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Personal Essays

Personal Essays

Leaving home is scary

A short essay on the fear we all feel from time to time.

Whether it’s the first time or the fortieth time, going away to university or leaving to climb Mt. Everest, leaving home can give us all a sense of dread.

Nine years ago I was sitting on the Halifax tarmac on a Lufthansa flight bound for Germany. My stomach turned as we started down the runway and as the wheels were lifting off, I glanced out the window at the receding ground and thought, “Oh no. What have I done?”

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Personal Essays

Saying Goodbye With Lanterns in Labrador

Friends and family light lanterns for Jeffrey Loder from Goose Bay Labrador

There are a pantheon of dark and horrible things in life that you hope you never have to deal with.  Suicide is one of them.

Last week, my partner Rob and I flew to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador for the funeral of his young cousin, Jeffrey Loder.  The Thursday morning before, Jeff shot and killed himself.

Suicide is hard to talk about.  It’s an ugly, dark dog.  It’s too permanent.  There are no solutions.  No more possibilities.  No take-backsies.  There is nothing to put back together because the pieces are gone.  Life is not the same.

Yellow lanterns for Jeffrey Loder float in the sky in Labrador.

Yellow lanterns for Jeff float up to the sky. (Mel Hattie)

On the edge of the map

Labrador is in Canada’s north and is very isolated.  Not many people know much about it, so I’m just going to quickly introduce you.

Labrador is known as “the Big Land”, and it is.  There are few people and endless skies.  You can see the northern lights here.   You can also see icebergs and whales.  The climate can be  sub-artic or humid continental.

If you spread everyone who lives there out evenly, you could walk about 11 square kilometres before ever running into another person.

Happy Valley-Goose Bay is one of two large towns in Labrador.  There are about 7,500 people there, and despite the vast landscape, people are close.  Everyone knows each other.  Everyone talks about each other.

In these beautiful but isolated communities,  suicide is often endemic.

When you fly over southern Labrador, it looks kind of like someone took a mountain range and sliced off all the tops — bare, harsh rock and sandy earth stare up at you. There is a sparse covering of spindly trees and thick blue veins of rivers and lakes pulse through. Basin cliffs stick up unapologetically.

30 kilometres north of Goose Bay there’s an Innu first nations community of about 1,300 people called Sheshatshiu. Even further north lies the remote and mountainous Torngat Mountains National Park.

If you challenge nature here, you will lose.

Happy Valley-Goose Bay is the kind of place where Friday nights mean driving around with friends, getting into alcohol or drugs, getting into trouble. Maybe speeding through one of the town’s two sets of traffic lights. You might go to the one movie theatre in town. There’s no recreation centre. There’s no gym.

The kind of place where you don’t buckle your seat belt because, “What are you going to hit out here?” and a good house party can grow to be the thing of legend (Rob once threw a jello-wrestling party in his parent’s basement in 2006 and, much to his dismay, it gets brought up every time we go back).

The last permanent psychiatrist in Goose Bay left last year.

A heart-shaped red balloon floats in the sky for Jeffrey Loder of Labrador

A heart-shaped red balloon floats in the sky for Jeffrey Loder of Labrador. (Mel Hattie)

So there we were

We landed at the airport around 7pm. Rob’s parents picked us up. We headed straight to Fillatre’s — the only funeral home in town. It’s the second time I’ve been there.

Standing outside Fillatre’s, I see a quick succession of half-ton trucks whip by — all pulling fancy skidoos or boats. The Muskrat Falls development has brought a lot of money into a community where there’s really not much else to spend it on. Homes, trucks, skidoos, booze, repeat.

As we head into the funeral home, I see a small, stark sign tacked to the door frame above the viewing room. It’s one of those black changeable boards with white letters, like what you’d use to identify a class for an old school photo.

The sign said, “JEFFREY LODER – AGE 20 YEARS – FUNERAL 2PM THURSDAY”

On Thursday morning we went to the funeral home for a private family service to say goodbye to Jeff, then we ate a quick lunch and drove down to join friends and community members for Jeff’s public funeral. His softball team formed the honour guard, their bright orange jerseys lighting the corridor for Jeff’s casket to pass through.

It was hard to tell exactly how many people were in the huge room, but I heard the number 450 thrown around a few times. People were laughing and crying, singing and holding each other.

Like boats at sea, all week people were fighting to stay afloat as they were hit with wave after wave of emotion. Sometimes it’s nice to just let the wave come.

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There were pins and stickers made with Jeff’s picture on them. All his friends and family wore them, showing their solidarity. (Mel Hattie)

Jeff’s family chose the Salvation Army to do the funeral, and the pastors Brent and Melissa Haas led the community through honouring his memory, while inviting people up to share stories about the good times, and consider our choices in life while also acknowledging the issue of youth suicide in Labrador.

At one point, Brent even pulled out and performed part of the service wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey — Jeff’s favourite team.

Releasing the lanterns

After the funeral, friends and family gathered at the place known as ‘the causeway’, where the Trans-Labrador highway crosses the Churchill River just outside of town.

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Jeff’s friends started arriving in a clearing at the edge of the river, just down from the highway. They skipped rocks, waiting for everyone to arrive.

Trucks, SUVs and Jeeps started pulling in around dusk, finding space on the gravel beside the highway that headed up to the Muskrat Falls work camps.

Jeff’s friends gathered at the river’s edge with his sister, Jodi, and on the highway above with Jeff’s mother, Rob’s Aunt Pat.

One of Aunt Pat’s best friends, Michelle, organized the handing out of lanterns. Michelle lost her own son, Clay, last year in a dirt biking accident. Clay was Jeff’s best friend.

As everyone was writing messages to Jeff on their lanterns, Michelle said, “Now. I know today at the funeral we already said goodbye to Jeff’s body. Now I want you to release his soul… When you light these balloons and send them off, I want you to think of a good memory you had with Jeff.”

Beers and torches came out of trucks and then slowly — big paper lanterns wearing messages of love and memories written in sharpie started to drift up and over the water, lighting a path in the dusk. The lanterns formed a warm glow of aching hearts, drifting south.

There’s something magic about sending messages up to the clouds. People smiled with wonder and delight as the flotilla of lanterns flew high and warmed the sky. They remembered Jeff. Through memory, each bit of tissue paper and fire transformed into a shrine for the boy who died too soon.

Death is still death. Hard is still hard. Despite the long road ahead, as the lanterns floated over the river I think I felt at least some of the darkness being lifted. Even if just a little.

On Jodi’s arm there’s a tattoo in cursive writing. It’s a short proverb that reads, “If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever.”

Rest in peace, Jeffrey Loder.

Lantern for Jeff Loder floats over the Churchill River in Goose Bay Labrador

During the funeral, Jeff’s family — Aunt Pat, Uncle Colin, Jodi and others — collected donations to be used to fund a crisis centre at the Labrador Friendship Centre.  If you’d like to make a donation, please contact the friendship centre. You can also find them on Facebook.

Here’s a list of suicide crisis centres across Canada. Labrador does not have one, but you can call any of them from wherever you are. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or is feeling depressed, please talk to someone.

Jeff was an organ donor and his heart, liver and lungs were able to go on to help other people. Here’s how you can register to be an organ donor.

Personal Essays

Looking Back at 2015

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It’s been a big year. Before I headed into 2016 I wanted to take a second to look back and reflect on everything that happened in 2015.

Blog

MelHattie.com became MelHadTea.com, moved from Squarespace and relaunched with a whole new design on a self-hosted WordPress site, and I started a Facebook page.

Books

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I set off in April with the goal to read 41 books during the remaining nine months of the year. I ended up coming in at 20, or about one book every two weeks.

I underestimated was how much reading I was going to have in my Masters degree (which I didn’t count on the list) and how much time I’d have to read during our massive road trip (why read when you can climb a mountain or go on a once-in-a-lifetime outdoors adventure?).

That being said, I’m still proud of everything I managed to read and I’m going into 2016 again with the goal of reading one book every week.

Some of my 2015 favourites:

Tea

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I had the chance to sit down in a Russian tea room, I wrote about how to make great matcha, Halifax got its very own tea festival and I reviewed some great tea from Canadian tea vendors. I fell in love with Taiwanese oolong at the Lan Su Chinese Gardens in Portland and sampled teas throughout San Francisco’s Chinatown. I drank tea at the oldest tea house in Canada during the tea house challenge.

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I also completed my third tea sommelier course with the Tea Association of Canada. I’m excited to write about tea sommelier training and tea history to come in 2016!

Travel

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With my Masters starting in September I stayed put for the second half of 2016, but in March I hit up Boston to go to the Women in Travel Summit where I met lots of amazing travel women. Then I was off to Milwaukee to attend Bloghouse and then did a huge road trip across Canada for the month of August. I travelled to World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon and then decided on a whim to rent a car and drive down to San Francisco for a week.

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Right now I’m in Goose Bay, Labrador in the Canadian north, where there are skidoos and dogsleds to ride. Dry air that sucks that moisture out of you and the smell of wood fires to put you to sleep after you come in from the cold.

Photography

I ditched my heavy Nikon D800 DSLR kit and bought a Fuji X-T1, shot again for Lawn Summer Nights, a cystic fibrosis fundraiser in Halifax and wrote my first photography how to.

My best moments of the year on Instagram, using BestNine. Our surprise mountain engagement took the top spot! Following close behind are two shots from the day we took the tea house challenge, when I visited the beautiful Milwaukee art museum during Bloghouse, when we stumbled upon a sunflower field in North Dakota, and this ‘Just Start’ wallpaper with the Fairmont Chateau at Lake Louise as seen from the trail behind the lake.

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Writing

I had the chance to be on the radio a lot this fall thanks to my university. Learning how to put together short stories for the ear, write for the ear and also live hosting and interviewing was a treat. I also got to interview a lot of really interesting people for The Radio Room on CKDU 88.1FM.

Here’s the last piece I put on air before the holidays:

Life

I left my job at a law firm and started a Masters Degree in Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax and got engaged. Between leaving jobs, going back to university and doing all that traveling, plus freelance work on the side, it made for a busy year. This year I’m going to work on carving out more space in the day to write. This will likely be accomplished by trying to wake up a half hour earlier at 6am instead of 6:30am.

What’s Next?

I recently went to a 2016 focus workshop with a bunch of female entrepreneurs. We each picked a word to focus on for 2016. I wrote completion. I started spinning a lot of great plates this year and my goal for 2016 is to work on keeping them in the air and bringing them to the finish line.

What’s on your horizon for 2016?

Canada Personal Essays

That Time I Got Engaged on a Mountain

Spoiler alert: I got engaged. On a mountain.

The funny part: I didn’t even know it was happening.

The day started off normal. We drove from my aunt and uncle’s place in Jasper where we were staying to the Alberta, B.C. border where Mt. Robson is.

Five years ago when we first started dating we climbed up here during a brief vacation during Rob’s adventures touring a fringe festival theatre show he’d written. It’s a pretty special place for us so we couldn’t drive by without spending a couple days on her.

The day was a beauty, right from the start.

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Rob standing out in front of the visitor’s centre with the sun in his eyes. (Mel Hattie)

We planned to hike up to the Whitehorn campground on the mountain to camp overnight and then head back down the next day.

You need to get a tag from the visitor’s centre if you want to stay overnight on the mountain. When we showed up Whitehorn campground was already full for the night, so we bought a tag for Kinney Lake instead.  We weren’t crushed because it actually meant less distance to haul our gear and we could still hike up to Whitehorn before returning to Kinney Lake for the night.

At the visitor’s centre we watched the mandatory safety video (it’s short, but I feel like no one ever watches it) and got our tent tag. Then we left and drove to the base of Robson.

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After some pack rearranging, we headed up the mountain. (Mel Hattie)

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Mt. Robson is the third highest mountain in British Columbia, after Mount Fairweather and Mount Washington.

Confusingly, I keep hearing and reading that Mt. Robson has the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, but looking at this mountain peaks of Canada chart, it doesn’t seem that high compared to some of the others. Either way, it’s beautiful! One of my favourite mountains in Canada.

If you want to try and summit the mountain proper, you need to be out for about a week. Here’s some information about the various campgrounds along the Berg Lake Trail.

There’s a nice river that runs along the path.

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When we reached Kinney Lake we recreated this photo from five years ago:

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Hello little Mel! Aw, your hair is so cute. Good job. (Mel Hattie)

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Hello older Mel! Aw, you’re so sweaty. But still cute. Didn’t have that huge backpack last time. <3 (Mel Hattie)

Speaking of nostalgia, here are some more cute shots from 2010:

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Baby Rob! He looks about 12. He’s actually 21 here. (Mel Hattie)

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Mmm. That was a good t-shirt. (Mel Hattie)

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We were such babies! Look at those little faces!

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We had a snack at Kinney Lake, set up our tent and then kept climbing up to Whitehorn.

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Rob is quite the sage now. Wizened by age.
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Yes. Quite sage-like.

This is a guy who won me over by popping into my friend’s living room one night and spontaneously inviting me to live with him and be in his play. He then made me breakfast every morning for about a month until I started falling for him.

I mean, he would hand squeeze the orange juice. Who wouldn’t fall in love with that?

Five years later, we’ve climbed mountains in South Korea and Canada, been on a Cuban wedding adventure, started second degrees (Me: Masters of Journalism. Him: Computer Science), gotten two cats (Taters and Trout) and made plans for a lot more adventures.

He supports me more than anyone and is always supportive of all my crazy ideas.

One of his impressions of me, done with love: “I’m Mel Hattie, I want to be a Rhodes scholar, shoot for National Geographic and fly to Mars on a giraffe made of chocolate.”

He wears Korean face masks with me. We talk about everything and he is just 100% the best.

I still had no idea he was going to propose though. I mean, what is that even, ‘a proposal’. It sounds like it should be drafted up, edited, submitted for review and revised.

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The path to Mount Whitehorn.

The path to Mount Whitehorn. Goddamn it is beautiful. (Mel Hattie)

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This is Whitehorn campground. I know. It’s fucking beautiful. See the sunbather by the rocks on the right-hand shoulder of the river? That’s the life, right there. I love Canada. (Mel Hattie)

By the time we hiked back down to our Kinney Lake tent, night was sneaking up on us, but it wasn’t quite dark enough yet for stargazing.

I crawled into the tent and started reading Lord of the Rings which turned into a quick snooze.

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Who the fuck brings Lord of the Rings up a mountain? Have I never heard of pack light? It’s probably one of the heaviest novels in existence. So clueless. An e-book wouldn’t have been as epic though. (Mel Hattie)

Unbeknownst to me, my reading choices are providing convenient foreshadowing!

When it got dark enough to see the stars, Rob got me up and out of the tent. Weirdly, he seemed very persistent.

We walked to a spot by the lake slightly off the trail, only slightly concerned that a bear was spotted by the lake the day before. We lit the trail with an LED headlamp.

So we found a spot at the edge of the water and got cozy in our sleeping bag by the lake. We were watching the sky. I was still kind of foggy from just waking up, so I didn’t notice when Rob started going into this kind of super romantic speech-type thing.

I won’t elaborate, but it definitely included stuff akin to, ‘these have been the best years of my life’ and ‘want to spend the rest of my days with you’.

I still wasn’t getting it.

My response to said romantic gesture?

Me: “Thanks babe. Geez… that was really nice.  I didn’t know we were doing speeches.”

I go back to watching the stars.

Then he pulls the ring out and says,

Him: “Will you marry me?”

I am a deer in the headlights.

Me: O.O <- like this.

Me: “What… Wait… What? Wait…” Then I actually say something useful, “Whoah. Is there a ring?” Because it’s dark and I can’t really see anything. So he turns on the LED.

Me: “Whoah. There is! Wow. Shit just got real! Whoah…”

Meanwhile, as I’m in shock he later tells me he was freaking out on the inside, like: Why hasn’t she said YES yet? 

In my head, I’m thinking: Okay, I was expecting we’d do this engagement thing, but in like a year or two and it’s a big decision. I had planned to say yes, but was totally caught off guard and was like, “Dude, am I really ready for this?”

But then, are we ever ready? For anything? Why not now?

Finally I said,

Me: “”Yeah, duh, of course I’ll marry you!” *Kiss, kiss.* “BUT…”

(I’m so responsible)

Me: “I want to finish my Masters first.”

Very good, Mel.

So we’re both really happy, and excited. He puts the ring on my finger, and it’s kind of big.

Me: “It’s pretty close! Almost fits. Good guess.”

Him: “I took one of your rings to get the size.”

Me: “Which one?”

He describes the ring. It was one of my thumb rings.

Apparently he’d secretly gotten this ring and had been carrying it around in a sock for months. He first thought he’d propose to me at Christmas, but my parents’ marriage was falling apart and things were kind of doom and gloom at the time.

Getting proposed to in this awesome spot during an awesome road trip was probably the best thing I couldn’t have planned.

 

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The ring is friggin’ awesome and I love it so much. It makes me feel like Sailor Moon. I love pearls. Good job Rob. He picked it out all on his own and I love it. (Mel Hattie)

Well done, sir.

So we cried and laughed a bit, then had the luck to see some shooting stars. After all that, we headed back inside the tent. We were talking about how oblivious I am sometimes, and then Rob shushed me all of a sudden.

I am not accustomed to being shushed.

“I heard something outside,” he says.

I listened. We could faintly hear something snorting around the campsite.

Oh, shit.

The bear!

We turned off the LEDs and huddled. We had no food in the tent, so we weren’t really a target.

Still.

So we spent the rest of our newly-engaged night in a tent worried about getting eaten by bears. Huzzah!

Around seven hours of time and maybe three hours of sleep later… sunrise!

That’s it. Then we hiked back down the mountain and as soon as we were on the highway and had cell phone service again, I started calling all my family to tell them.

My sister’s reaction:

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For days after I would just stare at my hand. Whenever I reached for something or stretched I’d be like: “Holy shit. Look at this thing!”

So, yeah. I said yes.

After all, I like adventures.

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Day 19 Costs

  • Berg Lake Trail Registration and Campsite for 2: $20.00
  • Mt. Robson Cafe: $25.85
  • Souvenirs @ Rocky Bear Gifts: $10.71
  • Gas, Jasper: $80.03
  • Bear’s Paw Bakery: $24.00

Total: $160.59 (i.e., priceless)

P.S. On a funny side note, days before when we were in Toronto with Liz and Sam I mentioned in front of Rob that I’d never agree to marry him unless he had a family doctor. I was half-joking. Anyway, turns out the whole trip Rob had frantically been calling back home to try and get lined up with a family doctor before he asked me to marry him. So (I had completely forgotten this) but a day or two before we climbed Mt. Robson he says, “Mel, I finally found a family doctor.” and I was like, “Cool dude, glad to hear it.” Not at all clueing in.

Personal Essays

I Had Never Stayed Up All Night Until Anxiety

Since it’s Halloween night, I figured I’d write about something spooky.

Anxiety.

*cue ominous timpani roll*

A little over a week ago I had the worst anxiety attack I’ve had since I was 19.

It went something like this:

I lied down to try and get to sleep around 11:30pm. I then got up, down, up and down over and over again. I watched my phone clock go from 6:28, to 6:29, and then to 6:30am, when my alarm started going off. I hadn’t slept at all.

My first night ever spent with absolutely zero sleep.

Seven solid hours of disabilitating anxiety.

My heart was pounding like I was being chased; I sweated hot and cold; I shivered. I breathed heavy. I threw up a couple times.

The usual creepy closet I stare at while I’m in bed didn’t even seem so scary. I wished a creepy clown would climb out. Just so I could say, “Oh good, a distraction!”

I kept lying down, hugging my body pillow, closing my eyes and trying to go to sleep. Even when I was lying still and taking deep breaths I felt like my heart was going to explode. I was in flight mode. It was not nice.

In the past 24 hours before, I’d only eaten:

  • 1 slice of toast;
  • 1 banana;
  • 1 cup of tea; and,
  • 1/2 a bowl of tortellini (with a bit of salsa… because we had no tomato sauce)

I had also done four interviews over the course of the day, including some filming and a photoshoot. A lot of running around and working on projects for my graduate degree.

This was something I should have watched for. I know I’m  more prone to anxiety attacks when I’m exhausted.

The odd thing was, during this anxiety attack I had absolutely no appetite. That was unusual for me.

As I would be lying there, trying to fall asleep, I kept replaying conversations from ealier in the day. It’s like my brain was trying to do its nightly job to process the day, but I wasn’t asleep. I couldn’t stop it. My head was spinning.

I kept hearing phrases and having flashbacks from the interviews I’d done earlier that day. There stories were so important, and I would feel like an asshole if I didn’t do them justice. I needed sleep so that I could write them properly!

At 4:30am I called my Mom who actually answered the phone (on like the second ring: she is wonderful). She tried to make me feel better and invited me over for supper the next day.

Anxiety can make me pretty despondent. My responses to her on the phone probably made her more worried than she needed to be.

After finishing the call with her, I decided to call one of those help hotlines. You know, that telephone number you’re always told to call in grade school if you’re feeling depressed or suicidal? I wasn’t feeling suicidal by any stretch, but I just felt terrible and didn’t know what to do and wanted to talk to someone. The number I found wasn’t very good. After I dialled through a few different automated voice messages I just hung up.

This also got me thinking: for help hotlines, we should have humans picking up on the first ring. That’s something I think our tax dollars should do.

At around 5am I was on my kitchen floor, forcing myself to half-heartedly munch on an apple, because I thought, “Hey, maybe I’m just hungry?”

I had no appetite, but I made myself chew the fruit. Chew the fruit, Mel. Do it. 

I took a piece of bread back to bed with me. I just sort of held it in my hand as I tried to do back to sleep again. I had a good laugh inside at how ridiculous I must have looked. Aren’t I supposed to be smart? And here I am, holding a chunk of bread as I stare restlessly at the ceiling.

After my phone alarm went off, my amazing, patient fiancé (can’t believe that’s a thing!) dragged me into my clothes and made me an awesome breakfast of eggs and toast, which I promptly neglected. I only drinking a half cup of OJ and a nibble of eggs. I think I licked the toast after breaking it in to tiny pieces.

After morning class and having an assignment edited, I got back in to the groove of things. I was still tired and starving since I didn’t eat any breakfast, but I could tell the tide was subsiding.

The guy who runs the radio room at the university was amazing enough to see my zombie face and grab me a cup of coffee. God bless good people. A karma cookie to him!

That half cup of coffee and water are all I had until lunch around 1:30. At which point I devoured a huge sandwich from Subway.

The food got me back on track, and I was pretty much back to normal after that.

But that’s it. Like a little emotional natural disaster, I was briefly powerless to its thrall, and then it receded and I went on with life.

This hadn’t happened in awhile to me. In a way it was actually a good reminder to watch out for my mental state.

After one night of no sleep I was drinking water out of a the votive candle holders in my bathroom and feeling awful. I’d hate to see me after more than one sleepless night.

It’s rough when you’re there.

It’s like being dragged out to sea.  You just can’t escape. If you struggle, you’ll only drown. Best just try to float on your back until the tow subsides.

Maybe some people can escape it. I’ve read some things – like if you can force yourself to do exercise, or do something else to get your body back on track.

In my experience, even easy things become very hard.

For example, when I was sitting on my kitchen floor trying to eat that apple. In my brain I wanted to eat it. I kept telling myself, “Eat the apple. Eat the apple.” But, my body still had a hard time bringing it up to my mouth. To chew, swallow, repeat.  There’s a part of you that counters with, “What’s the point? What’s the point? I don’t want to. I don’t want to do anything.”

So that’s it. It’s rough. That was an unpleasant reminder. I had a good sleep the next night and went on with my life. I finished the first module of my masters this week, and I did a pretty great job.

To that anxiety attack, I say “smell ya later”. I hope that I can keep things in check again so that it doesn’t get a hold of me like that for awhile.

Speaking of, I think it’s absolutely true that there are things you can do to reduce your anxiety, if that’s something you suffer from.

To shine a ray of light on this piece, I’m also publishing at the same time some Lessons I’ve Learned From Anxiety that have helped me deal with it over the years.

I hope you find it useful!

Do any of you suffer from anxiety? How do you deal? Does it sometimes strike after long periods of not being a problem? What’s it like for you?