I’ve been conducting a lot of interviews lately for a series I’m writing at work. I have a bagillion questions that I rotate through so that I’m not asking the same questions all the time but one of them, one of my favourites, is “What is your best day?”
I love that question. It’s f-ing hard to answer though!! Sorry, interviewees 😊
I have to say, most people are stumped, and can’t really come up with anything on the spot, which is understandable as it’s an impossibly daunting question to answer at all, let alone in the moment. It catches people off guard. I have to say there’s something I kind of like about that.
Anyway, in asking the question, I’ve been thinking about it a lot and reflecting about what my answer might be. What would I say is my best day ever?
The truth is, depending on the day, my answer is different.
Interestingly, the first thing that pops into my head fairly consistently, is a day I had with my then boyfriend a lifetime ago. It was late November or Early December. A Saturday. He and I worked together in the same restaurant, and Saturdays off were rare, and that we both had a Saturday off? Well, our managers must have loved us a lot, because that never happened.
We spent the day together shopping for Christmas stuff. I bought a Christmas tree at Zellers (ha!), along with all the decorations to go with it. We wandered around, we looked at toys and mused about the Christmas traditions we’d start when we were married and had kids (double ha!). Then we picked up groceries to make a lovely dinner (which was a luxury back in those days) and some adult beverages.
We came home to my place and put up the tree while listening to Christmas music (I still do that, albeit by myself, or at least without the shitty boyfriend). We made dinner, and then snuggled on the couch and watched Christmas movies by the light of the tree.
It was a perfect day. I remember still, my feeling of complete contentment. I was so in the moment, so happy, so in sync with my BF. At that point, of course, I was blissfully unaware that he was a cheating lying liar, but that’s beside the point.
I still have that tree and I put it up every year. I do have new decorations though.
So, that’s the memory that comes up immediately when I think about what my best day is.
But, I don’t have to think too hard to start to remember other best days.
I recall going to Canada’s Wonderland with my family when I was, I don’t know, 11 or 12? It’s that great time for a young girl when you’re not exactly a kid, but you’re not a teenager yet, so you can kind of live in two worlds. I remember it being a hot, sunny summer day and my mom had done my hair in two long French braids so it was up off my neck and back. Being there with my family was just the best. We were all so excited to go on the rides (well, the kids), to walk around and people-watch, to try to win stuffed animals in those ridiculous carnival games and generally, to be together. I know that sounds corny, but you guys, we really did like each other!
Mom and Dad had packed a cooler with lunch and snacks and drinks, and we all piled in the old station wagon (lovingly nick named “the Bomb”) and headed out early in the morning, bleary-eyed from not being able to sleep because I was so excited.
I remember going on my first non-kid roller coaster. I sat with my big sister and I was scared shitless. It was The Bat – do you know that one? It’s the one that goes forward and just when you think the loop-di-looping is over, you do it all over again, but backwards!!! She held my hand the whole time, fingers entwined. At the end, she had indentations on her fingers from the rings she was wearing from my intense squeezing. That’s love. I wanted to get right back in line so I could do it again. The feeling of conquering a fear, and the comfort I found in my sister was heady.
I can also recall so many of my best days at friends’ cottages. I love being on/at/near water. Just going for a boat ride gives me a sense of peace I can’t find anywhere else. I remember so many days of staring into a bonfire by the lake, eating junk food, talking about the pressing issues of our teenage lives, spending the day playing board games and cards with friends, making friendship bracelets and dreaming of the future when we’d finally be adults.
See? It’s so hard to narrow it down to one!
Maybe the goal should be to make every day a contender for best dayever. Not every day will hit the mark, of course, but the making of the best lies in the intention to do so, right?
I think sometimes the best best days are made when you’re not looking. I mean, I loved the day I graduated from university – it was an awesome day! Other best days: the day I rented my first apartment on my own. The day I met each of my nieces and nephew. The day I wrote my very last exam in school. The day I got my first car. The day I moved to Toronto.
My point is, best days can, and often are, those big, milestone days. They’re the ones you have a bunch of photos of to keep a record, pulling them out now and then to relive the magic.
The best days can also be regular, innocuous days that you, only in retrospect, can see that that feeling you had, while you were doing that thing, or when you were with that person, or whatever, was actually the best.
I don’t think about high school very often. Was it the best time of my life? No. Was it terrible? No. They say that if high school sucks for you, you make up for it in university. High school didn’t suck for me, but it wasn’t exactly the highlight of my adolescence.
I have an unabashed love and reverence for the cannon of John Hughes films of the mid-to-late eighties. I confess, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Some Kind of Wonderful, For Keeps, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Weird Science, et al, were the cinematic backdrop to my teen years. I’m not ashamed. Those movies hold up. In my opinion, John Hughes was a genius.
I just watched the new release Booksmart. You guys, it was SO GOOD. I highly recommend. In addition to being just an incredible piece of art, it got me reminiscing about high school…and my experience over those 5 years (yes, I’m old and I had that fifth OAC year of high school because I was university-bound).
I went to a high school in downtown Peterborough, the oldest high school in the city, founded in 1827. My grandmother, my mom, my uncle, and all my siblings went there. I loved it. It was also the smallest high school in the city. Our graduating class was less than 200 people. The high school closed in 2012, due to low enrollment, but the building itself was re-purposed as a facility for alternative and continuing education. In all these years, I haven’t been back to the school. I should go. I will probably cry. Shocker.
It goes without saying, that high school is probably the most confusing, and yet enlightening time of our lives. By no means do we learn who we are there, but that process certainly begins within those halls. And it’s where certain decisions can set a path forward for you that can be (and often are) life-changing. Think about it. I entered high school at the age of 13 and graduated when I was 18. Those are some pretty important years. And for me, that was in the mid-nineties. For context, think of what the world was like in the mid-nineties.
I remember when my family got our first microwave (we made popcorn, naturally). I remember when we got our first computer (without internet). I remember migrating from cassettes to CDs, getting actual film developed to see how my pictures from the cottage, or the party, or whatever turned out. I remember scrunchies (the original). I remember wearing those waffle shirts from Northern Reflections (I had so many of them), I remember jeans with little zippers at the ankles, friendship bracelets, Birkenstocks with socks, Tevas in the summer (which left distinct and coveted tan lines on your feet), typing class (yes, TYPING on actual typewriters). I remember assemblies, Raider Pride, garnet and grey, the Terry Fox Run, school dances, decorating my locker, and I especially remember the creaky and well-worn steps of the school. The history of the building, the beautiful (if slightly uncomfortable) auditorium, and its tiny light booth in the attic where I would seclude myself, looking down onto the empty stage are etched in my memory.
I have a lot of fond memories of my time there, obviously. But, to say that it was the best time of my life? Ummmmm…. no.
Don’t get me wrong, I had wonderful friends. And I am still friends with most of them. Some of them are actively in my life, or at least in it to the extent that we keep pretty impressive tabs on one another, so that even if we don’t chat or get together very often, the closeness is still there. They are truly gems of humans. I love them.
Were there cliques in my high school? Of course. Were they as strictly defined as is represented in most “teen movies?” No. But, there were certainly distinctions.
There were definitely “cool kids.” They were mostly athletes. I guess that’s pretty standard. I was not an athlete, clearly. There were SAC (Student Activity Counsel) members, who kind of ran the school. Not every member of SAC was one of the “cool kids,” but it was sort of their domain.
There were also those kids who were partiers who weren’t necessarily athletes, but they were part of that group. They were the kids who drank and experimented with drugs, and had sex and got up to all kinds of adventures on the weekends and seemed way older than me.
To be clear, I was not one of those people.
During the first couple of years of my high school career, I was kind of invisible. Or, at least I felt invisible. Which, to the people who really knew me then, and have met me since, is SHOCKING. But, it’s true. I was shy, kind of serious, very internal, in my head most of the time, always gazing out, wishing I could be different, or part of things I was too afraid to try, tucked up in a corner, reading or writing. I wore baggy clothes (well, it was the grunge era, after all), and ill- fitting bras, I had super-long, lifeless hair that I had no idea how to manage (until I had the good sense to grow out those awful bangs and cut it in grade 11). I didn’t wear make-up, and I was often the teacher’s pet (without trying, I swear!). I just disappeared into the scenery.
I was a good student. So were all my friends. Some of them got better grades than me in certain subjects…but the thing I shamelessly take pride in is that if I was in an English class with any of them, they ALL wanted to do group projects or partner up with me. What can I say? English was my jam, and I could write a kick-ass essay in my sleep!
But, as much as I loved English class, music was my favourite subject.
If, for the first couple of years of high school I felt invisible and inconsequential, it was the music room that saved me. I found my home in that room. It was my safe space, my sanctuary. I would sometimes just go there to shoot the shit with my music teachers/directors (there were only three of them), because if it’s possible, I felt like they were my friends. Or at least my older, wiser, cooler cousins or something.
Music class was the best. I remember never wanting it to end. I fully immersed myself in it. And, to an extent, it was in those rooms, in those groups, where barriers were broken down. Our school was small, and well-rounded (in terms of liberal arts and athletics, tech, etc.), that there was a lot of overlap of those stereotypical cliques in organizations. There were music nerds (like me, I would say), athletes, SAC members, Arts kids, or “Artsies,” as we called them – in a totally affectionate way, I promise! I’m referring to those enrolled in the formal Integrated Arts Program and not just those students who were artistic. There were some seriously talented future musicians, and those who just wanted an “easy” arts credit (P.S. it wasn’t easy) and everything else in between.
That is where I lived, it was my sweet spot. But, as the years went on, I came out of my shell and in the last couple of years of school, I began to put myself out there more. I got out of the music room and did a lot of stuff around the school. Let’s just say, the faculty knew me well 😊
Anyway, because I was always performing with one choir or band or ensemble or another, people would see me a lot. In my last year of school, I was involved in every ensemble I qualified for, including the coveted Triple Trio, I did morning announcements, I wrote for the school paper, and I was the editor-in-chief of the yearbook. I remember I co-hosted a Cabaret night with one of my singing sisters, Andrea. I sang a song a capella, Tracy Chapman’s “Behind the Wall” so it was super scary. It was the first time I had ever sung by myself in front of a crowd. Regardless of what people thought of my singing, it certainly put me on the map!
I remember Mr. Thorn (RIP), my Philosophy teacher, pulled me out of class the next day and in a very serious tone, looking down at me sternly (any of you PC alumni who had Mr. Thorn remember this tactic very well – also, the standing on his desk and turning out the lights) and earnestly congratulating me on my performance. It was one of the highlights of my high school years, to be sure.
So, I would say people knew who I was…what they thought of me, I have no idea.
Everything I’ve described firmly casts me in the light of a total goody-goody, a “browner,” a nerd, maybe even a loser. In some ways that was true: I can count on one hand the number of times I drank during my high school years. I never had a boyfriend (but lots of hopeless crushes), nor did I get into any trouble of any kind. I was pretty vanilla. If I was vanilla in my teen years, then I was more of a creamy, milk chocolate in my 20s and in my 30s, I was definitely more of a bitter dark chocolate. I’m not really sure what I’m talking about anymore, this metaphor is getting away from me.
I’m not really sure how our class saw us, but I know that I had wonderful, if slightly square, rule-following, honour-roll achieving friends, with whom I was lucky to roll. I was driven to accomplish things and I had a desire to be liked, or at least to not have a bad reputation. Despite the fact that I wasn’t invited to the “cool kids’” parties, or the boys I had crushes on (there were SO many boys I had crushes on), didn’t know I was alive, (or if they did, they certainly didn’t think about me), I was OK with who I was and my place in the high school hierarchy. I don’t think the students thought ill of me, I just think they didn’t think of me at all.
But maybe that’s not true. I remember being home from university for a holiday or something, and meeting up with my high school friends at The Arms (RIP, The Arms – you were a special place to us). I was at the bar, and this girl who was maybe two or three years behind me (still in high school, anyway), started talking to me like I was a f-ing celebrity.
She knew me as the Editor-in-Chief of the 1997/98 yearbook, and she told me she was trying to create a yearbook as good as the one we had produced in my graduating year (P.S. I have to say, I am really proud of it). I guess I did have a reputation after all!?!?
She clearly knew me, and apparently we had spoken before. But, you know what? I had no idea who she was! Maybe to her, I was a “cool kid,” someone she looked up to, wanted to be like, and felt a certain privilege to have a chat with in our local pub.
What’s interesting about growing up in a relatively small city, is that because the schools are divided by district, most kids I had gone to elementary school with, many of them from SK-8, ended up going to the same high school as me.
I was lucky to retain a good handful of them, but there were many kids with whom I had shared countless sleepovers, birthday parties, and after-school hangouts that turned into dinner with their families. One of my favourite memories is a party in one of my friends’ attic, where everyone conspired to secure me my would-be “boyfriend,” Kevin B, while we slow danced to “It Must Have Been Love” by Roxette. We talked on the phone once, held hands in the school yard maybe a couple of times, and “broke up” 2 weeks later. So, for a grade 7 romance, it was pretty hot.
So, we all showed up on the first day of grade 9 at PCVS, which I distinctly remember was really hot and muggy.
Anyway, we were all in our new, perfectly curated outfits, most of which were completely weather-inappropriate, tanned and relaxed from the summer, but nervous about this next big step…we did sort of cling to each other for the first few days/weeks. But, slowly, we began to branch off and find new friends, new cliques, new identities we wanted to inhabit as “high schoolers.” It’s funny that most of the friends I had throughout my childhood, turned into people who wouldn’t acknowledge my existence in high school, let alone talk to me or appreciate the friendship we had had for the better part of our lives. I guess that’s a pretty universal experience, though. Remember the climactic scene at the end of Can’t Buy Me Love?
But, you know what’s amazing to me? Facebook. I’m not kidding!!!! When Facebook became a thing, and I finally joined (late to the party, as always), I started “friending” old high school peeps. It was such a surreal experience – I was connecting with the people I had grown up with, the people who were there when I was becoming a real person, and who I never thought I would even think about again, let alone know anything about 22 years later. If it weren’t for FB and social media in general, I wouldn’t have a sweet clue about anyone’s life now. I mean, about those who aren’t my actual friends still. And even then, I don’t think I would keep such good tabs on my friends’ lives if I couldn’t follow them virtually.
And I have to say, in adulthood, the people I wasn’t necessarily close to in high school, even some of whom were “cool kids,” have not only connected with me, but have been lovely and down to earth in our interactions, and seem to have forgotten about all that high school nonsense. Maybe they didn’t think there was high school nonsense. But it doesn’t really matter now. I think some of them even read this blog (hi guys!).
As editor of the yearbook, I remember being on this kind of crusade to have our graduating class write their senior quotes in a different format and with an intention of longevity that was anthema to the established tradition – which was usually a list of their friends’ initials, teams they played on, party memories, inside jokes, shout outs to girlfriends and boyfriends, and in my opinion, stuff that no one would remember 10, 20 years from then. I actually held a mini assembly for the graduates to give them some suggestions.
GAWD, what they must have thought of me! I officially apologize to my graduating class for being so insufferable and self-righteous. I cringe now just thinking about it.
I will say, however, that I loved my senior quote and to this day, think I chose well:
Pretty on-brand, non? Also, can we appreciate, once again, the “Rachel” hair cut I was rocking?
And it’s no coincidence that that David Bowie quote appears in one of my all-time favourite movies about the teenage experience, The Breakfast Club.
Anyway, I could go on forever about high school politics and caste systems and memories, the teachers who had a huge impact on me, and how I think those years help shape who I am today.
But, today, I just wanted to share some of my thoughts about my high school experience. And, to tell you to go see Booksmart!!! It will resonate with you, no matter who you are now or who you were in high school.
And you know what? “Cool kid” or not, I think I turned out pretty great.
For the last 12 years or so, I’ve worked in a very corporate setting. I work at a computer for most of the day, I have meetings with colleagues across the globe, I write a LOT of emails. I say things like “let me circle back with you on that” and “let’s parking lot that one and take it offline” and “I’m working on the deck for the ELT panel at the quarterly global WAM town hall in Boston, do you have the Q2 results?”
I wear blazers, guys.
I can wear nail polish and do my hair however I want. I have a work phone (that I try not to look at too much) and I have learned an incredible amount about life insurance, wealth and asset management and all kinds of other finance-y things that I never, in a million years, imagined that I would ever know. Sometimes I feel like Alice, having fallen through the hole, and I don’t quite belong in this world. And then sometimes, I feel like I am exactly where I am meant to be.
Perhaps what is not well known about me, is that before this chapter in my life, I lived in a wholly different world. I was brought up in the restaurant industry. A monolith of the rule of baptism by fire. It’s not for the faint of heart or the thin-skinned.
It’s where I “cut my teeth,” where I became a real person. It’s where I fell in love (a couple of times), fell out of love, got hurt (emotionally and physically – hello concussion!) and worked harder than I ever have in my life. It’s where I learned about classism and racism in real life, how to manage people and time. It’s where I learned how to be a leader, it’s where I tested my math skills daily,it’s where I developed the most impressive memory, and persevered through whatever was going on in my life to still be the exuberant, ray of sunshine that I had built my reputation upon.
I was in my second year of university and I needed a job – bad. It was just me and OSAP funding my education, and I had rent and bills to pay, tuition to cover and books to buy. So, I applied to the Pizza Hut near my school and was thrilled (and relieved) when I got the job.
This was a full dine-in restaurant. This was exciting to me and I loved it immediately. I started in the kitchen, as all the newbies do. I hated the dorky uniforms, and that I had to wear a hat. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever worn a hat/cap in any other instance in my life. I look ridiculous in hats. And, ugh, and there were hairnets. It wasn’t exactly high fashion.
I became instant friends with a group of guys who were a bit older than me, and definitely the “cool kids.” I spent most of my shifts laughing and joking and quoting movies and making lame pizza jokes. And then we’d all go out for drinks after work. It was awesome.
And then, when management was duly impressed with me, and I was deemed worthy, I got the golden ticket, I got sent up to “the show.” I was going to train to be a server. Everyone wanted to serve. We were a busy location, being near two universities and central in the city, so there was potential to make some major moola. Especially for a starving student like me 😊
As if it was even a question, ( how dare you question my aptitude, lol), of course I was a natural! I remember back when I started, our server uniforms included a short sleeved button-down shirt (white or blue), with a tie. I LOVED wearing that damn tie. I couldn’t tie them though (still don’t have a clue how to do it), so I got my brother to pre-tie a few for me and I just kept them on a hook in my closet and slipped them over my head. I have to say, I was pretty frickin’ adorable.
I’m naturally outgoing, charming, smiley, pleasant, smart and quick on my feet and all the things you need to be to be a good server, so it was like slipping on a glass slipper.
Don’t get me wrong, my patience was tested regularly. The general population (at least the ones who ate at our restaurant) can be pretty awful. I remember my District Manager once told me that the customer is, in fact, not always right, but they are always the customer. That little nugget of advice has stuck with me all these years. I have since incorporated it into every interview, every training session, every employee orientation I’ve ever conducted. Thanks, B.
The best memories of that time for me, were Friday and Saturday nights. I got to see almost everyone, because, of course, it was busy, and all my peeps would be working. I loved when we were really busy, and the whole place was just buzzing. I loved looking at the split for the night, to see which section mine was and getting into the zone.
Everyone was usually a little amped up, ready for the onslaught about to come. We would get in a groove, moving around the floor like fish darting around an aquarium, passing each other at speeds that were just short of running, but never banging into one another, and flashing smiles or winks about inside jokes. We usually had the music going loud, and I was definitely known to sing along as I was working. It’s the occupational hazard of being a singer, I guess?
And, inevitably, one (or more) of us would get in the weeds and our other server buddies or sometimes a manager would jump in, running food, pre-bussing our tables, grabbing refills, and generally helping so that we wouldn’t drown. I loved that feeling of all hands-on deck.
I hated when I had to change the kegs. They were SO heavy, and I am a tiny person, even more so back then. I always struggled with those damn things, invariably spraying beer all over myself and/or dropping the thing on my foot. I have broken a plate or two, I have slipped and fallen on my ass carrying a tray of something. I have scaled shelves in the server’s area to reach whatever it was that I needed. I have forgotten to ring in an order (that’s a classic), and masterfully covered up my mistake by telling the table some fib or another with my big, square smile and a bat of my eyelashes, offering them free garlic bread. It worked every time.
I have burned myself on hot pizza pans, whacked myself on various corners of various surfaces. And the concussion I mentioned before? That was when a giant colander fell onto my head when I was bent over one of the sinks in the dish pit, with my whole body practically in the sink. I’m telling you, restaurant kitchens are not made for small people.
I loved those shifts when everything was just in a rhythm, we hit all the beats and we were in the trenches together. We had fun, we made money, we helped each other out. I remember some epic laughing fits happening in that server’s area. I met great people, some of them destined to be a flash that I barely remember, and some who have become lifelong friends.
Like I mentioned, I did have a couple of loves during my tenure with the Pizza Slut (as we affectionately called it). Let me break down the pros and cons of working in a restaurant with your boyfriend:
You get to see them a lot
You have all the same friends, so it makes making social plans so much more valuable.
You have a shorthand when talking about work and your partner knows exactly what you’re talking about when you tell them about your day
The long, lingering glances that make everyone jealous
The stolen kisses and butt-pinches in the walk-in
When you’re on the phone with a customer, and he stands really close behind you and tickles the nape of your neck because he knows it drives you crazy and you must concentrate really hard on what you’re doing, lest you melt into a puddle – exhilarating!
You see them a lot
They can be jealous of all the young boys who have crushes on you
The moment when you and your guy are standing really close together, flirting so hard, you’ve practically set the place on fire, and you look up to see his girlfriend (who he had assured you he had broken up with) sitting on the bench in the takeout area staring daggers at you, probably plotting your death
When you find out your boyfriend of three years who just broke up with you because he felt you “were going in different directions” is actually a cheating, lying liar who has been sleeping with the (opposite of you in every way) girl who you personally interviewed and hired. AND oh by the way, he’s been cheating on you for almost the whole relationship, with other, different women; then he’s a total c-nt to you and you start to question everything about your life, and you have to continue to work with him, which is awful and eventually all your shared friends sort of take sides, and suddenly the little teenage boys who for some reason, have allegiance to your slimy ex, are scratching your name out on the schedule and writing “Bitch” and accusing you of shorting the till $50
But, honestly, painful break-ups aside, those were some of the best years of my life. I was in my twenties, I was young and hot, and had the world at my feet. I look back now at the crazy-long hours I worked, the ridiculous split shifts, the shifts I picked up for people, pushing me into overtime almost every week, the times when I would have naps between my shifts in the back office, curled up on a couple of delivery bags. I think about the aching feet, the sweaty, sweaty summers in a 1000 degree kitchen, the cold winters when the heat wouldn’t work, the difficult customers, the friends coming and going, and even the gossip, and I see it all through a really fond lens. Honestly.
The things I remember with such fondness from those years, in all the various PH locations I worked in, is the people. The laughter. The feeling of belonging and the things I learned about running a restaurant – I eventually moved into salaried management – but also about myself and the world.
Those were my formative years, and my years in the restaurant industry certainly helped form me. I liken it to what summer camp feels like, or, I imagine, a movie or TV set – you know that this experience is for a finite period of time, but you’re in a bubble, and people on the outside have no idea what your collective experience is. It creates a bond only those involved can understand.
During those years, I loved and lost, I got to work with my brother, and as a result, we now have shared memories and that familiar shorthand when we reminisce. I pushed myself to my physical (and sometimes emotional) limits and I internalized what it means to work hard, to be flexible, to perform under pressure, and how to make pizza dough 😊
So, if you’re ever out for dinner with me, and you look at me strangely when I unconsciously start pre-bussing the table for the server, or when I make sure to chit-chat with them and give them a smile that says that I know they’re doing their best at a really difficult job and when I inevitably over-tip, now you know why.
It’s because restaurant vets recognize one another out in the world. We’ve been in the trenches together, even if we haven’t been the same trenches. We have an unspoken understanding of what servers’ days are really like and what’s really going on back there in the kitchen and the server’s area.
And we will do whatever we can to keep them out of the weeds. It’s the least we can do.
I’m so glad you made it. I’m happy that you found the strength and fortitude to work your way out of the depths. You’re so courageous. Courage, after all, is not the absence of fear, it’s being afraid and doing it anyway. And you’re doing it.
I see that you’ve been suffering for so long. I can see it in the way I catch you staring off into space sometimes with a thoughtful look when you’re with a crowd of laughing people. I can see it in the moments of vulnerability that you only show to me, like when you’re almost asleep, and in your sheepish, child-like voice, ask me to stay, or to sing to you.
I know the pain you’ve been trapped in. And I also know how long you’ve buried that pain and all the years you’ve been pushing it down, and pushing it down, further and further, until it formed a solid, little rock at the very bottom of your heart. I know about the nights when you sit alone on your couch, thinking about the things that have happened to you and the things you’ve done. I see the shame in your eyes when something is said in a conversation, innocuous to most, but it pierces you like an ice cube on an exposed nerve.
I know the sleeplessness that haunts you when all you want to do is sleep – because when you’re sleeping, you can’t think, you can’t feel, you can’t regret, and you can’t disappoint. I know.
I recognize the self-destructive behavior that you’re carrying out in an attempt to punish yourself. And I know you know intellectually, you didn’t do anything wrong, but somewhere along the way, you lost yourself. You don’t know when exactly it started, but over time, you started to believe the lies your mind had been whispering to you. You internalized the lie about not being worthy…of love, of grace, of good things, of success, of the friends and family you have in your life, of the opportunities you’ve been given.
I know all about the nights you spend drinking by yourself, or starving yourself, or getting high, or harming your body, of setting yourself up for heartbreak or humiliation, of sabotaging yourself in one way or another, because you want your physical body to feel the pain that is debilitating you from the inside.
I’ve seen you looking through old pictures of better times with a sad nostalgia, thinking about who you were then, and wondering if the demons have always been there, but just dormant. You wonder if there was anything you could have done back then to prevent what’s happening now. I know that feeling of wanting to crawl out of your skin and just become someone else, because anything would be better than being you right now.
I too have fantasized about what the world would be like if I wasn’t in it. The moment when you’re driving fast around a bend, and the split second you think, what would happen if I just let go of the wheel and drove off the road into the depths below. The times when you’ve been walking down the street and thought, what if I stepped out in front of that bus, or the nights when you go to bed, and hope that you won’t wake up. I too have let my mind wander and play out the scenario of removing myself from the world – would my loved ones be happier? Would the world be a better place? Or what if I was never in this world in the first place? Would that be better?
But, dear survivor, as lonely and alone as you have felt, I’ve felt it too. And so have many others. And really, don’t you think that maybe every human, to some degree, can relate? I know the that the things that happened to you were dark and insidious, but here you are. You’re still here. That means something.
And now I see you fighting, I see you picking up the baton in the relay race with yourself for this next leg. I can see the bravery and courage that has taken everything in you to muster to get to this point. You are already a survivor – but you want to thrive, and that makes me so happy. Because you will, and you deserve to, and the people who love you want you to. That’s the other thing – people do love you. I know that’s hard to believe right now, but it’s true. Some of them protect their own feelings by being angry with you, or brushing you off, or cutting you out, but the love is still there. Trust me.
Try to look out for the ones who express their love for you without condition though. That’s the energy you need right now. You know that no one can fix you except you, but I can tell you from experience, it sure does make a difference if you surround yourself with people who can love and support you transparently, without strings, without amplifying your shame, and without making you feel like you’re less than. Because you’re not.
Survivor, whatever it is that you have survived, as awful and painful and messed up as it is, it is a part of you, a part of your story. The challenge now, is to make sense of it all, and ultimately, gain strength from it. I know that sounds impossible, but you can do it, I believe in you. You’ve got this.
I suppose only those who are experts in the field, truly understand trauma. And even then, one can only understand so much without having experienced it. And, of course, it can be many, many things along a vast and seemingly never-ending spectrum.
I am neither an expert in the field, nor a counselor with experience dealing with trauma survivors. I am one. A survivor, that is.
A couple of weeks ago, I watched the 4-hour long documentary “Leaving Neverland” which focuses on the stories of Wade Robson and James Safechuck and their eerily similar experiences with Michael Jackson. I’m not going to write about Michael Jackson, because I don’t really care about him, and more to the point, it’s not the important takeaway from the film.
I hate to drag out such an over-used buzzword, but I was triggered. As I was watching it, I had conscious thoughts that maybe I should turn it off, maybe this isn’t such a good idea, maybe this is going to end badly for me. But I couldn’t tear myself away. I was mesmerized, intensely submerged. I don’t think I got up from my couch, for four straight hours.
And sure enough, I went to bed that night, and had a terrible time falling asleep. When I finally did, after many restless hours, I had disturbing dreams.
Since I watched it, I’ve been sort of sitting with it, trying to process all the stuff it brought up for me, and sorting out what all this means. I’ve considered watching it again. And perhaps again, and again, and again. But, I haven’t. Yet.
I’ve read a few articles, and listened to a podcast about it. And then I remembered that when it originally aired on HBO, there was a live special hosted by Oprah immediately following the airing. I don’t have cable, so I found it on YouTube.
Well. If you’ve been watching and listening to Oprah for the last 30+ years, you know that she’s made it a priority to use her platform and her talk show to try to expose childhood sexual abuse for what it really is. She has hosted over 200 shows on the topic. She has tried tirelessly to communicate why it’s so difficult to talk about, how the wildly irresponsible misconceptions about it are perpetuated, and the long-term damage it does to those of us who survive it. Lying in my bed that night, with my iPad, in the dark, it was as if Oprah was speaking directly to me. It was a surreal experience, like, she gets me and I get her, and unfortunately, I know exactly what Wade and James have gone through and are still trying to navigate. That’s not to say that our experiences are the same, but the way they spoke of their experiences rang disturbingly true to me. Oprah deliberately filled the audience with sexual abuse survivors. It was very compelling.
Here’s the reason people don’t disclose their experiences of sexual abuse/trauma typically until adulthood, if at all: because children don’t have the vocabulary, the contextual instincts, or the actual brain development necessary to be able to comprehend that what is happening to them is bad or wrong.
It’s only as we grow and develop and become adults that we can look back at those experiences and see them for what they were. Well, hopefully. It’s only as an adult that we can see it from a different perspective and realize that this thing happened, but upon that realization, the shame that you’ve been carrying your whole life up to that point, is only magnified a billion times, because you realize that this horrible thing was happening to you, and not only did you not tell anyone, you feel like a willing participant, like you did it to yourself, that it’s your fault. You begin to flagellate yourself for your complicity in such an insidious thing. Because of the stigma attached to sexual violations across the board, magnified by the fact that you’re talking about it years, sometimes decades later, people are assholes, and question you, doubt you, say that you’re just trying to get attention, or in some cases, money, or that you’re a sad and pathetic victim. As a society, think about how we treat victims of sexual assault in general. Christine Blasey-Ford did an excellent job of explaining how it is that one can remember the details of a trauma that occurred over 30 years ago. There are legitimate reasons people keep these things a secret.
So, with that all in mind, imagine just how damaging childhood sexual trauma must be, that with all those awful, hateful, ignorant, misinformed, and reductive indicters erupting with vitriol, people still tell their stores. In spite of the scrutiny, the potential social death, the hate and harassment they are afraid of, they still speak up. And by doing so, they hopefully get the help they need to start the very long and painful journey of working through that damage to move on with their lives, and improve their mental health. It’s a big fucking deal.
Think about it. Almost EVERY time, the abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows, and most of the time, trusts and probably even loves. And the complex, and carefully crafted seduction (because that’s exactly what it is) is executed in a way that the child, and perhaps even the other adults around, don’t know it’s happening. It’s subversive by design. That’s what grooming is.
When you’re a six-year-old girl and you have an adult in your life, lavishing attention on you, constantly telling you how beautiful you are, how special you are, how much they love you, and how much they just want to be with you, and hug you and play with you and have a special relationship with you, how could a child possibly interpret that as anything other than great?
The seduction continues, gradually building to a point when sexual acts are perpetrated and you, as a six-year-old are being told that it’s your “special secret” and you’re not to tell anyone or else you’d both get in big trouble. And in a lot of cases, quite frankly, as uncomfortable as I know this makes us feel, it feels good. Our little bodies have a natural, physical reaction to what’s happening. Like Oprah said in her special (and I’m paraphrasing here), it doesn’t matter the circumstances, or who’s doing it, if your penis is being stroked, it feels good.
How can we possibly expect children to process what is happening to them while it’s happening? They simply can’t. So, we get older, we grow up and look back on those experiences and understand them for what they really are, and the shame becomes all-consuming, because you feel complicit. After all, you didn’t tell anyone it was happening, that someone was hurting you, so really, it’s your fault.
Of course, I cannot remember how I interpreted the world at the age of six and I will never know, because that’s not how time works. Think of the young children in your life, think about the questions they ask, the things they understand, and their capacity to comprehend complex human interactions. I have a 7-year-old nephew, and if I think about him experiencing anything like I did, I feel sick. And infuriated.
The long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse/trauma are far-ranging and are broadly speaking, unique and similar at the same time. My therapist says that there is one thing that presents consistently, and that is that everyone who experiences sexual trauma as a child has some sort of manifestation of the damage which surfaces in adulthood. For many, it presents itself in substance abuse, addictions (drugs, gambling, sex, anything), eating disorders, and all manner of self-destructive behaviour. And of course, there are usually trust issues, and unhealthy boundaries in relationships, to name just a few.
When I first started telling my family and friends about what happened to me when I was six, someone’s response to me was that a lot of things about me and my life made a lot more sense now. I didn’t know how to take that in the moment. And I didn’t press them to explain. But, I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot, and I realized that when they made that point to me, I felt offended. Offended because I have truly believed that for the last 34 years, I’ve kept this secret, I’ve held onto this experience, vowing to not let it affect me, because this was just a thing that happened to me, and I’m over it, and it doesn’t matter, and that I would take this information with me to my grave and there’s no way anyone could know or ever will. So, I felt offended because despite my best efforts, this trauma I experienced when I was six had imprinted on me so deeply, that there were obvious links to aspects of me and my life that someone who knows me so well could immediately connect the dots.
I’m still trying to connect the dots.
I thought that I was presenting myself as a person who you would never suspect had been abused, a totally mentally healthy person without “issues” and that no one could ever feel bad for me because I was strong and I had dealt with it, and it didn’t mean anything. Well, obviously I was wrong about that. Really, really, wrong.
At the end of the Oprah special, she asked James Safechuck the final question of the show, giving him the last word. She asked him about where he is in the process (of healing and coping), and the thing that struck me the most about his response was when he said that he will be dealing with this for the rest of his life, that it’s something he’s going to have to work on constantly so he can be better for his kids and his family. The. Rest. Of. His. Life.
I’ve been on quite a journey these last few months. Well, really, for my whole life, but the sharing of my secret shame has turned my life inside out. It’s hard work, battling demons and the resulting (or perhaps just coincidental?) depression that has consumed and impeded me. But not only is it worth it, it’s essential if I want to live a better life, a life in which I value my own existence, and feel worthy of the love around me.
The biggest thing I think I’ve discovered so far on this journey is that healing and forgiveness are not a destination to be reached, but rather a path to take.
You guys, 2018 sucked donkey balls. For me, I mean. It could have been the best year of your life, and if so, I am sincerely happy for you. But for me, it was dark, challenging (and not in the good way), long, lonely, stressful, daunting, frustrating and largely a year I was just trying to get to the end of without making a premature exit.
Lately, I have felt compelled to reflect, as many of us are wont to do when a new year begins. And in so doing, because I am ever the optimist, I didn’t want to only recall all the shitty, hard stuff, I wanted to remember and celebrate the good things, the highlights of an otherwise terrible year, the few rays of light that managed to emerge through the cracks in my windows this past year. And I wanted to write it down, put it out in the universe so that I could look back at this time, years from now, and marvel at the amazing things that happened during a very trying time in my life, and be proud of how far I’ve come.
The first thing that comes to mind is that I launched GenerationNEXT, an employee resource group at work. This little baby was a pure labour of love, something I poured myself into, and meticulously (a trait I’m not particularly known for) put the puzzle together of the people, support, marketing and as corny as it sounds, heart, to launch my little ERG-baby to the masses (and by masses, I mean my company). It is quite an extraordinary thing to work so hard on something you so fiercely believe in and watch as it unfolds before you in all the ways you imagined and more. I don’t mean to be overly effusive here, but the bottom line is that this was a big deal, and I did it! And ironically, the actual launch event (and all the work needed to make that happen) was happening just as I was starting this journey with depression, and learning about my thyroid, and starting medications. So, looking back, that it even happened, let alone was the success it was, to me, is quite miraculous.
I travelled to New York City with my Cantores sisters (and a few of my besties in tow), and I sang on the stage of Carnegie Hall.
I did that! That is a thing that I did! Can you believe it?!?!
It’s a once in a lifetime experience that I will always cherish. I had a great time, got to work with Sir John Rutter himself, and had the opportunity to make musical magic with my sisters. That’s pretty damn amazing.
I moved. Sometimes a move is just a move. And sometimes, a move is a life-altering event. In my case, it was the latter. Moving for me, was fraught with paralyzing fear, and the shedding of an old, dysfunctional, bleak and damaged life for a new one. I had to fight like hell to ultimately sign the lease on my apartment, and I’m practically bankrupt from what it has taken for me to set myself up for success in my new chapter, but it was totally worth it. I now have a home that I actually take pride in, a space that is all my own, one which reflects who I am, and one which feels like a hug every time I walk through the door.
I didn’t get here alone. I had exceptional support from all my friends, but my move would not have been possible were it not for my dear friend Josh. I like to lovingly refer to him as a tornado. He knows this, he knows it’s a term of endearment. He tornadoes around me, almost in a blur, just DOING. While I was struggling with preparing for the move, making decisions, paralyzed by the enormity of the task, it was Josh who swooped in and took the reins, purging my old place (almost too well – there are things he got rid of that I’m still discovering). He helped me pack, and forced (I mean, strongly encouraged) me to make decisions. He motivated me and kept reminding me that this is what I had been wanting and working toward for a very long time.
He knew I needed help, I couldn’t do it on my own. Moving is hard under the best of circumstances, and he knew that my circumstances were extenuating. He’s the Portuguese mama I never knew I needed. And he single-handedly moved me. I’m serious. I mean I was there, I did stuff, but let’s be honest, I’m pretty useless when it comes to these things. He and I moved me into my new place using just his car and a little dolly I had bought at Canadian Tire. I think we did it in three, maybe four trips on one of the hottest, most humid July Saturdays I can remember.
So, moving for me was a BIG deal. And even though it was hard, challenging, exhausting, physically and emotionally, I view it as a huge highlight of the year. And I couldn’t have done it without Josh.
When I think about the entirety of 2018, I think the thing that provided the most light through the cracks was my birthday celebration. I love my birthday. I have always loved my birthday. But, as you can imagine, this year was different and I was sort of worried that the whole thing would be a disaster and forever scar me. So, I was wary.
I had been talking about my big 4-0 for a while with my friends and was very specific about what I envisioned, but honestly was expecting to settle for whatever was best for everyone else. I wanted a fancy dinner, preferably in a private room of a restaurant I’d never been to. I wanted just my closest friends there, people who were well aware of everything that was going on with me. I didn’t want to have to pretend, or put on a happy face or feel pressured to behave in a certain way. I wanted to dress up (and therefore I wanted everyone else to, obviously). I mean, no prom dresses or tuxes, but I wanted everyone to get all gussied up. And balloons! I wanted a lot of balloons. And to be honest, I wouldn’t have been mad if a prom dress had made an appearance.
Again, it was Josh who made it happen. He delivered the birthday party of my dreams. Not only were all the criteria checked off the list, there was so much love in all the details. My favourite colours, carefully selected cocktails and appetizers, a custom designed menu, just for us. Our own sommelier. He even created a playlist of music that he knew I would like to be played for our background soundtrack. I mean COME ON!!
He thought of every single detail. There was so much love in that room, I felt so close to everyone there. Having never been a bride, I can’t say for certain, but it sure as shit felt like my wedding! It was my day. And I felt like a million bucks. Put quite simply, it was perfect.
So, in looking back at a really crappy year for me, the thing that stands out the most as the highlight, the BEST thing that happened in my life in 2018, was my 40th birthday, organized by my thoughtful, talented, devoted and extraordinarily loving friend Josh. I don’t think I have ever felt more loved in my life.
2019 is going to be good. It has to be. It can only go up from here. I came across a meme the other day which made me laugh really hard (probably inappropriately), but it sort of sums up the last year of my life quite perfectly, I think:
Apparently my rock bottom has a basement.
I discovered that basement this year, but the good news is, there’s nowhere else to go, but up.
Happy new year. May it be filled with more good than bad, more love than heartache, and more joy than sorrow.
I’m a believer that two opposing ideas can both be true. To wit: I believe a person can be impulsive and responsible; spontaneous and pragmatic; strong and vulnerable; communicative and secretive. You see what I mean. I think there are all kinds of shades of grey when it comes to defining a person (as if they could actually ever be defined). Nothing is black and white, in my opinion. And maybe it’s the great mystery or goal in life to discern all those shades within ourselves and each other. It’s our job to reconcile these ostensibly opposing traits or facts about us that exist in tandem, despite our instinct to categorize them as being in different “columns.” And maybe they are truly in different columns, but my point is that two things can be true at once. There is rarely a definitive, absolute answer or explanation for anything.
Take for instance when we think about our identity – who we present ourselves to be, and in turn, who we are perceived to be (which, really, are enmeshed). I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately.
The following are some things, some facts about me that are very integral to my identity, to who I am, who I believe I am, and more importantly, who others perceive me to be.
I am short. Petite. Small. Little. Not tall (or even average height). This has always been true. I was a tiny baby. I was a tiny toddler and little girl (with a disproportionately large head). I was always in the front row of the class picture. I’m pretty sure I’m the same height I reached in grade six. That’s 11 years old. I haven’t grown since I was 11.
That I am short is simply a fact about me. But somehow, over the course of my life, it has morphed into a kind of character trait. My family and some of friends call me “Little One.” I mean, I am little: I’m little in stature, I have tiny feet and hands, I have a small head (I guess I just grew into that large melon from my childhood), so I look ridiculous in hats and sunglasses. But, I’m also what some would define as “full-figured.” I prefer the word voluptuous. Those with an inferior vocabulary might describe me as fat.
Whatever. I don’t care. I can’t control how others interpret my body, nor do I care to. After all, words are only as powerful as the meaning we give them.
But, my point is that the sheer physicality of my body has infiltrated my very being, and my height, my smallness comes up in conversations, inside jokes, teasing, nicknames and general perception of who I am. And I’m not mad at it one bit. The fact that I am both small and big simultaneously is the paradox I’m talking about here.
I am smart. I don’t say that in a boastful way. Most people I know are smart. It’s a fact. But this is a fact about me that is rather defining. I speak and write (I hope!) articulately and eloquently. I am secretly really flattered when people comment on the words I use in everyday conversation, how I express myself, or ask me for help with grammar or re-wording something they’re writing.
Again, this is another fact about me that has, along the way, been absorbed in my personality, my identity. And, admittedly, I’ve clung onto this notion in times of insecurity.
I have musical talent. I used to be pretty serious about playing instruments and singing and once upon a time, imagined a career in the arts, perhaps playing in an orchestra, or the pit band of musicals, or even being on Broadway or being an Opera singer. Listen, with age, I have come to realize that that was probably not in the stars (or within reach) for me, but at my heart, I am a singer. I’ve written a lot about how important music and my choir is to me so it’s no secret how dear I hold the music that is in my life.
But, in addition to the organized singing I am a part of, I feel I really do have a talent. Let’s not get it twisted – I’m no Whitney, Celine or Mariah, but I really do LOVE to sing and, to be honest…I think I’m pretty good at it.
Sometimes I’m singing to myself just in my apartment, and I finish and think to myself, “DAMN, I sound GOOD.” Haha.
Again, I’m not being a cocky asshole here (I’m sure there are many of you reading this who are better singers than me), but my point is that this particular talent sets me apart, and in so doing, is very much a part of my identity. I’m Ange, the singer. When I’m in a room full of people I’m usually the only one who possesses this talent, and honestly, if people were to ask me to sing something, I gladly would. They don’t tend to though. I presume it’s because when someone says, “Oh yeah, I SING,” one’s first inclination is to think, really? I bet you’re one of those people who thinks they can sing, and has clearly been enabled by the people around them their whole lives who have repeatedly lied to them and told them how talented they are, when really, you’re terrible and make people’s ears bleed, and if you sing something right now, you’re just going to embarrass yourself and make everyone uncomfortable. I get it. But, really, I have the goods, I promise.
I am a good friend. This one is something I’ve been told a lot, and to be honest, when I’m feeling confident and sure of myself, I agree. I put a lot of effort and thought into being a good friend. But, it’s also just the way I am, if that makes sense. I value my friends so much. And lately, especially, I’ve come to realize that my friends must value me too, because they have been so extraordinarily there for me in ways I never expected (and most of the time don’t feel I deserve – but I’m working on that).
So, this being-a-good-friend thing has become a defining feature of my personality. As in, if someone were to ask me to describe myself in 3 words (or phrases), this would be one of them.
I am depressed. Capitol “D” depression, with a diagnosis, medication and therapy to back it up. Unlike all these other facts about me that I’ve listed here, I actually don’t want this one to define me. But maybe it’s too late for that.
The truth is, it is a part of me. It’s a part of my story now. In the same way as every triumph, every failure, every bad decision, every love lived and lost, every moment I wish I could re-live and every moment I wish I could re-do, is a part of my story. As I tried to articulate in my previous blog about my body, I am – we all are – the sum of our parts. We are complex individuals with stories and challenges and wins, and all kinds of experiences that get chucked into a proverbial pot and stirred up, and the end product is Ange (or insert your name here) soup. Perhaps this metaphor is getting away from me, but I’m sure you’re pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down, right?
The bottom line is that depression is a thing I’m currently experiencing, coping with, working through, resenting, hating, feeling defeated by, kind of maybe getting a handle on, determined to emerge a better person from and going to battle with every day. But, it is also part of my story and is something about which I refuse to be ashamed. I’ve carried enough shame for several lifetimes. It’s time to let all that go.
So, if at the end of my life, someone writes a list of all the things that make up who I am, I really do genuinely hope that depression will be there – but that it’s treated just the same as all the other, myriad, interesting, wonderful (and maybe some terrible?) things that make up who I am, none more or less important than another.