Hey There, Bell, Let’s Talk.

Today is Bell’s Let’s Talk day; a day to spread awareness and information on mental health issues, and to try to end the stigma surrounding mental health. Sadly, 1 in 5 Canadians will suffer mental issues and many don’t seek or receive help for various reasons. Ease of access, medical followup and support, and cost are often factors (we so often hear the alarming statistics of homelessness among people with mental illness) but so is the stigma surrounding mental health concerns – we don’t seek help or talk with family and friends because we feel we ought to be able to “cope” or “deal with it” or that people won’t understand and will judge us. It’s an internal and external issue, and Bell’s plan is to raise money for mental health initiatives, as well as start conversations that hopefully will continue beyond today. See more at their website.

In the last year-and-a-half to two years, I have been dealing with anxiety and stress. With hindsight I am able to pinpoint it to a particularly stressful semester of work with some very challenging classes. I remember nights sobbing on the phone to my boyfriend at the time, unsure how to deal with my situation and stubbornly unwilling to ask for help – new teachers often hold the belief that we cannot ask for help from administrators because it would show we are weak and unable to handle a challenging class, which could jeopardize our chances at a position at that school another year. Whether that is a real or perceived concern I’m not sure, but I know I am not the only person to have felt that pressure to perform on my own. As so often happens, my problems snowballed – tough semester, bad break up, an unusually slow year for work (and therefore financial strain), and then the teacher strike. I started to feel overwhelmed at the slightest change to my routine or added responsibility; I would worry ceaselessly about my future, especially comparing myself to others; my brain would obsess about minutiae, or, even worse, replay stupid or slightly embarrassing things I’d said and done at any point in my life; and I started to feel anxious about tasks I wouldn’t have in the past. I recognized that something was wrong with my levels of stress and anxiety, but despite my mother’s increasingly frequent suggestions that I talk to someone, I insisted I just needed time to relax and refocus. It was in this state of mind that I went to the BCTF Summer Conference in August 2014.

In the spring of 2014 I took on the roll of local contact for Teachers Teaching on Call in our union local. (Because, as I joked at the time, I totally need MORE responsibility and stuff added to my plate). This meant I was able to attend summer conference. I was excited, which seems weird considering how even when I was “normal” I didn’t like uncertain situations, being alone with people I didn’t know, and just generally putting myself out there. I had a moment on the first day that stuck out in my mind because it was so irrational. I was alone in the elevator coming down for my first morning session and the whole ride down I kept picturing myself leaving the elevator for the lobby and facing a crowd of people who of course would notice how conspicuously awkward and alone I was, and probably start talking about me. It seems silly, but the dread and fear I felt were very real. It didn’t bode well for the four days ahead. Fortunately, at my TTOC Contact sessions, I made a friend, which helped alleviate some pressure. One of our sessions was geared towards stress, anxiety, and depression among teachers, especially TTOCs. Dr. Andrew Miki showed us a powerpoint about how life can get us into situations of unhealthy levels of stress etc. and how we can work on changing our behaviour to help reverse and even prevent getting into a bad situation. He works with the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy model, and had noticed a large number of teachers among his patients. He has been working with the BCTF to create a website with modules to teach teachers the CBT methods in an attempt to reach a broader number of people suffering with abnormal levels of stress and anxiety, especially since there are often roadblocks to accessing care. It was a revelation for me. I saw myself in his examples, I saw how my last few years had brought me to this place and how I wasn’t just in a slump, that I didn’t have to just “deal with it.” For any of my teacher friends reading this, the (totally free) website and modules are available here and all you need is your BCTF ID to sign up. I started to reflect on why I had decided not to seek help before, even though I’d been urged to do so, and the reason was somewhat surprising.

I felt like a poser.

Weird, right? But I know so many people who have been impacted by severe mental illness – anxiety disorders, chronic depression, bi-polar disorder, self harm, suicide – that I felt my situation just wasn’t that bad and it would be kind of pathetic to start whinging about it when others had it so much worse. Part of it, I’m sure, was my stress and anxiety telling me I wasn’t worthy or deserving of help because I’m just not that important. And part of it was not wanting to admit that I was “weak” enough to succumb to the levels of anxiety that I had. I didn’t consider my situation to be a “legitimate” problem, and in judging myself I started the cycle of thought that lead me to believe I would be judged by others. Without trying to sound like a cliché, I had to admit to myself that I needed to make a change of some kind before I was able to open up and take steps toward fixing the problem. And where am I now? Well, I’d like to say I’m totally fine, but I’m not – sorry if you were expecting a picture perfect inspirational ending here. I know I don’t work on my modules often enough, I’m not pushing myself enough (or NOT pushing myself when I need to not be pushed), but I am getting better. I’ve had some bumps and some things have set me back a bit, but I do see improvement. I’ve been able to talk to a few close friends, open up a little and share, and while I still have that niggling feeling that my problems aren’t important enough, I can recognize that feeling that way is precisely why I need to keep talking. Mental health issues aren’t prepackaged. Just with everything else in life – and especially in health – it is an individual problem that impacts people to varying degrees and severity, and in different ways. No one of us is more or less important, nor are our problems more or less legitimate than anyone else. We all need and deserve to live happy and healthy lives, both physically and mentally.

So after today, let’s keep talking.

With love,

Christina.

Some resources:

BC Crisis Centre
Here to Help – Mental Health and Substance Use
Canadian Mental Health Association
Starling Minds (teachers)

Please let me know if there are any I should add.

The Privilege of Proper Pronunciation

I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege and language lately (privilege is probably going to get its own post: there is just too much to talk about). It all started with Buzzfeed. RIGHT?! I admit to following the click bait to their inane lists all the time, but this one seemed interesting: 17 Misused and Made-Up Words That Make You Rage (Totally unrelated side-note. The author of the list has two ridiculously adorable cats, one of whom is missing one of his front legs, and he makes super cute cat-sized hats out of paper. Follow him on Instagram. There will be a book. I will buy it. That is all.) I liked the gifs used, and holy cow did it resonate with me (and I definitely thought of some to add: “would/should/could OF” because we don’t know how contractions work?! Also, when did VERSE become a verb related to competition? Why do people not know what VERSUS is and means? *rage*) Two in particular really got me, as I’ve heard them on TV with alarming frequency: Conversate and Flustrated. There was a chef on one of the last cycles of Hell’s Kitchen who said “flustrated” multiple times every episode. I would silently seethe on the couch, muttering about people not understanding language.

Then I did what you are never supposed to do on the internet: I read the comments. There was a comment talking about the racist and elitist tone of the article and I was so confused. Racist? Elitist? Those seemed like pretty heavy handed accusations for a relatively harmless post about the misuse of language. But as I read the comment (which was remarkably thoughtfully written given the knee-jerk vitriol people usually spill in comment sections) the author remarked on Conversate and Flustrated specifically. They are part of the African American English dialect (formerly known as Ebonics) and the commenter was reflecting on the problems with saying a dialect is “wrong” or not “proper” and the larger issue of this particular dialect most often identifying a specific race and (often, but not always) socio-economic group. When Canadians listen to Newfoundlanders talk (and sure, there are Newfie jokes aplenty) no one is going to flat out say “I’s the B’y” is wrong, it’s just a different dialect. So how fair is it to say AAE is wrong. Interestingly, according to the comment I was reading, conversate has roots in African Americans trying to fit in and NOT sound uneducated and ignorant (conversate developing from a backwards engineering of “conversation”).

My next thought was how could I – a relatively well-educated, well-read, and inquisitive woman – not know about this particular issue of race and class? My minor is in Anthropology and I pride myself in being culturally aware. And that’s when it hit me. I am from a small town where the vast majority of people are white. Additionally, my experience as a Canadian white woman is very different from any American woman of any other race or ethnic group. This is a culture to which I have had limited exposure. In fact, the times I have heard “conversate” and “flustrated” they were used by black women on American reality TV. AAE is not common among black Canadians – at least in my experience and exposure to Canadian media programming and the black Canadians I have seen in those outlets. I am in no way saying that black Canadians do not face racism and issues of class/socio-economics, but it seems to me that their disenfranchisement in Canada hasn’t led to the educational and economic issues that helped create AAE as a dialect (isolated groups with a shared experience/education/socio-economic level being a closed(ish) system which would create a dialect separate from common language). My confusion about the classist and racist implications of the article was not an issue of blindness, but rather it was lack of exposure to the specific situation.

I am an English teacher, and I know that language grows, changes, and evolves, but there are some rules of grammar and punctuation, as well as rules of word meaning, that cannot just be ignored for the sake of progress. There is logic – albeit sometimes confusing – to language, and rather than accept that people don’t “get” it anymore, I believe it’s important to understand the core systems of language (refer to the “should of/have” and “verse” examples in my first paragraph. Hnnng). But as an educator and an (armchair) Anthropologist, I also believe in celebrating and understanding difference. It’s not about saying a dialect is wrong, but rather learning the different words that can be used in different contexts. Dialects and vernacular/colloquial language have a specific context, just as more professional or – dare I say – proper English does. And isn’t that part of the beauty of our language: how it can express so much of what we feel and who we are? How we can marry the ideas of correctness while allowing for diversity? How we can say “I was shocked and surprised by the situation” or “I was completely gobsmacked” or “You could have knocked me down with a feather” or “Right?! I can’t even!” and whichever version we use is chosen for a reason and specific context? Damn I love language.

Here, have some Stephen Fry, and I’ll stop my pedantic whingeing 😀

And then there was that time I didn’t blog for two years…

Ok so, yeah. So a friend and I have been talking about writing and I (foolishly) bemoaned my lame ass attempts at writing. And then he gave me homework to write a thing. So I wrote a thing. It’s kind of meant to be a spoken word style poem, but even then I’m not sure how good it is. I don’t say this in false humility; I am an English teacher and know what literature is an isn’t, and I know my limitations. But, regardless, here I offer up a thing I wrote.

About S’mores.

I’ve been thinking about s’mores.
And how they hold an elusive charm
Of lost youth and sugar-induced idealism.
The things we want in life are encapsulated
In sweet, salty, smoky s’mores:
Richness and depth;
Sweetness, balanced by neutrality and a touch of salt.
But they never tell you about the dirt and char
That surprises you with its ill-timed bitterness;
How the sweetness is too cloying;
The richness is not evenly spread but instead sits like a lump
Either too early to be appreciated
Or too late to be enjoyed.

But the thing about s’mores that you need to know, is that they are magic.
In an instant they transport us
From a jaded adulthood to a childhood where we can build the layers of our life.
The promise of perfection
If we can only balance the parts
That together make a whole worth living.
The richness and depth;
The all too sweet edged with char. Too much, but too soon gone;
And the base, the mundane, the part that is most boring but most important.
The centre and balance to a too sweet, too bitter, too intense life.

So never forget the graham crackers.

The Hunger Games, Found Poetry

I am not a writer nor am I a poet. But I do like to play around with words once in a while and generally I don’t hate the result. I once wrote an extended metaphor poem in about 10 minute as an example for an English 9 class I was subbing for and the kids absolutely loved it; I laughed because I just threw it together. My English 9 class is studying The Hunger Games right now and our next unit is poetry; to bridge the gap I’m assigning a found poem tomorrow and threw together this example tonight. I like it, so here it is.

Through Her Eyes

Screaming hysterically,
Her skinny arms like a vice.
“Tuck your tail in, little duck,”
I protect Prim in every way.
People deal with me,
They are genuinely fond of Prim.

In some dark world of sadness,
With her dead eyes and stillness.
Prim forgave our mother.
A gnarled place in me hated her.
I yelled at her.
I told her I loved her.

The boy with the bread:
I am having nothing to do with him.
He is so steady. Solid as a rock.
“I’ve had a crush on her ever since I can remember.”
This is the first kiss…
That makes me want another.

Hope Chest

One of my favourite yarn dyers, Sharon of Three Irish Girls, is doing a beautiful thing. A customer and friend of hers lost a child, and Sharon dyed a special limited edition yarn with proceeds going to Share, an organization that helps parents and families who have lost children. She is doing the same this year and I’m passing along the message to other knitters. Personally, I will be buying a few skeins to make a baby blanket.

No, I’m not pregnant.

But one day, I would like to be. And I would like to make beautiful wee things for a child I hope to have and lay them by for when I need them. A hope chest. Not the things I need to fetch a husband or set up housekeeping, but the things I need to be a mother. My family, like so many others, has suffered the loss of children, or the loss of a pregnancy, and I would love to think that if I am fortunate enough to have a child I can wrap him or her in a blanket made by my own hands; a blanket that helped another family who were not as fortunate as I hope to be.

Because if we don’t have hope, what else do we have?

Spring Cleaning

Despite the cliched blanket of snow on the ground, it feels like spring today. The sun was out and I felt like dusting cobwebs out of corners. I swept my room (more out of necessity than any metaphorical repesentation of a new beginning; the kittens have decided that the floor was in need of kitty litter more than the litter box was) and opened my windows. I’ve been working all morning on prep for this week – a test, some lecture notes, powerpoints etc. – but I am incredibly distracted by some old Ambitions sitting in the corner and staring at me pointedly.

Last night I started researching Grad School programs again and, for the first time, truly thought about going back to school sooner rather than later. This greatly upsets my Plan, as my Plan was to get a job and some security, take the time off and get my masters then (preferably the Masters of Arts for Teachers of English at SFU which would require a temporary relocation to Vancouver.) A collegue commented that if I really want my masters, sooner is better than later – more time for return on investment, and better pension contributions. But in reality it’s not the logic and security offered that made me stop ignoring those Ambitions, but rather how much I miss school. Sick, I know, but I actually miss writing essays. Teaching my own classes and not toc-ing right now has made me remember some things I wanted to do as an educator. While I love the idea of a Masters of Arts in English, I don’t think I have anything overly compelling to add to the discourse of literary analysis that I love so much. UBCO offers M. Ed programs that are part time, and I wouldn’t have to take time off work.

Either way, I have time to think and consider because, compuslive planner that I am, I am looking at the 2013-2014 session. Lots of time for research, and pro-con lists. Why do I always make things more difficult for myself?