Breakdowns and Breakthroughs

2020 has alternately dragged and slipped through our fingers like sand. I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t been deeply affected in some aspect of life. Not being okay at times, well, it’s the new normal. I had a friend come to my door in tears. We sat and talked for hours, and I discovered that there wasn’t one area of her life that was supporting her. A home is designed to be a sanctuary, and hers certainly wasn’t. She apologised for crying, and I interjected. Crying is never a sign of weakness, but rather of strength. I asked her if she had any idea how brave she was, to make her way to my door. It was a positive action, signalling that she is aware she is worth care. It was a declaration of worth. I knew an elderly lady in her 80’s, who rode the Sydney trains and hung around a soup kitchen. She rejoiced when I wept in front of her, saying that I would now be spared having water on the brain, from all the tears unshed! I think she was onto something.

I couldn’t wave a magic wand, nor take all of my friend’s troubles away, but what I could do was listen. We watched the little dogs in the park play, and chatted to lovely people. We ate pizza and watched a kid’s movie. Answers were forming from the very act of divulging her pain. By experiencing a quiet sanctuary, she could see that she was worthy of more than her turbulent abode. I tend to think we know the answers; we just require the space to enable us to make decisions about the future. By emptying our mind of our solitary concerns, the answers are able to form.

We are so focused on presenting well, and so intent on not burdening other people, that we forget that through our authenticity, we allow others to be ‘real’ also. We are in the final months of a very hard year, and as the Christmas decorations go up in every store, I doubt many of us are prepared in any respect, for the festive season. Our very foundations were shaken, life as we knew it disassembled. There is nothing wrong with contracting in, as long as we don’t hold our breath, and forget to exhale.

The necessity of community has been brought back home to me. We need each other; we weren’t meant to go it alone. I shall never forget the many kindnesses shown me; the myriad ways gorgeous souls showed love and concern. It has left me humbled, with a renewed conviction to bundle up all that love, and pass it onto others.

It’s okay if we aren’t gearing up for Christmas, and it’s okay if we are. It’s okay if we’re in a puddle of tears today. 2020 has seen the rule book tossed out. Anything goes!

I recently sat on a beach to watch the sun came up, for the first time in years. I had forgotten just how profound it is. No matter what has transpired the day before, the sun dutifully rises. There’s comfort in that assurance.

What has fallen apart can be rebuilt. What remains hidden can finally be seen, and what is undecided shall have answers.

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.

Christmas and Stress

I recently lost a young friend, unexpectedly and in the most shocking of ways. It shook everyone to their core, including those whom never had the pleasure of knowing her. There seemed to be a collective sigh as masks fell, revealing the truth behind the smiling Instagram pics and depictions of lives filled to the brim. Life is part joy, and part sorrow. Social media accounts don’t necessarily lie, but rather they tell the polished version of lives. We don’t want to burden others with the challenges and pain. Throughout the past month, I have had many people apologize for telling me that they are doing it tough, and I have insisted that ‘burden’ be reframed as ‘sharing.’ We have to share. Spells are broken when we speak aloud, and we hear our voice speaking that which was hidden. I came into December feeling that I knew more about my friends. Even strangers on the bus have become more than acquaintances through the act of sharing. What people had once kept hidden astounded me. No wonder the smile slipped on occasion, and indications of anxiety peeped through!

People have told of the challenges of having two separate Christmas celebrations for children, of estranged family members whom they have to see separately. They have told of poverty and housing stress, ill-health and exhaustion. Trying to hold it together when inside, everything is falling apart. I was diagnosed with a neurological condition a short while ago, an extraordinarily painful chronic illness. I can’t even pretend to have it together at the moment, and the relief is palpable! My daughter is in WA with dear friends of mine. The mum and I did IVF together, and we ended up with daughters, who have been best friends since they were babes. I minded this little girl earlier this year, and I had tears when I heard the girls discussing how they knew they were wanted because their mums went through so much to have them. The understanding of how we longed for them shall hold them in good stead, even when the world tries to beat them down. It is a wondrous foundation to have!

My little girl has climbed the tallest tree in Australia; she has been snorkelling and visited Quokkas. In case you don’t know what a quokka is, here is a picture.

Cute, aren’t they?!

I am trying to manage my pain, in the midst of writing a book and organizing Christmas. There is much I have had to let go of for the sake of my sanity. I have ordered a few gifts online, but for the most part, have had to go easy on myself. I won’t be up until midnight, writing out cards for everyone, as much as I would love to. I simply can’t. Events have been planned in advance, and preparations for everything from travel to what I need to bring have been arranged into bullet points on a notepad. Christmas to me is all about connections rather than gifts, and I am hoping to be up to visiting people next week to check in on them. I had been planning to catch up with a group of ladies whom I haven’t managed to see all year, and invited them around for afternoon tea. I bought some fresh fruit and a little platter of cheeses and mineral water. We had a lovely time, and it cost less than $20. Christmas doesn’t have to mean expense and maxed-out credit cards. I have known many homeless folks, and those without family connections, and believe me, being invited to a Christmas lunch is worth more than gold. The best gift is being seen and heard.

One lady apologized for how harried she felt, for complaining about the stress leading up to the main event, and felt bad for her anger. I told her to stop apologizing! “Anger; unadulterated rage, kept me going in the early years after my fall,” I told her. “It can be a way of saying that a situation isn’t right, nor is it fair. It spurred me on, to work hard on my rehabilitation.” We are allowed to be angry, particularly when too much is expected of us. I love the saying, ‘If you present as strong and together all the time, much is expected of you, and then you have nowhere to go.’ People assume you will say yes to their demands, not realizing that you too have a breaking point.  We may want to retreat and that is okay too. I know many folks who take themselves away at Christmas time, to avoid unnecessary stress.  We have this notion that the Christmas season should see us morph into someone larger than life; a version of us on steroids, where we need to find more money, time and energy than in the other eleven months of the year. Not only is this unrealistic, but impossible, without burning ourselves out.

My daughter and I have a tradition of going into Sydney on the last day of November. We walk around, taking in the decorations and sights. We hardly spend anything, just take festive pictures, talk to strangers and listen to pianist’s play on the Grand Piano in the Queen Victoria Building. We come home feeling as though the veil has been lifted between the hum drum of the rest of the year and the heralding of the festive season. We walk around neighbourhoods admiring light shows at night. We sing along to Christmas carols and watch Christmas movies. It is a wonderful season, when you turn down the volume on expectations and what you should do and feel. Open calls to the beach and swimming pools, taking along a picnic hamper and catching up with friends. Reviewing the year past and planning for the fresh year ahead. Allow yourself to feel what is brewing inside your mind and soul. Allow yourself at least five minutes of peace each day. If we are open and honest with one another, we will find it easier to cope. Look for the beauty around at Christmas time. It costs nothing, and brings such joy.

I am honest about the challenges I face regarding this season. There is grief for those lost, sorrow for what has come to pass, and pain for expectations unfulfilled. There is also light; a belief that the best is yet to come. There are friendships and invitations to sit at people’s tables. There is tinsel and pool parties, hugs and carols. There is reflection and gratitude. I own each in equal measure. My fervent wish is that you have a blessed Christmas, and please, be kind to yourself!