This Year’s Secret

There is an ongoing, sometimes frowned upon, trend to tweet 2019 achievements and accomplishments in a neat listicle format. Things like, “Bought a house,” “Graduated,” “Finished my internship,” “Paid off some debt” and “Travelled,” are common call-outs. While these moments and experiences are indeed milestones worthy of more celebratory emojis any tweet could fit, I couldn’t help but think of the one feat I felt like sharing but didn’t quite know the best route.

I started a list on my Android with ideas about how I could form this important indicator into a summary of 280-characters or less. “Work-Time Respect” and “Always Cleaning,” are two descriptors written in the SmartPhone note that, after a few weeks of letting the ideas ferment like mediocre grocery-store wine, now seem meaningless and confusing to a reader who isn’t monitoring my every step. 

I first opened the Note app on November 14, jotting down thoughts with a lack of buzzwords. This unexceptional list has transpired into a continuous opportunity to dream up a way to write my last blog post of 2019 about this reveal that feels worldly to me.

I’ve opened Google Doc after Google Doc, only to stare at a blank screen and type: In 2019, I started going to counselling.

Ah. 

It’s out there now. My big secret.

Before I share more, I want to also call out that everything is okay. I am okay. Nothing is wrong. (Hi, loved ones. All is well, I promise).

My hesitation to share this news, something I now view as a win, so broadly is because of the negativity associated with “getting help.” I do that thing unconsciously too. You know, when someone in your life shares they have started seeking therapy or have been prescribed an anti-anxiety drug or have been doing anything to better their boundaries and balance, and your brain, trained ever-so-intensely to scrunch at mental health care even if you know it’s not right, goes, “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? WHY DO YOU NEED THAT?”

I am fortunate to work for a company with an employee and family assistance program; I recognize this access is a privilege. 

In January, I made the call to the support team and explained that I have always had general, personal anxiety and was interested in pursuing counselling services, searching for a certified professional who could help me make sense of my stressors and triggers, so to improve my attitude towards work-life and my constant need for order (see “Work-Time Respect” and “Always Cleaning”).

The program offers temporary support, meaning it’s not continuous. There is an end to the recommended initial series of appointments. This factor, while it may not be the right fit for everyone, intrigued me. 

What if I didn’t like the counsellor the voice on the other end of the phone found for me? 

What if I no longer had the time? 

What if I learned I needed more than an hour session every other month? 

I had gone to counselling before, during my post-grad at an Ontario college when I was 22. I had given up after two appointments because I was getting a lot of, “Do you really think going there will help you? Why do you need to go there for? Are you depressed or something?” 

At the time, I was choosing to open up about my reasons for seeking assistance and support from a third party, and the news was thrown under the rug and locked under a secretly loose floorboard for no blood relative to find, until Armageddon or an alien-invasion or perhaps a simple excavation of a subdivision north of Toronto. 

In addition to this, “If I Tell You, I’ll Have to Kill You,” attitude, my first experience with counselling services brought me face to face with a middle-aged man who sat with his arms crossed and his brow crumpled. I somehow vividly remember that his salt and dirty blond hair looked to be the same consistency as that of a young Harrison Ford. The first time we met, this man was wearing a beige ribbed turtleneck.

In my mind, he was any counsellor or therapist from every movie or book in Real Human Form.

While this college support staff member gave useful advice that helped me get through a tough personal and academic year, I still left his office feeling like a crazy, unstable student who was just being dramatic and hormonal. 

This individual also reminded me of my high school guidance counsellor who wouldn’t let me alter my grade 12 class schedule. I had three English courses, back to back, and was extremely nervous about not being able to read and write like the machine I was expected to be, get good grades and go to a top-rated university. He told me to deal with it and he offered no solution or opportunity for discussion. I begged him to give me a math course – something I never thought I’d do.

As I am someone who needs a strategy, or at least a high-level mental list of what must happen in consequential order, I was keen on this new corporate-covered-counselling plan to opt out, should I change my mind.

I thought there would be a waitlist or perhaps a delay in starting the appointments, but within a week, I had my first check-in with a woman I’ll call Jolene. 

That made me a bit nervous. 

I only had a few days to process that I was about to tell a total stranger that sometimes I panic about things the average person wouldn’t even roll their eyes at, and that sometimes I hypocritically roll my eyes at people who panic. 

That said, a short seven sleeps of dwelling likely did me well. 

Jolene is a trauma therapy expert, who recently moved into general counselling services. She listened to me and when I left her cozy office after that inaugural visit, I felt relieved that someone outside of my personal circle understood me and could weigh in with clarity.  

I have seen Jolene about seven times since that first meeting. She lets me talk about things that caused me stress that day, that week, that month. She asks how I am. She shares her opinions in a comedic, relatable way – whether from personal experience or with her, “I’m a Mental Health Professional,” hat on. 

Was everything perfect? Absolutely not. I once left feeling irritated that Jolene didn’t remember a critical detail I shared in an earlier appointment. I almost quit. 

However, was the overall experience better than me saying, “I’m feeling anxious today,” to my cat, who just put her anus in my face in response? Absolutely, times infinity. 

Three medium-sized plants are potted in beige, knitted hangers, delicately resting against a white wall.

Jolene shared with me suggested ways to cope with the everyday tug of war that didn’t include nibbling on my cuticles and lashing out at people I love. 

In our second session, Jolene asked me if I ever go into the bathroom at work to cool down. I immediately pictured that scene in Mean Girls when Cady goes into the stall to eat her sandwich at lunch, because the school cafeteria is equivalent to Bowser’s Lava Lair. 

“I mean, I guess,” I said.

She continued. “Try counting down from 100 next time, by random numbers, like 17 one day and four the next, so it challenges your brain to really focus on something different than the presenting problem. Those stalls are also great for hiding tears.” 

As a once die-hard fan of Kelly Cutrone’s If You Have to Cry, Go Outside (thank you, Lauren Conrad), I was both shocked and relieved that someone was encouraging me to cry if I needed to. 

I have been told countless times that I’m immature and overly sensitive for crying. People have threatened me and told me I better start acting my age if my reaction includes tears. 

I once had a panic attack in a McDonald’s before starting grade eight. I was petrified of going back to school to face the bullies who sparked insomnia the year prior. I also did not have the words to share how I was feeling, so I sobbed loudly and stress-ate a large order of fries and a 10-pack of nuggets, while being asked, “Why are you so sensitive? Oh my god!” 

Yet, here I was, in a building under construction in Toronto’s financial district, sitting in a large green armchair, as a respected professional woman told me crying in the bathroom at work and counting backwards in random intervals was totally and truly fine. 

I once cried so loudly in public – at a Jack Astor’s near Toronto’s international airport – that I drastically embarrassed myself, my date and our server. On that night in 2009, I went home to my residence room and promised myself I would never cry in public again.

(Disclaimer: This does not include crying in public while reading a good book).

It’s important to note that I work in an office and while the overarching tasks for which I am responsible are not concretely impossible or life-saving, I do have challenges when politics and egos mixed with long-standing sexism and body shaming are an everyday occurrence. 

I am getting a lot better at picking my battles and walking away, but that’s not to say I haven’t had chest pains in the last six months at my desk. 

Afternoons sometimes include 20 people sending me instant messages, each about a different project, at the same time, as someone else is commenting on how I didn’t accept their offer for a piece of a Kit Kat bar because I must be trying to lose weight to fit into my wedding dress. 

I once had all of that, and a man say, as I was walking to wash my lunch containers, “Next time you go to the kitchen, let me know, so I can give you my dishes to clean, too.”  

As well, there are the corporate shenanigans that demand urgency and repetition – even if it’s after hours, even if I’m unavailable, even if I’ve already answered the questions being asked in an email that apparently no one has read and even if teams have been provided with an overview of deadlines since the moment Eve ate the apple and was punished for wanting equal access to knowledge. 

Jolene has validated for me that saying, “No,” and setting boundaries are things I don’t need to feel bad about. She nods along as I say things like, “I want to re-evaluate.” And, “I haven’t had time to interview people for my blog, and I am working on not feeling like shit about that.” (Reader: I still feel bad).

One evening, Jolene asked if I ever block off my calendar at lunch time. I laughed and said, “I haven’t taken a proper, consistent lunch break in years.” 

Of course, there are times when I see friends for a bite or take a short break away from my desk, but I wasn’t brought up in a world that applauded an hour off every day between 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m., religiously, even if that time is unpaid.  

Jolene asked if I had ever thought of blocking off time in my calendar – even if I don’t take a legitimate break – so I can’t be booked at times when I’m most productive at my desk. I hadn’t practiced it, but since meeting with her, I’ve started. She also suggested I make a rule for myself and only reply to emails after a certain time if it’s absolutely necessary. 

Now, I try not to reply to emails (day depending) after 6:30 p.m. While Jolene shared she understood the need to get work done at home, and she recognized I manage my anxiety with productivity and physically crossing items off my to-do list, she also suggested I appear offline and avoid the risk of instant messaging about project status updates while in my PJs.

These practices have helped me in those moments when it’s bedtime and I take one more peak at my inbox, to prepare for the day ahead. Nine times out of 10, there is nothing there that requires my immediate, half-asleep attention. However, there have been a few instances where I’ve read emails before beddy-bye that make me want to sink my phone in an overflowing toilet. 

Note to self: Count backwards from 100 in groups of 11, think of your reply, send it in the morning after you’ve had your tea. 

On a personal front, Jolene also confirmed that wanting to pay a vendor to make a seating chart for my upcoming wedding was rational and a smart move. When I first had the idea to outsource, I thought I was being dramatic and a bridezilla. I thought people would describe me as needy, demanding and ungrateful. 

“You have to manage your anxiety and if you can afford to take a huge task off of your to-do list by charging out, you should do it,” Jolene said.

I have spent 29-years feeling guilty about spending money on myself and wasting cash or byproducts of my income. 

I too know that whenever I commit to a “pricey” self-care tactic, like getting my nails done or buying my lunch if I don’t have the time or energy to cook something, my stomach starts to turn and I get all sweaty, worried that the money used to help me feel happy, productive, comfortable and confident will be needed for a prospective, non-existent emergency, and I’ll be filled with regret when I realize I could’ve used my dollars and cents for greater good.

If it means anything, I still pack my lunch most days, but I try not to beat myself up for enjoying mid-day takeout. 

In our last session of 2019, just the other week, Jolene gave me a tip that will help me through the holidays, a period that while filled with joy and laughter, will also be peppered with unwarranted comments from Fox News’ biggest fans and the likes of those Keeping Up with the Jones’. She said, “Remember, people with busy minds are not always busy bodies.”

In other words, loud rapid-fire observations from the peanut gallery do not always come from productive, positive people, and they are meaningless. 

All these best practices are things I know deep down, and none of them are groundbreaking or newsworthy by any means, but still, they are mindsets I often refuse to remind myself of, because I’ve chosen, or perhaps been trained, to focus on what I’ve done wrong, how I’ve offended everyone around me and how my actions justify the commentators’ remarks. 

The purpose of this post isn’t to force anyone to seek counselling services or therapy. It’s not about bragging to the world about how far I’ve come. I’ll likely slip up 100 times between now and my next appointment. I have a lot of rules in place, I know. 

Instead, it’s to remind myself that I’m human and I’m allowed to ask for help. That I’m allowed to say, “I don’t want to come to that event,” and that it’s not inappropriate to remove myself from a situation or turn my notifications off when something is too much. 

It’s also an attempt to recognize that some weeks will be better than others – and that being social and remaining open to opportunity and last-minute meet-ups are just as important to my health as a Saturday evening on my couch as The Sleep Machine: Rainforest Spotify playlist pours through my Google Home. 

In short and most importantly, it’s an end-of-year personal essay that I will read repeatedly in times when I feel like everything in my brain is tougher than a Nokia 6101 Flip. 

Further, it’s proof that realistic, attainable goals and expectations versus pressure-filled aspirations are more beneficial for my productivity and my sanity. 

I am not a doctor, nor am I by any means a health care professional. I am not one of those people on Instagram selling you $13.00 hummus and a pre-packaged vitamin plan. I am an average person, who in 2019, petitioned for valuable advice. 

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