Archive for July, 2008

Anxiety

Every day when I wake up, I begin a new battle with a demon that plagues me and taunts me into submission. It cannot be seen or heard, but lives inside of me, struggling to gain control. The clinical term is ‘anxiety,’ but inside my head, it takes on a more mystical, sinister facet, and plays the Moriarty to my Sherlock Holmes. My nemesis is a part of me, and thus preys upon me with the calculated knowledge of a psychopathic genius. The circular logic of self-doubt spirals around my head until I feel drunk and dizzy with the disorienting weight of uncertainty, and this is almost too much to bear.

For most people, anxiety is an obstacle to overcome when faced with a large presentation to make or an event to plan. But for the many who struggle silently with anxiety disorders, it simply becomes a way of life. I can barely remember a day when I woke up without that familiar welling of panic inside my chest. Adapting my way of living to my anxiety disorder has dictated my life, and threatens to similarly control my future.

For me, it is this promise of a better future that fuels my fight to survive. The insidious thing about anxiety is that the more that you seek to evade it, the stronger its hold becomes. Thus, we become warriors, and mundane tasks become a battling ground for a fight between will and emotion. A war waged on mind over matter, if you will.

My mind is in a state of constant warfare and turmoil. On a good day, I celebrate life and anticipate an eventual victory. On a bad day, I sit shackled to the ground and unable to fly. My anxiety manifests itself in a torrent of frantic obsessions, without rhyme or reason, and relentless in their pursuit. I will fixate upon an issue, and analyze and doubt and beat myself senseless with it for hundreds of hours. I will watch movies and carry on conversations, and attend class on autopilot. Entire days will go by where I barely remember what happened in the outside world, because my entire being was focused on the obsession at hand, calculating and determining and puzzling over something that cannot be resolved. I tell myself that I will just think about it for another five minutes, and if I haven’t come up with a solution, then I will give myself a rest. But that rest never comes. I never find a solution that calms me, and I gradually work myself into a frenzy, plagued with self-doubt and perceived signs that the universe is against me.

Sometimes this anxiety seems mystical, and I feel as if I am cursed. Other times I resign myself to the notion that this is my cross to bear, and that I must learn to adapt my life to it. The times when I am strongest and happiest, I am defiant and aggressive. I scream in the face of my oppressor and rage against my prison: My life belongs to me, fuck off! Yes, anger has a place, and when channeled correctly, even a dignified strength that shouts out for justice. Indeed, it is on those days when I cannot be silenced that I feel the most free. But, unfortunately, these days are too few, and are overshadowed by the senseless, cold and aching nights.

Sometimes I will stare into the mirror for hours, picking at my eyes. Oddly enough, this is often the one thing that will calm me. My eyes are often red and irritated: Infected from being touched too much. They itch and they burn, but still I can not stop. Another desperate attempt to find peace of mind. I will also ask for reassurance, over and over, until nobody will listen to me anymore. But the answer is never enough. Are they lying? Are they just being kind? The doubt creeps back in, and I swallow the urge to ask again. Sometimes I feel better for a few precious moments, but then the obsessing starts again. No response is enough to calm my doubts. I am needy, and I know it. I worry about my desperate need for affection, but my attempts to smother it only result in an empty aching. I seek comfort from outside sources, because I can not give it to myself. I reach out desperately, but no amount of hugs and kind words can reach me in the prison of my mind. I am alone, and it is dark.

I sit in the darkness of my room at night, overcome with fears and doubts. I try to stop the constant repeating of my mind. I try breathing exercises, but they make me feel dizzy. Maybe they help a bit. I hum to myself, lullabies and hymns, and try to calm myself. It’s okay baby, I will keep you safe. I think of a therapist I once saw who told me I was addicted to the romance of madness. I think she must have been crazy. In reality, there is nothing poetic about mental illness: It is weight gain and unwashed hair and maggots in the sink. I desperately cling to my old friend Bear: His calm, kindly eyes always listening. My faithful companion, always unassuming and quietly listening. We have grown up together. I rest my head on the yellowed fur of his matted head, and try to slow my breathing. In a few hours the sun will come up. It will be better then.

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Grandpa

Some of my earliest memories are those of spending weekdays at my grandparents’ house while my mom was at work, before I was old enough to go to school. In those days, my grandmother would entertain me tirelessly as I learned about the world around me. During those early years, my grandfather was still working as an engineer, and was not home with us during the day. I remember that every day, he would phone us at lunch time like clockwork. My grandmother would speak on the telephone in the kitchen, and I would take the ornate rotary phone in the hallway. I would ask him every day what color were the airplanes he was working on that day, and every day he would tell me that they were gray.

 

Those years were magical, and I don’t think there has ever been a love so pure and uncomplicated as that of a young child for those who care for her. In those days, I was learning about my world, and in retrospect, I suppose that they were learning too: Learning about being grandparents, learning about dealing with ageing bodies, and learning about stepping out of the limelight to let the next generation take the lead. In a way, this is what is so special about the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren: Both are pushed to the fringes of society, both have the time to dream and play, and both are waiting for something. Although one group is at the end of their lives, and one is at the beginning, the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is a special one.

 

My grandfather was always the perfect gentleman: The embodiment of chivalry from a time long gone. After 40 years of marriage, my grandmother would still blush and giggle when he walked in the door, and his face would light up when she entered the room. Theirs was a love so rare that domestic routine had not withered those precious moments of  intimacy that could be shared through a simple glance or a single word. Looking back, my grandparents seemed very old, but I realize now that my grandfather was younger then than my father is now. So very strange how time can distort the sense of age.

 

At that time, they were learning how to be grandparents for the first time, and they were a major part of my small world. It is an amazing feeling to know that you can make someone smile through a simple phone call, or a picture drawn on the back of a placemat. Things so simple that it seems incomprehensible that they should be so cherished. My grandfather was a quiet man, with a stoicism that would soften and become a calm introspectiveness in his old age. He would walk for hours every day, taking care of his body, and earning him the attention and the attraction of elderly women all over Pointe-Claire. But he only had the eyes for one woman.

 

They met in Belfast after the war. My grandfather was working on airplanes and my grandmother was a secretary in the company where he worked. He was reserved and serious, and she was coquettish and somewhat vain. The first time he laid eyes on her, he knew that she was the woman he would marry. Later, he would tell me stories of walking two hours along country roads back to his lodging, just so that they could spend another hour together, after the city bus stopped running. They had a fairy tale courtship, but my grandfather was young and poor and could not afford the ring he felt my grandmother deserved. When he came into some inheritance money, the first thing he did was buy her a spectacular engagement ring. With a promising career ahead of him in Canada, my grandfather used his advance to pay for their wedding. The two leapt into the unknown, drawing strength from their love, and started a new life in Canada. Later, with a rare sense of duty and protectiveness, my grandfather would pay for his mother-in-law to come and live with them in Canada, and he loved her as his own.

 

It was this strong sense of duty and caretaking that makes my grandfather stand out. Although I consider myself to be an empowered woman of the 21st Century, I must admit that I like having the door held open for me occasionally. When I moved a few years ago, my grandfather insisted on carrying the heavy boxes for me, although he was in his 80s and I in my 20s. Although my grandmother died nearly five years ago, he remains devoted to her in a love so strong that death cannot destroy it.

 

He is always the one man who thinks I am beautiful, no matter what I am wearing. I can make his day with a simple telephone call – and who can resist a power like that? On Friday night suppers, he calls me his young girlfriend, and wears a suit and tie, even in the summer heat. We discuss philosophy and metaphysics: He is a devout atheist, which is rare and surprising for someone of his generation. He tells me the same stories, but I don’t mind. I like hearing them, and he likes telling them. Over 70 years later, he still cries when he speaks of the morning he lost his mother when he was a young child. He tells me he still feels young inside, and that never changes as you age. Mostly, he makes me feel loved and important, and that is paramount.

 

He has become ill, and for the first time, I stand on the brink of living a life that does not include him. The future seems colder and less welcoming, and I shiver when I look ahead. I remember him lying in a hospital bed a few years ago, and he kissed my hand and said, “You can’t get rid of me that easily.” But now, I fear that it is time. He is ready and he is tired, but it is us for whom my heart cries. I know that time will soften the memories and dull the ache, but he will always be a part of me. I just hope that in his final hours, he will know how much he is loved.

 

 

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Addicted to bad jobs

We all have our unhealthy little addictions. I am here to say to you today, “My name is Amanda and I am addicted to Bad Jobs.” I remember the time I first heard the term ‘McJob’: I was in 8th grade and my teacher had one of her former students come to school to speak to us about how dropping out of the enriched classes in high school (the horror, the horror!) would doom us to a life of blue collar slavery. In spite of finishing high school with honors, this Alternative Learning Program elitist scholar decided to apply the deductive reasoning and pre-calculus skills she had learned in school to the art of hamburger making, and joined the ranks of the McArmy at 16. When you are 16 and have no job experience, there aren’t too many places that will hire you. Ronald McDonald, on the other hand, is all to happy to get his greasy fingers on you while you are still malleable. That crazy clown.

My summer job soon became an after school job, which quickly metamorphosed into a full-time job, then a full-time overnight job, and school eventually fell by the wayside. I will not deny the fact that for a good part of my time there, I actually loved my job. I have yet to experience anywhere else the level of camaraderie that I felt with my fellow crew members at McDonald’s. The truth is that hardship is a great catalyst to forming close friendships, and it often seems that the worse the job, the greater the sense of teamwork will be. We were all young and energetic, and at that point in time, $7/hr felt like a fortune. But my semester off school somehow turned into five years, and my earnestness was replaced with ambivalence and even occasional hatred for my employer.

Even today, my heart truly bleeds for the minimum wage workers in our country. Fast food employees do not make a living wage, and even while working 40 hours a week in cruel and often humiliating circumstances, ends simply do not meet. It is modern-day slavery: The North American equivalent of a sweatshop. Full-time fast food employees right here in our own country barely make $1000 per month, are not guaranteed full time hours, are threatened with the closure of their workplace if they attempt to form a union, and are often not afforded the basic dignity which one would grant a dog. Some men and women even support families on this paltry salary. A couple of months ago, I was speaking with a man who had been hired from Pakistan to become an Assistant McManager. To my shock and horror, I found out that he had been a doctor in his homeland, and since coming to Canada had been working over 60 hours per week for $20 000/yr.

But, I digress. After struggling with the decision for many months, I finally left McDonald’s. I felt a deep ambivalence about my decision, which quickly turned into frantic panic. I enlisted the help of a job placement agency, and soon found a job doing administrative work for an industrial company. When you are 21 and have been making minimum wage for your entire working life, being offered a position where you get to sit down and rake in $12/hr is huge. So what did I do? I turned it down for another position: I am ashamed to admit that I then became the employee of a different McDonald’s franchise, where I was forced to re-start my McCareer at the bottom of the McHierarchy. This meant that I was taking orders from power-crazed 15-year-olds who had been working for McDonald’s for a fraction of the time I had been there, and through some sick twist of fate wound up becoming my bosses like a horrifying realization of Lord of the Flies (or Lord of the Fries, if you will).

No matter how uncomfortable this situation made me, my fear won out and I stayed at McDonald’s. I was terrified of change, and nothing made me as anxious as the prospect of trying out a new job. I had come to look at McDonald’s as a career path, and had gotten to the point where I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else for the rest of my life. I had settled into a rut of apathetic and anxious complacency, and dreaming had become a thing of the past. Comfort and familiarity had won out over hope. The thought of not working at McDonald’s had terrified me, and I had gotten to the point where I wasn’t even sure I would be myself anymore if I got a new job. My entire social life, my time and energy, and of course my working hours, were centered around McLife: It had surpassed being a source of income and had become a lifestyle. And I think this is where a lot of people become trapped: This misguided sense of security and comfort that comes with the familiar. And, I will not lie, a lot of people love the power too. After all, is it not sometimes better to be the big fish in a small pond than the small fish in a big pond? Where else is someone with a high school education going to have the opportunity to control and assert her power over hundreds of employees, many of whom are much smarter and better educated than herself?

And, I suppose that was part of the hold McDonald’s held on me: I knew that I was good at my job, and deep inside myself, I had doubts that I could be competent at another job. In a way, it was better to aim low than to reach for the stars and fall. I also loved the social aspect of my life at McDonald’s: There was always someone to talk with, a new employee to train, something to bitch about!

Unfortunately, over the next couple of years I was to quit and return to McDonald’s two more times. It was a sad example of falling off the wagon too many times (or maybe just a bad case of Mad Cow disease from eating too many burgers?). Finally, I decided to return to school with the goal of being accepted into the McGill Social Work program. This spring I was accepted into the B.S.W. and I am finally on my way to achieving my dream. Which goes to show that dreams do come true.

Last summer, I returned to McDonald’s for the last time, as an assistant manager. I did not last long. Within an hour of my first shift, the owner had already rudely insulted me to my face. It did not take long for me to decide that I did not need that kind of treatment and I simply could not allow myself to put up with that poison at this point in my life. Not this girl, not any more!

There is still part of me that gets tempted every time I read a job advertisement for McDonald’s. I miss the good times, I miss being young, I miss the friendships and the thrill of a first job. But I can’t go back. Scouring the job ads today, I saw an advertisement for an overnight manager at a McDonald’s not too far from here. I felt that familiar tug somewhere deep inside. I even seriously considered applying for a brief moment. I still have nightmares that I am working at McDonald’s, and I wake up in a panic. Every time I go by the place I used to work, I still feel a deeply rooted pang of betrayal. It is so strange, because it seems as though I have an addiction to being treated like shit at work.

Amanda, you cannot change the past.

I am thankful I have learned once again to reach for the stars.

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Rant on social work

You know, it’s funny how time and experience can really skew our opinions. If you had asked me a couple of years ago, I would have told you that most people go into social work because they want to help, because they have empathy, or just because they are good people. Now I am not so sure. Over my years in the system, I have met some truly truly beautiful people who restored my faith in humanity. In fact, I credit one of them for making me decide that I could really make a difference in the world if I were to become a social worker. She had a huge heart, was encouraging and comforting, and the most beautiful thing was that she truly cared. Although I will always treasure her for the gifts she gave me, I feel like I have become somewhat jaded over the past couple of years. I have seen things that have made me wonder if I even really want to become part of this profession. For the first time, I can see why a lot of kids who grow up in the system end up hating social workers.

I heard a health worker speaking to a mentally ill client today with such venom and hatred in her voice, that it made me want to curl up into the fetal position and cry. Don’t get me wrong, this girl is irritating. In fact, she is possibly one of the most annoying people I have ever met, but she was diagnosed with schizophrenia in childhood and she did not choose to become developmentally disabled. If someone is working in a helping profession and feels visceral hatred for her clients, there is something seriously wrong. I am not naïve, I know that there are people who consider those with physical, mental, emotional handicaps to be inferior. In fact, sometimes I am guilty of this myself; I think that to a certain extent we all are. Even that spark of pity we often feel can be taken in the wrong way, and we can often be patronizing or downright condescending. But outright rudeness and disrespect toward those who are disabled is inexcusable.

Last night, I went to see the documentary Expelled with my friend Isabelle. I found a lot of things in this movie to be downright insulting, but that’s another rant for another day. The movie ended up comparing Darwinism to eugenics and war (which in general I think is ridiculous, but it makes sense here): The evil facet of ‘the survival of the fittest.’ That conversation I overheard today invoked images of social Darwinism, of dangerous attitudes that unbridled can lead to destruction. A poisonous hatred that seems to come from nowhere, yet seethes and lurks under the guise of ‘helping.’

At what point does such ‘helping’ become destructive? Involuntary sterilization, unauthorized medical procedures, institutionalization… it’s a slippery slope, and it’s hard to know where to draw the line. Attitudes lead to actions, and it seems to me that it’s easier to draw lines in the sand before the problem gets out of hand. The point is that we are NOT animals, and one can only hope that we have come to a point where we can transcend the basic carnal instincts of the survival of the fittest. Whatever happened to empathy and kindness, hope, and goodness beyond concern for one’s own survival? When I think about it, these are the things that give our life meaning, they are the true treasures and devastating beauty evident in life.

I’m not saying that everyone has to be empathetic all the time, and I am certainly far from a Saint myself. However, I would certainly hope that if I got to the point where I felt hostility toward my clients, I would know it was time to quit. Organizations that allow their employees to operate as such negate their own existence to a certain extent. The clients may have a roof over their head, but to live under such a roof without basic dignity and respect for their being, what is the point? Part of my problem is that I need to learn to choose my battles. I always feel like I’m on a soapbox and it is my job to reform society. But I do feel strongly about this issue, especially as I am sitting on both sides of the fence right now, as a mentally ill consumer, and as a social work student.

I am not saying I am perfect by any means. I just hope that if I ever end up feeling those feelings of anger and hatred (God forbid!), that I would have the decency and the honor to quit. We are all equal and valuable, and those with disabilities deserve to be respected as such.

*All the lonely people, where do they all come from?*

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