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.

Content Warning: Discussion of Psychological Abuse, gaslighting, terms such as crazy

With November being Family Violence Prevention month, I want to talk about a form of emotional abuse that is perhaps more insidious than physical violence: gaslighting. As a specific form of emotional manipulation, gaslighting causes one to call in to question one’s own sanity. A partner purposefully (or sometimes non purposefully, through psychological defense mechanisms) attempts to exert control on the other by making them psychologically unstable.

This makes the gaslit partner have to rely on the other while they contemplate their sanity. Gaslighting makes you feel as though you are going crazy and, even deeper, like you’ve lost yourself. You begin to doubt everything that makes up who you are – your beliefs, your values, your worth, your reality. And when that happens, what are you left with? In some ways, you feel like an empty shell of your former self.

“He told me that I was the reason he was depressed and angry all of the time. He said that to me whenever I got angry about something he had done, or a poor choice he had made for the family. And it’s not like I acted bad when I was angry, I just wanted to talk it out.  It got to the point where I couldn’t let myself show my anger anymore, because somewhere along the line I started to believe that my anger was the problem, and not his behavior that led up to that. It’s actually funny to think that I believed my angry reaction was the problem, and not the fact that he stayed out all night with friends and got fired from work. But this whole thing had me going to different psychologists and counsellors for years, trying to get help for my “anger management” issue. Everything that went on in the relationship, we both started to blame on my anger. It took a long time for me to figure out that I wasn’t the problem”.

If you find yourself in this situation, the first step is to recognize that you are gaslit, and how drained you have become. This can be extremely difficult, since one of the very side effects is believing you are the source of the problem. However, some clear signs you are being gaslit in a close relationship are:

  • constantly second-guessing yourself and your choices,
  • having trouble making decisions,
  • frequently asking yourself, “Am I too sensitive?,” and
  • making excuses for a partner’s behaviors to family or friends.

The next step is to ensure your safety in whatever way you can. If you are physically safe, the next steps in this process involves discovering yourself again, filling your “empty shell” once more. Here are small ways that can begin the process of rediscovering yourself:

Write down what you value. What do you value? Family? Spirituality? Respect? Write down your top ten and rank them from most valued to least. Then, think about ways you use these values in your life with others.

Write/type a paragraph on all the roles that you have. Ask yourself “who am I to others?” Perhaps you are a parent, aunt, cousin, friend, grandfather, teacher, etc. List them.

Carve out time to reflect on your own unique qualities. What makes you stand out from the others? Is it a quirky personality? A sarcastic sense of humor? Reflect on these positive qualities

Explore your character traits. The VIA character strengths can help you figure out your top character traits. This positive psychology tool provides you with a list of your top character strengths. Read the list and reflect on the traits. Do they accurately capture you?

Write a list of your qualities, beliefs, and values that guide how you treat others. Ask yourself based on your values, roles, qualities, and character strengths, which of these guides how you treat other human beings?  Then reflect on if you are being treated in the way that is important to you.

Validate yourself. Emotions are normal human experiences. The brain creates these emotions for good reasons – we can’t control our initial emotional reaction. (We can, however, start to control the way we behave when we feel emotions intensely). It is important to remind yourself that all of your emotions are okay to feel.

Check in mindfully on a daily basis.

Take time out of your day to do a brief mindful exercise.

S – Stop

T – Take a moment and take a breath

O – Observe what is happening in each of your 5 senses. What are you seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting? Observe what is happening internally. Non-judgmentally ask yourself “What am I thinking? What am I feeling? What body sensations am I experiencing?” Just notice these things and move on.

P – Proceed

Take it from a survivor, it can take time to understand that you are not the problem. Like fuel to a flame, gaslighting can leave you feeling as though you’ve exploded into pieces of your former self. It’s time to collect those pieces and bring them back into wholeness once more.


20181009_113447Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.

Writing can take on many forms and do many things for people. It can be a fascinating or soothing hobby, a career, a passion, a job. But writing can have a more important role. Writing can be a coping strategy that can assist in stress relief, can increase feelings of positivity, can help manage anxiety, and can help to process trauma. Writing can be a form of therapy. Writing may do this in the following ways:

  1. It can help you honor yourself and your life story.

Vocalizing your story can be hard. Putting words to your pain can be excruciating. Putting your inner words and dialogue onto paper can be an effective alternative to speaking your story out loud. Moreover, it can provide emotional release and can validate your experience.

  1. It provides a way to share your story with others.

Some stories are traumatic. Some stories are hopeful. Some stories are either, or and both.  Sharing your story for others to read can provide normalization to others – that is, it can let others know that other people share similar pain. This, in turn, can provide positive benefits for the writer. Writing can provide a loud voice in order to share experiences.

  1. Writing can let unconscious material become conscious.

Writing out a traumatic event can help process trauma with the help of a professional therapist. Often we cope with stressful or traumatic things by compartmentalizing. It is as if our brain contains different compartments in which we can put different memories and emotions in an attempt to store them away for later.  Some memories and emotions can end up in our unconscious. Writing whatever flows out of your mind, called free association, is a way to tap into what may be stored within the unconscious mind.

  1. Writing has a calming effect on the brain.

Writing, particularly by hand, stimulates the same areas of the brain that meditation does. It engages the brain’s motor areas and memory pathways, and forces the mind to slow down while the hand catches up. This has the potential to allow more space for learning and memory integration.

Moreover, writing in cursive has further benefits. Handwriting is rhythmic and provides sensory soothing to the brain, which can decrease a negative emotional experience. It integrates sensation, movement control, cognition, and causes a calming slow-down effect.

  1. Writing can inspire hope.

Writing your future story can instill hope, create soothing imagery within your mind, and produce calm. It can also help you to set goals and perhaps start to plan a way to work towards the goals.

  1. It can help heal pain from relationships.

Writing apology and forgiveness letters can help right wrongs. Further, penning undelivered letters to those who have hurt us can assist with healing the hurt without ever having to make contact with that person.

There are many ways that you can write. Here are some practical suggestions:

  • Get a notebook and start a journal.
  • Create a blog and type out your story.
  • Write letters to your future or past self.

Remember, you are the author of your life-book. Every day can be a blank page on which to record, explore, hope, uplift, remember, and design. Writing regularly can restore, rebuild, and heal.


20181009_113447Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.

Trauma is used both to describe distressing events and the human reaction that occurs afterward. It is not simply one singular horrific event in time. It is a series of outcomes that affect every part of one’s being. Reasons for trauma can be large – Holocaust, wars, Residential Schools, internment camps. Trauma can also result from “smaller” experiences – the death of a loved one, a rejection from a friend, a breakup, a car accident. How someone reacts to such events are individual – and the physical, emotional, and spiritual reactions are not usually within our control.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a collection of symptoms that one may develop after a distressing event(s). These symptoms include: re-experiencing the event, avoiding reminders of the event, negative thoughts or feelings, and hyper-arousal. PTSD is a formal diagnosis for intense emotional pain. But what is it like to really live with the effects of trauma, big or small?

“PTSD is a whole-body tragedy, an integral human event of enormous proportions with massive repercussions.”  ― Susan Pease Banitt

I have heard the following from survivors, paraphrased in my own word:. living with trauma is like not living your own life, like not being in your own body; a sense of floating; a sense of complete numbness;  a feeling as though your body is always on alert, as if it will never truly relax. The body is constantly in flight or fight mode, something that one gets very used to living with. Life becomes sped up, or slowed right down, as if walking through sludge. It becomes an existence colored by the quickness and vulnerability of life, and the reality and permanence of death, sometimes leading to the question of “what’s the point?” asked over and over again. Guilt comes easily, trust becomes impossible. One turns to drugs or alcohol to try and numb it all out, or to try to feel outside of the numbness. A life is truly changed.

But what happens when you experience these symptoms, but you are not aware of any traumatic events that have happened to you? Because trauma gets inherited in more ways than one, you may look beyond your past, and to your parent’s pasts, and even to the lives of your grandparents.

The well-known form of passing trauma on is through the way we are parented. The way we are parented as children can form the basis for what we are like as adults. If our parents experienced trauma and are living with symptoms like those listed above, it may affect one’s ability to be fully present as a parent. Moreover, if our trauma is directly from our parents, then we are likely to use the same harsh parenting style on our own children.

But here is the fascinating part. We can also pass on our trauma through our genes, not only our behaviours. Relatively new discoveries in the world of genetics have created a new field of study called Epigenetics. This is the study of the mechanisms that switch our genes on or off, or even alter genes completely without changes being made to our underlying DNA sequence. There are triggers in our environment that will determine if that pesky allergy gene we inherited from Dad will actually be expressed, or if that ability to be social and outgoing that we inherited from mom will be turned off. Backing up a generation or two, the genes that may have been altered in Mom or Dad, Grandma or Grandpa, due to their trauma, can be passed on to a developing fetus. Studies examining children of trauma survivors show that PTSD symptoms, such as nightmares, will manifest under stress, which is linked to inherited trauma through epigenetics.

A very relevant example of how we see this affect our society is in Residential School survivors. Many children today who have not been in Residential Schools, but have parents or grandparents who have attended these schools, are suffering from PTSD-like symptoms that have been inherited.

The good news is that epigenetic changes do not have to permanent. Remember, what you are exposed to in life, and how you design your children’s environment will affect if these genes are expressed or not. Moreover, trauma is overcome, through hard work, perseverance, and allowing trusted human beings to help us undo the responses that have occurred as a result of other human beings. We can heal our relational hurts relationally – in fact, there is some evidence this might be the best way. Everyday cycles can be broken, PTSD can be healed, family legacies can be changed, and genes can be switched. Compassion for this process is paramount.


20181009_113447Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.

What does radical self-love look like?

Sometimes it looks like moving your family across the world so you can finally write a memoir.

For people living with mental illnesses, the emphasis on self-love and some of its assumed performances can be alienating. For people who have C-PTSD or have grown up in dysfunctional homes of continuously traumatizing incidents, the term self-love can ring hollow. As one friend recently said, it simply doesn’t penetrate.

And that’s ok.

In the times when we are stuck in our own programming, even when we have the dual awareness to recognize we are stuck but we can’t do much about it, it is important to realize that putting one foot in front of the other, or even just longing to, is self-love.

It is not actively destructing.

It is still you in there.

For me, a big part of practicing self-love has been doing things for myself, even when I don’t feel the love: booking therapy appointments in advance (even when my brain is telling me it’s hopeless so why bother), booking home support like cleaning services (even when my brain is telling me I am worthless because I need help to do basic things), or any other steps (small and large) I might take towards helping myself continue to survive.

It is a common thing among folks living with mental illness that we can only feel in memory, never in the present moment. Our nervous systems have been trained expertly to shut down in the here and now as a protective mechanism.

And that’s ok.

That is your body loving yourself.

A big part of healing is in rolling one’s consciousness forward to now. In building one’s own safe spaces and then allowing one’s self to feel in those spaces. Even if little by little.

Radical self-love looks like such commitments to survival, even when your brain tells you that you do not want to survive. Radical self-love even looks like simply yearning to take these steps, even when your brain tells you that you cannot go on.

This is an act of radical self-love.

I am set to begin a sabbatical or leave of absence from my advocacy work with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC) on August 1st.   The community work I have set in motion will graciously be continued by my committee of dedicated directors and volunteers. This leave will entail me and my family moving to Morocco for six months to visit family and make space for the research and writing of a creative non-fiction memoir

About the project:

Why do you want to enter? Simon Levy asked me outside the entrance of the Casablanca Jewish Museum he founded and directed as of 1997. An armed Moroccan military officer stood close by, listening to our conversation. When I replied that I wanted to see the Moroccan Jewish artifacts inside, he seemed surprised, and gestured to the hijab covering my head. He said, it is not often that we have your people visiting the museum, before waving for me to follow him inside.

Five years later, I was sitting in Levy’s old office with the new museum director, Zhor Rehihil, who took over primary curatorship after Levy’s death. We were talking about my research project and dropping names of historians doing work on the departure of Jews from Morocco between 1948 and 1968. I was explaining my interest in the silences of its memory, particularly the anxieties brought on by the Holocaust and a host of other issues largely absent from both Jewish and Muslim memories.

The Holocaust had nothing to do with Morocco, she protested. I let her finish without agreeing or disagreeing, wrapping up our conversation with a promise to keep in touch and update her when my work was completed. As she was walking me out, she looked at my hijab and said, you know, that headscarf will make your research very difficult. Trust, in this field, is a complicated thing.

It was only in wading through the multivocal, emotionally-charged and often painful memories of the departure that I would come to recognize the truth of her observation and how my own work might come to be perceived because of my identities. I also came to notice patterns of belonging and rootlessness in my own story as a convert to Islam, living in a foreign country, descendant from immigrants and married to a man who also gave up his place of origin as a Mediterranean migrant.

The pursuit of homelands, both literally and figuratively, shape my experiences – both a physical and an internal migration echoed in the movement of the people I have studied and how the memory of their journeys is expressed.

What does it mean to search for home as a Muslim convert, wading through established communities? What does it mean to exist as a racialized Muslim woman in Canada, in an era of rising Islamophobia? What does it mean to immigrate to another land in pursuit of the familiar? For myself, my ancestors, my spouse?

Deeper than this, what does it mean to look for home as a wandering soul? I can hear the revolutionary chants of the Arab Spring protesters on the television my first time in Morocco: Jannah, jannah, jannah, Jannah al-wataniya. Paradise, paradise, paraside, Paradise the homeland. 

The project that I am working on is a creative non-fiction memoir, a true novel of sorts, that will braid together these stories of migration and homeland, combining my academic research with stories from my life and those close to me. I am unsure yet if the writing I am making space for will become a graphic novel script that I will commission an illustrator for, or it will remain a work of prose.

I am asking for support while I take some time off from my advocacy work to travel back to Morocco for visual research and to conduct additional interviews for the writing of this work. As I said, my sabbatical begins August 1st and will continue for 6 months. I hope to return to Canada with a complete first draft and have set up a mentorship relationship with a Professor of literature and writing to ensure I achieve this goal.

All I have to offer is my participation. All I am able to do is take each voice in the turbulence of remembering and listen to them equally. I cannot do this without your support.

To learn more about this act of radical self-love and this project, to support it and to access exclusive benefits that I am providing for my supporters, please visit my Patreon account: https://www.patreon.com/homeland/


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

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


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_n

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.