Everything the Life is Sweet project has taught me

Thursday, February 28, 2013

I wasn't sure what to expect when I announced the Life is Sweet project. I knew that I was going to produce a show to honour my mom's life and put together a month of blog posts about people's experiences with mental illness and loss. I knew that I wanted to honour my mom's memory, get people talking about mental illness and share my perspective on life. I didn't realize how much more I (and those around me) would gain from the experience. Here are some things I've learned along the way:

I have learned that given the right opportunity, nearly anyone can share their story. I have been so moved by the candor, bravery and respect that has been shown on my blog this month. I have heard from many of the guest bloggers that writing their post has changed their life and that they were grateful for the opportunity. If you haven't already, take some time to go and read their posts and share their stories. I am so indebted to them for all of their honesty and love. As a result of the show and the blog, many others that I know as well as complete strangers have opened up to me and shared how mental illness and loss has impacted their lives.  Many have asked to write next year if I decide to do the blog project again.

Curating a month of blog posts about mental illness, mental health, death, grief and many other intense subjects requires you to be an editor, confidante, friend, cheerleader and therapist. It is fulfilling, demanding and oh-so worth it.

When your very first solo show sells out ten days before the event, you will cry at your desk and then run around skipping. And squeal. A lot. And probably cry some more.

Amid songs and stories about the life and suicide of your mom, you may still make people laugh and remind them of all the good in their lives. The experience will be surreal. Enjoy every second.

I have learned that 15 years after her death, I can feel closer to my mom than I have in many years. Family members have told me the same thing. This connection is beautiful and probably something I am most thankful for.

This project has taught me that even with the dreary skies, cold days and sad feelings, February can be an okay month. It's still not my favourite, but this project made me feel happier than I have in as many Februaries as I can remember.

I've learned that after a sold out show filled with a loving, kind, beautiful audience, you may come crashing down a bit and spend a weekend feeling all the emotions you would normally feel in a whole month. This won't be easy, but with the right support system, manageable.

I have learned that those of us dealing with mental health concerns are truly not alone and how important it is to be there for those who need the extra support. A huge number of people have reached out to tell me how this project has touched them and have agreed that it is something that we need to be talking about and focusing our energies upon. This isn't a one day effort or a month long effort - it needs to be happening year round. I have gained a whole new network of people who share this belief and trust that they will help to keep the conversation going and work towards erasing the negative stigma and helping those who need it.  #letstalk

I have been reminded what incredible friends and family and supporters I have in my life. Everyone's love, kindness and generosity has been wonderful. Thank you for all that you've done to help me bring this project into fruition.

Above all else, I have confirmed that life truly is sweet.

I never doubted this fact but the show and blog posts and the support I have received from my friends, family, bloggers, Facebook friends and twitter followers has been unbelievable.  I recently fell in love with the quote "there is so much beauty that you haven't seen yet. don't give up now" And that resonated so deeply.

Sometimes we are faced with more than we think we can handle.

Push through.
Ask for help.

You will get through it and come out stronger on the other side.

Life is sweet in spite of the challenges that come our way and I hope that this project has been a reminder of that for you too.

Removing the Stigma Surrounding Mental Health

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A big component of this blog series and my show has been about working to eradicate the stigma around mental health. Even though 1 in 5 of us will have direct experience with mental illness in our lifetime, there is still a lot of negativity out that that just needs to go. On February 12, I saw more people discussing mental illness candidly than I ever had before and rather than save it for one day when donations are being made and a hashtag is created, the discussion needs to be ongoing. I'm really proud that the Life is Sweet series has opened up a dialogue and I truly want that to continue. 

I used to think that Twitter was silly, but it has connected me to some incredible people, like Joseph, who I wouldn't have met otherwise. He has been an awesome supporter of this project and I am so happy he got on board to write. 

For years (more years than any of us have been alive) there has been a stigma around mental illness that has prevented us from speaking openly about it. As a sad consequence, there has been an extreme lack of resources for those of us who need help, or perhaps even sadder those resources may exist but an awareness of where or how to find them does not.

We see extreme cases of what happen when help isn't readily available in such tragedies as the recent Newtown shooting, or virtually a host of other heart-wrenching examples. One thing I have learned in life, though, is that nothing is just good or bad... it's both. Every shadow has it's sunshine. All of the darkness that we see such as the many sad stories of untreated mental illness resulting in tragedy all carry a ray of sunshine. It's apparent to all that because of the recent Newtown tragedy that we are starting to speak more openly about mental illness. (Take, for example, the articles of "I am Adam Lanza's..." mother, psychiatrist, doctor that sprung up so quickly after the shootings in Connecticut.) We are making great strides in removing the stigma that holds so many of us back from finding the help we need. 

I am excited about any and all of these developments that shine light on these important issues, including the recent #BellLetsTalk initiative. But there is also much more that I believe needs to be done. And, I don't believe the solution is going to be found in talking about mental illness more. It's a good start, but there is a deeper stigma that needs to be removed. What we really need to do is remove the stigma around mental health.

It may sound too simple, but mental health is more important than mental illness. None of us fall into a box of mentally ill or mentally healthy. It's not an either/or proposition. Instead of looking at this issue of "check this box for mentally ill, or the other for mentally healthy" we would benefit far more by looking at our mental & emotional well being as a spectrum. 

We do this with health & fitness. Or, at the very least, we are starting to do so a lot more. We no longer just count on our doctor to tell us if we are "healthy" or "unhealthy." Most people realize that they could be healthier than they currently are, or they see that they are now in a better state of health than they were last year. We all acknowledge that eating more vegetables, and less donuts, will be good our bodies. As will trading in that diet coke for water, the deep fried French fries for a salad, or choosing to walk or bike to work instead of driving our car. Should we not begin to acknowledge the same for our mental wellness? Some things will strengthen it, others will weaken it. 

Now this isn't a discussion about whether doing or not doing something causes mental illness. If you think about physical wellness, nobody is so naive to say that having that one slice of sugar-frosted cake instead of some organic kale chips causes diabetes... BUT we are aware enough to know that it has an effect. We know that one is better for our health than the other. We are also aware that those who regularly opt for the kale chips instead of the cake are far healthier physically. In many ways it's the same for mental health. Mental illness is a complex issue, far beyond my full comprehension. What I do know, however, is that if we shift our thinking away from either/or this "caused it" or didn't to what supports or what doesn't, then we will see much more individual - and collective - progress. 

Sadly, we have stigmatized mental health in such a way that many positive things we can do for ourselves are stigmatized as well. Far too often I see the perception that those who work with a therapist, counselor or a coach are broken. Or the sentiment that support groups & group counseling are for the weak. "People only see therapists when they are broken enough to need help to even function in life" is a paradigm that seems to pervade much of the population, and it is holding us back. Big time.

Let's switch back to the physical health analogy for a second. People who work with personal trainers are rarely viewed as the lowest on the spectrum of physically fitness. In fact, it's quite the opposite. All the elite athletes work with trainers, or even a team of trainers, and get the best results. When an everyday person hires a personal trainer, they begin to get better results and see a much faster transformation. We often regard them as committed to their goals, motivated and see them as high performers. We admire them for their examples, and often aspire to the same. 

Why is it not the same for mental health? 

It should be, and it can be. We can make that shift happen. 

Improving our own mental wellness

Shifting from a "broken VS healthy" mindset to that a spectrum, allows us to enjoy a much higher quality of life. I'm reminded of a powerful formula that I remember learning as an athlete in high school. 

Performance = potential - resistance. 

This formula applies to athletics, physics, my career in marketing, and probably in many others. It also applies to mental health. 

In simple terms, our happiness in the present moment (potential) is equal to the hope we have in our future (potential), less the degree to which we let the past hold us back (resistance).

Happiness, being the aim & end of our existence, can be increased by improving the view we have of our future, and by eliminating the resistance created by a past we can't let go of. We can improve our view of the future through the standard path of personal development. Eliminating the resistance of the past is the realm of addressing childhood trauma, learning to embrace our shadows, forgiving others - and ourselves - of less than picture perfect memories.

Improving our collective mental wellness

We need to remove the judgment of others that becomes implicit with the paradigm of mentally ill or not. Instead of this us VS them mindset, a paradigm of a wellness spectrum becomes more of a "we" issue. We're all in this together, and our communities, and planet, all get better as any individual gets better.

This simplest way to do this is to ask the question "How are you?" and actually mean it. In North America, we use the phrase "how are you?" as a greeting, without expecting a real answer. This is obvious by the way we ask it while still walking past each other. How many times have we automatically answered "I'm good. You?" and just kept walking? Even when we are feeling depressed, neurotic, overwhelmed, etc, we often just say "Good, you?" because we know the asker doesn't really want to know. I knew a man who would get an honest answer out of anyone he asked, though, because of the simple reason that he'd stop, hold your hand and look you in the eyes as he asked, and then waited for a response. If you'd answer "good, you?" he'd say "How are you really?" and always provoke a thoughtful response.

Also, let's embrace the positive change of others. I recall the story of a woman who is a Well known speaker on the topic of self-acceptance. An overweight woman herself, she spoke of the power that comes from rejecting society's skewed notion of runway model beauty and learning to love ourselves exactly as we are. Her message was liberating others, especially those who didn't fit the mold of tall, skinny, magazine-cover "beautiful." When, however, she decided to start losing weight (after hearing her doctor report that recent test results showed that her health was in jeopardy) her followers began to criticize her for "selling out" and being inauthentic in her message. What she was really doing, was taking another step forward to improve her quality of life. Eliminating her earlier resistance of feeling inadequate for not being skinny was a powerful step in increasing her happiness and emotional well being. Improving her potential by becoming healthier was another powerful step. We often quote that "misery loves company" but we need to remember to celebrate when people make positive changes, even if those changes may leave us behind temporarily. Instead of holding ourselves and each other back, we need to exhibit attitudes of encouragement and shift to a mindset of "growth loves company" and help each other along on our journey.

So, tell me... How are you today, really?

Joseph Ranseth is an author, speaker and marketer who refuses to write a bio. He's one of my favourite people and I am grateful to call him a friend. Follow him on the Twitter and he'll tell you about having the #BestDayEver, well, every day. He runs a purpose-driven marketing company with an official launch just around the corner. 

One Ballet Class

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Since losing my mom I've shared so many of these thoughts about having a child of my own someday. This is Teresa's second post for the Life is Sweet project. You can read her other post here

I’m at my 3 yr old goddaughters ballet class. I put her in it, because she is a classic girl and her mother is not. Piper Jean loves pink and rubbing noses, doesn’t care for getting dirty. Her mother is a dreadlocked hippy with an older daughter that loves bugs and quiet, and sometimes she doesn’t know what to do with this feminine little social butterfly. She wants to play princess, wear flouncy dresses and paint nails. I like to think she gets it from me.

So I put her in the very class I started at when I was 3, at the Holly Hughes Academy for young girls. And every Thursday, just like when I did, she marches in her little pink tights and soft salmon shoes, ready for dance. She sports a tiny bun made of her silk spun hair that never stays in, pushed off her little face still small enough to fit in my hands with a tender headband to catch the unruly wispy baby hairs on my little lady’s face.

Thursday is our day; I pick her up an hour early. She tells me stories I don’t always understand; chattering on inanely, and I listen intently as though she is telling me the cure for cancer. We go for a milk and a snack, and as always, I tell her about staying healthy and making good choices about what we eat.  Already at 3, she doesn’t care for fast food and steals my zucchini off my plate when we have dinner. She gets that from me too, I suppose, she is the only health conscious 3 year old I know. Her first swear word was when we drove past a McDonalds and she said ‘That shit will kill you’, and I realized my little girl was sponging off my word. I have no children of my own, but she is the closest thing I have to mine. When she was a baby, her poor mother was 21, with a demanding toddler, a screaming newborn and an absent boyfriend. I took one look at her raspberry lips, her little blue eyes, and her little clenched fist and I was hooked.  The first time I met Piper, she glanced around the room unimpressed, as though she perhaps took a wrong turn somewhere out of the womb. And I remember thinking, ‘okay, I get that. Maybe we can get along’. This is the baby girl I cradled into my chest for months, giving her mother my gift of martyrdom, as though my presence would give her a break from the demands of motherhood, but in reality it was entirely selfish: I was falling in love with this little girl. And in her fussiest of times, when no one else would do, I could always still soothe her. She would scream and wail for anyone else, but I seemed to have the right concave of chest, the perfect sink in my collarbone. She would collapse into me as though it was me she was screaming for, as though the jut of my chin resting against her temple was the very thing she needed to sleep. And we grew together, that baby girl and I, just like that.  I held her hand while we walked and stumbled around parks and bumped heads on coffee tables, and she held my hand as we stumbled through uncharted territory for me: Loving a child. Because when your mother dies when you’re 7, this ends up being an issue for you. Although I have always been the mother hen among my group of friends, having a child scares the bejesus out of me.  It brings up all sorts of insecurities with me: What if I’m not good at it, what if you need to see that sort of thing in your own life to be able to mother another? What if I’m just too selfish of a person for that now? My life is a constant self-indulgence of doing what I want, when I want, albeit a very fulfilling one at that. But what if I’ve filled myself up so much there’s no room for a child? And the very scariest question of all: What if I have a child, and am an amazing mother, what if I love her perfectly and sweetly, and then I die and leave her too? I can’t even imagine. But then here, this little blond princess broke into me, and showed me that there is room, especially for little ballerinas.

And it is here, on the bench where I wait for her to finish learning plies’ and spins, with the other moms, that somehow, 20 years after mine left that I get closer to my mother. My memories of my mother are unfortunately, not all pleasant, and the others; sparse. She was sick for years, and although I have a couple happy memories, there isn’t really any day to day dealings I remember of her, other than sitting in a cafeteria, being minded my a nurse that fed me oatmeal cookies while we waiting for her chemo to be over.  But today I spy a young mother with her little girl, waiting for a sibling to finish class. And they have the rhythm that only a mother and daughter can have. She knows which way to lay into her, and her mother knows the exact second that she will begin crying, and has an arsenal of fail safe jokes to make her smile. She tickles her, kisses her in places that only mothers kiss their children: the back of the ears, palms of germy hands; places too intimate for others. Her daughter giggles with glee in the way that only small children can when they are around someone they know will always think they are funny. And it takes everything I can do to not cry. All I can think is ‘My mother must have done this with me’.  Surely there are a million instances where my mother tenderly showed me she loved me, surely only she knew the right song to sing to me.  I don’t think about my parents as often as I probably should, but in moments like these, I yearn for her in ways I can never explain unless you too, are a little girl that has lost her mother. People think that when you lose someone and the white-hot surge of loss is gone that so is the longing, but it’s not. It happens here, in random moments, where you are watching a little girl with her mother that you’re quite sure that if you move one inch to the left your heart will explode in your chest right there from sadness. There are no purer, sadder moments in my life than where I stop and think ‘I miss my mother’. So where does that leave me? Will I always be too terrified to finally have a child of my own? I mean, Piper is not even mine, and the natural instincts I feel for her are intense; even the thought of anyone ever hurting her makes my blood boil. How can I ever risk being completely cut open like that? Will I die without leaving any real legacy behind? I don’t believe you have to have children to be a woman, plenty of people are fine without them, and I could very well be one of them; but did I really want there to not be a person out there who came from me? Who never has my genes, my eyes, my wit? Will there ever be anyone out there who says they ‘get that’ from me?

Piper Jean comes out of class just in time to break my pity party before the tears come.  Flying out of class would be more appropriate here actually, Piper does everything the same, whether it’s exiting a room or entering a heart: Headfirst, at top speed. She prattles on about the move she learned today, not pausing for a breath, shows me the sticker she got for being a good dancer, and waves goodbye to her ‘best friends’, because in Pipers world, everyone is her best friend. I help her into her coat, change her shoes and scoop up her taffeta covered butt to load her in the truck. Her teacher comes out and tells me that Piper is the most accomplished dancer in the class, as though at 3 years old, they are practicing Swan Lake and not doing jumping frogs.  She crouches down to my little frog, and asks her ‘How are you such a good dancer already?!’.  Piper Jean, delighted in the solo attention, jumps up off her little rose colored feet, and shouts ‘I get it from my Auntie Teresa!!’,. And although this time it will swell from only love and pride, I wonder how many times my heart can feel like it’s going to burst out of their chest in just one ballet class.

Teresa is a writer, traveler, nutritionist, tour manager and hula hoop champion.  She likes bukowski, the ocean, holding hands, Roswell reruns, and long, romantic walks down the organic produce aisle. Her blog (www.dancesinthedark.com) is currently under construction, but until then you can find her on twitter @thebandiswithme 

Let the light shine in

Monday, February 25, 2013

I love having a lot of beautiful souls in my life who understand that depression is more than 'just a bad day' and have strategies for how to manage it. In today's Life is Sweet post, Ashley talks about her own personal experience with depression along with some of the ways she found healing in her journey. 

Depression is a hard concept to understand for those who have never experienced it. It cuts deeper than general sadness or grief, nor is it a feeling which comes and goes or passes after a few days.

I experienced depression more than a year ago now, and I still remember the uncontrollable sobbing, the dark fog and sometimes, the stinging numbness. I remember desperately trying to stop the tears and put on a happy(er) face when I had to function in public. At the time, I was finishing my designation to become a holistic nutritionist and was already a practicing yoga instructor. I felt ashamed by my feelings. I was the one who was supposed to have it altogether and be the example. Because of this, I was afraid to share my experience.

I know now, that I was not alone in that fear and shame.  There are so many people who are afraid to share or talk about what they are going through, and instead they plaster on a frozen smile. Depression shouldn’t be something that we hide or feel ashamed about. In fact, mental illnesses, such as depression or anxiety are not so subtle clues that something deeper needs to be addressed.

In our current society, mental illness is treated as a shameful disease and the individual is medicated with a ‘band-aid solution’ pharmaceutical drug which can be even more dangerous than the illness itself. I am not saying that medication should never be used, especially in extreme cases, but it shouldn’t be the only solution. Overcoming this illness can take bravery, looking into those dark corners of yourself that are triggering the depression or anxiety.

Listen to Your Feelings:
It is often a much easier to ignore what your emotions and pretend everything is ‘fine’ and you’re just feeling a little ‘depressed’. However, to really understand what are feeling and why you are experiencing these deep emotions you have to go a little bit deeper. Close your eyes and get quiet; look into those dark paces of yourself where the sadness, guilt, shame and anger are hiding. Only in acknowledging what thoughts and emotions you are experiencing, can you heal yourself.

Let Your Emotions Free:
Acknowledge and release that darkness to let the light shine in (or find the lightness and love which already exists within you). Whether it be taking to a trusted friend, family member or professional, let those feelings out without editing them. There is no reason to feel shame for experiencing depression. Continuing to internalize those feelings will only keep them trapped in the same ongoing cycle. If you are not yet ready to talk to someone, write your feelings down. Just keep writing without over thinking and don’t judge anything during the process.

Embrace who you are:
Are you an introvert trying to be an extrovert? Are you in a relationship that doesn’t light you up? Are you working in a career that goes against your true values? Trying to be somebody different than who you really are or not listening to your true values forces you to compromise yourself. Over time this can drain your energy; trying to fill a role that you are not meant to be in. You may feel as if you’re never good enough or can never live up to standards which someone else has set for you. Take time to explore your unique qualities, and what you truly want in your life. Be honest. By embracing what makes you truly unique, you can live by the standards and values which you create. You can get excited to share the best authentic version of yourself!

Move into Freedom:
Activities like yoga and dancing can help to bring movement into those areas of the body where we all store emotions. Finding movement through the torso, hips and chest (heart centre) can begin to free up stuck emotions. This freedom of movement can allow emotions to pass on their own or expose themselves if they were hidden.  Movement also brings the focus of the mind from the constant mental chatter to the physical body. This can distract you from constantly dwelling on stressful thoughts and emotions, bringing you periods of relaxation and peace.

Nourish Yourself:
We often crave unhealthy foods as a way to cope with or suppress unwanted emotions. Eating a diet of unhealthy foods will not provide the nourishment your body needs. Lack of nutrients in and of itself can lead to depression or mental illness. So start to walk away from the coffee, fast and pre-packaged foods. Learn to prepare and eat foods which uplift and strengthen the body. Drink lots of pure, filtered water and incorporate more fresh fruits, vegetables and clean protein into your diet. Providing yourself with the essential nutrients your body needs each day can have a dramatic effect on your energy and mood. It is one of the most wholesome forms of self love. 

I share these tips with you as they were all a key part of my healing path. The inner work can be scary and will take time to process, so don’t be afraid to share it or work with a professional. Eventually the light will begin to shine in again, and please, pay it forward. Share your journey and touch the heart of somebody who may be struggling. If I can touch even one person by sharing my experience with depression, it means the world.

As a yoga instructor and holistic nutritionist, Ashley encourages people to walk the path their true nature intended. This is a fancy way of saying that by choosing health you can feel awesome everyday, so you can live a life you love. Ashley left a career in interior design to pursue a more holistic path, knowing she wanted to make a difference in her own life and in yours. Specializing in emotional eating, Ashley thinks addressing emotions are just as important as the food we eat. Health and happiness are not just concepts to strive for, they can become your natural state of being.

All I can give you is love

Sunday, February 24, 2013

There was a very special group of people at the show on Friday including a bunch of family members and friends who had the pleasure of knowing my mom. For today's Life is Sweet post I wanted to share some memories that they had shared with me about my mom as I was putting together the show and the blog series.

Due to circumstances beyond their control, my mom and her two older sisters did not grow up together and were separated for 25 years. My mom called their reunion a dream come true, something she had wished for for many years. I feel so lucky to have both of my aunts in my life and it was wonderful to have them both in the audience. My aunt Sharon sent me a story being reunited with my mom in 1993.

"Can you imagine sitting at a restaurant and seeing two woman staring at each other and hysterically laughing at each other? People probably thought we were crazy. Each time we would start a conversation, we would go again laughing and crying at the same time. It was us looking at one another after 25 years apart. It was like looking in a mirror at ourselves. We couldn't get over it."

My Aunt Sandy said that one of her favourite memories of my mom was a weekend in 1997 when my mom and Aunt Sharon went to visit Sandy in Quebec. She said they laughed from the time my mom arrived until she left. Sadly it was the last time she saw my mom.

One of my favourite pictures of my mom and I was taken at her friend Brenda's wedding where my mom was the maid of honour.

my mom and I at Brenda's wedding

My mom and Brenda were friends since they were kids, and it was so special to have her at the show on Friday

"I remember the first time I saw sadness in your mom, we were still teenagers. She hadn't gone to school for a few days and when I called her she wouldn't come to the phone, so I finally just knocked on her door, your grandmother let me in. Your mom had her wrist all wrapped up. 

It didn't jump out at me like you think it should have, it was her sadness that jumped out more. She was numb. She told me she cut herself in a attempt to take her own life. Why, a thousand times over... WHY? She said pain and hate; it choked her. I never understood; she was so popular, had lots of friends, always seemed happy to me - what was I missing????? Until that day I didn't know things were not the way they appeared.

I have learned though your Mom's death that sickness doesn't always show itself, that depression is isolating. I knew she had an illness, but I never really saw it... I saw my friend Debbie Gibson... beautiful inside and out"

Brenda & I 

At the show I shared a story about my mom that my friend Tamara had sent. Tamara and I were inseparable in the seventh grade and my mom loved her like a second daughter. 

"I remember the day we went to Gerrard Square and you bought that greyish blue long skirt for our upcoming dance. When we got home you tried it on for your mom and we talked about the boys we were into at the time. Your mom just sat and talked with us, she was attentive and smiling.

I love that she was always supportive. I don't ever remember her saying anything negative to you or hurtful. Her words were always warm and loving. She completely accepted me like her own and I always felt welcome around her. It always felt easy talking to her, especially about boys"

I told this story at the show, because on the day I bought that skirt I also bought the first Spice Girls album (which became the soundtrack of my life for the seventh grade) I talked about seeing the Spice Girls in concert a few years ago and how fascinating it was to see how the meaning of the songs had changed for them, especially Mama. That song has also taken on a very different meaning for me and I was very happy to include it in the show.

I can't believe it's been 15 years that she's been gone. I've felt closer to her this month than I have in a long time and I'm so thankful for that. 

Tales from the 6th grade

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Thank you to everyone who came to Life is Sweet, Even in February last night. It was so wonderful to celebrate my mom's life is such an incredible way in front of a sold out audience of very special people. It didn't actually feel real until I got up onstage and even until the very last song it felt surreal. I feel blessed and honoured and overwhelmed with love. 

With my mom's death anniversary tomorrow, I thought I would share some memories of her from friends and family members for Life is Sweet month this weekend. Today's post comes from my best friend from the sixth grade, Laura. It was so special to have her in the audience last night all the way from Ottawa! 

When I was in Grade 6, a girl named Ashley came from Toronto to my school in Belleville, and nothing would ever be the same again. She liked me and wanted to be my friend, even though I was shy and nerdy and the other girls made fun of me. I went from barely speaking in class to being moved to another desk because Ashley and I talked too much when we sat together.

One of the many events that year was Ashley's 12th birthday party, for which she handed out real, adult invitations. I was pleasantly surprised a few weeks ago to find my invite buried in the bottom of a box of memories.

Though so many details of Grade 6 are stuck in my mind, I don't actually remember the party very well. But I remember Ashley's mom. I remember her chatting with me as I hung back a bit from the other girls, and encouraging me to join in the games they were playing. I think she said that she liked my shirt. I remember going home and telling my own mom, "Ashley's mom is really nice."

It's a small memory, and I wish the details were clearer as they are for so many other Grade 6 moments. But looking back on it, I realize the important thing is that even if all the details aren't there, the impression that Ashley's mom made on me remains - someone kind, someone fun, and someone who tried to bring me out of my shell. Someone like her daughter

Missing You

Friday, February 22, 2013

It's Thursday night before my sold out show, Life is Sweet, Even in February. Tara and I had an amazing rehearsal with the band on Sunday and we had our final rehearsal on Wednesday evening. I'm so excited for the friends, family and supporters who will make up the audience and so thankful to all those who have been making donations to the CAMH Foundation in lieu of attending the show. The whole thing has been an intense process from start to finish but I can't wait to get it on stage tomorrow night.

It's strange because I feel like the one person missing will be my mom.

I'm thankful that my mom was able to see me perform numerous times as I was growing up. I had two tap and jazz recitals between the ages of 7 and 9 and 2 great roles in my elementary school musicals including Leah Ballerina in Clowns and Mrs. Claus in The Night the Reindeer Rocked. She attended countless choir and band concerts and I distinctly remember her being at Roy Thompson Hall when our choir performed there in elementary school. Truth be told, I don't think musical theatre or choral music was my mom's cup of tea, but I know that she was determined to support me in whatever I loved to do.

I've often thought about my mother's absence on opening nights or during runs of shows that I was particularly proud of. The first performance I think I officially dedicated to my mum was my graduating show at Randolph. The show was Into the Woods and I had been cast as Cinderella. I remember the first time I had to sing No One is Alone in rehearsal. Rosalie, who was also playing Cinderella had to go first because I was just sitting in the audience crying. Cinderella's story along with the lyrics to the song just hit so close to home and it really hit me in that rehearsal. Throughout the rehearsal process, I found myself working hard to utilize my own experience in my performance in a safe way.

Sometimes people leave you, halfway through the wood

At 21, her death still felt so close but it also felt as though she had already missed so much. I think coming to the end of college was another one of those realizations of all that she was going to miss. I was so proud to be cast in that role amid such a talented class and it helped to think that even though should wouldn't be there, my mom would have been really proud too.

This month I've felt closer to my mom than I have in such a long time. Through choosing the songs, reading her journal, talking about her with people who knew her and talking to people about depression, mental illness and suicide I've felt so connected to her. It's been 15 years since I've had the chance to talk to her or see her, but I've definitely felt her presence this month. The show includes a lot of songs that remind me of her and our particularly memorable years together and I think she would really like what we've put together.

My mom loved Diana Ross. Her music reminded my mom of my Uncle Tim who passed away when I was 9. This song almost made it into the show, but Tara and I decided on another Diana Ross track instead. It still comes up on my Life is Sweet playlist and I definitely think about my mom whenever I hear it. 

Doing the show has made me miss her a lot too. It's hard to feel close to someone who you know you'll never see or talk to again. Without her death there would be no show. But without her life there would be no me. Her life and death have made me who I am. And while I miss her everyday, I am truly thankful for all that her death has taught me. 

I'm so honoured to be able to pay tribute to someone who has had such a profound impact on my life in front of a sold out audience. Putting it together has been an unforgettable experience. While I'll be missing her infectious laugh and beautiful smile in the audience, I'm confident it's going to be an amazing evening and an incredible way to close off this very special month. 

I hope that somewhere I'm making her proud and reminding her how loved she truly was. 

Twenty Five Years

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I was thankful to be introduced to the book Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman a few years ago. It put words to so much of what I was feeling and introduced me to an incredibly supportive community of other women having similar experiences. Alisa and I connected through a Motherless Daughters facebook page and I am grateful that she offered to share her story for Life is Sweet month so close to such a poignant anniversary. 

I really do not know where to begin, so I will go back as far as I can remember…back when life was care free and I had not yet learned of the world of cancer or depression and anxiety.  My story involves all three of those things.  

Cancer entered my life at the age of six years old. That is how old I was when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and my young world turned upside down.  Everything changed. My predictable life became unpredictable.  I now had questions such as, who would be home for me after school. Would my mother be at home or at the hospital? Would my dad stay home that day or go to work? Would I go to the hospital or go to school? Would I sleep at home or spend the night at the home of a family member? Would my mother ever get better? What did the future hold? These things and many more went through my head on a daily basis. Since I was so young there are only certain things that I remember and many things which I am sure I have blocked from my memory in order to move forward.  I remember how determined my mom was to fight, to survive, to see us grow up, to live.  I remember the chemo…oh the chemo.  My mother was so violently ill on a regular basis that I became afraid of her, afraid of seeing or hearing her get sick.  To this day this is a memory that has contributed to the anxiety and post traumatic stress that I deal with on a regular basis.  I remain traumatized by sickness and germs.  I remember my mother warning me before she would get sick and I would run out to the garage and plug my ears.  Looking back on this now, I feel absolutely horrible as this must have made her feel so much worse; however at the time I did not see it that way. 

I remember the hair loss. My mom had a wig but it was very uncomfortable and I recall her asking me if I would mind if she didn’t wear it around me. Seeing her bald was just more physical proof that she was so sick, but I remember telling her I loved her with or without that wig.  To this day I am quite obsessive about the upkeep of my hair and I attribute that directly to the experience of seeing how sad it was when my mom lost her hair. 

Through this all my parents did their best to continue with everyday life.  Now looking back as an adult, I cannot really imagine how they held it together.  Looking back, none of this seems real.  It does not fell like this was my life, that this was my story, that this IS my story. 

I remember being so traumatized and upset by my mom being so sick that she chose to admit herself to the hospital and go inpatient so that I would be more comfortable at home.  I believe that this is why she decided to pass away at the hospital as opposed to hospice at home.  I feel very responsible for this decision of hers and will carry that burden with me forever. 

I think the moment that I truly knew that my mom would die was when my parents went away on one last vacation.  This was so they could spend their last quality time together. After this trip my mother went inpatient and a few weeks later she passed away.  I remember the specific day a little clearer than the rest.  March 3rd. I knew something was wrong when I walked up the driveway and saw my dad’s car parked in the driveway.  If he wasn’t at work he would be at the hospital and my aunt would have taken me to her house.  I believe when I saw his car in the driveway that day was the moment I knew.  I don’t remember many details such as if I was pulled out of school early or who brought me home that day.  I just remember seeing my precious daddy, broken, crying, falling apart, sitting alone on the living room couch. I knew and immediately began sobbing.  I don’t remember much after that point. I don’t remember the viewings or the funeral.  I do remember riding in the limo and I have been told that upon seeing my mother’s casket, I told her that I she looked like a porcelain doll and that I wanted to take her home as my doll so we could always play together forever.  Hearing this now absolutely breaks my heart.  Again, it feels as though this is someone else’s story, not mine.  March 3rd. It has now been 25 years since that horrible day that took my mother away from me…the day my life changed forever. 

In the past 25 years a lot has changed and a lot has stayed the same.  My dad got remarried to an amazing woman and they created a great life for my siblings and me.  Losing my mother however has shaped my life more that anyone could ever know, unless they have also experienced a similar loss. Being a motherless daughter has caused me to be afraid of relationships. I have had a few serious relationships, but remain single to this day.  I have suffered from depression and anxiety directly related to the loss of my mother, and am currently working hard on managing this anxiety and not letting it control my life.  I am terrified of losing my father.  I cannot even fathom what I would do without him in my life.  Even just the thought of this paralyzes me.  I am a terrible cook and not very domestic. I often wonder if these character traits would be any different had I had my mother in my life growing up. Like many other questions that I sometimes think of, this is not a question that has an answer. 

I have dealt with much loss in my life.  Shortly after my mother’s death, my grandfather found the loss of his daughter too much to bear and he also passed away.  A year later my grandmother also passed away.  I have lost 2 uncles, both my step grandparents and many other family and friends.  Loss is hard, but nothing has compared to the loss of my mother at such a young age. This loss has truly shaped my life. 

However, I also try my hardest to look for positives from this situation.  I have an inner strength that I believe I have developed from the experience of losing my mother.  I have chosen the career path that my mother left behind…social work. I decided to work with youth and felt that in a sense I would be picking up where my mother left off in her career.  This gives me a sense of joy and I truly believe my mother would be proud with this decision.  I have a fantastic family that I would not have otherwise have known if my father had not remarried. They are extremely important to me and I do not know what life would be like without them. I am extremely blessed to have four amazing nieces. They truly mean the world to me, and I am so thankful to have them in my life. 

This year March 3rd marks 25 years since I last saw my mother, since I last heard her voice, felt her physical presence.  I cannot believe this much time has passed. I will soon become the age she was when she died. It seems so odd that I could reach an age that she did not get to experience.  I often feel very alone and feel that no one understands me; no one understands the way that I think.  I always knew that my personal risk of developing breast cancer was high. About two years ago, I began the process of genetic testing to see if I also had any of the known genetic markers of breast cancer. While I remain high risk due to my family history, I will always remember sitting in that tiny room crying silent tears of joy when the geneticist informed me that I did not possess any of the known breast cancer genes. No one can understand the relief that I felt in that very moment.

When Ashley asked if anyone was interested in speaking of loss, or anxiety or depression, I decided to share my story as I could speak to all three.  I thought the timing was great as the 25th anniversary of my mother’s death quickly approaches next month. I am looking for a way to honour this special day, and I thought that part of that could come from sharing my story.  If I can help even one person who has experienced a similar loss understand that they are not alone in their feelings, then sharing my journey will be worth it. I welcome hearing from any of you.  

Alisa is a single 32 year old motherless daughter, and youth worker just trying to make a difference. She can be found on twitter or reached by email

Six Years, Brighter Still

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Death brings up so many emotions: sadness, grief, anger, disbelief, yearning, or despair. It's interesting to feel our emotions change over time as our lives change and our perspective shifts. When Sean contacted me about writing this post for the Life is Sweet project, I was intrigued to hear about what had changed for him since his mother's death six years ago and thankful he would share his perspective on his loss. 

My mother Stacia Foster passed away in March 2007. I was in my final weeks of a three-year film and television program at Humber College, just putting the final touches on year end projects. I felt pretty lost and confused at the time, and felt the need to express myself to my friends and classmates so they’d know, so I wrote and posted the note below on Facebook (remember Facebook notes?) What follows is my thoughts on all of this several years later; an addendum if you will:

A week ago I was complaining about my iPod being screwed up, my external harddrive I use for projects at school having gone dead on me and my computer being in it's final days of usefulness, shower wasn't draining properly so I'd have a puddle of gross water leftover after each shower and the carpet in my room was soggy from all the snow melting and seeping into my room.

Man, that stuff is so trivial now. I was so mad about it last week, but I'd give anything for that stuff to be all that as bugging me now.

Late on Saturday night, my Uncle, my mom's brother, in Winnipeg emailed me referring to some important family issue. I put it off... I have a long and sordid history with that side of my family. Anyway, Sunday morning I'm woken up by my dad in tears. He'd just been told that my mother, his ex-wife, had died of a stroke brought on to heavy complications due to alcoholism.

My dad was torn up, this is a woman he'd been married to for over 20 years. A woman that he carries around a great deal of baggage because of. But me, at first I took it in stride. Y'see, I hadn't spoken to my mom in five years. I'd gone so far as to tell many people, some of you, she was dead. Why? Cause it was easier for me. Cause I didn't want everyone to know that I was the type of asshole who had a dying mother and didn't lift a finger to do anything about it. But I am.

Why didn't I do anything? Should I have done anything? The last time I had seen her was Mother's Day 2002. I was with my girlfriend of the time, Joanne (The eventual inspiration for the character of 'Anne' in Without). We went to the hospital together. And my mom had no idea who I was. It was a difficult experience for me, the woman who'd raised me didn't even recognize me anymore.

My mother started drinking heavily when I was about 12 or 13. The next several years were unquestionably the most difficult of my life. My mother was such a raging alcoholic, I was ashamed to have friends over. I didn't wanna be known as the kid at school who had the drunk mom... You know how kids in school can be. Over the next few years I think I grew to hate her. Eventually, I just wanted her out of my life, so when the time came that I could just leave with my dad, I pounced on it. I started talking to my mom less and less, because I was so bitter with her for letting booze destroy who she was.

You have to understand, as a young boy, my mother Stacia was about the best mom a kid could have. I have plenty of great memories of her. Going to baseball games (she loooooved Cal Ripkin Jr.), watching movies together, Christmas' together, making me breakfast before school in the morning, helping me with my homework... All the usual stuff.

Which is why her eventual fall from grace makes it so much more difficult for me. While I barely batted an eye after my dad first told me (I'd lied about my mother's death for so long, I maybe started to believe it myself...), but as time has gone on , it's just gotten more and more difficult to deal with the more that I contemplate it and different memories come to mind. How it happened, why it happened, the fallout of it, and where I go from here. Can I honor her memory in someway... Do I even want to honor her memory?

The mom that took care of me when I was a young child died years and years ago. I'm so conflicted about it all. A part of me hates myself and is ashamed that I just didn't care... That I was too immature to at least check on her and see if she was even still alive. Whether I did the right or wrong thing, I will have to live with the knowledge that my mom died believing her only child hated her. That's a part of what bugs me the most. I wish that I could've given her one last good memory, a way to show her there truly is a piece of me that appreciated those early years together.

It'll always be dark piece of who I am. The Skeletor of all the assorted skeletons in my closet. I've never, ever been able to bring myself to try even a sip of alcohol, which has greatly limited me in my social interactions, though fortunately I don't think I'm anti-social or anything. I just can't allow myself to have as much fun as most other people sometimes.

The most difficult part has been trying to pretend everything was okay the last few days... Because I spent so long lying, I felt like I couldn't fess up about what had happened. But I'm done lying. I'll try and atone, by first being a little honest. I just need to be sad for a time though. Ultimately, I can cope with this, I know I can move on in time. I just have to forgive myself for everything that's transpired. I don't need therapy or any kind of prescription drugs. I have the self control to even myself out and regain some of the stability I had.

I just need time.

For good or bad, all this pain and angst has made me into who I am.

Rest in peace, mom. For all our ups and downs, nothing will ever happen to make me forget what a truly great woman you were, in helping a young Sean P. Foster grow up.

"In memory still bright"

It’s now 6 years later. Looking back on this piece, I think it’s a bit immature and overly dramatic and find 30-year-old Sean cringing at the words and sentiments being expressed by 24-year-old Sean. I feel like I have more perspective now. I’m not as angry at my mother and the world as I was back then, and look back on the whole situation with nothing but great sadness.

However, expressing myself this way via Facebook to as many people in my social life as possible was a part of my healing process. I still feel pretty guilty about everything. To this day I still wish I’d done more for her, tried harder to keep her from drinking. There are specific times of the year where it weighs heavily on my mind. For instance, if you were to approach me on the anniversary of her death on March 25, you might find me in a particularly introspective mood and even though it’s a very commercial “Hallmark Holiday”, Mother’s Day can leave me in quite the somber mood.

I spent a lot of time as a teenager and young adult being really upset and angry at her, something I regret now. I was embarrassed by her as a teenager to the point that I stopped having friends over because I didn’t know how she was going to behave. I was so angry as my Facebook note pretty clearly indicates. In the years after her death, I struggled with depression, becoming quite the burden to a couple of my closest friends. But as time has marched forward, I’ve found a lot more peace, particularly in the last year. As the years go by, the unpleasant memories of her have faded away to be outshined by the good times. More often than not, when I’m reminded of my mother these days, it’s in a positive manner.

It’s hard for me to be in The Skydome, where she and I saw many games of the World Series champion era Toronto Blue Jays, and not think fondly of my mom. If the Oakland Athletics or Baltimore Orioles were in town, you can be sure my mom and I would be there. The best game we ever saw together was in the very early 1990s and Oakland’s Jose Canseco got into a playful home run contest with Toronto’s Joe Carter, each of them sending 3 or 4 homers in the upper decks. Baseball provided many of our favorite shared experiences together.

I remember Unsolved Mysteries! My dad worked for a bank when I was young, often away in Montreal and Chicago during the week and returning to us on weekends. This is when we lived out in the middle of the country, just outside of a small town named Tottenham. Unsolved Mysteries was on seemingly every night at the time. My mom and I would watch it every time and when it was time for bed we’d have scared ourselves so much from hearing about grisly murders and ghastly tales that we’d leave all the lights on in the house because obviously that would protect us from the bad guys!

In those days in the small house outside Tottenham, I remember coming home from school and finding her either watching Die Hard, The Fugitive or Beetlejuice for the 20th time. She was infatuated with the actors Alan Rickman and Tommy Lee Jones, and the director Tim Burton. To this day I still try to see any work by any of those men, out of...I’m not sure, a sense of obligation? To satisfy her curiosity? Maybe it’s just in my DNA! I’m genetically obligated to see the movies of Tim Burton.

I remember having a particularly painful visit to the dentist and to cheer me up, my mom took me to the pet store because what puts a bigger smile on an upset kid’s face faster than puppies and kittens? And we saw this kitten, this kitten that was in even more pain than I was and she was bellowing (meowing doesn’t do the sound that was coming from her justice) and trying to force her face through the bars of the little cage she was in, her nose was bruised from her efforts. She had a price tag that had been knocked down several times to the bargain price of $100. Which was exactly how much money I had in my pocket stashed away after a bountiful Christmas. This little kitten went on to become Jordy (a feminized version of the name of one of my favorite Star Trek characters). When things got bad in my household a few years later, Jordy was always there to brighten my day.

Those are the things that come to mind when I think of her now, the memories that make me smile. It’s a good feeling that as I get older the anger and regret melts away. I’ve carried around some emotional scars from my teen years for too long. I’m ready to let them go now.

I remember you with more fondness each day. I love and miss you, Mom.

Sean Foster is one of the coolest geeks you'll ever meet and the IT Coordinator at Cineflix Productions. He's a big fan of Twitter and can be found here.

Know That Your Best is Always Enough

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

In writing about my experience as a motherless daughter here on the blog, I've connected with many others like me both in the online world and in my everyday life. It's comforting to know that I'm not alone and share so many of the same questions, fears and sadness as other women out there. Today's guest post is from my friend Rebecca who I met at nutrition school and felt instantly more connected to once I learned her story. I know that we were both surprised at some of the similarities. I am so proud of everything that she has accomplished since we were in class together and am thankful she offered to include this post for Life is Sweet month. 

I don't know what she was like as a little girl. Was she playful? Silly? Wild like me?
I have no idea who she was as a young woman, or what her wildest hopes and dreams were.
Did she want to work at the bank? Or did she have bigger things in store for her life?


I don't know if she was a good cook. A good wife. A good daughter.
Did she like to travel like I do? Did she ever have the urge to leave the country on a whim, to see what else was out there for her in the wide open world? What would she have done with her life, if she'd known her story ahead of time?
I'll never know how she felt when she found out she was pregnant with me, her first child. Or how it changed her life when she saw my face for the first time. Was she excited? Was she scared?
She never taught me how to cook. Or clean. Or how I was supposed to deal with heartbreak. And we never went for tea and talked about boys, or chatted into the wee hours of the night about what it really meant to be a woman.
We never talked about the idea of getting married. Whether she thought it was a good decision she'd made at the young age of 23. Did she believe in everlasting love? In the idea of a soulmate? Did she even think about these things?
I have no idea how she felt about all the demons from her childhood. The ones I never learned about until way too late in life.
And I have absolutely no idea how she felt when she went to see her first therapist. Did she know it was the beginning of the end?
And when she and dad divorced, and she took me to therapy every week to talk about who I wanted to live with, did she know that this was too much for a child to take on? Could she see that deep down, I knew that she couldn't take care of me? Did she know that I never once said this out loud?
I'm not even really sure when her illness started. I'm guessing it was within her from very early on. But we never can be sure about these things, can we?
I often wonder whether she was as aware as I was, that the fact that she never ate anything couldn't be good for her. Watching her be fed through tubes on the psychiatric ward - the most aggressive treatment at the time, the doctor told me years later. Why didn't she just eat normal food, like everybody else?
And why did I have to go visit my mom in a hospital anyway? Surely this wasn't how most kids spent their Saturday afternoons. My 7-year old self couldn't quite process it all.


And when it got to the point when she actually lived in the hospital, did she realize how sad it made me to not have a mother?
I'll never know if she ever had the urge to talk about her illness with me. Maybe she didn't want to bother me with it. Or maybe she just didn't even recognize she was ill. Maybe her anorexia distorted any kind of self-perception that she had. Does that happen? I don't know.
Maybe she had no idea who she was anymore.
And when it got really bad, when all the other shit started to get worse - I wonder how she felt about being diagnosed with depression, anxiety, PTSD? Was she told that these were now the labels she was to live with? Did she notice how the meds made her act?
And when I was away and travelling and doing anything I could to NOT have to deal with my "crazy" mother, did she miss me? Did she blame me? Did she still love me?
I wonder if she ever wanted to reach out. To ask for help. To have a heart-to-heart, as I've heard mothers and daughters sometimes do.


I'll never know.
Those years I lived away in Australia, and Korea, and Thailand, and Vancouver, if I'd known they'd mean not seeing my mom again, would I still have stayed away? And all the times I worried about being embarrassed about her at my wedding (should I ever choose to have one) - would I have changed the way I felt if it meant I could bring her back?
I don't know. I don't know.
I wonder if that last phone call I made to her house, out of the blue on a Friday night before we went out to the bar,  was my intuition telling me that I had better call my mom. It's really too bad she didn't pick up.
And when she moved out of her apartment just the month before, packed up all her boxes, stored everything away, and moved onto my uncle's couch because she had too much pride to go to the women's shelter, I wonder if she knew she was packing up for good. If it was her way of cleaning up years of clutter. Years of reminders of a life unfulfilled. Her way of helping make the whole thing just a little bit easier on us.
Hell - I sometimes wonder how she really died. Sure, the coroner explained that her heart just stopped - one of the not so pleasant side-effects of many years of not feeding her body, combined with a combination of cigarettes, wine, and god knows how many prescription pills.
But I mean - how did she really die? Was she in pain? Did she know she was dying? Did she want to go? Was she as ready as I think she was?
And when we could only afford to get her the most basic of boxes, the one that's pretty much only meant for the eyes of close family before they burn you in it, did she know that we had always wanted better for her? That we did the best we knew how to do?
Does she know that all those times I was harsh to her, that I got frustrated with her, that I hurried through our visits and rushed off to hang out with my friends, does she know that it was simply because I didn't know what else to do?
No one teaches you how to live with a mentally ill family member or friend. We’re not taught in school how to relate to someone who doesn’t even know how to relate to themselves.
Guilt, frustration, anger, can all sweep in when we feel like we should be doing more, but don’t know what, or how.
My mom died. She would have died either way, I think. I did the very best I knew how to do, given the circumstances.
Did I feel guilty when she died? Yes. I cried for days, beat myself up, and blamed it all on me.
“I should have done more. I should have done more,” I wept.
But it was NEVER about me. Mental illness is a complicated, messy thing, and the very most that you can do when you are living with someone with a mental illness in your life, is to just do the very best you can do.
On some days, your best might look like a lot. On most days, your best might not feel like anything. And that’s ok.
It’s all ok.
Their path is not your path. Don’t take on guilt for something that was never about you.
I have a stronger relationship now that I ever did with my mom, and I’m sure it’s because I’ve been able to see past my guilt, and I really feel that she knows that I did the very best I knew how to do. I know she understands.
Do your best. And know that it’s always enough.

As a Life-Switch Coach + Professional Adventure Instigator, Rebecca Tracey of TheUncaged Life works with people who want to do something big, like travel, quit their job, or start their own business, but who need help creating a plan, staying on track, and beating out nagging resistance and fear. If you’re ready to take your top-secret, rule-bending, crazy-town dream, and bring it to life, Rebecca can help you tell your excuses to suck it. 


Monday, February 18, 2013

With my (sold out!) show on Friday and my mum's death anniversary on Sunday, this week's posts will all be mom related. During the week I'll be sharing some stories from others who have lost their mothers at various points in their lives. Out of all of the Life is Sweet posts, I think these have maybe been the hardest for me to read and process because they're all so close to home. 

I met Teresa in Kirkland Lake many moons ago through my ex-fiance. I don't know how it came up, but we realized how much we had in common and felt very connected very quickly. Over the years we've stayed in contact and checked in with one another on some important dates and exchanged pieces of writing. This is one of two pieces Teresa submitted for the Life is Sweet project and I couldn't be happier to have her involved. 

Today would’ve been my mothers 50th birthday.

Such a massive milestone in the middle aged life.  It’s an odd birthday: mortality is looming in the future, yet you are not as old as 60. Hopefully you are about to ease into the contentment of early retirement and lending your children money, gearing up for increased physicals at the doctors and sensible exercise programs. That 50th year is also the point of looking back before stepping forward, 50 is the year to look behind you at what most people will consider the best, most productive years of their lives: the lovers, the travel, the long hours at work, the children and accomplishments. She missed it by two decades though; my mother died from breast cancer in her 30thyear. I didn’t even remember it was her birthday until my aunt called me, and then felt terrible about forgetting. What kind of daughter forgets her mothers birthday, alive or not? I’m aware that the day would probably have more practical significance if she were alive, I imagine there would be a party, a well timed speech from me, flowers, champagne under twinkling lights and all the trappings of love that come along with celebrating your 50th year.  It’s funny the things you think about; one would think I would have important questions about how she would’ve been. I do, but it’s the seemingly trivial things my mind always wanders to. I wonder what she would look like, if she would have silver hair around her bangs like I already do in my twenties? Would she have aged gracefully and embraced her mid life or would she cling to her youth? I suppose it doesn’t matter: she is forever beautiful, trapped at 30.

My mother is an apparition; she’s not fully real to me sometimes, and so much of my identity is wrapped up in this enigma. Like a rainbow that you can see with your eyes but that you know full well will disappear if you chase it, my mother exists on a plane I can never access or fully understand.

I took a drive at 3am to our old house, the happiest house, the last place I saw her, the place she died. I didn’t expect to see her there, that’s not why I went. I went for the garden. The people who live there now thankfully don’t have a green thumb and have left my mothers flower garden relatively untouched, only replanting what she chose over 20 years ago. Yellow and red tulips, hot pink dragon snaps, marigold impatiens and fuchsia begonias; flowers that were like our living room wallpaper and everything seemed to be in the late eighties: really damn bright.  My mother was so young when she moved here; already at my age she was light years ahead of me. She was married, had a toddler and a new house in a strange city. She made it her own and lovingly planted flowers, gave thought to little details and made it a home for me. She was one of those women who just had a way with making something out of nothing. Twigs in bottles, arrangements of photos and candles: Little details that you see in home design magazines that I can never seem to make my haphazard apartment replicate. Whether it was about kindness, flowers or looks, it seemed that beauty was her specialty. My mother loved gardening in a way I’ve never cultivated, and my father kept her happy with bouquets of bright blooms all the time. Even after she died, he frequently brought home her favorite: red roses to keep on the table. To this day, the sight of those flowers for no one is one of the saddest things I've ever seen. She planned and executed that garden so wonderfully. There was a blackberry tree on the edge of it, and one of my earliest memories is being scolded for ruining my dinner after spending yet another afternoon sitting beneath it, eating myself sick with telltale purple stained fingers. Between that umbrella tree and her garden, this yard was the most magical place in the world to me. I know it was is not these exact stems she touched with her hands, but I needed to come here and see something else that grew from her. Something else she lovingly tended and had an impact on, something that survived. I kneeled in the soft dirt on the edge of the flowerbed, watched the flowers sway in the breeze and closed my eyes.

The seed I grew from planted these seeds, and somehow, we’re both still here. Through adversity, turmoil and lost houses, through new owners and illness, we were both still going strong. We still endured. My mother may not have made it to her 50th birthday, but these flowers and I are still growing. I hope wherever my mother is, that she knows I would’ve thrown her the best birthday party, one deserving of the woman she was and the one I know she would’ve become. I hope wherever she is that she is happy, and that she is proud of me. But most of all, I hope that it is beautiful, and that there are flowers.

Teresa is a writer, traveler, nutritionist, tour manager and hula hoop champion.  She likes bukowski, the ocean, holding hands, Roswell reruns, and long, romantic walks down the organic produce aisle. Her blog (www.dancesinthedark.com) is currently under construction, but until then you can find her on twitter @thebandiswithme 

More than just the Baby Blues

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Knowing my family's history and experience with mental illness, postpartum depression scares me a lot. Like many of the topics over the course of Life is Sweet month, it is something that we don't talk about openly in our society. The statistics of women who struggle with sadness following their baby's birth is as high as 80 percent, but between 10-40 percent are affected by clinical postpartum depression. I'm thankful to Janet for sharing her story so openly for this series. 

I had just had a baby on Nov. 8, 1995. The snow was falling as I looked out the window of Royal University hospital in Saskatoon.  The snow stayed on the ground that long winter.  It was to be the coldest winter in 80 years. 

I brought home my sweet little girl.  She was colicky.  Breastfeeding was a nightmare. This was the beginning of what was supposed to be one of the happiest times of my life.  A time came when I started to cry because my baby needed to be fed.  I knew I had to quit.  It was a crushing blow.  How could I be such a failure as a mother? Why did I have to feed formula to my baby?  Why did my baby cry so much?

I didn’t like other people holding my baby.  I was hyper vigilant. I was wary and watchful.  I hated the smell of other people on her clothes.  I berated myself when I wasn’t the perfect mother.  I had already failed her by not being able to breastfeed.  I raged at myself. I was exhausted all the time.

I remember a time during that long winter that I felt like I had been abandoned in complete darkness.  

The public health nurse came to visit a few times and gave me information on the “baby blues”.  Baby blues only lasted a few days.  I was still feeling horrible months later. I eventually went to see my doctor and he prescribed Prozac.  I was no longer super sad.  I wasn’t feeling anything at all really.

I went back to work when my daughter was about 1 year old.  Returning to work really helped.  Then about six months later we moved back to my hometown of Toronto and I got off medication.  Eventually the sadness faded altogether. Eventually. 

When I became pregnant with my second child four years later I decided I better do things a bit differently.  I wanted a midwife and a home birth.  I wanted to experience this next birth without the sterile medical environment.  The homebirth was speedy and empowering.  The baby slept.  Breastfeeding still was exceedingly difficult and I felt huge disappointment when I couldn’t go on.  My life got flat again.  I was feeling anxious.  I don’t remember some of this part….

I do remember seeing a psychiatrist and telling him to give me drugs.  The current news item was of a Toronto physician who jumped in front of a subway train with her baby.  I wasn’t that bad but I couldn’t take the risk. Things continued to improve little by little.

I got offered a job when my baby girl was 6 months old.  This was a dream job, an incredible opportunity and only part time.  Again, going back to work helped.

I have been in talk therapy off and on for nearly 20 years.  I eventually found a couple of very helpful therapists.  I had a few that were not helpful at all.  Drug therapy was necessary for a year or two after each child.  I regret that I wasn’t able to have as many sweet moments with my babies as other mothers had.  I still have guilt about what they might have missed because of those years I struggled. 

Too may women struggle silently with postpartum depression.  There is still such a stigma.  

Janet loves her job as a teacher.  She is married and together they have two amazing daughters, 12 and 17 years old. She loves yoga, sewing, singing in her church choir and taking modern dance class.
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