WRITTEN BY JENNIFER ST JOHN
I turn the key in the charming wooden door of my studio. Even this small action puts a smile on my face. Opening this door makes me feel alive! Alive in a way I haven’t felt in a long time. The ink on the lease agreement is only a month old but things are really coming along nicely. A small renovation refreshed the space and transformed the six hundred square feet into a working studio and office space. Sunlight streams through the large glass windows at the front of the street level building: for an artisan, it’s the kind of natural light you fall in love with.
I say ‘Hi Mom and Dad’ as I pass an oversized wall hung picture of my parents. Clearly taken in the seventies - they are young, Mom is laughing, and my Dad has his tongue stuck out. I love this picture of them. With this space, I am in the next phase of launching my business, “Marnie & Michael”, an artisan shop meets mental health initiative. My Mom was undiagnosed and untreated with mental illness until her early fifties. She became a Mother at seventeen-years old, so our entire life has been affected by her mental health struggles. This is my way of ‘paying it forward’.
This isn’t my first rodeo as a business owner, but it is an entirely different experience with two children in tow (one of whom has higher-than-average needs), and a husband who’s barely around due to his work schedule. I have a very strong desire to have an identity outside of my wife/partner/mother roles and I know I have to find a way to make this work. And if it’s not too much to ask for, having time for a little selfcare would be nice too!
I was artistic from a young age and was always a strong student. Mom had drilled into my head that College was the way to go – get an actual skill so you can be employable. I did a three-year Interior Design program and then I was spit out into the world and started at the bottom. I worked my ass off at a great commercial design firm and didn’t heed the warnings of wiser co-workers when it was suggested I make sure I didn’t burn out. Which, of course, I did…
With my interest in film making and my design background, I secured two internships at a local film and television production company. One in the art department and one as a Producer Assistant. I fell in love with the business side of Producing and was soon starting my own film and television company with my business partner, Erin. Over the next several years, we produced projects for both regional and national broadcasters, successfully raising and managing six figure budgets and distributing content around the world.
I did all of this while trying to manage my relationship with my Mom. Our childhood was especially chaotic and traumatic, leaving my sisters and I with a large weight to carry from a young age. The mania consuming Mom resulted in drastic highs and lows. All anyone saw were her unhealthy coping mechanisms with drugs, alcohol and reckless relationships. We grew up surrounded by shame and secrecy, never being able to fully share the reality of our situation with anyone. My Dad tried to hang on with love and babies, but it slipped through his fingers. He would continue to try and reconcile with her for the rest of our childhood, at times successful but always short lived.
Before I left home, we had eighteen different addresses and I attended eight different schools in two different countries. Nothing felt constant or stable in our lives. In her unhealthy state, Mom was very good at getting us involved in fighting her battles and always made sure we took her side. This usually meant coercing us to turn on someone we loved, like our Father, my older sister or a family member. I honed an intense ‘flight or fight’ instinct, learned the art of fierce independence, took myself very seriously, and constantly sought peoples’ approval, all while never fully trusting anyone completely.
In adulthood, it felt like my relationship with Mom was always in ‘push-and-pull’ mode. She would go from leaving me crying, feeling like shit to then filling me with love. When I was twenty years old, while driving intoxicated she was in a car accident and ended up breaking her neck. As usual, she wasn’t charged, which was infuriating and dangerous as her behaviours grew in audacity and frequency. My oldest sister was pregnant and spent the three-hour drive to the hospital preparing herself to potentially deal with family members of someone Mom had injured or killed. During her recovery, Mom asked me through tears how it was possible that my sisters and I were still by her side? This was the closest she ever came to taking responsibility for the trauma and abuse we experienced growing up. I had great hopes this was her ‘rock bottom’ but I was wrong.
I went to Al-Anon and began to process things. The first thing I did was rebuild my relationship with my Dad, and my oldest sister. It took time, over many conversations and with much courage, love and forgiveness, but we got there. Slowly, grandchildren were becoming a part of the greater picture and as things with Mom continued to not get better, some of my sisters became fearful of history repeating itself. Out of desperation, we all started to set healthy boundaries. Some of us went small, for example, visits with grandchildren had to be with them present. And some of us went big. I stopped all communication with Mom for almost two years.
I really felt like I had no other choice – it was either her or me. It had to be done out of self-preservation. I had stopped counting the number of times we had begged her to get help. As young as six, seven, or eight years old, we would gather together and ask her to get better. We didn’t know what ‘better’ meant, but we knew we wanted our lives to be different. Now as adults, most of us had finally gained enough strength to put ourselves first and say ‘Enough’.
During these years apart, Mom was properly diagnosed with Bi-Polar, OCD, PTSD and adult ADHD. With therapy, she moved from being a victim of childhood trauma herself to becoming a survivor. It was her tallest mountain to climb, but the one I’m most proud of. When I saw Mom almost two years later at my Uncle’s funeral, I barely recognized her. I was blown away at her transformation and it became the bridge for us to start to heal our relationship. We both had grown to learn to forgive people who were never going to say sorry. By her taking responsibility for her mental health, she was becoming the person she had always wanted to be. And the kind of Grandmother her grandchildren would never have to ‘recover’ from. Mom and Dad reconciled again, and this time, decades later, for good.
When I was thirty-three years old, we had our first child, our son Lawson. Even though Canada has maternity leave subsidies, as a business owner, I knew I wouldn’t be able to take much time off. It wasn’t realistic. We were in production and had a film crew shooting for a documentary project. I was signing cheques for payroll while breast feeding Lawson at one week old. I was feeling great though and was so excited to start the parenting/business juggle.
When he was eight weeks old, I went back to work part time and continued to teach part time. Our Producing fees were set by a strict formula of percentages of the budget. And budgets seemed to be getting smaller and smaller, even though it took the same teams and services to pull them off as it had five years prior. As owners of each film, the idea was to offset our low production fees with international sales across multiple platforms. Enter 2008/2009, combined with the advent of digital content and dwindling financing options available, and this business model was breaking - fast. To me it was starting to feel more like a glorified hobby and when you can’t pay your daycare bill with your income, I knew something had to give.
To add to all of this, Lawson was twelve months old and still not sleeping solidly. My cognitive abilities were not the same and I felt like the walking dead – I wasn’t myself and was not on-top of everything I needed to be.
In our desperation we hired a ‘Sleep Expert’ to come wave a magic wand and tell us what we were doing wrong! But the damn wand didn’t work.
Now thirty-six and pregnant with our second child, we still had the distribution phase of our last project to contend with. Even after a big push in the US to dozens of independent theatres, international sales were a ‘no go’. We were hanging on by our fingernails at this point and had to close our doors. We were so disappointed that we couldn’t find a way to make things work. It felt like the end of an era for us.
My pregnancy with Nora was tough. If I thought I was tired before, I now entered a level of tiredness I didn’t know existed. I really felt alone on the parenting front with Murray gone for work all the time. The last thing I wanted to do was add something to my plate right now, but I had noticed Lawson was struggling. Transitions of any kind were stressful for him and he wasn’t meeting some social milestones. He had the ability to focus on one thing for an extended period of time to his detriment. Emotionally, he was very sensitive, often times afraid of his own shadow. And it broke my heart every time he had to be pulled out of my arms at daycare drop offs. He spent a lot of time under tables, as most environments felt too loud and were filled with too many people for him.
One night, at swimming lessons, he escalated from “Mom, I don’t want to swim anymore”, to having a meltdown, to uncontrollably sobbing, to then shockingly punching me in the head several times as I tried to move him through the packed lobby. You could hear a pin drop. I knew I had to stay calm and diffuse the situation. But I also knew my heart just broke into tiny pieces and I was absolutely not going to live like this. We immediately made steps to have him formally assessed.
The official diagnosis became Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), specifically Asperger’s exceptionality. Every child with this is different, which means every treatment plan is different. And just when you feel like you’ve figured it all out, everything changes. He gets older, or there’s a change in the environment, or puberty starts, or the wind blows in a different direction – you name it, it changes. I felt like we finally had a road map and I could work with that – I mean, at least it gave us a direction. I immersed myself in books, websites, online support groups, local resources – anything I could get my hands on. I was constantly reading, learning, researching.
Through all of this, Mom was one of my biggest lifelines. Her and Dad now lived just down the road from us and there weren’t many days a connection wasn’t made. On top of that, she was amazing with Lawson and he adored her. She really had the patience and love to be fully in the moment with him. As he grew, he looked very forward to his “Grandma days”. And when Nora came along, Mom was right by my side again. She basked in her Grandma role and fully enjoyed all her grandchildren. She was the healthiest she had ever been – mentally, emotionally and physically, even entering half marathon walks. She was really living her best life – full of mindfulness, love and joy.
Finding a school for Lawson had proved difficult until I found a new start up in our area. The school was small, and very much about each individual student - academically, physically and emotionally. For children on the Autism Spectrum, school is such a big part of the puzzle and we felt like we were off to the races having found this match made in heaven!
I’ve always said, ‘Sleep equals sanity’. And I was starting to feel sane again! Lawson was now taking a sleep aid and I was getting more stretches of solid rest. I was really feeling like myself again. And I was even finding time for some selfcare. I started to run and moved from ten-kilometre lengths to half-marathons, and I was back at the gym doing weight training too. It had been years since I felt this good.
With Lawson settled into school and Nora doing her combo daycare/Grandma days, it felt like I could finally take some time to spread my wings again. I knew I would be a business owner again, but I just didn’t know what that was going to look like. I realized I wanted to work with my hands and create a viable creative business, so I leaned on my background to design patterns for a line of handmade leather bags. I taught myself how to hand stitch leather through YouTube videos and created several prototypes. The feedback was very positive, so I started working with a local company who provided one-on-one business development plans for artisans. We met weekly for comprehensive three-hour sessions and I really embraced this development phase of my new venture.
I don’t know how to describe this next phase in our lives. Maybe ‘detonation’? Sometimes words can’t fully surmise the shift that happens and losing three close family members in less than a year is one of those times.
Mom, Dad and one of my Aunt Terry all passed away.
Mom was given a terminal cancer diagnosis in May and we were told we might have four to six months. We actually had ten weeks. I poured my heart out to her in letters which she read over and over, and on the night before she finally slipped into the last stages of dying, when she could no longer read, she just held them. I was so angry she wasn’t getting more time. Why?? She had worked so God damn hard to dig herself out of a gigantic hole and now this?
We all just wrapped our arms around each-other, including my Dad. We inched our way through the ‘year of firsts’ after Mom passed away, going through all the ups and downs grief takes you on. Less than ten months after saying goodbye to the love of his life, my Dad literally died from a broken heart. Holding his hand in the hospital as he coded multiple times, he whispered ‘I’m sorry’.
We had lost family members in the past, but this was different. And I wasn’t just dealing with my own grief this time. My entire extended family were slowly putting things back together too. And Lawson and Nora were just devastated. Afraid and in pain, they slept with Murray and I for months, crying themselves to sleep. Their childhood innocence was gone – replaced with the knowledge that everyone they knew was going to die at some point.
With the one-year anniversary of losing Dad upon us, we decided to move closer to immediate family again. Now more than ever, family was at the top of our list. We knew it was a big change, especially for Lawson and Nora, but I strongly felt the pros outweighed the cons. After a lot of research on the schools in our new area, we settled on a house. We wanted to ensure the new school would have supports available to help Lawson navigate. Nora was as social as ever and ready to take on life at any moment! She was so looking forward to having a larger friend circle.
Business-wise, I was struggling to get traction. I had been inching along but wasn’t ready to fully put up my ‘OPEN’ sign yet. There was a lot of fear there. Was I going to have the time? Was I going to have the energy? Was I ready? What other personal setbacks were going to disrupt things again? Some of my friends couldn’t understand what was taking me so long, and I was beginning to wonder if I could really do it myself, if I was being realistic, if I was being too selfish….
I decided to make this move a fresh start. I needed to push myself forward, so after we all settled into the house and the kids started school, I went after an opening in a shared studio space. After applying and interviewing, I was accepted and absolutely elated. I was so excited to be working with a group of creative professionals again and craved this environment and the feedback of likeminded individuals. I also found a great yoga studio nearby and moved selfcare back towards the top of my list. Nora was flourishing and considering what a big change this was, Lawson was doing really well too. Murray and I were pinching ourselves.
And then the wheels fell off again.
Things slowly began to crumble for Lawson. His sensory reactions were really high again, socially he went from playing with friends at recess to pacing by himself on the yard, to then hiding under the steps of the portable counting down the seconds until he could go back into his classroom. Scared all the time, he was now hyperventilating and having full-on panic attacks.
We had already experienced so much with Lawson but seeing him gripped with fear to the point of not being able to breathe or move was an entirely new level of anxiety. It was so distressing for the whole family and challenging for Nora’s seven-year old heart and head to absorb. After some emergency appointments, he was diagnosed further with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) and once again, everything was different.
Here I was yet again, in a situation that was out of my control and there was no way around it. I definitely had a little pity-party for myself the day I pulled out of the shared artisan space. There was just no way I was going to be able to fit that into my life right now. The journey back to ‘normal’ (whatever that was going to look like….) was going to take months or years. We were being prepared by Lawson’s team of professionals for this to be a long road. And I felt like I was always the one bending, always the one taking a step back and putting myself last. There were definitely days I wanted to scream, ‘Why me?’
And then I did what I always do. I dove in and researched and listened and read and talked to whoever I could talk to. I found a local therapist who Lawson saw several times a week, medication was started, doctor appointments were set routinely for check ins. The dance between triggers, pushing himself, and coping began. He slowly began to leave his room, then leave the house, then get in the car, then get out of the car at school and then finally go through the front doors. All simple tasks we had taken for granted before.
I was running purely on adrenaline. The weight of our day-to-day lives felt enormous to me. This included making sure Nora’s needs were still being met and she was thriving; this included trying to have a strong and connected marriage when both Murray and I had zero time or energy left at the end of each day or week (divorce rates for parents of high needs children is above the National average); this included surrounding ourselves with caring and understanding friends and family who didn’t make us feel like shit when plans changed last minute, or when visits were cut short or we couldn’t join certain events because of sensory issues (too loud, too many people, the waitress is wearing too much metal jewelry, etc.) or there were too many panic attacks that day.
Or for the simple fact that some days you have to pick your battles.
At one of his Occupational Therapy appointments, I had to continually pull his grip from around my neck for over ten minutes as he tried to stay close and not let me go. Almost out the door, I looked down at him lying on the ground, hands now wrapped around my ankles for dear life, tears streaming down his face. “Please don’t leave me,” he sobbed. He was in full on ‘flight mode’.
“Are you okay?”, the therapist kept asking me. ‘Am I okay?”, I asked myself.
This scene felt surreal yet so familiar. I realized he had been in this same position since he was a toddler, always seeking my anchoring touch, my endless love and my constant encouragement. The strength it took on all levels – physical, mental and emotional – this WAS my normal. I will always dig as deep as I have to for him. And this is his normal too. He has already done more work to learn how to be in this world than most adults I know! As a friend of mine said recently, ‘You may see us struggle, but you will never see us quit!
Once the acute stages of SAD were behind us, I started to notice some spaces for rent in our little town. “Why not open a studio here?” I thought. Rent was very reasonable and there was a space available within walking distance to the school, minutes from home, and close to all of the specialists. Murray completely supported me and after seeing a space, we jumped on it.
I had struggled with a name for my new company for a while, but with all our recent life events, it became very clear to me. When you lose a loved one, one of the first things you notice is over time, people stop saying their names out loud. “Marnie and Michael” was perfect and now I get to say my parents’ names every day.
Things have come a long way from when I was a ten-year old kid asking when my Mom was coming home ‘so I could feel loved’. Mental health is still a hard concept for many people to be comfortable with. Although things have changed since I was a child, they still have a very long way to go. With our mental health initiative, we’re providing a place where people with this common experience can honestly and openly share their written stories of loving a family member with a mental health challenge.
It took many, many, many years, but I do feel my Mom and I came to a very loving and respectful place in the last decade of her life. And I’m forever grateful that my children only ever knew her joy. My Mom had always wanted to be a writer and to honour this wish and her, I’ve curated a collection of our journal entries and letters to one another into a project entitled ‘Be Kind, Love Hard, Make Memories: A Guided Journal Meets Mini Memoir’. I hope this little story of ours assists others in their experience - one of survival, coping and, most importantly, healing.
‘Marnie and Michael’ finally came together when I realized I had to make my business work for my life, not my life work for my business. This venture is different, because I’m different and my life is different. My definition of success has changed too. One day soon, success will mean having a team hired, multiple bag lines launched, and product selling across the country! But most days right now, success is getting Lawson to school past first recess. Or getting into the studio for five hours. Or fitting in a yoga class and a run.
You learn a lot about yourself over time, especially during the harder spots. You know the big ‘R’ word everyone likes to throw around these days, resilience? Well its earned baby. You’re not born with it. And no one’s coming to save the day for you – go figure out how to be your own bloody hero!