Category Archives: Wellness

Volunteering for AMS Speakeasy

‘Speakeasy is like your boyfriend,’ a friend complained a few months ago. ‘Every time I want to hang out with you, you’re already doing something with Speakeasy.’

Aside from my objection that I do too(!) take care to spend regular time with friends even when I’m dating, the comparison isn’t so far off the truth. Ever since joining this AMS service in 2008, I’ve been spending more and more time every year doing whatever needs to be done to keep it running smoothly, simply because I love it so much. My friends are used to booking me at least three to four weeks in advance during the school year because I’m usually so busy with class, work and volunteering.

Before nattering on about my experiences, though, here’s a run-down of what Speakeasy is, for those of you who don’t know about it:


What is Speakeasy?

(AKA ‘Tell me about him/her!’)

AMS Speakeasy is a free, confidential, student-run peer support service for the UBC community. We provide a safe space in which students can come and discuss whatever is on their minds. Common topics include (but are not limited to): relationship concerns, academic stress, anxiety, depression, suicide, substance abuse, eating disorders, loneliness, and more. Our volunteers are trained to listen without judging and to help students work out what they need, working from the philosophy that every individual is the expert in his/her life. We provide resources and referrals to other organisations, many of them within UBC, as well as off-campus ones.

Most people know us unofficially as ‘that information desk on the north side of the SUB concourse’. During the school year, you can generally see volunteers staffing the desk from 9 to 5 on weekdays, giving directions, maps and general information to the many students, staff and tourists who come by.

Peer support is done on a drop-in basis, which means you will generally get the support you need when you ask for it. Once in a while, there will already be someone in the peer support room, in which case you can come back after an hour, but this doesn’t happen very often. To get a peer support session, all you need to do is approach one of our volunteers and say that you would like one. The room itself is tucked away in a corner to provide some privacy.

Our support sessions are offered on a one-time basis, as our volunteers are not trained or accredited to provide more than one session at a time. We can, however, offer referrals to organisations that do provide ongoing counselling if this is appropriate.

We no longer offer a crisis line (this was suspended in 2008). Our reception desk phone number is for general enquiries only; we cannot provide peer support over the phone.


Why I volunteer(ed) for Speakeasy

(AKA ‘Why do you like him/her?’)

As is abundantly clear by the length of this post, I can go on and on about Speakeasy once started. This is due in no small part to the community of amazing individuals we have each year, and everything I love about the service we provide.

1. First and foremost is being allowed to sit with someone and listen to their concerns.
It’s a privilege to be confided in, and to provide a measure of support. Although we get a few drop-ins each week, spaced out over 48 volunteers, that means as individual volunteers, we may only have a couple of drop-ins throughout the year. It’s quite uneven: a few unfortunately never have a drop-in, while others have a fair number. Each drop-in I have got has reaffirmed my belief in the importance of having a peer support service at all.

2. The skills and training I’ve received from Speakeasy has broadened my understanding of other people like nothing else.
I have learnt far more about being a good support person, about sexuality, mental health, depression and suicide prevention, than anywhere else — all of which I’ve needed in non-Speakeasy contexts. Ironically, I’ve given more support to the friends and acquaintances I know outside of Speakeasy than in an official peer support capacity; being here has taught me how to better be ‘there’ for the people I care about.

3. We get such a wonderful community every year.
Speakeasy was the first organisation at UBC in which I felt a real sense of community. It’s no surprise: everyone who joins is a caring, generous individual who genuinely wants to help their fellow students. If you want a warm and fuzzy feel-good place to be, this is one of the best candidates for that position. Many are the times I walked into the volunteer lounge intending to walk straight back out and ending up chatting animatedly for three hours (or more); I have met several good friends through Speakeasy and have loved the weekly bonding sessions with my shift partners over the years. Also, given the nature of what we do, it’s like having a ready-made support network when you need one!

4. I like answering questions at the desk.
Yes, that’s right: I actually like drawing places out on maps, telling people that the washrooms are down the hall on the left (then watching them go right), and trying to help someone who doesn’t speak English fluently. Part of this is because I remember how incredibly lost and foreign I felt when I first arrived in Vancouver (although I spoke perfectly good English), and I know exactly what it is to live in a place where you don’t speak the local language fluently (which was most of my life). Mostly, I like to smile and ask someone how I can help and wish them a good day. These are tiny things, but no matter what else I haven’t done in a day, it makes me feel good to know I did something for someone, however small.

So what’s up with the past tense in ‘volunteer(ed)’?

Well, having been together for three years (so to speak), and having moved from being a general volunteer to being a Team Leader for two of them, I’m happy to announce that Speakeasy and I have taken our relationship to the next level and I am now working as the Assistant Coordinator for the 2011/12 academic year. It’s all approved by the Co-op office, too, and I now have hope of finishing my co-op requirements. Hurrah!

(Actually, I started this job two months ago, but I didn’t feel like making it official back then. Ha.)


What does volunteering for Speakeasy entail?

(AKA ‘What do you guys do together?’)

Volunteer expectations vary year to year depending on the Coordinators of the service. This year, it’s going to be:

1. Desk shifts (2 hours every week)
The most visible part of being a Speakeasier, when you sit at the desk to answer questions, provide maps, directions and general information to everyone who comes by. This is the time in which you will do a drop-in peer support session, if anyone comes for one.

2. Team Leader (TL) meetings (1 hour every other week)
Ongoing, in-depth training in a smaller team of 7 or 8 (out of a total of 48 volunteers), headed by one of our volunteer Team Leaders, to continue practising your peer support skills and expanding your knowledge of how to handle and refer a range of issues.

3. Project meetings and project work (approximately 2.5 hours every week)
This is a slight variation on the way things were set up last year, but essentially, there will be two main divisions within the overall organisation:

  • External: Promotions, outreach & collaboration with other groups
  • Internal: Ongoing training materials, internal resources & internal social events

Once a month, there will be an hour meeting in which each division will meet to discuss, review and plan projects relevant to their portfolios. 3 Team Leaders (TLs) are assigned to each group. Once projects have been identified, it is up to volunteers and TLs to work out further meeting times to work on these projects.

(Past projects have included: booths in first-year residences, a Speakeasy Photo Booth, creating informational pamphlets on issues such as self-care, anxiety and depression, and our own twice-monthly social events.)

4. Training retreats (mandatory)
We have a major training retreat at the beginning of each term. On account of all the training volunteers need to receive in order to provide peer support, attending training in full is mandatory.

This year, our training will be:

  • September: Thursday 16th (UBC, 5-7 pm), Friday 17th (Gambier Island, whole day), Saturday 18th (Gambier Island, whole day), Sunday 19th (Gambier Island, until 4 pm), Saturday 24th (UBC, 9-6 pm)
  • January: TBA, most likely second weekend of term

We’re working on acquiring letters to excuse students from class on the Friday if you need it (sorry about that). On the other hand, we’re going to a really lovely camp on Gambier Island, and there will be free time to go kayaking, toast marshmallows and yes, do your homework if you are so inclined. But at least there will be time, which we haven’t been able to do in past years.

Note: As I write, the times for Saturday 24th September aren’t yet set in stone; we’re still working out the details of that day.


If you’re interested in volunteering for Speakeasy…

(AKA ‘If you’re interested in sharing the current love of my life… the more the merrier!’)

The 2011/12 Volunteer Application Guide and New Volunteer Application Form are currently available on our website. Round 1 application deadline is on August 19th and Round 2 is on September 8th (please read the Guide for details on the difference). Interviews are currently in progress and I am so keen on meeting our new volunteers — we’ve already hired and trained an excellent group of Team Leaders, and the year is promising to look very, very good.

If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment, email me at, or the Coordinator at (I promise never to talk quite so much about this again!)

HealthLink BC

Did you know that BC residents can call 8-1-1 for non-emergency medical enquiries?

When you first call, you will need to give a brief summary of what you are calling about and who you would like to talk to: a registered nurse, a pharmacist, or a dietitian. Be prepared to give your BC CareCard number and other identifying information such as your name, phone and address.

I just rang them up for the first time regarding a minor injury I have that isn’t worth going to the doctor for unless it gets worse; the nurse I spoke to was very nice and gave me good advice on home treatments and symptoms to watch out for in case things do deteriorate.

HealthLink BC also has most of this information online. They have a really detailed ‘Check your symptoms’ quiz as well, that is a sight more reliable than reading people’s questions on Yahoo! Answers, for one.

Disclaimer: None of this is an actual replacement for going to a doctor. Use your common sense: if you’re in significant pain and/or are experiencing unusual symptoms, seek medical attention.

Knock, knock

I know who’s there; I’ve looked through the peephole. But I don’t open the door, because I’m busy with exams and papers, and they should know that. They can hear me rattling away in here, with the occasional wail of ‘I’m so tired!’ At times like that, they leave me in peace — but they don’t go, oh no. They’re sitting right there on the doorstep of my mind, waiting for moments like these when it’s temporarily quiet within, and then the knocking begins again.

It’s not that I don’t want to let these thoughts in — I do. I want to give each and every one of them the time and attention they deserve, as a proper hostess should, but I’m afraid I haven’t got enough to spare, not for all of them at once.

I’m afraid opening the door a crack will let the whole lot in, and that’ll be the end of my GPA as I know it.

(I’d really like to know when I started caring about my GPA so much. It’s not as if it reciprocates.)

But my visitors are accumulating and I think I should let one of them in. Just one, for now. Maybe if they know that each of them will enter in time, they won’t try to ram the door?

My first guest brings with her a smile and a memory that has me smiling away, too, at least at first:

About a month ago, I was sitting in one of my classes just loving the lecture that was happening before me. I was so very pleased with myself for taking this class to begin with; it was exactly what I’ve wanted for four years.

For four years. Isn’t that a long time to wait? something whispered inside me.

And that quickly, I couldn’t let go of the thought: I could have spent the last four years doing the things I really care about.

Let me throw in a couple of caveats here to explain what I mean: my life is not one long story of doing things I don’t care about. As a general rule, my UBC experiences and my degree are in areas I love. There are plenty of things I wouldn’t change, and I think one day I’ll have to write it all out, to explain the other side of the story, of why I did what I did.

But this side of the story is the one that says why I didn’t do the things I care about. This isn’t a matter of ‘I wish I’d found this sooner’, which depends on luck, but a matter of not doing the things I knew I cared about all along. Oh, I had my reasons. We all have our reasons. Sometimes these are legitimate, like financial, y’know. When we get right down to it, though, mine were all to do with fear: with being too afraid of potential failure to dare to try.

What did I really have to lose, though? Watching my dreams crash and burn, I suppose. No one voluntarily signs up for that. Except I have now lost four years’ worth of time I could have spent working hard at what I like doing, at building up my own skills, at really changing and improving and shaping myself to be what I wanted to be. And while just trying your best doesn’t always mean that things work out, I’m now feeling the edge of the cliche (or rather, its absence), of being able to say, ‘At least I tried.’

This kind of miserable thought triggers other miserable ones, such as thinking of all the things I haven’t done in the past few years that I was so intent upon in my first eager, hopeful year:

  • I haven’t written or painted or played the piano nearly as much as I wanted to — heck, I haven’t touched a paintbrush in almost six years, even though this was one of the things that made me deeply happy once upon a time.
  • I haven’t explored Vancouver nearly as much as I wanted to, despite my best intentions.
  • I haven’t gone dancing.
  • I haven’t gone to poetry slams at Cafe Deux Soleils.
  • I’ve yet to make a trip to the UBC Farmers’ Market in the summer.
  • I haven’t walked along the beach, haven’t gone biking frequently, haven’t gone swimming, haven’t sat and read on Granville Island, just listening to the music, all summer long.
  • I haven’t read all the books accumulating on my shelves.
  • I haven’t become an amazing cook or baker; I still don’t know how to make my mother’s dumplings.
  • I haven’t been brave, haven’t taken risks or pushed myself out of my comfort zone nearly enough times to even register on my mental radar.
  • I haven’t become the person that I wanted to be by the time I’m 21. I’m not even 21 anymore.

This isn’t generally an exercise I encourage anyone to do, by the way. It makes you sad. But I really wish I had thought a little more about what I wanted to achieve while I was in university before I got here — not a detailed list to follow stubbornly, because that doesn’t allow for the change that inevitably happens, but some general articulation of what I would like.

I’ve thought about making this list for the time I hit my next milestone age of 30, but that’s a whole lot trickier… How do I plan things that I want, like a family and a career, when one is not entirely within my control and I don’t even know what I want the other to look like?

The older I get, the younger and less sure of myself I feel. All the clear-cut plans I had in first year have dissipated and I’m now evasive when asked what I want to do. I don’t know what I want to do.

I wonder what the future holds for me. It's terrifying, honestly.

Or how. How will I combine and/or balance what I want with what I need? How do I pay my rent and feed myself and buy some new clothes to replace the ones I’m always mending now, and still be happy doing what I do? Aren’t these the questions facing most graduates, anyway?

I still want to do that list of things I haven’t done, to feel a little less bad about myself a year from now, when I’ll be graduating and there really won’t be another chance to change my Vancouver story.

I also want to not be thirty years old and looking back at the last decade of my life, wishing I’d taken the risk to do the things I care about, after all.

Updated Student Services homepage

Taking a quick break from slogging through my checklist of to-do this week to point out that the UBC Student Services homepage has been updated with new material. I’m particularly proud of these as I spent a lot of time looking for what I hope are the most relevant links and resources for students at this time of year — let me know if they are! If you have any suggestions for some useful webpages (under the Student Services umbrella) you’d like to see for the May 1st update, leave a comment here as well.

An interesting event coming up this week (which I’m sadly not able to go): Stress-Less for Exam Success is offering free tai chi, meditation, yoga, and a goal-setting for exams workshop.

Stress-Less for Exam Success (Facebook event details)
Wednesday 6 April, 12 noon–3pm
Chapman Learning Commons, Irving K Barber Learning Centre
Official registration link

When you have eating problems

‘I remember when you were such a fat kid, but look at you now — you’re gorgeous!’

What do you do with a statement like that? Thank you for reinforcing my insecurities regarding my weight and the pressure to stay thin even though you can’t possibly know that I have these issues?

What do I do when you, a perfectly skinny friend of mine, say, ‘I need to lose a few pounds. I’m so fat’ or ‘I lost ten pounds!’ or ‘I wish I were as thin as you’?

I want to tell you: Don’t. Don’t do it the way I did, because that was not the way to go.

When I was in my early teens, I had eating problems.

(Eating problems, mind you, not an eating disorder — when counselling, providing peer support, or simply having a conversation with someone, it is only right to reflect the other person’s choice of language.)

So, eating problems.

Like many other young people of my age, I had terribly low self-esteem and a poor body image. No one who knows me now will believe it, but I was a fat child. Roly-poly about to explode out of my skin in one photo sort of fat. My parents, bless their hearts, subscribed to the Chinese belief that a chubby child is a blessing, so my brother and I were both overweight examples of that belief in action.

Like many other plump children of that age, I got bullied a fair bit for being so. No wonder I didn’t take kindly to being fat.

And, of course, there were the media messages we’re all familiar with by now, aren’t we? Thin is good, fat is bad. Thin is good, fat is lazy. Thin is good, fat is not what you want to be. I didn’t want to be fat, if only to get people off my back. And maybe to feel okay about myself, too.

It wasn’t until I was thirteen when this desire really kicked in, though. Looking back, I have no idea why it happened then — I’d been gradually losing my baby fat throughout the years, and while not quite slender yet, I was by no means fat.

Whatever the reason, I decided to eat less. Eating less seemed like the quickest, easiest way to lose weight. And it was something that was easily in my control.

So I ate less, and lost some weight. Encouraged, I ate even less, and lost even more weight. Other girls started telling me they wished they were skinny like me. We can see where this is going, can’t we?

Before long, I was down to one real meal a day, and my parents could not understand where all that food they were giving me was going. I couldn’t understand what the problem was, because I genuinely did not feel hungry anymore. Eating was something I had to do to function — but I tried to get by on as little as I possibly could. It seemed like such a time-consuming activity, after a while. I developed all sorts of methods for throwing my food away without anyone knowing how.

All the while this was happening, I didn’t think of myself as fat. I just want to lose a few pounds, I kept telling myself. It’s much easier to gain weight than lose it; if I have a low base weight, all I need to do is maintain it. I don’t have an eating disorder because people with eating disorders think they’re fat, and I don’t think I’m fat. It wasn’t a problem that I kept lowering my target weight — just a little more…

It wasn’t until I was sixteen and looking at a photo of myself when I realised that I had a problem. By this point, I wasn’t losing any more weight and was just ‘maintaining’ it (by making sure to eat less whenever I started gaining a couple). I’d gone out to a friend’s farewell party and had returned happily, thinking that I’d looked great. Flicking through the photos, however, I was taken aback: that skeletal girl was not me. I could make out every part of her collarbone and there were hollows where cheeks should have been. How on earth had I deluded myself into thinking this was attractive? No, really — how?

I’ve spent years since then trying to develop a healthier body image. No more weighing myself three times a day — no weighing myself at all, most of the time, because I freak out whenever my weight goes up or down, these days. Telling myself that my BMI is more important than my weight; that as long as I am eating and exercising well, I’ll be at my optimum, and everyone’s optimum is different.

But when you tell me you wish you could be thinner, it’s hard for me to tell you honestly not to, because I know exactly what it’s like to want this.

And when someone tells me that I look great thin, without thinking how that might have come about, it reinforces all my latent insecurities I try so hard to reject. It makes it hard to want to do things differently, healthily.

Do a good deed and help the people around you develop healthy body images by speaking about it in terms of health, in terms of eating nutritiously and exercising regularly, not in artificial binaries of thin/fat, muscular/flabby. Just because you don’t know about it, doesn’t mean that they’re not struggling with these issues.