July 13th, 2016
“When I Am Weak” is an interview series by Brianne Nettelfield. She talks with people who are woman-identified about exploring weakness and finding inner strength.
Chantelle Kirsh is the Associate Director of Communications at the Vancouver YWCA. Brianne and Chantelle met four years ago when they were paired together for a career mentorship program through Vancouver based social justice and education organization, Check Your Head.
BN: It’s been a while! Tell me about where you are in your life right now—what accomplishments are you most proud of?
CK: I have been feeling lucky lately. I’m surrounded by inspiring and caring people, have a fantastic partner/best friend and am in good health. I am in my early 30s, working at a job I really love, and in the home stretch of completing a Master’s degree in Community Development at the University of Victoria. Life is good!
BN: I’m so happy to hear that! So I feel bad for asking you this, but can you tell me about a moment in your life when you were feeling weak?
CK: I was at a weak point last summer when I was juggling a lot of competing priorities—I took on a temporary front line management role in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). I was working on my Master’s degree and had to unexpectedly move because our landlady wanted to move back into the apartment (the joys of renting in Vancouver!). I was sinking, having weekly meltdowns, and unable to achieve any sense of balance.
BN: It sounds like you had quite a few things on your plate with a Masters program on the go. What was it that drove you to take on a front line managerial position at that point in your life?
CK: I had been working in communications and public relations for close to ten years. First in the private sector and then with the YWCA. I love this work and continue to do it today, but I was looking for something with a different challenge. I had expressed this to my boss and so, when this opportunity opened up she asked me to take it on.
BN: What were your days like?
CK: I would bike to work, which was now in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) instead of Downtown—which honestly was the best part of my day. This isn’t saying much since it was only a five minute bike ride.
Working in the DTES was tough for me. I have been to the community many times throughout the last five years of my job, but being immersed in it was new and challenging. Crabtree Corner is an amazing community resource centre for low income women and families. I managed the main floor which had a community kitchen and a few programs. I would work in the kitchen during breakfast and talk to the women who came in. The things they were dealing with surpassed anything I was experiencing at the time—poverty, addiction, violence, homelessness. In comparison, my own stresses didn’t really measure up. I would work the day there, going back and forth between Crabtree Corner and Downtown for meetings. After work I was generally too exhausted to work out (which was my usual routine), so I would come home, try to get in some school work, although this fell off pretty quickly, and then pass out. I wasn’t really eating well or taking care of my body. I felt physically and emotionally depleted.
BN: Do you remember how you were feeling during this time?
CK: When I approached my thirties something changed for me. I know this is cliché and when I would hear other people say it I was quick to dismiss the notion that age was so definitive. But in my case, it really was. I think a lot of it had to do with my partner and my job. I developed a level of self-awareness that I never had before. I knew what I wanted to do with my life, had a strong and supportive relationship and a job that gave me meaning. I became productive, found ways to quench my thirst for knowledge, pursued creative opportunities and prioritized exercise and being healthy. I was on a roll!
Then, last summer all of this changed. I began feeling like I was constantly behind, dropping the ball, disappointing people, exhausted all the time. This was hard for me because I generally have a lot of energy. I am by no means a Type A personality, but with my 30s self-awareness, I was becoming more clear with what I wanted to achieve. In my time of weakness, I felt like I was backsliding to a chaotic time in my life where everything was a bit of a blurry mess. I felt anxious and tired. On top of this, I felt a lot of guilt. The women I worked with at Crabtree were dealing with “real” challenges and my stress paled in comparison. These were opportunities, not obstacles. I felt guilty that I couldn’t seem to handle my issues when these women were dealing with so much more.
BN: What do you think made things worse or more difficult for you?
CK: A few things made this worse. One: I stopped prioritizing my physical well being. I wasn’t going to the gym, I was eating random food that lacked nutrition and wasn’t sleeping well. I also wasn’t talking to anyone about how I felt except my partner, who was amazing. But he was going through a tough time too, so we were both just kind of entrenched in a stressful time together.
BN: What were your fears during this period?
CK: I was afraid that I was becoming far too self-indulgent with my own issues and not finding joy in helping others. Everything seemed to be about me during that time—people were always asking about me, my school, my work, my vacation plans, and so on. It felt weird to be in this position and I was kind of bored and sick of myself. But that is a hard thing to say to people who care about you and want to share in your happiness.
BN: I find the idea of becoming self-indulgent when we have too much on the go really interesting. You recognized that in yourself. Do you see that in your peers? Can you talk a little bit more about that?
CK: The search for pleasure can be hard to recognize in other people if you aren’t looking closely, since much of self-indulgence can just look like someone blowing off steam, which you could take part in together. Or it could happen behind closed doors. We all search for things that make us comfortable, bring us small joys, and enable us to focus on ourselves and our own desires. There are so many forms—the physical kinds like overeating, over-drinking, and general self-medication. Or the psychological ones like talking about oneself, focusing on one’s own accomplishments or hardships, becoming fixated on key things in our lives, at the cost of other things like our relationships or professional paths. This is an easy trap to fall into, but to outsiders, it might just seem like you’re self-reflecting, going through a lot, or just plain into yourself. During times of high pressure it is easy to default to this setting because everything else in our lives seems to mount to overwhelming heights. In moderation, I think it is okay, but when the indulgence becomes regular, then we need to check ourselves and make sure it isn’t playing too large a role in our day-to-day lives.
BN: Who did you turn to for support in your moment of weakness?
CK: My partner Tilman was my rock. He is truly the best person I know and I wouldn’t have gotten through this time without him. He knows how to make me laugh, when to call me on my shit, and when to listen to me. I remember he even offered to learn about systems theory so he could write one of my papers. Now that’s love! My parents were also amazing. When they saw what I was going through they put mom on a plane from Toronto and she stayed with us for the week. Having her at home made me feel like I had someone else taking care of me, and this was incredibly comforting.
BN: So what was it that prompted the upswing?
CK: Time and knowledge. There was no getting out of these commitments, and I just needed to see them through. After things settled down a little, I went to Victoria for a two-week school residency. We learned about social change, delved into topics of ethics and community development, and I finally felt like I was out of the Chantelle cone. I was looking at the world from a big picture perspective again. There is nothing like learning to take you out of a rut.
BN: How did you feel when you finally got out of that rut?
CK: It literally has just happened over the last few months, and it has been glorious! I feel privileged to have had these opportunities and to share an important life event with my friends and family, but I am also glad it’s over. I feel lighter. Days are semi-normal again. I still have school and work but it is manageable. I work out regularly, cook more at home, and have more to offer the people around me. Of course now, I’m searching for the next thing…I’m leaning towards getting a dog.
BN: What coping strategies have you taken forward with you?
CK: I have learned to be OK with saying no. I have a great mentor at work who helped me look at all the stuff I had going on and advised me to say no to things. Unfortunately this meant my social life and while this is hard since I am a social person, it made things a lot more manageable. I have maintained this practice even now and it’s been great.
BN: Our social lives can be a real source of balance, I feel. What did “learning to say no” mean to you in the context of work/life balance?
CK: I am a social extrovert! I love hanging with my friends and having fun. Sadly, this is not conducive to studying and working full time. I also really enjoy going to events that relate to my work and volunteering. All of these things had to take a step back when I started school and I wasn’t ready to give them up without a fight! This meant feeling overwhelmed pretty regularly. Luckily I have a fantastic mentor at work who helped me through this process. She taught me that saying no to people or potential opportunities didn’t mean you weren’t interested in them personally or professionally, it just meant that you needed to manage your time. People will understand, and if they don’t these relationships might not be ideal in your life right now.
BN: What do you think are some of the things we have to watch out for when we’re getting in over our heads?
CK: I think we need to watch for how our routines have changed. Simple things like: are we getting enough sleep, are we anxious, how do we feel about our commitments, are we eating well, are we practicing self-care. I can be okay under pressure but during this time, I was past the line where I was doing well and moving into an arena of anxiety. Knowing our line is really important. And recognizing means looking for signs—for me it was that I was not in my routine.
BN: How do you think we can find what makes us feel balanced when so many of our goals and desires exist in a competitive environment that makes balance difficult?
CK: To me this is an ongoing practice I try to commit to. It took me time to understand that to feel balanced I needed to be active, strike a balance between being social and being alone—and generally to know what makes me stressed and try to manage this well. My partner is a huge help, he can see the signs before I can sometimes and reminds me to take time to do things that I need. Having supportive people around you is really important to being balanced. I also think that when setting goals, make sure they are not just associated with work and achievements, but that there is a holistic nature to how we view being successful, and part of that includes respecting our own boundaries, bodies, and minds.
BN: What advice do you have for other women-identified people living through their moments of weakness?
CK: Learn what makes you feel balanced and prioritize it. If it is being with family, learning, cooking, exercising, being creative, whatever. Figure it out, and make time for it.
By day – for pay, Brianne Nettelfield works in continuing education doing marketing and programming at a small northern college. By day, night and everything in between she is a documentary filmmaker, writer, and all around organizer of things. Her passions include digging for knowledge, community