Hamster on Acid: A Design Tale

As I work through the hot mess that is me, I feel like it’s time to explore the ‘design’ component of myself. The word itself is like an elephant in the room inside my head. Design is both a huge part of who I am, and something I fear very profoundly. It’s also where I know I want to go.

My story with design starts from when I was just a wee critter. I was (am) a horrible slob as a child, and my room would be taken over by the tsunami of my laziness on a regular basis. Eventually, my mom would demand I clean it, and in the weird dichotomy that tends to punctuate my life, I would be so happy. As a girl, I would gladly spend a whole weekend putting my space back together. The game was always the same: I was a twenty year old, destitute student who could only afford the crappiest of apartments. My landlord was such a jerk. I’d go to open the door of this apartment, and every time I witnessed the chaos for the first time, I thought, “I’ll show him!” Whether or not the ‘him’ was actually my mother, or not, I would lose myself in the joy of improving a not-great space into something that was so much better. I would move furniture, and posters, and plan drawings I needed to do to complete the transformation. I imagined sanding and refinishing old furniture the landlord had left there into beautiful pieces, and dreamed up endless colour schemes to try. I can honestly say, this was one of my favourite things to do, and I distinctly remember thinking that it was something I wanted to do forever.

Fast forward to those awkward teen years, and early acceptance into University.  Being the shy and insecure a person I was, I couldn’t bring myself to tell other people what I was interested in. That made me vulnerable to their opinions, and I wasn’t prepared to go there. I wanted someone to tell me that I was good at and what I was interested in.  Not surprisingly, all the hard work I did to be invisible paid off and I had no guidance or advice on how to pursue my design interests. I started University having essentially decided my courses the day I registered. I spent a month or so in English, but was usurped by Chaucer, and then a couple of years in Biology, but was usurped by organic chemistry and dissections. At this point, I had moved away from home, been dumped by the first love, and felt so incredibly lost, and so I spent a year taking dance classes, guitar lessons, riding a broken bike found in a dumpster, wearing a child’s size helmet, (take a moment to let that soak in, and enjoy), and trying to figure out how to be adult-ish and happy and independent. I ended up moving back home that summer, and I worked up the courage to apply to the Interior Design program at the college and put together a portfolio. To my surprise, horror and delight, I was accepted and started classes the next September.

Design school felt uncomfortable from the get-go. I didn’t go into it with a clear idea of my design voice, and so I was very quickly swept up into the great design wave, talking about the essential nature of iconic designed goods, but landed on the beach wondering who on earth could actually afford these things? I was brought up not to spend what I didn’t have and very far removed from the notion that material goods were some sort of status symbol. My parents were hardworking and generous, but we didn’t have a lot of frivolity in our house (exceptions being whatever hobby dad was into, and sewing machines for my mom).  I grappled with the teaching between “good” and “bad” design, as to me, it seemed like design was completely subjective. I felt panic realizing I had signed up to train to be an expert in an arena where there was never a right answer. This is a disaster for a person with no self esteem. Instead of being able to feel confident within this loose freedom, I was like a hamster on acid, spinning my wheels and then collapsing, always thinking someone else’s ideas or vision had more merit than mine, until my own style and actual design identity was just a watered down, brackish version of something I didn’t believe in in the first place.

Theoretically, I continued to fight against what I felt was elitist design. I remember the concept for my thesis project was along the subversive and angsty lines of, “who cares about design anyway,” and actually featured ‘anti-design’ (have I mentioned I can lean towards the bratty end of the spectrum?) in the word mapping preliminary ideation phase. It would turn out to be my most confident, complete, and successful projects of my school years.  I never collapsed because I had a clear idea of where I was going, and after 3 years of being sort of average trying to assimilate, I did something I could sell, because I believed in it. This is a hugely important reflection because it is so true of me. If I don’t believe in something, I find it hard to climb on board. It’s part of what keeps me authentic, but it’s pretty tricky and idealistic when we’re talking about the realities of the real world and making money, and, say, holding down a job.

I left school on the high of this success, which was built on no limits, budgets or real client’s desires. But I had genuine visions of me being some sort of design rock star, spreading my design gospel to the thirsty masses. If I had had the ability to reflect on my happy memories of childhood, I might’ve been able to concede I’d be happy at a home builder, making spaces beautiful for people within strict budgets, but as the fourth child in a group of very smart, and successful siblings, I always thought I needed to be more. So I aimed for high end commercial jobs where confidence is probably the most important attribute, because that was a great fit for me. (I make awesome life choices! Call me for advice. But don’t really call because I’m afraid of the phone).

I lasted just over a year at my first job, and then went to be on a silly design reality show, which left me further disillusioned. The  star of the show told me, “you have the talent, but you lack the confidence.” You know what I’ve come to conclude 11 years later? I have the talent, but I lack the confidence. Bahahaha!

So that brings us to now. I’ve spent the last 7 years home with the kids, thinking I’ve been avoiding design, but dreaming about being successful in it, and actually immersing myself in it more completely than ever before. I’ve returned to my girlish roots in this time off. With one income and 3 kids, I’m in my element. After our pre-baby and two income purchases, I’m pretty sure not one stick of furniture in our house is brand new. I’ve had a blast putting our home together with my best friend Kijiji and an eye on the bottom line. I’m that annoying person who, if you say you like something, pipes up, “it cost $0.03!”, and hope they’ll ask me to find one for them too. (Usually they spot someone they know on the opposite side of the room at that moment..) You know why? Because I love it! It brings me such joy to find beauty where others overlook it. It brings me even more joy to find it at a steal. When I started thinking about what I’m passionate about, this feeling is what I come back to. I’m passionate about accessible, creative design. I’m passionate about not chucking old things into landfills. I’m passionate about creating beautiful spaces on tight budgets. I’m passionate about furniture with past lives! I’m so excited to move forward with this direction of design. It takes some scouring and scouting, patience and time, which, interestingly, is not unlike the aforementioned hot mess that is me.

All cotton, no candy.

What struck me today as I was making the preschool drop off rounds is that it’s Bell Let’s Talk day, and while I’m not here promoting Bell, the whole premise behind Let’s Talk, to open up the conversation about mental health, is very critical for me personally as I go through this self-exploration. Chronic depression and anxiety have played major roles in holding me back personally and professionally. It’s only now that I’m a couple of months into getting help for depression and anxiety that  I realise what I was battling, and the significant role it has played in keeping my self esteem in the gutter, making it virtually impossible to succeed.

I grew up with depression. I both watched it, and had it affect me, and experienced it and had it affect me. I remember as a child being completely terrified of it, like it was a monster coming to get me the day I turned 16, like in some sort of backward fairy tale. And, inevitably, the monster came, earlier than I thought it would. I reflect often on the time of my life where I felt the perceivable change. I was 9 years old. The time before this, I remember feeling free and creative and unstoppable. After, I hid work, I withdrew and I just wouldn’t try for fear of failure. Part of this, of course, is just the difference between being a kid, and growing up. But 9,to me,seemed like an awfully truncated childhood. This was a period in my life where I was teased incessantly for my appearance and weight, and the cruelty sunk right into my DNA, until those words were being transcribed by my own cells, bullying me from the inside. It was in these years that I aimed to disappear and become invisible, which turned into a huge factor in my professional un-development. Happiness was something I could experience, but it always came from outside myself. As soon as the external source was gone, I was left with me, and I really hated me.

I beat myself up constantly for things I couldn’t stand about myself; I was lazy, unmotivated, a coward, and terrible at everything I set out to do. Looking back, I realise how cyclical depression is, and how hard it can be to escape. However, I never sought help. In a classic self-fulfilling prophecy, my depression made me too scared to admit I needed help, and so I trudged on wearing what felt like cement shoes, my head encased in a muffling, sense-dulling cotton, and not the candy kind (side note: if it had been candy, my terrible relationship with food might have helped as I would have eaten that within a minute…and then hated myself for it.). This head  space led to brutally low self esteem, which makes it really hard for a person to accomplish much of anything. In my design schooling and career, where taste is completely subjective, I was like a lamb in a slaughter; I really stood no chance. School left me bruised, the real world left me terrified and raw.

I’ve always been an introspective person, and for this, I am so thankful. As I grew and matured, I forced myself to deal with the self-loathing, and arrived at a place, after years and years of work, where I came to realise my basic self was actually pretty rad. I started having healthy friendships for the first time in my life, and seeing my reflection in these truly phenomenal people allowed me to quiet the beast inside my head, and accept that there was so much good in me. But I couldn’t make that jump into a professional arena. I was still lazy, unmotivated and a coward, but I had decided that there were so many other great things about myself, maybe that was okay, not realising that I still hadn’t conquered all of my demons.

This new place of relative self-love allowed me to meet my husband-to-be, and feel worthy of him. We started a family, and while I struggled as a new mom, the quitter in me loved that this was something hard I actually couldn’t back out of. This was the first time in my life that I reaped the rewards of stick-to-it-ness. Coming through the tornado of motherhood, I had such respect for my own strength, my  own capacity for love, and my creativity as a mother.

Fast forward to this past fall. My youngest turned 3. Things, in terms of babies and sleep, were getting easier, but I was slipping further and further down my familiar dark slope. I was yelling at the kids, and frustrated with my inability to do anything. There were days where I literally could not stop crying. All of my usual tricks to pull myself out of the chasm, like friends, exercise and self-care, were failing. And I slipped into a panic before my love for my children forced me into a decision I had refused for so many years: medication.

To me, medication was the last straw. It was admitting something was wrong (which I know is the beginning of healing, but have I mentioned I’m stubborn?!?) I felt like before this, depression and I had come to an agreement. It was going to be part of me, and I was going to know how to manage it. I purposely waited a week after my rock bottom to see my doctor to make sure I could get through the appointment without bursting into tears. After talking, he suggested I try medication. I started to say no. I started to have an anxiety attack. I started to walk out of the room, when I noticed my cement feet and cotton shroud. I wondered, finally, does it have to be so hard?

I started medication for anxiety and depression soon after, not really expecting much of a change, also worried to not be myself, or for life to feel synthetic, somehow. Things didn’t change for me overnight. And it wasn’t obvious. I just noticed that all of a sudden, I was able to stop at the grocery store, just for milk. I was able to wash my face at night. I was able to choose to do something I love like design, or write, or exercise instead of falling into bed to fall asleep. I was able to chop vegetables. And do the dishes. And sweep the floor. It was the simple things especially that caused  me to reflect on how truly bogged down I had been for the greater part of my life. I had always berated myself as lazy, incompetent and useless for my inability to accomplish tasks, from simple to complex. It never occurred to me that I was fighting an illness every day, and these were the symptoms. And you know what this made me realise? I’m a warrior. I fought and battled and clawed my way through 28 years of my life. In that time, I fought for an education that terrified me, I battled to keep moving my cement feet for my children and husband, and finally, I clawed my way into that doctor’s office.

It would be easy to be sad and wonder what might’ve been had I sought help earlier, but that’s fruitless, and truthfully, depression also gave me parts of me I treasure. My sense of humour developed from deflection. My resiliency was tested daily. My empathy came from knowing what crappy feels like. I’m so excited, actually to see how these skills present themselves now that I’m not hindered, like running at sea level after training at altitude. More than anything, I’m excited to test out these unencumbered wings.

I feel like it’s necessary to point out that this is my unique illness and treatment was a result of consultations and monitoring between me and my doctor. What’s right for me, may not be right for you, so if you feel like you are battling depression or anxiety, please see your doctor.

 

Who under the what, now?

Hey there, I’m Sarah. I’m a thirty-something (closer to forty than something, really) creative who has been threatening to do this for what feels like a million years. I’m trained in interior design, but haven’t worked in the industry for ten years because a) I’m actually terrible at it, b)I’m a chicken, and c)I feel like a fraud. I’m a wife and a mom to three insane boys. I’ve spent the last seven years hiding from financial and professional goals, under the ever-so noble shroud of motherhood. Now- don’t get me wrong, the Motherhood is an incredible journey, but in hiding in it, I’m afraid I sabotaged my underachieving self, by its forced lessons of resiliency, and self-discovery. I’m on the cusp of a new chapter in life, where my youngest is a few years away from school, and I’ve been having this very strong feeling that I would like to do something. I would like to have a voice. And so, the threat of this blog is coming to fruition, not without bi-minutely trips to the kitchen to shove more procrastination chocolate into my mouth.

Did I tell you I’ve lost my mojo?

To be honest, I’m afraid I never had any. I’ve never really completed anything or applied myself in any way. As I type this, anxiety is creeping into my stomach, filling me with fear and nausea. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had zero-confidence. I see others, and I think they’re brilliant. Mistakes other people make make sense to me. They seem cool, and brave and risky. I can support the shit out of other people. But I am truly only starting to shut up my inner critic as I meander my way through life. What has changed? I think I’ve just honestly become sick of myself. I think I always secretly knew I was creative and interesting and full of ideas, but I was waiting for someone else to notice. And then one day, I woke up, and the whole “getting older,” thing really hit me. I’m in charge of this life, and I’m not sure I’m living it the way I want to.

And so comes Sarah Under Construction. I can’t say I have a clear idea of the direction that this blog will go. But the fact that my words are spreading onto this screen is an absolute coup for me. Ask any of my beloveds. They’ve put up with my talk, talk, talk for a loooong time. My plan is for this to be a loose creative musing site. It’s a place where I hope to build myself up as I prepare for the real world when my youngest goes to school. I plan on exploring my interests and my fears, in hopes I can finally become the person I want to be in a money-making, professional capacity. My goal is to find a way to marry my interests of design, humor, writing, and general creativity into something I can understand, in order for me to have a better idea of where I want to go. I think for me, most importantly, I want these words I type to be part of my ‘do’, which is a huge step moving forward into my future. This is the beginning of me opening up my very protected, soft-underbelly, and allowing myself to be brave enough to share.