles down into all aspects of my life.
With the purest intentions, I wake up looking to perform the best version of myself, perform it to the point where it becomes reality.
Pick up the brush.”
I think I needed to read those words today. I forgot I wrote them and was somehow guided back to them. It’s so easy to forget.
But at the same time, when I head to my desk to create or stand at my computer to write, nothing comes out. It’s all gibberish.
My art feels uninspired.
My writing feels uninspired.
My heart feels uninspired.
Yet, this inherent desire to create somehow pushes on, digging desperately, trying to unearth new inspiration.
It has to find us working.
I need to start listening to my random ramblings.
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.