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If I weren’t feeling like crap at the moment (thank you, head cold, thank you, pre-adolescent children), I would write a post for Bell Let’s Talk Day. I would write about therapy, because in a recent comment on my website, someone said, “And if I do need a therapist or whatever, how is that going to make me happy just talking about it? No one will know exactly how I feel and what is making me this way.”

So here’s my experience. I’ve had various therapists over the years since I was first diagnosed with depression, and the main thing that they’ve done for me is to help me see myself better. They’ve helped me make connections between things that I never thought were related. They’ve pointed out where I’ve been lying to myself through my thoughts. They’ve coaxed out my feelings and validated them. They’ve seen through my verbal dodges and held up the mirror so I can see my blind spots.

And seeing myself better makes me happier. The schism between who I think I am and who I really am gets smaller, which is another way of saying that I am being healed / made whole. Seeing myself better provokes compassion for myself, sometimes even a wonder and delight at the intricate logic of my psyche.

And when I see myself better, I make better choices, because I’m making them based on the reality of who I am, rather than a distorted outdated approximation.

My depression returned last year, and part of my response was to find a new therapist here in Vancouver. I hadn’t been seeing anyone since we left Ottawa four years ago. Why not? Because it’s hard to find a new therapist. It’s hard to justify the time and expense, especially when I’m not actively mentally ill. It’s hard to prioritize my own needs when there are other family demands. And also, I had a writing project. For almost four years, I had Pilgrimage of Desire. Writing a memoir was a kind of self-directed therapy.

Thankfully, I had been discovered the website of Alison Crosthwait, a Toronto therapist who was writing deftly and honestly about the process of therapy. We had corresponded a little, and in July I reached out to ask whether she could recommend somene in Vancouver. Alison quickly and graciously sent me a list of names and some suggestions about who to reach out to first.

So I’ve been seeing Annie since October. I’ve been going almost every week, which is new for me. I like that schedule because the ideas stay fresh and we can pick the conversation right up where we left off. So far we have not been problem-solving. She doesn’t give me homework. There are no tools or strategies. We are just getting everything out on the table. We are going over all of my stories, and she’s pointing out how my body reacts unconsciously to the things I’m saying. We’re finding metaphors to describe what I’m afraid of and what I believe. These are not necessarily brand-new revelations. The same themes have come up many times before, but we are noticing how deep and pervasive and real they are, and we are charting their course through new stages of life: turning forty, raising school-age kids, living far away from my parents and siblings. We are uncovering and remembering the truth and beauty of me, Alison Jean.

And what’s made me happiest is that therapy is urging me back to my writing. Since I finished Pilgrimage, I haven’t known what to work on next. I’ve done a little journalling, started an essay, re-read an unfinished children’s novel, but nothing has seized me. Now I’m feeling the tug toward my short fiction. I have a few finished stories, a few more drafted, a list of possible topics. Short fiction suits my time and attention span these days. So my last few nights at writing group have been devoted to digging up my notes and manuscripts and letting things marinate.

I like that this reawakening didn’t come from my therapist saying, “Are you writing? Maybe you should write more. Doesn’t that feel meaningful to you?” It came as a natural consequence of sifting through this material, doing a detailed character sketch of myself. It came from wanting to carry on the conversation outside of therapy. It came from my mind being alive and following what feels good.

Alison Crosthwait has published a book called What It Feels Like to Change that collects her online writings, which I recommend to anyone who is engaged with or interested in the therapeutic process.

(And that is how one tricks oneself into writing a blog post, with a head cold, at 10 pm at night, on the fourth day of your husband’s trip out of town.)

P.S. Pilgrimage of Desire the ebook is celebrating its one-year anniversary! I am so thankful that it has found its way into the hands of hundreds of people. To mark the occasion, I’ll be donating all of the proceeds from January 2016 book sales to the Mood Disorders Association of BC.

I also have Pilgrimage bookmarks! Leave a comment on this post and I will send you two: one for a friend, and one to keep.

Wishing you well, friends. We’re all in this together.


16697933991_245b1bb495_z1. Decide to start talking.

At first you won’t know what’s happening. You’ll think it’s just a rough patch, a blip. You just published a book ~ a very personal memoir that makes you feel more exposed than you’ve ever been. Of course you’re going to have a letdown period afterward, a postpartum season.

And the money problems, that’s normal too. You’ve been freelancing for ten years, you know there are fat and lean times, and it makes sense that they would be lean now because you put prospecting and networking on hold for six months while you were getting the book out. Something will surely turn up any day now that you’re putting feelers out again.

Okay, so you’re a little alarmed when you find yourself crying in the shower because you applied for a job. Crying because you want a job and you don’t want a job. There’s no way to win.

But you’ll keep rallying, coming up with new plans, giving yourself pep talks, leaning on your husband and parents and best friend.

Until you have to move. And you see just how far down your reserves have sunk, when you’re packing and cleaning and carrying boxes, sixteen hours a day for a week. When you start crying the minute the movers leave you alone in your new apartment, and then while you walk back to your old house, and then again slumped against the living room wall, doubled over, sucking air.

Crying is fine, you tell yourself. Crying means you can still feel. You’re sad, it’s normal, moving is a huge transition, even if you’re staying in the same neighbourhood. Even if you feel as lucky as a lottery winner to have landed this apartment.

But a few weeks later, when you face a professional setback after months of effort, it’s all you can do to finish making dinner when you really want to dig a hole in the floor and throw yourself into it, bury all your tears and failure. And when your kids are whining about mosquito bites and clothes that don’t fit just right and a postponed trip to the candy store, it’s almost impossible to pretend that you care. You spend the weekend vibrating with despair and trying not to scream, and you know that something is definitely not right.

16775753851_401f1f3012_z2. Consider waiting until you have solved the problem.

It’s difficult to talk about having a problem when you are a professional. You can’t do it in a way that undermines your credibility or scares people off. You don’t want to look unreliable or needy. If you wait five or ten years, you’ll have enough distance ~ you can talk about being depressed as though it happened to someone else, you can even write about one of the most terrifying nights of your life, but it will be okay because you can reassure everyone you’re not like that anymore.

You also know that it’s easier to stay silent because it soothes your ego. It means you don’t have to face your own hypocrisy, the way you sometimes lose patience or interest with strangers who are in the messy middles of their stories instead of at the neatly-wrapped and triumphant end.

However, the cost of pretending that everything is okay mounts by the hour. Your smiles are a lie. Your bright amusing anecdotes are a front. Your throat aches from holding back sobs while you negotiate with your children in the grocery store. Your resources are at an all-time low, and if you could reclaim some of the energy that goes into pretending ~ if you could come clean ~ it might be enough to tip the scales.

16522528989_4517645c0d_z3. Get clear on what’s happening.

This is not sadness or grief. You are not mourning a loss the way you were when you moved to this city, mourning the end of your travels.

This is a deficit of meaning. This is existential despair. This is about how impossible it is to care about little things, to find the energy to unpack boxes or do your Mandarin homework or iron your daughter’s Perler beads when you feel as though you have nothing, are nothing, can look forward to nothing.

And the despair has been able to creep this close because your dikes and dams and levees have eroded and fall into disrepair. You don’t have a therapist or coach. You haven’t had a creative retreat in over a year. You’ve stopped writing. You spend too much time tethered to your computer. And the excuse is this lack of resources: not enough time, not enough money, not enough physical energy. And maybe also you have been needling yourself, finding ways to punish and deprive and sabotage, oh so quietly, undermining until the storm hits and you’re washed away.

4. Talk honestly, your way, when you’re ready.

You’ll know you’re doing it right if you get caught up in the flow of the story, the way it feels good to put words together. If that feeling of hopelessness lifts, especially when you think about the other people, listening to you and feeling seen and heard themselves. If you feel the relief of catching up to yourself, the way a video image will freeze and then fast-forward to catch up with the dialogue. You are back in sync. You are still in the thick of it, but your outsides match your insides.

16180834574_6d08fca80b_z5. Keep talking and listening.

People will want to know how the story ends, or at least how it continues. Tell them what you’re trying (which will encourage you to try things).

Tell them you talked to a gentle-voiced phone counsellor whose compassion and affirmation reminded you how much you were starved for such understanding.

Tell them you found a mood disorder clinic and saw a psychiatrist.

Tell them you got some names of therapists and made appointments.

Tell them your friends and family buoyed you up.

Tell them you biked and sat in the sun and swam in a wilderness pond and made fish tacos and played with your children.

And they might want to tell you their story, whether they’re at the beginning or the middle or the end. When you listen, don’t worry about fixing them. Don’t think that you have to have the answers. Sometimes it helps just to sit together, not knowing. Just that can be purpose enough for now.

Photos by Alison Gresik for Be Your Own Beloved, Feb/March 2015

 Note: I wrote this piece on July 2, 2015 and sent it to a small group of fellow writers and artists. I wasn’t out of the woods yet, but making art out of my experience and sharing it in a safe space was very healing.

Two months later, on September 2, I sent it to the people subscribed to my email list. I was doing better, still struggling with anxiety but no longer in such despair.

Now another two months have gone by. And I’m well again. I can make this news public without being overwhelmed by shame. I had a recurrence of depression this year, my first since 2002. It was terrible, and it was a gift. I’m still coming to terms with it, making what sense I can of this development.

Integrating it into the story of my life.

Wrestling the angel.

Thanks for listening.

It’s hard to know how and when to disclose an episode of depression. I drew courage from these posts by Glennon Doyle Melton and Rachel Cole.

I just finished leading an online book club discussion of Eric Maisel’s book The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path through Depression. If you’ve ever felt the kind of existential despair I’m describing, I highly recommend giving it a read.

The photos in this post are from Vivienne McMaster’s self-portrait class, Be Your Own Beloved, which I did earlier this year as the depression was setting in. I’m grateful to have a record of my tender feelings during that period. Vivienne’s class is a wonderfully accessible and meaningful exercise in creative self-care, and it’s not too late to join the session that just started on November 1, 2015.



These letters reveal [Flannery O’Connor] to have been anything but reclusive by inclination: to have been, on the contrary, notably gregarious. She enjoyed company and sought it, sending warm invitations to her old and new friends to come to Andalusia. Once her inviolable three-hour morning stint of writing was done, she looked for, and throve on, companionship. When people couldn’t come, she wrote to them, and looked forward to hearing from them in return.

Sally Fitzgerald, “Introduction,” The Habit of Being


Last night I got a rare taste of literary community in the flesh. I went to a reading given by my friend Rhonda Douglas, whose debut story collection Welcome to the Circus has just come out (here’s a review from Kerry Clare at Pickle Me This). Rhonda and I used to belong to a writing critique group in Ottawa, and we don’t see each other too often now, although we are Facebook friends. I was feeling a little giddy to be out at a social event on a weeknight.

The bookstore owner was there, selling books and pouring glasses of white wine. Appreciative readers were there, filling the chairs. Other writers were there to give readings. Amber Dawn read three pieces inspired by queer women poets. Sigal Samuels came on after an intro so full of accomplishments that I had that brief twinge of “What have I been doing with my life?” Leah Horlick read a poem that took her two years to get right and thanked the person who helped her work on it. Rhonda’s teacher and mentor Zsuzsi Gartner was there. Two ASL interpreters were there to sign for Deaf fans in the audience.

What a warm, colourful, noisy night of community ~ a visible manifestation of the often-invisible ties that hold us together, over distance, over time, over life changes.

Recently I asked writers and artists whom I’ve coached over the last five years to answer some questions about their creative support systems. Which people and groups are keeping them going? What do they get from these friendships and connections?

Here’s what I heard.

Who’s in your community?

As writers and artists, you cultivate a number of different types of relationships to sustain your creative lives. You lean on:

  • Family and friends who are not writers and artists themselves
  • Peers who are working in your discipline or in a related one
  • Collaborators with whom you create things together
  • Co-workers who gather to work on projects independently but side-by-side
  • Teachers and mentors who give you lessons in skill and craft
  • Editors and critique partners who provide feedback to improve specific pieces
  • Therapists and coaches who help you operate at your best
  • Agents, publishers, and other professionals who get your work into the world

As a writer or artist, what do you get from your creative community?

Emotional support. Someone listens to what you’re going through and helps you process it and decide how to handle the situation. This support is especially potent when it comes from another creative who understands you and doesn’t downplay what’s happened or give weird advice.

Inspiration and motivation. Someone tells you they admire and appreciate you and your work. You get encouragement to create more and do better. Again, this is particularly powerful when it comes from someone whose taste you respect, who knows what they’re talking about.

Feedback. Someone gives you a thoughtful and useful response to your work and suggestions for how to make it better.

Accountability. Someone cares that you get things done, and you get them done because you don’t want to let them down.

Objectivity. Someone can step outside of what you’re going through and see it from a different angle.

Collaboration. Someone gets into the trenches with you and works alongside so that together you make what you couldn’t have made on your own.

Belonging. Someone reminds you that you are not alone, that you are a member of the creative tribe, and that you and your work matter.

What are the drawbacks and problems with creative communities?

Distraction. You spend too much time socializing, interacting, and helping others and not enough time creating your own work.

Envy. You get blocked when others are experiencing progress and success and you aren’t.

Drama. Relationships can lead to conflict, which leads to tension around whether to continue or break it off.

Guilt. You worry that you’re not doing enough to support others, that you’re taking more than you give.

Loss. A friendship or partnership works for a while and then one of you moves, gets busy, or replaces you with another.

How important is creative connection? It’s one of the four pillars of an art-committed life that I help my clients develop (the other three are intention, structure, and mood). It can be a powerful factor in getting your creative work done.

And you’d be surprised how many people have limited or no creative support in place for themselves. They’re trying to go it alone, and that’s bound to be harder that doing it with company.

I’ve got an exercise for you.

  1. Make a list of all the people, groups, and programs that support you.
  2. Put them into the categories I listed above.
  3. See where you are well outfitted with community and where you are lacking.
  4. Consider whether you need less, more, or different community.
  5. Ask yourself what desires you have for creative community.
  6. Consider what might be holding you back from finding that community.

Feel free to share your results in the comments ~ I’d love to hear.

I’ll close with the words of one of my survey respondents:

What I would really like is some way to feel connected to other working artists. Not people struggling to commit to their creativity or people focused on building businesses. Just ordinary working artists. As an artist, I’m kind of lonely. Maybe that’s why I keep saying yes to groups and causes ~ because I want more connection. But what it seems to bring instead is work. I don’t need more work. I have work. Work that is very important to me and that I have fought hard to win back. But I need someone to talk with about it.

Photo Credit: Parker Knight