CW: description of panic attacks, mental health issues, negative self-talk
I woke up last night to a full blown panic attack.
I had fallen asleep with some sad feelings. I was in a bit of a funk but didn’t know exactly why. I had some theories. I decided to sleep on it. Sometimes that helps.
The temperature outside dropped very low. The wind roared against my window. Cool air slipped silently into my room.
I woke up shaking uncontrollably but didn’t realize I was cold.
Hundreds of thoughts were racing through my brain, competing for attention. I couldn’t parse them. I couldn’t pull them apart for examination. They were a mess, and they didn’t make any sense, but they all felt real.
“He doesn’t care about you”.
“You’re a fuck up”.
“You’re alone. You’ll always be alone”.
“No one cares about you”.
I couldn’t keep up with it all, the cyclone in my brain.
Along with these thoughts, I felt a powerful desire to do something destructive: to send a slew of accusatory texts, blow something up, and push someone away to affirm the idea that I will always be alone.
Then I realized I was cold. I was shaking because I was cold, not because I was useless or selfish or pathetic or alone, but because my room had gotten fucking cold. I got out of bed and switched on my space heater, then dove back under the covers and curled into a ball for warmth.
Slowly, the room and my body began to warm up. My heart rate slowed. My shaking became less violent and then stopped altogether. There only remained a lingering feeling of dread in my stomach.
“I’m alright, I’m alright,” I reassured myself. “I just need to warm up”.
Eventually, I fell back asleep. I woke up several hours later in my normal state and thought, “What the hell was that?”
I’ve been having panic attacks since my early twenties. I was in university when they first hit. Though I’ve lived with an anxiety disorder my entire life, the panic attacks bowled me over when they first showed up. It took me a while to develop coping mechanisms for them. They consisted of surges of intense anxiety and fear like I’d never experienced before, irrational and hopeless thoughts, shortness of breath/feeling an inability to breathe, a tightness in my chest, a racing heartbeat, and generally feeling like I was dying/going to die. They almost always happened at night. I struggled with insomnia in school as well and the panic attacks reacted cyclically with that. I’d often struggle to fall asleep for hours, eventually clock out for twenty minutes or so, and then wake up in a panic and be wide awake for hours afterwards. That or I would have an attack because I couldn’t sleep and the deprivation was interfering with my ability to go to classes, study, write papers, and do exams. I was chronically exhausted, stressed, and anxious. I was living on my own for the first time in the middle of a big city where I knew almost no one. My roommates weren’t exactly the friendliest bunch and my school didn’t have a great track record as a warm, welcoming place. I was putting an immense amount of pressure on myself to perform as well as I had in high school, even though the expectations were much higher. I was struggling financially, living off of OSAP loans and paying too much for rent every month. These circumstances were ripe for my mental health to take a nosedive and the panic attacks subsequently developed.
One of the most important non-academic things I learned during my years in university was how to cope with panic, when the rational portion of your brain shuts down and the fear-based, animal brain takes over. I developed strong abilities to self-soothe, ride out the fear, and practice self-care following an attack.
I’m in a much better place now than I was back then, so last night caught me by surprise. I haven’t had an attack like that for almost a year. I wasn’t prepared for one, and for a little while there, it seemed like all my coping skills had gone out the window. It’s always challenging when the panic sneaks up on me when I’m half-awake because for a while, nothing really makes sense and I can’t take the wheel because I don’t even know where the wheel is.
But I did it. Those skills I developed a few years ago came back. I remembered. I rode it out, self-soothed, and even managed to fall back to sleep. I also didn’t do any of the destructive things my panicked brain was compelling me to do.
So, there’s another bad night under my belt and one more small victory too.
I think that a lot of us are exhibitionists when it comes to over/sharing on the Internet.
There’s something thrilling about sharing intimate details about your existence with complete strangers online. I have the option of keeping my personal writing safely tucked away in a journal but like the idea of the world-at-large having access to it. Why is that?
I spill my guts when I write. I would never share half of what I write about with someone I had just met in person, and yet I feel comfortable hitting “publish” and releasing my words for the world to see. I even attach my face and real name, upping the risk of my work coming back to bite me.
I’m a very non-confrontational individual in person. I don’t do well with conflict. It triggers all kinds of stuff and effectively shuts my brain down, so I avoid it whenever possible. In contrast, my writing can be very confrontational. I’m able to be a lot more direct about what I think and feel. I touch on controversial issues sometimes. People don’t always like what I have to say, and I know my art has inspired ire on more than one occasion. Back when I turned scripts into videos on YouTube, I even managed to make a few waves of hatred wash over me. That hasn’t always been easy to deal with, especially when sharing something vulnerable has resulted in dozens upon dozens of strangers viciously attacking my ideas, physical appearance, and worth as a human being.
The Internet is not a safe space. I know this and yet I continue to open up to it anyway.
Someone did something to piss me off recently and I wrote a short poem about it. Mind, this is not a person in my life. This is someone I met at an event, have no relationship with, and likely will not see again. I do feel I owe it to the people in my life to have direct conversations with them, not passive-aggressively publish poems about them on social media. I’m not a monster. Anyway, I had some feelings about a negative interaction with a person I barely know, then wrote and posted a poem online about the experience. This wasn’t a call out. The person was not named or identified. I just needed to express my frustration and this felt like a pretty harmless way to vent, but I was also aware of how aggressive and confrontational the piece I created was. It very much carried a, “Fuck you, fuck you very much” kind of tone.
“I might get some hate for this,” I thought, pausing for a moment, “Well, then, bring it on”. I hit the “post” button.
I didn’t get any hate for that poem. In fact, a few people commented about how they related to my experience. This is the most positive reaction you can hope for after releasing something controversial, and it’s not always the one I’ve received. I was, however, ready for hate, or at the very least, criticism for that piece. I almost welcomed it.
I might not be comfortable with controversy or conflict in my day-to-day life, which I believe has something to do with the trauma I carry, but I welcome it within the realm of my art. Okay, maybe welcome is a strong word, but I don’t shy away from it. My mother has commented before that I have a tendency to create things that provoke strong reactions. I don’t shy away from difficult topics and I let people know exactly what I think. Obviously, I’m imperfect, I get things wrong, and I know that my opinions are just opinions, but I’m not afraid to speak out, question doctrines, and go against the grain in my work. I have subsequently provoked strong reactions from all sides. Some folks don’t appreciate my existence as a vocal queer and trans feminist, while others aren’t a fan of my questioning what can feel like dogmatic thinking. It can be easy to feel isolated and alienated when one speaks out in such a way, but what’s interesting is how many folks come out of the woodwork to say, “I feel that way too”.
I’m not afraid to write something that you don’t like.
It’s taken me a while to get here as a creator, but I’m happy that I’m here now because it gives me free rein to make whatever the fuck I want. I don’t need anyone’s approval. I might struggle without it, yes, but I don’t actually need it. It’s still scary to share my writing and deal with criticism and hate online, but the risks are worth it, and I get better at dealing with them the more that I do.
I believe that one of the most effective forms of activism I can practice is to unapologetically write about my own experiences. This should not be where my activism begins and ends. This also may not be right for everyone, but it is right for me. It is where I am the most effective. And in order to be effective, I can’t live in fear about how other people will react. I can’t mould my experiences and expression so that they are comfortable and uncontroversial to all who encounter them.
Face-to-face, particularly if you don’t know me very well, I come off as passive, shy, and timid. At my core, however, I am not any of these things. If you take the time to get to know me or read my writing, you learn that. Contrary to what some may believe, I’m actually pretty brave and I don’t take shit. My writing is one of the avenues where I can express that.
Maybe this is why I love sharing my work with complete strangers online. In person, I’m slow to warm up. I grapple with social anxiety, stimulus overload, homo/transphobia, and trauma—which all cause me to wrap myself in a protective shell around new people. After people get to know me better and see my real personality, I often hear the comment, “You’ve changed!” No, I haven’t. I was always this way, you’re just now seeing who I really am. It is through my writing that I can show myself right away. I can be honest and open without dealing with everything listed above. I can show myself in a way otherwise reserved for the people I’m close to.
I think there are lots of reasons why we share intimate parts of ourselves online, but this is one of mine: to show the world who I am and not apologize for it.
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P.S. Ironically, I felt pretty nervous about publishing this. I almost kept it forever buried in my drafts with the justification that wasn’t very well written and therefore undeserving of publication. Upon further reflection, I realized that goes against what I wrote about and I owe it to myself to practice what I preach. So, here’s the final product: imperfectly edited, somewhat messy, and a little exposing. It is both exciting and daunting to share. Feel free to love, hate, or not give a damn about it. Thank you for reading.
In the past, when we were here, we always had some sense of next. We did not move on from one project until we had another in mind that we were itching to begin. This time, however, the path ahead is unclear. There is a path in that there is ground under us as we put one foot, slowly and carefully, in front of the other, but our eyes cannot help us. There is nothing but fog in our vision. The harder we try to look, the cloudier the future appears. So we leave it alone. We leave it alone and we keep walking with the hope that we keep finding ground for purchase. There are no guarantees. We checked the warranty. It was a joke, a poor one, and it laughed at us. No, there is nothing that says our feet will always meet with solid ground. We are on solid ground now. We could stop here. We won’t because something inside tells us to keep going. We reassure ourselves, There has always been ground, there has always been ground. The sun has always risen and there has always been ground. It is a fallacy, our reassurance, but what else do we have?
The fog clears when we look back, though not entirely. We are given access to the recent past. If we would like to go further back, we must seek out the archives. The archives are a mess and we are responsible for that. For years, we have been saying that we will do something about the archives, devote time to their organization. For years, we have been baffled by this task. Where to start, what to do… We have made mistakes and lost whole reams of the archives. Gone, forever, are those creations, right along with the selves who made them. It is like those selves never existed, that is, until we find a scrap of something somewhere and realize all is not lost. My grandmother printed out a poem I sent her in an email, that self is not lost. I filled a photo album with my earliest scribbles, that self is not lost. I found a password for a website I kept up in university, that self is not lost. Do not get us wrong, some of the selves are lost. We cannot properly mourn them because we cannot remember them, but we can mourn the loss itself because we know it is there.
It is very likely that we will die before ever properly addressing the archives. We will die on this path, in this fog, and we will leave behind a mountain of notebooks, drives, documents, folders, websites, scribbles, accounts, and marginalia in no particular order. What we need is for a curator to come along and take up the task of piecing everything together and extracting the inevitable secrets that will come out of this process. We say secrets because we assume that when you make an image from 1,000 puzzle pieces, you must learn something about the whole that has until that point remained unknown. We, the creator and abandoner of the archive, would like to extend a heartfelt and sincere apology to any future curators. You have your work cut out for you, and you will probably not be comfortable with everything you find.
Apologies, we got lost in the past for a moment. That happens. The chaos of the past and its gradual disintegration is distracting. What we must do now is address the future and the question at hand:
Where do we go now?
Forward, yes, obviously. Let’s not be pert, shall we? We clearly cannot go sideways and we’ve already walked over what is behind us, which leaves one option: the slow march towards our death. We have always gone forward and we must continue to go forward. That is the way of things.
The above question is really asking about how we choose to move forward rather than what we are moving towards. We cannot know that. We can only know the ground we are standing on and the body we are standing in. We can know some of what we have done before. We can remember some of the results. We can know what we have learned, and we can take that into the fog.
So what have we learned in, say, the past year?
We are a strange kind of writer, it would seem, compelled to write in strange kinds of ways. If we force ourselves to write more seriously, to pick one form and stick to it, to stay within the confines of a set of rules and regulations, to write what is publishable, to nail down what kind of writer we are, to impose the external on the internal, to steer clear of what feels natural, to pull teeth in the name of what is hard, we kill the joy. Challenge yourself, yes. Leave the realm of your comfort, and leave it often, but do not kill the joy because when you kill the joy, you kill the writer. We cannot restrict ourselves to short stories with plots and characters within specific genres. We can write these things and we can benefit from the challenges they pose, but we cannot wrap our whole identity around them because that kills the joy.
I am a semi-autobiographical speculative poet—a monstrous kind of hybrid—and the joy is being all of those at once, regardless of the social acceptability of multiplicity.
We have learned that we must make space for the joy, and making space for the joy means allowing ourselves to make things that may not make sense to anyone else. Making space for joy means allowing ourselves to play with our work rather than treat our work like the most serious part of our life. There are far too many serious things in life for the creative to be so serious, especially for the creative to be the most serious. What a drag, regarding it as the most serious. What a drag it begins to be.
We have learned that we are good enough—that our odd prose, unruly poetry, and memoir wrapped up like fiction are good enough. We are not great. We are not masterful. We likely will not change the world outside of our own. We may never reach more than a handful of people, or we may reach out and touch many people who simply will not care. None of that matters. It is good enough. Good enough to get the job of creating done, good enough to keep us on the path.
We have learned that conventional packaging, like conventional styles, may not be for us and that is okay as well. Creating a book from cover to cover may not be for us. We are not certain yet, maybe it will at some point, but writing a book is not the only legitimate way to be a writer, especially in the digital age. Writing can be packaged in many different ways, and that packaging can also change. It is a waste of energy to beat ourselves over the head with the concept of the book we feel we are supposed to be writing. If a book comes, it comes. If it does not come, it does not come. We will keep writing anyway.
If a book does not come, we will keep writing anyway.
If an audience does not come, we will keep writing anyway.
If money does not come, we will keep writing anyway.
If praise does not come, we will keep writing anyway.
If genius does not come, we will keep writing anyway.
Do you know why? Because we always have anyway. We have never written a book, drawn a large audience, experienced monetary success, received critical reception, or been visited by genius and yet we have always kept writing anyway. This is because, for us, writing and living hold hands. Writing does not need to give any gifts other than itself and when writing is burdened by the above expectations, it feels overwhelmed. It leaves with its tail between its legs. It sees that we are not grateful simply for its presence. It asks, “Am I not good enough for you?” and if the answer is anything but yes, it leaves. Writing knows its worth.
Yes, yes, yes. You are enough, my friend. I am enough. We are enough.
I don’t feel like I ever chose to be a writer, it was more like writing chose to be with me. It came upon me one afternoon when I was twelve and gave me my first poems, which I frantically scribbled down. I didn’t quite know what they were. Thoughts and feelings and questions that had swirled around inside of me were finally given a place, were put down on a page where I could see them for the first time. I rushed these poems to my mother, and thank goodness it was my mother and not my father as this was the moment that put me on the path. I rushed them to my mother, elated, put them in her hands and said, “Look what I did!”
She went quiet for a while, reading. Had I done something wrong? Was she upset? Did she hate them?
Then she looked at her child, who was still very much a child, and said,
“Sage, you’re a poet”.
I have been ever since.
Later, my father said, “Poetry doesn’t make any money. Out of all the books at the bookstore, the books of poems are the ones that never sell”. Thank god I did not take my poems to him first. A part of me must have known that would be the death of my early writer self. He was a poet and a published author. I knew these things and yet I took my poems to my mother instead. His relationship with writing was one of the tortured artist—critical and judgemental, invested in suffering and addiction—and the fledgling writer within me said, “Guard yourself against that. Take these poems to someone who will be able to see them and see you without projection”. Thankfully, there was such a person in my life then. Otherwise, those poems may have stayed hidden, with who knows how many others for how many years. Like so many writers, I may have kept everything I wrote a secret, and what a shame that would have been. Not because I feel like the world would have suffered without my work. Most of the world is without my work as it is. No, I would have suffered, and like my father, I would have invested my energy in shame, judgement, and addiction.
My creative projects seem to divide themselves and line up nicely one after the next, each one lasting between one and two years. Before now, I was writing short sci-fi and horror stories. Before that, I was focusing on video production. Before that, I was experimenting with creative writing in-between piles of essays. Even further back, I practiced drawing every day for a year in order to improve my skills. There always seems to be a focus, an intense interest in something creative that can, at times, border on obsession. Then, once my curiosity has been satisfied, I quickly and neatly move onto the next thing. But writing is almost always at play, the undercurrent to everything else, though occasionally, such as with the drawing, it is not involved at all. Sometimes I need a break, but it keeps surfacing again and again in various ways. And hopefully, I keep learning.
So, where do we go now?
My plan is to do a little bit of everything and see where that takes me. I won’t impose restrictions, rules, or guidelines on what I do, except for two very basic ones:
Write every day for 30-60 minutes.
Read at least 20 pages a day.
This will make sure that I keep creating as well as engaging with other creations. In terms of where we go from here, so long as we keep going, keep creating, I believe the path will become clearer with each step. I believe the ground will continue to be there because I need to believe that. Writing and I may not know exactly where we’re going, but we’ll be able to see where we are. What else do we really need?