21 Hours

It’s 4:00 am on January 31st and I have 75 minutes to get to the Penticton airport. I make my bed and gather my stuff: overnight bag, laptop, training manual, wallet, phone, jacket. Dad drives me to the airport and we hug before I go through security. I sit in the waiting area, eyes glued to my phone. I hear whisperings from the elderly couple sitting across from me; they scoff at how I am addicted to my device, how much of a shame it is that I am missing out on the wonders of the now. They are judging me. Criticizing me. I look up and realize that almost every other passenger is doing the same as I am; in the early hours of the morning, too tired to interact with others, we sit and scroll, trying to stay awake as we wait to board the plane. The elderly couple judging me was a story I made up based on my fears of being lumped in with the rest of the so-called technologically brain washed millennials. For the first time today, I check into reality and feel myself shift from a place of removed numbness and tired routine to lucid awareness. It is not a negative nor positive feeling. I simply recognize that I am more awake than I was 5 seconds prior.

I keep my hood up and head down as I cross the blistery tarmac before ascending the tiny stairs to the flying tin can of an aircraft. I had trouble falling asleep the night before and those three hours of sleep are doing little to keep me awake as I settle into my seat. My blanket scarf becomes a tent that I cover my entire body with, and in the darkness of my wool-polyester blend sanctuary, I drift off. Minutes later, the flight attendant lightly taps my shoulder, requesting to see that I have my seat belt done up. Startled, I whip my blanket off and show her. She laughs and says that next time I need only to let her see the belt; I can stay hidden in my tent. 

Despite the smooth landing, I am jerked awake by the feeling and sound of tires on tarmac. We file out of the plane and inside YVR airport. I have plans to meet my good friend Jasmine for brunch on West 4th. It’s only 7:00am but I figure I’ll head down early and read until she meets me at 9:00. I take transit to my destination and find the restaurant with surprising ease. The Naam was the first place to come up when I Googled “vegan restaurants in Vancouver” the previous week. I walk in and become engulfed by the warmth, comfort, and gentle calm that the little cafe seems to embody. Neoclassical music floats through the cabin-esque space, setting the tone for a self-reflective session while I wait for Jasmine. A Jared Leto doppelgänger informs me that seating is self-directed and I choose a little corner nook with pillows and privacy. I order tea, a fruit bowl and a cashew bliss ball before heading into the bathroom to put on some mascara. 

The reason I am in Vancouver in the first place is to attend the second portion of the Family Smart Trauma Informed Practise pilot training. Created and facilitated by The F.O.R.C.E. (soon to be known exclusively as Family Smart)*, the training is designed to teach mental health professionals, youth workers, and family members the practice of dealing with the delicate issue of trauma. I have come to think of it as somewhat of a workplace sensitivity training; the program touches on the softer side of the patient experience, and explores ways in which communication between families, MH workers and patients can be more streamlined, effective and considerate of trauma related symptoms. The participants (including Jasmine) in my training are the pilot group, or the first to undergo this training. It is important and crucial work, although it can be emotional and difficult at times. I am excited to have a nice brunch with Jasmine before launching into the heavy content that the afternoon holds in store for us. 

I settle in and pick up where I left off in Brene Brown’s Rising Strong. Leto brings me my order and notes that I am, “getting vulnerable with Brene Brown”. I laugh and say that yes, indeed I am. Brown’s content is laden with vulnerability related research, findings, stories and methods, and I have been finding myself opening up in response to her teachings. On this day in particular, I am feeling extra vulnerable due to my lucid state of heightened awareness. I have come to learn that vulnerability doesn’t always have to take on a negative connotation and today is a perfect example. I am feeling vulnerable in the sense that I am open and ready to share and receive in unexpected ways and am without fear of what finds its’ way into my experience. As if on cue, a woman approaches my table on her way to the washroom. She is vibrant and youthful, bathed in a turquoise light. Her toothless grin ignites smiling eyes, and she leans her colourfully clad, heavy-set person against the wall across from where I sit. 

“You have a beautiful light about you."

It’s funny that she comments on my light, as it was the first thing I noticed about her. We introduce ourselves and fall into easy conversation. Tina tells me that The Naam has been around since the sixties and the 24hour cafe was a major hangout in the hippie era. West 4th used to the nicknamed “Rainbow Road” and the energy here was tangible and abundant in that time of war, revolution, protest, and connection. She was here during that time and she assures me that it was truly unbelievable. That explains why I felt such a deep, grounding energy upon entering the little space earlier that morning. We talk about the primal pull of the ocean and the benefits of energy healing. It is one of those exchanges that feels as though it were meant to happen and after she leaves, I am left feeling warmer and even more lucid than before she approached. 

Not long after Tina’s departure, Jasmine shows up and we immediately launch into our typical banter: first we catch up on what’s been happening in our lives since our last time together, and then we explore some topic related to our mental health work. Today is entertaining as we exchange stories from when we spent time (separately) in inpatient at BC Children’s Hospital (BCCH), her on P2 and me on P3. We laugh at how ridiculous some of the rules seemed at the time, but how most of them make sense now. We compare the differences between the two wards, from aesthetics to nurses to rules again. Jared approaches and takes our orders. Despite my earlier snack, I am hungry again for the unreal vegan fare that they offer. Our food arrives quickly and I am in heaven with my panfried potatoes, stir fried veggies, 5-Star sausages and Daiya cheese. Jasmine enjoys her breakfast wrap as we finish our BCCH comparisons and move on to musing about what the training today will look like. Not wanting to be late, we leave The Naam and take transit to King Edward and then begin the 15 minute walk to BCCH. We arrive early and settle in before the rest of the trainees show up.

The interesting, relevant content makes the training fly by, although I have to chug two coffees to combat my sleepless night prior. The training is taking place on the same floor as P3, where I stayed for a few months as an inpatient in 2012 for the treatment of anorexia nervosa. It is the first time I have been this close to the ward since discharge and I am curious to see if looking in will evoke emotion in me. I wander down to the big door at the end of the hallway and peer inside. It looks exactly the same as it did when I left; having regained much of the lost weight, cognitive abilities and accurate judgement throughout treatment, I left P3 in a positive place of gratitude for the care I received and fondness for the memories I made. I see a girl sitting on the couch where I used to watch The OC with a half-knitted scarf in her lap, needles working away. Bright sunlight streams through the windows making everything pastel and surreal. I see a nurse that I recognize as she comes through the doors with a patient.

“Cathy!” I am surprised when she recognizes me and we hug and chat for a bit. I am also surprised to find that the only emotions coming up are nostalgia and love for the people who cared for me during my time here.

Exhausted after the information dense session and emotional encounter, Jasmine and I say our goodbyes before heading separate ways. She, on her way back to Victoria, and I, on my way back to West 4th to meet Aly (another good friend) at her workplace. Upon my arrival, she tells me that she gets off work at 6:30 so I head out to wander around and find some dinner. 

I walk loosely in the direction of Granville Island and find myself atop Burrard bridge just as the sun begins to set. The air is clean, the sky is ablaze and the sidewalk is alive with runners, walkers and bikers. The city skyline glistens as the descending star reflects off the glass. I lean over the side and gaze at the drop, inhaling deeply. It’s times like these that I am grateful for the dark times; without experiencing the depths of lower moods, I don’t know if feeling this blissful and free would be possible. Google Maps informs me that I am way off route to Granville so I turn around and head back to West 4th, revelling in the life that the city breathes with so many people being active outdoors. I live for this shit.

Tractor and Co. offers a myriad of salads for $3.50/scoop. I choose two, ask for some tofu to be thrown on the grill, and sit at the window to people watch. 6:15 rolls around so I head out to meet Aly. A few weeks prior she had told me about a free seminar taking place downtown tonight at 7:00pm. We carpool with her two out of town friends and make it there just past 7:00. We sign in, Aly as a veteran after taking the three day course and the rest of us as guests. The program is a leadership, self-improvement forum that you can take as a three day course and then upgrade to higher levels. I am interested in hearing what it’s all about and this free introduction is a perfect opportunity. We are seated at the back of the room behind 100+ other veterans and guests. 

The evening begins with testimonials from audience members who had been a part of the previous weekend’s training group. One after the other, veterans of the program are called upon by forum leader, Bob, before making their way up to the stage and behind a mic. They tell us about their abusive fathers, relationship breakdowns and traumatic experiences. They tell us that before the program, they were lost, but now, they have broken through their barriers and are ready to live their fullest life. They tell us about how the program saved them and that we should sign up too.

The stories are uplifting, as any success story is, but I am waiting for someone to reveal to me exactly what the program is. What is the method? What am I signing up for? How am I going to be brought to my barrier-breaking revelation? After a 10 minute break, Bob is on the mic and I’m waiting for him to reveal the secret. He eludes to an explanation but it never comes. We watch a video of more heartfelt testimonials. I am growing more and more eager to learn what all the hype is about. By now I’ve been awake for 18 hours running on 3 hours of re-charge. I can feel myself closing up, drawing into myself as I have little energy left to facilitate openness and curiosity. Aly tells me that soon, Bob is going to invite some guests to the stage where he will take them through the process. She encourages me to volunteer but I hesitate, not knowing how to articulate my “issue” in a coherent sentence.

As of this moment, I am almost 5 years into recovery from my eating disorder. ED related thoughts are few and far between, and I rarely exhibit any ED habits or behaviours. Body dysmorphia is still a problem, and I struggle with self love and acceptance. I am no longer addicted to exercise and am now struggling on the other side of that spectrum with low motivation. I have been medicated for depression since I was in my early teens and have fallen into moderate to deep darkness an average of 3 times per year for the past 5 years. The most tangible “issue” that I struggle with at the moment is the fact that almost every night for about the past year, I dream of suicide. It’s not a fantasy or even a nightmare, it’s just an incredibly vivid, emotionally raw experience in which I live out lifelike scenarios depicting my yearning to end my life while I sleep. I am engulfed by the panicky, psychotic feeling of wanting to escape my skin so badly that I would do anything just to go to sleep forever. I often argue with my parents, like when I was sick, run away, and then search for a way to escape. My efforts are often thwarted or impossible to begin with: I’m looking for a bridge but I can’t find one, I’m trying to slice my wrist but my skin won’t open, I’m trying to swallow pills but they won’t go down. I wake up sweating, crying and haunted by having visited that terrifying place again. Nothing in this world has been or ever will be as scary as it was to fear myself during those years when I experienced suicidal ideation. Although it has been years since I have felt those feelings during waking hours, they continue to haunt my dreams. I have talked to a multitude of therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and energy healers. None of their advice has been able to stop these dreams thus far.

I tell Aly that I can’t express this issue on stage as it is a societal taboo to mention the S word. She nods understandingly and we continue to watch Bob vaguely elude to the secrets held within the program. I’m getting really tired at this point and am almost ready to ask Aly if we can leave early. Just before I am about to do so, Bob exclaims that it is time for the guests to volunteer to be taken through the method by him on stage. Feeling like I have nothing to lose, I throw my hand up. He chooses a girl at the front. And me. I walk past the well-dressed, entrepreneurial crowd towards the front and climb onto the raised platform and behind a mic on the far left. The other girl is lead to a mic on the far right. 

At this point in my speaking career, I no longer feel anxious on stage, rather, I get a rush of adrenaline that I have come to relish as it preps my focus for the task at hand. The familiar wave surges from my adrenal glands and I break a sweat (as per usual) as my vision sharpens and hearing grows clearer. Bob starts with the other girl after we have both introduced ourselves and I take a moment to scan the crowd. I consider how volunteering to come up here might have been a smart marketing move; I am currently trying to book more speaking gigs and move forward in branding myself, and the audience is packed with seasoned and up-and-coming business men and women. Aly explained to me earlier that many workplaces (hers included) enrol staff in the opportunity in order to develop strong leaders who are sound of mind. Maybe I will come up with something inspiring to say in response to one of Bob’s questions and one of the polished suits will seek me out to speak at their company. 

Bob asks the other girl (let’s call her Jane) something along the lines of “So, what’s your problem?"

He explains that first, we must identify exactly what our issue is, and then articulate it following this template: “I have a breakdown in _____”.

Jane says, “I have a breakdown in my relationship with my dad."

She goes on to reveal heartbreaking details of her past and for the first time, I start to feel anxious about what I am going to say. “I have a breakdown in my relationship with myself”? Does that work? How do I expand on that? Shit, I’m panicking now and he’s moving on to me.

I decide last minute to go with, “I have a breakdown in loving myself and having positive self concept."

Bob seems to take this as sufficient, and he asks me to elaborate. I try my best, giving a quick synopsis of my ED and mental illness past and then trying to relate it to the now and why I am still struggling. It comes out sounding clunky and un-fixable. Almost like I’m just a girl with regular girl issues and I volunteered just to get my turn under the spotlight. By now I’m sweating not just from the welcomed adrenaline, but full-on, unbridled self-skepticim that is taking the form of that familiar voice telling me I’m not good enough. I’m a failure, an embarrassment, a waste of skin. Shit. This is not a good place to be whilst standing in front of 100+ people eagerly awaiting my breakthrough moment; I feel like I’m on the edge of a complete breakdown.

Bob moves onto the next portion of the program with Jane, asking her what she would want (in terms of her issue) if he had a magic wand that could make anything happen. He then asks why she wants that, how she can get that, and then why, why, why until she comes to a conclusion that seems to occur to her out of thin air. She breaks down crying and everyone claps. He tells her that with the purchase of his three day package, she could be fully cured from her father-related trauma and resentment. She tells him that she doesn’t have the money. A well dressed woman in the audience stands up and shouts, “I will pay your deposit."

The crowd loses it and Jane runs down the aisle and they embrace in movie-moment sobbing hug. 

After everyone settles down, Bob turns to me. Jesus Christ, I am going to be such a let down to these people after that. What’s more, Jane seemed to really benefit from the stream of questions Bob asked, like they answers were just coming to her from a place of realization and healing. I want to get something out of this. I want Bob to prove to me that this “method” works. I still don’t even fully understand what the hell it is. He begins the same line of questions that lead Jane to her breakthrough and I know now that he can’t help me with my self concept in the next three minutes. But maybe...

“Bob, I’m sorry, but I wasn’t completely honest with you before. I do struggle with self love and body image as a said earlier, but the most pressing issue at this moment in time are these dreams that won’t go away. For a long time, I was suicidal. Today, I am not.” I feel the beginnings of tears forming behind my eyes. "However, almost every night, I kill myself in my dreams.” *Sob*. "They won’t go away and even though I don’t want to die in waking hours they keep happening at night and then I wake up feeling so awful and dark and scared of those feelings returning and—"

“Rylee, Rylee, Rylee, excuse me, stop. I cannot continue the program with you. Please get off the stage."

Time slows down and everything gets wavy like the portal scenes in Donnie Darko. The lights brighten and I step down off the stage under 200 wide eyes. Bob’s voice blurrily tells everyone that we are done for the night, thank you for coming, don’t forget to sign up! People stand and shuffle around me as I zombie-walk back to Aly. I’m on fire and the tears are now waterfalls. Aly’s normally big eyes are cartoonishly wide as I sit to gather my stuff. I can’t believe I embarrassed her like that. She wants to be a program leader some day and now she will be associated with the crazy girl who cried suicide on stage at an introductory event. I can barely hear her trying to console me, not knowing exactly what to say. It’s tense. The eyes are still on me as everyone disperses throughout the lavish ballroom. Three people in suits hurry towards us and before I can get up and out of the room, one of the organizers is crouched before me, giving me the explanation behind my being kicked off stage. “Bob isn’t certified to deal with someone who wants to end their life. Are you feeling that way now? If you deal with this at a different venue, I still think the program would be very helpful for you."

A man is crouched behind my chair and he clumsily tells me that his twin brother was suicidal, and he felt the need to come talk to me. I can barely hear anything as I am engulfed in shame fire and a yearning to rip out of my skin. It’s so fucking ironic… I was telling the truth when I said I haven’t been suicidal in waking hours for a few years now. But right now, at this moment, I want nothing more than for the chandelier above me to come loose and crush my body beneath it. I can’t listen to these well-meaning, sympathetic, panicked people anymore. I need out. I stand up, grab my bag, and tell Aly we need to go.

She asks where we should eat. For the first time in forever, my previously ravenous hunger has been replaced by the burning feeling of my stomach turning inside out. I ask if we can just go home. She agrees.

I look at the cars on the street and think about jumping in front of one. At the sky train station, I think about how quick my life would end if I were to jump onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train. Self hatred and humiliation course through me and I fight the urge to let the steady flow of semi-silent tears become body-convulsing-ugly-sobbing. We arrive at Aly’s and I arrive at home, curled up in my moms’ bed with her holding me and telling me everything will be okay. I am so uncomfortable in the present moment that I remove myself from reality in order to survive the night. Aly mothers me, bringing me tea and making me comfortable. I consider watching a scary movie on my laptop as becoming engulfed in horror would be preferable to disbelief and traumatic embarrassment. Aly gives me a stone charged by the full moon and instructs me to place it on my forehead before sleeping. It feels nice, and I decide to just go to sleep rather than fire up a murder movie.

It is now 1:00am and I have been awake for 21 hours. We say goodnight and I roll over as the thoughts consume me. I wish I could go to the airport now instead of at 6:00am and just sleep there until my 8:00am flight. I wish I could teleport to my mom’s room. Why did you say the S word??? You know how it freaks people out. Everyone probably thought you were just trying to top Jane’s breakthrough by bringing up your stupid dreams. You looked like an attention whore. You embarrassed Aly and humiliated yourself. No one will hire you to speak ever again. Maybe the dreams are a sign… you should just kill yourself.

No. 

Stop.

Shut up.

You are raw, and tired as hell. This will be a hilarious story in the near future. You just need to calm down, make it through the night and unload these emotions tomorrow when you tell mom about what happened. Breathe. It’s okay. You’re okay.

Holy shit. I can’t believe how much has happened since my alarm went off yesterday morning. I think about standing on the Burrard bridge and feeling humbled and grateful under the breathtaking sunset. Soaking in the history and warmth of the Naam with Jasmine while feeling that deep human connection that happens only when you understand another on an experiential level. Seeing Cathy and P3 for the first time in almost 5 years and not feeling any negative emotions despite my expectation. Sitting around the Family Smart table with a collection of brilliant, like-minded individuals who are on the same mission as I am in regards to mental health education and care. Exploring West 4th and feeling adventurous and inspired. Sitting in the ballroom and feeling tired but excited. Walking to the stage and feeling confident and curious. And, finally, lying here, feeling the last of the self hatred begin to dissipate as I sink into an exhausted slumber. 

Aly makes me the most kick ass smoothie in the morning before I walk through the rain towards the bus station. I feel numb and incapable of even acknowledging the previous evening as I need all of my focus to make it through security and onto the plane. I sit in the departure gate with my hood up and eyes glued to my phone. They announce boarding and I join the line. The man beside me makes eye contact and says, “Hey, I recognize you! You’re the girl I sat beside yesterday morning. The scarf-tent girl."

I surprise myself by actually laughing. I’ve called myself so many things in the past 24 hours but “scarf-tent girl” is the best one yet. When mom picks me up at the airport, I don’t fall into her arms and recount the traumatic evening prior. I don’t feel the need to. I am unexpectedly calm and moderately happy. I nap until I have to go teach a spin class and then return home for dinner. Brooke comes over and eventually, through normal conversation, I tell them about my day. I don’t break down and I don’t feel like I’m suppressing anything. What I thought was going to be a major trauma that would require weeks of intensive psychotherapy to overcome seems to be something that was much worse in the moment than it would be after the fact. Later in the week I have an appointment with my psychologist. Once again, I don’t cry or even feel the need to. We go over what happened and I deconstruct the stories I was telling myself about what other people were thinking. We talk about other “issues” for far longer than we do the “incident". I leave feeling lighter.

I don’t know how to sum up this post. It’s so long and I’m sorry for that. If you’re reading this, I can’t believe you continued past the “incident”. Thank you for persevering. I’m trying to think of a lesson to attach to this story. All I can think of is this...

I have always believed that the universe brings into fruition whatever we most desire. “The Law of Attraction” if you will. On that day, I thought I had been experiencing the full spectrum of human emotion as I went about my action packed schedule. I felt free and alive standing on the bridge. I realized later that I wasn’t even close. Walking through that crowd of immaculate people under a thickening blanket of searing hot embarrassment was the most alive I have felt in years. Having those all-too-familiar death wishes fill my ears was the most horrifying moment I have lived through since they dominated my thoughts a few years back. Living fully and authentically means giving in to those moments of unbearable discomfort in order to augment moments of bliss. We cannot hide from our mistakes, faults and shitty feelings. We must embrace them and realize that everything exists in duality; without the “bad”, there would be no “good”.

As I write this, I am JUST realizing that I haven’t had nearly as many suicide dreams since that experience. HAHAHA it worked! The program worked! I asked the universe to help me be rid of these dreams. I thought Bob would be the remover. And he was. Of me, off the stage, in front of everyone. I got what I asked for. Maybe I just need to be humiliated one more time to have these dreams be fully eradicated. Maybe. 

Sorry this took so long to write.

Thanks for waiting.

 

R