Unité 9: A Harsher Look than OITNB at Why it’s So Hard for Women to Start Over

Unite 9 photoA few nights ago, I watched the second-season finale of Unité 9 on Netflix—and I thought Orange is the New Black was good. This piece of French-Canadian TV brilliance sheds a whole new light on women fighting an uphill battle to start their lives over.

Like OITNB, Unité 9 is set in a prison called Lietteville outside of Montreal. As the show opens, Marie Lamontagne is being hauled off to prison after pleading guilty to trying to kill her father. When she arrives, she’s surprised to find most of the women (except those few in either solitary confinement or the maximum security wing) living in groups of six in cozy little bungalows. Each woman has a small daily allowance for food, but in Unit 9 they pool their resources to have nicer meals, complemented by vegetables grown in a communal garden. Unit 9 is clean, organized, and run like a family by the maternal Elise, who’s approaching the end of her 24-year sentence.

But as Marie begins her seven-year term, a new prison director is taking charge at Lietteville. There have been problems at this new-concept prison and Corrections Canada has appointed stern-faced, tight-laced M. Despins to set the situation straight. Thus, the show starts out by playing into conservative, law-and-order stereotypes of convicts living the easy life on the taxpayer’s dime. Criminals who wear their own clothing, earn money at prison jobs to buy personal comforts like television sets and music players, and even take weekly piano lessons? What kind of system is this for punishing people who have committed crimes against society? And not just people, but women?

As the series unfolds, it becomes apparent this system was working quite well, thank you—or was, until Despins came along. Women whose root crimes were being poor, uneducated, and often lifelong victims of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse were working through their problems and becoming equipped to rejoin society.

But as Despins implements his ideas of the way a prison should work, the thread holding the women of Unit 9 together begins to unravel . At the same time as we’re learning why each woman is really there, what demons many of them are fighting, Despins is busy throwing more of them into Solitary or Max, splitting supportive family groups apart, and tossing women who were beginning to heal in with sociopathic gang members.

Committed staff who have worked with female convicts for years become frustrated with the increasingly toxic environment and leave Lietteville. New wardens hired more for brawn than brains either brutalize their charges or become involved with them sexually. Smuggling and theft increase, internal intimidation and violence run rampant, and all of it gives Despins the excuse he needs to become even more controlling.

In this environment, women who have lived their lives by negotiating gendered double binds find themselves less and less able to do what is expected of them—take responsibility for their actions and prepare to start their lives over.

The script is, of course, laced with metaphors: The windows need no bars because the real prisons are in the women’s minds. The psychiatrist is legally blind but her insights are deep and true. Liette, the root of Lietteville, is both a short form of the romantic “Juliette” and a variant of the slang term “Le Tit,” which refers to a female girl with nice T&A.

Marie Lamontagne is a mountain of strength, having pleaded guilty to a crime she did not commit to protect her daughter, Léa Petite, from sexual abuse at the hands of the same father who molested Marie. Through all the verbal abuse and sermonizing Marie endures for failing to take responsibility for a crime she did not commit (while her father’s abuse of both herself and her daughter goes unpunished), she protects her child (who attacked her grandfather in self-defense) by keeping her secret.

The story itself is, of course, a metaphor. Just as the best speculative fiction takes the problems we find most intractable on Earth and places them in distant galaxies, where we might see them more objectively and find our way out of the double binds we’ve placed ourselves in, Unité 9 places a group of women in their own small, separate universe so that we might see the double binds that tie us all into a world of gendered rules more clearly.

While OITNB strives to do something similar (and succeeds, as Stacey May Fowles wrote a few weeks ago in the Globe and Mail), it does so with a lighter touch, and it’s partly the humour with which the real-life protagonist, Piper Kerman, looks at responsibility in her own and other women’s lives that makes OITNB so good.

Unité 9 takes a different route, and a much harsher look at all the same themes, and reveals more in black and white than orange why it can sometimes be so hard for women who would like nothing better than to start their lives over, to actually do so.

First Step: Confidence

crowd scene

In a world of 7 billion people, no one is unique.

[Edited: An earlier version of this post may have offended some readers. I’ve revised a few statements to, I hope, clarify.]

I gave my first workshop a couple of weeks ago. I was nervous about it, but now that it’s done, I can safely say I enjoyed it. And what I enjoyed most was how confident I felt speaking to a room full of people as if I knew what I was talking about—because I did.

It was a great experience for me, and I plan to do it again. Perhaps more importantly, it got me thinking about how many other women must be Late Bloomers like me—middle-aged baby boomers, starting over with something new or returning to something they thought they’d never get back to.

There could be any number of reasons for women to start over in mid-life: surviving a divorce or loss of a spouse, recovering from an illness or injury, or getting back to the workforce after raising children. The reason is probably less important than finding and nurturing the confidence to do it.

Over my adult life, my confidence has come and gone. In my twenties, I set my sights on being a magazine writer. I thought I could take a few continuing-ed courses and become an award-winning freelance journalist while my babies were napping. I had a fake-‘til-I-make-it attitude. I didn’t really have confidence, but I acted as if I did.

In fairness to myself, I learned a lot over my decade of freelancing; I published dozens of articles, was shortlisted for a few literary awards, and still occasionally hear from readers who remember the essays I published in the Saturday Review.

But while I enjoyed the bylines, by the time baby #3 came along, I still wasn’t “making it” financially, so I switched career tracks and created a one-person communications business. I tried not to think of it as “giving up,” but I didn’t go into it with as much confidence as I’d had a decade earlier. In the meantime, I realized I needed more formal training, but by then I couldn’t afford it.

So I took a deep breath and started flying by the seat of my pants. I made cold calls, using a script to keep myself from going brain dead mid-sentence. I was honest with my target market of small nonprofits regarding my strategy of low rates in exchange for on-job training, and they accepted the tradeoff. I also took a few more courses and, as my business grew, so did my confidence.

Then I was injured, and my time for the next several years was focused on healing, pursuing a lawsuit, and sustaining a basic income. I had no time or money for courses as long as the legal action was ongoing; by the time it was over, the world had gone social and digital, and I’d fallen far behind.

I took another deep breath. I’d been very slowly working toward certificates in writing, editing, and publishing, and now I focused on finishing them all at once. With those under my belt, I said goodbye to my business and graduated into the world of formal work as a director of communications for a mid-sized nonprofit. I thought I was on my way to the last third of my working life.

That plan crashed when the job didn’t work out and the recession hit. Jobs I would have qualified for a year earlier were now going to people with far more formal education and experience than I had. I had to rebuild my business, but nobody was hiring contractors. It didn’t make any difference because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do next anyway.

It took a while to sort things out, but one thing that finally helped was working with a wonderful business adviser, Carolyn Burke of Integrity Incorporated. Carolyn helped me realize I’m just not comfortable with a fake-‘til-I-make-it, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, dance-as-fast-as-I-can attitude—and that’s okay. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that can-do approach; it’s just that while it’s often gotten me through the moment, it’s never really built my confidence over the long term.

There are two things that build my confidence: training that yields formal recognition, like a certificate, diploma, or degree; and preparation, like a script.

This is not news to me, but it’s taken me this long to feel okay about standing up and saying to others, “This is what I need. It may not be what you need, but it is what I need.”

In a world of 7 billion people, I can’t imagine my experience of starting over in middle age is unique. We’re living longer, and we often need and want to do something different as we get older, but figuring out what it is and finding the confidence to do it is just not the same as when we were younger.

For one thing, we feel a time pressure we didn’t feel when our lives were in front of us. We don’t have time to waste trying things until we get our lives right. If we’re going to find fulfillment, we need to figure it out now.

For another thing, we have less energy than we did 20 or 30 years ago. I have to wonder (and I haven’t looked for research on this) if diminishing energy for the fake / fly / dance approach is linked with introversion and extroversion. I’m an introvert. I’ve always found the fake-it approach draining, but I had more energy for it 20 years ago than I do now. Would an extrovert of my age have a different experience?

I suspect those points apply to men and women equally , but in addition, women in middle age are often battling the cumulative effects of a lifetime of damaging messages. A couple of recent blog posts set alarm bells ringing in my head with countless memories of men interrupting and talking over me, not taking me seriously, taking credit for work I’ve done, and explaining things to me as if I were a simpleton.

I watched a video a while back (it was on Upworthy, but I can’t find it now) that compared the impact of constant street harassment to drops of water on a rock—they may have no visible effect in the moment, but over the course of years, those drops of water can carve riverbeds out of granite and deep crevices in women’s confidence to start something new, start over, start now.

It’s a recipe for women struggling with even the idea of starting over in mid-life. But given the choice now between the hard work of starting my writing career over for a fourth time and simply accepting the way my life was turning out before I started over, I wouldn’t go back.

Whether you’re excited about starting over in mid-life or daunted by it, here’s a small piece of advice: start by finding whatever you think will build your confidence. It doesn’t matter what it is—counselling , yoga, art, education—and you don’t need to listen to anyone else about what it should be. Your gut is your only real guide.

From there, it’s up to you.

My workshop went well, by the way. Not only did I feel good about it, but a few participants contacted me afterward for more information. The evaluations were largely positive, except for those who were expecting something completely different. I realized later they probably hadn’t read the description, which spelled out what to expect quite clearly, and if they’d only read the title, I could see how they might have misinterpreted it. That tells me two things: there are several points for me to improve on for next time—and there’s a niche for me to develop another workshop.

I’m up for the challenge.

I Almost Didn’t Get on the Plane—Again

My daughter, Jayme, and me at dinner after graduation.

Thank you to my wonderful daughter, Jayme, for attending my graduation with me.

History has a way of repeating itself. Nearly two years ago, I almost didn’t get on the plane to begin my master’s degree. A couple of weeks ago, I almost didn’t get on the plane to attend my graduation.

I couldn’t afford to miss a week of work, I reasoned. I couldn’t afford the expense after two years of accruing student debt. I might miss something blooming in my garden.

The Class of 2015 on the steps of the Admin building.

Best people I know.

I don’t know why I was even thinking of not attending my own convocation after all my hard work, but I knew none of my excuses were going to cut it. I missed my high school commencement due to illness, and blew off my undergraduate event because I’d done my degree over so many years that I wasn’t really graduating with a “class.” But I’m now 58 years old. It’s unlikely I’m ever going to graduate from anywhere again. If I missed this event, I’d regret it for the rest of my life.

My family makes a big deal out of graduations. In the past decade, I’ve attended more than a dozen of them. When anyone in our family graduates, the whoops and hollers erupting from our aisle in the audience can probably be heard a couple of blocks away. I wanted to hear that yelping and yeehawing for me, yet I almost didn’t go.

The procession from King's College to the ceremony.

Being piped down University Avenue to the cathedral.

I’m so glad I didn’t listen to my doubts. My MFA graduation was even better than I imagined. I couldn’t fly the whole family across the country to be my cheering section, and there were good reasons most of them couldn’t have attended even if I could have.

But I took my older daughter with me and we had a fabulous time. And my two dear writer friends in Halifax, Marjorie Simmins and Silver Donald Cameron, came out to cheer me on. (In fact, Don, who has an honourary doctorate from the University of King’s College, donned his regalia and took part in the procession. I felt wonderfully honoured.)

Lynne gets her degree!

I did it!

Chronic headaches have, for the most part, put an end to my partying days, but I was determined not to miss anything during grad week. For me, the celebration started with a day of attempting to show my daughter around Halifax but instead getting lost and walking around for four hours. No problem; we laughed a lot while wandering around looking for water (which shouldn’t be that hard to find in a small port city). That was followed by a wonderful dinner with Marjorie and Don. The next day, there was a rehearsal in the afternoon, a pre-dinner reception, and the President’s Dinner.

Then it was the big day, and it was worth every bit of the two years of hard work that preceded it. It started with photos of our MFA class on the steps of the Admin building, continued with a procession through the city from King’s College along University Avenue, and culminated with the encaenia (King’s still uses the Latin word) at the Cathedral Church of All Saints.

The wait for the ceremony, in a hot back room of the church, seemed interminable, but in no time we were processing into the cathedral. To my right, I saw my daughter’s smiling face as she snapped photos of me. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, and that made me cry, too.

The ceremony was about two-and-a-half hours, and the MFA class was the last group to receive our degrees; in hindsight, it seems appropriate because we were the loudest, rowdiest group of all.

My friends, Marjorie and Don.

Loving thanks to Marjorie Simmins and Silver Donald Cameron.

Maybe that was because we’re all mature students and never expected, before 2013, to do this; maybe it was because people’s book topics were so intense that they couldn’t help but bring us close together. Maybe it was because we were the very first class in the first program of its kind in Canada, or because all but one of us came to grad—and that one had a very good reason. (Good luck, Spencer Osberg!)

Regardless, there was no group of recipients in the convocation who were more enthusiastic about every single member of the class being “capped” and receiving their parchment—no group that cheered louder or clapped harder or made every member of the class feel more loved, appreciated, and proud.

Everyone got their very own Mother F'n Award.

The Zuckerberg Award for Most Impressive Social Media Launch was the real deal.

After it was all over and we’d taken a million photos, my daughter took me out for dinner before our grad party at Helen McDonnell’s, where I received the MFA (see photo) Zuckerberg Award for Most Impressive Social Media Launch. Then it was coffee at the Cobourg on Friday morning, a pre-party at program director Stephen Kimber’s home in the afternoon, and a final barbecue at Pauline Dakin’s house (with many thanks to Pauline for hosting our last “wrap” party as well as our first).

And, yes, I actually got drunk (all Starlit Simon’s fault).

When I was accepted to the degree program two years ago and was wrestling with my doubts, one thing that kept me going was that I wanted to be a good role model for my kids—to show them it’s never too late to start over. At that point in my life, I was struggling to cope with daily headaches and deep depression. I’d given up on ever getting a master’s degree, writing a book, travelling, or anything else I’d once imagined doing before I died, so anything good that happened after that was a bonus, from my perspective.

If you’d told me then that, two years later, I’d be halfway through a book, partying in Halifax with some of the best people I know, and writing a blog about starting over in mid-life, I would have smiled politely and nodded, while inwardly rolling my eyes.

My MFA degree.

So much more than a piece of parchment.

I’m not rolling my eyes anymore. And I can’t even begin to imagine what else might still be in store for me.

Damn The Headache—I’m Taking Back Reading

P1010904One of the best things about starting over so many years after my injury has been reading. I’ve been a voracious reader for most of my life. During my years as a freelance journalist, I’d get up at 6 AM, or earlier, make a pot of coffee, and read for hours. I subscribed to 12 or 13 magazines and I’d power through every issue, rarely skipping an article, until I felt guilty about my children watching too TV (even if it was Sesame Street).

When I shifted to communications work, I had less time for magazines, but I scoured newspapers daily for stories related to my clients’ mandates so I could ghost write letters to the editor and op/eds, and if I happened to read a lot more than necessary, that was fine. I love good literary fiction, and although I was too busy to read more than a few novels a year, I always took time to read a few on the annual camping trip or over the Christmas break.

After my injury, though, reading for pleasure completely became a thing of the past. Even now, 12 years after the concussion, nothing triggers my headache faster than putting on my reading glasses, especially if I’m reading from the computer screen.

Very quickly after the accident, with no idea what a long-lasting choice this would be, my husband and I decided I had to focus the few good reading hours I had every week day—the few hours before The Headache became intolerable—on billable work only. I divided the rest of my time between health care appointments and rest.

For months, I was only able to tolerate reading for a few hours a day. For years, even when that improved, I still felt I couldn’t afford the time and pain to read for pleasure.

Before my injury, nothing had ever been higher on my Christmas wish list than books. Afterward, there was no point in making a wish list of books because they just gathered dust. Reading was, without a doubt, one of the many losses that steepened my descent into depression. Not only could I not escape into a different world in a way that’s not possible with TV or DVDs, I could barely keep up enough with events around the globe to carry on a conversation about anything larger than my increasingly confined middle-class suburban life.

When I began the MFA program, I worried about being able to manage the reading (and my lack of awareness of what was going on in the world at large, never mind the literary world, embarrassed me). But once I started reading again, it was like getting together with an old friend.

I still don’t read as much as I used to, or as I’d like to. That’s partly because the pace of my reading has slowed considerably, not just because of The Headache, but because the injury triggered symptoms associated with post-trauma vision syndrome.* The Free Dictionary defines PTVS this way:

A defect in visual perception that follows a neurological event (e.g., traumatic brain injury, cerebrovascular accident, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy), which is characterised by the perception of movement by objects that are known to be stationary, the running together of printed text, attempting to walk on a seemingly tilted floor, significant imbalance and spatial disorientation when in crowded, moving environments.

In the early days after my injury, I had all the above symptoms, and then some. The feeling of walking on a slanted floor is long gone, but I still become disoriented in a noisy, crowded room (MFA folks: this is part of why I don’t go to many parties), and I still see things moving out of the corner of my eye that I know aren’t moving.

The most frustrating symptoms for me have been the reading-related ones, like losing my place when I get to the end of a line of text; having double or blurred vision by the end of a day (or sometimes earlier); and needing to reread anywhere from a paragraph to a few pages because I’ve lost focus and absorbed nothing. Sometimes by the time I reach the end of a book, I feel like I’ve read at least half of it twice.

The good news is I’m not letting it stop me anymore. I knew I missed reading for pleasure, but I didn’t realize how much until I took it back. And it really was about taking it back. It was about deciding enough was enough, The Headache be damned, it was not going to run my life anymore.

My husband is a voracious reader, but he’s a library user. Not me; I like having a book collection, though I don’t collect books the way some people do. I’m the only one in my family without asthma, and books are dust-collectors, so I limit myself to two large bookcases in my office. Every few years, I used to clean out some of the old to make room for some new.

For several years, I didn’t need to do that. There was a disheartening lack of turnover on my bookshelves. But when I started the MFA program, I decided to change that, too. I cleared out one shelf for the nonfiction books and magazines I planned to read. I recently had to clear out a second shelf for the books, and a third for the magazines.

To people who have always read voraciously, collected books for decades, and don’t live with asthmatics, the single shelf in the picture probably doesn’t look like much. To me, it looks like heaven. When I took the photo, I decided to count up the books I’ve read since I started the program and discovered, to my surprise, I’ve read at least 30 in the past two years. (That’s not counting a few I took out of the library, dozens of magazines, and a dozen or more articles I read in the newspaper or online every day.)

I’m doing a lot better than I thought I was, and that makes me ridiculously happy.

Starting over in middle age is hard, especially when you have particular strikes against you that make it more difficult to keep up with younger peers, or your own expectations. But every so often I realize I’ve actually exceeded my expectations, and that by itself makes up for a lot.


* (For those interested in such things, my PTVS was identified by an optometrist who specialized in vision problems related to neurological dysfunction. It includes convergence insufficiency and mid-line shift. Medical doctors are more likely to refer to it as vestibular-ocular dysfunction. I later saw an opthamologist who provided the same diagnosis and remedy: glasses with refractive lenses, much like those Hillary Clinton used for a while after her concussion in 2012.)




When All Else Fails …

I’ve spent the last two days doing my taxes. Actually, I spent yesterday doing my taxes and today I’ve spent most of the day on hold waiting to ask a tax expert some questions. I spoke with two very nice humans, neither of whom could answer my questions. The second one put me on hold and that was it for the day. Over four hours of listening to muzak.

I tried, unsuccessfully, in those four frustrating hours to write a blog post. But with all that muzak in my ears (same five-minute tape over and over), it was impossible. Instead, I thought I’d share some recent photos from my garden. All the photos from my site are from my garden last year, but here are a few fresh ones from this year.

P1010836  P1010823P1010865 P1010870 P1010875 P1010881

When all else fails … flowers.

“If You Can’t Start Over, Start Now”

That, basically, is what a Facebook friend wrote to me a couple of years ago when I was feeling really crappy one day and wrote for my status update, “I wish I could start over.”

When I look back at it, I could have, and probably should have, started this blog two years ago, which I realize in hindsight is when I actually did start over. (I was accepted into the UKing’s MFA program in May 2013, if I remember correctly.*) Or maybe I should have started it in April 2013, when I applied for the program. Or maybe on February 22 2013, when I saw the email announcing the brand, new, unique-in-Canada program and looking for applicants.

Maybe I should have started this blog right then, as I sat in my desk chair staring in disbelief at the screen. At that point, I’d almost stopped trying to figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But right then, what I wanted to do for the rest of my life landed in my inbox.

Maybe I should have started this blog then, but I was still living in a pretty deep fog of confusion. I’ve never in my life been more confused than I was in the decade after I fell and hit my head, especially after the lawsuit settled.

At least while the lawsuit was ongoing, I had a focus. Once it was over, I had no idea what to do next. Nothing fit anymore. I wasn’t enjoying most of the work I was being offered as a communications consultant, but I didn’t have the energy or confidence to go out and sell myself to do the kind of work I wanted, even if I could have figured out what that was.

Although I remember the years between the accident and the settlement reasonably well, and have journals, emails, and other documents to corroborate and sometimes correct my memory, I don’t remember a lot of what happened after the lawsuit settled. I have to work at recalling landmarks from that period between the March 2007 settlement and the February 2013 email.

I remember taking the family to Costa Rica for Christmas 2007. I was trying to make up for all the time I hadn’t spent with them in the previous four years, and for all the mistakes I’d made while my focus had been almost entirely on trying to recover from the accident and pursue compensation for my losses.

I remember in 2008 walking away from my failing business and taking a full-time job. I was trying to find a way to bring some kind of meaning back into my life. But all I remember is how surreal it felt to be working in an office tower after years of working from a home office.

I remember in 2009 walking away from that job after less than a year and being unable to get another job, or even many interviews, as the recession settled in. Who wanted to hire a fifty-something consultant who’d only ever worked at home and didn’t yet know what the term “social media” meant?

I remember in 2011 deciding to work with a business adviser, which I know now was one of the best  decisions I’ve made in my life. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but what I ended up learning was how to have a little self-respect again.

I remember in early 2013 realizing that, despite all my adviser’s good advice, I wasn’t getting anywhere because I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had almost stopped* trying to figure that out when that email arrived and I found myself thinking, “Maybe it’s not too late.”

Maybe I should have started this blog—which is about starting over in the middle of my life to pursue the goal I’d set out to pursue 30 years earlier—right at the moment I started over. Maybe if I had, I would have written a lot more about it than I have here in this one post.

But I didn’t. So instead, I’m starting now.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post. This week, today, I wrote a blog post. Tomorrow, or the next day or next week, I’ll write another one. And I’ll just keep going like that, one sentence at a time, one word at a time, until I have a blog post or an essay, or maybe even a book.

I didn’t start this blog two years ago when I actually started over. So instead I’m starting now. And really, what more can any of us do?