A few weeks ago I attended what I have been calling the 10 year acknowledgement of my family friend/teacher/beloved community member’s passing. Many people in Guelph knew Mike Elrick either through the education system, his family, or his tendency to build community and connections. I was fortunate enough to be in his last class of students prior to his illness, and I truly believe it had taken me 10 years to heal, reflect, and grow from the lessons I learned from and with Mike.
It was leading up to this 10 year event that I had an epiphany. Bare with my attempt at an explanation…
I was preparing to play some music for a small crowd at Centennial CVI where Mike used to teach, and I hadn’t really touched my guitar in the past ten years. ‘Quickly’ learning some folk songs took longer than it used to. But I got the hang of it. It was during this preparation that I started to really question why I hadn’t been keen to play my guitar since the summer I went tree planting. Where did my passion for music and song writing go? I used to scribble lyrics and chords on any scrap piece of paper, and obsess over new songs until I could play them. I owe some of this change to my mental health and my journey from clinical illness to healthy recovery. Now that I have lots of structure in my life, managed stress, and effective sleep, the thrill of song writing and mid-night jam sessions sunk lower and lower on my priority list. I didn’t get the same kind of rush as I used to. Nevertheless, I thought beyond this. There was something deeper going on with my aversion to my guitar and I wanted to know why.
Thinking back over the past 10 years, I have changed in very fundamental ways (who hasn’t?). But seriously. And I use the ‘changed’ intentionally – it was as if I evolved and morphed into different identities and sampled different lifestyles. Over time I’ve been many versions of myself. At 25, suddenly, mental illness stripped all of these identities away from me. I was a sluggish, confused, cognitively-impaired insomniac; sedated, and feeling incapable of doing more than a part-time retail job. This break in my life was the biggest blessing in disguise because it gave me access to treatment that I needed, and it also let me hit a reset button. At 25, mid-way through these 10 years, I realized that I didn’t like the path that I had ended up on. So I made the hard choice of going back to school part time, while living at home, being heavily medicated, without a car, and working part-time across the city. I walked everywhere, and I regularly cooked my own food and lugged it with me because I had no money to buy meals in between work and school. I didn’t have money for hobbies either. This meant I ate well, I moved, and I thought – a lot. It also meant all my hair grew back; long and thick, my cognitive abilities returned, my attention rekindled, my anxiety settled, and my sleep became regular. Once I was enrolled in school full-time and sought some studying-life balance, I started to pick up hobbies again. But not the way I did before where I darted from one to another with frivolous and intolerant impulsivity – but all at once and rooted in genuine desire and intent. Slowly and then suddenly I was once again singing, doing yoga, taking pictures, crafting, sewing, hiking, biking, working with children, volunteering, advocating, cooking for fun, camping… playing guitar, and even learning piano. It felt like recovery let me access and integrate all of these skills and passions so that this synthesized and expressive, relaxed, calm, assertive woman could emerge. All the past girls that I had been were all still within me, and content. And that is when I had the epiphany.
Mike had used a metaphor when designing our outdoor education course. He called it Headwaters because the course was a journey to the source of our food, water, and selves; to the intersection of living, being, and becoming while gathering and connecting with others; a journey to the peak and pinnacle of our learning and then the return journey home to bring and share this new knowledge. It was an experience, an example, and a pre-life prep trip for the journeys we would continue to take both away from and returning to home. What I realized in recalling his teachings was that maybe I was thinking about these past 10 ten years inaccurately. Rather than evolving or wandering aimlessly through these past version of me, tainted with mental illness, what if, instead, I had responded to every opportunity that beckoned me…what if I had gone on 10 years worth of journeys and had finally returned home with all of my new knowledge, experience, and skills integrated? What if I was the same person, but with rich travel stories and life lessons after participating in every call to adventure that I could manage? What if, instead of describing my past with different patterns, cycles of (un)health, personality evolution, and linear growth spurts, I could reimagine my story as a re-birth; a Phoenix-like return and re-emergence after fundamentally exhaustive, reflective, and challenging experiences? I like that better. And I know Mike would too.
I was lucky, and I am extremely privileged. My experience with mental illness could have led me to a different place in life, or could have held me hostage in one of those previous ‘versions’ of myself. Instead (and after 10+ years of self-advocating), I am the woman I always knew I always was but was not quite ready to ‘be’.
The advantage of this new perspective on my past is that it gives me permission to think about my future in a similar way: rather than being afraid of more changes, or returning symptoms, or of re-awakening either manic pixie dream girl or stressed, depressed smoker, what if I could instead prepare for my next possible journey? Restoring hope in my ability to move through more self-development and growth with the intention of returning ‘home’ is one that keeps me grounded and optimistic. On a painting I made on 2012 my younger self wrote ‘trust the journey’. Little did I (consciously) know how necessary this trust was to my growth and recovery after that dark time. Never did I imagine a journey taking 10 years, or that it would take so long for the self-reflection process to occur; nevertheless, this realization solidifies my faith that the metaphor of a journey of learning/growth can be quite literal for many young adults.