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I tossed her collar on the seat next to me. The tags clinked together, and for the briefest moment, the part of me deeper than logic believed she was there.

How many car rides have we taken together? My Pavlovian response to the sound of the tags wanted to believe this ride was the same.

It was too early to go home. The sun had not fully risen yet. It was too early to walk through the front door without her. So we went to the water, her spirit-still-alive and I.

This was our stormy place, our late night thunder showers and whipping winds screaming place. This was where I could let my emotions rage with the storm.

But this morning, oh how different. I’ve never seen the water so silent. How far could I see and still make out the stone shapes on the lake bottom. No wind. No ripples. Clear glass water.

The sun rose and with it, her spirit, high into the daybright sky. I returned home and placed her collar, her red bandana, and her favourite rubber bone into a shoebox under my bed.

Picture 187

Loving Sasha
September 1998 – January 2010
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As I wake to the news of the election results in America, I pray these words with heartache and hope.

God of the universe who holds all things together:

Let us be instruments of peace.
Where there is hatred, may we bring love.
Where there is hurt, may we forgive.
Where there is doubt, may we bring faith.
Where there is despair, may we bring hope.
Where there is darkness, may we bring light.
Where there is sadness, may we bring joy.

May we seek to comfort rather than to be comforted;
to understand, rather than to be understood;
to love, rather than to be loved.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is by forgiving that we find forgiveness.
It is in death that we find new life.

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Prayer written by Saint Francis of Assisi

Even today, six years after beginning to understand how Borderline Personality Disorder effects the way I feel, think and behave, I still have moments of overwhelming shame. Some of this is internalized stigma. But no one is born believing being ill is equivalent to being bad. We learn it from our culture.

And so to cope, I find myself sometimes splitting – a term used often for people with BPD, but one that I have mixed feelings about. I honestly didn’t believe I did this when it was first introduced to me. Splitting happens when how you currently feel contradicts what you believe to be true. As much as it causes problems, it helps to cope with the dissonance that this type of contradiction brings. Instead of having to face the contradiction, you write it off as an impossibility and deny the existence of one aspect of the split. Referring to splitting as “black and white thinking” has helped me understand how this coping mechanism (however distorted and harmful it may be) plays out in my life. And I can see it happening in small and large ways almost every day.

Here’s an example: this past week I spent time with five other people at a cottage in Muskoka. The honest truth is that these five people happen to be among my favourite in the world – Kathryn (obviously high on my list of great people), her sisters and their husbands. One evening, in the heat of a very competitive board game (and after a long day in the sun which had worn everyone out) my sister-in-law accused me of cheating. I was initially surprised and confused – was she teasing or being serious? I could not tell. As she continued to question my honesty, I was hurt and then quickly very angry, and then even more quickly incredibly embarrassed at what I felt like was an overly intense emotional reaction. I had to leave the table – but thankfully, was able to do so with a commitment to return in five minutes and we were able to carry on with our game.

When I spoke to her about the accusation later, she admitted that she was just very disappointed that her team was losing. She confessed that the intensity of competition which the six of us constantly feed makes her feel tired and sometimes not as smart or skilled or quick as the rest of us. She exposed her own vulnerability in that moment of accusation. After learning this, I felt so much grace toward her, and she accepted my apology for having a very quick angry response.

As I later reflected on this incident with my therapist, I realized that the shame that followed the anger was closely related to this concept of splitting. I love my sister-in-law very deeply, and to feel so much hurt and anger toward her contradicted how I usually feel. I felt I could not tolerate loving her and being angry. And so, I compartmentalized – either I had to deny my own emotion (which led to shame and self-criticism) or reject my love for her.  And of course, in any relationship, this is not healthy.

It’s not just with other people that I do this. I find myself splitting circumstances (I struggle to work every scheduled shift due to anxiety, and so I should just quit); splitting my current emotions from the past or future (I feel sad and even though I remember that I’ve felt happy before, I don’t believe I will ever feel happy again); even splitting aspects of my own identity (“I have hurt others because of my struggle with mental illness” gets split away from “I am a strong mental health advocate”).

The most damage comes when I split aspects of my own self into black and white. At times I feel like I am this creative, caring, intelligent and insightful human, ever searching to live well and love well. But in just a small moment later, I might feel completely useless, unworthy of being loved, a failure in every attempt to learn or grow as a person. Not only am I rotten to the core, I have no hope of being able to change anything about myself. I’m sure you understand where this kind of thinking leads.

I know others experience this too. It might not feel as intense, or be as conscious a process, but we all have these moments where we feel like rejecting the conflicting aspects of our own self. As is often the case, a friend recently shared a quote from author Elizabeth O’Connor on this very subject at just the perfect time.

I share it with you here, in the hope that reflecting on it will help me make peace with and even embrace my whole self while challenging you to do the same.

“If I respect the plurality in myself, and no longer see my jealous self as the whole of me, then I have gained the distance I need to observe it, listen to it, and let it acquaint me with a piece of my own lost history. In this way I come into possession of more of myself and extend my own inner kingdom. Suppose we come to know that every recognition of anger and jealousy and greed and sloth is an opportunity to lift out of the waters of unconsciousness a tiny piece of submerged land. Then, would we not pity the man who is so identified with the good that he denies any intimations from below that this good may not be the whole of him? Unaware that he is cut off from a large part of himself, he does not understand what it means to be on the journey of becoming whole.”

– Elizabeth O’Connor, Our Many Selves

Note: These Mindfulness Moments are short reflective exercises that encourage us to pause in our day and notice our self and our surroundings with practiced attention. All of these ideas are ones I’ve learned along the way in my study of mindfulness, and many more are available at length if you just do a little digging. These are just examples. I recommend moving slowly through each step. There is no need for hurry here.

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I share this mindfulness moment with you, acknowledging my own need to come back to the most basic rhythm that sustains life. We are constantly defining ourselves by what we do, what we say, how we think, how we feel. For at least this small moment, let there be no need for anything else, but to just be.

  • Breathe in.
  • Breathe out.
  • Repeat.

Note: These Mindfulness Moments are short reflective exercises that encourage us to pause in our day and notice our self and our surroundings with practiced attention. All of these ideas are ones I’ve learned along the way in my study of mindfulness, and many more are available at length if you just do a little digging. These are just examples. I recommend moving slowly through each step. There is no need for hurry here.

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  • Begin by standing or sitting comfortably, with both feet on the ground.
  • Breathe deeply and focus your attention on your feet pressing against the ground below you.
  • Slowly rock your feet against the ground, feeling your weight shift from your heels, to the ball of your foot, and to your toes.
  • Imagine you are a tree with roots that go deep into the earth, as you notice the strength of your connection to the ground.
  • Feel steady and tall as you connect your whole being to the earth through your feet. Feel yourself rising from the roots that balance you. Feel these roots connecting you with all Life that also stands on this same earth.
  • Take this steadiness with you as you face today’s challenges and joys.

It’s been a while since I’ve written. If you know me, you know it hasn’t been an easy summer, or fall. There have been great things to celebrate, the birth of my new niece Abbigail, Kathryn and I painting our apartment, the beginning of hockey season and finally coming home from the hospital. And interspersed within these moments have been some very painful ones.

November 13th, 2008 was the first time I ever attempted suicide. I haven’t told very many people this. It’s not an easy thing to talk about. But if I want this pattern of emotionally difficult autumns to change, I need to process what happened on that day and what has been happening since.

I had struggled with depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts for most of my teen years and well into university. Growing up, my family expressed strong emotions in response to pain, fear, anger, but also joy, hope and love. I learned to feel my emotions with my whole self. This has both its pros and cons. At times my life has been full of hope and love and peace and nothing can shake my confidence in the goodness of life. I am passionate, fun-loving, adventurous and compassionate towards others.

But when dark clouds roll in, it’s a whole different story. I struggle to hold on to the basic building blocks of my life – my relationship with Kathryn, the love of my family and the meaning I’ve found in the work that I do. I start to question everything I hold to be true and the very meaning of life itself. In 2008, in conversation with a close friend, I decided that I could no longer sit on the fence of indifference. I had to make a choice – to end my life then, or give up this suicidal thinking for good. I swallowed as many pills as I could find and waited, unsure of what would happen. Within a half hour I began to feel dizzy and nauseous and started to panic. I told my friend, and she and another friend came and took me to the hospital. It was my first experience with the medical system’s response to mental illness but certainly wouldn’t be my last.

Autumn has been a difficult time of year since that day and it seems November 13th has become a suicide prompt of its own. Even in years when my mental health has been fairly stable, the approach of this date has stirred up shame, fear and hopelessness. Rehearsing suicidal behaviours and thinking up elaborate plans to end my life becomes normal behaviour and my social world basically collapses. So many daily objects have become part of my unhealthy thinking, and now as I try to change these patterns and build new coping skills, I struggle to change the impact of these “suicidal prompts.” Everything from scarves and belts, to advil tablets and scars on my skin remind me of the struggle I have had to face against suicidal thinking and mental illness.

I quickly discovered that overdosing on medication that causes sedation is a very quick way to lose consciousness – a desired result when feeling hopeless as it reduces the likelihood of becoming scared and calling for help. During my various encounters with the mental health system, I have been given prescriptions for anti-anxiety medication that can have this result when abused. The part of me that is ill and is looking for escape from pain wants to save these medications, to hoard them, to keep them as my backup plan. My first choice is to live and live well but if that doesn’t work, at least I have a plan B.

There are a few problems with this plan and my illness does a good job with helping me cope with most of those problems, but there is one that I have never been able to accept the responsibility for. I have two nieces, Britney who is fourteen and Abbigail who was just born a few months ago. I know that I struggle with suicidality because it was introduced to me as a solution to emotional problems when I was at a young age. I never want these two girls to face the same struggle. Although my entire family would be devastated if I were to complete suicide, I think the pain would be hardest for these young ones.

The reality is that 95% of the time, I don’t want to die. I love my life, I love our cats, I love my family, I love my work and I love my city. Above all, there is Kathryn and she has given me a reason to abandon plan B and commit myself to journeying through whatever life brings us with her by my side. This is no easy task, these learned habits are hard to reverse and new coping skills are so difficult to implement consistently.

I’ve been given an opportunity to work through this process with a therapist while meeting with a group of individuals on similar journeys in a program called Bridge to Recovery. I really do want to use this program as a bridge from my stays in the hospital to the rest of my life. In order to do that, to give up plan B, I must reduce the power that various “suicide prompts” have in my life. I need to be able to face everyday objects like a scarf, and see reminders of my journey like my scars without the emotions of those memories returning and overwhelming me. I need to reduce my vulnerabilities but I also need to strengthen my response to crisis. Part of that must be changing the way November 13th impacts my life.

I met Kathryn on November 17th, 2010. This helps. This day that brought great joy and light into my life helps me to get through the difficult memories of the 13th. I hold on for her, for us, for our future. I hold on because I know that life with her is worth the bumps and hiccups along the way.

So this is my commitment, to remember that the morning’s light always follows the darkness. The love we share gives us strength when we are weary and although we are not perfect for each other, our love makes us whole. I look to the future and I know suicide has no place in my life, it no longer holds any power.

Having Borderline Personality Disorder is kind of like being a sponge. My emotional reactions to stimulus are quick and intense. When those around me are giving off emotions (be them positive or negative) I am acutely aware of them and often react with the same intensity.

This is why I’m a great person with whom to party. I will take all your enthusiasm and energy and reflect it right back to you. I’ll keep dancing till dawn if you can keep up with me.

This is also why I’m not always the best person to have around in a crisis. I want to live with peace rooted deep within me, but find it so often escapes me when I need it most. Kathryn had a hair emergency yesterday as we prepared for the wedding of two friends. I had a solution (go to a hairdresser’s) but she had her own in mind. Still, I could tell she was anxious and stressed and I really felt like my solution was the key to us getting through the tough moment.

And then I remembered, “be a mirror, not a sponge.” This phrase is often taught to the loved ones of a person with BPD as a way to maintain composure when the person with BPD is having difficult and intense emotions. We’re often pegged as hard to manage (especially in therapy), but I’d like to argue that we have the biggest hearts.

So I reflected to Kathryn. “I can tell this isn’t going the way you planned. I want to do anything I can to help. If you don’t want to go to a hairdresser’s, that’s okay. We can figure something out.” And then I took ten minutes of space and left her to try and figure her way through her own emotions. When I came back she had an idea, and as I followed her lead, by golly – it worked! Her hair ended up looking beautiful, even professionally done and we did it ourselves with patience and by staying calm.

Today, one of the men here in the hospital is having a particularly difficult day. Not only can I hear him yelling and swearing at the nurses, Kathryn could hear him too when we were on the phone together. His words are triggering anxiety within me, I find I’m nervous and tense with no concrete reason. Here too, I can see myself absorbing the emotion in the air around me, harbouring his anger and angst. I’m loosing focus of my own goals for being here and getting lost in his. Even as I type this, he continues to yell and my hands shake. I called Kathryn in tears, frustrated at being in the hospital still after so many months, and wondering when I’ll ever get my freedom back.

If there’s one thing I know, I won’t get my freedom back by diving into this anxiety head first. By obsessing with and encouraging my emotional response to this man’s outburst, I’m only hurting myself (and likely the ones I love as well). Again, I find myself breathing in “be a mirror,” and breathing out “not a sponge.” The best thing I can do for myself is distract my mind and emotions to something else – perhaps writing a blog post! And when that’s done I’ll put on some music and remember the love my friends Jen and Pete shared with all of us yesterday, and how attending their wedding stirred up all kinds of good memories and emotions about our own wedding day.

Oh God, where are you when we need you most?

In our most vulnerable moments?

Without you, death seems inviting – a chance for rest and peace when none can be found in life.

The physical components of our brains fire and misfire and create chains we cannot break.

Habits and addictions weaken our resolve to choose life.

We are lulled into believing that death will bring freedom, that in death there can be peace.

Are you with us when we are broken?

Have you heard crying in the night?

Some say suicide rips a person from God, that there is no hope in that type of death.

But how can you turn your back on someone who is sick and suffering?

If depression is an illness, than surely you are the cure.

You draw all life to yourself.

You breathe and life lifts and fills and heals.

We are drawn to you in our brokenness.

We crave your healing touch.

How can suicide seem like sweet sleep, like the necessary release from this world into yours?

Why do I torment my loved ones and myself with repeated attempts at ending my own life?

What will it take for my brain to be whole?

What will it take for my spirit to be still?

What will it take for my life to be full?

A spiritual care staff member came to visit today.  A group of us gathered and he passed out sheets with questions on the topic of peace.  We took our time thinking through our responses and then sharing them with each other.  It filled a part of me that has lacked attention lately.

The truth is, I didn’t want to participate in this group.  I saw some of the other patients who were attending and thought they would have nothing to offer me in a discussion of peace.  I inaccurately judged both them and myself.

When a nurse that I have good rapport with encouraged me to attend the meeting, I decided to go and I checked my judgmental attitude at the door.   I have learned in past experiences that everyone has something to teach me.  In my role supporting adults with developmental disabilities I have often found myself in a place of awe at how those, whom society may think have little to offer, give me so much.

As we discussed the various questions, I reflected on the day in 2010 that we had to say goodbye to my dog, Sasha.  After I left the vet’s office, I went to the lake, to a spot her and I had visited together on several occasions.  It was early in the morning, and I had been awake most of the night.  I’ve never seen Lake Ontario so calm as it was on this morning.  The stillness of my surroundings nestled inside of me, and although I felt a great loss at losing my sweet canine friend, I also felt peace rooted in acceptance of my pain.  It was a moment etched in my memory that I return to from time to time.

Later, the question was asked, “is there a downside to peace?”  At first I stared blankly at the question, not sure of any adequate response.  Then unexpectedly, as I listened to the responses of others, they began to help me formuate a thought that has been milling in the back of my mind for a few weeks.

I have often quoted Max Erhmann, who wrote, “whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”  I use this phrase to cultivate peace within myself, to relax from anxiety and find a sense of inner trust that all will be well.

But lately, I’ve been thinking about it and wondering, is it really true?  There are aspects of this life that I cannot accept as part of the universe’s design – when confronted with the brokenness of my community or myself, when I catch a glimpse of our devastation of the natural world, when I grieve for injustices occurring globally and in my own backyard.

Yes, pain is a natural part of life, but there is some pain which cannot be justified.  The abuse of those who are vulnerable has at times caused me great anguish.  There is no circumstance, no universe, where this type of pain is part of what “should be.”

So I’m left wondering, how do we cultivate a sense of peace in the midst of this type of pain?  I don’t have a good answer.  I do believe peace is something which must be cultivated, like a garden, and that we have the choice to act towards peace.  We do not need to wait for peace to come.  It’s likely that we must be intentional in our action and our awareness in order to experience peace.  Peace in the face of pain may at times look like healthy anger, it may look like lament.

In any form, the root of peace must be acceptance.  I cannot cultivate true inner peace while denying pain.  I must accept my brokenness to begin to heal.

Three nights ago, I lay in a hospital bed paralyzed with fear, barely breathing.  I knew that at any moment dozens of snakes would come slithering under my hospital room door, Snakes on a Plane style.

In those same moments, my mind careened off-road with the car that carried my wife home, images of the accident that would destroy her life flashing through my mind. How would I survive the fear of the snakes without her by my side?

I knew these thoughts were ridiculous. I knew the likelihood of these events simultaneously occurring was zero. I knew I was was wrong.  But I could not shake the fear.  Rationally, I understood.  Emotionally, I did not.

I recently heard anxiety described as that feeling when you slip on the ice, right before you fall, except instead of being for a split-second the feeling lasts for hours, days or weeks.

I lay in the darkness feeling helpless and hopeless, defeated by this anxiety and destined for a sleepless night.  In desperation, I opened my computer and began writing.  I wrote how difficult the nights at the hospital were, how worried I was about how Kathryn was handling everything, how much I wanted to hope that yet another new medication might make a difference for me, for us.  I just wanted out of the place I was in, physically and emotionally.

I half-heartedly decided to try something my therapist has suggested for years – to accept what I was feeling instead of trying to flee from it.  So much of my anxiety and my struggle with darkness comes from trying to escape the painful parts of life. But as Brene Brown writes, “we cannot selectively numb emotions.” By trying to numb out the fear, I was also numbing out what was good in life.

I sat on the bed, computer pushed aside, and tried to be okay with being afraid.  I told myself that fearing these things does not make them more or less likely to happen.  I told myself it was okay to feel panic, that I would not die from hyper-ventilation, I would not die from fear.

And in that moment, I found the root of my anxiety.  I felt my breathing slow, my racing heart quiet, my mind begin to focus.  In that moment, I found the chance to choose peace, even in the moment of darkness.

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