Episode 24: Navigating Grief and Life's Plot Twists with Deborah Oglivie

Deborah Ogilvie earned a BA (2013) and MA (2021) in English from the University of Victoria, and an MA in Children’s Literature from Simmons University in Boston (2016.) To Deborah’s surprise, life didn’t pause during her studies, and instead threw some unexpected events her way. She spends most of her time these days having conversations about dinosaurs with her very favourite plot twist, who is about to turn six. ​

"It's silly to think that university years are not 'real life.' That's something I've learned: it's all your life."

Deborah Ogilvie

Waving, Not Drowning


Rebecca Gagan: Hi everyone, I’m Rebecca Gagan, and this is Waving, Not Drowning. A UVic Bounce podcast. Today’s episode is being recorded on the unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Wsáneć and Lekwungen peoples. 


In this week’s episode of Waving Not Downing, I talk with another member of the UVic Bounce team, Deborah Ogilvie. Deb earned a BA in 2013 and an MA in 2021 in English from the University of Victoria, and an MA in children’s literature from Simmons University in Boston in 2016. To Deborah’s surprise, life didn’t pause during her studies, and instead, through some unexpected events her way. She spends most of her time these days having conversations about dinosaurs with her very favourite plot twist, who is about to turn 6. In our conversation today, Deb shares with me some of her story of being an undergraduate student at UVic and dealing with profound trauma and grief when her father ended his own life during Deb’s time as an undergraduate student. Deb Shares how she had experienced pretty significant anxiety around her father’s mental health and how she didn’t immediately recognize what was going on and sought treatment and help to cope with the way in which she was experiencing that anxiety in her own body. Deb talks about how she really turned to her studies in literature at UVic as a way to make meaning of her own narrative, of her own story, so she talks about how engaging in that intense intellectual work in her classes helped her to feel like herself, helped her to find meaning and make sense through other stories of her own story. And I think this is such an important takeaway from this episode because we often talk about the ways in which a student’s studies and time at university can certainly be very stressful and can exacerbate mental health issues. We know this to be true. I think that what Deb is getting at is that the work she was doing in her classes was a comfort to her; it was a solace throughout her whole journey. School and those studies were a constant; they were a consistently positive force in her life. They gave her something, as she explains that therapy couldn’t give her. So, her studies and literature really nourished her and helped her to make sense of her own life.


Deb then goes on to explain how she experienced a huge plot twist when she realized that she was pregnant while completing her master’s in children’s literature in Boston. Deb shares the joys of this plot twist, as well as the challenges of being a single parent… completing her degree in Boston and then returning to UVic to complete another master’s, from what she has just graduated and congratulations, Deb. Throughout our conversation, Deb just offers so much support and wisdom around how to deal with the expectations that one has for oneself around how life should go, you know, how one’s studies should go, and she really challenges that idea that there is a kind of script that students are to follow, and she encourages students to go off script in their own studies and to try to get comfortable with really challenging those expectations that others have for them, and also that they have for themselves. Deb also talks about how she tries to find small moments, and small moments of joy and abundance, in the everyday as a way of coping throughout her undergrad and graduate experience, and also in particular of coping through the pandemic– by taking it one day at a time, but also trying to focus on the smaller things in life that bring her joy. Finally, I do want to offer a trigger warning about this episode. Deb, as I’ve said, is very vulnerable and very courageous in sharing the story of experiencing such profound loss and trauma. And that portion of the episode does mention and discuss her father’s suicide and how she coped with it. So, I do recognize that this conversation– this part of the conversation– might be really hard for some listeners. It might be triggering. And so, I do want to just note that this might be a tough episode for some listeners. I’m Rebecca Gagan, here today with Deborah Ogilvie. And this is Waving, Not Drowning.


Hi Deb. I’m so happy that you’re able to be here to talk with me today.


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah, thanks for having me!


Rebecca Gagan: Well, and also congratulations on graduating from your master’s in English. That is amazing.


Deborah Ogilvie: Thank you. It feels very anticlimactic this year with COVID. I mean, I got a beautiful grad box, but it was kind of just like I’m finished, and then I sent my paper off, and that was that.


Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. And I can imagine, too, that like so many students graduating this year, it– as you say, anticlimactic, and I don’t know, maybe also a feeling of like, ‘maybe it didn’t really happen” or something like that. When you don’t have the usual rituals and celebrations that attend those kinds of huge milestones, right?


Deborah Ogilvie: Although I– this will be my third grad and the third one that I never attended.


Rebecca Gagan: Oh, you haven’t been to any of them?


Deborah Ogilvie: No, the first– well, I guess we’ll get into it, but–


Rebecca Gagan: Yes, we will. Because what I was going to say, Deb is that, as we’ve talked about, Bounce usually– so on this podcast, I usually interview faculty members, but as such an important member of this team, The Bounce Team, who’s done all of our incredible Instagram work and supported Bounce in so many ways. I really wanted to hear about your experience so that you can pass on some of what you have learned on your journey through both undergrad and, actually, two grad degrees. And so, we’re doing a sort of special series, with you and Izzy and Adaezejeso sharing, as I say, like your sort of lessons and things you’ve learned as you’ve gone through this process. And so, yeah, so when you say I’ll get into it, we can just, we can just start with talking about your own experience of going through– I guess we can start with undergrad.


Deborah Ogilvie: Okay. So, after I graduated high school, I took one year off and backpacked, and then I started at Camosun. I didn’t get into UVic. So, I started at Camosun when I was 19, and I did one semester and realized very quickly that I was not ready to take it seriously at all. I remember taking– I just kind of– my friend and I were there together, and we just took classes together because neither of us knew what we were doing. I remember taking a sociology class and sitting down to write a test and realizing that I hadn’t even like cracked the book open. And I just wrote on the test, “I guess I should have studied.” And then I just dropped the class. I took one semester; I took like forensic anthropology because CSI had just come out, and I guess everybody was taking forensic anthropology. I took a film class. I don’t think I made it through one class without just falling asleep as soon as the movie started, and then I’d have to go home and rent– this was before YouTube. I’d have to rent every movie and just watch it again by myself at home. Anyways, I did not do well, so I just quit. I dropped out. And then I spent a few years just working. I worked at a bookstore for a while. I worked at a beer store. I did traffic control, which was fresh hell.


Rebecca Gagan: Okay. I have to stop you. What was traffic control? So, also, I want to say, I feel like I know you really well, Deb, because I’ve known me for a long time, but I did not know this.


Deborah Ogilvie: Like, I think about it a lot. It’s like, oh, those are my wasted years. But now, especially as I’ve kind of been thinking about like the story that I’m going to share in this podcast, I’m like, I feel like I learned a lot. And they weren’t really wasted. I think they would have been wasted if I continued on in my undergrad and was not taking it seriously. But yeah, so the construction– or the traffic control job… I went to construction sites and held the stop sign.


Rebecca Gagan: Oh, you held the stop sign. Okay, like the slow and the stop. Okay. Gotcha. All right.


Deborah Ogilvie: A very terrible job. I think I lasted like three months, but it was in the summer, so it was really awful.


Rebecca Gagan: I was supposedly– was it in the summer because be very hot and like standing in the middle of the site and everything was– I also didn’t know that you had started at Camosun.


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah, I didn’t get into UVic. My grades in high school were not– I was a very average student. So, I didn’t get into UVic, and then I ended up getting UVic when I was 24 because I applied as a mature student.


Rebecca Gagan: Which again at 24, you think to use the term mature, which is what you would be considered. It’s so strange, as well, right? But also, interesting to think about what you just said– and I know we’ll say more about this, but how you had, maybe previously, referred to those as the wasted years, right? And now you don’t, and I am really– you know, I can’t wait to hear more about how that got reframed, but I’m just imagining that one of the things that students worry a lot about when they are starting university or starting any program, is this timeline, right? The sense that they can’t waste any time that they– everything has to be put towards a particular end, right? That there’s no room, there’s no space. And, you know, it sounds like when you started at Camosun, and you weren’t quite ready, and as you say, you didn’t take it seriously, but you also– it doesn’t sound like you were really ready to be there. And then you did these other jobs, and now you see how that wasn’t wasted time. It was time that you needed, but I think a lot of students probably feel that way– that they’re wasting time.


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah. And about the timeline thing, like it’s so stupid now, but I remember thinking like, “oh no, I’m going to do this degree, and then by the time I’m done, I’m going to be married and have kids. And then when am I going to have time to do the things that I want to like travel,” which is just silly to think that at like 23, I would be in my real life, which is something that is silly; that you think that the university years are not real life. That’s something that I’ve learned is it’s all your life.


Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. It’s not that you step out of your life somehow to attend post-secondary, right? And that’s this– exists in some other dimension or something. Yeah. So, you started UVic at 24?


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah, so in those years, I also– in like those years, I also did a diploma in professional photography, and I photographed weddings for a while, and then realized that weddings are also the worst, so that was something I just had to– it was kind of on my bucket list. Like I want to get into photography as like a side thing, but I realized that I don’t want that to be my career. And then I lived in Glasgow for a little while and just worked at a train station in a coffee shop and met a lot of great people and travelled. And it was very worth it; worth taking that big break to do what I wanted to do. And then at 24, I applied as a mature student and I started at UVic, and by that time, I was very ready to take it seriously. I did feel old in my classes at 24, but I think like that it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It was just– I was there to do the work.


So, my first couple of years of UVic, I was like pretty– like probably A -. I really enjoyed my– I was in English, obviously– I really enjoyed it, and I was probably like– I couldn’t get past the A – mark and I guess then marks mattered to me. And then I found out about the honours program, and I guess, usually in first year or second year, if you’re really good in English, you get invited into the honours program. And that never happened for me, so I went to the chair, or the director of the undergrad English program, and I just said– I think maybe I emailed him– and said, “I want to get better, but I need these courses in the honours program to get better, so can I please be in it?” And he just said, yes. So that’s how I got into the honours program, which I also think is important for students to know that you can kind of take the initiative and just ask and get them–


Rebecca Gagan: And advocate for yourself in certain ways, right?


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah, so then I got into the honours program, which was wonderful, and then yeah, I took it very seriously. I loved my classes. I did fairly well, and it was true that the honours program did– I mean, you just learn so much more in there– in those classes, in like theory, and if they’re year-long, really intensive courses that really helped.


Rebecca Gagan: So, Deb, what do you think was different maybe about going back as a quote-unquote mature student. You said you took it very seriously this time. Would you attribute that sort of change of attitude and approach to having had those years where you did other things?


Deborah Ogilvie: I think so. Part of it was– I mean, for a long time, I was working days at a bookstore and nights at a beer store, which was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it, but I knew that I don’t want to do this forever. So, kind of having those kinds of jobs made me realize I want something a little more intellectually stimulating. Yeah. And then also just being younger. I was just very distracted by– I don’t know, parties and these other things. So, when I was 24, I felt like I kind of settled down and was ready. I mean, well, and to enjoy it because I didn’t want to do a degree that I spend four years doing something that I wasn’t enjoying. So, by the time I did my undergrad, I loved it. It was definitely the right time for me to do it. Yeah.


Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. And sometimes timing is really everything, right? Like I think that students can sometimes blame themselves. Like if they’re not doing well, or they’re not enjoying it– like their studies. They can think, well, how am I sort of lacking? Right. But sometimes it’s really just a matter, as you say, of timing like that– like when is it the right time for you to be doing that work? And for you, it sounds like you needed those years; that they were anything but wasted. That you needed them to do other things and to sort of come back to school when the timing was right for you, personally.


Deborah Ogilvie: Right. Like I’ve seen a lot of people– like as a TA, I had some discussions with students and then also my peers in grad school. I’ve seen people rush through their degree and then get to the end and kind of think, “like I rushed through to get to what?” instead of kind of enjoying the whole thing. And then like, it doesn’t really matter if you have a job to go right into because those years weren’t wasted when you enjoyed it– 


Rebecca Gagan: And I think being fully present to it in the way that you were, right? Because I think, too, even back about my own experience that, there was a sense that, okay, like, you’re going to go on to post-secondary like, this is what you do. This is what all your friends are doing. I didn’t feel I had a lot of choices. And mind you back then, people didn’t really take like a gap year or take a year out. Everybody just kind of went on to whatever they were going to do, and I’ve felt very much– like I was just kind of following– like going with the flow of what everyone else was doing and the expectations on me, and that I didn’t necessarily feel that I was present to my degree in the way that it sounds like you were. That you can be experiencing it differently when you’re actually ready to be there.


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah. I definitely struggled with that, which we’ll talk about, I guess, in terms of like the relationship I was in during my undergrad it was very much like, oh, we’re all kind of given this script, and like, you kind of just are with the person you’re with when you’re 25 like you don’t break up. Yeah. I just kind of felt that. Maybe not with school, but in terms of like personal life. You’re just given the script with you. You just follow the script, and everybody does it. Your friends are doing it, so you kind of just– I mean, you don’t realize that you can go off script.


Rebecca Gagan: That you have choices; that there’s room. Yeah. And I think that even though it was a long time ago that I was an undergrad and a lot has changed in some ways, I think that piece remains the same. That’s that there’s that feeling like, this is how long it should take you to do your degree. Like, this is the path that you take. And that it sometimes doesn’t feel like you have autonomy. Like that there’s room to shift out of that, so yeah. But I do know from– you know, just knowing you for a long time debit and also knowing you when you were an undergrad, that things were not easy for you, despite that you were fully present, and you were able to experience it differently. I know that you experienced some very painful stuff in your undergrad.


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah. So, the first two years, I would say we’re good. And then in third year, I started to have very bad anxiety– and I’ll just give some context about what was going on in my life, but I think it’s important to note that I didn’t connect the anxiety with the context. For me, when I have anxiety, it’s not like I’m thinking about something, and then I feel anxious. It’s that my body does things that make me very uncomfortable, and then it’s not until later that I can say like, “oh yeah, my body was telling me something.” And I’ve learned over the years that things like anxiety and shock that you go through– I mean, I appreciate them cause it’s your way– the way that your body and your brain protects you, which has definitely changed the way that I’ve coped with the pandemic too. I’m just listening more to my body instead of trying to fight against it, I guess. So, the context was– I was, like I mentioned, in a relationship that we lived together, and I think the problem for me was that nothing was really wrong.


And then again with that, with the script, like, you kind of think, “well, nothing’s wrong, so like, why would we break up? So, I guess we’re going to get married, but it really didn’t want to– I didn’t want to be with this person who was my best friend and so good to me, so there’s no reason to break up,” but I’ve learned that just because nothing’s wrong, doesn’t mean that it’s right, which is a really hard lesson when you’re in it. So, I think I just started having a lot of anxiety about that, knowing that there was going to be this end to this relationship that was going to be hard, and what if I had regrets and what if– what if it’s the wrong decision? And anyway, it just kind of went on for way too long and was really hard. And then at the same time, my dad who has always struggled with mental health… his mental health was really spiralling. And that’s also not something that I was really able to see until it was over, basically, and I could look back and see like I learned that he went off his medication, and I didn’t know that.


So, he just– I didn’t know at the time, but I now know that he had borderline personality disorder, so he– it was just… he was different people. Like one day he would be just the sweetest, nicest man, and then the next day he would just be very mean, and he struggled a lot. It was very painful. He’s suffered with depression, and he just had a lot of trouble. So, during the time– like there was one winter. I think in third year or second year, and he would call me every night, and I would just do my homework and have him on speakerphone and let him talk for hours, and so I started having anxiety, which I didn’t know because this was maybe 2010, 2011. And I feel like we talk a lot more now about kind of mental health things, but back then, I didn’t know what was happening. And I didn’t even connect it to anything that was going on in my life, so for me, anxiety looked like… I don’t know how to describe it, other than it felt like there’s a bird in my chest– like flapping up against my rib cage. And I would try to sleep, and my feet would always kind of– like I couldn’t not move my feet. It was really frustrating. And like now, when that happens, “I know, okay, what in my life needs to change?” Because this is a sign for me of anxiety. I also had, I just stopped sleeping, so I would like have a bad night’s sleep, and then I’d be anxious at bedtime that I wouldn’t be able to sleep.


And then that would make me not sleep, and then that would make me more anxious, so it just kind of went on like that for months– like two or three months. And then my schoolwork was suffering. I think I needed to ask for extensions because I just wasn’t sleeping, and then in the day I would not be concentrating. And then finally, one day I just laid there all night, and I got out of bed and like walked to the clinic in my neighbourhood when it opened. And I remember the doctor just came in and said like, “what can I help you with?” And I just started crying and said, “I’m so tired. Like, I, I didn’t even know what was wrong. Just I’m so tired. I can’t sleep. I can’t function”. So, he was like, “oh, like you have anxiety.” And that was the first time that I was like, “oh, okay. That’s what anxiety is,” so he gave me sleeping pills and anxiety medication. So, I was on the sleeping pills for probably, I don’t know, several weeks– a couple of months, and they just kind of helped me regulate kind of ease my anxiety about bedtime cause like I know I’m going to be able to sleep because these pills will help, and then that kind of regulated my body and that really helped. And then that, the relationship I was in ended, which ultimately was a good thing, but that was very hard. And I think it’s embarrassing for students to have to say, “I need an extension because I had a breakup.” Like, it sounds so trivial, but I mean, it’s not.


Rebecca Gagan: It’s not. And I think that I’ve had students say that to me. And when they say it, they express that same sentiment. Like I know, I feel embarrassed to like say this, but I think for anybody who’s had the loss of a relationship. And I think professors are no different, right? Like we know how hard that is and heartbreaking, and that you have to sort of grieve that loss, right? That students shouldn’t feel, even though I know they do, but that’s as legitimate a reason as anything to ask for an extension.


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Yeah. I remember having to tell a professor, being mortified, like almost wish something worse happened so that I can have a legitimate reason to need more time, although I guess be careful what you wish for. So, after the breakup– I took it very hard. It was hard, but then it was really good, and that like, I felt very raw, and I kind of got to rebuild more authentically, I guess. So, I remember reading a book, which is also kind of embarrassing cause it’s very Oprah-y, but it’s called Simple Abundance, and it’s like 365 like short essays about how to kind of notice the small joys in life and kind of like build a structure in your life that is joyful. So, one thing I remember from it instead of like being annoyed that you have to do dishes, use the time doing the dishes to do them and think about how lucky you are to have dishes that had food on them and have access to water that you can wash them with. Like just the sort of things like that. So, I kind of created a lot of these little rituals in my life. Like very small things that really helped my happiness and my mental health. And then on Halloween of 2012, in the morning, about 4:30 in the morning, my mom came to my apartment and told me that my dad had killed himself that morning. And that was another, obviously, big week. It just knocked me on my butt, I would say. And I had been planning. Like I kind of thought like, “oh, when I graduate, I am going to invite him to my grad, and that’s going to be — we will be back in touch.” So, I remember she told me that– and I remember bits very clearly– like I remember thinking I had to throw up. Just being in shock, and then she had to leave because she had to fly to Alberta to tell my brother, and then that day– is just so silly. Like I went to the clinic at UVic, and it was Halloween, so everybody’s like wearing Halloween costumes. It’s just so surreal.


Rebecca Gagan: So, I was about to say, yes, so like this incredibly surreal moment for you.


Deborah Ogilvie: And like, I went to the clinic, and the woman’s like wearing a witch hat and I have to say like, “can I see a doctor?” And she was kind of like, “no, you don’t have an appointment.” And I just had to say, “my dad committed suicide this morning,” and then she takes her hat off and lets me in. Yeah, so it was just very surreal. And then I went to the library and got citation help with like a psych patient that I needed.


Rebecca Gagan: Because you were in shock, right?


Deborah Ogilvie: I’m in shock. And I also remember feeling angry because I, I was applying for a shirk for something– like I was applying for something, and the due date was like that day. And I remember thinking like, this event has just screwed up my life– not screwed on my life, but like I’m not going to let this ruin this thing that I’ve been working so hard on. So, yeah, I went and got citation help, and then I went to my honours supervisor and had to get like a signed form or a form signed.


Rebecca Gagan: And as you were saying earlier, Deb, this is all the body’s way of protecting you, right? That you’re in shock. It protects you from feeling it, so that’s why you were carrying on with the things you felt you had to do that day.


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah. And just like for months, I was, I think, in shock, and I just learned to appreciate so much the way that your body only lets little bits in at a time so that you survive it.


Rebecca Gagan: And also, I think I could be wrong, Deb, but I think around issues of suicide, our culture, our society still so much doesn’t want to talk about it. There’s so much stigma that– I don’t want to say it’s unusual, but I think even the way in which you’re sharing today, I think it’s not common, right? In the sense that people don’t– there’s a lot of euphemisms around it, right? People don’t want to talk about it. Families don’t want to talk about it. And I know a lot of the work that organizations and, you know, communities supporting mental health are doing is to uh, really change right. That we need to be able to talk about it. And part of the healing is being able to talk about it. And it sounds to me, Deb, like what you were saying is that you needed that– like you needed to be able to actually address it and talk about it and understand it, what happened. And you– it wasn’t useful to you to have people skirting around the subject.


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah. I found that very frustrating when it happened. And like, I’d find myself saying like, “oh, my dad passed away,” and then I just be pissed off. Cause like, no, he– the opposite of passed away. Like he did not gently pass away. Yeah, and then I found myself– like it felt weird, but I wanted everybody to know and know how it happened and the background. Just because I know if I heard about it, I would be distracted by the curiosity, and also because I didn’t want to have to tell them, I just wanted people to know because I was different now. I didn’t want to have to say it, so I remember I took one week off of school for the funeral, and I emailed a person in my class and asked them to just tell the class because I knew I would be coming back, and I would be the weirdo. Like I didn’t want to quietly crying in the bathroom stall at breaks during class or people would talk to me, and I would have no idea what they were saying because my brain was mush. So, I wanted people to know so that they would understand why I was changed, and that helps to know that people knew when I came back, and I didn’t have to tell them.


Rebecca Gagan: So, you only took a week out of school?


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah, I took a week, which now– like even at the time I was like, “people will think that’s weird,” but I just… I felt like when something so terrible happens, you have to– you realize that the little things in life are the big things, and what I loved was school. So, like, I feel like for me school– continuing to go to school was the only thing that really helped me. I remember being worried. There was one professor who was kind of like,” I’m worried about you. I don’t know if you’re ready to be here.” And I felt like, “please don’t take this away, too. This is the only thing that is a little bit of life”– is getting to sit in these discussions, even if I can’t pay attention. Like it was a little bit of normalcy and a little bit of the thing that I loved.


Rebecca Gagan: And it sounds like school was your sanctuary?


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah. I felt good about myself at school. That’s where I felt confident. Like that’s just what I love to do. That was my– like a source of pride for me, and I also did feel like this isn’t going to make me graduate in a year later. Like there was a little bit of anger there in that like I’m– “no, I’m going to keep doing what I was doing.


Rebecca Gagan: And it’s amazing to me, Deb, that at that time, even with everything going on, you were able to say to yourself, “school is where I feel okay. Like school is where I feel good about myself. My classes are where I am gaining a kind of strength or confidence, or it’s– so that’s the piece that I need to hold onto.”


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah, it was very much like, the really hard thing made apparent to me what the little bits of light in my life were, and that was school for me.


Rebecca Gagan: Even though when we talk about the university as a place that certainly has so many problems, right? And there are ways in which students at school can feel anxious and marginalized and all kinds of systemic problems. I think it’s so essential, as you said, to also remember the flip side of that is that school can be that sanctuary for people, and it is. It’s a place where students do feel like themselves where they can gain strength and feel supported. That it can be both things at once, but I think what you’ve shared here about how it’s supported– like you needed it. And as you say, it was the light for you at that time, seems so essential to remember when we have conversations about the ways in which maybe school doesn’t work for students, right?


Deborah Ogilvie: Like the fact that you don’t know what everybody’s– what anybody’s going through. Like you could be having a normal conversation, and the person beside you is going through something very intense. You don’t know. And like, when I was a TA– I was teaching a tutorial section– and I remember there was one student who I just kind of assumed like, “oh, they’re checked out. They’re not into this. And that’s okay.” And then it came out later that they were going through something very intense, and I felt bad, but I was like, “oh, that was not disinterest. That was like a shock face. That was– they’re just in their own world because they’re going through something,” so I feel like that experience increased my awareness of that. Everybody is going through something.


Rebecca Gagan: And then… did you move to Boston in September to start a master’s in children’s literature?


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah, so I think I had a week or two in between finishing Thompson Rivers to Boston. I went to Simmons College. It’s now Simmons University to do a master’s in children’s literature. I was doing a double master’s, so I was doing children’s literature and English literature, but I never finished English because of a plot twist. So, I was there for two years. I was in a long-distance relationship with somebody from here. And then, so the two years went by nicely like it was fine. School was fine. I was enjoying it, and then my boyfriend at the time came to Boston to visit me, and then he broke up with me, and I wasn’t– it was kind of a relief. Like it was– I think that relationship was kind of built on like the long-distance nature, and it was good for me after the stuff with my dad to just kind of have something to look forward to. Like every couple of weeks, we saw each other, so it was kind of like, okay, I’m going to do my school, get my work done, and then I’m going to have this fun person to like visit and something to look forward to. So, we broke up, and for a few days I just felt fine, and I like finished writing a paper. And then I started having the symptoms of anxiety again.


And I got really worried because I thought it was all happening again, so yeah, it got really bad. I just froze, which was my coping mechanism, and just kind of couldn’t get out of bed. I had severe anxiety about my phone, so I’d go through and like delete every message on my phone, and then like just the notification of something on my phone because it felt like someone was emailing me or it was going to be him, or I also had this irrational fear that if I couldn’t get a hold of my mom on my phone, like my body would react as if like she was dead. So, every time my phone dinged, I’d have a panic attack. I ended up going to the hospital in Boston because I was having such a bad panic attack, and they have just kept me overnight and gave me some Ativan, hydrated me, and sent me back. And then I didn’t get better, so I just flew home. I just left Boston. I told my professors like “I have to go home,” and I came home. And then when I got home, I just kept feeling worse. Like it was to the point where I would get out of bed in the morning and go to brush my teeth, and I would get to the bathroom and think like, “I have to lay down. I’m just so tired and sick, and I’m so anxious.” And it was several weeks of that. And then finally, I found out that I was nine weeks pregnant.


Rebecca Gagan: That’s why you had been feeling so sick?


Deborah Ogilvie: Honestly, it was kind of a huge relief because mental health issues are scary, in that it feels like your body is not your own. And I mean, pregnancy is like that too, but at least there was like this physical reason why I felt so terrible, and it wasn’t like, “well, I’m going to spiral, and I’m never going to feel better.” And yeah, so I was pregnant, and then I told my ex-boyfriend he was in town at the time. I told him, and it became very clear, very quickly, that I would be doing this by myself, which was really hard. I had a lot of shame around– which seems silly, but like as a feminist, I felt a lot of shame that I wasn’t going to have an abortion. That I wanted to keep this baby. And then, eventually, I kind of realized like, “oh, that is feminist– to think like, I can do this by myself. I’m going to make this work.” and I did. So, I went back to Boston, and the two– like most humiliating moments of my life– I think, we’re sitting in a professor’s office– it was Dr. Ross– I had never met him before and having to say, “I’m in your class next semester. My dad took his own life. Like I’m not at my best.” And he was really understanding, but it was still just so humiliating and then sitting in a professor’s office in Boston, telling her– the director of the program– saying like, basically, “I failed. I accidentally got pregnant,” but she also was so like, “we’re gonna figure this out. You’re gonna finish your degree.” Like everybody is just so compassionate when you’re going through things. And that was a really important lesson, I think.


Rebecca Gagan: Was it surprising to you?


Deborah Ogilvie: It was surprising, especially like with the professor who I had never met at UVic, like having to meet him, like he just seemed– professors are intimidating. They seem very serious. And then kind of when you come to them with something like, oh, I went through something similar and yeah. Anything that I can do– like you kind of think of these university rules and then realizing like, oh, you can get a… grade, which is like, you don’t have to do all the work, but you’ll just have a note on your file saying you didn’t like to write the exam, or deferrals or yeah, take your time. And we can like– so in Boston, I think, what I did was I didn’t finish a class, but then I took a directed study and like did the same material and was able to finish it that way, so I had to drop out of the English master’s because I wasn’t going to have time to finish it before, Grant, my son was born. And I came home like a few weeks before my due date, and I had him, and then I flew back to Boston a couple of times in his first year to finish– like kind of doing a week-long condensed. And I finished.


Rebecca Gagan: I like that– the professor from Boston that– the director, said: “it’s okay, we’ll figure it out.” And I, you know, just sort of want a comment here that I think it’s more often the case that that is the response, so when students go to a faculty member and share what is happening, that, you know, the response I think is typically, “well, we can figure this out.” And it sounds like she came through on her word there, right? That if you were still going back and forth, that you were supported to finish the degree.


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah, absolutely. She was wonderful. And even like when I was TAing, because like those, too, kind of we’ll figure this out, like change the way I thought about everything, really. Like so I remember when I was TAing, my kind of rule in the tutorial was if you need an extension like you don’t even have to have a reason. Like sometimes, our reason for needing a couple of extra days is like, I just need a couple extra days. Like I have other classes I have– like, you don’t need to be accidentally pregnant to get an extension. So, I think it made me have a lot more compassion, like we are human. Sometimes we just need some support or some leeway.


Rebecca Gagan: Well, and also what you shared at the start of this conversation, Deb, about how university– and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum or a bubble or outside of life, as you’ve shared, right? That you–those those realms are not– like they’re not separate. Like it is your life, and things happen. And there– you know, there are a lot of joyful moments just as in life, but also traumatic moments. There are difficulties and challenges, and what, you know, I don’t know. How do I phrase this? I think that if you can’t expect and rely on your teachers, your professors, to be able to see that and recognize that and to feel like, you know, even though the response from the people with whom, you know, you shared these– you know, the death of your father and the– you know, the the pregnancy, you know, even though their responses were so compassionate, you still describe those moments as the most humiliating moments in your life, right? That those two times that you had to share that, right? So, it suggests to me that I think there’s still a lot of work to do, in that it doesn’t mean that those moments won’t be difficult to share, but I think it’s around–and you said this yourself, Deb, like thinking about feelings of shame– you know, you’ve used the word humiliation, right? That it’s this sense that somehow, okay, well you’re a student and, that is somehow separate from whatever else is going on in your life, right? So, when you say, Deb, okay, “now as a teacher, I feel like I don’t need students to have to say there is some reason– you know, some extraordinary reason why they need an extension.” That you recognize that life happens and that maybe they just need some extra time. And that like you get it. And I think that like that’s the work of trying to change the culture, so that it’s the recognizing, as you have said, many times, like human first, students second, right?


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah. And also thinking about how I used to– like if I would get it if I didn’t get a great grade back, I would think, “oh, that professor is judging me, like he thinks I’m an idiot.” And then when you’re marking students’ work, you’re kind of like, “I’m in no way judging you.” Like, I know– I know now that everybody just does the best they can with what they have like at the moment. You get a terrible mark on something like yeah, that happens, and it’s in no way reflection of like you as a person.


Rebecca Gagan: But you don’t know that till you’re grading.


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah.


Rebecca Gagan: So, you came home after you completed the degree, you had the wonderful Grant?


Deborah Ogilvie: Well, I came home and then went back.


Rebecca Gagan: Went back and finished, right? And then– and I know that since you’ve just graduated from your master’s degree in English here at UVic, did you take time between having Grant, finishing up at Boston and then like, I can’t remember, Deb, like how much time you took before going into, and even deciding to do the second master’s.


Deborah Ogilvie: So, when I came back, I took 10 months, and I lived with my mom, which was very nice of her to let us– I mean, my child. We’ve been with her for 10 months, and then I actually worked at the library at UVic, because I had worked there all through my undergrad as a student assistant, and then I worked in stacks for a few years after I had Grant. At 10 months old, I got the job there– when he was 10 months old. And then I don’t even remember really applying for the master’s. Like, it was just kind of something that I always was like, “well, I’ll do that at some point,” and then I don’t know. I don’t even remember it really applying. It just… it was just a thing. I was like, yeah, I’ll throw my application in. I applied, and I got in. It just seemed so natural. Like it wasn’t a big– I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t remember deciding anything. It just was something I was going to do, and I did it. And then what you were saying about like how you’re not a student outside of life like it’s very much intertwined, like Grant– I mean, I’m sure you saw him there on campus with me. He went to daycare on campus with me, but he was like– he came to your lectures sometimes, sat there doing his puzzles. Yeah, he was very much like in the degree with me. He’d kind of hang out in the grad lounge sometimes, so kind of like– I mean, in a way, they were separate like mothering and being a student, but in a way, they were very intertwined– like you can do both at the same time. So, yeah, I started the master’s I think when he was two or three.


Rebecca Gagan: And it took a couple of years, right? Deb?


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah, just a couple of years to just… I was very lucky in that. I mean, I was at risk because of my anxiety. I was at risk for like postpartum depression, but I swear I had like postpartum ecstasy. It was just… it was the first two years just… I was so happy. I mean, I’m still very happy, but it was just such a lovely time just working at the library and soaking up this little boy. And it was just really great.


Rebecca Gagan: So, now, you have graduated with your second master’s in English and another one– so you have two, so children’s literature and English. And we haven’t talked at all about what it was like for you this year during the pandemic, so I don’t know if you want to say a little bit about that in terms of what you learned just this past, sort of 18 months.


Deborah Ogilvie: So, I was supposed to graduate like a year before I did. But I had finished all my coursework, and I was just writing my resume essay, so I ended up just– so I was working at the library, but then COVID happened, and I lost access to daycare for a while. And then, it was– like, obviously, I had to find a new daycare to put Grant in to be able to go into work, and I didn’t feel comfortable with that. Like I thought that he was starting kindergarten and I thought that kindergarten was gonna– like, I thought it would be in session for two weeks, and then we’d all be at home, so I wanted a job where I could be at home if I needed to be. So, I ended up quitting at the library, and I took– I still enrolled in the MASA. So, I paid tuition for like another four semesters or something, just so that I could be a student so that I could have access to student jobs, like RAships and TAships, which I could do from home, and that is work that I really love, so it was worth it. I think I was working at like seven jobs there, like TAing for different people and RAing for a while.


Yeah. And I feel like I learned a lot about the way I cope with things from the things that I’ve been through, so just kind not thinking too much about the big picture. I have a lot of trouble planning ahead because I will freeze if I get overwhelmed, so just kind of taking it a day at a time and then putting way less pressure on myself to be perfect anything. So, Grant has had way more screen time than I ever thought I would allow this year, and bedtime is not a thing. We’ve just kind of created these little rituals where at about seven at night, we climb into my bed, and we do what he calls our nighttime thing. So, it’s usually me working or watching Grey’s Anatomy and eating my milkshake, and him like colouring or playing with his toys or watching his YouTube shows that he watches. And I’ve just decided not to feel guilty about that. Like, I think there’s a difference between pain and suffering. The pandemic is a pain. It’s painful, and it’s hard, but I’m not going to suffer by having feelings about my feelings. Like I’m not going to feel like I’m being a bad parent or a bad employee or a bad anything when I’m in a pandemic. Like I’m just gonna do the best I can every day and get through it.


Rebecca Gagan:  Well, and I think that’s the key point, right? Just to survive it and get through it, and that means being as gentle with yourself as you can be right? And just being– it’s even– I mean, it’s a kind of compassionate for sure just to say, “I’m not going to be hard on myself if I can’t do all the things.”


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah. And I think people talk about like self-compassion or self-care as like a nice thing to do your, to do for yourself, but I think of it more as like, no, this is a necessary– I need to do so that I can be functional. I’m not be able to do it anymore.


Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. It’s non-negotiable, and I think you’re right that the way, in which I think too often and sort of in a way that’s not helpful, we talk about self-care as something that’s temporary. That you take a day off or something, and I’ll do some self-care, whatever that might look like, but you know, what so many people have actually shared on this podcast is really that no, no, no, this is like a daily practice. Like you are doing things and making choices, right? So that, as you say so that you can function.


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah. I remember my doctor in Boston when I was pregnant, because like, when I thought I was like dying of anxiety, they put me back on anxiety medication, and then I found out I was pregnant, and I know you’re not supposed to be on medication when you’re pregnant. And I remember asking her about that, and she said, “being on the medication while you’re pregnant is far better than this baby growing inside an anxious mother.” And I like to think of that during the pandemic, like having some screen time every day, like excessive screen time, or like not a lot of kind of rules at home is better than– like, at least your mother is functioning.


Rebecca Gagan: Yeah.


Deborah Ogilvie: Because she has time to herself with you watching YouTube.


Rebecca Gagan: Yeah, exactly. So, yes. And I think those are all the decisions that you have to make, but there’s such important decisions around like how to safeguard your own health, right? And wellbeing, and that, you know, getting through this year, for so many people, I think has really been about making hard decisions, but decisions that will allow them to get through and to, as you say, to function even, right? Like just to be able to do their jobs or to parent– but that means also not being hard on yourself. And when you’ve talked about how your productivity is tied also to how you feel about yourself—and having to be flexible and make adjustments around that.


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah. Definitely. Yeah, there are a lot of days where I just embrace being garbage.


Rebecca Gagan: Well, as you say, lying on the couch, watching Grey’s Anatomy and drinking a milkshake.


Deborah Ogilvie: There’s value in that.


Rebecca Gagan: There is value in that. And now all this talk about milkshakes, I think, okay, I have to start like making my own milkshakes as part of my own like ritual of self-care. But– so Deb, I know this is like a this is a really hard sort of question, especially after everything that you’ve shared, and I will completely understand if it isn’t something you can even answer, or try to sum up, so please don’t feel any pressure to have to like come up with some sort of like, you know, definitive response or statement here, but you, you know, you’ve really– you are on this journey, one that has taken you through this really like incredible process of self-discovery and just… I think that what you’ve experienced and what you’ve shared with us in terms of all that you have learned does sort of put you in this position to maybe– and you already, I think, helped so many people by sharing your story and the way that you have today, so if I could just sort of ask you what you might say to students who are just at the beginning of their, you know, university experience, or maybe just going into first year undergrad or starting grad school. It seems strange to say, like, what would you say to like your first-year self now? Because I think there’s a way in which it– even phrasing the question that way, maybe suggests or implies that you would do something differently, and of course, you don’t know what you don’t know, so that’s sort of a strange question, but I think you get what I’m getting at. Like what may– you know, what would you want people to know as they’re starting?


Deborah Ogilvie: I think… don’t be afraid. Not even don’t be afraid, but like go off script. That’s an option. I think it’s not like when I was younger, I was afraid to go off script. It’s just, I didn’t know that there was something other– like my life now, I think is very, in a way, unconventional, but I think I’m happier than ever could have imagined, like I get this little boy all to myself. Like that’s a hard thing, but also there’s good things about it. I think I would tell myself, and first years, or people going into a program, that going off script– and by script, I mean like what you expected of yourself, what your parents expected of you, what everybody else seems to be doing, what happens in movies and TV… like just going off the script is an option and you’re not going to know what that looks like, but you kind of have to take things as they come and listen to what yourself is telling yourself, I guess. Like kind of be in tune with your body and yourself and know, like this doesn’t feel good. I don’t want to be doing this degree when I’m 19 just because I’m 19 and all my friends are doing it. I think the only thing that we really have are the little things that make us feel good.


Rebecca Gagan: I mean, Deb, one of the things that I have heard throughout our conversation today is that you, early on, were working to try to figure out what made you happy, right? Like the simple abundance, right? That what were the small things, even the day-to-day things– and you, in– like really experienced, you know, with your father’s dad like such trauma and then having an unexpected pregnancy, and leaving and coming back to school, like you– there was so much that you went through, you know, that somebody’s looking at that, or even hearing that, and maybe people hearing it today, are thinking, “wow, like how did she keep doing school? How did she cope with all of that? And you’ve made it clear that none of that was easy, right? The coping– like all of it was a process for you. And yet school was consistent. Like you– when you talked about Boston and how, you know, I said that you left, but you didn’t leave. You went back home for a bit, right? To deal with your anxiety, and then you realized you were pregnant, but you were still all the time finishing up and connected to school. Like school was the consistent thing in all of it.


Deborah Ogilvie: Yes. I think– I mean, obviously my child is the light of my life, blah, blah, blah, but like school is like the thing that brings me joy and not necessarily school but like the work of dealing with texts and reading and writing and listening to conversations because now I’m done, and I can’t say that school is the only thing I have because now what am I doing? Not at school anymore, but I’m happy to go off script in that I’m not– I didn’t get into a PhD, which was my plan, but when I finished my MA, when I finished my MASA, I didn’t expect to have not a relief, but this kind of panic, like this is my out, because I thought I would want to go on to do a PhD and I kind of felt like I want to do the work. Like I want to do the PhD, like keep reading and writing, but I don’t want to jump through all the hoops to then maybe get a job at the end of it, so I kind of had the surprising moment of like, maybe that’s not what I want. Like maybe after all this time, I would be happier having a more balanced life where I can work a job and kind of write and read on my own and then have more time to spend with my family. So, it’s not even necessarily school. It has been school, but it’s kind of just doing the work.


Rebecca Gagan: I think that the work of– as you say, of engaging with texts and reading and writing and thinking and all of that intellectual work, and I think for other students in different disciplines, you know, it might look different, but it was something that you kept coming back to.


Deborah Ogilvie: It’s been like therapy. Like traditional therapy has never worked for me. I’ve never found a therapist that I really like going to, I guess, but literature has been so therapeutic and like kind of finding different ways to think about things and learning about different people. And–


Rebecca Gagan: Well, it sounds like some of the advice or guidance that you might be offering students now around, you know, thinking about some of what you’ve learned is it really does go back to, as I said, like what you said at the start, which is about trying to find the light in, you know, maybe unexpected places, but also in– you know, when you, when you say that literature was like therapy for you. So, for another student, it might be, you know, studying biology or maybe it’s playing piano, or some other activity, so maybe it’s playing on the soccer team or something like that. So, something that you found like help helped you to cope with all that you were going through, somewhere where you could feel like yourself and, as you said, about studying literature, and even, you know, moments when you were in classes, that you felt like yourself. That as much as you maybe felt so, you know, traumatized, or discombobulated by what was happening, there was something in those experiences that kept bringing you back to yourself, right? And that you were getting something from, from that. And that, you know, I’m just trying to think about how you’ve talked about the importance of students being able to go off script. And I’m just wondering– and I don’t know whether you agree with this or not, but that maybe that’s connected to– you know, students will find that life will happen to them in sometimes very surprising and sometimes traumatic ways, and that it’s then about trying to be able to know that there is no script, right? Like there’s no script, and you have to kind of find your way, as you’ve said, Deb. And as you’ve done and find the things that make you feel like yourself, that route you, that bring you light, but that you’re still navigating the script, like you’ve graduated and hence like the reason for our conversation– that you’ve now graduated from your second master’s, your third degree, and there’s no script before you now.


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah, but I feel at this point– I feel like I want the script because I know that like whatever job I’m going to do– like I could be happy editing manuscripts. I could be happy teaching. I could be– like as long as I’m doing the thing that I like to do; I don’t need like whatever I had planned for myself five years ago. And I think also a big thing for me has been realizing that what you want to want is not always what you want, and then kind of learning to differentiate between that and then going for what you want instead of what you want to want.


Rebecca Gagan: No, I understand what you’re saying; what you think you’re expected to want, is that what you mean?


Deborah Ogilvie: Like I always assumed that I’d be doing a PhD and then all of a sudden in that moment, I said, “oh, I think that I just not want to want that, but like, oh, I could be happier maybe just doing something different.” And then I kind of– I was relieved when I like– then it started change to like, “oh, what if I do get it?” And then I know that I’m going to do it because I expected that I would do it and then not be as happy, and now I feel like I’m freed up to– I mean, I might do it at some point, but like right now, I feel like I think I could be happier having some more balance. So, kind of just listening to yourself and not just doing things because you wanted to do them before or…


Rebecca Gagan: Well, Deb, I just… I want to thank you so much for being here today and for being so open and honest and willing to be vulnerable in sharing your story and your journey because I know that as we’ve talked about so much of what you shared is not talked about enough and it– there’s still a lot of stigma around suicide and mental health and that you’ve really just done so much here today to I think, support our listeners and students in sharing your own Bounce story. And even though I’ve known you for a long time, and I knew some of your story, I think just hearing it today, I realize how necessary it is to be able to have the kinds of conversations that we’re having today to really change the culture of our university community because I think the support that you did have along the way was so essential to you, but I think there’s still so much work to do so that, as I said, students don’t have to remember some of those conversations as humiliating or as shameful. So, you know, thank you for all the work you’ve done with Bounce and, you know, Deb has been our Instagram star– you know, doing all of that, but I have to say that the work that you did today and really sharing this, Deb I know will make such a profound difference to people. So, thank you.


Deborah Ogilvie: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for– I mean, it feels good to have a space where I can say all of this and like thank you for doing Bounce. Like starting– I remember first hearing about it thinking, “oh, that would have been very helpful to me before those humiliating moments to know that my professors are people who also have struggles.”


Rebecca Gagan: Well, and I think, Deb, just to end, you know, you said long ago–and you’ve repeated this throughout our work on Bounce, that, “human first, student second.” And that’s also something that I’m taking from this conversation, but that has also been a really guiding principle of Bounce. So, thank you so much, Deb– and congratulations again on graduating, even though you had no ceremony for the third time or you weren’t participating for the third time, it’s still such an enormous achievement, and I’m just so proud of what you’ve done. 


In next week’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I talk with Dr. Bill Bird, an Assistant Teaching Professor in engineering and computer science. Bill shares some amazing advice, not just for engineering and comp sci students, but for all students about how to find balance, how to set boundaries for yourself between your work and leisure time, and also how to navigate some of the challenges of online learning. I really hope you’ll tune in. You can keep listening to episodes of Waving, Not Drowning on Anchor FM, Spotify, or wherever you stream your podcasts. We’d love it if you would give us a like and a follow on Instagram @uvicbounce. Tune in next week for another great conversation.


Until then.


Be well.