A glass of wine in hand, I'd scroll through my social media page and see the happiness I shared with the world. I'd also wonder how long I was going to lie to myself about my drinking is a problem. By the third glass, those thoughts stopped and I'd continue to scroll and pour, scroll and pour. My online life did not portray my reality. And I hid my problem well.
With new haircut selfies, family outings and motivational posts, you wouldn't have assumed the curator of this life actually hated herself, but I did. There was something really scary about how easy it was to mislead people on social media.
I'd wake, up every day on autopilot – to kids, the chaos, coffee, my phone. The routine became so regular it no longer required much mental effort. The problem with this is I stopped paying attention to myself. I wasn't checking in. I was hurting. I was getting by, but only by buying into the so-called reality, I shared, convincing myself that I was okay. But I wasn't.
I felt sorry for myself for eating dinner alone. I was left inside my own mind with the person I resented the most. So, I drank. It started with one glass of wine and usually ended with a bottle, sometimes two. I hated myself because I couldn't identify with who I was anymore. I left my career to stay home with our two children and, like many moms, I had trouble adjusting to my new role. While my friends and followers saw the life I wanted them to see, inside I was messed up. A lot.
I drank and lied to myself; I convinced myself my husband was having an affair. I was certain that he chose work over his family. He was working for us, for our family, but I had trouble seeing it because I chose to take my hate for myself out on him.
I began to read stories about drunken mothers so I could tell myself I wasn't like them. Instead, I recognized the justifying and the hiding of alcohol. I understood that the amount I consumed was not healthy. I recognized how much internal damage had happened. This was a wake-up call, but I didn't stop drinking. It was like someone had opened a door to my future. Only, instead of taking advantage of it, I panicked and slammed it shut.
In the middle of this madness, I decided to go back to school to study nutrition. I so badly wanted to be something (anything but the lonely stay-at-home mom). I feared failure, yet I'd continue to drink on the nights I was supposed to be studying – better to have something to blame when my grades weren't up to par! And getting a babysitter when my husband worked late so I could go out with friends did nothing but continue the drunken hiss of everything wrong in my life. Regardless of what appeared on my social media feed, my reality had zero substance. I had completely disconnected from who I was. I lost myself.
On the fifth day of a drinking binge, I recognized a blackout on the horizon. How on earth could I take care of two small children, let alone myself? A little glimmer of light ignited inside and I knew if I could make myself vulnerable, I could expose this thing for what it really was – a problem. I picked up my phone and called a friend for help.
Pieces of that phone call haunt me – how many times I whispered "help me" and how I couldn't stop crying. I couldn't catch my breath. The pain had never felt more real. All of my emotions exploded in the most uncomfortable and raw way. I was speaking to another person, but for the first time, I was listening to how I felt. I was coming to terms with where the unhappiness came from and – at that moment – began to develop trust with myself.
The next day when I was sober, I exposed myself to everyone. I called my parents first (who immediately came over) and then sent texts and group messages to my friends. I needed everyone to know that I was building myself back up. I decided alcohol could no longer be a part of my life. I was supported but along with that support came the judgment. Some didn't take me seriously. Maybe they didn't understand.
When the drinking stopped I had to relearn a lot of things, such as existing around alcohol without using it, how to strike up interesting conversations, and how to have my own opinions without the crippling fear of what I thought people would think of me. I had to learn to eat right, take control of my health and stop sabotaging my goals. I had to learn to like myself again.
It's working. I feel lighter. Physically, after dropping 35 pounds, and mentally, I've dropped the guilt. I feel strong. But the rawness of that self-destructive time lives inside me. I don't, however, feel shame for messing up and I respect that about myself.
During my recovery, my posts became far and few between. I often felt so delicate and emotional that I couldn't post my vulnerability on social media right away. But when I did post it was real: a poem that I wrote about a picture I took of a stormy sky or posts of my husband's recently opened restaurant. Eventually, I was even able to address my sobriety and struggle.
Now, I can honestly say I am happy. As I continue to pursue my certification in holistic nutrition, I don't fear failure, but fight it. I'm impelled to motivate others, and in doing so, I relive the painful, messy parts of my life, but those raw parts are what drive change.
Where I once used social media to cover up and silence my secrets and demons, now it is my voice and platform: together we can address the things that hurt us and talk about them, safely.
Natalie Fader lives in Toronto
The popularity of bestselling memoirs such as When Breath Becomes Air and The Bright Hour, both meditations on death by authors who died young, suggest that death is a topic many of us like to think about (while alone, reading silently) – yet, it is still a subject many of us are woefully bad at talking about, particularly when it comes to discussing it with kids.
We all need a better "death education," says Dr Kathy Kortes-Miller, an associate professor of social work at Ontario's Lakehead University and author of the new book Talking About Death Won't Kill You: The Essential Guide to End-of-Life Conversations. Like a new website launched last November by the Canadian Virtual Hospice, the book takes what remains a taboo subject and shows how to talk about it openly and honestly.
Why do we have such difficulty talking to children about death?
As parents, we are cultured and conditioned to protect our children. Our generation didn't really learn how to talk about it. Before I was a parent, I was really good at talking to children about dying and death. And then I became a parent myself and found that it was a lot harder than I thought it was.
What's the risk of ignoring the subject, or not bringing it up unless they do?
It keeps it unknown as a scary and almost a taboo topic. We [need to] recognize that this is a transition event in our life and one that we can prepare for and one that we can learn about, and by doing so, that's going to help us to live life more fully and prepare ourselves for the end of life.
What is the best way to explain death to a child?
It depends on the age of the child, of course. But one of the ways to do it is by looking around at nature. Kids are inquisitive. They're interested in how things die and what happens to them. So often they'll see things in nature and ask questions. Those are really good ways to get the conversation started. As they get a little bit older they start to watch TV and they start to read books. There is a lot of dying and death in media that children are exposed to, and those are also really good conversation starters.
You mention that nature often presents an opportunity to talk about death. I've been guilty of telling my kids a dead squirrel they saw was just sleeping.
That's an easy one to do. We're almost scared to use the D words – dead, dying and death. But we confuse them if we use euphemisms. Having worked with young kids in a counselling role as a social worker in a hospice unit, when we talk about "oh, grandpa's just gone for the big sleep," instead of he's died, kids get nightmares. Kids don't want to go to bed at night because grandpa went to sleep and he didn't wake up.
When a child wonders what death is, is there a good description of the physical process that won't scare kids?
I would sometimes talk about it from a physiological perspective. The reality is that sometimes we get really, really sick or we get old and our body no longer functions the way we need it to, and as a result, some of the things such as our heart or our brain stop working, and as a result, our body dies. It stops working. And that's kind of the way I would begin that conversation. I would leave it then to the young person to ask some questions, to see what they want to know more about.
You say in the book that bedtime can be a good time for these conversations. Why?
Bedtime can be great depending on the age of your child. Often, there are rituals and time spent in bed reading books and tucking in and doing all that stuff, which is a great time to have conversations. As children get older and we move into more of what I call the chauffeuring ages, car-time conversations are really good too, particularly because the kids don't have to make eye contact.
Is there a euphemism for death that you loathe most?
One that's probably most common is the idea that people "pass away." I talk about this story of Sam in the book when he got really confused because he was in school and in school they talk about passing to the next grade, and the only person he knew who had passed was his mom. So that one I think particularly for children is a big one.
Kids usually seem capable of processing much more than we give them credit for.
Yes. For sure.
Helping a child or teenager who is grieving the death of a parent or loved one is always difficult. What do you tell them? How do you help them understand matters? The Canadian Virtual Hospice recently launched a website, KidsGrief.ca, to help answer those questions. It is especially important to talk to young kids about the four C's, says Andrea Warnick, a Toronto-based registered psychotherapist and co-lead on the project.
"The four C's are four common concerns that kids have when either somebody's seriously ill, dying or has died in their life. We're really trying to encourage families to address these even if kids aren't bringing them up," she says.
Cause: Am I in some way responsible? “A lot of parents are really surprised when they find out that their child has been thinking that they did something to cause the illness or death in their family,” Warnick says. She has worked with children who thought their mom got throat cancer from yelling at them to clean their rooms. “We really want families to let their kids know that this is not their fault, they did not cause this in any way,” she says.
Catch: “A lot of families will avoid the word of the actual illness. So as opposed to saying, ‘Daddy has cancer,’ or ‘Dad has ALS,’ they’ll say, ‘Daddy’s sick.’ And for kids whose reference for sickness is that it gets spread across the daycare, or one person gets the flu and then the next person does, that scares them and they often think it’s going to happen to them too or they can catch it,” Warnick says. You can still hug your dad, still kiss him. You can still cuddle.
Cure: You have to let your kids know they can’t cure it. “This is not in their control,” Warnick says. “A lot of kids will use the power of their imaginations to come up with pacts, promising a higher power that they will never fight with their mom again if they cure them, and then, of course, they fight. I’ve had a number of kids feeling very responsible that they did something that could have happened otherwise.”
Care: This is one of the kids’ biggest fears. “If there’s a parent or a primary caregiver who is ill or dying, who is going to take care of me?” Warnick says. Or if the person has already died, is this going to happen to my other parent or whoever it is who is now taking care of them? “A lot of kids are really worried about that. And that’s where we really walk families through how to talk about that. Some families are tempted to say no, but it won’t happen to me. And we can’t promise a child that. So we really encourage families to say: Most likely I’m going to live to be very old, but if anything does happen to me, this is who is going to take care of you. Hopefully, guardians are picked out. Let them know what the plan is.”
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No parent, especially an enlightened, modern parent, wants to accuse their teen of using drugs or drinking. And some parent may feel inclined to sweep odd behaviour under the rug, rather than confront their child and ‘be the bad guy’.
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