The Great, or at Very Least, Mediocre Colombian Bus Adventures of Anna

“Get in,” He told me.  “Where are you headed?”  Now, in retrospect, I do realize that any man anywhere approaching me and telling me, “Get in” and, “where are you headed” would be call for alarm, but I suppose I was in a different place back then.  “Cartagena”, I answered, feeling defeated.

I had just gotten off the boat from Tayrona National Park and back to Taganga, that two and a something hour boat ride from hell which had us rocking over waves, diving from the crest to the stormy ocean beneath us, not a single dry person in the boat.  This had been an adventurous day in Tayrona, one I wouldn’t soon forget, but I was in a rush to find a taxi to the bus station in Santa Marta to take me back to Cartagena. 

As I tentatively stepped off the wobbly boat, my feet meeting the cool ocean, I felt rain drops, slow at first, sporadic, and then heavier and heavier still, until visibility was considerably depleted and people in the little cafes that lined the main strip of the somewhat crummy Taganga ran for cover under palapas or into souvenir shops, standing, shivering, amongst the cheap trinkets as they waited on the storm to pass.  I had no time to spare, as it was already almost evening and I wanted to reach the station in time to board the four-hour-or-so bus to Cartagena; tickets were not available online, nor was the schedule.

I was staying at a hostel at that time in Taganga, a few nights in a beautiful little oasis removed from the tiny tourist strip, peaceful with a garden and fountains, along with my own private little room.  This was a welcome reprieve from the bustling Bogota, where I had spent a few nights, met some incredible new friends, but also had two traumatic experiences; I had needed this space to reconnect with nature, with myself, and to put things into perspective a little.  

My feet slid in and out of my flimsy flip flops as I trod through the muddy streets, running as best I could with my backpack and now-soaked towel over my shoulders.  Arriving at the hostel, the receptionist greeted me with a warm grin, surveying my drowned-looking hair and clothes, and asking what I might need.  A shower, I’d said, and a taxi, “de una vez!”  I could just make a five-minute shower, enough to get the mud off, and jump into the taxi and get going, get back to Cartagena before the strike of midnight, back to my ‘home’ hostel of my Colombian trip.

She took a deep breath before addressing me: “Ay, Anna…But there are no taxis available when it rains like this in Taganga!”  She was apologetic, probably due to shock and possible onset of tears…the station was about an hour’s drive away.  “See, we only have three taxis here.  I don’t mean services, I mean actual taxis.  When it rains, they are really busy, but let me see what I can do.”  She whisked me off to the one available public shower, a (literal) hole in the wall with no roof, though I suppose one wasn’t needed at this point, anyway.  

As I was soaping away, taking in the warmth, a tap on the rickety wooden door, “Hurry, Anna! The taxi is here!  I found one, but he said you need to come immediately!”  Having no time to dig through my pack, I put on my wet dress again, slid my feet into those slippy flip flops and slipped and slid off to the waiting taxi, waving goodbye to Taganga, and soon to Santa Marta.

I arrived in my still-damp ensemble at the station, the open air welcoming after the rain, and perused the buses boarding to see one almost full with giant glowing letters across the front reading, “CARTAGENA”.  Hooray!  I toddled over, anxious to relax, sit back and warm up after my long day, only to be told by the driver that I needed to first purchase my ticket at the kiosk.  Off I ran, lined up, a virtual blonde giant amongst the locals, and asked for my one way ticket to Cartagena.  

“No.”  The ticket agent said.  Literally, all she said was an emphatic, “No.”  I wasn’t sure why, and I asked, but she simply replied, “No, you can’t go on that bus.  You can take,” she waved her hand to nothingness beside her, a dismissal, “Some other bus somewhere.”  Now, I have tried all my life to control my temper – okay wait, that’s a blatant lie, but bear with me – but in that moment, I can attest that the bus station in Santa Marta got a solid ten minute education on Swearing in the English Language.  My tirade, however, fell on deaf ears – perhaps because she couldn’t understand what I was saying to begin with, though I did speak Spanish  for the entirety of my trip, otherwise – and I wandered about, muttering inconceivable word combinations to the open-jawed locals who stood and watched, likely wondering who this great giant blonde woman was and what she was on about.

A man approached me in a uniform similar to the one the other driver had worn, urging me to follow him to the stalling bus with no title in the lineup.  A few people were sat in the mini bus, seemingly waiting for take off, bored, in their own minds, all of them locals.  

“Get in,” He told me.  “Where are you headed?”  Now, in retrospect, I do realize that any man anywhere approaching me and telling me, “Get in” and, “where are you headed” would be call for alarm, but I suppose I was in a different place back then.  “Cartagena”, I answered, feeling defeated.  I had to make a boat the next morning from the harbour at Cartagena and already I felt I would never make it.  Maybe I’d set up a life in Santa Marta, living in a box in the bus station, writing letters to my children on bits of paper cups, singing songs for money…

To be fair, these thoughts didn’t cross my mind, either, but I was a tad desperate so I got on the bus, found a little row of seats to myself, and hoped for the best.  The driver came to see me before he prepared to drive, and said, “We’re going to a town called Baranquilla, and from there you can find a bus to Cartagena.”  he clapped excitedly, as though he’d performed a magic trick and wasn’t I pleased?  I smiled, thanked him, and settled in for the ride.

The bus from Santa Marta to Barranquilla is about two-ish hours, except when it is pitch black outside and you have absolutely no idea where the actual hell Barranquilla is and you’re alone and a female, in which case it is 184362320349 days.  About two or three times, our bus was boarded by military people wielding machine guns, holding digital cameras.  They were, I found out, doing a passport check of some sort, and when one approached me, I smiled and held out my passport, taking note of the likely loaded gun in front of me, anxious not to cause any distress or sudden movements.  “I need to take a picture of you,” He said.  I, in my state of complete ignorance, said, “Well, that’ll cost you! HAHAHAHA!”  He didn’t smile.  I put my passport down and let him take the picture, and then, as though nothing happened, he walked off and we drove on.  This happened each time they boarded, and I couldn’t tell you if they took pictures of all the passengers, but I can most certainly affirm I did not crack any more jokes.

We arrived in Barranquilla and I wandered into the almost-empty station, taking in the worn green plastic chairs that sat in a row, all connected, screwed into the floor, nobody sitting in them.  The shops were closed, but one little cafe remained open, and I took my wary self over for a cup of coffee and an arepa.  There was nowhere to charge my mobile, so I sat in silence for a time, until I was approached by the girl who worked behind the counter, keen to ask me questions about Canada, what it was like, what were the people like, and her dreams to visit one day.

Hours later, I was on the final leg of my destination, the bus to Cartagena. The air conditioning was frigid as I held my backpack tightly around my chest, desperate for warmth and comfort.  It was one in the morning when I arrived in Cartagena, the station almost empty.  It was time to return to my hostel, my ‘home base’ of this trip.  Only a few hours of sleep and I would be on to my next adventure, a three-hour boat ride to a hostel in the middle of the ocean, Casa en el Agua.  I had now experienced Colombia by boat, taxi, plane, horseback and bus…and what a beautiful, exciting, tragic adventure it had already been.

On Our Own Soil

Canada’s first Prime Minster, Sir John A. MacDonald, was quoted as declaring to the House of Commons in 1883,  “When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that the Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.

In 1867, when Canada was formed as a nation, residential boarding schools were already being developed through a number of Roman Catholic and Protestant churches across the country, supported, in part, from small governmental grants towards the students attending.  In the years proceeding, the system continued to grow until an estimated 150,000 students of indigenous culture had passed through their systems, prior to the final school closure in 1996.

Canada’s dark legacy of residential schools and their impact on Métis, Inuit and First Nation students and their parents lives on through the first hand accounts of its survivors and their stories of physical, mental and sexual abuse, cultural genocide, and the traumatic aftermath they have had to live with.

It was in September 19, 2007, that the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was established in Canada, offering varying degrees of financial and emotional settlement to those victimized by the schools, and becoming the bridge which led to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

The objectives of this lawsuit filed against the country, and the subsequent creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were many, including:
1. Acknowledge Residential School experiences, impacts and consequences;
2. Provide a holistic, culturally appropriate and safe setting for former students, their families and communities as they come forward to the Commission;
3. Witness, support, promote and facilitate truth and reconciliation events at both the national and community levels;
4.  Promote awareness and public education of Canadians about the IRS (Indian Residential School System) system and its impacts;
5. Create as complete an historical record of the IRS system and legacy. The record shall be preserved and made accessible to the public for future study and use;
6. Make recommendations concerning the IRS system and experience including: history, purpose, operation and supervision of the IRS system, the effect and consequences of IRS (including systemic harms, intergenerational consequences and the impact on human dignity) and the ongoing legacy of the residential schools;
7. Support commemoration. of former Indian Residential School students and their families.”

Finally, their stories would be told, and the Government would be held responsible for upholding the ninety-four Calls to Action which it entails, thereby preserving its tragic history, and further educating Canadian citizens on this bleak time of our country’s past.

The underlying theme of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to not only acknowledge the abuse and long term suffering Aboriginal people experienced at the hands of the Residential schools, but also to allow for a better relationship between the Aboriginals and other Canadian institutions and Canadians, as a whole, and to nurture a greater understanding of the culture which was largely eradicated since Canada’s inception as a country.

Consisting of ninety-four Calls to Action to hold the Canadian Government accountable for the atrocities of the Residential school system, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s website outlines and illustrates the demands of survivors, their families and those otherwise affected by the long-term adversity they’ve faced for over one hundred years.  The Calls to Action consist of several clauses for clarification, however their specific points are toward the fair and ethical treatment of all Aboriginal peoples, which encompass education, healthcare, employment equity, as well as commemoration and recognition to those families who have endured these hardships, to name a few.

Armed with the stories of survivors and a plan to hold the Government of Canada responsible for their stories to be shared, acknowledged and their rights to be upheld as all Canadian citizens, the TRC committed to a total of a five-year contract, divided into two parts, the first of which would see a preliminary budget being put into play, along with national events to educate the Canadian public as well as significant research findings.  The second part of the contract would see a focus on the culmination of the survivors’ stories and the development of a nation-wide research centre to further continue the advocacy and remembrance of the somber history experienced by one-hundred-fifty thousand children and their families.

It is virtually impossible for any parent to comprehend the agony of having his or her children removed at an early age, in some instances never to be heard from again, their graves unmarked, even unknown. In fact, according Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment, children develop an innate attachment to at least one of their primary caregivers in the first years of their lives, and should this bond be broken or separation occur, the long term effects can be devastating, and include depression, delinquency, and PTSD to name a few.  Without assistance and access to competent, affordable healthcare, along with being subjected to negligence from our Government, our hospitals and mental health resources, the TRC has played an integral role not only in the newfound recognition of our flawed treatment to our Aboriginal population, it has also proven indispensable for assisting in the reparation and further healing of those who need it most.

Comparatively, one cannot fathom the anguish of taking his or her child to the hospital off-reserve, only to have his or her child die in care for the sake of bureaucracy, in particular on Canadian soil, however this is the truth that many had to live, and for countless years, unnoticed and disregarded.

Moreover, in its mission, the TRC has acted as a firm endorsement for the more ethical treatment of those of Aboriginal descent in our criminal justice system.  Once again, the effects of the long-standing trauma experienced by students and families of the residential school system is proven by the Justice Department of Canada, which indicates on its website, that both as victims and offenders, the Aboriginal population of Canada is notably higher than any other minority, with 28% of victims of Aboriginal descent reporting abuse, as opposed to 18% of non-indigenous citizens, and with 33% of Indigenous people accused of homicide, making that ten times higher than the rate of non-indigenous perpetrators.

Quite remarkably, it was not until 2018 that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly addressed the Calls to Action outlined by the TRC, introducing the Recognition and Implementation Rights Framework, designed to support further recognition of the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and a step toward honouring the Government’s commitment to fulfilling each of the ninety-four Calls to Action which are so imperative in the fundamental healing and newfound rapport between Canada and its Indigenous peoples.

The question remains: Have we done enough to support those affected by the enormity of the trauma caused by the Residential Schools?  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Residential Schools Agreement would certainly be a start in the movement towards commemorating lives lost, and further educating the country on this somber part of its history, however there is still work to be done, and will be as the country evolves and further stories are shared, publicized, and healing continues.

An example could be the mental health and subsequent substance abuse crises that has swept several reserves across the Northwest Territories, as illustrated by Julia Christensen (2017) who states, “Community wellness workers have also argued that intergenerational trauma-specific counselling is urgently needed across the territory, but few are equipped with the skills necessary to provide it.” Furthermore, Christensen goes on to state that rates of alcohol abuse are exceedingly high compared to the rest of the country, and with few affordable or accessible programs available, residents are deemed helpless in the pursuit of change or better health.

Ultimately, our country has failed its founding citizens.  Our government and our churches have turned a blind eye to the plight of the Aboriginal people, and in doing so, has caused irreparable damage to its history as a democratic and fair nation.  The very Constitution Act, in its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, states,

15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability. (Department of Justice, 2018)

We have committed a horrific injustice to our Aboriginal people for over one-hundred-fifty years, and continue to do so by allowing the Government to maintain a lackadaisical attitude toward their needs.  A public apology, a benefit to survivors, and even ninety-four Calls to Action upheld by the TRC to the Canadian Government would be a start, but in many ways, it is too little, too late.

So long as there is limited access to affordable nutritious food, clean water, mental and physical healthcare on our reserves, as we appreciate throughout the rest of the country, we are and will be failing our Indigenous people, and I would personally call on the Canadian Government to ensure this becomes a priority, with affirmative and noticeable actions.

Public apologies, handshakes from bureaucrats and announcements do little.  Our Aboriginal population has suffered enough, and the time for Idle no More is now.

My Name is Anna, and I am a Recovering Model

I call myself a “Recovering Model”.  I suppose it all began, really, when I was 20 years old.  I’d been working in a pretty cheap ladies’ shop that disguised itself as classy, despite everything it sold being polyester and elastic-waisted floral patterns, none of which appealed to the younger set.

We were to be featured in a fashion show in Hull, at the time the “grungy place across the river”, but a fashion show nonetheless.  What a coup it would be!  Our boutique, in all its polyester and faux satin glory parading down the runway in the foreign land of…well, Hull, but still.  I was chuffed to even fit the models, let alone be on site to see our designs showcased.

The man running the event was a scrawny little thing, grey all over, his skin, hair, eyes, probably right down to his fingernails, and he looked as though a poof of breeze would wisp him away, leaving a little grey plume of smoke as he faded off, and I could almost see it, like a balloon losing its helium squealing, “Weeeeee!” as it whistled off into the sky.  His voice was as small as his body, with a strong Gatineau accent, a mix of French that sounded as though it had been beaten down by equally slang English.

He reached his limp little hand to greet me, surveying me from head to toe, appraising me.  After a few pleasantries, he stood back with a final approving stare, nodded, and said, “You’ll be in the show.  Also, I’m putting on a modelling contest here in Hull in a few months; you’ll be in that, too.”  And there it was, ladies and gentlemen: my short-lived modelling career was about to take off.

Now, I’m a tall girl, and the world has rarely allowed me to forget it.  Since childhood, people would gawk and me and exclaim, “You’re so tall!” as though I hadn’t realized and ought to look down and check myself, only to recoil in the same horror/shock/disbelief that they were conveying in their judgmental looks or tone.  In the fifth grade, I remember visiting my guidance counsellor in the school, filled with embarrassment as the boys in my school, not yet having hit their own growth spurts, would laugh and call me ‘Giraffe’, ‘Daddy Long Legs’ or ‘Mummy’, forever mocking my stature.  “Well, you know,” She leaned forward and whispered, conspiratorially, “Supermodels are tall.  Perhaps you’ll be a model one day.”  Throughout a teenaged-hood filled with poor hair decisions – spiral perm, anyone? – and braces, headgear, gawky long limbs and questionable clothing decisions, I continued to remind myself as though a mantra: “Supermodels are tall…”

The modelling contest was held in a hotel ballroom, a long runway set up with a panel of judges at the end of it, notepads in hand, like something out a (cheap) Miss World contest.  I was late to arrive for hair and make up and so had to do my own, amidst the clamour and hysterics of the several fellow contestants around me, nervously twirling their bouffant ‘dos, false lashes sticking closed on their overly done up faces.  A brush through my hair and just enough time to slick on some dollar-store lip gloss and mascara, and it was announced we must take our places for the runway portion of the event.

A quick aside here: the contest was in Hull and the majority, if not all, the other contestants were French, so I really had very little clue as to what was going on a great share of the time, and followed whomever looked as though she knew what she was doing.  Finally, we were told to all make our way to the stage, the full lot of us, the final call as the winners were announced.  A few names were spoken and we clapped politely, my clapping one of absolute and utter confusion, but polite nonetheless.  Finally, a drum roll and my name was announced, a loud cheer from my parents at the back of the room, followed by tears from some of the girls, their lashes sort of trailing down their faces like little spiders, one of them undoing her tiara (she really did wear a tiara) right there on the stage.

“What’s going on?” I whispered to a hopeful beside me.

“You won,” She shrugged.

“Everything?!” I asked, unsure of what to do.
A dirty look and a nod, and I was thrust to the front of the runway to accept a barrage of prizes and make a speech.

“Merci pour tout!” I squeaked out in disbelieving broken French. “Je m’appelle Anna!  Bonjour!”

And there I was, the winner of the Model Search, 1998.

In the 90s, my modelling career didn’t amount to much but self conscious shoots with duck faced poses before duck face was even a thing, and basically the bragging rights to say, “I’m a model; I won a contest.”  This didn’t really offer me a lot of accolades because it wasn’t often that it would come up easily in conversation, and even if it had, who would say that?  I was told to lose weight if I wanted to ‘make it big’ in the industry.  I was a size 4 at the time.

It wasn’t until I had been through my divorce in 2015 that I even considered re-embarking in the modelling industry, and that was at the urging of a friend of mine who worked as a make up artist and had a friend who was an accomplished photographer.  She urged me to try, and set up an introduction, and off I went to another self conscious shoot.  It was then the offers came in: shoots, fashion shows, look books…people wanted to catch my face on camera, my body in their clothes…I was something, I was someone.  I believed, if only for a brief passing while, that by being featured in a magazine or a show, I was somehow worthy…I was finally worthwhile.

One would think that having had two babies and a hip replacement, in her late thirties and with a full time job, modelling would be a bit of a joke, but I found the opposite.  Whereas some part of me laughed off the offers to shoot TFP (time in exchange for pictures, basically a free photoshoot) or the incentives to join various modelling agencies, in retrospect, I found myself vying for these approvals, these superficial validations.  The more likes I got on an image, or fans on my professional page, the more I was able to convince myself that I was doing something right, and that I was likeable, even loveable.  My marriage may have fallen apart, and being a single mother of two girls was not easy, but dammit I was adored, and my “fans” told me I was beautiful, so therefore I must be, right?

For two years I played the game, auditioned for shows with a perfected walk, swaying hips – only one of which was real…joke’s on them! – chin slightly tucked so as to look seductive but not too much so, no smile, careful strides in heels that made some girls look like Bambi On Ice.  I went to shoots, smiled and nodded at some less-than-professional photographers who commented openly on my looks, one who paused for an inordinate amount of time to sigh and say, wistfully, “I’m just admiring your beauty…”  I smiled and nodded at designers who, backstage at shows, would fit me and tell me to take a deep breath in because I was “too big” for this dress or that suit.  I smiled and nodded as other models would go on about the frustrations of being too beautiful, too thin, too hungry, too adored.  “My fans are just crazy,” One would sigh, exasperated with her astounding beauty and overly-affectionate fans.  “They just message me all the time, wanting to spoil me…It’s just so much attention!”  Another heavy sigh, and back to her mobile she went, giggling at fans begging for an opportunity to buy her things, posting selfies to garner more.  At one point, I couldn’t handle being affiliated with this kind of lifestyle anymore.

As a fitness instructor, I had been exposed to the downside of an industry that valued the physical above all else, and when combined with modelling, proved a dangerous combination.  I was in an at-times volatile relationship, and I truly believed that if I stayed thin enough, pretty enough, that I would be fine in all aspects of my life.  I began working out six to seven days a week, sometimes up to five times per day.  I existed off egg whites, broccoli and protein shakes – and the forever fulfilling boost of ‘likes’ on airbrushed, photoshopped images on social media! – in my objective to seek some kind of Beautiful Person Nirvana.

A final show, and backstage with other models from all over, I looked around me.  Younger girls were taking endless selfies – the resurgence of duck face was alive and well! – posing to show just the right amount of cleavage, just the right tilt of the chin, posting for likes.  A number of models huddled together, engaged in superficial conversation: “You’re, like, soooooo pretty,” one would gush, and the other, in mock disbelief, would reply with a gasp, “Ohmygosh no YOU are so pretty!”  “Let’s take a selfie!”  And up went the camera, a new friendship forged over their love of each other and themselves.  What in the actual f*ck was I doing here?

I stood, right then, amidst the crowd of giggling girls, posing with wide, almost comically over-innocent eyes looking up at their downward tilted mobiles, capturing their manufactured joy, hash-tagging their posts with things like, “#ModelLife, #BTS, #ModelsJustWantToHaveFun’.  One turned to the other, tilted her head and asked, “Would you pose nude for free if it was, like, tasteful?”  The other shrugged and said, “Like, ya, so long as it’s art, and anyway, you’ll get like so many new followers.”  Another sheik of joy and a few more selfies.  Nudes for the win, because, hey, followers reigned supreme, no?

It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with PTSD (not modelling related) and sent off work for mental health leave that I realized the extent to which modelling had played a destructive role in my life.  I had placed my self worth on an unattainable mark of beauty, which truly is in the eye of the beholder.  I had assumed that, because people liked images of my (photoshopped) body, my (overly made up) face, my (fake) smile, that somehow they liked me.  For once in my life, my height wasn’t something to be ashamed of, but to be celebrated…and yet, I was being celebrated for those things that could only be seen by the naked eye.  Nobody knew me, nobody really cared to.  So long as I was a still image on a screen or a magazine, I was voiceless, nameless, and my story was whatever the viewers wanted it to be.

“You are tired,” My therapist says at our weekly session, “You’re tired of being valued for the physical. You’re tired of doing what everyone else wants you to do, and you’re ready to take charge and do what feels right for you.”  And I am.  And I am.  I stand up, brush myself off and declare aloud, “I’m Anna, and I am a recovering model.”  My make believe audience applauds, welcomes me, and finally, I am Anna, and that is enough.

The Filly of Folly

Folly Beach, it’s called, and it’s a wee little town – village, maybe? – just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, and it became, quite surprisingly, the highlight of my trip to South Carolina one chilly February over the space of only a week.

In my typical adventurous – some may say naive – fashion, I opted to do minimal research on this tiny new location, considering I was really going for their annual tribute to Mardi Gras, aptly called ‘Folly Gras’.  Always in search of a party, a social event, or any reason to don my most colourful costumes, there were no further requirements other than showing up and having the time of my life, sharing with thousands of other joyful, costumed revellers.

I arrived early in the morning of Folly Gras, setting up shop at what appeared to be the only proper hotel in town, The Tides.  Perched high over the sandy beach at the edge of the main strip, which consisted of only about three blocks, I took a deep breath; where were all the people?  Had I gotten the dates wrong, perhaps?  Was this a ghost town?  Being Canadian, I’d somewhat gullibly assumed that February in Folly would be mild enough for a swim; not so.  The air was cold and the sky grey, the streets just about deserted, with the exception of the occasional middle aged couple, sauntering along holding hands, sporting matching hoodies or sweatshirts.

The Tides greeted me with a lively atmosphere in the lobby of what I could only assume would be soon-to-be party goers in search of the seemingly elusive Folly Gras parade later that day.  Perhaps it would be a wild one, after all?  I rushed to my room to change, hurriedly unpacking my rainbow bustle, fluffy boot covers, rainbow wig and the rest.  I would fit right in!

Have you been to Mardi Gras, I mean the real one, in New Orleans?  If not, here’s an opportunity for a side note: it’s big; to quote Trump, ‘yuge’, even.  It’s days – weeks! – of celebrations and revelry, costumed debauchery and music, and in typical New Orleans fashion, anyone in attendance is invited or even encouraged to come exactly as they please: Storm Troopers, Batman, Unicorns and Meticulously-Placed-Socks are a-plenty, and nobody would dare bat an eye.  It had been a year since I’d attended the real deal, and now I was determined to see this event play out in my new favourite beach town for their annual Folly Gras.

Once costumed-up, I proudly let my rainbow-coloured fluffy unicorn flag fly and marched proudly onto the street where the parade would begin.  I looked around at the somewhat subdued, fairly small crowd and noticed the strangest thing: not a single person was in costume.  Should I go back and change?  Would it be best to duck my head and – ahem – blend in with the crowd?  No, I thought, why not embrace this and become a part of the parade, instead?  It was decided.  I would take over Folly Gras.

The parade began with hand made floats and raucous music, much to the delight of the somewhat subdued crowd.  People stopped to get pictures with me, and I was noticed by a slicked-back hairdo of a guy with a wry smile.  He approached, his walk confident.  “Come over here,” he persuaded me with an ever-so-slight-Southern accent, and gifted me with several strings of brightly coloured beads.  After I thanked him and a chat, he slipped a card into my hands.  “Don’t forget to vote for me as the next mayor of Folly Beach!”  And like that, he was gone, schmoozing his way through the crowds, stopping to run his fingers through his coiffed hair and pose for pictures with delighted soon-to-be voters.

After a short period of time and somewhat reserved cheering, the parade came to an abrupt end, and party-goers dispersed along the main drag to the various pubs and side streets, in which bands played as though in competition with each other.  The party had truly begun, and I was delighted to be right in the centre of it all.

It was interesting, being in this tiny town in South Carolina, dressed up like Rainbow Dash on LSD, and the attention I managed to draw from the crowds.  People asked where I was from, and when I replied, simply, “Canada”, the questions and exclamations came in.  “Which part of France is Canada in?”  One asked.  I studied him for awhile, unable to make much sense of that question, let alone come up with a witty retort.  “The North,”I replied, dryly.  “Oh my gosh!  Do you know Celine Dion?”  Another asked.  “Where in Canada?”  A hopeful fella asked, his interest very obviously piqued, “Ottawa,” I answered, wondering if he knew of my little city, which happened to be the capital.  “Oh!  Awesome!  I have a friend in Vancouver,”  He let that hang in the air for a second before following it up with, “His name is Mark.  I wonder if you know him?”  I stared, blankly, for a moment.  “I happen to have a friend called Sarah.  In Los Angeles.”  When I realized he wasn’t quite catching on, I turned and left, a rainbow sparkling hurricane in a crowd of drunkenness.

I sat alone at a cafe on the outskirts of the main drag as the chilly drizzle started to come down, alone in the crowd of otherwise normally-dressed folk, still donning my fluffy rainbow attire.  I opted to keep the mask on as I ate, just a regular Saturday afternoon, nothing to see here, folks.  On my walk back, I saw the would-be Mayor scooping ice cream in a wee little parlour that looked brand new.  He waved me in with a grin, a double scoop in hand, drunk as can be, and walked over to offer a sideways hug.  “Don’t forget to vote for meeeeeee!” He exclaimed like a child, albeit a drunk one.

It wasn’t until the day after Folly Gras that I got to know the proper Folly Beach, and I mean the off-season, tourist-less version.  The Tides hotel was swiftly emptied out, it seems, within the night, and the chilly vast beach empty, the angry Atlantic churning against the shore.  Time to explore the wee little strip of land that I had no idea I’d fall in love with.

The day was so quiet, I opted to take my time wandering the street, poking in to the many souvenir shops that, despite this being out of season, stayed open in hopes for someone like me, the rare tourist, to pay for a few token trinkets.  I took a lazy, long, and utterly delicious brunch at a little nook off the main road called the Lost Dog Cafe, soaking in the busy, homey atmosphere and lively conversation around me.  The walls were plastered with images and cartoons of dog-everything, and the wait staff took no issue with my sitting for hours, jotting notes and observations, overheard conversations and ideas as they came to me.

It was that night that I opted to dress myself up and buy myself a cocktail, a task I had long held myself to perform in each of my travels.  No matter where, no matter what, I would take myself out and force myself to enjoy the solitude.  The hotel bar was empty with the exception of a couple engaged in animated, focused conversation in the corner and one person at the bar.  Still, I sat and requested a glass of wine, urging myself to sip slowly, enjoy the moment, and not be embarrassed at my solitude or over-dressed style.  After a few tentative minutes, I took myself outside, wrapping my shawl around me from the cool evening wind, imagining a slew of places to pop into, perhaps find a live band, or friends to meet.  Only one appeared open, The Crab Shack, and I reluctantly toddled in, stilletoes and all, to be met with interested looks from the few patrons huddled inside.

At the Crab Shack, I sat at the bar yet again and ordered food – probably crab? – and tried to bide my time watching the television overhead, which was airing the Presidential Debates, at this point in time it being Bernie Sanders and Trump.  The numbers were up; Sanders was the clear winner.  I whooped with delight, being the Socialist Canadian that I am, and promptly put my flailing hands down at my sides, embarrassed.  “Around these pahhhts,” Said a southern drawl beside me, his face largely hidden under his cowboy hat, “We keep our political opinions to ourselves.”

It so happened I was sat between a retired Colonel, and a US Federal Deputy Marshal who went by the name Pepper.  To this day, I don’t know if that’s his real name.  We ended up chatting and laughing the evening away, sharing our stories – mine hardly seemed anywhere as interesting – and it was time for me to head to bed.  Pepper rushed to hold the door for me.  That southern charm, I thought, as I skipped back to the hotel, delighted from a surprisingly lovely evening.

My last night in Folly Beach happened to fall on the Folly Family Reunion, or something thereabouts.  Pepper had invited me to meet some of the locals at none other than the Crab Shack – I suppose there weren’t a lot of options, anyway – and I happily joined in.  Walking into the room adorned in white fairy lights, I was greeted by convivial salutations, greeted with handshakes and two-cheeked kisses, met with a joyful reception one would imagine only being reserved for old friends.  Here I was, a complete stranger to them, and yet I was welcomed as though I, too, was a part of the Folly Family.

As I was gearing up to leave, in walked one of the most beautiful, elegant older women I’ve ever seen.  She was sporting a head to toe fur coat, and under it a velour suit the colour of wine.  She put out a perfectly manicured hand to mine and said, “Hello, Dahlin’.  Such a pleasure.  My name’s Shugah.” Both charmed and a little bleary by this point, I repeated, “Sugar?  Like the sweetener, Sugar?”  She smiled, “Not Sugar, dahlin’.  It’s pronounced Shu-gah”.  It’s pronounced ‘Shu-gah”; I would have to use that the next time I ordered a coffee.

Leaving Folly Beach early the next morning, before the sleepy winter town could wake, I took a moment to gaze out at the ocean one last time.  Behind me stepped a middle-aged man with dark, thick glasses on.  “Have y’all enjoyed your stay here in Folly?”  I nodded, and replied, “I can’t wait to come back one day.”  He slipped me his card.  “I run the local real estate agency round these pahts; y’all can give me a call when y’all return.”  I turned the card over, to see his company name was Giddy Up Real Estate Rentals.

Folly Family, I will be back.  Giddy Up, indeed.

A Dose of Happiness: Erasing the Stigma of Antidepressants

The walk in medical office is nondescript, the waiting room devoid of any personality, any artistic touch or warmth, even.  The ratty old chairs are lined up along three of the dingy white walls, filled to capacity with even duller looking patients waiting their turn, most of them glued to their mobile devices, zombie-like as they scroll through, a few of them staring blankly at the television screen perched on the wall, showing nothing but a slide show of possible diagnoses or reasons to ring the doctor.  “If you suffer from any of the following, consult a medical practitioner,” The screen reads, and scrolls through a laundry list of symptoms.

None of these symptoms are ones I possess; in fact, to look at me one would never know I was sick to begin with.  Was I even sick?  Should I just turn and head back home?  After all, I was only mildly depressed, I figured.  Perhaps I didn’t need the help of chemicals to make me happier.  Perhaps all I needed, as some proclaimed, was more fresh air, vegetables, nature; wasn’t that the case?  Wasn’t depression ‘all in my head’?

The shame that had brought me here was so great I hadn’t even wanted to visit my own family doctor.  Worried that he might judge me or offer me that same advice that so many others before had, tell me that I just needed to get out more or get over myself, I opted instead to take an afternoon off and visit the walk-in.  I’d wait as long as needed to speak to someone who had never met me, knew nothing of my life, and offer me a magic solution to make me happier.  I’d settle for a little more contented, even, or just less…willing to just stop going.

I’d tried to seek help, tried to convey to those close to me that something wasn’t quite right, but I just didn’t know how to communicate it.  The thing was, to know me, few would know that I was, in fact, struggling.  I’d smile and carry on about my day, always with the effort of not taking up too much room in anyone’s life, always reminding myself that others surely had it worse, that I should be more grateful, more peaceful, more patient.  And yet, I was having difficulty with the simplest things, such as waking up in the morning and getting out of bed, talking to friends, dealing with my daily responsibilities, which included raising my two daughters alone.

There were nights in which I laid in bed wondering if I had done well enough that day in my work, in my relationships, as a mother, as a friend.  Often times I would sleep too much, hardly able to stay awake, and others that the anxiety would wreak havoc with my mind, exhausting me to the point of being unable to sleep, unable to relax or “just let go”, as so many had advised in their supposed well-intentioned way.

I’d spoken to a higher up at my work.  “I think I might be nearing burnout,” I’d said one day, my voice barely a whisper, afraid to admit I wasn’t doing well, but needing someone to hear me.  “Well, I’m not your doctor,” she’d replied, matter-of-factly.  “If you’re having trouble, go see your doctor.  In the meantime, I’d like that report in by 4pm today.”  Perhaps, I thought, I was being selfish or foolish for even feeling this way.  Perhaps.

The receptionist called me in, a tablet in hand.  She barely looked up from it as I sat now, in the examination room, atop the exam table, expectant, worried, doubtful.

“Okay, so what brings you in today?” She asked, stifling a yawn, refusing eye contact.

“I think I might be a bit depressed,” I replied, looking down.  I could feel tears coming, but I willed them away.  “I mean, not crazy depressed, but you know…just not really living up to my full, uh, potential or whatever.”  Or whatever.  Why couldn’t I just say it?

“Mmhmm,” more typing into the tablet.  “Okay, well, let’s take your blood pressure and then the doctor will see you.”

The wait seemed like hours, though in retrospect, I’m sure it was minutes.  The doctor came in, a young man who looked fresh out of med school. He was friendly, chatty, just disinterested enough to make me feel safe to speak, somehow.

“I’m going to get you to fill out these two questionnaires,” he began, handing me the flimsy papers with maybe about ten questions per side.  “This will give us an indication of where you stand.”  I filled them out promptly, measured my answers carefully so as not to reflect just how sad I really was, but to infer that there was, indeed, some work that needed doing.  I was asking for help but not sure how to make that known.  I waited, watched his face as he appraised the results and pull out his script.

“So, you seem moderately depressed,” he began, and asked some of my medical history, which I offered back, tick, tick, tick.  “Here’s a prescription for an SSRI; you’ll take these daily and see how you feel within about a month, and then visit your GP to reassess.”

It was that simple.  I left the walk in with a script in hand for anti depressants.  I was about to take medication for depression for the first time in my life, and I didn’t know how to feel about it.  At the drug store, the pharmacist took her time in explaining to me how to take them, the potential side effects, the time frame it may take to “feel a difference”.  I, not knowing what to expect, smiled and nodded gratefully.  Now to go home and take them, and to wait to feel me again.

It’s been almost two years that I’ve been taking medication, switching doses, switching pills, countering my PTSD-induced depression with new chemicals to match the weekly therapy sessions, constant ‘homework’ and residual, ongoing stigma of living with a mental illness.  I see memes online, or Facebook updates stating that happiness is a choice, telling us that nature is the world’s best anti depressant, and that pills are poison.  I encounter people who tell me we’re all depressed to an extent, and that depression is selfish, that PTSD is based on ‘poor decisions’.  The battle is constant, not only in the desire to end the condescending, patronizing views of those who truly don’t understand, but within myself, coming to terms with the fact that I cannot change the past, or my emotions so easily.

Being depressed is not a reflection of weakness.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not an indication of poor decision making.  I am not selfish, I am not foolish, and I am most certainly not a victim of this world.  I have learned, in this journey through darkness, that asking for help is not an easy feat – indeed it can be hurtful when asking the wrong people – but at times, it is necessary.  We needn’t suffer in silence, and we needn’t be shamed for feeling what we do.

Park Mums

To be honest, I often avoid the park as a whole, at least during ‘peak hours’ as one might call it.  My youngest finishes school at 2.30pm, making the 3 – 5pm a hotspot at the park, the Daily Gathering of the Park Mums, as it were.  I just can’t do it.

One day, I cave; Georgia has to go to this specific park because So and So will be there, and we were supposed to play Unicorn Fairies of the Sand, and if we don’t go, what will ever become of me?  I, of course, cannot allow my five-year-old’s wellbeing and development be so negatively affected as to miss out on such an event, so off we go, bottle of water and sun hat in hand, arriving into the fray of mums and their little ones gathered about in cliques throughout the grassy picnic tables and under shady trees.

Park Mums, I call them, looking around for a space to sit, preferably alone, not in the mood to make human contact, smiling and nodding a bemused, “Hmmm” as we pass each other.  Georgia is off, squealing with delight and running wildly up and down the structures, my presence temporarily forgotten.  I think to myself, ‘At least she’ll sleep well tonight’, and I take notes of what I observe around me, forever enthused by the social cues one throws at another, the way they mirror each others stances, and what their conversations are like.

“Anna!” One familiar mum calls out to me, walking over.  “Come and meet some of the gang,” and off we go, meeting ‘the gang’, the fellow mothers in the park.  They’re stood in the sand together, close enough to reach out and touch their kids, as necessary, their arms all folded across their chests as they chat away, occasionally pausing to admire their offspring, or, more commonly, to chastise them sweetly, with such proclamations as, “Sarah, that is a no thank you!”  You see, little Sarah had been throwing sand at some poor child’s face, who was now screaming in pain, the sand in his eyeballs.  No thank you, Sarah, indeed.  “Bobby!  Bobby, come here right this instant,” Another mother says, her voice measured and calm. She gets down to his level, and holds his chubby little hands in hers, “Bobby, do you think Paul likes it when you hit him in the head with a shovel?  No, I do not think he likes it.  Look, now Paul is crying,” They look over, and he most certainly is.  No thank you, Bobby.  That was kind of you to consider hitting me in the head with that steel shovel, but no thanks.  Paul is clutching his head, tears rolling down his cheeks, looking at Bobby as though imploring, “Why, Bobby?  Why me?”  Bobby’s mum walks him over to Paul to apologize, as Paul’s mum smiles kindly, “Oh, boys being boys,” She says, and the two are fast friends again.

We return to our conversation, as it were, about home life, bed times, kitchen cabinets and minivans, things which couldn’t possibly interest me less, but I stand, taking on their defensive stance, following their gazes every so often to check on my little Georgia, who’s now galloping and simultaneously barking like a dog; the kid is alright, I figure.

“Oh, Matt came home the other day,” starts one mum, and we all lean in a little closer, imagining this must be juicy, “And can you believe, he suggested we order pizza for dinner.”  Everyone laughed heartily, and I stood, uncertain as to what was so funny.  I glanced at one, questioningly.  “How ridiculous!” She chuckled, “What kind of pizza will be gluten and dairy free, and vegetarian, nearby?  Doesn’t he know the kids react poorly to gluten?  It makes little Elise frightfully hyper!”  “Not to mention, Henry gets such a temper, right?” Adds another, to which gluten-mum nods, sagely.  “I cannot fathom feeding my kids that garbage.”  A collective moan of agreement, and I excuse myself to hide the package of Skittles I have in my purse, my Kryptonite to bribe Georgia to leave the park without tears on either side.

I opt to sit back down, preferring to be a passive observer of The Park Mums and Their Offspring, the running title in my mind.  There goes little Johnny, chasing Peter with a branch.  Neither of the mums react until Peter turns around and calls little Johnny an asshole, at which point mums surround both sides, chastising for using such filthy language, demanding an apology.  “We must be at one with our emotions, Peter!” His mum kneels down, her eyes intent on his.  “Do you not recall what we learned in last week’s meditation session, my love?”  After letting him go back to play, she turns apologetically to the other mums, regarding her sympathetically.  “Has he had any gluten today, perhaps, or any food colouring?”  It would be a reason for this outburst.  The others nod in agreement, “Hmmm” all around.

Finally, Georgia is filthy, her shoes more filled with sand than little feet, and she tells me she’s just about ready to head home, with the promise of Skittles en route.  Some mothers raise their eyebrows.  “Sure, baby,” I reply.  “Hey mum?  What’s for dinner?” “Well, I can’t be bothered to cook, so why not pizza?”  Georgia is delighted.  I have broken the Park Mum Code, and I’m regarded with scrutiny, whispered tones.

“Did you see what Peter did to Johnny?” Georgia asks as we leave the park.  I nod.  “What a douchebag,” She mumbles.  I have done it all wrong, and yet I can’t help but let out a little laugh.