“A turkey vulture!” I gushed, the bird surfing in the wind above the trees. “Uhh…that’s totally a seagull,” my friend said. “No way, it has that v-shape and a huge wingspan,” I mused in reverence with its majestic confidence. “Seagull, Kim.” said my friend, giving me the side-eye. “I love that we interrupt each other for nature.” she added with joyful grin. “Me too,” turning my attention back to her. “Anyway,” she continued, “my therapist has been discussing with me how in the dark night of the soul…”
My friend and I have been walking and talking together at least once a week for the past 6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s one of my most meaningful connections I’ve had with another person. We live about 500 meters apart and we fell into a routine of calling each other up, meeting at the bridge, and walking along a path by the river.
What started out as me dragging her to the oldest and most intricate trails around has evolved, such that lately we walk a paved path, people-watch, and admire our local neighbourhoods. We started this ritual in winter months, with me reminding her to put on wool socks, to pull her hood on when she was cold, and to take her boots off in the car if her feet were wet. I would opt to hike the large wooded areas, just outside the city, with no sounds from traffic, and only the tracks of living beings and the chance to encounter a deer. These days though, it’s different. She has prompted me to tune in to urban nature. I now notice our various local bird species, the bloom of the magnolias that line our sidewalks, and when the dew sparkles in the light.
Our walks are also different because what started out as us discussing our individual journeys has become an intertwined adventure, inseparable in our shared decisions and knowledge. Together, our wisdom and experience reveals many answers to larger life questions than our mere individual perplexing puzzles. It’s a kind of intimacy that I cherish.
When she was discussing her dark night of the soul conversation with her therapist I was struck by how similar it sounded to the elements of The Hero’s Journey. This is a concept I am loosely familiar with from my time in a high school outdoor education program. I feel connected to honouring the processes of transformation, evolution, and regrowth. So I mentioned it to her in that moment. “This reminds me of the threshold to the ‘special world’ in the hero’s journey” I said. “Have you heard of if?” I wasn’t sure if this idea would land with her. It’s a bit mythical and not exactly something I imagine is aligned with a therapists’ scope of practice. I did my best to briefly explain. And then went back to listening to her describe her embrace and enter this dark and twisty part of herself. I followed along, closely, as much of what she said resonated with my experience seeing a psychiatrist 5 years ago. I knew some dark and twisty places, and felt I had returned home from them.
Today I woke up to a text from her saying that her favourite book, Sacred Contracts, discusses the hero’s journey. Ha! Of course it does. It makes perfect sense since she’s told me that it is about 7 archetypes. This was one of of the most powerful texts I’ve received from a friend. Not only had my comment landed, but how serendipitous that it was inherently tied to her own intimate reading journey.
Serendipity, I believe, is the result of deep listening: to our friends, to our mentors, and to ourselves. It’s a response that arises from listening to and following an instinct, or many instincts, that lead us to the same multi-dimensional space (theoretical or literal). I often describe how my “worlds collided” when I worked in a child care program that valued nature-based and arts-based pedagogy. Yes, a collision, in some ways, but also a decision, or rather many decisions, that brought the universe into alignment for me. The collision was within my mind/body when I realized that the world doesn’t operate in disciplines, industries, or silos in the way that we typical come to know it. Instead, I experienced a tiny explosion, a light bulb moment, a realization that all things in life are so very deeply connected. The symbiotic, interconnectedness that is the universe, ecosystems, and reciprocal relationships are all still such a mystery. But one to be trusted instead of scrutinized. What tender support comes from participating in, relying on, and contributing to this vast and expansive web of life, past, present, and future.
That text message shifted something in me this morning. I realized that for my friend and I, our inner worlds have collided too: my passion for embarking on journeys, spending time in nature, and being curious interlocked with her commitment to making authentic agreements, honouring her embodied knowledge, and avoiding poisons. Only together have we create our shared sacred journeys.
Lately I’ve been wondering if thriving in this life has to be complex as it is marketed to be. The constant self-help messaging from psychologists, mental health practitioners, education experts, neuroscientists, dieticians, economists, epidemiologists etc., make us into growth junkies. And while I spent years studying psychology, learning neuroscience and being baffled by biomedical science only to move on to social sciences, cultural studies, and humanities, I’m still not convinced the colonial structures of scientific rigour and research can capture the intersectional realities of our lives. I’ve both lost faith and moved beyond science, if that is possible, only to return to a simplified understanding, one of story and art. At the end of the day, I feel like our experiences have already been reflected back to us through stories and art (of all types), and that these modes of creation are far more complex and sophisticated than any science. Conversation, intuition, and faith in sacred journeys, are the things that move us and heal our soul wounds within our human experience.
More likely, and yet again, maybe it’s a both/and (of medical intervention and relational connection).
Trigger warning: this post discusses mental illness, self harm, suicidal ideation, detailed accounts of emotions, job loss, and high achieving mindset.
Living with Mental Illness
Some people worry about me. I know that they wouldn’t have made the same decisions I have made a long the way. They tell me that. For instance, returning to school for a second undergrad degree. Some people worry about my finances. Some people worry about my liver due to my medication. Some people worry that I’ll regret not having children when I’m older. I hear what they’re saying, and I’ve had to time to formulate a response to it.
My mental illness took my life away from me for several years. I was alive, but not living. Sometimes I wished I weren’t alive, or that I could just press pause for a long time. I needed a break from my big emotions, from my failing hopes and dreams, and from my messy history of friendships that I was embarrassed by. I could barely live out the simplest of my goals. And in 2016 things started getting a whole lot worse for me. I lost a third job to this disease and its symptoms. I could not cook a meal. I could not cross the street to get to the grocery store. I reached cognitive dysfunction, which is by far the scariest place I’ve ever been in my entire life, scarier than panic. I know that panic ends. Cognitive dysfunction is a fog that disoriented me and disconnected me from reality indefinitely. I understand that not many people return from this place with grace, and not many people reach stable recovery. I am so fortunate. And therefore, the things I am grateful for are likely different than what most people are grateful for.
Reclaiming my Energy – Becoming Selective
I don’t meet your typical vision of a woman with a complex mental illness. Sure, I have some traces of my struggle with mental health, including self-harm scars, but I have been high-functioning most of my life. Once I reached stable recovery, I was a clear “high-achiever”. I was both creative, and “intelligent”, but by far not a struggling creative genius as is sometimes sensationalized with this disorder. I wasn’t an angry or assertive person, I was actually really easy-going, though a big hyper-vigilant. My average in my second undergrad was 95. I crushed the hardest fitness classes at my gym. I was a top performer at all my jobs. I excelled in many areas of my life. People who met me in 2018 – 2020 wouldn’t have recognized me in 2013 or 2016. I was healing so profoundly that I learned new ways of being. I smashed my goals. But not without a work hard / rest hard mentality. Hustle porn, rise and grind, and win at all costs mentalities did not work for me. And this is where the spoon theory comes in to play.
The medication I take for my disorder, which makes me groggy and sluggish, lasts 12 hours. This means that I feel a bit suppressed for half of my day – that is why I take it a few hours before bed time. This medication has forced me to slow down. It forced me to rest. It forced me to restructure my time in a way that accounted for rest. It forced my brain to pause its neural connections. And then it began to strengthen the most useful connections. By slowing down and rewiring parts of my brain, I began to tune in to more subtle emotions. Over a period of 3 years I became an “intuitive rester,” as I called it.
“I capture and refine, smooth into flat lines between paradise and suicide. I train the peaks and valleys to coincide with the geography and timing of my mind” Kim Barton, 2020 [In a song I wrote called Water (2020), I described capitalizing on my hyper- and hypo- focus – something that was only possible because I had returned to school, had a flexible schedule, and was fortunate enough to live with my parents.]
During 2017, when I started taking this medication, a shift began. I began to recognize that “being is doing” and had to relearn what productivity meant. Eventually I stopped wearing my Fitbit to track sleep and steps and heart rate. I started acknowledging when I got tired. This idea of intuitive resting was extremely novel for me. As someone who was used to rushes of adrenaline or the numbingness of marijuana, I did not know what natural exhaustion felt like. I let go of the numbers game of performance (grades, exercise, etc.), because none of that mattered if I wasn’t well or if I slid into cognitive dysfunction again. I started to spend time in nature. I returned to working with children. I started to read for pleasure (reading and I have not gotten along since my early adolescence). I started to write music again. I started to recognize the warning signs of danger – without my big emotions in the way, and with my prefrontal cortex activated, I was able to feel the subtle alarms that were present prior to crises. I could predict a panic attack. I started to notice what invalidation felt like, prior to getting angry. I started noticing the birds chirping. I started to smell the pollution in the air. I could hear the sound of a dim light buzzing from across the room. And I leaned in to all of this sensitization.
In 2019 I started to consider my mental illness as a chronic health concern. But this realization was not linear. For example, I did not require accommodations at work or school and I was not disabled by my diagnosis anymore, so I felt apprehensive about taking up space in the Spoonie world as a high functioning and high performing person. I kept my diagnosis fairly quiet, until I started to realize how it impacted me on a daily basis: mostly the symptoms of insomnia, the rare panic attack, and the battle of hyper- and hypo-focus. I had to start carving out space for myself and standing up to people who asked for my time on a moment’s notice. I only had so much energy each day and it could get drained by almost anything, depending on the many factors of that day. Sometimes it was getting dressed that was the hard part. Often, it was getting somewhere on time that took a spoon or two. The reading and writing for school usually used several units of energy. Cooking required a day to itself because that was often all my spoons for a day. Exercise became something that was unpredictable in terms of spoon use. This framework resonated with me, especially because I was so out of sync with others around me, and I had to create boundaries about when my day was finished. I started telling my professors I had a chronic health condition. Having to rest for nearly 12 hours a day definitely felt like a chronic issue of some kind, and the fact that my sleep, nutrition, exercise, and stress all affected my functioning, made me decide that it was a health issue. Mental health is health after all.
Sometimes my day would be “done” by 12pm, and other times at 12am. I borrowed a lot of spoons during this time. At some point I started to call it “being protective of my energy”. This was difficult to explain to folks who do not have experience with a chronic illness. I was told that my rest time is a luxury. That others do not have time to end their day randomly at 5pm. They tell me that they could only dream of a world where they could decide to call in sick for a shift when they weren’t bed-ridden by the flu. This is what I mean by carving out space for myself. Few folks without experience with a chronic health issue seemed to understand my protectiveness of my energy. And because I did not feel comfortable sharing my diagnosis, I felt really invalidated by this lack of understanding. There is such little space for invisible illnesses in this world.
So I started to change my language. I said that I am “being selective with my energy”. I wanted to reclaim my Spoonie identity in a way that was empowering. I have the ability to choose how I am going to spend my energy, especially as a woman. Yes, my able-bodied, white privilege is showing, and I am working on that.
But when I say I am selective, I do mean this quite pervasively, including: the time of day that I exercise, whether or not I consume alcohol/caffeine, what TV content I consume, the people I engage with, when and where I will go on dates, which high-sugary and high-protein foods I will eat and when, and when I engage in rest and recovery. Resiliency is my biggest focus, and that requires being protective of my energy. I am finally okay with that.
I was fortunate to have been introduced to Miserandino’s compassionate Spoon Theory in 2015 by my previous roommate who has a connective tissue disorder. I was familiar with their daily battle with energy and their struggle with pain. This theory resonated with me at the time, but became even more relevant a few years after receiving my diagnosis – once I truly understood the complexities of both “high functioning” as well as high achieving. Once I was comfortable being selective with my energy, I realized that it wasn’t always enough. Sometimes out of nowhere an incident would still cut me off for the rest of my day. But I was energized. I was dysregulated. I was hyper-focused on the wrong thing. And that is when the Fork Theory started to make sense.
In the Fork Theory, external factors are recognized for their ability to build up and inhibit functioning. Everyone has a “fork limit“. That hit home for me, because if and when my big emotions were triggered, I would be done for the day. And maybe for a few days. You could still view this as spoon theory, in that it took all my energy, but it was a different feeling than being out of daily energy. It was a deeper sense of being stuck.
I sat with these two mindsets for a few days before I realized that something else was missing.
Carving Out Space – Knife Theory
As someone who has struggled with her identity, and as someone who has claimed several intersecting identities, I spend unnecessary time and energy on carving out space for myself. As an ally, and as someone who had to learn assertiveness skills, I began to feel the burden of naming my needs, setting and maintaining boundaries, and confronting racist/misogynistic/heteronormative views. Further, as someone who is both high-functioning mentally ill and high-achieving, continuing to carve out space for my way of being was difficult. Academia is an able-bodied, colonial, capitalist system, that I am resisting in my daily life. Online dating was a whole other story, and one that I have opted out of for the foreseeable future. But I began to realize the ways in which my energy was depleted, my experience invalidated, and my identities reduced to being an “SJW”. I was getting dysregulated by trying to recognize and manage ways to carve out space for myself.
I know I get it, I am stretching this utensil analogy a big far… but bear with me for a moment longer.
It is important to recognize that there are several spaces I am well supported, and do not need to carve out space. But in my everyday life, my family, friendships, past relationships, work, and hobbies, there is little space for the multifaceted, intersecting, complicated, paradoxical, and hypocritical aspects of myself.
So I started to decide that I only had 1 knife for every few days to carve out space. I only could handle 1 tough conversation every few days around why I could not attend a social event, or calling out misogyny, or requesting an extension on my school work. Otherwise, it was both the fork situation and the out-of-spoon situation magnified.
This theory, I think, might be helpful for folks of many intersecting identities, because these ways of being, knowing, and doing, often challenge aspects of western culture and are given no space in everyday conversations, as well as no space in high-profile discussions, events, and movements. A good example is the generally all-white climate action movement in Canada. Representation matters, and when we are discussing what is best for the land, we also must discuss what is best for the people; i.e., Indigenous communities and relationship with the land. Larissa Crawford discusses asking the hard questions, but she does so with intentionality. Asking hard questions does not mean arguing with every injustice you come in contact with. We are not savage vigilantes. Instead, we are wise warriors who choose our battles.
This theory is therefore potentially helpful for folks who spend time engaging in social media discourse. Reading comments and memes can be both energizing and infuriating. Fuelled by sensationalism and catchy headlines, we can easily be absorbed into spaces where there is no acknowledgement for our ways of knowing, being, and doing. I urge you to think critically about where and when you are going to carve out space, by also thinking critically about the spaces you visit.
This theory is relevant for me in one other final way. This disorder can distort my perception of the number of spoons that I have, and can stick forks in me that I don’t feel. The knife theory reminds me of my limits even when I cannot feel them. Living with these symptoms means that I am grateful for my daily routine, and I am focused on living a fulfilled life. As a Millennial who is bisexual, self-partnered, childless, feminist, mostly sober, and in academia/childcare, and whose hobbies include song-writing, skiing, running, blogging, photography, and yoga, AND who is a daughter, cat-mom, sister, friend, colleague, masters student, ECE-in-training, and employee – I have enough identities to manage, and I am not worried about my finances, my liver, or my future without children; but thank you for your concern.
A Personal Reflection, Recalling John Telford’s Keynote Presentation at the Horwoord/Canadian Student Outdoor Education Conference
Ten years ago I submitted my application for a grade 12 outdoor education program that a friend of my Dad’s, Mike, (or Elroy as came to call him) was facilitating. Once accepted, I confidently showed up on day one with my family canoe tripping experience in mind, wearing second-hand wool attire, and beaming with eagerness to show my new peers my passion for camping. Quickly realizing my classmates each had their own strengths that I admired and envied over, I became captivated by each and every individual in my cohort in one form or another. I recently consulted my journal to reflect on some of these feelings, but unfortunately I don’t have much recollection or written records of the activities we participated in that fostered these deep and lasting emotions. Instead, I began to consider maybe it was less about the educational activities and more to do with some other aspect of the program that facilitated such deep and lasting emotions. I embarked on a process of realizing that I was unaware of the most meaningful elements of my outdoor education experience, and that I may not have even had the words or capacity to capture what I was experiencing at the time. The space that Elroy created to foster connections and relationships ran so deep that it was inherent to the program. Moreover, this experiential learning opportunity landed in our lives as we were in the midst of the young adult journey of exploring romance, sexuality, and friendship in intimate and deeply meaningful ways. “We were so in love with each other”. I believe Elroy knew this would happen. And he used this to intentionally and subtly shape significant life experiences to foster lasting teachable moments.
I am reflecting on this experience for several reasons. First, in November of 2019 I attended a ceremony that honoured my mentor, and the community leader, teacher, father, brother, and husband that Elroy was, as it marked the 10th year since his passing in 2009 – 5 months after my outdoor education program came to an end. This event ignited a much-needed healing process for me, as I had put many of these memories and feelings on pause after Elroy died. Consulting my journal from this time was part of this healing process. In addition, the end of 2019 marked other significant events: I was entering my last semester as an undergraduate (for the second time), I would be completing a thesis investigating outdoor play, and I was accepted to present at an outdoor education conference in January with my Dad. Further, this all felt like a rebirth of sorts, as I resurrected hobbies and interests that I had not engaged in for 10 years, such as writing songs, enduring winter camping, and embarking on a women’s wilderness adventure. I was re-experiencing these, but this time with intention and precision (see previous post for details; consider also: Stacey’s “spiralized curriculum” and the adapted Learning Cycle images below). I welcomed 2020 with excitement and anticipation (much like the naive and tender feelings experienced at the start of outdoor education 10 years prior) as I had been accepted into a leadership intensive cohort for January, would be registering as an early childhood educator this summer, and was beginning graduate studies in the fall. I felt as though previous versions of myself were integrating and synthesizing into a fresh, well-rounded, and multifaceted woman; I was “generalizing” my previous learnings, so to speak.
And then, mid-January, during day one at the leadership intensive training, my new framework and vision stalled. We had completed a strengths assessment and were engaged in discussion about identities. We were encouraged to think of “different ways of being, knowing, and doing, as we move in and out of claiming various identities”. This idea both validated and challenged my recent understanding that I was experiencing a “coming into myself”. I started to instead consider what it would feel like to “come out”, which made me feel even more confused. I reflected on my previous Indigenous roommate who taught me the meaning of “two-spirit” and the intersection of this identity with veganism. Yet the heteropatriarchy ran so deep that through the intimacy and romance and obsession we shared with each other, never once did I let myself consider the love we experienced. But their life-lessons and teachings live on in very personal ways. Whether or not I choose to claim the identities of straight, bisexual, bipolar, female, educator, yogi, skier, songwriter, blogger, photographer, researcher, songwriter, and/or learner, I will critically consider all of these journeys as part of who I continue to become.
When I arrived for day one at the outdoor education conference with my Dad , I realized I had never envisioned “returning home” to this facet of my life. Tainted and jarred by Elroy’s passing, and magnified in feeling from reconnecting with people from his life, I felt confused about how this conference fit into my current and past journeys. I spent that whole weekend absorbed with ideas and picking out the pieces of the program that were reflected in my own outdoor education experience 10 years prior. I started to understand some of Elroy’s intentionality pertaining to the shared deep connection with my peers, and this helped me make peace with my long healing process surrounding Elroy’s death. As one teacher presented about the outdoor education program he was running, he mentioned purchasing only enough beanbag chairs for half the class, in order to facilitate problem-solving, intimacy, and sharing. He discussed the benefits and challenges of running such a program, and finished off by sharing that “you don’t know when it will come back… but something challenging needed to happen” (referring to alumni of the program returning to give back in some form or another). I felt that this made sense of my own returning to outdoor education 10 years later, and was validating that the process takes time. This further inspired me to reach out to the educator teaching that program and offer to volunteer with the students during this semester. This is likely both an element of healing and a “returning home”. Although this conference and reaching out process started to help me make sense of and make peace with some aspects of my identity journey and the intersection with outdoor education/experiential learning, there were still missing links. It wasn’t until I attended a second – unplanned – outdoor education conference this past weekend, this time for students, that truly was able to process all of this.
I showed up, again, for yet another day one experience – this time with less anticipation and a little more intentional curiousity – on January 31st, for the spontaneous student conference. By the first evening gathering I found myself engaged in a deep discussions with 4 other women about environmental activism and politics. No “real adult” had facilitated this discussion, and, going home that night, I realized that tomorrow was a force to be reckoned with. Sure enough, bright and early, we were sharing “good mornings” after knowing each other for less than 12 hours, and discussing headaches and anxieties about day two. We asked each other about our intentions for attending the day’s workshops, and when we ended up at the same ones, we again found ourselves in conversations about everything from the implications of defacing a Sir John A. Macdonald statue and decolonization, to food sustainability, ethical dilemmas, time spent in Africa, and mental health. A good educator, I realized, (like the outdoor education/experiential learning experts who facilitated the student conference) fosters “enduring knowledge for life”, is curious with others, and makes appropriate space for memory-making. Such memory-making likes in meaning-making by way of evoking feelings of fascination with people, places, or things – including others who share similar knowledge and passions, and yet are uniquely strong and brave. Meaning is fostered during shared, yet, ordinary moments such as teeth brushing, meal eating, and laughter. We know that all great environmental advocates shared 2 main things: a special place in nature where significant time was spent, and a trusted adult/mentor. I am starting now to wonder whether another key ingredient is the serendipitous romance of exploration, and the fascination created from learning with/from others. Specifically, I wonder whether the element of “romance” is literal.
In the past, when I returned from outdoor education and experiential learning adventures such as tree planting, living in Africa, or camping in BC, I had a hard time reconciling my experiences with the norms of Canadian society. I remember feeling alienated from my own culture. I have come to understand that when significant life experiences foster meaningful memories with others, we fall in love with each other in ways that are not recognized in our conventional, colonial world. Something magical happens when you are given space to share hard work and meaningful moments, and also when we have the time to stumble upon conversation that is both safe and challenging. I believe that prioritizing relationship-building and intentional, teachable moments is the magic that creates the reflective learning process occurring in education, sports, and experiential learning programs.
On our final day together this weekend at the student conference, I reflected on the way in which I had embraced January’s arrival with a keen sense of adventure and with intentions of peace-making – but what I did not expect was to make new best friends in less than 48 hours despite feeling like I have no idea who I am or what identities I can claim. At the end of this weekend, as we were saying goodbyes, the last thing I expected was to have a group of 3 women run back to me to give me one last hug. I’m so in love with these women all over again, and so grateful for what we learned from each other. This romance reassures me that no matter my claimed identities, I can be loved and love others throughout learning and healing journeys.
“A person who is quiet, works hard, and keeps their head down and paddles all day has a huge impact on everybody else. The person who does this in the classroom does not have the same effect.”