Safety and Diversity: Better Together conference

Day three of Better Together caucus and conference. This is my favorite sign here.

ID sign outside toilets, by The Equality Project. Text in black and purple reads Gender Neutral Toilet:

Sometimes because of how people look, they aren’t allowed to use the toilet. We can do better.

Real Impacts: There are real impacts when toilets are labeled for women or men only.

Trans and Gender non- conforming people often face discrimination, harassment, arrest, or violence in toilets!

Everyone should get to do their makeup, change their clothes, change their babies, and use the toilet failures in peace.

Everyone who needs help should be able to use the facilities with their family members, friends, or guardians.

It’s important that we proactively work to create safer spaces whenever and wherever we can. We realise sharing a toilet could feel new and different, we appreciate your understanding.

The Equality Project
ID short haired person in a car, wearing a fluffy violet coat and teal lipstick, looking out the passenger window.

What it is to be different, to not fit the boxes and structures and assumptions of the world around you. I’m here to learn more, to better represent and include the types of queerness and diversity I know less or knew nothing about. To question my own assumptions and challenge my own internalized and unquestioned perspectives and norms and phobias.

What does best practice look like in inclusion work, in policy, in community engagement? Who can I learn from, ally with, and share my knowledge with? What are the range of differences, and how do they intersect with other communities?

It’s been my first queer conference. I’ve loved being here and met many wonderful folks. I’ve also found myself overloaded at times by noise, pain, fatigue, crowds. Having to be patient with my own limitations and let go of my desire to soak up all the knowledge, speak to everyone, justify my time here. Learning is a life long process. Community grows like a relationship, it cannot be forced or snatched.

Whoever I’m sitting next to knows something I can benefit from if they want to connect and share. I don’t need to chase anyone but to do what I need to be present.

Holding a space for my own sense of discomfort, the way I do and do not feel part of this community, my risk of self exclusion, the deep heartbreak of being a multiple in stealth mode, wishing we had this too, conferences and resources and pride. (we do, we are starting to, but that’s a post for another time)Listening to people glowing with a sense of belonging and remembering what it was to stand in Bridges and hear those feelings from other multiples.

What is it about conferences that makes me want to cry? That deep old wound of exclusion and rejection aches, fills up with tidal tear water and I’m a child again. Lost and terrified at school, trapped between anguished invisibility and agonized exposure. Loneliness that burned like fire. We were all that child, we all carry that child. Remembering another Sarah, at another conference, who first taught me this.

Someone walks up behind me and rubs my arm with affectionate welcome, our minds react on all levels, understanding it is prosocial touch, intended to bridge and create safety, wanting to touch back, needing to run, the screaming that starts beneath my skin. Keep breathing, loves.

Accepting that the path that’s open before me right now is about other more validated understandings of diversity. That it’s not a betrayal of my community to focus on the doors that are open and the opportunities that are sustainable. That this is my community too, that all identity is multifaceted and complex. That I do not owe suffering to the world. That mutuality is an essential aspect of community. That it’s okay to belong, to belong to more than one space, to hold membership across many communities, imperfectly and with gratitude and pain. To recognise the universality of these tensions and extend a hand to each other, the autistic folks struggling with the quiet space that’s not quiet, the folks in wheelchairs trying to get through the crowds to the lift, the young person standing awkwardly on the edge of the room.

Rose messages from far away and the memories of being on fire calm beneath her hand, go back to sleep. I write notes, share jokes, make space. Share meals, make connections, not – god forbid “networking”, but relationship. Nod through a talk, catch an eye and smile, hold someone’s hand when they cry, accept a hot drink with gratitude.

The wounded child in me begins to see the wounded child in everyone and the sense of being alone and on fire in the middle of the crowd passes like a breath. We all walk with ghosts too complex to put into words and in the end this is the essence of diversity, the fragmenting of experience into smaller and smaller categories until we stand alone, and the rebuilding into larger and larger overlapping groups and venn diagrams until we are all together under the umbrella of human. It is an oroborous of forming and breaking down and reforming, like a life cycle that honors both our difference and our commonality. Both need room to breathe and support each other.

Where I’m going in 2020

I’ve just arrived safely in Melbourne for the LGBTIQA+ “Better Together” conference. (Say hello if you’re coming too) I’m tired and excited and really looking forward to it and meeting all the other amazing folks.

Image description: smiling person with short hair and a bright blue shirt with the image of a kitten asleep under a book and the slogan “Curl up with a good book”.

I have Rose to thank for the cool t-shirt. I’ll be away for 5 days and my heart aches knowing the nights will probably be tough for Poppy. I, on the other hand will probably get a bit more sleep while I’m away. Parenting dilemmas!

ID person in a blue shirt and a child in a yellow shirt tendering hugging each other

It’s been a full on couple of months. Massive bushfires have been destroying huge areas of Australia. It’s an unprecedented disaster with the largest evacuations we’ve ever experienced. The losses are staggering. Some folks are in the thick of it, while those like me who are lucky to be safe are watching with horror and confronting survivor guilt and vicarious trauma. Helping out through donations and community support eases the helplessness and is a small balm to the fury and grief. Sometimes it’s big things, others it’s smaller gestures like taking fruit to the local wildlife carers or joining in a working bee for a local damaged farm. Anything helps to unfreeze, to ease the impact of months of bad news and horrifying casualties.

If you’re feeling paralysed, silent and distraught like I’ve been, you might find it helpful to look for something small you can do and do it. Look for good news, for people’s kindness, and share that too. Walk away from it at times to build your capacity to stay engaged and not burn out.

A lot of people are in terrible pain, facing life threatening conditions, or handling thousands of burnt animals. These are all high risk for trauma, and the survivor guilt of those of us who are lucky can lead us to torture ourselves as if more suffering would somehow help. This is part of vicarious trauma, and things that help with this are connection with community, breaks from it, humor, and keeping a clear sense of responsibility.

It is not my fault, I do not deserve either my good fortune or to be punished. I am a better ally and supporter when I’m not overwhelmed.

The other major focus for me has been my work and studies. I’ve been in an intense process of wrapping up projects and studies and launching new ones.

I’ve completed my grad cert in public health with mostly high distinctions. The mentoring program with Sally Curtis has started and been full of invaluable learning already.

I’ve started in two new LGBTIQA+ representative positions, one on the Consumer board with the Southern Adelaide Local Health Network (the hospitals, rehab facilities and so on). The second with the Freelance Jungle as an admin on the team which supports a 5,800+ online group of Australian and New Zealand freelancers. I’ve been a member and then patron of the group for a couple of years, and it’s a fantastic resource with a great focus on mental health and inclusion. The Better Together conference will help me understand both the needs and resources of the wider community.

Consulting and community development work has been so satisfying last year with a creative health project in prisons with SHINE SA and a peer based research project about systems change for people living with chronic illness with TACSI. I was so pleased to support these, they were both work I’m very proud of and look forward to sharing more about.

With face painting I’ve been getting more work from councils and organisations aligned with my focus around diversity and inclusion, such as schools for autistic kids, or queer events, which I’m very happy about.

I’ve launched a whole new arm of my business, providing independent support work for folks through the NDIS, with a special focus on mental health and diversity. It’s going very well and I’ve found that I love it even more than I anticipated. Being able to cone alongside people in their lives and homes and provide personal peer based support that is therapeutic but not ‘therapy’ is simply wonderful. Like a doula it’s a flexible mix of practical and emotional support, looking towards bigger goals but also very present in the moment.

It’s very similar to the group work I used to do in mental health services, such as facilitating the hearing voices group. I’m part of a small community of practice with a professional organiser and a handyman, and I’m setting up supervision and a network of resources. I’ve been extremely busy with it which was a bit unexpected – it’s taken off very quickly and I’m largely booked already.

I’m also booked to deliver a new series of local creative workshops which I’ll share more about shortly.

My work life is all coming together under an umbrella of creativity and diversity. I’m very passionate about it and excited to watch it grow in 2020. I’m putting applications in for further part time studies to continue to develop my skills in this area, and looking forward to getting back in the studio sometime to pick back up my current project there.

Thank you all for your encouragement and support, it’s taken me awhile to find my niche but I’m incredibly happy to be doing what I am, and feeling very aligned with the values and quality that links my different business areas together. 🧡 If I can support you or your project in some way, get in touch and let’s talk.

Beyond dogma and empathy failure: the power of listening to understand

I’ve been enjoying and slightly overwhelmed by my new Public Health class: Global and Environmental Health Issues in equal measure. I was surprised by the info on systems thinking, which makes complete sense when you’re thinking in terms of ecology, I just hadn’t expected to encounter it and I’m very pleased to learn more about it. My favourite quote so far has been from the Global Health Ethics video by Greg Martin:

If you want me to take your argument seriously, you need to show me that you can argue the counter-factual. If you can’t, then it’s likely that you’ve taken an unthinking, dogmatic position based on some sort of knee jerk philosophical reaction that you had, and you really need to take a closer look at the other side of the argument.

Greg Martin

This made me extremely happy to hear because I’m often frustrated with people’s unwillingness or incapacity to consider opinions they disagree with (even when I disagree with those opinions too). I’m especially concerned at the way this is at times used as a kind of badge of honor that the wrong ideas are so wrong and illogical and irrational they can’t be even comprehended by sane and sensible people like us. Our failures of empathy and imagination are not a merit, nor are they proof against being wrong! Many opinions that are awfully wrong have excellent merit from particular perspectives. Moreover being able to deeply empathise and understand other perspectives is a crucial step to being able to engage them.

Understanding the building blocks of ideas and beliefs – the experiences people are extrapolating from, the accepted wisdom of the experts they trust, and why they are trusted, the logical fallacies we are all so vulnerable to, and often the ideas start to become less incomprehensible and outrageous. Your own ideas are formed in exactly the same ways, which is worth keeping in mind. We are all highly fallible, and we all extrapolate from personal experience and are vulnerable to bias. It’s not unusual, it’s the human condition, however diverse the result. We all share similar processes in how we develop and defend our beliefs, even astonishingly unlikely or dangerously untrue ones that may be experienced in psychosis. The mechanisms and interplay of knowledge, experience, and emotion are surprisingly standard. We have more in common than we think, which can be an uncomfortable thought. It’s far easier to remain baffled by opinions you hate and the people who hold them than it is to acknowledge common ground and genuinely ask “why do they believe that?” – whether we’re taking about someone with opposite political beliefs or “crazy” paranoia. The unsettling reality isn’t how diverse we are, it’s how similar the underlying mechanisms of our beliefs are. We build our ‘sanity’ with the same blocks that also build ‘craziness’ and ‘wrongness’.

The heart of being able to listen and learn like this is a concept I think is best summed up by the phrase “Listening to Understand”. It’s an empathetic stance, but that doesn’t mean it’s mindless – to the contrary the more complex or different the ideas, the more you’ll need to be able to think carefully to reconstruct the framework you’re hearing. It’s not listening to find differences to debate, or even common ground to connect with. It aims to leave unchanged whatever is presented, but to simply and deeply comprehend it and be able to articulate it.

This type of listening is a profound tool to have in your communication kit. It’s an essential aspect of community engagement, research, interviews, and relationship. In formal settings it’s often needed to be able to translate and transport opinions into other spaces, such as understanding why people believe and behave the way they do when you’re trying to design a health intervention, training, or policy. Failures of empathy are behind many failed efforts in governance. When we do not truly understand an issue our best intended efforts are often half effective at best, and may be horribly harmful instead.

In teaching, this empathetic engagement is crucial to bridge the gaps between what people know now and what are trying to teach. Education is far more than imparting information, it is often about a process of shifting frameworks and belief systems. Long after the facts have faded the mindsets and beliefs remain. Poor quality education neither knows nor cares what the current knowledge and beliefs are, it simply imposes over the top. This is why so much cultural awareness training fails, it is underfunded, too brief, and places heavy burdens of understanding bigotry and the ignorance of privilege onto those who suffer the worst consequences of it. It is experienced by those forced to sit through it as a set of new behavior rules and rejected as “PC” thought policing because there so little time and capacity to empathically bridge what the beliefs are now, with the ones you are hoping to instill.

In informal settings it’s about having a more informed perspective on the people around us. We all make assumptions constantly about what’s going on inside each other, what we really think and feel and why we do what we do. We have to do this in order to predict each other and function socially. Far too often when it comes to divides of belief we defend our own perspectives by staying willfully unaware of what and why others think as they do. This failure of empathy means we often set up strawmen not as a deliberate strategy but simply because we’ve failed to grasp the real position of the other person.

This approach of listening to understand is tough in everyday life when we’re trying to have relationships with people who have vastly different and at times flat out incorrect ideas. It takes a special capacity to listen closely and be willing to be unsettled by the internal logic of others’ ideas to begin to understand why people think, feel, believe, and behave the ways they do. It’s also very humanizing and can connect us across divides. It can also unmask narcissism and predatory behaviour that hides in the imitation of caring words but is revealed by patterns of behaviour where people are harmed and discarded.

Being able to listen this way to people very close to us creates opportunities to be seen and heard and validated. It bypasses the trap of ‘who is right’ and moves instead into wanting to get inside the other’s perspective and really understand it. It shows how limited our internal models of each really are, however well we feel we know someone, the real person is always more nuanced and complex. There’s always things we don’t know, influences we hadn’t considered, conclusions we weren’t aware of. Particularly in long term relationships, we often feel secure that we really ‘know’ each other, and more and more we relate to (and argue with) the version of them that lives in our mind. This erodes connection. Being willing to suspend that certainty and deeply listen can profoundly change the context of your relationship.

Empathy is essential to authenticity. It emerges through a range of capacities – being able to hold a range of contradictory beliefs in your mind at the same time, being able to hold your own perspective lightly enough to genuinely seek to understand another, and firmly enough to integrate new knowledge and experiences without losing your own. Polyphony – the willingness to allow multiple voices and perspectives to exist without requiring consensus, is profoundly helpful. Every experience and conversation we have is adding to our own frameworks and beliefs in ways we are often not aware of. The heart of the work for me isn’t just this willingness to accept I may be wrong, and a lack of fear of exploring other beliefs, it’s also about being able to bridge a fundamental tension in how I see other people. There is both a profound diversity, and an underlying common ground to being human. Empathy emerges when we hold these in tension with compassion.

Complexity is one of the hidden faces of Authenticity and Diversity – it deserves defending

Complexity is very difficult for human brains, and we don’t much like it. We much prefer single cause-effect thinking and ‘this or this’ options to systemic thinking and ‘this and this’ options. Hence the vast quantity of memes and concepts widely shared, largely contradictory, and all intended to help guide our attitudes and behaviours in conditions of uncertainty. Complexity is confusing and stressful. We need the memes, the simple concepts, the straightforward protocols. They are the shortcuts that help guide us, over simplifications that function as maps to make it possible to navigate without overwhelm.

The shortfalls of over simplified ideas are all around us – they are like blunt tools misapplied to delicate situations. You should be a decent friend and stick by people through thick and thin but also weed out obnoxious and negative people from your life. Somewhere in the middle lies the messy complexity of real life, real relationships, and your own level of obnoxious and negative impact on the people around you. Over simplifications occur when we are overwhelmed by complexity and retreat to safe platitudes or rigid guidelines, or when we fail to engage with the topic or people with sufficient depth or empathy to understand it.

The New Zealand study has come to be what I term a ‘‘research-has-shown’’ moment in the public discourse, where the results of one study are overextended to reach an unwarranted conclusion.

Steven M Schnell

The risks of this ‘research has shown’ approach are huge. It is a soothing idea and one that is often used in training – I’ve used it myself when talking about diversity in the workplace and myth busting ‘common wisdom’. But it’s so easily a tool that misrepresents complexity and reduces it to something over simplified and destructive.

Complexity has many shortfalls too, too much of it too often leads to decision fatigue, decision paralysis, confusion, shame, and hopelessness. If we can’t find guiding principles in difficult situations we are at risk of collapse or disengaging. This is incredibly important when the complexities are social, and a common dilemma for anyone working or designing interventions in the community sphere. I know how exhausting it feels to pull all of the issues on to the table and try and really grasp the context of problems. It’s tempting to give up and return to ‘business as usual’ even if we know it has serious limitations. Complexity can be too much to deal with and break our spirit if we feel doomed to failure no matter our intentions.

Complexity is also magnificent. It is nuance, shades of grey, texture, authenticity. It is the realness so often missing from curated and risk adverse stories and services. It’s the stories that don’t fit, the diversity not captured by the ‘normal template’ on which our world is built. It’s why we are not cogs in a machine and not replaceable to each other. It is part of the astonishing depth, the contradictions, and the richness of our lives. It’s one of the reasons people love art, which refuses categorization.

All the quotes in this post come from this delightful article analysing the “local food” movement and backlash in my public health studies this week, Food miles, local eating, and community supported agriculture: putting local food in it’s place, by Steven M. Schnell. While it is a very interesting account of that topic, it is also a defense of complexity and the process of deeply understanding the nuance of topics and communities.

What is missing in many of these discussions is recognition of food system participants as fully rounded individuals, balancing many different, sometimes contradictory concerns, and making decisions about food within the complexities of the real world. Any attempts to understand what the idea of ‘‘local’’ means to consumers must not discard this complexity in favor of rhetorical,ideological, and quantifiable simplification.

Steven M Schnell

The approach I’ve found most helpful in my work and speaking is to give value to both complexity and simplification. When I illustrate my presentations and use a combination of text and image, that’s a deliberate choice to help to capture a complex idea or important topic in a way that fits easily into our brain – the meme. Each contains a ‘halo’ of the complex information it was embedded in, but where that knowledge is swiftly lost, the meme remains and holds a place for it. It’s like a process of loops – we dive into complexity, then surface into a place holder – a principle, premise, learning, or guideline that stands in place for it. They are the nutshell ‘key take away ideas’ that lose value on their own, but when presented with the complexity are retained in a way that represents much more complex shifts in mindset and belief than a questionnaire check box evaluation could assess. For example, much of my work in mental health speaking is about humanising the person in pain. It’s not always explicit but is embedded throughout the materials and part of the more subtle shift in how we feel about and engage such people. Mindset shifts are the trickiest but by far the most effective changes we can make, and making complexity safer to navigate is a crucial part of that.

I’ll finish with this lovely one-liner, so applicable in community and health which are often uncomfortable bedfellows with neoliberal ideas of individual responsibility and free markets.

Doctrinaire free traders, it seems, are all in favor of freedom, unless consumers are using that freedom to choose values other than low prices to guide their decisions.

Steven M Schnell

Shut up

When the world is built on principles that make pain private and unspeakable, anyone in pain feels alone.

When those in power make the rules that hide their indiscretions, their avarice, and the suffering left in their wake, it is literally unspeakable. The nature of oppression is the way it can not be spoken or at times even thought.

The average customer satisfaction rating is above the national guidelines which is a fantastic indicator of success. Within the dissatisfied customers are a smaller, highly diverse group of people so harmed and traumatised they would rather suffer great pain and risk terrible harm than be exposed to them again. We do not collect that data. We not speak of them.

Friendship is the building block of every community, an elastic concept applied to the closest confidant and loosest acquaintance but all with an implication of acceptance and mutuality. It saves us from impersonal formal care, and it fails us in ways too painful to put into words. It is at once more robust and more frail than we think.

Therapy is at times merely an expensive process of transferring trauma in contained doses from one person to another.

Bitterness is almost beautiful – Wendy Orr

I cannot speak of your brutality and of your tenderness at the same time, people hear with only one ear, listen to only one story.

We do not speak of the truly horrifying things. And when we do, we mouth platitudes and vomit rage and break spirits.

After all these storms and tears, I must go home, and face the truth that no one dies of loneliness. More’s the pity – it seems the obvious solution.

On the floor of the therapists’ office I die and come to life. I break into a thousand pieces and walk out again with my face almost but not quite put back together. Pretending to be human with everyone else pretending to be human.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so absolutely f#@$ing sad.

It nearly destroyed me last time. The moment I feel blamed I’m leaving.

Such perfect companions. You betray me and I betray myself, and all who love me. We are always fated to find each other, through history and all of human life, a pairing that inevitably meets over and over again.

Good intentions are not enough. They are all I have. My hands are empty. The ones who did such harm while doing their best, the unquiet ghosts.

Sex and rape look pretty much the same if they are described in writing with no attention paid to the ‘customer experience’. My health and hospital records also probably read quite well, good care, good outcomes. So what’s the problem?

But how was the play, Mrs Lincoln?

Trauma creates a form of diversity. Brains are literally wired differently and it’s visible on scans and tests.

We all want to be virtuous but we don’t like risks and we don’t want to be uncomfortable.

Sometimes I hate myself so much it’s hard to breathe, speak, feed myself, stay alive. Yet it’s like a safe cave for me, when I step outside of it and see the vastness of the pain and betrayal that’s waiting for me, I don’t know how to bear that and I turn back around and hide in my cage. It anchors me.

How can you be so mean to someone so meaningless? – Batman Returns

Stockholm syndrome applies in some degree to every human in existence. We all need to eat and so we all need to lie to ourselves. All our captors are kind and brutal in turn. We empathise with them.

I was not punched or raped. My trauma is not trauma the way we think of it, my scars are self inflicted partly out of a craving for scars, pain I can see. Yet I am a freak, different, awkward, unlovely, excluded, and painfully unsubtle about my feelings on the matter.

I first wanted to die when I was ten.

People reassured me the nightmares would go away when I became an adult. They were wrong. They started to ease off when I came out at 29.

I spent the precious hours after my daughter was born sobbing and unable to move, strapped to a table while vapid doctors sewed me up like a lump of meat. Something in me broke that I can’t mend. It remains stubbornly misshapen and brutalized as a monument to an act of harm that would not even be remembered by the white coats who perpetrated it, utterly secure in their certain good intentions. Only I know if it was sex or rape. They didn’t ask. It wasn’t sex.

I have only ever wanted to belong. We do not create mental health resources for the oddballs, like everything else they are written for the normal, white, cis, straight, middle class, able bodied who have gone through a rough patch and just need to hold on for things to get better.

The very best part of my days is the night, sleeping next to my child. The smell of her hair, warmth of her breath. I soothe the growing pains, calm the bad dreams. When she is content my world is at peace.

Everything anyone has ever thought is true – Phillip K Dick

You’re a hopeless romantic… It would be funny if it were not serious. – Ray Bradbury

You’ve got to jump off cliffs

All the time

And build your wings

On

The

Way

Down.

– Bradbuy

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Podcast: Keeping Mum

I’m excited to share this project in which I played a small role.

This beautiful podcast sensitively explores the largely untold story of the experience of children of LGBTIQ parents. It’s a lovely interview of the now adult child of a lesbian mother who navigated raising her family in a conservative community. The marriage equality plebiscite in Australia last year often aired concerns about the effect on children of being raised by queer parents. While there’s excellent research that shows these families are just as safe and nurturing, it’s also helpful to hear personal experiences and accounts.

Produced by Suzanne Reece who conceived the idea, conducted the interviews, edited, and created the sound scape.

I provided a voice over for Suzanne’s poem, some of the background chatter, and the illustration.

First aired on Radio Adelaide, you can find ‘Keeping Mum’ here. Please feel welcome to share it.

Parenting with Trauma

Having our whole family sick together is an exercise in the logistics of rationing and portioning a tiny amount of energy to extract the maximum benefit. If I take her for an hour late tonight, then you do the morning, I’ll get you a nap at noon then you take her to the park for two hours so I can work on my assignment… The shifting priorities of dishes, doctors, meals, laundry, and mental health. It’s considerably more exhausting than being sick without kids, largely because of the difficulty of getting enough sleep to properly recover.

Monday Poppy and I went into the city. Rose had important appointments and Poppy was full of restless toddler energy. We had an argument on the bus about her not biting me which concluded with her screaming while strapped into her pram and me not making eye contact with a bus load of strangers. She got her own back by refusing to fall asleep for her afternoon nap. Usually she’ll snuggle down in her ‘cave’ made by covering the pram with a cloth, and knock off. That day she leaned as far forwards as her pram seatbelt would let her to fight sleep. 4 times she gently drifted off anyway as I paced around Rundle Mall rocking and circling the buskers. Each time she’d slip sideways as sleep relaxed her, clonking her head on the frame of the pram and waking up with a howl. Gently tipping the pram up evoked rage rather than sleep, and the fifth time she started to fall asleep I stopped and tried to gently settle her back which cued 20 minutes of hysteria.

I thought she might fall asleep in the art gallery but unfortunately that was the end of the whole idea. She talked to the other patrons, wanted to know all about the art, and once we found the kid’s studio space spent a happy hour cutting a sheet of paper into very tiny pieces.

The studio was set up to invite self portraits, with mirrors and oil pastels. This was mine:

I was glad of the space, it’s the most at home I’ve felt in the gallery.

I’ve realized that PTSD has interrupted our usually very calm parenting approach. Kids this age can be intense, they have huge feelings, test boundaries, and have way more energy than seems sensible. Poppy is fearless, explorative, passionate, creative, and stubborn. Generally Rose and I navigate these traits patiently and with appreciation of their positive aspects. But when she hurts us deliberately we’ve both struggled and the conflict has been charged and difficult to resolve. We’ve been worried about what it means and stressed by our own responses. I in particular lose patience and get angry, but Poppy isn’t easily intimidated which leaves me in a bind where I either behave in more frightening ways until she’s cowed and takes me seriously, or I find another way of approaching this. It speaks to the heart of parenting approaches to obedience and discipline. Do children follow instructions because they are frightened of us, or of the consequences? Or because they are connected to us and trust us? Is it appropriate to scare your child? If so, when and how much? Are boundaries about anger or love? Is breaking the rules or pushing the boundaries about immaturity, defiance, conflicting needs, forgetfulness (it’s easy to over estimate the memory capacity of a small child), or something else?

I’ve been starting to do a bit more reading on parenting her age group and it occurred to me that Rose and I are generally excellent at not taking difficult behavior personally, setting boundaries with warmth, and redirecting troubling behaviors. So when Poppy was getting into constant trouble for climbing furniture in the house, she now has a climbing frame outside for her to monkey around on. But when she hurts us there’s no such framing. We see no positive aspect to such behavior, no legitimate need looking for expression. We talk instead about her being mean, we privately discuss her sensitivity to our stress, her restlessness, her trying to get our attention. We’re troubled by a normal child behavior and framing it as lack of empathy. It’s triggering, evoking memories of being hurt by others and we both move into threat responses. Rose tends to freeze and withdraw, I get angry.

It occurred to me recently we’re misframing the behavior due to our histories. Most children this age want to roughhouse. Wrestling and tumbling and play fighting is a normal developmental behavior. Engaged with care it’s a place for learning about how to hold back and not hurt each other, how to apologise and caretake when accidents happen, and it satisfies the touch hunger and intense energy of very young children. Learning how to wind down into calmness following rough play is a key part of regulating such excitable and energetic kids.

Last night when Poppy started to get rough with Rose who was crashed out on the couch with a migraine, I didn’t get charged. I chose to see her inappropriate behavior as a need for rough housing and set a boundary with patience rather than frustration. I told her Mamma was sick and could only have gentle play around her. When Poppy kept being rough I removed her to the bedroom not as punishment but as an appropriate location for rough play. I gently with her permission threw her onto the bed, threw a big stuffed lion at her and told her this was where the fierce and grouchy creatures play. She was thrilled. She ran growling at me to the edge of the bed, waited for me to put my hand in the centre of her chest, then braced herself for me to gently push her back, screaming with laughter.

Later that night with Rose asleep and me exhausted on the couch with Poppy, she started to rough play again and I forbade her from getting on the couch with me. For the first time she was easily redirected into quiet play and spend a calm hour making complicated meals with her toy food instead.

There’s no problem with her empathy, Poppy is an incredibly affectionate and loving child. She’s not unusually aggressive or showing signs of attachment damage or deprivation. In mislabeling her normal needs as something that disturbed us, we introduced a charge into our relationship that she gravitated towards. Kids do this without knowing why, they can sense it and it’s irresistible. It’s why they do mad things like grin at an adult who’s already at the end of their rope and angry with them. They are still getting a sense of their own power in the world and what they can and can’t do. Navigating our own trauma as parents is about recognizing blind spots like this, paying attention to threat responses needlessly activated, and prioritizing basic needs like sleep, connection, and companionship so we function as best we can. For me at the moment on bad days I’m dealing with chronic irritability and low grade suicidality. Sleep deprivation and feeling isolated turn my world black. Over and over in a thousand little ways we choose safety together, celebrate freedom and autonomy, look for loving ways to speak about the unspeakable things, and link into the world around us. Without our wider networks of friends, family, therapists, without kids rooms in art galleries, and foodbank, and doctors who see trauma survivors rather than welfare bludgers, we couldn’t do this. But together there is so much strength, sufficient grace. Enough to let us all grow.

Community Mural in Development

At my birthday party last weekend, my friends started this mural with me. I’ve wanted to paint murals for a long time, and trying to think of something fun to host it seemed like a good idea. I bought a panel of marine ply, undercoated with Rustoleum, and we used house paint brushes and bulk size artist acrylics in a limited palette (blue, red, yellow, brown, and white). I mixed the colours people chose and gave a bit of instruction on using brushes but that was it. The design – children playing in a tumble of autumn leaves – I drew on freehand with a sharpie.

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Those who wanted to join in chose whichever part they liked and painted. It was cool to see people experimenting with textures and brush stroke styles. The limited colour range keeps it all cohesive despite many different hands, and the limited palette means all the colours relate well to each other. The only thing I’ve noticed so far is a tendency for not a lot of variation in value (darks and lights) which doesn’t matter so much in such a cheerful piece.

I was hoping to create something fun and heartfelt to display in our backyard. It will cheer up and add colour to the play area for Poppy, and remind me of my friends and family who’ve added to it. I know it’s often stressful to make art when you haven’t done it in a long time, so I wanted to make it feel safe and meditative. Creativity loves a bit of challenge, but too much is inhibiting and creates frustration. I also reassured folks that I will be going over the design when it’s finished and outlining everything so there was no need to worry about imperfect edges or the odd smudge. They really do add to the texture.

I have been doing some research in the local hardware store and I think for future murals I will consider buying exterior paint for the added UV protection to help it last. I’ve been making more artwork on board rather than canvas lately, which I prefer for indoor or outdoor larger scale artworks, so this was a fun way to explore that.

I’m looking forward to finishing this and fixing it in place. Probably another 2-3 arty afternoons will have it done, weather permitting.

My birthday was harrowing this year, I spent half of it crying and was horribly suicidal. I’m glad it’s behind me and I’m going to put some real thought into understanding how I can deal with it differently for next year. So far none of my approaches have been great.

But my favourite part of this was those small moments when I could see someone else disappearing into the art, the steady even brushing of paint, blending into paint. Those moments are a kind of meditation and they are precious. May we all have many more of them.

To not be here for a little while, please

I would like not to exist this week.

My birthday continues to be one of my most vulnerable times of the year.

I’m not all that adult around my birthday. I’m 10 years old and so lonely I want to die. I’m traumatised and confused and out of step with everyone. I’m surrounded by people I can’t seem to connect with. I’m alien. No one speaks my language. No one touches me. My loneliness and vulnerability mark me as rejected and make me a target for bullying.

I have built so much since that time. My advocacy and this blog has been a huge part of that. I have a community.

Respected is not quite the same as loved.

I am in so much pain.

I am hiding it because I have learned to be ashamed. Because I am afraid of being hurt. Because I don’t want to pressure anyone. I don’t want to take, devour, consume. I don’t want charity, pity, resentment. I want to share, to be connected. To give and be given to.

There’s times I feel myself part of the world, woven into a web of many people’s lives, seen and seeing, connected, useful, of worth, wounded and imperfect but sufficient and loved.

There’s times I free fall. I can’t see or feel anyone. I’m alone in the dark. There’s a memory of pain in me so huge it blots out the sun. I was a child who wanted to die. My birthday is reliably a time I fall. Every year I’ve tried a new approach and every year at best it partly works. There’s no hole deep enough for me to hide from it. I can’t bear to ignore it, to mark it, to celebrate or hide. There’s no right answer, no way out of the pain. It’s miles of barbed wire and the only way out is through.

I wish it was different.

But I can find a way out of the shame and the silent trap. Hey there, lovely ones. This is me right now. I’ll be okay. Don’t panic. It’s not the end. I don’t need to be rescued. Don’t overwhelm me with eulogies. But be kind right now. My moon is dark. Drop me a line. Offer a hug. Invite me for coffee. Send me a sympathetic we’ve-all-been-there nod across cyberspace. Tip your hat in the street, give me that goth-kin wink.

I know I’m incredibly weird and intense. I know I’m not the only one with my heart broken, baying at the moon. I see you too, I see your bewildered and terrified 10 year olds, being eaten by the night. It will pass. We’re all just holding on, my friends. Together and apart, friend and freak.

I would like not to exist this week. But given I’m stuck with it, how then shall we pass the time? I’ll bring the accordion, you bring the tambourine. I’ll bring the communion wine, you bring the hymns. I’ll bring the black lipstick, you bring the fishnets torn at the knees. I’ll bring the pack of cards, you bring the cheeseboard. We’ll meet under the bridge, in your dining room, on the front line, out back of the hospital. I’ll check you out of the ward for the afternoon and we’ll bum a few smokes. I’ll come to tea in a ridiculous hat and sit with my knees together. I’ll read you Keats and Slessor on the jetty over the water and we’ll cry into the wind. You’ll take my hand and I won’t feel a thing. Not a thing.

Using language to support parent infant bonding

Language is so powerful. When Poppy was born we found many people would frame our experiences or her behaviour in ways that were not helpful for us. It’s amazing how many of our common phrases ascribe bad intentions to the child. It may seem like nit picking to fuss over a word, but words build the story that impacts how we understand each other. They create the filter through which we interpret each others intentions.

I first learned about attribution theory in uni, studying psychology, and a lot of things clicked in my mind about people I’d known. Most anyone when depressed or overwhelmed sees the world and other people through a filter that makes the innocuous seem hostile and the mildly difficult downright sinister. Some of us are more prone to this more of the time, living in a world where grey runs to black. How we feel can strongly change the way we interpret others and the world around us.

Many of the stories created by common phrases used about children would pit Poppy against us, as if she was indifferent or even cruel. People would say things like she was “being a jerk” if she wouldn’t stop crying, was “too smart for her own good” if she climbed something and fell off, “had us wrapped around her little finger” if we went to comfort her after she fell over.

On one level this is a way to be light-hearted about the stress of parenting, laugh it off, and validate how awful and exhausting it can be! But for some, in the context of stress and sleep deprivation, this can also take the relationship between parent and child into dark and risky places.

It can be difficult to understand just how painful things can get if you haven’t been there. In the early months of Poppy’s life, I was often sick, very sleep deprived, and feeling at the end of my tether. I’ve noticed that a kind of flip in thinking can happen when things are really bad. If you feel stretched past capacity enough, at some point it feels like it’s not possible for everyone to survive. Survival instinct and maternal instinct start to contradict each other. The maternal (or parental) impulse to protect and nurture is powerful and we tend to see it as the norm. But it’s not always the way, and when threat levels are high and bonding is distorted it may diminish or become secondary. The impulse to protect the child may dissipate next to the sense that there’s simply not enough resources for everyone.

Things can get really desperate if the child’s behaviour is framed as a threat in some way to your own survival. The shift in thinking from ‘we are all in this together, having a tough time’ to ‘they are sucking me dry’ is a risky one both for the relationship and the child.

This interesting article, the neuroscience of calming baby explores what’s going on behind a common phenomenon – babies are calmer when carried and held but will often become distressed when put down. It talks briefly about how important it is to understand that this is an inbuilt mammalian response, to “save parents from misreading the restart of crying as the intention of the infant to control the parents”. Soberingly, this is important because “unsoothable crying is a major risk factor for child abuse”. This is not in any way to blame a child for being harmed, or to excuse harm done to children. It is to examine the context in which otherwise devoted, well intentioned parents can find themselves struggling with furious impulses or not coping.

Ascribing bad intentions to a baby starts to activate a sense of threat, that the child is wilfully harming the parent, deliberately denying them basic needs of food, sleep, and relief from distress. When bonding is good and parent needs are getting met, these things don’t matter so much. But in harder times they can contribute to a sense of being tortured by the child rather than by the circumstances. It’s desperately important to see a child’s distress as distress rather than an attempt to control, manipulate, or do harm. Language is part of how we do this, helping to interpret and contextualise so we don’t distort what we’re experiencing.

It’s also critical not to set up impossible expectations such as “when you cry I will make it better for you” with a child. Overburdened by this sense of responsibility, parents are at risk of feeling intense distress in the form of failure, agitation, and frustration if confronted by distress they cannot sooothe or silence.

Rose and I translated a lot of common sayings when we encountered them. Someone would say to us things like:

  • “She’s fighting sleep” and we would agree but shift the intention- “yes, she’s struggling to sleep today”
  • “She’s not a very good baby” becomes “she’s having a hard time settling at the moment”
  • “She’s got you wrapped around her little finger” becomes “she sure is a little cuddle-bug”

This was incredibly helpful for me in a few instances where I was struggling. In early weeks I was prodromal (warning signs of psychosis) partly due to severe sleep deprivation. I would get Poppy confused with Tamlorn, the little one I miscarried. Rose and I would tag team Poppy all night to give each other some sleep. There have been times I’ve handed Poppy over in sobbing distress and Rose has taken her out for a morning drive because my nerves are shredded by her crying and my nipples are mangled from her biting and I’m losing it.

It makes a difference to understand that Poppy is behaving as she is supposed to, not to harm me. Human babies often want to be held all the time and use crying to signal fear, pain, hunger and every need they have. It’s also a biological norm for infant crying to send us round the twist, and being able to see our own limits coming up without hating ourselves for them is valuable. Infant needs can be more than a parent can meet, or impossible to understand at times. Nurtured infants need nurtured parents and few of have invested in those kinds of communities before bringing a baby into the world.

Parent needs are deeply important to meet in order to buffer that sense of threat and reduce the fight/flight response being activated in distress. Staying out of crisis mode is partly achieved by treating adult needs as real and significant, and using language wisely to tell the most helpful story about the situation.

So we found it helpful to say ‘squeaking’ instead of ‘screaming’ for example. “Our little person is squeaking again” sounded less dramatic and helped us keep perspective. We talked about “witching hour” and planned around the time every evening that Poppy would be overwhelmed and inconsolable. We used baby wearing to manage her desire to be close in a way that reduced our fatigue and back pain, learned how to rest her face on our shoulder so her screaming didn’t go right into our ear, and use as a mantra “I’m here with you, you’re not alone” in place of wanting to fix it when nothing was working.

In our case, ‘colic’ was managed by reducing stimulation. The lights went off every night at 6pm, Poppy had a warm bath as soon as she started becoming distressed, and we didn’t go out in the evening for many months until she passed through the phase.

Language is a big part of what helped us navigate these huge challenges well. The risk of psychosis in the early days, serious difficulties with breastfeeding, and a baby with undiagnosed functional lactose overload and colic caused by sensory overwhelm. Combined with 2 deaths in the family and a range of illnesses for Rose and I, it was not an easy start. We were and are ecstatic to have Poppy, she is an absolutely beautiful, loving, curious, adventurous child. Tending to the stories we told and the language we used helped us to bond together during those difficult times.

Many creative projects

I made it into my studio for a few precious hours today. I bought this lovely drying rack for hanging wet artworks, and worked more on my illustrated poem project. You can see some of the pages drying on the new rack here:

I have been often ill lately with high pain levels and have not had as much art time as I’d hoped. The top priorities I’m keeping up with: my time with family, my studies, work gigs of various kinds.

I was very pleased to collaborate recently with the Greens SA and paint creatures of the Great Australian Bight during a listening post. Illustrating campaigns that are close to my heart is a special joy.

I was also honoured to be part of a panel at Uni SA about alternative responses to psychosis. I spoke from my Psychosis without Destruction perspective. I gave a brief illustrated presentation using journal entries from my first two episodes, and the body painting I did during my second episode which resolved it.

I am keeping up with my public health studies and learning French. I’ve just handed in an assignment exploring the social determinants of health and proposing an intervention intended to reduce cardiovascular illness for people with severe mental illness.

I was planning an exhibition for my birthday but I’m going to push it back a month or so and see how my health goes. I’m happy with my priorities right now. Family, study, and work are all going well and art and other projects fit in where and as I can. 💜

Poem: Leaving open the doors

Recently, I sat in an office and unraveled a complex dilemma. 
The woman sitting me responded, saying “What I’m hearing
is that you are trying to find a way to engage health
without colluding with those who have oppressed you,
and without contributing to the oppression of others.”

I blinked and then
Cried.

Yes. Yes that’s what I’ve been trying
To put into words the last 10 years.
My refusal to cut the tie
That binds me to the common humanity
Of the most irrelevant and destitute because
They are me.

When I manage to find a door
Through the insurmountable obstacle
I try to leave it open
Behind me.

This blog has been my public road map
Not as a set of instructions or moral imperatives
Or proof of my superiority in some way
No more no less than an honest account of how and where
I found the doors
And the courage to walk through them.

The times I succeeded and the ones I failed. 
In honest truth telling, I believe we are set free. 

You are skilled, she said
At behaving ethically despite being outcast
You are afraid and uncomfortable of the challenge
Of doing so when you are embraced and approved of.

Ah.

All the long years, trying to get in to the town
The truth is I’m also terrified of it
And run back to the wilds, alone but free.

This is about oppression, she said, and power.
My teeth lengthened in my smile
And I promised
To write and paint
The unspeakable things again.
To hold fast to the light burning
To speak my name with blood, pride, and dark joy.
To break the invisible all powerful rules
Seek life
For me and all my kind. 

Love amidst pain

At times when I’ve been very broke, I’ve felt that a troubling and difficult to name challenge that has been not the obvious stresses – affording bills and medical care and food, but a subtle one. Judged according to choices it’s assumed I’ve made, my life, my clothes, my presentation fits me to a standard. If there’s only one pair of jeans in the op shop that fit me, their cut and colour says little about me except my lack of choices. When I’m with others who’s choices are also constrained, this is understood, and we envy each other when personal taste isn’t inhibited by limitations. It’s a joy when we can forge something close to our sense of self from what we have.

Today I have been resting. My mind is burned out trying to understand some things that are extraordinarily painful to me. I have read and watched movies and curled up on the couch under a blanket. The weather is glorious, late summer and soft sunshine. I am recovering from a horrible head cold that has made my whole body ache. And I am thinking about my life not in an abstract sense as if I could have done anything, but from within the constraints I have faced. The long and terrible illnesses, the homelessness, the loneliness, the terrible suffering and self loathing I am still recovering from, growing up queer and unsafe. I think about the cards I was given and how I have played them and I am at peace. I have an incredibly beautiful life. I adore my family. I have navigated such heart rending and terrifying challenges to be here and to love the way I do from a heart so starved and shattered. It is so far in many ways from what I wanted or hoped for. But it so glorious given how lost I could have become. Queer and Christian can be a death sentence, and when I return to my old home at times, I can see myself on the floor of the bathroom like a ghost. I am curled around myself screaming silently and begging god to undo what I am. I have faced the absolute terror of hell and exile to stand here today. I have faced suicide and self harm. I have faced a loneliness so deep and profound that it felt like it was erasing me from the inside out. I have navigated multiplicity and psychosis, caring and needing care, the loss of friends, the heartbreak of not finding my place in employment.

I would not have chosen this path. I would never have chosen homelessness, or chronic pain, or my string of failed attempts to haul my life back onto the track I was aiming for. I would not now choose our vulnerablity, our financial insecurity, our public housing. I aimed very high and where I’ve landed so far, it turns out, is incredible.

I adore my daughters with all my heart, and the joy in parenting them surpasses anything else in my life. My beloved Rose and I are restored to each other after the terrible strain of last year. We are learning that knowing each other for 6 years does not mean we know each other. That love is in asking the questions and listening closely to the answers. The hand reached across the gulf of miscommunication and expectations. There’s so much love here.

Yesterday I went to a wonderful talk by local artist/illustrators about how they navigated their work while raising young children. It was wonderful and I learned so much. I also realised that their process was only fitted around children, while I was trying to build mine around illness and disability and many other things. It has not been easy and yet I am finding a small slow path.

Yesterday I went to the funeral of someone I had not known very well, the husband of a dear late friend. I was not sure I would be able to go. Death is not something I am reconciled to since I had my terrible breakdown. I felt angry and humiliated by my vulnerability to it. Rose eased me into finding the thorn in my paw. I was terrified of my secret, nagging judgement that his life had been wasted. I recalled heartbreaking conversations with him about his lack of the spark of joy, his envy of my passion. He too, faced many challenges in his life. Only when I found this fear could I see that my block was little to do with him, but my own secret terror that in some way I couldn’t even find words for, my life has added up to nothing.

So I went to the funeral. They read a poem by my late friend. It hurt so badly it felt like I was dying for a time. My heart broke for his friends and family. My heart broke for my friend, and how hard friends can be to come by. How irreplaceable each of us are in the web of our lives. I thought of the millions of people in the world and how easy it is to be lonely. How hard it can be to listen as deeply and carefully as Rose and I are learning again to listen to each other. How life is neither all triumph nor all loss. I listened to the heartfelt eulogies by his friends and saw both his pain and his life in a softer and more loving light. I thought about my friends. I thought about how I would be remembered if I died today, the way I would not want my sorrow or my struggles to be the focus, but my love and the people and things I have loved and tried to learn how to love well.

I went to a therapy appointment yesterday to open in a safe place a big painful box about family and history and abuse and relationships. I cried so hard I couldn’t breathe or stay seated on the couch. I couldn’t stop. So much love and so much pain. Agonising dilemmas that are sunk deeply into my skin like razor wire. No easy answers or lights on my path.

When I left I splashed cold water on my face and hair and wrists. I took a cold drink in a small paper cup and I staggered carefully to my car. I sat with my journal in my lap and no words until the urge to vomit passed. I drove home carefully into the sun, taking the route with the most shade cast by trees, and crept into my home to hold my little girl and a hot water bottle for the rest of the evening.

Today I look at what I have built, what I have made of my life with what I’ve given, or found, or forged, and I am content. It is humble but no secrets rot beneath the floor. It is glorious. I am limping and dancing, both. There are many beautiful and wounded people I have built relationships with, of one kind or another, tended these like gardens that need work and effort and understanding. Learning how to listen, how to speak, and how to endure. Gratitude for those who came before me and made my world possible, those who changed my world so that queer people were not vile, those with disabilities were not repulsive, trauma was not a weakness of character, and that those who were sick or poor should be given a wage to allow them shelter and food. I remember their sacrifices and their work and I am thankful. I remember them when I choose to make sacrifices and to work towards a better and kinder world for my children and their children. There is so much love here.

Dancing with depression

I’ve been feeling raw and bleak at times lately. Today I was diagnosed with PCOS (a hormone condition) and PMDD (a sensitivity to certain hormones that causes a bunch of symptoms – my biggest struggle is severe depression on day 1-2 of my cycle. Given I already have mild endometriosis and severe adenomyosis, it’s making Poppy feel like a miracle and I’m holding her pretty close.

I’ve also had a severe digestive virus and a UTI/bladder infection which has knocked me for six.

It’s been a rough 6 weeks for me with many illnesses half of which have me quarantined and infectious. In between illnesses I’m happily enjoying downtime, and sunshine, and art, and chasing up friends for some much needed connection. I’m also about to be back in my studio working on a project dear to my heart which is exciting.

I’ve been rereading Lost Connections by Johann Hari recently which is a beautiful and well thought out book. Strangely enough in the light of it I’m about to try intermittent dosing of an antidepressant to see if it might help me manage the one two unpredictable days a month my head caves in. I don’t have a lot of treatment options left to try.

There’s a strange path I’m finding myself walking. Sadness, grief, loneliness all need to be heard and made space for. Given voice and listened to deeply. And the mind and heart also needs tending to ease them. It’s not a desperate fight against depression. It’s being open to it and the messages of it. Accepting and attentive and compassionate. While also working to be restored. The duality is strange. Burdened by a culture that sets us up to fight with our own mind and tries to numb our alarm systems instead of meeting needs and down regulating over sensitive alarms, I’ve swung far in the other direction of accepting whatever comes. Blown about on the tides. Actively working to change my state of mind or feelings is, in a way, as odd to me as most people find accepting and listening to them to be.

I have been lonely and sad at times lately. Two of my close friends are struggling with severe suicidal feelings. I miss spending more time with them. Did you know loneliness makes you much more susceptible to catching sicknesses? I’m reaching out when I can, being part of things. Glad for many good folks around me. Rose is, when she’s well enough, taking good care of me. We’ve been doing a lot of work to listen and empathise and reconnect and we’re feeling so much closer.

I’ve taken on temporary admin role in a beautiful online friendship group in crisis. I love groups and I’ve missed my groups lately. I’m hoping I can help restore some safety and sense of belonging.

I need some Narnia time out in the wilds, feeling the universe as a poem. I need my hands in earth, my feet in the woods. I need meaningful work and hope. I have a few more weeks before uni starts up again. I got a Distinction (84) in Epidemiology (honours level) so I’m feeling good about that, but I may drop a class to ease the stress if the health challenges continue. There’s a future there for me.

I’ve been struggling under the burden of several complex and sensitive old abuse issues for folks I love that I can’t speak about. A few recent days I’ve allocated to work or a Poppy adventure day, I’ve found myself spending most of it crying and calling helplines instead. I feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of navigating these relationships and conversations safely, compassionately, and fairly. Hopefully I’ll find a new support person soon.

In the meantime, in between sickness and sadness I watch the sun through the leaves. I touch Rose’s fingers, how soft and beautiful they are. I comb Poppy’s silky hair, listen to her stories, keep house.

And it’s the other way around too.

In between the most beautiful and tender life I suffer painful moments of sickness and sadness.

They weave in and out of one another. I’m here, hurting, and bursting with love. Holding it all to my heart.

My 1,500th post on this blog

Woo hoo!

I have handed in my last assignment and finished my studies for the year. Now it’s time to celebrate, I’ve been so long forward to writing this post, number 1,500.

Did you know I’ve written a total of almost 800,000 words since starting in August 2011? Wowee. In that time this blog has had over 100,000 visitors. That’s amazing.

At the Melbourne State Library for The World of the Book Exhibition. Image shows a woman in purple lipstick looking happy in a large library room several stories tall.

I used to write about one post (article) a day, over the past few years since my kids came along I dropped back to about twice a week. I now average about 55,000 words a year, spread across around 100 posts.

My topics shift and have been difficult to categorise helpfully for readers. Posts are often either about art, personal updates, or an educational/thought post, reflecting on or explaining something. Often these merge back and forth. The content is determined partly by whatever I’m encountering in my personal and professional life, and partly by requests from readers, moving across mental health, grief, love, parenting, and work… Everything is approached with an eye to authenticity, compassion, and engaging complexity and depth in accessible ways.

I knew very little about blogging, online accessibility, or SEO when I started out, which is pretty evident from the unhelpful titles I tended to use and the lack of image descriptions on photos. Looking back there’s plenty I’d change! But the task of updating and upgrading such a huge collection has been too daunting so I march along as it evolves, muddling through. What started as a way to update family and friends without having to copy and paste across multiple emails evolved into education and activism, and then most bewilderingly into something that closes some employment opportunities to me while launching me into consulting and freelance work. My readership has grown modestly, expanding across different topics and socioeconomic groups.

My most popular posts are often found through Google searches for help, especially around mental health. Here’s a few of them:

Blogging has been a strange, wonderful, painful, complicated, and delightful part of my life. I have strict boundaries about what I share, and there’s several threads of reasons why I’ve chosen to blog. My blog has been a voice, a call to connect with a broader community than I could find face to face, it’s been a way to humanise multiplicity and mental illness and madness. It’s been about developing inside out language – experiential language that shares from a place of how something feels when you are experiencing it, not viewing it from outside – reclaiming language about suffering from the clinical sector who observe rather than embody it. It’s been a legacy in case I didn’t make it. A set of keys to understand me if I wasn’t here anymore to try and explain my life, my thoughts, my suffering, my love, my art. A bridge, an invitation. It’s been about loneliness and alienation and wanting to ease that for others because they are heartbreaking and skin searing and soul crushing to experience and silence and shame perpuates devastating myths of singularity, of being the only one to feel or think or hurt or need or experience the world the way you do.

It’s been about the informal and imperfect, a zine instead of a book, a conversation rather than a lecture, a brush of the arm instead of a handshake for someone not sure how to be in this world or claim space or speak truths without doing harm or being harmed.

Sometimes I lose the threads. I wake up and can’t remember why I write here and I go silent for awhile. At times I’ve felt embarrassed by my relationship to my blog and my readers, I’ve felt anxious about any sense of my own need, more comfortable with the distance of altruism. I’ve celebrated numbing and felt strong when I didn’t want to write. I’ve been embarrassed by previous sharing or in a new context, confused and frustrated that blogging comes easy to me now but sources of income from these skills have eluded me. I’ve been depressed by the way staying grounded in the story I have the right to tell – mine – has left me with a body of work entirely wrapped around my own life and perspective. At other times I’ve celebrated that. Cast off the master narratives we’ve all heard before and gone deeper into something strange, raw, ideosyncratic, utterly my own. This is my experience, my life, my reality.

I made a large, strange, beautiful thing. 1,500 strong, and I’m proud.