The fear of dying

Today was a triumphant day. Rose and I saw our first dreadlocks client in our new studio, and spent 5 & 1/2 hours getting them looking great again and putting in about 50 extensions. We’re both trashed but on a wonderful high.

Last night I dreamed that my friend Leanne, who died recently, was still alive. In my dream our long drive interstate for her funeral was actually to see her, in response to a plea for help. When we arrived she told us that she was terminally ill and wanted assistance to kill herself. In the dream I was outwardly calm as we took her to the doctor for assessment (euthanasia was legal in my dream) while inside I was screaming with a kind of terrified despair – please please don’t make me do this to you! A desperate clash between wanting to honour her needs and wanting to care for my own.

I woke distressed and confused, it took a little time to untangle dream from reality, it had been extremely vivid. It’s easy in some ways to turn my face from the grief and the reality of her death, to let it slip past my mind. That’s why I have a photo of her coffin in my phone, a piece of stone from the graveyard where she was laid to rest. Not to wound and torture myself, but to inoculate me against dissociation of the kind that takes away life. So I get out of bed and I do the things that make up my day, and I always try to do them wholeheartedly. Then in quiet moments I remember my bright, lovely friend, and I realise her passing, that though she remains in my heart her voice is now silent and we cannot have any new conversations except in the constructs of my mind.

It makes me miss her and it makes me fear dying young. I have so much love ahead of me, so many dreams and hopes and so much love. Years of torment and loneliness have passed, made way for hard won insight, for love and friendship, for some kind of peace, for joy and hope. It makes me feel the farthest from suicidal I think I’ve ever been, to clutch to life with desperate desire to live longer and dream deeper. When the guilt and the self loathing crank into life like a carousel spinning in my mind I think to myself – I don’t have time for this. I don’t have time to waste on self hate, there is so much life to be loved, friends to love, so many dreams I’m hoping for. And it doesn’t feel dismissive, it feels like permission to stop torturing myself because I never get that time back. I feel a deep laugh, a joyful casting off of a heavy weight. I put it down and throw myself back into my strange, beautiful, tiring, complicated life, with joyful abandon. I am deeply blessed.

Community and dreadlocks

I’ve been trying to write a post here for a couple of days, but life continues to be hectic, mostly in a good way. 🙂 I’ve snatched a moment now where Rose, my goddaughter Sophie, and her Dad are all napping. I don’t do naps. I blog!

News! This is what my shower currently looks like. It’s been blocked since Friday. Can’t use the bath either. So I’ve been cleaning myself under my sprinkler, having sponge baths, and borrowing friend’s showers.

This is the bucket of tree roots a plumber has pulled out of the drain so far. Some of them are quite large! Apparently someone will come by sometime this week with a high pressure jet thingy and blast them free.

Until then, I’m glad I own a sprinkler and thank god for friends willing to share bathrooms.

For those of you here who may not have caught up with things, I now sport a whole head of beautiful dreadlocks! I got them done on a whim while in Melbourne, after the parts who can give talks and be brave and whatnot made it abundantly clear they were not impressed about doing this with really boring hair. It seemed a fair trade. So after waking past this shop:


I said to myself, this is my kind of place. The lovely Weird Sistas shaved the sides back and wove the most beautiful, natural, clean, product-free dreads I’ve ever seen.
More than that, we had the most wonderful conversations about life, community, getting screwed over, love, voices, parts, taking risks, and serendipity. I was utterly blissed out and I love my dreads. They are beautiful, smell amazing thanks to the cinnamon spray I got to take home, and incredibly easy to care for. My usually hyper sensitive irritated scalp has settled down considerably since I’ve had them woven in. Happy!

Rose is inspired and excited, and hoping to take their classes and learn to weave dreads herself. This could be the most wonderful opportunity for us both to be in a creative, artistic, people oriented, alternative field, and we’ve been talking about little else all week!

On a personal level obviously it would suit me to have her able to maintain my own dreads, but bigger than that, doing dreads is no more all about hair than doing body painting is about paint. It’s about community, connection, listening. You’re doing something very personal with another person, something creative, but also an exchange. People who sit for the hours of dreads generally talk. They share what’s on their hearts. You need to love people, to be an exceptional listener, to have a genuine heart for then to do this work. Rose most certainly does.

I love that this isn’t mental health work the way my peer work is, and yet it’s not nothing. There’s something about an exchange of kindness – in my own work, about the privileged space in which people may be literally naked, where you work with them to bring a new artwork into the world. (through body painting) To be more embedded into our local alternative communities feels absolutely right. To be making choices about career that fit so well into our hopes for children soon. There’s so many exciting things afoot!

The other day I mentioned I was hiding from admin at a local belly dancing event. It was wonderful! Piles of beautiful fabrics, jewellery, lovely cheap good food served with gracious care. Henna art, chai tea, women of all ages and shapes adorning themselves, feeling good about themselves, feeling a sense of connection to a community.
I love these groups so much. I feel so at home in them, the poverty that isn’t brutal, the sharing, the artistry.

I’m finding different cultures and connecting more and more with them. Getting out of the straight jacket of middle class ideals imposed onto a life of low income and disability. There are so many other ways to live. Alone, I’m so, so vulnerable. As a group, nearly anything is possible. People share spare rooms, lemons, recipes, child raising ideas. It’s such a different world from the fearful one that’s been engulfing me, all of us alone in our homes with our appliances for company, trying to stop anything in our world changing. I’m found people who believe in sharing what you have, who think that blood doesn’t make family, who understand that life doesn’t always go to plan, and that sometimes that’s a wonderful thing.

I’m not so afraid of winding up homeless again anymore. I love and tend to a whole community of people who love and tend me back. I think if I fall again I won’t be alone. I’m finding different ways to live and love and risk, and that gives me so much hope.

Facilitating is a challenge

Today was good but tough. It was hot. I have a lot of admin and housework since the trip I’m still to catch up on. And a big conversation happened in the DI Open Group on facebook, where I’m the sole facilitator (not by choice!). I’m lying on the grass in the dark at the moment, down the local park with Zoe. It’s beautiful. There’s a cool breeze on my skin, stars overhead. So many things are running through my mind.

I think one of the hardest parts of being a facilitator is that people can very quickly lose faith in you. We’re so used to being lied to, being subject to marketing campaigns, advertising, slick company spin. It’s really difficult to be a genuine, human voice in the role. People quickly start to hear insincerity and feel you’re lying to them, bull shitting, setting them up. Once that trust has been compromised, real conversation is hard. People start looking for ulterior motives. Everyone is desperate to feel people are hearing then, agreeing with them, on their side. It’s a challenge to inspire everyone to also want to hear each other. People struggle not to become defensive or disengage. Conversations, real conversations not just fights, are hard for everyone, ask so much courage, empathy, vulnerability of everyone involved.

As a facilitator I struggle because being in the middle of difficult conversations and trying to hold a safe space can quickly feel like I’m alienating everyone despite my best efforts. I can find myself feeling raw, beaten up, and distrusted by people I care about, whose opinions I respect.

We have an idea on our culture that you can be impartial. I don’t think it’s possible. You can be less invested perhaps… which sometimes means too far away from the topic to have any idea about it, easy to confuse or manipulate. You can be highly invested, such as when someone makes a complaint about a resource I have built, or about my behaviour as a peer worker. Man, is that hard! I’ve worked so hard to try and engage complaints in a non defensive way, to use them as an opportunity to learn and connect and build more genuine relationships. I don’t always succeed, although sometimes this works spectacularly well, and I count among my friends and colleagues some wonderful people who’s first real conversations with me were complaints. It’s still such a challenge to try and genuinely listen, especially if the other person is enraged, or making horrible assumptions about my motives. Sometimes I feel profoundly trapped and silenced by my own role, by the weird double standard work in the sector can bring, where a client can tear you to shreds, but you must keep your mouth shut about your feeling, needs, fears, or concerns. (in front of them at least) On the other hand I’ve also been the client so often, completely ignored, silenced, dis empowered, humiliated, minimised, dismissed, interrogated, asked to account for experiences, needs,  and reactions I can’t even put into words, by people I am deeply intimidated by.

This process sucks. This framework sucks. How do we just sit down as people, and talk? How do we create safe and fair spaces to discuss deeply complex, painful, urgent issues? How do we not burn out the facilitator who needs hugs at the end?

My ideas about the facilitator role have been informed by my experiences in hearing voices groups. I’m not there to privilege one opinion or idea above others. I’m not there to decide the ‘truth’ of why voices happen or what people ‘should’ do. I’m there to make the space a safe one for people to have their own opinions, share their experiences, change their minds, disagree with each other, and still have a space where mutual respect and care can flourish. This is kind a diplomat role – I’m there to try and hear and help everyone feel heard, and to try and support and encourage even people with completely different frameworks to engage each other respectfully. I’m trying to model a way of both having a voice, and listening. Of course, the nature of this role is that it’s depressingly easy to fail. It’s easy as all hell for everyone involved to feel that I’m against them because I’m trying to give space to opinions they disagree with. That I may also disagree with them, but see my role as one of making space for all voices doesn’t necessarily come into things! We’re not used to this model, most of us have never had a genuinely respectful conversation with someone who completely disagreed with us, or whose experiences were totally different from ours. If the topic is really crucial, if people’s lives or sanity hang in the balance, the chances of anyone listening to anyone else decrease, because everyone involved is so stressed, has such a real need to be heard and believed that it drives us. It’s so bloody hard to be patient and hear opinions that we believe are so deeply wrong they sicken us.

Some days I’m so, so tired of being the diplomat, the facilitator in the middle. I’d love to have some one else facilitate these conversations so I can just have my own point of view and argue that.

Some days I wonder if the facilitator role is a bit stupid. Why is it primarily one person’s responsibility for making sure a space stays safe, respectful, and caring? What would it be like to have a difficult conversation in a room full of facilitators, were everyone was working hard to make sure all voices get heard? Wow, I’d like to sign up to that conversation.

I’m so proud of the folks in the Open Group, they did a fantastic job of engaging even though it was really hard. No one has slung any insults, space is being made for different opinions. I keep thinking about the idea that complaints are a chance to become closer, more real, more authentic with each other. I keep thinking about tribal cultures where the whole group sit down together and talk things through, tell stories, sing, dance, talk into the night, for as long as it takes to find some kind of peace with each other. I keep thinking that roles are useful but limiting, even a facilitator role that I value and believe in I also experience at times as very dehumanising. I’ve got some ideas, some experience, some bits of wisdom gleaned from life or other cultures. But wow, it’s a tough gig some days. Thank god it’s not my whole life. I keep thinking that spaces where someone like me holds the space, holds the expectation that we can disagree and still be respectful, holds hope that community and diversity and honesty can all enhance each other instead of being at war, are rare and precious. So, it’s important not to burn out the facilitator. I still have to step out of that role, shed the skin, run naked under stars, laugh from that deep place in my gut where joy lives.

And so do all of us. xx

Sophie is my happy pill

Another wonderful evening with my god daughter Sophie. She is developing and growing so quickly, each week that goes by she is so different, blossoming more and more into her own person. I love her so much. Nights like tonight are precious. I cuddle her and all my fears and anxieties about being a mum disappear. She is utterly precious, an important part of the beautiful little community Rose and I are building around us.






A couple of days ago I was really struggling. I painted for 6 hours on Sat and Sun, free to the public at big days at the zoo, flat out speed painting which left me with severe joint pain for days. Rose and I got home on the Sunday, only to immediately call an ambulance as Rose was experiencing chest pain on her left side, radiating into her left arm. An anxious overnight stay in the ER ensued, then a trip to her GP the next day. The end result was positive, a painful condition unrelated to her heart, which can be treated when attacks occur. I was now seriously sleep deprived and in pain. I got home to discover that I’d forgotten to empty the cat litter tray the night before. All the clean clothes in my room had cat pee on them, and clothes stacked in the dining room were covered in cat poo. When I went to turn on my computer to catch up on all the admin I’d been unable to get to so far that week, it died and refused to boot.

I sat in the backyard and wept, utterly overwhelmed by my life and the insane optimism of planning to have a child when I have a chronic pain condition and mental health problems, to raise a child on welfare, when I feel so inadequate to the task at times.

Today I am so far from that place. I cannot do this alone and I know that. I am finding the most amazing people, this incredible supportive community of other beautiful, at times also fragile and wounded people. There are days I can’t remember that I have friends now, and that they love me. Other days I realise that the lonely years are behind me. I have arrived. I have family, friends, love, hope for a beautiful future. A world in which it’s okay to be mentally ill, safe to be gay, accepted to have disabilities. When I hug Sophie and think how lucky I am to be her godmum, I think this is a good world to bring a child into. This child would be very, very loved.

Good food and discussions about the future

Today I slept, panicked, worked on finishing all the preparation I need to have done to offer henna art at a gig for the first time on Friday, panicked some more, and had Rose and my sister over for dinner. I’m now back to panicking and henna prep again. It’s been a long day. Dinner was lovely. We made prawn rolls.

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Yum! Rose and I are still eating lots of salads and I’m loving that. Some days lately when my anxiety is so high it’s the only meal I have. It was so nice to sit at the table and share and talk about the future. The three of us are making exciting plans for next year together with housing and plans for babies. I’m so thrilled and so anxious too, there’s a raw feeling when I talk about dreams and ideas about family and community and the future. I dropped my sister home and on the drive back, alone in the night, found myself shaking and weeping. I don’t want to be homeless again. I don’t ever want to be on the run from a violent relationship again. I don’t want to feel trapped again, to be sharing a bed with someone who frightens me or makes me feel deeply alone. I’m pro equal marriage rights but terrified of the prospect of being a wife again. Reading Centrelink documents that explained that if Rose and I share a place – even as flatmates with separate bedrooms, we will be considered by the government to be in a ‘marriage like relationship’ made me break down in uncontrollable sobbing.

I’m also in love, with a beautiful, devoted, loving woman who I hate being apart from so often, hate having to drive back to my own unit at the end of the night, want to be able to support when she’s ill, help cook for, share what I have with. I hate that the government will not allow us to live together but maintain separate finances. It feels deeply creepy to me, state-sponsored prostitution, that I can live with anyone as long as I don’t sleep with them, and sleep with anyone as long I don’t live with them. Weirdly the financial penalties are reversed when children are in the picture, as single parents are penalised where partnered parents are not. I don’t like the enforced dependence, the forcing of what we have into something it is not, into ‘marriage like’ when what we have is built on friendship, is platonic and romantic, is built on freedom and a deep care for our mutual vulnerability and limits.

Hope and fear, dreams, desires, longing and loss. Good food with people I love. Another shoe eaten by the dog, another day at work that leaves me frozen with anxiety. Life is challenging.

Thinking of a future with a disability

Today, I stayed in bed from midnight until 4pm, resting, sleeping, and reading. Rose came home to me after her night shift and it was lovely to have her company, sleeping beside me. She turned up with a bag of groceries and chocolate milk, and hugs for her very tired and overwrought girlfriend. Then friends came round for dinner and brought a big bowl of home made pasta with them. Rose made a salad, and I washed all the dishes from the week and made homemade soft serve icecream. We played cards. By the end of the evening, I felt almost human. It’s so regenerating to be the recipient of such kindness. Another friend gave me a massage earlier in the week, and I was fortunate enough to be given a bunch of free tickets to go and see Cavalia, an amazing acrobatic show with horses, so I went with a bunch of friends and family. It’s delightful to be able to be generous with good fortune, and to have such caring friends who are likewise generous with their time and love.

I’m also reminded that pain management needs to be more of a priority for me with me work. The extra work I’ve taken on lately has been wonderful, but I’m not coping well with the pain it creates. High levels of constant pain wear me down emotionally, I become easily distressed, teary, anxious, and depressed. I need to be more assertive about predicting it and doing things to manage it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about having fibromyalgia and how it impacts my life. Weeks like this one, I realise that I am not like other face painters or small business people. I have to close bookings when I’ve reached a certain number of bookings in a week, not because I’ve run out of time, but because I’ve reached my limit of how many hours I can paint and still manage my pain and energy levels. This is hard to face. I’m a small business owner and artist – with a disability. I need to remember this and work around it, not throw myself against the glass wall of my own limitations and leave myself so ruined, and so vulnerable to other people’s misperceptions.

Likewise, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what kind of mother I would be. There’s many things from my childhood I don’t want to replicate for my kinds – chronic loneliness and alienation, unaddressed trauma, shame… but there are many things I loved and do want to bring to life for my kids. Amazing birthday parties, brilliant creative play, superb organisation skills, learning to care for our home and belongings so we didn’t live in the kind of broken down home that so many other low income children do… there’s a wonderful legacy of fairness and play and adventure I want my kids to experience.

And I have fibro. I can’t live up to it. I can’t be the kind of mum I want to be, put in those hours, with that dedication and passion and effort. I’m grieving this. I have to find a new idea of success, new dreams about what being a great mum might look like for me. I need to reach out to other members of the disability community who are parents and find a path I can be excited about. I need to write an exciting and hopeful future around my limitations.

This is a big shift from my previous ideas that I would keep looking after my health until it was better, get full time work, build some strong financial foundations, and then have kids. I might not ever be able to work full time. I need to work out what being a mum would look like when I’m living in public housing, on welfare, with chronic illnesses, and how to engage that dream in a way that makes the most of what I do have, of my skills and passions and wonderful friends, and limits the bite of poverty, sickness, homophobia, and all the other risk factors I can’t change.

So, tonight, I’ve been thoroughly loved up by some of my very important people. My body is still tired and sore, but my head is clear, so I’ve used the time this evening to tackle another box of paperwork:

I’ve recycled an entire box of stuff I don’t need anymore;

packed another box with things that just need to be filed, and created a small stash of things that need urgent attention. I’m very proud of myself. And now, for bed, to sleep, perchance to dream.

See more like this:

Letting it go

I’m sad tonight. There’s been pain in some of my friendships lately. Relationships with other people who’ve come through trauma, or other multiples, can be deeply rewarding, but they can also be more troubled and under greater strain. Sometimes the risks I take don’t work out the way I’d hoped. The last two friends I grew close enough to to tell them I loved them are no longer speaking to me. My heart mourns. So many hopes about the future come tumbling down, the sadness is unbearable at times, and the gnawing fear. It’s hard to make sense of. Life suddenly takes a different path. Parts of me are distraught, other parts have more perspective. Tonight, it’s lonely in my unit. I can feel dreams flying away from me, like balloons with cut strings. It hurts and I let it hurt.

In the sadness I find two things; that all things change. That nothing at all takes away from the good memories, from the hope and care and growth and fun we had, the safe spaces we made for each other. I find it strange that our culture only deems those relationships that last until death parts them to be significant. What we had counted, and what we did mattered, maybe not to anyone else in the world, but for each other, it mattered. We will never be as if we had not met. We take it all with us.

And the other thing? That if you love something, you set it free.

Today I went to a second hand shop and I bought two beautiful baby wraps. They are the first baby items I have ever bought for myself. A long time ago, before I was diagnosed with DID, when I was very sick, a long term relationship ended and I found myself often stuck in the baby aisle of a shopping centre, with a hole punched in my chest so large I couldn’t breathe around it. The grief of the children I did not have stayed with me.

Now Rose and I are talking about children of our own. When things in my life I’d hoped would last much longer and be much stronger fade away like they have this year, having a child seems like madness. I don’t consider it because I believe my life and relationships are stable and unchanging. I am confronting my incapacity to work full time and support a family. I have no idea where I will be in 5 years time or what my life will look like. Life changes, takes wing beneath you, turns on a dime. Both opportunities and tragedy await, and only some can be predicted. I can consider this because I know I can survive my world breaking. Because I understand that life changes. And because I believe that some things do not change, and that I can continue to make choices guided by love and compassion. It’s all we can do.

Some nights you weep

Yesterday I got just enough sleep (4 hours) to pull off my day of work at Monarto Zoo, but not enough to feel okay. I was able to get to sleep much earlier than my current usual time of 6am with the aid of warm milk, growing chronic sleep deprivation, and Rose kindly reading to me over the phone (which seems to be the only reliable sleep aid I’ve found so far). Sadly I then woke, entirely unnecessarily at 6am. Zoe was then very painful and I nearly strangled her. The morning was spent sobbing in bed in frustration as the lack of sleep set off severe fibro muscle pain and nausea.

My sister was sleeping over and came in, our two kittens trailing her to romp on the bed. Funny how just the night before I’d been discussing with a friend the different way people cope with someone not feeling okay, and how it often seems to be the way you try and do something like be companionable or cheer them up that matters most to whether it feels warm or dismissive.

There’s been so much going on for me in the past few weeks. A funeral, a range of new work, Rose is having a shift change at her work that will hopefully be much better in the long run but messes up my calender in the short run as I was booking things in around shifts that wont be happening anymore. Painful stress in some very close friendships, difficulties with Bridges and DI things. I’m doing my best to give all these areas the time and attention they so deserve, and to bring my very best skills and patience and courage to them. I’m very tired, and doing my best to be ethical and to be an advocate for myself. Sometimes when relationships break down there is this strange and painful space where for some reason, caring about it and being hurt about it is not seen as evidence you cared and were invested, but is construed as you being overly emotional and difficult. This morning I had run out of the ability to think over all these hurdles and maintain an even emotional keel. There is at times, just a keening pain, and it hurts so deeply that it’s impossible to imagine that life can be wonderful also. When it comes over us it takes away everything else and leaves me breathless and suicidal.

It was good to have a space where I didn’t have to be okay or have an adult, intellectual perspective. To reach out and just lay a hand on my sisters shoulder and feel the warm presence of another person seep into me, like warmth, grounding and connecting me back to a sense that my life was meaningful. I made us coffee and banana smoothies, then went and stood barefoot on my lawn to water my garden. My poppies are in bloom. Then I dressed and drove up the freeway to work, and painted children, and read a book in the quiet times, and ate a little, and drank a lot, and drove back to Rose’s place to share in a pizza evening she was having. I was trembling with exhaustion and we went to sleep holding hands until she needed to go to her night shift.

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Home after, and tired and sad and wishing my life did not hurt so much. Wishing I lived in a caravan or tent and could hear the wind. I’ve been broke and out of antihistamine for days, my skin is red raw with hives. They are especially bad when I’m under emotional strain, or grieving. I used to describe them in poems as my skin screaming.

There’s a path forward and it has beauty in it. Some days you sing the road beneath your feet, some nights you weep it.

Empathy and bullying

Amanda Palmer wrote a piece about empathy and cyber bullying on her tumblr recently that I found thought provoking.

I think people misunderstand, sometimes, the difference between “empathy” and “sympathy”, and this is getting us in trouble. Sympathy is closer to pity. Empathy, which is essential for being human, means that you can imagine yourself in some else’s situation, good or bad. And feeling *real* empathy, even empathy with “the enemy”, with the bottom of the barrel of humanity, with the suicide bombers, with the child molesters, with the hitlers and the osamas, is necessary. If you, as a human being, can’t stop and try to imagine what sort of pain and agony and darkness must have descended upon these people to twist them up so badly, you have no roadmap to untwist the circumstances under which they were created.

via i was just answering a bunch of questions for a… – AMANDAPALMER.TUMBLR.COM.

I wrote this as a comment on the piece:

As if empathy comes only from our best selves, as if it’s only our kindness, or generosity that allows us to reach out and feel what another person feels. Our darkness also unites us in strange and painful ways, other’s pain or violence sings to our own, make claims of kinship where we wish there were none. We like to make the evil ‘other’ – those abusers, those nazis, those demonic monsters who have no connection to me, no humanity left in them. It’s painful to recognise that a lack of humanity is part of what it is to be human, that our humanness is vulnerable, it can be torn off, or cast off, and we can still walk and speak and eat and do violence. Empathy reminds us that the monsters do not merely prey upon us, they are us, defiled. It reminds us to treasure what makes us different from them.

It’s a topic I find relevant in many areas of my life, as an artist, and as a service provider in mental health. As soon as there is an ‘other’, you risk your bond to your own group by empathising with them. It’s one of the things that makes peer work so difficult and draining for me, the service users and the service providers can be strident and aggressive in their demands that I orient myself as one of them exclusively. I’ve lost count of the number of times staff in mental health have criticized me for ‘wearing my peer worker hat’ or my stance on how harmful our use of professional boundaries is. I’ve also struggled with how demoralising and painful it is when other service users criticise harshly, with no sense that you are also a person who is at times vulnerable, and that all relationships have some level of mutuality to them. Other peer workers can also be a group of their own, demanding adherence to their ideas – after giving a personal and exhausting talk at a conference once, I had to walk out of the next talk where a peer worker was berating a room of us for being insufficiently familiar with the world of academic research, and for getting jobs through people we knew. All groups place demands upon who is permitted to be a part of them. All groups have their ‘other’.

At a micro level, this dynamic of the ‘other’ and the risks of empathy play out in groups or friendship networks in my life in a way that wearies me. I’ve always empathised with the other, and this is the quality that people love in me when they find themselves being the other, and fear and resent in me when they find themselves hurt, stressed, or angry with someone else in the other role.

I’ve often been the ‘other’. I’ve been a lonely, bullied little kid who craved friendship and companionship with a deep longing that left me suicidal by the age of 10. I work hard now as an adult to be aware of the legacy of years of unmet needs, which tend to express themselves through numbness, bitterness, insecurity, and instability. I also work hard to resist the temptation to be comfortable in my groups, my social networks, and my work in a way that perpetuates abuse. As a service provider in mental health, I find this an extraordinary challenge. On days when I am too exhausted to do the hard work of diplomacy, to reassure angry and hurt people (which is not just the clients!) that I see their point of view, I’m at risk of rejection and hostility. It’s not a secure place to be.

This is one of the dynamics they don’t talk about in bullying. I moved to a new school in year 4. Due to a bunch of class dynamics that had nothing to do with me, I was instantly at the bottom of the social ranking and very vulnerable. Several students targeted me for bullying. This began a spiral of alienation and abuse that persisted for my school life. I was in a bad place where students who liked me were afraid to connect with me in case they were bullied too, and other students who liked me were afraid to tell their friends to stop bullying me in case they then became a target.

I didn’t stay at the bottom of the social network all the time. Sometimes something would shift my place in the culture. One year the class took up gymnastics and swimming in sports, where I excelled. I gained some respect in a subject where my appalling lack of ball skills and issues with feet and joints had left me the typical student chosen last for every team. Here’s the deal though, just because I was no longer on the bottom rung of the ladder didn’t mean the ladder had been dismantled. Someone else took my place, someone who was terrible at swimming perhaps, or embarrassed by wearing leotards in gym. There was always someone being made to feel excluded, being available for humiliation and power games, someone that everyone else could work out their own pain or frustration upon. Kids with disabilities that were insufficiently engaging to draw the protection of the teachers. Kids with mental health problems, or with abuse at home. Kids who were identified as gay (which is not the same thing as being gay).

One year in about grade 9, I’d cobbled together a small group of guys as friends. We would hang out at lunch, sometimes after school, even go to each other’s birthday parties. Another kid used to hang out with us sometimes. We used to play a lot of foursquare or brandy, fast ball games I was never particularly good at. On this day, this other kid was hanging with us, and he was terrible at ball sports and slow at running due to medical things. My mates were teasing him a bit, in a pretty good natured way, knocking the ball away from him so that he couldn’t pick it up. It wasn’t until he started to cry with frustration that my stomach flipped and the scenario that had seemed so minor and innocent a moment before suddenly became real. I was hanging out with a group and we were bullying the one kid lower on the food chain than we were.  I ran over to him to comfort him and told off my mates.

As it happened, a teacher witnessed this and I was given a slip of paper later that week commending me for being brave enough to risk my friends being annoyed with me. Having this teacher recognise the challenges of that situation and frame my response in this way anchored an understanding of the risks and issues of bullying for me that has never left me. I learned a lot that day, especially how unbelievably minor bullying seems to be when you are not the target. I also learned that without some kind of major social influence in the class or school – if you stand up for someone being abused you are always risking abuse yourself. Every time I got off that bottom rung, I’d find myself being forced into a bystander position to watch some other kid suffer. Groups of students roaming the school to hunt down the ‘gay kid’ and intimidate him. Older students roughing up younger students in the toilets. Girls humiliating and ostracizing other girls who were from poor families, or had accidents with menstruation, or who made the mistake of letting the wrong boy go too far with them.

These cultures cost everyone in them, they are built on fear, distrust, a profound need to fit in and find acceptance that seems laughable to adults, and a complex guessing game of social worth where a misstep can cost you all your allies. Everytime we tackle school bullying by advising the victims to behave in ways that make them less a target, we are also telling them to accept their role as bystanders to those kids who become the target next.

I had a weird relationship with many of the kids who bullied me. Those who had some kind of social power and were tormenting me out of boredom, sadism, or fear of difference I rarely got close to. But kids who tortured because they were themselves being tortured often had a strange connection with me. There was an empathetic bond. I heard their stories. I kept their histories of fear and degradation safe. These were kids who’s dad’s knocked their mum’s around, or whose older brothers were creatively abusive, or whose mum’s made them keep her company in her bed at nights long into their teens. With some of them, a space would be created for these conversations, like long bus school trips. They’d sit with me and talk, share funny stories or tell me secrets about painful things. They would meet needs for safety and honesty and compassion that they couldn’t in their own friendships. I would not get those needs met. At the end of the trip we’d all get off the bus with the unspoken understanding that the truce was over and I was fair game again. It wasn’t personal, someone had to be on the bottom rung. Half the kids who tormented me only did it to make sure it wasn’t going to be them. The same dynamic happened for me in theatre, where for the duration of the play I was a valued part of a team. Once it was over I would be distraught, because my membership died with the play, and the brutal reality of my lonely life would once again return.

The problem here isn’t the bully or the behaviour of the victim, it is a group dynamic that treats some kids as more important than others, more worthy of protection, more powerful and privileged, and those at the bottom of that as fair game because they brought it on themselves. In some classrooms, those with power – kids with a lot of influence, or insightful teachers, influence this dynamic and make it safer to be unpopular and disliked or in conflict with the popular people. In other classes – like mine, there’s a dark undercurrent of abuse, violence, mental illness, pain, alienation, and rage, and these things are expressed through a brutal social dynamic that leaves every student afraid of winding up as the target.

My empathy with my bullies made life hard for me. It’s difficult to tear a kid to shreds when you know s/he’s only making your life miserable because s/he’s in terrible pain. It is also made life difficult for me because I hated that I purchased my freedom from being bullied at the cost of having to be a bystander to the abuse of another kid. I could have gone through school with a lot less bullying, and a lot more inclusion, but the cost to my own values and beliefs was always higher than I was willing to pay. Everytime I got off the bottom rung I found myself allying with the next kid on it. I never developed enough social power to change the dynamic itself.

I remember once at about 15, confronting a boy who had bullied me terribly as a kid. I was struggling tremendously at the time, and in a difficult twist of events my drama group were doing a play that included a nazi youth betraying and abusing someone. This boy had been cast in the role of the abuser. Week after week of rehearsals, I sat and watched my bully torment another person. It was a powerful trigger and turned what had been my haven into a nightmare of hyper-vigilance and flashbacks I was trying desperately to conceal. One day I went to drink from a water fountain and he came up behind me and leaned in to drink from the one next to me. I hadn’t realised he was near and flinched back. He looked at me with derision and asked why I always did that around him. The world paused for a moment.

I decided to call him out. I unfocused my gaze so that I could look him in the face without seeing him, and told him that when we were younger he used to bully me a lot. I was expecting contempt or denial. What I got confused me.

He looked suddenly deeply sad and alone. It was like I could see a child in him drop his head, turn away, and walk off down a long corridor. He said to me “You have no idea how many kids have told me that. I don’t remember any of it.” And then he walked away. I don’t recall ever speaking with him again. This is a kid who I still sometimes have nightmares about.

Those are not too uncomfortable stories to tell, they make me sound like a victim or a hero. I played that role at times in other’s lives, but I also hurt people. I made choices I now regret, I was not honest with people, I used the little power that I did have in ways that excluded and hurt others. Most of us have power somewhere in our lives. We work out our rage or our demons from the places we don’t have it in the areas we do have it. I’m still trying to make sense of this.

When I was 14 I allied with a girl I’ll call Alison who was being bullied by her group of friends. She paid a high price for inclusion in their group, she was often run down, criticised, and her job was basically to fetch and carry. I was angry about this and she and I disconnected from them to hang out with each other. I then went through hell with a classmate who fell in ‘love’ with me, and tangled me into his suicidal distress. My capacity to empathise with him touched profound unmet needs to be heard and feel connected. He became obsessive and dangerous. At the end of a six month ordeal I was left with PTSD and total confusion about what just happened and why.

Alison had her own demons, and instead of finding comfort in our friendship she became a burden. She didn’t understand the PTSD, and neither did I. She couldn’t understand my new terror of touch, my sense of disconnection, the simmering rage that lay waiting beneath an apathy so heavy I didn’t care if I died. Her efforts to connect exhausted and triggered me. One day she covered my whole desk in tiny sickeningly cute stickers of teddy bears while I was away. I often had belongings defaced or stolen by my bullies. I was furious, and choked it down to ask her not to touch my stuff.  She didn’t understand. I couldn’t explain. I had run out of capacity to cope with things that didn’t used to matter so much, like being traded in at lunch time if someone more interesting was happy to include her. Our friendship had never been strong enough or close enough to have those conversations, and when I had been in a better place I could afford more generosity for the times she hurt me. I didn’t tell her about any of this, I just retreated. I pushed her completely out of my life over a 6 month period and justified it on the basis that she had always been hard work and I no longer had the energy. She was devastated. Her every effort to reconnect was rebuffed. I took her away from her original friends, made her feel safe and cared about, then dumped her alone. She was vulnerable and bullied and left with no idea of what just happened. I was not a hero in her story. I work very hard in my friendships now, to find ways to be both honest and warm. I fail. I try again.

We can turn empathy off when it no longer suits us in ways that are frightening. It is hard to acknowledge the times we have done that, because it put us in a place where have to see our own role as something we have no respect for. It’s hard to face our own limitations and flaws, and even harder to face them and still find sense of love and self-acceptance. Empathy can also be dangerous. It’s kept me in relationships where I was being hurt, because I struggled to wrap my brain around a crucial idea: that being able to understand someone’s behaviour is not a reason to put up with it. (See Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity) Over-empathising with someone in a position of power who lacks empathy for you is extremely dangerous. Empathy has cost me my peace and my chance to slip unnoticed through high school while other kids suffered, but it’s also protected my sense of identity and values. It’s a way I connect with other people, but it also alienates me from them when I empathise with someone I’m not supposed to.

Power scares me senseless. One of the things I have learned about it is that very often, we don’t notice when we have it. We don’t FEEL powerful. We are acutely and painfully aware of every area of life where it is absent and yet often oblivious to the places we do have it. We repeat learned dynamics, and set up new relationships on the same principles as the old, with merely a shuffle in what role we now play. We demand responsibility and empathy from those who have power over us, but are frequently unaware and uncaring of the way we use our own power. We want to be understood and loved, but often there are people we wish to draw a line around and say I do not want to have to understand or love them.

Peer workers are constantly being co-opted into the role of staff, pressured to choose a primary allegiance to the organisation that employs them. With the need for work, we are in an impossibly vulnerable position, carrying the weight of the need to be or provide a voice for all the other dis-empowered people, and trying to unite two groups of people who are often hopelessly incapable of having empathy for each other. When groups are full of fear or pain, they do not allow their members to be dual citizens, and they demand a loyalty to their own members that prohibits the capacity for empathy for the other – whether the ‘other’ is a terrorist, a bully, or a victim. We see and rightly decry this process when the alienated other is someone vulnerable, but we justify it when the other is someone we need to believe we share nothing in common with.

This empathy has written me out of my plans to get a job in mental health. There are amazing people working in it, people who have found a capacity within themselves to recognise the limits of their power, and to let go of what they cannot change. I have not. I am afraid of power and what it does to someone who wields it without reflection. I am afraid of the temptation of money and group belonging and security. I am afraid of the slow erosion of values. I do not trust myself to walk that path with wisdom, only with profound regret. I cannot stop empathising, at any point, with the person in the room with the least voice and power, and it kills me. Especially when they are angry with me, disappointed in me, or critiquing my services. I find myself split between my own perspective and theirs in a way that tears my head apart. I often find myself the only person working to see more than one perspective and find a way to unite them. I still have almost no capacity to see the limits of my own reach and accept them. Being required to be a bystander to things I find unjust makes me want to burn down buildings and run screaming into the night. I don’t cope well with systems, even those I build myself.

I don’t have answers for this. My path forwards is to always do my best to live with love. I believe that empathy is crucial, not only for those who are hurt, but those who are hurting others. Not to condone or minimize, but to face the world as it is, and the potential for darkness in others and ourselves. We can empathise with people and still utterly denounce their actions and hold them accountable. Sometimes following our instincts protects us from our own darkness, sometimes we find ourselves doing harm and don’t know how we got there. Empathy is part of understanding that, making some sense of what happened in those who now lack it, and how to strengthen it in ourselves and our communities. When we empathise with an ‘other’ we stretch ourselves over no man’s land to do so. In a war, this means our guts are ripped up by barbed wire, and we risk both groups tossing us into the no mans land. When it’s to a ‘monster’, we must face the disturbing reality of our own vulnerability to losing what makes us human, and we risk the rest of the world thinking of and treating us as one of the monsters.

“I got death threats. My twitter feed exploded with more than 5,000 tweets from strangers telling me I was a un-american monster for “sympathizing with a terrorist”. People wrote comments on my blog about how I should have my own legs blown off.”

via i was just answering a bunch of questions for a… – AMANDAPALMER.TUMBLR.COM.

In our friendships, empathy inspires a level of courage to be both loving and warm in ways that power confuses and trauma overwhelms. It is very easy to let myself off the hook for hurting Alison, and yet to be deeply wounded and angry at friends who have done this to me. I keep coming back to the same ideas – that it is difficult to remain fully human. That the act of living alters and erodes identity. That love can fill our lives to the brim, and also cost us everything. That love is essential but insufficient. That the alienated are also alienating.

We think we are kind, when we are only happy

CS Lewis

There are only two motives,
two procedures, two frameworks,
two results.
Love and fear.
Love and fear.

Michael Leunig

Boat over black waters

I sail my little boat over black waters at the moment. Old wounds in me suppurate, old rage is fresh again. I find myself grappling with new questions – how to be wounded in community? Where do I take this pain? If I hide it all I build a wall between my heart and the people I love. I live alone with it, in a cold place where love does not reach me. If I share it all, I spread it, like a disease. There’s so much loss in the lives of those I love, so many bad stories waiting in the shadows. I want to bring love, not fall like dominoes. I find myself tangled in dilemmas of ethics and honesty and respect. I know how to grieve, and I know how to suffer alone. I don’t know how to place my friendships. There’s a terror and a brutal loneliness in psychosis for me that hasn’t entirely gone. There’s gaps between my friends who grieve Amanda and those who didn’t know her I’m struggling to connect. I find myself struggling to move between sarah-in-community and sarah-alone, between the peer worker and the friend, one who offers and one who likewise needs.

Last night Rose visited. We were both fragile, we arranged; no heavy conversations, no reaching into that pain. Just companionship. Like boats rocking over black water, we knew but did not need to speak of it. I found poems to read her to sleep. She stroked my back, touch grounding me, writing me back into being. We were careful with each other’s brokenness, held our limitations gently in our hands.

There was no screaming spiral of pain that sings to pain, destruction unknitting all that we are, souls seared by scars. There was tenderness, acceptance, closeness. We didn’t ask of each other more than we could give. Somehow, instead of loneliness, there was love. There was love.

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