I recently came back from performing in the Montreal Burlesque Festival for the first time. It’s a festival that I have wanted to be a part of for a couple of years now and seemed to just always miss the application deadline. This year I was on the ball and got in with an act that I really enjoy performing. I should have enjoyed my experience at this festival, but I didn’t. It was soured pretty significantly by the fact that the night I was placed on was a competition show. Those who know me know I am not a competitor. I’m competitive, but not a competitor, and there is a distinct difference. Because I didn’t seem to be given the option of not competing without being withdrawn from the festival entirely, and at the ill advice of some outside sources (“you’ll be fine”, “just do what you always do”, “maybe you’ll actually win”, etc.), I was forced to follow through on a situation that doesn’t make me feel good and that I feel is toxic for me.
I know there are a bunch of you reading already going “This is Knox just being sour grapes.” I assure you, it’s not. As much as I’m a self professed “sore-loser”, my reasons to write this have way more to do with dissecting this specific instance of performance, and less lamenting the fact that I didn’t win. The winners of this competition more than deserved their titles (I actually saw all three winning acts). El Toro probably did the best performance of that act that I’ve ever seen him do and was absolutely deserving of the big win. This has everything to do with me as a performer, and nothing to do with the accomplishments of the winning artists.
I’d like to start by saying that I don’t have a lot of experience as a competitor, especially as a dancer. Sure, I played team sports, but that’s a different kind of competition I have no issues with (and in fact usually enjoy), as the variables of victory are different. I’ve maybe done 5 legitimate competitions as a soloist in my entire life: 4 when I figure skated as a kid, one as a dancer when I was about 24. I would argue that I have not been raised or trained to mentally or emotionally handle the kind of competition I encountered this past weekend in Montreal, and knowing this about myself, I am resentful and critical to the festival and it’s organizers for not clearly giving the courtesy of the option to compete. Had I been given the option, instead of the demand, I definitely would have declined. I also argue that generally burlesque is a terrible art form to be placed in a competition format. Unlike figure skating or dance, it’s judgement is entirely subjective. Where skating and dance have concrete, long standing and documented methods and techniques to weigh and measure, burlesque is far more of an interpretive art form. Where as the rubric to evaluate dance or skating include turn rotations, bio mechanics, alignment and even a checklist of the quality of execution of specific steps and movements, the burlesque rubric is left to far more subjective to things like costume, music choice, performance quality, interpretation and “it” factor. Often what is considered “good” in burlesque is so heavily dependent on the individuals judging and the politics of the scene. I have on more than one occasion watched a win and thought to myself “really?” That being said, I have also watch as winning performance and thought “well duh”, so this is a gentle reminder to the reader that these are not sweeping rules but general opinions based on my feelings and opinions.
While my “streak” in formal competition is generally good, my experience around competition is not. As a skater (and the fact that I was between 10-13 years old), competition was about doing me. I don’t remember meeting or talking to other competitors and I never saw their routines, so as far I as I was concerned, it was just me and the ice. I could feel confident in what I did because I had no basis of comparison, and my mom nor my coach pushed me to do otherwise. These are the only positive experiences I have around competition because I was young and sheltered. The next formal competition I encountered wouldn’t come until I was 24, where I was competing for a “job”. It was a dance competition for a spot in a Pussycat Doll type dance troupe that I had already “unofficially” been dancing in for a couple of months. I knew why I was being placed in competition: I believe the director of this troupe didn’t want me there and was trying to find a diplomatic way to expel me because the winner of this competition was by audience vote. I think she believed her audience would share her dislike for me. I don’t think she believed I would win (which I did). And the reason I believe this is based on her treatment of me in rehearsals and on jobs after I won my position. There was a resentment for me being there, but she couldn’t kick me out now without a lot of people asking some questions on her character. This was not the only instance where I was made to compete to prove my worth not just as a performer, but what often felt as a person. Competitive situations in my industry often felt like initiations into the “cool” group, which if you read some past posts, I’ve never been part of the cool group.
And that has been my regular experience with competition and competitive settings: that there is someone who is rooting against me. Whether that is factual or in my head doesn’t matter, it’s what I feel, and it affects my performance and my experience. Montreal was no exception. I spent about 4 weeks leading up to the show mentally and emotionally prepping myself. If I had my way, I would have had my own private dressing room, I wouldn’t have talked to anybody but the tech crew, and I would have taken stage and done whatever I was going to do and leave it to fate. But that is not the nature of burlesque festivals. Networking and socializing is a massive aspect of festivals and in a venue with such cramped backstage areas and so many performers, you had to crawl over someone just to scratch your own ass. And in any other situation, I would have liked it that way. I like festivals because it is the chance to meet new people, to see different interpretations of an art form, to watch new levels of performance and self expression. I like cracking jokes and admiring costumes and finding like-minded individuals and talking shop. But in competition I don’t feel that freedom to do those things. It is hard not to start comparing knowing there will be a “winner”. I very quickly get in my head and the vampires start coming: “everyone is sexy and you’re just cute”, “your act is too conservative for this”, “you’re not wearing enough rhinestones”, “your prop looks so homemade”, “no one likes the dancer”....
I’m not a competitor, but I have regularly been put in competition. It’s in the language, and I find dancers (particularly burlesque) to be notoriously catty and tactless in that regard. I am all for it being critiqued, but there is a time and a place where that critique is helpful and useful. I do not want my work to be measured while in front of an audience, or to feel that while I’m on stage. I want it to be enjoyed. I want to feel joy to perform for you. Competition only makes me feel desperate and inadequate. And that was my time in Montreal this past weekend. I tried as best I could to get out of my head and into my work, but I couldn’t. Every potential judgement pecked at each of my insecurities. I felt the kind of nervousness I get before I go into a meeting with someone who’s said “we need to talk.” It’s harder to get in my body and grounded. It feels like every pass I make backstage is being judged. I lose confidence and start making stupid mistakes because I’m questioning everything I do. My mouth feels dry. All of a sudden I’m not focusing on how I’m going to make an audience feel, I’m focusing on what I want them to think. I’m focusing on trying to be liked instead of trying to connect. I’m focusing on meeting a standard instead of setting my own. All of a sudden the work doesn’t feel like it’s mine anymore. I can’t roll with punches and play in mistakes because all of sudden those mistakes feel like they matter. All of a sudden, I’ve lost my joy in performing.
I was grossly unhappy with my performance in Montreal this weekend, despite the fact that a lot of people told me how much they loved it. I’m looking at photos and video on Instagram and I see it doesn’t look nearly as bad as it felt, but I’m still dissatisfied. Once I got off stage I candidly said to certain performers that I wasn’t happy with my work. I noticed people’s knee-jerk need to pacify negative emotions. I got the predictable “but it looked amazing!” and being told I was being overly critical or ridiculous for thinking otherwise. The most validating moment came from my new friend Maestro Maestra, who when I lamented that my performance felt awful just said “I know.” That little bit of validation, I can now say, was a saving grace to a bitter experience. He understood as I do: you should be dancing for an audience, you should take their experience into consideration, but to forget your own is a terrible disservice too. Anyone can get on as stage for the validation. That is readily accessible. But the feeling of accomplishment when you create something is purely you is unparalleled, and how you feel in a performance is equally important. I suppose the silver lining in this experience was to rediscover why I do this work for you, but also why I do it for me. As a kid, when it came to my dancing, my mother would tell me “you’ll stop doing this when it doesn’t make you happy anymore.” And my dancing makes me the happiest. And this weekend reminded me why it makes me happy. I’m sure there will be exception to the competition rule (BHoF and New Orleans are goals, but in my mind, you get into those competitions, you’re already a winner), but competing for the sake of competing is detrimental to my work. I’m just not a competitor.
I've spent the past few days trying to figure out how I wanted to put this information and perspective out into the world. I thought a live video, or just a regular Youtube video, but in all honesty that feels a little too vulnerable for me with this subject matter right now. I'm already nervous when I talk about my mental health, as I always am. It's a scary thing to talk about, to leave yourself open to judgement to feelings and thoughts you don't have much control over and that, despite efforts to normalize, are still stigmatic. I can still hear echoes of my childhood and youth of "get over it", "it's not that bad" and "god, why are you so dramatic/depressing." It's been a long journey and a lot of therapy to come to this aspect of self-acceptance and self-love. So in keeping with that silly promise to myself, let's talk...
I've been in a depressive state since the end of July. It's been a while, years, since an episode lasted this long.
There's a lot of factors at play right now: stress, exhaustion, job pressure. One of the major ones being that I recently decided to go off the pill. I've been on birth control since I was 15 or 16, and I've been on the same brand for about that long. In the past year I started to feel "off". I had no sex drive. Like, none. And it was frustrating. And after evaluating a bunch of other factors (my stress levels, my relationship, etc) the final factor came down to my birth control. So when I was starting to come to the end of my last pack, I thought now is a good a time as any to stop. So I did. Within the first few days my sex drive returned and it was excellent! I also noticed I was more emotional and sensitive to all sensory stimulation. I explained it to a male friend of mine that, after going off the pill, it felt like I had switched from standard definition to high def. But if you know anything about any kind of hormonal treatment, you know the transitions are never that smooth. Which is how I got to where I am. It's well known that one of the side effects of any kind of hormone based birth control is fluctuations in mood, depression, and on some brands suicidal thoughts. Having had depression well before I was on the pill, I am in one of those depressive episodes.
It's all so eerily familiar! It's been years since I've had one this severe bit it feels like I never left this state of being. It's that comfortable (for a lack of a better word). It starts mild and unassuming: you have an off day. You just feel blue and a little more melancholy. You chalk it up to the weather, or being overtired or maybe overworked, or that fact that maybe you haven't eaten enough today. You have some water, take a walk. A couple of days past and nothing has changed. You continue on as you think you should, as you must. You go to work, you're social, you make excuses for these feelings that you're not "supposed" to feel and dismiss them because life goes on right? And you can't be left behind. And that's where it can get dangerous. Slowly and surely those feelings creep across your feet like a fog and begin to achor you. It becomes harder and harder to hold yourself to obligations. You starting finding ways to pass off the things you're obligated to do: Call a sick day to rest, find a replacement for a job. And you don't feel bad about it because let's be real, these aren't tasks you wanted to do, you just have to do them because they're a part of life and living. But then you start putting of the things you actually like doing: seeing people you actually want to see, finding excuses to not do activities that actually bring you joy. Even the usual activities you consider therapeutic are now daunting and sometimes scary tasks. But if you're me, you push through. You've worked hard to build your life and now there are people that depend on you, on your initiation and follow through. You can't halt their progress and happiness because you don't "feel good". And sometimes it's that personal obligation that actually helps you! It takes you outside of your own head and put the focus on the needs of other people. It makes you feel useful and wanted. It gives you worth and purpose. But not this time...
Instead your brain decides to literally warp your reality. Every misstep, every insignificant mistake feels like it holds too much weight. You find yourself taking responsibility for things that aren't yours to make up for the guilt you have about not feeling "happy". You take on other people's feelings because it feels better than taking on your own. You exhaust, and it feeds this fog, which grows thicker and thicker around your feet as it creeps up your shins to your knees. You begin overcompensating: over working, overly caring, you try to pacify others' misery because you feel terrible. And the happier you make others, the more guilty you feel about not being happy. Then your mind starts to swirl as the fog rises to your thighs. If I'm not happy there must be something wrong with me. You feel transparent to everyone, that they can see through to your misery, to the pathetic, desperate being you actually are. Overcompensate. Try harder, work harder, love harder. Nothing changes. Question every facet of your reality because you're doing everything in your power to "fix" this and nothing has changed. Your friends don't like you, they simply tolerate you. Look at how happy everyone is. Know that's not you. Maybe it never was you. Forget what "normal" feels like. Try to remember your career accomplishments and suddenly struggle to find them. If you have no accomplishments, then what have you done with your life? Feel ashamed that ridiculous thought crossed your mind and logically know it's false. But the feeling is unshakable. Feel guilty. Feel transparent. Feel familiar. Watch the fog raise to your waist. Want to talk about it to those closest to you, to those you know love you, and start hearing past voices: "Don't be silly, you're great!" "It's not that bad!" "You're not really feeling that." "Others have worse problems than you." "You're just being dramatic." "Stop making problems for yourself." The fog rises. "Why are you so depressing?" "Do you have to be so aggressive? So harsh?" "Stop making problems for yourself." "It's all in your head."
Well, that one is true.
And with all this hopelessness, all this shame and all this guilt, it's easy to ask all the wrong questions. What really is the point? Why do anything if it feels like it doesn't matter? People lie. They've lied before. How do you know they're not lying to you now? The fog swirls around your chest. You make a last ditch attempt for perspective: It's ok. You're only one person and this is temporary.
You are temporary.
When Robin Williams died, I had my first emotional response to a celebrity death. Not just because he was a talented figure of my childhood who's work I loved, but because I knew how it happened. I knew the long silent battles he had faced, the scars from the war, the guilt that came with fighting, and the deep desire to care for others on the outside to ease the violence on the inside. We watched a man notorious in his love and compassion both on and off screen lose a final battle in his own head. It automatically reminded me of the battles I'd nearly lost. How close I've come to being yet another statistic, another tacky bouquet of plastic flowers on some public mark, another sentiment of "she was so full of life" only to watch my mark and presence disintegrate in deteriorating memory. I now find myself thinking of him in these times as empirical evidence to contradict how I feel. Sometimes I see people call their sorrow "depression" and I want to shake them. Being depressed is not the same as having depression. It is perfectly natural and human to be depressed, especially over things that are depressing: the state of government, inequality and oppression, injustice, loss, disappointment, death. But how do I justify my pathetic state when I'm not currently experiencing anything remotely close to any of those moments? And that's the difference. It's enough to make you feel, well, crazy.
And that's where I currently am. Ticking off boxes and hitting checkpoints to eliminate factors that could make a bad situation worse. After forcibly taking a few days off last week, I feel rested. I'm starting to buy better foods, I plan on cleaning the apartment this week. Doing some costuming for a project while limiting and being selective with my social interactions have made me feel more human. The fog currently swirls again at my ankles and doesn't feel heavy, only thick. I'm not out of the woods yet but at least I have my mobility back. As odd as it sounds I'm fortunate to have the experience I have. It's taught me that there a coping methods and I have evolving protol that I follow to get me back to healthier states as soon as possible. It helps me talk to other people about mental health, because I can speak from over 20 years of my own personal experience. But I've discussed this before, mental illness is alive as long as you are, and as you adapt, so does it. Because it's a part of who you are. For better or for worse. The way a diabetic can't change being a diabetic. Which is why breaking stigma, and the language we use around mental health is so important.
Time for that obligatory "this year in review" Facebook status, which I'm doing now because I plan on disappearing for two days so I can fully rest and recover. (I'm officially back to work January 2nd. Yes, I carved out my own vacation time, because I'm a self-employed adult).
This past year was a year of some great adventures and some important growth. This was the first year I really felt like the pieces tetris-ed into place and I started seeing the results of years of hard work and hustle. I made a lot of hard decisions and really learned to trust my instincts in making them. I made some giant strides in giving zero fucks about what anyone else thought (someone's going to resent you for it no matter what, so why not just do what's most effective and what makes you happy). I lost friends along the way, but I also made new connections I didn't expect to make and are now incredibly thankful for. I'm starting to find the people I want to surround myself with; the real artists, the rebel rousers and ones who refuse to settle for anything less than the best. This is the year I learned I have more control and power in what happens than I thought I had, and that the results really come down to me.
Highlights from 2017:
- Getting back into theatre, auditioning and getting back to a hustle I thought I left behind. The Toronto scene has changed in 5 short years and I'm still adjusting, but it feels different to attack this scene closer to 32 than it did when I was 21.
- My Euro Trip! I was there for my first international festival (London Burlesque Festival) which was a so-so experience, but my time galavanting through Europe by myself for the first time is something that I won't soon forget. I hate to be the cliche, and it wasn't the initial intention for the trip, but I discovered as part of myself I'd long since thought had disappeared. I'm happy to have her back.
- One specific performance at this year's Toronto Burlesque Festival. That performance of One Night Only turned into something I didn't see coming until that first step on stage. It was the breakthrough to something I think had been sitting just under the surface for a years and I didn't know how to tap it until that night. I'm still overwhelmed and humbled by people's continued response to that performance. I am forever changed because of that night.
- Everything to do with High Society Cabaret this year! I can't believe this year happened! Every single person who was involved in the shows this year was integral to our success and I feel to fortunate to have collected this amazing and talented group of artists! I had lost faith in the idea that you could make a family from a work environment and these wonderful beings restored my faith with their dedication, work ethic, kindness, generosity, talent and belief in what Anna and I are creating.
- Some select individuals who really come through for me this year (whether they know it or not). I remember your kindness, and I will do all I can to repay you!
- Adam Tupper. No explanation necessary.
Goals for 2018:
- Keep growing High Society Cabaret! Anna and I (with the help of Adam Martino) have some pretty large ambitions for our little cabaret company for 2018. Be sure you're following everything we're doing as there will be some big announcements as soon as next week! I know I need the rest now, but I'm already restless to get started on this next season!
- Continue to to grow Knox Dance & Fitness. I separated my teaching/coaching from my performer life, now I gotta tend to this little sprig. I am already planning a burlesque/cabaret intensive for what is looking like the end of February/beginning of March. I will also keep working to create content and take on new clients! (Alayna we got some plans to lay through this girl!)
- Hustle more bookings and gigs. I got back into auditioning, but trying to find my footing there (combined with focussing on HSC) meant my gig hustle waned. And that wasn't a bad thing! It helped me prioritize the the kind of gigs I *want* to be doing and gave me the freedom to focus my energy to what was worth my time and say no to what wasn't. Now that that lesson is learned, I want to utilize it while I expand my bookings. On that note...
- Do more out-of-town gigs. I would like to specifically see of I can go cross-country. I've already applied to VIBF (let's hope I get in this year), and I want to see how many of the Canadian festivals I can hit up. I would also like to work more in Montreal... *hint hint*
There are a few more goals I am tempted to share in this post, but I have opted to keep them under my hat for now. I have some very large ambitions! Some of them will take years to accomplish, so 2018 is the year I continue to lay the groundwork for the progress I wish to see not only in my own development, but in the development of a community, a business and an industry. I recently have been criticized for my ambition, for making lofty goals and wanting to elevate theatre and burlesque especially to a higher standard. And to that I can finally say confidently: I don't care. These are the things I want, and the ways I want to do it. And this year I learned that most of my critics are the ones who not only aren't doing what I'm doing, but don't want to and don't know how. So who are they to say that what I'm doing won't work or isn't what should be happening? The very least I can do is try, then try again.
Happy New Year everyone! I look forward to the new adventure 2018 will bring!!! xoxo
In keeping a promise I made to myself some time ago, I am continuing to write about my struggles with mental health as I see it necessary. The last time I wrote is a more extreme situation. But I'm here to tell you what a duller, more mundane but still important and lived aspect of what mental illness looks like. It's the more common one, the one we don't really address when we think of mental health, the one that doesn't normally make the Facebook status.
I've been going through a mild depressive episode for just over the past week. On the one hand, it's really nothing serious, on the other hand it always has the potential to be. This past week I've faced (continue to face) a lot of professional challenges. It comes with the job of self-employed, contacted arts work. And although I'm not saying it's the cause of my depression, it's definitely not helping. No one really knows what causes depression. Most of the time depression is portrayed as this deep, dramatic melancholy, this Shakespearian style angst to the soundtrack of Dashboard Confessional. I'm here to tell you it's far more subtle and subdued, and that's what makes it far more dangerous.
When bad things happen, being depressed is absolutely valid and logical. The same way it makes sense to feel anxious when coming across anxious situations. But like an anxiety disorder, clinical depression is not directly or just caused by an outside stimulus or event. Depression can occur in a person's brain with absolutely NO stimulus. Because like anxiety, clinical depression is an illogical emotional response.
In my current, as I type, depressive state, I seem perfectly fine to the outside. I've been carrying on business as usual, perky and cheerful and positive. It's my in-between moments that I feel that dark looming cloud of weight. It's a feeling I know too well, and I have abused as a tactic in the past: if I don't stop moving, if I keep pushing through and ignore this feeling, I will be fine. My depression can't catch me. I won't have time to succumb to its twisted, fantasy logic. That is a such a misguided fallacy. Depression really does feel like circling a drain, and sometimes you can fool yourself to stay afloat on the outreaches long enough to pull yourself to safety, though you never really leave the water. But misstep, even with the best of intentions, and the undercurrent takes hold. And once gravity starts to pull, it's a either a clawing struggle to get back, or a muffled decent into the abyss without knowing when you'll see light again. And honestly, the outcome can really feel like a toss-up. It can actually go either way, without warning, without any real signs. Some of my current, at-this-very-moment thoughts include:
I haven't spoken to this person for a while, maybe they don't like me anymore. I must have done something wrong.
The tone in that email seemed harsh. They're angry at me. They don't respect me. I'm worthless.
Your life is good! Why are you always so sorry for yourself. There's something wrong with you and you're bringing everyone else down.
No one is thinking of you. Why would they? They wouldn't miss you if you were gone.
It is a lot of exhaustive mental and emotional power to carry on life day to day when it constantly feels like your own brain is against you. Not unlike my anxiety, I know the thoughts in my head are untrue and not real. Evidence and logic contradict it. But the feelings tied to it are SO strong and visceral, they can defy all evidence and logical thinking. This is why anxiety and depression are often linked. They follow the same thought processes and emotional channels to thrive, they just tap different emotions.
After 20 years of experience, and about 7 years of therapy, I can confidently say I won't be the next surprise suicide (even though there was a long period of my life where I definitely could have been). That doesn't make my struggle with depression any less real, impactful or threatening. I am not exempt from self harm just because I've done to work to get to know my mind and my illnesses. All it really does is better prepare me for the worse, and give me the options, select skills and hope to bounce back. If I were to rate the current threat level out of 10 right now, I would say I currently sit at about a 6: not full blown, but not muted either. My ideal number would be 2. My depression scares me more than my anxiety. With my anxiety I've gotten good at managing it, and really, the process is easier: recognize triggers or potential triggers, avoid. My anxiety I can feel coming. It's like a Mack truck barreling down a highway: if I catch it soon enough I can just step out of the way and all I'll feel is wind. Depression is so much more intelligent and adaptive. It learns as I learn. Just when I find a tactic that works, it slithers through it and licks my skin. It's an evolving mental illness that is so hard to treat because it moves with you, looking for blind spots and weak pillars. It strikes without warning and alters your reality to feed its sorrow. It's consuming, making your limbs and heart heavy without reason or regard. It whispers the most awful thoughts, and twists visions to satisfy its truth. It is the most convincing liar you will ever meet. And it's never going away.
Well, never entirely.
Which is why finding more than one way to mange and cope is so important with a mental illness that's so adaptive. Dancing has always been my primary tool: it forces me to redirect my thinking and get into my body, which gets me out of my head. Plus the endorphins and adrenaline that comes with physical activity helps dame dark thoughts and makes me feel physically better. I have daily affirmations I quietly say to myself as I get ready. I try to talk to people I know will listen and be empathetic and supportive without trying to "fix" a problem that doesn't really have a solution. I continue to see a shrink once a week. And then, and this is the scary part, I schedule time to safely indulge in my depression. In my experience, the irony of all this is that if you don't give that dark monster your time every once in a while, it gets bigger, more aggressive, and more powerful. It's like having a pet zombie: if you keep it chained and unfed, it will become stronger and more violent. But satiate it from a safe distance, and more often than not it's pacified.
Already writing this post has made my head feel more balanced and less blue. I'm seeing my shrink again today and we'll likely talk about why I'm feeling this way and find a couple new coping methods. Then I'll catch up on some work and feel productive, then move my body because it's a guaranteed shot of feel-good. And then tomorrow morning, with the dark cloud of "not good enough" and "nobody loves you" looming over, I'll say my affirmations, force myself to move and battle the monster for another day.
To read more about my experiences with depression, check out THIS POST
Yesterday I had my first massive triggered PTSD episode in about 3 years.
Now I know that already sounds like a lot of psychology buzzwords that seems to be rampant on social media but I'm here to dispel what it's actually like to have PTSD. To start, I'm going to delve into a little bit to how I developed a disorder more often associated with soldiers, cops and paramedics than with 30-something arts workers. To enlighten you on what it's like to experience PTSD first hand, I'm going to give you a play-by-play of yesterday's events, from the trigger, to the disorder, to the aftermath.
I've gotten increasingly annoyed with the flippant use of the word trigger, but in this case the word actually applies. The misconceptions around PTSD and triggers are:
A little bit of history about my traumas (plural):
I would like to start by saying I had a fantastic home life. My parents are still together and have always loved and supported me, who I am and all my quirks. I'm quite convinced I would be in far deeper trouble if I didn't have that unwavering support system at home. Whenever I left the house was a different story.
I was severely bullied as a kid from about 3rd grade until about the beginning of 8th grade. I was regularly taunted and teased, psychologically and physically abused. I was told on a daily basis how weird I was, how no one wants me here, and I should go home and kill myself. I was body checked into walls and got more bloody noses from stuff being thrown at my face than I can remember. A couple of times the neighbourhood kids invited me out to play specifically to insult me and push me around, just for fun. I had no friends, and in 6th and 7th grades when I started to withdraw from my abusers and become antisocial, I was put on a suicide watch at my school and was forced to see the school councillor weekly (a woman who regularly belittled my experiences and didn't take them seriously). These experiences awaked my depression at 10 years old (which became a massive issue in my early teens), and laid the ground work to leave me vulnerable to the trauma I would experience in my late teens into my 20s. I credit these experiences in part to my anxiety disorder, my inability to be in and fear of large crowds and mobs, my trust issues when it comes to people's intentions, and the unreasonable belief that no one really likes me (I'm simply being humoured because it's polite). It has affected more friendships and relationships than I can count in more ways than I can list.
(I should note at this point that it has taken me literal years with a therapist to dissect how these events have shaped the person I am today, and to try to find the means to cope with my mental afflictions and lived experiences; and I am now able to share these experiences with you because of those years of personal work and care.)
By and large over the past 5 years, I've gotten really good at not only noticing what could be a trigger for me and avoiding it, but taking the care I need to when I'm triggered and removing myself from the stimulus. I've been able to lead a relatively normal live and I haven't had a serious episode in 3 years... until I was blind sided yesterday.
I stupidly read a Facebook thread written by people I knew and respected criticizing a dance company I used to work for. Normally something so mundane (albeit shitty) wouldn't phase me, but something was different this time. As I read the awful comments, the aggressive body shaming (from those who claim to be "body positive", of course), and saw comment after comment of aggressive bullying, my mind and body gave a visceral response. Unbeknownst to me, this stupid, self indulgent, entitled Facebook thread had become a trigger.
My mind began racing. My breathing quickened and shortened. My heart was vibrating. My skin started to tingle. It wasn't too long until I felt tears coming down my face. I started to get restless, wringing my hands. I became tempted to break my massive rule to not engage in politics and arguments online (a rule that is put in place for my anxiety disorder and PTSD). Instead, I messaged a good friend of mine to talk about what I was feeling, hoping to dispel this response. I made tea. I did some breathing exercises. All my regular tricks to calm my mind and settle my body weren't working the way they normally did. The thing about when PTSD is triggered is that your mind and your body go into a state of emergency, as if you are physically being threatened, usually in a similar way to what you have already experienced. But I wasn't being threatened. This thread had nothing to do with me. My mind raced as this imaginary mob from a Facebook thread came banging on my door, yelling and grabbing at my clothes, spitting the same words I've heard from so many bullies before then in my face. I somehow logically assessed this mob was coming for me next. I could feel hands on my body as a paced alone in my apartment. I checked the clock. Today I was scheduled to see my therapist. The timing couldn't have been better.
As I'm walking to my appointment, all my senses are heightened, as if I'm walking through the jungle expecting to be attacked by a panther. Even as I'm listening to music trying to distract my thoughts, I'm sensitive to every environmental sound, every quick motion, every body the passes me, as if one of them could attack. I walk quickly and directly, focusing on my breath, trying not to cry. I make it to my therapist's office, heave a sigh, and immediately break.
In our session, we establish why this thread was a trigger: the language that was used which echoed some of the things I've been told, the bullying the critics employed, the lack of agency to the woman whose body they were shaming (something I'm familiar with as a professional dancer), the fact that I was once very close with the dance company under scrutiny, the use of victimhood as justification for poor behaviour, the hypocrisy in arguments made, the vilification of people who I saw like me...
We then took some steps to settle what thoughts I had that were keeping me ramped up and ready for attack: I'm not the unwanted kid anymore, my work is very different from the company under scrutiny, I'm strong and convicted in my beliefs and will not allow myself to be shaken, I have good intent and work to do the right thing, I am a master of my craft and have earned the good I have received, I will not be deterred by those who show jealousy and project their insecurities onto me. We practised expressing my anger, something I'm not especially good at, as I have been taught through lived experience my anger is bad, unjustified and unwanted.
I left my therapists office mentally settled, but still emotionally raw. I took my walk home and made the poor decision to carry about my day.
I should have been smarter and cancelled all my other appointments and taken the day to self-care, but being the driven ambitious artist that I am, I decided I'd be fine and push though, and rationalized that being active would help me cope. My first appointment went well, my second however I mishandled a dancer when they demanded more emotional energy than I could given in my state (it's an action I will have to rectify). I ended up cutting my time with a client short, to which she was super understanding when I gave my reasons, being a PTSD sufferer herself. My last rehearsal of the day was productive, and talking to members of my cast helped me deal with some of the days events and feel a little more human, but I wasn't out of the woods yet.
The most bizarre thing about having an episode is the emotional aftermath. There is an intense guilt that follows you after you have such a visceral response to a trigger, because the response is instinctual and not logical, and you are not always in control of the response. Your body picks up habits based on what it experiences that become ingrained in your being both consciously and unconciously, be it adaptation to repetitive movement, or response to repetitive experiences. Some of these habits are good: physical training, please and thank you, moving to music you like, laughter. Some of them are not, and are habits put in place again both consciously and unconsciously as means of protection and recovery from threat, but they are habits none the less. It's like programmed responses to stimuli, and while there is the power to control it to a degree, some of these responses become automatic, for better or for worse. This is a basis of PTSD, that the response because of traumatic stimulus become so strong and so ingrained, that even the feeling (provoked or unprovoked) of a familiar threat or experience causes an individual to react in their own response as a means for protection and preservation, even if the threat isn't real and actual. This often defies the logic of the sufferer, as they are able to register that there is no perceived threat, but are unable to control the body and mind's automated response to the feeling, thus creating residual feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment after an episode. Often these feeling are echoed and enforced by people's reactions to a sufferer's episode, because to the outside eye, a trigger simply looks like an overreaction. But to the sufferer, the threat is very real. This creates a vicious emotional cycle for PTSD sufferers, especially to those who are undiagnosed. It's why sufferers feel so much shame around their condition, and why it's still a very taboo mental illness for those who do not hold occupations often associated with PTSD. To the outside world, what "reason" would these people have to be triggered? Conversely, the casual use of the work "trigger" continues to delegitimize the experience of PTSD sufferers. A triggers not simply upsetting content, it is far more nuanced and complex. And an "episode" isn't simply being upset, it is a full body, involuntary, physical response.
It's the next day and after a good night's sleep and writing this piece, I'm feeling far more calm than I was yesterday. I still have some aftermath to take care off (I'm still pretty guilt-ridden), but I have the necessary tools in place to be recovered by the weekend. I'm feeling confident and solid enough to send this piece out into the world, hopefully to enlighten those who have had misconceptions and promote more empathy and understanding towards each other. Like any mental illness, this is a hidden affliction, but a very real one. Practise love and tolerance. Practise self care. You truly never know the path a person has walked until you gaze at the trail behind them.