Holiday Madness

Snow has been falling and melting since Halloween, taunting us with the promise of a white Christmas, only to be snatched away again as another warm spell hits. As of this morning, we have two – maybe three – inches of slightly crusty snow on the ground. The southern part of the province was blasted yesterday, but by some miracle of the multiple lakes governing our weather systems, we were missed.

Around me people are shopping and decorating; others are giving somewhat depressing lectures as to why they don’t buy into the holiday season, muttering things that half-resonate with me like “Consumerism and materialism”. To a friend, I casually comment that I kind of agree with the sentiment. They nod, only half paying attention, eyes shadowed with that familiar anxiety I know all too well.

The pile-up of exams and end-of-term assignments leaves little room to focus on other things, which I why I dub the Christmas lead-up weeks my “least favourite time of the year”. Not because I hate Christmas – quite the opposite in fact – but because I tend to feel absolutely burnt out and “done”. Between exams and abstracts and band and choir concerts and simple menial things I should do like clean my room and laundry (hah), I go to bed exhausted but unable to sleep, planning my agenda for the next day.

The new year presents “fresh starts” that I seize with gusto, adding more and more things to my plate until I’m just trying to keep afloat again, promising emptily that this time – this time – I’ll do less. Eleven months later, December rolls around once more, and the phrase that most often escapes my lips is “I’m so tired”, or it’s slight variation, “I’m effing exhausted”. There is no sympathy – my peers are in the same boat as me, and the older adults sit by knowingly and promise, “It gets worse.”

“I just want a day to myself,” I lament to the boy, typing up an essay with frantic fingers, a third cup of coffee close to hand. He gives me the cynical look of someone who’s spent two and a half years with my madness, and says, “Stephie, there’s no way you’ll take a day to yourself. You’d find something to do.”

“Would not,” I argue. “I might go to the gym, since that happens about once a month anyways, and maybe I’d clean my room, since that happens about never, but the rest of the day I’d just relax.” He rolls his eyes at me. “I know you.” He says simply, which I don’t deny. I’ve recently found a new job, and will likely be spending the holiday weeks training and working.

I point this out, half in desperation, half excited, worrying that I’ll watch my free time go in a blur of coffee cups. “You’ll love it,” He says with a smile, and pulls me close. “And you’ll have lots of time to spend with yourself, and with me, and with your family.” Which is exactly what matters anyways.

* * *

I love to keep busy. In part, I think it’s some kind of anxiety coping mechanism. If you move fast enough, it can’t catch you. If you’re contributing, you’re not wasting space. This seems to be a common theme among my peers.

The media proclaims that, according to research, we early twenty-somethings belong to an entitled generation, expecting gold stars on everything we do. While I’m sure that holds true for some, I don’t really see it in the majority of my consorts. Rather, some of us work ourselves raw, fearing that in a world where “everyone succeeds”, we’ll be the ones that fail. Others quit “while they’re ahead” – why even try to keep up? In all cases, I think we’re terrified we’re not living up to our full potential. I’d go so far as to call this a cultural disorder.

Busy and productive are the principle measurements of success; we get off on comparing ourselves to what everyone else is doing. “Oh, you think YOU’RE busy? Well, let me tell you what I’ve done this month/week/today.” We pass this off as commiserating during our half-hour meetings for coffee with friends, sandwiched between two commitments off our ever growing lists of “things to do today”.

Sometimes we’re just venting, but I also think that often we’re seeking validation and approval. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself – it’s the fact that the fact that we’re putting aside self-care in the name of attaining some sort of arbitrary height of productivity that gets to me. I can definitely see something wrong here. I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to be productive, but when did neglecting our wellbeing become so socially acceptable?

The other side to my personal “busy-ness” is that I love to do so many different things. I love to create music and play sports and go to the gym and bake things and curl up with a cup of tea and a book and attend school and learn as much as I can and help others out and play video games and travel the world and go hiking and skiing and swimming and skating and read articles and write. I just want to be so engaged in everything all at once, and I try to split myself up in as many directions as possible in order to do everything I want to do.

Coming to terms with the fact that I can’t actually do everything is proving to be a challenge.

* * *

In the next seven days, I have two exams left to write and a paper to review; one rehearsal and one band concert; another rehearsal and two choir concerts; a lab lunch, and work training. That’s essentially it. My plans for the three or so weeks off I have include working, yes, and cleaning my room and sorting out more of my clothes, because this is absolutely something that needs doing. But I also plan on taking at least a few days all to myself, and many days to spend with the boy and my family, and at least a few days to spend with my friends returning from out of town for the holidays.

I don’t love the weeks leading up to the holidays, but once I get past these we enter my favourite time of year, so I can’t really complain. I love the Christmas season because it’s time of rest and recharge following a year of growth. Maybe in the upcoming year I’ll focus more on my well-being, on not overwhelming myself. On seeing what I can cut out as opposed to what I can add in. I feel it’s time for a season of a different sort of growth.

On Anxiety

Over the course of the past year, I’ve gained weight. Deliberately. I did it without too much anxiety – after all, school became my new focus, and I began to really emphasize food quality over (limited) quantity. I ate more food than I did in the two years prior combined, and certainly more than I had in high school (I certainly don’t miss the days of two Splenda-sweetened low-fat Danone yogurts and five almonds for “lunch”).

Today, I haven’t a clue what I weight. I don’t especially care, either. The last time I stepped on a scale was at a skydiving shop in Fiji; the number was still obscenely low and yet higher than it had been four months prior, which had me feeling anxious all over again. I don’t weigh myself, and I probably never will again. It simply doesn’t matter, and I don’t need to get hung up on a number that doesn’t mean a damn thing.

At the beginning of June I got my period back. My body finally decided that I had restored enough energy to resume reproductive function. I cried in relief that day and could not smiling, feeling absolutely proud of myself. A good friend took me out for a Bloody Caesar, which I savoured almost gleefully. Staring down at infertility at the ripe old age of twenty had been somewhat anxiety provoking in its own right.

Gaining weight was hard. I know I said that it wasn’t too anxiety inducing, but it definitely wasn’t easy. I cried about it, and cried again. I listened to my hunger and ate, without restricting myself, and kind of hated myself for it. I went up two pant sizes and could actually buy jeans in actual stores for actual adults again. My cup size went up twice (at least some of it went to good use). My shirt size remained the same, but my arms filled in. Once again, I could no longer recognize that person in the mirror staring back.

To some extent, I mourned – the loss of the ridges of my spine and my protruding hipbones, my slightly receding clavicle, the spaces between my knee tendons and the crevices in my armpits slowly filling in. I could sit comfortably on chairs again. I could shave every inch of my legs. My hair and nails grew up strongly. And the feelings I had numbed away all returned full-force; the happiness, my drive for success, and – as I knew it would – the anxiety that started it all in the first place.

I struggled with myself. I had days where I wanted to give up. I wrote about it in my journal, trying to keep upbeat and failing somewhat miserably. I woke up and waveringly ate breakfast, lunch, supper. Rinse, repeat. I finally relearned what it was like to feel full, not only on food but also on life. I finally faced up to the anxiety that had plagued me from the age of nine, and acknowledged that what I had been taking out on my body had nothing to do with it.

I still marvel today at how much more energy I have. I walk to and from work, I swim across lakes, I play soccer with the twelve-year-old girls I coach. I want to do things, see people, succeed.

The anxiety follows me everywhere. I still struggle with body dismorphia and an almost overwhelming fear of failure. I say “almost” because it won’t overwhelm me, not this time. I’m still learning to be kind to myself – but the difference is that I am genuinely trying to be kinder to myself. I am aware of my anxiety, and this helps me to recognize and deal with it. I’m working on self-expression. I have yet to accomplish “taking it easy”, partially because being busy is my new coping strategy (arguably less harmful than attempting to starve my brain chemistry into behaving).

So anxiety makes an appearance in my everyday life, but I ignore it. For the most part, in any case. I generally like myself, and can acknowledge when I don’t without falling to pieces about it. I’m learning to adjust to this strange body that is mine, the one that has curves instead of edges and life instead of complacency. I think I like it – it is much better adapted to the whirlwind I experience every day.

Anxiety is the lot of our generation. Most of my friends have experienced some form of anxiety, men and women alike. Many of us take it out on our bodies, perhaps due to cultural conditioning. Some find comfort in food, others in depriving themselves of it. Some work themselves to exhaustion for a bit of peace of mind.

I have to consciously remind myself when I’m feeling – for a lack of a better way to put it – bad that I have a biochemical imbalance, that my body is not to blame. That I have to go on functioning and living. That there are millions of people, men and women, who, like me, know the all-too familiar clenching from a serotonin-deprived brain.

Every morning, I get up and get on with “it”, with whatever might be on my daily agenda. And every morning, I first make myself breakfast.