Art speaks for us when we are without words

A friend recently went through a huge ordeal, their kiddo had been suffering from debilitating headaches and was suddenly diagnosed with a brain tumor and scheduled for surgery.

I live on the other side of the world. You want to be there, to hold hands and make food and crack jokes and bring tissues. Everyone feels helpless and mute.

The surgery was a success and the long rehab is going well, albeit tough. I thought about the workshops I’ve run with people who’ve been marginalised and harmed and ignored, the power of a zine to bring together deep insights and bypass all the rules and blocks and limitations that inhibit us. So I mailed a gift pack. An example zine of my own, a brief set of instructions. And a zine I created based on online photos of the experience.

This is one of the simplest styles, a single piece of paper, cut along the middle, folded into a small booklet of 8 pages.

Sydney sent me a zine in return, which was beautiful and made me cry. These moments of connection are precious and healing. Art can help make it possible. I hope you find a way of reaching out too.

Making friends with failure

I have spent the morning in my local hospital going through pre-op assessments for my gallbladder surgery next week. I am nervous and excited and relieved and have that vague niggling worry that perhaps I’ll somehow not make it through the procedure and this will be my final week alive. Anxiety is so dramatic!

But I’m in good spirits, yesterday a friend kindly helped me move my things from the wonderful office at SHINE SA to my studio. I’ve been planning this since I moved into my bigger studio space, but needed moral support and assistance and every time I made arrangements something tricky happened at the last minute. Well, not this time! We packed up a whole lift full of art and project files and filled up a desk at the studio to be sorted through later.

Image description: very old style wooden lift half full of boxes and bags of canvas paintings, books, and stationary.

There were two major challenges to work through, the first is that I have mixed feelings about the move. It’s absolutely the best next step, having everything in one space will streamline my work processes and make life much easier. But I love the folks at SHINE and will miss them, and my failure story is easy to trigger with anything I’d hoped to do but couldn’t bring to fruition, like some of my business plans during the residency that took a back seat when I was needed at home.

Our second moving challenge became apparent once we finished unpacking everything into my studio. No keys. They were on the bench in the lift, which is collapsible and was bumped at one point. Meaning they dropped unnoticed into a bag or box. We eventually found them in the back of a magazine folder full of hand made book making instructions!

I alternated between packing and crying, which I didn’t particularly want to inflict on the lovely staff, hence the perfect timing of a public holiday. Fortunately my helper was an art therapist who was excellent at distracting me whenever I started to fall down the failure well!

If you’ve come through childhood adversity you probably have a failure story too, created from all the bag memories, firewalls you couldn’t reach, times you lder yourself down or were failed by others. Most people who’ve been mistreated or abused, especially by someone they cared about or looked up to, have strong failure stories about not being able to find a way to stop it. Unemployment, especially long term, can deeply grove a sense of social rejection, exclusion, worthlessness, and failure. Gifted people who struggle to feel they’ve lived up their potential, people who had plans derailed by illness, or who found disability or mental health struggles meant no one saw potential in them often have strong failure stories too.

My failure story is incredibly strong and like most people’s, very painful. For me it’s particularly around work, fueled by misplaced shame for needing welfare and years of being forced to apply for unsuitable jobs. It’s taken a very long time for me to understand my failure story means I need to mindful of certain emotional risks I might want to take, to gather support around me in some settings. And that it in no way speaks to my competence, capacity, or worth. It makes certain things very hard for me and fuels high anxiety and overwhelm in some situations, but in many others it’s a minor background noise, aquiescent as a sleeping cat.

Most of us have a failure story of some kind, but in work and business we are strongly encouraged to keep them hidden. This creates a toxic culture because if no one is safe to fail or even feel like a failure, no one can risk or be vulnerable. Without vulnerability or risk there’s little creativity, innovation, or human connection. Safety and failure are intrinsically linked.

Considering my art and community development work need creativity, innovation, and human connection, I’m learning I need to make friends with my failure story rather than ”recover from it” and put it behind me in work settings. It’s actually a valuable part of my history and the foundation of some of my skills – if you’re building rapport with someone is that easier to do with a human who has failed, or someone shiny and perfect? It’s such a common mistake to hire a shiny person for a job where you need a human. And such a common misunderstanding for people like me to think we need to be less human and more shiny to be professional. In some ways it’s actually a useful resource, a point of common ground to help other folks who are struggling to feel safer around me and to help me design and implement resources and engagement approaches that click with them. That’s hard to do for folks in strife if you’ve never been there yourself. Shame is destructive but humility is valuable, and we rarely learn it from our successes.

Ink Painting: There is no bridge

Image description: Blue, purple and black ink artwork depicting a dead elderly man in a boat full of flowers on a river, with a young girl on a swing anchored to the boat, and a woman mourning on the riverbank.

My Grandpa’s committal service was beautiful and painful, lovely and heartbreaking. I read a letter by Rilke exhorting the mother to embrace death as an essential aspect of life, part of a whole that is richer for it. Rilke was an astonishing poet and letter writer, full of passion and depth. Looking for a suitable poem to read at the service was good therapy.

We painted this today, with Robert Oster’s Blue Black ink. The text along the riverbank reads “There is no bridge between us where you are”. The ink is watersoluble so the brush and pen work is completed in layers, drying then reworking the water to create depth. The color is stunning, a dark purple that bleeds blue.

Rebellion and Glee

Our lives are easily stolen from us, consumed by grief or given up to ideas that give nothing back to us. It’s been a strange week, in an odd way a wonderful one despite sadness and sickness. I’ve been playing with choosing what I want to do and being less ruled by anxiety and duty. I eat what I want to eat which is frankly a bizarre and liberating rebellion for someone with chronic illness – which is always targeted through diet by doctors and witchdoctors and people you meet at the bus. I’m enjoying a book by Laura Thomas, Just Eat It. Slowly overhauling my relationship to food is sumptuous.

Image is of multicolored flowers

My friend brought me these stunning flowers when my Grandpa died. I got stuck having a transvaginal ultrasound recently and added to quality chocolate to the indulgence. I’m fiercer and enjoying life more, the more I push back in tiny ways against the self sacrifice that’s been so ingrained.

Image is of an orange beetle painted onto a white skinned arm, resting on a black and rainbow knitted blanket

Face painting and glitter tattoos have started up again with the Spring. I’m doing more work in my diverse communities of interest, particularly LGBTIQA+, and disability. It makes my heart happy.

Image is of a 3 year old child in a rainbow hat feeding an ear of corn to a capybara

Poppy and I are back in our grove of regular adventure days. Today we went swimming, then scooting in the park, and lastly painting. Recently we went to circus skills Training With Cirkids, then Gorge Wildlife Park with our friend who works there.

Image is a self portrait of Sarah’s face, in bed u tucked into a purple blanket and looking unimpressed

I’ve been sick with something not yet identified, very painful, but not infectious. Grateful for my laptop so I can study in bed. Grateful for Rose who works around me and cooks me wonderful meals.

Image is of a cupcake in a green case with white icing

It was a friend’s birthday party recently and I indulged in baking. These are lemon meringue cupcakes, made with vanilla sponge cake, stuffed with lemon curd, and topped with meringue icing. They are delicious. I got the ultimate cook compliment when a crew of folks at the party who didn’t know I’d made them dragged each other to the plate and rhapsodized while devouring them. I have brought a large plastic tub from the local hardware store so I can easily soak my trays, which makes the after-baking cleanup slightly less onerus.

Image is of a yellow cupcake with lemon curd in the centre and white icing, cut in half. It’s on a white plate with a decorative floral border.

I’m back in the swing of study, this time going down the rabbit hole of climate change and environmental impacts on health. It can be brutal at times so I’m using my standard approach – find the people I love and break up the depressing or awful stuff with things that strengthen and encourage me. I’m not sure what I’m getting into next year yet, but I’m determined I’ll be doing something. It’s far too fantastic to walk away from.

Parenting with chronic illness

Each gallbladder attack I have is taking longer to recover from. My fibromyalgia flares and I feel like I’m recovering from getting a good kicking. I recently learned that I’ve been cutting too much fat out of my diet to try and prevent extremely painful biliary colic episodes. The extra low fat diet left me with headaches, exhaustion, foggy brain, and chronic pain. Bumping my fats back up has been quite magic and I’m feeling much better. I’ve been scheduled for surgery to remove the gallbladder next month.

Image description: A young child on a park swing. There are trees, lawn, and bark chips. A small green bike is lying on the ground by the swing.

In the meantime I’m muddling along. I used to be so afraid of this place: sick and trying to parent. It is hard. It’s really hard. I’m so incredibly fortunate to have good people around me, that network I put effort into building has saved my life. It saves me when I can text a friend in distress instead of crying in front of Poppy. When there’s someone to pick Poppy up from the ER so I can be treated. When our daycare provider lets me arrive late while I try and coordinate a crisis. My world has flexibility, care, accommodations that ease the sharp edges of my limitations and soften the harshness of the things I’m dealing with.

This creates capacity I wouldn’t otherwise have. So rather than merely the nightmare stories I feared, mostly Poppy and I muddle through. Rose takes her so I can rest or nap. I walk her to the park so she can ride her bike. We snuggle under a blanket with a hot water bottle and watch a movie together. We do crafts or painting on the dining table. She plays in the back yard while I hang washing.

I have a collection of low energy/high pain ‘tough day’ activities like this I can enjoy with her. And I’m still working towards the lower daily effort/systems and routines/life on the easy setting changes I started making last year so that my home and work is efficient, sustainable, and frees up as much energy as possible for the things I’m passionate about – such as parenting, care giving, socialising, adventures, and creativity. With thought, planning, and support, it’s actually still wonderful to parent even in a rough health time. I’m incredibly fortunate and I love her to bits.

Inks have a language of their own

Watercolors are wonderful. Light fast, easy to transport, to layer, just such a good idea. I love them. But… my heart goes back to ink. I started with ink, when I was so sick I could not shower myself. I started when I needed something to speak for me instead of blood. I was too frozen with perfectionism to make art. But I could still write, poems with my fountain pen. So it was a smaller gap to leap to making art with it, little lines and dashes to sketch the shapes in my mind. Designs I thought were just place holders, capturing images that would later be done properly, at a larger scale, using a ‘real’ medium.

Yet I’ve learned to speak in inks, in snatches, small scale, moments between dreams, rough designs that somehow hold a little of the emotion I felt.

My week has been beautiful, heartbreaking sad, hard, choked. I took some time today to play in my studio, swatching my ink samples. I like to see how they write, how they handle in a brush, how water changes them. It’s unpredictable, colors can split into components, purple may bleed blue or pink, green may blush peach. My favorite ink, the teal I paint in most often is incredibly unusual. A combination of waterproof black and watersoluble blue, the lines stay black but bleed blue when touched with water. It’s spectacular. I’ve been painting with it for many years and I still adore it.

Swatching like this is like learning a little of the language of each colour. Its range of tones and value, how it feels. Some are watery, some oily. Some read almost black at full strength, others never do. When I’m working on a project I can lay these out and see who speaks to me, who pairs well.

Commercializing a creative process is fraught. Business is about something that can be replicated reliably. Finding the right kind of jar to hold a light in that won’t harm it can be such a challenge. There are days and weeks I am still frozen until I tell myself to create for myself and no one else, to make things that are useless for any purpose except the song and the sadness in my own heart.

Image description: Business card sized papers painted with inks in every colour

Death of a grandparent

Tonight we had a picnic dinner in hospital to visit my Muminlaw. Poppy was the life of the party, leaping off a bench into my arms, helping to rub Nana’s sore feet, and clambering about like a monkey. It is very precious to spend this time together.

We had only been home a few minutes when I received a call that my grandfather has died of a heart attack. I drove up to the hospital to sit with him and people in shock. We did not get time to rub feet, tell stories, or be close. In fact, tonight was the first time I’d seen him in ten years. He was not a queer friendly man and I didn’t need any more relationships that crushed me. When he got sick recently I’ve been behind the scenes, supporting my mother as she struggled to arrange care for him. I planned to visit shortly, but not with Poppy. She’s facing enough sad and confusing situations already.

And just like that, his book closes. I have many wonderful childhood memories of him. Some bad later ones. We last properly spoke at the funeral for my grandmother, whom I loved dearly. It was a rare moment of clarity and connection and I knew it would likely be the last time we were close. He was uncharacteristically tender and it’s a treasured memory. He’s my last grandparent to pass.

Life is strange. His story is neither triumph nor tragedy. He was complex, a devoted man, also a bully. He was lonely. I have been painfully aware of how leaving behind all these people has torn great holes in my life but I don’t think I have realised the holes I’ve left too, that I’m as irreplaceable to them as they have been to me, these people I’ve loved.

I wish everything had been different. I wish he’d had a better last few years, a better death. I wish there’d been more between us. I wish something as stupidly simple as who I love hadn’t been a problem. I waited until my Grandma died to come out at 29. Homosexuals were denounced from the pulpit at her funeral. I never gave Grandpa the chance to lecture me about it. I waited until my Father didn’t know where I lived. I lost my godparents, my cousins, my childhood friends… my conservative little world burned down around my ears for me to survive, and while I’ve rebuilt as best I can my heart is still broken and deeply scarred.

I’ll miss Grandpa. I’ve been missing him for years. These people I love from far away, their lives don’t stop. They get sick, they age, they die. I built my life in the ashes of my childhood. There’s wastelands of pain between.

We sat by him together tonight, telling good stories, laughing at old memories. It was fitting, heartbreaking, dignified.

It’s 2am. I’ve crept into bed next to Poppy and Rose. I have the memory of my hand laid lightly on his still chest. I’ve brought the fourth murderbot ebook for company. The house is dark and quiet. I’m full to the brim with sadness. His life has ended, he is now remembered in stories. I wish there was a better ending. I wish love was easier for people.

Seven years with Rose

There is a curious thing about getting to know a person. We often think of it as a linear process, a step towards them, slowly getting closer. More truth, more unfolding of their history, more revealing of their self.

Maybe this is true for the first year, but after that… There’s change and flux it’s hard to account for. It’s not like getting to know a book. It’s more like getting to know a river. Some seasons flooded, others maybe dry. Riverbed changing course. Unless you understand the changes, you don’t really understand the river, only a snap-shot of it. How the river was at that moment, in that time. It’s real but it’s limited.

Rose is still who she was 7 years ago when we first met. Her passion for adventure, creativity, love of children, and zest for life remain, like flags flying high. They are the heart of who she is, whatever darkness, chaos, or pain storms through her life.

She’s also changed so much, shifted course in ways I hoped for and others I couldn’t have predicted. I find, seven years in, that I’m still surprised, sometimes confused, or delighted by the process of unfolding, growing. She’s different because life has happened – birth, death, loss, wins. Different because she knows me, and in seven years we’ve woven each other into the heart of our worlds, which has changed us both. Knowing her remains a principle rather than a goal I can achieve, a process of listening and asking, holding lightly to my memories of who she was last year, last month, giving her space to keep changing. It’s surprisingly hard to do. But so astonishingly rewarding.

It’s easy at the start, before you’ve let each other down. It’s much harder when pain dims everything and you’re both stumbling through how to heal wounds you didn’t mean to inflict. And yet, I sometimes wish I could show her to you in those moments. Because the things I can easily tell you about – her bright spirit, her beautiful smile, her amazing crafty arty skills, they are things everyone can see. Everyone who knows Rose has seen her amazing capacity to care for children, her wonderful adventures. Few have seen her courage to face down her own demons, to confront terrors, learn hard truths, accept losses, and take charge of her life. Her trauma therapy has been a full time job and her incredible bravery and willingness to dive into the most awful experiences imaginable in order to deal with their impact on her life and family is frankly inspiring. Watching her fumble through painful conversations to find the magic to unlock hope and connection makes me love her far more than the qualities any idiot can see. Her devotion to our family is spectacular and we would be devastated without her. In the incredibly dark times we’ve faced of death, loss, and serious illness, her humor and tenderness remain like bright jewels. Like stars, they shine only brighter.

She is a tree, savagely scarred, very beautiful, providing shelter. Her roots were once shallow but sink deeper each year. Watching her soothe our crying child, create magic learning spaces for friend’s kids, and wrestle to really hear someone who’s hurting because of her in some way – her integrity, and quiet strength are foundations of our family, the timber of the boat we sail in. I am blessed to love her.

Damn gallbladder

Hanging out in the ER again tonight, incredibly lucky to have good support from staff and friends and family. I’m poked full of holes and apparently a vampire’s nightmare but feeling much better than I was a few hours ago.

Image is of a white woman with short brown hair and a wry expression, in a hospital bed

I concluded my casual position providing support to NDIS recipients with Uniting SA today, which I would probably have more feelings about if I hadn’t started having a gallbladder attack in the middle of my last meeting! I loved the work a great deal and will miss the team.

I’m continuing working with TACSI in their chronic illness project and finding it grueling but incredible. My studies are also going well, my current class is about policy advocacy which I have adored. We had a 5,000wd group assignment recently graded at HD which was satisfying.

I’ve decided to take things slower during September and give myself some rest and recovery time. I’m reading some great books and looking forward to more studio and family time. Frankly right now I’d be happy with a week on the couch in front of Netflix!

Family traditions

We planted this simple tripod made of stakes and string at Easter, and have been harvesting snow peas all through the middle of winter. The colors are richer purple the more sun they are exposed to. Rose found the seedlings and was tickled by their unusual color, they certainly taste delicious.

In a small way they are emblematic of values in our family: a delight in the unusual, the desire to plant and reap, an appreciation of simple joys, the willingness to try and fail and try again. Easter is a mixed time for us with our histories of painful religious experiences. Making private space for those and giving Poppy traditions of family, planting and harvest is one way we are navigating our uncomfortable heritage.

At times it takes great courage to continue to live in a world that has dealt so much pain and uncertainty. We work hard to weave what Poppy needs: stability, love, compassion for imperfection, joy in each other. From courage comes life.

Love, by the water

Endometriosis, adenomyosis, PMDD, and PCOS is an extremely unhappy combination of troubles. For me it means very heavy, painful, unpredictable periods that often trigger severe depression and sometimes suicidal distress.

I’ve spent most of the last 2 days in bed with a heat pack. Today Rose took the lead and set up a beautiful family trip for us all. She made savory muffins and took us all down south to a beautiful beach for the afternoon. I went for a gentle walk in the surf, Poppy collected rocks and shells, and we all enjoyed watching a seal frolic in the light rain.

Image is of Poppy, aged 3, wearing fabric rainbow butterfly wings and running along a beach.

It was so joyful and relaxed and a safe space to just be. As the rain fell lightly into the shallows where I walked I wept. My heart has been full of doubt and confusion and heartbreak lately. Watching the light catch the water and the foam on the sand, I’m so grateful.

One of the things I fell in love about Rose was her ability to create these beautiful adventures: inexpensive, simple, and so connected to the moment and the environment. I’ve often yearned for these things but when I’m sick or distressed I struggle to arrange them. My initiative is paralyzed, so I yearn but cannot act. I recall many days when I lived in my unit by the beach, longing to go down to the water and unable to. I could never have made it to the beach today, but with her doing all the heavy lifting I could be swept along to something beautiful and nourishing. I fall in love all over again.

Happy Birthday Poppy

I took yesterday off, mostly. Apart from some admin and a therapy appointment that made me want to sleep for a week. I went back to bed and read some book and listened to music and it was glorious. Tuesday night at midnight I submitted a 5,000 word group assignment of Policy Analysis and Advocacy. And the weekend had the wonderful birthday parties for darlings Poppy, who turned 3, and my adorable niece, who turned 1!

I had a rough week last week and some kindly folks reminded me that baking cakes was only for people who felt up to dealing with the dishes, so Poppy’s gorgeous octonauts cake is a couple of supermarket mudcakes and a lot of tasty buttercream icing. It was a fantastic day.

Three is a special age, and somehow Poppy feels so much older so suddenly. I’ve been out a lot lately and missing her. The sweet cuddles and silly games we play when I’m home are the most wonderful things in the world. She is pure magic.

Public Health Quote of the Day

I’m in the final days of a group project report for my advocacy class. I hated this project for the first several weeks when I couldn’t get a single person in my group to respond. Now, in the final days, with 4 separate contributions to knit together cohesively, some idiosyncratic (mis)interpretations of the brief to work with, and a lot of references to get into one referencing software, I find myself surprised to be enjoying it. Our report is vastly different from anything I’d have written myself, including our choice of topic, and yet it’s been fun to let go of the usual goal of top grades and instead focus on engaging and supporting and the usual herding-of-cats that is pulling together a group project.

Tonight I am reading up on Advocacy strategies and I laughed out load at a quote from pg 16 of The fight for public health by Chapman, S., & Lupton, D. (1994).

Looking at the vast literature on health promotion programmes, it is almost as if there is… an inverse analysis law operating in public health: the more trivial the intervention, the greater the research interest; while the greater the potentional for population-wide effect, the scarcer the analysis.

Simon Chapman

Complexity is tricky, folks, and we don’t like it much. I was inspired recently by a conversation about one of the biggest challenges in health is trying to move from linear (one cause, one outcome) to systemic thinking (multiple causes and multiple outcomes including vicious or virtuous cycles). Systemic thinking is hard when you are used to linear, like going from juggling two balls to ten. But in a way it’s also much more intuitive, we know that the context of a person’s life is crucial to their health in multilayered ways that go far beyond the reductionism of simple cause and effect, even in the realms of trauma.

I do love this work.

Everything is happening and a lot of it is on fire

There are times in my life when things seem to reach a quiet kind of calm. Perhaps I’m on uni holidays, my main projects finished… I’m looking around for the next thing to do, hanging out my shingle, contemplating my book or the next art exhibition. Sometimes it turns out to be the eye of the storm and all manner of hell starts raining down on me. It does make for a hard time scheduling my life.

I had a week like that recently. I’d gone for a job, not heard back, moved on and put in other applications. I picked up the TACSI project. Then got a call and offered an entirely different job but still great work, so I jumped in.

The week I started the new job, I spent a night in ER in a pain crisis being pumped full of fentanyl. Follow up ultrasound the next day gave me a new diagnosis of gallbladder disease. I have one very large stone, a very inflamed gallbladder, and a lot of, and this is apparently the correct medical term, ‘sludge’. I’ve had to radically alter my diet and I’m in a fair bit of pain most days. I have appointments coming up with a surgeon.

Okay, curve ball but I’m still in with a chance.

I went to a medical which turned into a ptsd nightmare I’m still dealing with.

Horrible, but I’m still hanging in there.

I tried to access Disability Employment Support and spent weeks jumping through pointless welfare hoops to prove i was able to do the work I’d already been doing. The support turned out to be far harder to get than the job was.

Infuriatingly stressful but I’m nothing if not stubborn.

I got home from day one of induction to learn that Rose’s Mum (foster Mum) has been diagnosed with a particularly aggressive lymphoma and is starting chemotherapy immediately. Round one of chemo kicks her around so badly she winds up in the ICU incredibly ill, at which point I cry uncle and take a week off work plus put Poppy in daycare, so I can do visits, support Rose, cry, and catch up on laundry.

I’m in a group project for my studies where no one would start work until the final week the project is due, which is now.

I just had emergency dental work on a decayed tooth because it’s part of a TMJD flare I’m in that’s so bad I have tinnitus from it.

I am still standing dudes. But August had better get easier.

The new job is as a Lived Experience Mentor with Uniting SA. It’s a brand new, experimental pilot program, working to create an interface between a dedicated team of employees and a group of folks receiving support through NDIS funding. The people we are supporting, and the team are the clear highlights of the work. The administrative nightmare I’m in of multiple forms of reporting using different measures, rates, and software between work, NDIS, and welfare, is considerably less awesome.

So, this is me, doing my best at self care, advocacy, scheduling, caring, and figuring out what I can eat that doesn’t make me want to die. Don’t call me, I’m not in.

The Dark Sides of Safety

I adore Becky Chambers. Finding a new author to crush on is the absolute highlight of my month. I’ve just read this beautiful book for the second time and am loving the kobo quote tools. https://www.kobo.com/AU/en/ebook/the-long-way-to-a-small-angry-planet-1?utm_campaign=PhotoQuotesAdr&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=App_Acq

We talk a lot in trauma recovery about safety and empowerment as the magic that heals which is real and true and appropriate. They have a dark side though, which is rarely explored. What is it to feel safe? Is safety a good and healthy aim for a human? What happens when we feel unsafe? Threat is the opposite of safety, and many of us with backgrounds of complex trauma feel constantly and chronically threatened, triggering an array of responses across the small menu of mammalian options: fight, flight, freeze, fawn. Safety is crucial to being able to function outside of this menu, to bring to life different aspects of our selves than simply the reflexes of raw survival.

But not everything that threatens us does us harm. And not everything that feels safe is good for us. Abusers feel threatened by the freedom and autonomy of the people they are in relationships with. They restore their sense of safety by undermining that autonomy.

Becoming aware of the ways in which you are privileged can feel very unsafe, especially if you are also tangled in shame and guilt as if you are somehow personally responsible for it. For many people the idea of having privilege has become a kind of personal taint, a character flaw to overcome rather than an abstract awareness of unequal opportunities and a responsibility to share them.

Some people feel safest at the bottom of every hierarchy, too small and powerless to harm.

Some feel safest at the top, apex predators who see all others as fellow predators to compete with, or prey to devour.

When I developed the peer based recovery group for Bridges, the face to face support group for people with dissociation and or multiplicity, I choose Safety as one of the key values for the group. Striving to make a safe place is essential for the involvement of people who had often experienced severe trauma. And yet I did so slightly ambivalently, aware that safety is a good goal but also an insufficient one. Without other values to be in tension with, safety is a kind of death. Extreme risk aversion creates coffins of our lives: isolation, dehumanization, and disconnection rule.

As a parent, safety is a primary concern for me. An essential part of my job description is keeping Poppy and Star safe. Whether that’s from physical injury, sickness, abuse, or neglect, this is my concern. However I hold this concern in tension with their other basic human needs. Freedom, autonomy, connection… many of our essential needs require risk. If I focus only on safety I will shun risk. Risk is my enemy, to be identified and dug out of life like a weed. The highest possible aim to reduce all risks to nothing. But risk adverse living has predictable and at times devastating outcomes. It is in itself a risk to be understood and treated with great care. Children allowed to take no risks also cannot learn, grow, connect, gain confidence, cope with mistakes, or navigate imperfection. Risk adverse approaches lock them into extremely small lives where obedience and fear dominate all.

Risk competence is about understanding that safety must be paired with unsafety. It’s about knowing that a culture that has horrifyingly high rates of serious child injury is taking huge risks, and also knowing that a culture with almost no serious child injuries is taking huge risks in other ways, because the only lifestyles in which that is possible preclude climbing, running, playing outdoors, pets or animals, sports, and all the opportunities children need to become competent at using their bodies and navigating their environments. There is an optimal window of risk, too much or too little are both harmful, which is a difficult concept to fathom in a public health framework.

What this optimal window is and where its boundaries are is highly contentious, informed by the personal values in tension with safety, and the way we cope with the fear of bad things happening. A major way we navigate this fear is called the just world theory. This is the belief that bad things will not happen to us because we are smart and decent people. This is a major way most of us create a sense of safety in an otherwise unpredictable world.

Most of us who have been through trauma can speak of the savage outcomes of the just world theory. The first is that we tend to blame victims of bad situations for their circumstances, because it makes us feel safer to believe they were at fault in ways we would not be. The second is the devastating loss of essential illusions when some trauma strips the just world theory away from you. Trying to function in a world that is unfair and uncontrollable is a nightmare when you’ve previously relied on comforting beliefs that all things work out fairly in some way.

As victims (/recipients/survivors) of trauma we are desperately trying to piece back together our own sense of safety, while resenting the painful price we are paying for the illusions of safety of those around us. We don’t want them to be safe, we are begging them to be brave. To stand with us and face the gross injustice and paralyzing uncertainty of our situations. Safety is cultural denial and numbness in the face of devastating pain and abandonment. As those who are marginalised and dealing with various forms of oppression, likewise.

What this looks like when it comes to risk is a cruel system. People (and parents) who take risks, even massive risks, and succeed are lauded. The acceptibility of the risk is determined by the outcome. Those who take even minor, or very well equipped and skilled risks who have bad outcomes are frequently attacked, shamed, and shunned. Whether they are parents going sailing and dealing with an ill child, or a mother going out for her birthday who is betrayed by the babysitter who harms her child, no risk is acceptable in the context of a bad outcome. Such is the nature of a risk adverse culture with a just world theory (embedded in neoliberalism) and no agreement about the optimum window of risk.

This savagery drives highly risk adverse parenting, which is often called out in ways that shame those parents (mothers) with little awareness of the underlying context. Few of us feel we can afford the risk of being attacked and rejected by our communities at the point of a devastating experience. Each time we witness it or participate in it we drive home the message more strongly: no one can afford bad luck, bad circumstances, or risks. Safety is the only practical goal.

This drives the ‘mummy wars’ where I’ve been told I’m a child abuser for such minor lifestyle choices as allowing Poppy to attend an outdoor event with me, permitting her to not wear shoes in a park, or allowing her hair to be dyed purple. The intensity of these interactions far outweighs the circumstances. Risks become linked to difference, without consensus there is no safe place to stand where judgement won’t fall.

Safety without courage not only cages us in very small lives, it cages our communities and exiles those unfortunate enough to suffer. Safety is essential for us, a basic prerequisite for or ability to get up in the morning and function. We can build it on capacity, consent, freedom, and experiences of risk. Or we can build it at great cost to ourselves and the people around us. It’s a beautiful and noble goal, especially when it’s been shattered. But it also has powerful dark sides best keep in mind.

The little details of a good life

It’s been a hectic few weeks. Tonight I’m finally playing catch up with the ever growing collection of socks I keep ignoring when folding the washing. It’s a peaceful enough job, especially if you have company on the phone.

I recently had a particularly fun evening. Poppy scooped a handful of petroleum jelly out of a tub, and ran shrieking around the house wiping out over everything. Rose was napping in the bedroom so I put Poppy in time out in the bathroom for 2 minutes. She was not impressed about this and locked the door in protest. When allowed out, her hands were too slippery to unlock it. I grabbed a screwdriver but the lock jammed! Fortunately Star was visiting and climbed straight through the window and into the sink like a champion, saving the day.

Speaking of sinks, every evening when we brush our teeth together, Poppy insists on putting the sink plug in and leaving a little pool of water “for my leopards”. I have no idea what the leopards are about, but sometimes it’s best not to argue.

We had a lovely time out at the local waterfall recently. Winter had been dry but it finally rained enough to wet the creek briefly which was fun.

In and around the big things in our lives are these little ones, cooking meals, hanging washing, looking for opportunities to have adventures or learn something new, to wonder or find gratitude and beauty. It’s very hard work but also such a good life, so wanted. The joy is in the details, these so forgettable tiny moments of day to day life. Making a starfish together from playdough.

Chopping ingredients for dinner together. Sitting on the couch with Rose at the end of a long day and holding hands. The little squeeze that says I see you, and I’ve got you. The highs and lows of the big dramas of our lives, and the little bumps and dips of the daily mundane world. They all add up to something incredibly precious. Life lived deeply, breathed into, not flinched from or dulled down.

Here it is, my little girl brushing her teeth and carefully making a pool for the leopards. Washing the same 10 mugs for what must surely be the millionth time. Making time to cry when there’s sad news. A hot cuppa and a journal to write in in a quiet moment. Talking with a friend online. Noticing how beautiful the clouds are, the feel of sunshine on your skin when hanging yet another load of washing. A stem of jonquils from the garden, filling the whole house with perfume. The last winter rose and the first winter lily. Going to bed at night with a very good book and a very fluffy cat. This is a very good life.

My New Studio

I’m part-way through the big move and it’s glorious. Twice the space, two walls for my own artwork and plenty of room for inspiration images too. A full set of windows, with a door that opens to a first floor balcony. In the evenings the sun sets to the right and casts golden light onto my glass art desk.

Carpet protects the floor boards and keeps me happy as I’m always barefoot here. I’ve claimed this red wool coat for art as I wanted something warm but with a little more romance than my practical camping gear. When I need to step into another world I set myself up on the floor with my brushes and a cushion and a cup of herbal tea. It’s essential to create divisions between admin and art, even between craft and art.

I do most of my study for public health here now, and I’m continuing to explore the monsters that sometimes wait for me here, and the nature of safety in a creative space. It’s complex and fruitful. Several times recently I’ve had bad experiences and run to the studio as a refuge. It’s never been that reliable for me but it’s emerging as a place my heart is at ease. There’s still monsters some days but I’m learning to check in before I get too naked and vulnerable. Some days are for craft, sorting, cleaning, the joy of using my hands. The monsters will devour me whole if I try anything else. Some days I can strip off and find that wild place, the other world, where the poetry lives. I’m learning to pick the difference, and that’s making me stronger.

We are all multiple, and so are the people who hurt us

This morning was a rare one, everyone in my little family home for breakfast. I cooked pancakes and realised my heart is never so full as when we are together. My girls are so precious to me, I feel warm, strong, fierce, joy-sadness when I’m with them. Their happiness is my happiness and their hurts break my heart. It breaks and mends over and over.

I am different with them. There’s a theory about the ‘self’ which states that who you are is not a fixed thing, like a rock or a plant. It’s a unique dynamic. That ‘self’ is what emerges in relationship with another. So each ‘self’ in each setting, each relationship, is slightly unique, and has aspects that may differ from all others. This is both separate to and part of multiplicity. I experience this in both which parts are brought out and also the different selves we all have. This is an aspect of multiplicity which is universal to all of us.

This dynamic also goes in two directions. We ‘hook’ each other into roles. When I feel young I bring out the parent in you, and vice versa. You may recoil from my aloofness or warm to my charm. Relationship dynamics bring out age old stories and patterns between us. They move us deeper into the grove of who we have been accustomed to thinking of ourselves as being, or bring to light new aspects of ourselves we had forgotten or didn’t know were there.

This curious TED talk “Rethinking Infidelity” explores the idea that being in search of a self we have lost for a long time is an aspect of why we are unfaithful to each other. (jump to 9.30 if you want to skip to this part) That in time we put away the parts of ourselves that don’t fit with our partner and community. And a new, different person can bring to light a self that makes us feel more vital and alive than we have in years. Unable to see that this is a normal challenge of navigating community – finding the balance between the social homogeneity and the wild individual – we embrace the new person as a salvation and shatter everything we’ve build and loved until now. And then we do it again.

It isn’t that we are looking for another person, but for another self.

Esther Perel

Integrity is about the threads of beliefs and values we hold through these transitions. The nature of universal dissociation is that it is entirely common to have three beautiful relationships and one in which we are horrifically abusive. Some nazi guards came home from violence and were loving to their families. A man may be kind to his children and friends and brutal to his wife. A mother may love three children and hate and abuse the fourth. When you think of self as one static thing this is horribly confusing and we keep trying to understand which story is true and which self is real – the kind or the vile. When they are understood as both true, real, genuine, there’s both a kind of devastation and a relief in being able to hold them equally in mind. No longer are they different sides of a coin that cannot be viewed at the same time, they are different aspects of the same person and both true.

So the abused person who struggles to find their way to the ‘truth’ of their situation – wrestling with competing stories of who their abuser ‘really’ is, finds a way out by embracing the whole of them. They are both Jeckyll and Hyde. They are sweet, wounded, sincere, and savage. It’s all real, inasmuch as any self is real. You cannot have a relationship with only one of them, however wonderful they are and however much you adore them. And you cannot soothe the savage ones through further abasement, sacrifice, and suffering. Until and unless the sweet ones take responsibility for the savage ones, they will continue to let their demons take their pain and rage out on you, debasing and destroying you both in the process. In some cases the savage selves use the sweet selves as little more than bait to trap the people they envy and wish to harm.

Some relationships – and these are the precious ones – help us be our best selves. With my girls I have the opportunity to parent, mother, mentor. There’s a groundedness and centredness I feel in that role that I treasure. An opportunity to be someone I have always wanted to be. I am incredibly lucky to have the chance to help them grow up and find who they are.

Finding Ways out of Burnout and Overwhelm

Poppy and I went adventuring in a creek recently. It was so peaceful. There are struggles and difficulties all around, then there are these islands within it all that are so precious, where everything is still.

I clear a space and ignore my phone. No multi tasking. The curse of the freelance life – work creeping into every waking moment, is deliberately put aside. I don’t problem solve, plan dinner, handle admin. There is a rare clarity, ice clear and deeply refreshing.

Since I last burned out a couple of years ago, I’ve been quietly exploring a private project: what creates overwhelm, and what reduces it? Burn out is bigger than overwhelm, but for me it was the biggest and longest issue I had to deal with. I see overwhelm everywhere, not just at work but in everyday life, most especially for parents. It’s often framed as part of various mental illnesses and disabilities, but it’s such a common and difficult experience I feel it needs its own name and space to be understood.

For me, overwhelm is a chronic state of exhaustion, scattered thought, poor concentration, emotional intensity and changeability, and inability to grasp or manage tasks.

Reflection

I’ve been borrowing ideas from many sources, and using my own therapy as a kind of compass to treat my own overwhelm. I try things out and notice if my overwhelm deepens or eases. I’ve found reflective journaling is ideal for this. Each day or two I journal and notice what’s helping and what’s making things worse. I get an overview that’s nearly impossible for me to find any other way.

Some days when my overwhelm is high, I can barely walk into my shed. It’s way too much to handle, a million things all needing organisation I simply don’t have and I feel such panic that even opening the door makes me want to cry. Other days when my mental space is going well I can walk in and my mind is clear. It’s really not so bad, just a few bits and pieces. I can see what needs to be culled or sorted, packed better, given away. It’s so manageable. The difference can be startling!

Trying harder doesn’t help

For example I’ve found overwhelm is often embedded with false beliefs about productivity – that doing more and working harder and longer are essential to productivity. So my intuitive solution for the early signs of overwhelm (one of which is reduced productivity) is unfortunately to do a bunch of things that are likely to make it worse.

As counter intuitive as it feels, rest, doing something completely different, and setting aside proper time to deep dive instead of scattered multi taking are all very useful for productivity.

Understand the weight of the invisible mental load

One of the challenges about burnout in life rather than work is how difficult it can be to get a break from it or even see it clearly. Some of us find a lot of our work isn’t only unpaid but unrecognised, even by ourselves. We feel exhausted but can’t name what we’ve done all day, can’t take time off but don’t use the concept of being ‘on call’, and end up fitted to the gaps in the somehow more important activities of study or formal paid employment being carried out by those around us. Being able to notice what we do and who we do it for can be essential to recovery. I have found simply tracking my time has been eye opening in terms of things like how much sort work I do for others on a daily basis. This isn’t a bad thing – unless I don’t factor it in. This is a very interesting article on the topic of invisible mental load.

Executive function capacity is a limited resource

I’ve also found it useful to consider ideas around ‘executive function’ from the autism community (here’s a great post about an adult autistic’s perspective on his struggles with executive function limitations). Executive function issues also turn up a lot for folks with ADHD, trauma, and dissociation. They relate to our ability to plan, sequence tasks, keep track of time, and prioritise.

Many higher level brain processes are limited resources. If I’m living such a chaotic life that I need to use a lot of thought to plan hanging out my washing, that’s a lot of capacity being used up on tasks of daily living. Routines, structures, and rhythms are ways I can take those tasks out of intense intellectual activity and into habit, which is largely mindless and takes little mental energy. (which can help explain why some folks become very wedded to routines – if you have limited executive function your routines are your safe way of keeping life going)

It’s the same process that makes driving an intense intellectual process for a new driver, and something that can be done on autopilot for an experienced one. Autopilot frees up capacity for other tasks, or mental rest.

The impact of decision fatigue

Decision fatigue is also an important aspect of overwhelm, and one that burdens those of us in poverty much more than others because poverty involves constant trade offs – and these are the most mentally exhausting decisions we make, between two or more important things when we can’t have both (like food or medicine). There’s a great article here that unpacks this more as well as a lot of interesting research behind the ideas.

Sometimes the job is impossible

Overwhelm is often a response to a catch 22, or an impossible ask. Parenting through adversity of any kind often involves trying to accomplish very challenging tasks, such as supervising very young children while severely sleep deprived or ill, or trying to provide quality childcare and household management simultaneously,or meeting the physical, social, and emotional needs of several children of different ages/needs, at the same time.

I sometimes find it helpful to think of parenting as if it was a job, and thinking about what my union might be asking for when they want better, safer conditions. Do I need less tasks? More time? More skills? Rest? Support? All of the above, of course, but some weighed more than others, and some easier to find solutions to.

When I ask myself ‘What’s usual in thr paid versions of this role?’ sometimes the pressures and catch 22s emerge in a way I couldn’t see before. It can also help me to see and articulate difficult concepts such as I love being with my kids but I hate trying to create fun safe times together and also sort out all the washing. When everything merges together it can hard to figure out where things are actually working because it all feels awful.

‘All or nothing’ is a game you always lose

Another thing I’ve been finding helpful is to watch out for the ‘all or nothing’ mindset that kicks in when I’m overwhelmed. I know I need a break and I’m dreaming longingly of the weeks away on camp, but turn down the opportunity to have ten minutes to myself because frankly, what’s the point.

I have been finding it difficult to make ‘wild time’ since the kids came along. I miss my long late nights writing poetry, driving under stars, and sitting by the sea. For the last month I’ve experimented with 10 minutes by myself in the bedroom each night, with candles and my journal. Part of me hates this – where’s the spontanety? The stars overhead? The long hours? How can wildness be scheduled?

That part is right, it’s not the same.

And yet, it’s better than not doing it at all. It’s still a candle, a bone pen, a sacred space. It might be a snack instead of a full meal, but it still nourishes my soul. And a nourished soul speaks its needs louder, is more playful, resilient, and certain. It keeps seeking a heartful and passionate life. 5 minutes of painting is better than not touching the brushes for 5 years because you don’t have the time.

‘Freeze’ is a type of threat response that looks like overwhelm

I’ve found helpful with overwhelm to understand what scares me. This is much harder than it sounds. Sometimes I know I’m scared, sometimes I just get sick, or develop new pain or symptoms. As someone with childhood trauma I have the common but deeply frustrating experience of sometimes learning about my feelings through problems with my body and health. This means having to interpret the myriad of random symbolic issues that turn up. It can be a slow and frustrating process.

Other times I’m well aware I’m stressed, panicked, frozen, blocked. But I often have little idea why or how to get past it. Why is it that some days emails make me freeze and are impossible to reply to? I’m sitting at my desk in tears, humiliated and full of frustration and self loathing, but I cannot make myself do the un-doable task. We’ve all heard of flight and fight but are less familiar with freeze. If you are scared and don’t feel up to a task you are facing, some of us freeze and shut down.

Overwhelm can be a response to abuse

Not being able to think straight, remember, plan, or use higher mental facilities around an abusive person has long been recognised as a common problem for people being harmed. Making plans away from them is often essential because deciding what to in the moment can be impossible. There nothing wrong with you and it’s not unusual

It’s also not uncommon when the abuse is internal. For example, if I’ve often used a ‘stick’ to motivate myself with, forcing compliance even when I’m frightened, tired, or overwhelmed, using meanness and bullying to push myself through hard tasks, I’ve set this scenario up. Overwhelm at some point is as inevitable as a plant wilting without water.

Empathy is restorative

Making safe spaces to deeply listen and empathise with myself has been crucial. I’ve been working with an art therapist on this, instead of trying to push through or problem solve, instead to deeply and non judgementally listen. It’s harder than it sounds!

Deliberately seek the opposite

There are many opposites of overwhelmed such as calm, content, flow state, and confident. Some of them will resonate as more important to you than others, and you can explore more about those ones.

For me one of the biggest costs of overwhelm is in my confidence, so a side project that’s developed out of this one has been: what builds my confidence? I’m finding resources like this TED talk insightful. Repetition builds confidence which is useful to be aware of given how often I work at edge of skill, seduced by the appeal of a challenge. I adore challenges but I’m also anxious, vulnerable to imposter syndrome, and discouraged by failure and rejection. Learning to pull back on the challenges a little and build on more successes is helping greatly. Intentionally working to reduce my overwhelm this way has been incredibly helpful for me.

If you are struggling with overwhekm or care about someone who is, take heart. I hope there’s been some useful food for thought here. Our interdependence is invaluable in situations like this. Someone we can swap scary tasks like booking each other’s dentist appointments. Sometimes the one with more executive function can help break down a task or sequence a series of goals for someone struggling. Many articulate people with these challenges are sharing their strategies so others can borrow and build on them. You can tweak and change and develop things so that the overwhelm eases and you can think again. Best wishes.

TACSI Project: Chronic illness research

I’ve started a new project! This one is with TACSI, as a peer researcher, drawing on my lived experience of chronic illness. I’ll be conducting interviews, writing reports, and participating in the co-design process over the next few months.

If you meet the criteria above, please consider reaching out. All the interviewers are peers with lived experience and pretty amazing folks. I’m really pleased to be on board, TACSI have a fantastic reputation and I’m a long time admirer of their work – check out some of their other projects here.

Gender, diversity, and health

Recently in my public health studies, I was asked to explore some ways in which gender has an impact on health. Here’s some of my thoughts:

Experiences, health conditions, or personal identity that deviate from cultural gender norms can expose people to considerable health risks. Stigma, rejection and/or victimisation from family, peers, and community, and lack of access to resources such as education, work, and medical care, each compound in a vicious cycle for many people. As a result, they then face all the health risks of people exposed to unemployment, loneliness, poverty, mental illness, and so on.

There’s a range of ways people can violate gender norms. The norms themselves vary from culture to culture and at different historical times. Cultures are more flexible about some variations and more rigid about others. Some cultures have more overlap between qualities seen as ‘male’ and those seen as ‘female’, and the value placed on each varies. Many cultures have third gender, transgender, both gender and other options. When gender is a rigid organising principle it often determines opportunities, risks, and the power permitted in various life spheres.

In many cultures ‘female’ identified skills, roles, and behaviours are associated with less power in their personal and political lives, less access to the market economy, and are seen as less essential. Some cultures (such as ours) permit women to identify or behave in ways seen as ‘male’ more readily than the reverse because of this disparity. So it is now largely acceptable for girls to wear trousers, while boys wearing dresses/skirts/kilts is a source of controversy.

Women are more likely to operate in a gift/barter economy alongside the men in their lives, performing more unpaid work such as child raising, care giving for sick and elderly, housekeeping. When women are employed they are more often part time and unemployed, and more often working in the lower paid ‘welfare workforce’ using ‘traditionally female skills’ such as child care and support work. They are more vulnerable to poverty, domestic abuse, depression, homelessness, and lack of control over their bodies and choices.

In such an arrangement, men are less socially connected, have more options for education and wealth without having to choose between paid work and having children, and are less likely to participate in unpaid work. They are more vulnerable to loneliness (particularly once retired), less likely to seek support, slower to access health care particularly in matters that contradict ‘male’ stereotypes such as for concerns about virility or mental health, more likely to be assaulted by other men, and much more likely to kill themselves.

The health risks and vulnerabilities are considerably higher for those who do not or cannot fit this binary. Binary transgender people (those who were identified as male at birth but experience themselves as female, and vice versa) for example are at much higher risks of suicide, violence from strangers and family, rejection, homelessness, mental illness, and unemployment. Non-binary people (who identify as agender, gender fluid, both genders, multiple, and so on) are likewise disadvantaged. People who are attracted to their own gender are often also the recipients of social rejection and stigma as attraction to the ‘opposite’ gender is often a key aspect of the gender norms: ‘manly men’ are ‘supposed’ to be attracted to women, not men, for example. Same sex attraction violate gender segregation norms that presume same sex spaces are free from attraction. People who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth but who diverge from it in choices such as career, interests, or appearance also face risks.

Intersex people and those with hormone variations and disorders can experience severe medical trauma within health services that seek to ‘normalise’ them and fit them back into a gender binary they may not identify with.

Many of the groups already experiencing some other form of disadvantage are more represented in gender diverse communities, such as autistic people. Experiencing more than one form of diversity such as being disabled and queer, or indigenous and queer puts people at much higher risk due each community not understanding the other. For example for many years ‘bisexual privilege’ was spoken of with the assumption that being able to blend in and ‘look straight’ gave bisexual people an advantage over monosexual queer people (lesbians and gay men) who were constantly dealing with the stress and risks of being outed. More research suggests the opposite, that the stress of being invisible and feeling unwelcome at times within both straight and queer communities seems to be the cause of the much higher rates of physical and mental illnesses suffered by bisexuals than straight or queer monosexuals. Bisexuals who are in same sex relationships and are validated as queer face fewer health risks than those in binary relationships who are usually assumed to be straight.

This suggests that not only does each gender experience health risks differently, but some forms of divergence from gender norms are associated with greater risks than others. Some resources are safer and more accessible for some forms of ‘validated diversity’ and may be hostile or harmful to others who are divergent in other ways. There is for example, conflict at times between binary and non binary trans people about the legitimacy of their identity and how they are perceived by the wider community.

A final group who face severe health risks due to gender are often forgotten about. In the book ‘Dead Boys Don’t Dance’, a study found that suicide rates were higher for queer boys than straight boys. But the highest rates of all were in a largely unstudied subgroup – boys who had been perceived as and labelled by their peers as gay, but who did not themselves identify that way. These straight boys experienced all the risks and rejection from the straight community suffered by queer boys, and also lacked the protection of a sense of engagement and belonging with the queer community. Their invisibility, misidentification, and lack of peers was frequently a lethal combination.

So when we talk about gender and health, the costs of a rigid gender binary, norms, roles, we are talking about costs for all these people. Different levels of risk and types of vulnerability, but no one escapes a troubling cost to losing access to some aspects of what it is to be human and what we need in order to thrive. There’s no winners in this list,but some of the people paying the highest prices are also the most invisible and overlooked in conversions about gender and health. We can do better.

Acing Public Health

Happy Dance! I got back my grade for my major assignment of the trimester, a report into the health impacts of different systems of income redistribution (welfare). The subject is at Masters level and I was given 96% for the report! 91% for the overall subject. That’s despite wrapping up the trimester with pluerisy.

I am so happy to have found Public Health, the bigger picture thinking suits me so much and it links across all the projects I love, whether that’s policy level advice or direct client work. All of them need to be underpinned by this understanding of the context in which people are crushed or thrive. Social determinants of health are so crucial and I’m stunned there wasn’t a whisper of them in my mental health peer work trainings.

So that’s a big confidence boost! I’ll be graduating at the end of the year and then will have the option to continue on to the grad dip or Masters – or go sideways into a different field like philosophy which is also pretty tempting. There’s a lot of philosophy in what I do, really we’re all philosophers at heart in some way even if we never verbalise it. We hold beliefs about people and life and live to them. I have very fond memories of some of the conversations with the hearing voices group around a campfire in my backyard, that rare space in which it was possible to break the social conventions that normally silenced us and talk openly, if we wanted to, about how we experienced the world. Even if it was just to have a whinge about the stress of being on welfare.

Studio as a sacred space

Glorious studio days recently. Even by artist standards, I have a pretty intense relationship with my studio. Moving into this space, it took me a long time to let go of my previous space and fall in love.

I will be moving to a bigger, brighter, better space in the same building in July and I’m so excited about it. It will also mean I can integrate my office and studio spaces together and have everything under one roof. This should stream line all my processes considerably, mean I don’t need a lot of duplicate stationary anymore, and make it easier to move between admin and art on the same day.

In preparation I’m sorting, tidying, and planning. I have a pinterest board of studios for inspiration. I’m keen to create something both functional and aesthetic. One thing I’ll make sure to do is set my oil palette up on the right hand side of my easel, so I’m not constantly crossing over myself for new paint.

As part of this preparation, I’ve overhauled my watercolour and oil painting set ups. A friend suggested standing for my large watercolour paintings and I’m already noticing the difference; more confident gestures, better blending, and finally making progress on an image I’ve made 5 versions of that I wasn’t happy with so far.

This drawer beneath my glass desk keeps my palettes and paint protected from dust while I’m not there. The large white palette on the left was an op shop find, a flat porcelain plate which is is wonderful for watercolours and much cheaper than specialty art palettes. Watercolour handles so much better on porcelain than metal or plastic, it’s much easier to mix colours and shades accurately.

My oil paint set up is also much better now. This little glass top table was a steal from the local garden supply store. I lifted out the glass and backed it with a few sheets of neutral grey pallet paper for easier colour mixing. It cleans off while wet with a baby wipe, or once dry, with a wall scraping razor.

I had partly completed this artwork in a class last year about painting in the style of the Old Masters. It’s a copy of a painting ‘Arachne’ by Diego Velazquez. This week it was time to finish it.

She still needs a few more glazes but I’m very happy with her.

It was fantastic to get back into oils, I’m looking forward to my next one.

I have a number of irons in the fire at the moment for my next projects and so far there’s promising feedback on a couple of them. I’m excited about starting the new financial year with a better working space to meet whatever comes. 🙂

Poem: Walking with the Wind

I went walking with the wind last night
Under the white and golden street lamps
Ears pricked with excitement,
My spirit dog went before me.

Behind me, just out of sight
Followed the ghosts of old friends and lovers
The wind spoke to me of the night
My spirit dog inhaled the grass.

Music poured from a shuttered house
We circled the ruined incinerator
Time wheeled overhead with the stars
My spirit dog dug under the trees.

I smiled to myself and turned towards home
Back to the house that would open to me
The light and the warmth of the living world
My spirit dog pissed on the neighbour’s daisies.

Ink Painting: Flight

I have greatly enjoyed creating in a range of other mediums lately; white ink over black, watercolours, even posca pens. But there’s something deeply satisfying about coming home to my teal ink paintings. They are my oldest and most familiar medium, started back in the days when I could only afford one colour of ink, a fountain pen, and a single size 6 brush.

When I sit down with my ink, I don’t know what I’m going to create before I start. I create the opportunity and something emerges. It’s an incredibly precious process for me, a kind of therapy. I love that spark, the uncertainty, the sense of not being in control and planning it out but rather, letting go and allowing space for what comes. It’s reflective and magical and sometimes extremely painful, depending on how safe I feel and how well I can process what comes. Sometimes nightmare images take me more than 6 months before I can look at them. More rarely, I connect with the work right away. Often they tell me than one story and I learn more about them over time or find different stories in them. I usually work at night, often by moonlight or candlelight, in a space full of poetry, a kind of altered state. Sometimes I can see parts of the artwork in the white paper as I begin, not a true hallucination, but yet real enough to trace the path.

‘Flight’ builds on a theme about wings that was present in my work back was I was 16 and used to dream of myself walking alone in school with vast useless black wings trailing behind me. Too freak to fit in, but not freak enough to fly.

They remerged at points throughout my life, such as when I gave birth.

I’ve been exploring my giftedness lately, what it means to not be neurotypical but function differently in ways there’s almost no research on for adult populations. It’s taken me a long time to own it and acknowledge how much it impacts my life. Unlike other differences such as my chronic illness, speaking about being gifted brings with it a taint of bragging and a memory of making others feel threatened and rejecting me. It’s vastly misunderstood and surprisingly vulnerable.

There’s little to guide someone struggling the way I do. Speaking to a gifted specialist recently I asked about the adult population, where can I learn from others who struggle? Ah, she said, there isn’t one. Gifted adults who succeed don’t come to see psychologists. Gifted adults who struggle usually assume their struggles prove they were not gifted after all. We know almost nothing about the needs and best supports of the gifted struggling adult.

We know what puts gifted kids at higher risk, such as not having friends or peers, not being academically challenged and getting used to the feeling of being a student who must learn, bullying, perfectionism, performance anxiety, feeling valued only for their grades and skills… We know they are often emotionally intense, vulnerable to existential crises very young, sensitive, and asynchronous in development. But we don’t know much about how to reverse harm or support adults to thrive. I’m trying to figure out that pathway.

Wings, useless, broken, or bound emerge as a metaphor for thwarted desire and unrealised capacity.

I’m glad of my strange, wild art. It was important to me to protect it from college and other artists and the homogenisation that happens in exposure to others. It’s not the only way to make art, even for me, not the best or holiest. At is made in many ways and meets many different needs, it’s a form of mindfulness and intense observation, a emotional catharsis, a complex development of artisanal skill, a way to play, and more besides. All are real. I was speaking with a lovely artist recently who is going through something tough. I mentioned that I explore terrible pain at times in my art and suggested they could do the same. They gave me such a brief hunted look, a flash of anxiety and an absolutely closed door that I understood immediately: art is their happy place, where the joyful and whimsical live. It would be a kind of sacrilege to take their darkness into it. For me, I adore darkness and love in art, all the notes of the song and colours to paint with. Lightest to darkest pitch. It’s what feels authentic to me and it heals something in me that otherwise merely bleeds.