Happy three years to Rose and I


Sometimes you celebrate each other from the tops of mountains, when things are going your way and the whole world glows with possibility. The wells are full to over flowing, the larder is stocked, the roads are wide and smooth, the sun turns the world to gold. Love is easy, forgiveness is easy, kindness is easy. All things are in abundance.

Sometimes the path is narrow, twisted, bewildering, faltering into bogs and falling over cliffs.

I love her because even when I’m scared I’m not scared of her.

I love her because even when she hates herself she’s gentle and tender with me.
I love her because when we have very little, what we have she shares with me.

At night at the moment we both toss in the dark, dream-wracked and afraid. Sleeping in shifts between storms of tears, a broken voice crying out, the shudder of nightmares under skin. We bump along like two boats in black water and a moonless night, kissing hulls to be sure there’s someone still there. Over and over we turn to each other, hands reach like a bridge over the gulf, feet tangle like vines around each other, lips touch shoulders and we murmur soothing sounds or sing snatches of lullabies to each other. Stroking fevered faces, calming the hair back against arms, the arched back to rest again into soft bedding. “Love, love” we croon like doves, the inarticulate language of night; sharp cries like gulls, and the hushing of mothers half sleeping, voices a deep soft purr in the chest.

Adventures are tricky things. Reflected on from comfort, the sharp edges dull a little, the black nights turn pearl grey in memory. Here in the moment it’s stark with presence, bright as a papercut, a piece of glass in the shoe. It’s not called an adventure if everything turns out according to plan, if there’s no dark nights, no fears to conquer, no cost.

In the full glory of a spring day, sunlight on her bronze skin, her mouth open with laughter, her eyes full of light, she is beautiful. In the dark hours of the soul’s midnight, her body painted with pain, eyes closed against the burning memories, lips drawn back hard against teeth, she is beautiful. It’s a different kind of love that grows here, threadbare, harsher, there’s pain woven through it, and bone for strength.

She holds me in the shadows, sings peace to fall like rain down upon us both. I have seen the moon bright and full, and dark and empty. I know her in triumph and tragedy. There’s still love, in each place, the thing and the shadow of the thing. The rainbow and the rock beneath.

Rose turned 30 – the Highlights

Rose turned 30 this weekend past and we had a wonderful Harry Potter themed birthday party. I made her a Monster Book of Monsters cake, from banana cake and cream cheese buttercream (her favourite combo), with chocolate sprinkles and a minimum of fondant… Rose is a big fan of cakes that taste awesome. For such a massive cake we haven’t taken a lot home, which is always a good sign.



I made that crazy mouth from fondant and strawberry roll-ups. 🙂

Friends and family gathered for games and movies and campfire and sleep overs in the holiday home we rented down on the beach. It was beautiful. Many of those who came didn’t know the others and it was really nice to mix some of the different groups together in a safe, fun place. Rose has been planning this for months and put up all kinds of awesome decorations and activities, including crafts and a Quidditch pitch out the back with three big hoops and Zoe as the enthusiastic keeper… 🙂

Moaning Myrtle and spider trails in the bathroom:

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A fire lantern on a string to stop it wandering… we also had little crackers that popped when thrown onto concrete.

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I went as Trelawny, complete with a grim painted into the teacup I wore on my wrist… I had to take my glasses off for most the night though, because I could hardly see at all wearing them and fell over once! Long dress plus thick glasses is an issue. This was our dessert buffet – it has a chocolate fountain with fruit and marshmallows to dip, my monster cake, an awesome gluten free chocolate cake made by a friend, a bowl of Bertie Botts every flavour beans, gold snitches, chocolate spiders, and Weasleys Wizard Wheezes. It went down pretty well. 😉

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The potions corner. 🙂

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The owlery…

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Our handmade wands – these were gifts for our guests. We made them from chopsticks!

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One of my gifts to Rose. 🙂 She loves Hagrid, as do I.

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It was a fantastic weekend. The weather was kind, we got to hang out with great people and have lots of hugs with younger nieces and cousins (and our huggier older friends) and play games and enjoy good food. Loads of people chipped in with time, food, organising, and helped pay for things. It was a really big tribe event and it felt good. It’s always a bit of a risk mixing lots of different crowds together and I think we did a good job of helping people feel comfortable. I did a fair amount of cooking and cleaning and keeping things running which felt very adult considering all the fun things we had around, but that was also good in a way, feeling like I could take on such a big project and help care for my peoples. I can see more big tribe nights like this in our lives, once we’ve finished recovering from this one, paying it off, and unpacking the van…

Rose has made it a long way, through a lot hard times. I’m so glad to know her and so grateful for all the people who loved her and cared about her and were there for her long before I came along. She is one of the kindest people I know and she touches so many lives. Her life isn’t easy, but it is full of love and silliness and small children, which is just the way she likes it. ❤ Happy birthday, love.

Happy Birthday to Rose

It’s the birthday of my beautiful girlfriend Rose. 🙂 What a wonderful opportunity to appreciate this lovely woman! She’s worked so hard to be here, lived such a complex and challenging life. It’s left some scars, but it’s also brought out such wonderful traits. She’s kind, loyal, brave, fun, generous, and complex. I’m so fortunate to have her in my life. So much has changed since I met her. I’ve found whole new directions, doors opened that had been closed, deeper understandings of worlds I’d not been to before. Sometimes we go and sit by trees she once slept in when she was homeless. At night we take turns reading Harry Potter to each other. Some nights she talks to me in her sleep. My inner children trust and love her. They play with her, cuddle up to her, cry in her arms when they’re scared or sick. She knows us, she picks switches, uses our names, knows the right pronouns. We’re so different! She loves Hilltop Hoods, I’m into David Bowie. She struggles to get her motor running for work. I struggle to turn mine off. I’m into anime and foreign films, she’s… coming around ha haa. We’re so similar too, both with our dark, wild sides, longing for the domestic but also needing to run free under the stars, to remember that we’re strong.

It’s not always been easy to build a relationship between us. We’ve both worked hard, paid attention, learned a lot. We’ve come through a few ‘shall we call this off?’ conversations. Building a relationship is complex. It’s like a whole additional person, separate from each of us, that we’re both constructing. The dynamics have a life of their own. We each bring ghosts with us. At times we can barely see each other because our memories are in the way. At times words are too hard, or closeness is unbearable. But we’ve kept building, because it’s been worth it for both of us, our connection makes our lives better. We’ve made something that works, that shelters us, that brings out our best, that gives us the freedom to keep rebuilding it as times and needs change. We’re a good team, and that’s a precious thing. We’re family, and I adore her.

I’ve changed. She’s made my heart bigger. I’m gentler than I used to be, more careful. I’m angrier too, more protective. My life is so different, full of all her networks too, the people she loves and the children dear to her. We can’t go anywhere without running into someone she knows some how. In my tiny art class at college, 2 of the 7 other members know her – from different times and places. Her networks are as vast as my own – but where mine are often online, hers are local and often part of her long work history. She teaches me too – her passion for all things child related is without rival. Where my knowledge was abstract and book based, she has shown me how to baby wear a child, check if a nappy is dry, keep a restless young one entertained in the car without taking your eyes off the road. We’ve each been the foundation for each other. I help with lunches and early morning starts with her job. She drives me to far away gigs and washes out my brushes afterwards. We each play supporting roles in each other’s lives, no one person the sun around which the other orbits, but an exchange of energies. We watch and try to tend the change which bringing our lives together creates for all our other relationships. We nurture those who are loving and allow to fall back a step those who cause pain and chaos. Everything changes with the start of a new family. Our friends rejoice in it and become part of it.

I’m a small part of Rose’s story, but I hope to be a good one. She deserves such devotion and care, a safe place to be vulnerable, to be flawed and human, to make mistakes and learn and have your best efforts and good intentions count. She deserves the things I’ve been seeking, real attachment, empathy, honesty, a place to be real, to know and be known, a place to grow love. I’m not good enough. Sometimes I’m mean. Sometimes I’m intrusive, or demanding. Sometimes I’m exhausted and have little to offer. It’s been a journey to process her grace in the face of my flaws, in her love I find moments of being able to accept them in myself, to draws lines between intent and effect, to be humbled without being debased. To be able to accept my failures and own them, and say sorry without collapsing into terror and self loathing. I find I have to accept the limits of my role. I am a partner, I cannot make up for the tragedies of the past. I cannot make her happy. I should not fight her battles for her. I am on her side, on her team, a retreat from the world, and I can love her and do my best to meet her needs and bring out the best in her. I can let go of the rescue fantasies and help us both to be a great team. I can help us to navigate the disastrous risks of the roles of carer and caree when one or the other of us is sick. I can accept that she too is human, that she cannot take away my pain or erase my past or meet all my needs. Sometimes that’s laughably easy. Some times, at 3am, when reason has fled and the world is dark, and our partner it cast in the role of the only fire at which we can warm our hands, that’s difficult.

How fortunate I’ve been! To get so close and spend so much time with such an incredible person! How wonderful to be able to spoil her a little, to know enough about her to be able to put together good gifts, and gentle care for the sadness of a day that’s also an anniversary of pregnancy loss, so often forgotten about in the excitement. I love her tremendously and can’t wait to be by her side for another year. 🙂

Finding life

In the middle of a hot week here. Today reached higher than 40C,  and tomorrow is forecast the same. Rose and I had a weird, fractious day, but ended it down at the beach, swimming in the shallows in the dark and watching the moon rise. They are so precious, times like this.

I had a good appointment with my psychologist earlier this week, and I realised that in caring for Rose I’d dropped and forgotten all the work we’d been doing lately on self care. The sense of being connected to my own inner wisdom was gone, no intuition guiding my choices, no small voices speaking of deep soul needs. I’d become locked into my roles, feeling exhausted and in chronic pain. It was like feeling the walls close in about me, trapped in a box that was shrinking every day. Focusing more and more energy on Rose (not necessarily in a way that she enjoyed) as I became caught in that most common of caring binds: ‘If I can just make her well, then I’ll be able to get some of my needs met.’ I’ve watched family members burn half their lives away trying to do just that.

I came out of the appointment remembering that my journey is just as important, and that Rose neither wants nor needs a frantic carer driving her into directions that may not be right for her. She needs a gentle nurse and friend, who is still invested in their own life and heart so she is free to care for her own also.

Suddenly that tiny airless box blew open in my mind. The railway tracks were gone, the limits were gone. I felt free, free to call Rose and apologise, free to do anything I wished with the afternoon, to engage it in any way I chose. Where there had been stoic endurance of a trap, there was now freedom to explore what might be possible. My intuition was back, and my joy. The small voices were back and the ear to hear them with.

It’s a strange thing, life. We find it and lose it and find it, all over again.

5 hours after an assault

Rose and I were unfortunate enough to recently have to exercise all our ‘how to support someone after trauma‘ skills. We’ve talked about it and decided that it may be a useful story to share, in the hopes of helping other people better support their friends and family.

My lovely girlfriend Rose accompanied me to Melbourne recently for the International Hearing Voices Congress. I was given a full three day subsidized access to the congress, but we could only afford to pay for one day for Rose. So, on the Wednesday while I was having my mind blown in amazing talks, Rose was off roaming the city and seeing the attractions.

Rose and I are both passionate about social justice. Neither of us have had easy lives, we’ve both experienced abuse, homelessness, and poverty. We’ve both had PTSD. Rose was first homeless as a 13 year kid, and we both have a particular place in our hearts for other people who find themselves in that place. So, when she came across a guy who was living rough, she bought him a cup of coffee. She sat nearby to share a drink and a chat. And then things went bad. He grabbed her, manhandled her, and tried to kiss her as she struggled and then froze. It seemed like a long time before she was able to break out of being frozen and run away. She was alone in a city she doesn’t know very well, with almost no phone battery left, having a major trauma reaction as many other far more horrific memories and experiences suddenly flooded her.

This is not a nice story to tell, because it touches on prejudices and misconceptions. I want to name some of them. Firstly, the idea that homeless people are dangerous. Like people with mental illnesses (and the two populations have a massive overlap), people who are homeless, and especially those who are roofless are often treated with fear and revulsion. They become invisible, and can go days or weeks without another human being making eye contact, smiling at them, or touching them kindly, even when they live in crowded cities. This fear reaction can trigger exactly what people want to avoid – because being dehumanised alienates people. And alienated people often feel little empathy and a great deal of anger at communities that have rejected them. Homeless people are not more likely to be violent. It could have been the well dressed guy waiting at a bus stop, it could have been someone Rose thought of as friend. The latter is harder to imagine but statistically far more likely. Rose was doing exactly the right thing – treating a guy who was down on his luck like a person, and sharing a little of her good fortune with him. Things going wrong does not always mean you have done something wrong. And sadly, doing the right thing does not shield you from things going bad at times.

The other misconception people often have about an incident like this is around the freeze response. There’s a lot of complex science, neurology, psychology, and outright conjecture about the freeze response that I won’t go into here. Suffice to say, it’s pretty common in both animals and people. If you want to read some more about it, try the blog Understanding Dissociation by Paul F. Dell and look for the term ‘tonic immobility’. I’d also suggest the works of Peter A. Levine. Here’s a quick overview of what I’ve found useful – there are (at least) five basic responses people have to a major life threatening event – Fight or Flight, Freeze, Fold, and the Tend-and-Befriend. Fight we all understand and usually people who fight in the face of something like an assault are applauded and appreciated. Sometimes if their fight response is intense or seen as disproportionate, they are instead lynched. The flight response is also pretty self explanatory and again, there’s usually a pretty warm reception to people who have been able to escape something awful by running – and even those who tried but didn’t make it. After that, things get less clear. Tend and Befriend is about the intense bonding and banding together for survival that people can do when faced with severe threat. It’s often an overlooked response to threat, and not often framed in the more ‘heroic’ light of the fight or flight.

Lastly, we come to freeze and fold. These are the two responses that culturally carry the most baggage. People are rarely applauded for having these reactions, and sometimes the reaction itself is viewed as evidence the trauma was not particularly bad, or even the fault of the victim. Freeze is an extremely common response to threat. It’s difficult to predict, and even people who have previously never frozen in response to a threat can be surprised to find themselves doing so. Freezing often predicts a much rougher time after a trauma (by which I mean a higher incidence of PTSD), which personally I suspect is at least partly the result of the cultural shaming around the freeze response. Freezing can be life saving in some situations. Some animals escape predators that leave them unattended, thinking they are dead. Animals who have frozen are often numb; unafraid and unresponsive to pain. If an animal cannot escape, this is a merciful state. For some people in some terrible situations, the same dynamics apply. Freezing is a powerful, involuntary response of intense immobility. For some people it may be triggered when no other threat response seems like it will work. For others, freezing may be the result of both the fight and flight responses being triggered at the same time.

Where the freeze response immobilises, the fold response is a complete collapse of independent will. This threat response is about extreme submission and compliance. In the short term it can be life saving. It can also (like all of these threat responses) be catastrophic if used in the wrong situation. In the long term it may unfold as stockholm syndrome.

So, in response to a threat, Rose froze. At some point, she then ran. Fortunately, she was able to then stop and think about where would be safest to go. She decided to find the conference. When I found her in a quiet room at the conference, she told me what had happened. She was reluctant to tell me and already feeling a deep sense of shame about the assault. She was also highly stressed and dissociative and in a very traumatised state.

The conference was about an hour by public transport away from where we were staying in Melbourne. We also had bought tickets that night for a ‘Mad Hatter’s Party’ which was being held at a hotel across the city. My first impulse was to cancel the party and get us both home. When I suggested this, Rose was extremely distressed. To buy ourselves time to settle and talk about the evening’s plans, we instead walked to a nearby restaurant. This was a plan she liked. I knew that if I could help Rose to eat and drink, this would reduce her dissociation and help her to communicate what she needed.

We were fortunate in that a nearby restaurant had a fire lit. Rose was extremely cold, which is a common trauma reaction – basically she was in shock. The nearest table to the fire already had people sitting at it, the lovely Lewis Mehl-Madrona and his gracious wife, resting after a big day at the conference. In an unusual step for me, I asked if we could join them so I could sit Rose as close as possible to the fire. We found a risotto on the menu she felt she could stomach in her upset state (digestion shuts down when you are very anxious), and ordered drinks with bitters in them so the strong flavour would help to ground us. I sat next to Rose and kept an eye behind her to make sure that no one came up to her without her seeing them approach. Literally having someone’s back like this is very important at this point. New tiny shocks after a big trauma can embed the sense of terror more deeply, because the reaction to the little shocks is overblown and involuntary. Where people start off distressed and feeling helpless due to the trauma, they move on to feeling distressed and helpless to prevent the ongoing trauma reaction they are having. We both knew this, and as much as possible made it normal that Rose was agitated and hypervigilent. Rose did not wish for the others sharing the table to know what was going on so we did not disclose it.

Food, warmth, company, and drink all helped to ease some of Rose’s dissociation and distress. We started to talk about our plans for that evening. Rose was adamant about not missing the Mad Hatter’s Party, and also very concerned about not being able to cope with it. It was tempting for me to overrule her and refuse to attend. I was very mindful of her need to be heard and to restore some control over events so I tried to work with her instead. She was anxious about the assault making me miss out on something important I had been looking forward to. The thought of this was increasing her shame, guilt, and self loathing where she was blaming herself for the assault, blaming herself for freezing, blaming herself for telling me about it (and ‘ruining my time at the conference’) and blaming herself for having a trauma reaction to it afterwards. I could see that doing the ‘right’ thing and cancelling was actually going to make her distress much worse. So instead I attempted to reduce the intensity of the dilemma. I agreed to go to the party, on a relaxed, let’s-see-how-it-goes approach, with no shame or blame if either of us decided it was a stressful kind of event and wanted to go home early. I made the call that we would catch a private taxi instead of public transport to get home. Rose agreed to leave the party if it was intolerably stressful, and accepted the offer of a taxi with only a token protest about expense. I had no desire to deal with buses myself at that point either.

So, we trekked across Melbourne and found our way to the party. It was loud, cramped, and possibly the least trauma-friendly environment we could have gone to! But Rose was determined, so we found a good seat – from the point of view of not too far from the exit, back to the wall, able to see everyone. Rose ate nibbles as they came around. I bought a jug of lemonade. We shared half an alcoholic drink to take the edge off. (one drink can help, more is generally not a good idea) I couldn’t eat much as my adrenaline was too high.

I put all my own feelings about the assault in a mental box and ignored them. This is a pretty important skill when you’re trying to support someone else. I had a genuinely good time, made some friends, gave out some business cards, danced, had a laugh. I checked back in with Rose frequently. She was happy we had made it but stressed about the crowding and the really loud music. Eventually we decided to call it a night. We held hands tightly as we walked into the night and found a taxi. I didn’t let her hand go until we were both in the car, and then I held it all through the drive ‘home’.

Home that night we gently piled into bed and unpacked our feelings a bit more. I held her hand as Rose bravely opened up about a number of fears and areas of shame that were turning up for her about the assault. We discussed and countered them together. Was it her fault? No. Had she asked for it? No. Could she have seen it coming? Well – maybe, that’s a hard call. If on reflection she thinks she could have been more alert, that’s okay. It still doesn’t mean she didn’t anything wrong and certainly doesn’t make it her fault. Do I still find her attractive? Hell yes! Will I be upset or angry if she doesn’t want to be touched? Not at all. What about if she doesn’t want to be touched again ever? It will be okay. We’ll still be friends, even if we are never romantic partners again. Touch will only happen if and when and how she wants it.

We keep talking and crying. I share how sad I am for her, how angry I feel about it – but not with a lot of emotional intensity. The crucial thing is to be present but allow how Rose is feeling to be paramount. She should know I feel things too, but not be comforting me. My voice and words are sad and gentle but also express quiet confidence that she knows she needs to manage this and will get through it okay. She shares a little about some of the other memories that have been stirred up for her. I listen. She talks about the freeze response, and talks about other responses she’s had to threat. I emphasize that a freeze reaction is involuntary and does not mean she ‘asked for it’ or ‘wanted it’. She finds this helpful and the sense of shame diminishes. We turn the memories over together, the upsides and downsides of different reactions in different situations. It’s always tempting to bury everything in platitudes and reassurance, but this questioning is necessary. Rose, like most of us, needs someone to gently engage with her about the complex moral questions these kind of situations raise.

After a while she asks me to touch her back. I run my hands over her t-shirt. She asks me to go under her shirt and touch her skin. I stroke her back gently, checking that the pressure, pace, and type of touch are what she wants. She shakes and cries a little. I want to hold her tightly but restrain myself. I cry a little too. We lay close and hold hands. After a while she cuddles up under my arm and lays her head on my chest. I can feel my heart beating, like a big sad drum. I hold her close, we tell each other how much we love each other. We go to sleep.

If you’re reading this hoping for suggestions on how to manage with your own partner, I’d suggest reading Intimacy After Abuse, and my series about emotionally safer sex which starts with Safe Sex 1: Checking in.