Vincent Van Gogh Exhibition

It was beautiful and I’m glad I went. It was my second trip to the National Gallery of Victoria. The first was a number of years ago, my first ever interstate talk. I was not paid for the trip but my expenses were covered and I was so tremendously excited to be there. I was also so star struck and in culture shock. I grew up poor and have generally had little money. I was put up in a hotel and that was my first experience of it. I felt awed and excited and confused about all the things it was assumed I would just ‘know’. I was actually bouncing between backpackers at the time and had no stable accomodation. I finished the last artwork for my talk 15 minutes before I left for the airport, and had to negotiate a suicidal crisis with a family member that afternoon. I’ll never forget the talk though, I received a standing ovation and so many hugs I went and hid in the toilets until everyone went away to the next presentation! I’m working on a talk at the moment and reminding myself as I care for Rose who is sick and deal with my usual anxiety and imposter syndrome that I’ve never done any of my work from that mythical place of life being easy. I’ve given talks while homeless, run groups about being queer before being out in my own life, navigated intense caring responsibilities and part time study at university. None of it lowers my competence, it is in fact the massive experiential education I’ve built my skills upon. It’s just left some scars in the form of anxiety and pressure and very high expectations of myself.

Back in Melbourne for that interstate talk, someone kindly paid for a ticket for me to see an exhibition of the Masters at the gallery the next day. I was stunned by how beautiful these works were in person, how vibrant compared to the flat photographs and prints I knew. I thought I knew the art but I’d never really seen it. I had a strange conversation with the kind person about what constituted ‘real art’. They contended that art needs an audience before it can be art. I thought of my box of ink paintings and my journals of poems and felt in my bones they were real art whether anyone else ever loved them – or even saw them. What else could they be? They helped keep me alive.

I was ambivalent about going to see this exhibition. I like Van Gogh. I am a Romantic at heart and there are few artists with more romance about them. He was generally disregarded at the Art school I studied at. As were most of the artists I most admire and revere. As was my own work at times.

I remember once, when I was 17, speaking to a poet who had an English degree. He hated my favourite poets, and hated the way I was using the word ‘poet’ to mean not a wordsmith but someone who looked at the world differently, lived more deeply, felt more passionately. He was not cruel but perhaps a little vain and insecure. He told me that he’d thought the way I did once and knew better since university. He told me Tennyson, whom I loved, was “hardly a world-class poet”. He’s the reason I did not go on to study English. I valued the way I saw the world, and I did not want it taught out of me, certainly not to have it replaced by the empty pomposity of the learned academic. I wanted to still love Tennyson.

I don’t use the word ‘poet’ in that way anymore, although it does apply to some poets, and some people. We use the word ‘artist’ like this a lot in our culture, to mean not someone with technical skill in the application of paint or some other medium, or the communication of ideas or disruption of culture, but as a romantic notion of being more truly alive, creative, attuned to something different, greater, sadder, more truly human. Some artists were like this. Van Gogh was stranger than the memory of him holds. Some artists are not at all this way. Creativity and being alive is not the province of those who learn to sculpt any more than those who learn to garden, or plumbing, or looking after cattle. Everything has a language and we all learn to attune to some and are deaf to others. Some of us are more alive than others, however we spend our days.

I am only now beginning to see where my art lives, what language it speaks. To understand that it is the money and glitter of exhibitions I find so alienating, and that the art I love is almost always narrative in nature. There is a poetry in it, a story it is part of. Vincent’s works are so deeply embedded in his pain and failure. The exhibition tracked his hopes as he explored different styles and mediums, trying to find something that would sell. The plea for more paint. The images painted of the gardens in the asylum.

I once spent three weeks wanting a tube of paint from the local news agency. I was incredibly broke at the time, rent and bills consumed every dollar I had. The paint was purple and it cost $3. I yearned for it and finally bought it. When I got it home it was barely useable. The pigment had separated from the binder. Being acrylic it was possible to partly remix it, but the binder had thickened and it was very poor quality. I was so disappointed and too anxious to return it to the newsagent. It had probably been on their shelves for many years.

So much of what we think of as the spendid, divine talent of artists is simply practice, access to good teachers, and money. The ability to reproduce scenery, capture a portrait, or express an idea can be little more than trickery. Illusions of flowing cloth represented in stone. Pigments smeared into each other to mimic clouds. There doesn’t have to be any soul to it at all. And some with great soul, with deep heart, have no obsession with light or colour or paint or theatre or any of what we think of as creative pursuits. They spent their days trying to recreate the DNA of extinct frogs, or raising children, or sewing clothes.

Vincent doesn’t alienate me because he also knew obsession and poverty and failure. His story overshadows his art at times. The exhibition was intensely crowded. We waited in mazes that thinned and became so tight I could barely get Poppy’s stroller through our lane. The first room opened into an auditorium, and David Wenham voiced Vincent, reading letters to his brother Theo. The letters are like poetry, dripping with his hopefulness and sadness and his deep connection to the places he painted. I sat at the back and nursed Poppy to sleepiness, then strapped her milky and drowsy onto my back. We passed prints, plucked from Vincent’s massive collection as examples of the work he collected and wallpapered his studio with. Someone frets behind me that Poppy is leaning back too far and may fall. Another man complains loudly that the prints are not even genuine art! Just replications. I investigate several very closely. They are genuine prints. The strangeness of the crowd is as much part of the experience as the art on the walls. Much patience is needed to view the art, and the pathway is not linear but splits and branches. If you want to see all the works you must retrace steps and double back. There’s a commitment needed.

“One must work long and hard to arrive at the truthful. What I want and set as my goal is damned difficult, and yet I don’t believe I’m aiming too high. I want to make drawing that move some people… I would like express not something sentimentally melancholic but deep sorrow. In short, I want to reach the point where people say of my work, that man feels deeply and that man feels subtly.”

Vincent’s works themselves are grouped by season, starting with his favourite, Autumn. The explanations and stories about the works are placed on plaques at their feet. The crowds stand in front of the plaques to see the art on the walls. Children cluster in front of them, reading notes intended for them to engage the art. The oil paintings have large crowds. The sketches are often void of people. I am patient and visit every work. Poppy sleeps on my back.

The clouds are so intensely white they glow. I don’t know if he was using lead white and this is the cause, or technical skill, or the lighting in the exhibition, but it is memorable, an effect totally lost in all reproductions I’ve seen. Theo encourages him to paint with more colour and vibrancy. Almost all of Autumn is terribly shadowed and dim. Beautiful, but sad and dark and unpopular works.

Poppy wakes in Spring. I’m particularly drawn to this painting of wildflowers. The blue background is such a beautiful colour, so like his skies. The poppies are so vibrant. I buy a print of it to take home to Rose. I am moving my art prints out of our lounge room to make space for our family photos. I don’t know where I will hang this one, but it will be a lovely memory of Poppy’s first exhibition. Poppies are part of our family story in so many ways.

There’s so much sadness there. Twice I cry, standing pressed in the crowds with my baby sleeping at my back. Incongruous in the bright lights. I step away into corners and write notes on my phone, capturing reflections. I am learning to do that again, reaching back for the thing that is more vital to me than breath. Gasping back to some kind of life.

One person said to another – how sad that he died so young, we could have had so many more beautiful paintings. Another that it was a disappointment, too many obscure works and not enough well known ones. Many complain about the crowds. Their feelings and faces and opinions press in around me like water. I stand there with tears on my face, feeling cut open.

Exhibitions usually terrify me or leave me cold. They are a shrine to success and money and brilliance. I feel small, bewildered, outraged within them. The art feels dead and trapped as butterflies pinned to a board. I hate the way they make me feel so empty. I have been investigating this for years, why I feel the way I do. I have felt embarrassed and ashamed of my reaction. It’s assumed that as an artist, I love art and exhibitions and connect with them. Art school was a painful miserable trek from one horrible exhibition to another. I was delighted to attend the first exhibition I felt some kind of connection with during that time – The Black Rose by Trent Parke. Afterwards the tutors complained about it over coffee. I told them I loved it. One said it was “art for the lowest common denominator”. They derided the very thing I celebrated – that it make some kind of sense to people who attended, that it spoke to me in some way.

How embarrassing to love Vincent. More than that, to cry over his works, his sad stories and poetry about walking in the fields and trying to paint the orchard blossoms before they fell from the trees. How very Anne of Green Gabels of me.

To still love Tennyson, Owen, Slessor. My walls have Waterhouse on them because the Lady of Shallot was the first painting I fell in love with, down at the Brickwork markets some kindly person with a little poetry in their soul saw me entranced by her and told me the story behind the artwork and I was smitten. The love remains although I now know her image is on a thousand walls. Ophelia joined her. Turner, who someone once told me was the equivalent of ‘hitting a canvas with a sock full of paint’ spell bound me at the local gallery. My tastes are populist, inelegant, unsophisticated. Leunig, who my drawing tutor told me ‘cannot even draw’, I discovered at 14 in a second hand bookshop on a trip to Victoria and fell in love, standing in the door way in tears. I spent a weeks income to buy the book. I was the only person in the poor suburbs to have hired Hamlet from the local video store in 10 years. On my 5th hire they simply gave me the movie and told me to keep it. Roman Polanski’s four hour version, true to the original play word for word. I used to know the entire play by heart. Shakespeare alongside Vincent. Literary and artistic greats alongside the popular and unknown. All united by a common theme – they speak to me of what it is to be human. Not only the successful or the masterful speak of that. The amateurs, the failures, the madmen, the women, the boy who tags his name on the railway fence because claiming some small place in this world is what is keeping him alive this week – all speak of what it is to be human, while some of the ‘great masters’ say nothing at all in a language I can understand, and trying to understand them just makes my heart feel sick and lonely.

Some artists embrace me. Tim Burton’s simple sketches from school and college that have years later been given such fantastic life made me feel not alienated but included. Amanda Palmer who considers all her fans fellow artists. Generally I avoid exhibitions because I feel cold inside and can’t make art for weeks afterwards. Studios have the opposite effect. If exhibitions are all dead butterflies, in studios they are still spilling across the skies and I see the artists soul and delight in the creation and possibility of art.

Romantics can be dismal artists at times. We are so bound by the story and so dazed by the halo that we struggle to see the art itself, to see shrewdly like an art dealer or pragmatically like an apprentice. In every exhibition that showcases success I am haunted by all the failures and art unseen hidden in the wings of the pantomime. There are a million Vincent’s out there, there’s the tragic thing. A million people who are trying to live with passion and soul who feel invisible and who’s work is not valued. I know what that feels like and their voices call to me within the glitter, their shadow lies cold across my soul.

I am learning what it is I need to do to feel more comfortable with showing not just my vulnerability, but my skills and successes and the answer is the same as it’s always been – authenticity. I learned long ago that sharing my successes was risky, that showing my skills and acing tests cost me friends and I have been lonely to the point of despair. Growing older I have been the reverse of ‘public’ and ‘professional’, hiding success and showcasing distress. They meet in the middle, sides of the same coin. The things I am reluctant to speak of cast shadows of their own. It is easier for me to admit to anguish than write a bio or resume that shows how amazing I am. Yet these things are also true and also in their own way, vulnerable and difficult to speak of. I never give an art exhibition that tells one story. I choose a theme and then I explore it from many angles, anguish is displayed next to whimsy, the bizarre alongside the beautiful. I am learning how to show competence in a way that still feels human, to talk about my successes in the same breathe as my pain.

I once gave my first interstate talk, unpaid and far from home, my heart heavy with fear and responsibility, my artwork hurried. It spoke to people and they came to me afterwards to touch me, to tell me their stories with tears in their eyes, to press scraps of paper with their thanks scrawled on them into my hands. It was an overflowing beyond anything I had experienced and the intensity both overwhelmed me and thrilled me. To connect with people like this, to touch on pain, shame, hope, and bring us back to a place where it is safe to be human – it was the most frightening and joyful act of creation. It is still that for me! Holding a space to be human is the heart of all my work, my art, my relationships, the through-line that connects so many disparate projects and ventures.

Vincent’s humanity is so very evident in his work, both his skill and his vulnerability. The loneliness and yearning and bewildered failures alongside the deep connection to life. He suffered and yet he was also moved by life in ways that many of us are not, sensitive to things we can no longer feel. We pity and envy him, the man who painted the gardens of the asylum. Success is a strange thing, it draws us in like fish to a light, but it also burns and alienates us. We are attracted to it and yearn for it at the same time as it sucks us dry and makes us hate ourselves. Failure is confronting, disgusting, frightening, yet also strangely comforting, a kind of brotherhood. So we thronged through the exhibition and look for ourselves in the paint and inks. Is there beauty here? If we never reach the heights of success, is there still value in our work, and meaning in our lives? Such questions to ask of dead artists. Most us walked past an artist busking at the door, reproducing Sunflowers on a large canvas. I don’t know what his name was but it was not Vincent so we asked no questions of him. My tutors hated that Vincent had become a romantic myth. I find our attraction to his story curiously beautiful. Our culture is not often kind to failures or even much to artists. Yet we stood in lines patiently to crush before his work. All of us, like Vincent, looking for something, drawn to something.

Home again, home again

Safely home from the most wonderful trip now, and back into the throes of admin. But I’ve started reading again and I’m so happy about it. 4 books on the go currently, all amazing – Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett (magnificent fiction with a physical and fantastical bent), Somebodies and Nobodies by Robert W Fuller about the essential nature of rank and the hidden abuses of rankism, The Peter Principle by Lawrence J Peter about the inevitable incompetence built into hierarchical structures, and The Brainy Bunch by Kip Harding about an unschooling approach that swaps high school for college and supports kids to follow their passions.

Today I input a years worth of income and expenses. Go me! Accountant appointment first thing tomorrow. It was good to take a real break from all this, my head is much clearer. Just have to get through everything booked into the end of this financial year and I’ll be happy as a mudlark. But for now, it’s date night and we’re off to the late movies with a sleepy baby and toddler size earphones. 😀

Melbourne by night

This is how Poppy lets me know she’s ready to head out. 🙂

All the cultural delights of Melbourne, and so far Poppy has been most impressed with this port in the floor. 🙂 We had a great night roaming the markets and city.

How to tell if it’s been a rough night number 651: you find yourself googling ‘how to tell if you’re a narcissist’ after broken sleep, cold room, fibromyalgia pain, and a little person with night terrors. Feeling a bit fragile today. Off to see Van Gogh. 

Poppy’s first waterfall

We arrived in Melbourne this evening, after exploring a beautiful waterfall on the way.

Also bought a cute hat. I like hats. We’ve had long chats in the car, bagels with cream cheese and ham, tangelos, and a long soak in the nicest bath I’ve ever been in. It’s a bit cold and achy but I’m very happy to be here.

Poppy and I visit Melbourne

Here we are sharing a chocolate cherry waffle on the way!

We are hitching a lift with friends and going to spend the long weekend in Melbourne. Rose kindly set up the trip to give me a proper rest. Mammoth work projects and end of financial year business admin has been taking a toll. Even more pertinent, Van Gogh is being exhibited at the NGV and it’s not often in your lifetime you get a chance like this!

So we’re all packed and off on an adventure. I’m nervous and excited and don’t quite know what to expect traveling together. Rose has held my hand through all the jitters and worry about traveling and how much still needs to be done at home. Now I’m feeling free and light and hopeful. Getting back onto this blog has been wonderful, even though there’s so much pressing work. I love to feel connected to my online world, and to reflect on what has been and what’s yet to come. It calms me and give me focus, helps me find my connection to myself again. 

I feel alive again. I get lost and find my way home, over and over. Right now I feel alive and bubbling over with joy.

If you’re in Melbourne this weekend and want to catch up, sing out. 🙂 

The Multiplicity Project

I created this project for a grant application for a study tour exploring alternative approaches to mental illness. Although shortlisted, unfortunately my application was not successful. However in the process of pulling together the project, there has been considerable interest and excitement from the Multiple community as well as others in mental health and arts. So I’m sharing the project outline because I feel confident that it will find a ‘home’ sometime soon. It may be modified or broken into smaller projects, perhaps more done online than in person to reduce costs (in person has a special depth, safety, and connection though, if I can arrange that). There will be some funding somewhere for it when the time is right.

Having just completed my huge project with the South Australian Mental Health Commission – the initial state wide consultation for the development of the Strategic Mental Health Plan, I am confident I have the skills to undertake a project of this sensitivity and magnitude. More than that, I am passionate about what can emerge as part of a process like this, that listening and understand and connecting are in and of themselves powerful acts that can be part of growth, healing, and life.

Project Aim (ie my goal)

To explore the in intersections between mental illness, mental injury, and identity, through the experiences and understandings of the Multiple community.

This is a highly diverse community including those formally diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder DID (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder), those who self-identify as experiencing multiplicity, and those with different frameworks and understandings such as spiritual possession. People’s experiences range from severe mental illness, poverty, and impairment, to multi-millionaires and founding directors of organisations. It is the perfect community for exploring how diversity and suffering intersect.

Why is Multiplicity an identity – even a ‘super power’ for some, but a catastrophic disorder for others? What role does diagnosis, self-identification, the way we name and frame difference and suffering, and social visibility play in people’s capacity to function? Multiples have a great deal to teach us about the way we approach the human condition, especially diversity, suffering, freedom, visibility, and identity.

Massively misunderstood, stigmatised, under-resourced, and mis-diagnosed, the Multiple community is largely invisible and difficult for researchers to access. I was diagnosed with DID in 2007 but have since recovered: I no longer meet the diagnostic criteria around impairment or distress but still live as a Multiple. I founded the Dissociative Initiative, an international project, and am out about my multiplicity in my public blog, personal, and professional life. I have rare access to this community and deep insight into the challenges, opportunities, and diversity within it.

Project Description (background and how I’m going to do it)

What is Multiplicity?

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is considered “the most severe and chronic manifestation of dissociation”. (according to the ISST-D) Formerly called Multiple Personality Disorder, the experience of having more than one self is sometimes called Multiplicity, Plurality, or possession, depending on the context and speaker. For the purposes of this application ‘Multiplicity’ is being used as a neutral term, independent of theoretical or clinical frameworks around cause or cure. I will also use identity first language Multiples as that is my preferred term.

There is significant controversy about the legitimacy of the diagnosis of DID despite its inclusion in the DSM and ICD. As a result, those who struggle with these experiences face huge barriers to access support services and resources. Additionally a culture of fear and voyeuristic fascination mean most people with the diagnosis keep it secret or experience harm and discrimination with costs to housing security, access to education, relationships, employment opportunities, and parental rights.

Who am I?

I was diagnosed with DID in 2007 following a year long struggle with a psychologist for diagnostic clarity. My story is unusual in that most people with dissociative disorders spend many more years in the system and accrue many more misdiagnoses. For myself the diagnosis and treatment triggered such despair and decompensation that I began a decade long search for useful therapy, research and information from a variety of perspectives. A study of multiplicity has turned into a study of the human experience, touching on neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, art, and many other disciplines.

Through this process I have painstakingly constructed my own understandings of what multiplicity means to me and how I engage it. I no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for DID but remain Multiple – finding myself living in a linguistic gap. I have experienced trauma and been diagnosed with PTSD, and my experiences include instances of homelessness, poverty, domestic violence, bullying, and caring for suicidal family members. I also identify as queer, bisexual, and trans, and I live and act as an advocate across each of these communities. I am ‘out’ about my multiplicity and share my ideas and experiences through a public blog that’s been running since 2011.

I currently work full time wearing many hats (in true multiple style), including consultant, artist, and trainer. I have a queer partner, a baby, and an informally adopted 16 year old.

Why I have unique skills and experiences to conduct this project

I am a highly creative person and communicate through a variety of mediums – the written word, spoken work, and visual arts.

I have excellent facilitation and social research skills. I currently have a contract with the SA Mental Health Commission, designing, training, illustrating, and facilitating the state-wide consultation for the development of the SA Mental Health Strategic Plan.

I am intimately familiar with this community, and have a rare level of access. I founded the Dissociative Initiative and engaged stakeholders in South Australia to develop resources. Through the DI, I admin an online discussion group for and about multiplicity and other forms of dissociation, which has 1,300+ members. I’ve also run a peer-based, face to face weekly therapeutic group through the Mental Illness Fellowship of SA for two years.

Why this hasn’t been done before

The Hearing Voices Movement has powerfully raised the visibility of a formerly invisible subgroup – people who hear voices but are neither distressed nor impaired. They have also campaigned for awareness of iatrogenic harm, ableism (assuming a state of symptom reduction and ‘normal presentation’ is the definition of recovery), and the benefits of supporting people to explore their own treatment options (including non-clinical) and develop their own frameworks to understand their experiences. One key idea has been that perhaps distressed voice hearers have more to learn from the experiences of non-distressed voice hearers than from people who have never heard voices. Another has been that fear, shame, and secrecy strongly contributes to the likelihood voices will be or become distressing.

The Multiple community lacks the coherency, visibility, and voice of the Hearing Voices Movement. There are considerable parallels in struggles and recovery but with a backdrop of disbelief and denial. Massively misunderstood, stigmatised, under-resourced, and misdiagnosed, the multiple community is largely invisible. We appear in a few biographies, as part of trauma conferences in clinical mental health services, hidden in sub-reddit threads and private yahoo groups, as part of deliverance or possession religious ministries, and sporadic services and organisations worldwide.

An even more invisible sub community of Multiples are those who would be diagnosed as ‘other specified’ because their experiences of multiplicity fall short of the diagnostic criteria of DID. Sometimes termed ‘medians’ in self-help groups and alternative communities online, research suggests these people’s experiences are actually more common than DID, yet they appear in almost none of the literature, services, or resources, and most lack even a language or identity signifier to express their unique experiences.

Why it’s so important

There is tremendous suffering and impairment currently being attributed to multiplicity. That someone people are able to live well with multiplicity suggests factors other than the experience itself are relevant.

  • What are the mechanisms of harm?
  • Is there more than one sub-type of multiplicity?
  • Are the key issues related to other risks such as poverty?
  • Are the treatments or conceptual frameworks relevant?
  • Or the social context?
  • If ‘recovery’ from DID is a reduction in distress and impairment rather than a cure and return to ‘normality’ ie single identity, what are the determinants of recovery?
  • What does multiplicity look like and how should we talk about it for those people for whom it does not ever meet the criteria for a disorder?

This is relevant not only to those in the Multiple community but has significant implications for our understanding of mental illness, psychological injury, disorder and diversity across the spectrums. When is something an illness to treat, an injury to heal, a disorder to recover from, or diversity to understand and embrace? If an experience meets more than one of those criteria simultaneously, what language should we use and how should we engage it?

There is also tremendous ambivalence and mixed experiences around diagnosis, clinical treatment, community reaction, and the response of educational settings and workplaces to Multiples. When does this work well and when does harm happen? How can we better support Multiples and reduce harm?

If Multiplicity can exist without being a disorder, does that apply to other conditions? If we can support people towards healthy multiplicity, can we also support them towards healthy Bipolar, or healthy Borderline Personality Disorder? Are there other linguistic gaps for describing the experiences of people who remain diverse but not impaired? Is a continuum of illness/health the most useful tool for framing people’s experiences? If not, what other frameworks and language are people finding helpful? What are our best practices for treatment, recovery, advocacy, visibility, community, and inclusion?

Exploring the context of multiplicity and the intersections with related experiences

Multiples intersect every level of community and socio-economic group, often unaware of, or secret about our multiplicity. We have a strong overlapping presence within and similar experiences to many other marginalised communities such as

  1. The Gender and Sexuality Diverse communities: diverse sexuality and gender identity between various parts are common for multiples
  2. The Autism community: autism and multiplicity are commonly co-occurring
  3. The Disability and Chronic Illness communities: many people with multiplicity also have physical disabilities or chronic illnesses (‘spoonies’)
  4. The Trauma and Recovery communities: there is a high level of experiences of childhood trauma and neglect for people with multiplicity, and very high co-morbidity with diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, to the point that some clinicians believe a diagnosis of PTSD is a pre-requisite for one of DID. Multiples may also be at much higher risk of trauma in some situations.
  5. The severe and profound Mental Illness and Personality Disorder communities: there is high level of co-morbidity with diagnoses such as Borderline Personality Disorder, and research suggests high representation of DID in inpatient populations although often present under other diagnoses. Issues such as access to care, respite, housing, and work are likely to be similar, and institutions such as shelters are likely to be interacting with Multiples regularly.
  6. The Hearing Voices Movement and Psychosis communities: some people who hear voices find the most useful approach is to understand them as parts, some people hear voices as part of their multiplicity. Several leaders in the Hearing Voices Movement have been diagnosed with DID, many more support people with experiences of multiplicity in their hearing voices groups worldwide. Schneiderian First Rank Symptoms, originally developed as a tool to diagnose forms of psychosis, has been found to be more prevalent for people with DID than Schizophrenia. There’s a significant overlaps in these populations.

Like many of these communities, there are divisions and struggles around key understandings of the experiences and ideas of cause, cure, or recovery. There is at times a profound conflict between the need for supports and services, the desire for frameworks to make meaning of experiences and give validation to identity, and the experiences of iatrogenic, social, and spiritual harm.

However there are also people who live openly with their multiplicity, with experiences ranging from crisis, poverty, and homelessness, to multi-millionaires and founding directors of organisations. (This is only one dimension of people’s experiences. It may be that there is a similar level of pain and distress no matter the socio-economic strata, or that there are advantages and good aspects to the less ‘apparently successful’ lives and hidden costs experienced by those deemed to be ‘high functioning’ and ‘less impaired’.)

There is little consensus about why people have such diverse experiences or how to best support those who are suffering. Some find mainstream mental health treatment helpful and others find it destructive or irrelevant, and draw on other resources and models. Some feel that multiplicity is a form of neurodiversity (akin to the approach of autism activists), that the primary distress is caused by stigma and discrimination (akin to the social model of disability) or that like homosexuality it is a natural variation that should be removed from the DSM. The nature of multiplicity is that there is little community consensus about this, and frequently individuals themselves do not agree among their own parts on the framework to understand multiplicity or the best approaches for it. It is a perfect community for exploring diversity.

How I’m going to undertake this project

I will reach out to three main groups; people with a personal experience of multiplicity, people who support or resource people with multiplicity, and people who can speak to the key 6 identified overlapping communities. I will draw upon the principles of Grounded Theory and Participatory Action Research, conducting semi-structured interviews (conversations with a focus) and collaboratively exploring the themes, language, and understandings that arise. I will use my facilitation skills to sensitively explore experiences, beliefs, and language in the context of capacity to function and experiences of distress.

At the same time I will be undertaking a Social Practice Art Project, engaging the interviewees directly in the creation process of original artworks. For some this may be the identification of a key theme, quote, or experience that I will illustrate, for others they may contribute more directly to the creation of the artwork.

People with a personal experience

I aim to interview people across a range of experiences and socio-economic status, including carers, family or friends, or in groups where appropriate.

People who resource Multiples

I aim to interview people who have founded or work in clinical services, alternative communities, and peer based resources such as online support groups.

People in key overlapping communities

I aim to interview people who can speak to key frameworks, struggles and language used to explore identity, diversity, and disorders within the 6 key identified communities.

I have identified my wishlist of people, communities and organisations to contact. Some I have a good relationship with, some have already invited me to be part of events or gatherings, others I have yet to contact. It may be that I discover other individuals or communities through this process I am not currently aware of and I might be able to include visits and interviews with them in my trips.

Wishlist of Contacts with Experience Personally or who Resource the Multiple Community

USA
  • Alicia, lived experience
  • Eva, lived experience
  • Stephanie, lived experience
  • Samira, lived experience
  • Estraven, lived experience
  • Jim Bunkleman, partner of (deceased) multiple. Founder of Healthy Multiplicity/Plurality cohort: wants to organise a gathering of Multiples from the online resources and blogging community. Most are not ‘out’ in any other setting and very difficult to contact.
  • An Infinite Mind aninfinitemind.com Peer based organisation behind the Healing Together Conference on DID. Also involved in a documentary about DID.
  • Noel Hunter: Lived experience activist, alternative mental health community, trauma community. Author of Whose treatment is this anyway? Helpful and harmful aspects in the treatment of dissociative identity disorder phenomena
  • Jade Miller: lived experience activist and skilled blogger, author of Dear Little Ones about care of child parts in a Multiple system.
  • California: (details private)
UK
  • Fiona, lived experience
  • Lisa, lived experience
  • Carolyn Spring, lived experience of DID, founder and director of PODS, Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors, self funded charity offering training and resources.
  • Dr Rufus May, member of hearing voices network, works with people with Multiplicity and Voices as parts. Dissociation is real Article
  • Dr Eleanor Longden, formerly diagnosed with Schizophrenia, TED speaker, understands her voices as parts.
  • Rachel Waddington, hearing voices movement, alternative mental health, lived experience activist, speaker and trainer
  • First Person Plural, peer-based association
  • The Pottergate Centre, clinical treatment team for people with dissociation and DID
AUSTRALIA
  • Ruth, lived experience
  • Tyrone, lived experience
  • Melinda, lived experience
  • Kallena, lived experience
  • Suzanne, lived experience
  • Jenny, lived experience
  • Former members of face to face support group, Bridges
  • Daniel and Savannah: lived experience News clip
  • Prof Warwick Middleton MB BS, FRANZCP, MD Director of inpatient Trauma and Dissociation unit at Belmonte Private Hospital, Queensland. Also a member of Advisory Panel for Blue Knot Foundation (formerly Adult Survivors of Child Abuse)
  • Isst-d, International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation
  • Ron Coleman and Karen Taylor, hearing voices movement, recovery house founders, work with some people who understand their voices as parts
  • Voices Vic – peer-based organisation with 2 face to face Multiplicity support groups facilitated by Sue lived experience activist.
  • Sue,lived experience (see above)
  • Dr Cathy Kezelman MBBS (Hons), lived experience activist, director and president of Blue Knot Foundation, director of Mental Health Coordinating Council
CANADA
  • Randy, lived experience

Wishlist of Contacts in Key Overlapping Communities

Many of those in the above wishlist have these experiences, which will be explored if they wish in conversation.

Yet to be created – members of these communities with no direct experience of multiplicity. This may not be needed, or may not take the form of interviews but instead a literature review or other form of consultation. To be determined following the first round of conversations with people with personal experience.

How will this Project Benefit Australians Affected by Complex Mental Illness? (what we will get from it)

Living as a group presents unique challenges and opportunities, and an unusual relationship with external groups such as in educational or workplace settings. Multiplicity can be the most painful, isolating, destructive force, but for others it is the salvation, a super power that overcomes adversity and harm and brings life and health. This extreme dichotomy may be true even of the same person at different times in their life. A better understanding of the relationships between illness, injury, disorder, and diversity will be helpful in a number of ways for Australians affects by complex mental illness.

Creating different frameworks for people to process their experiences

Exposure to a variety of more nuanced languages and frameworks to explore health will support people to examine the assumptions between the ‘mental illness’ clinical terminology, to be more free to use the words, terms, and understandings that best fit their own experiences, and to be more confident to explore the complex relationship between suffering and health in their own lives.

The use of art and beauty to express complex ideas

Visual art is a universal language, going beyond language barriers and also beyond that which is difficult to put into words. Art allows us to explore, express and communicate the intangible, unthinkable, and unbearable. Beauty gives us strength and courage to look at things we’ve found too painful or confusing to engage. Art is a powerful medium for communicating complex ideas and bringing the private and taboo into community.

The creation of community via an exhibition

The process of being involved in this research and exhibition in itself will draw together a diverse community of vastly different people with incredible wisdom, experience, and knowledge to share. Some are currently extremely isolated and almost all operate in ‘silos’, only interacting with other people who share their particular language, frameworks, and beliefs regarding multiplicity. This will be a significantly different experience allowing people to connect across intersecting lines of diversity in a respectful and safe way, allowing greater knowledge exchange, richer understanding of diversity, and ultimately a connection of the specific back to the human condition.

The introduction to the wider community of more complex and useful narratives around diversity, disorder, illness, and injury

Sharing the results of this research in community-accessible formats through art, talks, writing, and resources will allow the learnings to go beyond this smaller community and reach back out to everyone. These themes and questions have broad applicability in mental health, community services, human resources and beyond. These are important questions and narratives to share.

The reinforcement that severe mental illness can be understood and responded to in many different ways

Opening up the conversation about how we understand and respond to those individuals who are most suffering, disadvantaged and impaired and moving beyond the reductionist one size fits all treatment and cure models will restore dignity both to those who have often been treated as the embodiment of their disorders and to those who have tried to understand and offer support from outside. Finding shared humanity and diversity is valuable for all people.

How will the Results of this Project be Disseminated?

I will be creating a series of original artworks for exhibition and online display. I am a hybrid artist, that is, my artwork is informed by other disciplines such as the sciences. My arts practice is strongly informed by my reflections on what it is to be human.

I am a Social Practice Artist, which means I work collaboratively with communities, using social engagement as my primary medium to create artwork in various formats. The social interaction is a key component of the artwork. I link contributions from people together in the creation of my artworks. In this instance the interviews and events I attend will form the material from which the artworks are created, using key concepts, quotes, and stories (with permission).

With sensitive handling, Social Practice Art is an incredibly effective way of engaging hidden communities, complex issues, and taboo topics. It supports the voice of people who are often ignored, and increased visibility of the experiences and ideas of those affected without having to expose them directly.  I have successfully used this approach to create my artbook Mourning the Unborn, and exhibition Waiting for You, on the topic of miscarriage.

I am a skilled writer, poet, and accomplished blogger. I share on my personal blog at sarahkreece.com as well as guest posts for other organisations. I will write a series of personal responses for publication on the intersections of illness, injury, disorder and diversity with an aim to begin untangling these concepts and exploring the factors that are relevant to wellness.

I am also a speaker and trainer, I will create and deliver presentations about my learnings and the implications for individuals and services.

I will also use the learnings to guide the development of resources and language for the Dissociative Initiative, my international network, and to inform the structure of non-clinical peer based resources for other challenging experiences on the intersections of illness/injury/disorder/diversity.

What now?

You will be able to follow any developments through the DI newsletter. If you would like to be involved in this project, please contact me sarah@di.org.au or through Facebook. Suggested ways you can contribute:

  • Volunteer for a conversation (Let me know if you prefer to be kept off this public wishlist)
  • Invite me to conferences or other events relevant to this project
  • Offer to sponsor this project or part of this project (I can forward a budget to you)
  • Link me to other funding opportunities
  • Offer mentoring for the social research or social arts aspect of this project
  • Offer me resources such as a physical or online venue for presentations or exhibitions, or accommodation during travel
  • Volunteer time to be part of a working group managing this project – this will involve tasks such as making travel arrangements, proofing grant applications, booking venues, hanging artworks, responding to enquiries.

My amazing day off

What a glorious day. 

I stayed up to 3am last night finishing the major project my team and I have been working on for weeks, the state wide consultation. Today was planned for a quiet, family day… Taking Poppy to a sensory play group, hanging out with Rose, catching up after all the long days and late nights I’ve been working lately… Tonight was date night and I had free movie tickets from my birthday waiting to go. Thursdays seen to be difficult days to make plans for lately. 

Instead of most of that we wound up supporting friends through labour and birth! Rose cared for kids while I was support person in the birthing room next door to the room I birthed Poppy nearly 10 months ago. What an extraordinary privilege! 

So strange that so many things I’m doing at the moment overlap the same skills sets – birth support, facilitating groups, mentoring, consulting, crisis support, workshops and education, parenting​… Being able to connect, listen, tune in, hold the space, and get out of the way are all essential skills in each of those areas. I feel like I’m falling over my primary saleable skill set, the one linked to income, finally making sense of it. Funny, just the other day I was writing up a consult that discussed the formal vs informal economy and I thought about how much my world has been in the informal and how people have been incredibly generous and supportive because I have been generous and supportive. As I’ve transitioned to full time work I’ve been feeling a little sad at moving away from the informal, at being less available for friends and family and attaching a dollar value to my skills and time. 

But on the other hand, at times I’m able to do what amazing people have done for me – throw money at a problem and help it go away. That’s new and wonderful.

Today was an opportunity to be there for a friend and I felt so many shifts in myself too. I’ve been struggling with birth trauma since Poppy came into the world nearly 10 months ago. I rarely talk about it and I’ve been wrestling with it, finding little keys or insights here and there but still deeply lost. Today, seeing birth through the eyes of a support person instead of the one giving birth, it felt like a circle that had been broken came together again. I could see things differently, literally from the other side. I could experience and connect back to my self in that place. I could be an anchor and hold the space for those there today. Being present and connected and witnessing something incredibly precious.

When baby was safely here and everything was settled I dashed off to pick up Poppy from daycare. When she saw me she lit up and I curled down on the floor to meet her. She crawled into my arms and I tumbled her to smell her hair, kiss her face, hold her hands, her tummy, her feet. She feels new and glorious and her eyes are full of stars. Rose and I manage to meet at the last movie session of the night and we sit in the aisle while Poppy plays, we cuddle and hold Poppy and hold hands and change nappies and eat popcorn and ice cream all the way through Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s been a glorious day.

Poppy has a lucky escape

I had a terrible scare last week. I wrote this while we were in hospital for observation:

“I’m sleep deprived, incredibly uncomfortable, and longing for home. We’re back in the local hospital with Poppy. She’s made a miraculous escape from a horrible home accident. One of the worst things I’ve ever seen is my tiny daughter curled up inside the wreckage in my laundry, her little body so vulnerable between huge besser bricks and cast iron pots. 

I was cooking dinner last night with Poppy at my feet playing. There was a horrific crash like the house had fallen in and I spun around to see my laundry a disaster area. I couldn’t stop screaming Oh my God! over and over. I ran to it and found Poppy curled up in the middle of it, screaming hysterically. I scooped her into my arms ran for my phone and called an ambulance while checking for blood. 

Somehow in the few minutes I made all the needed phone calls, turned off the stove, and packed a bag for hospital while Poppy wailed in my arms.”

We were kept in overnight for observation. Watching the bruises appear on her skin at 3am was one of the saddest experiences. But all has been well! Her x-rays were clear, she’s been alert and active, and we have escaped anything serious. Her bruises are already almost healed.

We think one of the large besser bricks grazed her cheek, ear, and shoulder. 

I pulled her out of this. She was curled in ball where the jar of peanut butter is, under the table top, in a triangle between the dishwasher and the bricks.

We came so close to tragedy. We have been so lucky. The overnight vigil at the hospital we just watched and waited to see if our luck would run out. She is a fearless, adventurous child, already walking and now climbing. Our lives split into the possibility of loss, both Rose and I looking into that dark place and wondering if there was a way to survive it. 

Then suddenly, the sun comes out. Poppy is fine. We are all okay. The world keeps spinning and the sky doesn’t fall. The other life is left behind like a nightmare we wake from. It lingers in dreams. The bruises fade. 

Tomorrow family comes to help us bolt furniture to the walls and make the home safer for a climbing toddler. 

Poppy plays on my lap, squeals with delight at being bounced on my legs, sings Mumumum at me while I grin madly. How long I’ve waited for that song. 

The silence did not fall. The song goes on. My heart is unbroken. My life is rich. My world is still beautiful.

Busy and Happy

Running around between consultations and wrestling with the office printer today… First colour run of a stunning zine submitted by a local group for the South Australian Mental Health Commission consultation to develop the next Mental Health Strategic Plan… and it’s beautiful. I’m very tired but very happy. 

Holding spaces

Finding myself needing downtime, debriefing, and reflection space. So many conversations and experiences to digest. I recognise that lingering uneasy feeling of needing to stop taking in new experiences and find a safe place to slow everything down and unpack. 

I find myself thinking of the unpaid and often hidden and unrecognized work of the precious friends, mentors, and loved ones who hold a space like this. I’m seeing how to use such blessings more wisely and waste less time circling the same dilemmas. It’s a rare gift, space in which feelings don’t have to be rational or justified to be explored. I have worked hard to get better at doing it myself for myself and for others, to support people to feel genuinely safe, heard, and understood. 

I’m deeply grateful to Rose who has created this haven for me for years now, hours of conversations that at times seem pointless, confusing, frustrating. But that commitment to validation and reflection where I’ve been able to move out of personal journals and into relationship and conversation has been invaluable to me. Her love and skill and patience is a big part of why we work so well together. She is brilliant at listening, being safe for the vulnerable or traumatised, and remembering a my wildness and my darkness when I’m burned dry and can’t recall that I’m really a mad poet who has learned to mimic a regular person but I live, breathe, and recharge best out in the wilds, running along the edge of the night. 

I’m so blessed to have some friends who also hold spaces for me, online or face to face. Their timely connection has been the difference between lonely anguish and comfort, severe distress and pain I can howl out of my heart. I’m aware of how lucky I am.

I’m struck once again by how many aspects of therapy that are healing and helpful are also aspects of life and relationship. They don’t have to be walled away as trained skills available only in treatment, by those in regulated relationships. They can and often are part of the very best friendships, they are part of the love that passes between partners, parents, children. 

Eugene Gendlin recently passed away. I found his book on Focussing extremely interesting and helpful. I was intrigued that he didn’t take his ideas and lock them away in the exclusive domain of therapists, as is usual. Instead he considered focusing to be a skill any two people could learn and support each other in. Thousands of people have learned and offered this skill of holding space and listening to each other in support groups online and around the world. Precious, peer based. No power. No treatment. Connection. There’s nothing at all wrong with needing professional support. But I don’t like the locking of knowledge into silos, reserved for the experts and not recognised as the significant skill and profound kindness it is when we receive it in our personal lives.

Mother’s Day with Kids

It’s been a wonderful day, very precious to experience a Mother’s Day that didn’t feel like being eviscerated. Rose and I have had a day of tending. We’ve spent time with Mums and women who nurture, and reached out to a few folks who find today hurts. We soaked up the joy of our kids and talked through some of the sadness and yearning that’s part of today when there babies not here and Mother’s not here.

Rose took us to a forest and we breathed it in. She took this beautiful photo of me on the playground, wearing my awesome birthday shirt and boots.

We attended a couples massage class together which was beautiful and powerful and deeply needed. We sat and looked into each others eyes and cried. We touched each other and eased pain. It was one of the first times we’ve been alone together since Poppy was born, and the first that we didn’t use that time to sleep! (It was tempting) 

We visited my Mum and Star’s Mum and enjoyed gifts in bed and sat around a campfire and did no work or housework or admin at all, just connected with each other and our people. 

It was beautiful.

Poppy is doing better

We all came home from hospital once Poppy no longer needed a nasal gastric tube to help with the dehydration. There was an influx of sick kids needing the  beds and they were pretty confident the test results would show she had a bout of gastro that was resolving. We brought her home Monday evening, did fluid tracking for another 24hrs during which time she continued to improve.

So it was a bit of a shock to follow up with her doctor on Wednesday and learn that her test results were not consistent with gastro (not to mention that no one else we know has it or had caught it since she became sick). Brain injury and meningitis were ruled out, which is a relief. But we’re not really sure what happened. And she’s continued to be off colour since. She was severely dehydrated so we’ve been told that if she shows signs of dehydration again, spikes a fever, or vomits twice in a row we’re to take her back to Hospital for assessment. We haven’t needed to do that, thankfully. But it was a long week following.

She’s vomiting once severely every few days, has low urine output, and isn’t sleeping well. Her latch has changed and nursing is painful and leaving blisters.

So we’ve been keeping her close, running on very little sleep, and keeping an eye on her. 9 months in we’ve done both my nightmare parenting scenarios- both parents very sick at the same time, and baby very sick with gastro type issues on a camp. Ye gods. 

So that’s where things are up to. Work is wonderful but incredibly busy and intense. Rose and I both worked at times this week and are frantically catching up on housework and meal prep. I came home wired, excited, and exhausted​ recently and just dropped all my bags by the front door and spent an hour getting muddy in the front garden with Poppy. I knew if I walked in the house I would collapse​ on the couch and not move again. But digging up weeds and getting my hands in soil amidst the last autumn roses was exactly what I needed to calm and breathe again. Sometimes checking out at the end of the day isn’t resting it’s just disconnecting. 

I’ve also been reading about secondary lactose intolerance which can happen following a viral infection that temporarily damages the villi in the intestines, making it difficult to process dairy and breast milk. As the gut heals the villi grow back and bubs can digest everything again, but it might explain the ongoing illness aspect of this. Our GP agrees so we’re just taking it gently while Poppy recovers. If things don’t improve we’ll explore possible allergies but I’m hopeful we’ve got things sussed out. 

Yesterday Poppy spent her first afternoon in day care, which went really well. It’s a Family day care run by a friend with a similar parenting approach to us. There’s a sandpit and opportunities for playing in mud, and a cat and chickens and lots of books. Poppy is very adventurous and fascinated by other children so we’re hopeful that with the right approach she’ll find staying there a treat. Frankly I wouldn’t mind checking in for a couple of days playing in the garden myself. We’re very lucky to have such a quality option close by, it’s a far cry from some places I’ve been in with their obsessive sterilising of toys and anxiety about the weather. 

I guess it’s a little bit like mental health care that way, the most expensive, shiny, clinical settings are often where the worst ‘care’ happens, while the underfunded, homey drop in centre can be where the profound interpersonal skills and human connection that saves lives happens. That kind of ‘impressive professional looking’ and ‘human’ so rarely go together. 

So she and other children played and explored and cuddled and ate together. Rose and​ I fretted quietly. When I went to pick her up she was fast asleep so I sat with her until she woke. On seeing me she cried a little and we talked and cuddled until she felt better. She nursed and slept in my lap all evening, catching up on contact. I felt the mix of anxiety, relief, bewilderment, gratitude, and frank surprise that this is my life that has been a part of parenting since the beginning. We keep feeling our way forwards. My days are bookended by absolute joy.

Advocacy – Breastfeeding in Public

I’ve been doing more advocacy work in several areas lately, and working on my terror of journalists… (I’m queer, poor, out about my mental health challenges etc… a member of various groups often not treated well by media) It’s a little bit of an experiment to see what I’m capable of and what the costs are for myself and my family. I’m pretty comfortable with being my own media but handing control over words and images to someone else, and being vulnerable to having your story fitted to their ideas, values, and perceptions is a very different thing.

Breastfeeding parents deserve much better support. I’ve been unfortunate to find myself in a couple of difficult situation, and fortunate in that the journalists who I’ve spoken with have been friendly and not misrepresented me. So a while ago I was interviewed for a snippet on the Channel 7 news which was also shared to their Facebook page. I watched the social media storm once the story went up. I wrote this blog post and then held it in draft for a few months to let things calm down.

Most of the online conversation completely missed the point, sadly. Which is simply this:

I don’t think it’s okay for a business to:

  • Refuse to own an unusual policy and blame others instead (‘we wish we could but we can’t because they won’t let us’)
  • Keep their policy quiet so many people who it will impact are not aware of it
  • Ask people who have fallen foul of their policy and only found out at the last minute to take down a polite post in the event page online informing and cautioning others it will impact
  • Not release a public statement about their policy once they realise people are not aware of it, but instead continue to allow people to discover it at the gates of the venue where they are denied entrance because of it
  • Randomly enforce their policy by allowing some people to bypass it if they argued it was discrimination

That seems crystal clear to me, and I think most people would agree it’s bad form. That’s why I spoke up. Whether the policy itself is legal is still unclear to me, a call to the Equal Opportunities Commission wasn’t able to clear that up.

What most people were arguing about is:

  • Whether the policy itself is a good idea
  • What ‘good parents’ should be doing

While these are important topics, from my perspective they are not actually the point in this situation. If the policy is legal, then any business that has it should have the decency to own it, be clear and consistent about it, and make sure the people it impacts know about it. That seems simple to me.

I knew that a social media backlash of some kind was likely when I agreed to be interviewed. Breastfeeding, and babies inconveniencing other people are hot topics, and the internet can be a scary place! Don’t read the comments is the mantra for a reason. I’ve been doing more advocacy in various ways lately and I’m slowly extending my capacity and working to reduce my vulnerabilities. I usually follow a fairly careful – praise in public, criticise in private approach with my online sharing, but I do make exceptions when I feel it’s warranted – in this case I’ve already complained directly and been shut down, and this is important to talk about.

The policy in question?

Not allowing babes in arms at an outdoor picnic concert – Missy Higgins and the Australian Symphony Orchestra, because it was an 18+ event. Here’s the context:

  • Here in Australia it is normal that babes in arms can attend many 18+ events, free. They can be brought into pubs or other venues that serve alcohol, they can come to concerts and music events, they can even travel free on domestic flights. It’s generally understood that babies are not benefiting from the event so they don’t need a ticket, and they need to come because they need to be cared for – especially those who are breastfed and like Poppy won’t take a bottle. This is a lot more common than many people think. At the time, if she couldn’t go somewhere, I couldn’t go there.
  • We have strong laws to protect breastfeeding in Australia; it is illegal to prevent someone breastfeeding their baby. These laws are essential because there is a lot of hostility from some people. Mums still have issues with being asked to leave restaurants, told they have to feed in toilets or go home, or being harassed and even abused by strangers while nursing – all kinds of things that make being a breastfeeding Mum really hard. So the laws are important because some people have an intense ‘ick’ reaction to breastfeeding and try very hard to make those of us who do it feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or even unsafe when we try to go about our normal lives. The Equal Opportunity Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone in customer service “because they have a child with them or need to feed a child (including breast and bottle-feeding)“.

Remember the issue at hand – if you’re going to have a policy, own it, be honest and upfront about it, and do your best to make sure people affected are aware of it and don’t get caught out by it.

The Story

So, I’m home with Poppy tonight, while lovely Rose goes off to the concert we planned to attend as a family. Back in August, friends all teamed up and bought us both tickets to a beautiful outdoor concert of Missy Higgins and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra as a ‘welcome to the world’ gift once Poppy safely arrived. We’ve been planning tonight for months. Rose has been playing Missy Higgins music to Poppy so she’s familiar with it. We bought baby headphones which we’ve used successfully at other events in case it was too loud. We have infant safe insect repellent in case of mosquitos. Rose especially has been super excited because she’s really into Missy and has been since forever. When they sold out of hampers and we were broke because Rose’s wallet was stolen, she was worried because their website said we were not allowed to bring our own food. So she called them and said I was breastfeeding and couldn’t possibly go 6+ hours without eating, will there be other food available on the night? They said yes and we planned to put a little borrowed money aside for a meal.

So it was a nasty surprise when our mates contacted us and said – so sorry we’ve just found out no babies allowed! We were sad and upset and called the venue to check. They confirmed this and said it was not their idea, they would love to have babies there, but the liquor licensing laws prevent it. We were pretty upset that even when we called them and mentioned breastfeeding, they hadn’t told us about not allowing babies. They said it was on their website under FAQ’s but when we checked those went up months after the tickets had been purchased. Rose put up a sad but polite post on Facebook in the event letting other breastfeeding Mums know they couldn’t bring their babies. Another Mum found herself in the same position and people started to make phone calls to try and figure out who was responsible for this policy, why none of us knew about it, and if it could be changed.

The liquor licensing people said it was nothing to do with them, vendors set their own policy. The local council likewise. Missy Higgins team said they can’t overturn a decision by the vendor. The Equal Opportunity Commission said they are uncertain if a venue has the right to deny entrance to a baby under these circumstances. We got worried about our tickets to see Amanda Palmer next year and checked in with them – yep, babies are fine, please just take them out of the room if they cry. Phew! That’s the usual scenario, and exactly what we planned to do.

So we went back to the vendor and said hey, council and liquor licensing say babies can attend an 18+ event like this, can we please bring her. Vendor still says no and still insists it’s not their policy or fault. Then they ask can we please take down our post letting other parents know about it. That’s the point at which I got really cranky, because it’s one thing to have a policy like this, and it’s another entirely to not tell people about it! We ask for a refund of my ticket and venue says they will do that.

Phone calls and emails are going back and forth and things are kicking off on social media. People are getting the wrong end of the stick and arguments are breaking about out whether a venue can prevent a Mum from breastfeeding (they can’t and they weren’t trying to, they were preventing the baby from coming) or whether a concert is a suitable venue for a baby, which is a whole different kettle of fish. This was about a baby not being allowed in when usually they would be, and the venue handling the situation in a way I found distressing.

A friend of mine who went along on Friday night messages me to tell me that there is a baby there and they’ve been let in. They go and chat and find out that they were confronted with the ‘no babies allowed’ policy at the door. Shocked, they argued that was discrimination and were let in with their baby, but told they might be asked to leave by security at any time. They let my friend take a photo of their baby to prove they were allowed in, in case it helps us argue to be included. Venue continue to argue it’s out of their hands.

One friend emails a journalist who then reaches out to Rose online. I’m madly anxious about the media and worried about the shit storm that’s developing online, but I’m also angry about how the venue have treated people and the misinformation that’s going on. Harassing parents with babies at the gates is rubbish. So a lovely journalist and a cameraman turn up to my house to interview me. I run home from the blessingway (baby shower) I’ve been at and change out of my pants which have baby poo on them (parenting is glamorous) and stand on my porch to talk about how badly this has been handled. They tell us about the media statement from the venue, which to my mind is waffly and vague and implies they are unaware of the issues and unsure how to proceed. It sounds suggestive that maybe they are now letting babies in after all. Rose calls them again and is told that they are not now and have not ever let babies in for this type of event, not do they plan to. They continue to blame licensing despite us having verified directly with licensing that they wrote the license specifically allowing children to be present. When Rose also tells them she knows they let at least one baby in yesterday, they bizarrely claim the baby must have been smuggled in by its parents. Baffled and frustrated, we give up.

Our friends turn up with icecream. They leave the icecream as consolation for me, and take Rose off to the concert. I get a bit teary about staying home. I jitter my way anxiously through dinner, watch the snippet when it comes on the news and feel hugely relieved about it. A couple of words I wouldn’t use (Poppy isn’t a newborn, and I wouldn’t describe myself as devastated) but they’ve been true to the situation. Phew!

I hang out with Poppy, nursing and helping her nap, and when the clip goes up online have a quick look at the comments which are mostly negative, hostile, and missing the point. My Mum comes over and we play board games. It’s hardly the worst thing to be home with Poppy. 🙂 Rose comes home and shows me a video she took of Missy singing a lullaby she wrote for her baby boy. It’s stunning, we both get a little teary. I’m sure Missy wouldn’t be okay with any of this if she knew about it. It was a truly beautiful night.

What do I think of a policy of not allowing babies into events like this?

As to the points people are mostly arguing about – obviously I personally think the policy is not a good idea. A picnic orchestra is hardly a thrash metal mosh pit and seems to me to be a perfectly suitable place for a baby. I’m concerned that banning babies effectively bans the Mum and the breastfeeding, which may even be the covert intention when people insist on policies like this, who knows? I wasn’t the only person unable to attend because I was nursing a baby.

Policies and laws around things like this are trying to balance a few things – parents rights to inhabit venues and public places with their babies, the need to keep babies safe, and the rights of other people to also inhabit and enjoy events and places. People interpret them in slightly different ways and weight them differently which is fair enough. I get that a crying baby on a bus for example, is stressful and no fun for anyone. However parents and babies need to be able to get places, so we are legally protected to be able to use public transport. There are certainly places it is not safe or suitable to take a baby, and it’s reasonable to exclude them from construction sites and surgeries for example. The venue in our case not allowing babies in appears to be a bit of a grey area.

Personally I think it’s fine to bring a baby to a picnic concert, and I’ve done so more than once. We’ve attended concerts indoors and outdoors, as well as the cinema, restaurants, the beach, swimming pool, my workplace meetings, and a camp with friends. We are considerate and take Poppy elsewhere if she is unsettled, we use baby earphones if the volume is loud, and we have a good time together. It’s important to me to include and support parents, and especially to help support and normalise breastfeeding.

Here we are together at the free Neil Finn picnic concert in Elder Park – which was absolutely full of families, children, and babies having a great time. It was the first big concert Star had ever been to and we had a lovely time. (Yes, that is a multicoloured floral stormtrooper headband, Rose is an incredible shopper)

What do I think ‘good parents’ should be doing?

People’s ideas about safety and good parenting also vary, which is healthy diversity when it comes to their own choices, but often needless shaming when it comes to policing other people. If you think having a baby outdoors in the evening is inappropriate, you are welcome to stay indoors. If I’m happy to sit under the stars with my little one, it’s hardly the kind of ‘safety risk’ that warrants shaming. There’s more than one ‘right way’ to raise a baby. Some families love camping. Some parents are into cosplay. Some like music. How wonderful!

There are things that are clearly dangerous to children, then there’s just the huge range of diversity of human interests and passions. We shouldn’t be judging difference as if it is all dangerous. One person who attacked us compared taking Poppy to see Missy Higgins as the same as taking her into a sex shop. I’m not sure Missy Higgins would appreciate that comparison!

The news snippet was brief of course, so people have misunderstood some details or jumped to the wrong conclusions. There was a mess of hostility. Attacking me for everything from my haircut to not being willing to ‘sacrifice’ going to a concert for the sake of my baby. As if Rose and I have not made sacrifices for her – our first little baby after 7 losses! I find it really interesting that there’s this backlash from some people when parents try to participate in their communities – that being a good parent is about missing out, and staying home with your little one. There are many things I’ve sacrificed for both of the lovely girls I’m blessed with, (dealing with a grade 3 tear leaps to mind!) but I really don’t feel that picnics need to be among them.

If Poppy was a more sensitive baby who was easily overstimulated, then obviously we wouldn’t take her to long, noisy events. But Poppy so far is very social and gregarious. She loves hanging out with people and is more than happy to snuggle to sleep in our arms with crowds or through movies.

As many families at that time of year prepared their children for evening, outdoors, noisy carols nights with fireworks, it seems faintly ridiculous to judge Rose and I and the other parents who planned to bring our babies to a picnic with an orchestra. I don’t think that needless sacrifice or exclusion make people better parents. I think they might make people lonelier parents, or sadder parents, or even perhaps more self-righteous parents. But staying home with Poppy while Rose went out to the concert was not character building. It was hardly the worst night of my life – a night with Poppy could never be that! But it was sad and it made me resent breastfeeding and being at home while a great many of our friends were out having a lovely time. Doubly so that it was a gift from our friends celebrating Poppy being part of our family. Hardly the ingredients for a parent who is content and connected to their baby and their community.

Funnily enough there were also other takes on what being a good parent requires. For some people it was sacrificing going out anywhere kids can’t go, for others it was sacrificing having the kids around, so still going out but leaving them with someone else. You actually can’t get it right as a parent. I’ve seen shaming along each of those lines in different scenarios. The shaming can intensify into virtual lynching if something goes wrong in any of those scenarios (such as a babysitter harming a child). Too often, being a ‘good parent’ means ‘parenting exactly the way I do’, and being fortunate enough to have nothing go wrong. What a load of crap.

This feels like a familiar dynamic to me – the way that otherwise basically kind kids will join in bullying the most vulnerable without really being able to articulate their primitive, instinctual understanding that if they don’t, they might be next. Kindness, ‘live and let live’ acceptance and friendly curiosity about diversity do not thrive in environments that are hostile and unpredictably aggressive. We support parents most like us and shame those ‘others’. We shame each other because we have been shamed, because we are hurting, because we feel we need to justify or own choices, and because we are afraid of being shamed. It’s a cycle that costs us all.

I think good parents celebrate diversity and don’t shame each other for harmless differences. I think good parents participate in the things that are important to them in ways that suit their families. I think good parents make sacrifices when it’s needed and don’t get hooked into an unsustainable culture of self sacrifice and disconnection from their own needs and the wider community.

What did this cost us?

The online storm was distressing enough that Rose and I disconnected from the internet for a few days. Friends were mostly supportive and confused by the vitriol. I found myself curiously invulnerable to a lot of the hostility but it distressed Rose terribly to see people being cruel to me. Some friends were so enraged by our preference to be able to attend the concert with Poppy that they attacked us and then cut us off. This isn’t the first time seemingly minor parenting choices have triggered an unusually​ aggressive response and the destruction of old friendships. It’s bewildering and sad, needless and infuriating. It feels to me like there are deep wounds beneath these responses.

Other friends rallied groups of parents to get into the comments and push back against some of the misogyny and shaming. I wrote this post to clarify what was going on and why but shelved it to not draw any of the hostility to my blog or personal Facebook page. After a few days the sense of exposure to people’s dark underbelly started to ease and life went back to normal. I hope the massive swell of support would help any other parents feel that there’s a lot of people who do get this and would back them.

Why did I do it?
I did it knowing the risks of a backlash, because breastfeeding has been difficult for me, for many reasons. If the venue had said no babies allowed, my friends would never have bought us tickets and I wouldn’t have been in the middle of it. Having found out about it at the last minute, I also think it’s an inappropriate policy for this lovely event, I think the venue handled the situation very badly, and I think we need to treat parents with more dignity. I believe that our culture puts stupid pressure on parents, shames and devalues mothers, and makes breastfeeding more difficult than it needs to be. There’s a real vulnerability to this, and an assumption by some that Mums can be mistreated because we don’t have enough of a voice, enough time, or enough energy to make a fuss about it. There’s a lot of misogyny in this. Social media can help connect us as well as vilify us.

Because I chose to be visible in this situation, other Mothers heard about this policy over Facebook – before they turned up and were sent home again. The downside is that anyone who saw the backlash may be even more reluctant to advocate for themselves, but after a few days the supportive comments outnumbered the hostile and rude ones. Mothers and allies banded together and backed each other. 

We are not alone anymore and we can back each other up. It’s not okay to treat us as second class citizens, deride our writing as ‘mummy blogs’, our effort to raise our kids as ‘not real work’, and the vulnerability of breastfeeding as something we should be embarrassed about. It’s not okay to tear each other down. I feel like I’ve been brave and gone and handled some fire. I’ve had my eyebrows singed off but my house is still standing, so I feel pretty lucky considering. If I’m very lucky I might even get across a small point or make some kind of difference, even if just to the other Mothers who find themselves being devalued in situations like this, or on the pointy end of our brutal culture of shaming, blaming, and excluding. We have every right to participate, to parent in a variety of ways, and to be supported to breastfeed. I’d stand up and say that again. 

Poppy is sick

We’re currently in hospital with Poppy, who has some kind of terrible gastro and can’t keep anything down. We drove home from our camping trip a day early and brought her straight to our local hospital. That was a drive I’m not likely to forget in a hurry. She was admitted and rehydrated with a nasal gastric tube. Rose and I have been caring for her in shifts. Last night at 3am I took Star home and we both caught up on some sleep. It was the first night I’ve been apart from Poppy since she was born and if I hadn’t been so sleep deprived I fell asleep the moment I got into my room, I’d probably have had some big feelings about that.

​It’s so strange to be here feeling sad and scared when it’s such a minor issue really and there are really sick kids around. I feel like I’m making drama to be upset, feel like I need to get through this as quietly as possibly without drawing attention to her, in case somehow that means she comes in for something much nastier. At the same time I feel like she’s dying and it’s inevitable that we’ll lose her. I want to bite the nurses who tell her to stop making a fuss, and kiss the ones who touch her gently and are comforting. Just giving yourself permission to feel what you feel instead of measuring it against some yardstick of what’s valid and acceptable is hard but so helpful. Parenting is weird.

I’m trying to stay out of crisis. It feels like my life tips into crisis regularly at the moment and I’m under too much strain. I’m trying to find what I need to be okay. Dashing to the hospital after missing my bus stop this morning, the strain in my body was like my muscles were trying to teleport me there directly, such an intense need to be back with her. I thought about the line I’ve been using to calm my pain levels, from my cranial sacral therapy – breathe into your bones, and the journalling I’ve done around what that means to me- the breath that turns my bones from straining steel under pressure, back to living bone, that takes root like a tree and grows and bends beneath the storms. 

Thinking about the poems and images of wings and how the pain is where they would be if they were visible (I went to say if they were real, but that’s not quite the same thing) and someone had cruelly bound them together so I couldn’t fly. The way wings are related to my poetry, difference from others, my walking in other worlds.

So I walked back to the hospital a little slower and I breathed and felt the straining ease a little, the sense of tendons overtightened like guitar strings about to snap back off. Pain rushes back in with awareness, muscles are stiff but they move again, that sense of being locked shifts. My stride changed, the pain flared worse at first then eased a little, became mobile and moved around between different muscles, felt less like I was on the edge of tearing apart.

I called some of our tribe for help. Some chatted online with me, or visited the hospital with lunch, made us dinner, took Star food shopping for school, put on a load of washing of clothes and bedding with vomit on them… I concentrated on not falling off the edge of the world in my own head and forgetting that people care about us, or feeling guilty about our resources compared to so many parents. We are there for our tribe in many ways, it’s not manipulative or parasitic to call on them for help. I made eye contact and enjoyed hugs and soaked up as much as I could.

Rose and​ I, still negotiating our new roles, fielding the constant question of which of us is the mother, dancing between the needs of our girls and ourselves, having to find a new common language for this part of our lives. Things tangled this evening and our conversation to get back on the same page was the kind where 10 minutes in it feels horribly dangerous and digging into deep wounds and black places and you’re starting to wonder if you shouldn’t just abandon it now before it all goes to hell… But we passed through to understanding and found out way back together. I’m home again for a sleep now. Poppy is sleeping in hospital with Rose after a bath and keeping down the first feed in 24 hrs. We’re hopeful she will be well enough to come home tomorrow.

This was Poppy on camp before she became sick. It was very beautiful and my new tent -a birthday gift from Rose, was amazing and wonderful. 🙂

Thankyou for the birthday wishes!

Thank you all kindly, I really appreciate it. I am wrestling with exhaustion and having a lot of down days lately, where my energy is low and it feels like the world is a dark and scary place. It was really wonderful to wake up on my birthday and feel excited that on that day, my world would be a flood of friendly messages. Things didn’t quite go to plan and got really stressful in the middle with dismantling furniture and all kind of shenanigans and my Facebook app not letting me see or respond to half of the messages, which was bothering me because I hate responding to some people and not others in case someone feels hurt, but I couldn’t get a spare minute to get onto my computer… And it all got messy in my brain and I went and hid. There’s been a lot going on lately and my anxiety is high.

Rose, being brilliant and knowing me well, has set up a gift every day for a week and arranged a lunch tomorrow with my family. ❤ So I’ve had little gifts and warm messages coming in every day; a box of chai lattes, a lovely new journal. This weekend she’s arranged a camping trip so we can use my new birthday tent! Close friends are keeping me company online at times which helps when nothing feels safe and I need to debrief some of the stressors. 

Today was the first day in long while I’ve been happy all day and it’s been wonderful. I had a good counseling appointment this morning which left me feeling hopeful and energised. I’ve enjoyed my family and my work, played board games, tacklef tricky things on my to do list, and felt excited about my life. Even a little bit loved and special. 🙂 How delightful!

So, thanks everyone who reached out. You’re awesome and I appreciate having you in my life, even on the days I’m struggling and can’t feel your goodwill or care of find any words to respond graciously. I fall into holes from time to time and I crawl out of them again. I’m glad you’re still here. x

The Nature of Adventure

We’re away for the long weekend, staying with a friend. Desperately needed, I’m hovering on the edge and need daily effort to help me get back to an okay baseline. I’ve had to put a lot of thought into getting out of work mode and being aware of the impacts of all the changes. It’s been the most wonderful thing to get out of our routine and away from work and clear my head. 

I hadn’t prepared for how different traveling with a baby is! We’re not that experienced at traveling with Star, adding Poppy has been a steep learning curve. We’ve had a couple of super stressful nights with very little sleep and a hysterical tiny person suffering night terrors who will only settle with Star… go figure. So it’s been a weird holiday, absolutely brilliant and restful in some ways, really stressful in others. Lots of work happening to maximise the former and minimise the latter!

We tried a different approach to sleep arrangements last night and Poppy only woke up 4 times, tears but no night terrors. I feel fairly human today now. By last night I was a wreck. It’s tough! 

Yesterday Star and I explored one of the sink holes in town and rose gardens along side it with our cameras. I’ve transferred to a new phone and the camera is amazing. I particularly love macro photography and looking for things we don’t usually record. There’s such a mindfulness aspect to photography where you really pay attention to what’s around you. It’s a delight to see Star enjoying​ it.

Still adapting to my new full time working life. My two main current contracts take a lot of management and I’m making plenty of rookie mistakes there too and learning rapidly. I’ve been taking heart from a great quote about how an expert is a person who has made every possible mistake in a very narrow field… the mistakes are tough but absolutely invaluable and I’m learning loads. Mostly I only make them once. Sometimes the issues and blocks and skills take more time.

Noticing things like the sense of burden that has come with the transition to being the primary breadwinner in our family. The way that I no longer really notice if the lounge is a mess but suddenly Rose who didn’t used to care, feels stressed by it. Transition of roles. I’m determined to use my time as lead parent and household manager to help me be a good breadwinner partner who gets the stress of those roles and provides excellent support. We’re discussing how we share the load and use our skills best, what to do about the areas that neither of us are great at, or both find really stressful. Rose after 10 + years in the workforce is doing the same in reverse.

My first big pay came through a couple of days ago, the first time I’ve been the earner in our relationship. Rose spent the day quite stressed and checking in with me if I was upset or angry with her. We call this her ‘foster kid mode’ and it’s one of her threat responses to particular kind of stress. Sometimes it means I’m leaking suppressed anger or taking control in ways I shouldn’t. Sometimes it’s nothing to do with me but some other stress going on. By evening we took a couple of minutes to check in together and investigate what was setting it off. The massive change in our dynamics and the fresh vulnerability of money in different roles was what came up right away. We named it and that was enough to bring down the stress for now. Simply bringing things into view safely is so valuable.

I’ve brought my usual rest and relaxation things with me and found it’s not quite working. Even making art, which I’m enjoying, is not settling me like it usually does. A whirring anxiety is chronically present in my chest. Today we did Easter gifts, Rose arranged chocolates and something else for everyone. Star was given a jigsaw puzzle. She and I started it this morning and I calmed. Now that art is part of my working​ life in a much bigger way, making it is still triggering that sense of trying to be productive. It’s still output. ‘Doing’, not the ‘being’ I so desperately need in order to calm down. Everything changes, the risks are no longer what they used to be.

So much has changed. At the moment, while I navigate new work, new roles, new cultures, new relationships, new clients, new kinds of work, two kids at home and all the differences that come with this, it is very much like a controlled period of crisis. I’m in a stage of intense personal development and high levels of self care. I’m learning from rookie mistakes such as- I can’t sustain working all day then doing housework all night. That skipping meals and running on constantly broken sleep isn’t sustainable. Or not making time to pump milk during my work day results in severe engorgement and bruising. 

Transition. Adaptation. Transformation. Moments of dark distress and others of pure magic. Learning how to be a family together, how to support each of the dreams we’ve all worked so hard for, how to attune and tend to each other. Yesterday was hard. Today is joyful. That’s the nature of adventures, and it’s what we’re teaching our girls. The hard walk up the hill gets the view. The effort to pack good supplies is rewarded when you have insect repellant on hand. It’s worth feeling a bit of fear about heights to be able to stand on the edge of the dormant volcano and see the swallows dancing over the dark water far below. To be alive.

The discomfort and hard work are the cost of the magic, those moments of bliss and awe and feeling deeply. It doesn’t need to be perfect to be absolutely wonderful and worthwhile. (something the disability community are constantly trying to get us to understand) 

There’s always a cost, to everything, your values, your goals and dreams, everything. The secret seems to be to try and keep the costs bearable, and then to bear them willingly. Don’t allow them to steal the joy or consume all your attention. 

In a way it’s hard to define, the costs seem to be part of the magic. Those who have wealth enough to insulate themselves from all of some kinds of costs, who helicopter to the view instead of hike, find themselves insulated also from the wonder and the beauty. My friends who have a lot of money are dissatisfied by and return to the kitchen meals that being me great joy. Dissociation is social and financial as much as it is personal. 

Striving seems to be part of it all, the burn in your muscles and pebble in your shoe that demands attention. An indulgent endless diet of dessert loses joy. A life deeply lived and rich in experiences is one with risk and pain and discomfort and hard work, alongside joy and love and contentment and peace and awe. 

So there are adventures all around at the moment, personal and professional. I’m overjoyed and incredibly fortunate. Learning the new risks of burnout, the new skills to find my sustainable rhythms and follow my joy. Managing and embracing the costs. Living with my whole heart.

Poem – Insomnia

Insomnia, my love, my love, no more dancing,
my feet ache and my eyes are burning.
No more kisses for my mouth, my puckered lips
have withered, my tongue
is dust dry,
my voice only a whisper. 

No more meeting like this
in the small hours where you enchant
me with your amber street lights,
hours of fears and planning and thoughts
running like waterfalls in my mind. 

We must be apart darling,
sweetness, my night mistress. 

No more inks and art calling me
and the touseled hair and pink cheeks of my baby
waiting for my kisses. 

I must not stand in the moonlight, love,
must not sip hot milk with honey
and cinnamon on the front porch
while the nightwind plays with my hair
and the trains sob in the distance. 

Let me be, sweet love, night lover,
let me rest in peace
and dream my strange dreams​. 

Stop waking me with your night rains
and sad weight on my chest.  

No more, love, no more, I cannot bear it.
Let me be, let me go, you must dance
with someone else awhile.

Let me rest, love, let me sleep.
Stop up my ears and sail past your beauty,
no more midnight shipwrecks, no more being cast
into the dark waters of your embrace,
into the sweet sting of your siren song.

Motherhood and Art

“Indeed, to relocate the heart of existence in the home and in motherhood is an inherently subversive artistic act. If Kim Brooks worries that the job of art is to unsettle and the job of a mother is to soothe, perhaps there is no more unsettling solution than to insist she can do both, that there is, in fact, no conflict there, that motherhood itself is dark and uncharted and frightening. What if, in fact, motherhood is a boon to the artist? What if writing motherhood is the frontier, is the uncharted territory into which we must step if literature is to advance?”

From “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid” by Rufi Thorpe

Yes. Speaking to the heart of the frozen terror I feel in the mothers playgroups, surrounded by pastels and toys and singing inane songs in a circle. I can’t breathe and I want to run with all the urgency of a wild beast feeling the cage and the collar. I run into my night and knaw on my own limbs – what’s wrong with me? Why do I hate this?

I am also the woman standing in the baby aisle at the supermarket, weeping over the tiny soft baby things, the clean plastic and rows of bottled food. She iso empty of life and so hollowed out by yearning she can’t breathe, so tormented by dreams of a child she can’t stop the tears running down her face in public.

And then there’s the place where my art founders, confused and lost, in the halls of the great artists and among the ideas of what real art is – imbibed in such small, sweet, daily doses I don’t even notice the poison – that my art isn’t real art, that my life isn’t the source of real art, that my pain or disability or suffering are the things that prevent me making art because they could never be appropriate topics of art. We do not speak of those things. They are subversive, and the subversive is for richer, free-er, bolder, stranger, or better insulated women than me. There’s always a cost to breaking rules and I have broken so many since breakfast.

Selfishness and selflessness. The domestic and the sublime. The mundane and the world of soul. I am a mother. I feel the bind – that I should be this at all times. That if I break the role I must do so in secret. When the child returns I switch back so instantly, conscious of all the traces I’ve left of living some other life in their absence: ink on my fingers, paint on my desk, pages on the blog. I wanted this family; I work hard at it, I give myself to it. And yet.

How do I set them free when I am not free? How do I teach them to listen to their small voices when I can’t hear my own anymore? How can I hear their small voices and move beyond the quiet numb disconnection of relationships that revolve around schedules and plans and who’s turn it is to do the dishes? If I hide my own wildness, how will they know to protect theirs, to nourish and nurture it, to endure pain for it, to hold onto it as precious when all else has washed overboard?

I adore being a mother. The skinless agony of disability and loss are clothed so gently in this role. A child turned up at my door in the night, sweet with love and bloodied with betrayal and my heart opened to fit her as if I’d been waiting for her all my life. Something wretched in my soul started to sing. Another child I birthed roaring in the dark water, endured so much for the ecstatic pleasure of her tiny head resting on my chest.

Being a mother terrifies me. The generic straight-jacket of a role with so little diversity or individuality, so aggressively policed. Mother and Artist are so often positioned as opposite roles, contradictory life choices. Mothers don’t make Art, they ‘craft’. Their raw outpourings about life at 3am are merely ‘mommy blogs’. Exalted beyond angels and bound into rules of self-sacrifice and humility, we are not really human anymore. We are transformed into a wholly other thing that consumes all traces of what we once might have been.

Wise friends counsel me – it’s okay to be afraid. Maybe my task isn’t to map myself to the role of motherhood, it’s to change the role around me so that I can take it on with more authenticity, who I am, as I am. Stretching it out like shoes and bringing more and more of my self into it. Making it rich and strange and complex. I can feel the shadow cast by the needs of child or friend and fit myself to it, almost perfectly, like mixing a cake from the right ingredients. So much of me is then left waiting in the wings, in the small hours of the night. As hard as it is for me to bring them into the light, it’s so hard too for those around us to let go of that perfect role, to not hold each other to play parts in our own lives where they are fitted to our empty places, but allow them to be human – stranger, deeper, more contradictory, more free of us, outside of our understanding, walking their own paths. Is there room for that freedom in such an intense relationship as Mother and Child? How can I teach a child to be free in love, if I don’t feel free? To hold tightly without crushing. To love deeply without caging.

Tonight, Rose drove us all into the hills to feel the wind on our faces. We are no longer solitary lovers, now we navigate a family of needs and perspectives. Poppy wails in the car and Star is stressed by the millipedes in the toilets at the park. And yet we still find a little sense of freedom. I stand barefoot beneath the trees, a very long way away from the shiny halls of power where the windows never open and no breeze ever dances, and I remember that I am human. 

On a park bench in the gathering cold of the Autumn evening, I hand express milk from an overfull breast onto the soil. Knees apart I cradle Poppy in my lap and she nurses as I watch the birds swooping in the pines, the light falling through the poplars with their tattered, pocked leaves.

This is the task, as it always is, in so many forms throughout my life. To find ways to be human, to honour the humanity, the vulnerability, the darkness, and the transcendent in each of us. This is the space between Mother and Child. I walk Star to the toilet and praise her courage honestly. I hold a millipede in my hand. I nurse Poppy on the park table, leaves under my bare feet, my milk spilled on the cold earth. There is Art here.

Learning new things

I’m really exhausted. So much had been going on lately and my usual energy cycles are being distorted. I’m struggling to keep rest, reflection, downtime, and debriefing spaces as everything is pushed into output. It doesn’t work of course, doing all the time is extremely unproductive. My generation tends to talk about how tired we are of ‘adulting’ but watching lovely tired 16 year old Star crash out on the couch the other night I thought it’s really not just about adults, is it? It’s about being responsible, hiding strong feelings, trying to be functioning, in output mode. It’s about being ‘on’ all the time and having your downtime feel numbing instead of refreshing. Its following the schedule that feels like it’s killing you because you don’t even have the energy to rebel. Its what happens when you fit a living organism to a mechanical structure. The ebb and flow energy cycles of one get pushed into the steady constant output of the other. The requirements of ‘public’ presentation – no strong feelings, disconnection from self, impulses, needs, intuition, it’s far far too many hours of forcing yourself to do things you really don’t want to do. Star flops down on the couch and I flop down on the armchair and there’s more shared ground here than difference. I’m struck as I have always been by the way we idealise young peoples lives and tell stories where responsibility, fatigue, and disconnection are only part of adult experiences. I want to be a good role model in my working life for her. 

Today I’ve had a good day, unexpectedly because this week has been a long session of crisis management and I barely slept last night again. But there have been good conversations and I’m hopeful things will improve for me. I spent the afternoon on the neighbours lawn while Poppy played. It was delightful. I feel human again. I’ve got ink on my fingers and I’m going to make cookies for dessert. 


Poppy took her first unassisted step today, not holding onto anything. I’m wrestling to keep myself going with the tremendous challenges of work. She’s struggling towards her own milestones, working just as hard, picking herself back up after falls. I’ve been embarrassed at how much support I’ve needed lately, I’m drawing on every resource I have to help me process and debrief. As I hold Poppy wailing from a head bump it seems we’re not so different. Learning new things and dealing with falls takes courage from us and love from the people around us.

I’m on YouTube: “Sarah K Reece on the enriched workplace”

So, I recently accepted the opportunity to speak on camera about mental health in the workplace for the SA Mental Health Commission. This is a big step for me! I’ve written before about the challenges of visibility for those of us who are multiple. I have moved from the written word, to public speaking, public blogging, radio, and now film. I am very proud of myself and very appreciative of the great people who worked with me on this project. Big shout-out to Tracey Hutt for awesome support during the filming, and the great film crew Mixed Mediums. 🙂 There was some back and forth discussion about whether it would be better for me to speak in person or on video about this. I’m very comfortable speaking in person for events, video is new territory for me. But I’m incredibly glad we went with the video – the event was today and I currently have laryngitis! Haha, fortuitous indeed!

California

Gofundme!

I have been invited to speak in California in June 2017, and I need to bring Rose and Poppy with me. My expenses are covered by the client, and I need to bring along my little support tribe so I can breastfeed and have Rose there to look out for me. I adore my talks but they can exact a toll, particularly when they are personal and a long way from home. So as with all my work I’m being careful to make sure I have backup and the resources I need to do my best work.

My family has started a Gofundme Campaign, through which I am offering lots of lovely art gifts to say thankyou. So, if you’ve benefited from my free resources, or just want to lend a hand as I develop my business, any help would be appreciated. For those who have already made a donation, please send me your mailing address and I shall send arty gifts!

If gofundme is not your thing, you can donate instead via

Bank Transfer to:
Sarah K Reece
BSB: 085-005
Acc: 24 376 1381
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Paypal to skreece1@gmail.com via Paypal. This button will set up payment via Paypal or credit card:

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Or you can mail a cheque or money order (please, no cash) to me at:

Sarah K Reece
PO Box 165
Brompton
South Australia
Australia 5007

You are still welcome to enjoy the gifts listed on gofundme – just give me your mailing address when you donate!

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Link me up

I’m also looking for additional work while I am there, so if you have any contacts in the US who might be interested in training, workshops, or an art exhibition, please get in touch! 🙂

Come along

I am in the process of arranging a free local talk and silent art auction in Adelaide for a fundraiser. Watch this space. 🙂

Wounded healers

I enjoyed this article which I came across on Twitter tonight. Wounded healer a qualification without ceremony

I’m ‘out’ broadly about things that make me different and ways I struggle. I certainly don’t judge others who are not, nor do I even recommend one choice over the other because at times the costs have been very high for me. We all live to our own values and all values extract a cost which we must willingly choose to bear. Values only sound pretty and wishy washy if you haven’t tried to live to them. 

I do not believe any system of care for suffering people can be of real use until we genuinely understand that those employed in it are one of the most vulnerable high-risk groups. Until we make it safe for them to struggle, speak up, and need support we are doing harm. Some of our healers start out wounded, many more are wounded by trying to be healers in our destructive systems. In effect, we are wounding our healers and hoping that their silent suffering will somehow lead to the freedom and recovery of the identified patients. 

This cannot work. A system in which half the people can only be wounded and the other half can only be competent is broken by design. All humans are both. Inhuman systems do harm. Either everyone is safe to be human, or no one is safe. Everyone can heal from their wounds, or no one really can. 

Sudden death

My family has been touched by death again recently and it’s complicated and painful. Sudden death is like a punch in the mouth you don’t see coming. Rose’s estranged biological mother has died. It’s the end of a complicated relationship. It’s the end of a cycle of abuse, suffering, love, rejection, corruption and hope. It’s deeply sad, a kind of freedom, a loss, a relief, and a new torment. It’s the end of hopes and efforts for change and ‘one day maybe things will be different’. It’s a lot of secrets taken to the grave. It’s unfathomable by those of us lucky enough to have good relationships with our mothers. Some of us have never listened – or choose not to know – of the darkness that can exist between mother and child, of the grief and rage and bewildered pain of the children where things are so bad at home they end up on the streets or in care. 

Rose wrote a public farewell, feeling the tensions between the untold stories and the assumptions of others, the pressures on those who grieve to do so in the right ways, to justify their choices and fit their painful, complex experiences to our simplistic ideas about the virtue of mothers. Platitudes that hurt. 

Not all children are wanted. Not all children are loved. Not all loved children are well loved. Not all mothers or parents who love have the skills, support, and capacity to meet their children’s needs and protect them from their own demons. Some of us eat our young. 

My precious child.

Tonight as you sleep your mama is feeling lots of things. She feels sad, she feels angry. There is relief and guilt and frustration. Your Mama feels lots of things all at once and then nothing at all… numbness always follows.

This week my darling daughter, your mama recieved a call that she has been expecting her whole life. You see… your Mama’s Mama died on monday baby girl; she died in her home from a heart attack. She was 62. 

Mama hasn’t seen her Mama in a long time… it’s been about 8 years. Mama made that hard choice and mostly doesnt regret it. They have spoken but rarely and not always nicely. Your mama recently shared stories and photos of you and all the wonderful ways you fill up your Mums’ lives. Her Mama was happy to know you were happy and healthy. 

Mama had a complicated relationship with her Mama… it was never easy or particularly healthy. Mama stopped living with her when she was still a kid because she was sick and needed help to be a better Mum. That was tough on her Mama and she didn’t always try her hardest, but she never gave up. My Mama wanted so badly to love and look after me… right until the very end. 

Mama knows that things are gonna be tricky over the next little while. There are hard conversations to have and affairs to attend to. Mama is glad she has her best friend and girls by her side. Mama will be ok; she will cry, she will feel bad. Mama will hug you a little tighter, she will tell you that she promises to do her very best, she will possibly cry while rocking you to sleep. Mama will try to take too many photos as usual.

You have done something amazing baby girl; you have turned a broken, alone, afraid little girl into a proud, strong, brave Mama… and my Mama would be proud of that!

Sleep well my precious daughter… you are so very loved xxx

We’re all wrestling in our own way and finding ourselves out of step with each other. Even sweet, innocent Poppy knows something is wrong. She’s been teary and difficult to comfort this week, biting, scratching and clinging to her safe people. We were busy making the transition to Star in school again, and me at work, and Rose at home and in some work. Suddenly we’ve been adapting to this new reality and the presence of death. I’m glad I saw Cave this year. I cry and I’m scared at times for my hurting love, but I’m not crashing into the black place I did a couple of years back. He’s made death bearable for me again. 

It’s not so much a transition as a transformation. We are all so changed by the events of the past year and there’s no going back. At times I find myself paralysed by terror, rigid with fears of loss. So much to lose and so much self destruction in me and those I love, such deep wounds. With money from my art, I buy a good pen and write, and my terror eases. Fear steals so much from the good years. I see a therapist who reminds me to breathe into my bones. We sleep and are all still here in the morning. The Rose I wake to at dawn is different to the woman who lay down beside me the night before. And so are we. 

Recently we went to the home of this woman Rose has not seen in 8 years. We picked through things, looking for important documents and childhood mementos. Rose shared some of the memories with me. These are the stairs she pushed me down. This is the cupboard I would sleep in when I was afraid. Some of the stories are unspeakably bad. The walls are covered in photos of Rose. The rooms are full memories of pain. There’s shit on the carpet, filth in the corners. The neighbor tells us stories of her kindness and how much she cared for her friends. I never met this women. I feel the complex tangle of who she was to different people in her life. There’s inspirational quotes on the walls, Bible verses in journals. She kept the paperwork where her parental rights were severed. “Lying c*nt” she’s written in the margins of Rose’s testimony. We stack the tins where she kept her street drugs and dirty syringes on the coffee table. Poppy plays with a wooden toy we find for her. We take a few dolls Rose used to love and a little girl’s dress. The place feels like a cage that’s finally empty. 

We leave. We pick Poppy up from the ashy floor and gather our little collection of toxic treasures that will hide in our shed until the right day to look at them. It’s over. 

We lock the door behind us and drive home, to our beautiful home with our tree hanging green over the roof, our clean beds and lovely daughters, garden full of roses and cupboards full of food. There will be time for grief and rage and bitter pain. The wounds that don’t really heal and the fears that linger. Even when you escape the ghosts come with you, in our home it’s only Poppy who hasn’t yet learned this. But alongside so much pain is now so much tender love. None of us grieve alone. None of us dream alone.

End of the working week 

My boss took this photo when Rose and Poppy joined us after work. It’s been a huge week and I’m glad to have reached the end of it. I need some downtime to digest, and some cuddles with my family. Poppy cried when I left this morning. Rose told me last night that her sixth tooth had broken through. I’m a working Mum now. I hear about these things instead of see them. Poppy cried and I kissed her and said goodbye and walked away. My heart feels a little broken. So I’m just making room for that. Listening to the wisdom of it. It’s a big heart and it’s been broken before. I’ve learned to pay attention. It’s telling me not to look away. Not to pretend I’m not doing this, or that it doesn’t hurt. To look her in the eye, look myself in the eye, acknowledge the cost and the sacrifice, acknowledge the hope and the joy. I leave my daughters with a gentle and devoted mother. I’m so lucky. They are loved. I come home and my heart tells me to sit. We watch the light fading in the trees together. Poppy wakes weeping from her nap. We sit far from the bustling world and do nothing at all together, nothing at all that can be measured or is productive or even visible. We just be, together. 

Sensory play

Yesterday I looked after Poppy solo for a few hours while Rose supported Star to go driving – she’s doing brilliantly as a learner! I decided it was a good day for some sensory play. I baked pear and rhubarb muffins while Poppy played with bread dough, ripe pear, and lavender flowers. Then we went outside in the light rain in the garden. Poppy played in the dirt and ate parsley leaves. I weeded the roses. It felt amazing. So alive and connected. I love finding these moments of calm amongst the busyness to just marvel at my daughters and my life. It’s hard work, incredibly hard work and long hours. I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder than I have these past couple of months with home and parenting and business and talks and face painting. But such a joy! 

Then we had a bubble bath together and washed away the dirt. Poppy napped in her hammock after nursing. I did a load of washing and drank a hot Chai latte and did an hour’s work. It was blissful, reading through research methodologies with a hot drink while my sweet baby slept.

I find I shift between feeling very connected and feeling like I’m babysitting someone else’s child. Working outside the home Mum challenge? Times like this seem to click things for me – when I’m caring for Poppy by myself, able to focus on her needs and get a bit of rest for myself too. I feel lighter and closer and my heart opens up. I’m pulling away from the idea that only one person’s needs can be met at a time. Sometimes that’s true, but sometimes thinking it must be that way all the time makes it hard to act differently… sometimes what Poppy needs is also what I need. Looking for the overlap there’s rich experiences there, a kind of synergy and peace. Exploring the garden barefooted in the rain. Blowing bubbles at each other in the bath. I didn’t know I needed that but it was exactly right. What we call sensory play for her we call grounding for me. Different language, same connection. ❤