Monday, September 3, 2018

Building Community

This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the end of my relationship with my ex, M.  The anniversary of the actual end will be this Wednesday, but I'm going to be on-call that day, and in the interest of not being a disaster at work, I am trying to get all the feels out this weekend.  I spent Saturday alone at a Nordic spa, warming myself in hot tubs and dry saunas, and yesterday I basically lived in my pjs.  The only reason I bathed was because I had made plans to go to the Mister Rogers documentary with a friend, and I thought she might prefer it if I didn't smell*.

Today, Labour Day, I'm rejoining the real world.  My fourth load of laundry is in, the fridge has been emptied of moldy olives (who knew they could go moldy?), and the dishes are drying in the rack.  And after days of wallowing in the hard stuff, I'm searching for the good things that came out of my "failed" relationship.  What have I found so far?

Community.

M's family has belonged to the same church since her parents met at a local bible college, so their connections to other church members go back decades.  Soon after I started dating M (once she had come out to her church in the middle of a sermon she was delivering), I started getting invited to events with members of her church community.  Fundraisers, potlucks, small group dinners, reunions at the bible college, board game afternoons, and trivia nights...my social calendar filled up effortlessly.  And it was really lovely.  She goes to a very left-wing, social justice-oriented church, so while I didn't share a faith with these people, I definitely shared a philosophy with them.

And then, it ended.  At the same time as I lost M, I also lost my connections to the dozens of people in her life who had become an extended family to me.  My social calendar emptied itself out.  It's been a year, and I still find myself grieving some of the harder losses**.

But the upside is that the loneliness I felt after the breakup drove me to work on my own community.  I had neglected some important relationships while I was dating M, and in the past year I've done what I can to strengthen them again. And because many of my friends chose the past year to start having babies and to disappear from the social world, I've also been looking for opportunities to befriend new people.  I've become really good friends with R, who is the ex-girlfriend of another friend of mine.  I've developed a friendship with the woman I dated after M, because although we were romantically incompatible, we have a freakish amount of things in common.  And I'm becoming friends with another woman I met through online dating.  (One of the perks of same-sex dating...online dating can be a source of friendships!)

I'm also joining pretty much everything I can think of to join.  I became a board member for a local theatre company.  I joined a conversational French group.  I started going to a drop-in knitting group.  I've joined a group of lesbians of "a certain age" who are interested in local cultural activities.  I'm even going to an upcoming information night about co-housing!

I'm not going to lie - it's been hard.  It sucks to have spent over three years in the midst of a supportive community and to have suddenly lost it.  I miss the ease of having a partner and a ready-made social life, at the same time as I recognize that it isn't healthy to be dependent on another person for all of my social activities.  As an introvert, it's also really difficult for so many of my relationships to still be in the early phase.  I want the comfort of 20-year-old friendships, not the awkwardness of new relationships!

But I'm working on it.  I'm taking the opportunities that present themselves, and I'm putting myself out in the world as much as I can.  And trying to be patient as I rebuild the community I lost.

*You should go see this documentary, but if you have any heart, go with someone you're comfortable crying with.  And take Kleenex.

**How am I doing with the whole not wallowing thing?

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Why I Stopped Dieting

Like most women, I could tell you a lifetime of diet stories.  The first one I remember is from grade five, when I was 10 years old, and I decided that I was tired of being the biggest person in my class*, the boys having not hit their pubertal growth spurts yet.  In a moment of inspiration, I created for myself an elaborate system in which I could eat whatever I wanted, but only if I exercised first.  Every food, from a carrot to a can of Coke, was assigned some cost in terms of sit ups or distance walked.

I think the system lasted for a few hours, which isn't very surprising given that it involved doing something like 50 pushups before I could eat a single apple, and I have never successfully done a pushup in my life.  But where it failed in getting me to lose weight, it succeeding in taking a kid who had always been a good eater and turning her into someone who didn't trust herself to know how to eat.  Someone who no longer thought of food in terms of things she did and didn't like, but rather in terms of things that were "good" and "bad.

And someone who, like lots of women, would spend decades of her life on and off diets.  When on a diet, I would try to be constantly virtuous, eating only small portions of healthy foods and watching the scale more closely than I currently watch my net worth.  When off, I would allow myself to eat anything I wanted, knowing that this was my opportunity to scarf down whole tubs of Hagen Daas and make regular trips to the McDonald's drive-thru.  I never quite got to the point of binging and purging, but my whole dietary pattern was essentially a slow-motion binge-purge cycle.

The most "successful" diet I ever did, if success is measured by weight lost, was Weight Watchers.  A few of my friends lost weight by counting "points" and going to weigh-in meetings, and one offered to share a copy of the material with me.  For six months, everything to cross my lips was assigned a point value and recorded diligently in a food journal.  If I didn't have enough points for everything I wanted, I could earn more by exercising; for example, a walk to and from the ice cream shop at the bottom of the hill by the university where I worked was enough to earn me a small scoop of ice cream, as long as I didn't get it in a cone.

And it worked!  The pounds melted off, and I lost about 25% of myself.  I got to buy a whole new wardrobe, and people constantly complimented me on how good I looked.  When I see pictures from that time, I miss my almost-tiny body and the huge confidence boost that came from finally being skinny.  The only drawback?

I was utterly miserable.

I was existing on about 1200-1400 calories per day, even with the extra calories I earned from exercising, and there was no way for that to ever feel like enough.  I spent every minute of my life thinking about food - about how hungry I was, about when I would eat next, about how I could save or earn enough points to eat half a chocolate bar.  And all I could talk about was food and weight.  I became the person that people avoided in the lunch room, because they knew that I was going to talk about the number of points in their lunch or encourage them to join me like a Weight Watchers missionary.

Eventually, it broke me.  The satisfaction of being skinny didn't make up for the misery of being hungry, so I stopped.  And watched as every single one of the pounds I had lost came back, bringing a few friends with them for good measure.

Weight Watchers was the last serious diet I ever did.  I still had periods when I would be frustrated with my weight, and I would try to lose it for a week or a month or two, but after the long-term failure of Weight Watchers, I had become disillusioned.  Maybe, it occurred to me, dieting didn't actually work.

When I started medical school, I once again got hit with the dieting mentality in full force.  Lectures were filled with slides about the "growing obesity crisis" and about how we should counsel our patients to "lose 1-2 pounds a week for sustainable weight loss".  Except, now I started to push back.  I asked professors how realistic it was to expect patients to lose 1-2 pounds a week, and they had to admit that almost none of their patients were able to do it.  I started to read the scientific literature, which shows that even under optimal conditions (clinical trials with nutritional and exercise support), only a small percentage of people lose weight, and almost no one keeps it off long term.

Diets.  Don't.  Work.

So I vowed to never diet again.  In the beginning, this led to a frenzy of eating.  Everything was allowed!  In a short period of time, I made up for all the ice cream and pop and chips and candy that I had deprived myself of for years.  And it was great!  Except...I felt like shit.  And I actually started craving healthy things, like salads and blueberries.

So I did what any bookish nerd would do, and I read.  I read about the impacts of lifestyle (not weight!) on health, and about Health at Every Size, and about intuitive eating.  And I learned that being anti-diet and anti-scale doesn't mean that you have to shop exclusively in the junk food aisle.  One can fight against the oppressive capitalist system of the diet industry and still be healthy.

My focus now is on eating and exercising in a way that keeps me healthy and mentally sane, regardless of what happens to my weight.  Not in a "I'm really trying to lose weight but will pretend it's just a healthy lifestyle" way, but in a legitimate "I'm trying not to give any fucks about the scale, but it's hard because I've been conditioned to view my weight as a measure of my value as a person" kind of way.  I'm using the novel system of eating when I'm hungry and stopping when I'm not.  I'm packing my fridge full of healthy foods, but I also have three tubs of ice cream in my freezer, because ice cream is good for my mental health.  I'm walking all the time, not because it earns me more points, but because I live in a beautiful city and it is much more fun than spending my evenings cursing the right-wing assholes on Twitter.

I am simply taking care of myself.

And dammit if I haven't lost weight.  I don't know how much, because I refuse to step on the scale, but my face is a little less round and my jeans no longer leave a mark on the middle of my stomach.  In a weird way, this makes me angry, because dammit I've finally let go of the need to be skinny and of the quest to not to take up so much space.  And as I lose weight, it's hard not to listen to the old voice in my head that says that it's better to be thin.  That if I just cut my portions a bit, walk a bit longer every night, I could be thinner.  I have almost thirty years of practice with dieting and only one with self care, so it's tempting to go back to my familiar routines.

Except that I'm so much happier now.  I'm happier eating like pre-diet me, simply because I like food and it makes me feel good.  I'm happier without the diet/no diet cycles and the despair when the number on the scale won't go down.  So fuck dieting.  I'm officially done.

*Like many girls who diet, I wasn't even overweight at the time; I was simply tall.  I was in the 99th percentile for height and the 90th percentile for weight, so my diet wasn't a response to being fat but rather to feeling huge next to all the short girls and knowing, even then, that huge was bad.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Self Care

When medical schools interview prospective students, the question "How do you deal with stress?", or some variant, inevitably comes up.  Having been an interviewer on a few occasions, I know that every interviewee with at least basic interviewing skills will come up with some combination of the following:

Exercise
Rest
Adequate breaks
Healthy eating
Meditation
Yoga
Time with friends and family
Etc.

When I said those things in my medical school interviews, just like everyone else, I was very earnest.  I legitimately thought I would find the time and energy for all of them in my medical training.

(Insert sound of my laughter here.)

Medical training was the hardest and most life-altering thing I have ever done.  Not so much the first two years - those were almost entirely classroom based, and I had long ago mastered the art of sitting in lectures and writing exams - but definitely everything that came after.  The moment I set foot on a ward for the first time, I transformed into a human-shaped bundle of stress and anxiety, constantly terrified that I was going to be responsible for letting someone die.  And unlike with many of my classmates, that feeling didn't go away for a very long time.

My strategy for dealing with this terror was to pretty much never stop working.  I would come in earlier than everyone else, work through lunch, and stay late.  I convinced myself that double, triple, quadruple checking everything would make me perfect and prevent me from ever making a mistake.  (Spoiler alert:  It doesn't.)  Any time I thought about putting in less than 100% of my maximum effort at work, I would remind myself of what was at stake:  People will die if you screw up.

Not surprisingly, my perpetual state of panic and overwork wasn't very conducive to taking care of myself.  I essentially stopped exercising on day one of my clinical rotations.  I gave up cooking for myself and ordered food so often that the receptionists at the delivery services recognized my voice.  And I started spending all the money I wanted, whenever I wanted, because "I deserved it". 

Yoga?  Did my stomach doing nervous back flips count?
Healthy eating?  If I bought my Coke and Nacho Cheese Doritos from the vending machine on the Cardiology ward, did that make them healthy?

I don't know how long I would have continued being so completely and utterly negligent of myself had it not been for a few key events.  The first was a crisis at work, which woke me up to the fact that I might not ever graduate and earn a doctor's salary.  (Spoiler alert:  I did!  And I paid off my student loans yesterday!!!)  Suddenly it no longer felt okay to spend more money than I was earning, so I discovered the great Mr. Money Mustache, started a budget, and got my financial life back in order.  The second was some upheaval at work, during which I reached out to some of the other attendings, and which ultimately led to me being connected to a wonderful performance coach.  While I have only seen him twice, I credit him with enabling me to let go of my self-destructive perfectionism and to forgive myself for being human.

The third thing wasn't a specific event, but rather years of working with people with lifestyle-related illnesses.  I spend a lot of my time at work counseling people about the negative effects of poor diet and lack of exercise, as well as treating them when their bodies break down after years of misuse.  Somewhere around the thousandth time that I said "Pop is basically poison", the message started to sink into my brain.  I'm not immune to the things that affect my patients.  I also need to care for myself.

So slowly (sometimes oh so painfully slowly) I have started to change the bad habits that I learned in medical school.  I've almost completely abandoned sugar-sweetened beverages.  I've started mostly eating brown rice* and brown pasta.  I cook a lot of my meals from scratch, and I try to pack them full of veggies and other healthy things.  I'm even exercising again and (amazingly) kind of enjoying it.

And so many other things, like getting enough sleep and meditating and taking enough vacations and quitting Twitter.  All of the things that I said I would do in my medical school interview 13 years ago, I am finally getting around to.  And it feels really, really good.

*This is huge for me, because I love white rice with a fiery passion and can happily eat two large bowls of it, smothered in butter and salt, in one sitting.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Learning About Love from Mary Oliver

For almost all of my dating life, I have struggled to make failing relationships work.  The queer community in my city is small, so I've tried to convince myself over and over that I can make do with someone who is too loud/too messy/not interesting enough in order to have a partner.  The worst of this was with my second-last ex, whose many good features made me want to overlook the bad, resulting in four years of settling for not quite enough.

Towards the end of that relationship, I started seeking solace in literature.  I would Google phrases like "poems about hating your girlfriend" and "poems to help me stay in a relationship when I'm unhappy" and then spend hours scrolling through the results.  Somewhere in the midst of this, I stumbled upon Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese", which in my opinion is one of the best things ever written. 

The whole poem is fabulous, but what stood out for me was the line "You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves."  The line stuck with me for days, forcing me to realize that the soft animal of my body did not love my partner, no matter how hard I tried to will it to.  I'm sure I would have broken up with my ex eventually even without it, but that single line was the thing that finally allowed me to walk away.

As I get back into dating after the end of my long relationship, I carry these words with me.  They remind me that love isn't something that can be forced or willed.  I can't change myself to be loved by someone else, nor can I ignore parts of another person in order to love them.  The soft animal of my body is a highly discerning tyrant, and she is in charge. 

Monday, July 2, 2018

She Will Be Okay

The first four weeks of my most recent relationship passed in a strange and magical sort of delirium.  Perhaps I have always felt this way at the beginning of a relationship and had simply forgotten, but it seemed more intense and all-consuming than any relationship I'd ever been in.  When we weren't together, we texted constantly, and when not texting, I still thought about her all the time.  It was utterly distracting in the most wonderful of ways.

And then, something shifted.

I can't pinpoint the moment or the reason, but suddenly my interest waned.  I waited longer to respond to texts, and I wanted to see her less often.  It became easier to say goodnight at the end of a date.  Without any real warning, I was done.

So Saturday evening, I broke up with her.

It was a horribly difficult thing for me to do, because I hate hurting people.  In the past, I have stayed in relationships way too long (weeks to months to years too long) out of a desire to not hurt the other person.  While we had only been together seven weeks, we had made plans months into the future, and I felt like an ass for being the one to say that those things weren't going to happen.

I spent most of Saturday agonizing over breaking up with her, even though I had no real doubt that it was the right thing to do.  I contemplated waiting, "giving it a bit more time", because I was dreading the moment of the breakup.  I texted all my close friends, trying their patience with hours of rapid cycling between "I'm going to break up with her tonight" and "I'm going to wait a little longer".  I was unbearable.

And then I saw a Facebook post from an ex of mine from years ago.  She had fallen apart when I broke up with her, crying and sending me angry texts for weeks.  The Facebook post was a picture of her, 20 weeks pregnant, with her wife.  It is completely cliché to say this, but the only way to describe her expression is "glowing".

And then it was easy.  Because while breakups are messy and hurtful and absolutely zero fun, people do survive them.  And hopefully there are better things waiting for all of us on the other side.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Rich People Can Be Sad

When I opened Facebook last Friday morning, the status of one of my friends read "Don't turn on CNN".

In the comment below, it said "Dear God, not Anthony Bourdain."

Dear God, indeed.  I am not usually one to get upset about the death of a celebrity, as I'm practical and recognize that there are vastly more important things to worry about right now, but I fucking loved Anthony Bourdain.  He was sexy and unapologetic and smart and absolutely obsessed with food.  He was the stereotypical entitled white male, and I should have hated him based on my usual patterns, but I didn't.  Because although he was rich and had every door in the world open to him, he was also kind.  He treated the guests on his show, and the food they served him, with respect.  It's possible that he was a total jerk in real life, but his public persona was good.

He also responded to me on Twitter.

I recently called him out for his lack of female representation on The Layover, and he responded with a "Yep".  It was the absolute minimum he could have done to acknowledge me, but I was still gleeful about receiving a response from The.  Anthony.  Bourdain.

And now he's gone.

Within minutes of the news that he had killed himself, people were starting to speculate about the whys of it.  And of course, there were people who said things like "What did he have to be depressed about?  He had so much money."

Which....seriously?

Don't get me wrong.  We all know that there are some very good things about money, starting from its ability to provide us with necessities (food, clothing, shelter) and extending to its ability to fly us to France for fancy pastries.  Water is also wet.  But while some amount of money is necessary for happiness, no amount of it is enough to buy happiness.

It doesn't fix loneliness.
Or broken brain chemistry.
Or a traumatic past.

It doesn't create love.
Or community.
Or a life purpose.

I have had no money and I have had lots of money in my life, and while I definitely prefer the latter, I also know that money doesn't protect me from being sad.

And we need to stop thinking that it does.

Because even rich people like Anthony Bourdain deserve to be cared for when they're depressed.  They deserve forgiveness and understanding for not being able to stay in this often hostile world.

I forgive and understand you Tony.  And I will miss the heck out of you.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

What It's Like to be Queer

Pride Week is coming up in my city, and as an early event, last week my medical school hosted a group of transgender individuals talking about their experiences and answering questions.  Although it was a Friday afternoon and I was tired from being on call, I made an effort to attend, partly because I was interested in the session, and partly because as a queer person I feel a sense of responsibility to show up to all LGBTQ* events.  The session was hosted in the same room as my first-year medical school class, and as I pulled open the familiar door, I felt something completely unexpected.

Fear.

Now, before I continue, I want to give some back story.  I came out as a lesbian when I was 16, and as bisexual less than a year later, so I have been out to the people closest to me for decades.  I brought my same-sex partner to a work dinner over four years ago, and I have been answering people's awkward questions about swingers resorts and polyamory at work ever since.  But when I was in medical school, having just returned to my home city after seven years away, none of my classmates knew.  Because I was still dating men at the time, everyone operated on the assumption that I was straight, and I did nothing to challenge them.

So my first thought, walking into my old classroom, was a reflexive "I hope no one sees me here and figures out that I'm queer."  Which...hello.  A little late now.  I work at a small university, and pretty much everyone who knows me also knows that I'm queer.

But there it was, nonetheless.  An almost instinctive desire to hide.  To pretend to be just like everyone else.

And it came up again last night.  The new girl and I went to a theatre show together, which was hosted by the company with which I volunteer, and my first thought was that I needed to hide the relationship from my fellow volunteers.

My fellow volunteers in a left-wing theatre company.  

There aren't a lot of spaces in this world that are more queer-positive than a theatre show, and yet that automatic response was still there.  Even though I live in a country where same-sex marriage has been legal for 13 years and where the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects LGBTQ* individuals, I still feel anxious about being out everywhere I go.

If my patient finds out that I'm queer, will they want a different doctor?
If my doctor finds out that I'm queer, will she want a different patient?
Can I hold my partner's hand in this alleyway at night?  In the elevator of my apartment building?  In the grocery store?

I am so lucky and grateful to live in a time and place where my rights as a queer woman are protected.

And yet.