Moving On

We’re managing really well these days, and it’s mostly because of my down time. It may not look like we’re thriving, but we are. Most of our recent financial challenges are behind us now, we’re showing up for our friends and family, we’re getting enough sleep, we’re eating well, we’re getting out and partying with our friends plenty. We haven’t moved the line much on our debt, but we stopped it from growing, a worthy accomplishment on its own. To the untrained eye, it may look like we’re leading a fairly normal life, but we’re accomplishing quite a lot with what we have. Sometimes we’re tempted to just cut back on enjoying ourselves, like not partying two or three nights a weekend, but that’s a knee-jerk reaction that doesn’t really help us long term. People also get really caught up on the fact that Carrie makes most of the money while I make so little working part-time. We’re non-traditional. We do what we want. I work full time, but I only get paid for about half of it. Being a house spouse is a job too, but like Ali Wong says, there are no coworkers and I don’t get investment matching for my retirement.

Lately, I’ve been trying to quantify how much nothing I need to do every day. Not all down time is made equal. Sometimes I’ll close my eyes and sleep. Other times, I’ll let my thoughts roam and wander. Deep breathing is key too, which does something to my parasympathetic nervous system and lets the rest of my body know that everything is going to be okay. It’s almost like I’m wrestling myself every morning, and I win by slamming my body onto the couch or bed and staring out the windows at the sky. I wouldn’t quite call it meditation, which I understand to be quite focused. My down time is usually aimless and wandering. Sometimes it’s five minutes at a time peppered throughout the day. Other times it’s a single session for multiple hours. People tell me it takes quite a bit of discipline to do, which never really occurred to me. I get that it’s hard to get around to it, but the word “discipline” has come up three times now. I’ll have to unpack that eventually. In my mind, the benefits are so clear that it’s crucial. Non-negotiable. Both our lives right now are hinging on me taking down time. I’m so busy that I urgently need to do a lot of nothing. When my anxiety pushes me to do too much and I don’t know how to proceed, I lie down. I’ll only get up once it becomes clear how to proceed. An important milestone once I’m laying there is feeling like I’m returning to my true self. It’s like I snap back to reality. That’s partly why I’m not writing so much these days. I’m not so mixed up emotionally, so doing nothing is often a better use of my time than writing. I can’t write unless I create space by doing nothing. Half an hour a day seems pretty good. I stop when I get bored. This practice is all based on the underlying assumption that I’m always trying to do too much, so if that ever changes, then this system stops working. An hour a day is a fine goal. Half an hour a day seems attainable, though each day is so different that an average is practically meaningless.

Money is still kinda tight. I don't like to be stingy because it's usually a short-term improvement that costs us again in the medium-long term, but it's hard to argue when you need to squeeze every dollar. Considering our cash flow is pretty decent, we resort to penny pinching a surprising amount. These past few months, we’ve made a lot of behavioural changes like cooking more, using what we have, saying no to new purchases, cutting our grocery bills, checking insurance plans and details so we can maximize our benefits. There was a point where I had become so fixated on activities like skipping snacks at work to save money that I started to lose sight and feel discouraged. It didn’t really feel like we were moving the needle in any meaningful way, and then randomly one day, Carrie asked how much I weighed. I hadn’t stepped on the scale for months because I made a decision a while ago to stop focusing on getting healthier, so I thought it was pointless to check. Alas, after ignoring my weight for a couple months, I lost 10 pounds! I haven’t weighed this little since 2014. That was a nice feeling. I’m not even really that unhappy with the way I look or feel, but it showed that we had made some progress somewhere. Looking at our budget as well, we’ve cut a ton of costs and made much smarter purchases, and every little bit counts. Sometimes we treat ourselves to candy or a bag of chips, but I think that’s okay.

There are lots of ways where I’m not fully healthy. There was a time where I stopped everything just so I could focus on working on myself, which I refer to as The Struggle, but nowadays I have to move on and manage things along the way. Here are some of those things I have to manage.

I’m still more extrinsically motivated than I’d like to be; that is, I seek external validation more than I think is healthy. I’m taking better care of my body, but I’m doing it for other people’s approval. I exfoliate, moisturize, and groom mostly because I want to look better to others. It’s not because I care about taking better care of myself and to live longer and to nourish my skin because it’s my largest organ and needs so much care to continue functioning. I want to have a very muscular build, even though I’m not going to the gym right now. I think it’s normal and healthy to want to improve our appearance to be more appealing to others, but I know the way I’m motivating myself now is not sustainable or ideal. I’ve kept it a little too real in the past, which wasn’t great either because I would feel bad about my appearance. It’s currently not a balanced mix of doing it for myself and others. There are some areas now where I’m solely doing it for external validation, so even if I have some work to do here, it’s not so severe that I have to pause my life to work on it.

Anxiety. Right now I picture how much energy it would take an emotionally healthy person to perform a task, and then I imagine that I have some 10-15% tax on it that makes it harder for me. Sometimes I have to check information a dozen times. Whenever I start or end anything, I like to take my sweet precious time to transition smoothly between activities. Take laundry as an example. I’m very particular about the order in which I perform certain chores. I like to have all the dirty clothes with me, already separated into different loads. Then I start the water, grab the detergent, open the laundry machine lid, put in the detergent, close the lid, put the detergent away, open the lid again, put the clothes in, close it again. I like for the detergent to disperse in the water so that it’s more gentle on the clothes, and it takes some time for the water to fill up enough to spread it around. That doesn’t seem too different from other people’s laundry routines, but the trouble comes in when I curse myself for doing things out of order. Sometimes I toss the clothes in, start the machine, then grab the detergent. No, that doesn’t work for me. Sometimes I want to start the machine before gathering up the clothes. No. I yell at myself, and then I have to step backwards to start over again. That’s my anxiety requiring extra control of my behaviour because I have too much fear around doing it wrong. This goes for other things like making coffee, cooking, cleaning, my morning routine, traveling. The anxiety tells me that there will be life-altering consequences if I do things in the wrong sequence, but even if I know in my head that those fears are patently false, I can’t always fight the voice. You know you’re not supposed to scratch those mosquito bites, but sometimes you have to, even if it causes more bleeding or damage to the skin. It just feels good to give in sometimes, and that’s how I live with anxiety. I can’t fight it all the time, so I have to take it along for the ride.

I also have this pervading feeling of defeat, of brokenness. There were multiple large battles that I fought during The Struggle where I feel that I mostly came out on top, but you can’t help but take some painful blows during a war. Nowadays I can barely raise my hands in protest when I know I should. I can’t even haggle or barter for simple things like buying and selling secondhand items. Right now I just hope and pray that conflict doesn’t come my way because I know I won’t win the fight. I have so little energy that I categorize most conflicts as “not worth the trouble.” That isn’t to say that I can’t or don’t fight back at all. I do, but only on essentials. I still have to hold a really hard line with my family of origin because sometimes they try to contact me even though they haven’t changed. I’ve blocked or filtered them from most possible means of ingress, but they still come knocking despite not doing the work I need them to do. Every once in a while I’ll miss them too and think to reach out. Then I have to give my head a shake and cuss myself out. That doesn’t leave much nerve or audacity to haggle over $20 with someone from Kijiji. It also takes a lot of risk to keep an open posture. Not just a physical one, but an emotional, mental one, an attitude of openness to the possibilities left in life. It’s easier for me to be bitter, to feel betrayed and think that the world owes me. It’s also a dark and lonely place that isolates me from the goodness and joy in my everyday experience. I used to live in a perpetual pity party, and it only feels good for a short while. I think the only way I can respond to injustice and pain is through art. I have to talk, write, and dance it out. Retaliation isn’t the answer, tempting and satisfying as it is. All these things leave me feeling too drained to sweat the small stuff, so I have to keep on.

I’m still very much traumatized. I still have these vivid moments of dissociation where I visualize myself in grave danger when there is clearly nothing threatening me in that moment. I’ll walk around the corner, and I’ll imagine that someone is lurking there, ready to stab me to death, and I have to figure out a way to defend myself and disarm them. Sometimes I’ll host these ridiculous arguments in my head, where my opponent randomly comes up to me and shouts obscenities, somehow knowing all my weaknesses and saying everything I would hate to hear about myself. I know those are echoes of my family, taking logically absurd stances in shouting matches just to get their way. That’s not really going away, and as far as I can tell, I would need to go back to see a therapist in order to settle some of that stuff. Is that PTSD? I’m functioning, but functioning, or even succeeding, isn’t ideal given the news of people like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. It’s possible to be successful and have mental health issues. To be confused about that is like wondering how successful people can still break their bones. That’s what I focused on mostly during The Struggle, disarming the trauma so that I could carry on with a “normal” life, like having a job and maintaining my marriage. It’s not all gone, but it’s at a level where I can keep an eye on it week by week.

Obsessive cleaning. I never really knew it was a problem, but when I was in counselling, I would have to fill out surveys (also called scales) every four sessions so they could track my progress. One of the questions asked if I washed my hands too much, which I thought was a bit odd, but I figured they probably had a good reason to ask. Fast forward to reading the book on “Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families” these past months. They mention that obsessive cleaning is a byproduct of dysfunctional families, needing to control your environment when you’re feeling uncomfortable. I tend to hate getting things on my hands. I hate washing dishes, I don’t like wearing my wedding or engineering rings, I hate putting wax in my hair, and I tend to wash my hands a lot throughout the day. I’m not quite OCD, as I understand it to be quite debilitating, but it’s probably another symptom of my anxiety. From a moral stance, there could be an aspect of feeling guilty and wanting to wash the sins from my hands. From a biological perspective, the hands are one of the most interconnected body parts with the brain, so they’re a pretty good indicator of what’s going on in the old noodle. When I wash my hands with the expensive, smooth, and fragrant lemongrass self-foaming hand soap, it allows me to wring my hands together, which is one of those behaviours you associate with people who are terribly worried. This area probably deserves its own treatment, so I’m not really gonna work on it for now.

To keep balance, I party a lot. Even though I talk a lot about feeling the squeeze with money, we have a big line item in our budget reserved for going out with friends, boozing, and traveling to and from parties. It doesn’t look like it should fit into the overall priority of saving money, but this is how I live my best life. I work hard, I play hard. I work full time like everyone else, but I only get paid about 20 hours a week. House spousing ain’t easy. Partying is necessary, and apparently I’m not slowing down even though I’m an old man.

When in doubt, it’s better for me to be safe than sorry. I take the lower risk option. We’re currently committed to getting Carrie through this next year to become fully registered. Trouble’s gonna find me regardless, so I need to do what I can to not find any more. The trade-off when I take the safer route is that I sacrifice potential gains. It’s hard for me to choose to be less efficient in the moment, but with everything on my plate at the moment, things are more efficient in the grand scheme.

Now that I’m embracing being a house spouse, housework is more liberating and fun than it used to be. Feels weird to even say that. I take pride in my work, which enables me and Carrie to work a lot and party so hard. It allows us to show up for the important people in our lives. I know my purpose in doing such menial tasks, which makes it more fulfilling. I’m sure it’ll get old again with time, but it’s interesting feeling so rejuvenated by chores by dedicating myself to this supporting role. I’m having a lot of fun with our new dishwasher, which will require an entire blog post of its own. I’m surprised at myself for enjoying housework so much now that I’m embracing being a house spouse. It restores me.

If I’m not working on my problems so much, what am I doing with all that extra space I’m creating?

After months of doing nothing each morning, it feels safe to start processing The Fiasco. I had to pause the emotional processing about a year ago, but now that I’ve quieted my life down again, I realized that it was safe to engage in it again. It’s very densely layered, mixing in shame, sadness, self-hatred, self-esteem, betrayal, trauma, all the hits. Thus, there’s a lot of repetition while I process it. I have to just keep revisiting the thoughts and feelings, and slowly they’ll fade out of existence as I bleed them dry by letting myself feel overwhelmed for a short time every day. An important aspect for me to experience is letting my body feel the pain. It’s not simply a mental exercise. It’s a full body experience, feeling tingly all around my arms and neck, down my back. Tuning in to the alarm bells that have been ringing in my head ever since. It’s a delayed reaction, but you can’t delay it forever. I used to think it was so terrible when I would lay in bed, trying to fall asleep, and all sorts of embarrassing memories would pop up in my mind, out of the blue. Now I understand that to be my brain releasing some of the unnecessary emotions bottled up inside, which creates room and capacity for future potential. Pain is weakness leaving the body, and now it’s time for The Fiasco to stop taking up so much space in my body. It’s different from wallowing in my pain. It’s not the same as marinating my brain with toxic emotions. It’s about slowly releasing these powerful feelings in a sustainable way so that I can gradually open myself up to the randomness of life in the present and future. I’m letting go of the past in a way that doesn’t make me crumble. Suppose for a second that I had been able to go to therapy years ago before I actually did. Then maybe the pain wouldn’t have overlapped so much with Carrie’s schooling, which was a challenge enough on its own. Maybe I wouldn’t have needed to quit my job unexpectedly. That’s what I’m trying to avoid in the future. We have many challenges to address, like having kids eventually, moving into a new home at some point, and who knows what. If so much of my emotional capacity is tied up with The Fiasco, then I won’t be able to adjust to the wild mood swings of this world.

With some urgent bills behind us, we’re settling down and getting things sorted out. Budgeting, taking down time, having lots of fun, and even unpacking The Fiasco. This time around, I’m able to sustainably approach my own form of recovery, and part of that means living with whatever is “wrong” with me. I’m still anxious, traumatized, defeated. Carrie will be provisional for another year, which means we can’t take big risks right now. Therefore, instead of stopping everything to address some of my trouble areas, I’m moving on, and it hinges on me doing nothing for as long as possible.

Recovery Mode

It’s spring, or somehow in Alberta we skipped it and went straight to summer weather. Sadly, it’s still allergy season. I can barely breathe, and I’m always mere moments away from sneezing. Plus constantly scratching my new mosquito bites.

A couple weeks back, I quit Facebook, and it feels great. I don’t miss it at all. I never have that worry or fear of missing out, even if I am missing out on something. If there are important events, people will find a way to tell me. I’ll take all that energy back so I can hide away from the world and mind my own business.

Went to Edmonton for a friend's birthday, then went to see Gareth Emery. It was an amazing show, and I was with amazing friends. And yet, there was this moment where I felt my heart weighing me down heavily. Whenever this happened in the past, it was because of a specific event or painful memory, so I would process all the emotions and thoughts surrounding that memory, letting it all out while I danced like a maniac. This time, it was a generalized pain. Nothing popped out at me, no deeply hidden experience from my past. Just a heavy weight in my chest. A slightly younger version of me would have embraced it and dove in head first and ripped the wound open, but instead, the 30 year old me just let it be. Didn’t get too invested and didn’t run away either. The moment passed, and then I kept dancing like normal. This followed several days of going out late with friends. These feelings only seem to burn and pound in my chest only when I'm in the safest place I can be — the dance floor. It was a grounding moment to remind me where I am in my progress.

Recently, I applied for a new job, but I realized in the interview that I didn’t really want it. I made a calculated step to test the waters, to see how I would feel if I tried to take on more work, and the experiment provided a very clear answer. It’s hard for my ego and identity to accept, but I have it really good right now. I make enough money to pay the mortgage every month, and all things considered, I probably have the best part time job I could ask for. I have good friends at work, I have my availability and schedule just the way I like it, and I have enough time off to perform my main job as a house spouse. I’m so used to being a workaholic that it’s been a hard transition for me to be comfortable in my current situation. Normally it takes me six months to settle in to a new role, but it’s taken me about a year for this one. In preparing for the interview, I reflected on my time at the company so far, and it slowly dawned on me just how great of a chasm I crossed in getting here. After about 10 years of corporate office work, it’s been a big transition to retail. It was a big change having to punch in and out on time for work. Even while I was working in engineering, compared to some of my coworkers, I only had to report exception time, meaning I only had to file my hours when I was either on vacation or working on a specific project. Otherwise it was always assumed that I was at work on time, doing what I was supposed to do. As well, I’m so accustomed to working with the same 10 or so dudes, but this job is all about customer-facing work, and every day is a new mix of coworkers too. I have a ton of variety in my day, which I enjoy and prefer, but my mind has been solidified in the Dilbert routine for the last decade. As a result, in this past year I’ve grown personally and professionally at a rate I never have before, and I love it. I’m working on parts of myself I never knew needed work, and I’m even finding skills I never knew I had. After a year, I’m only just now getting settled into this job, so I shouldn’t be so quick to rush off and start new adventures just because of my pride. I should sit down and be humble.

Is there anything left for me to do now that I’m trying to stay out of trouble? Of course there is. There’s plenty.

This year I’ve embraced my responsibilities at home as a house spouse, and now that’s starting to pick up. As Carrie gets busier with her private practice, there’s more for me to do around the house, especially as we try to get out with the nice weather to see friends. I’m cooking more and experimenting with new recipes and cuisines. Supercook is a life saver right now, filtering recipes by what ingredients I already have instead of me starting with a recipe and going out to buy more ingredients. It’s spring cleaning time, so with the added daylight, there are tons of things we need to do to prepare for the summer, like flipping the closet or changing filters or killing bugs (eek!). Just finished up the last bit of car repairs for a long while (I hope), which has cost us a pretty penny. We just went through a small bout of financial emergencies for a couple months, but things are levelling off finally. We’re changing a lot. Not buying so many things on a whim anymore, making lots of little decisions that hurt in the moment but give us more oxygen in the future. Tightening the belt during the week and responsibly letting loose on the weekends.

It’s been six years since I started working on my posture, and I’m finally starting to see some progress. All those years of school and office work turned my back into a crescent moon, but now I’m catching my bad posture more frequently at the source. I remember to pull my shoulder blades down and together, arching my spine in the right direction. I’m doing a lot more stretching and strengthening of various muscle groups so that my baseline posture is closer to the ideal position. I’ve also been getting monthly massages for almost the entire past six years, which helps to reset most of my muscles because stretching on my own can’t cover everything. It’s an interesting project that’s stuck with me through all this time, even as I went through the Struggle and my New Three Years Resolution. Even when I hit rock bottom and during my time unemployed, I was still trying to work on my posture. Existing is such a painful experience for me sometimes. While I was writing about the worst emotional pain I had ever experienced, I was trying to sit up straight in my office chair, correctly aligning my elbows and forearms with my desk at a 90 degree angle. Feels good to finally see some improvement.

With the passing of my birthday, it’s also really nice to know that I have love. Abandoning my family of origin and creating my own family of choice has been a long and painful process, but I now have people who I can count on to show up for me when I need it. After recently visiting some in Vancouver and Edmonton, it’s reassuring to actually feel the love after years of cultivating a mass of relationships. I made a lot of those new friends after meeting them through mutual friends, and I’m still able to make new friends even now, with all the challenges of adult relationships. There was a time when I felt stuck with the same miserable people in my life, which was a very depressing fate to encounter. However, by sharing my experience openly with others after moving away from home, I learned from my peers just how dysfunctional and bizarre my childhood experience really was. I worked a lot on myself, and consequently, I started attracting different people. I have a full roster of people who stick by me, and Carrie still seems to like me despite all of my strong odours and weak puns. I am loved.

Even though I sorta just finished my New Three Years Resolution, I have to put myself on ice again for a few more years. I'm not back to a position of strength. It vaguely seems like I still have a few years left yet before I stop feeling so vulnerable. What's the rush? I have nowhere to be, no one to impress, nothing to prove. I've already shown up to the critical battles, and now's the time to eat and sleep. Doing nothing each day is the best, whenever I can get around to it. I'm an old man now, at the ripe old age of 30. I've been through some shit, a sentiment which Kendrick captured in the song "Mortal Man" with an interview he staged with Tupac. He puts it like so:

In this country, a black man only have like 5 years we can exhibit maximum strength, and that’s right now while you a teenager, while you still strong, while you still wanna lift weights, while you still wanna shoot back. 'Cause once you turn 30 it’s like they take the heart and soul out of a man, out of a black man in this country, and you don’t wanna fight no more. And if you don’t believe me, you can look around. You don’t see no loud mouth 30-year-old motherfuckers.

Tupac Shakur

Obviously there are huge differences between the African-American experience and my own, but that passage hit me hard. Everyone has the potential to do the impossible. On one end of the spectrum, some kids can launch startups in their teens and make millions, and on the other end, they quit school to find work and feed their families. I don’t feel bad for myself as though I never had that potential. I tried to start businesses numerous times, unsuccessfully. I juggled far too many activities at once while I was in school, and once I graduated, I worked extra hard at my jobs so I could feel better about myself. As a result, I don’t have that same energy anymore for getting ahead, to leapfrog the competition. I don’t have the energy to go back to school, or spend my spare time developing my skills using free online courses. Even though I heard about Bitcoin a long time ago, I didn’t have the risk tolerance to make the leap and invest even if I wanted to. I feel like I spent my best years trying to survive, and this is where I ended up, which is great by all measures. Still, it's a struggle for me because I always pictured having more by now, but the problem with those expectations is that I never calculated the impact that years of abuse would have on my trajectory. I'll always have this rebellious spirit, thinking for myself and standing up for what I believe in, but I don't have the rocket fuel anymore. I know life isn’t over yet, that there’s still hope for me, as all the recent graduation announcements for people in their 50’s to their 90’s have shown on Twitter. It isn’t the end for me yet, but now is not the time for getting ahead. Now is the time to stay put.

All I wanna do now is stay out of trouble, get by, and have fun with my friends. Who knows how long I need to recover? That's Future Jon's problem. On today’s to-do list is popping some anti-histamine pills and going outside to enjoy the sun and mosquitoes.

Battle Scars

I’ve been slowly upgrading my wardrobe, one article at a time. Got a couple good items so far, like sneakers, coats, and what my friend affectionately refers to as my “ass pants.” I don’t like to rush my clothing decisions because there are too many hypebeasts who buy whatever new trend there is and look terrible. They don’t wear their clothes, but the clothing brands wear them. That is, the clothes don’t enhance their personal look and style, but the people wearing the clothes enhance the brand’s value through their endorsement. The next item I was thinking of getting was something in camouflage, and in my nerdy way, I wanted to read up on the subject before landing on a pattern, colour scheme, and which article to get it for. It’s a pretty fascinating subject. There are different domains for animals and military vehicles to hide themselves, like the water, sky, forest, desert. There are different methods of achieving this depending on the milieu, like trying to not cast a shadow, trying to blend in with your surroundings, trying to hide your tracks. Fish will countershade by having a bright belly and a dark top, so predators looking from above and below have a harder time seeing it. There are planes that can avoid detection by radar or other sensors, and animals mask themselves to bypass the physical senses of the prey or predator. Interesting stuff.

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It made me ask a few questions. What does it mean to pay homage to the military industrial complex which forced my parents to leave their home country? What does it mean for me to camouflage myself as a human? What purpose will the camouflage serve in my survival? Physically, I stand out from the people around me because of my skin colour. Not only that but I was blessed/cursed with this quick brain, so even if I could look the same as people around me, I sound and act different. That’s something I’ve accepted as I’ve gotten older, that there really isn’t a chance for me to blend in. That being said, I have always been a little secretive with my goals. I generally try to present as plain and unassuming, but in the background, I’m actually working really hard to level up. It’s like the zebra’s camouflage. It’s very easy to spot them, but their striping makes it hard to see where they’re going. If you’re chasing one, it’s hard to tell by looking at it whether it’s going to suddenly cut left or right. For the longest time, I would work my regular job and finish the work assigned to me in an orderly fashion. But outside of work, I’d be reading up on industry trends, researching the next technologies, comparing how different regions handle our company’s problems, not the typical concerns of a worker bee. I was in power transmission, providing power quality reports, but I was reading stuff like how electrical vehicles would impact the country’s infrastructure and how billing would work on a smarter grid, especially as many Canadian parking lots already have some sort of free electrical outlet for block heaters. I tried to make it look effortless, like I just knew this stuff because it was common knowledge, not because I was ambitious and obsessively curious so I could get ahead. As far as clothes go, I’m trying to look more like the streetwear folks, so even by the simple fact that I’m dressing like them, I’m camouflaging to blend in like the kids these days. Maybe I don’t even need the camouflage pattern at all.

There are several ways that I blend into my surroundings. I use my language to sound like a Canadian. I try to be well-read so I can understand what people are talking about. I dress like people here. Nevertheless, I’ve always stuck out my whole life. I’m a person of colour in a province that’s only some 25% visible minorities. Growing up in church, I was the pastor’s kid, so right off the bat, I was different. There was a pretty clear delineation between kids of different ages, and there was only a couple people the same age as me. There were multiple families which shared the same few grandparents, so I stuck out because I wasn’t part of the fam. I was always the smart kid up until high school, where everyone was quite smart, but until then, I stuck out because I got good grades and didn’t struggle as much as my peers academically. Most of my junior high friends went to to high schools with their friends, but I went alone to a different one. Although I later studied engineering, the way I got there was a bit odd because there was my first year where I had to take the Faculty of Science equivalents of the Engineering courses before I could transfer over for second year. When I was 21, I started dating Carrie over long distance for 3.5 years, so there weren’t a lot of people I could relate to for relationship advice. My experience with my family of origin is super unique because there’s probably under 1% of the population that suffers from narcissism, and even if narcissistic family members are bothersome, there are still many people who stay in contact with them. I don’t mean to sound like I’m playing a tiny violin for my pity party, but over the last two weeks thinking about this topic of camouflage, the thought keeps popping up that I can’t really blend in.

Another important theme in camouflage is whether I am the predator or prey. I would say that I’m the latter because most of my significant experiences amounted to me getting away from people trying to attack me. I fought back against the man who sexually abused me as a child. I escaped my father who tried to bleed me to death slowly through emotional abuse. I quit a previous job when HR wanted to play chicken with my mental health. These days I try to just mind my own business. It’s not like I’m from a wealthy family that flipped businesses or homes, swallowing up the little guys, running the show. I have friends who are sharks, making tons of money, pushing their way to the top of the corporate ladder, overtly and aggressively asserting their power and influence to get what they want. Me, I try to slip through amongst the shadows. If I’m ambitious, I play my cards very close to the chest. I’m hyper vigilant due to my trauma, so I notice lots of minor details that most people miss, which I use to sneak around undetected. When I do reveal myself enough to make a move, it’s kind of confusing to most people. These days, people ask me why I work in retail when I’m an engineer. I tell them I do a lot of nothing at home to rest up from accomplishing too much too fast in my youth, which is true, except that I’m really resting up as much as possible so Carrie and I can blaze forward and survive. It helps us a lot when I can do some of the house chores which just require time and a little concentration, so working less and being a house spouse is truly an outworking of my extreme ambition. That doesn’t mean that I’m trying to run this town one day. My goal is still to slip by undetected.

Despite my use of camouflage, I’ve still collected some battle scars along the way. It increases your chances of survival, but it’s not a perfect defence. There are some frightening, lasting effects of abuse that I’m still working on. It’s hard work taking on the predators of this world and trying to escape unscathed, and I’ve taken some big hits along the way. At this age, it feels like there’s a direct trade-off between well-being and financial stability. I know people who got their paper but they’re not happy or well. We’re on the other end of the spectrum, where we’re emotionally and mentally stable, but our money ain’t right. Considering what we’ve been through and where we came from, we’re doing really well. It’s my feeling that with my upbringing, I wasn’t really meant to be happy and healthy, that the chances were really slim that I could live a fulfilling life. Things have stopped getting much worse, and we’re close to a standstill. We’re slowly climbing our way back up, but it’s a week by week process. Every little thing we do needs to be scrutinized, and now’s the time to do it. Any kind of debt should be treated as an emergency, so we’re getting ourselves organized before the long and arduous journey up from this valley. Making more money isn’t exactly a viable option right now, so we’re left with having to cut costs and change behaviours. There is hope. We could always sell our home or sell 3D prints in my new shop. We’re both very employable, so now it’s about reducing the frequency and size of our mistakes and avoiding unforced errors. I can cook like two or three dishes pretty well, and it hasn’t gotten boring yet. Financial responsibility is like 20% knowledge and 80% behaviour, so I’m taking better care of myself so that we can turn this ship around. There are a lot of good resources out there like Mr. Money Moustache, Dave Ramsey, Reddit Personal Finance Canada. Tax returns came in already, which helped us get over a recent hurdle, and now we’re on the right path for the long trek back up to zero. Week by week. Years back, we could have decided to stick with the money instead of our well-being, and we would have crushed our debt by now. Who knows if we would still be together though. It’s going to be really difficult, but it’s possible.

That all being said, there are a couple qualifiers I’d like to attach to our new project. As much as we’re focusing our attention on debt, I don’t want to talk about it all the time. I’m writing about it here so that it helps to process ideas and emotions on the topic, but I hate when money dominates a person’s life. You know those people that are always talking about money, when their life falls apart when gas goes up by half a cent per litre, when they complain about every extra penny they have to spend. I don’t want to be like that. And as much as we’re trying to treat it like an emergency, I’m trying to keep a cool head about it. There’s no use in panicking and worrying about it constantly since that leads directly towards making more mistakes. Staying calm and collected doesn’t exactly make a ton of sense when you look at the amount, but it makes perfect sense when you keep it together enough to consistently make progress on it. Life is more than just money, though money management is an essential part of life. We’re giving ourselves grace and being strict at the same time. We want to use up everything we’ve already bought. We’re saying no more often to all those little $5 to $20 purchases which evaporate your money so easily. There are a lot of direct and indirect moves we’re making right now to slowly inch our way towards stability. We’re doing our homework by budgeting. We’re keeping each other accountable with spending. We’re reaching out for support where we need to. Even being able to talk about it openly helps to take off some of the pressure so we can see a bit more clearly. That all being said, I really wouldn’t have done it any other way. I would rather be in this situation than to owe anything to my family of origin. I think it’s a clear difference between millennials and the previous generation where our parents would rather work and be miserable so they could save up for retirement. Millennials live more for experiences, and they take foolish risks like quitting a well-paying job. Being emotionally stable now allows me to have better judgement, whereas I was making tons more money just a few years ago but I was making way worse mistakes because my emotions were highly volatile and sometimes unpredictable. Money is very important in regards to having a self-regulating existence, but cash doesn’t rule everything around me. My debt doesn’t own me, I own it.

When looking for the next clothing item to buy, I did a little reading on camouflage in hopes that it would inform my purchase. It got me thinking about how I’ve masked myself from detection in my life, and though I had great success in certain areas, I also accumulated some serious battle scars along the way. My emotional and mental health were impacted by my family’s dysfunction and my childhood sexual abuse, and while it took some time to sort that out, now I’m turning my attention to our financial situation. It takes a toll when you have to quit your job unexpectedly, when you have to stand up to your attackers and choose the hard path to go out on your own. Even though it’s not such a great look, I’ll wear my battle scars with pride.

Disconnecting

It’s time for me to #deleteFacebook. Not just deactivating, but deleting it permanently. I did a bit of a purge this week. I was having some problems with my phone, so I reset it to factory settings and didn’t restore my backup, which was easier than going through and deleting everything I didn’t want. I’m cleaning up and trying out what those consequences mean. Instead of filling my time with junk from the Facebook, Reddit, and Instagram, I’m disconnecting. There’s only a finite number of connections a person can have, and I’m happy with the ones I have now. Nobody ever really needs to get in contact with me that urgently, and there are still like 10 others ways to reach me if you really wanted. By removing social media, I’ll have more brainpower left over for the things I want to do. I’m ready to disconnect.

I’m expanding my morning ritual of doing nothing. Sometimes after doing a challenging chore, I’ll need a bit of time to clear it out of my brain with video games, TV, and the like. Obviously there are things that need to be done, but when there isn’t, I’m going to lie down in silence. I accomplished a lot these past couple weeks. I fixed a shelf that had been sagging, pulled out the stove and cleaned the floor underneath it, changed the filters on my humidifier and HEPA filter, unclogged the drain (3D modelling and printing a custom drain snake in the process), sold some jewelry, wheeling and dealing on Kijiji (Canadian Craigslist), and fixed the car. All sorts of odd jobs, all in line with spring cleaning, taking the initiative instead of just not doing it like I used to. Carrie said that in the past few months, I’ve done more than in the past few years. Calming things down and breathing deeply helps the body enter into a relaxed state, so it’s easier to enter into a productive mode when you need it. Less really is more.

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In line with preserving what little energy I have, it was reflected to me a few months ago that I have too much empathy. It’s a skill I over-use, and I’ve started to notice when I get too absorbed into another person’s perspective. It comes from being gaslighted by my family over the years, having my grasp on reality questioned conveniently timed with when I was confronting them with their mistakes. As a result, I’m prone to being absorbed into other people’s perspectives, even when it conflicts with my own. That perspective-taking is an essential skill for surviving as an adult, but I sometimes take it too far. I have felt bad for people who were maliciously attacking me, when really I should have been directing that energy to protecting myself. Now, I’m trying to value my own perspective and stick up for myself. Sounds selfish, but I’m really trying to stop being so much of a pushover.

Saturday, I had a pretty bad anxiety attack brought on by an especially stressful day. I lost sight of things and just started doing chores like crazy. Feels nice to complete a lot of work, but then I ran out of fuel by the middle of the afternoon. I was trying to sell something on Kijiji, and something that a buyer said triggered a memory of my dad. (Believe it or not, I try to talk or think about my family as little as possible, but whenever it does happen, I process the thoughts and feelings until it goes away so I can go back to dealing with more important things.) So when the buyer reminded me of my dad’s bargaining, I started venting to Carrie, but then something different happened. Instead of the feeling going away, it started amplifying. It got worse and worse, and then my body went into a panic. Heart was aching, chest was tight, struggled to breathe. I tried to carry on with my day, but by evening, all I could do was lay down until I drifted off into sleep.

It was a reminder that even though I’ve regained some productive capacity in recent weeks, it’s still quite limited overall. I always seem to forget it, or maybe I just don’t want to believe it because I’m used to being capable and strong and I don’t like operating from this weak position. But alas, I have to reconcile with this new version of myself. This is who I am now. I wrote the other day about how I still have so much darkness left in me, and what I meant was that I still have a lot of delayed emotional pain to process from the abuse. Feelings don’t go away until you feel them, often requiring physical sensation and paying interest on the delay. Essentially, I just need to feel sad. So far this year, I’ve cleared my schedule, simplified my life, and done a lot of nothing, but I eventually need to address all these bottled up emotions. About a year ago, I stopped seeing my counsellor because I had run out of free sessions; 25 is extremely generous, and it saved my life. I could have sought more therapy, but I put a cap on it so that I could refocus my efforts on tidying up the rest of my life and marriage. I’ve been able to do that, but now that cap seems to be leaking from the pressure. It seems like stress triggers these little panic attacks, so I need to be especially careful to not put a chink in my own armour.

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Occasionally, I still wrestle with suicidal thoughts. When I get extremely stressed and overwhelmed, all my mind can think to do to remove the pain is to end it all. When the stress dissolves, the thoughts go away. I really don’t want to die, and I know I have options and places to turn to if I need. It seems like it’s time for me to pick up my shovel and continue digging into the shit-clogged storm drain of my past. I keep thinking of myself as a kid interacting with my dad, who was vastly more powerful than me, and how he repeatedly put himself first. Maybe he wasn’t capable of loving me. The human body is pretty remarkable in how it can delay emotions by bottling them up. My buffer is full though, and the only way to clear it out again so that I can adjust to the normal ups and downs of everyday life is by processing everything one by one. It helps to keep reading the book “Adult Children - The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families” because it explains so much of my family dynamics. If I’m ever going to survive, I need to continue dealing with the emotional abuse from my family. This go-around, I want to focus less on what they did and more on what happened to me.

Finances. This is one of the final hurdles for us. All that schooling, job changing, buying a place, it all adds up after a while. We have a lot of debt. It would crush lesser persons, but even though it doesn’t quite look like it, we’re in a much better position than previous years. All of our problems have gotten out in the open, and now it’s time to pull up our socks. I’ve more or less dealt with my childhood stuff. We both had our big spending years where we were soothing our inner children who grew up poor. We had our travels, our fun parties. We paid for our educations, and we had an awesome wedding. We made the timely job changes to escape burnout and misery, and now it finally feels like we’re settled. No need for big trips anymore. No need for super fancy status items or clothes because we already have way more than we need. Time to just buckle down and work on paying off our debts.

I never really meant for it to happen this way, but it’s time to grow up now that I’m entering my 30’s. Time to disconnect from the wasteful social media timelines and newsfeeds. Time to open up my capacity by resuming the process of cleaning out the closet of my childhood. Time to settle down, save money, and pay down debt. Time to see myself as a tired old man, and savour every moment I have because it could easily be my last. I’m disconnecting from the mental junk food of social media so I can reconnect with myself.

Survival

I started a special discussion group at a previous job. The industry was changing and moving so quickly that I thought it useful to discuss and process the implications of all these quick moves made in the industry and by competitors, so I selected a handful of brilliant minds that could debate these ideas and figure out what our next moves should be. There wasn’t anyone asking us what direction the company should take, but it was a mental exercise to learn where the puck was moving. Topics could range from global industry trends, technical innovations, regulatory consequences, and philosophy and morality. It was quite a beautiful group whenever we could meet. One question posed by one of our members was “what is your purpose in life?” Some people answered things like taking care of their families, to be the best person they could be, or to be a good steward of the earth’s resources. I couldn’t really pin it down to something specific because I was and still am trying to figure it out, but the answer I gave was that I’m trying to survive. With Carrie and I both coming from refugee backgrounds, there’s only so far we could reach in our new lands, especially since our parents could only guide us so much while they figured out their new homes at the same time. Maybe our kids will be able to dream big and make those dreams into reality, but we have to be a bit more realistic. I’m still very much an optimist, but I like to keep my feet on the ground. I’m playing the long game, so what does it mean for me if I exchanged survival for short term success? What are the trade-offs of dedicating my youth to making as much money as possible? What’s the point of getting rich if it all just slips away and jeopardizes my longevity? Through my morning ritual of doing nothing, I realized that though I have all the time in the world, I have very little energy. With what I do have, I have to be hyper efficient and effective with it because the stakes are high. Let’s examine some of the implications of fixing my goal on surviving.

My main job now is to be a house spouse. Sorry, I meant to say trophy husband. Everything else takes away from it, even if it’s a good thing or something I deeply enjoy. A friend pointed me to a great cooking app called Top Chef University, which has everything I was looking for that I mentioned in my last post. Videos that cover all the topics I want, from the basics to some of the finer skills, and the writing and editing are superb. Not too long, not too short, not condescending either. Friends at work were asking if I was going to apply for any new jobs, but I haven’t. Yes, it would be nice to get paid more, but I want stability right now. I love a challenge, I love to learn, but anything that takes away from my home responsibilities right now is a negative. I have this terrible recurring thought that “I have all this free time, so I should do something productive with it.” It’s one of the ghosts of my old lifestyle, where my only value was my output, and it has caused me much suffering throughout my short time on this earth. Why should I always be productive? What’s wrong with doing nothing? Isn’t it enough that I rest? Am I not productive enough at other times? My to-do list is basically the same every week, but it’s becomes an interesting challenge when you pepper in all the sudden changes brought on by life. I’m enjoying being a house hubby.

Being healthy can even be a distraction. There are lots of stuff I’m supposed to do in order to keep myself healthy, but are they all absolutely necessary? If my pursuit is to survive, does good health contribute or take away from it? The answer is that it depends. These are most of the things I’m supposed to do to be healthy:

  • Floss every day.
  • Roll feet with massage roller and hockey ball.
  • Exercise rotator cuffs.
  • Strengthen deep neck muscles.
  • Stretch out my chest in the doorway.
  • Pinch my shoulder blades together once per hour.
  • Exercise my medial glutes.
  • Don’t eat bread.
  • Eat organic even though the term isn’t regulated and it costs more.
  • Raw, natural sugar instead of refined, processed sugar.
  • No binge eating late at night.
  • Do nasal rinse twice a day.
  • Weigh myself once a week.
  • Do yoga couple times a week.
  • Moisturize.
  • Use sunscreen.
  • Eat yogurt to replenish gut bacteria.
  • Get a full night’s sleep.
  • Hit the gym couple times a week.
  • Keep the humidifier running.
  • Wash my face twice a day.
  • Use a heat pack on my neck before stretching.
  • Eat fruits and vegetables.
  • Cook healthy foods.
  • Eat more meals with smaller portions.
  • Drink less.

That’s a long list of things, and they’re all nice to do. They aren’t absolutely essential for my immediate survival though. It’s easy to get caught up, running around and burning all my time and energy focusing on these things. I wind up feeling dizzy at the end of the day, wondering what I even accomplished. It doesn’t necessarily hurt to check off this entire list every single day until it starts getting in the way of my survival. I find that when I try to keep up with these little health tips pretty strictly at the start of the week, I crash really hard by Thursday. I take random naps, I binge eat, nothing gets done around the house, and then I feel guilty and pick myself up again at the start of the following week. Carrie likes to ask “What are you going to do with that extra life?” It’s fine if practising these things helps you to feel better because that’s what they’re for, but right now, I’m not just that interested in every moderate increase in health. Instead, I’m trying to be more adaptable as the situation requires. I don’t work 40 hours a week on my feet anymore, so it’s not absolutely essential that I spend time with the foot massage roller every single night. I abhor the wastefulness of the disposable dental picks, but as my dental hygienist says, it gets me flossing instead of not flossing. Raw sugar is expensive, so I’m using the refined sugar that we already have at home. Instead of doing all of them all the time, I’m trying to do some of them only on certain days. I’ve done a lot of things to increase my health, but if I focus on it too much, it gets in the way of my survival.

While I continue to start my days with boredom, my heart sometimes aches for seemingly no reason. With no impending deadlines or duties, my chest just pounds and hurts while I lay there doing nothing. The best way for me to understand it is that general anxiety is flushing out of my body. When you stop suppressing your natural alarm bells, all the little worries come out of the woodwork. I feel like I’m going through withdrawal from the stress and adrenaline or something. I’ll have nothing to do for three days in a row, but my heart will simply ache and pound through my chest the entire time. I’ll be exhausted by the end of the day, but I’ll also be confused because I hadn’t really done much visible work. However, I’m learning that letting the pain ache in my chest like that is considered emotional labour. I try to soothe it with the usual self-regulating processes, but for the first time in a while, I went on a raging snack attack. Grabbed the keys, jumped in the car, and roamed the earth until I ran into some food with high caloric density. It’s a terribly confusing period. Carrie reassures me daily that I don’t have to do anything unless I can handle it, so it’s fine if I do absolutely nothing all day. Not really sure why it’s happening, not sure how to make the pain go away.

Doing nothing every morning started off as a cute, light-hearted exercise. I was satisfying a years-long thirst for peace and tranquility. It was like taking a picnic by myself, drinking in the sunshine, patting myself on the back for doing the important and non-urgent work of genuinely resting. Then as I was sitting there, minding my own business, I slowly developed a sneaking suspicion that something was watching me. I was partly right. In fact, there were a couple things staring at me. Slowly turning around to identify what was stalking me, it was all of the long and winding storylines that were watching me with anticipation, waiting for a satisfying conclusion. It’s like I’m in the final season of Game of Thrones, wondering how these huge, distinct subplots should crash together into an unpredictable and penultimate climax. If we take the last five or six years alone, there’s my move to Calgary to start a new life with Carrie. There’s the one where she felt stuck in her old job of four years. There’s the one where I went to counselling to save my life from my own childhood. My spirituality is shifting, having burned out from going to church events 3 or 4 days a week for most of my life. Keeping to just the years we’ve been married, Carrie and I have taken many huge risks: paying our own wedding costs, buying our home, changing jobs (I’ve worked three, she’s worked nine), traveling, partying, escaping a dysfunctional family system, paying for and surviving grad school, and launching the private practice. By comparison, we have friends who’ve lived in the same place, worked the same jobs, and hung out with the same people. There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily (in fact, that sounds like a mighty fine life), except until they judge our position as being as simple as theirs when really, we’re walking on thin ice. Years back, I craved stability. All I wanted was to be bored, to work the same job, to have the exact same schedule every week. A lot of that was motivated by my trauma, being unable to adjust to the shifting tides of everyday life. Now that I’ve processed a lot of it through therapy, I’ve been able to let go of the notion of a “normal” life, the 9-5 Monday to Friday glamourized by big corporations and skewered by Office Space. The universe is messy, and surviving it means being able to roll with the punches. By doing nothing every day, I’m paying tribute to all the vastly different and interwoven storylines, allowing the plot to thicken before they all get sorted out in dramatic fashion, where I’ll probably still be doing nothing every day.

I still have so much darkness inside. When I take a moral inventory, I see that I still have much pain and misery from my childhood. I’m managing, I’m doing a lot better, I’m self-regulating, all that good stuff, but at the same time, there’s only so much goodness in store for me in the future. There’s an upper range to how much better it can get for me, as good as it already is. If you were physically assaulted, you might have injuries that stay with you forever. I was emotionally abused for a long time, so I have to reconcile with the fact that it will take a long time to recover from it, if I ever do. That’s pretty much why all I can really hope to do is survive. That’s why I quit my previous job and why I’m not looking for engineering work right now, so I can work somewhere that doesn’t work me into the ground. I don’t want to get rich or die trying. That’s why I want to do stuff like learning how to cook better so I can take care of my family. That’s why I parted ways with my family of origin. I’m just trying to survive.

From trial and error, the road gets a lot bumpier when I want to thrive instead of just surviving. When I think that since I have so much time I might as well take a little excursion or detour, that’s when I get into trouble. Some of it is unavoidable, but I can help myself by not being distracted with things like getting too healthy. I’m a house spouse now, and focusing on the home will help me to survive by conserving what little energy I do have. Even though there is still a lot of pain and darkness in me, I’m doing really well. I have people I love who love me back, health, education, income. When I get greedy, I’m never happy because I’ll never have enough. When I remember that all I need to do is survive, then I can see that I already have everything.