Therapy, the Past and the Future


Continued…

The therapist wanted to see me weekly, and in the meantime I practiced breathing like a normal human would. Damn, it was hard! I saw the pain doctor for an initial consult, and he was knowledgeable and lovely. I told him about my studies; the training and travel it would involve. “I just need to be able to function,” I pleaded. I told him I required solutions that wouldn’t zone me out. After perusing scans and examining me, a deficit in the strength in my arms was noted. I had noted it too, for a long time, a hangover from the second time my spine was broken. A new medication and regime was implemented, and I left with some hope. As long as I can keep writing, I am okay with whatever comes.

My daughter was scheduled to dance with her senior troupe, but the event was cancelled at the last moment. The dance school had managed to enrol in a festival to be held somewhere else. It was a place and a town I had avoided for the past 25 years. The man that threw me from the building, his family lived there, and every family function was held in this club. In fact, he had been arrested on charges relating to me whilst having dinner there. Now my daughter was going to this place, accompanied by me. I was conscious of my breathing leading up to the event, and was also more aware of my coping mechanisms, thanks to my one session of therapy! However, once enclosed within the walls of the club, I thought to hell with being conscious of breathing. To hell with being present. It was a mausoleum to gambling and drinking, resplendent with its very own forest, lagoon and faux train station. There were hidden corners and booths everywhere, and I scanned each and every one, searching for him and his family, whose transgressions matched his. I finally found my people, and instantly offered to find a chemist for one of the young dancers. Down I marched, becoming lost in the cavernous space, until I was directed as to a pharmacy outside. I walked through an alley, my heart beating wildly as I turned to face the train station, where he once sold drugs. Was he there?!

I raced back from the chemist, and after giving the supplies over, I ate my body weight in sugar. Salad wasn’t going to suffice today, no way! Ice-cream was devoured, as was caffeine, followed by lollies and chocolates from the vending machines. The noise of this club and the lights offended my senses, which were already going into overdrive. Had he seen me? Had he followed me into the auditorium? Anyone could come and go from here. He had followed me before, after seeing me on the street, once trapping me in a laneway, another time, a public bathroom. It may seem silly, but my sapphire blue walking stick became a magical staff. I could use it to trip him up, if need be. I sat at the back of the room, hyped on sugar and adrenaline. I told nobody about what I was experiencing. Where to begin? Realising that I was isolating, I walked to where the other parents were sitting. I enjoyed their company and banter; it was rather like an elastic band snapping me back to the present.

We got a lift home with another mum, and in my tired state, I stopped paying attention to our whereabouts. Glancing up, I realised that the shops looked familiar. I had been here before. Oh no! We were on his street! A place where cruelty had occurred, or should I say, more cruelty. Every day was a battle of wits and a struggle to survive.

I threw up when I got home, then took out my box of comfort tools. They consist of pyjamas, bed socks, essential oils, music and my bed. I had done it, and it was over. I knew I would never go back. I saw my daughter dance with her friends. It was a triumph. I feel as if I live in two worlds, the inner life keeping me busy, even as I socialise. No wonder people experiencing this duality are often exhausted. Remembering what that kid went through… Nobody cared and nobody rescued her, amongst the many who knew what was happening. To experience it all again felt like a respectful thing to do. It is my way of telling her that I am sorry for what she endured; that it was wrong, so wrong. To have to feel it, and then move on, is hard. It feels as though I am leaving her behind. I had nightmares for a week (when I managed sleep), and tried to go easy on myself. I am doing the best that I can. I have learnt that once I re-enter a place or hear a piece of music, for instance, it loses it’s hold over me. I would have to actively avoid most of Sydney to not encounter a place of trauma.

In the time since this experience, I have met with friends, and we’ve laughed and shared stories over coffee. I have relished the warmth of the mug coursing through my hands. I have delighted in the visiting birds, and watching the leaves falling from my trees. There is no reason why I survived that time in my life. Other young girls hadn’t been so lucky after having met him. I have completed a module of my health admin course, and am confident I could save a life if I needed to. It wasn’t because I’d performed CPR on a model at the Health campus, it was because I’d already saved a life previously. It was my own.

 

Therapy, the Past and Present


Pieces of cloth are strewn over my bed. Here is broderie anglaise from my christening gown. There is my favourite blue shirt I wore at fourteen;  a square from the white jumper I wore the night of my fall… Blood and mud-stained fabric, some pierced with bark chips. Strewn across my bed in no decipherable order. For twenty-five  years, I’ve attempted to sort through them. I had been wanting to make a patchwork quilt, to offer warmth and comfort. Trouble is, I hadn’t been taught how to sew, so had no hope of constructing it by myself.

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After years of stagnation, suddenly the lights turned green. I am studying for two degrees. A pain specialist with a fabulous reputation opened a practice in my town, and by a miracle, I was booked in to see a psychologist specialising in trauma. I turned up to her office with trepidation, afraid that by picking at the scab, I would bleed all over the place, and not heal. Perhaps, I would be left with a bigger scar. A Chilean lady came out to greet me, and my fears were cast aside. She admitted that she was puzzled at how I came to get an appointment, as her books had been closed for a while. She was taking no new patients on. I explained that a local support service had recommended her, and she laughed and said that gremlins must have gotten into her computer, opening up a space. I gave her a run-down on my life, checking off trauma as though I were reciting a shopping list.

She in turn asked about my digestion, if my mind raced, if I found it hard to concentrate on one thing at a time, if I was late to the party, having delayed emotional responses? Does my heart race? Do I breathe so quickly that I feel faint? I asked her how she knew? My digestion has always been a fragile flower.  My mind is always racing. I told her that sitting in her office for fifteen minutes, I had planned meals for the next week, my daughter’s schedule, done my budget and planned the next three chapters of a book I am writing. In fact, I am writing four at the same time. My bed has a pile of books on the floor, and I read a chapter then discard the book, perusing the next book in the pile. I even find it difficult waiting at a red pedestrian crossing, sitting through a movie, sitting still at all. As for emotional responses… I am commended for my calm at times when others fall apart. I have lost many dear friends, and can endure my grief, then a year or so later, I will be inconsolable when I see a photo of them. I am late to the party when it comes to boundaries too. Others will see things before I do, and back away from a person. When I went for an assessment earlier this year, so as to obtain a report for NDIS funding for trauma counselling, these traits were commended and cited as proof that I was coping splendidly. This lady was incredulous when I stated that NDIS had knocked me back because of the report, stating that I was a high-achiever who was coping very well indeed! My new psychologist sent me the following article on the Vagus nerve. It is the tenth cranial nerve, and interfaces with the parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs and digestive tract. It controls several muscles of the throat and voice box, and carries sensory information from the internal organs back to the brain.

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As you can see, it’s tendrils are long and reach deep. She noted that I squirm a lot and when talking or answering questions, my eyes dart upwards and side to side. It is a common response, when you have PTSD. She could see the little girl I was come out at times. I told her that now my daughter is reaching the age I had been when the most horrid of experiences started occurring, my mind is reminding me of what happened to me. I need to reach deep, as though unplugging a clogged sink, so that generational pain won’t besmirch her wondrous life. Eating disorders, alcohol misuse, utilising prescription medications to quell emotional pain, I had already dealt with it all. Now here I was, wanting to up my game plan. I want to do it for my daughter, so I can be the best mum I can be, for my friends so I can be present and healthy, for future employers and for myself.  The battle had begun.

As she emailed me the article on the Vagus nerve, I caught a glimpse of the ring emblazoned by a ruby on her finger. My mind was suddenly back inside a bathroom when I was fourteen. A man of unparalleled evil had been introduced into my world, and a woman I had known for only a short while gifted me a ruby ring. She insisted that I wear it, assuring me that it would keep me strong. “You will need to be,” she said, glancing at the man hovering over my shoulder. Always hovering… I took the ring off to wash my hands, and forgot to put it back on. When I went to retrieve it later, it was gone. “What will keep me strong now?” I asked in dismay. This memory led to others, too numerous to mention to the therapist, though she noted that I had drifted away. “You disassociate often, don’t you?” she smiled. She told me that it was quite a clever ploy of my brain, in order to protect me from horror and terror as it happened. It has also meant that I have put up with intolerable situations as an adult, for longer than I should, without further damage being done.

I was instructed on how to breathe, so I could transcend the flight response I was caught in. “We need to start from the basics, and that for you is learning how to simply breathe.” It took forty minutes until I was able to breathe deeply and slowly. Of course, my mind dove deep into the past, to the moment I first heard anything about “the horrors,” as PTSD was formerly known. I was fourteen and had met a gentle soul called Dennis. He couldn’t sit still, and his arms shook, and he tapped his foot involuntarily. “I’m like this because I’m a vet,” he whispered. “Oh, I love animals!” I exclaimed in my naivety.  Dennis smiled bemusedly. I didn’t know what he was talking about then. Now I know.

(To be continued)

Pain and Anxiety


When I first read about Jo Cameron-the ease in which she moves through the world- I envied her. Imagine not being woken by niggling fears surfacing at 2am? What a joy to not suffer anxiety, nor terrors, from real or imagined foes! As for aches and pains, imagine not suffering with any? How liberated would you feel?

 

Jo Cameron was interviewed in the New York Times recently. The potential for her genes to be studied, so that pain and anxiety in everyday patients may be diluted, is a tantalising prospect. It may result in the ability to demand that a certain gene calms the hell down!

 

Along with the obvious advantages to living as Jo Cameron does, there are also disadvantages. I have told my daughter to be aware of that feeling in the pit of her stomach, that relays whether a situation or person is giving off good vibes, or not. Are they making her feel anxious? It is a sense that over-rides all logic, and hence doesn’t involve the brain, as much as the gut. I have told her to always honour that feeling, and have promised that I shall too. Imagine if we didn’t have any warning of danger? No rapid heartbeat, sweating, nor adrenaline in overdrive? There can be good stressors, which pivot us beyond what we believed were the limits of what we can endure. Studying, exams, public speaking. Anxiety can be used as a helpful resource, and not a hindrance in these cases.

When I went into labour, I thought they were mild contractions, involving my lower back. Compared to endometriosis pain, it was a walk in the park! The back pain grew worse, which saw me agree to finally go to hospital. It turned out that I was in full labour! If I hadn’t had the back pain, I would never have known. Every segment of my spine is damaged. There are bony spurs growing on my neck, all the way down. My spinal canal is narrowing, leaving little room for the nerves. I am sometimes out of my mind with the pain, and as a seasoned pain-sufferer, I often welcome it. It gets so bad that my brain packs an overnight bag, and we escape the minutiae of everyday life. I laugh more heartily, dream more vividly, and write more eloquently than I would have done.  I appreciate the spider senses in my solar plexus going into overdrive if confronted with danger. The same goes with my hand retracted from a steaming cup, before being scolded.

It would be lovely to have the ability to adjust the settings on anxiety and pain, without turning them off completely. Perhaps, Jo Cameron holds the answers we have been seeking.

Stay…


Last week, Sydney lost a talented chef to suicide.  Bronzed and seemingly healthy, his smile could light up our city. There was much commentary after the news hit social media, but what pierced through the rhetoric was the notion that when alone, he’d fallen into a worm hole, and hadn’t the resources to stave off the impulse his depression looped into. These holes seem to have no end, and can be hard to extricate oneself from.

I know a person who was close to succumbing, in January, 2019. There are as many pathways into anxiety and depression as there are people in the world. Hers wasn’t initially caused by a chemical imbalance, rather circumstances conspiring against her. It were as though her mind were a strudel, with layers of pastry piled on top of one other. The apple promised sweetness, and she held the layers of stress in her hands, waiting to reach the filling. All it took was another day of calamity- not of her making- to break her resolve. Heart beating wildly, hands shaking and a mind unable to see a way out, she reached for the phone. Once a playdate for her child had been arranged, and she was alone, her mind led her onto a dark stage. There was no audience, nor were there lights. There were no solutions here.

She had done all that she could to make life better, more secure, and she couldn’t see her way clear. All of a sudden, a beam of light hit the centre of her brain, insisting that she send a text. She asked what her friend was up to, and if she may join her. “Of course!” came the enthusiastic response. They drove to the beach, singing along to the radio. She made herself focus on all the beauty surrounding her. The Bird Of Paradise, alongside hibiscus, in reds and oranges,  dotting the landscape. She closed her eyes and felt the salt air caressing her skin. Her bottle of chilled water felt good as it hit her neck, the Cheezels they had bought, decorating her fingers like rings. She had gone against her wildest impulse, which was to not experience anything at all. It had frightened her, how her brain insisted that the stressors couldn’t be balanced against beauty.

They were gone for hours, away from home and everyday life. She was dropped back revived, just in time to make calls and forge a path through the thorny brackets of which she had been stuck. The next morning, she woke at dawn, and saw something similar to this.

Morning light and lorikeets greeted the new day, alongside the help needed to extricate herself from overwhelming concerns. Within a month, she had begun a new medication. It was a small dose, but enough to chase away the anxiety she had been battling alone, without armour. She could now see her way clear, and a path opened up in front of her. Happiness returned, and she started to engage with the world again. To her amazement, she had been missed. Depression in an active state is renowned for the crap it feeds us. Looking back, she shudders at what she would have missed, in just a couple of weeks. The mundane joy of a cool change after stifling heat, through to her child’s laughter.

She hadn’t the language in her distressed state to tell her friend what the matter was, nor what she needed, other than to be with someone. Perhaps that is all one needs to do; to reach out and say that you need company, even accompanying them as they go about their errands. Anything to not be in alone, battling a pocket of despair by yourself. A wormhole is a tunnel with two ends. Perhaps reaching out to those on the periphery is a way of ensuring we make it back to life. Look out for those self-isolating or who seem to be going through changes. Our psyche can be as fragile as a butterfly wing, and whilst it is tempting to cease all that has ever given us joy, it is imperative that we don’t. The lies our minds feed us tends to be done in secret and when alone.  You are too precious, and life has too much beauty left to unfurl. Let today mark the beginning of us all leaving our particular pockets of despair. If you survived today because you decided to go grocery shopping with a friend, rather than stay by yourself, then that is a miracle indeed. Whatever it takes to keep you alive, do it.

The Trouble with R U OK Day


Today is R U OK Day, that 24 hour period where Australian’s ask the question over social media. The usual answer is that we are fine, thanks for asking. A number of young people have told me they are dubious about this collective day of enquiring. They have a sharp point of comparison on social media and in real life. If others seem to be together, with not a care in the world, they daren’t declare that in fact they are not okay and life is not alright. Mum and Dad are okay and seem to be emotionally together, as do their friends and the community at large. They don’t see their softball coach collapse in tears, needing to be comforted in their grief, and they don’t often see mum connecting on a level that is beyond a cocktail night or a movie with the ladies, as seen in their Instagram pics. We aren’t great at naming our emotions and sharing our struggles. Pride may come into it as well as shame and embarrassment amid a desperate, silent struggle to make our centre hold. We need to show kids that we cry and need to reach out to a friend when life is hard. They need to see us as open, if we want them to be the same.

I just read back through notes I have written since December, and boy, this eight months has pulverised me, leaving shards of glass scattered around my psyche. My friends only know a little of my depression, and of my anxiety. The experiences which led to this are too much, even for dear friends. I have been loathe to burden anybody with the complete picture. As a result, I reached out to experts. I spent hours explaining things, handing over my notes. They in turn promised that they would organize specialised counselling, at a price I would be able to afford. I waited and waited, and I rang and emailed. Eventually, I had the horrible realization that there was no help forthcoming. It reminded me of the time, twenty years ago when I was promised a dedicated counsellor to help me navigate my past. After a long while, they rang, and apologised. They were unable to offer help for the deep trauma I had suffered. There was no help at all for me. I remember the sinking feeling, as I began to understand that I had too much pain for them to deal with. If I wanted to survive, I had to find a way, without being given any tools. It was like climbing a sheer cliff face without ropes and a harness.

It is lovely to ask people if they are okay, but what if they answer that no, they aren’t? Where are the services? Where is the immediate help? I know so many families who are trying desperately to help their son/daughter or brother/sister hold on, but they are doing it alone. Whatever the mental health budget is at present, it needs to be tripled, at the very least. We are in a state of emergency. I have not been okay, and hand on heart, I hadn’t found the help I have needed, despite searching. I made up my own emotional first aid kit. It contains:

*Contracting in to save energy, necessary for the battle. Huddling up in my home, and retreating from social media.

*Opening my front door and firing up my laptop when I had a clearer head.

*Walking at least thirty minutes, most days.

*Playing soothing music and calming my senses with candles and essential oils.

*When I didn’t have the energy to talk on the phone or meet up in person, I would try and at least converse via text and email.

*Making sure that I eat, and do so regularly.

*Movies and the theatre, always.

*Making a list each day of what I wanted to achieve. I found my brain was so overloaded that I couldn’t remember half of what I needed to do, and so my lists have been a blessing.

*Not comparing my journey to anyone else.

Top of the kit was being kind to myself; knowing that I was doing my utmost to be here in a year’s time. I did so whilst querying all the wild suggestions my addled mind proffered. I would be panic-stricken leaving the house, worrying as to who I might bump into and what I could possibly say. Wondering if people liked me at all, worrying that I was alone. The brain that hasn’t rested at night, and is going full-pelt of a day, is a brain that can trick us into believing any number of scenarios. I wanted to give up searching for tools, I really did. I was tired and it is hard to be vulnerable enough to ask for help in the first place. I did one thing before shutting the door for good; I rang a dear lady who works for a large organization and I told her everything. Within a day, she had emailed me a list of resources and has organized assistance. It is hard-going, locating a service without a huge waiting list (at best), but you are worth it; your life is worth it. Persist, and if you don’t feel you can, ask a trusted friend to persist on your behalf.

On this R U Ok day, I hope that people feel free to answer honestly. Our young are looking at us to not only give guidance as they make their way through life, but to also show them our vulnerabilities and the strength it requires to ask for help. In the past week, I have been honoured to hear several women sharing with me of their grief, that they are suffering domestic violence, and that a child has had a devastating health diagnosis. These women were not okay, and I batted away their apologies and assured them that it was alright to state it. Tea was drunk and tissues were given, as well as the biggest gift of all, which is time.  Imagine somebody came to your door and you asked, R U OK? What if they said they were the opposite of okay? Would you sit with them in their anger, depression and sorrow? Would you be still and silent, leaving room for them to speak? This is what is needed in the midst of our noisy and harried existence. Arms to hold you, hands to dry your tears, cups of water to hydrate and compassion so that you feel heard.

Here a list of excellent Apps which be of assistance if you are in Australia:

Recovery Point

Headspace

Positive Pathways

Daisy

Suicide Call-Back Service

Recognition


I recognized him instantly, the young man seated at his desk. “Excuse me,” I stammered, “would you mind if I sketched you?” I was at the Correspondence School in William street, Sydney, to meet my teachers and attend classes for the day. These wonderful people would prepare lessons for me, in between my surgeries. The art teacher had suggested I approach his colleague to have some practice. He smiled as he turned around, which was quickly replaced with a look of horror. He had been in the clinic with me when I was fourteen. The last time I had seen him, he was catatonic, one of the patients in the long-term unit. He had been in for nearly a year, on a trajectory of hopeful recovery and devastating lows. He had been my friend, and I his. Now we were out in the world, he a twenty-five year old teacher, and I at sixteen, housed in a body brace. He pleaded with his eyes, not to let slip that we knew each other. The room was crowded, and conversation of a sensitive nature would be overheard. I told him with my eyes that I wouldn’t reveal his past. I sketched his profile as though he were a stranger. He formally bid me goodbye, and I went on my way.

The same thing happened at a department store in the city. A girl I was in hospital with served me at the counter. Her blue eyes sparkled and she smiled before her visage turned to horror. I had wanted to embrace her, and squeal, “you survived!” She had been molested by her Uncle, and her parents had disbelieved her. She had tried to take her life, and ended up in the hospital with me. She was funny, warm, kind and had run away to live with her older sister, before being dragged back. We were forbidden from seeing each other, and I had fretted over her fate. Once again, I promised not to let slip that we knew each other, without saying a word. I only had to look into her pleading eyes.

It happened time and again, my meeting people who had once been close friends. You can’t help but form an incredibly intimate bond with people whom you live with 24/7. On the outside, these people treated you like a stranger, and you were asked to treat them the same. Nobody knew of their prior admittance, nor battles, save for a few family members. It was a given that if people knew their history, it would ruin any chance of employment, let alone promotion. No wonder I had seen executives of well-known companies rescind into the shadows after having complete breakdowns. What a burden it is, to keep up appearances.

I shared the clinic with teachers, models, musicians, nurses, rock stars, people on the board of major hospitals, chefs, actors and many more aside. They became my family, and trusted me with their secrets. There was a disconnect when they went out into the world to regain their place in their industry. It was an unnerving dissonance that didn’t sit well. I instinctively knew that it wasn’t healthy. These were the days before social media, where a famous person could hide their struggles inside the walls of a private clinic.

This year has seen many stressors heaped on me in a short period of time. When one has seen hundreds of people rescind mid-way through their lives, and have heard them table their backstories, one has a tendency to be attentive to the health of one’s own mind. There have been weeks when my brain has been seized by anxiety so severe that I would spend days reading over the same sentence, or forgetting why I went into the kitchen. Depression so crippling that I would want to crawl back into bed within an hour of waking. Social media can help us to feel connected, but it can also make us feel dejected. Witnessing everyone’s highlight reels, seeing people having fun whilst we sit on the periphery of it all can be devastating.

A famous photographer was in the clinic at the same time as I, and I held her sick bowl and pressed cold face cloths to her forehead as she suffered withdrawals. She introduced me to Carrie Fisher’s writing, giving me a copy of ‘Postcards from the Edge.’ She also gifted me a diary, urging me to put anything that made me want to live in its pages. I included quotes, photos, song lyrics and my own musings, and I still treasure this thick diary with its art nouveau cover. She was a truth-seeker and was one of the rare few who didn’t give a flying fig who knew about her admittance, nor fragility.

As for myself, I feel like an Autumn leaf, blowing this way and that. It is time to have trauma counselling. Back when I was a teen, nobody I knew was diagnosed with PTSD, nor anxiety. It wasn’t seen as imperative that trauma counselling begin straight away, to reduce the severity of symptoms going forward. I have rung the centre that was organizing specialized counselling many times, as well as emailing. The trouble is, services are stretched to breaking point. The willingness to assist is there, but the sheer volume of people needing help is overwhelming. I am going to call into this place soon, and talk to somebody about starting this specialized counselling. Receiving what you need is a battle, and you have to believe that you are worth the fight. I know I am worth the fight, and I am also fighting for my daughter, so I can be the best mum to her that I possibly can. We adults need to lead our young to know that articulating our struggles and being honest with our emotions is healthy. They need to see us reaching out to one another, and advocating for services. Contact the health minister and local MP’s and persist until they respond to the call for more services. We are at crisis point in Australia.

I look forward to the day when people who have sought help for their mental health can embrace upon meeting outside of their initial contact. They can introduce their friend to their colleagues and share where they are up to now. The silence and shame and the hiding parts of ourselves is toxic. The older I get, the more I see of our fragility as a species. I know  that the parts of my body that were fused and reinforced with titanium are the strongest parts of me. The cracked and damaged parts are the strongest. It is the neck and shoulders, hips and discs in my spine that once were healthy, that are complaining. The same is true for the mind. The brain that can be pliable and work toward a glorious future, can also become stuck on replaying trauma, like a reel of film. It is exhausting to keep a smile plastered on, to disregard the damaged psyche underneath and to play pretend. It is time to stop. It is time to advocate and it is time for shame to be quashed.

The Ring Walk


I have always had a terror of heights, and had to be excused from excursions featuring walks across Sydney Harbour Bridge, Centrepoint Tower and the footbridge at Darling Harbor. The mere thought of traipsing across walkways was too much to bear. Of course, my acrophobia became much worse after I soared to earth and broke. You can’t easily explain to other people what it is like to be jostled up a stairwell, nor set on a ledge. They can’t understand how it feels to soar through the air, knowing you will crash to earth within seconds. They don’t know how any of it feels, for the simple reason that they haven’t felt it. My survival is due to a combination of things; I was able to talk him down from the roof, and to the next level. There were bark chips (rather than concrete), underneath this new level, and the few metres less gave me more chance of surviving. I have taken for granted many things in my life, but my survival has not been one of them.

When memories are stirred, and flashbacks take place, I am usually alone. I make a concerted effort to be alone at such times. I get through it, in my own way. Yesterday, I had probably one of the worst anxiety attacks of my adult life. The day started pleasantly enough. I was taking part in a walk with a group of people, and we chatted happily as we strolled through parklands. Two kilometres in, we turned a corner, and I was caught up in the group. To my horror, I found myself to be on The Ring Walk, a circular walkway 550 metres in circumference and 18.5 metres above a sandstone floor. The panels either side were transparent, allowing a complete view of the drop below. My heart beat wildly, as I summed up my options. I couldn’t turn back, as there was a sea of people approaching from behind. The thought of advancing forward seemed unthinkable; I still had such a long way to go.

The Brickpit Ring Walk at Sydney Olympic Park

I stood paralysed until a friend noticed my discomfort. She asked how she could help. I said that if she could link arms with me, and keep me chatting, I could cope better. We walked quickly as we talked about anything other than being on this walkway. It seemed to take hours to get to the end, but I kept my focus on gratitude; that this stunning woman with raven curls had noted my anxiety from afar, and instinctively knew what was happening to me. “We are at the end!” she cheered, and as I let go of her waist, my body felt like lead. I was dripping with perspiration and shaking uncontrollably.

There are many things I can control in way of responses, thoughts and emotions. My acrophobia is not one of them. I have a daughter who delights in heights, and is skilled at ascending without fear, and descending in a safe manner. My acrophobia affects nobody but me, and I am pleased about that. I crawled into bed, nauseous and exhausted last night, and it took 24 hours to still the surge of adrenalin coursing through my veins. No matter how many times I assured myself that I was safe, that there were no baddies behind, ready to throw me below, my body recall wouldn’t have it.

I usually fight the past alone. Yesterday, somebody stepped into the fray and not only acknowledged my past, but how I felt in that moment. It was a gracious act, filled with empathy. This lady has no fear of heights, but put herself in my shoes. Not only did I survive the Ring Walk, but I was given the gift of being completely vulnerable in front of another, and not only being seen and heard, but held up. I did something I never would have dreamed I could, with a dear friend lending me her strength.

Falling, Heights and Pemberton


I have always had a fear of heights. I would have nightmares about those I loved being thrown off balconies as a child, and wake up crying. I refused to walk over the Sydney Harbour Bridge on a school excursion, as well as the footbridge at Darling Harbour. I have never liked open escalators and glass lifts either. Staying on the ground was the only choice I allowed myself. It was a cruel irony then, that when I was abducted at fifteen, I was made to climb a staircase and set on a balcony. It is a cruel irony that I was thrown off said balcony. I had many surgeries to put my body back together. My fear of heights is still with me (understandably), though I can tackle staircases and some footbridges now.

Fast-forward a decade, and I now have an adventurous daughter. She is unafraid of anything, and has a love of climbing. I have had to put my own fears aside to applaud as she ascends to the sky, doing stunts along the way. I have had to reassure tourists throughout Sydney that she is fine, and knows what she is doing. She is happiest sitting in the canopy of a tree. I have had to remain silent on many occasions, resisting the urge to let out an audible gasp or holler out to “be careful.” This kid knows what she is doing; she always has. The most challenging time was still to come…

She was asked to accompany her friend to Western Australia for a holiday. The family was going to visit the Quokkas on Rottnest Island, snorkel and climb a trio of trees in Pemberton, the tallest at 75 metres. Here is an apt description of these beauties. Apparently, only one in three tourists make it to the top. My daughter was determined, and started training immediately. I was filled with trepidation, and had to resist the urge to say no. In my heart, I knew she could do it, and that it would provide an important life lesson. The more goals a kid can kick and the more challenges they accomplish, the better. It provides a great foundation for their lives. Afterall, if you can do something hard, it proves you can do anything! I wasn’t going to let my fears stand in her way.

Imagine my delight when she Face-timed me from the top! The look of absolute joy on her and her friend’s faces said it all. They can do hard things. I must say, allowing her to climb an apex has been one of my hardest parenting moments. To encourage, rather than daub her skin with my phobia has been challenging. I am so proud of both these girls!

I was struck by two recent incidents when writing this piece:

#1 A fellow serving us at an inner-city coffee shop watched as my daughter performed a back-bend and other tricks. He told me that he had been a trapeze artist for the past 19 years, travelling the world with his wife, until a shoulder injury rendered the demise of his career. He urged me to put her in a school where she can learn more, and said she would never be a day without work when older if she pursued her love of climbing, such as is the demand for these skills.

#2 An older man watched as she joyfully climbed a tree near Sydney Harbour. He glared at me, and remarked that I was “a reckless parent.” My heart sank. The friend I was with urged me to not pay any mind to this stranger, but I still hurt. He had no idea that I suffer anxiety so severe that it rendered me house-bound before I had her. He had no idea that I had fallen from a height, and have had to work hard to applaud my child as she ascends. My grandmother was a very nervous person. She would holler to “be careful! Don’t fall!” as we climbed down her concrete back steps. Sure enough, we would be so alarmed at her hollering that we would indeed fall. It takes everything you have to not do it.

When I saw the look of pride and joy on my girl’s face, I knew it had been the absolute right thing to celebrate with her, rather than douse her enthusiasm in my own fears. As I said to her at the time, “you did this amazing thing; can you see that you will do anything you set your mind to?”

Pressure


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I have been suffering the worst anxiety of my adult life; well, since I had IVF at least. The kind that makes you wake in the middle of the night, sweating and shaking. The ferocity of which makes you heave and feel as if you can’t catch your breath. I am entirely responsible for my child’s education; that alone is a lot of responsibility. I am trying to look after an adult with a mental illness that is unpredictable. I am trying to keep a household going, pay bills, and keep a grin on my face. I am preparing to see specialists and have necessary medical tests; attempting to scrape together the money to do so. Society regularly tells mothers that we are responsible for our health; that if a parent goes under, everything falls apart. I have been trying, I really have, to not go under. To ensure that my daughter is happy and secure. To not fail in my sworn mission to make everything okay with everyone I love. Oh, also to complete a book this year. 

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This year has pummeled me, the marks of which I acknowledge  in the rare moments  I have to sit and reflect. I knew the anxiety was turning into a monster by the following: 

I had two panic attacks in as many days.  I couldn’t work a door handle to exit a building, and the other when a lavatory door got stuck. I went straight into full panic, and passers-by had to calm me.

Feeling disengaged from life. Having  a list of things to do, but not having any idea as to how to do them. 

A pounding head all day, every day, and a terror of everything that once provided comfort. Social outings and social media, phones and emails procured extreme anxiety. 

Forgetting to eat, to sleep, to stop moving and sit quietly.

I called Lifeline, and tearfully relayed the events which had transpired to heighten my symptoms. The counselor was marvelous, and said they weren’t at all surprised that I was finding the going tough. When everything is all up to you, it can be anxiety-producing! I made contact with a counselor, whom I am going to see for a while, and I also saw my local GP. I am going to start medication, until I have a handle on the anxiety. It is not something I can do by myself, and goodness knows, I have tried. My brain feels as though it has forgotten how to relax and is ticking away 24/7. I am sure many can relate. Chronic pain is exhausting. Being a carer is exhausting. Having high expectations of yourself is exhausting. 

It took a lot for me to admit that I couldn’t cope; that I was in trouble. Relaxation and walks, chamomile tea and lavender oil are lovely adjuncts but weren’t offering a complete solution to such extreme anxiety. Spring is now here, and help is at hand. It is a matter of resetting a brain that has spun out of control. It is a matter of calming it down and soothing the tempest. I will still be responsible for an awful lot in life; that isn’t going to change. However, I will have the foundation required to cope with it all. One short woman alone.

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I saw the doctor and she agreed that I needed some help. I have started on a mild dose of medication and my mind already feels clearer. If you are suffering, please know that you aren’t alone.

Sculptures By the Sea


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Last week I was bedridden. Throwing up, headaches, fevers and unable to breathe properly. It takes a great deal to send me to bed. Either I can’t stand on my feet due to spinal pain or breathing is difficult due to pneumonia. My daughter made her lunch each day and got out her workbooks. I was so very proud of her. Sculptures by the Sea was on in Sydney, and I thought that the ocean air may help my recovery. We departed early, the sky an ominous grey. By the time we left Museum Station, a storm had  begun. The wind was ferocious, and turned my sturdy umbrella into a weapon. We found a café to take shelter in. The barista was a delightful young lady from Wales, and I was entranced by her accent. I couldn’t understand a thing she was saying, mind you! I asked for a coffee in a mug as big as my head and my request was granted.

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My child and I discussed cancelling our trip to the ocean walk to see the sculptures. My mind started with its anxiety reel. What if my phone runs out of battery and we get lost? What if our Opal cards run out of money and we can’t top them up? How will we get back from Bondi? What if there is torrential rain? I noted that two friends and their kids were going to brave it. They posted that the weather was much better on the coast. Another friend mentioned that she and her son had danced in the rain the day before and had a ball. My daughter looked at me, and said in a determined voice, “Remember our motto? The Angelou girls never give in and never give up.” Trapped by my own motto! It astounds me the way we try to talk ourselves out of new experiences; out of adventures. We found the bus we were to take, and enjoyed a pleasant trip through the Eastern Suburbs. The only hitch was that I went the wrong way when trying to find Tamarama Park. We walked in circles, my anxiety growing stronger. What if my phone goes flat, what if our Opal cards run out, what if we are lost… What if I am not enough for this amazing daughter of mine? She squeezed my hand and smiled, “it’s okay if we can’t find it. Being together is what it’s about.” I gave it one more try, and to our delight, we found it!

The ocean air did indeed clear my lungs and head. It was like magic! It was quiet, given the wind and mild temperature. The sun was hidden, but the beauty wasn’t. Somehow it made the scene all the more haunting. The children climbed rocks and sprayed each other with this enormous bottle.

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They ran barefoot and wild, just as a child should be. As one of them swung on monkey bars, performing daredevil tricks, I overheard two young women as they went by. “Look at that little girl! I love that she has no fear.” I told my friend what they had said about her child, and she smiled. She said that older people usually criticize her lack of terror at her child’s antics! My daughter found a wishing pot and made a special wish.

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We could taste the salt on our lips, feel it in our hair. It was like fairy dust, a light smattering of medicine. For two hours, the children played games, laughed, ran and discussed the sculptures. These two spoke of some of the issues of their generation. The ‘Barbie Wave’ was created from thousands of discarded dolls, and spoke to our rampant consumerism. The child holding their phone and sitting mesmerized spoke of our obsession with technology.

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As we were leaving, we came across a massive blackboard a resident had placed outside her home.

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We only stayed two hours, as our friends had to get back to the car or face a hefty fine, but time seemed to be fluid, rather than linear. We caught the bus back into town with a cacophony of smiling people. A lady in her 90’s regaled us with her stories. Today taught me that I am enough for my daughter. I am going to be okay and I shouldn’t let fear stop me from doing anything. If the Opal Card or phone had run out of power, I would still be okay. There is a big world out there to explore, and there are more magnanimous people than bad.