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Overcoming blocks to blogging

Pushing through the blocks to blogging

Come on, you know you do. You know you want to start writing a blog…but you just don’t know how to get started…or even what to write, right?

I have to admit I was a little stumped this month, too, as I’ve been wrapped up in putting together my entry for the CBC Short Story prize, which closed Oct. 31, and prepping for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which runs for the month of November. 

As the deadlines loomed, I was experiencing the plague that hits most writers at some point: the dreaded writer’s block.

I eventually broke through it, with just 48 hours to spare. My CBC entry, which I LOVE, is about a writer facing her fears.

See how I did that? Took a problem and turned it into a solution?

In story writing, we call this the “narrative arc” – where there’s a conflict, a climax and a resolution. It’s not that much different in business writing, where you need to identify a problem your audience is experiencing (conflict) and how the story of what you’re offering (climax) can solve it (resolution).  

So, there I was with imminent deadlines and a blank page staring back at me. I needed help. The funny thing is, that help eventually came by drawing on what I already knew from all my business writing. I just had to use it in a different way.  Maybe this can help you too.

1. Ask the experts

One of the first things I do when deciding to write about anything is to seek out experts. In this case, it meant reviewing my notes from the writers’ workshops and readings (including Margaret Atwood!) I attended this past year as well as some of the great stories I’ve read. This isn’t all that different than looking at what influencers are doing on a business topic you want to write or interviewing someone. Or, perhaps, you are the expert and can draw upon previous experiences and resources. The Orbit Media Studio’s 2019 Annual Blogging Survey reveals that others agree this is a good strategy.

Orbit Media Studios 2019 Blogging Survey
Orbit Media Studio’s 2019 Annual Blogging Survey

2. Turn problems into solutions

As I mentioned earlier, this was a key strategy I used for breaking through my “block”. Bringing your audience into your story by recognizing their challenges and how you can make their lives better is always the goal. The key is to solve that problem by providing value and not just a product. Marketing Examples puts it this way: People don’t want a better toothbrush. They want a brighter smile.

3. Give it the time it deserves

While I only had 48 hours to the CBC deadline, I pretty much spent all of that (with just a wee bit of sleep) writing. I don’t recommend this. I do advocate giving anything you are writing, especially when you’re looking for conversions or sales, the time it deserves. The Orbit survey shows that the average blog post takes almost four hours to write and that bloggers are seeing better results when they spend more vs. less time writing. This time isn’t just about the writing but also taking the time to do the research (see below) as well as keyword searches to improve SEO. The Orbit Survey showed that keyword searches pay off, stating “The more the blogger researches keywords, the more likely they are to report success.

Orbit Media chart showing bars for time invested to write posts

4. Go big or go home

I decided to put it all out there for the CBC fiction piece and came in just under the 2,500 maximum word count. Interestingly, the Orbit survey reveals that the days of short form content seem to be gone and that bloggers are seeing better results with longer posts. Common sense would say this is content that is giving readers more of what they want – well thought out solutions to their problems that are backed up by solid research. 

Orbit Media 2019 Blogging Survey length of articles

5. Make it stick 

My project had to be fiction so I was somewhat limited, but I focused on writing it in a particular style – literary – that seems to be what wins the CBC writing contests. For the newer business blogger, this gets a little trickier as you may not have the capacity yet to create guides and eBooks, infographics or research. But most of you have some expertise that can be leveraged into a how-to article (like this one) that still rates pretty high. 

Orbit Media Studio 2019 Blogging Survey content format

6. Picture it

Again, I wasn’t permitted to use images, video or audio for the CBC project. Instead, I used a lot of strong language to illustrate the main points in my story. You’ll want to be careful with this in business writing! The chart below shows the power of video, which is a trend that has grown over the years. Interestingly, the survey also found that while just 3% of bloggers add 10+ images per article, they are 2.5x more likely to report “strong results” than the average blogger. 

Orbit Media 2019 Blogging Survey strong results by content format

7. Know what you’re asking for

In short stories, you want to let the readers decide what they’re taking away. Not so in business writing. Be clear on what you want the reader to do but think “Call-to-Value” rather than “Call-to-Action”. This piece of advice is courtesy of Marketing Examples who share that a button to “Create Your Website” is more enticing than “Sign up now”. You get the idea. See What’s Next? below.

8. Obsess about headlines, subject lines and opening lines

This is how you draw your readers in. I spend a lot of time on this no matter what I’m writing. The Orbit survey found that writers who considered lots of different headlines for their blogs got better results. Ann Handley,  Chief Content Officer, Marketing Profs, adds that you should spend as much time thinking about your first sentence: “Because the headline makes a reader click. And the first line makes them actually read the piece.”

Orbit Media Blogging Survey strong results by number of draft headlines written

9. Get the help you need

While the short story I wrote was fiction, it was so personal that I knew I needed some other eyes on it. I was fortunate to get them and acted on the feedback I received. The Orbit survey shares that more and more bloggers are recognizing the value of this. I also have my MAC dictate out loud what I’ve written. This helps me catch repeated words and typos so my editor isn’t distracted by them. If you’re prone to typos or grammatical errors, a proofreader (who may be your editor too) is worth every penny. I can’t stress this enough. Know when you need help.

Orbit Media 2019 Blogging Survey strong results based on editing

10. Let it go

Hitting submit in writing contests is excruciating. It isn’t all that different from when you hit “send” for that eNewsletter or post the link to a blog you’ve slaved over. If you’ve taken all the steps I’ve outlined above, you should be able to breathe a little easier. You’ll also need to line up your content distribution strategy, whether that’s an email campaign, organic or paid service. The chart below shows what’s working for the bloggers surveyed by Orbit Media.

Orbit Media 2019 Blogging Survey showing strong results by how bloggers drive traffic to their posts

11. Measure it

Personal satisfaction and a long shot at a contest win really aren’t the kinds of measures you should be using to assess your blog’s results. Google analytics are a must and email campaign analytics such as open rates, click throughs, non-opens, etc., are also key. There are many other measures, which can include increased engagement on social media, increased traffic to your business and the real golden egg – conversions and sales. When this happens, you know you’ve done good. Keep doing it!

What’s next?

So maybe…you’re ready to get blogging? Or, maybe you now know you need some help. If that’s the case, I’m invoking points #7 and #9.  Let’s chat about creating your story.  

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Post-secondary peer support: Meeting students where they are at

This post is in honour of Mental Illness Awareness Week, October 6 to 12, 2019, and World Mental Health Day, October 10, 2019.

Photo by Vadim Fomenok on Unsplash

While I’ve been writing about mental health for a long time, my understanding of mental illness has deepened over the past few years, due to personal circumstances. This has included supporting loved ones through addiction, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and suicide. I’ve had a few missteps along the way, which has taught me that you can be the most help when you drop your own agenda and meet people who are dealing with mental health issues where they are at.

In a way, this describes the concept of peer support. While I’m not an authority on the topic, I worked with experts to write about peer support for individuals and organizations, for Workplace Strategies for Mental Health. We shared Peer Support Canada’s description: “Peer Support work is rooted in a trusting relationship between a person who is currently struggling and striving to find understanding and assistance, and the peer supporter whose personal history allows them to understand, support, and above all model a sense of hope.”

I credit my daughter for her courage in admitting she was struggling with anxiety and depression while attending school thousands of miles away at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design (NSCAD). She’s not alone. In a recent article, the Mental Health Commission of Canada shared that 75 per cent of mental health problems and illnesses develop between the ages of 16 and 25. 

As we looked for supports that might be available to her*, I learned that NSCAD offered a peer support program. I sat down with Bill Travis, NSCAD’s Accessibility Resources Coordinator, and also spoke with a NSCAD peer mentor, to gain an understanding of peer support strategies being used at the post-secondary level. We also talked about the unique stressors and challenges facing students in art school. 

Bill Travis, Accessibility Resources Coordinator, NSCAD

Bill shared that one of the issues for students is that they often can’t see past the demands of homework and projects to understand they need help. “That requires looking at themselves and saying, ‘I have a mental health problem. I’d say 50 per cent of students who are suffering can’t do that.”

He added, “A student might be thinking I’m not feeling like myself right now but it’s because I haven’t slept for five days and I’m working twice as hard as I ever have.” 

Opening doors

NSCAD’s peer support program rose out of tragedy. In 2013, Fred and Elizabeth Fountain bequeathed an extraordinary gift to Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre Foundation, in honour of their son Alex who had died by suicide. He was a university student at the time of his death. The gift funded the Stay Connected Mental Health Project, which integrated a process of identifying young people with mental health and addiction challenges early on, teaching youth health care self-management, and building rapport between pediatric and adult services in Halifax.** It also included reaching out to local universities about mental health issues. 

“The Fountain’s gift recognized that young people with mental health issues often keep their struggles to themselves,” said Bill. “They felt this was a way to open more doors.

“When we heard the funding was coming we wanted to get ahead of the curve,” he said. A call was put out asking third year students with lived experience of mental illness to apply to become peer mentors. The hospital provided the training and, with some additional funds, NSCAD was able to hire seven part-time peer mentors. 

Young female with tattoos sitting on floor and smiling at camera.
Hennah Verhoeven, NSCAD peer mentor

Hennah Verhoeven, one of NSCAD’s peer mentors, said having that many has been positive as it takes “lots of emotional labour.” Hennah said this also makes it possible to have a diverse group of mentors that can be more relatable to different students. 

“A big draw was the training on how to do active listening and support people going through all kinds of things in life,” said Hennah. “I was already doing this with friends and family so I liked knowing what to do in a more structured way.” 

Investing in student health

Appointments are on a drop in basis and peer mentors are seeing approximately 15 to 20 students a week. The program has seen steady uptake since it began. Bill hopes this helps to make a case for the program to continue when the funding ends next year. 

The peer mentor team leaders also meet with NSCAD’s staff counsellors each week to talk about challenges and successes and to share ideas. 

Hennah said peer mentors become “invested” in the students they see week after week. “We care about them, and when they keep coming back we hear about how they are doing.” This also provides a gateway for students, who may be in crisis for the first time, to get the help they need. The peer mentors will talk through things and connect them with some other supports in the city. “Knowing what’s available in the community and how to navigate the system is a vital part of the role,” said Bill. 

“There have been a few times where it was obvious the person’s situation was outside my ability to help,” Hennah said. “Ideally, we’d want them to go see one of our on-site counsellors but this isn’t possible if it’s an evening shift. So, we call the mobile crisis hotline and we’re there to support and listen until that help arrives.”

Bill added that meetings throughout the year with other schools are also beneficial. This facilitates the sharing of ideas and opens lines of communication between the different schools and the hospital. “Every department in the Nova Scotia Health Department that a student would use is part of this.” With the student’s permission the post-secondary institution is advised that the student has accessed services related to a mental health issue. This enables the school to reach out to the student earlier to develop a plan to support both their wellness and return to school. 

Supportive messages put together by NSCAD peer mentors.

At NSCAD, Peer mentors are always on hand for events that could be triggering for some students, such as presentations or rallies on issues like violence, sexual exploitation, racism, etc. 

Unique challenges 

Bill acknowledged there are distinct challenges in art schools, like NSCAD, where students are constantly exposed to criticism as well as competition with one another on work that is often very personal. 

This is why he has supported a move away from a culture of competitiveness to one of collaboration. 

Photo by Alex Mihis on Unsplash

Even with that, there’s still significant anxiety about “crit”, which is the process by which art students stage their work for instructor and peer feedback. “It’s more than anxiety about a test. It’s not just about a good grade. They’re presenting something that came from a point of inspiration that they’re deeply connected to and they’re going to potentially have someone tell them it was a waste of their time,” Bill said. Fortunately, there has also been a movement toward constructive vs. destructive crits. “It’s different for everybody, rehearsing is important, even asking yourself what’s the worst thing someone could say and how that might make you feel can help. Having some resilience also helps.” 

He added, “There is a push toward isolation in art. Instructors don’t want students to copy anyone else. They want the student to look deep within themselves to find their unique voice. If you’re struggling with a mental illness, this isolation can be difficult.”

“Deadlines are intense and workloads are huge,” said Hennah. “Students pull all-nighters for periods of time. It’s hard to watch someone go through that.” Support often requires working with students who have reached out for help to set boundaries on how they’re going to make it through the semester. “In some cases, that means helping them to stop judging themselves by how much work they produce.”

Young woman working at a computer and drinking a beverage in a cup.
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Peer support can also prompt conversations that may never happen otherwise and help to reduce the stigma around mental health. “It’s an ally you can trust,” said Bill. “Normalizing the conversation is important. We talk about our physical health. We can talk about our mental health too.”

“Some of these students are in such a vulnerable place,” said Hennah. “They’re young, away from family and home for the first time. The peer mentor program recognizes that this can be a breeding ground for mental health problems, and that it can be stressful just finding the resources that are available.” That again is a role a peer mentor can fill, which can mean helping the student understand what’s covered in the student health care plan (which may include psychiatric services), financial assistance, and other services that may be available in the school or community. 

Hennah has also supported international students who can have a different set of stressors. “They may be here on an exchange for a semester or on a student visa – that in itself creates so much stress. If English isn’t their first language it can be hard to find people to connect to; it’s a culture shock.” Peer support and opportunities to connect through activities like the mental health tea hour that happens throughout the week have proven to be successful for these students and others who struggle making social connections. 

Bill explained how attendance is also different in practical schools like NSCAD. “We’re teaching skills as well as in-class use of those skills. Students are being evaluated all the time in class, not just through a project. You really can’t miss a class.” This he said can put students with episodic mental illnesses at a disadvantage. He now works with students and teachers to determine the number of classes students can miss and still stay in the course. “That way they know, as much as they can, to bank those days for when they need them.”

 “The bottom line is that there’s a lot of pressure to be creative and vulnerable and technically adept all at the same time,” said Bill. “These are somewhat different pressures than other universities.”

Closing the gaps

Can more be done? “Absolutely,” Bill said, noting that peer support is just one solution. “We need more full-time hours for counsellors so they are able to integrate more fully into the community of the school.

“We’re always responding to gaps. Every year, we find holes but at least they’re a lot smaller than they used to be.”

Benefits of Peer Support

Photo by Jeremy McKnight on Unsplash

Peer support can be a step towards recovery and its benefits can include:

Discovering a safe person, who has experienced something similar, to share concerns with in confidence.

Hearing how others have coped and survived their journey to well-being.

Being listened to in a non-clinical, non-judgmental, and compassionate way that empowers you to make your own decisions.

Connecting to resources that have worked for others in their recovery.

Courtesy of Reaching out for Peer Support.

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More information and resources

Reaching out for peer support – Information about accessing peer support and becoming a peer supporter.

Peer Support Canada – Peer Support Canada connects peer supporters and organizations, helping share information and building capacity for peer support.

Post-Secondary Student Resilience – Resource can help post-secondary students plan ahead so they are better able to cope with the personal and academic stressors they may encounter.

Online Peer Support for Eating Disorders –  A safe, pro-recovery space for those with eating disorders to connect, learn, and grow. 

*Note to reader: For personal reasons, my daughter has not yet used NSCAD’s peer support services but may in the future.

**Some information also courtesy of https://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/stay-connected-mental-health-project

World Suicide Prevention banner

World Suicide Prevention Day

World Suicide Prevention banner
September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. Suicide touches so many lives when you consider both its victims and survivors. It can affect anyone.

Those of us who have never felt the pain and hopelessness of being suicidal can’t truly understand what those who have are going through, but we can always act with love, compassion and support. It should never be about blame or shame or expecting that someone who is suicidal will just get over it.

Woman looking out a window.

Photo by Danielle MacInnes, Unsplash 

Prevention rests on our ability to talk openly and sensitively about suicide in our everyday lives and workplaces. Look for the words you can use to help in conversations with friends and family when you know someone is struggling. The resources below can help, and as one of them states, it’s important to never promise to keep someone’s thoughts of suicide a secret. The more secretive suicide is, the more dangerous it is.

I am sending love today to those I know who are experiencing the profound loss of suicide. For these friends, I often don’t have words for what they are going through. I try to let them know I am beside them, whether it’s physically or over the miles, as they journey through their grief – and that I will always welcome their stories of their loved ones and their experiences for as often as they want to share them.  

Please take some time today learn more about suicide to honour those who have been affected and to support prevention. I’ve included some links below to help you get started.

https://www.helpguide.org/articles/suicide-prevention/suicide-prevention.htm – looks at common misconceptions, warning signs and prevention. 

What is a safety plan? – describes what a safety plan is and how to create one together with an individual who may be at risk.

https://yourlifecounts.org/organization/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/coping-with-suicidal-thoughts.pdf – strategies to help individuals who are having suicidal thoughts.

https://suicideprevention.ca  – promotes suicide awareness and includes comprehensive information about prevention, response and bereavement.  

https://www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/workplace-wellness-program-calendar/workplace-wellness-september – links to information to help start the conversation with those in your lives or workplaces who may be struggling.

https://www.iasp.info/wspd2019/ – official World Suicide Prevention Day 2019 website.

Get a #ConvoPlate – The goal of the #ConvoPlate, created in memory of Paul Hansell who died by suicide, is to help make mental health part of our every day conversations.

Stepheny Hunter, Peter Sarty

A Tale of Two Acting Students

Next up in my blog series featuring brave and brilliant young people are Stepheny Hunter and Peter Sarty, both Halifax based actors and recent graduates from the Fountain School of Performing Arts at Dalhousie University.

Stepheny Hunter, Peter Sarty, Halifax, Dalhousie, theatre, actors, acting

Stepheny Hunter and Peter Sarty are actors reaching for the sky

I was curious about how each of them found their way to acting, a career choice that may appear glamorous but is actually a ton of work and not for those who are only looking for “the best of times.” It takes courage and in the case of these two, resilience, creativity and being open to anything.

Stepheny says it was that moment in high school when she realized, “Wow, I’m actually good at this!” She was getting a response from her work in Improv and performing arts. “If I didn’t have that, I don’t know if I would have followed that path.” Her obsession with acting started when she was very young with a standby “act” in which she’d pretend to be a waiter but would also be the daughter going to dinner with her parents, playing multiple roles during the meal. This passion continued throughout school where she often knew everybody’s lines in a production because as she says, “I was always willing to put in the time to get really good at this.”

Peter’s path was similar. “Growing up my parents could leave me in a room with a candy wrapper and I’d entertain myself for hours, creating a whole fantasy world. Like Stepheny, he often entertained his family “audience”. On family car trips, he was regularly called upon to re-enact a scene from Ace Ventura Pet Detective (the dolphin trainer) where he’d recite the lines of all the characters word for word. Another favourite was the Doonesbury character, Uncle Duke, which he discovered when he was in elementary school. “I would sit in my room and pretend to smoke cigarettes, drink apple juice fantasizing it was scotch, and pop vitamins that were whatever pills Uncle Duke was taking,” he laughs. “Those were the games I would play.”

Both were fully supported to go into acting by their parents who had front row seats for all of their theatrical antics. “I think it’s because they saw something in us,” Peter says. His parents’ belief that this was something he had to do, made all the difference.

Fair is foul, and foul is fair

-William Shakespeare, Macbeth

While Stepheny appreciates what she learned at Dalhousie and the connections she made, it’s taken her a few years to fully realize what parts of her education actually helped and what wasn’t as useful.

“Some of it was about putting you in a box for what had always been known to work.”

This, she said, had the opposite effect of potentially killing people’s instincts.

Stepheny Hunter, Macbeth

Photo by Anna Shepard
Macbeth with Steady Theatre Company

“It was interesting to see who they believed in,” Stepheny says. While she knows this can happen in any school program, preferential treatment is especially concerning in theatre school because it means that certain students always get cast in the best roles. For Stepheny, who wasn’t on the A list, a wakeup call occurred when an outside director came in and did the casting for one the theatre school’s productions. None of those they chose for the leading roles, including Stepheny, were the usual ones selected. “When this happened there was a big ruckus and the instructors then said, ‘this is all wrong’, which basically made the whole exercise pointless,” Stepheny says.

Peter Sarty, No Man is an Island

Photo by Brian Goodwin
No Man is an Island with Atlantic Repertory Company

Peter’s experience was different. “The first meeting I had with one of the instructors, she sat me down in this room and she said, ‘You’re a tall drink of water and we’re going to make you into the leading man you know you can be’.” Peter says this “vision” was definitely reflected in the parts he got. “While I needed that boost for my ego and I was getting all of these great parts, I was also battling with wanting to do it right.” For him that meant earning the roles because of his talent and not just his appearance.

He adds that need for approval in an acting program can be poisonous.

“You’re put in a situation where you need to have somebody saying ‘Yes! You’re a good actor, you’re meant to be doing this’ so you can believe it too.”

This validation is especially important come graduation. While Peter got a commercial contract straight off, both he and Stepheny felt unprepared on how to actually share their artistic voices. “Sure, they’d sent you out there ready to audition but unless you really are something special, you’re not going to be booking tons of parts and you can become demoralized pretty quickly,” Peter says. Many of their classmates have dropped out of acting because of this.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done

-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Stepheny is hell bent on creating enough work for herself so she doesn’t have to rely entirely on auditions. “Someone very wise, who I really admire, once said, you still have to audition but when you don’t get the part you can say ‘oh that’s fine because I’m too busy with all these other things anyway’.”

One of those “things” is a play she’s currently writing, that she and Peter will star in next spring. Fat Juliet is a contemporary retelling of Romeo & Juliet that’s entirely from Juliet’s point of view. “It explores themes like fatphobia and power abusive relationships, while merging both modern and classical text,” says Stepheny. “The play reframes the character of Juliet as strong and powerful, rather than small and weak as she is consistently played.”

She says, “It’s been gratifying to see that this is an idea that people are into and I’m getting help to produce the play at a level I hadn’t expected.” She’s especially thrilled that an established company, Shakespeare by the Sea, will premiere the play. “It can make all the difference when a company of that caliber will throw their support behind emerging artists and help them in their careers.”  This is an example of how she’s made room for herself to gain work in a way she wasn’t taught in school.

“It’s one of those things, they’re helping me but even if they weren’t, I’d have to find my own space.” All of this helps take the sting out of unsuccessful auditions.

“If I can do my own thing like I’m doing with Fat Juliet then people can’t tell me no!” She is also part of a playwriters group where she connects with others who are also making their own work.

Both Stepheny and Peter are currently finding the most success in improvisational theatre, which they perform at Halifax’s Bus Stop Theatre. “People are always willing to pay to laugh – and it’s a lot less expensive than regular theatre,” says Peter. Another reason may be because there’s an overabundance of mediocre theatre, which isn’t good for anyone, says Stepheny.

“You see this production that a company has taken a chance on and it doesn’t turn out well and you think, ‘This isn’t good for the rest of us who are trying to get a break!’”

Like the majority of actors, Stepheny and Peter also do “Joe Jobs” to help pay the bills when projects are few and far between. This includes working front of house at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, which keeps them connected to the arts community with the added bonus of free tickets. They also do simulated patient work for medical students at Dalhousie University.

When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

-Macbeth

Stepheny Hunter in Fox, Villian's Theatre Company

Photo by Stoo Metz FOX with Villain’s Theatre Company

Peter Sarty, 59 Minutes, Matchstick Company

Photo by Samm Fisher
Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes with Matchstick Company

In acting school, students are told to take every chance they can to gain experience – even when some of the productions or roles frankly stink. With this in mind, Stepheny and Peter try to find the silver lining by following the rule of the three P’s – Project, People, Pay – shooting to get at least two out of the three. “You might not like the piece but if it’s with people you like and the pay is good, oh well,” says Stepheny. A goal they share is to always continue to improve their craft.

Peter hopes to write a lot more and is working on a musical. He says it’s always a struggle to have confidence in all the ideas in his head for shows he wants to create. “Just to achieve that yes! If I put in the work, people will want to come and see this!” He adds, “The dream is to be established enough to have the clout and resources available to take that contract to do a play you really love but to know you can also take a piece you’ve written and get that out into the world as well.”

Stepheny has found balance in teaching workshops and securing a grant that gives her some breathing room to focus on writing Fat Juliet. She’s open to just about anything that comes her way, and not attached to any single outcome. “It’s nice because there isn’t one final set goal. As long as you’re continuing to grow, you’ll start getting those more established jobs.”

The fact that they’re in this together helps. “We believe in each other,” says Peter and Stepheny laughs, “I wouldn’t be with him if he wasn’t really good at this!” Joking aside, she says, “Even if things aren’t great right now, you have to stick with it because things will get better.”

“We’re only here for a limited amount of time,” Peter observes. “There’s so many people that want to be actors and there’s only so much work. You really have to take the time to do work that’s meaningful to you and hopefully to a larger audience as well.”

So, when these two hit it big, which I have no doubt they will, you can say you read it here first! In the meantime, I wonder what can we learn about our own story from these fearless young artists? I’d love it if you’d share your thoughts in the comments below!

Peter Sarty, Stepheny Hunter

Keeping it real!

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Stepheny Hunter is an actor and improviser living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is a member of Hello City, a monthly improv show that takes place at the Bus Stop Theatre (Silver for Best Comedy Night – The Coast 2018, Best Ensemble Halifax Fringe 2018). She was also in the Winnipeg Improv Festival’s 2017 International Ensemble. Past Theatre Credits include: Forest in my Room/Fall Out (Neptune Theatre), FOX (The Villains Theatre), Macbeth (Steady Theatre Co.), This is Nowhere (Zuppa Theatre Company), Slut the Play (Lunasea Theatre Company), The Peace Project (Transitus Theatre), King Arthur (Zuppa Theatre and Opera Nova Scotia). TV: Diggstown (CBC)

Peter Sarty is an actor and improviser based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Select theatre credits include: No Man Is an Island (Atlantic Repertory Company), Macbeth (Steady Theatre Co.), This Is Nowhere (Zuppa Theatre Co.), Twelfth Night, Othello, Alice in Wonderland, Julius Caesar, All’s Well that Ends Well, Peter Pan, As You Like It, King Lear, Pinocchio (Shakespeare by the Sea), Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes (Matchstick Theatre), Miracle on 34th Street (Neptune Theatre) and HELLO CITY Presents: The Book Club (Halifax Fringe Festival). Film credits include: Let’s Get Physical (Pop TV), Terror in the Woods (Discover America), and Cavendish (CBC).

A new look at an old story

This summer, I’ll be featuring the work and unique journeys of some amazing young people who have inspired me with their grace and fearlessness, as much as with their talent.

Angela Fournier, illustrator, illustration

Angela Fournier, illustrator, artist, designer

It’s likely not surprising to many of my friends and colleagues that I’m starting with my daughter, Angela Fournier, a student at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design (NSCAD). During her first year away at school,  Angela took on a project, with her father, illustrating a book to help pay her tuition. This was no small accomplishment while she was also settling into a new life thousands of miles away from her family and friends.

“My addictions assignment” is a collection of short stories written by nursing students at Red River College (RRC) in Winnipeg. Addiction has impacted our family as it has so many others.

The stunning images Angela created convey this as well as wisdom beyond her years.

Addiction, drugs, substance use disorder, nursing

“My addictions assignment” a collection of short stories written by nursing students

To get started, Angela spent a lot of time reading and re-reading the stories that the students had written. She says it was a tough read. Evelyn  Lundeen, RN, BN, MN, who is the nursing instructor that had assigned the project and later edited the book, said she quickly realized that the stories many of the students submitted weren’t fiction. “They were writing about their father, mother, son, daughter, sister, brother, niece, nephew, grandma or grandpa,” she says. Evelyn notes that these are the words that describe people living with addiction – not “Boozer,” “Wino,” or “Junkie.”

My addictions assignment

“The Power of the Bottle,” page 49

The more she read, the deeper Angela knew she was going to have to go to get the images right.

“I was looking to create images that spoke to what was happening in the stories but wanted to distort them in a way that aligned with what the distortion of this disease might look like for someone who is going through it,” she says. This meant staying away from the obvious and fragmenting the images so that they became more dramatic and abstract.

“I don’t really know how that feels because I haven’t had addiction but I’ve seen it in my life,” she says. As part of her research, she interviewed people from Alcoholics Anonymous, asking them to describe what they saw when they thought about some of the things being depicted in the stories.

“The Beach,” page 61

“There’s one about someone being encompassed in water and feeling dead,” Angela says (The Beach, page 61). “What really stuck with me in this story was how the writer talked about feeling far away from herself and her family.” The story  resonated with her because it didn’t only speak to addiction, but also mental  health. Angela has experienced mental health issues related to anxiety and describes it this way. “When things happen at a rate you can’t process, you just become farther and farther away from who you are and what you want. I can be pulled back when I’m so far under mentally, but if I was dealing with an addiction in that process, I’m not sure I’d ever get back.” Her goal with this particular image was to capture that feeling of literally being  underwater, isolated and alone.

Angela Mary Fournier

“What Must It Be Like…?” page 67

To protect her own mental health, Angela had to separate herself from the stories because they were so visceral. “There’s a lot of emotional content that goes into all of the work I do and sometimes you just have to focus on the making of it, while putting those emotions aside.” She explains that for this project she thought about how far she would be able to get with an addiction like those described in the book. “Because I don’t have that experience I didn’t want to assume how being in those situations was for someone. It was really important for me to try and put myself into their heads to visualize what they might be going through.”

Angela Fournier, illustrator and designer

Angela is learning the importance of protecting her own well-being while tackling tough subjects.

She adds, “I had an idea of what I was going to do in my medium, which was mostly ink and watercolor and drawing. I wanted to allow the medium to take control. There isn’t a system in place to represent this well so it’s very reactionary, while at the same time being very thoughtful.”

Angela says describing what she ultimately wanted to achieve is difficult. “I don’t want to dictate what people see or how they feel from what I created,” she says. “I wanted to put something out there and hope that people see what they can relate to in that image.”

While all of the stories are unique, there are some disturbing, consistent themes.  “It’s unbelievable how many parents and children there were in the stories,” she says. “The reoccurring theme was despair.”

She also observed how the stories were all different and “raw” because they weren’t written to be a storybook.

“There’s no fantasizing. These stories were exactly what people felt or saw or experienced or didn’t experience but understood. That was the beauty of it.”

Angela believes that the book achieved its goal, which was to help nursing students develop the “art of caring” for patients struggling with issues like addiction.

“I think it does something really unique. There’s a lot of issues people deal with that are put into academia. We need to remember there can be empathy and compassion and that these are people not just a statistic. You’re walking into people’s lives and experiences and you are a caregiver. It doesn’t matter where their experience comes from. These people need help and you’re signing up to be in a position to help them.”

She likes that the book doesn’t read like an academic essay.

“Hearing about people who don’t have anywhere else to turn because sometimes you can’t save yourself no matter how hard you try – that’s the best way to get others like doctors, nurses, caregivers, or human beings in general to have more compassion for what other people are going through.”

Never assuming what someone else has been through is something Angela has always lived by. It helped inform this work.

“Nobody wants to be at rock bottom. But we’ve all had moments when we could have been pushed that far.”

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You can read more about the “My addictions assignment” book project and find out how to get a book here.  Money raised through book sales will go toward a scholarship for a nursing student who is looking to specialize in substance use disorders.

Angela Fournier is entering her fourth year majoring in fashion and textiles at NSCAD. All of the illustrations shown are original works and may not be reproduced in any way. All rights reserved. 

“My addictions assignment” book design by Michael Fournier.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this or any of my stories! Please leave a comment below, reach me directly at leanne@mightywrite.ca or on social media
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Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes o

Reclaiming our love of food and ourselves

Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes o

Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes*

June 2, 2019 is World Eating Disorders Action Day#ShowUsYourPurple.  I want to recognize this day because I’ve personally seen the devastation caused by an eating disorder (ED) and have come to understand it as a complex mental illness and not something that is easily controlled.

I will never forget a conversation I had with a former schoolmate – one of the most beautiful young women in our community – who essentially wasted away after high school due to an ED. Fortunately, through the support of her family and a lot of hard work, she recovered. When we met years later I asked her how she couldn’t see how gorgeous she was and she said, “That’s not what I saw when I looked in the mirror.”

Shaleen Jones, eating disorders

Shaleen Jones, Eating Disorders Nova Scotia

Shaleen Jones, the Executive Director of Eating Disorders Nova Scotia, says, “Eating disorders aren’t simply about wanting to be pretty. Our culture is fixated on the false notion that our worth as humans – and especially as females – is contingent on how we look, and that being thin is the only acceptable body size. The voices are so strong – telling you that you aren’t good enough, no one is going to love you, you’re fat or ugly.”

For many, including males, the eating disorder becomes a metaphor for how they want to be treated in society, and where their value comes from.

“People think that the individual who is experiencing an eating disorder should just be able to get over it by eating something. It’s much more complex than that.”

The National Eating Disorders Information Centre(NEDIC) states: “Eating disorders are not choices, but serious, biologically influenced mental illnesses.” It also reports that “Eating disorders affect people of all genders, ages, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic statuses” and that, “Eating disorders carry an increased risk for both suicide and physical/mental complications.”

In Canada, almost one million people over the age of 15 currently have an ED (Statistics Canada). Shaleen says it’s probably even higher due to the large number of Canadians who never receive a diagnosis.

Our family enjoying food together

So, while there’s clear evidence that this is an important issue we need to talk about, I found it difficult to write about. It’s become personal. My daughter Angela’s immense anxiety in her first two years of university contributed to issues with food and eating, resulting in significant weight loss. I felt helpless being thousands of miles away and not knowing what to do to support her to regain health before it became worse. Fortunately, she was open to talking about it, did reach out for help, and is doing better. It was a wakeup call that it could happen in a family like ours, that I have always thought had healthy relationships with both body image and food.

Understanding the issues

To start the conversation, Shaleen and I met for lunch at a favourite Halifax restaurant. It was an intentional choice as it was where I’d first witnessed my daughter’s distress around food.

When I asked Shaleen what she’d like to see changed in society, she held up her fork, brandishing an impeccable cannoli, and exclaimed, “Make food joyful!” She added, “We have to give up this wish that we can restrict our way to a healthier life. Releasing this belief frees us up to do so much more with our energy.”

The key lies in unpacking the mythology around weight, size and shape in our culture and the deeply held belief that our worth is tied up in how we look at weight. “This is fed (pun intended) by the massive wellness, dieting, detox industry that perpetuates the belief that you’re unhealthy if you’re overweight, when really the underlying goal is to sell you something.”

 “The worst thing someone can do for their health is to repeatedly try to lose weight through diet. We know restrictive eating does not result in long term weight loss. It impairs all of our systems.”

Alexander Mils, Unsplash

Photo by Alexander Mils

Instead, Shaleen says, “Focus on actions to become more active, to gain more energy and to feel better.”

While the new Canada Food Guide does a good job of promoting healthy eating, Shaleen loves the Brazilian Food Guide because it is founded on eating food you enjoy with people you love.

Photo by Ali Inay on Unsplash

Photo by Ali Inay

“When we look at eating well, it shouldn’t be about restricting, or what we should and shouldn’t be eating. It should be about enjoying the food, and to stop eating when we’re full.”

“It should be about experiencing a range of foods and eating with people we care about.”

That can be easier said than done, particularly when the usual checks and balances, such as trusting, healthy relationships or positive role models aren’t in place.

Triggers for serious illness

Genetic or biological risk factors – which can include perfectionism, black and white thinking, or more rigid personalities – can have an enormous impact. “If a person is born with these genetic risks and goes through a stressful situation or begins restricting food intake, it can trigger an eating disorder,” Shaleen explains.

Repetitive restricted eating (or dieting) can also be a trigger. In a study of 14–15 year old adolescents, girls who engaged in strict dieting practices were 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder within six months than non-dieters (Patton, G. 1999).

“The negative energy imbalance is thought to trigger changes in the brain,” says Shaleen. In other cases, like my daughter’s, anxiety can trigger a loss of appetite and subsequent weight loss, and even after the anxiety is dealt with the eating disorder has taken over. Another risk factor is for those who are “othered” in some way, such as sexual orientation, a disability, or race. Trauma can also be a trigger.

Bullying and body shaming around weight and size continues to present a significant risk factor for eating disorders and obesity, along with other tragic outcomes, as we are seeing in the news way too often.

Girls who reported teasing by family members were 1.5 times more likely to engage in binge-eating and  extreme weight control behaviours five years later.[1]

Body dissatisfaction and weight change behaviours have been shown to predict later physical and mental health difficulties, including weight gain and obesity on the one hand[2], and the development of eating disorders on the other.[3] 

Knowing when there’s a problem

Shaleen says the tricky part that makes EDs so difficult to understand is that they involve periods of restrictive eating – which triggers binge eating for some and increased restriction for others.

The  2016 Report, Eating Disorders – A Guide to Medical Care  the Academy for Eating Disorders (AED) states: “Malnutrition is a serious medical condition that requires urgent attention. It can occur in (people) engaging in disordered eating behaviors, regardless of weight status. Individuals with continued restrictive eating behaviors, binge eating or purging, despite efforts to redirect their behavior, require immediate intervention.

The report also includes the following:

  • All EDs are serious disorders with life-threatening physical and psychological complications.
  • EDs do not discriminate. They can affect individuals of all ages, genders, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and with a variety of body shapes, weights and sizes.
  • Weight is not the only clinical marker of an ED. People who are at low, normal or high weights can have an ED and individuals at any weight may be malnourished and/or engaging in unhealthy weight control practices.
  • Individuals with an ED may not recognize the seriousness of their illness and/or may be ambivalent about changing their eating or other behaviors.
  • All instances of precipitous weight loss or gain in otherwise healthy individuals should be investigated for the possibility of an ED as rapid weight fluctuations can be a potential marker of an ED.
  • In children and adolescents, failure to gain expected weight, and/or delayed or interrupted pubertal development, should be investigated for the possibility of an ED.
  • All EDs can be associated with serious medical complications affecting every organ system of the body.
  • The medical consequences of EDs can go unrecognized, even by an experienced clinician.

AED cautions that a life-threatening ED can occur without obvious symptoms. Some of the top ones to watch for include:

  • Marked weight loss, gain, fluctuations or unexplained change in growth curve or body mass index (BMI) percentiles in a child or adolescent who is still growing and developing
  • Cold intolerance, weakness, fatigue or lethargy, dizziness, fainting, hot flashes, sweating
  • Oral and dental issues, including oral trauma, cavities, and salivary gland enlargement
  • Cardiovascular and Gastrointestinal issues
  • Irregular menstruation, low sex drive
  • Hair loss, scarring from self-induced vomiting, poor wound healing, brittle hair and nail
  • Poor concentration, memory loss, insomnia
  • Depression/anxiety/compulsive symptoms and behaviours
  • Self-harm and suicidal thoughts

Early intervention for full recovery

Group of young people looking healthy

Photo by Naassom Azevedo

“One of the challenges is convincing people that they don’t have to live with their ED; that they can get better,” Shaleen says. Another concern is that many people don’t get help until they are very sick.

Schools – elementary, high school and post-secondary – all need to be mindful this is a very serious health condition. “Have a conversation, train staff in what to look for, and don’t wait for people to get really sick before having a process in place to support them,” Shaleen suggests.  Policies should include supporting students with eating disorders, and strictly prohibiting weight bullying.

Early intervention and aggressive treatment is the most effective way to treat an eating disorder.

“With early intervention and treatment, you can get the eating disorder into remission quite quickly,” Shaleen says. She shares real-life examples where individuals’ cries for help were ignored by doctors and the system in general because they weren’t seriously underweight.

Pathways to recovery

If you have an eating disorder or suspect a family member does, first and foremost, is making an appointment with a physician. The Eating Disorder Support Network of Alberta (EDSNA) provides an excellent guide to help you and your family members prepare for the visit. You can download the guide (See under Working with your Doctor) at https://edsna.ca/eating-disorder-facts/

You may also wish to access the services of a psychologist or community resources, many of which can be found at  http://nedic.ca/providers/search. Dieticians can also be helpful but Shaleen emphasizes the importance of seeing one who encourages health at every size because again, “Low weight does not equal seriousness of the illness.” She also advises to look for a community based eating disorders organization in your area for additional support and assistance navigating the health care system.

NEDIC states: “Given the complex nature of eating disorders and the many factors that play a role in their development and perpetuation, treatment must address a variety of issues. It is accepted that a two-track approach is necessary for the treatment of eating disorders. They are:

  • Issues concerning eating, weight, and physical condition
  • Issues concerning the underlying psychological conditions.

Treatment will focus more on the physiological issues in the early phases of therapy, with the view to establishing some degree of normalcy with eating and weight. This enables the individual to benefit from the therapy to address psychological issues.”

NEDIC emphasizes that it’s critical that treatment focus on both physical and psychological tracks to support full and lasting recovery. It’s also important that the treating professional have a thorough understanding of EDs.

Having compassion for ourselves and others

Women laughing together

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

Shaleen says that it’s not necessarily a sign of a problem if we turn to food when we’re distressed. “If we find ourselves binge eating or comfort food eating, we want to look at what’s happening through a lens of self-compassion.” She adds, “The behavior of stress eating is a tool that you have used to get through some troubling times. Good for you if you’ve found something that works!” She says that if it isn’t working for you anymore, that’s when you can look at other things that might help you to cope during difficult times.

“Listen to your hunger, eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.”

She also admonishes that the Body Mass Index (BMI) that, while a guide, doesn’t necessarily take into account all the “data” of our lives. It’s the same with the fact that we may look at a person who appears overweight and feel we have enough evidence to judge whether they are healthy or not.

“We don’t have all the data about their health, and it’s none of our damn business,” Shaleen says.

“People are going to be healthier and happier if they aren’t constantly berated by society and the people around them.”

 

woman walking dog

Photo by Akemy Mory

More Information

In additionto the links included above:

Eating Disorders Nova Scotia offers free online peer support as a safe, pro-recovery space for folks with eating disorders to connect, learn, and grow.

The Eating Disorder Support Network of Alberta provides a thorough description of the current diagnostic categories from the “Feeding and Eating Disorders” section, as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) – 5, a publication of the American Psychiatric Association.


Most Prevalent Eating Disorders

Anorexia Nervosa

  • Persistent restriction of energy intake leading to significantly low body weight
  • Either an intense fear of gaining weight, or persistent behaviour that interferes with weight gain

Bulimia Nervosa

  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating and sense of lack of control over eating during the episode
  • Recurrent inappropriate compensatory behaviour (for example, purging)

Atypical AnorexiaNervosa

  • Despite significant weight loss, the individual’s weight is within or above the normal range

Binge Eating Disorder

  • Recurring episodes of binge eating
  • Marked distress regarding binge eating is present
  • Binge eating is associated with the recurrent use of inappropriate compensatory behaviours

Adapted from DSM5

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[1]Neumark-Sztainer, D. R., Wall, M. M., Haines, J. I., Story, M. T., Sherwood, N. E., van den Berg, P. A. (2007). Shared Risk and Protective Factors for Overweight and Disordered Eating in Adolescents. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 33(5), 359-369.
[2]Field et al., 2003; Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2006.
[3]Le Grange & Loeb, 2007)

*Stock photos courtesy of Unsplash

Addiction, drugs, substance use disorder

Nursing students share stories of substance use disorders

Addiction, drugs, substance use disorder

Book design by Michael Fournier. Illustrations by Angela Fournier. All rights reserved.

“My addictions assignment” is a collection of short stories written by nursing students at Red River College (RRC). MightyWrite has a connection to the project on a few levels. We did the layout and design of the book and our daughter, a student at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, did the striking illustrations. Finally, like many people, our family has its own stories of addiction – now more commonly referred to as substance use disorder.

In its #Get Loud campaign running during Mental Health Week, May 6 to 12, the Canadian Mental Health Association talks about how, with the right supports in place, we can be well, stay well and get out in front of illness.

Evelyn Lundeen, substance use disorder, addiction, drugs, alcohol

Evelyn Lundeen, RN, BN, MN teaches nursing students the “art of caring.”

With this in mind, I spoke to Evelyn  Lundeen, RN, BN, MN, who is a nursing instructorat RRC’s School of Health Sciences and Community Services and editor of “My Addictions Assignment”.  Having read Evelyn’s foreword for the book, I knew that raising awareness of the need for supportive interventions for people with substance use disorders was one of her intentions when she asked her nursing students to write about their experiences with addiction.

She wrote: Alcohol and drug addiction is a disease that affects the brain. It’s not a moral failing. It’s not a matter of “If you would just develop a backbone you could stop.” I’ve yet to meet an addict who wanted to be addicted. They all wish that beating addiction could be as easy as Nancy Reagan’s old slogan from the 1980’s – “just say no” to drugs and alcohol.

Addiction is a chronic debilitating disease like heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and a score of others. Do people with these disorders “just say no” and become healthy again? Of course they don’t. Do we tell an overweight individual who doesn’t exercise coming to hospital with a heart attack to go home, lose weight and start exercising; then come back to the hospital and we’ll help you? Of course, we don’t.

So why do we expect this from individuals with addiction? Why is an individual with alcoholism told to go home and sober up before help is offered? Why is an addict high on drugs sent home and told to come back when they are clear-headed?

On these last points Evelyn says, “If they could sober up themselves, they wouldn’t need to be in the ER in the first place.”

Not just another essay

During her decades-long career as a post-secondary instructor, Evelyn has reviewed many “cookie cutter” essays on a variety of topics. She didn’t want that from her nursing students. Rather, she wanted to help them discover the “art of caring,” which she says is another fundamental part of nursing. She hit upon the idea of having them write fiction that would release them from the confines of APA style and other guidelines whereby she’d often seen the ideas lost in all of the rules around academic papers.

What she saw instead, as the papers started coming in, was students telling stories about substance use disorders that drew on the course material to show what they’d learned. But she also saw something else.

Angela Mary Fournier

Recognizing the struggles and pain of those with substance use disorders was important to illustrator Angela Fournier.

“I noticed some were not fiction. These were narratives that some of these students had actually lived through,” she says. “They were writing about their father, mother, son, daughter, sister, brother, niece, nephew, grandma or grandpa.” In the foreword she wrote that these are the words that describe people living with addiction – not “Boozer,” “Wino,” or “Junkie.” Instead, she says, “It’s ordinary people like you and me.”

Because the quality of the stories was so good, she approached her Faculty Chair about turning them into a book. “The stories recognized that these peoples’ lives had value, that they were real people with hopes and dreams,” she says. She saw the book as an opportunity to create awareness and help dispel stigma around substance use.  “People are so misinformed about substance use in general. I wanted to get across that this is a chronic illness and not a moral issue. It’s an illness that’s treatable like any other chronic illness.”

Shining a light on substance use disorder

Evelyn speaks from the heart as well as her experiences as both an instructor of the Addictions course in the Nursing program at RRC as well as an ICU nurse. “I want these new nurses to go out there with the right information,” she says adding that even doctors don’t always know what to do when people come in with alcohol or opiate problems.

When I asked her why this was so important to her she pointed to a photo on her desk of her best friend who died in 1999 of heart failure that was secondary to chronic alcoholism. “He was just 45 when he died and was an RCMP officer whose career was ruined as a result of his drinking.” She says things might have been different for her friend today now that there’s better understanding and treatment available for officers. “Back then an alcoholic cop was not part of the RCMP image.”

This is much the same for nurses. Evelyn recalls attending an in-service a few years ago when the conversation turned to nurses with substance use issues. “Some of what I was hearing was very troubling,” she says. “Supervisors talking with disgust about their colleagues or nurses working under them that had problems with substance use and how they felt they should be stripped of their licenses immediately and charged with an offence.” Evelyn says she understood their concerns about patient safety but says, “Taking their licenses away and throwing them in jail or fining them is not going to fix the underlying problem of substance use.”

When she was doing her Masters, she found a huge gap in anything related to addiction for nursing students. She made the case – and was successful – to have a course brought into the Nursing program at RRC. She first started teaching Understanding Drug and Alcohol Addiction – A Nursing Perspectiveabout five years ago. It was recently renamed Understanding Substance Use Disorders – A Nursing Perspective.

“We need to raise the profile of substance use disorder as a disease – it’s so relevant.”  Under most human rights legislation, a substance use disorder is considered to be a disability. As Evelyn says, it affects both physical and psychological health.

An illness of the brain

“What people don’t understand is that substance use disorder is a disease of the brain,” says Evelyn. “It’s voluntary at the beginning but the changes that occur in the brain are permanent.”

Illustrations seek to tell a complex story.

She talks about how for thousands of years as a species, we humans have had to do certain things to survive. “This includes eating, consuming fluids, having sex, remaining safe and warm, getting adequate rest and sleep,” she says. In the case of substance users, this also includes consuming drugs or alcohol. She describes how our brains have an area called the reward pathway. “Whenever we indulge in an activity that gives us pleasure, the brain releases a burst of dopamine. This rush gives positive reinforcement, which means you’re going to want to do it again. With substance use disorder, the chemicals trick the brain into thinking they need it in order to survive.”

The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that allows you to perform executive function, which is all the activities you do on a daily basis that allow you to live in a very complex world. Evelyn shares that imaging studies show that individuals that are long-term substance users (decades) have less amount of tissue in that prefrontal cortex. This, she says, is particularly true if people start with substance use prior to the age of 25 when the brain fully matures. “If someone is doing substances before that, it doesn’t allow that part of the brain to fully develop. So, if you’re telling them to ‘pull up their socks’ they literally cannot do it, because they don’t have the brain function.” If they stop using they will eventually get some of that brain function back.

Finally, she talks about the area of the brain that is responsible for motivated behaviour, called the amygdala. While the description of what it does is much more complicated, involving a neurotransmitter called glutamate that is essential for transmitting messages between neurons that make thinking, learning and memory possible, Evelyn breaks it down this way. “The amygdala interacts with that reward pathway resulting in two behaviours – one is compulsion and the other is craving. There’s a voice in the back of the head that won’t shut up until you actually shut it up with the substance it’s craving.”

Approaches that support recovery and success – for everyone

The backbone of treatment for people with substance use disorder is psychotherapy and medication, which have proven to be successful in some populations. However, Evelyn shares, for many people, the sociological aspect also needs to be considered.

“When individuals go into a treatment program, they often do well – they have all the supports they need 24 hours a day for the duration of the program,” she says. “In addition to the psychotherapy and medication, their environment is safe and secure; they have access to clean water, a bed to sleep in, and healthy food to eat.”

When the program ends, Evelyn explains, these things sometimes go away. “The risk of a quick relapse escalates when they go back to live in the same circumstances that may have caused them to start using substances in the first place.” Issues like safe affordable housing, a living income, healthy food, access to education, money to pay for the medications they need to stay abstinent, and issues surrounding racism are things that cannot be dealt with in a rehabilitation program. “Unless those are addressed in an adequate fashion, the person who did so well in rehab is now set up to fail.”

In Evelyn’s opinion, more understanding is needed by the medical profession as well as society to better serve what she calls another “specialty area” of illness and treatment.

“We need to stop shaming people and recognize that this is an illness and that they need help to get well.” While she bristles at the idea that their use of drugs or alcohol is a choice, she agrees that individuals need to take personal responsibility to get well.

Evelyn also encourages family members to look into self-help resources like Al Anon, Al-Ateen or Adult Children of Alcoholics. Organizations like the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba (AFM) also have family programs that help affected members recognize family dynamics that occur when problematic substance use is present and how to deal with it.

“When you have someone with an addiction in the family, everything in the household revolves around that person. They may be getting the help they need but the core of the family has changed. If the family doesn’t get help as well they won’t be on the same page.”

Book, stories and illustrations well received

Evelyn says the response to the book has been very positive. “Everyone is commenting on the illustrations and how they fit well with the content. The use of colour and expressions; people found it very striking.”

Addictions assignmentThe books are $20 each, and you can order copies by emailing elundeen@rrc.ca. Money raised will go toward a scholarship for a nursing student who is looking to specialize in substance use disorders. 

 

Watch for an interview I’ll be sharing with Angela Fournier, the artist behind these illustrations.  

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Susan Kuz, ice tower, Forks

Knowing our strengths helps us show up in the best way possible

Susan Kuz is a Positive Psychology Practitioner who has facilitated workshops, created programs, and coached clients since 2009. Her long list of credentials includes a Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology from the Flourishing Centre in NYC, she is a Certified Coach, and a graduate of Mindfulness-based Strengths Practice level 1 and 2 with the VIA Character Organization. She is owner of Being Pukka.

Susan Kuz, ice tower, Forks

Positive psychology practitioner Susan Kuz drew on her character strengths of creativity and curiosity to scale an ice tower.

What is positive psychology?

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes people and communities flourish and thrive. “Instead of focussing on illness, positive psychology looks at why some people are happier and more resilient,” she says. “This is really about wellness and well-being. How can we help people flourish and thrive more in their lives no matter where they are on that scale of wellness?”

Character strengths are one of the core elements of positive psychology. Kuz says, “This is steeped in extensive research that was conducted worldwide, to determine the 24 character strengths that are consistently found in all cultures, religions, and thought leaders.” The full list is included below.

I have done the VIA survey a few times and discovered a remarkable level of positivity when I consciously align my life and actions with my top character strengths or signature strengths as they are called. They are (currently) Perseverance, Social Intelligence, Perspective, Fairness and Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence. Susan has assured me not to be too freaked out that some of the things I value, such as bravery and humor, are low on my  list.

“We shouldn’t automatically look at our strengths and focus on the ones at the bottom of the list because we think that’s what we have to improve,” she says. Instead, we should focus on our top signature strengths.

“Those are the things you couldn’t possibly live without expressing. They are natural and energizing to you.”

The strengths that are lower on the list are likely just the ones you don’t express or use as often.

Why is knowing our signature strengths important?

Susan says, “Those signature strengths are the things that make us unique and energize us. Aligning our strengths and values, which occurs naturally, helps to give our lives more meaning, enabling us to do things in a better way, take better care of ourselves, and have a higher degree of life satisfaction.”

She adds, “It’s really about how you choose to live and can help you to refrain from ‘shoulding all over yourself’.”

Shoulding all over yourself? That’s a good one, which Susan credits to someone else.

Character strengths can be drawn on to help us through tough times. “If you’re dealing with an illness, or a loss or challenge at work, ask yourself how can I use my strengths to move forward? Maybe you can use humour to ignite the team or help to lessen tension for people who are struggling, or you could use perseverance to get past a particularly difficult challenge. Someone may use creativity to consider how to approach a problem in a different way. Again, everyone is at their best when they come to the table with their top strengths. It benefits us as well as those around us.”

She cautions being wary of comparisons. “Sometimes we rate ourselves lower on a strength because we compare ourselves to others who we may think are kinder, more humble, braver, funnier, etc. than we are.” As a result, we score lower. “Do the survey more than once, and get some feedback from other people if you are surprised by your results. In the end, identifying signature strengths is personal and subjective. But it can help to get feedback from others because you may see yourself differently than you present.”

Boosting well-being

Focusing on strengths is fun. “Everyone likes to know what is best and unique about themselves,” Susan says. “The fact that it is very good for our health, well-being and success is a beautiful bonus.” Susan offers a few programs to make a game out of it such as a 7-Day Boost or Vitality Challenge. “This keeps the experience positive and fun.”

“I developed the Vitality Challenge to boost my fitness routine and ended up using my top strengths of Curiosity, Love of Learning and Creativity throughout my challenges, which included doing 50 new exercise activities in the year I turned 50.” This also aligned with the framework of positive psychology which includes positive emotion, engagement, building relationships, cultivating meaning, and achieving goals.

Mary Ann Baynton warming up to another Vitality Challenge.

Susan presented her Vitality Challenge at the Canadian Positive Psychology Conference in May 2018. My colleague and friend, Mary Ann Baynton, was in attendance and was inspired by Susan’s story. She decided to commit to doing her own version of the Vitality Challenge in honour of a colleague, Karen Lieberman, who had passed away while Mary Ann was attending the conference. She says, “I posted my intention publicly on Facebook before I could back out. “ As of today, she has done 41 activities with 11 more to go before May 2019.

She says that of her top character strengths, she credits honesty for supporting her in following through with the Challenge. “I said I would and so I must. This was done as an exercise in discipline. It is a fun way to increase my physical activity as well as to introduce me to different approaches to well-being.”

Drawing on strengths in unexpected ways

Mary Ann Baynton, snowshoeing, perseverance

Mary Ann and I snowshoeing at Fort Whyte, Winnipeg. She drew on honesty to follow through on her commitment even though it was -40c. I pulled on perseverance!

When asked what she learned, Mary Ann says, “I have the most amazing friends, family and colleagues. They are not just emotionally supportive, they actually are there for me in a real, physical sense by setting up activities and going with me. One example of this is a good friend who made arrangements to take me snowshoeing, including ensuring I had the right equipment and that I was dressed appropriately.”

She adds, “This has increased my gratitude for those I am fortunate to have in my life. It has kept Karen’s memory alive and thriving. She still inspires me. It opened my eyes to activities that I will go back to when my challenge is done. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and increased my sense of courage and competence (well, no more competence in the area of dance, but it was still fun!). I have done lots of traditional exercise on machines and in yoga studios, but I have also done rock climbing, moving meditations, snowshoeing, trampolines, and parasailing! Some of these I am sure I would not otherwise have tried.”

Susan says, “This is a beautiful example of how we can use our strengths to move through tough times, which for Mary Ann was the death of her friend.” She says that everyone benefits when we recognize opportunities to use our strengths in this way and that sometimes we may have to dig around and use strengths we haven’t used as much.

“It’s something you have to put into action and practice. It’s like going to the gym, but it’s practicing different skills. It’s preventative medicine in the sense that it contributes to both mental and physical wellness.”

Taking a deeper dive

Susan just hanging around during her Vitality Challenge.

While there’s been a lot of focus on happiness, Susan says drawing on our strengths goes deeper. It helps to cultivate more meaning in life and increase our levels of life-satisfaction. “Using our strengths correlates with better health. We exhibit more healthy behaviors, are more resilient, are less likely to be depressed or stressed. We are happier and feel more positive. We have better relationships at home. At work, we are more engaged and productive and are more likely to see our work as a calling. Overall, we have more vitality and passion for life.”

She also urges us to “strength spot”. This means acknowledging the strengths we see in the people around us, including our colleagues and in particular, our family. “It can benefit our relationships when we tell our partner or our children that we see and appreciate the strengths they show up with.”

People light up as this awareness increases.

Canadians’ top strengths are Fairness, Honesty, Judgement, Kindness, and Curiosity. Runners up are Love and Gratitude.

How to flourish and thrive in your strengths

  • Having a boss who recognizes and celebrates your strengths
  • Having the ability to focus and leverage your strengths daily at work
  • Having co-workers celebrate and support your strengths
  • Recognizing and acknowledging when someone is coming from a place of their strength
  • Having work that aligns with your strengths – and job crafting if necessary to achieve that
  • Uplifting others by “strength spotting”

24 Character Strengths

  1. Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence
  2. Bravery
  3. Creativity
  4. Curiosity
  5. Fairness
  6. Forgiveness
  7. Gratitude
  8. Honesty
  9. Hope
  10. Humility
  11. Humor
  12. Judgment
  13. Kindness
  14. Leadership
  15. Love
  16. Love of Learning
  17. Perseverance
  18. Perspective
  19. Prudence
  20. Self-Regulation
  21. Social Intelligence
  22. Spirituality
  23. Teamwork
  24. Zest

Visit http://beingpukka.pro.viasurvey.org to register and conduct your own character strength survey. You can also check out Susan’s My Life Reboot group on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/groups/186350975592974/?epa=SEARCH_BOX

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Tacos, Pine Falls

Food has been on my mind a lot lately

Tacos, Pine Falls

Buen provecho!

This is a light-hearted post to help warm the souls and awaken the memories for those of us who are emerging from the long dark days of winter…

To heck with all those New Year’s resolutions to reclaim the svelte form of days gone by. I’m making tacos! In my defense, the craving for the famous family recipe came after I’d done a hard workout tromping through snow well above my knees for about 4 km. Once home, I was hot, tired and hungry. I poured myself a much-deserved refreshment and debated whether I had the energy and the ingredients to forge ahead with homemade tacos – everything from scratch, including the unparalleled cornmeal shells.

I considered this as evening arrived with a gentle blanket of snow, glistening against the deep dark winter night – darker here in the country without any of the noise of streetlights or other houses nearby. The setting was right. My mom and I, along with aunts, cousins and friends, would often embark on a taco-making frenzy on a late winter afternoon, usually a weekend, when there wasn’t a whole lot else to do in my old hometown of Pine Falls, Manitoba. That’s if you didn’t play hockey or want to hang out at the local watering hole. Many hilarious antics arose during all stages of the recipe preparation, cooking and devouring.

I am not Spanish and have only been to Mexico twice. The authentic recipe came to town with a Mexican woman, Cathy Neal, who married a local. “We were eating tacos before anyone else in Canada!” my mother recalls. She adds that Mrs. Neal was as generous with that recipe as she was with the heaps of fun she brought into the community.

The reason the taco recipe made it into this story is because when I posted photos on Facebook as I prepared them, it unearthed a flood of comments – first from people from my old hometown who didn’t have the recipe and second, from those who did have it and had their own fond memories of its partaking. I refer to it as the “Famous Pine Falls Taco Recipe” because I knew it had a story of its own. I didn’t expect that story to run as deep or as far as it did.

These conversations got me thinking about the tremendous impact that gathering to prepare and share food has had on my life. I’m sure that’s a story that many of us share.

I laughed out loud when one Facebook friend, many years younger than me, posted, “There’s a Famous Pine Falls Taco Recipe??” and chuckled when a buddy I hadn’t heard from in a while wrote, “Never heard of PF tacos but if it involves Aggie (my mom) that’s a keeper!”

While we all just did what we did, research shows that sitting down for meals together can have lasting, positive effects on all aspects of physical and mental health. In writing this, I am fully aware that having that basic need met is a challenge for many and support organizations like Siloam Mission that are founded on the belief that hope begins with a meal. If this story moves you in any way, and you are able, think about donating to Siloam Mission  or any organizations or groups in your community that are bringing people to the table in safety and hope.

Many hands make light work (most of the time)!

In my family, gathering to break bread (or tacos!) was how we came together in relative harmony, no matter what was going on in our lives. My mom was famous for her soups, roasts, casseroles, pies, cookies and various other recipes that had been passed down to her from my grandmother, whose mother passed them down to her, and so on. I was an adequate cook when I first got married, because I too had inherited some of these recipes, but really didn’t put many of them to work until our family grew. Then, the undeniable attraction of pausing at dusk to gather up, share – and often debate! – the events of the day was irresistible.

One by one, I began collecting more of those ancestral food traditions, from both my mom and mother-in-law – trying, failing, trying again and eventually, mastering many of them (but not all!). And, as I attempted and failed and tried again, more people started to show up at our table. This included our children’s friends and then their boyfriends and girlfriends, our friends, and immediate and extended family.

At some point, I was passed the torch, and the seasonal, family gatherings started happening more and more under my watch. Four at the table became six, then eight, then twelve and on and on as more people found their way, bringing their own contributions to the feast. I credit the strong women of our family who established these traditions and I know it isn’t the same in every family. I can still see the backside of one of my high school friends as she dug through our fridge whenever she was over. She loved my mom and my mom’s cooking. Our house was a haven for her in a difficult life.

Tried and true recipes from the family archives.

I consider as one of my greatest achievements the fact that I carried on this tradition and have lost count of the number of times I’ve fed a gang of people who showed up because they knew I was making their “favourite” wings, paella, spaghetti and meatballs, pizza, or yes of course, those tacos, plus many other “famous” recipes. As it turns out, most of those just mentioned are my own new contributions to our family’s store of food traditions. No one has been – or ever will be – turned away from my table as long as they show up with gratitude, respect and a good appetite!

It’s a well-known fact that food brings people together. But just how tightly can vary depending on the people, places and palates. Some are just there for the food right? Others are there for the social connections and conversation. And then there are some, like me, who get more out of the food preparation than the food itself. Although I do really like to eat the food too!

I have often wondered about those of us who love this “work” while others despise it. That’s what inspired this story – that gratitude of knowing that my love for cooking, the fact that it brings me solace and peace, is because of how it softened the hard edges of tougher times as I was growing up and in my adult life. I’ll never forget that wild rice soup that was delivered to our home, by one of my mom’s lifelong friends, when my grandfather died. Or the flawless turkey dinner that arrived shortly after grandma’s passing.

Those are the deep lasting bonds that can be found – if you’re as lucky as I am – sharing food in the company of family, friends and community.

salad, food

Light snacks or accompaniments can satisfy hangry guests.

My table top advice for creating great food traditions

Bringing people together in this way is definitely a platform where I’ve had some success, so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned. Before you read it, there is one tenet that I do insist on, and that is that everyone who comes to the table does so with good intentions. You can bring your hurts, fears or troubles knowing that you are safe, but everyone has an obligation to not hurt or treat anyone at the table with anything less than the respect we all deserve. (There’s a story here but that’s for another day.)

Embrace diversity Whether it’s culture, opinions, identities, food or dietary preferences, rather than seeing these as extra work to accommodate and entertain, I look at opening the door to all of them as a way to learn and expand the table.  

Share your stories – Like the taco story, most of us have tales of our own around favourite foods or a vast array of other discoveries that might evoke a good memory, or even how we faced a challenge or loss. As Isak Dinesen (Out of Africa) wrote: “All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story.”

Welcome help While it may upset your perfect “timing”,  accepting help from those with less experience or others who may not share your ideal “vision” for the meal can lessen your burden but also sets the foundation for the tradition to go beyond that single repast. My mother must have groaned when I insisted (and failed) in my first attempts to get that taco batter just right. But look where her patience took us! With help before, during and after the meal, you’re less likely to resent the effort and do it all over again!

Angela, cleaver

All help is good help!

 Provide some instant gratification Anything worth the effort, usually takes time. Stave off the impatient, starving crew with some appetizers that compliment but don’t ruin the meal. I usually avoid breads or heavy gluten of any kind and stop serving appetizers an hour or so before the main event. You want to minimize the risk of “hangry” guests but give yourself space to do your work!  

Foster connections Whoever created kitchen islands is my hero. This is where people can gather, idle hands can pick up some of the tasks, stories are shared, and laughter erupts at the various goofs of cooks like me. By its design, the island allows those preparing the food to face their guests. This opens the door for so many great, memorable conversations.

Consider all needs In my household, this might sound something like “the vegans are coming!” As noted above, inviting those with  preferences or dietary restrictions (aka gluten) is an opportunity to learn something new. I usually ask these guests to make suggestions, or even better, bring their own contribution!  

Set the tone Being hospitable and welcoming means being aware of any sensitivities or issues that might be coming to the table. This goes beyond the food. For example, a person in recovery from an addiction should know they are safe and if having alcohol served is an issue for them, that should be respected as part of their invitation. Same if you’ve included someone who may be bringing some past hurts either directly or indirectly related to you or other guests. Taking a moment to acknowledge and welcome them personally can make all the difference.

Forgive the latecomers I like to serve my food hot, but what the heck – it’s mostly still great even if it’s consumed well past the time guests were asked to arrive. My rule is if you show up late, you’ll get a warm welcome but your food might be cold.  

Sit down If the intention is to bring people together to “share a meal”, do what you can to have them all sit down at the same time – and that includes you! In my small house, this often means at a few different tables, but people are still face to face, interacting and enjoying both the food and social connections at the same pace. If it’s more casual with just finger foods, have spots where people can still get off their feet and congregate with others around coffee tables, couches, etc.  

Cool it with the clean up While this has meant I’ve been left with all the dishes on more than one occasion, I avoid starting to load the dishwasher or fill the sink while people are still enjoying those important conversations and connections with one another. I’d rather let the evening continue and if I’ve thought of it, I may ask a few close friends or relatives to hang around afterward to help with clean-up. Perhaps my standards are low in this area, but dishes can always wait.

Love how islands bring people together. Shown: Big bro, mom, niece and partner.

Thank you for joining me on this journey down culinary lane. I’d love to hear about your food traditions or anything you do that brings people around the table in everyday and surprising ways. Please share them in the comments below. It may be a future story!

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Introducing…the Famous Pine Falls Taco Recipe

It’s been adapted with details for a young audience as I once shared it for my kids’ elementary school cookbook (don’t mind the typos). You can definitely alter it for your taste and lifestyle. Lettuce and store-bought salsa work just fine! No hablo español (I don’t speak any Spanish…but will make an attempt) Buen provecho!

tacos, Pine Falls

Famous Pine Falls Taco Recipe

Christmas 2018

From our house to yours

Christmas 2018

 

Our hope is that your story for the Holidays

is filled with laughter, love and kindness.

Wishing you and yours a truly fine Holiday Season

and a Happy New Year!

– Leanne and Michael Fournier

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Joti's skyline, tiny house

Dr. Joti Samra shares how less can definitely be more

Dr. Joti Samra, R. Psych., enjoying nature’s “gifts”.

Dr. Joti Samra, R. Psych., first picked up Dr. Wayne Dyer’s book, The Power of Intention, 15 years ago, shortly after her father died suddenly at the age of 53. She has since considered Dyer one of the great influences in her life. The irony of meeting him, completely by chance – not once, but twice – isn’t lost on her. “I told him I knew I’d meet him (this was on a boardwalk in Hawaii) and he said of course you did!” That, she says, was a great example of the true power of intention.

This philosophy, which Joti strives to apply in all areas of her life, is based on a heightened level of consciousness that you attract what you are, rather than what you want.

“Because of this, over the years, I’ve become increasingly, hyper-aware of the impacts of over-consumption – the idea that we always need more in order to be happy,” she says.

As a psychologist, Joti sees the problematic side of consumption, whether it’s food, substances, sex, gambling or shopping. “It’s so detrimental to health. There’s often a strong self-medication component. People have emotional distress and there’s this soothing we get from ‘things’,” she says. “We get short hits of natural antidepressants – Serotonin in our brain – which gets reinforced over time. Basically, it feels good so people keep doing it, whether it’s actually good for them.”

Christmas and the Holiday Season provide the ideal opportunity for this repetitive pattern of over-consumption in many cultures. “It’s right around this time every year, when I see clients becoming increasingly stressed in two key areas: family and finances.”

She says it’s sad that a time of year that’s supposed to be about togetherness and giving and sharing is so stressful for so many people.

“As a society, we do a poor job of education about the behaviors that are causing this stress, thinking more is better and it’s not.” She cites the fact that fully 1/3 of Canadians are chronically stressed about finances. “People are getting into debt way over their heads with no clear idea how they’re ever going to dig themselves out.”

How do we change these behaviours?

Joti identifies this as a societal problem with numerous influences. We see it in the fact that both brick and mortar and online stores are blasting away with specials and the need to start shopping for the Holidays earlier and earlier. It’s fed again by a generation that have always had technology in their lives, which is causing a dramatic change in the nature of their relationships as they over-consume vast amounts of information and influences online. It’s bolstered, yet again, by busy working families who use technology to solve problems, because it’s easier.

“We have this perception that we’re doing the ‘right thing’ by jumping online and getting all of our shopping done,” Joti says. While it may provide a temporary sense of relief, in the end, we’ve likely spent more and have given less thought to the things we’re buying, who we’re buying them for – or even why we’re buying them in the first place.

She says this barrage of influences assaults our senses, causing emotional clutter. “A lot of people don’t have awareness of the patterns they are getting into when it comes to consumption,” Joti says.

“Ultimately it comes down to just being more mindful of the decisions we’re making, and why we’re making them.”

Thinking about why we do what we do around the Holidays

There are ways to reduce both the over-consumption and emotional clutter in a way that can have lasting, positive effects:

Be aware of your thoughts, expectations and emotional associations around buying, giving, and receiving. Ask yourself questions like, when you think about Christmas, what emotions does that raise for you in terms of what you buy?  What is the why for doing what you do?

Commit to thinking about it. Every time you’re going to make a purchase, take a moment to again, consider the why. Does it have beauty or function? Both are good. Beautiful things like art, flowers, or things we make with our own hands are good for us in terms of the positive emotions they inspire. If something has function, it serves some useful role. “It may not be beautiful, but we need it in our lives,” Joti says.

Focus cognitive attention on finances. Extend that awareness to what you can really afford for no other reason than to reduce financial stress. It is you alone that has the choice to buy or not to buy.

Get others on board. Rather than seeing this as a negative (worrying that you’ll be seen as cheap, uncaring or too busy), understand that the vast majority of people don’t want – or need – more “stuff”. Even the pre-teen who wants more video games can be brought onside with fewer, more thoughtful gifts, rather than the endless pile they tear through on Christmas morning. Couple that with some memorable experiences (see below) and you can begin to change the course of the Holiday gift giving frenzy.

Talk about it. As a society, we’re not well-versed to talk about money. Be the one to bring it up and again, talk about the why. Discuss memories or rituals that are meaningful to family members and how you can recreate or bring those “gifts” into the Holidays. Some ideas include creating photo journals to share, asking every family member to write a letter of gratitude to other family members, and creating rituals around the food or other traditions (maybe it’s skating, carolling, church, etc.) your family traditionally shares during the Holidays. Overall, just take to time pause and celebrate those non-monetary affirmations.

Be prepared for resistance. Joti advises to giving this approach a try for at least one year. Set some ground rules as noted above, but let the family know that you’re open to talking about how it felt for everyone.  The goal is for it to be good for everyone, to reduce the financial and emotional stress, and to focus on truly celebrating what’s important to one another.

“This can be very intrinsically rewarding,” Joti says. “We all know that feeling of how we can ‘breathe’ when we reduce unnecessary clutter in our lives – Be this clearing out our desk, a closet, a room, or the emotional clutter that the Holidays can create.”

This more minimalist approach enhances our ability to be mindful. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing our energy and attention on the here and now.

Joti says, “Mindfulness is known to have tremendous benefits – reducing anxiety and depression, and enhancing quality of life, relationships, and productivity.

“When we reduce clutter in our lives, we’re much more likely to be able to live a mindful life.”

Challenge: What’s the best Holiday Season memory you have? Is it about a present?

My guess is, it’s likely about the people you were with, or a place in time. Let’s wrap that up for the Holiday Season!

Dr. Joti Samra is a national thought leader on issues relating to mental health. She is Founder & Principal at MyWorkplaceHealth.com. She is also the Program Lead for the online Centre for Psychological Health Sciences at the University of Fredericton and a member of the Global Expert Panel for WellteQ. She is an innovator in the area of psychological health and safety in the workplace, and has been the lead on a number of pivotal national workplace projects that have contributed to policy change in Canada. Joti was also the host and psychological expert on both seasons of the Oprah Winfrey Network’s “Million Dollar Neighbourhood”, working with families on the psychology of making changes in terms of their financial health. You can follow her on Linkedin, Instagram, Twitter,  YouTube and Facebook. 

 

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Calling all restaurant owners, managers and customers: We can do better

Stella’s employees are speaking out about harassment at work. Article image reprinted from the Winnipeg Free Press. Photo by Mikaela Mackenzie, Winnipeg Free Press.

 

I’ve been planning to write a story about workplace mental health in the hospitality industry for some time. If you’ve heard about the #notmystellas movement on Instagram and Facebook , you know the story is writing itself.

I’m not surprised.  I’ve been listening for years to the complaints of my daughter, Angela, and many of her friends, who all worked as servers at the local eatery. Much of it was the usual whining and complaining our generation tends to roll our eyes about, thinking oh you poor little Millennials.

But, there were some serious concerns (see below), and a few times, I wanted to go down and talk to management – but Angela wouldn’t let me; wanted to handle it herself. She did handle it the best she could, but the pervasive abuse on many levels has stuck with her, causing lasting damage. For what? $11 an hour plus tips?

Stella’s isn’t alone

Sadly, Stella’s isn’t the only place where this is happening. And it isn’t just management. We customers need to look at ourselves too. Here’s a real-life example: A  table of 50+ aged men ask their 23-year-old server, whose working her ass off on a busy night, which one of them she’d like to go home with. They expect an answer. The server is offended but nonplussed as this has  happened many times before. She responds blandly with something like, I’ll have to get back to you on that and carries on. She’ll get her tip but it will feel dirty, and she’ll replay this conversation in her mind, thinking of all the things she could have said.
Same when a drunk man tries to stuff a $5 bill down her shirt.

The server was my daughter and this happened in a different restaurant where she worked after Stella’s.

It happens all the time, according to Angela and hundreds of young people – now more than I can count – that have posted to the #notmystellas page.

The articulate women who are leading the charge on this issue are hopefully, rewriting this story. They’re clear on what they want to see happen and are getting that message out through the power of social and other media. They are even getting some results but there’s still more to do in achieving all of their requests:

  • Full acknowledgement of the abuses and harassment that have been reported
  • A formal apology from company owners and top-level management
  • Continuing dialogue and creation of a safe space where people can share their stories
  • Permanent removal of two senior managers who appear in a multitude of the complaints
  • The creation of a human resources department
  • Funding for past and present staff to access mental health services

Calling out ourselves

While this was unfolding, I felt my temper rising as well-intentioned people were commenting on Facebook, threatening to boycott the restaurant, etc.  The recommendation from the #notmystellas group is to not boycott but rather, go to any one of the Stella’s locations, order something cheap, and tip in cash.

Why was I getting angry at people who were actually being supportive? I’m being called out as well. I berated my child for her complaints before and after shifts, and on days when she simply didn’t feel like going into work. I would expect her to be perky and “on” whenever I, along with friends and colleagues, went to eat at Stella’s. I expected her to blow off the harassment she was experiencing and just do her damn job. It couldn’t be that bad, could it?

It was. It is. Heads up parents. We need to do better. We need to ask our young people if they’re really doing okay when they head out the door to their minimum wage jobs.

Words from the trenches

Angela Fournier hopes all restaurant owners are paying attention to the #notmystellas movement.

Here’s Angela’s post:

In regard to #notmystellas, I worked for Stella’s for 3 long years. My story is similar to that of many others I am sure you have heard. I was constantly harassed by a customer and made to feel extremely uncomfortable every single day that I worked. This customer was not asked to leave after I made several complaints to my male GM at the time, who didn’t see the customer’s constant inappropriate comments about my body or asking me to go out with him, as a problem. Eventually he was asked to leave by my female manager after making advances towards another female manager. I know many of my friends that experienced harassment from managers and other male employees who were never fired and only transferred, often keeping their manager title or being promoted.

Stella’s is not the only restaurant I have experienced this treatment with.

The restaurant industry is an unregulated industry that consistently forces marginalized people into compromising situations and is the result of many mental health issues.

Stella’s triggered much of the anxiety I suffer from today both in and out of the workplace. However, Stella’s has a reputation of hiring amazing people as their front and back of house staff who are treated like garbage. Many of my close friends who I worked with have been fired for invalid reasons as well as made to feel expendable.

I hope that this inquiry into Stella’s misconduct will encourage other restaurants to look into their policy and treatment of staff.

Just because it is a restaurant doesn’t mean the staff should be subjected to any lesser treatment than any other industry.

Thank you to the women of #notmystellas for creating a platform for so many of us to have a voice and taking this issue head on and not backing down.

Such grace and courage. By Angela and the others that are leading the charge for positive change. Let’s hope Stella’s can show an iota of the same.

What we can all do

What’s made the news this past week is happening everywhere. As my brilliant daughter describes, there are many people who need their jobs, and endure unspeakable harassment and abuse, often at the hands of managers who should know better but don’t. I’ll give that some don’t do it intentionally. Many servers and back of house staff move up through the ranks and eventually get promoted into management, without any training, and don’t have a clue what being a manager of people really entails.

Let’s hope the Stella’s debacle can help set a standard that no restaurant wants to settle for. We and they can all do better.

If you’re a restaurant owner or manager, get training in place to prevent this kind of harm. Be the place people want to work. Invest in training for your managers. Every dime you put in will pay off ten-fold in employee loyalty, satisfaction, less turnover and ultimately, happy employees and customers.

There’s free resources available through public service websites like workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com, psychological health and safety training for leaders at places like Mindful Leader, plus numerous HR and workplace relations firms that can help develop policies and processes that clarify what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace, as well as how to prevent psychological harm.

If you’re a customer, treat your server with respect. None of us have the right to respond to people, who are required to show up and provide service to us, with anything less than that. In most cases, your server is doing their best, despite what may be going right or wrong in the back of house or maybe even in your day.

If they’re truly doing a crappy job, then exchange a kind word to help them do better.

That costs nothing and everybody wins.

 

You can read more (you may have to subscribe) at:

Past, present employees claim Stella’s restaurant workplace rife with harassment and abuse

Public asked to support Stella’s employees amid harassment allegations

 

 

Ocean

It may be time to tell a different story

I recently attended a session on advertising, presented as part of Small Business Week. In it, Brian Hagel, Sales Manager at Mix 107.9 / FortSaskOnline.com, chatted about many things, including what he’d learned from The Wizard of Ads® matriarch Roy H. Williams. While I’d heard many of William’s “wisdoms” before, I perked up when Hagel said, if you can substitute someone else’s name in your story – and no one notices – you need to tell a different story.

YAHOO! That’s what I’ve been saying!

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Walking in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s footsteps was transformative for this humble writer (PEI 2018). Read about it.

I’m like anyone else. I find it excruciating to write my own story. For me, it’s a combination of not wanting to face some of my own pain points and the incessant fear of failing publicly. That’s my very short story (here’s a tidbit). You can also read some of the stories I write about other people and the world around me.

The story behind who you are and the business you have built (or helped build) is as important as what you’re selling. It’s also a glaring gap in much of the marketing I see people using – from websites, to social posts, to the email newsletters that hit my inbox on a daily basis.

Humanizing your business story is the way to share your brand message, engage your audience, and drive action based on the emotional response it inspires.


Case Study
Earlier this, week I was talking to a potential client for the first time. I could hear the agony in her voice as she described her struggle to develop content for her website on her own for nearly a year. She is stalled on doing any social media marketing because that story hasn’t been told.

As we talked through the challenges she’s been facing, I naturally started interviewing her, asking her about her passion for what she’s doing for clients, why anyone should care, and as Hagel emphasized, what’s in it for them. The veil began to lift. We barely scratched the surface but I could hear the panic subsiding as she began to see that she has a story that matters.


Bottom line: If no one ever hears your story, how do you expect to build ongoing, lasting relationships based on that narrative?

Rob Hatch of Owner Media Group put it this way: “The reality is, your stories reveal part of who you are and what you’re capable of even as you have yet to accomplish your greatest achievements.”

It’s time to tell your story, and I’d love to help.  Maybe this can make it easier for you.

 

 

Mary Ann Baynton, profile story

Mary Ann Baynton on being open to whatever work and life throw our way

Some of us are lucky enough to have someone walk into our lives and suddenly, it’s changed for the better. Such has been my experience in the 10 years since I received a call from Mary Ann Baynton, an Ontario-based workplace mental health specialist, who was looking for some help to develop a website for a new client. Who knew that all this time later we’d still be connected — as colleagues who have been through the trenches together, and as friends who have had each other’s backs through the toughest of times. Her story inspires me and many others.

Mary Ann Baynton

Mary Ann Baynton is energized by openness and opportunities.

Early in her career, Mary Ann read something that changed her life. It was Eckhart Tolle’s teaching, in the Power of Now, to be open to everything and attached to nothing. It is advice she’s shared with me many times! Mary Ann is someone who can accomplish more in a day or even an hour than anyone I know. She laughs when she says that the reason she is able to do that is because she “resists over planning.”

Energized by openness and good work

“On a daily basis opportunities present themselves,” she says. “People express their needs and pain points. By being open to whatever comes my way I can react to it and think about how I can help, and if there’s an opportunity to collaborate.” This, she said, leads her to consider who might be interesting to work with to make things happen. It’s an approach that she says has provided many opportunities to do great work.

She emphasizes that being “attached to nothing” isn’t about not caring. “For me, it means that I don’t pre-determine what the outcome must be in terms of building a relationship or collaborating. I’m always open to talking it through with others and if something doesn’t turn out as I had anticipated it would, I’m okay with that. I can let it go and be open to doing it a different way.”

She adds, “I get so much done because I love my work. It’s an opportunity to do something that matters. My energy comes from that sense that what I’m doing makes a difference. Otherwise, I wouldn’t get much done.”

Being open to different outcomes

Mary Ann Baynton, Building Stronger Teams

Mary Ann has helped develop many resources with some great outcomes.

I’ve seen Mary Ann’s ability to “get things done” on many occasions. One was helping to build the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace (the Centre) from the ground up. This was the project she first called me about. No one quite knew what the Centre would be, but 10 years later, it has helped set the standard for promoting psychological health and safety in workplaces. It has also given Mary Ann the opportunity and a platform to collaborate with some of the best minds in mental health to develop resources to help business leaders improve psychological health and safety in their workplaces and support employee success when mental health is a factor. Most are available on the Centre’s website, which we continue to collaborate on.

One glowing example of Mary Ann’s openness (and commitment) occurred when she was supporting a colleague, Mandi Buckner, who had struggled with mental illness in the workplace. This was before the Centre had been established, and Mary Ann was working with Mental Health Works,  a Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) initiative. “Mandi told me that, when she wasn’t well and couldn’t focus, one thing that would have really helped her was short videos of people experiencing the same things she was.” This conversation would eventually lead to the creation of the popular free resource Working Through It. But the road to get there wasn’t easy.

Mary Ann first brought the idea to the CMHA, who didn’t have the funding or resources to do it alone. So, while she was open to what Mandi suggested, she wasn’t attached to the outcome and let it go. A couple of years later, after she became the Program Director for the Centre, she brought the idea forward again. This time there was funding and interest but there were still many challenges to get it right. While Mary Ann was charged with the ultimate responsibility for the project, she says not being over attached to the outcome or micromanaging it is what worked in getting the true richness of the stories from those living with mental illness. “While I helped direct the project, it’s these individuals who really informed it,” she said. “It’s one of our most accessed resources and touches so many lives –  from those who are looking for peer support and want to understand more, to leaders who want to improve awareness.

“Those outcomes weren’t intended by me but that’s where it ended up.”

Seeing setbacks as opportunities

Leanne Fournier, Mary Ann Baynton, Joanne Roadley

Taking a break from work with Mary Ann Baynton and Joanne Roadley.

Mary Ann is well aware that her working style isn’t for everyone. “If I plan too much, I just get stuck. Others need to plan as a way of supporting their success or, in some cases, to be accountable.” In the corporate world this is often the case, which she manages by aligning with good people, such as the Centre’s Joanne Roadley, who can help make sure that all the different pieces fit together. “We use each other’s strengths and being able to work with someone with that skill set has been great.”

Occasionally, like many of us, Mary Ann has had to work on projects that drag her down and offers these insights. “I step back and wonder why this happened, and what am I supposed to learn from this setback.” An example was when she felt that she had stopped moving forward with a non-profit after just two years on the job. Instead of becoming “stagnant” she opened herself up to the opportunity of working with the Centre where she’s been able to continue to help make a difference.

“Sometimes setbacks are actually just opportunities in disguise and when we’re forced to move on it can all be for the best.”

She emphasizes the importance of realizing that we’re not failures just because we have a setback. Maybe it’s just time to move on.

“This attitude can definitely help keep us from lying awake at night feeling sorry for ourselves when things don’t go our way.”

Mary Ann Baynton is a workplace relations specialist at Mary Ann Baynton & Associates. She is also the Program Director for the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace.

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youth, mental health, hope

Finding and Giving Hope: World Suicide Prevention Day

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. While the issue of suicide has always been important to me,  I had never been personally affected, although I knew of and had offered what support I could to others who had. Still, I knew nothing of the full measure of such loss. That was until last year when a close family friend died by suicide.  He was young, a bright light in the world, with great parents and friends, and a promising future. Yet he wasn’t able to see his way out of the darkness.

That’s why, when  I was asked to do some writing about the National Walk for Youth Mental Health this spring I was immediately on board. The fact it was named Hope in the Darkness brought the issue home for me. I was energized to be a part of this, even though it brought me face to face with the grief I’ve felt since we lost our friend last September—almost a year ago today.

Kevin Redsky and west coast walker Robert Campbell from the Algonquins of Greater Golden Lake.

The cross-country walk was initiated by Sgt. Kevin Redsky of the Anishinabek Police Service from Shoal Lake 40 First Nation whose niece died by suicide in 2013, while in the care of Child and Family Services in Winnipeg. “The walk is inspired by her story and the stories of other young people who have struggled with mental health issues and the causes including the child welfare system, poverty, intergenerational trauma, and racism,” Redsky said. “The main purpose of the walk is to bring youth and police together to address mental health and to rebuild relationships between young people and police.”

Mitchell Boulette (Right) with his brother Irvin Boulette urges people to reach out for the help they need.

The hope was also to show communities, and in particular young people, that police officers do care. This was a surprise to some of the youth along the way and something that was especially important to Mitchell Boulette, a youth police officer for Treaty #3 who personally walked several hundred km for the cause. “Kevin shows he cares by walking every day,” Boulette said. “He’s encouraging everyone to come out and share any experiences they’ve had with police officers during a mental health crisis.” This in turn, he said, is providing police with a better understanding of how they can be more effective in helping young people in these situations.

Boulette has lost two family members to suicide and has personal experience of depression and reaching out for help. He saw the walk as a great way to address the stigma that youth, as well as police officers and the public in general, may feel about asking for help. He shared how he feared that admitting he was struggling would have a negative impact on his career and life. But he did reach out and got the help he needed and urges young people to do the same. “I’m living proof that if you reach for that help, you can beat it.”

Traditional drumming, singing and a jingle dress healing dance greeted the walkers.

The walk along the TransCanada Highway ran between April and August 2018, bringing together youth, families, communities, police, and mental health service providers from the east and west coasts. Walkers from the two directions met for a grand finale in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on August 3, 2018. They merged in front of the Canadian Human Rights Museum, accompanied by traditional drumming, singing and a  jingle dress healing dance.

Walkers from the East and West come together.

The turnout and support from law enforcement was inspiring. Winnipeg Police Services was actively involved throughout the day, doing traffic control but also walking the route from the East and West sides of the city – many in full uniform in the blistering heat.  RCMP also walked and these forces were joined by Manitoba First Nations Police, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), Treaty #3 Police and Anishinabek Police Service who all spoke at the welcoming ceremony that followed at the Oodena Celebration Circle at the Forks. Watching these individuals walk and later stand alongside the large number of youth that participated in the day suggested that Redsky’s goal had been accomplished – at least in part. 

Redsky shared that with over 68,000 law enforcement officers throughout Canada, there is more work to be done. This walk shows us there’s more work to do in terms of making this a real police-driven initiative so we’re going to be counting on the services to really get involved like our host police service (Anishinabek Police Service) has.” 

The walk provided a platform for action and learning. “What we’ve learned is the answer isn’t just funding or a therapist; the answers really lie in communities taking action  — relying on service providers but standing up and being active and involved. The reality is you have to make adjustments to make things work better, whether that’s using social media to contact people or being available on weekends and 24/7.”

One of the greatest outcomes has been sharing by young people. ‘These have been incredible stories and the strength is unbelievable.”

“There have been so many youth lead walkers on this journey, there have been youth facilitators in this process, and there have been youth volunteers as well. So there’s been a lot of opportunities for youth to really share on a platform that’s culturally safe that they can trust.”

This has included talking to police officers, something many of the youth had never done before. It is estimated that the total engagement and reach was about 100,000 people. This includes over 1,500 young people that walked or participated in some way.

The words shared in the Oodena Circle by law enforcement, walkers, youth and even the Mayor consistently reaffirmed to the youth gathered that they are not alone.

National Walk for Youth Mental Health winds its way through final steps in Winnipeg.

Chief Irwin Redsky, Shoal Lake 40, talked about how important it was to “come together in the circle” to talk about the issue of youth mental health and thanked the walkers, including Redsky and Boulette, for bringing people together on the issue.

When all was said and done, it was the youth themselves whose messages really struck home. Clyde Moonias from NAN Youth Council, urged anyone who was feeling hopeless to remember that there is hope, that they mattered and that each and every one of them was sacredWill Landon, from Treaty #3 Youth Council, echoed these feelings and the need for communities to take action – a lesson he learned firsthand walking over 200 km.  He saw the power of “walking the talk” and the need for investing in the “business of hope.” 

In wrapping up, Redsky was humble about his 4,600 km walk, simply saying that the stories were all too familiar across Canada. He talked about the four flames, an integral part of the Hope in the Darkness movement.

It only takes one small flame to start a fire, and that it can build from there with the actions of everyone who take steps to start the conversationand create light where there’s been darkness.

Hope in the Darkness flames, youth mental health, suicideFollowing is more about the four flames that were lit along the journey:

1st match lit April 1, EAST COAST START at Cape Spear, St Johns NFLD: Starting the conversation – addressing the stigma

2nd match lit May 15, WEST COAST START at Haida Gwaii BC: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and the impact on mental health

3rd match lit July 13 THUNDER BAY ARRIVAL:  Youth experience with racism

4th match lit Aug 3, WINNIPEG CLOSING CEREMONY: Youth at risk/child welfare

I definitely saw a “spark” growing  and spreading through the Ooneda Circle that was packed with representatives from law enforcement, mental health and youth support workers as well as community leaders and families — all ready and willing to be part of the change that needs to happen. To be part of the solution.

To be part of the light and a way out of the darkness.

Additional reading and resources:

The International Association for Suicide Prevention provides resources and asks us to light a candle at 8 pm tonight to show our support for suicide prevention, to remember a lost loved one, and for the survivors of suicide.

Providing hope and help for those contemplating suicide is an article courtesy of the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace.

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention provides information and links to resources across Canada.

Quinnton.ca provides links to emergency community resources.

Mumford and Sons agreed to allow their song Ghosts that We Knew be the official song of the walk. The song was chosen for its themes of hope and reassurance that everything will be all right. It’s available on itunes and YouTube. 

Youth walking and running to be part of the solution.

Ingonish Beach

#eastcoastwearehere: Life’s a beach!

Ingonish Beach

A quiet day at the beach in Ingonish, Cape Breton Island.

August 30 to September 3, Maritime Beaches — After the tourist explosion of Cavendish and the superfluous extravagance of the Chinese Junk Boat tour the night before, my travel partners and I decided we weren’t going to schedule anything more but rather, let Day 2 in PEI take us where it would.  I now know that this approach is so much better for someone like me who is crazy about scheduling and always being “on time”.

Mike’s Eagles Glenn golf experience in Cavendish hadn’t been the greatest so he was wary. Angela and I however had had a great day at Cavendish Beach although our time there had been cut short by my distraction at LMM Montgomery’s childhood home (see an earlier post). Still, the red cliffs at the beach were stunning and the water was clear and quite warm. I’d left my phone behind so no photos. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

I haven’t spent a lot of time on beaches since we bought our river front cottage over a decade ago. Since then, and pretty much during our children’s entire lives, our time in the water has usually happened jumping off floating docks and boats.  In PEI and all throughout Cape Breton Island, I rediscovered my love of beaches. And these aren’t just any beaches, but sprawling expanses of sand and rocks swept clean by rolling ocean waves.

Pigeon, seagull

Pretty sure these guys are part of the reason Maritime beaches are so debris free.

Maritimers seem to have an inherent respect for the land. There’s definitely a code of conduct for public places and attractions like the beaches and hiking trails where I saw very little garbage left behind.

Beaches became a bit of theme during the entire vacation, starting with a great day at Lawrencetown Beach on our first day where our daughter, who now lives in Halifax, showed off her new surfing skills.

Angela’s 2nd day ever surfing. #lifeontheocean

There were numerous stops at beaches all along the Cabot Trail, and while I didn’t collect their names, I did collect rocks at every single one. Flat lovely stones I plan to make part of my dream catchers. I love that this eastern connection will be part of the story of the catchers I create for family and friends. I was actually thinking of who I’d like to give each of the stones to as I picked them. It’s unlikely I’ll remember who a particular stone was destined for but just stopping (and stooping) to pick them up helped connect me to both the present moment and the places we stopped.  They are evidence that I was there.

Basin Head Beach

Relaxing on the “singing sands” of Basin Head beach.

While still in PEI, we’d heard that Basin Head beach was great, had a cool bridge people jump off of and best of all was free! Enroute we realized we were passing by another golf course, Crowbush, that was on Mike’s bucket list.  Since we didn’t have any deadlines, we decided to drive in to see if it would be worth the green fees and indeed, as the ocean rolled out beyond the impeccable fairways, we decided it was.

Crowbush

Michael Fournier can tick this one off his bucket list: Crowbush Cove Golf Course.

 

We left Mike behind with plans to head onto Basin Head and swing back for him in a few hours.  Angela and I loved Basin Head, had some idle time to talk about all of her hopes and dreams, as well as her worries, for her third year of university that would start in less than a week.

I’ve since read that the beach is often called “Singing Sands”in reference to the pure white sand that “sings” as you walk through it, due to a high silica content. I don’t recall hearing any such “singing” and neither of us ever did jump off that bridge (it was a little too kitschy for us) but wandered off the beach quite late, much more relaxed than the over scheduled, overpriced day before.

Best of all, we found a lobster fisherman along the way and stocked up on 3 succulent 1.5 pounders for an amazing meal back at our B & B. As the warmed butter dripped down our faces, we all decided we prefer to eat lobster this way not just because it’s at a fraction of the price of a restaurant meal but because we can dig in, make a mess, and enjoy the comfort and comradery of all of this in our own time and place. Photos also weren’t taken during this small extravagance out of respect for a family member (aka Ren) who wasn’t with us. It would have been too painful for him to watch!

All and all, it was the perfect ending to a great rejuvenating, unscheduled day. Check out other #eastcoastwearehere posts on the stories page.

Cabot trail, beaches

One of our last beach stops near the end of the Cabot Trail.

Ingonish whale watching

#eastcoastwearehere: A whale of a day

whale, ingonish, cape breton island, cabot trail

The blow signals that a whale watching show is about to begin. Sometimes. We were lucky.

Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

The view during our hike in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

September 2, Ingonish Beach, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia — There’s no doubt that the best things happened when we least expected them on our tour along the Cabot Trail. Such was the day we retraced our steps along the southeastern shore, without a plan or even a place to stay.  That’s not entirely true. Unable to restrain myself, I had called and scheduled an afternoon whale watching tour in Pleasant Bay, which was about 3 hours away on the northeastern side of the trail. 

We had just arrived in Ingonish Beach and stopped to snap some photos in the harbour when we saw people donning life jackets. I walked over and learned that a Zodiac whale watching tour was just setting off.  William McNichol of Ingonish Zodiac Adventures, read me like a book, not tolerating my hesitancy, fears or need to stick to the “schedule”. He told me point blank I had to make a decision “right now!” My partner Mike was more surprised than anyone when I turned to him and said, “Let’s do it!” Knowing the weather could turn and the wind could come up I realized this might be our only chance and whale watching was definitely at the top of my Cabot Trail bucket list.

Kinnon McKinnon, Ingonish whale watching tours

Captain Kinnon MacKinnon was our guide on this glorious, windy day.

As we boarded the Zodiac, I snuck into a seat at the back where I figured I could hang on for dear life to a bar that was much like the ones you see on ferris wheels. Fearless Mike headed to the front of the boat, camera in tow. I then heard him tell the captain, “There’s room for a wife up here” to which captain, Kinnon MacKinnon, responded, “Wife to the front!”  It was a hilarious start to a very memorable hour.

Zodiac, whale

A little tongue tied along with my Zodiac mates awaiting the big sighting.

The Zodiac took off and after I hadn’t fallen out in the first 10 minutes I relaxed realizing I likely wasn’t going to. I leaned into the joy of bouncing along in the swells. I tried to take pictures with my iPhone but it was jammed and with only one hand free to fix it (I was still hanging on for dear life), I put it away. William had given Mike a blanket for his camera, which was needed when the waves came over the side of the boat a few times. Kinnon was a pro though having done this for a while, steering us effortlessly through the swells.  We eventually arrived at the location where a fin whale had been spotted by a boat that departed as we came along. It soon became clear to us that the boat operators all communicate with one another about the sightings. This company boasts a very high sighting success rate – over 95% – and one of the best in Atlantic Canada according to its website.

The show begins.

I was getting worried when we hadn’t seen anything after some time, thinking just my luck. Then Mike spotted the “blow” as we’d been instructed to watch for. We headed for it, while Kinnon said that it might be another 8 to 12 minutes or so until the whale surfaced again. We waited. And waited and it was closer to 15 minutes when I spotted the second blow.  The Zodiac eased up to this location and it was now time for a show as she (“it” became a “she” at this point) blew again upon our approach.

I’ve seen whale watching tours where the spectators are all jumping and screaming in the boat but this crew was different  — maybe because we were in patient pursuit of just one whale vs. a pod, or because the Zodiac required us all to be a little more “steady”. I was silent with the rest of my Zodiac mates during the long wait for the first and subsequent blows. As we drew nearer and she blew a third time, the group, which included a mix of ages and nationalities, was still quiet. At this point, Kinnon said, “It’s about 350 feet deep here, which isn’t that deep when you’re 85 feet long.”

Not long after, we got to see pretty much all of that 85 feet. Grace. That’s all I could think as she pushed her massive, gleaming body through the water barely making waves. There were some gasp from our side but the only other noise was the whale’s swoosh through the water and deep puffs as she blew again.  When she moved to within about 20 feet of us, heading to starboard, the young woman next to me whispered, “Where’s she going?” but there was no fear.  Only admiration and wonder to be a part of this.

whales, Ingonish

Here she comes!

 

 

 

Ingonish whale watching

Breathtaking

Closer…

…and closer…

And closer!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

whales

Thar she goes!

After her last push, she disappeared bit by bit under the surface, turning the choppy water flat in the wake of her large tale as she headed downward. All 85 feet of her.

Our captain broke the silence then, saying simply, “Well that was one great sighting.” Despite the fact he does this all day, it didn’t seem to be “old” even for him.

The ride back was euphoric and more light-hearted as Kinnon pointed out some of the other landmarks we’d all been too distracted to notice earlier. As we disembarked I asked him if that whale was really close and he said it was, calling it “A great day at the office.”

I wobbled back to the car, perhaps due to having to get my land legs back. Or just because I’d lost my footing, knowing I’d seen something that would stay with me for a very long time.

As it turned out, the wind was furious on the northeastern shore so this was a lucky break. I didn’t really need anything else on this day.

Next group of whale watchers on the way!

Chinese Junk Boat, PEI

#eastcoastwearehere: Chinese Junkboat Tour leaves us “hungering” for more

Chinese Junk Boat, PEI

Can’t beat the view of a glorious sunset over the harbour in Charlottetown, PEI.

Later August 27, Charlottetown, PEI —  After a full day in Cavendish it was time to make our way to the harbour in Charlottetown where we’d booked a 2 hour Sunset Chinese Junk Boat with Dinner. Mike had been craving Chinese food and we were intrigued by the promise of an authentic experience as had been described in the promotional literature. After I had stressed everybody out about getting us all to the dock on time (the boat won’t wait for us!), we were told we’d have to come back in an hour rather than boarding at 5 pm as our ticket had said. Still in good spirits, we spent the hour at Peakes Quay. This is a pretty spot overlooking the harbour that’s quite popular and we sampled some oysters as well as some local beverages. We were starving as we’d all saved our appetites in anticipation of the Chinese food we’d paid extra for as part of the cruise.

Pipa players. Mike is looking worried about dinner.

Once aboard, we were warmly greeted by the boat owners and hosts, Monty and Danielle and were  impressed by the young woman who was playing an authentic pipa — and even more so, when the boat owners’ super cute daughter disappeared and returned with one of her own.

We had checked the reviews before we dropped $85/person for this little jaunt around the harbour and were confident it would deliver on the promise of “trip back in time of authentic Chinese culture.” It wasn’t long before we began to clue into the fact that the online description of the cruise may have been a wee bit overstated. But, we were in for the tourist experience and that’s what we got. We had a blast as we cruised along the bay and got some amazing photos as the sun set over the harbour. Captain Chris let our daughter have a turn at the wheel and we heard some of his stories as a fisherman in the area for most of his life. The cruise hosts were friendly and attentive – especially so as we were the only ones on the ship!

Something to drink? Our host Marty.

While all this was lovely, it wasn’t quite the cultural experience we were expecting evidenced by the meal, which ended up being fried rice, some PEI potatoes and a small side salad. Me thinks it was an off night for the cook. We’d been told Danielle’s father, the real cook of the family, wasn’t with us as he was busy preparing dinner for a large group the next night. Sigh. We laughed about this afterward but it was still a painful for frugal travellers like us who take pains to stay within our budget. Any extravagance comes with very high expectations, which I expect few could satisfy.

Still, we were together in a boat on the edges of the Atlantic Ocean and the sunset was spectacular. What more could you ask for? Um…pass the egg rolls please?

Check out other #eastcoastwearehere posts on the stories page.

Our daughter sailing us through the harbour, with Captain Chris at watch.

Lucy Maud Montgomery's home

#eastcoastwearehere: Walking in some very big footsteps

Cavendish, Lucy Maud Montgomery

Walking inL.M.M.’s footsteps in Cavendish.

August 27, Cavendish, PEI — This is the first post travel article in a series I’ll be sharing under the heading #[location]wearehere.

My partner Michael and I caught up with our daughter, Angela, a student at the Nova School of Art and Design (NSCAD) in Halifax, early on day 1 after a late arrival and short sleep at our Airbnb in the Bedford area. We were up and off early the next day for the 4 hour drive into PEI. For me,  every turn evoked the descriptions by Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery (L.M.M.) of the island’s charm and beauty: the land of “ruby, and emerald, and sapphire,” or woodlands, sea and shorelines where the sun is often “like a great rose window at the end of a cathedral aisle”. I was wary of the tourist insurgence thatL.M.M. had railed about in some of her journal writings but was open to what this first phase of our Eastern tour would unveil.

Our Charlottetown Airbnb was exactly as described – a cosy apartment in a vintage home. We spent our first day wandering around Cavendish after dropping Michael off for what, unfortunately, was a somewhat disappointing round of golf at Eagles Glenn of Cavendish. Angela and I immediately partook in the local fare, having an orgasmic breakfast of Lobster Eggs Benedict at Chez Yvonne’s.  Yes it was that good!  After breakfast, we abandoned ourselves to the local tourist trappings, starting at Lucy Maud Montgomery’s birthplace and then the Ann of Green Gables Museum. While charming, I found both to be a little too much ‘look but don’t touch’ for my taste, but still a great way to get some of the context for our next stop, which was the Macneill Homestead where Lucy Maud Montgomery grew up and wrote the Ann books. This site is painstakingly maintained by her Macneill descendants and it’s here that I could happily have spent the rest of my time in PEI.

Trees, Lucy Maud Montgomery

L.M.M.’s beloved “companions”.

I didn’t mind paying the $6 to walk through the “hallowed grounds” in the steps of such a worthy storyteller; to pause alongside the trees under which she’d sat and imagined the many memorable tales she would tell.trees, companions

As I wandered along and read the placards placed alongside her favourite flowers and trees and the paths she took to do her chores or walk to school or church, I was struck by how her stories were even more impressive because of some of the difficulties of her own life; how she had written past these to capture the gems she embedded in all of her writing. This of course is the foundation for great fiction that writers like LMM create – something that’s been unfolding in my writing mind more and more and in particular during this day. In her journal LMM described it this way: “amid the commonplaces of life, I was very near to a kingdom of ideal beauty. Between it and me hung only a thin veil. I could never quite draw it aside, but sometimes a wind fluttered it and I seemed to catch a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond-only a glimpse-but those glimpses have always made life worthwhile.”

Home

L.M.M.’s words about the light of home struck a chord.

Home

Back at the house of her birthplace (a tiny structure with mostly closed off rooms) there was an article that described L.M.M.’s worry that the popularity of the Ann books would attract flocks of tourists to her little town. It’s a biting prediction that has come true but fortunately, the idyllic countryside and secluded island charm she described – and in which Anne found heaps of trouble – are still very much in existence.

Check out other #eastcoastwearehere posts on the stories page.

Angela, Leanne

My daughter Angela and I sharing a great day in an amazing place.

LMM homestead, kitchen

Restored building captures some of the spirit of the old homestead.

Walk to promote youth mental health arrives in Kenora July 26

L-R: Kevin Redsky and west coast walker Robert Campbell from the Algonquins of Greater Golden Lake

The Hope in the Darkness National Walk for Youth Mental Health will arrive in Kenora on July 26. A welcoming ceremony is planned, starting at 11 a.m., at Seven Generations Education Institute, 240 Veterans Drive, followed by a fundraising barbecue. A walk to Keewatin Place will commence at 2 p.m. Everyone is welcome.

The cross-country walk was initiated by Sgt. Kevin Redsky of the Anishinabek Police Service from Shoal Lake 40 First Nation who lost a niece to suicide in 2013.  “The walk is inspired by her story and the stories of other young people from Treaty #3 who have struggled with mental health issues and the causes including the child welfare system, poverty, intergenerational trauma, and racism,” Redsky said. “The main purpose of the walk is to bring youth and police together to address mental health and to rebuild relationships between young people and police.”

Since it began on April 1, 2018, the walk along the TransCanada Highway has brought together youth, families, communities, police, and mental health service providers from the east and west coasts. Walkers from the two directions will meet for a grand finale in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on August 3.

Redsky and his team will walk into Kenora prior to the welcoming ceremony, which will include traditional greetings and prayers, words from local dignitaries and elders, and the singing of the Honor Song by the Whitefish Bay Singers. Youth and others are invited to join the 5.8 km walk to Keewatin, which will continue on to Granite Lake later in the day.

Mitchell Boulette Hope in the Darkness

Mitchell Boulette (R) walks with the support of his brother Irvin.

While he won’t be at the Kenora event, Mitchell Boulette who is a Treaty #3 Youth Mental Health Police Officer, is representing the local precinct by walking from the east beginning at Tilley, Alberta. This is Boulette’s second stint donating his time for the walk which, he says, hits close to home. He had a cousin die by suicide and has personally recovered from depression.

“I’m proof that if you ask for help – and get it – there is a way out of the darkness.”

Find out more at www.hopeinthedarkness.ca or on Twitter: @YouthMHWalk; Instagram: @walkforyouthmentalhealth; and Facebook: facebook.com/walkforyouthmentalhealth.

There is also a Facebook page for the July 26 event that will include the latest updates:  https://www.facebook.com/hopeinthedarknesskenorarally.

 

Da-namaamin moseyang giw-ganchigaazjig kwewag (We will walk in prayer for these murdered women)

Walkers honouring murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls passing through Kenora on Thursday, July 5

 

Da-namaamin moseyang giw-ganchigaazjig kwewag (We will walk in prayer for these murdered women)

From left: E Naad Maa Get, Niibin, Jacqueline Hines and an elder from Garden River First Nation

Kenora, Ontario, July 4, 2018 – Da-namaamin moseyang giw-ganchigaazjig kwewag (We will walk in prayer for these murdered women) is a group of young people walking in prayer across Canada to raise awareness of the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.

They are expected to arrive in Kenora, following Highway 17 through town, late in the afternoon on Thursday, July 5, weather permitting.

Organizer E Naad Maa Get (Branden Emmerson) said, “What we’re seeking to do is not only raise awareness but also to show solidarity amongst First Nations for the families that have been affected; to show that their loved ones aren’t being forgotten.”

He said the decision to do the walk was a pro-active step to do something when nothing else seemed to be making a difference. “We know that we can’t solve the issue but maybe one of the people we come into contact will have some of the answers.”

E Naad Maa Get is a band member of The Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation. He started the walk on the Winter Solstice along with Niibin (Tianna Fillo also of Nawash) and Jacqueline Hines (Pennsylvania). They have been joined by others including Carolyn Gable of Pennsylvania.

He describes how having a unified sense of purpose is helping the group continue on in the face of many challenges including the breakdown of their RV, which is their home on the road, dramatic weather conditions, and dwindling funds. Theirs is a grassroots effort with no corporate sponsorship.

The group starts each day by reading reports and sharing the stories of one of the women or girls they are walking for online.

“We all know that we’ve become involved with something that’s larger than ourselves,” he said. “We’re walking for these women that we don’t know, but we have a shared sense of why this is so important.”

prayer staff

Prayer staff

E Naad Maa Get adds that another goal is to bring the conversation more into the open in First Nations communities. “We need to become accountable and recognize that we’re a healing people and to show that, through our acts and involvement, overcoming this is not an impossible task.”

He believes that many Canadians have no idea of the extent of the issue. On its website the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) states: “Throughout our work, NWAC believed the violence against Indigenous women to be much more pervasive than publicly available data would indicate. This suspicion was confirmed in 2013, when the RCMP released a report revealing 1,181 cases of missing and/or murdered Indigenous women and girls.”

Funds are starting to run low and the group can always use gas and gift cards. The public can offer their support by visiting the Da-namaamin moseyang giw-ganchigaazjig kwewag Facebook page.

For more information:
E Naad Maa Get
(226) 974-2200
Or leave a message on their Facebook page

 

Mental Health Week: What’s good for you?

secluded bay, spring

Solitude Bay

This view is one of the ways I protect both my physical and mental health. It’s Mental Health Week and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) has some great information and resources at mentalhealthweek.ca.

In the article “How is mental health like physical health?” CMHA states: “In the same way that we all have a state of physical health, we all have a state of mental health. Mental health is more than the absence of mental illness.” The following resonated with me.

Even if you don’t have a mental illness, you may at times feel mentally unwell. Stress, an overwhelming schedule, and difficult life events or circumstances can put pressure on your mental health.

Yep. Been there. Done that. Recently.

Despite the fact that I’m now living and working full-time in my cabin-turned-home immersed in the splendour of nature and with a gorgeous view, I was not feeling my best as the cold, hard edges of winter hung on and on.  This was amplified by grief and a succession of losses both personally and professionally.  When these feelings emerged I felt ungrateful and weak. I was “living the dream” wasn’t I?

I reached out to a few people – my support system – who have been with me through this new “journey”. They reminded me that there has been a lot of change and while much of it is good, there’s  also the losses and grief. And that it was okay for me to feel this way.

Ducks flying

Two mallards signal spring is here (finally)

Spring has sprung and I’m starting to feel better. I think we can all take a page out of Brené Brown’s teachings in The Gifts of Imperfection:

Get Deliberate: Carve time out of every day, even when multiple priorities demand your attention, for creativity or whatever feeds your soul.

Get Inspired: Make connections with like-minded people with whom you can share ideas, respectfully debate issues or somehow make a  contribution to the stories around you.

Get Moving: We all like to feel safe and comfortable but as as Brené says there comes a time when we need to open ourselves  to the risk of “feeling vulnerable and new and imperfect.”

This last point brings me to something else I want to set straight. Last week, I posted about my struggle with good enough as it relates to my work as a freelance writer. In that article I railed against good enough a bit, in particular when it becomes a habit. That’s my professional stance and I’ll stick by it but I’ll also restate, without any judgement, that getting something out is often better than doing nothing at all –  hence the appeal but also the true gift of good enough.

Perfectionism isn’t our friend and there are times when all we can do is step back and know we did our best…even if others disagree.

Here are a couple of key messages that CMHA provides in it’s Mental Health Week toolbox:

Mental health is about more than mental illness

  • One in five Canadians live with mental health problems, mental illnesses or addiction. But the reality is, five in five of us have mental health, just like we all have physical health.
  • We can all benefit from celebrating, promoting and acknowledging the role that good mental health plays in living a full and meaningful life.

boss goose

Goose boss also happier the ice is gone

Let’s #GetLoud about what mental health really is

Mental health is about more than being happy all the time. It’s about feeling good about who you are, having balance in your life, and managing life’s highs and lows.

  • Everyone deserves to feel well, whatever their mental health experience. And we all need a support system to lean on.

Please, join me and let’s #GetLoud about mental health — our own as well as that of others who struggle, are recovering, or need our help and understanding.

Also, please be good to yourself.

Leanne, fishing, catch

Good Enough: Is there a Catch?

fish, Leanne, good enough

Look what I reeled in on my first try. Good enough?

As a professional freelance writer, I know the way to continually improve is by doing lots of writing (meaning it’s my full-time gig) and ongoing learning (because it’s a gig that changes daily).

This comes with a tough realization. Despite continually honing my craft, there are people out there who will still choose to work with a competitor of mine: “Good Enough”.

Good Enough can be a worthy contender. Many people write reasonably well and know how to get at least part of their story out to the world. I am the first to say doing something is better than doing nothing at all. I also agree that Good Enough has a place in our lives when we need to protect our own well-being. I could write the book on perfectionism; I highly recommend against it.

Good Enough and I have a love-hate relationship, much like I do with other things in my life that aren’t good for me if I over-indulge (chocolate, wine and certain people come to mind).

Mike,fish, pickeral

Hard work and deeply honed skill pays off with the real catch of the day.

What I can say is that when I work with clients and prospects, Good Enough isn’t at the table. There are many reasons for this but the most important, for me, is that since these people have given me the honour of helping to craft their message, I owe it to them to create the very best story I can.

In an email marketing webinar I recently attended, Carlijn Postma founder of The Post, a Norwegian content marketing agency, pointed out that while just about anything can reach a target group, it takes a lot more work to build an audience. In her words, “I am a target group to many but an audience to only a few.”

Your audience only allows those in they know and trust. You can only build that trust with meaningful, relevant content that is all about them, not you.  The challenge here is to balance telling a business story that humanizes your product or service with a compelling reason for consumers to buy the solution you’re offering because its going to change their lives for the better.

In my experience, this requires more skill than just a surface-level piece of adequate copy or content marketing. It’s even more important if your audience has shown signs that they’re not that into you anymore.

Here’s my approach for clients who want to go beyond good enough.

  • I  ask a lot of questions and listen to the answers, during which the big picture of what we need to do starts to form. I may ask some things that haven’t been considered, and that may cause some discomfort, but working past that is necessary if we’re going to get to a better place. Things might get messy before they get elegant. These extra steps aren’t for everyone, hence the lure of Good Enough.
  • I dig a little deeper than might be possible without some extra help. This includes interviews with others who are part of the story and a look through the latest research  — to inform the narrative but also to assess what’s been done and how we can do better.
  • I make sure that whatever we do aligns with the brand and its purpose and answers questions the audience might have regarding why they should care about the solutions that are being offered.
  • I’ll bring the audience into the story—because again, it really is all about them.

So in answer to the question Good Enough: Is there a catch? I would humbly, and with full disclosure as a writer for hire, say yes.  The catch is that you should consider some outside help to take you beyond good enough when you would rather not go — or just don’t have the time to go — beyond the first draft to the deeper layers of a story to really make a difference. It may also be that you need some additional expertise, an outside perspective, or the stakes are just too high to shoulder the writing all by yourself.

If you still want to work with Good Enough well, good enough and good luck! You are welcome to use the steps I’ve suggested to help ensure that what you’re saying has purpose, aligns with your goals, achieves results, engages and shows your audience that you truly care — because if you don’t care enough about the quality of the story you’re telling them, who will?

I’m one of the lucky ones, having worked with many people who are making a difference in the world (see below). I’m grateful they’ve put their trust in me to help tell their amazing stories.

If you’re ready to say good-bye to Good Enough and you’d like to talk about how MightyWrite can help create your business story, send me an email or visit mightywrite.ca and fill out the contact form.

Every project we do is customized to our clients and their needs.  It begins with a conversation.

P.S. Good enough fishing also doesn’t cut it in my neck of the woods. I’m improving through lots of practice! 

Who wouldn’t with this view?

boat, bow

With thanks to Mary Ann, Jan and Rona

I don’t hire Leanne to do work for me. I partner with Leanne to create great work. I get her involved at the brainstorming stage and she stays with me through writing to publishing. For the past decade Leanne has supported me with everything from a blog to web content to an entire book. Her work in interviewing over 100 key informants ensured that this book was much more than my personal perspective. Her attention to detail and to getting the facts straight is a testament to her professional integrity. Leanne also walked the talk of psychologically safe work by being especially supportive during a difficult time of my life that happened to coincide with the writing of this book. I am forever grateful.

Mary Ann Baynton, Mary Ann Baynton & Associates

 

Working with Leanne Fournier was an extremely positive experience. She is meticulous, thoughtful, and scrupulous. I felt I was in perfect hands. She understood the sensitive issues of mental illness and workplace-triggered depression. Each time she made a change, she ran it by me, giving me plenty of time to review and comment on her edits. I couldn’t have worked with a better writer and editor.

Jan Wong, Author and Professor

Leanne’s empathy, listening skills and knowledge of the perplexing mental health landscape made her a first-rate storytelling partner. At every stage of our work together, I was struck by her respect for honesty and accuracy.

Rona Maynard, Speaker, former Editor of Chatelaine and author of My Mother’s Daughter

Read Jan and Rona’s story