After returning from Morocco, I brought the kids and myself to our regular doctor for a routine check-up. It’s something I have tried to be on top of in recent years, especially as health care professionals used to give me anxiety but avoiding them led to major health concerns. Our doctor’s clinic is located in the hip University neighbourhood of Garneau in Edmonton and sits on the main road, Whyte Avenue, alongside cool teahouses and local vegan eateries. We lived in a high rise across the street for the first half of my graduate studies program at the University and had become patients at the clinic when it opened shortly after we moved to the neighbourhood. The clinic is owned by our doctor, a quiet Libyan man with short curly hair and a skin tone that shouts of the Mediterranean sun.

Appointments have always been a bit awkward with him as a Muslim convert – something about being in a room alone with a brother who has to listen to your heartbeat and take your health history will do that. But I felt better that he was Muslim, in general, and North African in particular because he would know the context of certain things as they pertain to our health – from diet to culture, travel and more.

I remember, at the end of my masters in 2017, in the final push to complete and then defend my thesis, I had spent six weeks writing for 18 hours a day and sleeping on the hardwood floor next to my desk. I was completely exhausted and worn out, hacking away with bronchitis and feeling so run down I could barely keep my head up. I remember being in the defence committee and expressing to the examiners that academia had nearly wiped me out. I went on to pass the defence and celebrated that weekend despite being in poor health.

Three days later, I would enter my doctor’s office on Whyte Avenue and complain of the same issues, asking him to figure out what was wrong with me.

“I just feel a level of exhaustion I have never felt before. Is it possible that this level of work could have done this to me?” I asked him.

He had a knowing look behind his eyes but I didn’t exactly know why in that moment. He ordered a urine test on the spot and after I had gone to the bathroom to get him the sample, he left the room to go analyze it. I sat in the room, swinging my legs as I sat in the chair next to the examination bed, staring at a poster of a man with heart disease. My eyes fixated on the diagram of a clogged artery and the strange manner in which the artist had rendered the man’s face, making him look exaggerated and deformed.

When my doctor entered the room again, he gave a short knock and came in with a small smile on his face.

“Congratulations,” he said.

I paused, confused. “About my passing my defence?” I asked.

“No…” he scanned my face for recognition. “You’re pregnant!” he announced when he didn’t find it.

I sat there in silence, looking back at the image of the clogged artery.

He looked at the side of my face and I heard him calling me as if from far away, “Sister? Sister – are you ok?”

I turned and looked back at him like I was in a dream. “Subhana Allah,” I said because that’s what he wanted to hear.

He nodded uncertainly, scanning my face for clues about my mental state, “Yes, Subhana Allah.”

I left his office with a requisition in my hand to get a blood test for confirmation.

The story goes that I would go on to have an exceedingly challenging pregnancy and a spectacular birth, following which I admitted myself to the hospital for anxiety. While there, they ordered a blood test and discovered that my blood levels were half of what they should be and it was no surprise that I had had to stave off a panic attack immediately post-partum: I was actually experiencing a bodily flashback to when my first daughter was born and I was left to hemorrhage before being sent for surgery. After that discovery, I worked hard to eat more iron-rich foods and take large amounts of supplements to build my blood up.

But sure enough, life creeps in and takes over and suddenly, I was across the world in Morocco, not really focusing on my health all that much. When we returned and I entered my doctor’s office, he ordered a blood test right away and when I came back to hear the results, my jaw dropped.

“Sister, your blood levels are lower than the day after your baby’s birth,” he said.

“What?!”

“Yes, I don’t understand how you have been working out and doing everything you are doing. How do you have the energy for any of this?”

I just sat there, going into my body like my therapist had taught me. I suddenly felt the weight of the fatigue I had been pushing through and ignoring. It came at me like a freight train. I recalled all of the difficulties I was having remembering simple things and how it sometimes felt like people were talking to me through a fog. My mind flashed to the restless sleeps I had been having. The moments of near-blackouts during yoga. The cravings for ice. The overeating. The suicidal rollercoaster that seemed to follow the trajectory of my monthly cycle. I had thought it was all hormonal but realized in that moment that it was all tied to low blood.

I thanked him for his help and left his office with an armload of pharmaceutical iron pill samples that he had given me to try before we took the next step to a transfusion. In a way, I am grateful to now know what is going on but also feel the weight of needing to focus on my health in a more pronounced way precisely when I lack the energy to do so. As I stood in the snow, waiting for my husband to pick me up, cars zooming back and forth down the busy avenue, I thanked myself for making the appointment that would show me what I needed to know about myself. I had been feeling this insurmountable hurdle with so many areas of my health, despite pushing hard to feel better mentally and physically. It was now time to focus on solutions and rest.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada.

Last week I made what might look like a reverse-resolution: to aim to go to the gym just twice a week instead of three times a week. I’m not a compulsive calorie-burner; in fact, my relationship with exercise is quite healthy and positive. I enjoy working out because it feels good and helps disperse mental stress and physical tension. I just don’t have time for all the self-care routines I’ve taken on to balance my life and keep myself happy, healthy and whole. At this point I’m managing stress that’s partly caused by the stress of stress-management routines.

The notion of self-care – that it is not just OK, but radical to take time to look after your own physical, mental and emotional needs in a world that is not always built for human well-being – originates in activist and mental health communities. The message was originally espoused by and directed at individuals most at risk of burn-out: people who daily navigate and resist heteropatriarchal, white supremacist , capitalist social structures designed to oppress, marginalize and stigmatize them. In the hands of white feminist social media personalities, self-care has morphed into a trendy aesthetic: a variety of the performative vulnerability that is so often rewarded on Instagram. Crying selfies, face masks, hydration, and unapologetically cancelling plans in favour of staying in bed are all #selfcare.

I don’t want to suggest that white privilege precludes the need for self-care or that selfies, face masks and napping are not legitimate tools of self-care. At its heart, self-care is about making a more loving world by starting with self-love and that is a worthy message for everyone. But as is its nature, social media has both contributed to the propagation of a positive idea and blunted its critical edge. Self-care contains an implied critique of the capitalist imperative of productivity, but it has been easily subverted to sell Band-Aid solutions for the symptoms of burn-out without addressing their root causes. It is a way to market everything from $5 face masks at the drugstore to expensive yoga retreats in Costa Rica.  Self-care is no longer about surviving and thriving despite capitalism, it is about maximizing one’s use of capitalism by maintaining productive functionality. And that is problematic for so many reasons.

Like a lot of millennials, I’m an overworked non-profit employee doing creative work on the side, but I’m also healthy, childless, dog-less and have a 15 minute commute to work. I have no reason to be as tired as I am, but maintaining an exercise routine to keep myself energized and relaxed, meal planning and packing lunch every night to stay healthy and on budget, tidying clutter to keep a pleasant space to come home to, pursuing hobbies for the satisfaction of making something, keeping a journal for mental clarity, etc., etc. is too much to fit in alongside a full-time job and basic domestic chores, let alone real leisure. When I inevitably fail to keep up with my checklist of self-care because I’ve been actually resting I get… stressed out! I’m driven by the feeling that if I don’t keep up on all these good habits, things will be much worse down the road. I’ll turn into one big knotted muscle or something. Worst of all, my time and energy for more fulfilling creative work dwindles as it is repeatedly postponed to the end of the night, and then the next day and the next.

Consumerist self-care is marketed at women (it meshes well with existing gendered complexes that marketing capitalizes on, such as body image) and women have been at the forefront of espousing self-care in all its varieties. There’s good reason for this. Women have historically been care givers, and that legacy continues to inform the expectations placed on women by themselves and others. Self-care can be an antidote to the toll of all that other-care. Real self-care as it was originally conceived is not pretty or cute. It can look like taking medication, or setting boundaries in relationships, or making genuinely difficult and rewarding life changes. But it is always work and the mainstreaming of #selfcare obscures the work and the mess and conflict that come when people who are routinely and systematically expected to care for or accommodate others center their own needs in a meaningful way.

As self-care eats into my leisure hours, becoming a source of pressure itself, I wonder if #selfcare is just another way that women are pressured to have it all, and be it all. As delayed (or foregone) parenthood, house ownership and career stability are increasingly accepted parts of millennial adulthood, perhaps the balanced lifestyle promised by self-care is just a new form of unrealistic feminine perfection that conveniently keeps us busy and keeps us buying.

In comparison “Treat yo’self”, a motto popularized by characters on Parks and Recreation, so transparently invites indulgence and consumption that it resists the same insidious subversion of message.  If not taken in moderation, “Treat yo’self” may lead to debt before balance but at least it promotes a self-love based on giving yourself permission to enjoy life, rather on grimly doing things for your own good.


IMG_20180718_115103_621Elisabeth Hill is an Edmonton-based writer and researcher who currently works as a Programming and Engagement Coordinator at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

Let’s file this under the category of “advice I didn’t follow in grad school, but should have.”

There are a lot of think-pieces surfacing these days on the mental health cost of being an academic, and rightfully so. The rise of neo-liberalism in academic institutions has put unseen pressures on academics, provided them with less job security, and has destroyed anything remotely resembling a work-life balance. Many academics have either left their disciplines to work in the private sector or have cobbled together an income from temporary contracts, accepting that they will never have steady, long-term employment at a University, despite decades of training.

But mental illnesses are only one physical ailment on the rise in academics. There are other considerations that are not mentioned as often which can dramatically affect the health and well-being of graduate students and scholars, and can exacerbate existing conditions, including mental illnesses. Below I will take you through some of these issues and some suggestions I wish I had endeavoured to take seriously while completing my graduate studies.

  1. Sedentary Lifestyle: Sitting in front of a computer or texts day after day takes a toll on the body that is difficult to measure. Being sedentary for most of the day can exacerbate mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, and they also increase your risk for cardiovascular diseases. The sedentary lifestyle that accompanies graduate studies and an academic career is tough to deal with as it seems to just “come with the territory,” and very real efforts need to be put into combating the “sitting syndrome”. Standing desks might help break up the routine, or keeping an exercise ball in one’s office to replace your chair once and awhile can help keep you active, even when you have to work. You should also periodically take brisk walks, even if it is just around your department. The movement is good for you and it will help refresh your mind so you can come back to your work with new insights and ideas.
  2. Obesity: Related to the sedentary lifestyle is the risk of becoming obese which is dramatically increased in academics because of poor food choices and a lack of physical activity. A lot of people notice significant weight gain during their degrees and depending on the length of one’s program this can have significant long-term health effects, if not properly addressed. Keep active and pack a health lunch with snacks and plenty of water daily to combat this risk.
  3. Heart Disease: Interrelated to all of this is the risk of heart disease which can be exacerbated by inactivity, poor nutrition and/or obesity. The excessive stress that comes with an academic lifestyle, particularly the pressures to teach, publish and research simultaneously can contribute to factors which lead to cardiovascular disease.
  4. Diabetes: Graduate students especially are known for making poor nutritional choices, especially eating foods that are full of sugar and simple carbohydrates. The sugar boost that people get from consuming these foods results in a burst of energy to help people push themselves harder in their work, but the subsequent blood sugar crash might render your brain useless in a very short amount of time. Over time, these poor eating habits lessen your cell’s receptivity to insulin and blood sugar, leading to diseases like metabolic syndrome and even diabetes. Opt for whole foods as much as possible and limit overtly sugary foods.
  5. Exhaustion: There are no surprises here. Academics and graduate students are the chronically sleep-deprived. There always seems to be one more sentence to write, another article to edit, or another book to read. And without set working hours, it can be difficult to set personal limits, especially when someone is very emotionally invested in their work. Do what you need to do to get to sleep at a reasonable hour on a regular basis. Being exhausted puts you at risk for a host of issues, including exacerbating existing conditions like anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease and so forth.

These are only a few conditions which can physically manifest when working as an academic or a grad student. And even though it can get annoying to have every single person you know is telling you to rest, take it easy, and take care of yourself: you really need to take that seriously and put your health first. Your work cannot be accomplished if you are ill, and it certainly won’t get done if you are dead. If you won’t do it for yourself, recognize that the world needs you and your work too.

Take care,

Nakita


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Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

 

Melissa Raimondi is the raw vegan guru behind Raw Food Romance. Recently, she joined The Drawing Board’s owner and editor-in-chief, Nakita Valerio, to talk about her life as an online lifestyle coach and raw vegan spokesperson. Her spectacular personal transformation and her magnetic personality have been drawing people to raw food lifestyles by the thousands and we are delighted that she took the time to share her journey with us!

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Fast Facts:

Favourite Fruit Right Now: Pineapple!

Powerful Woman You’re Feeling Right Now: I have always however resonated with great women like Rosa Parks for standing up for what they believe in. Anyone who stands up for the rights of those oppressed has my respect.

Women Who Inspire You Professionally: Kristina Carrillo-Bucaram from FullyRaw Kristina, Emily from Bite Size Vegan and Alyse from Raw Alignment. I love seeing how they have built such large platforms and admire what they are doing with their social media.

Can you tell us about yourself and your role with Raw Food Romance(RFR)? What are you trying to accomplish with it?

I am pretty much the face of Raw Food Romance: it is my own personal journey with raw foods and how that has changed my life. I have been a raw vegan for just over 2 years and have known about the lifestyle for well over a decade. RFR is here to bring awareness to health and animal cruelty and is about moving towards a healthier diet not only for the human body, but the planet. By creating delicious raw vegan recipes, people are not only helping their health, but in turn, helping to lessen their impact on the environment. They also learn about being more compassionate towards the animals we exploit every day. My goal is to show people that it is healthy and possible to live this lifestyle, and you don’t have to be a hippy to be vegan. Everyone can do it!

What sets your raw vegan approach apart from what others are doing?

I am what is called a “low-fat, high-carb raw vegan”. Most raw vegan food is very high fat and gourmet, to appease the tastes of the general public, but since fat can be a problem, I have come up with recipes that are both low-fat and really tasty. I have so many people saying that my recipes have helped them stick to a healthier diet because they are so flavourful. I have also been told that my approach targets many psychological issues regarding why we eat what we eat and problems surrounding food addictions. There is not a lot talk about mind tricks or different ways of thinking when it comes to changing your lifestyle. Everyone seems to say “just use willpower” when they want to change, but it’s so much more complicated than that. Low-fat, high-card vegan foods help address some of those complications.

What are some of your proudest moments with RFR thus far?

  • Watching my YouTube channel grow quickly

  • Releasing a very successful raw food meal plan recipe book

  • Being on local television twice so far promoting the lifestyle

  • Being asked to be part of the Vegan World Summit along with other great people in the industry that I have always looked up to

  • I would say I am the most proud when I see people change, lose weight and make more compassionate choices. If, on the videos I make, I get even one comment saying that I have influenced someone to make better choices I feel motivated and proud to do what I do every day!

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What inspired you to share your lifestyle with others?

I have always wanted to share health and have been in the natural health industry for well over a decade helping others to make better choices. Once I had the raw vegan connection and passion to promote peace between species, I had to share it with the world. I feel like I am making up for 34 years of eating animal products by helping others to release them. I felt crappy and I know how it feels to have sore joints, be tired all the time and struggle with weight. I want to share that with anyone that will listen! I am also a creative and love to create new recipes, so sharing that has been amazing for me as well.

Do you have any advice for other women looking to build their businesses online?

Post daily! Especially on YouTube if you want to have more of a presence there. Rotate posts, keep them interesting and maintain a good variety. Provide information, motivation and something of value that people can use every day. A lot of people will start a page with lots of enthusiasm, but then they don’t do anything with their businesses and after a while, they lose steam. We are saturated by so many ads and bombarded by commercials so much that you need to be on top of things if you want to stay relevant. Find out what gets the most views and hits and do more of that in between the stuff that you are passionate about but doesn’t get as many views. This way the people that see the most popular stuff also have a chance to see the smaller stuff that doesn’t get a lot of airplay because maybe the subject is controversial or touches an emotional trigger in most individuals. Stay positive and try not to be too pushy with your products. When you are the face of your company, people want to see you and what you are doing in your life. Bombarding with advertising will harm them and you: its about a nice mix of inspiration, fun, and promotion in balance. 

What are some of the most rewarding aspects of your work?

By far knowing that I am helping to lessen the cruelty towards other species on this planet and helping to lessen the burden on our resources. It’s also incredibly rewarding to see people blossom and heal eating real foods. I love to hear comments about how I have inspired them to eat better, even if it is just a little bit. Creating new recipes and having people enjoy them is also extremely rewarding. 

What are some of the most challenging aspects?

In short, dealing with haters and trolls: the “mmmm bacon” crowd and people telling me that it’s unhealthy to eat a vegan or raw vegan diet. Being an online personality is also hard because you can’t please everyone. Most people are completely unaware of the science behind veganism and why it’s so important that we make a shift towards a more plant based diet. It can be hard to be in my shoes because I am up against the grain of mainstream society that can parrot the same old health information over and over again, even when new information is regularly released!

Does technology factor into what you do?

Very much so. I can do my business from all over the world. Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Youtube are my platforms and I can do everything from my phone as long as I have enough data and a decent internet connection. Without technology it would be very difficult to reach a worldwide audience. I am grateful that I can and that the technology exists for me to share what I know.

What do you like to do in your personal time?

Working on more raw food recipes! I also love photography and do a lot of that, as well as watching some of my favourite TV shows or walking/hiking in the river valley. I enjoy art and though I have less and less time, I still indulge in pencil work, acrylic paintings and watercolours. I also love learning other languages and traveling. 

What is something not a lot of people know about you?

Before I became a fully raw vegan 2 years ago, I was dealing with an addiction to alcohol. I’m blessed that I found the strength to follow through with my lifestyle change and become sober. I’m also somewhat of a nerd – I mostly love Star Trek and the utopian society imagined by Gene Roddenberry of peace, and the pursuit of human development, teamwork, morals, ethics, knowledge, and exploration without needing jobs, money and the mundane grind of today’s life that is damaging our planet and ourselves. 

If you have one take-home message for readers out there, what would it be?

We don’t do the things that we should be doing TODAY. We put so many goal-oriented activities off until tomorrow while we spend today doing frivolous things. We should trade spots. We should say “tomorrow I will do the frivolous thing, but today I will work on my goals” because tomorrow might never come. When we keep putting our goals off until tomorrow, they never become fruitful. If we put off the frivolous stuff “until tomorrow”, maybe our goals with be fulfilled instead!