Trying to boil the ocean

I can’t do it all. No one can. But I’ve noticed that I feel a ridiculous, irrational need to accomplish every single thing I set out to do, and to do it to (near) perfection. No matter the task, I find myself in a state of devastating self-flagellation if I miss the mark or fail all together, especially when I feel like I let someone down. That’s the worst.

I need to point out here that I’ve never considered myself a perfectionist. That I am or might be I suppose is debatable, depending on who you ask. I mean, I am a Virgo after all, and if astrology is to be believed, I’m ‘supposed’ to be a perfectionist.

But what does that even mean? I’m far from perfect. Like FAR. Like, really far, far away from perfect. Like if perfect were the North Pole, I’m somewhere near Uruguay. But perhaps being a perfectionist has little to do with actual perfection?

I think, and I could be wrong of course, that regardless of how something turns out, it is the pursuit of this elusive thing called perfection that makes one a perfectionist. For me, it’s related to achieving. I’ve always held onto a belief that I am an over-achiever (in most things) because I developed the trait as a child in order to stand out. Being part of a big family with lots of competing personalities and two working parents, I have often described myself as a young person as having done anything and everything to stand out. To an almost comical degree. I had to differentiate myself, you see.

Who knows? Maybe that’s just the way I see it through the prism of my memory, or maybe it’s true. All I can say is, thank goodness I chose to stand out in the ways I did, and not in ways that might have ruined my life. I excelled in school, got straight A’s, was on the honour roll, won public speaking contests, placed first place in many a music festival, thought outside the box (I still do that) and marched to the beat of my own drum, etc.

My parents did notice me, of course, and always supported my many interests and talents, and they still do! Sidebar: I am the only grown woman I know who still sends her parents emails about any kind of praise or accolades sent my way. Sometimes, when I’m particularly proud of an article I’ve written, I send it to them. Pathetic, I know. But, see how ingrained it is in me? Sigh.

My parents raised four children through periods of unemployment, sometimes precarious careers, and the general ups and downs of raising said four children. Looking back, I’d say they did an exceptional job. And, of course they noticed me. They noticed all of us equally.

1gMQJ

But, my point is that I developed this need in me a long, long time ago to excel at everything. When I was working my ass off in the restaurant industry, I had to get to the top! I had to be the best server, the most well-liked manager, the most respected, trustworthy, reliable and beloved employee ever. And when I fell down, and failed at those things sometimes, because of course I did because that’s an impossible bar for anyone to meet, I would beat myself up. I mean, really get down on myself. I would hang onto the failure (which by the way, was probably not failure in anyone’s eyes except mine most of the time) and let it destroy me from the inside out. I think at times, I even willed it to. I felt that’s all I deserved.

As I’ve gotten older and am an actual grown-up now (that’s what they tell me, anyway), the urge to achieve perfection has only become stronger. Which is ironic, of course, because in adulthood, the challenges are more difficult, the stakes higher, the goals and achievements bigger and more important, so failure is more inevitable. So, if my urge for perfection has gotten stronger, while the chances of failure have increased in frequency and scale, the chasm only grows larger and more implausible. Perfection becomes even more unattainable for me, and therefore makes weathering the near-misses, not to mention the catastrophic misses, only more devastating.

Whoa, that got dark real fast! Sorry.

As I was saying…basically I have issues with failure. As you might know, I’ve been going to battle with depression every day for about two years now (officially that is – I would argue it’s been stalking me for quite some time). I’ve noticed that I am very hard on myself. Really, very hard on myself. It’s part of the negative thought spirals I get caught in. I screw something up, like I don’t know, I miss a deadline, I’m late for work (like, really late), or I don’t budget properly and end up in very sticky, stressful situations, and the self-flagellation begins in earnest. Sometimes it happens even when I set the goal for myself! That’s the toughest, to be honest.

The end of last year was pretty good for me in terms of my mental health. But I was still having some issues at work. I’m telling you guys, coping with mental illness in the workplace is hard. Not insurmountable, but just hard. Anyway, because I’m very open and honest with my manager about my struggles, and she happens to be extraordinarily compassionate and reasonable, we worked out a schedule to help me cope and not set myself up for (what I perceived as) failure – for the last couple of months of the year, I was able to work from home more often, my hours were shifted so that I could start later, and I used up some vacation days to have shorter weeks. It really did help. It made a tangible difference. I am so grateful to my manager for that gift. I’m telling you, I won the manager lottery.

So, now that it’s the new year and I’m working with a clean slate so to speak, I set a goal for myself last week, which was to go into the office every day. I know that sounds ludicrous, like why is that so hard, Ange? You’re doing so much better, aren’t you back to ‘normal’ yet? Trust me, it was a challenge.

And, I did it!! I made it into the office every day for five days in a row! The last two days I was late, but we’re not concentrating on that. It was a little victory and it made me feel good about myself and gave me some momentum going into this week.

Well, I set a different goal for this week, and by Tuesday I had fucked it up. And man did I crash. I crashed hard.

Listen, some days it truly is a victory for me to simply get out of bed. For real. And some days (more days than not, I’m happy to report), I feel like I’m rockin’ my life! I have productive days, when I feel good, I do good, creative work, and I feel like myself. But I still have bad days and I know it takes some people in my life by surprise because they have gotten used to ‘healed, cured Ange.’ I can hear the surprise in my mom’s voice when I tearfully tell her that it’s not a good day and can’t really explain why. I cancel plans with friends and opt to stay in alone and do nothing but sleep, cry and watch movies and don’t tell anyone lest they think, resentfully, that they have to take care of me. Or when I start crying for no real reason with my boyfriend and he is understandably concerned and confused. And so, the battle continues.

Which brings me to this idea of perfection. I don’t feel like I consciously strive for perfection, I really don’t. But when I fail, or feel like I fail, I’m really hard on myself. I always just do my best. And it just so happens that sometimes my best is amazing! And sometimes my best is just physically getting to work, and sometimes my best is everything in between. But the last couple of days I’ve been really hard on myself. I’ve been berating myself in my mind, telling myself that I suck, I’m a failure, I don’t deserve anything good, I’m pathetic, unlovable and no one should have to ‘deal with’ me and my stupid mental illness. You can see how quickly and drastically the thought spiral can get out of control.

This all started because I couldn’t get out of bed one day this week. Well, I did eventually get out of bed and made it into the office to get my laptop so that I could go back home and work there. But, the point is that I had a very difficult time just getting out of bed to face the world. That’s it! It happens to mentally healthy people sometimes! Especially in January! We are currently experiencing the most depressing time of the year. I’m not any better or worse than any other human trying to just live life.

And yet.

I’m still learning every day to be patient with myself, to forgive myself for my mess-ups, and to be kinder to myself. It’s the only way I’m going to continue to get better. I can’t do it all, and I certainly can’t do it all at once. I can’t boil the ocean.

I’m not really a ‘resolutions’ type of person, but this year, I did write out a list of things that I want to remind myself of as I live out 2020 (and going forward in general). One thing on that list reads ‘don’t seek perfection, but growth.’ Apropos of this post, and for context, the other top three are:

  • Be more patient with myself
  • Ask for help when I need it
  • Continue to share my mental health journey

Resolution or not, I think those are good guidelines for anyone. Even though it’s still really hard some days, and even after all my growth and healing and progress, there are still times when I’m knocked on my ass. The key, I’m learning, is to just gather the little bit of strength that’s left in me, pick myself up and put those coping skills I’ve learned to use.

I’ll share this secret with you: I have a mantra that I’ve just recently started repeating to myself when I’m feeling the pull of darkness, and it’s this – the self-doubt and negative self-talk are a lie my illness whispers to me. It’s all a lie, and I know the truth. I am strong and I will be healthy again.

Here’s to us making it out of January (and the rest of winter) unscathed! And please, take it from a master in the art of self-flagellation, you are doing a great job at life. You are strong and worthy and loved.

Ooooooh, I think I just stumbled upon my new mantra!

Don’t worry, I don’t mind sharing 😊

worthy

 

 

The end of an era: turning the page on the next chapter

The end of the year is drawing near, things are slow at work, the streets are busy with bustling deal-seeking shoppers and it’s a time for reflection. Not only is the year ending, but a decade is ending, and new one is upon us.

So, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting, as one is wont to do at this time of year. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you are familiar with the kind of year I’ve had. To sum up, in the most succinct way I can muster, 2019 has been…challenging.

It’s quite remarkable to think about where I started the year, and where I’m ending it. And by where, I mean where I am in terms of my health and where I am along my journey with depression.

I’ll be honest – last Christmas was hard. To put it mildly, I was a mess. My poor family had no way of preparing for how fragile I was. I knew I was being watched, and fussed over and worried about, and I felt bad that I was setting such a somber tone for what was usually a pretty raucous time. But I was and still am eternally grateful for their care and kindness. I don’t know that I’d felt more cared for by my family than last Christmas.

The rest of the winter was full of sweeping ebbs and flows, hard work, lots of therapy, many doctor visits and medication adjustments, and many, many big conversations with myself. I was practically a recluse, allowing the unrelenting winter to keep me locked away safely in my apartment, hiding from the world and hiding from my pain and the reality of my waning health.

Fireworks

But, as the snow melted away, and Spring began to peak through the bare branches outside my windows, things started to shift. Or maybe it was that I realized that things had shifted. My medical leave from work was coming to an end, and whether I was ready or not (I was not), I was going back to work. Back to work, where I had been for 11 years, but also where, during the time I was off, had changed dramatically. I didn’t know what to expect – I had new leaders, a new, but undefined role, I was part of a new global organization, a new team with only a couple of people that I knew, and physically was in a new desk on a different floor.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a person who honestly, earnestly embraces change! But, given everything that I had been through, walking back into the “known unknown” was utterly overwhelming.

I’ll spare the details, but let’s just say the adjustment to going back to work was difficult. It was nothing like I expected; it was challenging, frustrating, draining, confusing, and a little frightening, to be honest.

It took much longer for me to acclimate back into the workplace than I had anticipated. The good news is, I was surrounded by love and the most supportive leaders and colleagues a girl could be lucky to have. Not to mention, I continued to get the most generous and heartfelt support from my friends and family and therapist. I cannot tell you how many tearful conversations I had with colleagues and friends over those months.

But, by mid-summer, I had hit a stride. I had carved out a new role within my new team which afforded me the opportunity to finally flex my talents and feel motivated to produce the best work I could. I was writing every day, I was getting positive feedback in a way that I had never experienced at work before, and things felt like they were finally falling into place.

Well, it turns out I was wrong. Well, not wrong, but perhaps a bit too hopeful and naïve, maybe? I suffered some periods of significant backsliding into that all too familiar darkness. And it started effecting my work, my physical health, and most devastatingly, my sense of self-worth. All I wanted was to be of value to my workplace, to my team. I didn’t feel like I was. I kind of had a bit of an existential crisis, to be honest.

What was strange to me, was that while this backsliding was going on in late-August, early fall, at the same time, I had met an extraordinary man who was lighting my life on fire. In the good way. It’s so surprising how those two realities can be true at the same time, but they were. They are.

Now, at the year’s end, as I look back on the last 12 months, I feel like there are fathoms between who I was then and who I am now. I’m healthy, guys. I can say, for the first time in a very long time, I feel really good. All the physical symptoms of my depression and hypothyroidism are gone; I’m not in pain, I’m more agile, more flexible, I have improved digestion, fewer headaches and migraines, and am less tired. I’ve lost weight, I have colour back in my face, and the thing people comment on the most emphatically, is that I have life and light in my eyes again. This is the best (and my favourite) compliment anyone can pay me. I feel alive for the first time in years, and I’m so thrilled that it’s evident to others.

51bjpkXZrwL._AC_SX355_

My mental health is good right now. I feel like myself, but an even better self. I feel hopeful and optimistic. I enjoy the things that depression took away from me – music, reading, socializing, writing. I’m fun to be around again! I’m engaged and present and sometimes even a little funny (I think).

And the thing I’m most proud of, the thing I remind myself of when I have those moments of doubt, those dark times when I start to feel myself slip into the shadows, is that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I truly know my worth. I feel worthy of the love I have in my life, I feel worthy of the praise I get for my writing and my work, and worthy of the accolades people give me for all the hard work I’ve done to improve my mental heath. But it’s the praise I receive for sharing my story which is the most satisfying.

I finally feel worthy of my family’s and my friends’ love and support, and I feel worthy of a healthy, fulfilling relationship with my beau. He’s a wonderful man, guys. He has quickly become one of my very favourite people. I’m happy, I feel adored and respected and cared for by him. And I feel like he truly sees and accepts me for who I am, scars and all. And the best part, the thing that’s new for me and is the most exciting, is that I feel worthy of his attention. I’m a catch! And it’s the first time in my adult life (or maybe even ever) that I truly believe that.

It’s been a year.

So many things have changed, and so many things have gotten better. But I know that nothing is guaranteed, and my depression, hypothyroidism and general mental health is something that I will have to manage for the rest of my life. As one of my leaders at work told me, it’s impressive that I can even get out of bed everyday and make it to work, let alone add value with the work I produce. And I can attest: there have been many, many days since I’ve been back to work, when I didn’t make it out of bed. This will be a lifelong fight.

But I feel like I’ve done the work; I’ve faced my demons, I’ve opened myself up to the right people, and I’ve stared my depression down and gone to battle.

I know it’s a long war, but I’ve won this battle, and that’s enough to give me the momentum to shape this coming year, and this next decade, into my best yet.

fresh start

Spooked

It’s almost Halloween, guys. Is Halloween your jam? I find that people are either all about it, or completely meh about it. There doesn’t seem to be an in-between.

I was watching a British comedian the other day (I can’t remember who now), and they were lamenting that Halloween is a stupid ‘holiday’ in North America. And I have to say, objectively, it kind of is. I mean it is absurd when you think about it.

And it’s not that I don’t like it, per se, but I don’t really care about it. I haven’t worn a costume in years, and only then because it was part of a competition at work. I haven’t gone out (read: partied) for Halloween since my university days.

But you can’t deny that whether you’re a big fan, or a casual observer, or even an active hater, there is a certain…vibe about Halloween.

Now, I’m not necessarily spilling my guts here about my belief in ghosts and demons and spirits, (oh my!). But I’m not NOT saying that I don’t believe. Or believe. Are you confused yet?

Have you ever heard of that thing, that when you get a body shiver out of nowhere, (when you’re not cold), that it means that someone has just walked over your grave? I never really know if that refers to the grave of one of your past lives, or your future grave. Or, your grave in a parallel universe where you’re dead? I don’t know.

halloween2

The way that ghosts and spirits are depicted in (non-scary/horror) films and TV, would have us believe that our loved ones who have passed away, come to us sometimes, hovering over or around us, guiding us from the grave in times of crisis. Or when you’re deciding between popcorn or cheese and crackers for dinner. Just me? Moving on.

I am a person who wholly believes in energy. I’ve talked about this before. I think, when it comes down to it, humans are really comprised of energy. And I also believe that some people are highly attuned to not only their own energy, but also to the energy around them.

I’ve seen a medium. Twice. I’ve probably just lost half of you. It was a cool experience, for sure. Some of the things she said made total sense, and spoke to things that, at the time, no one else knew, so that was weird but validating. But she also said some things that didn’t really make sense. Perhaps they make sense now, but I can’t remember, and I’ve long gotten rid of the cassette tape recordings (yes, I’m old) I had of the sessions.

I remember playing with a Ouija Board when I was young (do you ‘play’ with a Ouija Board?). It scared the shit out of me. I hated that thing. I’ve freaked myself out chanting ‘bloody Mary’ into mirrors, to the point that I had to call my mom to come pick me up from the sleepover because I ‘wasn’t feeling well.’

I used to feel strange, ominous vibes occasionally in my old apartment. Out of nowhere, seemingly not connected to anything I had been doing, watching or talking about, this terrible, dark wave would come over me. Sometimes when I would be trying to fall asleep, or at the moment I would get in the shower, or just robotically watching TV, I would get this sick, sinking feeling in my stomach. My whole body would go cold and my hands would get clammy as the sensation shot through my body like a bullet.

And then, it was gone. Nothing else would happen. No mysterious moving of objects, no fluttering of curtains, or flickering of lights. But maybe I was only expecting those things because that’s what the movies have told me to expect. Maybe a spirit really was passing through me at that moment.

Maybe it was a Sam Wheat/Oda Mae Brown situation, but it was just a failed attempt so there was no body possession or kicking of a can in the subway. Who knows?

Listen, there’s a vast and unknowable universe out there, and we humans are just a speck on its surface. So, do ghosts and demons and spirits (oh my!) exist? I don’t know.

There are some things which are inexplicable in this world. I’m sure there’s a scientific, physiological explanation for things I’ve experienced. Maybe I think people can read my mind, but it’s actually because they know me, I can’t lie worth a shit and I’m terrible at keeping my emotions hidden that they can discern things about me. I think that expression ‘I wear my heart on my sleeve’ was created in reference to me.

Guys, I don’t have all the answers, I don’t even know all the questions, but I do know that if ghosts exist, I really would prefer that they stay out of my home. The only guests I want in my home are those who have been invited.

So, with All Hallows’ Eve just around the corner, how are you feeling about the ghosts and demons and spirits (oh my!) that you might encounter? Are you unconvinced? Are you nervous, frightened even? Are you afraid of the dark?

Or, is Halloween, and our celebration of it, an excuse to shed your identity on one sanctioned day by dressing up as someone/something else? It also lets you feel justified in having 95% of your food intake that day be candy.

Ways-to-Stop-Yourself-From-Eating-Halloween-Candy

Searching for the sun

Plants will always grow into the light. Seems like an obvious statement, I know. But think about it: as the plant grows, it follows the light, it twists and turns itself to grasp the sun’s rays in order to thrive. If it doesn’t, it’s growth will be stunted, or it may die.

Someone recently shared this analogy with me about life and relationships in general. I had never thought of it in those terms before, but as he said the words, it suddenly began to make a lot of sense to me.

It’s no coincidence, then, that in the murkiest depths of my depression, I often used metaphors of light and dark to express how I was feeling, where I was on my path. I was the little, wilted, struggling plant desperately trying to find the light, trying to work towards the light for survival.

Young plant growing in sunshine

As we were having the conversation, it occurred to me that whether we’re talking literally about plant life, or more figuratively about that intangible thing we all seek – happiness – I think it puts things into perspective. That which we nurture, grows. So, it follows that we must be careful to nurture the right things because if we feed anger and spite and resentment, those are the things that will grow.

We all have positive and negative experiences in life – they are hardly ever equal in number and sometimes it feels like there’s no rhyme or reason to them. Inevitably over time, we tend to become a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” person. I don’t dare assume that peoples’ outlooks on life are as dichotomous as a measurement of imaginary water, but the premise is a powerful one.

If you are the kind of person who consistently looks for the light, who moves through life chasing the light, you’re likely going to grow and thrive and bask in the sunshine. If you’re the kind of person who hides from the light, content to live in the shadows and let those around you soak up the sun, then you’re likely to wilt, impede your growth, and eventually die having never felt the sun’s enchanting kiss.

succulents_1

Sometimes, we can’t help being in the dark. That’s what my depression was/is for me – I didn’t choose darkness, it stalked me and eventually enveloped me. I lived there for a long time, at times even trying to reconcile with myself a whole life in the shade, but  eventually I began to try to search for the light. It was a struggle, it was daunting, and there were times when I wanted to give up. There were even times when I thought maybe the dark suited me better anyway.

But I began to see slivers of light making their way through the cracks in the window, and I had hope. Hope encouraged me to try a bit harder to find the light, and the more light I found, the more I wanted to sunbathe.

I’m not saying I’ll never be in the shadows again – none of us can guarantee anything. But I really do believe that if we consciously look for the light when things are hard, or sad, or impossible, the chances of us finding it raise colossally.

We need both light and dark in our lives. Life, after all, is made up of elements that balance each other, with many variations in between. How could we even know the sweet bliss of light if we’ve never felt the dampened cold of dark?

I think the goal is to find the most amount of light in as many situations as we can. It won’t always work, we won’t always succeed, and dark will hold us down sometimes, but it’s the effort that matters.

Next time you’re looking at a plant, notice the ways in which the sun’s light hits its leaves, how the movement of the sun over the course of a day changes, and which parts of the plant get to sunbathe the most. Those are the parts that grow the strongest and tallest and are the most beautiful. But also notice the other parts of the plant, the leaves or buds that exist in the shadows; they may not be thriving, but they’re still there.

They’re trying to follow the light, and maybe they just need you to rotate the plantar a little bit.

Nature is astounding. Human nature is confounding.

But, if we sometimes just think of ourselves as plants, and follow the light, perhaps we’d all thrive a bit more, and there would be fewer of us living in the dark.

e134b96ab80f4b40a7d03505500b92ab

The best day ever

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.

DEC132-Banner-BEST_DAY_1024x1024

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 do 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 we were 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 day ever. 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.

But, the best days can also be regular, innocuous days that you, only in retrospect, can realize that feeling you had, while you were doing that thing, or when you were with that person, or whatever, was actually the best.

Do you have a best day ever?

angeinhighschool

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 and live in Ontario).

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.

Peterborough_Collegiate_Institute_(1911)
Peterborough Collegiate Institute (PCI), 1907. It later added a vocational school, thus becoming Peterborough Collegiate & Vocational School, (PCVS).

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, 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.

Terry Fox Run
Look at that waffle shirt, layered with an even longer t-shirt underneath (most likely purchased at The Body Shop), which you can’t see. Proudly sporting lipsticked “PCVS” across my cheeks at the Terry Fox Run. And I believe that’s a velcro watch band on my wrist there. I was so of the times.

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 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 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 there were those who clearly 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 😊

Anges Locker
Just casually hanging by my locker. Or someone else’s, I can’t remember. Maybe Brooke’s? But look how relatively fashionable I was – I was even sporting “the Rachel.” This was a far cry from how I started off in grade nine!

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 (which obviously doesn’t matter now, but then it was a very distinctive fact). 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.

ANYWAY…

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, 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.

Who knows?!?!

Echoes 1997
The fruits of my (and a lot of other people’s) labour – the PCVS 1997/1998 yearbook.

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 who seemed to dump me when we got to high school. 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. I remember exactly what I was wearing. I remember what Becky was wearing too, oddly. Actually, for those of you who know, it’s not odd at all.

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?

Pcvs

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” my 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 in real life 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 anathema 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, all in a sort of short handed code so as to get as much information in the allowed characters. In my opinion, it was a code 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:

Senior quote

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.

I think we all did.

Yearbook editor Ange
Pretty typical look for me during the last year of school. It was definitely lunch time, because I have a coke in my hand. I’ve got a fancy SLR camera (which I think got stolen?), a pen in my mouth, which was standard for me, a knapsack full of books and maybe my work uniform, an over-sized button down shirt that I stole from my dad, and those ever-fashionable Birkenstocks with socks. How was it that I was single again?!?! SO hot.
Working away at the yearbook
Dutifully working away on the bane of my existence, I mean the joy of my life, the yearbook. Again, I think I’m wearing an old sweater of my dad’s there, which I stole from my sister, who had stolen it from him. Clothing theft was apparently a thing in my family.
Yearbook face collage
This face collage took me FOREVER to complete. I hand-cut all those pictures, glued them all to a layout page, one by one, adhered the black borders myself, and definitely cried over this at my dining room table on a Sunday afternoon, prompting my mom to console me and eventually help me. I know it looks a little janky by today’s standards, but in my defense, it was before we had computers that could format this kind of  stuff for us!! Anyway, it was my crowning glory of that yearbook, and I stand by it.
Yearbook ad
To raise money for the yearbook, we sold ad space to graduates’ parents/loved ones to send them messages of congratulations. This was my family’s  submission. This picture of me as a little girl is FAR more representative of who I really am than perhaps who people thought I was in high school. But it really doesn’t matter now, does it? At any rate, this photo is also proof that I have always looked like a bug in sunglasses.

In the weeds: confessions of a restaurant veteran

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 less known about me, is that before this chapter in my life, I lived in a wholly different world. I came 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 good 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.

cartoon-waiter-holding-silver-plate-tray-pizza-cartoon-stick-man-drawing-conceptual-illustration-waiter-holding-110572364

I was in my second year of university and I needed a job – badly. 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 (as opposed to the DELTO – that’s industry speak for Delivery and Takeout – that I worked in during high school). 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 (because of my tiny head). And, ugh, we had to wear 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 my dream come true, honestly. I really felt like I belonged.

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 be a server. We were a busy location, being near two universities and central in the city, so there was potential to make some major moola. This was especially seductive for a starving student like me 😊

As if it was even a question, 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 neck 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. Side note: the uniforms just got uglier as the years went on. Pity.

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 wisdom 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, well, 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. I would check myself out in the mirror to make sure my hair looked good, and I would slap on some fresh lip gloss and head out to the floor armed with a good float and lots of pens in my apron, a positive attitude and a big ‘ol smile.

Everyone was usually a little amped up, ready for the onslaught about to come. Some of us were coming in fresh for our shifts, and some of us had already been working all day. Either way, we would get into 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 comrades 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.

a-waiter-shows-a-bottle-of-wine-to-two-dinner-david-sipress

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 (or 100), 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 on 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, and 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:

Pros

  • You get to see them a lot
  • You have all the same friends, so it makes making social plans so much easier to make
  • You have a shorthand when talking about work so 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!

Cons

  • You see them a lot
  • They can get jealous of all the young boys who have crushes on you
  • The moment when you and your guy are standing really close together at the cut table, 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 murder
  • 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, and then, out of desperation, you finally ask your DM if she would consider giving you a promotion and transfer to another location so you can escape the nightmare that is your workplace and she says “I never thought you’d ask” and makes it happen within a week. Phew! That was a long sentence.

Fun times!

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 will only last 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, some shared friends, 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 wild. We’ve been in the trenches together, even if they haven’t been the same trenches. We have an unspoken understanding of what servers’ days are really like and what’s really going on in the back of the house.

And we will do whatever we can to keep them out of the weeds. It’s the least we can do.