A tale of two years

*This post discusses sexual assault.

 

I haven’t posted on here in over a year. And what a year it’s been.

There were many reasons for my silence – working long hours, self-editing to the point of paralysis – but mostly, I no longer related to the identity of this blog. I feared the idealist had gone, slowly siphoned away by a series of events that hacked me to the core, leaving me raw, exposed and weak. It’s only now that I feel I’ve regained my strength and stepped back into myself. The tail end of 2015 was really an out-of-body experience; 2016 was all about reconstruction.

Before providing context, I’d like to explain why I’m even sharing this deeply personal story at all – and why now. Simply because, one year after the worst period of my life, I’m the happiest and healthiest I’ve been since childhood. One year after feeling so low I felt I couldn’t go on, I’m writing about it with distance and insight, direct from my sunny balcony in a whole new city. My life looks and feels so dramatically different that I don’t recognise myself. And it’s exciting and soothing and liberating. I’ve shed my coat after a long winter. This post isn’t about being smug or #blessed; it’s about honesty and solidarity for anyone who is currently struggling. It is so easy to compare yourself to a highlight reel, so I wanted to strip away the facade as a reminder that you’re not alone. It can get better. It really, really can.

In 2015, I had an exciting, perfect-on-paper job that I enjoyed. But slowly, the demands and stresses took their toll and my body and mind began to burn out (I live with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue, making full-time work an almost superhuman challenge). Every day was an auto-pilot pursuit of work, sleep, work, sleep. I felt exhausted and battered on a cellular level, like being trampled by a stampede over and over. My social life became non-existent, my personal life in disarray. There was just nothing left in the tank.

Then in August I was sexually assaulted by a stranger. I’d always imagined I’d be the kind of person who fought back; who punched and kicked and screamed for help. The person who reported it. But I did none of those things. I froze. It all happened so quickly, yet somehow in slow motion. He’d grabbed, pushed and literally shoved before my brain even caught up. I managed to get away before it went any further, but the damage was already done. There is very little that is ours in this world, and when somebody violently infiltrates your body, your only safeguard to the outside, it changes you. Changes the way you view. Long after the physical act, I have a phantom feeling of that violation. I had never felt so worthless in my whole life. I’d been reduced to an object for entertainment, a husk with no will of my own. I confided in a couple of people but his actions were disregarded as “handsy”. Immediately, I internalised the blame. Analysed every moment that led to it. What could I have done differently? That old chestnut. What could I have done differently. That’s not the question we should be asking, is it? The only decision that made a difference came from him and him alone. The feeling of powerlessness haunted me; I saw the world through a newfound filter of fear. My illusion of safety had evaporated.

Then a few months later, I was sleazily propositioned by a good friend; a married man and father. He thought of it as nothing more than a question, but to me, it was a betrayal of trust that nullified everything that came before. Was our friendship all fuelled by an ulterior motive? Had I been groomed for this moment? Once again I felt dehumanised, humiliated, unsure of what to believe … stripped of my sense of autonomy, like a chess piece in a game I wasn’t permitted to play. I have always been quietly confident, headstrong, independent, ambitious. Optimistic and astute. Suddenly I felt submissive, frail, jittery. I felt like a victim and I hated that – and judged myself accordingly.

Because I couldn’t retreat inside myself, I began to feel detached from my body. One night, after a dinner with friends, my anxiety was at an all-time high. I lay flat on my back in bed, staring at the ceiling, trying to reduce my rapid heartbeats and shallow breathing. But I couldn’t get on top of it. The panic spread throughout my body. Then suddenly I was overcome by a sense of calm … then stillness. My mind felt as if it was floating away, like a balloon released to the sky. I thought I was dying. The only thing scarier than feeling pain is feeling nothing at all. I got up, hoping that walking around would bring me back down, but still my mind hovered. I knelt on the bathroom floor, hoping the cold, tangible tiles would jolt some sensation and tether me, anchor me. It didn’t help. I cried out for my sister, who helped me into bed and stayed with me until I fell asleep. The doctor said it was a panic attack, and my days became a seemingly endless cycle of dread, preparing for the next one. I can see in hindsight that it was my brain’s way of protecting me from the overwhelming level of input; those episodes were mechanisms to mentally and emotionally reboot. So it’s really a form of healing. But when you’re in it, the world becomes muted, experienced under a veil. And when you’re unable to see, smell or feel its beauty, verve and possibility, you lose the capacity to be happy. Numb becomes normal.

Approaching 2016, I was certain I couldn’t survive another year of the same. That push was a blessing – I made the snap decision to move from Perth to Melbourne and focus on my passion (writing for theatre and film). As soon as I set foot in my new city in March 2016, the inner chaos quietened. As though all that resistance had just been my insides screaming for change. I’ve been here for nearly 11 months now. I don’t want to give the impression that it was instantaneous or easy. I’ve invested a lot of time and energy into self-care, therapy and introspection. It took four months to find a job; I’ve had my heart broken; I’ve worked two jobs, double shifts, scrimped and saved and eaten like a student. My big brother passed away in October and, particularly being away from my family, the grief has run deep. So, no, it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. But that’s what this whole shebang is about. Setbacks, hurt, sadness … they’re all part of the spectrum of being human. I have never once regretted moving and being true to myself. All of the wonderful recent experiences, developments and opportunities have stemmed from that decision: I love my house, roommates, my location, my job; my first theatre piece was produced in November; I’ve met fascinating people; made cool, kind friends, and am dating a great guy. I’m finally where I need to be.

But that’s just my story. I hope by sharing I can drive home the point that turmoil is not a natural state of being – it’s a distress signal. Pay attention to it. We all deserve to feel calm and content in this life.

 

Things I’m glad my Mum taught me

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For my Dad’s birthday last year, I wrote a post about all the life lessons I was grateful to have learned from him. With my Mum celebrating hers this weekend, I wanted to acknowledge her in the same way. My five siblings and I were extremely lucky to have two kind, loving, wise parents to guide us through our formative years – and who continue to be our anchors in this sometimes tumultuous life.

Mum is a remarkable but humble woman. I won’t go into detail about specific adversities, but she has dealt with more than her fair share in her 69 years. Still, she approaches every day with a smile. I like to think I’ve inherited some of her quiet strength – but also her feistiness, which means we haven’t always seen eye to eye – and hope to always carry her values with me so I can be the best version of myself.

Treat others as you’d want to be treated.

This is Mum’s number one, top shelf motto, and one she taught by example. It’s a simple concept, but how often do people really stop and think about how their actions may affect someone else? It was drummed into us from a young age and has become a yardstick for my dealings with others – to check myself if I’m veering into inconsiderate, selfish territory, and to measure whether certain people should be in my life. This really is a failsafe tool for navigating murky moral waters.

Kindness and optimism show strength, not weakness.

At a young age, Mum’s large, open heart was exploited by people she should have been able to trust. That alone would send most people on to a path of bitterness.

At 17 she gave birth to her first child, who was stillborn. She never got to see him or hold him. The nurses were callous and mechanical. At 18 she married his father, who she had loved since she was 13, and had four children with him. He beat her throughout the marriage and, when she finally got the nerve and resources to leave him, she had to endure the gossip of a small town. When Mum met my Dad they became a blended family. Later they had my twin sister and I, and the rest is history.

Mum was very open about her experiences when we were growing up – I think it was to ensure her past didn’t repeat itself in us. Know the signs, she said. Avoid controlling men. Don’t settle for the first person who pays you attention. Sometimes you have to do the hard thing if it means you’ll be happier. Don’t let bad experiences define you.

Mum never allowed herself to become a victim and has always approached life from a positive position; never punishing others for moments of misfortune. The perfect example? She never once said a bad word about her first husband to my older siblings, and allowed them to make up their own minds about him. They were able to have relationships with him as adults. I think her attitude showed absolute grace, maturity and strength; it is a spirit of forgiveness that not many people can muster. She never excused his actions but chose to believe he could be better. And, for his kids, he was.

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Work hard and make your own opportunities.

The day my sister and I turned 15, Mum took us down to the local shopping centre to hand in our resumes at every fast food outlet and retail store. She made us wear collared shirts and ironed pants to our first job interview, at McDonalds; we were the only ones dressed that way and we were absolutely mortified. The others, wearing torn jeans and school uniforms, laughed at our outfits and folders. But we both got a job and were complimented on our appearances. Mum made sure we kept up the same standard for every shift. When we complained about our bosses she’d say we were lucky to have jobs. If we were tempted to call in sick because we “didn’t feel like it” she’d make us get up and go. That strong work ethic put us in good stead for life.

Stand up for yourself.
As a painfully shy child and teenager, I was somewhat of an easy target. I was bullied for a long time. As an adult I rage at my younger self for being so submissive, but it’s an awkward age and assertiveness often requires time.

Mum used to get frustrated with me too, mostly because she knew firsthand what was going on and why. I distinctly remember being in a shop one day when I was 10, when the cashier was really rude and Mum called her on it. My sister and I did our usual bolt and hid between the aisles until the confrontation was over. When we got to the car, Mum was mad.

“One day you girls will understand that you have to stand up for yourself and not allow people to treat you badly. You act embarrassed, but did that person feel bad about being rude to us? No. When I said something, she apologised and said she was having a bad day. She was very nice after that. I used to be meek like you two. But one day I realised that being a nice person didn’t mean I had to let people walk all over me. With any luck that will happen for you too.”

Thankfully it has. I still struggle with giving a little too much to the wrong people, and justifying more than I should, but it’s a process. She was 110 per cent right.

Love matters.

At the end of the day, it’s all about having people in your life who genuinely love you, who you genuinely love back. Relationships of any kind take effort, time, loyalty and trust. As Mum always says, “you only get out what you put in”. And thanks to her compassionate ear, generosity and famous bear hugs, she is surrounded by people who think the world of her.

Short, short stories: part two

After receiving positive feedback for my last post, I’ve put together a few more short pieces that will hopefully inspire some thought. If nothing else, maybe it’ll be something to read on your lunch break. I hope you like them x

 

It’s sad that all generations will peel away and dissolve into time, with only the best and worst entombed in the pages of books.

 

Why are people held responsible if love evades them? When land is drought-stricken you don’t blame the soil. Nobody can will it to rain.

 

He wanted a wife, I wanted a life. Together we couldn’t have both.

 

Mind over motor function*

The train rockets beneath me but somehow sounds like a gentle hum. Lost in the rhythm, I relax a little. Oxygen converts into carbon dioxide. I close my eyes for a soothing moment.

The sensation of an audience flicks them open; minding my own business has become someone else’s. An old man stares through my eyes, his mouth drooped over a rumpled briefcase. Glazed and quiet, he sways and sways, using my face as an anchor point. His barren stare triggers a response as familiar as breath; a sudden unease that swells like a sore.

I forget how to be in my body. My face is swallowed by flames. Panicked air squalls from my nostrils, pushed up by heaving lungs. Newly autonomous eyes dart from behind my portrait face, eluding his gaze with feverish stealth. His stare persists, vacant and weary, projected from a pair of cannon-like voids.

The train rattles to a stop, my cells bathe in relief. Invisible weight exits my chest.

My features shuffle into place like obedient chess pieces.

The doors open and I rush out, devouring stale air like I’ve emerged from underwater.

 

* I originally posted this idea in 2013, but recently rewrote it for a fiction competition. Just in case it looks familiar.

Short, short stories: an experiment

I was recently introduced to the liberating concept of momentary storytelling.

Any writer will tell you how debilitating the fear of the blank page can be – which is why I love this idea so much. It takes the enormity out of the equation, allowing you to create something powerful from something small.

With a large project taking up most of my time, I have completely neglected this blog. I didn’t feel like I had anything substantial to write about. So, inspired by the aforementioned concept, I’ve decided to share some snippets I’ve written in recent months – sentences, ideas and free thoughts – that are not burdened with purpose. Just presented as little pieces in their own right.

This is sort of an experiment so I’d love to hear your thoughts. I hope you like them.

  • I’m shedding my winter coat. The layers have become stifling and intrusive; I burn inside, my desires have changed. I shake off its heaviness and it falls in flakes around me, cascading in clumps until the sun heats my skin, tempered by crackling air. At the mercy of the elements, open and wild, I’m finally free and can feel the world.
  • His words poured down my throat, warming my insides like vodka. I knew we couldn’t rest until we’d drunk each other dry.
  • If I’m asleep I don’t have to be awake.
  • Her heart and mind protect their borders with the fierce defiance of enemies at war.
  • I fear I’m an adventurous spirit cloaked in mediocrity.
  • Low self-esteem is like a balloon: it takes time to pump up but just a second to burst.

Why I’m scared to have a daughter

I’m scared she’ll have the same soft, romantic heart as me, and have it fractured in multiple places.
I’m scared she’ll be teased mercilessly for the features her ancestors gave her, which she used to be proud of.
I’m scared she’ll be invited to birthday parties as a joke, and wake up covered in makeup and toilet paper.
I’m scared she’ll be tricked by a boy who thinks her crush is lunchtime fun.
I’m scared she’ll be shy and overwhelmed by the world around her.
I’m scared she’ll feel invisible and judge herself accordingly.
I’m scared that cruelty will crush her sweetness, harden her spirit and muddy her view.
I’m scared she’ll trust too easily and never learn to guard herself.
I’m scared she’ll blame herself for things she cannot change.
I’m scared she’ll feel like she’s not good enough, when being good is her biggest problem.
I’m scared she’ll say yes when she means to say no.
I’m scared she’ll think she has to change to be liked.
I’m scared she will change to be liked.
I’m scared she’ll waste precious time on people who value no-one.
I’m scared those people will leave her empty.
I’m scared she’ll build up walls to protect her fragile heart.
I’m scared she’ll become too scared to let them down.
I’m scared her hope will start to dim.
I’m scared she’ll be unkind to herself and mirror those who seek to harm.
I’m scared she’d never see herself the way I would see her,
unconditionally loved.

Things I’m glad my Dad taught me

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Writing in birthday cards is a great time to reflect. It’s one time a year you have to crystallise your sentiments for a person, in a few words or a few paragraphs. The length and tone of the message usually depends on your relationship – token well wishes for an acquaintance or colleague, maybe a whole card for a loved one.

The card-writing part is always a struggle when it comes to my parents. It’s hard to compress so many feelings into a small cardboard square – all the love, gratitude and happy memories. They’re great people. Each year I give it a try but never feel like I’ve hit the mark. Mum is a sentimental person and always appreciates the affection, which I wish I shared more often. Dad on the other hand is gentle but stoic and shies away from soppiness. I tend to fall somewhere between the two.

Dad’s birthday is coming up this week, and with that in mind I’ve written a suitably practical list of life lessons he taught my siblings and I (and continues to pass on), which have shaped us in the best and most enduring ways.

1. There are good men out there.

Growing up, we saw what seemed to be an endless cavalcade of unsavoury men, sweeping in and out of our family like bad smells. Drunks. Beaters. Cowards. Cheats. Unfortunately for many of the women in my family, there is a strong streak of kindness, romanticism and unwavering trust. We’re often easy targets for those kinds of men; the users and abusers. Seeing that calibre of person from a young age can create a cycle of behaviour; it sadly does in many families. It’s easy to settle for bad treatment if that’s all you’ve known.

Lucky for us – my twin sister, my three older sisters and brother – that wasn’t all we knew. Dad has always been a shining beacon of decency (along with my grandfathers). Something we’ve all acknowledged over the years. Having a kind, principled, generous and reliable father figure made all the difference.

I’ve experienced the spiral of dating the abusive and possessive, the charming and narcissistic. Often I stayed because I believed there wasn’t anyone better for me. I remember one time – rather than thump his chest in paternal rage and make me defensive about the idiot I was dating – Dad just told me straight out, “you deserve better”.

He was right. I decided from that moment that I’d never settle again.

2. Knowledge is important.

In primary school, my sister and I would run into Mum and Dad’s room every morning and jump on their bed. Mum would make us all a cup of tea and we’d sit on the bed with Dad doing impromptu quizzes. Our favourite subject was geography and we were ‘tested’ in turns. My favourite was the US and I learned all 50 states and their capitals. History and spelling were also popular. Our school teachers often wrote letters home complimenting our ‘advanced knowledge’.

It wasn’t just the knowledge that Dad taught us but the thirst for it. We were both avid readers and still are. He instilled the value of learning and the freedom it can bring. I owe so much of my career and education to that early foundation. I’m also grateful for being told as a young girl that it isn’t just acceptable to be informed and opinionated, but it’s important. He encouraged us to be strong and capable women.

3. “If you don’t put value on your time, nobody else will.”

This is something that took a little longer to sink in, but has become more profound as the years have passed. We live in such a fast-paced world where everyone wants a little piece of you – and with the people-pleasing nature I mentioned earlier, my sister and I have been susceptible to exploitation. It’s easy to blame opportunists for taking advantage of you, but the truth is, you partake in the game by letting them do it. Dad’s message is a great one for accountability and reclaiming control.

4. Pay your debts.

Be responsible. If you borrow money, pay it back. Don’t spend beyond your means. Be smart and organised. Plan ahead. Pay your own way.

Simple concepts but surprisingly uncommon in practice. I take real pride in financial independence.

5. Be hopeful but cautious.

Mum and Dad have always been unconditionally supportive of my creative pursuits, although I know they’d have never allowed me to chase a pipedream. They believe in me, so I believe in myself. I get my idealism from Mum, my practicality from Dad, and he has tempered my excitable whims on more than one occasion; bringing me gently back to earth with pragmatic advice.

As a result I’m learning the balance between optimism, realism and confidence; to dream big without feeling small.

 

We’re so grateful for you, Dad. Happy birthday xx

Through the looking glass

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When I was 17, I distinctly remember an adult telling me to enjoy being young because “these are the good old days you’ll look back on in years to come”.

I took special note of that moment and tried hard to appreciate what I had – the way you appreciate your loved ones when you hear a tale of loss – but the reality is you can never truly value what you have until you no longer do. So, despite having my fortune pointed out to me, I was unable to fully understand what I should be grateful for.

Shortly after turning 18, I got a crash course in what she had meant.

A serious back injury turned my young body into a vessel for chronic pain and anxiety. Depression entered like poison and stained my brain so deep that the more I tried to scrub it away the more it spread. Over time I was able to remove some of the excess, but my mind would never be as clean as it once was.

The jolt into adulthood was like waking on the other side of a mirror. I could still see a hazy version of my reality but was no longer permitted to enter. The new side looked the same to the naked eye, but my whole world felt opposite. From that moment on, my quest was to get back to the other side. It was all I wanted. But the struggle was fruitless; the glass only goes in one direction. The vision of my old life tormented me.

I didn’t even know what I wanted to reclaim. A sense of calm and security, maybe. Life without constant, debilitating, exhausting thoughts. There’s nowhere to hide from an overactive mind. I legitimately felt like I was going crazy; slowly spiralling apart. It took time and proper help, but I was eventually able to stop obsessing about what I thought I had lost. My brain settled down. I could be alone again without panicking. I felt like myself.

Depression and anxiety are adversaries that never quite disappear; they lay dormant and emerge now and then. There is a ‘before’ but there is no ‘after’; you and It are forever intertwined. But that doesn’t mean you are doomed to a life of turmoil. In fact, those hard times force you to find strength you didn’t know you had. You locate the reserves, explore your limits. And while it was a baptism of fire, I can’t think of a better lesson for the real world than that.

I have written about my experiences with depression before, but it’s not shared lightly or for attention. My only objectives are to inform people who have never been through it, and to reassure sufferers that they are not alone. I’m from a family of ‘battlers’ who don’t complain or dwell on their problems. Admirable in many respects, but it doesn’t foster an open forum to seek help. Trying to handle it alone is what fuels the flame.

So many stories have emerged in the last few years and it’s a great effort to break down the stigma and misconceptions. Let’s be brave and keep talking.

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