Archive for May 27, 2016

A Harmless Delusion

Backs of senior hikers with binoculars on tripI don’t know about you, but I’m always surprised when I see recent photos of myself. Who is that overweight older woman? It can’t be me …. but oh yes….it is. That’s my dress and that’s how I wear my hair. I didn’t realize I’d gained so much weight.

In my mind, I don’t age and neither do my friends. Those close to me remain, as I do, stuck forever in middle age. I’ve always known that other people age. I just didn’t think it would happen to me or to those close to me.

Recently I’ve been reading others’ memoirs about aging. As a result, I now realize that it’s common to deny one’s aging process. I’m not the only one who believed she was exempt from inevitable changes. Apparently, most people seem oblivious to their own aging until aching joints, glimpses of themselves in a store window or a photo bring home the truth.

Recently I had a revealing experience. I was waiting for a good friend in a restaurant. An hour passed and she still didn’t appear. I had notice2014-07-life-of-pix-free-stock-photos-palma-restaurant-pavement-area-table-chair-cityd a woman sitting at another table with some other old people, but she was old. It wasn’t until I stood up to leave, passed the older woman’s table and heard her voice, that I realized it was my friend. No doubt she’s failed to notice me for the same reason.

Actually, I don’t believe it does any harm to delude myself about my age. It probably works in my favour. I think I live more fully because I pay no attention to what a woman who’s nearly 80 should look like and should be capable of. I need to find out for myself just what I can and can’t do. I do respect my limitations, but I need to find out for myself what they are.

Let me know what you think. Leave your comments below to share with other women dealing with the same issues of aging.

Practicing Downsizing

hotel-life-1526432Richard and Penny, our real estate agents, advise us to move out of our house for six whole days. This enforced exile sounds painful, but not as harsh as living in a house while it’s being toured by strangers. During the time we’re away, they’ll organize a blitz, an all-out effort to collect bids from buyers. On our return, if all goes as planned, we will review the bids and choose a winner. The prospect of promptly winding up the sale is promising. The Toronto housing market is ideal for sellers. Prices are high and the house is in perfect order, ready to attract potential owners with its pretty face.

Richard and Penny are an impressive team. Richard is a handsome guy, built like a football player. As it turns out, in his younger years, he was a dancer, not a jock. He taught dance at a university until, as he says, he found there was more money in selling real estate. Penny, his business partner, a fit, petite distance runner, excels in negotiations. Penny is super attentive to every detail. She takes copious notes. Richard, on the other hand, creates an atmosphere of relaxed sociability.

Our first day out of the house is a marathon of endurance. Already exhausted from months of de-cluttering, storing, cleaning and discarding, we pack our bags and hitch the boat to the car. Why the boat? Its 18-foot aluminum hull makes the garage look small. This is our last staging task. Richard waves us off as we pull out of the driveway, boat in tow. Agents’ cars are already arriving to view this hot property.

We head for Kingston, our future home. As it happens, the only available motel room provides us with an immersion course in downsizing: a crash course in living with the one you love in confined space. Since we’ve chosen to move to a house with half the space we’ve enjoyed for 43 years. I try to convince myself that the motel offers the ideal opportunity to adjust to our new lifestyle. I’m absolutely determined to make this a good experience, no matter what happens. As for my partner, he’s beyond being civil and doesn’t share my plan to make the best of our cramped quarters. He’s exhausted. His artificial hip hurts and the abscess on his ankle is throbbing.

There aresmall two beds in our motel room, each covered with bedspreads the colour of dried mustard powder. A two-foot aisle separates the beds. At the foot of the beds, another two-foot passage separates the beds from the lineup of

dresser, bar fridge, square table and two solid armchairs. The TV sits atop the three drawers of the dresser.

For the first day or two, we keep bumping into one another. Just making my way to the bathroom calls for strategy and planning. Harvey always seems to be standing in the narrow space. It’s one-way traffic coming and going.

The bathroom itself is a problem. In my effort to maintain harmony I surrender any space above the bathroom sink. In this tiny, tiled room, there’s no place for Harvey’s shaving kit, except on the top of the toilet tank. I opt for a shelf conveniently placed under the sink. It’s easier for me to bend down that far. Thanks to yoga, I’ve maintained my flexibility. Adapt, adjust, accommodate as the yogis say. Or – am I giving up too much of my space in order to keep the peace?

Life in a Hundred Boxes

flyby-1536895The moving van is outside the Toronto house, ready to load our possessions for the trip to Kingston. I’ve spent months preparing for this end to my 43 years of living here. Harvey, Frank and I moved into the house when Harvey and I were in our 30’s and Frank was in kindergarten. We were the young folk. Most of our neighbours were older. Over the years, more young couples with children moved in and we watched our older neighbours move out. At last our son and his friends grew up and left home. People our age were downsizing and moving. We were among the very few originals left on our friendly cul de sac. Here’s what I’ve written in my memoir, Aging and Staying in Charge of Your Life.

Yesterday a whole team of packers arrived in a huge moving van. For the rest of the day men in bright blue shirts were all over the house, wrapping and packing the contents of the kitchen, the bedroom and every other room.

“Is this going with you?” they ask, pointing to a cupboard full of Christmas wrapping papers. I dread arriving in Kingston, searching for an item and realizing I’ve left it back in Toronto.

Somebody else is calling me from upstairs. “What about the mirror in the powder room?” a male voice calls out.

“Sure, take it, but leave that little table by the toilet.”

I’m totally concentrated. Really here and now. Mindfulness is imposed on me. Be mindful or go mad with competing demands. Harvey wants me to check in with him about letting go the big wing chair in the recreation room. The stager moved it there from our bedroom. I’ve always liked its shape, but it needs upholstering and it never was a well-made piece of furniture: just good looking.

“We’ll have it taken away by those guys who remove junk.” I say. Harvey agrees and I run off to the next decision-making situation.

By the end of the day my feet ache and my whole body feels like one of the super market’s eviscerated chickens. I’ve lost my sinew. Every part of me wants to collapse in a heap. Harvey and I drop into our king-sized bed for a snooze before going out to dinner at a local restaurant.

Our kitchen is stripped of its usual plates, cutlery and glasses. All we have left is what was in the dishwasher at the time of the invasion: that and what I secreted away in the refrigerator. We can have breakfast. There’s yoghurt, fresh blueberries, milk, and a box of cereal. I don’t want to use the oven, the stovetop or the microwave. They’ve all been cleaned for the new owners of our house.

Today is like “a day off.” A breathing space before the next chapter. Tomorrow, packers come again. This time, they’ll load the rest of our “white man’s burden.” There are garden tools, lawn mowers, snow blowers, rakes, shovels, weeders, hoes and brooms. They’re all hanging from hooks along our garage wall.

At least we have a bed to sleep in. As of Friday, this will no longer be so. On the advice of the moving company, we are packing two suitcases for the movers to take. These suitcases will be put last in the van and delivered to us first. In the meantime, we will stay in the motel we’ve come to know during our visits to find a house in Kingston.

Next Friday I’ll tell you about the week we spent hiding out in a motel while our real estate agents sold our house.


wooden-office-desk-and-chairs_426-19323288Downsizing is one of the hardest parts of moving to a smaller home. Harvey and I were at that stage of our lives where we didn’t have to go to work the next day and where we got to do all the things we’d never had time for. First, we needed to find the right home for this next stage of our lives. I think of aging as a “developmental stage.” Just as children, adolescents, middle aged people and adults, we elders have developmental tasks and adjustments to make if we’re to have a good life. Elders need to live life differently. It’s a mistake to continue as if we’re still in our earlier life stage.

Setting out to buy a house in Kingston, I had two criteria. The new house had to be close to our granddaughter and have room for my large family treasures. House after house within a radius of a mile or so from our younger members was considered with these criteria in mind. Most had rooms that were too small for my antiques.

A corner condominium apartment that looked out over the water filled the bill. It had a stunning view of the old stone shops in the town below. My grandmother’s intricately carved desk would look stunning in the front hall. The china cabinet would fit too. Even the massive breakfront could stand proudly in the separate dining room. Alas, Harvey couldn’t imagine himself living happily without a workshop and a yard to tend.

Here’s a passage from the memoir I’m writing.

At last, we found the house we both liked: the sleek, modern bungalow with its open concept living room, dining room and kitchen … and … no place for antiques.

I really wanted that house! It was coming down to a choice: family heirlooms or this modern, minimalist bungalow. Maybe it was time to pass the family treasures down to the next generations. Once the thought lodged in my brain it began to feel more and more right. Yes, I’d ask family members if they were interested.

Later I wrote:

Now that I’m stripped of heirlooms, it’s like a purge, a shedding of excess baggage. Or maybe it’s like losing twenty pounds. I want to simplify my life. I don’t want to use my limited energy to polish silver entrée dishes and bone-handled antique fish knives and forks. Anything that won’t go in the dishwasher gets passed on to younger women in the family. It’s their turn now. I’m just glad they’re interested. In the new very modern house I’ll be saving my energy for long walks with Sammy the Poodle and quiet hours of writing.

The Toronto house is ready to be put on the market. Half our furniture is in storage as I write this. The house looks very spacious. I’m developing a taste for the uncluttered life. Harvey, too, appreciates our new spaciousness. Just last night, he commented that he has far too much “stuff.” I’m coming to the same conclusion. Could I live in an uncluttered Zen zone? My thoughts turn to Kingston. That house has wide-open space: and yet, the whole of its open-concept living/dining/kitchen area is smaller than Harvey’s Toronto study.

Do you have a story to tell about downsizing? Please add your comments below.

Nobody Believed Her

sad-young-woman-and-a-rain-drops_426-19324539Recently I heard from a trauma survivor whose story I included in my 2010 memoir, Confessions of a Trauma Therapist. Shelagh Stephen was fourteen years old when she told helping professionals about ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of her father. This was a time when the textbook for psychiatry students assured them they’d be unlikely to encounter child sexual abuse. It was considered extremely rare: nothing that would happen in our communities.

Shelagh tells how she was further traumatized by being trapped in a mental health system where she could not get help. Worse, she endured further harm under the care of those whose job it was to help her. The psychiatrist, the social worker and others charged with treating troubled children, regarded her with scorn and blamed her for making up nasty tales about her respectable father.

In light of today’s statistics, it’s clear that Shelagh was not alone in being shunned and reviled for disclosing her terrible secret. How many children risked going for help, only to be told they were lying? The numbers must be staggering. Punishment for telling no doubt added to the silencing of other children who were being abused by adults in charge of their safety.

You can read the letter Shelagh sent to me. Do you know of similar stories? What was your experience? Clearly, Shelagh is not alone.

Dear Ms. Armstrong,

In your book Confessions of a Trauma Therapist you write about Dr. Angus Hood, supervisor at the Hincks Treatment Centre in Toronto. On pp. 89 you relate that “…fourteen-year-old Shirley Turcotte…was a suicidal teenager who revealed to…(her therapist Harvey) the sexual horrors of her childhood. Fortunately both Harvey and his supervisor, Dr. Angus Hood, were open to believing the unthinkable. Before long Harvey was treating a handful of youngsters who had been sexually abused in their homes.”

This was the same Dr. Angus Hood who was in charge of the Hincks Treatment Centre when my therapist, Dr. Jon Plapp, assured my parents that I had imagined the precisely documented sexual horrors of my own childhood. Dr. Plapp refused to believe a word I said, dismissed my physical pain, did not respect my testimony, and filtered everything through his prejudiced assumption that a father like mine would not sexually abuse his daughter through formative years, ruining her life. Or perhaps he had truly malicious intent. After all, I had informed him in no uncertain terms of the multiple felonies my father committed against me, yet that evidence was not in his files.

My parents’ advisor, a social worker named D. Jaffey, told my parents sympathetically that I would occasionally act out. This sounds like a description of slaves on southern plantations who just ‘went crazy’ every once in a while, then succumbed to suppression and settled down. It was assumed that that this childish behaviour should be treated with zero tolerance by my mature, self controlled and responsible parents.

My name was Shelagh Watson and I was admitted to Hincks when I was 15, in 1970. I am now 57 and guess what? I still say what I said then, that I was habitually and systematically abused by my father for years. What a life I had. A life that was made worse by the abject failure of every person who knew about my father’s crimes and allowed them to continue. Dr. Hood was told that I wanted lie detector tests. Dr. Plapp went out of his way to persuade Dr. C.K. McKnight of the Clarke Institute that in my case they shouldn’t be given, and consequently Dr. McKnight informed my parents that they didn’t yield correct results. But the 60 million dollar question (guessed it yet?) is: Why, then, did the Clarke Institute have them?

I was a gutsy young person. I called a policeman in the middle of all this. But he didn’t believe me when he found out that I was in treatment. And why was I in treatment? Maybe – radical thought – just PTSD from being abused. No, make that TSD, since it was still going on. Dr. Hood, Dr. Plapp and Dr. McKnight were in a position to support me, and they didn’t. 


Shelagh Stephen


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