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On Keeping It Together When It’s Falling Apart by Kelly S. Thompson

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

It’s a family joke that I was born anxious, and I have the depression and anxiety diagnoses to back it up. Even so, I didn’t choose careers that might assuage those illnesses. First, I joined the military for a life of uncertainty, and now I work as a writer and memoirist, in which rejection plays a regularly depressing role. Despite the challenges of writing life, I’ve found a sense of community in the literary world, which is key to staving off loneliness as I toil away in my home office. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still depressed and anxious (because mental illnesses isn’t fixed by having a good life), but I’ve learned to welcome these parts of me as contributions to who I am.

In March, 2020, I left my nerves at the door of the Banff Centre, where I was completing the first draft of my next book that would hopefully—fingers crossed—be sold to my publisher. The Banff Centre, nestled in the mountains, offered me a writing studio for work, meals on demand, and a cozy place to sleep next to the majesty of Mount Rundle. But within a week of my arrival, the world was shutting down due to covid-19, and I scuttled home to safety, leaving my residency unfinished but with a completed draft of a memoir that was hurting my heart.

My next book, releasing May, 2022, is about my sister, Meghan, who died in 2018 after a long struggle with cancer. Her death was horrific, painful, and so was her life; one full of addiction and abuse that spanned most of her adult years. I grieved her in a way so full of complicated emotions that I haven’t slept well since.

I knew long before my sister died that I would write about it, and she wanted that, too. Meghan and I shared the belief that true stories offer a place not only for legacy, but to understand one another, to hone skills of compassion and empathy, to wring out the heart of who we are. I love memoir for a million reasons, but in particular, its ability to render such intense levels of resonance for a reader. But abuse, death, addiction, illness; these are not easy subjects. These are especially difficult subjects when the story is true, when the pain is so recent and tangible. Or, say, when a global pandemic locks down the world and robs the opportunity for escape that comes from other relationships, from the outdoors, from my precarious purchase on sanity.

For the first few months after returning from Banff, I felt a bizarre sense of calm. While the world shut down, I wrapped myself in a blanket and was grateful for my sole media access of Netflix, so that I could avoid the news as I chose my next trashy binge. In June, when my memoir sold to my publisher, as hoped, I had all the more reason to feel joy at a time so many of us were feeling such loss and grief, bolstered by the hope that my book might help others through their own hard times. This is why I write as much as this is why I read.

But as depression and anxiety do, they reared their ugly heads in a way that made it feel I could barely keep myself above water. And while I worked on edits on the most emotionally wrenching subject I could imagine—my dead sister—I worried about the commitment I made to tell a story that tore me in two. Add to that was compelling feeling that I ought to be doing more, because I was home (thanks, covid), without much to do (another nod to covid), the result was such an intense level of despair that I could hardly breathe.

And I know I’m not alone.

Social media makes us feel like there is a certain element of achievement we’re supposed to be checking off each day, as though a pandemic is rife for productivity. (If one more person tells me to Marie Kondo something, I will start throwing my nice array of desk accessories without regret.) And yet, I’m drawn to the posts of fatigue, of honesty, of complete frustration with home-based learning (parents, I salute you), growing waistbands (our health and beauty are not measured by such metrics, but I digress), and stilting boredom (there’s only so many games of backgammon a woman can play with her husband…someone please tell my husband). Those moments of vulnerability are moments of bravery, and I admire those displays of honesty on social media just as I do in a great book. Baring my tender belly in writing often results in readers nodding and saying, Uh, I get that. I write memoir so others feel less alone. I write memoir so that I feel less alone, too.

But my dilemma remained: I was writing the hardest chapters I’d ever been faced with and yet life continues on. There was a contract for a book and work that must get done. There was laundry to wash and dishes to clean. There was exercise (uh) that must be undertaken before my body shrivelled in on itself. Essentially, the pandemic highlighted a new element of grief I was trying to understand in the pages of my book, which was that despite all the pain and torment that comes with loss, with depression, with anxiety, we keep going because that is life.

I won’t tell you to look on the bright side, mostly because I want to snap like a twig at anyone who says that to me. If climbing out from under the rock of depression was as easy as turning some proverbial cheek, well heck, I’d have done that a while back. But what I will tell you is some advice from my Bull Terrier, Pot Roast.

Pot Roast, for those not introduced to my ridiculous, hefty, rambunctious twerp of a dog, is a force. He’s also, as the breed name suggests, much like a bull in a china shop, and my husband and I have a saying that Pot Roast doesn’t know the meaning of “around” and refuses to have anything get in his way. He only knows “through.” If there is a treat on the other side of the room and there just so happens to also be five pieces of furniture in the way of Pot Roast and that treat, it’s through all the way to joy, and a cascade of end tables to prove it.

I’ve taken the same approach to getting through the pandemic. The only way through it is…well, through. I take deep breaths when I’m overwhelmed. I swallow the medication prescribed to keep me on as even a keel as possible, and ask for help when I know I’m not coping well. I go to therapy (a luxury I am grateful to have) and I take in the outdoors whenever I can. And I write. The only way, folks, is through.

I am impossibly, hopelessly flawed. With lockdowns, I have quite possibly the ugliest hair that has ever existed in the dawn of time. I barely leave pajamas (if you see me on a Zoom call, there’s likely sweatpants under that cute dress), and these days, Pot Roast and I are covered in equal amounts of dog hair. Some days, I celebrate that I have had a shower, much less if I’ve completed a new book, outlined another, sketched out a poem. I am not the sum of my accomplishments, but rather, the sum of countless messy, complicated things. It’s in the centre of that mess that beauty is revealed. Yours is in there too.

So I won’t be measuring myself this year, or any year, based on what items I was able to check off a to-do list. I’ll be looking back on having made it through with love, with self-love, with compassion, with a smattering of tears. But we’ll come out on the other side together, share some books, find community yet again. We’ll get through it. Just ask Roast.

Kelly S. Thompson is a writer and retired military officer with a master’s in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and a PhD candidate at the University of Gloucestershire. Her work has appeared in literary magazines, anthologies, and newspapers across Canada, including Chatelaine, Maclean's, and more. Her military memoir, Girls Need Not Apply, was an instant Globe and Mail Bestseller and rated one of the top 100 books of 2019. Her next memoir, Still, I Cannot Save You, will release with McClelland & Stewart in May 2022.

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