Oops....

I know it’s been awhile, but I am back, and I am blogging.

Over the last three months I have been trying to get back into my life in Fort McMurray. I have tried some new things, like pottery, knitting, and running a small fitness group. I have let go of a few old things and I am trying to re – gain my foothold on parts of my life that I took a break from. Work has been one of them and it has been a challenge.

Return to work its, something that is not uncommon be it sick leave, maternity leave or just an extended vacation. Coming back to work is something that many people do. I underestimated how difficult it would be. I was away for almost 10 months, I went through a lot of personal changes during that time, and I came back a different person. This week I got sick, I stayed home a couple of days and it forced me to slow down and take stock. I recognized I was still trying to find my place at work; I was still trying to slot myself in to a “role” or a “job”. My work needs to be a healthy relationship, with balance, boundaries. It needs to have the same give and take that any healthy relationship would have. So when I sit at my desk, surrounded by these strange artifacts of a past life that I can barely even relate to, I need to work to make sure that I am doing the best I can to have a healthy work relationship.

The other thing that has taken up my time is reading. I am considering writing a book, so I thought I should at least read a few. For me, I am interested in how I make sure I don’t relapse to my old habits, making sure I don’t go back down the destructive path as such, I have been reading self help, organization book, and other life coaching advice books. Some of it has been helpful, some of it not so much. I am almost tempted to write a book entitled “The Ugliness of Self Care” because in my experience Self care is not wine, in a bubble bath, with candles and Ania playing. Self care is budgeting spreadsheets, getting sweaty at the gym doing an exercise I hate, eating every boring vegetable, drinking water and keeping my house clean.

It making time for things like my blog, it’s taking time to connect with people, its avoiding the Netflix trap and not trying to hard to force myself into something I thing I should be doing. It’s little choices. So while we head into the holiday season, I have an interesting path ahead.

 

SF

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Principles of Yin

I have panic attacks, it starts as a small feeling in my chest that balloons up through my shoulders, back and neck. A surge of fear runs through me as the feeling digs a claw of bad memories into my brain and holds on as I try to resist.

This was my experience a little over a year ago when I attended a yin yoga class and yesterday I finally got the courage and the resolve to attend again. Yin yoga is a form of yoga where you get into a yoga pose and stay in the pose for 3 – 5 min, its an ideal time for mind wandering, self reflection and for me, panic attacks. I picked this class because a friend and a person that has an incredible ability for compassion was the instructor; I knew if I needed to get up and leave I could, if I broke down and cried it would be alright and the situation was a safe place for me to express whatever feelings came up without judgement.  The class went incredibly well, I enjoyed it but the instructor also really put a few things into perspective for me. 

She talked about the three principles of yin and I may be remembering this incorrectly but essentially step one is to find your edge, get into the pose and find a place where things are uncomfortable but not painful, challenging but not destructive. Step two is stay in that place, to resolve to be still in that moment to not back out of the uncomfortable feelings. The final element is time; allowin the body time to let the process happen.

This struck me because this is essentially the rebuilding process that I am applying to my life. Step 1 is to find the edge, to find that place where I am doing something a little bit different than what feels comfortable. This might be something as simple as when someone asks me how I am doing, if I am not doing well, I say “I’m struggling” or it could be something more significant like putting up a boundary and refusing to do something that doesn’t serve me, rather than just doing it and feeling resentful afterwards.  Step 1 is living an honest life, in the open and being vulnerable to the emotions and feelings that come with it.

Step 2 is to stick with that uncomfortable feeling, basically not to recant or diminish my honest feelings or productive boundaries. It is not backing off of what serves me. This means not slipping back into old habits and not pushing forward too fast or too hard. This means that I need to listen and feel my way through my life, to analyze if I am progressing or regressing and to have the courage to micro-adjust to find that healthy edge again. 

Step 3 is time. Giving the process time. I have been told that things get better with time, time heals all wounds and I don’t think that is correct. I think time can heal but in order for the healing to happen I need to remember step 1 and 2. Time alone is not enough. It is living the change, doing the actions, making different decisions and allowing myself, my body and my mind the time to progress from uncomfortable to comfortable. Then repeating the process. Growth takes all three steps. 

Growth is not easy. Yin is not easy. For me the temptation to back out, to hide, to simply go back to my old habits is always there. The fantasy world is always tempting me and reality is a challenge at this point. But to not use the three steps, to not try, fail and try again doesn't get me anywhere. It would be the equivalent of going to yin, having a nap and then complaining that I didn't feel a stretch. 

Yin takes work, rebuilding takes work, growth takes work and the reality is all of that work doesn't look like much on the outside but internally a great state of change is underway one thought (or yoga pose) at a time. 

SF

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Consequences

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This is an email I got back in February. A painful but not unexpected moment, I plagiarized, misrepresented myself and other peoples art and that had consequences. I wrote a letter to the board apologizing, explaining my situation, my mental illness and this was the conclusion they had come to.  I think it was the right decision, as crappy as it was for me.

Earlier this month I got this email from the same organization:

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Which was also not unexpected as the person who nominated me asked for my permission, but I had hoped their tendency to procrastinate would mean missing the deadline (I know you are reading this, but really this is the first time you have been early to anything). I was inclined to respectfully decline the nomination, but instead of just stewing things over in my head like I use to do; I picked the more difficult path of talking about my feelings.

The discussion with my therapist started with the simple question of: Why did I plagiarize? My answer; I wanted to feel important and I wanted to get attention. Her answer was: Borderline Personality Disorder. This hit me. I was diagnosed officially around this February and I have a really hard time coming to terms with this diagnosis. For one, I feel like I am broken inside and secondly, I feel like its an excuse, a crappy explanation for acting like a monster.  I feel like I am not taking responsibility when I say “I have borderline personality disorder which is why I took advantage of your trusting nature and lied”. For me, this comes down to one thing: control. To admit that having a mental illness is the reason for my actions is to admit that I don’t have control of my own mind. My pride, my arrogance, my own heart does not want to face that.

The reality is that if I had a brain tumour that caused me to act in the same manner I would be much more forgiving of myself and when it comes to other people, I do not hold the same level of judgment that I place on myself. I realized that while I am trying to break down the stigma of mental illness, I still hold that stigma within me. I am not willing to admit that Borderline Personality Disorder is a sickness, an illness that resulted in destructive behaviours.

I hate this. I hate this disease like I have never hated anything before. I hate that my brain will see the world as either good or bad, I hate that my first reaction is to act impulsively, I hate that my self worth is so low that I have problems locating it and most of all I hate that I have this frantic sometime uncontrollable fear of being left alone. I hate what I have done.

Acceptance of my homosexuality has been hard but a road that others have travelled and a journey that I have found to be full of love. Acceptance of my depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress has been a challenge but I feel that I can find an understanding within myself. Acceptance of Borderline Personality Disorder leaves me feeling empty inside because I don’t really know who I am without being that monster.

My therapist asked me if I believed that people with mental illness can be rehabilitated, if they can change, if they deserve a second chance.

This left me with one conclusion that I didn’t want to face: to ignore the nomination is to hide, it would be equivalent to crawling out of the homosexuality closet into the mental illness closet. It means to admit that maybe the content of this blog has some merit. It means that I can take pride in the work I have done post diagnosis. It also means that I will see people at this event whom I have hurt, I will be uncomfortable, I will not want to go, and I will not feel like I deserve to be their.

But, going it is the right thing to do. The right thing is to accept that Borderline Personality Disorder is a part of me; the right thing is to recognize that some people in my life will only know me as the destructive monster of mental illness and to respect those boundaries; the right thing is to move forward and forge new relationship being open and honest.

The right thing is to be gentle and not hateful with my mind, it is to recognize that mental illness is a part of me, but not all of me, and most of all, it is to move to the path of forgiving myself and celebrating a life post diagnosis.

I am happy to be here and I give myself permission to be happy. 

 

Memory

This week has been hard. I officially moved back to Fort McMurray, well mostly my cat Gus moved back, which to me makes it official. I have been focused on trying to answer the question of who I am, trying to live in the real world, trying to be comfortable in my own skin and then earlier this week I got a stark reminder that while my personality disorder has been the most destructive force in my life, the posttraumatic stress disorder was the catalyst that brought me to where I am today.

I watched Kubo and the Two Strings last December, a beautiful movie. (Spoiler alert) The villain at the end of the movie loses his memory and the villagers then proceed to tell him that he was not an evil man who tried to destroy them all but a kind, caring, gentle individual. One of the themes of that movie is that memory is powerful, more powerful than we can possibly imagine.  Being in Fort McMurray brings back many memories, ones of going to the fire but also movies, concerts, community events, late night conversation and early morning rides to the airport. It is hard to be here. Being back here makes me realize how much I believed the lies I was telling, how much I had bought into my fantasy world and how I was able to silence that voice inside that had its doubts about what I was doing.

In my session yesterday my therapist went through the building blocks of self. It starts with the basis of who you are, which influences what you do, and finally at the top it reflects how you contribute. I have been confused about who I am for so long that I am struggling to figure out what to do, and how I want to contribute. Before, I was a person who felt they needed to hide their true self and appear successful, so what I did was lie about my feelings and do everything to look like I had everything put together which lead to my contribution being betrayal of my friends and family.

But now, I am left to sift through all of that hurt, pain, and deception and try to find meaning going forwards. I use to define success by the money I made, I still make good money, but I realize that material things are ultimately an empty source of happiness. I thought I was striving towards some end goal, once I had the house, the nice car, the good job etc a magical source of happiness would appear, which is not true. I have all of these memories of all of this wasted time where I was trying to change the person I am, trying to cover up my feelings with dramatized stories or embellishments. Basically, I lied for so long that I believed those lies myself and lived that life and now I am trying to be me.  I am trying to reach back into those memories and find the elements of myself that I might have missed.  Find the essence of what made me truly and honestly happy and move forward from that spot.  I need to try to remember that not all of this was bad, I need to learn to be ok with me.  

Photo taken by me: Sunrise in Fort Mcmurray

Photo taken by me: Sunrise in Fort Mcmurray

Lumos

 I grew up with Harry, Ron and Hermione. I’ve waited in midnight lines at bookstores and stayed up all night to read. I remember in 2004 sitting in the theatre watching the Prisoner of Azkaban and realizing that I was attracted to Emma Watson. I have read and re-read and last year post fire a friend recommended the audiobooks, which have become the soundtrack to the darkest moments of my life. Driving back and forth from work having flashbacks, sleepless nights where I would pop headphones in a be transported to the Yule Ball and sitting in a plane crying my eyes out while Dobby met his demise. I love these books.

Its been a few weeks since my last post, and a lot has happened, some of which I am not sure how to write about, but it will come. Whenever I struggle, I listen to Harry Potter and driving to my first day back from work I heard this:

 “Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right, and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good and kind and brave because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort.”

The words of Albus Dumbledore, well really, the words of J.K. Rowling; a profound statement but in my experience, not an easy one to put into practice. My default setting is currently “easy”, it is easier to lie about my feelings, to pretend, to be something I am not. It is easier not to face tough choices, not to look at the painful parts of my life, it is easier to try to hide. But this past week I picked right, rather than easy.

I got a call from a reporter in Fort McMurray to talk about the pride sidewalk being vandalized in Fort McMurray. I agreed, hung up then proceeded to think about what I would say, try to have some key points. Then I stopped, I took a step back and decided to not rehearse. I met the reporter and talked about my feelings, open and honestly. (Story is here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/fort-mcmurray-pride-crosswalk-defaced-vandalized-tire-marks-1.4229845).

This had consequences, hate on my social media accounts, a few private messages of disgust but also a lot of love and support. A lot. I chose not to feed the trolls and I didn’t get into a long argument on my Facebook page. I felt like I perhaps should not have said anything, that maybe this wasn’t a good thing to do and then I remembered something I heard in therapy: “Feelings are never abusive”. I am entitled to my feelings; I am allowed to be hurt, outraged, frustrated and angry. I can talk about how I feel and I do not need to justify it with facts or figures. It pissed me off that someone defaced a Pride Crosswalk.

The events in the US also pissed me off, I am angry, sad and scared about where our society is headed when white supremacy can rear its ugly head and proceed unchecked.

The most common comment on my FB related to the Pride crosswalk and a comment I see similarly echoed in the events from the US is the sentiment that when someone does something outrageous, and you give them attention by complaining about it you are giving them what they want.

I think that is the easy way. It would have been easy for me to say no to the reporter and not talk about the pride crosswalk. It would have been less stressful, less hurtful and less worrisome (especially for my parents). But it’s not right. The right thing to do was to stand on the street and say that I was hurting, that I was sad and that I was angry. It didn’t feel good, but it did feel right.  

The right thing is not to ignore the hate and bigotry that is occurring in other parts of the world, the easy thing is to simply say I live in Canada and things are different; but I know better than that, I have seen confederate flags in Fort McMurray and its time to stop looking the other way. To ignore, to pretend, to tell myself that things are different here is essentially putting those feelings into a nice little cupboard under the stairs and hoping it never comes out. The right way, the hard way is painful. These past few months have been painful.

I think what I am trying to say is that life is challenging and choosing what is right is never easy.

In Kindness,

Sithara

30 Years from now…

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the tornado that touched down in Edmonton, I was in Edmonton at the time, barely over a year old and I have no memory of that day. However, listening to the radio as the choppy news story from 30 years ago played back and first responders now close to retirement re-tell stories from the past it got me thinking what May 3, 2046 will look like.

That will be 30 years from the Fort McMurray fire.

I assume some hologram version of the news will be replayed as I enter into retirement on the moon (I have major hopes for technology in the next three decades). I assume people will recount their stories, pull out old pictures, but I wondered today as I listened to the voices on the radio how a person might feel.

The fire was a major turning point in my life, I am thankful for it. I am not thankful for the harm it caused, for the hurt I caused and the trauma that was inflicted but I am thankful that it was a crucible in my life, leading me to honesty.

I don’t know if I would've come out of the closet, I definitely would've continued the lying and deceit that I had built into my life, I would have continued the pattern of pretending and living in a fantasy world. I would've betrayed and hurt more people, I may have done irreparable harm to my family and perhaps I would've pretended my way into other dishonest relationships or a dishonest marriage.

The only thing I know for sure from this entire experience is the future is uncertain. As much as I want to control the narrative of my life, as much as I want to be able to see into the future the reality is that I don’t have control and even when I thought I did I definitely did not. Ultimately 30 years from now will look like whatever it looks like, if anyone had asked me last year at this time where I would be in a year I would not had predicted this.

Right now I am learning to live with mental illness, I am working to build new relationships and I am learning what it means to be a lesbian in a honest and open way. The reality is that I need to be who I am, not who I want to be in 30 years and not who I wanted to be in my 20’s. For me, being who I am means choosing to change the way I interact with life and it’s making those small choices in an honest way with honest feelings. 

It is easy for me to slip into old habits, to ask myself how I should feel rather than look at how I am actually feeling. Reality is that hard times come and go, but the good times also come and go and somewhere in those experiences is my life. So, 30 years from now I will have feelings about the fire just like when I drive to work today I will have feelings about the fire and I need to remember that feelings are not only okay but important.

In Kindness,

Sithara

Storm outside of Edmonton, July 26, 2017 

Storm outside of Edmonton, July 26, 2017 

Gay Straight Alliances (GSA's)

I have written about this subject before but I am inclined to bring it up again as my hometown of Fort McMurray grapples with the installation of a Pride Crosswalk and the importance of awareness. I am an alumni of the Edmonton Christian School; a school that promotes Christ centered education. At the time I attend ECS it was a private institution that has since fallen under the public system. My family is Buddhist but a private school was appealing to my parents as education has always been important.

In March a Baptist school in Alberta was resisting the creation of a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA’s). (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/education-christian-schools-lgbtq-1.4039046)

What is a GSA’s? The Alberta Government defines it as:

Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and queer-straight alliances (QSAs) are peer support networks that promote welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environments for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students and their allies.

So what does this have to do with me? Well acceptance has been a central theme in my recovery and looking back at where I learned some of the self-destructive behaviours that I exhibited as an adult my time in high school has been a formative source of dysfunction. I have learned that as teenager’s individuals develop a sense of style, a sense of self and a sense of whom they are. During my teenage years, I was trying to change my sexual orientation. I felt rejected in the Christian school, the majority of the students were of the Christian Reformed denomination who at the time expressed that homosexuality was a sin, it was disgusting, it was a choice and if I believed hard enough, if I lied to myself enough I could be straight. As such I missed out on a crucial stage of development and it has contributed to my immature adult behaviour.  Much of what I am currently doing in therapy is trying to find my authentic self as a lesbian and let go of the distorted beliefs I picked up during this time.

In Fort McMurray the online backlash to the installation of the Pride Crosswalk has been more negative than positive, but ironically it is that negativity that demonstrates the need for Pride. For myself in my youth, I never felt like I belonged anywhere. My homosexuality made me an outsider at school and my inability to communicate those feelings isolated me from my family.

Looking back, I feel that a gay straight alliance would have been a lifesaver. Maybe I would have attended, maybe I would not have or maybe I would of pretended to be straight and ignored the entire thing. But a seed would have been planted, instead of feeling like the only gay person in that school, instead of expecting anger and rejection from everyone in my life maybe I would have understood that I was not alone, I was not on my own and I was not a disgusting individual for having feelings towards women.

In my experience ideas grow, a seed is planted it starts small and it grows as you feed it. I fed the belief that I could be straight with lies, I lied to myself and others for more than a decade and lying became the mechanism by which I would relate to people. It would also be what would push me to hurt and betray so many people in my life. 

GSA’s are not gay celebration factories or a conspiracy to overthrow the straight people of the world. A GSA’s may have sent the message that I am not alone in this; but more than anything a GSA demonstrates that in this big wide world the LGBTQ community has allies. People who are willing to support, to recognize, to not be judgemental and most of all to recognize that love is love.

I am so proud to see the work that is being done by the youth in Fort McMurray to establish GSA’s and I am thrilled to see the support in the community for Pride. Its an exciting time. 

In Kindness,

 

Sithara

Education Minister David Eggen at the Edmonton Pride Festival, a staunch supporter of GSA's

Why did the Lesbian Cross the Road?

On Facebook a friend posted a picture of a crosswalk in Fort McMurray that had been painted in pride colours, reaction on the post was mixed but the sentiment that stuck out was "Why do we need a pride crosswalk?"

I am a rookie in the pride community, I came out of the closet six months ago and I have a long way to go in terms of my own mental health and identity struggles. “Why” is a question that gets asked a lot not in just the LGBTQ community but also in many other context, “Why do we need gay characters” “Why do we need to celebrate pride?” “Why don’t we have straight pride?”

I don’t know the answer to these questions but I do know this:

The first time I saw a Pride Crosswalk was in Vancouver on Davie Street. I spent the majority of my 20’s in a pit of mental illness trying to change my sexual orientation believing if I pretended to be straight one day I would be straight.

I was afraid of the crosswalk, I was scared of being outed, and I was afraid that someone would see me in the “Gay Neighbourhood” and tell my family. I would visit Vancouver on a fairly regular basis and as time went on that neighbourhood became a place in which I would frequent to just observed. I would wander down the street on my own and I slowly, very slowly, started to recognize that this community was just like any other community.

It’s just a painted crosswalk. The power of the crosswalk is that it shows that gay, straight, queer, lesbian, bisexual are who we are. My sexual orientation is a part of me, just like a crosswalk is a part of city, it doesn’t define that city, and it doesn’t make it good, bad, evil or wrong it just is. My sexual orientation just is.

My original fear and repulsion to the crosswalk was because I saw it as an exclamation point but in reality, acts as a bridge, and a semi-colon of a continued life.

As a lesbian that out of the closet I may face homophobia, I may miss out on opportunities, I may lose out on employment or promotion, when I have a partner we may encounter a situation where it would be best to not hold hands or show affection. I know that these are the realities that I face. But to have Pride, to see the flag, the crosswalks, is to have a community, a place and a comfort. It reminds me that I am not walking by myself and when I do come to those crossroads, those difficult decisions, those uncomfortable places in life, instead of avoiding, pretending or finding another route, I cross that road and I remember that even if its not painted in pride colors that in the place that I call home, they do have a crosswalk for me.

In Kindness,

 

Sithara

Oscar, my pup. 

Oscar, my pup. 

Michael Stone

Across my social media this week the story of the passing of Michael Stone, a yoga instructor and Buddhist practitioner dominated much conversation. The official statement on his death from the family is located here https://www.lionsroar.com/official-statement-on-passing-of-michael-stone-released/

Yoga has connected me with many wonderful people over the past few years and a few of those people reached out to me and asked what I thought of the statement the family released. I am not a mental health practitioner, I do not represent any sort of professional advice, but I can tell you what I felt when I read the statement.

Simply put Michael was suffering from a mental illness and in looking for relief overdosed with fatal results. I was devastated reading the statement from his partner, I was saddened but I could also feel the hurt and the anguish in the words.

Reading those words, reading about Michael’s final day I related in a small way. I have been in the situation where I have felt so desperate, so alone, so sad and so scared that I was willing to do and say anything to feel connected to someone in some way. I have pretended to be ok, gone grocery shopping, washed my car, walked my dog all the while inside of me was a churning ball of hurt, anxiety and fear. In those moments, and there were many of them, my relief came in betraying those I cared about most. I would lie, created grandiose stories to extract sympathy, construct fantasy worlds, fake images, fake emails, fake people and fake life just to get away from the fear and loneliness inside of me. 

Some people turn to alcohol, drugs, gambling, hoarding etc, my tool was deceit and betrayal. I understand it, because in that deceit and betrayal for a moment I would get what I wanted, I would feel connected, I would get relief from the pain and have a window of relief. I lived for those windows, I would, and I did, anything to feel ok for a moment. It’s a horrible thing to do and I am in a much better place now but that part of me that sees the world in black and white, the part of me that expects a catastrophe at any moment, the part that doesn’t allow for anything except perfection and the part of me that expects rejections feeds off and is willing to do whatever it takes.

I know, in my heart, that I never intended to hurt anyone but I did hurt a lot of people in very painful ways. I believe that Michael never intended to hurt anyone and many of the people who fall victim to mental illness don’t. For me, the scariest part of battling depression, anxiety and borderline personality disorder is the unhealthy version of relief from the symptoms comes in the form of hurting those we care about the most. The healthy version, therapy, medication and self-reflection, is painful.  The stigma, the shame, the self loathing kept me isolated and the small windows of getting what I want by lying kept me in that cycle.

Mental illness is powerful. For me it has been painful, it almost killed me, and it will continue to take people away. The solution is not simple. I do not offer advice on my blog but I can say this: for me therapy and healing happened when I was uncomfortable, when I was facing the most shameful, angry, sad parts of me.  The ugliness. Putting on the masks, faking it, trying to be a hero all made things worse. Being who I am, accepting who I am is the path that I am trying to travel.

I wish healing, patience, and love to all those affected. 

In Kindness

Sithara

Highway 63

Highway 63 one of two highways that goes south from Fort McMurray. It has been my lifeline out of the city and back to Edmonton or wherever. A few weeks ago I drove the highway on my own (my dog was there for emotional support) since January and that 4.5 hour drive was emotional.

Driving north from Edmonton, I pass many small communities ones that I had played hockey in when I was younger. I thought about how much that sport had given me, how much it continues to give me in terms of support, friends and self-confidence. Continuing north I pass one of the parks that I worked as a conservation officer. So many memories on this road, everything from belting out show tunes with friends to the spot where I got a ticket for speeding a few years back. Then as the prairie gives way to the boreal forest, my mind shifts to May and June of 2016 and driving on this isolated highway.

About 20 km south of Fort McMurray I pass the spot where I chose to call a friend and ask for help on January 13, 2017. The fear and shame from that day are still raw and very real. But that is for another blog post.

In the past I have mounted a go pro on the dashboard of my vehicle to take time-lapse photos as I drove. Thousands of pictures, in varying conditions and I am finally organizing them in a meaningful way. I came across this picture from 2014, the camera snapped just as a logging truck passed on the undivided highway on a snowy day. The highway is now divided, the road improved.

This picture really struck me, how quickly I forget. In the beautiful days of summer driving conditions where an audio book and cruise control make travel enjoyable, the thoughts of harsh winter driving conditions are far from my mind. Memory can be powerful but also fleeting. In the warm summer mornings the days of challenging myself to get out of bed, the days of deep crushing depression feel far off but that was my reality for so long, and it could be my reality again.

This photograph reminded me how little I have in terms of the past and the future. I never imagined that I would be looking back with so much shame and that I would be so uncertain of my future. This photograph also reminded me that in the present moment, in this moment, I have everything I need. Focusing back or trying to predict the future negates the moment that I am in. In this photograph, black ice, my terrible habit of checking my texts while I drive, or any other random road hazard could have ended my life or life could continue on as it has. Moments are like a handful of sand, slowly disappearing, slipping through until gone and forgotten. Photography can freeze those moments, allow some reflection.  My past I learn and grow from, my future I see promise and potential but the present, the present is powerful, its real, its life. I need to be here because really, its all I have. 

Birthdays

July 12 is my Birthday; this year it’s the first birthday post mental illness diagnosis and my first birthday after I seriously considered ending my life. This is awkward. I don’t feel like celebrating, I don’t feel like I want this to mean anything more than it is but in a lot of way, this birthday is bigger than most. It will always be the one that almost wasn’t, the one that could have gone uncelebrated, and the one that will hold so much anger for so many people.

For me, my actions on January 13 when I considered ending my life (which happens to be my niece’s birthday) are infuriating. My cowardice, selfishness and arrogance are just unbelievable. Going forward and recognizing the hurt that I have cause, my deceit and betrayal of family and friends, the harm that I had cause and the wounds that I have created are horrendous.

But I picked to stay alive; I chose to be here and being here means living with the demons of my past. Some days that choice is harder than others, I’m not saying that I am still suicidal but I recognize now the difference between being alive and living. Being alive to me means that biologically I exist however living, requires effort. I have a choice, to spend the day in bed or to get up and engage with the world. I can choose to be heartbroken about the lost relationships for the rest of my life or I can choose to go out and make new friends. I can choose to coast through life and put myself in a bubble so I never make another mistake or I can choose to take risks, make mistakes, get knocked over and get up again.

On January 13 I don’t know why but I picked life over death, and now in every moment I am trying to ensure I chose life over just being alive. It’s hard, so this birthday I am going to choose to do things that help me move forward and recognize that while this may not be the life I thought I would have, it is reality and reality is much better than the fantasy world I had built for myself.

Thank you to everyone who made sure this birthday happened.

In kindness,

 

Sithara

A different Birthday from what feels like another life. 

A different Birthday from what feels like another life. 

Canada Day

Canada Day has meant very different things to me in the past, as a child it was often a time to go downtown in Edmonton and enjoy parades, face painting and ice cream. While I was working in the Parks system it was always a marathon of a shift either dealing with monster crowds enjoying out natural areas.

When I moved to Fort McMurray it has been a long weekend away from town, either a trip to Edmonton or some other locations. I have spent very few Canada’s days in McMurray and I have always seen the holiday as an excuse to attend a pancake breakfast and watch fireworks.

This year is different. It is different for a number of reasons, Canada’s 150th brings a lot of hype. I will be receiving an award from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo for my contributions during the first 100 hours of the wildfire. But most of all, I am different. The all or nothing thinking, seeing things in black and white resulted in me assigning whatever meaning was simplest or easiest to a lot of things in my life. So Canada Day has been good, never looked past it. This year, I’m looking at things different and the world has opened up a whole new world of nuance and understanding.

This started at the Pride parade, I had the privilege of meeting some of the kind people from the Edmonton Two Spirit Community and we got on the topic of Canada’s 150th. I learned many things that day and gained an awareness of the effect colonialism had on our aboriginal communities. More info on the concerns of Canada’s 150th available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDQpKNa3UIA

Colonialism has a cost and the reality is certain communities paid a higher cost than other communities. Aboriginals who had been on this land longer than any European bore the brunt of that cost. I know you are not reading this blog for a history lesson, so I will tell you what this means for me.

To me, this is yet another example of how I took the simplest explanation and was willing to run with it because it felt good. Celebrating felt good. Mental illness can feel good at the time. It feels good to pretend to have the best story at a party, it feels good to be the center of attention and sometimes it feels good ignore the hurtful things that have happened. I trusted that feeling, I took that “good” feeling to mean that everything I was doing was ok. I knew I was deceiving myself, I knew lying was wrong but I could ignore that because on some level it felt right. I got the attention I wanted therefore everything was ok, right? Wrong.

My life is not spilt into good or bad, right or wrong. It is more complicated than that and that complication is not something I am going to shy away from. One of the questions I have asked myself a lot in the last few months is “how did this happen? How could I lie to the people most important to me? How could I be so cruel?” A part of that answer is mental illness but a larger part of that answer is that I was willing to believe my own narrative without considering the bigger picture.

What that conversation with the Edmonton Two Spirit Community showed me is that there are moments worth celebrating and there are moments worth mourning, across my history and across the history of Canada. My willingness to ignore the messy parts of my life, the uncomfortable, unconscionable things that I had done lead me down a very dark path. I feel that ignoring the messy parts of Canada’s history may lead down a similar path.

For me, it was painful, hurtful and extremely unpleasant to acknowledge the terrible things I have done in the name of trying to be “normal”; but I did them and I am sorry. I see the people in the Two Spirit Community experiencing pain that is on a scale that I cannot imagine, hurt that is deeply rooted and just a sadness that is tangible when they speak about it. For me it was like I could feel that despair and that loss surround them.

This Canada Day is different, I do recognize that colonialism has given me the privileged, technology, comforts and many of the convenience that I enjoy. I also know in that same way colonialism has stolen cultures from others, abused communities, isolated entire groups of individuals and created biases in people that are felt today.

So yes, I will be celebrating. I will be celebrating an awareness of the complexity of the life I have. I will be celebrating my new relationship with people from the Two Spirit Community and hopefully next year I will be celebrating sharing a connection with more of the indigenous people around me. I cannot change, fix or alter the past but I do have the ability to recognize it and acknowledge it.

Happy Canada Day.

Re-Entry

Last year in June it was “Re-entry” for Fort McMurray residents after the Wildfire; armed with water, non-perishables, cleaning supplies, my dad and me made the trip up to McMurray. This year, I am doing a re-entry of a different sort. I’m headed into Phase 3 (see Onwards… for more details), I am afraid, but I am also excited. Re-entry this time is a process of creating community, building a support network and finding ways to find those connections and relate to people. It also means bridging the communities between Edmonton and Fort McMurray as I will be back and forth on a regular basis.

So I have a few things planned:

The first one is continue to use art, both writing and photography to raise awareness for mental health. I also want to partner with other artist and mental health professionals to continue to spread that message. This might be the start of a exhibit or a foundation or something but I am not going to get ahead of myself. First I need to reconnect with the arts community is both cities, Edmonton has been incredibly welcoming. Fort McMurray will be more difficult as I know hurt feelings and my reputation needs rebuilding. But I finally feel like I have a passion in my life and I will take this one slow step at a time.

Second is to find my queers! Fort McMurray is planning its 1st Pride and I plan to participate, I am also hoping to give back to the Edmonton Pride Community. Having been in the closet for so long, I have been sucking information from the Edmonton Pride Centre for years, like a cancer. The Edmonton Pride Community has been a secret source of comfort and now I would like to give back somehow and I am hoping later in July I will get that opportunity.  (more on that I promise)

Third is to admit that I like working out. I know I know, I have always made fun of gym nuts, the grunting weight lifters and the cult like atmosphere of crossfit. But I enjoy that, its community and its awesome. So, I’m going to try to start a November Project in McMurray. November project is a free fitness movement that is basically people meeting up at a location and working out together. In McMurray its going to start as just a bunch of randoms meeting on Wednesday mornings 6:30 at the Syne Community Building, every Wednesday, even in the winter. You can’t be an official group until they actually accept you in (I know, its cult like) which takes a minimum of 8 weeks, but I hope to see some of you out for a fun run around with some pushups, burpees, squats, lunges, hugs, highfives and of course some crazy pictures. Even if we are not an official November Project, I still think it will be fun. (July 5, 6:30 Syne Building, $0, come out, I promise a good time)

I have been going to a few workouts here in Edmonton, Calgary etc it has been a great way to meet people. It also connected me with a bunch of folks at the Edmonton Pride Run, so its building the small connections to eventually lead to community.

Honesty will be the core of all of this. Therapy will continue, challenges will arise, but unlike twelve months ago where I was trying to be someone I’m not, I get to be me. I look forward to continuing this journey, out of the closet and I look forward to connecting with all of the readers of this blog in a real way. So come get to know me, not just my crazy, the real me. Reach out, tweet, facebook, email, whatever. Time to leave my protected mental health shell and be an adult. 

#ymmstrong #yegheart

In Kindness,

Sithara

Ajahn Brahm

The reason that I ended up at the Buddhist Mental Health Conference is because of a Buddhist monk who is a bit of an Internet celebrity and someone who I ended up listening to in February. I had a few chances to speak with him one on one and I told him the Coles notes version of my life. We got talking about mental health he asked me if I felt like a broken person. I said sometimes, and his reply was simply that the forest is made up of all kinds of trees, none of them perfect, none of them straight but that is the beauty of the forest is in the cracked trunks, broken branches and the imperfections.  

We then talked about the Fire, the post traumatic stress disorder I developed and how I felt unworthy of receiving a Medal of Commendation from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. He asked me if I felt that I did my best, I said no, I thought I should have done more, that I had failed my community, that as I forester I spent too much time in Edmonton and not enough on the front lines with my colleagues and when I was in McMurray during the evacuation the fear was paralyzing. I also talked about how my inability to communicate my feelings afterwards resulted in me being dishonest about the extent of my participation in the fire suppression effort. I wanted to be more of a hero and I wasn’t. He simply stated this:

"You are trying to fill an expectation that is not your own, it is not anyone’s expectation, your community is giving you a medal because you deserve it, you will accept it, you are growing, learning, trying and most of all you are now mindful of your departure from the path and have come back. The problem with being dishonest is you expect dishonesty from everyone around you, you cannot accept good because you are always expecting bad. You did good, you did what you could now, the past is behind us but it bears fruit in this moment, one of those fruits is this medal, enjoy it in the moment you receive it, then move past it. Enjoy your life! Yes you have lost many items, but you lost them to mental illness, friends, your reputation, relationships, but you are not your illness. Get to know people as yourself; some people only know your mental illness as that is all you showed them. Try not to look at the two bad bricks, look at the entire wall."

He was referring to this story from one of his books:

“When Ajahn Brahm was building his monastery they had to do the work themselves, he patiently learned to lay bricks, and set up the mortar and he built a wall. Upon completion he stood back and saw two crooked bricks, he immediately when to the abbot and asked to take the wall down and rebuild it, the abbot said no. For three month those two bricks taunted him, he was ashamed of the wall until one day he was giving a tour and someone said “what a lovely wall”. Ajahn said “ can’t you see the two crooked bricks? The error? The wall should be torn down!” the visitor replied “but can’t you see the 998 perfect bricks?” Ajahn then took a step back and looked at the entire wall, and realized what he hadn’t been seeing. When you focus on your bad, you cannot see your good.”

Ajahn then asked me, what this story means to me. I replied that to me, it means I need to look at the bigger picture and look at the good in my life, try not to focus on lost relationships but look at the relationships that are still here. He also encouraged me to look at the loss as a loss to an illness and losing loved ones to illness is a normal part of life. Difficult because of the stigma of mental health, but it is a truth, and learning to deal with loss to sickness is a positive skill to have. 

So now, I sit here on a plane flying back to this life where, to some people, I am a traitor, a liar, an abuser of emotions and yet I also have people who love me, care for me, and think I’m fun to be around, I’m building those 998  bricks. So now I prepare myself for a re-entry into my life much different than the one I participating in 12 months ago.

In Kindness, 

Sithara

Ajahn Brahm's website: https://bswa.org/teachers/ajahn-brahm/ 

Below is the book he recommended to me: 

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Letting Go

I am attending a conference on Buddhism, Mindfulness and Mental Health. The speakers so far have been a mix of academics, monks and social advocates. Having come from twelve weeks of pretty intense therapy in which self-awareness was the central theme I was finding myself landing on the more skeptical side of the equation. I do think the benefits of meditation are real, and that mindfulness is important but I was finding having it presented as a “let go of your emotions” to be taxing.  

A researcher on pain management explained that pain is measured in two ways, the actual stimulus itself and how unpleasant the experience is to the person. Simply put: how I perceive pain is different that you based on the unpleasantness factor. Then they put up a slide in which people in MRI machines were measured as they experienced pain both before and after getting coaching on mindfulness. Rather than running from the pain, avoiding the feeling or stuffing it, the participants were coached to focus on it, be mindful of it and really be aware of it. The results were over time the pain unpleasantness decreased however immediately after receiving the coaching in mindfulness they reported an increase in unpleasantness, an overwhelming increase for some people.

Basically it got worse, a lot worse, before it got better.

This was my experience in therapy. At about the six week mark of the program, things were not good, the facilitators told me to expect this, gave me tools on self care, helped me talk about what I was feeling but it was hard, harder than anything I had ever done. I understand why people don’t get help, I understand why people turn to drugs, alcohol or other means to deal with issues, and I understand why I floundered for so long in my fantasy world. Mindfulness is a ten on the unpleasantness scale, everything inside you screams to quit, run, or find another alternative.

For me, it was grappling with the question of “why do I hate myself so much”, I didn’t want to face this reality. Looking at my deepest most destructive behaviours: lies, and deceit, shame and peeling away every layer until I got to the core of why I felt what I felt. The process was horrible, at times it’s still horrible, the shame is painful, but overall the results have been incredibly fruitful. 

On of the strangest bi-products of this journey has been my physical appearance, I have lost weight, I dress better, I wear make up and I do my hair rather than just tying it back. I have a shoe collection, and not just steel toe books and hiking shoes an actual collection.  All of this: signs of someone who cares about themselves, all of this self-care comes easy now, before not so much.

It wasn’t for lack of trying having done the self – care books, the dieting, weight watchers, the biggest loser challenge at my local gym, the personal trainer, workout CD’s, meditation podcasts, I did 200 hours of yoga teacher training and all of this produced results that would inevitably not be sustainable. Why?  For me, it was a physical impossible to care for myself long term when I hated myself. 

I get it, I understand how people can become hoarders, I understand how someone’s life can be turned upside down by addictions, I know that had my circumstances been somewhat different, if the right people hadn’t landed in the right places on my way to the bottom that things would have been different. I also know that I can slip down that slope at any time, if I don’t practice, if I don’t continue to use the skills I learned in therapy, if I don’t pay attention to my anger, if I don’t express my feelings, if I stuff my frustrations deep down all of that leads to a path of self destruction.

Emotions, feelings, open communication is what helps me connect on a real level with people around me. So I won’t be letting go of my emotions, I will be feeling them, expressing them, talking about them and being honest with them.

In Kindness, 

Sithara 

The Mountain Within

3:30 am. I’m cold; I clamber out of my tent into a mossy, dewy morning. Mountain air; the fresh, fragrant clear beauty fills my lungs. Grabbing my camera bag and tripod I head over to a group of photographers ready to capture sunrise.  Its July, a few days after my 28 birthday, this trip was a gift to myself. The mountains with a group of strangers and a wily Quebecois as our fearless photography leader who I am sure is part mountain goat as he nimbly walks along the crooked path dimly lit by our headlamps.

Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. What a place to wake up to.

I set up creek side ready to capture the beauty of the sunrise, my tripod legs in the water my camera perched on top, test shots, adjusting settings, more test shots, trying to anticipate what the morning glow will bring.

Splash.

A piercing cold shoots up my arm as I reach for my submerged camera in the bottom of the creek. I watch my hand grip its body in the clear glacial water and I pull it back to the surface. I stare at the camera as water empties from its insides. Its day one of a backcountry photography course under the stoic majesty of the Matterhorn of the Rockies and I just ruined my gear.

This moment stick out for me. Despite having anger bubbling just under the surface for so much of my life, I didn’t get angry, I remember looking up at the mountain and thinking “well, its not like I can’t enjoy this place”.  The leader of the group came by to console me, lent me his gear, and got me a bucket of rice from the fancy lodge and for the rest of the week I had a recycled industrial size bucket of Hellman’s mayonnaise that housed my camera submerged in rice. I wasn’t upset; in fact I nicknamed my next camera “Hellman II” in honour of this moment.

In therapy I was ask to think of a memory that was true happiness and dumping my camera in a creek was that memory. It wasn’t that I was happy that I managed to ruin a few thousand dollars of camera gear; it was that in that group I didn’t feel the need to be anything but myself. We were strangers, brought together by photography, sleep deprived as we attempted to capture ultra early morning sunrise and ultra late sunsets. These were my people, my kind of people. That wily Quebecois would end up being a very trusted friend, his wife would be one of the people my family contacted when I went missing and they would end up being two people who I came to rely on for support during my recovery.

A few workshops later I would meet two ladies from central Alberta, mothers, photographers and amazing people. Once again, a friendship forged in early morning photo-shoots, swearing at a uncooperative tripod leg and nursing giant bug bites. These would be two people who provide me with support, friendship and the confidence to pick my camera up again after being majorly depressed.

Another group of Manitoban photographers would send me plaid related items in the mail because they know I like the pattern, again another group of people who would be incredibly supportive through my recovery.

A Parks Canada employee that I met through a another course would provide some very needed words of encouragement during my darkest times.

Community, build under the unlikely set of two to three days of photography workshops but have forged lasting friendships over time. Taking pictures in the mountains with strangers is where I felt like I belonged. My life always felt like this jumble of suspended animation but for some reason the mountains made sense and the people who come to soak in that mountain culture, be it for 3 days or a lifetime, have always been allies to me.

Somehow dropping my camera was this moment of clarity where the world was showing me that my material goods weren’t my source of happiness, I was, and will always be my own source of happiness. I realized over the last few months that I don’t need to go to the mountain; I carry that mountain culture inside of me.  

In Kindness, 

Sithara 

Black and White

Black and White:

“It needs more contrast” was the feedback I got from a fellow photographer as we crowded around a laptop reflecting sunlight obscuring my view of the screen as it streamed in through the windows of the dining room.

“Cool, go for it” I reply, not really understanding what she meant. I take a slow mouthful of coffee; everything in this home is art, from the pottery coffee mugs to the beautiful live edge shelving. A reflection of the kind free spirited family that resides here.  A few keystrokes then the adjustment of a feature in Photoshop and the black and white image comes to life. Shades of grey emanates from the screen, the blacks are starker, the whites are stronger the photograph bleeds out feeling of frustration and pain that is echoing inside of me.

“What do you think?” she casually asks

“I like it” I stammer, blood rushing to my face as my emotions build.

 

Seeing the world as all or nothing, love or hate, acceptance or rejection is how I interpreted many of the relationships, interactions and day to day occurrences in my life. The awareness of the black and white thinking was a turning point for me in therapy, seeing the shades of grey in situations and not reading into everything has been such a freeing experience. It is also a struggle, 31 year of doing things one way and now I am training my brain to think different, I know I will slip up, I know I will not always be successful but I feel more confident in my ability to identify my destructive behaviours before they escalate.

Its strange where therapy happens, I didn’t expect to understand so much about myself editing pictures with two friends on a idle Monday afternoon. I didn’t expect to recognize that the way I viewed the world meant that I was always looking for a winner and a loser and more often than not, I lost. The interesting thing is that life actually happens in the grey, it’s the small decisions, the little choices, the tiny arguments, the small smile, the random acts, the flick of hair, a wisp of wind, a small gestures that make up all of the richness, sadness, joy and fabric of life. The black happens, the terrible anger, hurt, pain, chaos as does the white, the joy, happiness and elation. Living in the black and white was anxiety ridden and exhausting. The grey is unfamiliar, but I am happy to be here, its so interesting being able to celebrate the little tiny emotions, to recognize that annoyance can build into monstrous anger or be dealt with as annoyance thus allowing life to go on. The grey is so beautiful, so rich, so diverse. 

Maybe I should check out those 50 shades of grey books, probably have some good life lessons.

In kindness,

Sithara

Onwards...

I’m transitioning into phase 3 of my therapy, which includes the deliberate reintegration back into my life. This is nerve racking and exciting. It’s taking 12 weeks of new skills, new confidence, and new communication style and trying them out in the real world. Its time for me to go out and live my life, my real life. One of the characteristic traits of my disorder is seeing the world in black and white. I would take someone being busy as rejection, I would judge my worth by how others saw me, I would do anything to make sure people liked me even if it was dishonest.

So I’m taking the time to revaluate my likes and dislikes, what I enjoy doing, what I do because I think people want me to do it, what are things in my life that don’t serve me. Photography has been one of my hobbies that I have had to take a hard look at.

In October I plagiarized, in the depth of post traumatic stress disorder, depression and trying to find acceptance I took a photo that wasn’t my own and claimed it as my own. I created a story around the image, I believed that story myself and I sold the image, I messed up. I was very fortunate in that the organizations and individuals who purchased the images were very kind and understanding. The local arts council removed me from the membership, which I understand, mental illness has it consequences and I need to move forward. I felt that this was the end of my photography career, I was sure that it was.

The problem is that I like photography. I really like photography, I like going out and taking pictures, I like sharing pictures, I like talking about cameras and I love the community that is built around photography. On June 8 I took a risk and displayed some of my artwork at the Pride Awards. Upon check in I was given a name tag that simply stated “ Sithara Fernando – Artist”. The word “Artist” really struck me, I usually use “photographer” as a descriptor but being an artist is something that I never really thought about.  So rather than punish myself for plagiarizing, rather than seeing things as either being involved in the arts or not I’m going to embraced the “artist” and try to move forward.

Finding my Voice

I am so happy to say that some of my writing has been published in the Pride Guide as part of Edmonton’s Pride Festival. The theme is year is One Pride, Many Voices. I feel that over the last 6 months I have started to discover my honest voice, my true self and I am starting to be comfortable with who I am. Below is the article, but please pick up a Pride Guide and attend the Pride Festivities in Edmonton!

The Honest Voice 

I use to have many voices. I would lie about my sexuality, I would lie to protect my emotions, I would pretend to be other people, and I would fake my way into relationships. My many voices have hurt people in unimaginable ways.

I am profoundly sorry. I am sorry for not being my authentic self, I am sorry for hurting those around me, I am sorry that I never realized that I had a community of people who would support me for who I am. I am sorry I underestimated the love and kindness of my family.

What I didn’t realize is when I lied about my sexuality; I was lying about the core of my being. I became a closeted lying lesbian, and lying became my tool for coping with all stress in my life. I built elaborate lies because I felt inadequate, I felt I never measured up, I felt I needed to be better, and most of all, I never felt like I was enough.

But, I am enough. I am worthy of love just the way I am, I don’t need many voices to prove that I am a good person, I needed to find my one voice. I found that voice by stepping out of the closet; I found my voice by owning up to the lies and the hurt that I had caused. My journey to my one voice is littered with unnecessary destruction, and I sincerely regret that.

But, I am not sorry that I am lesbian, I am proud of my sexual orientation. I am proud that I have the ability to share my love with others.  I am proud that I finally found my one voice, my honest voice.

The Christmas Stocking

The Gift – A beautiful handmade Christmas stocking with my favorite pattern and a bear to symbolize my work life as a wildlife biologist. It was the most incredibly feeling getting this gift seeing my name on it and realizing that for Christmas I had a place to be. This was the darkest most stressful time of my life and you reached out and showed me that I was worthwhile.

The Lies – I pretended to be something I’m not, I pretended to be a hero, I played the victim I lied to get attention and so I wouldn’t be alone. I exploited your family, I emotionally abused your daughter, I stayed in your home and took up your time and space all while being deceitful and I am so sorry.

The Truth – You accepted me for who I was, as I was. I didn’t need to pretend and I wish I had the courage to reach out to you. You showed me patience, love, kindness, and caring; I showed you anger, deceit and fear. I am sorry. This relationship showed me something that scared me more than anything has scared me in my life; you showed me how strong faith can be, how powerful religion is and how you can rely on a higher power to help, protect, heal and calm you.

Control has been a central theme in my life. I use to get afraid when I wasn’t in control, I get scared, and I get anxious. I would manipulate and control others with my anger, with my lies, with my stories to get what I want. After 31 years of trying to control everything I completely lost control and I lost my mind. You exemplified to me what faith is, its not having control, its not wanting control, its is knowing with certainty that life will unfold exactly as it should and I should not fear that. Having you in my life for that short time has made my recovery possible, I am learning to let go, to have faith and to leave it up to whomever is out there.

You gave me the gift of knowing that I am never alone and I cannot thank you enough. I humbly ask for your forgiveness.