Wednesday 26 February 2014

My Four-Legged Weapon Against Anxiety: an intro

A week or so ago, I wrote a post about the four horsemen ofthe mental health Apocalypse. People loved it. Apparently, lots of you can relate either to personally knowning one of the horsemen, or to living with someone who does. Well, I’d like to give you a bit more insight into my personal horseman, Anxiety, and the battle I’ve waged against her. If you read this and have a comment, please do share below, or email me. Much love.

So if you’ll recall, I gave this short introduction to Anxiety:

Anxiety tends to sit, quietly and moodily in silence, until she suddenly throws a tantrum. The tantrums typically mean that her host will have a 10- to 60-minute blinding, sweaty, tunnel-visioned panic attack. The rest of the time...Anywhere you go, Anxiety goes with the flow: she can find something to panic over just about anywhere. Don’t even bother trying to travel, take a bus, talk to a stranger, get through an interview, drive on a highway, walk your dog at night time, or watch a scary movie. She’s that leechy friend in high school who starts wearing all the same clothes that you do, styling her hair the same way, and following you everywhere, until one day you realize you’ve become a permanently-connected duo.


Anxiety turns your own nervous system into a weapon against you. It’s a clever way to work: when a person can be sitting on the couch, watching The Simpsons, and suddenly feel an overwhelming electrical rush of panic for no reason, you’ve got a pretty effective method of screwing a person up. The trick with Anxiety is that, on a basic level, she isn’t in your brain—not at first. She lives in your nervous system, and your brain then learns to interpret all her whisperings as if the brain itself had whispered. Your brain doesn’t understand how it could be possible for your nervous system to have a ‘mind’ of its own. So your brain internalizes what your system is doing.

Eventually, this will basically give your brain a complex. It becomes a question of “chicken or the egg”. You have a panic attack at the mall one day, for example, because Anxiety hijacked the nervous system and made you hyperventilate. Okay, so that’s just one bad day, right? Wrong. Because next time you’re at the mall, there’s a good chance the brain will say, “Wait: didn’t I hate being here? Didn’t I send the nervous system into a spin?”, and it’ll do it to you again. For some of us, the brain over-generalizes and eventually you just can’t go in any large building, or into any crowd over twenty people, or shopping of any sort.


Anxiety works by mad whisperings. She’s the queen of digging into your forgotten memory banks and discovering all the things that scare you. You’re walking in the park and you hear birds; Anxiety reminds of that time a swan attacked you at the petting zoo when you were six. She then deftly connects the dots between ‘seagulls’ and ‘swan’ and before you know it, your skin is tingling with the expectation of bird claws digging into your hair.

She knows every micro-expression on the face of every human you meet, and she’ll teach you terrible ways to overanalyse these until your mind begins to melt. When you made that last joke about pirates and Janet didn’t laugh very long? That clearly means she hates you. When you head to that board meeting and your boss rolls his eyes about expense reports, that’s clearly because of how you present them. Oh, and remember that one time you felt dizzy in your cubicle? Good, because Anxiety does too, and now she wants you to know that you’re probably going to have an aneurism in front of everyone, which means you’ll die in a really gross spazzy way and someone will post it on the internet. Might as well just call in sick. Then at least you can have your aneurism at home in private, where no one will find you for days. You could just be paralyzed, actually, lying on the floor in a pool of sweat, unable to reach your phone. So you better just grab your phone now and keep it in your pocket all the time, because what if you need it and can’t reach it? Remember that one time you thought you lost it but it was in your jeans? How stupid are you? Remember the look your sweetie gave you when you did that? Clearly she hates you, too. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah....

Yeah, that’s how Anxiety works.

Where other people are having five or six thoughts at any one time, you’ve got so many mental tabs open that your harddrive starts to crash. And almost none of these thoughts will be positive. Anxiety hates optimism; she will tell you right away that every time you use hope, it’ll karmically backfire and punch you in the face. Better to always be ready for the next horrible ordeal.

As I write this post, I am thinking about the thousands of people who will read this and think I suck and hate me forever. Thank you, Anxiety.


I have seen Anxiety fended off in various ways. I personally took a lengthy course of CBT (aka “cognitive behavioural therapy”) which was kind of overwhelming because I spent twelve weeks of weeknights in a room with a dozen other friends of Anxiety. We took a lot of breaks, and on breaks we all smoked and traded advice on the best sedative cocktails. The information was good, but it was maybe too much to take in over such a short timeline. It was also hard to learn when, everytime the counsellor shared a medical fact, someone put up their hand and asked if they themselves might be experiencing that. (Anxiety loves medical facts. The scarier, the better.)

I have used medication to subdue Anxiety, as have many of us. It's like turning on really loud music while wearing sunglasses sprayed with shaving cream. This is how I felt like I behaved when I medicated:

In fact, when I attended the CBT group and was, at twenty-four, the youngest in the room, I realized I’d better get off sedatives quickly if I didn’t want to hit forty and still be swapping prescription recipes. I mean, hey, whatever gets you through the night…but I wanted something else. I wanted my brain to be clear and strong.

(Because here’s the thing about Anxiety sufferers: we’re not stupid. We’re usually overly bright. Employers fear hiring those with Anxiety, but the truth of it is, we’re often the fastest, hardest, or most creative workers. We’ve got nothing but adrenaline to burn off, and our minds are geared for complex, intricate, future-focused thought. You can tell me the first three lines of a marketing campaign you want to run, and I can tell you where it’ll bomb twenty steps down the road. We should really all work in Risk Management departments, but then I think our poor heads would explode.)

Anyway, I digress.

Drugs weren’t my answer, and so I headed back into therapy. At the time I was having a really bad round of insect phobia. I told the psychiatrist that I felt like spiders were actually hunting me down because they were everywhere. Unhelpfully, by the end of about six months, she actually agreed the theory had merit, because I really do seem to have a spider beacon attached to me. Anyway, the therapy helped some more, but it wasn’t enough.

The mind that never ever gets to rest.


I started to feel a fair deal better when I was at home, but not when I was out. For years I subsisted like this. I didn’t know why home felt better, though I assumed it had to do with the agoraphobia that Anxiety loves to provoke. It was only eight years later, when my pug Mr Darcy died, that I put the pieces together: the dog was my helper. If I got anxious, he would sit with me; if I had a panic attack, he would lay with me. When I was alone and Anxiety’s incessant nattering took over, I would talk or sing to the dog.

I needed another dog. But this time, I was going to do it bigger and better. I decided to get a service dog.

And there it is: like so many of the mental health monsters, Anxiety is afraid of dogs.

So in walks Corben, eight weeks old and absolutely idiotic, adorable, and completely time-consuming. I had undergone weeks of searching for just the right puppy, and just the right trainer. And here was Corben, and before he’s learned even one command, suddenly there are actual moments of silence in my head.

When I bury my face in his fur and breathe in the simple animal scent of him, my mind goes peacefully blank.

Corben is being trained to accompany me out into the real world, because I have goals. I have dreams. I have places I want to go. I want to travel without having to take a support person with me. I want to attend concerts or festivals without fear of the crowds. I want to sit through a high-stakes board meeting without starting to puke. This smiley-faced dog is going to have commands for all these things, so that I can operate as I truly want to.

For the first few months, I didn’t want to tell anyone about what Corben is being trained for. It felt like Corben was a sign that I was slipping, that I wasn’t handling my relationship with Anxiety so well anymore. What I’ve come to realize is that I’m actually improving: where I used to settle for the Anxiety-induced barriers in my life, in recent years I have wanted those torn down. Five years ago I never would have thought about going to another country alone; but now I want to. Three years ago, the only way I would have wanted to attend a board meeting would be from the back of the room with my face in a binder; now I want to lead that meeting. Corben is my bridge to those things that Anxiety had made unattainable. Maybe I’ll be even more fearless than the ‘normal’ people. Who knows.

What I do know is that I'm feel empowered. I have a new tool against my lifelong foe. If medication is what you use and it works, that's fabulous. Counselling? Also fantastic. Meditation, yoga, naturopathy, and wine? I've done all of those and if they meet your needs, then that is freaking wonderful. Seriously. Whatever you use to keep that foul-mouthed witch named Anxiety at bay, you use it. But me, I'm going a new way. I'm adding something to my arsenal, and it happens to be cute and fuzzy. 

Friday 21 February 2014

Meat Pie with O'Brien Farms: a recipe and review


A couple weeks ago, MJ and I found this awesome-looking recipe for beef-mushroom-Guinness pie, and we knew we wanted to make it...and then eat it. All of it. But I'm new to cooking meat, and really new to cooking beef, so we knew we needed some really good cow to be increase the chances that I'd get this right. (It also helps when your best friend is a veteran Executive Chef. I'll admit that right now.)

O'Brien Farms shared some of their stewing beef (also called 'chuck') for this recipe. We'd never tried O'Brien beef before, despite being familiar with the name; O'Brien is a favourite around the Ottawa Valley. The owner, Dan, is a fourth generation beef producer, and a lovely man with a big smile. His cows are all born and raised in the Ottawa area, and are antibiotic- and growth stimulant-free. 

O'Brien offers a refrigerated delivery service that can come to your home, or to your business. When I met up with Dan to grab my beef, he was running a delivery to Churchill's in Westboro (so maybe head down there if you want to try their beef without having to cook it yourself.) They're also available at a wide variety of Ottawa stores, and will be at the Ottawa Farmer's Market at Brewer Park this season.

I'm no master chef, but I know what I like--when I put it in my mouth. MJ, on the other hand, pulled the fresh chuck out of the fridge and started oohing and ahhing immediately. The plump, beautiful meat wowed her completely, and she reminded me that there's a special pleasure in cooking when you're using really lovely ingredients. 

The beef was a pleasure to work with. As we walked through the steps of the recipe, the beef cooked up beautifully and the scent filled the entire house, bringing curious noses to spy on what we were doing. It was super juicy, tender, and the flavour was out of this world. If you're not prepared to have factory beef ruined for you, don't try this beef. If you're ready to have beef taken to a whole new level, try this beef. Chuck isn't a very expensive or special cut, so that helps you to understand just how fantastic this locally-raised meat truly is.


The recipe, found on (and also copied below), was a pretty easy one to follow, without a lot of complex ingredients or techniques. What you must remember, though, is that is will take time. The longer you simmer the beef in the beer and broth, the happier you're going to be when you eat it. Do NOT reduce the simmering time.

The deep, rich flavour of the Guinness stout really played nicely with the natural delicious flavours of the beef. Mushrooms, of course, always go great with beef flavours, but they definitely were second fiddle in this recipe, with the meat taking centre stage. We went with a pre-made crust this time, to reduce prep time and because I'm a dairy-free gal (so sometimes a dairy-free pie crust from scratch can be a bit tricky). It didn't really matter what crust we used, though: what everyone fought over was the filling.

I think we would double the filling amount next time. There just didn't seem to be enough of that Guinness, mushroom, and O'Brien beef filling to go around. 

It didn't look pretty on the plate, I'll admit, but the deliciousness of a meat pie is usually inversely proportionate to how pretty it looks. (If a pie holds together perfectly, there's a good chance it's dry or the gravy's gone thick.) This pie was so good, I had family requests for more of it the very next day. If you're going to pig out on some fine red meat, O'Briens is the way to go...and this meat pie recipe is a great way to show it off.

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 pound cubed beef stew meat
2 slices bacon, chopped
1 white onion, chopped
1 carrot, sliced
1/3 pound crimini mushrooms, sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon white sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup Irish stout beer (such as Guinness
1 1/4 cups beef stock
1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch, or as needed
1 teaspoon water
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 egg, beaten
1.Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot over medium heat, and brown the beef stew meat on all sides, about 10 minutes; set aside. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and cook the bacon just until it begins to brown; stir in the onion, carrot, mushrooms, garlic, and sugar. Cook the vegetables until soft and browned, 10 to 15 more minutes.
2.Stir in the flour until smoothly incorporated, and gradually mix in the Irish stout beer and beef stock. Mix in the thyme, bay leaves, and the reserved cooked beef. Cover, and bring the mixture to a boil; reduce heat to a simmer until the meat is tender, about 1 hour and 15 minutes; stir occasionally. Remove the cover, turn the heat up to medium, and let the stew boil until slightly thickened, about 15 more minutes. Mix cornstarch with water, and stir into the stew; let simmer for 30 more minutes to blend flavors. Remove from heat; discard bay leaves.
3.Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
4.Spread the filling into a 9-inch pie dish; trim the puff pastry into a 10-inch circle, and place on top of the filling. Pinch and crimp the edges of the pastry with a fork, sealing it to the dish; cut 2 steam vents into the pastry with a sharp knife. Brush the top of the pie with beaten egg.
5.Bake in the preheated oven until the crust is browned, 30 to 40 minutes.

Friday 14 February 2014

Winter Blues and Birthday, Too

It`s Valentine`s Day, which means it’s getting close to my birthday. My birthday happens at the most
depressing time of the year in this country: February is an endless tirade of snow, wind, and darkness. When I was a kid I loved winter, but I’m guessing that eventually my brain grew in and now I know it’s a miserable, hellish time of year.

My birthday is three days before March arrives. March in Ottawa is Mother Nature’s PMS month. As a child, my birthday was something to look forward to, but as I’ve aged it’s lost a lot of its appeal, pageantry, and excitement. Now I know it to be a day where I am labelled a year older while still feeling as clueless as I did ten years previously. I eat a bit of cake, then I trudge into March and spend another thirty days cursing the snow. We went skiing and dogsledding this month in the hopes that my opinion on the season would change; while I had a stellar time, winter and I were unfortunately unable to reconcile our differences. (Perhaps if I lived at the ski resort and got spoiled everyday all season, the story would be different; but I don’t.)

Anyway, this pondering of my estrangement from winter made me think about what else has changed as I have reached and surpassed my thirtieth decade. I can tell you that this enticing article:

…no longer entices me. Where once I might have seen that headline and thought, “Oooh, a challenge!” I now think, “Gawd, that sounds like a lot of work.”
I even wear a helmet.
I know that last year, I hit the magical age where I stopped caring how fashionable my winter outdoor wear is, and bought straight-up winterized clothing. It’s a daily struggle not to wear my snowpants everywhere I go. When I wear out my current boots, which are still a bit trendy, I plan to buy some of those giant rubber-footed Sorel pairs. To hell with cuteness: I want all my appendages to be proper body temperature.

I know that with age, I have become a consumer of cosmetic products that aren’t as focused on making me look alluring, but rather quite specifically for making me look less wrinkly and puffy.

I know that today I almost high-fived myself in the grocery store for spending most of my alloted grocery money on whole foods—because that’s the kind of thing that makes a thirty-something excited. Vitamins. Fiber. Calcium content.

On a more positive note, I also have learned the immeasurable value of good people. When I was younger, I thought I could operate as an island. I spent several years perfecting that skillset, and I really can do it; but I’ve found an indescribable joy in slowly and cautiously building my own select tribe of kind/funny/smart/useful/talented/clever/goofy humans. Given my proclivity for hiding out alone with a notebook or laptop, it’s a small tribe. But my tribe is precious because during the rough times, they are there. They cannot fix a single thing that’s gone wrong, usually—that’s not their function. Their function is to simply be, and when they are, they show me that there are still wonderful things in this world.

I have learned that life without a dog is worse than life without coffee, wine, cigarettes, sex, and/or chocolate. I have also learned that no new dog will ever replace a deceased dog that came before him. Each are great, but entirely different.

I have learned that I like my toast blond, my yolks runny, and my kitchen yellow. I have learned to buy myself jewellery because I’m worth it, and I’m not a Disney princess who needs to stand around waiting for a hero to come give her the things she wants.

I have learned that death may not be something to fear, when it one day comes, because life is actually really exhausting and probably by then, I’ll be ready for a break. Especially since I’ve lived by the motto, “Sleep when you’re dead”, which makes for an exciting life but a bit of a whirlwind.

I am just starting to settle into my own skin and to appreciate who I am. I have learned about illness that I didn’t think I’d ever experience, and I have learned how to live in the bright spaces between the shadows cast by pain. I have learned how to tell off doctors and find my own answers. And I have also learned how permanent the mistakes can be that we make with our health.

I still haven’t learned when to use ‘whom’.

I haven’t learned what a ‘good marriage’ is, nor have I learned how to apply rouge without looking like a clown.

I haven’t learned how to charge what I’m worth.

I haven’t learned how to finger-pick my guitar (it’s all painful slow strumming, I’m afraid).

I haven’t learned the knack of keeping my house consistently neat. I haven’t learned how to cook fish.

I haven’t been to Paris. See also: England. See also: Ireland. See also: New Zealand.

I haven’t learned how to put away a half-eaten box of Junior Mints. I will always always eat the rest.

I haven’t learned how to sing, and I haven’t relearned how to read music—which is a shame, ‘cause I used to play pretty much every instrument in the orchestra.

I haven’t written a book. That one kinda kills me.

I haven’t made enough of a difference yet.

I haven’t finished painting my living room. See also: the mural on the stairs. See also: that painting for above the fireplace.

It’s been a contemplative week, quite obviously. What I like about it is, despite some of what I’m listing being a bit on the dark side, I feel really comfortable with the knowledge. I am comfortable with what I’ve learned, and I’m ready to take on the things I haven’t. I’ve heard that a woman’s thirties are the years when she really begins to take ahold of life; when I was twenty-eight and being told that, I thought it was nuts. But it is really feeling true now. I like what I’ve done and where I’ve yet to go.

I’d still prefer to be doing this contemplation in a beach chair under a Caribbean sun, of course. But for this year, I’ll settle for a stack of pillows in my bed with my feet under a warm puppy.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

The Four Horsemen of the Mental Health Apocalypse

I have an anxiety disorder. A rather nasty one. This is something that I don’t talk about at great length usually, because it’s personal, and because it means telling a world full of strangers that I don’t function normally. But some rather brave bloggers have been sharing their stories lately, so I’ve been inspired. More agonizingly, some rather brave soldiers have been taking their lives because of the silence surrounding mental health, so I’ve been outraged. So, for the layman who maybe can’t really grasp the whole mental illness concept, here’s an introduction to four of the most common culprits you’re going to meet.


When the major mental illnesses came into this world, it is theorized* that it was something akin to the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, except instead of Death, Pestilence, Famine, and War, there was Depression, Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive, and Post-Traumatic Stress. 

Depression thoughtfully insists you lay back down on the couch.

Depression was the firstborn child of the mental health apocalypse. An over-achiever, Depression has put in the work, done his homework, and scores straight A’s in all he endeavours. Depression likes attention; he holds it by making sure that he’s present in every area of your life. If you’re roomies with depression, you know that he’s got influence over your social outtings, self esteem, and even your ability to feel. In fact, he’s so good at what he does, he can even make your body hurt. He’s that really bad boyfriend your mom told you to drop, except you never get to drop him and now he’s moved in with you, eaten all the Cheet-os, and refuses to get out of bed in the morning.

OCD's motto: the more you double check, the more you double check.

OCD is the youngest sibling. She is seen as being a little less capable than her brethren, because with a lot of hard work many people manage to shake off her agonizing grip—at least for a time. She is, however, the most cunning and manipulative of the family. OCD is so seductive, she can convince an otherwise completely sane man to go check that the iron is off twenty times, until he’s late for work. She can whisper in a woman’s ear and urge her to wash the whole load of dishes just one more time to be sure there’s no germs. She can wiggle one little finger and a totally healthy young man will spend the whole drive home convinced he’s going to hit a pedestrian…on the middle of the highway...when there’s no possible chance of this being true. OCD also has a neat little habit of donning a new disguise and heading out into the world under the name of Anorexia, Bulimia, and other nasty alter-egos.

PTSD: the man of misery.

PTSD, who often historically went by the nickname “Shell Shock”, is the black sheep of the family. PT is the Hsibling that no one likes to talk about; it is rumoured that he is the even-more-evil twin of Depression. Je’s such a hot mess, the rest of the family doesn’t really like to associate with him--unlike the rest of his family, he isn’t mentioned around the dinner table in even the most educated households. Truth be told, the other siblings may be jealous because PT takes the cake when it comes to getting terrible shit done. And like the devil himself, his greatest trick has been convincing the world he doesn’t exist. He likes most to hang around our soldiers, sexual assault victims, and the abused. He’s the kid who got kicked out of school because no one wanted to deal with him. This is one dangerous mofo; he’s like the ex that ignores the restraining order and forces you to move across country and change your name. Except he’ll find you, anyway. Bad news.

Enjoying the party? Anxiety will fix that.

Anxiety is the middle child. She feels overshadowed by her eldest sibling, Depression; and resents the attention spent on her youngest sibling, OCD. Consequently, Anxiety tends to sit, quietly and moodily in silence, until she suddenly throws a tantrum. The tantrums typically mean that her host will have a 10- to 60-minute blinding, sweaty, tunnel-visioned panic attack. The rest of the time, Anxiety is kinda lazy: she likes to keep her host on edge by constantly whispering vagaries, like, “Last time you did this you had a panic attack. Don’t bother trying it again,” and, “Everyone in this room hates you. Leave now before you do something stupid.” Once she’s got a hold on you, she needs to expend very little energy to keep you walking on eggshells. Anywhere you go, Anxiety goes with the flow: she can find something to panic over just about anywhere. With a lot of work, you may manage to keep her out of your head so that getting through your workday isn’t so hard anymore; but she’ll just change tactics, and you’ll find that something as simple as a coffee date with a friend is suddenly terrifying. Don’t even bother trying to travel, take a bus, talk to a stranger, get through an interview, drive on a highway, walk your dog at night time, or watch a scary movie. Her favourite time to visit is right before bed, and first thing in the morning. She’s that leechy friend in high school who starts wearing all the same clothes that you do, styling her hair the same way, and following you everywhere, until one day you realize you’ve become a permanently-connected duo.


Pretty nasty bunch, eh? What’s tragic is that 1 in 5 Canadians have a mental health disorder, and 25% of teen deaths are suicides. What’s important to know here is that the more we try to deny our affiliation with these supervillians, the easier it is for them to glom onto the vulnerable and drag them down. The more we pretend that anxiety, depression, or their siblings are a ‘personality flaw’ or a ‘choice’, the more we empower these monsters to run rampant. But you’ve heard the stats a hundred times before; hopefully this more intimate and animated introduction will help you to understand what we, those living with mental health disorders, feel. This is not like catching a cold or having a sick day; this is like having Annie Wilkes from Misery hovering over your bed, hobbling you from the inside-out. And our one best hope for stopping these jerk-offs is to stop pretending they don’t exist.
To those who may be in distress while reading this: please call someone for help. Here are numbers for Canada, and a number for the entire USA. If you live elsewhere or these aren’t helpful links, google search “Crisis Line + [YOUR CITY]”and if that still doesn’t work, call somewhere that isn’t your city. You can feel better. It can get better. I swear.

Monday 3 February 2014

Embracing Winter: a craft show in the snow

It's winter in Ottawa (and apparently, most everywhere else this year), and a lot of people really like it
around here. I don't. But I do love any excuse for a craft show, and our friends at A Curious Shop have managed to work it so that winter-equals-crafts. I'm sold.

The For the Love of Winter art market will be happening this Saturday, February 8 2014, from 10-4 at the Knox Presbyterian Church (120 Lisgar Street). All the lovely vendors that you'll meet are listed here. If anyone is going to know how to round up the city's best handmade artisans, it's these girls. Here's their adorable writeup on the Winterlude Calendar, as this event is officially part of our city's winter festival:

Come in out of the wintery,
Be warmed by hospitality.
Take in all the artistry,
And enjoy all the pageantry.

We'll treat you gastronomically,
And read you astrologically,
We'll have jewellery to gadgetry,
All of it a pleasantry.

Meet thirty crafters, locally,
And do some shopping ethically.
The independent industry
Will thank you all so earnestly!

For the love of all things handmade,

It's For the Love of Winter!

Can't argue with that. Head on down, bundle up and grab a cocoa, and find something for yourself or your sweetheart. This is one lovely way to embrace the winter's last hurrah.

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