i am proud.

the doctor tells me

you are bulimic

i think,

i am a poet

a writer

a creator of words

i am a daughter,

a woman in work

a piece of progress

i am a wife

a lover

an entire half to another

i am a professional

a post-secondary graduate

a life-long learner

i am a traveller

a lover of the world

and all its wonders

i am flawed

entirely

and beautifully imperfect

i am a human

afflicted with an illness

like any other

she tells me,

you are bulimic

i correct her

i am so much more.

-ash

Empathy isn’t a Lesson Learned Once

Empathy isn’t a lesson learned once: On the topic of helplessness.

The cards I’ve personally been dealt have been a bit of a delightfully weird mixed hand. Some have been difficult to learn how to play, but I’ve also been given cards that have made all the others so much easier to bare. I believe that the challenging cards gave me the ability to feel a blanketing compassion and empathy for people I’ve never even seen or only met a moment. I believe that all the beautiful and wonderful cards have allowed me to grow into a successful career as a social worker, with compassion being the backbone on which my practice must be built. I consider myself to be pretty empathetic, most days. But empathy isn’t a lesson learned once.

From 9-5, Monday to Friday, I hear the stories of older adults, who resemble the weeds and flowers that grow between the cracks of concrete; creating spaces for themselves where they can in a world that has taken them for granted and tried to force them into the ground. For the average senior, this concrete would simply be the agist society European-descended North Americans maintain: one that says older adults are expired, to be ignored, silenced, and pushed away in paid-for warehouses-for-people until they are buried. For the clients I work with, it is by one person they trust. They are silenced with violence of all kinds: physical, psychological, sexual, financial, and through neglect. In 8/10 cases, the offender is their adult child, typically living in the older adult’s home, and struggling with concurrent disorders such as addiction and mental health.

The risk factors that contribute to abuse and the reasons people stay in abusive relationships of all kinds are well documented. Elder abuse, however, adds a much more complex layer to the mix: the person hurting them is not a partner; it is their child. And at the expense of the older adults’ health and wellness, a parent will more often than not go to the ends of the earth for their child. I’ve seen couples confined to the garage of their own homes, which they’ve opened up to a struggling child, wealthy fathers go into poverty as their son drains their bank accounts and sells their assets, women in hospital beds who’ve had children and grandchildren assault them, steal, and berate them, and they still have sobbed that they have let their children down.

I almost always give the same consoling message we all do: it’s not right, you don’t deserve this, your safety is a priority, this isn’t your fault, you’ve done all you can, etc., etc. Don’t get me wrong. Those things are true, entirely. I can appreciate that they are in pain and it is not simple and easy. Professionally, I could understand all the reasons why some people really do choose to live at risk or in abusive relationships with their adult children until they pass. But personally, this was a distant mystery.

I am not a mother. I have never had the experience of creating a child, giving my body to them, loving them with an indescribable force, and spending the rest of my life doing everything I could to protect them. I’ve never raised a child who suffered in pain, and was pulled to do whatever I could to save them.

****

I recently tasted helplessness.

Someone I’d loved my entire life was unwell, and I was, and am, horribly terrified of losing them. I choose what I say here about my own experiences, but I recognize it is not my right to speak about someone else’s, and for that, the details will live outside of these pages and the eyes of the internet.

Regardless of the cause, the feeling of watching a loved one suffer, experience brutal pain, and not be able to do a thing about it, is something so visceral it feels as though your intestines are wrapping themselves around your stomach, strangling it tighter by the moment. Fearing that you may lose them takes the feeling and amplifies it; my intestines became a cobra, suffocating my stomach and creeping up toward my lungs. I had felt helplessness watching my father’s demise; but it was different-his suffering was something I’d known as long as I’d known him. You cannot hope for better if you’ve never been given a glimpse.

This time, there is. But how many times can you wrack your brain for a solution that isn’t yours? I envisioned how this story might end a hundred times over, through choked tears and drives that didn’t end. I wanted to fix it. I wanted to take the pain away and make it my own, make it manageable, make it disappear. I wanted to save this person I loved whole-heartedly; but rarely other people’s suffering is not something you can follow steps 1, 2 & 3 and have it vanish. Sometimes, there is nothing you can do.

There was nothing I could do, but feel helpless.

At work the next day, I began listening to the stories I had a hundred times before. And I knew my helplessness was one slice of what they live through- what these adults sometimes choose over their own lives for the sake of doing something, everything they could to take their child’s suffering away. Helplessness, that as a parent, is mixed with guilt, shame, responsibility, and the unconditional love that only a parent can have. Some go into poverty or become punching bags for their children’s misdirected anger, some take it to the grave. The things I had never understood, but with a little bit of empathy, can begin to try.

They do it to dampen the helplessness of watching a loved one suffer.

where emotion lives 

for me, emotions don’t float 

between the hemispheres 

inside my skull
i carry worry 

in the pit of my stomach

sitting like a volcano 

making it hard to fill myself with air 

seeping lava into my insides 

and always threatening eruption.
i carry sadness in my chest 

sitting on my breastbone 

like an elephant 

heavy enough

so i think im suffocating 

and weighed down with a force

impossible to move 
i carry happiness between my cheeks 

sitting atop my tongue 

bursting with joy 

like a child, 

trying to tell a story 

of gratitude 
for the volcanos and elephants have stepped away 

for a while 

leaving room

for the explosive 

childlike joy 

happiness

and weightlessness 

can bring. 

-ash 

the art of human creation.

I think that one of the most human things we can do is to create.

Some people create poetry and prose, filling blank pages with words that evoke emotion and tell stories, some that ring true so powerfully among people who’ve never even met.

Others paint pictures, images that speak a thousand words and mean a million different things to the eye of the beholder… but always mean something to someone.

Some mould clay with their hands. Carving and shaping the mould in their fingers to build a work that can stand alone.

Other people design clothing. Pulling pictures from the never-dusty corners of their minds; some people sketch the clothing that will wrap around warm bodies and protect them. And then, someone takes that fabric that was indistinguishable and brings a design to life, creating movement in the stitches that will walk its way around the world.

Some people build bridges and buildings. They are architects and engineers, bringing people together across rivers or hallways using laws of science and mathematics and creation. Building intricate bridges suspended in air, suspending their creations in time; creations that will long outlive their inventor.

Others see an empty space in a city. They take their tools of experience and muscle-bound memory and step by step build a home; a place that a family can call their own and create memories to last a lifetime.

Some people create children. They pull on courage and love within themselves and dedicate every day to sculpting the little child into a person, strong-willed and with a zest for life and an ability to create on their own.

And some people create violence. They create bruises on unmarked skin and draw fear into the eyes of another; some people write hate speech that tears apart people for the sake of power.

As humans, we create what we know and feel and we express it by finding a blank slate to draw our world upon. It can be beautiful or terrible and everything in between, but it is the way in which we make the internal something we can see and touch and show the world. It is the way in which we show the world who we are. It is the way we show ourselves who we are. It’s the way we feel human, again.

-ash