Thursday, October 19, 2017

Self-care is not self-indulgence. Or, at least, not always.

Fall is a difficult time for a lot of us with mental health issues.  Of course, I don't have stats to back that up, but anecdotally, a lot of my friends have said the same thing. We struggle with the changing of the seasons.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love fall.

I can finally wear pants, cardigans, heavy boots, and cute scarves. I'm not inundated with boob sweat or swass. Also, everything is flavoured in pumpkin, and that's just exciting.

I love the cozy nights by the fire place and the crisp breezes and the colours of the leaves. What I don't like is the crippling depression and dread that sometimes goes with it.

So, it was fitting that on October 10th, the day set aside to discuss World Mental Health, I couldn't get out of bed.

It is no secret I have depression and anxiety issues.  I've joked about them time and time again.

I have written seriously about them too.

With that in mind, I've been thinking a lot about self-care.


Self-care has recently become a bit of a catchphrase that has lost all meaning.  (Like saying "tartlet" too many times! source)

It seems to me that now it is all lithe blond girls on Instagram who take pictures of themselves with large glasses of wine and a hashtag of #lol #blessed #selfcare!

And, while I'm sure that is also true, that's not always helpful for most of us.

What is self-care?

Self-care may better be described as emotional health care.

It is taking care of one's self so as to be the healthiest, best version of you.  It's doing the things to make that happen and to be gentle with yourself when those things aren't an option.

The trouble we come across, as a society, is that we seem to have gotten lost in the line between being gentle with ourselves and giving in to our every whim in a guise of "self-care".

Some days, me staying in bed all day is the only thing I can do. In order to take care of what I need to that day, I can stay there and not feel guilty or lazy.  I just do it and know that tomorrow will be a different day.

The problem is when I'm on day 3 of staying in bed all day.

That is not self-care.  That is depression taking over.

At that point, self-care is bribing myself with pie if I get out of bed and take a shower.

It's all about balance.

But again, if I only eat pie for breakfast every day and then get myself that extra-large latte and treat myself to ice cream for lunch - for a week - that isn't self-care. That is over-indulgence and emotional eating.

Sometimes, self-care is doing things we don't want to do, but that are good for us.

We have to be the "parents" of our bodies and our health - both physical and mental.

Just like with real parents, we need boundaries, we need rules, but we also need to shuck those rules sometimes and go to the zoo.

Be good to yourselves.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The day my father pooped my pants

Don't worry, my father has read this prior to it being published. It was so ridiculous we both knew it had to be told.

I have more things to write about our experience in Ukraine with Dad's illness (Part I, Part II, Part III) and all the things that happened (like here and here), but I need to jump ahead a bit and tell you a story of the day my Dad pooped my pants.


Yes, that is the spoiler, but I feel like you will appreciate the story regardless.

My father and his wife, Tanya, planned to come back to Canada so that Dad could get the medical attention he needs to get well.  Dad had medical approval to travel, but he and Tanya both felt they needed help to make the trip.  As we could not get visa approval for anyone in Ukraine on such short notice, so it became necessary for me to make the trip again.

I do not like travel. I don't like international travel. I do not like international travel while I am alone. I do not like international travel to countries where I do not speak the language.

Now this was the second time in two months I would be making the trip.

I will tell the full story another time, but for now I will jump ahead a bit.

I made the trip and met Dad and Tanya at the airport in Kyiv.  We put on a fresh ostomy bag for our travels and hoped it would make it all the way to Canada.  There had been some troubles with the bags in the past, but we were hopeful.

Off we went.

All went relatively smoothly.  We had to empty the bag repeatedly on the planes, but apart from that, it went well. We were almost home -- on our final leg of the trip -- and thought we were home free.

We should have known.

It all fell apart mid-air between Toronto and Regina.

First thing that tipped us off was the smell.

I don't know if you've smelled the matter of an ostomy bag. It smells remarkably like a Gremlin died inside a Tauntaun on a hot August day in Alabama.

I knew we were in trouble.

I grabbed as many supplies as I could to do the replacement in mid-air.  Usually, Dad is lying or sitting down and we have all the time in the world.  We had to make this happen in an airplane bathroom as fast as we could before all the passengers started passing out or throwing themselves from the plane.

I entered the bathroom first and sat on the toilet.  Dad entered the bathroom next and shut the door behind him. It was the only way I could work on the ostomy bag while keeping the smell slightly contained within the confines of one room.

Our suspicions were confirmed. The bag had detached along one side.

It needed to be replaced fully.

I got to work peeling the bag off and disposing of it as best I could.  As I was struggling to move around in the smallest bathroom in the world, I looked up at my father in disbelief and said the only thing that came to mind.

This isn't the mile-high club I thought I would join.

That's our family, if you can't be normal, be inappropriate.

You would think that would be all. I mean, two fairly large people trapped in an airline bathroom. That is ridiculous enough.  Right?

Nope. Not for us.

It was at this moment that a clump from the ostomy bag dropped.

I saw it in slow-motion. And still, I couldn't stop it.

It landed squarely on my pants.


I ignored it and finished applying the ostomy bag and getting Dad sorted well enough to return to his seat. I borrowed his large button up shirt (size XXXL) so I sent him away so I could clean the bathroom and myself.

I bagged and double bagged my clothes. I cleaned the bathroom and sprayed the odor eliminator liberally.  Finally, I exited the bathroom in a large blue jean cowboy shirt which I was now wearing as a dress. I grabbed a pair of pyjama short-shorts I had in my carry-on. I pretended everything was all fine.

The flight attendant took one look at me and brought me Bailey's on ice.  She patted my hand and told me I was a good daughter.

My glass was not empty the rest of the flight.

But I think we may be on a no-fly list now.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Adventures in Ukraine: Part 3 -- Wherein we learned to ask for help

In my family, we are not good at asking for help.

Surprisingly enough, we are not very good at being exposed to other people. (Unless it's like, "Surprise! Here's my butt!")

I, especially, suffer from the belief that I should be able to be all things for all people and, as a child, my catch phrase (unintentionally, but never forgotten) was, "Fine. I'll do it myself."

That phrase has served me dysfunctionally well over the years.

My therapist worked very hard with me to combat the feeling that I am responsible for everyone I've ever met and that I am the only one who can fix any problem  In fact, most of the time, she would stare at me with one eyebrow raised and ask questions to remind me this is not true.
Q: "Who are you in charge of?"
A: Myself (and sometimes the dog 
Q: "Who are you responsible for and to?"
A: Myself, the dog, and Wade. (I'm sure he was thrilled that he's third on that list!)
These boundaries that I took months to set up disintegrated the moment I got the call from Tanya. My Dad was in trouble and I took on the job of fixing it. I started making lists the second I got off the phone.
Best hospital? Check 
Respected doctor? Check 
Me present to enforce healing and effect change? Check 
Acknowledgement that I'm not in charge of whole world? *crickets chirping*  
I relate a little too hard to Lucy.

My Dad and I have a complicated relationship. It was complicated before Mom died and even more so after. I think even he will admit I have often been in the parental role more than he.

It is easy for me to take over and fix things for Dad.

It is even easier for him to let me.
We interrupt this airing of family laundry to distract you to a different topic.  
*Thank you*
Where was I?

Tanya is also a take charge woman, so we delegated our areas of control to things we could excel in. She took over hospital directing, medical management, making sure everything was going smoothly, and all food preparation.

She did even more, but I cannot fit it all into one clever sentence.

I took over keeping Dad from getting evicted from the hospital for being rude, organizing shifts for Dad maintenance, and figuring out how to find the money to pay for everything.

I had reached out to a relative to borrow a few thousand to pay for all the medical expenses.  I assured them that it would certainly cover everything and I could pay it back once I transferred money out of my Dad's savings.

We ran out of that money after the first week.

For as inexpensive as things are in Ukraine, it costs a hell of a lot to have someone in hospital.  The family was responsible for all medical supplies.  Sterile gloves, syringes, medications, bandages, ostomy bags, tape, cleaning wipes for wound management, etc. Every day, supplies cost us between $200-500 USD.

We also had to rent a flat (look how European I am!) and buy enough groceries to live.

My sisters and I sat around a computer and Skyped with our brother to talk about our options.  There was no money. If we all pooled our resources, we could come up with $17 and a piece of lint. We could try and get a bank loan, but it seemed so insurmountable.

I mean, we come from the land of free health care.  We had never thought this would happen.

We had to ask for help.


We went to the internet and told our friends the situation.  We were mortified and embarrassed and downtrodden.  I mentioned to one person how much I felt like a Nigerian prince asking for money to help get my father out of prison.

But we asked.

While we originally asked for a few thousand (once again we were hopelessly naive) and the generosity overwhelmed us.  Donations came in with positive messages of love and support and prayers.

It was humbling and amazing and uplifting.  We cannot say thank you enough.

I mean, really, we had no idea how many people liked Dad.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Lessons I learned in Ukraine

For most people, living in Ukraine is not an easy life.

As such, many Ukrainians are not happy people.

I struggled with this as, in my profession, it is my goal to always be polite and courteous and kind (as I can be) even when things are awful.  When people come to me their lives are not going well, so it is my goal not to make people's days worse because I'm having a rough day.

That is not always how it was in Ukraine.

Keep in mind, I do not know Ukrainian or Russian.  I can count to 13 in Russian.  I know "hello", "goodbye", "thank you", "please", and "excuse me". I can say "milk", "apple", and "latte". (Hint: it's latte) But, other than that, I am useless.  Without Google Translate on my phone, I would not have survived.

My view from a coffee shop of the bustle below

Many people in shops that I went into were kind and patient and encouraging. But there were some people...

I struggled with those people.

One Apteka worker in particular was awful.  She would harrumph and roll her eyes.  She would mutter and bang her hand on the counter.  She treated me as though I was the stupidest human ever to be in her way.  There were others who were similar (although there were  more that were entirely lovely humans) but this dark haired horrible woman was the worst.

After 3 weeks of dealing with people like this worker, I learned two things:

    It is hard to not understand a damn thing that is going on around you.  To be incredibly smart and capable in your own country but to be a raging moron in a different language is incredibly frustrating and disheartening.

    We have so many new people coming to our countries.  Some will know a bit of the local language.  Some will know none of it.  No matter what, they are likely overwhelmed and exhausted trying to constantly translate things in their heads all day long. Because, for newcomers, nothing is like home and everything is hard.

    It does not take much to be kind to someone. Be kind.


    In Ukraine, things there are often harder than they need to be.  Every day is the same.  People get up, travel a long ways to go to work, work very hard, make very little, do it for a huge part of the day, travel a long way home, make supper, and then go to bed.  Then, they do it again the next day.

    People might say, yeah we do that here too, but it is so much easier for us.  We have conveniences they do not. Our systems (while flawed) are not so deeply messed up that everything takes 10x longer to get anything done.

    For me, after 3 weeks of struggling EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. to do what needed to be done and then doing again the next day, I was grumpy as hell too.  It taught me to be a little more understanding of people who might not have had a lot of extra f*cks to give when they were dealing with me. 
I am grateful for the lessons Ukraine taught me.  The hardness of the Ukrainian life experience humbled me.  The kindness people showed uplifted me. The beauty of the land inspired me.

But God knows, I was ready to go home.

Past excerpts from Ukraine

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

I spent a year in Ukraine one month: Part 2

As part of dealing with the stress of this summer, I have decided to write about it.  

Part 1 of the story is here and the story of how I locked myself and my sister in the bathroom is here

View from the top floor of the hospital in Dnipro

I had to start this post with a beautiful picture to remind myself that Ukraine is a lovely country with some really good people.  Many of the people I adore are in Ukraine, from Ukraine, and fight for Ukraine.  But this month in Ukraine, for me, was very difficult and so I found it hard to separate the stressful from the good at times. 

When we made it to the hospital to see Dad for the first time, I was instantly transported to the last month of my mother's life.  My big ol' lumbering Dad did not look the same.  He had hoses and pic lines and monitors all over the place.  He breathed the rattling sound of the very, very ill.  He was lucid-ish when he was awake but slept at the drop of a hat for hours and hours.  He was uncomfortable and ill. 

The hospital ward (ICU for sepsis patients) reminded me of an old building from the 40s.  At our church camp, we have old airforce barracks made of concrete with ad hoc wiring and cracking walls, so in some ways, the building was reassuring and yet not so much because I know what mould and scary things live in them.  Most of the nurses were kind, but spoke no English, and were very busy with the other urgent care patients (most of whom were Ukrainian soldiers from the front line). 

It was days before we knew if Dad was going to survive. We had connected my brother by phone so he could talk to Dad (my brother has health issues himself, so we refused to let him travel because one of our family members in Ukrainian hospital at a time was enough).  When my youngest sister left to go back to London, we wondered if she would get to see Dad again.  

Until then, we settled into helping provide care for Dad.

Ukrainian hospital is very different from Canadian hospital.  While I thought I understood, there was no way I could until I was there.  I thank God for Tanya who helped us learn the system and walked us through so much.  She explained that all supplies had to be provided by the family.  The nurses were there to deal with the wounds and the medication, but family did all the rest. 

Each day, we had lists of items to purchase including: gloves, syringes, bandages, medications, etc.  These items were often written on a scrap piece of paper we would take to the pharmacy (Apteka in Ukraine).  We would trundle off to collect things, going from store to store in order to get everything on the list.  It never ceased to amaze me that I could get multiple bottles of morphine by just handing a scrap piece of paper to a technician.  

Tanya spent each morning with Dad and then left the hospital to run errands around the city and buy things Dad would need.  She worked from 6 a.m. every morning until well after 9 p.m. every night. My sisters and I spent the afternoon with Dad.  One of us running errands while the other two visited with him, fed him yogurt, held his water cup, and held his hand.  The only thing that helped any of us get some sleep was that, while Dad was in ICU, we were not allowed in the building after 8pm. 

After 5 days, Dad was moved to the surgical unit.  He had to have another operation in the days to come, so he would wait on the unit to free up an ICU bed as he had improved enough. 

The ward upstairs was quite nice in a lot of ways.  The common spaces had beautiful marble (or what looked like it to me) tiles on the walls and floors and dark wood accents.  There were more nurses, but there were also many more patients.  In fact, there were 4 patients to a room.  The beds were tucked up end to end so that two were along each wall with a narrow path up the middle.  There was no air conditioner, no fan, and it was 30+ degrees Celcius many days. 

It was also at the top of 5 very long flights of stairs with no elevator for anyone who wasn't old, needing extra help, or in a wheelchair.  

For me, that might have been the worst part.  I often had to count the stairs in units of 10 with a "you can do it" in between.

Me and exercise are not good friends.  Me and stairs?? We aren't even on speaking terms. 

But let me tell you, we spent a lot of time together.

*** to be continued ***

Monday, August 14, 2017

I spent a year in Ukraine one month: Part 1

A few days into July, I received a call from my father.  Normally a loud and forceful kind of guy, this time he sounded groggy, elderly, and in pain.

Dad explained he had a stomach attack of some kind and was in hospital in a city a few hours from where he stays in Ukraine.  He said not to worry too much, but that I should tell my siblings (including the brother he had just talked to and forgot to mention this to!!).  He said he would have his wife, Tanya, call me with more details when she could.

My siblings and I have always dreaded the day when we would get a call that something had gone wrong with Dad on the other side of the world.

After my mom died, Dad remarried Tanya.  Tanya is a powerhouse of a woman and just what Dad needed.  This was over a decade ago and they have since lived their lives straddling Ukraine and Canada.  Dad speaks limited Russian and even more limited Ukrainian and it is only because of his wife's tenacity and dedication to learning English that they have communicated at all.

They really are the cutest.

Once the siblings had been informed, we all just waited.

We didn't panic.  Dad's had stomach issues for a long time and we aren't the type to overreact for his health issues.  The closest sibling to my father is my youngest sister who lives in London, England.  She is only a 3 hour flight away (fixed because she says I'm crazy to think it was 8 hours), but, of course, she has a busy life as a teacher librarian in a large school that doesn't have "summer" break until August.  We figured it would fine, but if needed someone could make the trip.

We may have under-reacted on this one.

Two days later, Tanya called.  She isn't one to cry, so I knew it was serious.  Dad had surgery and wasn't doing well.  Tanya asked us to come as soon as possible.  We agreed someone would be there right away.

Of course, it wasn't that simple.

My middle sister was done with her semester (a professor of English) and I had just completed mine (taking my Masters in Social Work).  However, she had just flown to England where she was presenting at a conference.  She would be there for a few days, carry on to do research at the British library (the only place she can research a specific topic she is working on) and then would head to Boston to speak at another conference.  Getting her there meant cancelling trips and moving tickets and cancelling speaking and still getting the paper for someone else to present on her behalf.   We arranged to meet each other in London in 2 days and I made my plans.

I got the call that morning around 8am from Tanya.  I talked to The Guy about it and we looked at flights.  We couldn't find anything reasonable so decided I would fly to London and my sister's travel agent would make arrangements while I was in the air.  (Shout out to Amanda at Marlin Travel in Saskatoon.  She is awesome!)

We booked my one way ticket to London at 1015am.  I was packed by 10:45 a.m., went to the bank at 11:15 a.m., and was in the airport by 12:00 p.m.

I landed in London at 10:30 a.m. and met both sisters.  After supper, we got back on the train to catch our flight to Ukraine.  By 9:00 a.m. (Ukraine time) we landed.

Less than 36 hours from the time I bought my first ticket, we were in Ukraine.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Trapped in Ukraine (a mini story)

I am in the process of writing the story of our time in Ukraine and Dad's illness.  It is taking me some time to process, so I thought I would publish this in the meantime.


The first few hours in Ukraine did not go very well.

We needed to freshen up after our flights before we made it to see Dad.  It had been 36 hours in the same clothes and we all needed a moment.  We went to the hostel where Dad's wife and daughter-in-law, Leina, were staying.  I had to wash my face and hands while my sister was showering, so I snuck in to the bathroom behind her and closed the door behind me.

It stuck.


True to form, we had been in Ukraine for less than 2 hours and some how I had trapped us in the bathroom of a hostel.

We tried to pry the door open.  We pulled, we banged, we cursed.  We got a hold of our sister-in-law and tried to communicate that we were stuck.

However, she does not speak English and we do not speak Russian or Ukrainian.

We had no phones for translations or help.

We had no way out.

I was sure I had been able to communicate with our SiL and she was going to get help.  I was content to wait while my sister got more and more agitated.  She attempted to climb the 3/4 wall to no avail.

Finally, our SiL realized we were not just taking an inordinate amount of time to get dressed and came to rescue us.

With a kick that would make a SWAT team member proud, Leina opened the door.

Leina promptly told the story to every one we saw after that and we all laughed ourselves sick.

Welcome to Ukraine.