Summer News (June Edition)

Author’s Note: I wrote this as a draft at the end of June, but it’s taken me a bit to get up the courage/energy to post it here.

This summer’s going to be a bit of an odd one.

After nearly a year of doctor’s appointments and referrals, it became clear last week that the lump growing above my collarbone is Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Ugh. It’s stage one*, and the outlook is very good, but I’m nervous about starting Chemotherapy at the end of July and disappointed to have to take the rest of the summer off as the receptionist at the Veterinary Hospital. I mean, what the heck, bod.

The focus this quarter is to maintain my health as best as I can and to have patience with myself while my body heals. I’ve got a wonderful family and amazing friends to help me through this,  and while I’m sure there will be ups and downs I’m optimistic about the future.

In brighter news, we’ve adopted a new kitten!

We brought her home last Saturday and named her Lydia. She’s a scoundrel and a dear and we adore her already—a weird looking tuxedo with the sweetest mew. She loves to be around people. Grade A kitten. Would recommend.

I’m taking part in Camp NaNoWriMo again this July. I’ll be working on Coral & Bone, my queer-romance novel about a saboteur mermaid and the emotionally distraught whaler who falls in love with her. It was fun to dip my toes into the story this past spring and I’m really looking forward to spending more time with the characters I’ve made. I’m not used to writing romances, but it’s been a fun challenge so far. Also there are kelp forests and whale magic and bar fights and a pet octopus. It’s great stuff.

The veggie garden is looking great after a bit of a slow start. It’s been a spring of extremes—either very hot and dry or quite wet and cold—and while the plants didn’t appreciate the swings they seem to have forgiven and moved on. This spring, John built us a pair of rather cleverly designed raised beds with chicken wire cages on hinges, and it’s been enough to keep the deer and raccoons at bay. Time will tell with regards to bears.

Now, off to work on a novel!

*Whoops, turns out it’s stage II, but the prognosis is still good and we’re still aiming for a cure, it’s just likely going to take 6 months of treatment instead of 4. Bummer.

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7 Things I Learned While Downsizing My Stuff

For most of my life, I’ve identified as a packrat.

I was raised by packrats. For example: during my grandparent’s emigration from Bermuda in the 1970’s, my grandfather paid to ship 2 decades worth of National Geographic magazines and his collection hundreds of found glass bottles across the Atlantic. The boxes have never been opened.

With my own long-distance move looming, I decided to undertake the overwhelming task of reducing my belongings. It’s been exciting, and sometimes difficult, but most of all it’s been eye opening. Here’s what I’ve learned.

1) Approximately 1/3 of my stuff was useless to me.

It’s not a hard number, but roughly 30% of my belongings were easy candidates for rehoming or recycling. Whether it was my wardrobe, art supplies, DVDs or mugs, I was able to pretty consistently dump 30-50% of what was there without having to give it too much thought.

2) ‘Someday’ will probably never come.

There was so much stuff that I was keeping for someday: an ambiguous time in the future when I’ll be interested in making paper again, or need a feather boa,  or finally,watch that film that’s been sitting unopened on my shelf for half a decade. Sure, maybe one day I will take up embroidery again, but it’s been nearly ten years and my box of floss is just gathering dust. Some things in life are one-offs—and there’s no shame in trying a new hobby or buying a book you think you’ll read—but I’ve learned that if it’s been years since I last used something I probably won’t miss it once it’s gone. I’ve been patient with myself in learning this, as it’s probably been the hardest lesson to sink in. It’s helped to remind myself that by getting rid of a ‘someday’ item I’m allowing myself to rebuy it, guilt free, if ‘someday’ does, in fact, come along. In the meantime, I have more closet space.

3) Digital photography can be a stand-in for the real thing.

I’m super sentimental about objects, but if I wanted to keep everything that made me go ‘aw’ I would need a second home to store it all in. By taking a photo of the thing I can still look at the image of it and get misty, but it’s not cluttering my shelves or taking up space in a box downstairs.

4) Letting go is freeing.

There was a surprising amount of stuff in my home that made me feel bad: a memento tied to a bad memory, a gift from someone who treated me badly, or an object that was broken or damaged beyond repair. Letting go of these items felt like an actual weight was being lifted from my shoulders. My home is not a museum of bad memories. It is a place for me to live and enjoy my family and feel comfortable. Anything that hinders that can hit the kerb.
I also feel that by letting go of certain objects I’ve made more room for myself to grow. It’s a little like weeding a vegetable garden: the stuff I want to grow has more room to do so without the unwanted things taking up space and resources in the garden bed.

5) The emotional value of what I have kept has increased.

Keeping only the things that I love (or that are day-to-day useful) has made those things seem even more special. Ridding my home of the distraction of lukewarm (or worse: frigid) objects made the remaining stuff feel precious and actively chosen. What I have now is more akin to a curated museum exhibit of rare treasures than the rummage-sale-bin-hodge-podge of previous years.

6) I had spent an enormous amount of money on things I didn’t need.

And, you know what? That’s okay.
Not okay as in I would recommend it, but okay as in I forgive myself for having made that mistake and by admitting it was a mistake I have learned from it. Downsizing has taught me to reevaluate what I bring into my home. Lately, my spending has decreased, and the few things I have bought have felt right. I know myself better now, and that’s a big comfort.

7) Sharing the wealth feels good. 

There were so many items that were in great condition, just gathering dust in forgotten corners. Owning things I don’t use or appreciate always makes me feel guilty: someone else could be enjoying this instead of me sitting on it like a broody hen. Liberating old toys from boxes and novels from shelves gave me a distinctly good feeling, even if the items in question were sentimentally loaded. As it turned out, setting them free into the world to be used and enjoyed by someone else brought me more comfort than owning that thing myself.

8) I am not my things.

Possessions are nice—and sometimes necessary—but they don’t define me. A keepsake can be lovely, but ultimately the memory is more important than the object associated with that memory. Choosing to get rid of an object doesn’t negate the emotion tied to it, and it doesn’t take any part of me with it when it goes. If I lost everything in a fire tomorrow, I would still be fundamentally the same person, regardless of which possessions survived.

The lessons keep coming as I continue to pick through the objects that I’ve collected over the past 30 years, and the more belongings I shed the lighter I feel. I’m hardly surprised to find that there’s so much emotion tied up in the experience, but I’ve been pleased to find out that it’s a much more positive one than I’d anticipated. I’m excited to carry what I’ve learned into this next stage of my life, and while I’m certain there will always be a little place in my home for the purely sentimental,  packrattery is something I don’t mind letting go of.

Managing the Winter Blues

Full disclosure: A few years ago I was diagnosed with Bipolar II, general anxiety disorder and a severe case of social anxiety disorder. Things can be tough sometimes, and medication (so far) hasn’t been a good option for me, but most days are good days. Cognitive therapies have helped me a lot, as well as a supportive partner and family, and things have only gotten better since my diagnosis. It’s easier to cope with an illness you know.

Still, winters are hard. Whether it’s the blues (or the mean reds) winter amplifies whatever negative emotions I’m feeling so that it’s hard to hear anything else. To whit, I’ve come up with some tools to help me manage and quiet those negative emotions, and I thought I’d share them with you in the event that they might help you as well.

Routine

The most important tool in my arsenal. It’s hard for me, because I’m not a big fan of routine, but I’ve found it to be integral to my mental health. Getting up at a similar time each day, going through a morning routine, a work routine, an evening routine, going to bed at a similar time each day – it takes some of the guess-work out of living when living is hard, and it gives me a framework to hang my emotions on so that I can examine them better.

Quality of Life Scores

CIHR and Crest.bd have a great online tool for measuring and tracking the overall quality of life of people with a bipolar disorder. It’s meant to be used once a week by filling out a short questionnaire about habits and moods, and it stores that data for comparison. I’ve found it to be a crucial tool in objectively measuring my disorder, and that it’s given me great insight into what is an acceptable quality of life for me. If my score is too low I know that I need to focus my efforts, change my tactics, or get outside help. It also allows me to hone in on problem areas in my life as they arise, which helps me to manage my symptoms, especially in winter.

Light Therapy

My Mum bought me a Litebook last winter and it’s helped immensely on dark mornings. Light therapy has been a great way to help me manage my sleep schedule when it threatens to become erratic. Litebooks can be pricey, but the odd sale at Costco or Amazon can bring the cost down immensely.

Healthy Foods

Eating well is particularly hard for me to do during the winter months, so I make it easier on myself by eliminating some of the prep work. I know that buying pre-sliced vegetables or bagged salads or bottled smoothies aren’t the most environmentally friendly options, but sometimes that’s the only way I can muster a reasonable diet. I allow myself to buy a little more ready-made during the winter, and use my waning fall energy to can or dry or freeze a store of food to get me through winter.

Exercise

I’m lucky enough to have been gifted an exercise bike, and keeping my heart rate up while the snow’s flying past the window has never been more convenient for me. Before the bike, I made time in my schedule for yoga, or running in place, or repetitions of basic strength exercises while I watched an episode of the Simpsons. Anything that gets my body moving also helps my mind. I’m a couch potato by nature, and I absolutely prefer sitting still to moving around, but I’ve learned that physical exercise in integral to my mental well being and so I treat it like medicine and dose it out accordingly.

Colour

In Ontario, the Big Grey starts around mid-November. The sky is grey, the trees are grey, the ground is grey. It’s abysmal, and energy-draining, and so I like to inject a little more colour into my life starting in late fall. I use my favourite rainbow facecloth in the shower. I put the bright throw blanket on the couch. I change my desktop to something vibrant. I bust out my paintbox, or play pinball, or knit wild patterns. Anything to counteract the greyness accumulating outside my doorway. Snow helps with the grey, but has a different negative effect for me, and I have very little control over when it falls.

Keeping in Touch

My social anxiety makes this especially difficult, but the insulative powers of a snowfall makes it absolutely necessary. My natural inclination is to hibernate through winter, to shut out everyone and put my head down and wait for it to be over, but it’s neither reasonable, nor safe, to do so. Reaching out to friends and family, regardless of how sick the anxiety makes me, is the best way to keep my head up, and it makes winter seem to pass faster ( win/win).

My arsenal shifts a little with the seasons, but it all boils down to good self care and trying to stay as aware of myself and my surrounding as I can. I realise that mental illness manifests differently for different people, and what works for me might not work for you. If you’re struggling, please reach out for professional help – it took me a few doctors before I was able to start making steps towards managing my illness myself, and I still have regular check ins to that end.

Wishing you stability, clarity, and safety this winter.