Body

A year or so ago, I walked up a steep hill to a waterfall, where I found the stream choked with wire and detritus. I stuck my arms into the water, feeling it freeze my skin, and used all the muscle I am naturally blessed with to wrench it out.

It was the most wonderful feeling, the sense of accomplishment from being able to use my body to DO something, to help my environment, to work.

It’s the same feeling I get in a dance studio.

I have never, ever felt that way in the gym. I HATE the gym. Every time I try it I hate it more. I hate being focused on myself, on how many reps and how many minutes and muscle gain and fat loss. I don’t care. I know society says I’m supposed to, but I just don’t.

I am naturally a tiny tank, packed with body builder muscles, all power and tension. I lift one heavy thing and Popeye muscles burst from my legs and arms. When I don’t move, those muscles relax into jelly, taking some time off, but they’re always there – even when they’re covered in fat. They’re always ready to be called into action. To work.

I grew up hating that. That I would never be thin, always curved and beefy with chunky limbs and thick joints.

But I am also stronger en pointe with little work than most dancers are after months, because my thick ankles step into action on a moment’s notice. I can move a washing machine on my own, lifting and swivelling it, even when I’m chubby.

I am often chubby.

I stopped eating for a while, tried to starve my muscles into submission. My body responded by keeping the muscles and putting me to sleep instead, slowing down every process, halting the healing of disease.

Towards the end, I was certainly thin. I had no fat on me at all. But my arms were still chunky. My ankles were still thick. And I still hated the gym – but now I couldn’t dance either. Couldn’t move a washing machine. Needed a nap after walking to the fridge.

Worse, I started a chain reaction that would lead to years of rebellion by my body, years of it throwing away perfectly good food because it no longer had what it needed to digest it. Years of rebellious blood, randomly refusing to build new cells. Years of dormant autoimmune issues triggered and running rampant.

And all this for something I have never cared about, but only felt guilty for not caring. Felt ashamed of not being disciplined enough to give a shit.

Rebuilding is the hardest thing I have ever done. Being chubby and thick and all jelly muscle as I heal. Not moving too much while my body relearns what food is, relearns how to use it. Accepting that what’s healthy food for my body isn’t what all the nutritional guides say is healthy – because if I can’t digest it, it’s not healthy any more. Accepting that maybe some of this is permanent, and that’s okay.

Being chubby isn’t the end of anyone’s world, least of all mine. Health comes in so many more forms than well-meaning family and friends will ever know about.

I love to move. I love to work. I am on a quest to find new movement, to rediscover that love in this new body that society thinks is gross but loves me more than it ever has. To give my secret Popeye muscles what they crave: something to DO. I don’t know what form that quest is going to take yet, but I know one thing:

I’m never going back to the fucking gym.

Forgiveness

CW: assault, sexual assault, general #metoo discussion. Self care, my loves.

Whew, what a week, huh?

It’s certainly been a….week.

I’m writing this from my couch, where I’ve had a lovely mini-breakdown today, my body finally giving out after days on edge. I feel like I’ve been in a war.

This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you. I’ve posted widely about #metoo, about men’s place in this discussion, about what is empowering for survivors and what is just expecting survivors to do your work for you.

I posted about collusion, too. About the small things we do every day that reinforce the status quo and create a culture where women can be harassed, assaulted, raped.

I posted about my own collusion.

I was proud when I saw men I know take up the mantle and post about their own place in all this, and their commitment to changing that. To educating themselves, listening more, and changing their behaviour.

Of course, it couldn’t last, and their comment threads were a barrage of misogyny. Person after person standing up to say they have nothing to do with any of this. I fought them in the comments, these mostly-men who were uncomfortable with taking responsibility for their own behaviour.

I called my friends in to help me, begging them not to collude this time.

I deliberately called in the same men who had just posted their commitment to change – and women came running. Women flooded the comments, standing up for me, for themselves. Women who didn’t know me; probably some who don’t even like me. They were a wall of solidarity and I wept as they made themselves vulnerable and uncomfortable and unsafe for me and for themselves.

The men – tried.

You could tell they needed practice.

They tried to be rational, reasonable, calm, logical.

It didn’t work, because the people they were debating, men who don’t want to release their privilege, are none of those things. They might sound it, but they’re not. They say things like “She clearly thinks I’m a perpetrator and was unfairly targeting me. But I didn’t want her to stop fighting me because it’s important to me that she be able to fight REAL perpetrators like that.”

And my men, my friends, did not stand up for me in that.

They didn’t say – hey, that’s a gross, paternalistic and patronising thing to say. She isn’t a child, but an adult, and she doesn’t need your indulgence. They didn’t say – actually, she has accurately assessed this situation and has identified you as somebody who is not acting as the feminist you proclaim to be. They didn’t say – that’s not a cool thing to say. Stop it.

They kept reasoning with him. Persevering, attempting to educate.

Another man said awful things about survivors ‘letting their experience’ define them. When women swarmed him in my defence, he dug in. When a man tepidly, uncertainly, uncomfortably, attempted to step in – he got a response.

Sorry, I thought my apology was implied.

You will note that whereas he’ll fight women, he feels he has to appease and negotiate with men.

You will note that is still not an apology, and that he has expertly wormed his way out of having to provide a real one.

I moved to private messages, begging men to stand up. This isn’t the time for education, it’s the time for solidarity, for defence. Educate later. Build a classroom, herd them into it. Don’t educate on the battlefield. This isn’t the time. 

But for men, this is all theoretical. For men, this was a classroom, a discussion, ‘armchair activism’.

For me, it was real life, real pain, real heartbreak.

For me it was the day I told my teacher I was being hit and she smiled vaguely and never mentioned it again.

It was the day I ran up to police, twelve years old, because a man had been following me down the street, an inch behind me, breath on my neck and fly undone – and the police couldn’t charge him because he hadn’t touched me. They would give me a lift home, though, ‘if it wasn’t too far away’.

It was the family friends who invited my abuser to their Christmas party, and when I confronted them, apologised but ‘we think it’s important to keep channels of communication open for your sister’s sake’.

It was the day a neighbour told me off for getting blood and dirt on her carpet.

It was the day my mother washed blood out of my hair and then went back to watch television with him.

And it was the day I went to pick up my sister and the man in the driver’s seat was paralysed in fear while I prepared for battle.

I know this is a war we’ve been fighting for our whole lives, and they’re green soldiers who haven’t even been to boot camp.

I know they just need practice.

I know I should be kind, keep training them, keep educating them. Forgive.

But today, I just can’t forgive a single one.

I promise to try again tomorrow.

Dear Doctors: you are the reason I google

“It’s gastritis.”

I’ve barely sat down. I’ve mentioned some issues with chest pain and vomiting – the chest pain new, the vomiting persistent over several years. Still, she is certain. I am not.

“Are you sure? It doesn’t seem like -”

“What you’re describing is gastritis. It’s from your medication.”

“It started before -”

“Look, hop up on the table.” She palpates my abdomen. She is thorough, professional.

“It’s gastritis.”

She sends me home with prescription strength antacids and a promise to “handle the rest” in a month once the gastritis eases.

A month passes. It was not gastritis.

I resort to google and friends who have had similar symptoms. I delve into literature, I look for options. I realise the chest pain is just muscular, a strain of some kind that started after I began a new kind of yoga and started a new job at a funny-shaped desk. A good friend helps me work through it by lending me their expertise in anatomy. It heals with time and care.

Without the chest pain mimicking heartburn, it doesn’t look at all like I have gastritis. Suddenly the vomiting slides back into the same symptom pattern I’ve always had, the one that doctors have variously told me is “probably autoimmune”, “just stress” (with one telling me that it “comes out physically in women”), “allergies” and my personal favourite: “your PTSD has a mind of its own”.

Back to the gastritis doctor. She recommends an NSAID for the pain. I point out that NSAIDs interact with my other meds, a cycle that ends with me having no platelet function and a ridiculously long steroid course to get it back. She looks at me, astounded.

“You figured that out on your own?”

Yes. I did. But only because none of you would help me.

She suggests codeine, a medication which worsens my digestive symptoms. I mention this and she raises an eyebrow, sceptical. I am battling not to point out that less than a minute ago she was agreeing with me about the NSAIDs. She agrees that codeine can often do that (I know this, multiple doctors have confirmed it for me) but is still obviously shocked that I have any understanding of my own care.

I have to. Because none of you will.

I’m describing one doctor, but she’s not the first or last. Before I figured out the NSAIDs, I mentioned the possibility to another GP. He tapped four keys on his keyboard and informed me with a lofty attitude that “nothing in the literature” mentions such an interaction or set of side effects. False – it’s well documented. Gastritis Doctor confirmed that, too.

I’m not saying this to discount doctors’ medical knowledge or expertise. I have had good doctors too, but the thing which made them good general practitioners was a set of characteristics which is frustratingly rare:

They listened. They didn’t assume. They tested. They researched. And they gave me tools to research and participate in my own care.

That last one is crucial. By giving me tools to self-manage, I didn’t end up on WebMD with a severe case of hypochondria, and they didn’t have to do all the work alone with a full patient load of other complex cases. By going through test results with me and explaining them, they empowered me to take responsibility for my own symptoms. What’s more, it was less work for them, because I was tracking changes in symptoms, medication interactions and anything else you don’t need a medical degree to understand.

The best health management I’ve had has been when I’ve had a team of professionals, two of whom were GPs who “specialised” in women’s health and gastrointestinal, respectively, plus a physio, a psych and public hospital specialists. Each of those professionals collaborated with the others and weighed in on their piece of the puzzle. They didn’t get frustrated or roll their eyes when they heard I’d been to see the other one – they gave them a call to talk my care through. They made sure my meds didn’t interact. They gave me studies to pass on to each other (no lie, I read them myself, and they all knew I would).

I can hear my doctor friends in my head right now: “But not all patients are like you! Not everyone is proactive, not everyone has the capacity to read research or friends who can explain the medical language to them. And most of the time, it is gastritis!”

That’s all well and good. But if that’s the case, then I know you’ll forgive me when I say as long as you treat me like I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m going to have to do the same to you.

Back to google.

 

Inertia

We wait for the cool of the evening to take down the washing. I recognise each towel as I fold it, patterned with the stains and holes of my entire life. Each one a gift from my grandmother, and each one still here, threadbare but hanging patiently in the Bundaberg heat for me to do as I’ve done for years.

We used to wash them by hand, tiny fingers struggling to wring them out in the laundry trough, the freezing cold rinse water seizing every muscle, trapping them to my bones. 

These towels are a reminder, a rebuke, for all the things I’ve thrown away because they’re-

**** 

“Just not me, Mum,” I explain, waving away something or other, a vase or an ornament or a cardigan. Detritus of the deceased. My inheritance. 

My mother accepts this with a patient nod, understanding I wonder if I deserve. She can see past my sense of entitlement to things which collect to create my identity. She seems, somehow, to believe that I deserve the freedom to reject the towels I folded with such care not half an hour ago. 

The constant contradiction of a life lived nomadic: everything used until it falls apart, unless we can’t stand to carry the weight.

“I’ll take the big elephant dude, though. He’ll look great with my new plant on top of him.”

****

I am lost when I come home to my mother’s and she hasn’t cooked any rice. I realised that this week, standing in my grandmother’s kitchen. I define the rhythm of home by mealtimes, by leftover rice for breakfast, by carefully arranged salad vegetables (carrot sticks lined up along my plate like a regiment, decorated with rings of cucumber, cherry tomatoes spinning away from all the order), by stuffing my face with chapatis my mother flicked out of the pan seconds before. 

For days now, there has been no rice in my grandmother’s kitchen. This, more than anything else, tells me she is gone, and that she has taken a part of my mother with her. In this house, we are living among the dead, and floating around it I find myself forgetting to eat, padding well-worn paths from bed to bath to chair. This morning and yesterday afternoon I was rocking myself in my grandmother’s chair, the motion lulling my eyes closed, and in that drowsiness I became her for a moment, this woman who defined her safety by the rock of a chair and a crossword puzzle. 

The security is suffocating. It is lunchtime and there is no rice. Where is my mother?

****

My mother has a cough, suspiciously, lungs full of fluid, suffocating her in the evenings. She pounds her chest in a familiar rhythm that is not hers. My inhaler holds it at bay, for a time.

****

My grandmother has been a ghost in this place, holding tight to remnants of herself in us. My grandmother cannot let us go.

****

We took our dog to be put down. She hung her head, unable to muster the energy to lift it to walk to her water bowl. In every halting, preoccupied step she took, I saw my grandmother struggling to pull her oxygen tank behind her. I cried with relief as she slipped away, and I felt my grandmother go with her.

We came back to the house and started to pack.

In the south, there were storms, the wind scouring our path home.

Angry Guilty Feminists

Yesterday, I read this article, by the brilliant, eloquent Sofie Hagan. She articulated something we discuss a lot in feminism in a whole new way for me: the guilt we feel as feminists when standing up for ourselves has real consequences for men we stand up to, who didn’t know until that moment that their behaviour was unacceptable.

I felt her post deeply. I am surrounded by men I care deeply for, and more than once, in order to assert my own right to exist on an equal plane, I’ve had to tell them in quite strong terms that they’ve harmed me. Even the best of men will accidentally speak over me, mansplain at me with what they think is care and consideration, or take my agency away in a misguided attempt to ‘care for’ me. The guilt I have felt when telling them to stop can’t be expressed.

All this feeling started me thinking: about how we talk to men we love, about feminist guilt, and then about feminist anger.

We all know the “angry feminist” trope. We’ve all encountered one ourselves. Most of the feminists I know have been one. I definitely have. There’s an argument that rages within the feminist community and outside of it: a tension between our right to anger and our desire to communicate effectively and bring people over to our way of thinking.

Feminists (and social activists more broadly), especially those who have been doing this activism thing a while, usually assert our lack of responsibility to educate others and our right to be angry at a system which actively oppresses us. All of this is true, but I think there’s more to it than that. 

I don’t just think we have a right to be angry. I think, sometimes, we need to be, precisely to combat the guilt Hagen is going through in that post.

A Right to Anger

In my current work, I have multiple clients living with c-PTSD, a diagnosis which is given to people who have suffered severe, systematic abuse from a young age. It’s not unlike my own diagnosis, as you all know, so I am more confident working with these clients than I am any others. I feel attuned to them. Even when they respond differently than I would, I can understand how they got there.

I have worked with every single one of them on how they express anger. None of them feel safe or comfortable doing so.

Neither do I.

Now, most of these clients are young men, since child abuse doesn’t discriminate based on gender. C-PTSD symptoms, however, often do present differently in different genders (and different races, sexualities etc. etc.) and one thing that is common to all the young men I work with is a kind of impotent rage which bursts out at inappropriate times, a rage which makes them feel extreme guilt and powerlessness.

They feel powerless to express their pain in any constructive way. They feel powerless to control their rage. They feel extreme guilt for being angry at innocent people.

They feel extreme guilt for being angry with or standing up to their abusers.

Therapeutic Anger

One of the most powerful things my therapist has ever said to me regarding my own abuse was “That wasn’t fair.”

It sounded petulant, childish, ridiculous. I stared at her in shock and amazement. She repeated it every time I recounted an incident, and every time I reacted with numb disbelief. What on earth did fair have to do with it? These incidents were just reality, a depiction of how life goes. Fair wasn’t relevant, was an idealistic and naive dream. ‘Fair’ wasn’t the real world, and I thought less of her for bothering with the concept.

Over weeks or months, though, it sank into my bones, and I began to get mad. So angry that I had been through this. So angry that now I was ruined and broken. So angry that I had been betrayed by people who were supposed to protect me. So angry at all the bystanders who never questioned the bruises or did, then shrugged their shoulders as though they were helpless.

Endless, focusless, completely impotent rage.

My therapist encouraged this anger. Short-sighted, I couldn’t understand why she wanted me to feel worse. What was the point of me feeling at all times like a coiled spring, or a wild animal in a cage?

Until that anger started to release, and I got it: the anger had always been there, I just couldn’t access it after a lifetime of being told to suppress myself. The anger is important. The anger is what drove me to unapologetic change.

Setting boundaries is easier when you’re angry. Telling people ‘no’ is a joy. You look some dickhead in the eye, flip your hair and point him to the nearest bin, sweetly requesting he dispose of himself as soon as convenient. And the guilt, trained into me by parental figures who used it to control my behaviour? The guilt was nowhere to be found.

Now I spend a lot of time telling my clients to get angry. Telling them they didn’t deserve what happened to them, and it’s their right to feel absolutely furious. I encourage their emotion, I justify it and I stand behind it.

What I don’t do, however, is justify or encourage bad behaviour as a result of anger. Yes, it happens sometimes, because mistakes are part of recovery. But we’re not aiming to punch holes in walls or people here – in fact, it’s the opposite. By acknowledging and feeling that righteous fury, we learn to release it in non-harmful ways. We learn to use it to create positive change.

Instead of feeling a welling fury, rising from the core of me until it floods from my mouth, I feel a targeted irritation with a specific cure. What I hope for my clients is that they feel the same: an acknowledgement that their reality was not normal and was not okay, and that now they have the power to change it.

Therapeutic Activism

It’s very common to hear on both sides of the argument that the ‘purpose’ of activism is to convince others to do what we want them to: to convince white people to be nicer to Black people, to convince men to let women have some seats in Parliament, to convince straight people that marriage equality is a good idea.

I think there’s another kind of activism. I think it’s the activism we have the biggest responsibility to be a part of, all of us: It’s convincing ourselves. 

Now by and large, not many men have been convinced to give up their privilege by the seething fury I embody when I spit on their misogyny. But that’s okay, because those acts of communication (like much of the world) were not actually about them. They were acts of self-protection, of self-care. They were the only method I had to unlearn the abuse I suffered at the hands of the power structures inherent in our society.

Not every woman has survived abuse. But every woman survives misogyny, and every woman has had to find ways to unlearn its seemingly logical siren call, the safety it promises if you just conform. Breaking free of that is not unlike breaking free of a bad relationship, although I hope the process is much less traumatic than it has been for me or the people I work with.

Part of breaking free of structures you grew up trusting is grieving them. Part of grief – essential to grief – is anger.

So get mad. Coil tightly, spit like a snake, go smash some stuff, send endless dick pics to that one particular prick. Grieve, because the patriarchy has fucking failed you. Failed to protect you, failed to nurture you, failed to keep you safe. And when you’re done railing wildly, you can find ways to release that anger positively – when you’re ready, when you’ve processed and accepted and taken care of yourself, first and foremost, like you were never taught to do.

Grieve, heal. Fight. Never feel guilty again.

The Questions I Ask When I’m Not OK

“Let’s talk about the thought patterns that lead to self harm.”

It is 8:15pm on a weeknight, and I am at work. I smear peanut butter on a cracker. I have way too much left on my knife, and I balance it precariously across the saucer which is my dinner plate, baring my teeth as I pin the cracker between them, leaving my hands free to type.

“When you say you ‘can’t do this anymore’, do you mean you’re thinking of acting on your plan to kill yourself?”

I lick stray peanut butter off my fingers, wait for a response. A yes means I have to escalate, get a supervisor, start asking invasive questions about methods and timelines. I load up another cracker. Refresh the page. Keep working.

My phone buzzes. A friend is struggling. This person’s relationship is failing. That friend’s job is getting them down. A third friend’s face pops into my head and I’m flooded with guilt when I realise I have no idea how they are. I open a third chat window for good measure.

“How are you, anyway? I feel like I haven’t asked that in forever.”

Refresh. Cracker. Refresh.

“I’m glad you came to us before self-harming. What can you do tonight to keep yourself safe?”

My login stops working, I am forced to escalate a client who probably didn’t need it just because I couldn’t get them the information they needed. They’re safe now. They’re going to try to get some sleep. It’s 10:30 and I have a mountain of paperwork, but I’m also worried about a client who I think might be abusive. I write them up, just to be safe. That’s one thing I can comfortably hand off to the supervisors.

I go home, but all their lives are stuck in my head, and I find myself escaping to my friends, reaching out my internet tendrils to touch, well, anyone.

“How have you been? I bet the new baby is an adjustment.”

What is it about this work that has removed my ability to connect on any level but as Helper and Protector? What about it puts that armour so firmly in place?

I get home, have a fight about nothing from sheer exhaustion. It’s freezing tonight. I don’t remember the last time I slept. I’m worried one of the clients might be pretending to be better than they are. My head swims: low blood sugar. I immediately assume diabetes. My dinner of crackers does not seem a likely cause.

This week, I’ve hit burnout, and all my support structures are coming in too late. When was the last time I spoke to someone without a smile on my face? When was the last time I spoke to someone without my first goal being to understand them? When was the last time I just let my friends be instead of demanding they hand over their pain?

“You need to stop working so hard. You are giving them more than they are paying you for.”

My therapist is right, so obviously I yell at her. I can’t just stop, after all. It has to be done. It isn’t optional work. I’m not asking for this. Except for the times I wake up after two hours to send an email that could have waited. Except for when my heart starts racing because I slacked off and watched TV for half an hour to decompress instead of doing my admin. Except for all of it, really. All of it that I chose.

It is 3am, and I am giving them more than they are paying me for. Tomorrow, that fucking ends.

Crazy

I don’t want to talk about how horrid it is to call someone crazy.

We all know it’s a slur by now, I think. We know it’s gendered and that we throw it at women who don’t behave according to patriarchal social codes: who are unacceptably emotional; loud and assertive; who are headstrong.

It is also used to describe women who DO adhere to patriarchal social norms, but ones we’d rather pretend don’t exist: women who want a man to rescue them; women who have been conditioned into weakness and learned helplessness.

We take it further and tar gay men, trans people and other quiet insurrectionists with the crazy brush. Anyone overly political, anyone who thinks too much. We smash them all together and call them “crazy”, hoping the worst of the bunch, the ones not just socially unpalatable but actively harmful, will drag them all down into the quagmire and we can forget they exist.

We know all this, and I’m sick of talking about it.

What I want to talk about is how I failed today.

Today and yesterday, I heard women called crazy repeatedly, and I made only a cursory effort to stand up for them. I was scared of outing myself. Scared that I would be seen for what I am: a socially unacceptable woman, not just loud, assertive, feminist and emotional like the women being described, but actually living with a mental illness.

I was scared I wouldn’t survive the social judgement that came with owning up, and I let a whole swathe of women down as a result. Women I haven’t met, some that I have, and like very much. Women I owe much better to.

So what I want to talk about is bravery and agency. Because I can’t find the words I should have said, and I need all of your help to collect them.

After what felt like an afternoon of repeatedly being stabbed first by the slur itself, then my own guilt at not standing up to it, I retreated to somewhere happy – an art exhibition, a political one, a comfort and a joy. I read really on-the-nose statements about “tearing up the script” and I was vulnerable enough to put aside my accustomed cynicism and let them hit home, standing in a gallery of flowers, amidst the work of an artist who has never been afraid to sound a little trite if it makes his point.

How can I do that?

If I’m talking to people I don’t know well, who are laughing and having an excellent time, how do I sort out what is my personal feelings, and what is justifiable anger and hurt? How do I word the latter in a way that’s effective rather than reckless?

How do I trust myself to say more than “I object to that,” and actually create change?

It’s maddening to know that I’m better than this, braver than this. It’s making me furious to know that I will stand up to anyone saying “bitch” or “cunt”, or any number of other slurs, but somehow “crazy” is the one I can’t unlearn, the one that still shames me for my existence and identity. Why do I let my agency and strength disappear when someone alludes to the fact that my PTSD is not a socially acceptable thing to live with? Even when they’re not talking about me, or anyone I know, even when they’re talking about someone who has genuinely behaved badly?

I want to do better. Hopefully this fury carries me through, and next time, I do.

In Memoriam

One typically hot day in 1936, a parade of children traipsed down a Calcutta street. One had dug one of her mother’s old dresses from the bottom of some trunk or other. It swamped her tiny body, not large for five years old, and puddled at her feet. With perfect grace, she lifted the skirt and proceeded to march, kicking it out in front of her and watching the cotton float back down to catch once more on her toes.

She felt like the most important girl in the world, and she punctuated this importance with a stylish top hat.

Fifty-four years later, she would become my grandmother, and the girl in the top hat would become a woman who travelled the world.

She arrived in Australia a refugee, a boat person as all of us are. She settled, geographically speaking, but mentally she couldn’t rest. Eventually she would run to Canada, to South Africa and Swaziland and never, ever to India. After many years, she would return to Australia and fashion a concept of home for herself.

I didn’t know that woman, my mother’s mother, restless and searching. I’ve heard of her, from my grandmother herself, and from my mother. But the woman I knew from birth was always sure, always certain, always determined – and above all, full of mischief.

She was the woman who taught me to count cards and cheat at board games. She always took the blame when I broke something and someone had to explain it to Mum. She had a purse full of barley sugars doled out at the ideal time to spoil your dinner. She loved to shop, especially for gifts. She couldn’t cook, and didn’t try.

She sewed at least 80% of my clothes growing up, from bargain-basement fabrics thrown together with an eye for what she could make scraps twist into, rather than fashion or my personal preferences. I was expected to be grateful, or receive a clip over the ear. I usually chose the clip, and would hear her accent thicken into a distinctive Indian wave – “Don’t you dare speak back to your grandmother!”

I always swore I’d never use that voice. A year ago I heard it come out of my mouth for the first time and knew the cycle was complete.

She was a gifted musician, a fact I primarily understood from the tortured lessons she gave me and her insistence that I learn at least two instruments, one of which had to be the clarinet. She was perpetually unimpressed by my progress yet always convinced that one day I would change the face of music.

When I was seven, she had me stand in front of her and looked me up and down like I was a show horse. Then she nodded, and announced that it was time I learned to sew. She demonstrated stitches, and sent me off to practice. When I returned, they were pronounced abysmal, with a raised eyebrow and no concern at all.

Her impatience when teaching me anything, and her impossible standards for all of my work, somehow contrasted with an endless appetite for playing imaginary games with me. She would be the customer in every pretend shop or cafe, the lion or the lion tamer, the fairy godmother, the spymaster or the assistant. There was no role she was unprepared for, as long as I was willing to wait for her to stop laughing at the concept.

She was impossibly sarcastic, forcing me to assess every statement for sincerity. She delivered rapid quips with an artless sweetness, a smile that pulled people in by the heart, assuring them she meant every word with love. In hospital, she was every nurse’s favourite, cadging extra jelly cups which she’d pass on to me and demanding gossip from everyone who passed her.

She refused to teach us Urdu, claiming not to speak it at all. Somehow, however, she could always respond scathingly to her husband’s grumbles, regardless of which language they came out in. She was frustratingly racist as all Indians of her generation are – a racism tied as much to class and caste as appearance. Irritatingly, she herself was not high-born by any description, and she loathed the entire caste system with a practised hypocrisy.

The last time I saw her, I accompanied her and two oxygen tanks from Adelaide to Bundaberg, the very last time she would travel. I settled her into her seat, monitored the flow, and she watched me with perfect trust and the entitlement that comes from knowing you once changed your carer’s nappies. I spent weeks with her in her home, getting her used to her new life, attached to a tank. I watched her fight to walk, watched her power her way to the Post Office and the supermarket. I attempted to add rest stops, mostly in vain. I taught her to breathe through her nose, demanded her doctor change her meds, demanded she change her diet from its basic food groups of crystallised ginger, dates and toast. I got her addicted to hot Milo and Downton Abbey – but I wouldn’t let her watch past the Season 3 Christmas Special. I am glad she never found out that Matthew dies.

I spoiled her rotten, and she accepted it all as her due: our matriarch, reina.  Our Audrey Evelyn.

Ours, forever.

 

 

A Guide to Hypervigilance for People Who Are Regular Amounts of Vigilant

By far the most pervasive and disruptive PTSD symptom, for me and those who have to deal with me, is my hypervigilance. It’s an aspect of a state called hyperarousal, which crops up in times of extreme stress, and doesn’t go away until the causes for it are dealt with. It’s exhausting, causing insomnia, loss of appetite and digestive functionIt causes psychological freezing, reducing my brain to basic functions and preventing productivity. It also causes palpitations and an irregular heart beat, muscle spasm and cramps, and headache. Physically and emotionally, it sucks.

Hypervigilance, as stolen from Wikipedia, is “an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats.” What this means in layman’s terms is the classic Fight-or-Flight instinct: I notice everything, I feel everything, and I react to everything.

Hypervigilance is a rational reaction to a crisis situation and extremely helpful in many non-crisis situations, which is what makes it such a hard habit hard to kick. The problem with hypervigilance is that it’s essentially a superpower, and it is very rarely wrong about what’s happening. What it is often wrong about is the scale of what’s happening, and the reasons behind it.

Hypervigilance gives me an extremely highly trained sense of empathy. It’s the reason I can look at you and subconsciously know you’re sad and need a hug within a split second. It’s the reason many people have told me I always know the right thing to say. It is also, unfortunately, the reason I know when you’re mildly irritated, and the reason my brain decides that is now my problem that must be fixed lest your mild irritation turn into a situation where I die.

These situations are annoying for you, because you were probably just irritated that your poached eggs are a little underdone. You would have much preferred no one even know about it, but I sure do. I could tell before I even entered the house. There is a beacon of dissatisfaction beaming down the street.

So how do we handle it so that you are allowed to be annoyed about eggs without being treated like the subject of an experiment? I mean, I get it. Runny whites are the worst. Slimy and gross. Totally a legitimate reason to be annoyed. And you get to be as annoyed as you like, but if possible, I ask that you are conscious in how you choose to express it.

 

1. Clear, unambiguous communication.

This is the most important one, by a long shot. Hypervigilance relies on me automatically processing behavioural cues. Body language, tone of voice, facial expression. I know you’re annoyed, but unless I see the eggs, I don’t know why. What’s more, I often can’t tell the difference between this is irritating, look how runny these eggs are and watch the fuck out New York, a new Godzilla has come to play. If you literally say the words “Fuck, how crap are these eggs, man?” I can already relax one half of my brain. If you then are kind enough to say something like “It’s alright, they’re just a little runny,” I know the problem is under control and in perspective. Hypervigilance, poof! I can get on with my day.

Metaphor, laboured sighs, or vague mutterings will all do the opposite. If I actually have to interpret your words, they will not necessarily be interpreted the way you want them to be. I am good with words. My vocabulary is broad and my understanding of nuance strong. If I am left to interpret a metaphor, that’s what I’ll be relying on. If we’re discussing literature, this is an excellent thing. If we’re discussing eggs, it is not.

The number of times I have had conversations with people in which I explain the dictionary definition of a word and they are adamant that that isn’t what they meant will go down in history as the most irritating times of my life. From my perspective: if you don’t mean it, why say it to begin with? From theirs: expressing themselves this way has never been a problem before.

I handle this by asking for clarification when something is ambiguous. I ask if you’re feeling upset, and if there’s anything I can do. I ask which meaning we’re using today. I joke with people “Don’t say that, someone might believe you,” and can usually tell from their (jokingly hyperbolic, serious, wistful) response whether they meant it or not. And this is where you come in: If I’ve said someone might believe you, the ‘someone’ is me. If you keep reiterating you meant it, after the third or fourth time I’ll definitely think you’re telling the truth. If you later tell me it was all a joke, a game or some other nonsense, I will be confused and annoyed. In short, I am a clear and honest communicator, because it’s a strategy I’ve found works extremely well to prevent hypervigilance. It also seems to be nice for the people around me, most times.

It’s best for me if you play ball. If I ask if you’re upset, you don’t have to tell me whether you are or not. It’s your business, not mine. You certainly don’t have to tell me why. But if you tell me you’re fine and you’re clearly not – stomping around, muttering under your breath, or other behavioural signs? Yes, I will end up hypervigilant, sitting somewhere with my hackles raised, eyeing you suspiciously. Privacy is your right. Passive-aggression, however, will be counter-productive. Once again, communication wins the day. If you tell me you’re upset, but can’t talk about it right now, or don’t want to, you’ve released me from responsibility. I can then do my best to let it go and do something else with my time.

 

2. Accept that you are a threat.

One of the biggest signs for me that I am becoming trapped in long-term hypervigilance is when I start being habitually submissive towards a person. If I agree with them without question, or my disagreement is couched in soothing attempts to cajole them to my way of thinking, it is almost certain that my brain has decided they are a threat, and that there is a power imbalance with me on the weaker side.

It’s important to remember that most PTSD symptoms are in fact survival strategies which were extremely effective at the time of initial trauma. With an actual threatening person, submission and a soothing demeanour work, some of the time. It works with people who aren’t actual threats as well, though, which is why PTSD brains hold onto the strategy. We’re not actually irrational. We’re hyperadapted.

It can be extremely hard to face the concept that someone else has decided you are threatening and scary when you mean them no harm. I’ve read countless articles online where men lament the fact that women will cross the street so as not to walk in front of them at night. It’s confronting, the idea that there might just be something about how you talk or move or who you are that someone finds uncomfortable. In some cases those patterns of threat assessment play into existing biases.

For example, people whose PTSD occurred in conjunction with extreme racial divides? Well, their PTSD symptoms will almost definitely have a racial component. We see this in veterans and other war survivors, survivors of racialised gang conflicts, and rape survivors whose attacker was of a different race. By the same token, survivors of child abuse often have gendered biases based on which parent was the perpetrator, and some may end up with ingrained homophobia as well.

Intersectionality here is crucial. For white people struggling with racialised PTSD symptoms, the reality of having white privilege means their symptoms have a high chance of oppressing someone else who is marginalised. For those sufferers where the power balance goes the other way, though, it is a different kind of complex.

An Aboriginal person traumatised by a white person at an early age stands a good chance of revisiting that trauma in multiple ways over the course of their lifetime. There is an excellent chance that the initial oppression will be reinforced, time and time again by police, community workers, and people on the street, until the person is trained to expect it and the PTSD symptoms become intractable. Women who are rape survivors, too, will find themselves harassed by men on various levels for the rest of their lives.

There is no way to tell a rape survivor who has been catcalled three times today that she is empowered and in control, that the trauma is over and her hypervigilance unnecessary. It simply isn’t true. There is no way to tell a survivor of child abuse that not all men are like that when even good men, kind men, will consistently reinforce the gendered expectations she learned at an early age. She is being taught the opposite by you this very minute.

What this means is that if you’re dealing with someone’s hypervigilance, and you know that there’s a gendered or other intersectional component to it, it’s important to know your capacity to work with it. Are you woke enough to break through your own training in power structures? Can you actually provide support, or are you just reinforcing what this person has already learned?

If you can’t accept that you’re a legitimate threat, you aren’t ready. If you’re a man offended by the woman who crosses the street, or a white person who is annoyed by People of Colour who won’t look you in the eye, or a straight person who thinks they’re entitled to enter queer spaces, you aren’t ready.

If you want to help – and you do get to choose- you have to be willing to be a suspected perpetrator. There’s no need to feel guilt for this, or carry it as a burden. Consider yourself Schrodinger’s Perpetrator: for a person struggling with PTSD, you both are and are not a threat until you prove yourself. They desperately want you not to be. They want to trust and have faith, and there is an excellent chance they’re battling every instinct they have to keep you in their life. It is much, much harder to trust someone you are scared of than it is to be scary. Trust me, I have been on both sides of that equation. If you are willing to accept the reality that more often than not, people like you have been a problem for them, you can actually go a long way to proving that not all men/white people/straight people/whatever privileged group I missed (I promise you’ll survive this deep feeling of exclusion). 

My PTSD, perhaps obviously, has a gendered component. It’s hard for me to maintain friendships with men who are not willing to do small things for me, like not make rape jokes. In fact, I refuse to maintain friendships with men who joke about rape, or hitting women. If you have ever made a joke about hitting me, I 100% definitely believed you would actually do it, and no matter how nice I am to you in public, you probably disgust me on a visceral level. There is simply a natural power imbalance that I am on the losing side of, and I always keep myself safe.

On the other hand, men who have gone out of their way to disrupt my expectations of gendered behaviour have been essential to my recovery. I could not have come this far without gentle men, kind men and men who enjoy feminine things. Men who respond to my hypervigilance by consciously empowering me are a godsend. Men who back me up when I’m being threatened reinforce my growing belief in my own tattered instincts. Men who communicate openly and honestly, using their words, and who adopt non-threatening body language, have literally changed my life. It is because of you that I have friendships and have held down functional relationships.

Nonetheless, I typed the above paragraph in part because I’m instinctively afraid of what men will think when I admit that I’m scared of a lot of them. Many people respond to being told they’re a threat with aggression – either insults or physical violence. This has always seemed like an ironic way to prove that you’re not a threat, but hey, what do I know? So I’m cautious, uncertain of how to present that information to the world. That in itself shows how far I have to go in recovery, so remember: Schrodinger’s Perpetrator. Not because you’re a bad person, but because I need you to be a good one.

 

3. This is not about you, and you do not have to stay.

Part of knowing your limits is knowing when to leave.

You bear no direct responsibility to heal someone else. You are always allowed to take a break, even a permanent one. In fact, it’s encouraged. If you don’t have the skills or the capacity to have a positive impact on recovery, having a neutral (absent) one is the best thing you can do.

You are, in fact, neither perpetrator nor rescuer. My recovery is not about you at all. You can help, but the power lies in my hands, and the work is mostly mine too. I will not collapse if you let go. You are never the thing keeping me going. If I survived before you, I will after you, so accepting that you’ve reached your limit should give you no guilt at all.

Over the years, I have had to tell several friends, recovering from several different things, that I did not have the capacity to be their main source of support, or any source of support. I know how hard it is to tell someone you care about that you can’t be there anymore. I also know that it was the best thing I could have done in all of those situations. Those friends who have had to retreat from my friendship to take care of themselves? They have always made the right decision too.

Your strained, uncomfortable attempts at support are almost always reinforcing my symptoms. Outbursts of anger and aggression, caused by totally normal frustration on your part? They can set my recovery back months. Think of it as not visiting your immuno-compromised friend when you have the sniffles. They’d love to play board games with you, but even more than that? They would like to not die.

If you do choose to stay, remember it is not about you. If I’m treating you like a threat, it isn’t because I hate you or because I think you’re a terrible person. It’s probably because you did something threatening. If you ask me what it was, we can probably fix the problem together. It won’t necessarily require you to eliminate that behaviour entirely. More likely, it’s going to require you to explain why you’re annoyed by those damn runny eggs.

If I tell you what you’ve done, try to remember that this is personal for me. I am not speaking about an aggregate statistical group of women struggling with these symptoms who you can manipulate as faceless numbers. I am speaking about my own lived experience, and I need you to work with me to make sure I feel safe. You can’t negotiate whether or not I feel threatened. You can only negotiate how we handle that.

 

Those are the three most important things, I think. Above all, be kind, be present, be aware of the impact of your actions on the people around you. If you’re doing that, you’re already the reason I work, dance, laugh and generally enjoy my life so much. You’re also probably unconsciously helping all the other people around you who aren’t willing to be open about their own struggles with mental health.

If that all seems like too much effort for you, that’s totally okay. It’s probably just the reason we’re not close.

As always, much love, and take care of yourselves.

My Secret is Clive

I regularly have people tell me I am the strongest person they’ve ever met.

I’ve had one of those lives, you see. The ones where drama is constantly hovering. I deal with one issue and the next one crops up immediately. Sometimes they all pile on top of each other and I question whether I might be the star of my own Truman Show, because I don’t believe in a God handing out Tests, so the only other option is that I’m the main character of a secret reality show.

When I tell stories of things which are very routine for me, people sometimes get a look on their face that makes me very uncomfortable. Sometimes I’ve accidentally revealed myself to have weirdly in-depth knowledge about how to live without electricity. Other times I’ve done something stupid that puts my personal safety at risk. In all cases the look is a mixture of pity, worry and awe, and I shift from foot to foot, wondering how I can get them to either forget it happened, or assume I’m a liar and move on.

Neither of those things ever works, and what I’m left with is all these people – good, kind, amazing people with immense capacity to do literally anything – telling me they wish they could be as strong as I am, as capable, as certain.

You know the Superwoman, the one who we’re all supposed to enviously admire, muttering “I don’t know how she does it!” under our breath?

I look a lot like her.

Superwomen, traditionally, are nursing addictions to Chardonnay and their kid’s Adderall. That’s how they do it. They hit their limit years ago and now they’re in a free-fall of socially acceptable drug abuse and dissatisfaction with their marriage – or so we’re told.

I’ve never found drugs either useful or interesting, and I’m not married, which limits my options somewhat when it comes to releasing the stress of adulthood. I’m pretty much stuck with two options: either a) internalising it all and developing mental health problems as a result, or b) what I have historically done, which is turn my constant misfortunes into hilarious anecdotes at parties.

It’s that approach which makes people praise my coping skills. They tell me, earnestly, that if they’d been through what I have, they’d be crying their eyes out, hiding in their bedroom from the world.

This is a wonderful, kind, supportive thing to hear. It’s also immensely isolating. Because suddenly, I’m not allowed to have hidden in my bedroom crying my eyes out. And they’re not allowed to have come out of their own misfortunes unscathed enough to tell hilarious anecdotes at parties.

They are denied strength, and I’m denied vulnerability. Of course, we are all always a mixture of both.

And so we come to this blog, which has made people come out of the woodwork from all over to check on me, make sure I’m okay. It’s more kindness than I have ever seen, and certainly more than I deserve. I am immensely grateful for every piece of it.

But the truth is, I am more okay than I ever have been before. I’m building something real, and a big part of that for me is shucking off the steel exterior of the Superwoman who doesn’t discuss the actual work that goes into being Super.

I’m telling you all stories of me failing because I’m done, frankly, being the one who makes strength seem unachievable. I’m done letting you all think, with a laugh and a joke about my “irritating positivity”, that I have some secret you don’t know about that helps me keep moving when everything is terrible.

There is no secret weapon, no skill or talent. There’s only furious determination.

 

Right now, I’m choosing to use that determination to be vulnerable, even when it’s against literally every instinct I have. I want to use it so that next time I’m at a party and I tell the anecdote about the times I’ve fainted in public, you’ll laugh, yes – after all, I am not a glamorous fainter – but you will also know with certainty that I handled those situations with exactly as much grace under pressure as anyone else would: none at all.

I woke up in a park with more vomit on my shirt than I generally enjoy and I broke my phone into the bargain. Anyone who knows me can guess that I was a lot more concerned about the phone than the fainting. In fact, I was borderline hysterical upon being denied access to Facebook and Whatsapp, showing all the grace of my two-year-old niece. Less, actually; she is often very graceful.

When I was done with all that, I got up, poured a bottle of water down my shirt, and limped home with gritted teeth, congratulating myself every step of the damn way for everything I was about to do to fix my world and show that stupid broken phone who was boss. And when I tell that story now, with pauses in the right places, a snarky grin and an emphasis on the Tragic Millenial who can’t go without Facebook, it is a hit.

In other words, we can all stop asking each other how we did it. My answer will always be terribly”, because I am twenty-five with all the wisdom of Clive the Metal Peacock Statue. (This is false modesty. Obviously Clive is wisdom incarnate. I’m getting him a monocle!) And honestly, I really, really like having people laugh at my misfortune. The most fun thing in this world is telling really embarrassing stories about yourself to strangers.

I just don’t want to do that at the expense of acknowledging, for the sake of everyone who has ever dragged themselves up by the skin of their teeth, that the process of doing so fucking sucks. It does. I know it. I never want to diminish all of your struggles by laughing about mine. I do want to promise, though, that my lack of laughter over the past week doesn’t mean I’m not okay. In fact, it means I am.

 

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Mostly because this guy is my life coach.

 

Clive and I really, really hope you’re all okay too. If you’re not, well, I’m sorry there’s no secret. But limping home will only suck for the hour it takes to get there, and when you do, you can call me and put all the pauses in the right places, and put on either a snarky smile or a belaboured moan, and emphasise your exact gait as you hobbled down the street. I promise to either laugh or cry with you, whichever you need today.

As soon as we’re in charge of telling the story, we are all superheroes. Just as it should be.