Memoir Writing Reflections #2: A Thousand Words A Day

Word counts and number of pages heavily influence my approach in writing. From Grade 4 onwards, in multiple classes from Language (English) class and Filipino class, we were required to fill pages upon pages of lined paper with paragraphs on certain topics. Some of them were comically dull, such as “what I did last summer” since for me, 70% of the time I was watching the store. I can cover that in just one paragraph. Since these essay worksheets have a defined number of pages and we students have learned that being suspiciously short lowers your grade, we learned to stretch and beat around the bush. Adding flowery words, extra couple of sentences, and extending simple statements with independent and dependent clauses are skills I’ve mastered well.

The page limit means just that – that there will be a point when I won’t be able to write any further. In my earlier years before I had access to a computer on a regular basis, this can be an agonizing experience. When I feel that I’m gaining momentum with the middle paragraphs of backstory and supporting points and then all of a sudden, I have less than half a page left, needing to hastily switch and make a concluding paragraph. It feels like walking into a hallway and getting smacked in the face with a glass door. It’s painfully abrupt. So, I’ve learned to “budget” the paper space ahead of time. As a university student here in Canada over a decade ago, I’m immensely grateful for Google Docs and Microsoft Word for this very reason. If I went overboard, I could trim the excess before submitting the final version.

For this memoir project, dealing with word counts and spitting out words is a whole new challenge. These days I rarely have limits on how long my write-ups should be, unless I have to submit them externally. As a volunteer columnist for the Alberta Filipino Journal for the past six years my word limit is simple, 650 – 700 words. Pretty easy to follow. When I wrote the historical essays for Edmonton Heritage Council’s historical initiative called Edmonton City As Museum Project, they had a maximum word limit, but writers get paid by the word. I tried my best to ensure I don’t unnecessarily inflate the piece while giving myself the flexibility to expand if needed. In both articles I had about 50 – 100 words left. With the CBC articles, where is also a word limit but the payment is a flat rate. It helped the editor with expanding a little bit more because they want to keep a well-written statement. Only the second piece went over the 600 word count.

Now that I had 40+ chapters to write about. I did some research on the average word count of a chapter for full-length books such as novels. I agonized on how many words I need to pump out in a day. With personal blogs such as the ones over here, there were many moments when I finished a post in a single sitting – usually about 1000 words. For some time, I wondered whether that’s a fluke or normal. This process of writing a lot – a whole lot more than usual – is an experiment on how many sentences I can spit out that are somehow coherent.

One of my husband’s creative people is J. Michael Straczynski, a filmaker who released their memoir/how-to book, Becoming Superman. What a remarkable and heartbreaking story of hardship in his younger years! It was also amazing to see how his artistic career blossomed. His is the first book where I read practical tips on advancing one’s journey as a writer. “Writer all the crap out and write all the time, and make sure that you submit before the deadline, because it’s amazing how many assholes don’t” is the essence of his friendly and utilitarian advice. I like it. It resonated with me and boosted my confidence. I’ve always completed my written work on time, sometimes early, so that the editor can have the time and breathing room to look it over before getting bombarded by everyone else’s on-time or almost late submissions.

This time around, I am the rule-maker. And the rules, the constraints, are actually helpful in getting focused. So with each chapter I gave myself a semi-flexible limit: minimum 1000 words that clearly narrate at least three scenes, threads of thought, ideally both. This resulted into chapters that are between two to five pages. When I see a chapter going beyond that, I find a natural spot to split the narrative, which prevented me from feeling guilty that one area looked too long. Instead, by giving myself permission to split the chapters, I managed to add a couple more paragraphs to help make that mini story feel complete.

My author mentor lent me a stack of books to help me learn various techniques about writing. She enthusiastically said over and over that numerous principles used in writing fiction are just as useful in writing creative nonfiction. This was especially useful and motivational for me since I am narrating a story – the story of my childhood as my younger self experienced it. One of the books is On Writing, by novelist Stephen King. Similar to Becoming Superman, it’s a memoir/how-to combination which I liked. Him sharing his schedule with numbers is the most striking piece of advice for me. He said he would write a thousand words a day in the morning, stay consistent, and complete a first draft of a novel in three months as a result. Well, guess who completed a memoir draft in three months – this lady! I was overjoyed when I read this. Will my works be as brilliant as his, who knows? It also didn’t matter too much – he had a lot of freedom and flexibility since he wrote fiction. I know I shouldn’t trap myself into stringent formulas, but a roadmap helps prevent the feeling of spiraling out of control. I also don’t write a thousand words every single day. But if a thousand words in 50 days in under three months is a workable formula for me, I’ll take it!

Memoir Writing Reflections #1: The Brain is a Marvel

by: Giselle General

This year, on top of everything else my husband and I drastically changed, I added one more to the list. I finally started working of my first memoir, my first full-length written work. The initial plan was to publish something right around my 30th birthday last year. That got derailed by two major things: COVID and running for public office during a pandemic.

This is to account my initial reflections on this journey and observing my mind, both how it works when it comes to motivation and getting organized, and from a mental health standpoint as far as memories and triggers.

I had to check my email history and digital calendar to confirm the timeline. When you don’t have a full time job, the pace of time feels so strangely elastic and oddly compact, depending on the time of day. In early September, I took a chance and applied for the Horizon’s Writing Circle, a writer mentorship program. I recall being so nervous outlining my bio as an artist, feeling like a fraud. I suppose I had a few essays and got paid for it. I’ve been blogging for a decade and been an ethnic paper columnist for five years. But will it be enough to deserve undivided attention from someone who actually published multiple books?

I applied for the program in early September and in early October I got the confirmation that I got in the program. How exciting! I arranged a meeting with the author mentor in mid-October. Just like the other mentorship programs I participated in, I had a very clear goal in mind and I needed their advice to make it successful. When I outlined my goal, the summary of the memoir and the tangible deliverable, my mentor was excited. But it didn’t hit home for me until I hear her utter the words “Yes, I’m very positive that by the end of our mentorship period, you will have a first manuscript.” That felt so real, so tangible. It’s remarkable.

This is a precious time and opportunity, I have to everything I can to make the most of it.

This sparked a flurry of motivation in my mind and my heart. I made an outline of all the different chapters and themes of my life using blank MS Word documents. In a few minutes I had 40 blank chapters. Whenever inspiration strikes as the cliche goes, I would open a file and either type the entire story right there, or write short phrases of the smaller stories to write about. As of right now, I’ve been doing this for just two months, and I’m halfway through, over 20 chapters that looked decent enough to be scrutinized. Done is better than perfect, I tell myself over and over. It frankly didn’t feel like much, but when I say to people out loud, their reactions remind me that 20 chapters in less than 60 days is noteworthy.

Some days when I write, my brain somehow forgets to tell my body to breathe. After the keyboard clatters for a few minutes as I tell a heartbreaking experience, I’d suddenly gasp for air. Only then do I clearly look at the words on the screen, and tears would roll down my face. I thought that being triggered would be more melodramatic and fiery than this. I guess I was wrong.

In early December I had a dream that I wasn’t happy about. In my dream, somehow my father became alive in my current life as an adult for just one day. I was frantically giving him a tour around my home and around Edmonton, filling him in on what he missed for the past 23 years. The day doesn’t end, I don’t know what rudely woke me up into reality. I laid in bed, my eyes angrily boring holes in the ceiling as the tears silently fell. I know that this is from my consciously digging up memories and putting them on paper, or in this case, the computer screen.

Damn it, brain! Why do you have to do this to me? This wore me out mentally more than the other times I got emotional while writing. I spent the next week not writing anything new, just updating the grammar of the earlier chapters I wrote.

While dedicating time and energy to write, I had to juggle other priorities as well. There’s truth to the saying looking for a job is a full-time job. Taking the time to diligently search for opportunities that fit my experience level and salary range and writing a thoughtful application, that takes effort and a mental toll. I try to switch it up during weekdays, a few hours on job searching, an hour or two on writing, then some time for chores and volunteering.

This is how I remind myself that being unemployed doesn’t mean I’m useless. That I’m still improving my skills, using the ones I have, and making a positive impact around me in different ways. Sometimes it looks like the homecooked meal I made and a clean kitchen sink. It can look like being present at a board meeting and being efficient in all the items we discussed. It can look like a piece of artwork I finished for the home and two memoir chapters done in a single day.

Activities not related to writing or career help me stay grounded and balanced. My husband actively finds video games that a very beginner-level person like me can handle, and he is very kind and diligent when we do levels together where he had to do about 70% of the work. It’s pretty sweet of him. Whenever he plays video games that he streams to his audience online, I hear him talk about me and share fun updates about ‘the wife’. I sometimes chime in on conversations and his audience seem to enjoy it. Our group of friends have organized a weekly movie night, just like what they did regularly a decade ago. My friend asked for my help with pet-sitting and it’s quite fun being a dog and cat auntie. It’s actually nice having a cat on your lap being cozy while reading one of the books my mentor author lent me about writing techniques.

My suicidal ideation has never left my mind, but I am able to keep it at bay for the most part. It’s not by feeling more optimistic about the world – there’s too much obvious evidence that people and systems are harmful and selfish and problematic. It’s by keeping a little bit of hope that what I do matters to a small extent and it affects people positively, whether it’s just myself, my immediate love ones, or those who gets affected by any of my community service work. And that’s enough for now.

Like Father, Like Daughter: We Both Have Metal Dentures!

As an attempt to convince his kids to take dental health seriously, I remembered my father, when I was a kid, basically telling us “don’t be like me!” He had metal dentures for the top of his teeth, and he during one of these conversations, he would take them out of his mouth and show them for us to have a closer look. I don’t recall any other details about what happened to his teeth that he ended up losing a few of his adult teeth and him needing to have dentures. He was too focused driving down his stern advice: don’t eat too much sweets and brush your teeth every night, or else you’ll lose your permanent teeth and that would be bad.

I knew he meant well, but back then there’s an issue as far as people’s perception of dental care in the Philippines. Since dental care is something you pay out of pocket, when you don’t have the means, so-called preventative care and checkups are out of the question. You would go only when there’s a toothache that is so unbearable pain or only to pull out rotting teeth.

In 1999, shortly before my family got into the fatal vehicle accident, I vaguely remember my sister telling me that she went to the community dentist on her own for the first time. That she was nervous and also proud that she went. At the time, both she and I are starting to see many of our adult teeth forming.

And when the accident happened, well, medical check-ups of any kind went out the window. Asking for permission, and for money, for medical and health related reasons was tough. My grandma would mock me and scornfully ask “did your father’s side relatives make you ask? If they want so badly to do things like dentist checkups form you, maybe you and your brother should move and live with them instead!”

2007 was a chaotic year for many reasons but January was pretty rough. After coming back from New Year’s vacation from the father’s side relatives, I asked the mother’s side relatives, who I live with, if some of the suvivor’s pension money can go towards a dental checkup. This infuriated my uncle and grandmother and my brother and I got punished severely. That’s all I have to say about that for now.

It was soon very obvious that two of my froth teeth were really rotting. Since dental care is cheaper in the Philippines, they were extracted and I got my new dentures less than a month before my flight to Canada on August 2007.

During university I managed to get a few check ups and fillings done for my teeth because I managed to stack my benefits. I learned that my benefits from working retail at Future Shop which covered 50% of basic procedures, plus the 50% covered from being a university student, completely took care of the cost. Perfect for a broke university student!

When I visited the Philippines in 2013 with my then-boyfriend, since I knew dental work is still cheaper and I was unemployed, I got a replacement for my dentures. I was sold to the fact that the one with a metal plating will be more sturdy than the plastic one. I was pretty irritable for a good chunk of the trip for other reasons so it was a stressful experience. The metal base had to be adjusted a few times so it stops cutting through my gums, but it was all good ever since.

After I got used to my metal plated dentures, that’s when I remembered that my father had a metal plated one as well! I whispered a little prayer then, apologizing that unfortunately I didn’t manage to keep all my adult teeth. From then on, my dental care routine has improved dramatically. I told myself, I’m the adult now and I can take the reins moving forward and take care of the teeth I have left.

When we moved to the neighbourhood my husband grew up in, he convinced me to go to his dental clinic so that we have the same dentist. Remarkably, my husband only had one dentist for his entire life, since he was a child! When Dr. Chin retires, I bet it will be quite an adjustment for him. Maybe my husband can reach 40 years old first before that happens?

The first major dental surgery I had was 2015, when I had ALL my four wisdow teeth pulled out at the same time. The bottom two are impacted, meaning they are not coming out properly and are kinda stuck, causing pain, risk of mis-aligning the rest of my teeth, and potential infection from hard to reach areas that I’m not able to clean properly. Again, huge thanks for work benefits covering the cost of all that.

These days, I go to the dentist at least once a year for a full checkup and cleaning. Even after we moved from my husband’s neighbourhood to a different location, we continue to go to the clinic of his childhood dentist. It’s funny that I seem to be more diligent with booking my appointment that he was. When I sit on the patient’s chair and the dental hygenist gets started with their work, I have to remind myself to ask “oh! I have dentures, should I take them out now?”. Then they would put it away neatly wrapped in tissue and inside a paper cup.

Every appointment I would ask my dentist to check on my dentures. At this point, I would have this metal one for almost a decade now. Whenever I ask, how are they looking? Are they falling apart? Should I get them changed? So far, the dentist keeps saying that the dentures are still in good shape and for as long as they are comfortable I can keep using them.

Maybe in the future, when I am in a position to have a positive impression on a child, let’s say being an aunt or grandma, maybe I can do the same technique as my father did. Maybe I can pull out the dentures, grin widely to show the missing teeth, and say “this is what happens when you don’t take care of your teeth. Do you best to care for them and brush them always!” While I wasn’t able to fully follow my father’s advice, those were due to childhood circumstances outside of my control. Maybe when I give the strict cautionary tale, with the support of the adults in their lives, the kids these days will be able to follow through.

Blueberry Pie: When Food Literally was part of my Therapy Routine

By: Giselle General

Content Warning: References to sexual assault, mental health treatment.

This story is from my experiences between February and September 2017, a transformative and healing time for me as far as my mental health and outlook in life.

February 2017 was when I had my first therapy appointment with the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, a free therapy service for those who survived sexual abuse. My boss at the time suggested this resource in November 2016, right after she noticed I was reeling from the election of Donald Trump. Let’s just say it was not great as a sexual abuse survivor to have a prominent politician still elected after it was revealed he made statements like “grab the women by the pussy.”

After I did the online application and got the screening phone call in November 2016, I was told I’m waitlisted. Then I got notified that I am in and can book my first appointment. It was about mid-February in 2017, at 4 PM.

I chose 4 PM because the clinic is open only during office hours, but at the same time, I’d like to be at work for as long as I could before taking off for the day. Making up the work hours is not an issue at all. I’d leave work at 3 PM to take the bus to the office for the appointments.

For something as emotionally tough and draining such as therapy, especially for something traumatic like sexual assault, I didn’t realize how starved I was right after the appointments. Luckily, there is a business plaza right across the street, with this shop named Fifendekel. Due to the bus schedule, I actually arrive in the area 20 minutes before the appointment.

For the first few appointments, I’d stop by there, get a sandwich and a drink and eat it right away before the appointment. I’d rotate between the egg salad, tuna salad, or chicken salad, no tomatoes but extra sprouts. But I learned that it throws off my appetite for dinner. Also as it turns out, feeling stuffed while talking about heavy topics was not comfortable – I mean physically. Emotional discomfort is already there since, well, it’s therapy.

One time I decided to get food after the appointments, but I learned the hard way that they close at 4:30. So I learned that whether I’ll eat it right away or later, my window of opportunity is before my appointment. And that’s what I did.

While waiting for my sandwich to be assembled, I always look at the desserts glass display, eyeing the small paper plates with single slices of pie. I love blueberry pie, so whenever it’s there I’d order a slice to eat at the store. When I started ordering my food to-go, I was worried whether it will travel well in the take-out box, but it did, thank goodness!

So for many of the appointments I had afterwards, a routine was set. I’d leave work, take the bus, walk a few blocks to get a yummy sandwich and pie, put it in my briefcase vertically and head on to the appointment. Afterwards, I’d take a cab to take me home and have my sandwich and pie by myself in our breakfast bar by the kitchen. I literally felt like I’m being re-fueled, from the delicious food and moments of peace and quiet I have before my husband goes home after having dinner at his parent’s place.

Then at bedtime, we would do what we call the “therapy after the therapy”. While cozy in our bed, my husband would ask “how did therapy go?” and would diligently listen to any new insights or techniques I learned from the appointment.

Of course during the appointments, it is unavoidable that I share to my therapist a story or two about my husband. Oftentimes, those were positive stories of love, support and care towards me. The approval and glee from my therapist is quite evident. I’d tell this to my husband. He would then ask “so, I am therapist-approved?’ And I’d say “yes, absolutely you are!”

The appointments went from weekly for a few months, and then became bi-weekly by the summer, and then in early fall, for August and September, they became once a month. Until such time that my therapist felt it was a good time to wrap up.

Over the years, whenever I had blueberry pie, whether at a restaurant or a meal with love ones, I would always think fondly to myself “oh, there’s my therapy pie!”

“Matanim ay ‘di Biro!” On Indoor Plant Care

By: Giselle General

Magtanim ay di biro, Maghapong nakayuko, Di naman makatayo, Di naman makaupo! (Planting is not a joke, as you need to bend over all afternoon, you cannot stand, you cannot sit!)

This is a folk song I remember learning as a child, about the hard work that is required to plant rice in farming fields. While I personally haven’t experienced that as a child since I grew up in a mountainous region in the Philippines before coming to Canada, it got instilled in my mind that care for plants is a serious and important thing.

Potted plants were a common thing in the homes where I lived in both countries. They came in different forms: an outdoor plant box, milk cans or clay pots for indoor plants, or just a raised garden bed right by the stairs leading up to the house. But plant care in Canada was a whole different ball game since the drastically changing seasons dictate what, when and how plants need to be care for.

I started paying more attention to indoor plants in the places I lived in, when I moved in with my then boyfriend, now husband. In his condo, he had one potted plant that he got from his mom as a housewarming gift. It’s one of those generic types of plants seen in many people’s homes. He had a nickname for it that stuck, Mr. Plant. We found the perfect spot for it, right beside the narrow living room window, perched by the edge of the TV stand. It was relatively low maintenance, watering it once a week and not putting any fertilizer was enough for it to survive long enough for us to take it to the house we moved in to in 2015.

That house came with one plant that was hanging by the stairwell ceiling, so we nicknamed it H. Plant, and yes H stands for “hanging”. We watered it regularly but didn’t put fertilizer as we never got into the habit of it. When there were a few leaves that were dying, I’d cut them off and put it in the pot, hoping to myself that it can be somehow a fertilizer substitute. I thought, it’s organic material, right? We also inherited an Aloe Vera plant from our friend, after their then newly-acquired cat kept on attacking it, which we aptly nicknamed A.V. Plant. It’s quite obvious that we name things in a practical, not creative way. We got a few other small pots of plants that didn’t survive as long, such as the one I got as a wedding gift, and one free pot I got from work for Earth Day.

A plate of spaghetti with homemade pesto sauce.

Sometime later in the year 2021, when we were shopping at Costco, my husband decided to take an impulse purchase, which is very rare. He decided to get tabletop Aerogarden, which is a techy pot for plants that uses water, fertilizer, with buttons and a digital screen to remind you to add water, change water, put fertilizer, and more. This was set up for planting herbs. I was at first skeptical of it, but the husband seems eager to try it, and promised to be on top of the maintenance. And it worked! Some of the plants grew early and quickly, and I had to keep up with trimming and harvesting the herbs and integrate them in our meals. That has been pretty fun, and delicious! The best part for me is being able to make homemade pesto with the very healthy basis plants (both Genove Basil and Thai basil) that is tasty and nut free. The dill has died and we tried to put a root of a spring onion and it also worked!

As a couple, we’ve never really been the type to pick plants for our house because they are pretty. We were so low maintenance and unmotivated to put plants in our front lawn and backyard in the bigger house we had! But the Aerogarden sparked a new interest to plant things that are more of a win-win for us, healthy because of better air quality inside the house, and healthy because they are edible. In Edmonton, there’s also additional conversations about edible gardens in outdoor settings. More people are setting up fruit and vegetable garden beds and pots in their front yard, more neighbourhood groups are setting up community gardens (including my own), and the city is helping those who want to put edible food plants in trails and neighbourhood ponds.

In addition to increased conversations about planing for sustenance, there’s also more encouragement towards planting outdoors with a goal towards naturalization. As in, planting pants, shrubs, bushes that are native plant species in the area, and in a way where mowing won’t be necessary. I thought that there’s merit to the idea, and I’m eager to see more people take up on it. Now that we moved to a townhouse with a very small patch of dirt under our property lines, I don’t think we’ll be able to contribute much to this idea. Overall, it’s pretty neat to see what captures people’s interest in plant care in their homes and immediate surroundings!

The Courage from Admitting Fear

Giselle thinking while resting her face on her hands

By: Giselle General

“That is a cool idea, my love. But I don’t feel comfortable initiating that at all. If we’re gonna do it, I need you to set it up, or at least do it along with me.”

When you are so used to being your own provider, advocate, and nurturer, when you are in survival mode for so long, being afraid can be devastating. Feeling fear means being vulnerable, which means being harmed, putting myself and the people I care about the most (which for most of my childhood would be my brother), at huge physical and emotional risk. The pain would be a double-whammy, from the situation and how our unmet practical needs are exposed, and from the heartache from realizing there is no one to rely on.

Being vulnerable enough to express discomfort is one of the biggest risks I’ve taken, and continue to take, in my adult life. The only setting where I’ve felt okay enough to do this, is the place that matters that most, my own home.

For me, admitting fear involves these different parts and with all of them together, has helped in addressing, confronting or putting things in perspective.

First, is giving myself permission to be concerned or afraid or threatened. Learning that ’emotions are information’ is the foundation of me being able to do this. I’ve learned to not immediately attach a moral assessment to my emotions, and that the concern or fear is related to something about how I perceive my environment. Since all emotions are valid, I’ve learned that it is okay for my mind and hear to express whatever I am feeling in that moment.

Second, is labeling, putting into words the type of fear, and saying it out loud. Anxious, uncomfortable, overwhelmed, unsafe, uncertain, confused, worried about being injured, are just some of the ways I now express my fear about something. Another important part is being able to assess and rate the level of fear. It can be 2 out of 10 level of worry about something in the near future. It can be a split second 5 out of 10 quick jump scare because a garden snake jumped out to our walking path. It could be a 4 out of 10 moment of anxiousness because of having to go door-knocking as a political candidate who is a visibly Asian woman. I realized that the more specific the descriptor and the number rating, the more capable I am in doing the next two steps.

Third, is reaching out to express it. This is also a work in progress. Even the mere act of saying, just to myself “hoo boy, I’m worried about this!” is a milestone in itself. A few times, I’ve come along with my husband and his running group that has meetups all year long, including winter at -30. During one of the winter runs during a milder day, I joined him and the route involved some trails along a side of a hill, doable in the summer but with ice and snow it’s a bit tricky. Allowing myself to even pause and look afraid for long enough for my husband to notice my apprehension, is a form of expression I wasn’t always able to do.

The final one, is to find solutions and asserting my boundaries. I eventually learned that it is okay, it is possible, to move away from the threat. There are a variety of solutions, whether it is just vent and let it go, or monitor the situation because I’m more informed and equipped these days, or let someone do the heavy lifting on my behalf. It sounds like a no-brainer, but I now feel okay saying “that will be physically or medically unsafe, so no thank you” or not be ashamed to tell myself that my financial security is more important at this point.

Two hands reaching out to hold each other

For so long, the definition of courage that I embraced is in enduring, persisting, putting a brave face. All of that is important, and all of that is out of necessity. My goodness though, it is nice to not to do that all the time. I want to close this post with the lyrices of a song that always resonates with me when thinking about this topic, “The Warrior is a Child” by Gary Valenciano.

Lately I’ve been winning battles left and right
But even winners can get wounded in the fight
People say that I’m amazing
I’m strong beyond my years
But they don’t see inside of me
I’m hiding all the tears

They don’t know that I come running home when I fall down
They don’t know who picks me up when no one is around
I drop my sword and cry for just a while
‘Cause deep inside this armor
The warrior is a child

Unafraid because his armor is the best
But even soldiers need a quiet place to rest
People say that I’m amazing
I never face retreat
But they don’t see the enemies
That lay me at his feet

They don’t know that I come running home when I fall down
They don’t know who picks me up when no one is around
I drop my sword and cry for just a while (I cry for just a while)
‘Cause deep inside this armor (deep inside this armor)
The warrior is a child

They don’t know that I come running home when I fall down
They don’t know who picks me up when no one is around
I drop my sword and look up for a smile
‘Cause deep inside this armor (deep inside)

Deep inside this armor (deep inside this armor)
Deep inside this armor (deep inside this armor)
The warrior is a child

Telephone Therapy Appointments: 3 Tips

Giselle wearing a black T shirt and red headphones

By: Giselle General

Therapy, the mental health kind, is something that I have been doing on and off since 2017. It’s remarkable how much time has passed since I first experienced going to a centre with a business-and-clinic vibe waiting room, and sitting in a cozy office with a couch-like chair and chatting with a professional with a clipboard.

Due to the pandemic, I had my first opportunity to do a few virtual therapy sessions with someone I’ve met in person a few times. It worked out well because I’ve met her in-person many times before, so there is a rapport and a baseline of trust.

Now, I’ve been having appointments on a regular basis with my latest therapist for the past two and a half years now. This doctor, I’ve never met in person at all! The primary format of their mental health service is telephone appointments, so video meetings were not even an option. When I asked my family doctor’s clinic to be referred to this service though, I know I needed regular and ongoing mental health support without worrying about whether I’ll ran out of appointments.

Here’s an overview of my top three tips on how to make telephone therapy appointments as successful as possible.

First: Mindset and Expectations

Telephone therapy appointments, in terms of actual logistics, is different in many ways compared to virtual or in-person therapy.

The lack of opportunity to see facial expressions or nonverbal cues is a disadvantage. They will have a difficult or impossible time telling whether you are lying or withholding information. So in my opinion, this is most suitable for someone willing and able to be more forthcoming with their struggles. I think that telephone therapy can help a lot with issues that are not an escalated crisis.

For those that might have trouble being too vulnerable in a closed off space like an office, or might even have trouble with being honest when someone is watching their face, then telephone appointments can be advantageous. It can help someone be more up front because they don’t have to be afraid of seeing their doctor’s facial reactions immediately upon hearing their comments or stories.

Second: Preparation

It’s best to establish a physical space where you would speak to the therapist in private. Tidying or re-organizing the space, whether it is the desk and chair, a bed, living room, dining room can help you focus on the important and vulnerable conversations that is coming up.

Charge your phone and ensure it is 100% and ensure your headphones, if you’re using one, are nearby. I personally prefer having headphones because it keeps my hands free to do other tasks.

Now here’s where telephone appointments have advantages. If you think you would need to fidget, you can do so – just have your fidget items right next to you. I tend to write notes and the doctor’s advice during the appointment, something I haven’t done in in-person appointments since it just feels so awkward to me. You can have a drink of choice instead of just water if you want, like tea of coffee or smoothie. Although for myself, water has always worked.

I highly suggest preparing the topics you would like to talk about. During the initial appointment, when the therapist asks the awkward and important question “what brings you in today?” be prepared to say the difficulty you are having and a short summary of the backstory. So for me, for one of the things I need help with I said “I am running for elected office next year and will be starting a lot of work in a few months, so I am asking for help on an ongoing basis to deal with stress during this period of time and managing my real fears from being an immigrant, minority woman who might be attacked and hurt”.

If it is a follow-up appointment, the first two will likely be follow-ups or updates on previously discussed issues, and if there are any, one to two new things you’d like to talk about. I usually write this on a notepad, with space in between the points I wanted to talk about, to write any insights, advice or next steps most relevant to the topic.

Third: Appointment Day

It’s appointment day! Your supplies are ready, phone is charged and you are on your way to the private quiet space you picked for the phone call. I treat it as seriously as going out to an actual appointment, so I feed myself a good meal, wear ‘going out’ clothes but more comfortable versions (like a nice swater and slacks) but I skip the shoes.

I also give myself a small window of time to be the commute or the waiting room time, just about five minutes. My husband has been understanding about this, so he leaves our bedroom, I lock the door and he goes way to the other end of the house, like the living room, to be out of earshot.

Another benefit of telephone appointments is because no one will see you, you can be as visually expressive as you need to be. You can flail your hands while explaining something that’s upsetting. You can roll your eyes when the doctor says something that makes you react “duh, why didn’t I think of it that ways before?!” You can switch what your hands are doing between fidgeting, typing notes, or wiping tears and snot off your face. I typically write down a few bullet points for each of my concern that I can categorize as follows: insights, counter-points, action items.

One thing I strongly advice against is multi-tasking. No social media or emails or chores during the appointment. Since it is likely that the impact of a telephone appointment is slightly diminished from not interacting face to face, multi-tasking and getting distracted makes it worse.

Finally, after the appointment, give yourself at least five minutes to take a breath and process. Those few minutes right after an in-person appointment, when you walk out of the lobby out of the office to start traveling home, are helpful for a reason. Especially if it is an emotionally heavy conversation, it helps your mind settle a bit before you resume with the rest of your day.

A woman with a short haircut and brown and white sweater, on a phone call with her cellphone and writing on a notepad on her desk.

After each appointment, same principles apply to in-person or virtual appointments. If there is homework or readings or activities that were asked of you to do before your next appointment, do them as diligently as if they told you in person.

Just like any other way of getting support for one’s struggles, therapy will likely not be enough to help solve one’s trauma and past hurts, so I suggest thinking of the methods of therapy the same way. It’s okay to patiently put up with the realities of telephone therapy and then switch to your preferred methods at the first opportunity. But who knows, maybe the conveniences of telephone therapy can help you access it on a more frequent basis so that it can help with your self-improvement goals.

My “Turning Red” Story: When I Got My First Period

Scene from Disney Pixar Movie "Turning Red". Mei, as a red panda, looks at her reflection in her home's bathroom mirror.

In honour of the soon-to-end International Women’s Month, and in appreciation of the recent Disney Pixar movie Turning Red, I’d like to share the memorable and also a bit scary experience I had when I got my first period.

By the way, I got mine when I was in Grade 5, at 10 years old. So for those who argue that getting periods is not a topic for children, this is something that kids experience all the time!

As a storekeeper of a sari-sari store, I’m familiar with menstrual projects, which we nickname “napkins” in the Philippines. I noticed though that when kids come to our store to buy them, they always asked that it be wrapped in newspaper, or in an opaque plastic bag that conceals what is inside. When I ran out of newspaper, I’d use the cardboard from a 10-pack of cigarettes, or a bag from a wholesale pack of candy or bubble gum – those things are thick and brightly colored. During the movie, when Mei’s mother was putting different types of pads on the bathroom counter while describing them “regular, overnight, scented, wings…” it make me chuckle.

Just like most of my weekends, I was left alone watching over our little store in the mining village where I used to live at the time. Grandma (Lola Aleg) left for the day, to go to the city to get products for the store. Or is it for a while weekend or week? She’s gone so often I can’t keep track.

It was early in the weekend, when my mischievous self was tempted to sneak a chip bag from the store inventory as a snack for myself. It was 10 AM so the electricity for the whole village was shut off for a few hours already, an austerity measure that the mining company introduced a year ago. If I needed to go to the bathroom which is in the basement of our little store, I have to very carefully head down the ladder and do my business in a tiny room that is almost pitch black.

I went to the bathroom and in the faint light coming from the window, I saw something very wrong in my panties. I thought to myself, OMG! I can’t believed I pooped my pants without even knowing! This is what I get from sneaking too many snacks from the store display. It was sticky and brown, but surprisingly not as smelly as poop normally would. I hurriedly changed into clean underwear, fumbling in the dark where my underwear bag would be, worried that a customer would be calling from the storefront upstairs.

Then 4 PM comes around and electricity is back in the village. I went to the bathroom again to checked if there’s anything unusual in my underwear. This time around, there’s no mistaking it. It’s liquid, it’s sticky, it’s red – it’s a period! I hurried to try to wash both panties with water and bath soap, as I didn’t know how to clean blood off of fabric then. We learned that later in the school year.

I honestly can’t remember whether I told my grandma that weekend or sometime later. It wasn’t until six months later that I had my second menstrual cycle. This I wasn’t surprised about, as we learned about this in health class earlier in the school year. We also had a school assembly shortly before my first period, from one of the multinational companies that sell household items, including menstrual products.

What I do remember thought is that once I started having acne, lola told me many times on how I missed out on one of the most effective ways to combat acne. She said, I could have used the underwear when I had my first period, lightly wash off the blood but not completely clean if off with laundry soap, and with the part of the panty that had some light menstruation blood residue, to dab it off my face where pimples are popping up. The things was, she said, is that it needed to be from my first menstrual cycle. Looking back now, it sounds kinda nasty, but I understand that she grew up in a rural area in the 1930’s – 50’s. My brother and I weren’t spared from other old-fashioned methods to address various illnesses growing up.

Thinking back now, there were so many things that I wish I learned about how menstruation works. Dealing with cramps every month was a common experience, but I learned later on about how it can be debilitating for other people – as in blacking out or being nauseated in pain. I wished I learned earlier on how having sexual intercourse works during someone’s menstrual cycle. Turns out, it is messy, but doable and pretty satisfying – as long as you and your partner have prepared to clean up afterwards. I wished I got adequate information when I was exploring birth control methods, so I can better differentiate what is “expected spotting”, “usual menstrual cycle discharge” or “excessive bleeding” when I adjusted to having an IUD implanted in my uterus. It took one year for my frequent bleeding to stop and I’ve had an IUD in me for 11 years, that I might have a learning curve on how to put on pads again. Maybe I’ll just skip those altogether and go with a Diva Cup or those fancy new period panties.

Compared to years past, I think that available information about puberty life and other life milestones is getting better now, thanks to access to online information, being referenced in mainstream media, and professional content creators. I hope that for kids, teens and their families, that such experiences are something that is anticipated and informed about ahead of time.

My Current One and Only White Hair

Closeup of a black-haird woman's face and her hand holding a strand of grey hair.

By: Giselle General

It was February 2020 and I was excited to do my bi-annual ritual with my hair. I let it grow for close to 24 months and I cut a large chunk of it to donate for charitable causes that make free wigs for kids with cancer. Usually I alternate between Hair Massacure or Angel Hair Foundation. It’s something I have been doing since March 2009.

This time around, I got assistance in cutting my hair and shaving my head so I have a smooth and even buzz cut. My brother who was living with me at the time agreed to help, maybe reluctantly because little brothers can’t refuse their Ate (big sister) when they ask for sometime, haha! It was pretty messy, and pretty fun. He was so scared at first to use the scissors to cut the little pony tails of hair I tied, but I told him to just hold his hand steady and it will be fine. Then, it was time to bring out the clippers! It was a the lowest setting, number 1, so what was left in my head is likely the same length of hair that most men have when they don’t shave for a day. He told me a few times to tilt my head this way and that way, and hold me earlobes flat, so that the clippers cover every part of my scalp. He did an amazing job.

A week later, I was in the office washroom when I notice something unusual on the top of my head. My hair is going through its “chipmunk phase” so it was sticking up and ready to poke you! But I saw that there was one particular spot where the little half-centimeter of hair didn’t look the same as all my other hair. It was lighter colored! I thought it was a piece of dirt, or somehow soap or shampoo got stuck – although I thought that didn’t much sense.

Then March 2020 rolls around and by then I had at least half an inch of hair. And it’s confirmed, it is a single strand of white hair, growing from the root! I posted about it on Facebook my feelings a mixture of amazement and disbelief, since at this time I was 29 years old. My great aunt living in Australia said some nice words about the white hair being a symbol of age and wisdom. I really appreciated it.

I’m not exactly outraged of panicked about it. I’m more amused really. And I challenged myself to try to keep that single strand for as long as possible, so not pulling it out either manually or when I comb or brush my hair.

And then the pandemic hit. As I mostly worked from home for months on end, I’d see this single strand of silver whenever I comb my hair and part it a little to the left. Inch by inch, my buzz turned into a pixie, then a bob, then shoulder length and now it is past my shoulders again.

Now it is January 2022. I’m preparing to shave my head and donate my hair to any of these organizations if they are still around and accepting natural hair donations. I wonder what surprises my scalp will bring up. Will I have a few more grey hairs that will pop up from the root? Will that be the physical manifestation of the stress from the past year, not just from COVID and the state of the world, but from the election I ran for recently?

It’s been remarkable to finally see changes that are related to aging. With a bit of dread and also curiosity, I acknowledge that menopause will be here before realizing what hit me!

The Mindset of ‘Understanding, not Agreement’

A couple sitting on a yellow couch while arguing.

By: Giselle General

There’s no need for a rocket scientist to tell me, or anyone else, that people seem to be more divided than ever. There’s enough commentary around lamenting the increasing ‘us versus them’ mindset, amplified by social media, people speaking out against injustices they have suffered from for so long, and people feeling anxious about all social, economic, and political changes happening around them.

“This is a hill I’m willing to die on” is one of those euphemisms that I, as a English as Second Language speaker, try to wrap my mind around.

In a government advisory board I volunteer for, a long-time board member suggested the concept of ‘understanding, not agreement’.

I think this means, making an attempt to follow the thought process of someone’s argument or reasoning, without necessarily agreeing with this person’s position. It is something I haven’t heard before and it stuck with me ever since. I think that there is value to what he said, something I am discovering more and I expand the ways I volunteer in the community.

It gets tricky of course when the person’s perspective is inherently harmful or invalidating the suffering of others. I don’t have an answer right now on how to navigate this. I think that would be the necessary next stage as I try to get more involved in the community.

In one of my recent appointments with my therapist, we talked about getting backlash and criticisms and how to react to them. One piece of advice she gave was ‘find the nugget of truth’. I think there is something to that. Even if a racist person keeps on spewing out problematic commentary, if you dig just a little bit, there is something else beneath the hostility. It can be ignorance, it can be fear, it can be lack of belonging, or a little bit of each.

Someone who keeps on mentioning economic impact when it comes to policy decisions might not necessarily be a callous jerk who cares only about jobs. Perhaps their train of thought is that financial stability is a valuable foundation of a person’s wellbeing, and if that is not considered, it can be tough to convince people to do certain actions.

Someone who keeps on mentioning the number of people dying when it comes to policy decisions might not necessarily be a delusional person who thinks the government has unlimited money. Perhaps their train of thought is that every single life has value, and believes that if a person is dead because of government policy failing them, that is completely unacceptable.

Back in university, I remember reading an article about how conservative and liberal minded people can convince the other camp of their perspectives. The essence of the advice was to use the logic and mindset of the other party to frame the arguments towards the topic of discussion. For instance, it can be valuable to say that increased environmental protections through policy can help preserve and maintain the God-given nature, a precious resource and blessing that deserves care.

Given that COVID19 is still an issue, after almost two years, in an attempt to protect my mental health, to protect people around me from being subjected to my anger, and to keep my faith in humanity, I’m trying a bit harder to tell myself these days “understand what led a person to believe that way, even if in my own mind, it is completely nonsensical”. A book I read during a trip, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely, also reminded me of the natural and human flaws of decision-making and belief.

As I browse through the different definitions of the word understand, I’m trying to learn how people behave and communicate, even if I am not convinced of their mentality.

to perceive the meaning of; grasp the idea of; comprehend

to perceive what is meant; grasp the information conveyed

to be thoroughly familiar with; apprehend clearly the character, nature, or subtleties of

to accept tolerantly or sympathetically

to assign a meaning to; interpret

to grasp the significance, implications, or importance of

And in the process, I can see more clearly why some people have views that are discriminatory or ignorant. Many beliefs and behaviours are harmful even towards oneself, but from the perspective of trauma or being in survival more, a clear path emerges.

How about confronting and addressing these mindsets that are problematic? That is a whole different conversation altogether.